Though he's seldom thought of that way, Joe Biden was, to my mind, Trumpian in his first global trip as president. After all, he delivered a fantasy to much of the world, as well as his own citizenry. In a phrase, it was: America is back! We once again have an alliance beyond compare, an "updated" version of the Atlantic Charter, with that crucial queen of powers, Great Britain (now, as it happens, heading for the Brexit version of the subbasement of history). NATO is again ours in a world in which a united Europe will ready itself, however dutifully, to face off against the Soviet Union whoops, my mistake, Russia and a China that's been rising all too unnervingly fast. And yes, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, a Trumpian figure of the first order, played along. (Why wouldn't he? His country needs help bad!) And "our" European allies did indeed welcome a Trump-less America back by falling modestly into line, while secretly worrying that the Biden presidency was just part of a holding pattern for Trumpian-style horrors still to come. Think of those initial Biden-esque days abroad, all in all, as the hydroxychloroquine of global diplomacy.
The president then flew on to Geneva where, in an encounter touted as significant beyond belief, he met face to face for several hours with the leader of Russia, a country he to the thrill of the Russian media had already called a "great power." As it happened, his counterpart Vladimir Putin was playing out a similarly Trumpian fantasy: that the leader of an economically bedraggled oil state with a Texas-sized economy is still the equivalent of the Soviet Union and so one of the two (or three) major powers on the planet.
Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi Jinping, the head of a distinctly rising power, continues to promote yet another global fantasy, since if his country is indeed rising, it's on a falling planet, one already heating beyond all expectations. Evidently, in these last weeks, few leaders cared to consider this planet and its "powers" as they really are.
Today, TomDispatch regular Andrew Bacevich, author of the recently published book After the Apocalypse: America's Role in a World Transformed, considers what to make of a country in chaos, confusion, and a new kind of disunion, one that now looks increasingly like the living definition of decline on that declining planet of ours. Tom
So It Goes
The Passing of the Present and the Decline of America
"I asked myself about the present: how wide it was, how deep it was, how much was mine to keep."
Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five (1969)
Kurt Vonnegut's famous novel about the World War II bombing of the German city of Dresden appeared the year I graduated from West Point. While dimly aware that its publication qualified as a literary event, I felt no urge to read it. At that moment, I had more immediate priorities to attend to, chief among them: preparing for my upcoming deployment to Vietnam.
Had I reflected on Vonnegut's question then, my guess is that I would have judged the present to be both very wide and very deep and, as a white American male, mine to possess indefinitely. Life, of course, was by no means perfect. The Vietnam War had obviously not gone exactly as expected. The cacophonous upheaval known as "the Sixties" had produced considerable unease and consternation. Yet a majority of Americans especially those with their hands on the levers of political, corporate, and military power saw little reason to doubt that history remained on its proper course and that was good enough for me.
In other words, despite the occasional setbacks and disappointments of the recent past, this country's global preeminence remained indisputable, not just in theory but in fact. That the United States would enjoy such a status for the foreseeable future seemed a foregone conclusion. After all, if any single nation prefigured the destiny of humankind, it was ours. Among the lessons taught by history itself, nothing ranked higher or seemed more obvious. Primacy, in other words, defined our calling.
Any number of motives, most of them utterly wrong-headed, had prompted the United States to go to war in Vietnam. Yet, in retrospect, I've come to believe that one motive took precedence over all others: Washington's fierce determination to deflect any doubt about this country's status as history's sole chosen agent. By definition, once U.S. officials had declared that preserving a non-communist South Vietnam constituted a vital national security interest, it became one, ipso facto. Saying it made it so, even if, by any rational calculation, the fate of South Vietnam had negligible implications for the wellbeing of the average American.
As it happened, the so-called lessons of the Vietnam War were soon forgotten. Although that conflict ended in humiliating defeat, the reliance on force to squelch doubts about American dominion persisted. And once the Cold War ended, taking with it any apparent need for the United States to exercise self-restraint, the militarization of American policy reached full flood. Using force became little short of a compulsion. Affirming American "global leadership" provided an overarching rationale for the sundry saber-rattling demonstrations, skirmishes, interventions, bombing campaigns, and large-scale wars in which U.S. forces have continuously engaged ever since.
Simultaneously, however, that wide, deep, and taken-for-granted present of my youth was slipping away. As our wars became longer and more numerous, the problems besetting the nation only multiplied, while the solutions on offer proved ever flimsier.
The possibility that a penchant for war might correlate with mounting evidence of national distress largely escaped notice. This was especially the case in Washington where establishment elites clung to the illusion that military might testifies to national greatness.
Somewhere along the way perhaps midway between Donald Trump's election as president in November 2016 and the assault on the Capitol in January of this year it dawned on me that the present that I once knew and took as a given is now gone for good. A conclusion that I would have deemed sacrilegious half a century ago now strikes me as self-evident: The American experiment in dictating the course of history has reached a dead-end.
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