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General News    H3'ed 1/26/21

Tomgram: Alfred McCoy, Rip Van Biden's America

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I'm 76 years old, so I have at least a modest feeling for what it must mean, at the age of 78, to enter the White House to preside over a disturbed, deeply divided, and unnerved country. Speaking personally, considering just my own energy levels and the information that my still-quite-functional brain regularly tosses out, I think it should be illegal for anyone to become president at such an age. Yes, I have not the slightest doubt that Joe Biden, a decent man, will be a startling improvement over Donald Trump on issues from immigration to climate change to the pandemic. Given Trump's record, how could he not be? Honestly, just about anyone on this planet would have been.

But no less honestly, the man who was a senator for 36 years, vice president from 2009 to 2017, and who's yearned to be this nation's leader since he first tried to run for that office in take a breath here 1987, should, in my opinion, be thought of as a "used president" (as in a used car). Sadly, perhaps, it may be all too appropriate for just such a man, bringing into his administration a crew of retreads from the Obama era, to preside over a country that now seems to have a used, if not used up, feeling to it.

As TomDispatch regular and historian Alfred McCoy, author of In the Shadows of the American Century, suggests today, we already live in what's a distinctly fading imperial power, a place that's no longer the greatest, most indispensable nation on the face of the Earth and, with such an aged president, it now looks it, too. In that sense, you might say that Joe Biden is just reality coming home.

His very inauguration should have reminded us all that the disastrous "forever wars" the U.S. launched in the wake of the 9/11 attacks (and that he once supported) could never have truly stayed in distant lands across the planet. It should have surprised none of us that our "new" president was inaugurated in what many have taken to calling a "Green Zone" a term first used for the well-guarded part of central Baghdad, heavily fortified by the U.S. military after the occupation of Iraq started to go badly indeed. Inside just such an all-American version of that very zone in Washington, D.C., Biden was protected against his own people, aka "the terrorists," by 25,000 National Guard troops. Meanwhile, the casualties from that other totally botched "war" of this moment, the one against Covid-19, have been rising precipitously to staggering levels in an America whose politicians once loved to call it the globe's truly "exceptional" country. Now, it's exceptional for its pandemic cases and death rates.

In short, none of this indicates that the United States, the former "lone superpower" on Planet Earth, is in anything but increasingly poor shape. Let McCoy explain. Tom

While America Was Sleeping
Waking from a Four-Year Fever Dream to Find Global Power Gone


After four years of Donald Trump's fitful tenure, America is awakening from a long, troubled sleep to discover, like the fictional character Rip Van Winkle, that the world it once knew has changed beyond all recognition.

In that classic American tale by Washington Irving published in 1819, an amiable but shiftless farmer strolls out of his colonial village to go hunting in the Catskill Mountains. There he happens upon a group of mysterious men, drinks deep from their keg of liquor, and falls into a long sleep. He awakens to find that he's grown a white beard down to his belly and his youth has withered into an unrecognizable old age. Walking back to the village, he discovers his wife is long dead and their house in ruins. Meanwhile, the sign above the village pub where he whiled away so many pleasant hours no longer bears the face of his beloved King George, the British monarch, but has been replaced by someone named General Washington. Inside, the convivial chatter of colonial days has given way to fervid electioneering for something called Congress, whatever that might be. Incredibly, Rip Van Winkle had slept right through the American Revolution.

While this country was similarly sleepwalking through the fever dream of President Donald Trump's version of America First, the world kept changing as decisively as it did during those seven years when General Washington's Continentals fought the British Redcoats. Just as King George suffered a searing defeat that cost him the 13 colonies, so the United States has, with similarly stunning speed, now lost its leadership of the international community.

Whose World Island Is It?

During the eight years before Donald Trump took office in 2017, the U.S. seemed to be adapting creatively to some serious challenges to its post-Cold War global hegemony. After the 2007-2008 financial crisis, the worst since the Great Depression, a bipartisan stimulus program saved the nation's auto industry and launched a slow but sustained economic recovery.

Fueled by renewed economic vitality, Washington seemed to have a reasonable shot at checking China's all too real and growing global economic challenge. After all, using the $4 trillion in foreign exchange reserves it had earned by 2014 from its new role as the world's workshop, Beijing had launched a trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative focused on making the vast Eurasian landmass (and parts of Africa) into an integrated trade zone a veritable "world island" that would exclude America and so radically undercut its global leadership.

In his two terms as president, Barack Obama, Trump's predecessor, pursued a clever countervailing strategy, seeking to split Beijing's potential world island economically at its continental divide in the Ural Mountains. Obama's planned Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which pointedly excluded China, was the keystone to his strategy for drawing Asia's trade toward America, thereby rendering that Belt and Road Initiative a hollow shell. That draft treaty, which would have surpassed any other economic alliance except the European Union, was designed to integrate the economies of 12 Pacific basin nations that generated 40% of gross world product and the U.S. was to be at the very heart of it.

To drain commerce away from the other half of Beijing's would-be world island, Obama was also pursuing negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership with the European Union. Its combined $18 trillion economy was already the world's largest, accounting for 20% of gross world product. The proposed regulatory alignment between Europe and the United States would supposedly have added $260 billion to their total annual trade. Obama's bold grand strategy was to use those two pacts to beggar Beijing's plans by giving the U.S. preferential access to 60% of the world economy.

Of course, Obama's effort was encountering strong headwinds even before he left office. In Europe, an opposition coalition of 170 civil society groups protested that the treaty would transfer control over the regulation of consumer safety, the environment, and labor from democratic states to closed corporate arbitration tribunals. In the U.S., Obama's scheme faced sharp criticism even within the Democratic Party. Key figures like Senator Elizabeth Warren opposed the potential degradation of labor and environmental laws via the TPP. In the face of such strong criticism, Obama had to rely on Republican votes to win Senate approval for fast-track authority to complete the final round of negotiations over the treaty. That opposition, however, ensured that neither agreement would be approved before he left office.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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