“Let’s make America great again” –Donald Trump
“We need to change everything so that nothing changes” –Giuseppe di Lampedusa, The Leopard
“This is a story of what I was, not what I am.” ― Robert Graves, Good-bye to All That
[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] T [/yt_dropcap]he slogan “Let’s make America great again” may appear at first sight to be aspirational, even inspirational. It has been asserted that it was such a genial slogan which assured the successful election of Donald Trump to the American presidency. In reality the slogan describes and predicts little that is surprising or original. It’s more like a movie that we have viewed before; and we already know its ending.
Nostalgia for past greatness is as old as Machiavelli who claimed the heritage of the Romans for a new Italy, then it was misguidedly adopted by Mussolini who fancied himself a Roman emperor, or Adolph Hitler who promised to make Germany great again after the humiliating defeat of World War I.
All of this can perhaps best be described through the lenses of three classical novels which, while admittedly prophetic, read like historical novels: in order of publication they are Good-By to All That by the English Robert Graves (1929), It Couldn’t Happen Here by the American Sinclair Lewis (1935), and The Leopard, Il Gattopardo in its original Italian title, by the Italian Giuseppe di Lampedusa (1956).
I have summarily described the last two novels, the second prophesizing the rise of fascism in America or anywhere else where the conditions are ripe; enter Donald Trump. The last one made into a famous movie by Luchino Visconti in 1963 dealing with Italian unification, and predicting that the great social changes expected at the outset from Italian unification would not only fail to materialize but that things would get progressively worse and force the emigration of one million Southern Italians.
Let us now examine the first book which, in some way, despite the fact that it came first chronologically, synthesizes the other two by announcing the disaster of fascism and of involuntary emigration and explaining those disasters via a nostalgia for making the country great again, enter Brexit and Trumpism.
Robert Graves’ book can perhaps best be described as a farewell memoir to his country called Good-Bye to All That. In it, Graves, a veteran of the Great War, offers us an glimpse of a world brought down by the myopia of a waning ruling class. British rulers yearned to restore a bygone age, to make Britain great again. No sooner did Good-Bye hit the bookstands than Western governments on both sides of the Atlantic, far from learning any lessons from it, responded to a financial crisis by throwing up trade barriers, turning currencies into weapons, plunging the world into depression, and then deporting, or later exterminating, foreigners as well as their own citizens.
We seem to have come full circle. With the election of Donald Trump to the presidency, the United States seems about to swerve in a similar direction, to go from leading the world as a stabilizer to leading the world as a destabilizer. What’s propelling this about-face is nostalgia for an earlier age of supremacy which basically covers seven decades from the mid-forties to today. The illusion of exceptionalism and supremacy (called “white supremacy when it assumes racial overtones) remains, but In truth, that supremacy that was economic, military and political, has long since passed.
America’s continued claim on global leadership is mostly an inheritance from the aftermath of World War II, when American leaders laid the multilateral foundations of what we now call globalization. Diplomats, economists, and philosophers charted a grand bargain for the world, a kind of global new deal. It rested on two pillars.
The first concerned cooperation in the world economy. To prevent a backslide into the protectionist, inward-looking policies that crushed the global economy in the 1930s and led to war in Europe and Asia, global rebuilders hitched national economies to norms, rules, and principles of free trade. The result was a boom. From 1950 to 1973, world per capita incomes grew by 3 percent per year — powered by a trade explosion of 8 percent per year. Cooperation triumphed; interdependence brought prosperity. The prophecy of “inevitable progress” by assorted positivists enamored of enlightened science and debunkers of tradition, religion and even philosophy seemed to have come about. Things would get better and better.
The second pillar concerned national policies. To cope with the dislocations of free trade and interdependence, governments created safety nets and programs at home to manage the risks and to shelter the castaways. From welfare to workplace protections, from capital controls to expanded education, national policies buffered market perils and helped families adapt to commercial and technological changes. What’s more, many of these programs extended to the dislocated who left home altogether, like those who departed Puerto Rico for the United States, Italy for Canada or the US, Algeria for France, Cambodia for Australia. Education, workplace protections, and pathways to citizenship were part of a bundle of rights conferred on immigrants. This was the global new deal that buoyed the postwar liberal order: a coherent, complementary set of policies that opened borders while protecting societies from the hazards of integration across those borders.
But alas, it proved unsustainable. Over seven decades, their foundations shifted beneath them. We are now witnessing, in Trumpism, its death throes. And there is no way to re-create the conditions that led to the original global new deal, and the years of relative stability and tolerance that came with it. All that is left now is nostalgia for past glory. That goes a long way in explaining Brexit and Trump’s fraudulent promise to restore America’s greatness in the 21st century. As in Brexit many have bought that promise wholesale but, as in Brexit, they may soon experience buyer’s remorse for one cannot live by past glory alone; one needs to envision a future too for the next generations.
What had once been a comprehensive, integrated system of policies that allowed free trade and social safety nets to work in tandem became, in the absence of strong global leadership, a race to the bottom, sustained by carbon and credit. Brand new polities like the EU were founded but lacking authentic cultural foundations for the union, centrifugal political forces began to take over. Domestic safety nets got torn up in a fever to make economies more nimble. Deregulators, privatizers, and a free market orthodoxy took hold, shredding the pacts that once eased the effects of globalization. Trade unions, once key to manufacturing the consent behind the global new deal, got crushed.
The fall of the Berlin Wall, the breakup of the USSR, and some gloating about the end of history created some sense of renewed American grandeur and the triumph of free markets. This euphoria, however, masked underlying structural shifts that eroded U.S. dominance still further; while the Soviet bloc collapsed, behind the scenes, there was a dramatic retooling of the Asian economies. The reckoning could not be put off forever. The dual addictions to carbon and credit are now under assault. The bill for relying on fossil fuels is turning up in the form of climate change, while swaths of the unprotected precariat work part-time jobs in Walmart and Home Depot to cover the monthly interest on their Visa cards.
David Cameron botched the Brexit campaign. Hillary Clinton stumbled through questions about the misunderstood Trans-Pacific Partnership and cringed whenever NAFTA came up. In the vacuum, wall-builders like Trump promise to revive a zombie version of American grandeur with more carbon, more credit, and a mercantilist crusade. And so, while Globalization had relied on the United States playing a vital stabilizing role which lasted for seven decades, what comes next is rather unpredictable. Were I asked to hazard a prediction I would go with “global instability.” Why do I say this? Because, the world has yet to master the idea of leadership without dominance. We no longer have statesmen, we have puny egomaniacal bullies hungry for power.
The long cycle of integration and relative tolerance forged by U.S. leadership since World War II is now headed in reverse and is giving way to nostalgia for past greatness: let’s make Germany great again, let’s make Great Britain great again, let’s make America great again, let’s go back to the glory of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the glory of the British empire, and, most important of all, let’s fool people, as Tancredi proclaims in the novel The Leopard by making them believe that all is changing and the good old times are on the way back, so that in effect nothing changes and they fail to realize that in reality things are getting progressively worse and the lights are fast dimming on a Western civilization mired in nostalgia of past grandeur. I say: let’s pray for the best but prepare for the worst while imagining a better world. This may well fall on deaf ears, but let those who have ears, let them hear.
The liberal international order has not crumbled yet
Since 2017 when Donald Trump took office, the “liberal international order” erected in 1991 has been under serious challenges raised by the United States’ relative decline, the Trump administration’s isolationist policy, and on top of that, the outbreak of COVID-19. Indeed, this order is greatly plagued, which is evidenced by its dysfunction. Against this backdrop, its endurance in the upcoming time is questionable. Nevertheless, the liberal international order has not collapsed yet. It will even revive, and endure in the post-pandemic era.
The victory of Biden
Notwithstanding facing great threats, the liberal international order is far from crumbling. On the contrary, it is gradually reviving. In the Western world, countries are making effort to reform their order that is on the verge of collapse. This is true in the US – the world democracy’s leader. Joe Biden’s victory against Donald Trump may be a positive signal for the US and the global democracy. As a strong advocate for values including democracy, multilateralism and international trade, at no doubt, President Biden will be opposite to Trump in his policy, both domestic and foreign ones. Indeed, during his first 100 days, Mr.Biden has implemented some meaningful things. Regarding the pandemic, he has a stricter approach than his predecessor’s: Mandatory mask wearing, a $1.9-trillions bill, historical vaccination campaign, to name a few. All of Biden’s actions have been so far effective, when the new cases and deaths are steadily declining, and the number of vaccinated people is substantially high. This lays a foundation for Biden to reinvigorate his country’s ruined democracy and governance system, as his efficiency in countering COVID-19 may help him regain American people’s trust on the future of American democracy.
In terms of foreign policy, President Biden has some radical changes compared to that of Trump, which might be favorable to the Western world. At first glance, Biden embraces multilateralism much more than his predecessor, with the hope of saving the American global leadership. He supports Washington’s participation in international institutions, which is illustrated by the rejoining of WHO, Paris Agreement and several multilateral commitments. In tandem with this, Biden values the US’ alliances and strategic partnership as vital instruments for the US’ hegemony. Unlike Trump’s transactional approach, Biden prioritizes early and effective engagement with allies to tackle regional and global issues, especially major ones like NATO, G7. In Asia, he also seeks for further cooperation with traditional allies such as Japan, Australia, New Zealand and deepening partnership with Vietnam, Singapore, India and ASEAN countries.
More importantly, President Biden’s policies towards the US’ competitors and “rogue states” are far different from Trump’s. Granted, despite seeing China as the biggest threat to the American global leadership, Biden adopts a more flexible and multilateral policy. His administration looks to cooperate and compete with China, which implies a different trajectory of the US-China relationship in the upcoming time. Additionally, as noted above, instead of unilaterally escalating tensions with China as Trump did, Biden has been forging relations with traditional and potential Asian allies to contain China together, given China’s increasing assertiveness. With regard to Iran, Washington is now working on the Iran Nuclear Deal with other six parties, promising a potentially positive future on the relations of Iran with the US and the West. The bottom line is, a radical change in Biden’s foreign policy will be a clear message to the world that the US will still try to save the liberal international order and make this world safer for democracy.
The European Union is recovering
Things are happening in the same pattern in Europe. European leaders are also closely cooperating, both inside and outside the bloc, to defeat COVID-19. That said, they are ardently supporting multilateralism. So far, the EU has spent billions of dollars in vaccine development as well as humanitarian support, demonstrating its solidarity in the battle against COVID-19. As such, if EU leaders can successfully lead their bloc out of the current crisis, they can reform this currently plagued institution in the post-pandemic era. Not only seeking further intra-bloc cooperation, but also European leaders are working with other major actors around the world to substantiate the global battlefront against COVID-19. Recently, German Chancellor Angela Merkel urged her country and China to jointly develop COVID’s vaccine in an open, transparent way, and to a further extent, maintain good and stable bilateral partnership, regardless of two sides’ differences.
Similarly, the EU has been putting the Transatlantic relationship among the priorities of its foreign policy agenda. After Biden’s election, the European Commission has proposed refreshing the US-EU alliance and establishing a Transatlantic Trade and Technology Council, being seen as an informal tech alliance with the US to prevent China from dominating this critical sector. The Transatlantic relationship is perhaps one of the pillars for the liberal international order, given its long history and its contribution to maintain the global stability. In the last decades, this axis has been damaged by numerous issues, from economic to security, which is one of the main causes for the decline of liberal international order. Thus, a fresh Transatlantic relationship is conducive to the re-emergence of this order. In this respect, the EU’s effort to strengthen the Transatlantic alliance, despite being questionable in terms of feasibility and outcome, is still paving the way for reinvigorating of liberal international order. More notably, the most recent G7 Summit has illustrated the Western’s solidarity, when there is a convergence in most issues related to global governance and maintaining the Western-based order. This may be a harbinger of the liberal international order’s revival, at least in a foreseeable future.
Non-Western world is struggling
The dynamics outside the Western world is also changing in a more favorable direction. Many non-Western countries, once were effective in combating against the pandemic, are now struggling with a greater threat. Taiwan, in spite of being praised as one of the most successful states in the battle against COVID-19, is currently facing another wave of pandemic when the new cases in this island are surging recently. Other successful stories, let us say Thailand, Japan or South Korea, are questionable of maintaining their momentum in preventing the virus, showcased by their relatively inefficiency during this new wave, in implementing strong measures and getting their people vaccinated. This raises question about these countries’ model of governance, which was used to be praised as a better alternative for a plagued, dysfunctional Western one, thanks to its merits in helping those above-mentioned states contain COVID-19.
Major non-Western blocs are in the midst of COVID-19 crisis as well. The clearest example is the BRICS. Except China, all other countries in this bloc have been tremendously suffering from the pandemic. Due to this, they are far from being recovered quickly. This failure in dealing with the virus undermines the bloc’s previous effort in establishing its position as a major, effective one, not to mention building a new, non-Western international order. This is also the case with ASEAN, as the organization was sharply divided by COVID-19. There are countries doing well with controlling the pandemic such as Vietnam, Singapore, but the Philippines and Indonesia are unable to do so, making this bloc suffering from institutional sclerosis without having any coherent COVID-19 policy. Therefore, non-Western blocs and countries are far from being more efficient than Western ones, implying they are unable to come up with any better international orders than the current liberal international one.
More importantly, Western values underpinning the liberal international order are universal. This is noteworthy when arguing for the long-lasting of Western order, as its existence and endurance mainly hinge on the universality of Western values. These values have been embraced by many countries for a very long time. Hence, despite being deteriorated in recent years, they cannot be easily changed. On the other hand, non-Western values are also not as highly embraced as Western ones. China, desiring to topple the US, is initiating numerous projects and agreements to spread its values around the world, making the world less Western and more Chinese/Asian. Nonetheless, Beijing has yet achieved any remarkable achievements in making their values more widespread and embraced by the rest of the world. Even worse, its image has been tarnished due to its rising assertiveness. Its projects in developing countries, especially BRI-related projects, have been notorious for a large number of problems related to environment or local corruption, and it is raising strategic uncertainty in the region by its increasing militarization, particularly on the South China Sea. These movements have turned China into a “malevolent” major power, hindering its process of disseminating and socializing its values to the world.
It is also worth noting that although Western values have declined, they have been proven to be benevolent for this world. Most recently, it is Western countries that have successfully developed good COVID-19 vaccines to save themselves and save the world from this unprecedented health crisis. Non-Western countries, for instance China and Russia, have their own vaccines, but they are not as welcome as other developed countries in the West in the vaccine race, because their vaccines are relatively less effective than Western-produced ones. Democracy, liberty, lassaiz faire are values that help Western countries or ones embrace such things able to produce massive amount of effective vaccines, and more broadly to develop a strong science and technology foundation. Producing and distributing vaccine for the rest of the world would make the West become a savior, which is good for saving the liberal international order.
Without doubt, the liberal international order has been in its worst time since 1991 when it reached its heyday. However, thanks to its merits, the liberal international order will not die. Instead, most countries will jointly save it, because they have been benefitting from this order for a long time, and will be so in the future. The order’s founding members are recovering, and cooperating closely to reform it, as well as there are no better international orders that can replace the existing one. Given these circumstances, the liberal international order would re-emerge as a dominant form of ordering this world after the pandemic, and would be perpetuated.
Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?
With the Putin-Biden summit in Geneva around the corner, the question is who actually benefits more from the meeting in the small Swiss town.
Mainstream media and right-wing foreign policy thinkers alike have argued that a joint press conference would “elevate” President Putin to the level of the American President.
Ivana Strander, the Jeane Kirkpatrick fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, argued that the upcoming Geneva summit is actually “a gift” to Putin.
In a CNN story, Kaitlan Collins and Kevin Liptak mention that “officials who have been involved in arranging past US meetings with Putin say the Russian side often pushes for a joint press conference, hoping to elevate Putin’s stature by having him appear alongside the American leader”.
Whether as a subconscious bias or an actual reflection of attitudes, prevalent is the idea that coming close to the US President is a privilege that other leaders can only dream about. But who gains more from the upcoming summit?
In fact, it is the American President who is vying for other leaders’ approval and acceptance once again after a humiliating period – not the other way around. American is emerging from Trumpism, which revealed the other, ugly face of America. Trumpism is not gone and the other face of America is still there.
This week, US President Joe Biden is eager to show the world that America is “back”. In meetings with the G7, NATO countries’ top leaders, the NATO Secretary General, the Queen of England, and President Putin in the same week, Biden is asking the world to forget the last four years. And he is not doing this from the position of power or superiority. That’s why assuming that other heads of state, be it Putin or anyone else really, can only gain by coming close to the superiority of the American President is a misplaced and misguided. The US President is asking the international community to take America back – not the other way around.
President Putin doesn’t need the US President’s acceptance – Putin already got that. That happened back in 2018, in Helsinki, when President Trump sided with Putin over the US government’s own intelligence agencies, by rejecting the idea of Russia’s meddling in the US presidential elections. Trump slapped across the face and humiliated the US intelligence community in front of the whole world. Ever since, the US intelligence community has tried to figure out ways to prove Trump wrong and show him otherwise. And they have gone to incredible lengths, only so that they can get their pay pack of a sort, and prove Trump wrong. So, Putin already got what he wanted. He doesn’t need more “elevation”.
What’s also striking is that in Geneva, the UN is absolutely missing from the action. Geneva is the home of numerous UN agencies and international organizations, and not one is actually involved, which speaks volumes to questions of relevance. It is the Swiss government from Bern which is organizing the Summit. The UN is nowhere to be seen which is also indicative of the current Biden priorities.
If Trump was about “America First”, then Biden is about “America is still number one, right?”. But as the United Kingdom learned the hard way recently, it is sometimes best for a declining power to perhaps elegantly realize that the rest of the world no longer wants to dance to its tune, or at least not to its tune only. Discussions about how much Putin gains from coming close to the presence of the US President are misguided. In trying to climb back on the international stage on crotches and covered up in bruises, America is not in a position to look down on other big powers. And as regards who benefits more from the Summit, it seems like one side is there with a clear request asking for something. My understanding is that it is Biden who wants Putin to hand cyber criminals over to him. Putin still hasn’t said what he wants from Biden, in return.
Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit
Two days after the NATO Summit in Brussels on Monday, US President Joe Biden will be in Geneva to hold a much anticipated meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. The two leaders are meeting at the shores of Lake Geneva at a villa in Parc la Grange – a place I know very well and actually called home for a long time. The park itself will be closed to the public for 10 days until Friday.
A big chunk of the lakeside part of the city will be closed off, too. Barb wire and beefed up security measures have already been put in place to secure the historic summit. The otherwise small city will be buzzing with media, delegations and curious onlookers.
I will be there too, keeping the readers of Modern Diplomacy updated with what’s taking place on the ground with photos, videos and regular dispatches from the Biden-Putin meeting.
The two Presidents will first and foremost touch on nuclear security. As an interlude to their meeting, the NATO Summit on Monday will tackle, among other things “Russian aggression”, in the words of NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg. Last week, Stoltenberg said that he “told President Biden that Allies welcome the US decision, together with Russia, to extend the New START Treaty, limiting strategic weapons, and long-range nuclear weapons”. To extend the treaty is an important first step for Stoltenberg. This will be the obvious link between the two summits.
But Biden also has to bring up human rights issues, such as the poisoning and imprisonment of Alexei Navalny and Putin’s support for the jailing of Belarusian activists by Lukashenko. Human rights have to be high on the agenda at the Geneva Summit. And indeed, Biden has confirmed officially that pressing Putin on human rights will be a priority for the American side.
Biden and Putin are not fans of each other, to say the least. Both have made that clear in unusually tough rhetoric in the past. Over the years, Biden has said on numerous occasions that he has told Putin to his face that he doesn’t “have a soul”. Putin’s retort was that the men “understand each other”.
Right at the beginning of his Presidency, earlier this year, Biden also dropped the bomb calling President Putin a “killer” for ordering the assassination of political opponents. The Russian president responded to the “killer” comment on Russian television by saying that “it takes one to know one”. Putin also wished Biden good health, alluding to the US President’s age and mental condition which becomes a subject of criticism from time to time.
Understandably, Putin and Biden are not expected to hold a joint press conference next week. But we weren’t expecting that, anyways.
For me, this Summit has a special meaning. In the context of repression against political opponents and critical media voices, President Biden needs to demonstrate that the US President and the US government are actually different from Putin – if they are any different from Putin.
This week, we were reminded of Trump’s legacy and the damage he left behind. One of Trump’s lasting imprints was revealed: Trump had the Department of Justice put under surveillance Trump’s political opponents. Among them House Democrats, including Congressman Adam Shiff, who was one of the key figures that led Trump’s first impeachment that showed that Trump exerted pressure on Ukrainian authorities to go after Joe Biden’s son, Hunter.
In the context of Trump’s impact, President Biden needs to show that there has to be zero tolerance towards the cover up by the US government of politically motivated attacks against voices critical of the US government. If President Biden wants to demonstrate that the US government is any different from Putin’s Russia, Secretary of State Blinken and FBI director Chris Wray have to go. Biden has to show that he won’t tolerate the cover up of attacks on political critics and the media, and won’t spare those that stand in the way of criminal justice in such instances.
Biden is stuck in the 2000s when it comes to Eastern Europe, as I argued last week but he needs to wake up. President Biden and the US government still haven’t dealt effectively with Trump’s harmful impact on things that the US really likes to toot its horn about, such as human rights and freedom. Whether the upcoming Geneva Summit will shed light on that remains to be seen.
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