G7 triumphs and the debt ceiling quagmire provide a glimpse into competing futures for US global leadership

The collision of this weekend’s Group of Seven (G7) meetings and the ongoing drama of US debt ceiling negotiations—prompting US President Joe Biden to cut his Asia trip short—underscores both the enduring promise of the United States’ global leadership and the growing perils of its decline.

On the positive side, Biden’s common cause with fellow leaders of the world’s democracies has produced new progress in supporting Ukraine’s military ahead of a crucial spring offensive (including the United States training of F-16 pilots and eventual provision of advanced fighter jets), additional steps sanctioning Russia for its criminal war, and its first statement by the G7 ever aimed at Chinese economic coercion.

In a powerful message of support to the world, the G7 in Japan hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy alongside invited guests from the Global South—including seating him beside Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi—who has been the most prominent leader of a major democracy who has failed to side with Ukraine’s struggle.

Seldom since the birth of the G7 ahead of the oil crisis of 1973 has the group been this unified and effective. The meeting also underscored the staying power of the G7, based on a commitment to pluralism and representative government, that as of 2020 accounted for half of the world’s net wealth ($200 trillion).

That said, it represents only 10 percent of the world’s population, comprised of Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States, plus the European Union (EU) as a “non-enumerated member.” (The EU has full membership rights, though it cannot chair meetings and is not counted as the eighth member.)

On the downside, US partners around the world regard the US domestic political dysfunctions that the debt-ceiling negotiations have highlighted as new evidence that Washington cannot be relied upon to provide the financial or political stability they all crave. How, they ask, can a country whose own domestic fabric is so frayed be relied upon to prevent the unraveling of the global system of institutions, values, and rules that these same democracies forged after World War II?

Nothing would pose a greater danger to the world economy than a US sovereign default. Most global investors and US allies are wagering that Washington’s warring parties will solve the debt ceiling impasse before the June 1 deadline, but that will not alter their longer-term worries about US leadership. Recent US bank failures, the unsettling political violence of January 6, 2021, and the growing prospect of a Donald Trump electoral rerun in 2024 has US partners hoping for the best but worried about the worst.

You can forgive Americans for not being all that concerned that Biden, in order to head off the debt-ceiling disaster, called off his stop in Papua New Guinea—an island nation of 14.8 million citizens around 6,600 miles southwest of the continental United States, which few Americans have heard of and even fewer will ever visit.

Yet Biden’s canceled stop underscores a larger issue of the United States losing traction globally by leaving a vacuum for Chinese and Russian economic and political influence—in Africa, Latin America, and elsewhere. Previous American presidents have canceled foreign visits to address domestic crises—US presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama among them—but self-inflicted wounds are more damaging at this time of expanding Chinese sway and ambition.

It would have been the first-ever visit of a sitting US president to Papua New Guinea, a visit that prompted Port Moresby to declare a national holiday to mark Biden’s visit. Washington’s political dysfunction undermined months of assiduous diplomacy and planning and has set back US efforts to counter Chinese military, diplomatic, and economic investments in these strategically placed island nations.

Over the short term, there is no issue of greater significance to the future of the rules-based global system than providing Ukraine the military wherewithal to prevail against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Over the longer term, however, the US ability to shape the global future alongside its partners and allies will be decided primarily by non-military competition globally and America’s ability to address its weaknesses at home.

Beyond the need to address political polarization, another urgent challenge the United States faces is maintaining its global technological leadership. Though Washington has done much to support that effort with the promise of its recent CHIPS and Science Act, it still has done far too little to attract the world’s best and brightest talent.

“The United States is still the world’s most attractive country for immigrants,” writes former Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt in Foreign Affairs, noting that more than half of US companies valued at more than one billion dollars were founded or co-founded by immigrants. “But if Washington wants to stay ahead … it must act to remove the needless complexities to make its immigrant system more transparent and create new pathways for the brightest minds to come to the United States.”

This week’s Economist also argues that Biden’s global “doctrine,” outlined recently by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan at the Brookings Institution, is “too timid and pessimistic.”

Sullivan spoke expansively about the need for a new consensus, driven by Biden’s pursuit of a modern industrial and innovation strategy, at home and with partners around the world. He laid out the reasons why charges that this approach was “America alone, or American and the West to the exclusion of others, is just flat wrong.”

The Economist pushes back: “Mr. Biden has backed Ukraine and revived NATO and alliances in Asia. Yet America’s unpredictable economic nationalism and unwillingness to offer access to its markets undermines its influence. Europe fears a subsidy race and worries escalating tensions with China will cause it severe damage.”

What the Economist calls for is a mixture of greater consistency and self-confidence that characterized US policies in the 1940s and early 1950s when America built the world order that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Putin have now quite explicitly said they want to replace with something more conducive to their interests.

“Such a revived global order would be the best defence against an autocratic one led by China,” the Economist argues. “Unfortunately the Biden doctrine fails to rebut the narrative of American decline and so has not resolved the tension between the country’s toxic politics and its role as the linchpin of a liberal order. Unless America looks out at the world with self-confidence, it will struggle to lead it.”

Because if the United States struggles to lead, Putin’s war in Ukraine will be just the beginning of a lost era.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe.


#1 A conversation with Henry Kissinger

Read every word of this wide-ranging Economist interview with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who at nearly a hundred years old remains one of the preeminent strategic thinkers of our times or any time. (He is also the Atlantic Council’s longest serving board member.) In this two-day conversation, he is as much oracle as strategist.

“We are on the path to great power confrontation,” Kissinger says. “And what makes it more worrisome to me is that both sides have convinced themselves that the other represents a strategic danger. And it is a strategic danger in a world in which the decisions of each can determine the likelihood of conflict.”

“How does the threat compare to previous episodes,” asks the Economist.

“Let me answer, in terms of the evolution of my thinking,” responds Kissinger. “The nature of sovereignty begins with the definition of interests of states. And it is also inherent that sovereign interests will not always coincide, and that nations will need to explain their interests to each other. So if either of those elements come into being where those interests are close enough to permit a negotiation of differences, it becomes a mediating influence. Where sovereign nations use force to prevent outcomes, military conflict may occur.”

Throughout his discussion of weighty topics, Kissinger nonetheless maintains his classic self-deprecating humor. “I won’t be around to see it either way,” he tells the Economist on the outcome of the US-China relationship, speaking “with a characteristic twinkle.” Read more →

#2 To compete with China on tech, America needs to fix its immigration system

In this compelling essay, former Google chief executive officer Eric Schmidt argues for the importance of reforming the US immigration system if the United States wants to effectively compete with China.

“In fact,” writes Schmidt, “the US government already has a successful history of using such a strategy in the decades around World War II. In the 1930s and 1940s, the United States succeeded in attracting a whole generation of talent, including such luminaries as Albert Einstein and Enrico Fermi. The two left Nazi Germany and fascist Italy, respectively, before coming to the United States, where their research, along with that of other émigré scientists, was instrumental to the Manhattan Project. Today, Washington needs to do more to attract leading scientists from nonaligned or even hostile countries, even if doing so requires more extensive security screening.”

Schmidt argues, for example, that the United States has not done enough to attract Russian or Chinese scientists and innovators.

“Since 2000, Chinese STEM Ph.D.’s have created startups valued at over $100 billion. If Washington wants innovators to start their businesses in the United States, rather than in China, it must be more welcoming to Chinese talent. Although much has been made in Washington of the security risks posed by a few foreign researchers who have been accused of intellectual property theft, far greater harm will be done to the country over the long term by keeping out entrepreneurial Chinese scientists.”  Read more →

#3 The vanishing acts of Vladimir Putin
Joshua Yaffa | NEW YORKER

For an authoritarian leader who has plunged his country into a major, catastrophic war, Putin has been curiously absent from public view. The New Yorker’s Joshua Yaffa examines this curious angle on the Russian leader’s behavior.

“One of the seeming paradoxes of the Putin system,” Yaffa writes, “is the degree to which its figurehead is at once a unitary micromanager and an absent, aloof, and often indecisive leader. During the past decade, I have heard stories of Putin signing off on the appointments of mid-level executives to Gazprom, the state energy company; yet I also watched how he effectively withdrew during the pandemic, leaving covid-response measures to ministers and governors. The war in Ukraine, now in its fifteenth month, is perhaps the most dramatic example of Putin’s tendency to both hoard authority and shirk the responsibility that comes with it. The decision to invade was Putin’s own, the result of his pent-up grievances toward the West, conspiratorial fantasies about Ukraine, and misplaced confidence in his own Army. Few in the Russian élite, to say nothing of the public at large, wanted a war or even knew one was coming. But, as the war has unfolded, Putin has offered few signals or explanations for how the conflict is going—and to what end.” Read more →

#4 Mysterious killing of Chinese miners puts new pressure on Beijing
Nicole Hong and Elian Peltier | NEW YORK TIMES

This brilliantly reported New York Times piece highlights the security challenges China faces as it attempts to expand its economic footprint, and hints at a troubled relationship with Russia’s Wagner Group, which is suspected of being responsible for the murder of a group of Chinese miners in the Central African Republic.

“The attacks” Nicole Hong and Elian Peltier report, “have exposed the widening disconnect between China’s economic ambitions and its security apparatus abroad, which relies on a patchwork of local military, mercenaries and private firms to guard Chinese workers …”

And while the Wagner Group has denied responsibility for the Chinese deaths, “researchers and Western diplomats say the killings of the miners did not fit the profile of how rebel groups have targeted Chinese nationals in the past. The groups have typically kidnapped Chinese workers to extract ransom from their employers, with such execution-style assassinations being highly unusual.” Read more →

#5 In Vienna, the US-China relationship shows signs of hope
David Ignatius | WASHINGTON POST

The recent meeting in Vienna between US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and top Chinese diplomat Wang Yi marks the most promising moment of the Biden administration for the world’s most significant and most perilous bilateral relationship. This David Ignatius column in the Washington Post captures the new promise.

Writes Ignatius, “Talking about resets in foreign policy is always risky, and that’s especially true with Washington and Beijing. These two superpowers might be ‘destined for war,’ as Harvard professor Graham Allison warned in a book with that title. What they’ve lacked, in their increasingly combative relationship, has been common ground. But some shared space seems to have emerged during the long, detailed discussions between Sullivan and Wang.”

One meeting cannot change history, not even one as long and involved as this one, but it can help counter a dangerous trajectory. Read more →

Atlantic Council top reads

Image: President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, and other G7 leaders pose for a photo before a working session on Ukraine during the G7 Summit in Hiroshima, Japan, Sunday, May 21, 2023.