We are all familiar with the satirical idiom “The Emperor Has No Clothes,” applied to situations painfully clear to all yet unmentionable. Since Hans Christian Andersen wrote his fairy tale in 1837, the expression has been commonplace to expose the willful ignorance of a people unwilling or unable to acknowledge the obvious.
Andersen’s story shows the vanity of a fictitious Emperor who believes that his subjects accept anything he decrees, even to disbelieve what they can plainly see. But when his pretensions are punctured by a small child, laughter ensues, the Emperor is humiliated, and he leaves the story powerless.
For the Emperor, think the U.S. government; the missing clothes are any and all pretensions to global leadership since the end of the Cold War.
This hypothesis may be a bit of an overstatement, but any society so absorbed with its own domestic priorities, with an ingrained and durable isolationist history, and representing less than five percent of the world’s population, cannot pretend to exercise global hegemony. Any pretensions otherwise simply extend and exaggerate the fiction.
This is not intended as either a judgment or a moral indictment. It is simply a fact that we live in a country whose storied past has long since been overtaken by realities both within and without.
American global influence may well not suffer a disastrous defeat or succumb to nuclear annihilation as some Russian hotheads proclaim. But we have seen, and will continue to see, a slow but steady decline of national will, character, and unity. Foreign affairs cannot compete with the attention being given to domestic issues like police brutality, systemic racism, abortion, gun control, fiscal mismanagement, the rise of radical fringe groups, and the general crisis of governance.
As a country, the United States remains strong on paper – still (for now) the world’s largest economy, with a peerless defense establishment, and ample nuclear weapons to deter large-scale conflict. But while the U.S. as a political entity may abide, America as a nation, that is, as a unity of language, history, culture, theology, way of life, and historic mission, may cease to exist.
It is now apparent, if not obvious, that the U.S. is a country composed of two or more nations, peoples not sharing what have been regarded as traditional American characteristics. A multiplicity of races, genders, worldviews, and political persuasions makes the country more diverse than ever, and simultaneously creates divisions that erode all pretensions of a unitary national will. Add to this the general decline in respect for public institutions and the social media-driven crassness and superficiality of our political debate, and the future looks grim.
As the nation grows more divided internally, it becomes more difficult to promise credible U.S. leadership on a global level. Americans lack common ideals and interests. Foreign leaders may rightly ask, what does the United States stand for anymore?
Catholic theologian John Courtney Murray noted sixty years ago that an America lacking “self-identity and self-confidence” could lose the “reasoned grounds for their essential affirmation that they are uniquely a people, uniquely a free society.” Recent attacks on ideas like American exceptionalism and the genius of the Founders underscore this critical erosion. The result could be, as Murray wrote, a country without an identity, “and it would not be well for the American giant to go lumbering about the world today, lost and mad.”
Our current national schizophrenia need not be permanent. American unity, national will, and global leadership could reemerge. The country has overridden serious divides before, the Civil War especially, but also episodes of economic depression and social/political disparities throughout its history.
But to live on memories and to ignore the present is to live in a fantasyland. The bubble, sometime, somewhere, will eventually burst. Since the end of the Cold War, we have witnessed a series of U.S. interventions and occupations in various crisis zones. What have these “endless wars” accomplished, in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, and elsewhere? Is the American “Emperor” still well-dressed? Or is the answer so obvious a child could see it?
Jack Tierney is Professor Emeritus at The Institute of World Politics in Washington D.C., and former Special Assistant and Foreign Affairs Officer at the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency.