BEGINNING with China in 1949, then Cuba in 1959, and Iran in 1979, Americans have been arguing over who ‘lost’ these countries. It is time for another debate. Who lost America?
At its heart, the loss is of democracy at home and hegemony abroad. For much of its history, American democracy has been led by elites. The system helped America’s rise as a great power but worked only when the elites were committed to public service, and the United States led the world. But much has changed. Both the domestic and international orders have been under challenge. And America has been courting failure at home and abroad. There can be no more apt expression of this failure than the shame and infamy of the Jan 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol, and the desperate scenes of chaos during evacuation at Kabul airport.
To its credit, America had played a decisive role in international affairs in the 20th century maintaining some appearance of the balance of power and stability in the international order. It had done well in meeting challenges that were purely economic, or military, such as the two world wars, and in dealing with other big powers. But it failed to address issues that did not respond to military action or to military means alone. These were complex nation- and state-building challenges whose solution required a different kind of intervention, good partners and an understanding of the internal dynamics of a society.
Read: Longest war: Were America’s two decades in Afghanistan worth it?
The historical experience of Americans had made them self-centred and often overbearing and thus unable to understand the cultural and political substance of other societies. No wonder America failed in every war that it started, especially following the history-making changes that had taken place since the end of the Cold War, the rise of globalisation and 9/11. Scarred by the latter, driven by a supreme consciousness of power, and obsessed with America’s global leadership role, Washington had simplified the perception of these changes. These may have made the US the sole superpower, but had also raised the status of other powers with competing interests and policies. This made it hard for the US to lead, tempting it to resort to unilateralism, as in Afghanistan and Iraq, provoking strong resistance.
Both ‘revolutions’ in America remain unfinished.
Endless wars caused resentment abroad and grievances at home where China and globalisation were taking jobs and factories away from the US abetted by a new breed of globalist elites who gave primacy to personal and corporate interests over the interests of the working class. The 2008 financial crisis aggravated the social discontent and income inequality caused wider economic grievances.
The failing elite-led system has now merged with mass politics that is causing its own set of problems. It has enhanced the influence of money and media on politics. As money and politics began chasing each other, it gave a new opportunity and role to the mushrooming 24/7 cable television to be a broker between special interests, politics and the public. The commercially motivated media, joined by social media now, interpreted the world around people, and made choices for them, even choosing their politics. And often it did so by misinforming the public.
Policy in America is now all about politics which is all about power. So in the interest of power, politicians are pandering to this misinformed public while socioeconomic inequality, injustice and ethnic and racial divisions are crying for redressal. The American dream has gone sour.
Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders were contrasting responses to the crisis, one by appealing to white identity and culture and America’s traditional isolationism, and the other by arousing America’s sense of moral purpose. They half succeeded and ended up speaking for two different Americas sharpening their divisions. Both ‘revolutions’ remain unfinished, provoking fear and hope among Americans.
Biden understands what is wrong and wants to set it right but cannot. He is living in an elite world obsessed with big power rivalry and global leadership role on the one hand, and with Trump’s ‘America first’ philosophy and the anti-war progressivism of Sanders on the other. And it is not working.
Washington is obsessed, however valid its concerns may be, with competition with China. The China fever, that obscures focus on other global crises and plays into regional disputes has sabotaged good policy. The Afghanistan fiasco is a glaring example, the result of what Tony Blair called “imbecilic politics”.
America long lost the status of the indispensable power, but for all its moral failure, political dysfunction and perceived ‘decline’ it was still a consequential power. Even that America is lost now.
The writer, a former ambassador, is adjunct professor at Georgetown University and Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the National University of Singapore.