Where is America? Like an old friend who hasn’t been in touch for years, you wonder if its silence is lost interest or if it just got too busy. America used to be everywhere, the dominant voice in world affairs, a desirable friend and a much-feared enemy. It intervened (and, yes, interfered) whenever it felt its interests or values were threatened. Often its involvement was unwanted and sometimes it didn’t improve matters, but there was a reliable solidity to it, a sturdiness born of military might, prosperity and national self-belief. It could be admired or reviled, but it had to be reckoned with.
America shies away from it all now. Observe how Joe Biden alternates between stark warnings and unintelligible ramblings on the prospect of a ground war in Europe. Meanwhile, China capitalises on this weakness by once again sending fighter jets through Taiwan’s air defence ID zone.
A lot of Americans would rather not get involved in what they perceive as far-off troubles. Iraq is, again, the reason and even some conservatives who supported that conflict have become latter-day peaceniks. US interventions overseas, as they see it, are doomed moonshots that sacrifice American boys. There are enough crises at home to attend to.
These conservatives and their liberal and leftist opponents are now as one in rejecting the Bush doctrine, as outlined in George W Bush’s second inaugural address:
[I]t is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.
But the Bush doctrine — brash in its idealistic fervour and scope — was fundamentally unconservative. The man American progressives thought was Ayatollah Khomeini in cowboy boots may well have been America’s last liberal president, the last president to speak unapologetically and uncynically about American values and their universal application. Of course, the attempt to apply them buried his doctrine in the blood-soaked sands of Iraq.
Nevertheless, Bush’s plainspoken rejection of appeasement and moral relativism is still sound:
America will not pretend that jailed dissidents prefer their chains, or that women welcome humiliation and servitude, or that any human being aspires to live at the mercy of bullies.
It may not be possible to turn every nation into a liberal democracy. It may not even be desirable. But to hell with the nonsense, from liberals and post-liberals alike, that there is no objectively superior system between chains and ballot boxes.
While America has vacated its role of global leadership, the world has had to rely on the architecture of international cooperation and governance assembled by an earlier, more outward-looking America. Unguarded for too long, these arrangements are increasingly vulnerable. Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping know that the international liberal order is essentially an American order, the imposition across the world of US values and therefore a projection of US power. Break this order by subduing Ukraine or annexing Taiwan, and you break American hegemony. The direction of the world is up for grabs in a way it hasn’t been since 1945.
In the US, some conservatives have no interest in defending and advancing American liberalism, which they have come to regard as the source of moral deterioration at home. If anything, these right-wingers admire Putin as a strong, anti-liberal leader who has prioritised national identity, pride and cohesion over the pronouns parade that is Western political leadership. The current line from these neocons is that countering Putin’s encroachment on Ukraine would distract from the greater threat posed by China. In truth, they would find much agreeable in Beijing’s ambition for national rejuvenation and contempt for American narcissism.
American right-wingers have come to sound like the antiwar Europeans they once ridiculed. They are frog-memeing surrender monkeys. Their rationalisations of Russian aggression, and their willingness to toss overboard first principles like sovereignty and self-determination, make tuning into Fox News these days like taking up a seat in an international relations lecture at the average Western university.
One wonders what if anything they could find to disagree with in Richard Sakwa’s recent contribution to Coffee House. Professor Sakwa assures us Russia’s invasion and occupation of the Crimea was ‘a defensive move’ and that ‘to protect its own security, Russia desires a neutral, friendly, multilingual Ukraine’. If there’s anything that keeps Vladimir Putin up at night, it’s the rights of linguistic minorities. This is ‘not an unreasonable wish’, says Professor Sakwa, but it is being frustrated by the West’s determination to ‘arm and encourage a militant and hostile neighbour’. Put another way, Professor Sakwa reckons Tony Soprano would stop whacking people if only the FBI would stop offering them a place in the Witness Protection Programme.
It’s sobering to witness this alignment of the anti-Western left and the newly anti-Western right, of American global fatigue with the might-is-right prescriptions of the neo-realists, of liberalism in retreat and its would-be successors on the march. It’s depressing, too, to look to the United States for leadership and find a nation that no longer wants to lead. The global order is under pincer attack from Moscow and Beijing. Where is America?
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