Can Biden Save the West?

Max Beckmann (1884–1950), The Beginning, oil on canvas, 1946–49.
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By GILBERTO LOPES*

The attempt to return to the liberal democratic order in a world that is witnessing the decline of the West

The doubt was raised by the columnist of the The Washington Post, Ishaan Tharoor, on the eve of President Biden's trip to Europe. It was one more step for the US president to try to rebuild relations with his closest partners, weakened during the administration of Donald Trump, and better profile the nature of his enemies.

“Can Biden save the West?” Tharoor wondered. It has “great ambitions”, he says: nothing less than laying the foundations of the new decade of confrontation between the “liberal democracies” and the “autocratic powers”, starting a new era in the competition between both. “His European interlocutors are enthusiastic,” says Tharoor. “America is back,” said the President of the European Council, former Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michael, a very conservative liberal.

Last year, organizers of the annual Munich security conference coined the concept of westlessness. “Is the world becoming de-Westernized?”, they asked themselves. A century ago, says the document, the sociologist Oswald Spengler published his book “The Decline of the West”, in which he predicted the end of Western civilization. Today the topic is the subject of new books, articles and speeches.

This year, the report tried to straighten out the debate at a virtual meeting on Feb. 19. Biden had just assumed the presidency, awakening the hope that the reconstruction of the transatlantic alliance would allow seeing beyond the westlessness. The “West” is, in this case, more than a geographical concept. It is a political idea that combines the military power of NATO with the more universal ideals of the liberal democratic order.

A universe in which, however, distrust in relation to the role of the United States has grown. According to a survey conducted by the European Council on International Relations, cited by Tharoor, most Europeans believe that the European project is "fractured". But they think the same about the American political system and suspect that they can once again assume the role of leader of the “West”.

But there is something even more important: “the world of liberal democracies has lost its monopoly on the definition of what a democracy is”. The phrase is from Ivan Krastev, director of programs at Center for Liberal Strategies, in Sofia, Bulgaria, in an article published in The New York Times on the 12th of May.

Biden proposed holding a summit of democracies to form a coalition and confront the autocratic powers he attributes to Russia or China. But “for that to happen,” says Krastev, “he will have to abandon his pretense of deciding who is a democrat and who is not. According to surveys carried out by very conservative organizations – such as the Swedish V dem, counterpart of the North American Freedom House –, nowadays there are more people living under “autocratic” regimes than under “democratic” regimes.

As examples, he cites India, Hungary or Türkiye. “If Biden insists on a very strict definition of democracy, his group will be greatly reduced. If he accepts an expanded definition, he runs the risk of revealing a hypocritical attitude. The boundary between democracies and non-democracies has become blurred and has serious consequences if applied to international politics,” warns Krastev. New authoritarian regimes cross the border between democracy and authoritarianism almost as often as smugglers cross state borders.

For Krastev, Biden does not have many alternatives to form his alliance of democracies. He can include countries like India or Turkey in that alliance. Or dissociate this effort from the other, aimed at reviving global democracy. “I suggest this second path to him,” he said.

The origins

Charles King, professor of international affairs and government at Georgetown University, writes in the latest issue of the magazine Foreign Affairs an article in which he tries to trace the origins of North American internationalism and its paradoxes, the same ones that characterized one of its central characters: the Democratic senator from Arkansas, William Fulbright (1905-1995). “National leaders from the southern states who championed slavery not only as a domestic institution, but also as the basis of alliances and the world order,” says King.

That South where King went to look for the secrets of a foreign policy based on free trade, whose wealth derived, however, from cotton, tobacco and other products plantations, such as bananas, or sugar cane, which extended from the Bay of Chesapeake to the Gulf of Mexico, the result of the forced labor of some four million men and women. That southern model whose secrets William Faulkner would reveal, as Martinique-born, French and Antillean essayist, poet, novelist Édouard Glissant recalled: inalienable, sometimes grandiose, always (in Faulkner's work) miserable and fatal.

King reminds us that in 1858, three years before the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States, Senator Jefferson Davis, who would later become Confederate President, lamented that, among his Central and South American neighbors, Caucasians intermingled with Indians and Africans. “They have free forms of government because they copied them. But they have not achieved their benefits because that level of civilization is not within reach of their race”, he said.

We might think that all this is a thing of the past, but King traces here a vision that, despite the defeat of the South and the end of slavery, dominated US foreign policy, on which the idea of ​​North American “exceptionality” is based. , claimed more recently even by President Obama himself.

King cites the conquest of Hawaii, the wars in the Philippines, Cuba and Haiti in the late XNUMXth century, wars based on the concept of a master race against stubborn aborigines. A principle enshrined in a conception of its relations with Latin America, expressed in the concept of “manifest destiny” on which the idea of ​​natural dominion over the region is based.

The same reasoning prevailed during the Second World War. But already at that moment, protests against racial discrimination in the country were growing and the Cold War allowed the Soviet Union to exhibit the hypocrisy of North American claims about freedom and democracy. “The easiest thing for white politicians and intellectuals was to accept that domestic and international politics were essentially two different things,” says King.

Something that did not go unnoticed by Russian President Vladimir Putin when he mentioned, after his meeting with Biden in Geneva, the assault on the capitol and the political climate in the United States, which contributed to bringing Donald Trump to power. A climate that did not disappear with his defeat in the last elections, and that did not fail to be remembered by European political leaders and the press during Biden's tour.

Democracy and racism

A new generation of historians and political scientists, King says, is now taking seriously the problems of American democracy, redefining the place of racism in US history, and making explicit links between domestic and international politics. "Both liberals and conservatives tend to downplay the harm caused by the United States abroad, while revising those caused at home."

As an example, King cites the US prison system, disparities in the health care system, or the more current process by which sectors close to Trump try to control or reduce the right to vote in the country. Liberals and conservatives try to convince us that this is not relevant to understanding US international politics, something that should be put to an end, according to him. “American authoritarianism – from Jim Crow to Trump – bears a familiar resemblance to systems of violence and personalist dictatorships in other parts of the world,” he adds. Jim Crow laws redefined racial segregation in public spaces, under the concept of “separate but equal”.

King suggests that Senator Fulbright summed up these strengths and weaknesses. Fulbright played a key role in movements against the Vietnam War, he supported the creation of the UN, his scholarship program for students was in the crosshairs of Senator Joseph McCarthy's anti-communist campaigns. But being a Southerner after all, from the Deep South, he has always supported racist laws. "Fulbright's biography is evidence that the best the United States produced in the past century was inseparable from the worst." King goes through his trajectory to find in the “Fulbright paradox” some of the foundations of US foreign policy, which today faces external challenges similar to those facing its internal policy.

The challenges

Biden's tour began in Cornwall, England, where he participated in the G-7 summit, the group of powers around which the alliance for democracy is intended to be organized. From there, he went to Brussels, headquarters of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

The main focus of the NATO summit, said Robbie Gramer, a journalist responsible for diplomacy and national security at the magazine Foreign Policy, was to reiterate the policy of transatlantic solidarity, after the Trump era cast doubt on it. And discuss a new strategy that redirects the objectives of the confrontation with the Soviet bloc – which characterized the Cold War period – towards other objectives, such as the Chinese challenge, cyber threats or climate change. Naturally, given their characteristics, it is for the former that NATO forces are best adapted. But Gramer himself acknowledges that just six months after taking office, Biden faces a series of challenges in bringing Washington's policies together with those of its European allies on both China and Russia.

Not all allies are aligned with the North American proposal of confrontation with China. Others, especially those in Eastern Europe, don't want a change in approach that puts in the background what for them is fundamental: their confrontation with Russia. There are also those who don't want to be drawn into a confrontation between two superpowers.

After meeting with the allies, Biden left for Switzerland for his meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin. With relations at their lowest point in decades, with Russia under sanctions from Washington and the European Union, the meeting served Biden to renew threats of new sanctions if the Russians repeat cyberattacks against U.S. companies, interfere in domestic politics or if they let the oppositionist Alexei Navalny die in prison. The "West" has advanced to the Russian border, both in Ukraine and Belarus, but reject Moscow's responses - the annexation of Crimea and support for forces close to Russia in neighboring countries - to advances that it considers a threat to its security .

everyone measure themselves

Rafael Ramos, correspondent for the Spanish newspaper La Vanguardia in London, he referred to the “special relationship” with the United States that British governments are so fond of emphasizing. A relationship that for the United States does not seem to be so “special”, “a reflection of the fall of the empire and the progressive British decline since the end of World War II”, says Ramos.

Over the decades, he adds, it has become an almost abusive relationship, "in which Washington expects London to say yes to everything". As happened during Tony Blair's government, when he supported the invasion of Iraq, with the Spaniard Aznar as another partner of President George W. Bush. This “special relationship” gave rise to a new Atlantic Charter, in which both countries commit to collaborate on security and defense issues, protect democracy and combat cyber attacks from Russia and China.

The Atlantic Charter is not an original idea. The original was signed by Churchill and Roosevelt in August 1941. Two months earlier, the Nazis had invaded the Soviet Union. In the letter – a brief eight-point document – ​​the two major Western powers at the time expressed an optimistic view of the post-war world, which history has revealed to be illusory.

About to complete 80 years, the original version of the Charter is, however, a historical document, while the new version may have been forgotten before completing 80 days. Churchill and Roosevelt were talking about the end of World War II. Biden and Johnson refer to the post-Cold War world, that of neoliberal globalization.

The balance of that time is controversial. "Globalization," says Singaporean diplomat and academic Kishore Mahbubani, "has not failed." But analysts focus only on the 15% of humanity that lives in the West and ignore the other 85%. Nor have Western elites shared the fruits of globalization with the rest of their population.

In Mahbubani's opinion, it was in Asia that globalization proved to be a success, with the emergence of a middle class that generated wealth, in a bid for balanced international institutions and the stabilization of an international system based on rules that could benefit the majority of humanity. . Everything that the original Atlantic Charter dreamed of, but that the “West” could not achieve.

When future historians study this era, Mahbubani added, “they will be amazed to see that a republic as young as the United States, less than 250 years old, sought to influence a civilization that is four times as large in population and 4.000 years old. ”.

*Gilberto Lopes is a journalist, PhD in Society and Cultural Studies from the Universidad de Costa Rica (UCR). author of Political crisis of the modern world (Uruk).

Translation: Fernando Lima das Neves.

 

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