The end of the 20th century in the United States was marked by three key realities: The first is that the country has become the world's only superpower after the dissolution of the Soviet Union; this era was marked by the fall of Berlin Wall and Germany's unification, the expansion of the Atlantic alliance and the European Union eastward, and a worldwide trend towards globalization. The second was the US’s success and dominance on several fronts: military victories in Iraq and Bosnia, unprecedented economic wealth, and technological advancement that placed it as pioneer of the third industrial revolution, and therefore the leader of the world. Despite all of this, the Monica Lewinsky scandal almost destroyed President Bill Clinton. The third was the election of George Bush Jr. Despite President Clinton’s enduring popularity, his vice president, Al Gore, lost the 2000 presidential elections in a contentious legal and constitutional battle to the Republican candidate, who filled the White House with neoconservatives who believed that the 21st century was going to the century of American dominance.
The first decade of this century was marked by a series of “historical” events threaded through three administrations: George Bush Jr., Barack Obama, and Donald Trump, soon to be succeeded by Joe Biden who will take office on January 20. The three presidents told the story of the shortest empire in history, whose glory did not last for more than 10 years, followed by 20 years of decline. Now, on the eve of a new administration, the world is watching to see whether the superpower will retain its greatness, or sink deeper into inevitable decline.
The empire had expanded beyond its own capabilities and ideas. Under the guise of “globalization” and “the end of history,” the US has appointed itself as the savior of the world, in charge of providing aid and resolving conflicts, while imposing its presence across multiple continents. But history says that in such a case, other forces sprout from the superpower's strategic latency, rising to challenge, compete with, and possibly undermine it. A challenge to American supremacy came on September 11, 2001, when 19 terrorists succeeded, in an operation costing less than $200,000, in paralyzing the entire United States for weeks.
The American response was violent and reflected neither wisdom in its decision nor forethought in its operations. The US did not wait for full intelligence reports on global terrorist networks, nor did it involve other countries in the decision to fight terrorism. Instead, it proceeded with the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq in two experiments to create democracy and liberalism, which in addition to leaving a heavy toll of dead and wounded and costing $7 trillion, was a major violation of the Western principle of non-interference that has been followed since the Peace of Westphalia in 1646. By this principle, states agree not to interfere in the internal affairs of other states nor try to change regimes by force.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan paved the way for Barack Obama to become the next president, not only because of his anti-war stance, but as a testament to the country's capacity for self-renewal and overcoming its internal discord and racism. Obama's memoirs show that Americans were grudging in their acceptance of him, and that the American political apparatus is inherently racist, which he saw as the reason many of his moves to get the US out of the financial and economic crisis were blocked. This racist underbelly came into full view with the election of Donald Trump, an extreme counter-reaction to the Obama period. Trump's election was much more than the victory over Hillary Clinton, the brilliant “establishment” candidate and wife of one of the last upholders of the empire.
Trump was the one who led the Tea Party in the racist “Birther” movement, which attempted to call into question whether Obama was born in the United States, as well as his prospects for entering Harvard University or Colombia, or obtaining degrees from them. In the end, he campaigned relentlessly to his base, attacking globalization and global integration in the European Union. He did not seem too concerned with the global expansion of China, he wanted the United States to be self-sufficient without the need for other powers beyond the Pacific and Atlantic oceans.
By the time Biden enters the White House, the American empire will have shrunk a lot globally, following a trend towards withdrawal that began during Bush Jr.'s second term, and found support during the era of Obama, who transformed American ideology into a new world religion. Trump was the most plain-spoken candidate, the most realistic, with a blatantly racist streak. During the three administrations, the American state itself was deeply divided, between the two main parties, between the states, between progressives and conservatives, between white, black and people of color, and between religions as well. It is no coincidence that Biden, a symbol of the American establishment who failed in every election since 2008 to clinch the Democratic Party nomination, is the one who must not only run the American administration, but also save the empire, at the ripe old age of 78.
Therefore, his first stated goal is to save America domestically, not only by defeating the coronavirus, but also by unifying the American nation again, relying on civil dialogue between institutions, not on tweets or the media. Biden will return the traditional American establishment to its origins, where voices are calm and reasonable, agreements are concluded behind closed doors, and politics in general revolves between mutual interests. Biden will attempt to win over progressives and ultra-liberals, his selection of Kamala Harris as Vice President may strike the right chords with many inside and outside America, but traditional American policy must prevail.
In terms of foreign affairs, Biden is already setting the policy, extending the integrity of domestic politics to foreign relations. He wants the unity of the West once again embodied in NATO and the countries with which the US has security treaties, namely Japan and Australia. Brexit constituted a blow that weakened the EU, but this can be partially remedied by a trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the US. Achieving this will take at least a full presidential term, and by then, Biden will be looking at a world that revolves around “competition” between superpowers rather than conflict or strong arming, as well as on shared security, economic and global interests. As for the Middle East, Biden will hope to keep it at bay, to maintain things as they are, manage crises when they happen, and enjoy the stability when things are good. In all this, the people of the Middle East have no one but themselves!
This article was originally published in, and translated from, the pan-Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.