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The Descent of America

Complaints about American decline have been commonplace since at least the Vietnam War era.

In the late 1980s, declinism experienced an upsurge with the publication of The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, by Paul Kennedy, which warned of the dangers of imperial overstretch. Even America’s putative victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War represented only a minor lull in the chatter about the erosion of U.S. status relative to other countries, particularly a rising China.

Closer to home, meanwhile, the grumbling over America’s crumbling usually spikes around the release of the American Society of Civil Engineers’ quadrennial infrastructure report card.

In 2017, the ASCE awarded America a D+ for the state of its roads, bridges, schools, parks, and public transportation. The grade was no surprise to many Americans. “This is an advanced economy?” people ask themselves as they wait for a broken-down bus, hit a pothole on the highway, turn away from the undrinkable water coming out of their taps, or drop their child at a school that’s just a few steps away from being condemned.

In U.S. schools, D is unsatisfactory but still officially passing. In terms of infrastructure, the United States teeters perilously on the edge of failure.

In the last few months, however, America has gone over the edge. The country has quickly, recklessly, impulsively entered the failure zone.

First, there’s the failure of leadership. The country has been ruled for the last three years by a corrupt, incompetent, would-be dictator who, when faced with a spate of crises, has proven spectacularly unfit for the job.

Second, there’s the failure to protect American lives. More than 100,000 people have died from the coronavirus, a level of death generally seen only in wartime.

Third, there’s the failure of the American dream. The economy has collapsed due to the coronavirus, and the unemployment rate has surged to nearly 20 percent.

Finally, there’s the chronic failure of American racism. In the last week, people have taken to the streets to protest the death of yet another African American at the hands of the police. On May 25, a police officer in Minneapolis handcuffed George Floyd on suspicion of forgery, pinned him to the ground, put a knee on his neck, and killed him. Floyd was one of over 7,500 people killed by the police since 2013.

Protestors are fed up with police profiling, targeting, and killing. But they are also outraged at the disproportionate impact of the pandemic and the economic collapse on people of color. The anger is entirely understandable. “I can’t breathe” applies to victims of police violence and the coronavirus both.

The protests themselves are a sign of hope, notwithstanding the over 60,000 National Guard that have poured onto the streets in 24 states.

Also hopeful are the expressions of solidarity during these protests. Cops in a number of cities have gotten down on one knee with protestors. Several mayors, like Atlanta’s Keisha Lance Bottoms, have spoken truth to the power of the president. Here in Washington, the owner of a restaurant burned by looters said, “Any kind of issue like this seems pretty minor. We have been through three months of being closed; we have seen 100,000 people die. I think the protests are great, and I think they are warranted.”

And yet, if you add up the economic, political, social, and medical deficits, it’s hard to imagine calling America an advanced industrialized nation at the moment. It is extraordinary to see such a rapid loss of status in real time, as opposed to a time-lapse animation of the rise and fall of some ancient civilization. “I’ve seen this kind of violence,” a former CIA analyst responsible for tracking developments in China and Southeast Asia told The Washington Post. “This is what autocrats do. This is what happens in countries before a collapse.”

The middle and upper classes may well be caught by surprise. But the current protests are a potent reminder that for a sizable portion of the American population, the country has never been advanced because they live in what Michael Harrington, nearly 60 years ago, called “the other America.”

Trump’s Racist Response

Donald Trump has always positioned himself as a law-and-order politician, even as his words and actions create disorder and violate laws.

He never possessed much if any empathy for victims of police violence. In response to George Floyd’s death, after a cursory expression of condolence, Trump quickly pivoted to deriding protesters, Democratic governors, “THUGS,” and the like. He promised that anyone who breached the White House fence would be met by “the most vicious dogs, and most ominous weapons.” He announced that he would declare the antifa movement a terrorist organization. He sounded like a minor-league dictator with his tweet that “when the looting starts, the shooting starts.”

Later, on a call with governors, he suggested that “if you don’t dominate, you’re wasting your time — they’re going to run over you, you’re going to look like a bunch of jerks.” He added, “You have to arrest people, and you have to try people, and they have to go jail for long periods of time.” Afterwards, in the Rose Garden, Trump said, “If a city or state refuses to take the actions necessary to defend the life and property of their residents, then I will deploy the United States military and quickly solve the problem for them.”

Despite Trump’s calls for law and order, the far right is actually cheering on the occasional violence of the protests because it feeds into their attempts to push the country into a race riot. Militia members, white extremists, and “boogaloo bois” want to take advantage of the coronavirus crisis to “accelerate” the demise of liberal, multicultural America. They’ve even showed up at the protests against police violence and promoted their own violent actions online.

Militant disruptions of otherwise peaceful demonstrations ultimately advance this far-right agenda. Such violence also advances Trump’s agenda.

Following his own version of accelerationism, the president has done everything within his power to destroy the country from within, using hateful language, implementing polarizing policies, and seeming to revel in the chaos that his administration has fostered. Declaring some version of martial law to contain the chaos he has helped to create — but in reality to promote more chaos and himself as the only person to address it — may be the only hope he has at this point of gaining a second term in office.

As Edward Luce writes in the Financial Times, “Trump makes little disguise of conjuring a pre-civil rights America where white males held uncontested sway.” Ultimately, though, it’s Trump himself who wants uncontested sway, and he thinks he can crowd-surf the unrest toward that goal.

America’s Racism Is a Foreign Policy Problem

There’s always been an element of racism to Donald Trump’s foreign policy.

From day one, for instance, Trump favored predominantly white countries in his immigration policy, instituting a Muslim travel ban and denigrating “shithole countries” when “we should have more people from places like Norway.” He told four U.S. congresswomen — three of them born in the United States — to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came.” He relishes blaming the coronavirus outbreak on “the Chinese,” knowing full well that his conspiracy theories feed into anti-Asian sentiment.

Of course, either money or nuclear weapons can turn a “shithole” country into a friend, with Trump cozying up to Kim Jong Un of North Korea and Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia. That’s always been Trump’s modus operandi: he is truly race-blind when it comes to the powerful.

Donald Trump didn’t suddenly introduce racism into U.S. foreign policy. As I wrote back in January 2018, “Trump was only putting into words an underlying principle of U.S. foreign policy. For decades, the United States has treated countries like ‘shitholes’ even if policymakers haven’t called them such, at least not in public.” Racism is reflected in U.S. budget priorities, in the minuscule size of foreign aid programs, in the pattern of U.S. interventions, in the racial composition of the U.S. Army’s “essential workers” (otherwise known as grunts), and even in the Pentagon’s militarization of domestic policing. Trump certainly didn’t create any of these dynamics, though he has often aggravated them.

Still, the current president’s elevation of racism is not simply rhetorical. There is method to his mania.

Trump is using racism as a tool to destroy whatever lingering commitment the United States has to liberal internationalism. The latter philosophy inspired Americans to help create the United Nations, launch the Peace Corps, administer foreign aid programs, and collaborate with other countries to fight global warming. This liberal internationalism has always had its defects, from paternalism to naivete. But it’s a damn sight better than the illiberal nationalism that Trump offers as an alternative.

Trump’s deployment of racism at home and abroad cuts the legs out from under liberal internationalism. No other country can take America’s human rights rhetoric seriously. No other country can accept America’s claim to impartiality as a broker of peace deals, climate deals, any deals. First put your own house in order, they will say.

Putting our own house in order has long been the motivation of U.S. social movements. Think of the civil rights movement, the LGBT rights movement, the Black Lives Matter movement. They have also inspired human rights movements devoted to home improvement in countries around the world. Even today, the U.S. protests against police violence have inspired nearly 15,000 people to demonstrate in Paris, 10,000 demonstrators in Amsterdam, tens of thousands in Auckland, thousands in London and Berlin and throughout Australia.

U.S. support of human rights abroad can and should be an extension of these social movements. That’s something that Trump’s racism at home and attacks on liberal internationalism abroad threaten as well.

“Let’s hope the demonstrations all over the world will help remind Washington that U.S. soft power is a unique asset, setting America apart from other great powers — from China, Russia, and even from Europe,” observes Wolfgang Ischinger, former German ambassador to the United States. “It would be tragic if the Trump administration turned a huge opportunity for the U.S. into a moral abdication.”

Unfortunately, Trump has his own ideas of how to put the American house in order up to and including burning the house down. The antidote to Trump’s racist nationalism is not less internationalism but more: rejoining the international bodies that Trump pulled out of, reentering the accords that Trump unsigned, patiently rebuilding U.S. engagement in the world on an equal basis.

Such a re-engagement has to go hand in hand with a difficult reckoning with America’s own racism, for the inequality perpetuated domestically mirrors the inequality maintained on a global scale.

Only in this way can America stop its descent and climb back into the community of nations.

Foreign Policy In Focus, June 3, 2020

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Making America Mediocre Again

The first signs of decline are physical. Citizens don’t grow as tall. They don’t live as long. They start killing each other in large numbers.

Sounds like the post-mortem for a society that disappeared long ago, a conclusion that archaeologists deliver after sifting through bone fragments and pottery shards. Why, the puzzled scholars ask, did such a vibrant society, which produced beautiful art and remarkable scientific advances, fall apart so rapidly and leave so little behind in the unforgiving rainforest?

This time, however, the diagnosis is being provided in real time. And the society in decline is the most powerful country in the world.

According to the most recent global health surveys, the United States is witnessing a decline in life expectancy for the first time in nearly a quarter century. America is also the first high-income country to see its adults, on average, no longer growing taller. Writes Lenny Bernstein in The Washington Post:

The reasons for the United States’ lag are well known. It has the highest infant and maternal mortality rates of any of the countries in the study, and the highest obesity rate. It is the only one without universal health insurance coverage and has the “largest share of unmet health-care needs due to financial costs,” the researchers wrote.

I’d like to pin this one on Donald Trump. But U.S. decline has been ongoing for some time.

For instance, the United States ranked 16th in the 2014 Social Progress Index developed by Michael Porter at the Harvard Business School. Two years later, the United States slipped to 19th place, with particularly mediocre scores in environmental quality (#36), nutrition and basic medical care (#37), and access to basic knowledge (#40).

Let’s compare that to Canada, which sat near the top of the rankings at number two in the SPI. Canada was a little better on environmental quality (#32), quite a bit better on basic medical care (#26), and a whole lot better on access to basic knowledge (#2).

Even though Trump can’t be blamed for these mediocre social indicators, his party’s steadfast opposition to spending on social welfare and the environment certainly contributed to the problem. And Trump’s promise to “replace” Obamacare, cut social spending even further, and roll back regulatory oversight — all while boosting the Pentagon budget by an extraordinary 10 percent — will send the United States into free fall. The violent crime rate, which dropped nearly in half over the last 20 years despite what Trump claims, may well start to edge up as our pro-gun president makes firearms even more widely available and the economy takes a turn for the worse.

After what Donald Trump does to the United States, Americans won’t be able to stand tall and proud. That’s because we’ll either be short, sick, or dead.

What Goes Up…

Predictions of the eclipse of American power have been around since Donald Trump was a 30-something playboy.

It’s not just the overall health of the population and the toxicity of the environment. The United States has been hobbled by an enormous federal debt, an overextended global military presence, our failing infrastructure, and a paralyzed political system. It’s no wonder that so many Americans were sufficiently fed up in November to vote for anyone who promised to shake up the status quo.

Many Trump supporters are already having second thoughts after witnessing their leader’s first weeks in office. The new administration has given every indication that it’s exchanging the status quo for something incomparably worse.

Much of the problem lies with Trump himself. He has been erratic, often incoherent, and so disconnected from reality that he might be the first president to tweet himself out of office (if the investigation into his campaign’s connections to Moscow doesn’t get him first).

Say what you will about the early Roman emperors, they at least knew something about governance. Then, in the 1st century AD, the imperial stock started to run thin and the empire ran into serious trouble under the deranged progeny of Augustus. Donald Trump is the Caligula of our times: lascivious, incurious, and power-drunk. At what point will our American Caligula, running out of willing and even marginally suitable candidates, try to appoint a horse to his cabinet?

It’s bad enough from a domestic standpoint to have a laughing-stock for a president. The international implications are even worse. As Patrick Cockburn writes in The Independent, “It will be difficult for the U.S. to remain a super-power under a leader who is an international figure of fun and is often visibly detached from reality. His battle cry of ‘Fake News’ simply means an inability to cope with criticism or accept facts or views that contradict his own. World leaders who have met him say they are astonished by his ignorance of events at home and abroad.”

It’s no surprise that other countries are rushing to take advantage of the Trump administration’s early missteps. “It’s not just that Trump seems to have abandoned the larger geopolitical playing field to America’s principal rivals,” writes analyst Michael Klare. “He appears to be doing everything in his power to facilitate their advance at the expense of the United States. In just the first few weeks of his presidency, he has already taken numerous steps that have put the wind in both China’s and Russia’s sails, while leaving the U.S. adrift.”

China sees an enormous opportunity to cast itself as the responsible global leader on trade and climate change. Russia is angling for more influence in its near abroad, the eastern parts of Europe, and the Middle East. Germany and the European Union more generally have sought to replace the United States as a moral leader on diplomacy, human rights, and intercultural engagement.

It’s as if the empire has already fallen apart and the rivals are carving up the corpse. Except that it’s not territory that they’re grabbing, but chunks of America’s political and economic capital.

Those who believe that the United States has had only a malign influence on the world will cheer this downgrade in status. But so far only America’s soft power has taken a hit. The Pentagon remains on the ascendant. The world will continue to suffer the consequences of U.S. military force but without the mitigating influences of U.S. foreign aid and diplomacy.

What about the Stock Market?

So, if everything is doom and gloom, why is the stock market so bullish right now?

The S & P 500 rose to record highs this week. So did the Dow Jones industrial average, establishing the longest stretch of gains in 30 years. Naturally, Trump has claimed credit for all this even as he has complained of inheriting “a mess” from Barack Obama. Kellyanne Conway rushed to judgment as well, attributing the market expansion to “the Trump effect.”

The stock market responds to short-term trends and signals, and it’s focused largely on the health of the business sector. Trump has promised tax cuts, a helping hand to military contractors and energy companies, and a big infrastructure development plan. What’s not to like if you’re a CEO or a large corporation?

But beware irrational exuberance. Much of what Trump is doing is setting up Wall Street for a very unpleasant fall. The administration’s trade policies, particularly with Mexico, will hit producers hard. The infrastructure bill may not come until 2018. The impact of simultaneously adding $54 billion to the Pentagon budget and cutting taxes will throw the economy seriously out of whack.

Ultimately, however, the health of Wall Street is not the issue — it’s the health of Main Street that matters most. When the Obama dividend runs out and economic indicators start to turn south, when the coal mines and steel plants fail to magically return to their glory days of the 1950s, when farmers and blue-collar workers see how much their livelihoods depend on good relations with the world beyond U.S. borders, Trump will have a full-blown revolt on his hands. Then we’ll finally understand the real reason for the boost in Pentagon spending.

Martial law, anyone?

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, March 1, 2017