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Opinion | Americans are losing confidence. But the world knows better.



Opinion | Americans are losing confidence. But the world knows better.

Over the past two months, I have traveled around the United States and in parts of Europe, often talking about my new book, “Age of Revolutions,” which describes how we are living through a period of deep disruption — in society, politics, economics and international affairs. I got the sense that people, even those well off and educated, were unsettled by these disruptions and fearful that they were leading us into darker times. Many of the questions at my book talks went something like, “Is there anything to be hopeful about these days?” After Thursday night’s depressing debate, people are feeling more despair than ever. So I want to explain why, despite all the dangers, I remain an optimist.

In Europe, many are fearful that a Donald Trump victory in November could lead them into a new and dangerous world. They believe that the United States could turn its back on Europe, unraveling the continent’s security architecture. As one European statesman said to me, “We in the West have lived in a stable, peaceful, open world, and we take it for granted. But we now face all these challenges, external and internal, and it can all come apart.”

It can. The external challenges alone are immense. We are witnessing Russia, China, Iran and now North Korea form an axis in opposition both to Western power and Western values.

And yet the return of great power competition is having an interesting effect. Western values and practices are often treated as ideals to be criticized for their shortcomings and hypocrisies. But, increasingly, they have to be judged against the alternatives. If you don’t like a world dominated by Western power and ideas, would you prefer Russian or Chinese ones?

In a new poll commissioned by Ipsos and King’s College London (to coincide with my delivering this year’s Fulbright Distinguished Lecture at Oxford), the shifting global mood is evident. Surveying nearly 24,000 people in 31 countries, the study found that people were thinking more seriously and critically of the growing power and influence of the autocratic great powers. They saw Russia, China and Iran as three of the four countries mostly using their influence for bad, and this represented a souring of views on all three countries since the last time this survey was conducted in 2019. The number of people polled who see Russia as using its influence for bad has jumped by 22 percentage points, China by 10, and Iran by 5 points over the past five years. (The other country on that list of four is Israel — a sad state of affairs, and which should come as a wake-up call to Israelis.)

This survey is broadly consistent with another global one done by the Pew Research Center in 2023, when people in 24 countries were asked whether they viewed China or the United States more favorably. A median of 59 percent of those polled had a positive view of the United States, compared with just 28 percent for China.

The rise of China and the return of Russia have unsettled international affairs. But they have also reminded the world of the choice between two sets of values — Western liberal ones and autocratic illiberal ones. You can see the difference starkly in the two contests at play in Europe and Asia over Ukraine and Taiwan. In each case, the West is trying to allow people (in Ukraine and Taiwan) to choose freely as to how they want to live. Russia and China, by contrast, are acting to snuff out that freedom. That is a telling difference, and people around the world can see it.

In the Ipsos/KCL poll, people in most countries viewed U.S. influence on the world stage more favorably than they did in 2019 — with one notable exception: in the United States itself. The loss of confidence among Americans in their own country’s vitality, strength and virtue is profoundly worrying.

If you look at the facts, the United States is more powerful on many measures than it has been for years. But that is not how many Americans feel. In my book talks, so many were troubled by the deep polarization and divisions within the country. Many wonder whether it is possible to come out of this, to arrive at some compromise, some settlement that moves the country forward.

Even here, I remain hopeful. We are going through whirlwinds of change. In the United States these problems are constantly aired and highlighted. We wash our dirty laundry in full public view. The talk of our failings convulses our political system. We will have to work through these problems. But surely that is better than repressing them, coercing people to conform and presenting a North Korea-style facade of unity to the world. And these surveys suggest that people around the world can tell what is real and what is fake. When confronted with a choice, most prefer the West and its values, warts and all.

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