American foreign-policy strategists used to promulgate doctrines. Now they dream up slogans. ‘America is back’ is the jingle under which the Biden administration has been conducting — or marketing — its post-Trump, post-Covid diplomacy, much as ‘Go big’ has been its jingle in domestic matters. The problem is, being ‘back’ can mean a number of different things. It can mean a sweet and tender reunion. It can also mean barrelling through the front door after a four-day bender hollering, ‘Anything to eat?’
Joe Biden’s advisors were confident of an effusive welcome. Maybe too confident. At their first bilateral meeting with Chinese diplomats in Anchorage last spring, Secretary of State Tony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan attempted to scoldChina for its ‘values.’ The Chinese invited their interlocutors to get their own values in order before they started bossing people around. Blinken replied that other countries were expressing ‘deep satisfaction that the United States is back.’
Maybe. But publicly they show few signs of having pined for Uncle Sam. After the headlong US retreat from Afghanistan in August, Charles Michel, the Belgian president of the European Council, professed himself mystified by the ‘America is Back’ slogan. ‘What’s that supposed to mean?’ he asked ‘“America is back in America?” Or something else?’ Then the United States scrambled to arrange the new AUKUS naval treaty in the South Pacific, in hopes of reassuring its Asian allies. In so doing, it scuttled a lucrative submarine sale that France had arranged with Australia, prompting President Emmanuel Macron’s aides to ask whether ‘America is back’ meant the same thing as ‘America first.’
The world of geostrategy is not what it was before Trump, or even before Covid. The pandemic has offered statesmen an opportunity to move on. Wandering the capitals of Europe, Biden puts one in mind of the expatriate Charlie Wales, the sobered-up tragic hero of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s short story, Babylon Revisited. Charlie returns to Paris after the stock-market crash. ‘He was not really disappointed to find Paris was so empty,’ Fitzgerald writes. ‘But the stillness in the Ritz bar was strange and portentous. It was not an American bar any more — he felt polite in it, and not as if he owned it. It had gone back into France.’ Like America, Charlie is ‘back’, but not in such a way as to impose his whims on foreigners.
For this administration, episodes of incompetence have come in rapid succession. First, the Afghanistan rout. Second, the invasion of Texas by a villageful of importuning Haitians. Finally, the arrival of high and persistent inflation for the first time in a generation. These are the (devalued) wages of ‘going big’ in domestic policy. Americans had lately lost the habit of outright mismanagement. Barack Obama and Donald Trump, in their different and imperfect ways, avoided the worst. Obama faced a finance crash, but tamed it. Trump faced a pandemic, but he launched a successful vaccine programme. If we are ‘back’ to anything, it is the blundering of the George W. Bush administration on the sands of Iraq and the levees of Louisiana.
Blameworthy though Biden may be, any American president would face at least some of his problems. We are approaching the reckoning for the devil’s bargain that the country made with the global economy 40 years ago. American politicians used their commanding position to claim what were effectively subsidies. They rewrote the rules of global trade so that they could buy consumer goods made not in America but in China, where labour (at first) cost pennies an hour. The same politicians opened the borders to immigrants, whose wage expectations had been conditioned not by invincible trade unions in Midwestern industrial cities but by oppressive latifundistas in banana republics. The United States was able to get what it wanted by controlling the choke points of the global economy — it could impose sanctions on hostile countries, denying them access to trading blocs and American markets.
The civilisational benefits the United States has drawn from globalisation have, of course, been glorious, from TikTok to Taco Bell to Tickle Me Elmo. But they came at a price. In many walks of life — notably work, sex and education — the so-called information economy has caused us to do by ourselves things that God really meant us to do with others. Trade and economics seem to cut against the spirit of the age. Here we involve too many others in things God probably meant us to take care of on our own.
American power depended on its ability to step back from the global economy. The United States has always been eager to trade. But when it began its experiment in globalisation, it still retained a formidable autarkic potential. It was the breadbasket of the world, blessed with hydroelectric and carbon power, and home to many of the world’s most sophisticated factories. The world needed the US more than the US needed the world.
That’s not really the case any longer. Lacking common institutions with which to keep the citizenry engaged, we require cheap goods with which to keep people distracted. This means we need the cooperation of powerful foreign exporters, one of them in particular. And so we are making some unpleasant discoveries. It is not easy to boss people around when you are dependent on them.
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This article was originally published in The Spectator’s January 2022 World edition.