As we watch the quasi-bipartisan second impeachment of Donald Trump, we are seeing a glimmer of the America we once knew, the bastion of bipartisanship, whose courteous political rhetoric seemed the epitome of civilization.
Born post-war, I remember 1960s America, whose phenomenal creativity and support for freedom were cherished the world over. Its inventions were coveted and gladly imported into Europe. Its fresh culture, movies, music, and its heroes were enjoyed and celebrated widely. Its help in defeating Nazism and confronting Communism, which represented extremes of the left and of the right, saved us and propelled us into better futures. It was an era of post-war optimism shaped into the construction of the United Nations and the building-sharing Bretton Woods Institutions.
In our complicated continent of Europe, we were baffled by the simplicity of its binary politics, Republican or Democrat, and their largely artificial policy oppositions that yet translated into a consistent and beneficial foreign policy – at least as far as we Europeans were concerned. In Ireland we understood this more easily as an echo of Anglo-Saxon gaming, the British parliament being also divided physically into power and opposition, promising its great dialectical dynamism. And it shaped our understanding of democracy.
Before and after our World Wars, Lady Liberty beckoned millions from our sad and sorry shores. Replete with wealthy philanthropists and strong competition in markets, America’s version of capitalism then seemed halcyon, promising an equal chance for all in the glorious American Dream, e pluribus unum. Consumerism offered the cornucopia of plenty to fill our shelves – and our lives.
The seventies were a bit different as the Vietnam War exposed the underbelly of Cold War politics and the vested interests of conflicting “liberators” – at the gruesome expense of the innocent in the countries they invaded. Liberation theologysprang to their defense. And in the Third World, we tried to promote development in the newly independent former colonies of failed European empires. Education flourished across the globe, and promised great jobs and aspiring careers as economies grew. Little attention was paid to emerging signs of environmental exhaustion, pollution, or demographic explosions these advances had produced.
The eighties began the undermining of the post-WW2 world, as some, mostly the non-aligned G-77, called for a New International Economic Order that would give equal prominence to collective social and economic rights. The West was no longer reigning unchallenged as East and South rose to express diversity and demand empowerment in tandem with rising prosperity.
Threatened by this competition, America’s answer was to vilify the United Nations, and obstruct international cooperation. Dismantling collective efforts abroad and collective bargaining at home, it attacked organized labor and embarked on wild de-regulation of industry, just as post-imperial Britain did the same, struggling with its image as the latest “sick man of Europe”, ruled by its Iron Lady, propped up by her victory in the Falklands War.
Neo-Liberalism and Proxy Wars
By the nineties, the Cold War had come to an end, with the promise of converting swords into ploughshares. Nuclear disarmament seemed a realistic prospect. Centrally-planned economies had proven too slow to adapt to new markets, and too resistant to rising social consciousness. Revolutions, velvet or otherwise, helped democracy spread. And the neo-liberalism of the Reagan-Thatcher era became the new mantra in the former East Bloc, although lagging institutional reforms, hampered true entrepreneurship. Instead, large-scale public asset-stripping and ownership transfers to nomenklatura cronies empowered a corrupt new elite, as gangsterism transmuted into the globalization of organized crime.
However, the proxy wars continued in ethnic conflicts and the break-up of states, as weapons flooded out of arsenals into those vulnerable societies. The new warlords, narco-traffickers for the most part, were less ideological and more venal, filling the coffers of arms merchants, while tens of millions of people fled abroad for refuge, and a new era of large scale international humanitarian interventions followed in the devastated landscapes of failed states.
And to protect the nouveau-riche emerging from this corruption, politics was increasingly polluted by vested interests, lobbies, massive donations and the process of “state capture”. Obviously in the brave new world there was “no need” for social accountability, and de-regulation itself became a virus, dismantling laws and institutions designed to protect the common good, while the klepto-capitalists held whole countries hostage to their murky interests.
The emergence of social media and digital technology gave them powers of popular manipulation that were unprecedented as big data became not only a marketing tool, but a political weapon, entirely unregulated, with America at its epicenter, rapidly becoming as much victim as perpetrator.
By the noughties, the promise of a new millennium was rapidly quashed by the US-led coalitions prosecuting wars in the aftermath of 9/11, as the military-industrial complex struck back, ringing the entire planet with 800 US military bases, and a military budget larger than the rest of the world combined.
This pervasive American Empire was no longer a liberator but part of the problem, the principal driver of a new corporatist imperialism. It invaded Somalia, for example, not for famine relief, but to secure the assets of US companies like Conoco, brushing UN peacekeepers aside. I know: I saw it first-hand in situ.
The fight against the globalization of terrorism served to justify new surveillance technologies, restrictions on civil liberties, and the demonization of political oppositions wherever they arose. The result has been a continuing decline of democracy, both abroad and in America itself.
Amid a growing effort to undermine the United Nations, the efforts of multilateral organizations and civil society groups quickly ran up against the manipulated counter-current of hostility to global accountability. Disguised as populist opposition to the downsides of globalization, the new elites denounced globalism as a foreign conspiracy to undermine nations, identity, and jobs at home, in tandem with xenophobic scapegoating of destitute migrants and refugees.
The next and last decade saw this effort expanded by Russia seizing Ukraine’s Crimea. Having learnt from American exceptionalism, pretending an alternative narrative yet being one of the most overtly corrupt regimes in the world, it postured as equal to America, yet with an economy smaller than Italy’s, mafia included.
In its latest most hypocritical act, and in flagrant rejection of the advice of the Venice Commission, Russia has branded the Council of Europe’s citizen-educating Association of Schools of Political Studies as a “foreign agent” and threat to the constitutional order and security of the Russian federation.
Meanwhile, tiring of an unwieldy EU whose collective economy briefly outranked the US, America shifted focus to the Pacific, while China emerged as the new “multilateralists,” flooding UN entities with staff, while preventing India, the world’s largest democracy, from becoming a permanent member of the Security Council.
With impunity akin to America’s and Russia’s, China repressed any internal opposition, establishing vast concentration camps, and eliminating Hong Kong’s democratic alternative. Bullying its neighbors, its Belt-and-Road initiative became a debt trap for vulnerable countries, risking loss of their own strategic infrastructure in debt-equity swaps, just as it defied the UN by flouting UNCLOS arbitration rulings against its seizures in the South China Sea.
As if that was not enough, China’s autocracy foisted a pandemic on the world the like of which we have never seen. Because of this, and the initial incompetence of most western responses, 30 years of global poverty eradication unraveled in 30 weeks of belated anti-COVID measures yielding economic devastation. The pandemic became the greatest subversion of the emancipative power of development and consumer wellbeing, bringing growing tyranny in its wake.
Lost to Itself, Lost to Us
By 2016, America had slid from being a full democracy to being classified as a flawed one. Little wonder that an expanding share of young people across the world, with no prospects of livelihood, now question open markets, free trade, and the workings of democracy at all.
And where is America now? Trapped in myopic self-absorption, its bipartisan tradition utterly destroyed and the foundations laid for civil war by the most vulgar, narcissistic, paranoid, corrupt, in fact worst leader it has ever had. Its government has proven beyond constitutional accountability, systematically eroding long-standing alliances, vaunting with dictators, and destroying international norms that were painstakingly constructed through negotiation and compromise by generations who believed in a better world for all, even as we stand on the threshold of irreversible climate change with no viable options left.
This decay of an America of grandeur and influence, and progressive global norms and dreams, set in decades ago. Current leaders are perhaps the product of it, not its creator. But some have become its apocalyptic warlords, rushing their country and the world towards rampant tribalism and disorder.
I miss the old America, but I fear it doesn’t exist anymore. You have lost most of your friends, because you have lost your senses, lost your coherence, and lost the plot.
Perhaps we all have.
(written with the greatest regret)
31 October 2020; rev. 14 January 2021