Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

The Decline of the American World

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Tom McTague writes in the Atlantic:

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“He hated America very deeply,” John le Carré wrote of his fictional Soviet mole, Bill Haydon, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Haydon had just been unmasked as a double agent at the heart of Britain’s secret service, one whose treachery was motivated by animus, not so much to England but to America. “It’s an aesthetic judgment as much as anything,” Haydon explained, before hastily adding: “Partly a moral one, of course.”

I thought of this as I watched the scenes of protest and violence over the killing of George Floyd spread across the United States and then here in Europe and beyond. The whole thing looked so ugly at first—so full of hate, and violence, and raw, undiluted prejudice against the protesters. The beauty of America seemed to have gone, the optimism and charm and easy informality that entrances so many of us from abroad.

At one level, the ugliness of the moment seems a trite observation to make. And yet it gets to the core of the complicated relationship the rest of the world has with America. In Tinker Tailor, Haydon at first attempts to justify his betrayal with a long political apologia, but, in the end, as he and le Carré’s hero, the master spy George Smiley, both know, the politics are just the shell. The real motivation lies underneath: the aesthetic, the instinct. Haydon—upper class, educated, cultured, European—just could not stand the sight of America. For Haydon and many others like him in the real world, this visceral loathing proved so great that it blinded them to the horrors of the Soviet Union, ones that went far beyond the aesthetic.

Le Carré’s reflection on the motivations of anti-Americanism—bound up, as they are, with his own ambivalent feelings about the United States—are as relevant today as they were in 1974, when the novel was first published. Where there was then Richard Nixon, there is now Donald Trump, a caricature of what the Haydons of this world already despise: brash, grasping, rich, and in charge. In the president and first lady, the burning cities and race divides, the police brutality and poverty, an image of America is beamed out, confirming the prejudices that much of the world already have—while also serving as a useful device to obscure its own injustices, hypocrisies, racism, and ugliness.

It is hard to escape the feeling that this is a uniquely humiliating moment for America. As citizens of the world the United States created, we are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometimes all at the same time). But feeling pity for America? That one is new, even if the schadenfreude is painfully myopic. If it’s the aesthetic that matters, the U.S. today simply doesn’t look like the country that the rest of us should aspire to, envy, or replicate.Even in previous moments of American vulnerability, Washington reigned supreme. Whatever moral or strategic challenge it faced, there was a sense that its political vibrancy matched its economic and military might, that its system and democratic culture were so deeply rooted that it could always regenerate itself. It was as if the very idea of America mattered, an engine driving it on whatever other glitches existed under the hood. Now, something appears to be changing. America seems mired, its very ability to rebound in question. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China—with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed: mutually assured economic destruction.

China, unlike the Soviet Union, is able to offer a measure of wealth, vibrancy, and technological advancement—albeit not yet to the same level as the United States—while protected by a silk curtain of Western cultural and linguistic incomprehension. In contrast, if America were a family, it would be the Kardashian clan, living its life in the open glare of a gawping, global public—its comings and goings, flaws and contradictions, there for all to see. Today, from the outside, it looks as if this strange, dysfunctional, but highly successful upstart of a family were suffering a sort of full-scale breakdown; what made that family great is apparently no longer enough to prevent its decline.

The U.S.—uniquely among nations—must suffer the agony of this existential struggle in the company of the rest of us. America’s drama quickly becomes our drama. Driving to meet a friend here in London as the protests first erupted in the States, I passed a teenager in a basketball jersey with jordan 23 emblazoned on the back; I noticed it because my wife and I had been watching The Last Dance on Netflix, a documentary about an American sports team, on an American streaming platform. The friend told me he’d spotted graffiti on his way over: i can’t breathe. In the weeks since, protesters have marched in London, Berlin, Paris, Auckland, and elsewhere in support of Black Lives Matter, reflecting the extraordinary cultural hold the United States continues to have over the rest of the Western world.

At one rally in London, the British heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua rapped the lyrics to Tupac’s “Changes” alongside other protesters. The words, so jarring, powerful, and American, are yet so easily translatable and seemingly universal—even though Britain’s police are largely unarmed and there are very few police shootings. Since the initial outpouring of support for George Floyd, the spotlight has turned inward here in Europe. A statue of an old slave trader was torn down in Bristol, while one of Winston Churchill was vandalized with the word racist in London. In Belgium, protesters targeted memorials to Leopold II, the Belgian king who made Congo his own genocidal private property. The spark may have been lit in America, but the global fires are being kept alive by the fuel of national grievances.

For the United States, this cultural dominance is both an enormous strength and a subtle weakness. It draws in talented outsiders to study, build businesses, and rejuvenate itself, molding and dragging the world with it as it does, influencing and distorting those unable to escape its pull. Yet this dominance comes with a cost: The world can see into America, but America cannot look back. And today, the ugliness that is on display is amplified, not calmed, by the American president.

To understand how this moment in U.S. history is being seen in the rest of the world, I spoke to more than a dozen senior diplomats, government officials, politicians, and academics from five major European countries, including advisers to two of its most powerful leaders, as well as to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. From these conversations, most of which took place on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, a picture emerged in which America’s closest allies are looking on with a kind of stunned incomprehension, unsure of what will happen, what it means, and what they should do, largely bound together with angst and a shared sense, as one influential adviser told me, that America and the West are approaching something of a fin de siècle. “The moment is pregnant,” this adviser said. “We just don’t know what with.”

Today’s convulsions are not without precedent—many I spoke to cited previous protests and riots, or America’s diminished standing after the Iraq War in 2003 (a war, to be sure, supported by Britain and other European countries)—yet the confluence of recent events and modern forces has made the present challenge particularly dangerous. The . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

24 June 2020 at 9:59 pm

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