In 2015, when I was 23, brimming with idealism and newly arrived in Kenya, taxi drivers would regularly strike up conversations with me about their dreams of emigrating to “the land of the free.” America’s brand was intact.
A year later, a motorcycle taxi driver in Nairobi told me as I swung aboard behind him on Nov. 9, 2016: “Your new president, he is like an African dictator.” Kennedy, the bagger at my local grocery store, shrugged: “It’s just four years,” he said, shaking his head.
That day marked the beginning of the end of American exceptionalism for many — the idea that America is worthy of deference and emulation.
“Exercise caution,” the State Department frequently warns American citizens living in Kenya, raising concerns over the dangers of “ethnic clashes.” Meanwhile, America witnessed its own tribal fracturing, deepened by a pandemic disproportionately killing people of color and an unrelenting knee on George Floyd’s neck.
Throughout the week of the 2020 U.S. election, Kenyan editorial cartoonist Patrick Gathara released a series of tweets mimicking the condescending language Americans often use in describing the elections of developing countries. He called the United States a “troubled, oil-rich (and) nuclear-armed North American nation” and framed the election as a standoff between a “moderate, white Opposition leader” and an “aging autocrat.” His tweets went viral — they have been viewed more than 4 million times.
This election cycle has “ruthlessly exposed” America’s problems, Gathara put it plainly, including “a president that has made a mockery of its claim to be the king of democracies.”
Accordingly, American soft power is in precipitous decline. The Biden administration must restore America’s standing in the world before it’s too late.
The president-elect faces an uphill battle to shepherd America out of the pandemic and into economic recovery, and Joe Biden’s foreign policy platform leans heavily on restoring “moral leadership” at home. But there are discrete steps the administration should take to address the U.S. reputation abroad — steps that go beyond hosting a rhetoric-heavy Summit for Democracy and “elevating” U.S. diplomatic efforts.
While it can be politically challenging to boost foreign aid when America is suffering, the foreign aid budget — gutted for four straight years — should be replenished, allowing the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development to employ proven, far-reaching tools to promote economic opportunity and democratic ideals abroad. The newly minted Development Finance Corporation should continue creatively deploying U.S. dollars in the world’s neediest markets. Credibility cannot come from words, summits and diplomacy alone; providing material goods, services and investment to the world’s underserved can help demonstrate to refugees, civil servants and small-business owners alike that America will dedicate its resources to make the world a better place.
Granted, international development programs have had more than their fair share of failures. Reinforcing America’s role in international development, however, is about showing American goodwill — not just forming alliances in government boardrooms but extending the American brand to a country’s neediest corners. Moreover, as China nurtures relationships with and opens its coffers to the world’s fastest-growing developing economies — like Kenya — it is apparent that international development programs are a critical tool in the jostle for a New World order.
I returned to the United States from Kenya in 2018. As America voted last month, Kenya was watching. My phone buzzed with messages from Kenyans I knew — Uber drivers, carpenters, the woman who waxed my eyebrows. All were versions of the same: “Hey, what’s up, have you voted?”
That the world still watches America should give us hope. The Biden administration should act quickly, with tangible programs and measurable impacts, before the window of opportunity to restore our moral authority closes.
Ellen Halle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an MBA/MPA candidate at The Wharton School and Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. Prior, she was based in Nairobi with The World Bank’s Finance, Competitiveness & Innovation Practice.