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The pope, the Chinese and rethinking America’s place as a world power

Is America on the decline? For leaders such as Pope Francis and Xi Jinping, how long will the road lead through Washington?

For leaders such as Pope Francis, how long will the road lead through Washington?
REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

This is a striking moment in Washington, one that only the capital of a major world power — the major world power — can expect to see. Today, President Obama hosts Pope Francis at the White House. On Friday, it will be President Xi Jinping of China.

Each of the two visitors is leader of roughly a billion of the world’s 7 billion-plus people; together with Obama, they represent perhaps a third of humanity. The pope and the Chinese president will seek cooperation with the United States on some issues; challenge it on others.

The balance between a willingness to challenge the world’s great power and a desire to work with it goes to the heart of debate playing out in the 2016 presidential campaign, and — in a more understated fashion — the U.S. foreign policy establishment.

Simply put, is America on the decline? For leaders such as Pope Francis and Xi Jinping, how long will the road lead through Washington?

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Republican presidential contenders have already answered that question. No one respects America anymore, says Donald Trump. For most of the candidates, Obama is misguided, naïve and/or dangerous. China is eating our lunch, Russian President Vladimir Putin is thumbing his nose at the U.S., and the ayatollahs are gleefully planning how they will spend their billions and build a nuclear bomb.

Without exception, all the candidates say they will make America proud and strong again.

It’s worth filtering out the campaign noise to tap into the debate in the foreign policy establishment, as well. The experts aren’t always right, of course. Far too many got Vietnam wrong, and too many gave the Bush administration the benefit of the doubt on Iraq.

But consider this recent article or this older, but still intriguing piece by Joseph S. Nye, Jr. of Harvard, who makes a couple of important points: 

The United States has never been quite as powerful as Americans would like to think. It has often had difficulty transforming raw power into preferred results — witness its failure, for instance, to prevent the Communist takeover of China or Cuba. And, citing observers going back a century and a half to Charles Dickens, he says that Americans seem “prone to cycles of belief in their own decline.” Recall the hand-wringing that accompanied the Soviet launch of Sputnik in the 1950s, the oil shock of the early 1970s, or the fear in the 1980s that Japan was overtaking the United States. 

Nye’s argument is that the “American Century” is likely to continue — it will just look a little different. 

The U.S. does indeed face many challenges — among them an inability to get its domestic house in order. But who, among the other players on the world stage, is having a better time of it?

International news this summer has been dominated by stories in Europe and China. The European Union has struggled with Greece and pretty much failed to come up with an adequate response to the refugee crisis. China might well reform its financial sector, but faces huge challenges managing a slowdown, reorienting its economy, keeping a lid on ethnic tensions and cleaning up its air and water.

For Putin, eastern Ukraine is increasingly looking like an albatross. Oil prices are likely to remain low, and sanctions are still in place. The economy of Brazil, another emerging power, is a mess. You could argue that Iran has a shot, but for the foreseeable future its game will be regional, not global.

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In comparison, how has Obama done?

He acknowledges that his approach to intervening in Libya was a mistake. His blurred “red line” against the use of chemical weapons in Syria was a mess in terms of tactics and messaging — but in terms of overall strategy, no one has come up with a plausible alternate. It will take time to assess policy toward Russia and Iran.

Back when congressional rejection of the Iran deal was still a possibility, Foreign Affairs asked a panel of experts whether it should be approved. Factoring out the few who were neutral, they came down in favor of it 37-11.

Gideon Rose, the journal’s editor, argues that after the misadventures of the Bush administration, Obama had to pull back to refocus on a core mission — protecting a complex global web of economic, political and military alliances that have defined the post World War II era, and that he has done a pretty good job. U.S. in decline? Threats everywhere? “Hogwash,” he says. 

Not so fast, says Bret Stephens, a Wall Street Journal columnist: Obama claims to have defanged Al Qaeda, only to see the rise of the Islamic State; pulled out of Iraq, only to see it descend into chaos again; has been unable to deter Putin. In the meantime, he has alienated allies in Europe and the Middle East.

Obama, the pope and the Chinese president have plenty of differences, but they already are largely on the same page on one major issue: climate change.

Francis is likely to raise an array of other issues, among them abortion, immigration and income inequality. A polarized political system will be challenged to absorb the spirit of his message, if not the letter.

With Xi, the Americans will be discussing practical matters: the state of the Chinese and U.S. economies, wariness over China’s expansion in Asia, anger over cyber-spying and cyber-theft. 

Together, the two visits offer an opportunity to refine American thinking on how to remain a great power: carefully balancing a sense of morality and purpose with a clear understanding of the national interest.