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What Went Wrong with America

The latest edition of the Pew Global Attitudes Survey shows that favorable opinions of the United States have fallen again in 12 out of 15 countries polled, a sad reflection of a country’s loss of image. How can America recover international legitimacy? This is probably one of the most important challenges for today’s world, for America retains a unique power that should be used – and be perceived – as a force for good if global stability is to prevail.

Nearly two decades after the demise of the Soviet empire, what stands out is a prevailing sense of lost opportunities. The US had a unique opportunity at the end of the Cold War to use its benevolent and enlightened superiority to establish a better international order. But, for a combination of political and personal reasons, America lost time under the two presidencies of Bill Clinton.

Indeed, during this necessarily short and fragile “unipolar moment,” Clinton probably had an intuition of what America’s new responsibilities should be, but he did not deliver. The defeat of the Democrats in the mid-term elections in 1994, followed by the Monica Lewinsky affair, hampered the effectiveness of one of America’s most energetic and gifted Presidents.

That failure was epitomized by the inability to impose a peace agreement on Palestinians and Israelis in 2000. By contrast, George W. Bush did not lose time. He did worse: he simply took a wrong turn – and he took it before 9/11, a traumatic event that reinforced, but did not create, America’s Manichean view of itself and its role in the world.