Editor’s Note: Peter Bergen is CNN’s national security analyst, a vice president at New America, and a professor of practice at Arizona State University. Bergen is the author of “The Cost of Chaos: The Trump Administration and the World.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
The United States is riven by polarization, its democracy is threatened, inflation is raging, and the Dow is down sharply this year. Yet, despite all these problems, if you zoom out and look at the world overall, the US is still doing quite well compared to its key enemies and closest allies.
Russia and China – the two nations with which the United States strives most regularly for global influence – have suffered recent dramatic declines in their standing.
By invading Ukraine and failing to achieve its war aims, Russia is demonstrating that it is no longer a great power. After Russian President Vladimir Putin announced a “partial mobilization” for the war in Ukraine last month, around 200,000 Russians voted with their feet and fled their country – including two who sailed to Alaska.
In the early days of the war, Russia failed to take Kyiv, and in recent weeks it has lost some 3,000 square miles of territory, according to Ukrainian officials. Even generally reliable cheerleaders for Putin, such as the Chinese, have distanced themselves from Putin’s failures in Ukraine.
Led by the US, NATO is now stronger than ever, supplying Ukraine with significant amounts of weaponry and bulking up its collective defense spending. NATO is also adding the formerly non-aligned countries of Finland and Sweden to the alliance. While former President Donald Trump kept threatening to pull the US out of NATO, today the alliance has new relevance.
Russia also failed to stop European countries from filling their gas stocks to more than 90% for the coming winter, which reduces President Vladimir Putin’s leverage to weaken NATO’s support for the Ukrainians.
Meanwhile, American weaponry, such as anti-tank Javelin missiles and High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) that are GPS-guided precision rockets, and US technologies, such as the Starlink satellite-based broadband Internet communication system supplied by Elon Musk, have helped to turn the tide of the war in Ukraine.
By contrast, Soviet-style, Russian “dumb” artillery rounds continue to land in Ukrainian cities, killing civilians, but to no strategic end because these attacks have scant military utility. Iran has also supplied drones for Russia’s use in Ukraine, but such developments have only hardened the resolve of Ukrainians to expel the Russians, according to Gallup polling last month that found 70% of Ukrainians want to continue fighting until they win against Russia.
Meanwhile, President Xi Jinping may be taking a victory lap as he is expected to be anointed the leader of the Chinese Communist Party for the third time at the ruling party’s national congress this week, ensuring that he will become the country’s most powerful leader since Mao.
Yet, Xi’s zero-Covid policy has spurred repeated massive lockdowns of China’s cities, which have damaged the nation’s economy and are becoming increasingly unpopular.
At the same time, China’s imprisonment of up to two million Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities, according to US State Department estimates, and its costly loans for its “Belt and Road” policies have not endeared it to much of the planet. Earlier this year, Pew polling found “negative views of China remain at or near historic highs in many of the 19 countries” where the organization polled.
Despite Xi’s bellicose rhetoric about China’s right to use force to reclaim Taiwan during the Communist Party Congress this week, China must surely have taken notes watching Russia’s failures in Ukraine, which included the sinking of the flagship of the Russian Black Sea fleet, the Moskva in April. Any Chinese invasion of Taiwan would involve crossing a maritime border and launching a naval armada across some 100 miles of water to reach the island.
Another American rival, Iran, is riven by countrywide street protests that are threatening the regime arguably as much as any protests have done since 1979.
In the western hemisphere, Venezuela is also in free fall under its socialist government; almost seven million people have left the country since 2014, a quarter of the population.
China, Iran, Russia, and Venezuela share a common feature; they are autocracies – not exactly a form of government known for serving the interests of the people.
Even America’s closest democratic allies are also facing profound problems. The UK is turning itself into a third-rank power following its disastrous decision in 2016 to vote for Brexit and pull out of the free trade zone of the European Union, which quickly lopped more than 16% of the pound’s value against the dollar that year.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson ran a campaign in 2019 to “Get Brexit Done,” completing the withdrawal from the EU in January 2020. This was supposed to unleash the British from all the onerous obligations of the European Union.
Instead, it has proven to be an economic debacle. Many jobs in the UK that would have been filled by Europeans who were formerly free to move to Britain for work are going unfilled in sectors such as construction, farming, nursing homes, and restaurants. Since the Brexit vote six years ago, the UK’s per capita income has grown by only 3.8% in real terms, while the EU’s has grown by 8.5%, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Then came UK Prime Minister Liz Truss who compounded the harm of Brexit by proposing unfunded tax cuts for the rich in September. After heightened political outcry and financial turmoil, Truss reversed the tax cut decision, but the damage was done, and the pound fell to historic lows. She announced her resignation under pressure Thursday, becoming Britain’s shortest-serving prime minister.
And what about that bilateral US-UK trade deal that Conservative leaders said would supposedly wave a magic wand over the UK’s economic mess? Truss told reporters in September, “There (aren’t) currently any negotiations taking place with the US, and I don’t have an expectation that those are going to start in the short to medium term.” This is government-speak acknowledging that the Americans have told the British: “How about never– is never good for you?” to quote the great New Yorker cartoon.
European countries are generally faring better than the UK but still face their own problems. The dollar, which is at a two-decade high against the Euro, remains strong as the Fed raises interest rates and the American economy continues to be the most dynamic in the world. Indeed, the US has the lowest unemployment rate in five decades. And the US is now the world’s largest producer of both gas and oil.
American vaccine technology used by Pfizer and Moderna helped to turn the tide against Covid-19 in the United States and other countries that used these vaccines. By contrast, the Chinese and Russian vaccines have been far less effective against Covid-19.
To be sure, the United States has problems aplenty, including deep political polarization, raging inflation, high inequality, a horrific Covid-19 death toll, shrinking life expectancy, frequent mass shootings, unaffordable housing in many places, and intense battles over abortion. The widespread denial of President Joe Biden’s 2020 election victory among Republicans raises serious questions about the health of the nation’s democracy. Still, in many respects, the US looks much better than much of the rest of the world.
Immigration, which is often treated as a problem by Americans, underlines the continuing attraction of the United States. Meanwhile, hundreds of thousands of Russians have fled their homeland since Putin announced a partial mobilization in the war against Ukraine, and tens of thousands have left Hong Kong after the Chinese takeover of the formerly autonomous city.
To paraphrase Warren Buffett, betting against America has never been a smart move.