US PRESIDENT Abraham Lincoln [purportedly] said: “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”1 It seems that the Americans have been faltering in recent years, wittingly or unwittingly making fateful mistakes that are having an ever-growing impact on the geopolitical situation of the US and the rest of the world. This is confirmed, in my view, by an analysis of certain key factors as well as the nature and possible repercussions of those mistakes stemming from shifts in the infrastructure of the modern world that pose closely interconnected internal and external existential challenges to the West in general and the US in particular.
The Nature of Domestic Challenges
INSIDE the country, these challenges are the product of the errors, miscalculations, and failures associated with the catastrophic repercussions of the 2020-2021COVID19 pandemic and the deep political, social, economic, and moral crisis exemplified by the allegations of fraud in the 2020 presidential election that supposedly secured victory for the Democratic Party led by Joe Biden. Particularly noteworthy is the crisis that on account of its nature, purpose, and significance can be called a revolt against history, an attempt by certain forces at delayed revenge and even the destruction of history itself and historical tradition. This led to, among other things, the Black Lives Matter protests of Black Americans and certain groups of their white sympathizers who toppled historical monuments to political and state figures of the US in general and the Confederate South in particular.
Their arguments can be understood and even accepted, albeit with many reservations. But the problem is that the campaign that began as a protest against the symbols of slavery gradually spread to historical figures without whom America’s history, nature, spirit, and national identity cannot be imagined: state and political leaders that include the Founding Fathers – Thomas Jefferson, author of the US Declaration of Independence; George Washington, the first US president; President Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery; Ulysses Grant, a Civil War hero, etc. Monuments to Christopher Columbus, who discovered America, and even to Jesus Christ were just as viciously destroyed as monuments to Confederate leaders.
Sacred figures and basic values in the US are under attack; the myth that the US is a shining city on a hill and an example to be followed by the rest of the world is crumbling. The problem is much deeper: Judging by the positions and actions of the BLM movement and its supporters, America’s past has been declared criminal.
In this context, it is very important to bear in mind that the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections were more than just a competition between Democrats and Republicans, between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016 and between Trump and Biden in 2020. By and large, they symbolized two opposing sociopolitical forces fighting not just for the White House but for the opportunity to determine the social and historical outlook of the US. They proved that the country is clearly on a path toward an inevitable ideological, political, and cultural rift. Mutual mistrust within the political class reflects the chasm that has opened up between different communities in the US.
The US is gradually losing not only its economic and technological, but also its ideological and informational superiority.
American politician Patrick Buchanan was apparently absolutely right when he wrote in his hugely popular The Death of the West, published back in 2002, that “We are two countries, two peoples.”2 As Philip A. Wallach of the American Enterprise Institute wrote in an article for Fortune, “For many Americans, the 2016 presidential election campaign has been the most unsettling we have ever witnessed. Our parties and their champions have demonized the opposition in ways that recall darker times.”3… Prominent American journalist and political analyst Bernard Goldberg, for his part, wrote about “the toxic polarization that is dividing Americans.”4
According to Dominic Tiemey, professor of political science at Swarthmore College, “in recent decades, the glue binding America has come undone, as political polarization has reached record levels and trust in national institutions has crumbled.”5
American journalist Yoni Appelbaum offers some very interesting facts and figures: “Over the past 25 years, both red and blue areas have become more deeply hued, with Democrats clustering in cities and suburbs and Republicans filling in rural areas and exurbs. In Congress, where the two caucuses once overlapped ideologically, the dividing aisle has turned into a chasm.”6 “In 1960, less than 5% of Democrats and Republicans said they’d be unhappy if their children married someone from the other party; today, 35% of Republicans and 45% of Democrats would be, according to a recent Public Religion Research Institute/Atlantic poll – far higher than the percentages that object to marriages crossing the boundaries of race and religion.”7
The severity of the confrontation between the opposing sides was evidenced by the fierce opposition to Trump and his team in the media and social networks and the no less vehement support for the Democrats. The confrontation came to a head of sorts when leading TV channels refused to carry all public remarks by the still incumbent President Donald Trump, and Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube removed his posts, amounting to an act of de facto political censorship adopted by an absolute majority of the Democratic-leaning political, intellectual, and media establishment.
The Democrats won the 2020 presidential election, yet the split remains: The factors that created the phenomena of Trump and Trumpism did not disappear. American analyst Tom McTague was absolutely right: “Almost everyone I spoke with agreed that the Trump presidency has been a watershed not just for the US but for the world itself: It is something that cannot be undone.”8 Moreover, the split itself has become existential in nature in the sense that it is about the means and prospects of the country’s social and historical development.
On the whole, it can be said that the Democrats are fighting for the continued existence of the so called “deep state,” the liberal/unipolar world order as an instrument of their country’s world hegemony, the principle that all national problems can be resolved at the global level, etc.
Trump and Trumpism have challenged those principles and put certain basic values and institutions of the American social and political system in doubt. Guided by the America First slogan, Trump and Trumpists are absolutely convinced that even global problems can and should be resolved at the national level. They confronted globalism and nationalism and the idea of a “deep state” with the idea of a “deep people”; Trump made it his aim to “drain the swamp” in Washington and return power to the people. His abandonment of certain postulates of liberalism and the liberal/unipolar world order was highly significant. This allows us to assess his political strategy as a conservative or national-conservative revolution – mainly the re-sovereignization and re-nationalization of the national state. Due to a set of well-known objective and subjective factors, he could not implement his campaign agenda.
Of course, today there is no classical systemic ideological confrontation between the East and the West, as during the bipolar past, yet the gap between the geopolitical opponents – the West led by the US and the East conventionally represented by China and Russia – is widening. But this delimitation or gap is strictly notional: The dividing lines do not necessarily follow geographic lines.
Today, the situation is different: The direct confrontation of the ideologies of socialism and capitalism of the bipolar world has been replaced by an informational-ideological-cultural war between the conventional West and the conventional East that is being increasingly felt by the West at the supranational, regional, national, and sub-national levels. At the national and regional levels, a struggle is unfolding between nationalism and populism on the one hand, and globalism and integration, on the other.
The national-conservative revolution of Donald Trump and Trumpism should be assessed within this context. The same fully applies to the European variants of nationalism, Euroscepticism, and separatism that are undermining the foundations of the European Union. In other words, while in the period of the bipolar world the red lines that could not be crossed unpunished were clearly seen, today they have lost much of their clarity.
Ideologized Answers to External Challenges
THE PAST and present have taught us that if certain arguments based on geopolitical realities fail, an ideology that interprets the state of affairs in the world in a way that suits a relevant state comes to the fore. This makes it possible to violate or ignore one of the fundamental principles of diplomacy: that each of the more or less significant actors of world politics must take into account and recognize the interests of other actors, both allies and adversaries.
This is confirmed by the Biden administration’s determination to ideologize its foreign policy strategy. This means that the US was and remains one of the most ideologized powers of the contemporary world. It has armed itself with the ideological legacy of the Obama administration that itself borrowed a lot from the legacy left by Republican President George W. Bush. He, in turn, relied heavily on the ideas and concepts of the neocons when shaping his foreign policy strategy – especially their idea of exporting so-called democratic revolutions. It should be said that the pinnacle of this strategy was the Arab Spring, implemented by Barak Obama. It was under Obama that the liberal unipolar world order – its basic ideological, informational, political, and cultural elements – reached its zenith.
In early 2020, when the presidential campaign was gaining momentum, Joe Biden wrote in an article published in Foreign Affairs that his administration “will place the United States back at the head of the table,”9 as if claiming to be perpetuating the Obama legacy that had been disrupted to a certain extent by Trump. In February 2021, speaking at the Munich Security Conference as president of the United States, Biden offered a succinct yet clear formula of the main strategic foreign policy principle: “I speak today as president of the United States at the very start of my administration, and I’m sending a clear message to the world: America is back. The transatlantic alliance is back. And we are not looking backward; we are looking forward, together.”10
In the 1980s, the first wave of neocons advocated for the re-ideologization of US foreign policy. Norman Podhoretz, one of the most prominent neocons, called a nonideological foreign policy immoral. Today, in a throwback to that paradigm, more and more voices are talking about the need to start a “war of ideas” – i.e., to give the media and information war a clear ideological bent. For example, Christian Whiton, an American journalist, has written: “As Chinese belligerence forces the free world into a new cold war, and amid prolonged strategic competitions with Russia and Iran, Washington should revive the war of ideas we have fought since the Continental Congress published the Declaration of Independence.”11 To that end, he proposes tapping the full potential and resources of the US and the West, primarily Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, Radio Free Asia, Middle East Broadcasting Networks, etc.12
Of course, Russia and China are the main targets of the ideological-informational-cultural warfare. This is quite natural, considering that those two powers are the main threat to the hegemony that is losing its vitality and relies on the liberal/unipolar world order as its instrument. Opposing them has become the theme of Biden’s key speeches: his inaugural address, speeches at the Department of State and the Pentagon, and at the Munich Security Conference in February 2021.
In his inauguration speech, he claimed that “we’ll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example.”13 Secretary of State Antony Blinken fleshed out that point, so to speak, in his address to the State Department: “We will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force.”14
But in fact, US policy toward Russia and China is antithetical to that assertion. Speaking at the State Department, Biden called China “our most serious competitor,” but [his remarks] focused mainly on containing Russia. An interview published on March 19, 2021, in which the head of the White House deemed Putin a “killer,” gives a clear idea about the essence of the diplomacy of Biden’s administration. The same can be said of the tone, atmosphere, and results of a meeting of Chinese and US delegations in Anchorage on March 20. In both cases, the positions of Biden and the American delegation organically combined boorishness and intransigence with overt threats from positions of force.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is convinced that the American and, more broadly, the Western foreign policy strategy should demonstrate its effectiveness as an alternative to the Chinese model of sociopolitical development. He is convinced that “in the absence of an alternative, [China] may do better than we think. And so I think our obligation is to demonstrate that the vision that we have, the policies we pursue, and the way we do it is much more effective in actually delivering for our people as well as for people around the world, to make sure that our model is the one that carries the day.” In this context, military, trade, and economic measures are not enough. Containing China will require a lot of effort to deflate ideas about the Chinese development path as a more acceptable alternative to the values of the Western world led by the US.15
Brookings Institution fellow Robert Kagan, a noted neocon ideologist, disagrees with the position of Jeane Kirkpatrick, US Ambassador to the UN under President Reagan, a fairly notable neocon in her time, who declared in 1990: “It is time to give up the dubious benefits of superpower status and become again an … open American republic” and “With a return to ‘normal’ times, we can again become a normal nation” with interests of its own as formulated by the Founding Fathers. Essentially rejecting this approach, Kagan insists that for over a century now the US has not been a “normal nation with normal interests” similar to those of all other countries. In his opinion, the “world order became the United States’ concern when the old world order collapsed in the early 20th century and the country became the only power capable of establishing a new one in which its interests could be protected.”16 Kagan claims that “although Russia possesses a huge nuclear arsenal, it is even more an ‘Upper Volta with rockets’ today than when that wisecrack was coined, in the early Cold War.”17
Kagan comments that demonizing foreign foes does not work on its own. So to preserve and promote Washington’s globalist strategy, Americans need to be persuaded that “the world order they created still matters” and that its rejection is fraught with disastrous consequences for the US and the rest of the world.18
This and similar approaches to world realities coincide with the opinions of members of the European political and intellectual establishment. Speaking on the occasion of the inauguration of the Fritz Stern Chair at the Brookings Institution, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas asked, “How do we create a level playing field with an ever more challenging, confrontational China? And how do we deal with an ever more aggressive and repressive Russia?” He said that answering these questions will be central to the future of NATO: “Strengthening NATO’s political role will be an important step. But what is even more important is that we commit to a joint approach. To me, that means pushing back, wherever Russia, China, or others are threatening our security and prosperity, democracy, human rights, and international law.” He assessed President Biden’s proposed “summit for democracy” as an idea of key importance.19
That subject, albeit in a slightly different form, was discussed specifically with respect to China by Heiko Maas and his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in a joint article published by The Washington Post. They commented that, “Under a Biden administration, the compass needle of US foreign policy will continue to gravitate toward China, which we see as a partner, competitor, and systemic rival at the same time.” They believe that the EU should “maintain necessary avenues of cooperation with Beijing” when the world is confronted with global challenges such as the COVID19 pandemic and climate change, and act in close cooperation with the US.20
Xenophobia in its various forms and manifestations – primarily Russophobia and Sinophobia – has left a major mark on the ideological positions of the US political, intellectual, and media establishment. As a rule, it becomes more extreme as contradictions with Russia and China intensify. Of particular significance in this context is the fact that the campaign is increasingly emphasizing the leading role of the Communist Party of China, hearkening back, as it were, to the anti-communism and anti-Sovietism of the period of the East-West confrontation.
The Communist Party of China is seen as the core of its political system, so a clearly visible attempt is being made to stir up opposition between the government and the interests of the people. The stake is on training members of the domestic opposition, on social and political destabilization, and on encouraging separatism in certain regions, such as Hong Kong, Tibet, and the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region. The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was passed [in the US] in November 2019. The possibilities of using expat communities, diasporas of overseas Chinese who have a certain quota at the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), are being explored. As for Russophobia, it is rooted in the ideological and political justification of the “Soviet threat” formula that has been translated in present-day realities into the “Russian threat” formula.
The Axiological Component of Information Warfare
TODAY, very much as during the first Cold War, values are treated as a highly important component of the ideological-political-cultural confrontation. In September 2020, during his election campaign, Joe Biden said that as president, he would put values back at the center of American foreign policy.21 After becoming president, he proclaimed what those values are. Concessions and compromises are possible in the realm of interests but are difficult or even impossible in the realm of values. That is why for both sides the conflict is existential. Protecting the values of liberalism, the liberal/unipolar world order, the “deep state,” hegemony, the superpower status, the “city on a hill” and other attributes of the idea of the American Century turn out to be primary from the standpoint of the physical survival of the US in its present state and consequently its vital national interests.
Washington has nothing to brag of in this sphere except the principles of liberalism that are outdated or even gradually losing vitality. Researchers and analysts are convinced that the US is gradually losing not only its economic and technological, but also its ideological and informational superiority. This is confirmed by the greater resilience of the so-called authoritarian regimes or nonliberal democracies in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. China and Singapore convincingly demonstrated that authoritarian regimes can cope with cardinal challenges, primarily in the economic and technological spheres, as successfully or even better than democracies. This seems to bear out to a certain extent the opinion of those analysts who wrote that the US did not pass the test of the COVID19 pandemic – or, as Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, puts it: “The United States has failed the leadership test.”22
It seems as if the world is watching the desacralization of the US, if not the West as a whole. The philosophical component of the ideology of the liberal/unipolar world order has gone bankrupt, which makes it much harder to find adequate ideological and thus strategic responses to new challenges.
Social and political stability and the steadily growing economic and material wellbeing of vast segments of the population allowed the US-led West to ensure the legitimacy and attractiveness of the values and principles of liberalism and political democracy and to promote and impose them on other peoples. Problems started to arise as these advantages shrunk together with their potentials. This is fully confirmed by the perturbations and problems created by the tectonic shifts of the last decade. They became especially obvious due to the crisis of the last years exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. Today, liberalism is better described as a mix of the principles of libertarianism and radical versions of liberalism, environmentalism, feminism, democratic socialism, and new humanism kept together by obvious censorship and the newspeak of political correctness.
The great reformers of the 20th century (whether liberal or social-democratic), the founding fathers of the welfare state such as John Maynard Keynes, Franklin Roosevelt, Willy Brandt, and Olof Palme would turn in their graves if they learned about these metamorphoses. They would have acknowledged that liberalism, political democracy, and the liberal/unipolar world order have failed the test of history, having lost their sheen and magic. In other words, the ideology of Washington’s foreign policy strategy stands on outdated values and principles of liberalism and the unipolar world order that no longer correspond to reality and are therefore unable to adequately meet the new challenges and threats.
Attempts to extrapolate the realities of the past to the rapidly changing, more dynamic than static world seem Utopian. The achievements of the past can hardly be brought back using the old methods that in essence gave rise to the phenomenon of Trump and Trumpism in the US and nationalism, populism, Euroscepticism, and separatism in Europe.
To a certain extent, the achievements of China and Singapore have become a kind of condemnation of liberalism and liberal democracy. The experience of these two authoritarian states has demonstrated that it is time for a socio-philosophical reassessment of the forms of political self-organization of peoples with an organic socio-cultural system and political culture. It seems that Joe Biden is unaware of the new world in which he intends to revive the dilapidated values and ideas of liberalism. It remains to be seen whether Biden and his team are able to realize that hegemonic claims to dominate the world are inconsistent with the real capabilities of the empire, that the US’s claims significantly exceed its real economic, technological, human, military-political, and other resources. What is important is the fact that the protectors of the “deep state” and the liberal/unipolar world order do not understand or refuse to accept that many nations no longer fear America. It proved unable to “bring Russia to senses,” to subjugate or “destroy” it.
In all fairness, it should be said that Biden did say that “we cannot and must not return to the reflective [reflexive] opposition and rigid blocs of the Cold War. Competition must not lock out cooperation on issues that affect us all.”24 He returned his country to the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, extended the New START treaty with Russia, and is taking steps toward resuming negotiations on the Iranian nuclear deal. A Russian-American summit was finally organized.
Due to a wide set of factors, it is too early to talk about the unity of the Euro-Atlantic world in the current situation. With all possible reservations, the US and the EU are having to search for answers to identical existential challenges. In fact, the destinies and prospects of the peoples of these two main components of the collective West depend, albeit to varying degrees and in different forms, on those answers. Certain dividing lines in their ideological preferences, orientations, and foreign policy strategies are inevitable, which is confirmed by the fact that most EU members, while seriously criticizing and even condemning Russia’s and China’s policies, are maintaining and even expanding trade and economic relations and political contacts with them despite Washington’s warnings.
Moreover, the idea of “strategic autonomy” is gradually taking shape in the leading EU countries. In an interview with The Economist, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “Europe needs … to start thinking of itself strategically as a geopolitical power; otherwise we will no longer be in control of our destiny”24 It remains to be seen whether Europe can attain that status. We should also consider the obvious fact that one geopolitical consequence of the foreign policy strategy of the West, primarily the US, is the further rapprochement of Russia and China. This will probably make it much harder for Washington to retake its place “at the head of the table” in the search for responses to the challenges and threats cropping up all over the world.
1 [This quotation commonly attributed to Lincoln is actually a paraphrase of remarks Lincoln gave in a speech on January 27, 1838: “At what point then is the approach of danger to be expected? I answer, if it ever reach us, it must spring up amongst us. It cannot come from abroad. If destruction be our lot, we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of freemen, we must live through all time, or die by suicide.” Reuters, https://www.reuters.com/article/uk-factcheck-lincoln-quote-fake/fact-check-false-quote-attributed-to-abraham-lincoln-is-distortion-of-an-1838-speech-idUSKBN29V2HH -Trans.]
2 Buchanan P. The Death of the West, https://www.amazon.com/Death-West-Populations-Immigrant-Civilization/dp/0312302592
3 Wallach Ph.A. “Why America’s next president won’t unite us, whoever it is,” Fortune, November 7, 2016.
4 “Polarization Wins Elections … and Destroys the Country,” https://bernardgoldberg.com/polarization-wins-elections-and-destroys-the-country
5 Tierney D. “Not Even the Coronavirus Will Unite America,” The Atlantic, March 25, 2020.
6 Appelbaum Y. “How America Ends,” The Atlantic, November 16, 2019.
8 McTague T. “The Decline of the American World,” The Atlantic, June 24, 2020.
9 Biden, Jr. Joseph R. “Why America must lead again: Rescuing U.S. foreign policy after Trump” Foreign Affairs, 2020. Vol. 99, No. 2.
10 Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference. The White House. February 19, 2021.
11 Whiton C. “Bring Back the War of Ideas,” The National Interest, January 14, 2021. The reference is to the Second Continental Congress that took place on May 10, 1776, and severed the colonies’ ties with the British Empire.
13 “Joe Biden’s inauguration speech transcript, annotated,” The Washington Post, January 20, 2021.
14 “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” Speech by Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State, March 3, 2021.
15 Blinken’s remarks before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee during his confirmation hearing, https://www.foreign.senate.gov/imo/media/doc/01%2019%202021%20Nominations%20-%20Blinken%20Part%201.pdf
16 Kagan R. “A Superpower, Like It or Not,” Foreign Affairs, February 16, 2021.
19 Speech by Foreign Minister Heiko Maas on the Occasion of the Inauguration of the Fritz Stern Chair at the Brookings Institution, https://www.auswaertiges-amt.de/en/newsroom/news/-/2446636
20 “Opinion: French and German foreign ministers: Joe Biden can make transatlantic unity possible,” The Washington Post, November 16, 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2020/11/16/german-french-foreign-ministers-joe-biden-transatlantic-unity
21 “What Biden Has Said on Major U.S. Flashpoints With China,” Bloomberg, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-28/this-is-what-biden-s-said-on-major-u-s-flashpoints-with-china
22 “How the World Will Look After the Coronavirus Pandemic,” Foreign Policy, March 20, 2020.
23 Remarks by President Biden at the 2021 Virtual Munich Security Conference, The White House, February 19, 2021.
24 The Economist, November 7, 2019.