Until recently, most Americans believed that the United States should play a leading role on the global stage. However, the political landscape has changed.
Only 53 percent of Americans now believe that taking an active role in the world is a good thing. Among Republican or Republican-leaning voters, that percentage drops to 45 percent. But with the rapidly changing world around us, our aspirations may soon become a reality. Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, Americans should start thinking about what it means to be number two, especially if certain economic and demographic trends continue.
Considering that all emerging markets combined already account for more than half of the global economy, this has huge implications for America’s standing in the world. And I’m not just referring to China. India, with its larger and younger population, is likely to become a bigger consumer market than China in the 2040s. Before Trump, American companies and workers were intent on competing for market share in emerging markets. Now, isolationism seems to be the governing principle in Washington.
From isolationism to inequality
The problem with isolationism is that it will make it harder to reduce inequality, which is still one of the biggest problems we face. Consider how difficult it is to tackle inequality without economic growth, and consider now that the markets in Asia, Africa and the Middle East are growing much faster than those in Europe and the Americas.
If an “America First” or “Buy American” policy remains our approach – cutting the U.S. economy off from foreign markets – then our own economy will continue to stagnate. And a stagnant U.S. economy is likely to perpetuate patterns of income, racial, ethnic, and gender inequality. We must consider ways to protect all Americans without looking to nativism as the only solution.
At the same time, the pandemic has exposed larger problems that will shape the direction of America for the next decade. In addition to high mortality rates among the elderly, young people are delaying childbearing during periods of uncertainty or high unemployment.
Now consider the first responders to the current crisis. According to a 2016 study by George Mason University, immigrants make up about 13 percent of the total U.S. population, but 28 percent of doctors and surgeons, 22 percent of nursing, psychiatry and home health aides, and 15 percent of registered nurses. Another study showed that more than half of the internal medicine residency positions held by new physicians in 2017 were held by foreign-born physicians.
It may be popular in some circles to demonize immigrants, but the truth is that their contribution to America’s sick public health sector is essential. It could be argued that, in the present case, they are indeed saving American lives.
Moreover, the U.S. population is not renewing itself, which means that for the first time in modern history, we are experiencing a baby shortage, not a population boom. As a result, the latest report from the Social Security trustees projects that by 2029, the trust fund ratio will be below the minimum level of financial adequacy.
A world-beating America that welcomes those who want to live in the United States can help make up the difference with an influx of new people that will help provide our senior citizens with the financial safety net they deserve. All of this becomes even more important in a time of grave uncertainty and a raging global health crisis.
Donald Trump and Joe Biden have both put America’s future on the ballot in November. Each has made their case for American greatness. But the world is changing rapidly, and simply arguing for greatness doesn’t make it so.
An America committed to building a more just society at home and engaged abroad may be able to weather this inflection point in world history. But an isolated America certainly won’t. I fear that if this becomes our new normal, then America becoming second may become our new reality.
Mauro Guillen is a professor of international management at the Wharton School and author of the best-selling new book, 2030: How Today’s Biggest Trends Will Collide and Shape the Future of Everything, from which this article is adapted. Follow him on Twitter @MauroFGuillen.