The brink of uncertainty

Abdel-Moneim Said
Thursday 17 Feb 2022

Abdel-Moneim Said assesses a new American century

On 6 October, The Hill featured an article by Reid Wilson entitled, “On The Trail: The new American malaise.” He stated the problem as follows: 

“The United States economy added more than 7 million jobs over the last 12 months for the first time in history. Wages are rising, the national gross domestic product is booming, and the end of the pandemic appears just around the corner after the vast majority of Americans opted to take the safe and effective vaccines created by American scientists. But Americans aren’t feeling it. In fact, they are in a historically bad mood, about the country, about their leaders and about their own lives.”

Evidence for this can be found in the fact that, “for nearly two decades, more Americans have said the country is on the wrong track than heading in the right direction. More than half the country has said the country is moving in the wrong track in every Gallup poll since December 2003.”

This condition may apply to many countries that have achieved historically unprecedented levels of economic growth and technological advancement in the three decades, since the end of the Cold War. Maybe the cause is a globally widespread scepticism about the integrity and efficacy of political leadership. In the US, the sharp swings in policy outlooks from George Bush Sr through Bill Clinton, George Bush Jr, Barrack Obama and Donald Trump to Joe Biden today have deepened polarisation in their society. This, in turn, testifies to an inability to rally a consensus around higher strategic goals and, indeed, around the key institutions of government. 

According to the above-mentioned Gallup polls, in the entire period since the re-election of Bush Jr in 2004, the American public’s disapproval of the president’s job performance has considerably outstripped approval. This speaks of a general state of anxiety. It means that voters who go to the polls to elect a president soon succumb to a sense of disappointment and dismay that makes them unwilling to approve of a president’s performance, regardless even of the facts. Such a condition is indicative of deep structural rifts in the political system. These are evidenced not only in the behaviour of the two main parties in Congress but also in the decline in the position and prestige of the US in the international order.

On 25 January, Russia and China issued a joint declaration unlike anything preceding it regarding international disputes and tensions over Ukraine, the South China Sea, the Middle East or the Iranian nuclear question. It was a gauntlet thrown down in the context of the US-led world order since the end of the Cold War. There have been several drives to revise the international order in world history in the past two centuries (since 1815). This one aims not only to change the undesirable aspects of Western hegemony but also to lay the foundations for competitive cooperation and joint management of global challenges, and simultaneously to redraw the lines between rivals in the light of changes in the international power balance in recent years. 

The declaration starts with a discussion of democracy and human rights, the field that Biden championed upon taking office and dividing the world into two: democratic countries and authoritarian ones. China and Russia challenged this division, questioning the very premises behind the criteria the US used to determine who falls on which side of the divide. They also urged a return to the founding principles of international relations since the Treaty of Westphalia which established the sovereign right of nation states to manage their domestic affairs and the principle that any problems that arose in this regard would be discussed in the relevant international forums and institutions. Accordingly, the joint declaration proceeded from the premise that the US had no inherent right to appoint itself judge and jury over the rest of the international community in which differences abound between the character and circumstances of its members. The authors of the declaration had no problem with cooperating with others in many important areas, such as the fight against terrorism, but they rejected outside meddling in their internal affairs and, above all, the various colour revolutions that spread from Eastern Europe to Hong Kong (as well as to the Middle East).

It is natural that China should be concerned about US military interventions in the South China Sea and Pacific and that Russia should feel directly threatened by NATO expansion in Eastern Europe. However, their joint resolve as two superpowers in a tri-polar world is essentially aimed at the third pole, the US. The way power is calculated has changed considerably since the end of the Cold War when some US think tanks proclaimed the “end of history.” The fact is that developments in the US since then are not just about the tremors rattling its system of government or about its waning desire (until Biden) to lead the world morally and politically. They were about something deeper. The balance of power in the world had changed. Military and economic might were still important, but other factors had acquired increasing weight. An example is efficacy and achievement – the ability to get things done – in which area the US had scored poorly under Trump and Biden in terms of responding to Covid-19. American democracy has lost much of its ability to achieve consensus between and within the Democratic and Republican parties and this has contributed to paralysing the federal government’s ability to marshal the resources to build American capacities. 

Such fatigue and decline is evident in Europe as well. The starting point for this may have been when the EU agreed to the British suggestion, not to deepen integration but to expand the EU to incorporate former members of the Warsaw Pact in Eastern Europe, The expansion process, which would extend to NATO, created huge burdens for the EU. The irony is that Britain, which had been the main motivator behind this, refused to join the Schengen system that created a common security zone or the Eurozone that created a single economic and fiscal system. Then it performed Brexit, setting into motion the disintegration of the EU. The political and economic decline has been accompanied by seismic shifts towards the far right in Eastern European governments which had worked closely with the ultra right that brought Trump to power in the US. 

The disintegrative trend in the EU is a multifaceted question. Suffice it to say here that the phenomenon, along with the US “malaise”, is leading to a moment of revisionism and its accompanying convulsions until a new order can be established.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 17 February, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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