Are we approaching the end of US hegemony? Daniel Lazare discusses Biden’s likely role, following the years of Obama and Trump
Evelyn Waugh supposedly once complained that Tories are forever promising to turn back the clock, but never really do. But there is a reason: the world moves on, the river continues to flow and, while change can be shaped and managed, it can never be reversed.
So Joe Biden is discovering before he even takes office. The incoming administration is based on one idea and one idea only: that the last four years were an aberration, an inexplicable interruption in the bipartisan ‘Repocratic’ march to free markets, democracy and global domination, and that, once Trump leaves office - assuming he does leave office, that is - everything will go back to normal. It is a curious echo of president Warren G Harding’s call for a return to normalcy a century earlier after the tumult of the Woodrow Wilson years.
“America’s present need is not heroics, but healing,” Harding declared in March 1920; “not nostrums, but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not the dramatic, but the dispassionate ...”
Not surgery but serenity? No-one had the slightest idea what Harding - a classic product of Ohio’s corrupt Republican political machine - was talking about. But then nobody had the slightest idea what Biden was talking about when he informed the Democratic National Convention this summer that “love is more powerful than hate, hope is more powerful than fear, light is more powerful than dark, this is our moment, this is our mission …” Love, hope, whatever - all Democrats knew was that, if Biden made Trump go away, then the glorious Obama era of 2009-17 would return.
But it is not that easy, as a series of unfortunate events are making all too clear.
The first was the November 27 assassination of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, which, following on the heels of last January’s murder of general Qasem Soleimani, all but doomed the 2015 Iranian nuclear accord. To be sure, Biden still has time to resurrect the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, as it is officially known. But, given that he endorsed the first killing, failed to criticise the second and is now demanding further concessions from Iran regarding its “malign” activities in the Middle East, the chances of doing so are somewhere between slim and none. If so, the effect will not only be to aggravate the march to war in the Persian Gulf: it will also be to leave France and Germany, which helped negotiate the JCPOA, in the lurch, thereby driving a wedge between the US and the European Union’s two main powers. This does not bode well for US-EU relations.
The second event is the Nord Stream 2 German-Russian gas pipeline, which is racing to completion despite mounting US sanctions. Opposition is all but unanimous on Capitol Hill, yet for once the United States is unable to bend a major ally to its will. The third disruptive event was last week’s breakthrough China-EU investment accord, which the incoming Biden team regards as even more of an affront, since it effectively checkmates plans to isolate the People’s Republic and subject it to Russian-style ostracism and obloquy. Although The New York Times described the agreement as “a stinging rebuke” of the efforts of both Trump and Biden to “isolate China’s Communist Party state”, there is little the US can do.1
Finally, there is Brexit. While all eyes are on the British economic consequences, little thought has been given to the political implications for the US. But they are actually likely to be considerable, for the simple reason that Britain’s departure deprives the US of its main window on the EU’s inner workings. As The Washington Post observed a couple of months prior to the 2016 referendum,
London has long served as a voice for Washington in Europe, sharing not only a language but also perhaps an ethos bred by the close ties between the countries. If a Brexit actually happens, the United States will lose its top EU ally - and perhaps have to find another one.2
America still has allies inside the EU, such as Poland and the Baltic states, now that Brexit is a fait accompli. But they are hardly in the same class. That is why Nord Stream 2 and the China deal amount to a declaration of independence, particularly on the part of Germany: with London out of the picture, Berlin has suddenly acquired new freedom of manoeuvre. One EU diplomat confided that Angela Merkel was able to make use of a “German engine” in the European Commission in ramming the China agreement through. It includes such top officials as Björn Seibert, head of the EC presidential cabinet; Sabine Weyand, EC director general for trade, and Michael Hager, chief of cabinet for executive vice-president Valdis Dombrovskis, and so on.3
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president who negotiated the post-Brexit trade agreement, counts as a member of the German machine as well. Such names are Greek to American ears. But now they are calling the shots, while Washington tries to figure out what to do.
Bottom line: after endless chatter about the emergence of a multipolar world, the reality may finally be upon us. Democrats will no doubt blame it all on Trump. But the idea that he is solely responsible is nonsense. Trump did not invent ‘Make America great again’ isolationism out of thin air. All he did was take trends that were already evident during Obama’s latter years and raise them to new heights.
It is no wonder that American liberals still pine for Obama. After all, he was America’s Tony Blair - only cooler, because he did not support the 2003 invasion of Iraq. But, once in office, he expanded US troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq, while cosying up to Middle East despots like Abdullah bin Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia (the image of him bowing low to the then Saudi king at their first meeting in 2009 is a classic4). Otherwise, he was content to leave foreign policy in the hands of a hyper-aggressive Hillary Clinton - a decision that proved nothing less than disastrous, since it led to a string of Anglo-American-backed wars that spread death and destruction from Libya to Yemen, igniting a powerful surge in terrorism and triggering the worst refugee crisis since World War II. The ‘populist’ wave that began three years earlier in response to the global financial meltdown ascended new heights, as voters turned away with disgust from a western ruling elite that had clearly lost the ability to manage finance or international affairs in a remotely competent manner.
This is why Trump wound up in the Oval Office - not because of Russia and not because of a supposedly inexhaustible stream of racism and xenophobia out in the heartland. Rather, it was because of a rotten constitution, an undemocratic Electoral College, a thoroughly ludicrous political system that had “reached almost the last stage of national humiliation”, to quote Alexander Hamilton in 1787, and a political elite that had lost all touch with the mass of Americans, who do not live in Silicon Valley, Beverly Hills or Manhattan’s Upper East Side, and who do not summer in places like Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket or the Hamptons. It is a reality that Democrats cannot bring themselves to face, because the obvious implication is that they are every bit as responsible for the breakdown as the Republicans. So they blame Russia, China and Iran instead - anyone and everyone, that is, except themselves.
Biden’s rhetoric has been mixed since the election. He has got the message that Americans are sick of ‘forever wars’ in places they can barely find on the map. But, when it comes to specific hotspots, he has trouble turning the old cold-war spigot off. The mention of China at one of last year’s presidential debates triggered a tirade against Xi Jinping: “This is a guy who doesn’t have a democratic, with a small d, bone in his body, this is a guy who is a thug, who in fact has a million Uighurs in reconstruction camps, meaning concentration camps.”5 Biden is all for stepping up arms shipments to the fascist-influenced government in the Ukraine, while eagerly embracing every anti-Putin slander that comes down the pike. Thus, he attacked Trump on the campaign trail as “Putin’s puppet”, because he “still refuses to even say anything to Putin about the bounty on the heads of American soldiers”. This was a reference to a spurious New York Times story last summer that Russia was paying the Taliban to kill US troops, even though the Times itself had begun edging away from the report within days.6
After all, Biden is the sort of buffoon who brags about insulting Putin to his face: “Mr Prime Minister,” he claims he told him in 2011, “I’m looking into your eyes, and I don’t think you have a soul.”7 If so, it is hard to imagine him putting US foreign policy on a mature and rational footing. As for Iran, he continues turning reality on its head by insisting that it is violating the JCPOA by stepping up uranium enrichment, even though it is plain that the move is a calibrated response to Trump’s outrageous decision in May 2018 to abandon the agreement altogether and slam Iran with punitive economic sanctions for the crime of abiding all too faithfully by the terms of the 2015 agreement.
It is almost as though Biden wanted to deep-six Obama’s signature foreign policy achievement. Another great foreign policy initiative is Biden’s call for a worldwide democracy summit, although it is unclear whether it will be a summit of democracies or a summit for democracy, which would presumably allow everyone from Muhammad bin Salman to Viktor Orbán to attend, since, hey, they’re for democracy too. But Biden made it clear, when he unveiled the proposal in 2019, that two countries that will not attend are Russia and China, because they represent everything that is undemocratic in the world today.8
Presuming it even gets off the ground, any such summit will be an attempt to return to the rhetorical heights of the Clinton era. But it will almost certainly fall flat. A summit that includes Binyamin Netanyahu, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Andrzej Duda and Narendra Modi (a key player in America’s emerging anti-China offensive), but not Putin or Bashar al-Assad would be a laughing stock. If the Saudis are invited, but not Iran, the spectacle will be even more ludicrous. But, while Realpolitik means that Biden cannot afford to leave people like Modi and Netanyahu out, it will just go to show how confused and threadbare the idea of American global leadership has become.
US foreign policy is in tatters after a dozen years of Obama and Trump. American hegemony is fast receding in the rear-view mirror, and there is no way of throwing historical processes into reverse.
After repeatedly touting the report on its front page, a Times editorial then admitted that the National Security Agency had “strongly dissented” from such charges and that numerous questions remained as to whether payments had actually resulted in any military deaths. The editorial also wondered whether “the intelligence [was] tweaked by people seeking to hinder efforts to withdraw American troops” - in other words, whether intelligence agencies were using the Times to advance their own imperial agenda. Since then, the Times has gone largely silent on the issue. See nytimes.com/2020/07/07/opinion/russia-bounty-afghanistan-trump.html.↩︎