Consult any long-term American statistical compilation (say, on the economy or on the crime rate) and one might be forgiven for concluding that the trend lines look quite positive for Americans’ sense of security and prosperity. Yet aggregate numbers mask much deeper worries — among both business and political elites as well the mass of average citizens — about the future of the United States. A palpable sense of insecurity has cast a shadow over American politics, and helps to explain the unprecedented twists and turns of the 2016 U.S. election cycle. Moreover, this sentiment is not easily localized around one or two core issues, such as in the 1980 campaign, when fear that the Soviet Union was gaining ascendancy and concerns about a stagnating economy at home were the two principal concerns. (Moreover, in that election, voters had two very clear policy approaches between Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan.) Today, the anxiety is much more general — that familiar landmarks denoting American power and prestige are being washed away and the institutions which in previous years safeguarded American strength at home and abroad have been hollowed out or corrupted from within.
Sixteen years ago, the 2000 elections took place in a world where the United States had triumphed in the Cold War and appeared to be the indispensable hub holding the global order together. The U.S. economy was capable of regenerating itself to create a new wave of prosperity that could sustain the middle class aspirations of the bulk of the citizenry. Today, even though Americans might disagree as to the causes and possible solutions, the majority of voters believe the country is headed in the wrong direction, and there is a growing, palpable fear that both the American Dream and the American Century may be headed for a close.
One broad wave of insecurity is what might be termed systemic insecurity. For 60 years, the United States played the leading role in creating military, security, political and economic institutions that safeguarded a liberal, globalized world order and which cemented American leadership. Even a few short years ago, there was high confidence that the United States, in developing two broad free trade arrangements — one for the Pacific basin, the other for the Euro-Atlantic world — had positioned itself as the fundamental keystone for world trade, while also extending and expanding the reach of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and cementing its various security partnerships in the Middle East and the Asia-Pacific region.
In 2016 there is growing concern that America may lack the capacity, the will or both to see through any ambitious agenda of global leadership, while other American partners, starting with the Europeans, are similarly engulfed in crisis. The fear that the world may be transitioning from an American-led order to what Ian Bremmer has termed a “G-Zero” world — where no one country or group of countries can set and enforce a worldwide security and economic agenda — leads to concerns that the gains that have been achieved over the last 30 years could be reversed. For some, the concern is that America will be shoved aside by Russia, China or some other set of rising powers who will overturn a liberal system; for others, it is that an America exhausted by the burdens of “running the world” will withdraw into a more isolationist pose. In either case, for elites whose position rests on continued American primacy, the world is now much more uncertain than it was even a few years ago.
Elite concern that the U.S.-led order is eroding is paired with a growing sense among many ordinary Americans that they have been denied the rewards they ought to reap from the American role in sustaining the current global system. Americans were promised that the forces of globalization would aid and abet their prosperity. Instead, a more open system allows for jobs, technology and capital to leave at a moment’s notice while lowering barriers and exposing the homeland to new threats (from migration to pandemics) while entangling Americans in a myriad number of conflicts around the world. The notion that the United States ought to uphold the territorial integrity of Ukraine or push back against Chinese maritime claims in the South China Sea — even at the risk of heightened conflict with Russia or China, in order to defend abstract principles of the international order makes little sense to voters who do not see how the Russian flag flying over Sevastopol or the Chinese choice to expend resources to build artificial islands impacts their job prospects, what they pay at the gas pump or their sense of day-to-day security. A curious confluence of some parts of the American right and left has come together to question what benefits Americans derive from extending security guarantees to growing numbers of states or crafting massive free trade pacts.
Candidates George W. Bush and Barack Obama, respectively, promised an end to nation-building abroad and a focus on nation-building at home, yet the cumulative result of their 16 years in office has, in the eyes of many Americans, eroded the economic and physical security many felt they enjoyed in 2000. It is not surprising, therefore, that the Clinton campaign explicitly plays on American nostalgia for the peace and prosperity of the 1990s while Donald Trump proclaims “Make America Great Again.” In addressing the systemic and personal insecurities that grip the American body politic, the next U.S. president may face an impossible task: how to increase U.S. influence in the world while minimizing American commitments, and how to shift more of the burdens of maintaining the international system to others while reaping a greater share of the rewards.
• Nikolas K. Gvosdev is a contributing editor to The National Interest.