Illustration: Craig Stephens
Chi Wang
Chi Wang

US in decline: why Joe Biden will struggle to return America to its golden age

  • America’s decline has happened over a longer period than just Trump’s four-year term, and it will take far longer to reverse it 
  • The country seems to be facing a profound identity crisis and an ideological divide more bitter and irreconcilable than ever in recent memory
In his speech at the State Department last month, US President Joe Biden dramatically pledged “America is back” and said the nation’s democratic values remain the “grounding wire” and “inexhaustible source of strength” of its global power.
He made similar pledges in a virtual appearance at the Munich Security Conference on February 19, where he spoke to America’s “enduring advantages”. These sentiments were certainly true in the past, but with each new day, the United States appears increasingly in decline, and it remains to be seen whether American leadership will rise to the challenge to reverse this trend.

When I first arrived in the US from China in 1949, America’s strengths were undoubted. The nation had just emerged victorious over both Germany and Japan in World War II. While most nations engaged in the war were struggling to rebuild their infrastructure and economies, the US emerged largely unscathed and more economically and militarily powerful than ever.

America’s leadership and democratic institutions were likewise strong. Even after the unexpected death of president Franklin D. Roosevelt in April 1945, vice-president Harry Truman smoothly transitioned into the White House and guided the US through the end of the war.

The presidency would go through many challenges in the decades that followed – including an assassination and a resignation – but the endurance of the American leadership was never in any real doubt.
US President Joe Biden speaks while addressing the virtual Munich Security Conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington on February 19. Photo: The New York Times/Bloomberg

I believe that was the golden age of America. Of course, there was still domestic trouble in the US at the time. Republicans and Democrats fought partisan battles and levied accusations about communist conspirators. Racial discrimination and segregation still pervaded.

But faith in American institutions and national power did not waver. America’s democratic institutions and national power stood out strongly against the chaotic China I was leaving behind. As my homeland was gripped by civil war, the US was flourishing. While China became isolated following the establishment of communist rule, the US was expanding its intentional responsibilities and helping rebuild western Europe. 
Yet today it is difficult to watch what is happening in Washington and across the US and come to any conclusion other than that America is in decline. The US lacked leadership when it needed it most in the past year. The inept response to the coronavirus crisis by elected officials did little to inspire confidence about America’s capacity to respond to global challenges.
The reluctance of former president Donald Trump and many of his supporters to accept the results of the November election undercuts America’s standing to defend democracy. Analysts are already drawing lines between Trump’s refusal to concede and the coup in Myanmar, where military leaders justified their actions by citing unverified claims of mass voter fraud.
The stunning images of the January 6 riot at the Capitol have shattered carefully cultivated perceptions of American power; if the government cannot prevent a mob from taking over the heart of its democracy, how can it be expected to champion democracy worldwide?


World shocked by assault on the US Capitol by radical pro-Trump supporters in Washington

World shocked by assault on the US Capitol by radical pro-Trump supporters in Washington
While Trump’s departure is certainly a step in the right direction for calming both domestic and international anxieties about the strength of US power, it is not enough. America’s decline happened over a longer period than just Trump’s four-year term, and it will take far longer to reverse it. 

This problem cannot be solved until politicians and the media that happily abets them find a way to move past the hopelessly partisan divide that is paralysing this country. My work in Washington at the Library of Congress and teaching at Georgetown gave me a front-row seat to moments of unrest and division in the nation’s capital. 

Yet the divide in this country today seems more bitter and more irreconcilable than at any point I can remember. It is exacerbated by the utter lack of leadership from Capitol Hill. Congressional leaders like Mike Mansfield, Henry Jackson and Bob Dole, who commanded respect across party lines have long since retired with no equivalents emerging in the next generation. 

Indeed, the parties are as divided about the nation’s past as they are on deciding its future. One of the final acts of the Trump administration that was mostly lost in these chaotic times was the release of the “ 1776 Report”, a 45-page document aimed at reorienting American history around its founding principles.

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It offers a counterargument to the controversial “ 1619 Project” released by The New York Times, which posited that slavery and systemic racism are at the core of America’s founding.

Neither of these pieces have won resounding praise from historians. The 1619 Project has been criticised for ignoring peer-review suggestions by historians and evidence that does not meet its thesis, while the 1776 Report has been lambasted for its warped presentation of the founders’ views on slavery and the progressive movement.

The fact that, nearly 250 years after the nation’s founding, there could be so profound an identity crisis should be raising alarm bells about the sustainability of the American experiment.


Third night of violent protests in US state of Wisconsin after police shooting of Jacob Blake

Third night of violent protests in US state of Wisconsin after police shooting of Jacob Blake

It has not gone unnoticed by the international community. French intellectuals and politicians are warning about the perils of the proliferation of American multicultural and progressive thinking.

Biden attempted to ease these anxieties in his recent speech to European leaders. He argued that democracy “doesn’t happen by accident. We have to defend it, fight for it, strengthen it, renew it.”

He stressed the importance of multilateralism in confronting global challenges: “If we work together with our democratic partners, with strength and confidence I know that we’ll meet every challenge and outpace every challenger.” 

It remains to be seen whether his European audience took his words to heart; words alone will surely not be enough to repair the damage that has been inflicted on American prestige. This challenge is far greater than Biden can meet in what is likely to be a one-term presidency.

I have lived in the US for 70 years and fear it may take 70 more before America returns to its golden age. But I am optimistic that it will happen, even if I will not be here to witness it.

Chi Wang, a former head of the Chinese section of the US Library of Congress, is president of the US-China Policy Foundation