It is a great allegory for America the superpower, which once regarded itself as the benevolent hegemon in a bipolar world pitting liberal democracy and capitalism against the communist authoritarianism of the USSR. But just as Superman goes missing from Metropolis for a time, so too have we gone missing — missing from world affairs, leaving a void of leadership in the liberal world order of which we were the principal architect. Look at how much we have changed since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and especially in the last four years. We now eschew NATO as a nominally transactional institution, worthy only to the degree that others provide us largesse for their protection.
The Trump years were not good for us or the world (except Russia), but fortunately they’re almost over (projected electoral college estimate: Biden 358; Trump: 180). The incoming administration will have its hands full from the start: an pandemic, an economy bludgeoned by COVID, and extreme partisan polarity. Meanwhile, the Republican Party will be banished from the corridors of power to conduct an autopsy of its autopsy, where it will labor to painfully ungraft itself from Trumpism.
However things look at the end of January 2021, America should not run headlong to extinguish whatever wildfires it sees around the world when its own house is ablaze. A proper reintroduction to the world is vital and should happen soon, but first the Biden administration should look to course-correct our domestic woes. The pandemic and racial strife of 2020 beg immediate attention; as do their sequellae: widening inequality; historically high unemployment; surging per capita debt; and health, food, and housing insecurity.
Only when the time is right should the U.S. begin to pursue its foreign policy agenda. First among these must be climate change, which will require of the U.S. domestic bona fides. By setting ambitious carbon emissions targets, the US can showcase to the world its commitment to keep global temperature rise to 2 degrees Celsius by 2100. Rejoining the Paris Climate Accords will also add to the legitimacy of that international agreement and provide guidance to multinational corporations and investors that the world is committed to reducing CO2 by means of regulation, cooperation, innovation, and incentivization.
Many foreign policy challenges abound: renegotiating the JCPOA with Iran, limiting North Korean aggression and nuclear proliferation, addressing violations of autonomy in Hong Kong and human rights of Uighurs in Xinjiang by an ascendant China, a reconsideration of the TPP trading block, mending fences with our European allies, and strengthening international institutions to hold accountable nationalist leaders of illiberal democracies. That’s a lot, and I didn’t even mention the Arab States.
If the U.S. was instrumental in ridding the 20th century of fascism and communism as ideological currencies, then its burden in the 21st century is to expose the bluster and harm of nationalist movements and serve as a bulwark against the Chinese system of authoritarian capitalism — all while navigating humanity through the challenges of a warming planet, rising sea levels, an increasing global population, a decrease in fisheries and arable land, and the certainty that our timeline for mitigating climate change is shrinking.
While that may sound like a job for Superman, wouldn’t it be ironic if it was not some corn-fed boy from Kansas, but a corn-fed boy from Scranton, Pennsylvania, who in his twilight years after much personal tragedy and reflection, and despite his stuttering and lack of command of oratory, was the man to lead us forward into what historians would later call “The Great American Century?”