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Can America Lead the World Again?

There is a presumption among many pundits in America and around the world that once President-elect Biden assumes office, the U.S. will resume its global leadership role in areas ranging from foreign policy and diplomacy to foreign aid and humanitarian assistance. That assumes, however, that America has the resources, capability, wherewithal, and political will to make up for the deep hole it finds itself in following four years of Donald Trump. It also assumes that China’s lead in many areas is not already insurmountable. Both sets of assumptions may prove to be fallacious.

While the U.S. has been, and will continue to be, part of the solution to many of the world’s most pressing challenges, it can no longer claim to have a “moral right” to global leadership. Some of the values it used to possess in abundance, and which have been hallmarks of American leadership since the end of the Second World War, gradually disappeared from the forefront during the Trump era and are either lingering in the background or are seemingly nonexistent to many people throughout the world. Never since America became a superpower has the world had to question what it stands for. Today, much of the world believes that inequality, corruption, and ineptitude are synonymous with America, rather than freedom, justice, and righteousness.

And the shared partnership that has endured for generations between America and its many allies is on the critical list. The country’s allies now wonder not only whether America will be there for them in a time of need, but whether an American commitment is worth the paper it is printed on. As is evident by Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, UNESCO, and the UN Human Rights Council, many of America’s allies now question some fundamental tenets of American commitment and leadership.

China’s willingness and ability to step in and take up some of the slack that has resulted says as much about Washington’s self-imposed weakness as it does about Beijing’s fundamental strength. Indeed, many of the world’s capitals have become accustomed to looking to Beijing for leadership, rather than Washington. Now, the question appears to be not whether Beijing or Washington is best prepared to lead, but which has the ability to execute. Regardless of what overtures the Biden administration makes and which objectives it is able to achieve in its first year, the carnage left in the wake of Trump’s exit will take many years – perhaps decades – to reverse.

Many of the world’s people never believed that the outrages that occurred during Trump’s tenure were even possible in America. Trump has proven that it is not only possible, but that it could happen again, as it is widely presumed that Trump will run again in 2024 and again win the Republican nomination for president. That is, perhaps, the most enduring legacy of the Trump era, which makes the debate about whether the world is better off with American or Chinese leadership less easily dismissed.

Over the past four years, Beijing has proven that it can ably fill at least part of the void left by America’s departure from the world stage. Whether or not China maintains its growing lead in some areas of science and technology, it is likely to maintain a lead in its projection of soft power, diplomatic prowess, and economic strength for many years to come. America has only itself to blame for this state of affairs. Beijing has demonstrated that is a highly worthy competitor and Washington now finds itself in the unenviable position of having to play catch up.

It remains to be seen whether it will, in fact, catch up, or whether the lead that Beijing has established will endure. The U.S. has been busy for the past four years acting as a wrecking ball of the liberal world order it was so instrumental in creating. It is hard to imagine that it will now suddenly become that beacon of light shining on a hill just because there is a new sheriff in town, or indeed, that its allies will simply say all is forgotten.

The right to global leadership must be earned. There is so much that needs to be done and so little time to do it for Joe Biden. If he were to obtain an 8-year run as president, perhaps the world will give America the chance to redeem itself. That remains debatable.

This article was originally posted in the South China Morning Post.