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Donald Trump, “The Crowd” And A Nation’s Bitter Despair

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 “The crowd is untruth.”-Soren Kierkegaaard

The “crowd,” cautioned Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, is  “untruth.” Nowhere is the concise wisdom of this 19th century warning more plainly apparent than in Donald Trump’s despairing United States.  Even  today, even after so much rancorous presidential dissemblance and chicanery, this fragmenting and unhappy nation too often accepts incoherent political dogma as proper authority and  conspicuously vile political gibberish as truth.

 Even now, even when a derelict president elevates his own contrived and illiterate judgments concerning epidemiology above the authoritative opinion of America’s distinguished scientists and physicians, millions of his supporters still offer a visceral “amen.” In essence, these “obedient” citizens stand in stubbornly open support of untruth or anti-Reason. Why?

How can this unchanging self-destructiveness be suitably explained?

It gets even worse. In certain refractory instances, this irrational hierarchy of US citizen preference has led hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Americans to consume potentially lethal medications against Covid-19. What are these “obedient” people “thinking”? This is a president, let us not forget, who thinks human bodies can somehow undergo beneficial anti-viral “cleanings” with commercially-available disinfectants. If it can “kill” virus on tabletops, reasons Trump openly, why not take the remediating substance internally?

Credo quia absurdum, affirmed the ancient philosophers. “I believe because it is absurd.” Still, this is a president of the United States in the year 2020. How can such preposterous “reasoning” be accepted by literally millions of Americans?

There is more. How shall such normally incomprehensible behaviors be explained more gainfully? At one level, at least, the answer is obvious. America is no longer a society that sincerely values knowledge, education or learning. Led by a retrograde man of commerce who never reads books – indeed, who proudly reads nothing at all – this has become a “know nothing” country, a nation that wittingly and shamelessly spurns both intellect and truth.[1] For whatever deeply underlying reasons, docile Trump minions seek to keep themselves “anesthetized.”

In this active form of complicity with self-destruction, these Americans are not passive victims. Rather, they insistently hold themselves captive by a lengthening string of embarrassingly false presidential reassurances and by clinging to endlessly mindless Trump simplifications of complex problems.[2]

In her magisterial two-volume work, The Life of the Mind (1971), political philosopher Hannah Arendt makes much of the “manifest shallowness” of historical evil-doers, hypothesizing that the critically underlying causes of harm are not specifically evil motives or common stupidity per se. Rather, she concludes controversially but convincingly, the root problem is thoughtlessness, a more-or-less verifiable human condition that makes a susceptible  individual readily subject to the presumed “wisdom” of clichés, stock phrases and narrowly visceral codes of expression.

There are always a great many who will be “susceptible.” This does not mean only those who lack a decent formal education. Significantly, in Donald Trump’s fragmenting America, just as earlier in the Third Reich,  well-educated and affluent persons have joined forces with gun worshippers and street fighters to meet certain presumptively overlapping objectives. In the end, we may learn from  both history and logic, each faction will suffer grievously alongside the general citizenry.

 Both sides will “lose.”[3]

For philosopher Hannah Arendt, the core problem is this: a literal absence of thinking. In her learned and lucid assessment, evil is not calculable according to any specific purpose or ideology. Rather, it is deceptively commonplace and altogether predictable. Evil, we may learn from the philosopher, is “banal.”

There is more. Fundamentally, the “mass  man”  or “mass woman” (a Jungian term[4] that closely resembles Arendt’s evildoer) who cheers wildly in rancorous presidential crowds, and whatever the articulated gibberish of the moment, favors a constant flow of empty witticisms over any meaningful insights of reasoning or science. Living in a commerce-driven society that has been drifting ever further from any still-residual “life of the mind,” this susceptible American is a perfect “recruit” for Trumpian conversion.

This “obedient” citizen, after all, has absolutely no use for study, evidence or critical thinking of any kind. Why should he? Der Fuhrer will do his “thinking” for him.[5]

Could anything be more “convenient?”

With Arendt and Jung, the anti-Reason “culprit” is unmasked. It is the once-individual human being who has wittingly ceased to be an individual, who has effectively become the unapologetic enemy of intellect and a reliable ally of thoughtlessness. Using the succinct but incomparably expressive words of Spanish philosopher Jose Oretga y’Gassett, he or she thinks only “in his own flesh.”[6] Following any such antecedent triumphs of anti-Reason in the United States, it becomes more easy to understand the hideous rise and political survival of  dissembling American President Donald J. Trump.

America’s most insidious enemy in this suffocating Trump Era should now be easier to recognize. It is an unphilosophical national spirit that knows nothing and wants to know nothing of truth.[7]  Now facing unprecedented and overlapping crises of health, economics and law,[8] sizable elements of “We the People” feel at their best when they can chant anesthetizing gibberish in mesmerizing chorus.  “We’re number one; we’re number one,“these Americans still shout reflexively, even as their country’s capacity to project global power withers minute by minute, and even as the already ominous separations of rich and poor have come to mimic (and sometimes exceed) what is discoverable in the most downtrodden nations on earth.

Most alarmingly, among these manifold catastrophic American declensions, the badly-wounded American nation is still being led by an utterly ignorant pied piper, by a would-be emperor who was stunningly “naked” from the start and who has now managed to bring the United States to once unimaginable levels of suffering. In this connection, the Corona Virus pandemic was not of his own personal making, of course, but this relentless plague has become infinitely more injurious under Trump’s unsteady dictatorial hand.

Nonetheless, the champions of anti-Reason in America will still generally rise to defend their Fuhrer. He did  not create this growing plague, we are reminded. He is, therefore, just another victim of a plausibly unavoidable national circumstance. Why keep picking on this innocent and brilliant man?  Instead, let us stand loyally by his inconspicuously sagacious counsel.

 Sound familiar?

Recalling philosopher Hannah Arendt, such determinedly twisted loyalties stem originally from massive citizen thoughtlessness. Though Donald Trump is not in any way responsible for the actual biological menace of our current plague, he has still willingly weakened the American nation’s most indispensable medical and scientific defenses.[9] It is well worth mentioning too, on this particular count, that meaningful national defense always entails more than just large-scale weapons systems and infrastructures.[10] Looking ahead, moreover, this country has far more to gain from a coherent and science-based antivirus policy than from a patently preposterous Trumpian “Space Force.”[11]

 Thomas Jefferson, Chief architect of the Declaration of Independence, earlier observed the imperative congruence of viable national democracy with wisdom and learning. Today, however, many still accept a president whose proud refrain  during the 2016 election process was “I love the poorly educated.” Among other humiliating derelictions, this refrain represented a palpable echo of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels Nuremberg rally comment: “Intellect rots the brain.”

 Americans are polarized not only by race, ethnicity and class, but also by inclination or disinclination to serious thought. For most of this dreary and unhappy country, any inclination toward a “life of the mind” is anathema. In irrefutable evidence, trivial or debasing entertainments remain the only expected compensation for a shallow national life of tedious obligation, financial exhaustion and premature  death. This sizable portion of the populace, now kept distant from authentic personal growth by every imaginable social and economic obstacle, desperately seeks residual compensations, whether in silly slogans, status-bearing affiliations or the manifestly deranging promises of Trump Era politics. 

Even at this eleventh hour, Americans must learn understand that no nation can be “first”[12] that does not hold the individual “soul”[13] sacred. At one time in our collective history, after American Transcendental philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, a spirit of personal accomplishment did actually earn high marks. Then, young people especially, strove to rise interestingly, not as the embarrassingly obedient servants of destructive power and raw commerce, but as plausibly proud owners of a unique and personal Self.

 Alas, today this Self  “lives” together with increasingly unbearable material and  biologically uncertain ties.  Whether Americans would prefer to become more secular or more reverent, to grant government more authority over their lives, or less, a willing submission to multitudes has become the nation’s most unifying national “religion.” Regarding the pied piper in the White House, many Americans accept even the most patently preposterous Trump claims of enhanced national security. Credo quia absurdum.

 Upon returning to Washington DC  after the Singapore Summit, President Trump made the following statement: “Everybody can now feel much safer than the day I took office. There is no longer a nuclear threat from North Korea.”[14]

It’s not just America. Crowd-like sentiments like these have a long and diversified planetary history. We are, to be fair, hardly the first people to surrender to crowds. The contemporary crowd-man or woman is, in fact, a primitive and universal being, one who has uniformly “slipped back,” in the words of Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, “through the wings, on to the age-old stage of civilization.”

This grotesque stage is not bare. It is littered with the corpses of dead civilizations.[15] Indiscriminately, the crowd defiles all that is most gracious and still-promising in society. Charles Dickens, during his first visit to America, already observed back in 1842:  “I do fear that the heaviest blow ever dealt at liberty will be dealt by this country in the failure of its example to the earth.”

 To this point, at least, Americans have successfully maintained their political freedom from traditional political tyranny and oppression, but – plainly – this could now change at almost any moment. Already, we have come to accept in once unimaginable terms the kind of presidential manipulation and bullying that can shred and pull apart well-established constitutions. As corollary, Americans have also cravenly surrendered their liberty to become authentic persons. Openly deploring a life of meaning and sincerity, a nation stubbornly confuses wealth with success, blurting out rhythmic chants of patriotic celebration even as their cheerless democracy vanishes into meaninglessness, pandemic disease and a plausibly irremediable despair.   

Whatever its origin, there is an identifiable “reason” lying behind this synchronized delirium. In part, at least, such orchestrated babble seeks to protect Americans  from a potentially terrifying and unbearable loneliness. In the end, however, it is a contrived and inevitably lethal remedy . In the end, it offers just another Final Solution.

Still, there remain individual American citizens of integrity and courage. The fearlessly resolute individual who actively seeks an escape from the steadily-poisoning “crowd,” the One who opts heroically for disciplined individual thought over effortless conformance, must feel quite deeply alone. “The most radical division,” asserted José Ortega y Gasset in 1930, “is that which splits humanity…. those who make great demands on themselves…and those who demand nothing special of themselves…” In 1965, the Jewish philosopher, Abraham Joshua Heschel, offered an almost identical argument. Lamenting, “The emancipated man is yet to emerge,” Heschel then asked each One to inquire: “What is expected of me? What is demanded of me?”

Why are these same questions so casually pushed aside by current American supporters of a rancorous president who opposes “emancipation” in any conceivable form?

 There is more. It is time for camouflage and concealment in our pitiful American crowd to yield to what Abraham Joshua Heschel called “being-challenged-in-the-world.” Individuals who would dare to read books for more than transient entertainment, and who are willing to risk social and material disapproval in exchange for exiting the crowd (“emancipation”), offer America its only real and lasting hope. To be sure, these rare souls can seldom be found in politics, in universities, in corporate boardrooms or almost anywhere (there are some exceptions still) on radio, television or in the movies. Always, their critical inner strength lies not in pompous oratory, catchy crowd phrases, or observably ostentatious accumulations of personal wealth (“Trump. Trump, Trump“),  but in the considerably more ample powers of genuineness, thought and Reason.

There is much yet to learn. Currently, not even the flimsiest ghost of intellectual originality haunts America’s public discussions of politics and economics, even those organized by intelligent and well-meaning Trump opponents. Now that America’s largely self-deceiving citizenry has lost all residual sense of awe in the world, this national public not only avoids authenticity, it positively loathes it. Indeed, in a nation that has lost all recognizable regard for the Western literary canon, our American crowdsgenerally seek aid, comfort and fraternity in a conveniently shared public illiteracy.

 Inter alia, the classical division of American society into Few and Mass represents a useful separation of those who are imitators from those who could initiate real understanding. “The mass,” said Jose Ortega y Gasset, “crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select.”  Today, in foolish and prospectively fatal deference to this Mass, the intellectually un-ambitious American not only wallows lazily in nonsensical political and cultural phrases of a naked emperor, he or she also applauds a manifestly shallow national ethos of personal surrender.  

“America First,” yes, but only in Covid-19 mortality.

By definition, the Mass, or Crowd, can never become Few. Yet, someindividual members of the Mass can make the very difficult transformation. Those who are already part of the Few must announce and maintain their determined stance. “One must become accustomed to living on mountains,” says Nietzsche, “to seeing the wretched ephemeral chatter of politics and national egotism beneath one.” It was Nietzsche, too, in Zarathustra, who warned presciently: “Never seek the Higher Man at the marketplace.”

Aware that they may still comprise a core barrier to America’s spiritual, cultural, intellectual and political disintegration, the Few,  resolute opponents of the Crowd,  knowingly refuse to chant in chorus. Ultimately, they should remind us of something very important: It is that both individually and collectively, doggedly staying the course of self-actualization and self-renewal – a lonely course of lucid consciousness rather than self-inflicted delusion – is the only honest and purposeful option for an imperiled nation.  

  Today, unhindered in their endlessly misguided work, Trump Era cheerleaders in all walks of life draw feverishly upon the sovereignty of an unqualified Crowd. This Mass depends for its very breath of life on the relentless withering of personal dignity, and also on the continued servitude of  all independent citizen consciousness. Oddly, “We the people,” frightfully unaware of this dangerous parasitism, are being passively converted into the fuel for the omnivorous machine of Trumpian “democracy.” This is a pathologic system of governance in which the American citizenry is still permitted to speak and interact freely, but which is also an anti-intellectual plutocracy.

In the early 1950s, Karl Jaspers, well familiar with the seminal earlier writings of Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, sought to explain what a dissembling “Crowd” had  brought to his native Germany and Germany’s captive nations. Publishing Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time  in 1952, the distinguished German philosopher explained the formidable difficulties of sustaining Reason among many who would prefer “the fog of the irrational.”  Now, Jaspers’ earlier observations about Nazi Germany may apply equally well to Donald Trump’s dissembling America:

Reason is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no argument and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd as an unassailable presupposition….

Here, in essence, Jaspers here underscores the “fraudulent freedom of obedience” in any society that might seemingly will itself to be a democracy, but is actually just an oblique celebration of tyranny, moreover, the singularly arch-tyranny of anti-Reason. In earlier times, such perverse celebrations were unexceptional or even de rigeur, but they also “set the stage” for what Americans are experiencing so painfully at the present moment. To some extent, at least, for America to be freed from the false freedom of obedience will demand the whole society be placed in status nascens, as if newly born.

, When, in 1633, Galileo Galilei kneeled before the Inquisitorial Tribunal of Rome and was forced to renounce the compelling science of Copernicus, he revealed the vulnerability of  Reason to the mortal seductions of anti-Reason. In this case, history deserves notable pride of place. When Americans watch the evening news depicting US President Donald Trump railing thoughtlessly against well-established theories of biology and medical science, they should finally begin to appreciate something utterly primal. Such flagrant seductions of anti-Reason are not only sinister, but also lethal.

 “The crowd is untruth.”


[1] In this regard, consider the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s succinct warning in Zarathusrtra: “Never seek the higher man at the marketplace.”

[2] One may be usefully reminded of Bertrand Russell’s trenchant observation in Principles of Social Reconstruction (1916): “Men fear thought more than they fear anything else on earth – more than ruin, more even than death.”

[3] Said Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels in 1934: “”Whoever can conquer the street will one day conquer the state.” Later, in 2019, Donald Trump echoed this dreadful sentiment: “I have the support of the street, of the police, of the military, the support of Bikers for Trump. I have the tough people, but they don’t play it tough – until they go to a certain point and then it would be very bad, very bad.” In a similar vein, during a 2016 rally in Las Vegas, Trump told a wildly cheering crowd that he’d “like to punch the protestors in the face.” “I love the old days, you know what they used to do to guys like that when they’re in a place like this, they’d be carried out on a stretcher,” Then, identifying a specific target person in the audience, Trump added: I’d like to punch him in the face.”

[4] See the pertinent writings of Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung, especially The Undiscovered Self (1957).

[5] A current example is flag-waving Trump supporters who hold signs blaming distinguished epidemiologist Dr. Anthony Fauci for “tyrannical” closure policies, and simultaneously urging greater medical authority for President Donald J Trump.

[6] “The mass-man,” we were warned earlier by Ortega in The Revolt of the Masses (1930)  “has no attention to spare for reasoning; he learns only in his own flesh.” Nothing could be more conspicuously clarifying than this graphic metaphor.

[7]  Apropos of truth in Plato’s The Republic: “To them, I said, the truth would be literally nothing but the shadows of the images.”

[8] See, by this author, Louis René Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/the-trump-presidency-a-breathtaking-assault-on-law-justice-and-security/

[9] “This virus is going to disappear,” said Trump, on February 27th, 2020.

[10] On this matter, of course, one ought also note this president’s withdrawal from treaties with Russia and from the United Nations World Health Organization. Credo quia absurdum.

[11] The United States Space Force was created by US President Donald Trump on December 20, 2019, under terms of the National Defense Authorization Act. Although it is intended to bolster this country’s overall military power in any expanding strategic competition with Russia, its most likely effects will  be contractive, corrosive and destabilizing. The critical underlying US policy error being committed in this creation is conceptual and historic. In essence, it consists of failing to recognize that millennia of belligerent geopolitical competitions have resulted not in peace, but in assorted forms of  international war. At a unique time when the United States faces a new and unpredictable set of dangers from worldwide disease pandemic, shifting large sums of money needed for public health to a space-centered arena of future international conflict represents mistaken national priorities. Of course, from what we ought already have learned about Reason and Anti-Reason, before this miscalculation can be changed, America’s leaders will have  to appreciate the fundamentally intellectual antecedents of US foreign policy decision-making  at every level.

[12] This president’s self-serving  refrain of “America First” ignores an absolutely overarching empirical truth: America is “first” in Covid-19 deaths, but not in any other tangibly enviable standard of civilizational quality or improvement. Always, we have the biggest bombs and missiles, but little else to show for even the most basic expectations of human empathy and compassion. For this president and his retrograde followers, caring about others is a sign of weakness. Nothing else. To wit, in the president’s currently most evident example, wearing a mask against Covid-19 infection is described as little more than “political correctness.”

[13] Both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both psychologists, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the anti-intellectual American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and to crudely material accomplishment would occasion sweeping psychological misery.

[14] The worst expression of such incoherent presidential  reassurance would likely be a nuclear war.  For authoritative early accounts by this author of nuclear war effects, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[15] Dostoyevsky reminds us soberly: “And what is it in us that is mellowed by civilization? All it does, I’d say, is to develop in man a capacity to feel a greater variety of sensations. And nothing, absolutely nothing else. And through this development, man will yet learn how to enjoy bloodshed. Why, it has already happened….Civilization has made man, if not always more bloodthirsty, at least more viciously, more horribly bloodthirsty.” (See Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Notes From Underground, 108 (Andrew R. Mac Andrew, tr., New American Library, 1961 (1862).

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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The liberal international order has not crumbled yet

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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.

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Who benefits more from the Biden-Putin summit in Geneva?

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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.

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Trump’s legacy hangs over human rights talk at upcoming Biden-Putin Geneva summit

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Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

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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