At the turn of the 21st century America was a unipolar global power. A decade after winning the Cold War we were an economic, political and military hegemon.
Two decades later, China is a geopolitical rival, we can neither protect our people from a virus nor our critical infrastructure from a cyber hacker, and Donald Trump — fresh off the presidency — is at war with our most essential democratic traditions.
America has become a vulnerable nation.
The common thread tying together these failures is dysfunctional and incompetent governance. We must take several steps to reverse the trendline.
First, we must return to rational discourse. The American people — and therefore our elected officials — focus disproportionately on partisan triviality. Indeed, the latest salvo in the fight between Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Marjorie Taylor Greene — however riveting — should not get more attention than the latest military developments in the South China Sea.
The culpability for this misfocus is widespread. Elected officials must moderate their rhetoric. The press must resist joining the partisan fray. And adult voters must exhibit maturity in the public square. The problem with squabbling over triviality is that it diverts our energy and attention from what matters. Our international challenges are growing: In addition to a rising China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea remain dangerous adversaries; COVID-19 variants continue to emerge from developing nations; and supply chain shortages threaten the global economy. Yet the bandwidth left over to address these problems — after the partisan brawling — is shrinking.
Second, we must pass effective, bipartisan legislation on infrastructure. Soon. America needs a strong foundation to compete on the fiercely competitive global stage. In addition to rebuilding our roads, bridges and airports — a long-neglected national embarrassment — we must make the internet readily available to everyone. We cannot prosper in a digital world with millions of citizens offline. And we must make the internet safe. We cannot withstand the bad intentions of cyber criminals — many of whom are rival nation states — if we do not dramatically bolster our cyber defenses.
If current trends continue, the Colonial Pipeline ransomware attack will be the first chapter in an escalating story of cyber criminals attacking America’s critical infrastructure.
Finally, we must reduce Donald Trump’s influence. This is easier said than done, but it could not be more essential. In an era of hysterical overstatements it is an understatement to say that Trump is at war — expressly and unapologetically — with America’s basic premise of consensual government. The peaceful transfer of power is, indeed, the touchstone of democracy. An election is meaningless if a corresponding restructuring of government does not follow. Trump’s maniacal lying about the 2020 presidential election jeopardizes the public’s trust in our election system, a prerequisite to its survival.
These three necessities — rationalizing our discourse, strengthening our infrastructure and marginalizing Donald Trump — go hand in hand. We cannot have competent leaders without rational voters. We cannot have effective legislation without sober-minded legislators. And we cannot function as a civil society if our loudest voice is uncivil and unhinged.
The world is too dangerous and complicated for the halls of American government to be mired in triviality, stasis and dysfunction. In the 21st century, America must be competent in order to compete.
William Cooper is an attorney and columnist. His writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Baltimore Sun, New York Daily News and USA Today, among others.