Is a sense of insecurity the principal driver of the 2016 election in the United States? I wonder whether what we are witnessing reflects a sense “that familiar landmarks denoting American power and prestige are being washed away and the institutions which in previous years safeguarded American strength at home and abroad have been hollowed out or corrupted from within.” Confidence in the efficacy of American power and in the motives of those entrusted in wielding it has a direct impact on the type of leadership the United States can offer in the international system.
Thus, we see, particularly among elite commentators, a “growing concern that America may lack the capacity, the will or both to see through any ambitious agenda of global leadership.” At the same time, important blocs of both Democratic and Republican voters increasingly believe that “they have been denied the rewards they ought to reap from the American role in sustaining the current global system.”
In these pages, Sheldon Whitehouse, who happens to be one of my state’s Senators, makes an appeal for the United States to show leadership in addressing climate change, noting that “If we believe that the world needs America; if we believe that America is an essential and exceptional nation; then getting climate right matters.” That presumes, however, that voters still have confidence in America’s institutions and its ability to project power, defend interests and safeguard values. It also requires that U.S. voters believe that U.S. international leadership is not at odds with “doing right” for U.S. citizens and interests. This election cycle suggests that there has been an erosion in faith in what America can achieve. Insecurity rarely coexists with courage, and whether Senator Whitehouse’s perspective that the United States can take the lead on this—or any other—issue depends on whether Americans return to feeling comfortable about their role in the world.