I have spent most of my life as an attorney traveling to scores of countries around the world, but only recently did I set about systematically asking people what they thought of my country, the United States.
It was just after the midterm elections in 2018, when a great many voters showed that they desperately wanted to move America in directions different from the ones the Trump administration had charted for them. Opinions were so divergent and so bitterly divided. It struck me that by posing a series of questions to thoughtful people in dozens of countries—people who had some experience of America—one might gain perspectives useful to us here at home.
Over time, 100 individuals from 32 countries volunteered to answer 15 questions. But, over time, cataclysmic events affected perceptions. I had to go back to my respondents after the onset of the COVID pandemic with a new set of questions. I may ask them still more about the impact of George Floyd’s killing and the outrage that followed.
But even before the plague, even before the protests, some trends had become clear and it is doubtful basic perceptions will change dramatically.
This was not a random survey. The people I talked to are known to me and I to them, and when I told them I wouldn’t be publishing their names I think it’s pretty clear they were leveling with me—which is to say, with us.
I think we Americans would do well to listen.
One of the questions I asked was about first impressions of the United States, and one of the most thoughtful responses was from a British business consultant who grew up in Liverpool but now lives between Greece and Belgium. As a child he had traveled often to New York, but only as an adult did he have business that took him more deeply into the United States.
“A degree of disillusion set in,” he wrote. “American cities of the Midwest seemed ‘unfinished,’ ugly and uniform in their 1980s downtown architecture and desolate once the working day ended. Each city center I visited—Minneapolis, Atlanta, Dallas, even LA—seemed brutally anonymous and visually identical and paradoxically ‘poor’ despite conspicuous consumption. Much middle-class suburban housing surprised me in its poor building quality and slightly ‘temporary’ feel.
“I learned that there are many Americas,” this Englishman continued, “and that the promised land of my childhood also had its banal side. What endured? The everyday kindness of people I met. Americans are ritually polite to strangers—far more so than Europeans—and that experience has endured. But my greatest shock was the slow realization that Americans are truly foreign and, culturally, very different from Europeans, including the British. ‘Separated by a common language,’ as one wit wrote.
“I was often wrong-footed in everyday conversation: my kind, open, lovable, and thoroughly decent friends in Austin, Texas, were deeply supportive of the death penalty; to my bewilderment ‘social/Scandinavia’ Minneapolis had middle-class neighborhoods that were entirely Black (not an integrated society), and educated people whose understanding and view of other countries and cultures were in many respects isolated and uninformed. ‘The city on the hill’ was, I realized, more complex, more varied, and much harder to understand.”
Whatever their troubles, however, Americans were credited with extraordinary resilience. As a Peruvian managing partner wrote after the COVID pandemic hit, “This is a ‘war,’ but a strange one where the industries had not been bombed; they are there and will restart easily once the virus is gone or the vaccine discovered. In addition, I think that, at least for a while, there will be a ‘buy American only’ feeling among consumers that will help get the economy back on track.”
Some of that same positive outlook carried over into responses about America’s future—the last question—but even before the pandemic and before the death of George Floyd, that optimism was cautious, and nuanced.
After spending many, many hours reviewing interviews and responses, I believe America faces six critical challenges in the future, three external and three internal. They exist now and will remain after COVID-19 passes, whenever that might be.
Number 1: China
The number one threat to America’s global position as a military and economic power was summarized by respondents in one word: China. This was the same in both the pre- and post-COVID-19 surveys.
Here is a fact: With more than four times as many people living in China as the United States, China’s economy should surpass the size of the U.S. economy sometime within the next decade. There is really no reason for Americans to panic about that. When (not if) that occurs, the average Chinese citizen will not be wealthier than the average American, even if China’s the pie gets bigger than America’s there are so many more people who have to share it.
But the United States must face the reality that at some point in the near future it will no longer be the world’s largest economy, and that raises questions. Will the U.S. dollar continue as the accepted global reserve currency for world trade, or will it eventually be replaced by the renminbi or yuan? How will China’s leadership seek to deploy its expanding economic strength in order to advance its own foreign policy objectives? Will China exert its growing military power more aggressively outside the South China Sea? When commenting on the major external threats to American dominance, an engineer from Nigeria put it simply:
“While America is too busy fighting the rest of the world, China is quietly, sometimes overtly ‘conquering’ the rest of the world through the deployment of its financial and human resources to ‘assist’ poor and mid-economically strong countries through one-sided economic assistance that eventually allows China to take over not just the resources of these countries but the directions as well once they default, which is generally the case.”
Another respondent holds a similarly stark view of China, the country where he was born: “The ideological difference will make the USA and China irreconcilable…. China is taking the opposite position in every US policy from Iran to North Korea, from Cuba to Venezuela, from Palestine to Israel.”
A British citizen who has advised clients throughout Asia for decades offered a colorful metaphor: “China and the United States are like two elephants dancing. All of the other countries in the world have to stay out of the way not to be stepped on.”
Dozens of respondents shared the same view: China is up-and-coming and America is its target.
The question is not whether China is a threat to the United States over the long run, there is no doubt about its potential to become one. A better question is how it manages to achieve its political and economic goals so much more quickly than America. And the answer is simple: because China is a totally centrally controlled government, it is not encumbered by the inherently complex processes which every democratic country faces when trying to make fundamental changes. This means the Chinese government can, to the extent it possesses the financial resources and the will, challenge America’s current economic and military dominance in any number of ways.
Anyone who lives in a democratic nation knows democracy is messy. There are so many conflicting economic and political interests, and consensus must be achieved before any significant action is possible. This is not the case in China.
To take one example: about a decade ago the Chinese government decided it needed to build a high-speed rail network connecting major population centers throughout China. It succeeded, and today an efficient network of modern trains crisscross China. To accomplish the same thing in the United States would take years of proposals and never-ending debates and voter referendums, and even then, action is not guaranteed. This is the key advantage to any centrally run, nondemocratic system.
America needs to become more focused on how to respond to China. Will America as a nation continue to possess the most innovative and dynamic economy during the 21st century? The jury is out at this point.
Early in his administration, President Trump zeroed in on China as a target for American foreign policy. While some harshly criticized his stand, Trump did receive some support from overseas. A high-level Japanese executive put it this way: “President Trump is very rough, but he says no to China. I like the U.S. pushing back against China. President Obama was a gentleman and did not push hard enough against China. Trump is no gentleman.”
As many respondents noted, America’s tendency to prefer isolationism is a concern in 2020 and beyond. A large number expressed their hope that America ultimately will reassert its traditional role as a world leader. Here are the insights of a South African executive, a woman whose parents were from Poland and Lithuania: “Despite all its warts, [the United States] still remains a beacon of positivity and freedom in a world that is rapidly approaching its Armageddon. Yes, the Armageddon is closer than we think thanks to extremism, radicalism, authoritarianism, the backtracking to communism skillfully dressed up as socialism.”
Number 2: Losing the Edge of Technological Innovation
The second major external threat facing America is much different than the first. Simply put, many fear that the United Staes will carelessly relinquish its dominant lead in innovating and commercially exploiting advanced technologies.
Many of America’s biggest technology companies today (Apple, Cisco, SpaceX and Google) are global leaders in their fields. This has given the U.S. a great competitive advantage over the last three decades, but things are changing. In the race to identify and harness new technologies, Americans now face strong competition from many innovative companies around the world, not just from China.
"Technology is international and no country has a monopoly over it," says a friend from Costa Rica. "It is no longer an industrial world where capital is the main source for richness. Intellectual power is far more important today and such power is spread throughout the globe even in the poorest and least powerful countries."
The race to remain a world leader in robotics, aerospace, nanotechnologies, and genetic manipulation is where America finds its current leads being chipped away. The U.S. government and leading American technology companies must devote more public and private resources to fund both basic and applied technological research if the United States hopes to maintain its current favored position. This is a challenge America cannot afford to lose.
Number 3: Immigration
I was surprised to discover during my research that outsiders view the issue of immigration as the third major external challenge facing America, but not in the way it’s been portrayed by the U.S. administration.
For years, a devoted and vocal “pro-America” faction within the U.S. Congress has attacked immigration as one of the greatest threats facing America. Then presidential candidate Donald Trump picked up the charge and made it into a core element of his campaign. Trump and his Congressional supporters have succeeded in making immigration a dirty word for many Americans.
"I think this has changed significantly in the last five to 10 years," says an Argentine business executive now resident in the United States. "When I came to the U.S. six years ago the word immigrant was almost a badge of honor and everyone seemed to agree that most Americans were either immigrants or descendants of them. In New York and other big cities I did see a true melting pot and opportunities opened to all immigrants."
But, she continued, "Things have changed drastically, to the point that being an immigrant today seems almost unlawful or questionable. Although this is clearly a reflection of this administration's political discourse, how much it is embraced varies around the country. In larger cities where cultural diversity is a reality, people embrace immigrants. In smaller cities where there are less immigrants, this new perception of foreign born people taking away something (jobs, wealth, culture, religion, whatever) that defines the U.S. and should be stopped is a real issue."
If these anti-immigration zealots are ultimately successful, legal immigration to the United States will become infinitely more difficult, and this will have two unfortunate consequences.
First, immigrants with their diverse backgrounds will be greatly reduced in numbers, thus robbing America of their unique talents. And because ethnic diversity has historically been one of America’s strengths, closing the door to all types of immigrants will damage the U.S. economy in the long run.
A second consequence is that bright young minds and entrepreneurs from around the world who might still be able to immigrate legally to the United States will view America as a less welcoming place and are likely to explore options in other countries. These highly skilled individuals are exactly the type of immigrant the U.S. economy desperately needs, but why should they come to America for a technical education and remain here to work if they are not wanted? The answer is obvious.
America needs to worry about more than external threats. Many interviewed believe the most critical challenges facing America today are internal. A friend from Montreal who visits the United States frequently for business and holidays summarized his thoughts on internal pressures in the United States: “Isolationism and the illusion of a return to the era of manufacturing will not last and the economical unfairness that has increased over the years and the fact that social inequities seem to correlate with racial origin are bound to create the kind of tension that has erupted.”
Number 1: Economic Disparity
In the view of many people that I contacted, America’s biggest internal threat is the rapidly growing economic disparity among its citizens. This gap has become much more pronounced over the last two decades. The fact is America’s traditional middle class continues to contract while the disparity in wealth between the top 1 percent and the rest of the country continues to widen.
The statistics are sobering and so is the spectacle on the streets for those who allow themselves to see it. As one Japanese executive wrote after visits to San Francisco, Los Angeles, and Seattle in 2017 and 2018, “I saw many homeless people on streets. High-rise buildings and luxurious houses were booming because of the strong economy, but there were people who could not afford a place to live because the booming demand in the area drove the cost of living up. If inequality grows and no measures are taken, it will lead to very serious social unrest.” And that was written before the pandemic, before the George Floyd tragedy.
An American who lived in Australia for years offered this perspective:
“America is a great place to get ahead, but it’s a really bad place to be left behind. For all the opportunities there are to make something of yourself in America, there are also many opportunities to be marginalized and forgotten about.”
Number 2: Gun Violence
The second internal threat most often mentioned by respondents outside America is gun violence, and the reactions, while uniformly negative, range from befuddlement to horror to contempt.
“I do not get it. Why are there so many guns in America?” asks a Singaporean woman who is a senior partner in her business. A highly successful entrepreneur originally from India talks of gun violence as “a cancer” that “has spread throughout the country and it cannot be controlled anymore.” A West Point graduate who travels to the Far East several times a year offered this surprisingly strong reaction: “Europeans and others basically think of America as a two-year-old holding a gun. The toddler is easily distracted and is the most dangerous thing in the room. This attitude is heightened by the fact that America is quick to anger and to react when something happens.”
Without question, Americans will never voluntarily surrender their guns. Gun ownership is guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution. Even more fundamentally, the right to own firearms is deeply entrenched in the history and culture of this nation.
But, possessing automatic and semi-automatic rifles, which are designed as weapons of war, cannot be a right the original framers of the U.S. Constitution intended to protect. America is no longer a nation where militia are necessary, with each citizen toting his own gun to fight off foreign oppressors or a government with which he disagrees.
The general consensus of those I contacted is that, as a first step, America should immediately re-institute a ban on assault weapons and revisit sensible gun laws. It is illegal for the average American to own a machine gun or a bazooka or a flamethrower—those are weapons of war and only belong in the hands of the military. Fully automatic and semi-automatic assault weapons should fall into the same category. Enough is enough.
Number 3: Racism
Finally, the third internal threat most mentioned by respondents, which has been part of America since its inception, is racism. Most of their comments were gathered before George Floyd was killed by a policeman in Minneapolis, but they still apply.
“When the economy in America does well, the rich seem to get richer and the poor still suffer,” says an engineer from Scotland. “This seems to follow racial lines with the Hispanics and black people generally filling up the prisons and standing in the food lines. It is difficult to see any progress in this area with legislation or community projects to help redistribute the wealth to give the people lower down the wealth ladder any hope of a brighter future, which is the only way to alleviate some of the social problems.”
Despite the many lofty ideals of America’s founding fathers promoting “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for “all men” who are “created equal,” slavery was an integral part of America for almost 90 years. Some early U.S. presidents owned slaves. Only after the end of America’s bloody Civil War was slavery abolished in law. But even then, quasi-slavery carried on in the form of Jim Crow, and even when that was ended by legislation in the middle of the 20th century, and even as many Blacks shared in the country’s prosperity, very many did not.
Racism persisted, and the killing of Blacks in police custody when picked up for extremely small offenses (selling cigarettes, a counterfeit 20 dollar bill), or no offense at all, finally made that fact inescapable.
China is and will remain America’s leading global economic challenger as it pursues its efforts to surpass the U.S. innovating and commercializing 21st century technologies.
Just this week, FBI Director Christopher Wray felt compelled to tell the Hudson Institute, "The stakes could not be higher. China is engaged in a whole-of-state effort to become the world's only superpower by any means necessary." But Wray's focus was on espionage. The issue is so much bigger than that.
China will flex its growing economic muscle in global trade through expansive projects such as the Belt and Road Initiative. That pressure combined with America’s tendency toward isolationism, which rejects a rational immigration policy, could further weaken the underpinnings of the American economy over the long run if unchecked.
At the same time, the rapidly growing disparity in wealth is creating social divisions that undercut America’s sense of itself as a place where anything is possible. Racism and guns will remain enormous challenges.
In short, America needs to wake up. It needs to address these critical issues. The United States in 2020 is still at the apex of its military power and economic influence. Is America in decline? Not yet. But if Americans fail to resolve the issues seen clearly—and described bluntly—by the rest of the world, then the decline and fall of what used to be the world’s idea of America is not far off.