The United States is in trouble. Two weeks ago, at the Capitol Building, senators discussed an objection to Biden’s Electoral College win as a range of Pro-Trump far-right groups mobbed past unusually passive police officers, broke things, and entered the building to block Biden’s win’s ratification.
Presidential in-line successors were evacuated. Gun wielding officers aimed at barricaded doors. Senators cleared the aisle. And then screams and gunshots went off outside. Later, White House top officials would quit, pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails would be found, five people would die, sixty would be arrested, and many American politicians would bemoan the worst assault ever seen on democracy.
But was it? Did the decline of American greatness begin two weeks ago? Or was it when Donald Trump was elected? Was it lost day by day during Obama’s drone warfare and bolstering of a mass surveillance apparatus? Was it Bush’s forever wars? Reagan’s market unravelings? Nixon’s Vietnam? Coolidge’s White House naps? The Founding Fathers’ slaves? When was America so capital-G Great?
Maybe never. If a superpower is able to perform terrible acts with impunity and then posit those acts as brave and hallowed, then of what use is any notion of accountability? Or restraint? This equation works out well for the superpower. Not so much for the Vietnamese. Or Libyans. Or Cambodians. Or Pakistanis. Or Iraqis. Or Iranians. Or Afghans. (This list has been redacted to save space, time, and sadness)). The question becomes: How long can other nations bear the brunt of a bully intoxicated by his own might-is-right approach? And at what point will he come to bear the consequences of his actions? At what point will reductionist notions about democracy, ‘with us or against us’, and ‘good guys’ versus ‘bad guys’ – be seen for what they are: a grandiose roiding of language to push the privileges of the powerful to stay powerful.
There was a bold assumption after WWII that the non-Western world would eventually come to embrace the McDonaldsization model of North America and Western Europe, and thus create an anodyne global society of proud corporate uplift and enlightened citizens. History was essentially over. This assumption turned out to be very stupid.
There’s a deep arrogance at work that assumes Western liberalism (as defined by the West since there always seems to be an asterisk attached to anyone who doesn’t quite look the part) is the preferred outcome for the rest of the world – as if any non-Western culture is an oafish aberration. And the homogeneity of this thinking in the West is overwhelming. If one looks to where the nation’s brightest turn, they’ll see the colossal factory-style churn of Ivy Leaguers stocking hawkish think tanks. The United States’ brand of liberalism traffics near-exclusively in right-wing policy and outlook. Any near static oscillation only extends so far as to occasionally brush up against center rightism before swinging back to vanilla right. Biden will always beat Bernie. Even Clinton will.
The trouble lies with self-assessment. Internal hubris has felled empires far surer than hordes at the gates. Even after last week, many have voiced concern with the perceived loss of the United States’ authority abroad rather than considering how the nation itself got so broken in the first place. The National Endowment for Democracy, the National Democratic Institute, the International Republican Institute, and other NGOs stated their commitment to stand by “those around the world who share democratic values”. This is not so different from General Mattis’ belated June condemnation of Trump that ended with a wish for admiration and respect “at home and abroad”.
The sincere anxiety at the heart of the American foreign policy complex is chiefly grounded in whether the US will be able to hold the moral high ground as it flits from international, hyper-patriot project to project pushing elements of what Tommy Friedman would euphemistically best describe as wanting “everyone to be an American”.
The US would better be served by turning its attention on itself. Bridging income gaps, reforming a thoroughly broken healthcare system and making it oriented towards the public, neutering megacorp lobbies, reconfiguring the Betsy Devos edu-disasters, and not abandoning common sense climate accords would be a start. Most of this is not easy (although funding it could be made easier if less were spent on a titanic military industrial complex). Most of it is deeply complex and difficult. Running a country often is. But running a country that is divided, violent, and absolutely steeped in the conviction that it is exceptional, is altogether impossible.
The fact that America’s record Covid death numbers are not headline news is as clear an indicator as can possibly be thrust upon a nation. But nations that dogmatically believe themselves capital-G Great often commit the most self-harm. Just ask the British about Brexit. They’ll tell you.