For seventy years the United States has dominated international affairs. Not by having an empire but by being both policeman and paymaster wherever either was needed. Policeman where there was trouble, and paymaster where American influence was likely to stop trouble, or more high-mindedly, where such influence was likely to create democracy and higher living standards. Hard and soft interventions, in other words.
That has always been a crushingly expensive double burden, but after World War Two a burden that American politicians were generally united in feeling both their moral duty and in the self-interests of their country. And one that the most successful economy in the world could shoulder. Not that it was always successful; far from it, especially in hard interventions, as American military action so often ended in defeat or face-saving confusion. Often it was easier to influence things by providing the money, but even there, surprisingly, there was always competition. Russia, though less resourced to wave the cheque book around, was good at using less dosh to create conditions favourable to itself. It helped, of course, that the Soviets could play the role of the anti-America, the protector of leftish regimes from the bullying capitalists to the west and north, the bearer of the Socialist flame of equality and fraternity.
And when the Soviet money bags were finally empty and the Soviet empire rapidly crumbling to brick dust and toppled statues, China stepped quietly but skilfully into the vacancy. Skilfully because China’s physical empire remained small and easily managed, Tibet and Mongolia being about the extent of it, with Taiwan as a nervous irritant. China, like so many learned commentators, thought that the future was in Africa, a great but poverty-stricken continent, yet one rich in resources, both material and human. Here it was easy to buy friendship; a small hospital or two, educational opportunities for the children of the elite, new roads, railways, airports. Best of all, a ready buyer for minerals and mine outputs, not a greedy capitalist western one, but a friendly helpful nation, not given to rabbiting on about governance or democracy or financial morality, but one willing to offset incoming soft loans to build railways against hard outgoing train-loads of ore.
Within thirty years China has gone from a third-world nation to a leading manufacturing economy, one whose natural resources are small, but whose friends are worldwide. So too is her influence; the West may think China is playing a long game but her client states do not care much about that; they have a generous friend and that is good enough for them.
In the same period America has gone through three events, which all served to reduce her world standing. First was the War on Terror. It may have seemed to Americans to be a sincere attempt to rid the world of violently nasty bad guys, but to many countries it looked like regime replacement and oil grabbing. G W Bush’s spell as Middle Eastern policeman having swept the Republicans out of office, in came Mr Obama. This is not the place, nor yet the time for analysis, but Mr Obama largely appeared uninterested in concepts of America in the world. For much of his two administrations he seemed to occupy the Oval Office without much concept of what he wanted to do whilst there. You might argue he did no harm (the Libyan people might not agree), but by doing nothing much, much harm can be done. He certainly laid the groundwork for his successor who turned passive disengagement from the world into a positive plank of his foreign policy. Mr Trump is a businessman; he thinks like a businessman, not surprisingly, having spent his whole life as one. He saw no point in America acting as world policeman or as world banker; it costs too much and creates platforms for annoying people to be rude to America and her President. He had a positive policy – which was to gracefully quit most of the US’s foreign entanglements. Ship troops back home wherever possible, tell Europe to start paying a proper share of local defence costs, abandon the World Health Organisation and many other world agencies and tell them to find new funders. All this is nothing new in American politics; it is very much a return to what was the Republic’s policy in international matters for its first 150 years. Isolation. Fortress America. Call it what you will. The USA is a country largely self-sufficient in everything she needs, ever more so in the last half century. She only has two land neighbours, neither any threat to her, and lots of missiles to deter more long-distance trouble-makers. There is a great appeal – many readers will now know it only too well - in staying at home and not talking to strangers. As a national policy it has a strong resonance with Americans, who do tend to look at the rest of the world and are not impressed. Though, most recognise, as with your home, that does tend to let the bad guys get control of the streets. But, hey, so what?
So, how does Joe Biden see America’s place in the world? There is already plenty of evidence – even during Barrack Obama’s presidency – that the then Vice President was more traditionally interventionist than his boss. Now with his hands on the rudder of the ship of state there is certainly a major change of course becoming apparent. We seem to be going back pre-Trump, pre-Obama, and perhaps even pre-Bush. Mr Biden might even be seen as more of a Kennedy in his approach.
America’s soft financial support is being re-engaged to the bodies from whence Mr Trump withdrew it. “America is back” said Joe, several times after his victory, and he made no bones that he was preparing to resume a world leadership role. But Joe overlooked something. He did not first ask whether the world wanted America back, in particular back in charge. Alas, much of the world might, if asked, say “Thanks, but no thanks.” It is not always easy to rejoin a club where you were never that popular in the old times. We should not entirely blame Messrs Bush, Obama, and Trump for that. It is certainly true that the latter two gentlemen left a vacuum, and as we know, nature and politicians abhor a vacuum. But the truth is that the American half-century was probably almost over anyway, even before the war on terror, and the world was realigning. China is a much better player of the soft influence game than the USA ever has been. Islam is an increasingly powerful force in the world with a strong sense of fraternity; those who attack one Islamic country do not endear themselves to others. At the same time countries and their leaders do not like lectures on their internal systems and moralities from elsewhere; in particular from the USA which is seen increasingly as a broken society with failing political institutions. Turkey is a good example; Mr Erdogan’s increasing Islamisation of his country may be politically expedient or it may be a genuine spiritual awakening on his part, but it is very popular with large segments of the Turkish population. It does the USA (and Europe) no favours to criticise it, especially when that increasingly wealthy country finds friends in Russia, in China, and with other Moslem neighbours to the east.
Joe indeed looks too much like the America of the past; too quick to assume that the Western model is the only one to follow, too keen to talk rather than to listen. And too ready to make moral judgements which may be well received in liberal East Coast salons, but can upset faraway apple-carts. The Donald mostly avoided that, but the Biden foot has already landed in Saudi Arabian trouble – bringing up the Khashoggi murder may be the “right thing” but to lambast the Crown Prince over it, when the USA needs Saudi bases and support to hold the line against Iran is a strange strategy. Especially when Saudi is Israel’s new best friend in the area, and is corralling the Gulf emirates into the same room.
There is a certainly a place for America to be a real force for good in the world, but to achieve that must include clear recognition that the world has changed. Soft influence, soft diplomacy, soft words, and an open cheque book (carefully angled as to where such money is spent) will achieve much; striking moral attitudes, lectures on democracy, assuming leadership unasked, and moving troops about will not. Mr Trump, perhaps surprisingly, achieved more than might be credited on the world stage. Maybe Mr Biden should slow down a little, read the recent histories and the briefing papers. That way he may find a much warmer international welcome.