America from afar ­— (VI) Reckoning

Tarek Osman
Friday 3 May 2024

Three decades after the end of the Cold War the US may have missed the peace dividend that should have guaranteed its economic prosperity and unchallenged place in the world.

 

The election of former US president Donald Trump in 2016 was to a large extent an expression of the rejection by large sections of Americans of many trends in US politics in and outside the country.

Almost three decades since its victory in the Cold War, America seemed to have missed, and for many to have squandered, the peace dividend that some of the most prominent voices in America in the 1990s had promised.

Internally, inequality was rising. Millions were succumbing to resignation and despair – such as opioid addiction – in ways America had never witnessed before.

Inequality was conspicuous socially as well as geographically. This was not the classic separation in world views that had always existed between America’s coasts and its interiors. The separation this time around revealed major economic differences in terms of quality of life, available opportunities, levels of economic security, and prospects of improving chances in life.

Fear was also rising. The second decade of the 21st century heralded the beginning of a technological transformation that went far beyond what the Internet had done a quarter of a century earlier. This time, technology seemed to many to be on the verge of accelerating the separation between those equipped to deal with an extremely technologically advanced future and the rest whose skills had stagnated, if not atrophied.

For the first time in many decades – and arguably ever – large sections of Americans felt that their children were going to have fewer chances and worse living conditions than they had experienced themselves.

Fear was rising at a time when American economic supremacy was beginning to seem to be under serious threat. China appeared to have crossed a threshold beyond which it had begun to seem a competitor, particularly in industries that will likely shape the future, from quantum computing to artificial intelligence.

The tens of millions of Americans who had felt that the peace dividend had escaped them, who were experiencing declining living standards, whose lives were increasingly separate from those of people in areas where the country’s wealth was concentrated, and who felt all around them an air of apprehension and often despair, sensed that the system was not delivering for them anymore.

America is free. Its politics are by far the most dynamic and open in the world. And the American media, with its innovation and its savviness, is always a conduit for the new, the daring, and the different. Moreover, unlike many Western societies, America does not have taboos to be mindful of. Large spaces in the American political landscape were wide open for the wave of rejection and anger that Trump, and those behind him in the American right, embodied.

Trump’s rhetoric and ways of doing things were a world apart from how American politics – domestically and internationally – had used to be. But his messages resonated not only with his constituencies in some of the most depressed parts of America, but also with ideas that were gaining ground within some of America’s key decision-making circles regarding the country’s global strategic positioning.

Two trends were coming to the surface.

The first was that America was going to have to change its modus operandi with regard to the rise of China. Gone was the assumption of the inherent superiority of America’s socio-political model (discussed in a previous article in this series), and in its place were fresh assessments about the reality of the Chinese threat to America’s status as the world’s sole superpower.

The second was that these assessments gave rise to the realisation that confrontation with China was a realistic, and for some even likely, prospect. America has by far the most sophisticated strategic foresight capabilities in the world, and as a result the most serious scenarios about the future were far from being guilty of sensationalism or silliness. They came to the clear conclusion that China’s rise presented America with the most potent challenge it had witnessed since it had come out of its self-imposed isolation a century ago.

Both America’s and China’s strategic doctrines are assertive. While both have credible checks on strategic decision-making, neither have docile tendencies. Unlike all other countries in the world, America and China know that they have real imperial ambitions and capabilities. Both the American and Chinese cultures have streaks that see themselves as deserving of, if not destined to, global pre-eminence.

This is why America’s reassessments of its strategic position vis-à-vis China, during and after the Trump administration, were increasingly focused on competition and confrontation, as opposed to cooperation and containment.

Perspectives about this within and without were merging. Serious circles in the Republican and Democratic Parties understood that a powerful wave of anger was stirring in America’s interior. Probably for electoral purposes, as well as out of a real sense of duty, the two parties, and behind them colossal economic interests in the country, needed to release that anger and address what they understood to be its causes. This meant new approaches to correct the disparities in America’s political economy, as well as new approaches to America’s engagements in the world.

America realised that addressing the prospect of a real strategic confrontation with China necessitated creating new realities in different parts of the world.

Trump’s way of asking Europe to significantly increase its defence budget was different from that adopted by his successor President Joe Biden. But the two administrations shared the same objective that was not merely about money. America wants Europe to commit to a Western stance that is opposed to the likely expansion of Chinese power and influence, one that will likely begin in East Asia and the South and East China Seas, and then, in American assessments, begin to spread widely beyond.  

In some American scenarios, China could attempt to mirror the pace at which America itself had inherited the Spanish, British, and French Empires in the first half of the 20th century. Allowing for the impact of the new technologies, this would mean that the second quarter of the 21st century would likely see China creating new strategic realities in its direct Pacific neighbourhood, as well as establishing a considerable economic presence, and nodes of political influence, in regions it deems of strategic value.

Such a scenario presents America with strategic choices it has not confronted, not only since the end of the Cold War, but arguably also since the mid-1980s when, following the death of then Soviet Communist Party secretary-general Yuri Andropov and the coming of Mikhail Gorbachev to power, it was clear that the former Soviet Union had opted for cooperation and not confrontation.

Choices entail a return to prior experience and imagining ways of realising futures that are better than the present and the past, or of endorsing some rhetoric while in reality doing little to realise it in reality. History is full of examples of countries that in the face of challenges and peril chose the latter approach. They demonstrated weakness of will, and they ended up on unstoppable trajectories of decline and often demise.

America is different. By the very nature of its formative experiences and how it sees itself (as discussed in the first few articles in this series), and because all its decision-making centres have long internalised its imperial project, America could not afford to do nothing at this moment of reckoning.

As the next article in this series will show, both the Trump and the Biden administrations have borrowed from America’s international playbook in the early 20th century, as well as conceived of new ways of changing America’s positioning in various parts of the world.  

 

The writer is the author of Islamism: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 May, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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