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Old Man Shouting, ‘The American Empire Is Doing Great!’

Above photo: Joe Biden’s State of the Union Address. Screenshot.

But It Isn’t.

Democratic elites and the reporters who clerk for them were effusively approving of Joe Biden’s State of the Union speech last Thursday evening—not so much for what he said, which came nothing new, as for the demeanor of our enfeebled president. Never mind that Biden reduced an occasion intended to address all Americans as to the condition of their nation to a cheap stump speech. He avoided falling down for his hour at the podium while stringing coherent sentences (mostly) together in the cause of his political survival. That is what counted.

“This was not Old Man Joe,” Peter Baker fairly ejaculated in Friday morning’s New York Times. “This was Forceful Joe. This was Angry Joe. This was Loud Joe. This was Game–On Joe.”

Wow. I seemed to have missed that, Joe.

I saw Joe who trades in hollow appearances. This was Joe urging both houses of Congress and 32 million television viewers to join in making believe we still live in the 20th century. This was Joe pretending America’s global primacy is intact. This was Joe refusing to recognize the emergence of new poles of power and the high cost this refusal exacts.

“A nation that stands as a beacon to the world. A nation in a new age of possibilities”: You wouldn’t believe an American public figure, to say nothing of a president, would still trade in this kind of exhausted pabulum. Denial of this kind, we must not fail to remind ourselves, does not come cheap.

You have to wonder who is driving the bus after listening to a speech as vapid as Biden’s, and I will attempt an answer to this question in due course.

Here is the passage in Biden’s speech that most aroused all the Peter Baker liberals eager to see him reelected in November:

My fellow Americans, the issue facing our nation isn’t how old we are, it’s how old are our ideas…. [Y]ou can’t lead America with ancient ideas that only take us back. To lead America, the land of possibilities, you need a vision for the future and what can and should be done.

These remarks—Biden rehearsed them severally in preceding days—bring us to some very difficult recognitions, even if Biden’s speechwriters intended them otherwise. No recent president I can think of has proven more abjectly bereft of new ideas than Joe Biden.

The reckless support of “the Jewish state,” the proxy war in Ukraine, the obsessive Russophobia, the provocations across the Taiwan Strait, the covert operations in Syria and elsewhere, the sanction regimes imposed on too many nations to count, the vassalization of Europe: There is no new thinking in any of this. These are ideas so old they leave the U.S. in a state of ever more extreme isolation in a world eager to get on with the 21st century. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., is the face of the American imperium as it insists on prolonging itself. This is not a role with any originality or vision to it.

Biden gave the houses of Congress and the millions who watched him on television a performance Thursday evening, just as Peter Baker and numerous others celebrated it. And his speech was performative in precise proportion to its vacancy. Presentation has always been important in politics. But those purporting to lead us, having nothing new to say and much to obscure as to America’s conduct, lead us into what we may as well call a culture of appearances. These are all that matter as the imperium gets on with its frequently criminal business.

We come to one of several disturbing recognitions now facing us. This nation’s leaders, and the West’s altogether, have succumbed to a state of paralysis that leaves them incapable of the one thing our moment requires most of leadership. This is the capacity to make the bold decisions that are necessary if we are to set ourselves on a new course and do well in a century of historic transformations.

Who was the last president to prove unafraid of new thinking and decisive action? Kennedy as he resolved the Bay of Pigs crisis? Or when he called for a new global order and world peace—“a topic on which ignorance too often abounds and the truth is too rarely perceived yet it is the most important topic on earth”—in his famous speech at American University in the spring of 1963? Nixon when he opened to China?

Put this next to Biden’s response to the savagery in Gaza, to take a single example of many. Instead of declaring the new policy toward apartheid Israel these atrocities require, he sends more than 100 weapons shipments to Israel since Oct. 7—covertly to avoid asking for congressional approval, as The Washington Post reported last week, while airlifting virtue-signaling pallets of “prepared dinners” to a starving population of 2.3 million. Using its typical cotton-wool language, in its Sunday editions The Times termed this “the delicate position the United States has found itself in.” “Rank hypocrisy” would have been shorter and better. There is no change in Biden’s stone solid support for a regime whose conduct more than casually resembles that of the Reich—only another performance in the service of facile appearances.

U.S. support for the genocide in Gaza, the proxy war it spent many years provoking in Ukraine: These disasters reflect the Biden regime’s mistaken assumption that America lives in an unchanged world. These policies have profoundly alienated the vast majority of the world’s people—this as measured by population or a count of nations. This majority is no longer with America as it once might have been. The “international community,” that ever-hollower phrase, now comes down to the Group of 7 and a few clients and G–7 hangers-on. This is what I mean by the costs of denial.

There are many other miscalculations to note in this line. The Iraq invasion, Afghanistan, the ongoing covert ops in Syria, the destruction of Libya—all failures reflecting an overestimation of U.S. power in the 21st century and an underestimation of its accumulating weaknesses. The destruction of the Nord Stream pipelines two summers ago counts a success as a well-planned covert operation. As an expression of American foreign policy it is a measure either of Washington’s bankruptcy in the way of new thinking or of its desperation, if not both.

Economic vitality is essential to the conduct of empire, as history shows plainly enough. Those purporting to lead the U.S. appear lost as to how to address this matter as it grows too evident to ignore. There is no need to elaborate on the increasing desperation of many working Americans in direct consequence of America’s imperial overstretch. The national debt, now at $34.5 trillion, is 129 percent of gross domestic product. This compares very unfavorably with China, Brazil, Egypt, Sierra Leone, and numerous other developing and middle-income  nations. As a measure of America’s decline, its debt-to-GDP ratio averaged half its current level from 1940 to 2022 and compares with a low of 32 percent as recently as 1981.

You don’t hear much about globalization anymore, do you? This is because America can no longer compete in numerous cutting-edge sectors. Economic nationalism and  straight-out protection is the new economic ideology. The Biden regime is midway in erecting export controls and other barriers intended to damage China’s high-technology industries. Late last month it announced that it intends to block Chinese-made electric vehicles from the American market—this on the pretext that they represent a security threat.

Pitiful all around.

It is not difficult to explain this (very partial) list of political, diplomatic, military, and economic policy misjudgments. One need look no further than President Biden’s SOTU performance, wherein the fundamental impediment is plain. He is unwilling to acknowledge the emergence of non–Western powers, notably but not only those forming the BRICS group. And in consequence he is unable to act sensibly, wisely, imaginatively to 21st century realities, the two most evident of which are the rise of the non–West and America’s relative if not absolute decline.

Think once more about that speech and the all the cheerleaders who shouted into megaphones afterward. These people are no more than nostalgists, and I have long considered nostalgia a form of depression that grips those unable to face the present. As denialists they are directly responsible for inhibiting any chance America may have of genuinely altering course to find a new direction forward.

We are not, to put this point another way, incessantly creating and recreating our world in the fashion of a vibrant civilization. Ours is a diminished world devoid of that élan vital Bergson thought essential to any dynamic society: There is no forward movement in our present circumstances. Our leaders instead enforce an eternal present, a “what is” from which there is no escape because there is no one to lead us out of it into a dynamic new future.

We had better be careful as these failings lead us to conclude there is no one driving the bus. Biden’s ineptitude certainly encourages the thought, but this  obscures a larger reality that seems yet more daunting than these others. Joe Biden is symptom, not cause, in the final analysis.

Many presidents before Biden were guilty of selling American foreign policy to those who proposed to buy it. In the case of Israel, this derives from a lobby that has grown grotesquely powerful and thinks nothing of using its wealth to destroy America’s political process, silence critics of the Zionist state, and so dismantle altogether what remains of our democracy. As to Ukraine, it is merely the latest in a long line of conflicts waged, like money-laundering schemes, to benefit the military-industrial complex.

Capital, to finish the thought, drives our bus. And of all the things that must not come in for criticism in the nation we have made of ourselves, the power of capital is surely near the top of the list.

Josep Borrell, the plain-speaking Spaniard currently serving as the European Union’s foreign minister, made some observations late last month that are singular for their unvarnished honesty. These appeared Feb. 25 on the E.U.’s foreign affairs website, External Action, where Borrell reprised for the general public his presentation at the just-concluded Munich Security Conference.

In his Munich speech and subsequently in his External Action essay, Borrell identified “the four main tasks on E.U.’s geopolitical agenda.” Three of these are easily anticipated: support for Ukraine, ending the Gaza crisis, “strengthening our defense and security.” Any European technocrat could have ticked off this list. It was the remaining “task” facing Europeans—the third as Borrell ordered them—that catches the eye. This concerns “our relations with the so-called ‘Global South’ countries.”

Here is the forthright Borrell on this topic:

If the current global geopolitical tensions continue to evolve in the direction of “the West against the Rest,” Europe’s future risks to be bleak. The era of Western dominance has indeed definitively ended. While this has been theoretically understood, we have not always drawn all practical conclusions from this new reality.

… Many in the “Global South” accuse us of “double standards.” … We need to push back on this narrative but also to address this issue not only with words: In the coming months, we must make a massive effort to win back the trust of our partners.

Borrell has been all over the place on the question of the West’s evolving relations with the non–West since assuming his E.U. duties five years ago this coming July. Addressing an audience in Bruges two years ago, he famously blundered into an indiscretion the match of any Joe Biden gaffe:

Europe is a garden. We have built a garden. Everything works. It is the best combination of political freedom, economic prosperity and social cohesion that the [sic] humankind has been able to build—the three things together.

The rest of the world is not exactly a garden. Most of the rest of the world is a jungle, and the jungle could invade the garden.

Borrell quickly apologized for his remarks and seems to have come a considerable distance in the intervening years if we are to go by his speech in Munich and the essay he wrote afterward. And for all his inconstancy, he is one of the few people in positions of influence—the few Western leaders, I mean—who understands that the Atlantic world has reached an inflection point, a moment of historical magnitude. And he is right about what brought the West to this point. Post–Gaza and post–Ukraine, it is already becoming clear, the West will find that it has redefined its relations with the wider world. But to set a new course requires a certain surrender Western leaders—all of them, not just Biden—cannot yet accept.

When the U.S. finally succeeded in provoking Russia to intervene in Ukraine two years ago last month, when the Biden regime led the whole of the Atlantic alliance into unqualified support for Israel as it began—or resumed, better put—its siege of the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank, the West still rested on a presumption of global superiority that we can date to 1498, when Vasco da Gama arrived on the Indian coast. This has been construed ever since as material superiority, certainly, but it has also extended to the cultural, moral, and institutional spheres. There is the West and the rest, as Borrell noted, the garden and the jungle, the lawful and the lawless, the first world and the third. To become modern requires becoming Western.

It has been some years since this paradigm began losing credibility. We might date this to the liberation struggles of those post–World War II decades known as the Independence Era. Being cautious, the West’s claim to superiority in all things has certainly looked ever emptier since the Berlin Wall fell and people and nations were freed from the Cold War binary the U.S. imposed on the planet. Unless you are given to primitive charlatans such as Robert Kagan, you must count this a very excellent turn in the human story.

The Atlantic alliance’s dramatic failure in Ukraine and its craven support for Israel’s Old Testament barbarities in Gaza (see, e.g., Numbers 31: 1–54) have together shredded whatever remained of the West’s pretenses. No claim to superior morality or the rule of Western law is any longer possible. All that remains is material superiority, primarily by way of the weaponry of war, just as it was when da Gama got to southern India.

As many have remarked, there is no coming back from this for Israel and no coming back for the U.S. I would add there is no coming back for the West altogether. We are in consequence face to face with many realities from which most of us in the West have long flinched. This has many implications.

High among them, I would say, is whether the beleaguered West can continue to cohere. At this point Europe exhibits two contending impulses. One is to make the Atlantic wider, so reclaiming some of the independence it gave up in the early postwar decades. There is no assumption among Europeans that America’s turn from globalization to economic nationalism will not bear consequences for them as well as others. The Nord Stream operation was in large measure driven by geopolitics, but the U.S. also had an economic motive not lost on Europe. There are, conversely, many Europeans—Borrell among them—who advocate drawing yet closer to the U.S., so continuing the Continent’s long, unfortunate habit of sheltering under the “American security umbrella” at the cost of its sovereignty and sense of self-worth.

One question that is shared on both sides of the Atlantic implies the greatest task the Western world has faced in long time—maybe centuries, depending on how one counts. I have already suggested it. It is the task of surrendering those claims to superiority from which the Western consciousness has drawn its identity for the past half a millennium. To do this would be an immense positive for the West and everyone living in it. It would mean not defeat but an immense unburdening; it would open up many true possibilities—these as against that “land of possibilities” Biden conjured of thin air Thursday evening.

But the West’s leaders, America’s above all, have no clue of the surrender our moment asks of them. To surrender as I mean this term will require leadership of a kind Western nations have rarely before seen, and there is none in sight at this point.

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