Tuesday, December 7, 2021

Is the United States Still a Superpower?

On this 80th commemoration of the bombing of Pearl Harbor that presaged America’s entry into the Second World War from which it emerged as the unchallenged superpower champion of democracy, it is appropriate to ask, “Is the United States still a superpower?” 

Yes, we possess more destructive nuclear arms that any other country, but in this age of cyber warfare and fanatical, religious extremist organizations, is our military sufficiently organized around affirmative responses to today’s challenges?

During World War II we fought the Axis Powers on two fronts. Could we engage on two theaters of operation today, for after all, Russia is threatening to invade Ukraine and China has similar designs on Taiwan? 

Alliances forged after WWII are fraying. Our commitments are subject to political whims. The last administration cozied up to autocrats. America’s aversion to be involved in international conflicts—until our land or citizens are attacked—has centuries-long roots. 

Domestically, we are a nation in transition, so much so that nearly one in four Americans indicated in a survey a “willingness to secede” from the Union. The percentage was markedly higher for Republicans in Southern and Mountain states (https://dailyvoice.com/new-york/whiteplains/politics/new-poll-reveals-percentages-of-americans-who-want-to-secede-by-region/812724/). 

Our politics is no longer the “art of compromise,” but rather a “winner-take-no-prisoners” form of combat. 

And all the while, the infrastructure that empowered our economic strength—railway, air and highway systems, modern telecommunications, power grids, clean water supplies and industrial plants—has atrophied instead of being maintained and upgraded while China has leapfrogged our capacities.

Perhaps a deeper question we should ask is, “What is the true nature of American character?” Is it an E Pluribus Unum ideal or a mythologized Western movie psyche that values the individual over collective responsibility? Has the bifurcated public response to COVID—the wearing of masks and the acceptance of vaccinations—highlighted the fissures in our society?

To be a superpower democracy requires not just the consent of the governed but also an educated public, educated not just to the truths and myths of our nation’s founding but also to the missteps we made along the way, so the faults are not repeated. 

Are we a superpower? The nuclear code black box a presidential aide carries near the president does not by itself answer the question in the affirmative. 

American superpower status comes with responsibilities. It is time we rededicated ourselves to the values our mythology ascribed to the United States.