So…we had an election. It has gone down to the wire. At the time of this writing mid-day November 4 the votes are still being counted. America’s politics have significantly de-matured since the contested election in 2000 between W Bush and Al Gore, so even once a winner is declared I expect significant court challenges by both sides.
We’ll get to some of the implications of this election’s outcomes for the United States in Part II, but first I want to close the book on the globalist era. Doing that first requires a look back to the heyday of American globalism.
Way back when in a 1994 debate on Iraq at the United Nations Security Council America’s then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright famously noted that Americans “will behave, with others, multilaterally when we can and unilaterally when we must.” At the time pundits, rivals and allies alike took the statement as a one-off from a politician serving an administration famous for its lack of interest in foreign affairs of any type, who simply wished to avoid a debate over what many thought was a questionable security policy. With the benefit of hindsight we recognize Albright’s statement for what it truly is.
The early 1990s were a heady time in America. The Soviet Union had just collapsed. Americans were basking in the glow of a world in which they not only knew no equal, but no challengers. Democracy was on the march. Globalization was an unalloyed positive. History was over. America was forever triumphant. All things were possible. The free family of nations would rule a world safe eternal.
Albright was among the most globally-minded personalities within the Bill Clinton administration, an administration that was already by far the most multilateralist in American history. Yet even in 1994, near the height of America’s post-Cold War exceptionalism fever dream, the most globalist of globalists let slip that the Americans really have no problem going it alone.
For the half century before Albright’s tenure, the globalized world was an American construct. The United States found itself facing down Joe Stalin’s Red Army and quickly realized it needed allies. Not to back America up or stand shoulder-to-shoulder with it, but to willingly place themselves between the Americans and Soviet forces. Needless to say, that was a big ask. And so the Americans bribed everyone. The American Navy patrolled the oceans for all. The American financial system and consumer market were opened to all. The American nuclear umbrella was extended to all. In exchange, the Americans obtained the right to command a global alliance to confront, contain and beat back the Soviets.
What most in today’s ecosystem of political, economic or global affairs forget – whether they predict the rise of China or the centrality of the Middle East or the eternity of Europe – is that the Americans view these Cold War structures as a trade. Guns for butter if you will. And since the Americans no longer see a need for help with the guns, they feel the world can make its own butter. Ever since the time of Albright, American interest in the world has declined steadily, and American voters and have consistently selected presidents who care less and less about the wider world.
Until now, when the Americans are at best actively dismissive – and at worst actively hostile – to nearly all things international.
The question is not will Americans return to the world in the aftermath of the 2020 general elections. They won’t.
In fact, from my point of view, we really aren’t looking at any meaningful changes in America’s global position one way or another.
Donald Trump is the known quantity; No one – Trump included – expects constructive international engagement in a second term. But Joe Biden was hardly a better choice if one’s desire is an engaged America. What foreign policy he has discussed focused on a degree of economic nationalism that is positively French. Biden’s anti-Chinese plans are far more adversarial than the Trump administration’s. The region which would have suffered the most under President Biden would have undoubtedly be Europe. The Europeans were largely dismissive of Barack Obama’s call for economic stimulus and military assistance in Afghanistan, leaving a sour taste in the mouth of the entire Obama administration, then-Vice President Joe Biden included. And should Biden be the next president there was never even a hint of a possibility of him reversing what had become a decades-long American withdrawal of military forces from…everywhere. Biden’s talk was one of closing off trade and borders and military commitments but somehow translating that into more American involvement and leadership. Um…no. That’s not how that works.
The question isn’t even will American credibility return in a post-Trump world. Americans do not care about their credibility. If they did they would not have abused their allies (W Bush), ignored their allies (Obama), or insulted their allies (Trump). Instead, what passes for American foreign ambition has declined with each of the past four administrations. Clinton sought gravitas without action. W Bush sought loyalty without reward. Obama sought isolation in all things. Trump simply seeks disengagement. And a President Biden has made it pretty clear he plans to sacrifice foreign connections to deal with domestic issues.
No, Americans care not about their credibility. It is capacity they crave.
Even the least charitable reading of the American system credits it with a massive – and massively insulated – economy. Only about one-ninth of the U.S. economy is dependent upon trade, and nearly half of that is trade within NAFTA, America’s local trade alliance. The shale revolution has not only made the United States net oil independent, it has reduced the costs of oil production in America to levels below that of the Persian Gulf. America’s university systems remain without peer. Add in COVID-related disruptions to global supply chains, and the United States is going through the greatest re-industrialization process in its history.
The United States also has the slowest aging population of the entire developed world save New Zealand, with even “young” countries like Indonesia, Brazil and India aging at least three times as quickly. The Chinese on average became older than the Americans back in 2018. Alone of the significant states, the Americans only need engage with others economically should they choose to.
Militarily, the United States is the only country in the world that maintains a long-reach deployment-capable military force. Each of its ten (soon to be eleven) supercarrier battle groups can outsail and outshoot the rest of the world’s combined navies. Only the United States can maintain open seas access out of reach of their own coastlines. As to boots, only the United States can deploy at a moment’s notice a quarter-million troops anywhere in the world. Any other country would struggle mightily to shift one-tenth as many.
America oozes capacity. That’s not the problem. The problem is America’s goal.
The country doesn’t have one.
I could talk about shoulds. The United States should reforge its alliances to seek new, higher-minded aspirations. It should leverage what’s left of global institutions to promote cooperation among like-minded nations. It should trade access to its consumer and financial markets to promote free enterprise and human rights and democracy in order to expand the roster of those nations. It should use its global reach, economic heft and technical prowess to lead efforts to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, expand education and health, and box in countries who would use access to global markets for ill gains.
But these are shoulds, not wills. People who believe as I do – that the United States ought to play a positive role in making the world a better place – have seen their preferred candidate lose in each of the seven presidential elections leading up to 2020. In the election just concluded, we didn’t even have a horse in the race.
A different sort of thinking now dominates American thought on all things international. The “America First” of the Right is reflexively hostile to the world. The “America First” of the Left is reflexively hostile to American involvement in the world. The “America First” of the middle just finds the world exhausting. Americans have chosen – repeatedly – that they are simply done.
Or at least they are done for now.
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