Criticisms of the US always have a slightly edgier quality when they come from a Brit. From time to time an American reader emails me to point out that there are more than enough problems in my own country. To which I wholeheartedly agree. But I live in America not Britain. Occasionally, an uncharitable reader misreads a post-colonial hauteur in my writing. More likely I haven’t expressed myself clearly enough. So let me declare this before I make my larger point (for fear it’ll be misinterpreted as anti-American): I fervently want America to succeed; I don’t think any other country has the same ability, or legitimacy, to uphold a global system of rules. Indeed, I doubt that any desirable international order will be possible if the US goes Awol. While I’m on a roll let me also fantasise that had I been a resident of one of the 13 colonies in 1776, I would’ve fought the redcoats. At least, I like to think so. Perhaps I have seen too many movies. At any rate, I’ve spent more of my adult life in the US than Britain so I’ve established some standing.
Now let me spit it out: the US is going in the wrong direction very rapidly. It’s becoming a danger to the global order. America’s disruption isn’t confined to Donald Trump. As I’ve written before, Trump is a symptom not a cause of our current democratic malaise. The fact that he’s a cure worse than the disease is no excuse. Mainstream America created the space for Trump to rise. If it’d not been him, it’d have been someone else. Trump is no deus ex machina. He’s the worst manifestation of a pre-existing condition, which people used to call the ugly American. Who’s the ugly American? Someone who believes the US is the best of all possible worlds; that its culture is superior; its destiny is providential; the only language worth speaking is English; and others should copy our way of life, or go [pixilated word] themselves. The ugly American has taken to blaming America’s woes on outsiders, whether they be countries, such as China, or the Europeans, or groups of immigrants, such as Hispanics and Muslims. If something has gone wrong, it’s because others have made it so. Now here’s the thing: in some ways liberal cosmopolitan America is as guilty of this as the so-called left behinds. I know because I live among them. The only difference is they’re more likely to be beautiful because they attended better schools. The myopia would be salved, not banished, by Trump’s defeat.
Why am I writing about this now? My column this week is about America’s growing divorce from the realities of the changing world. I write about the division between Democrats and Republicans — the first blaming Russia for America’s woes, the second blaming China. Neither party is motivated chiefly by a realistic assessment of the changing global realities. These are zero sum battles in which foreign policy is merely a prop to domestic theatre. Russia and China play starring, but largely cartoonish, roles. The point is that neither party’s stance qualifies as serious foreign policy. Geopolitics is changing rapidly — and largely in the wrong direction. As I mention in my column, India is also moving on. In 2004, the National Intelligence Council declared that India would be the “swing state” of the 21st century. Its stance would help settle the contest between a rising China and a hegemonic America. Last week India withdrew from the annual quad military exercises of the US, Japan and Australia. It also commissioned six civil nuclear reactors from Russia and signed an arms deal with Moscow worth $5bn. I won’t go into detail now about what prompted Narendra Modi to do this — the reasons are as complex as India.
Let me point to two conclusions. First, diplomacy requires constant gardening and the US has been neglecting India. If the US wants to maintain its geopolitical advantage, it can’t afford to neglect its partners. It must learn to see the world through their eyes. America no longer has the luxury of assuming it can set the terms. Second, India’s decisions — announced during a visit by Vladimir Putin to New Delhi — were barely reported in the US media. We’re too obsessed with the human freak show known as the Trump administration. Let me again underline that Britain’s political circus is just as bizarre. And the UK’s provincialism is even less excusable. It’s too small to get away with colossal mistakes. But the west can afford to lose Britain. It can’t survive America’s prolonged fit of absent-mindedness. Rana, does it sound like I need another Ambien prescription?
- My colleague Tobias Buck has a riveting piece about the fate of Germany’s Social Democrats. They were almost obliterated in Bavaria’s elections last weekend. Anyone concerned about the fate of Europe’s centre-left should watch its German odyssey. Social democracy was born in Germany. Let’s hope it doesn’t die there.
- Jamal Khashoggi’s Washington Post column is almost certainly posthumous. He wrote it just before heading to that fateful meeting in the Saudi consulate in Turkey. Even without the tragedy, his piece would be worth reading. It’s about the escalating repression of an independent media in the Middle East. Given what has almost certainly happened to Khashoggi, his final column is horribly poignant.
- Finally, Megan Nolan, an Irish writer based in London, writes in The New York Times about why she’s starting to hate the English. I found her piece to be painful reading. Everything I’ve just said about the ugly American applies in spades to the English and Ireland. The more we understand how other people see us, the better we can navigate the world.
Rana Foroohar responds
OMG, Ed, love the idea of you fighting the redcoats. We need to get you a bit part in Hamilton. There’s a lot of truth in what you say here, particularly regarding xenophobia. I sometimes think the administration’s anti-immigrant stance will do more to hurt the economy in the long run than the trade war. But just to be contrarian, I think it’s also true that many Trumpian complaints about the old order didn’t start with Trump. Every administration in the past 20 years has complained about, for example, Chinese mercantilism. Nobody did anything about it until now, mostly because they didn’t want to upset the corporate donor base. But your core point, that our problems are at home and not abroad, is spot on. I think that by making the pre-November narrative all about himself and how great the economy is, Trump is making the same mistake Obama did during midterm elections. The economy is only great for the top quarter of the population (I’m being generous) and I think even the ugliest Americans will eventually realise that the real action is in class, not race or nationality.