FAIR OBSERVER DEVIL'S DICTIONARY

Is the American Century on Life Support?

Some people foolishly look to the World Economic Forum at Davos to understand the future of humanity. Jake Sullivan appears to be on a different mission: to block the future of humanity.
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Liberty on Life Support,” generated with Stable Diffusion XL.

January 24, 2024 07:30 EDT
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Every January, the most “responsible” people in the world gather at the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland to produce their collective reflection on the state of humanity and its prospects for survival. We call them “responsible” in the unique sense that each one of these luminaries accustomed to traveling in private jets has a hold on, and therefore a responsibility for, some exceptional amount of either wealth, power or media influence. Whether they exercise that wealth, power or influence responsibly is another question.

Every year, these exemplars of earthly success produce for our consumption some great, resounding idea or set of ideas meant to clarify the terms of the quotidian struggle we common mortals are engaged in. We should feel reassured. The new global aristocracy, whose PR is handled by these masters of social, political and economic insight, generously shares their conclusions with the rest of the world. This year their spiritual leader, Klaus Schwab, set the tone, informing us that this is a “unique juncture in human history facing challenges that are as diverse as they are profound.”

So what must we do to meet those challenges? The message was simple: “Rebuild trust.” This, of course, could be taken as an admission that a deficit of trust exists with regard to all the institutions that matter. These include governments, media, think tanks and… influencers? I add the last merely because they have become an institution in their own right.

If you truly believe there is a failure of trust, rather than exhorting people to show more trust, you should be spending your time and energy inquiring why trust has evaporated. To its credit, the WEF team appeared to accept that something was rotten in the state of the former unipolar order. They even hinted a new world order could be in the offing.

One key moment occurred when the WEF’s president, Norwegian Conservative politician Børge Brende, interviewed White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Confronting Sullivan with one of the memes of this year’s conference — the idea that the global order was undergoing a major transition — Joe Biden’s strategic thinker suddenly appeared to feel deeply uncomfortable. Was Brende intimating that the famous “world order” — sometimes referred to as the unipolar moment, in which the US has played a central role since World War II — was near its end and might soon be buried under the alluvia of history?

Sullivan’s quick thinking allowed him to dodge the issue by a shift of vocabulary. Instead of a change of order, he saw it as a change of “era.”

“I think of this a little bit more about a transition of eras rather than a transition to orders, but the two are kind of cousins of one another. The reason I draw the distinction is because I don’t think the international order built after 1945 is getting replaced wholesale with some new order; it will obviously evolve as it has evolved multiple times over the decades since 1945.”

Sullivan clearly believes in the persistence of the Pax Americana, even if it has consistently provided more bellum (war) than pax (peace). He sees no reason for calling into question the existing system of authority. On the contrary, he affirmed its power to act. “We have the capacity to shape what that looks like. And at the heart of it will be many of the core principles and core institutions of the existing order adapted for the challenges that we face today.”

Today’s Weekly Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Core principles:

The implicit, unwritten and deliberately unarticulated rules that permit the exercise of power by those who control the status quo and can promote it as the accepted norm.

Contextual note

Sullivan gave away his game when he called the forces he invoked “the core principles and core institutions of the existing order,” which should be taken to be “the accepted norm.” An “existing order” stands as a power structure, a system of authoritative control that cannot be called into question. The “accepted norm” implies an admission of powerlessness by all those who do not hold the reins of power or simply can’t afford the trip to Davos.

When Sullivan claimed that “we have the capacity to shape what that looks like,” he played an interesting trick with regard to the subject of his proposition. Who is the “we” he invokes? This demonstrates the skill of someone who has mastered the art of what Shakespeare in Macbeth called “equivocation.” “We” is an inclusive pronoun. But whom does it typically include? 

Sullivan wanted to have it four different ways. The “we” may refer to the government he represents, the Biden administration. Alternatively, it may designate the two people involved in the conversation, though Sullivan was probably not counting on Brende to lend a hand personally. “We” could refer to the entire elite assembly in Davos, the people whose accumulated power permits them to rule the world. The fourth and final possibility is humanity itself, the entire global population.

Most likely, what Sullivan had in mind were both the first and third references: his government and an undefined ruling global elite, the committed defenders of the status quo.

Historical note

Sullivan continued his reflection. He even appeared to see at least an abstract basis for acknowledging a potential modification of the sacred status quo. “But, yes,” he told the audience, “I believe we’ve entered a new era. I think that era is marked by a simple thing to say but a very complex reality, which is strategic competition in an age of interdependence. The major powers are deeply interdependent; they are also competitive. And that creates the world we’re operating in.”

This is the expected binary thinking endemic in US strategic reflection. On one side, interdependence; on the other, competition. Unlike the yin and yang, in which each term contains the other, they are opposed rather than dynamically related. But Sullivan’s level of abstraction makes the entire proposition meaningless. Yes, contrary trends always exist. So what? In his view, it’s the existing elite’s role to balance them.

Although Sullivan avoids it, the formerly unfashionable idea of a “multipolar world” has achieved the level of a Davos meme. It’s a concept that very directly challenges the notion that the historical period commonly referred to as the “unipolar moment” may persist. This was the period that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving the US as the world’s unique superpower. Joe Biden apparently sees that moment as the start of what has been called “the American century.” In December 2020, the president-elect asserted, “I, honest to God, believe the 21st century’s going to be an American century.”

More and more lucid commentators today — such as historian Alfred McCoy in these columns — are prone to concluding that the American century is about to end. It may have escaped Biden’s aging brain when the influential publisher, Henry Luce, coined the phrase in 1941, he was presciently invoking a century of American domination that would begin once the war was over. 

McCoy has been asserting for some time that it was the foreign policy of George W Bush, the mad promoter of his Global War on Terror, that set in motion the inexorable decline that would cut short the American century. The “core institutions” of that system of domination — including the UN, the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade and the World Trade Organization — are still in place, though they reveal themselves increasingly powerless to maintain an order that was seriously shaken for the first time in 1971 when President Richard Nixon dismantled its key institution, the framework of the Bretton Woods agreement, by decoupling the dollar from gold. That event marked the disappearance of one of the essential “core principles” Sullivan refers to.

One is left wondering what other principles now remain. Fundamental ideas like democracy and the rule of law have never appeared more fragile. A series of chaotic elections in the US has coupled with systemic media prevarication have destroyed the kind of “trust” in the institutions the WEF seeks to restore.

Will, this time around, the WEF’s annual exercise of equivocation conducted high in the Swiss Alps reassure anyone?

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more ofFair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

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