by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.
Twenty years ago posing this question would have seemed absurd. The United States was fully self-confident about its position as the sole surviving superpower in the world which faced virtually no obstacles or objections to its performance of “public goods” that brought order to the world either through the liberal international institutions that it helped to create after WWII and dominated, or unilaterally when necessary through “coalitions of the willing” aimed at bringing down one or another disruptive malefactor on a regional stage. From all sides abroad it heard only “amen” to its claims of exceptionalism and farther-seeing vision that came from its standing taller, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it.
Fourteen years ago, when America prepared for its ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and encountered loud resistance from France and Germany, backed up by Russia, it became possible to wonder whether U.S. global hegemony could last. The disaster that the Iraqi adventure quickly became within a year of George W. Bush declaring “mission accomplished” rolled on and progressively diminished the enthusiasm of allies and others hitherto in the U.S. bandwagon for each new project to re-engineer troublesome nations, to overthrow autocrats and usher in an age of liberal democracy across the globe.
Still, the doubts were discussed sotto voce. Governments tended to conform to what the Russians colorfully call “giving someone the finger in your pocket.” Observers spoke their piece privately against the violations of international law and simple decency that the United States was perpetrating, against the swathe of chaos that followed American intervention across the Greater Middle East. But such persons were on the fringes of political life and drew little attention.
What has happened in the past couple of years is that doubts about the competence of the United States to lead the world have been compounded by doubts about the ability of the United States to govern itself. The dysfunctionality of the federal government has come out of the closet as an issue and is talked about fairly regularly even by commentators and publications that are quintessentially representative of the establishment.
In this connection, it is remarkable to note that the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine carries an essay entitled “Kleptocracy in America” by Sarah Chayes. This takes us entirely away from the personality peculiarities of the 45th President into the broader and more important realm of the systemic flaws of governance, namely the extraordinary political power wielded by the very wealthy and the self-serving policies that they succeed in enacting, all at the expense of the general public that has stagnated economically for decades now, setting the stage for the voter revolt that brought Trump to power.
And in an op-ed essay in the The Washington Post on September 1st that is remarkable precisely for its identification of the failing political culture in Washington, Senator John McCain says the following:
“Congress will return from recess next week facing continued gridlock as we lurch from one self-created crisis to another. We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.”
McCain himself was till now a major contributor to the poisonous political climate in Washington, to partisanship that tramples patriotism under foot. One thinks of his unprecedented attack on fellow Republican Senator Rand Paul several months ago whom he accused of “working for Putin” because the good Senator refused to vote for the accession of Montenegro to NATO.
Gridlock in the federal government is nothing new. In the past decade, work of the federal government came to a standstill when Congress and the President could not agree the conditions under which the federal debt ceiling would be raised. Such an eventuality was just narrowly averted in the past day.
Public exposure and ridicule of a sitting president for personal failings, such as the case of Bill Clinton’s sexual transgressions, have been exploited for political gain by his opponents whatever the cost to national prestige. We have lived through that crisis of the political elites and the republic survived
What is new and must be called out is the loss of civility in public discourse at all levels, from the President, from the Congress and down to the average citizen. The widely decried personal attacks that otherwise would be called defamation during the 2016 presidential electoral campaign were symptomatic of this all-encompassing phenomenon. It signifies a dramatic decline in American political culture that the whole world sees and is beginning to act upon in self-defense.
In what follows, I will speak to each of these levels in the calamitous loss of dignity and reason in the establishment as it bears on the unsustainability of American soft power abroad, which in turn preconditions hard power.
* * * *
Let us start with President Donald Trump, who is attacked in the news daily by the liberal media that represents the lion’s share of all television programming and print publications, media that vehemently opposes Trump’s domestic and foreign policy positions. In their determination to ensure either his impeachment or effectively to strip him of powers, they speak of Trump the way cheaply printed caricatures for the masses lampooned Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution.
The President is publicly described by his compatriots as an imbecile, a rabid racist, a misogynist, a volatile and impulsive narcissist whose finger on the nuclear button gives us all goose pimples: this cannot be ignored by the wider world outside US borders and it is not ignored.
To be sure, Donald Trump has brought a good deal of this ignominy on himself by his intemperate comments on daily events, particularly at home but also abroad, where silence or a nod to conventional verities would be the better part of valor. He keeps his own counsel on foreign affairs and erroneously believes that his instincts are superior to the advice of experts. In his kitchen cabinet, there are no experts. In the official cabinet, he has for his own reasons assembled a group consisting of Neoconservatives and Liberal Interventionists, who made it easy for him to get confirmation in the Senate but who are all pulling in the direction opposite to the America First concepts of nonintervention in the affairs of other states that he set out in his electoral campaign.
Trump changes direction daily, even on matters as critical as the likely U.S. response to the ongoing crisis on the Korean peninsula. The tactic of unpredictability was an approach he said in the campaign he would use against enemies, in particular against terrorist groups, not to tip them off about U.S. intentions in advance and weaken the effect of eventual U.S. military strikes. But it makes no sense when applied to all other current business, which requires a firm hand on the tiller and sense of continuity and predictability, not constant disruption.
The net result of Donald Trump’s first six months in office has been to undo the bonds of mutual confidence with our allies and friends, and to put on guard our competitors that America’s role in the world is up for grabs.
Foreign policy has opened up as a topic for discussion here in Europe ever since Donald scattered the chickens by his loose talk about NATO and America's commitment or non-commitment to the Article 5 provision of all for one and one for all. This has given impetus to the long-spluttering plans to create a European Union army as an alternative to NATO, and as a rallying point for federalists in what will be a two-speed Europe.
During the two terms of Obama, meddling in the internal politics of China and Russia, repeated hectoring over their alleged human rights and rule of law violations, but still more importantly the wrong-headed policy of simultaneous containment of these two giants through construction of military alliances and bases at their borders put in motion a strategic partnership between them that was once improbable but is now flourishing. The Russia-China axis is underpinned by vast joint investments and promises to remake the global power balance in the decades to come.
Now, with Trump, the damage to American power in the Pacific region is spreading. His ripping up free trade accords and his incautious rhetoric regarding possible military strikes against North Korea have pushed both Japan and South Korea to explore actively and urgently how Russia can be befriended, at a minimum, for the sake of greater leverage against the big ally in North America. This has been demonstrated with perfect clarity by the meetings of Vladimir Putin with Japanese premier Shinzo Abe and Korean president Moon Jae-in at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok over the past couple of days.
Russia’s evolving political entente with both South Korea and Japan is providing support for the launch of ambitious foreign investment projects in its Far East as announced at the Forum. These include one which has the potential to re-shape the imagination of regional populations for a generation to come: revival of plans to build a 50 billion dollar rail-auto bridge linking Hokkaido with the Russian island of Sakhalin, thus uniting Japan with the continent and facilitating freight shipments across Russia to Europe. For its part, Korea announced infrastructure investments for the Northern sea route linking their country with European markets through sea lanes kept open by Russian icebreakers. Like the Chinese One Belt One Road, these plans all dramatically reduce the importance to world trade of the long-standing US policed sea lanes off Southeast Asia up to and through the Suez Canal.
Of course, the low point in America’s image in the world today under Trump is not entirely new. By the end of his two terms in office, George W. Bush had driven American prestige to what were then all time lows even among Europeans. There was a brief resurgence of American popularity at the start of Barack Obama’s tenure in office. But that was quickly dissipated by his failure to deliver on the pledges of his campaign and inaugural address, as Guantanamo remained open, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued and as drone strikes proliferated.
But Donald Trump has shaken up the world order by repeatedly questioning the public goods that the country claimed to be delivering these past decades, opening a void without projecting a new vision of global governance. In the meantime, the unique value of America’s public goods is being eroded as alternative suppliers step forward.
* * * *
It is commonplace today within the United States to put all blame for the shocking decline in political culture at the door of President Trump with his boorish language and behavior. However, as we noted from the outset in citing Senator John McCain’s recent op-ed, Congress has contributed mightily to the erosion of civic values by its vicious and counterproductive partisanship.
And yet a still greater threat to our democracy and to the sustainability of our great power status has come from the inverse phenomenon, namely the truly bipartisan management of foreign policy in Congress. The Republican and Democratic party leaderships have maintained strict discipline in promotion of what are Neoconservative and Liberal Interventionist positions on every issue placed before Congress. Committees on security and foreign affairs invite to testify before them only those experts who can be counted upon to support the official Washington narrative. Debate on the floor of the houses is nonexistent. And the votes are so lopsided as to be shocking, none more so that the votes in August on the “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act.” This measure removed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia from the category of Executive Order and mandated them by federal law. In the Senate it passed 98 to 2. In the House, the vote was 419 for, 3 against. Such results remind us of the rubber stamp legislature of the USSR, the Supreme Soviet, in its heyday.
That particular vote was still more scandalous for its being drafted and passed without any consultation with US allies and friends, though its intent is to control their commercial and credit policies with respect to the target countries under sanction. For Europeans, in particular, this puts in question their ability to pursue what they see as great economic benefits from trade and investment with Russia and Iran. In this sense, Congress demonstrated that it is pursuing a still more radical program of America First than the President. In-your-face unilateralism such as this works directly to the detriment of the country’s standing in global forums.
* * * *
It would be comforting if the problems of our political culture began and ended with the elites operating in Washington, D.C. However, that is patently not the case. The problem exists across the country in the form of stultifying conformism, or groupthink that is destroying the open marketplace for ideas essential for any vital democracy.
Some of us have called this the new McCarthyism, because the most salient aspect of groupthink is the ongoing hysteria over alleged Russian meddling in U.S. domestic politics. The denunciations of “stooges of Putin” and the blacklisting from both mass and professional media of those known to deliver unconventional, heterodox views on Russia and other issues of international affairs is reminiscent of what went on during the witch hunt for Communists in government, in the media during the early 1950s.
However, no one is being hounded from office today. There are no show trials, as yet, for treasonous collusion with Russia. So, it would be safer to speak of an atmosphere of intimidation that stifles free debate on the key security issues facing the American public. Absence of debate equates to a dumbing-down of our political elites as intellectual skills atrophy and results in poor formulation of policy. The whole necessarily undermines our soft power and standing in the world.
Groupthink in America today did not come from nowhere. Debilitating conformism was always part of our DNA, as is the case in a great many countries, though its emergence has been episodic and in varying degrees of severity. The present acute manifestation in the United States goes back to the mass paranoia which followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the George W. Bush administration introduced the Patriot Act, gutting our civil rights in exchange for the promise of security.
Though the revelations of Edward Snowden have shown the full extent and potency of the instruments of surveillance over the general population that were introduced by the Bush administration after 9/11, there was enough of state control exposed in the Patriotic Act text to silence anyone with doubts about US government policies at home and abroad. When the harsh personalities of the Bush immediate entourage were replaced by the liberal talking officials of Barack Obama, people breathed easier, but the instruments of surveillance remained in place, as did the Neocon middle and senior officials in the State Department, in the Pentagon, in the intelligence agencies. Thus, for a whole generation the Washington narrative remained unchanged, giving encouragement in communities across the land to Neocon-minded administrators and professorate of our universities, publishers and owners of our mainstream newspapers and other arbiters of public taste. That is quite sufficient to explain the current atmosphere of intimidation and groupthink.
It is improbable that any Humpty-Dumpty successor to Donald Trump can put the pieces back together again and restore American dominance to where it was at the close of Bill Clinton's first term as president. Given American hubris, will our political class accept an equal seat at the global board of governors or just walk away from the table?
© Gilbert Doctorow, 2017
* * * *
Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in October 2017.