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Fareed Zakaria on the U.S. choice: Change or decay

“You see, once upon a time, the rest of the world needed to learn from America,” Zakaria said. “Now, America needs to learn from the rest of the world.”

American flag
REUTERS/Christian Hartmann

I watch Fareed Zakaria’s “GPS” most Sundays. GPS in this context stands for “Global Public Square,” and his closing statement yesterday really underscored the advantage of trying to keep an eye not just on our own dear nation, but on its place in an ever-changing world.

The rest of the show was smart and informative, as usual, but his closing statement, which he calls “My Take,” was so good that I took it down in shorthand (with the help of my DVR so I could go back and catch up, as my shorthand isn’t that fast or reliable) so I could transcribe and offer excerpts. (And I would add, as an aside, that he managed it without mentioning the name of the current incumbent president nor pointing any fingers of blame at anyone in particular).

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Said Zakaria:

America is now crippled along one crucial dimension.

Its government and politics are an international laughingstock.

The country that could land men on the moon and bring them back safely cannot put together a testing and tracing program that would compare with those in Vietnam or New Zealand.

Its political system is now so polarized and paralyzed that many fear the November election will ultimately be resolved in court ….

What happened?

As with any complex historical phenomenon, there is no one answer. But, since Vietnam and Watergate, America has lost faith in Washington. 

Ronald Reagan celebrated the idea that Washington was responsible for America’s woes. It somehow became the definition of patriotism to love the country and yet hate its government.

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(Me, interrupting with this refresher. In 1986, in the middle of his second term, Reagan cracked that “The nine most terrifying words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.” Back to Zakaria.)

And that created a self-fulfilling prophecy. As government was defunded and delegitimized, it became more dysfunctional, thus confirming the views of anti-government activists.

But, beyond America, there is also a story of the rise of the rest. 

For a long time, America had a huge advantage. … But over the last three decades, other countries, lots of other countries, have become savvy at economics and politics and government. Places like Singapore rival the best in the world for government. South Korea and Taiwan, once corrupt autocracies, have handled the pandemic with extraordinary skill. Canada and Australia have managed to combine an Anglo-Saxon cultural freedom with a caring and efficient welfare state.

Suddenly, America faces real competition and it goes well beyond China. 

The U.S. faces a choice now. It can either consider the pandemic a wake-up call, learn from its mistakes and others’ successes, and get to work and reform. Or, it can delude itself that it is still Number One, that its destiny is the best, that its response has been amazing, that its numbers are phenomenal.

That latter attitude is the road to decay and decline. You see, once upon a time, the rest of the world needed to learn from America.

Now, America needs to learn from the rest of the world.