When Theodore Dalrymple, chronicler of cultural decline, spoke at an IWF event a number of years ago, he was asked if the cultural decay in the U.S. was as great as in the England he has described in such works as Life at the Bottom: The Worldview that Makes an Underclass.

He said it was not as bad here because the U.S. was still a superpower. The answer felt right, even if I still don't quite know what he meant. Why did being a superpower in some odd way save us from cultural rot? Maybe he meant that we still have a sense of national purpose? I don't know.

But an editorial in the Economist this week reminds us that our superpower status is precarious. The editorial was headlined "The New Game" and the import is that American dominance is being challenged. The Economist observes:

For the past 25 years America has utterly dominated great-power politics. Increasingly, it lives in a contested world. The new game with Russia and China that is unfolding in Syria and the South China Sea is a taste of the struggle ahead.

We should not be surprised that U.S. superpower status is being challenged. That is what great nations do, as all students of history know. Unfortunately, President Barack Obama is not deeply learned about history, viewing it in purely ideological terms, and believing in an imaginary "international community."

The Economist still sees the U.S. as the nation that must lead:

American foreign policy has not yet adjusted to this contested world. For the past three presidents, policy has chiefly involved the export of American values—although, to the countries on the receiving end, that sometimes felt like an imposition. The idea was that countries would inevitably gravitate towards democracy, markets and human rights. Optimists thought that even China was heading in that direction.

All those, like this newspaper, who still see democracy and markets as the route to peace and prosperity hope that America will be more willing to lead. Mr Obama’s wish that other countries should share responsibility for the system of international law and human rights will work only if his country sets the agenda and takes the initiative—as it did with Iran’s nuclear programme. The new game will involve tough diplomacy and the occasional judicious application of force.

America still has resources other powers lack. Foremost is its web of alliances, including NATO. Whereas Mr. Obama sometimes behaves as if alliances are transactional, they need solid foundations. America’s military power is unmatched, but it is hindered by pork-barrel politics and automatic cuts mandated by Congress. These spring from the biggest brake on American leadership: dysfunctional politics in Washington. That is not just a poor advertisement for democracy; it also stymies America’s interest. In the new game it is something that the United States—and the world—can ill afford.

Perhaps what we have really lost is the sense that our values matter and are worth spreading, even if we have sometimes gotten this wrong in the past.

Perhaps that is why Dalrymple thought that the U.S. was better off than the U.K. because, even a few years ago, we regarded our ideas and values as potentially beneficial to the world.