World looks on
Uncertainty about the American presidency makes for anxious times in every other country. Paul Demarty sees conflicts, breakdown and wars ahead
The phrase, ‘Once bitten, twice shy’, might have been invented for those of us trying to guess who will emerge victorious in the US presidential race three weeks from now.
At present, national polls tend to put Joe Biden around 10 points clear, although things are a little tighter in key swing states, with leads of 7%-8% in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, rust-belt states that came out narrowly for Donald Trump in 2016, and tighter margins in Florida, Arizona and Ohio. An anxious critical distance is maintained by Democratic voters, however, given that similar margins of victory were predicted in 2016 for Hillary Clinton, at a time when there was not a clear conservative majority in the supreme court and four more years of gerrymandering and voter suppression were still to come.
No outcome, it seems, is off the table - from a Biden landslide that sees him sweep up 400 or more electoral college votes and the Democrats obtaining the trifecta of Senate, House and presidency that they have proven so incompetent at using for any end whatever in the past; to yet another Trump smash ’n’ grab; or - perhaps the most feared outcome - a disputed poll and a subsequent prolonged period of legal and even street battles.
If all that gets the cortisol surging in blue states, the anxiety is hardly confined to America. Trump’s only real strategic gambit for this election has been to turn it into another ‘coupon election’ to the detriment of the People’s Republic of China. It is not at all clear, however, that a Biden presidency will meaningfully walk back from that, since under Barack Obama the US military was already meddling in the South China Sea, and between that and four years of Trumpite sabre-rattling, Xi Jinping’s regime has increased its assertiveness in its ‘near-abroad’ - and indeed its ‘not-quite-abroad’ in the case of Hong Kong. The rather weaker regime of Vladimir Putin in Russia has rather more to fear, if the last years of Obama’s administration were anything to go by, and the rhetoric of the last few years will have changed nothing. The traditional geostrategy obsession with control of the Eurasian heartland looks to fuse with increasingly delirious anti-Russian rhetoric and accusations of political manipulation by the people who will, in all likelihood, staff a Biden administration.
From there, we may continue our world tour westwards, to Europe - long the battleground between the US and Russia. Though the Russians have been severely weakened since the end of the cold war, Putin has lately been able to make friends; the repeated expansion of the European Union was supposed to extend the US sphere of influence eastwards, and certainly did so for a time, but under the pressure of successive crises the core European powers have lost their grip on things. Trump’s contemptuous attitude to America’s European ‘partners’ has presented Germany and France with an incentive to build up an independent profile at exactly the moment when European institutions are less capable of doing so. The embarrassing matter of Europe’s energy dependence on Russia, meanwhile, was highlighted by the recent case of Alexei Navalny’s poisoning, presumably by the Russian state.
Finally, we arrive on our own doorstep in Britain. Aside from having, like our transatlantic friends, an especially bad pandemic response, there is one major issue bedevilling the government of this country - the Brexit that Boris Johnson was elected to “get done”. That was, of course, supposed to be done and dusted this month, but the rhetoric is softening a little; and surely not a minor consideration is the fact that Trump’s presidency seems to be hanging by a thread. There are reports that the Johnsonites are waking up to a potentially major headache: Trump would no doubt have foisted a humiliating trade deal on the British government, but a deal there would likely have been, since Trump so loves to be seen making them and the Brits would merely have to work with him to give him whatever he wants.
If a Biden government seeks to reconstruct the old US-led order in Europe, however, it will have to face up to the fact that America’s once loyal instrument in this theatre is rather out of service. Britain wielded America’s veto in the European Union; the City of London was a beachhead for Wall Street in one of the world’s most important markets. Perhaps, under the guiding hand of a Hillary Clinton state department, the Tories would have been moved gently in the direction of a ‘Brexit in name only’ approach; that, of course, has not happened, and if and when ‘the Blob’ takes back control under Biden, there will be a certain amount of trepidation in Westminster as to the significance of that for the 51st State. Emmanuel Macron has certainly on occasion hinted at a future where the Bourse takes the position of the City - perhaps that would be an easier alternative for the state department than finding a new job for Britain. Geopolitics is not a place where masters feel any noblesse oblige towards their flunkies.
There is a commonality to all these scenarios, which is this: a change of regime in the US will be faced with the reality of reconstructing an order which the American state has left fallow for the last four years.
Behind all the jeremiads about Trump’s crudity, impulsiveness, guilelessness and all the rest - indeed, behind the persistent conspiracy theories about his friendliness towards Russia - is immense frustration that, at a moment of great unrest in almost every region of the world, the US, as the global hegemon, has found itself completely strategically paralysed by a few disaffected ex-steelworkers in Pennsylvania (and so on) for a period of four years. The delicate carrot-and-stick routine the US has imposed upon China since Richard Nixon’s visit has been replaced by a frothy game of rhetorical chicken - though China is far from replacing the US in global leadership, whatever excitable western pundits and Chinese top bods might think, Trump has achieved little except reducing his or his successors’ room for manoeuvre; and so it goes on.
That is the view from the US think tank, the Rand Corporation, at any rate; but the truth is that four more years of the Trump doctrine will amount to a strategic shift, towards exploitative bilateralism, and such wonks (and future Bidenesque ‘moderates’ in American executive office, should any be permitted to arise) will have to make the best of it.
The underlying dynamic, as we have often argued, is decline. Not the least of Trump’s gripes about the sorry state of his country four years ago was its entanglement in hopeless, unwinnable wars, out of which the US was apparently getting nothing whatever. He promises that troops will be home from Afghanistan by Christmas. He has, at least, succeeded in not getting roped into any more catastrophic misadventures, unlike Barack Obama, who added Libya to America’s recent tally of culpable state failures, and threw plenty of petrol on the Syrian blaze to boot. Trump’s approach to war has been to turn existing overseas conflicts into photo-ops (look, we dropped the mother of all bombs on some bad terrorists!). He understands, instinctively, that the post-9/11 forever war is a sort of Vietnam in extremely slow motion - unwinnable and waiting for somebody to declare bankruptcy on it; but also that doing so will look like - and indeed be - admitting defeat, which is not exactly in line with his personal brand.
If he has, at least, lived up to his promise of an otherwise unTrumpian caution on this front, it is in the end a matter of the last attempt to seriously rejuvenate the hegemonic position of the USA - the neoconservative strategy of the Bush administration - having ended in failure, failure that precisely has not yet ended. Quietly, in the three decades since the fall of the Soviet bloc, America has slid into crisis management.
Hegemonic decline is only in the longest term irreversible; indeed, in a time-horizon wide enough that we may very plausibly be destroyed as a global civilisation by catastrophic climate change before American hegemony gives up the ghost (not very long before, naturally). In order to recover its untrammelled superiority, decisive strategic action is required - but what strategy? America stands at a fork in the road today, but we can now see that it did so four years ago as well; it was just not addressed seriously, because people thought that Trump was a clown and doomed, rather than a sign that US-led global order was in such crisis that even Americans could no longer believe it.
Can the USA reconstruct a multilateral pax Americana? Can it manage a shift towards being merely the biggest dog in a multipolar fight? And into which fatal slipstreams will the rest of us be drawn? With the political choice in this election reduced to merely the sterile old order and a still-inchoate successor, the rest of us are reduced, merely, to waiting for the result - and then waiting to see the American empire, in new or old form, back to its bloody work.