The Sad Reality of US Dealmaking

The crisis of US democracy is as real in foreign policy as it is in US elections.
US news, US democracy, American news, American politics, Joe Biden, Joe Biden news, Donald Trump news, Biden news, Biden, Peter Isackson

US Capitol Building in Washington, DC, USA © Orhan Cam / Shutterstock

The fallout from US President Joe Biden’s week in Europe has just begun. There was no dramatic moment that sums it up, though the media vaguely hoped the one-on-one with Russian President Vladimir Putin might produce something akin to the jabs, uppercuts and right crosses of Rocky Balboa vs. Ivan Drago in their opening round. But there was nothing to see. The fight wasn’t televised and Biden carefully avoided the risk of seeing both on stage in a joint press conference.

Though no spectacular shift in US–Russia relations will likely appear in the months ahead as a result of the encounter, some aspects of Biden’s performance concerning the posture and attitude of the US on the world stage may prove pivotal. Biden’s actions and rhetoric in Europe have contributed in significant ways both to defining his presidential legacy and clarifying the shifting vocation of the US in a world that has become far more complex than the one previous presidents had to deal with.


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Biden seems to realize it as he frequently refers to this moment of history as an “inflection point.” He’s right, though he seems to have seriously misjudged the nature of the tectonic shift the world is undergoing. Biden defines such inflection points as “moments in time when we’ve made hard decisions about who we are.” But the era in which presidential decisions in themselves constituted historical inflection points probably ended in March 2003, when the US, under George W. Bush, invaded Iraq. Forces were then unleashed that no longer await presidential decisions. Powerful undercurrents of history, the economy and of nature itself — all beyond any politician’s control — have been fueling the largely unmanageable force behind today’s inflection.

Jonathan Lemire and Aamer Madhani are the authors of an AP article that focuses on Biden as America’s pitchman to the rest of the world. The title of the article is: “Biden Abroad: Pitching America to Welcoming If Wary Allies.” Reduced to its essence, Biden’s pitch consisted of reassuring his allies that he can be trusted simply because he is not Donald Trump, even though his policies have shown little indication of breaking with the former president’s innovations.

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The world remembers Biden’s previous boss, Barack Obama, who before his election in 2008 claimed to represent a radical shift away from everything that Bush stood for. He even convinced the Nobel committee he was a prince of peace. Once in office, Obama prolonged most of Bush’s policies, including foreign wars, reinforcing the surveillance state and maintaining tax cuts for the wealthy, all of which imperiled the economy itself, leading to the 2008 financial crisis that he was tasked with solving.

Lemire and Madhani note that whilst the allies in the G7 appeared relieved by the feeling that there was now “a steady hand at the wheel,” they were far from convinced that the US was permanently back on an even keel. They did end up agreeing to the general drift of Biden’s campaign to highlight the opposition between democracy (the West) and autocracy (China and Russia). 

At the same time, the authors remarked that “Germany, Italy and the representatives for the European Union [were] reluctant to call out China, a valuable trading partner, too harshly.” More significantly, they noted that there was “a wariness in some European capitals that it was Biden, rather than Trump, who was the aberration to American foreign policy and that the United States could soon fall back into a transactional, largely inward-looking approach.”

Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:

Transactional:

An adjective that describes not only the willingness to make deals with others, but also the refusal to recognize the existence of anything other than calculation of individual interest in the conduct of one’s affairs and relationships even with permanent partners and allies.

Contextual Note

After his meeting with Putin, Biden declared: “This is not about trust. This is about self-interest and verification of self-interest.” He needed to reassure the American electorate that, unlike Trump, he had nothing but mistrust for Putin. But he may have been signaling what most Americans always want to hear: that nobody should be trusted, because all relationships begin — and most end — with the assertion of self-interest. America’s European allies have understood that, despite protestations of solid alliances, special relationships and undying friendship, Trump’s approach of reducing everything to a transactional deal was a true description of the reality of US policy under every recent president.

The language used by the media demonstrates this reality with some clarity. The AP journalists already described Biden’s action as “pitching America.” In an article with the title, “Biden Struggles to Sell Democracy Abroad When It Faces Challenges at Home,” The Washington Post described Biden’s behavior in Europe to that of a street barker. “But then, like any good pitchman, Biden quickly regained his footing,” the Post reports. Diplomacy always involves self-interest and always contains an agenda, but when it consistently appears as a pitch, potential customers begin to doubt the sincerity. The authors of the AP article make it clear that, however persuasive the pitch, Biden has not yet closed any deal. They even seem to doubt one is likely.

Historical Note

Writing for Spectator World, historian Andrew Bacevich commented that Joe Biden’s premise concerning US leadership of democratically-inclined allies sounds like a desire to return to an imagined status quo that, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, appeared to be heralding what George H.W. Bush called “a new world order.” But in this century, history has moved on in ways Biden and most American politicians appear either not to have noticed or persist in willingly ignoring. “The idea that a US-led bloc of Western nations will determine the future of the planet will become increasingly implausible,” Bacevich explains.

The historian puts in perspective Biden’s insistence on managing an inflection point: “While repeatedly insisting that history had reached ‘an inflection point’, he simultaneously reiterated the claim made by every US president since Harry Truman (Trump excepted) that ‘the partnership between Europe and the United States’ will determine the fate of humankind.”

The G7 is that partnership, which now includes Japan. But the fate of humankind will rely on the interplay of forces that no single nation or group of nations controls. If there were a way of getting humankind itself into the picture through, say, a global democratic revolution that respects the classic democratic dictum of one man, one vote, the combat to promote democracy over autocracy might make some sense. But that is on no one’s agenda. The degree of inequality between nations and within nations may now have reached a point of no return.

Trump’s presidency taught the Europeans about the dangers of getting on board with grand US-led projects. They are beyond risky. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), even more than the Paris climate accord, provides a perfect example. At a truly interesting historical moment marked by the election this weekend of a new president in Iran, the US actually has an opportunity to push toward a solution that would involve reconciling a number of competing interests stretching across a wide expanse of the globe.

The New York Times believes that the election of Ebrahim Raisi as Iran’s new president may be the perfect opportunity for Biden. Its reasoning makes sense. If Raisi makes the concessions necessary to remove US sanctions, Iranians will have the hope of returning to a prosperous economy. Still, the heritage of Donald Trump has seriously weakened US credibility. “The Iranians have demanded a written commitment that no future American government could scrap the deal as Mr. Trump did,” the Times reports. “They want something permanent — ‘a reasonable-sounding demand,’ in the words of one senior American official, ‘that no real democracy can make.’”

What the official means is that a real democracy could make that “reasonable-sounding demand,” but not the US version of democracy. The Times explains: “Mr. Biden, like President Barack Obama before him, could never have gotten the consent of two-thirds of the U.S. Senate. So it is termed an ‘executive agreement’ that any future president could reverse, just as Mr. Trump did.”

Bacevich is right. The US, even with Europe, cannot “determine the future of the planet.” It can’t even define a line of policy that will hold for more than four years. The most powerful nation in the world is also the most powerless.

*[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 of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

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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