Sometime this month, the U.S. Congress will likely approve the Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion COVID relief bill, and with that will come the first real test of the new president’s favorite slogan: “America is back.”
The return of the United States that Joe Biden has so frequently promised has always contained a strong whiff of nostalgia. It is a message that has mostly been directed outwardly to the world, saying that after a period of relative decline, of withdrawal and of drift through much of this century, the U.S. is eager to reassume its long-accustomed mantle as undisputed leader of the world.
There has been precious little domestic discussion of how the country can accomplish that, whether such a return to international leadership is even possible, or indeed, whether the American people broadly embrace such a goal. What is fairly certain, though, is that the era of America as colossus—when the country’s combined economic and military might allow it to utterly dominate the global scene—is over. With the rise of China and the diffusion of global wealth in the past two decades, there is little prospect of that kind of power being “built back,” to steal from another favorite Biden slogan. So where does that leave a country whose past laurels were, for so long, based on grand ambitions?