The End of U.S. Leadership?

In the run up to America’s 2020 presidential elections, will the coronavirus pandemic put the nail in the coffin of U.S. leadership and its democratic model? While Donald Trump may not have started this decline, he has helped amplify it during the current healthcare and economic crisis, according to Dominique Moïsi, a renowned international relations expert in France and the United States, and the author of Le Nouveau Déséquilibre du Monde ("The New World Disorder").
© Julien Falsimagne/Leextra/Bridgeman Images

France-Amérique: In your New York Times article, you discuss the end of American leadership. Is this a common theme borrowed from, among others, U.S. journalist Fareed Zakaria?

Dominique Moïsi: In his 2008 book, The Post-American World, Fareed Zakaria did not talk about America’s decline. He described a world in which the United States was no longer alone. Instead, it had been joined at the top by other powers such as China and India. However, Washington had not been entirely dethroned and had retained its role as global mediator. Today, not only is Asia moving forward, but America is regressing. The current context has more in common with Paul Kennedy’s analysis in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, published in 1987, than with Zakaria’s.

The decline of the United States has often been predicted – in the 1970s following the Vietnam War, for example. Yet it bounces back every time.

A relative decline is not the same as an absolute decline. However, in relation to the rest of the world, America does seem to be “exhausted” by unfortunate military campaigns, money spent in vain, and the “Other.” The world’s leading military power appears quite “helpless” against the coronavirus. It must first reconnect with itself if it is to bounce back. The crisis in American democracy runs deep and is the result of a long process. Trump is a symptom of this dysfunction, not the cause.

What is the cause of this decline? The virus, Trump, or an underlying trend of voluntary withdrawal supported by public opinion that began under Obama?

During the Cold War and until the early 21st century, not only was America the leading world power, it was also the champion of democracy, freedom, and economic liberalism. For better (in Europe) or for worse (in Latin America, for example), the United States defended the values it embodied, most often sincerely. Hollywood helped and heightened America’s soft power and the draw of the American dream. A world “without America,” a world in which the dream is dead because it is inherently dominated by a culture of fear, is more chaotic and therefore more dangerous.

When did America’s decline begin?

The coronavirus is obviously not the cause of America’s decline. If anything, the pandemic has revealed and accelerated the major trends that have been growing for several decades. But this process of decline seems to have been developing relentlessly since the early 21st century.

Should France and Europe take over from the United States?

Less America in the world would inevitably lead to more Europe in an effort to counter Chinese and Russian ambitions, and face the current global disorder. Unfortunately, this is not happening. In the midst of the coronavirus crisis, there is more Germany in Europe, but not more Europe in the world.

Interview published in the June 2020 issue of France-Amérique. Subscribe to the magazine.