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The End Of Global Leadership

Above photo: President Joe Biden, First Lady Jill Biden, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese and his partner Ms. Jodie Haydon participate in the State Arrival Ceremony, Wednesday, October 25, 2023, on the South Lawn of the White House. Official White House/Oliver Contreras.

The West’s Decline Is Upon Us.

There are many photographs of President Biden floating around these days. Maybe it is because, even allowing for his physical decline and his mental incompetence, his minders can no longer keep him so thoroughly out of sight as this, an election year, begins. The picture I am thinking of, carried by the BBC, is a video frame shot at Biden’s Valley Forge speech last week. That was his first outing as he seeks reelection next November.

And there are Joe Biden and First Lady Jill—excuse me, Dr. Jill—standing before the usual prop on such occasions, an immense American flag. Joe smiles out from a mask-like face, blank with what looks like bewilderment. Dr. Jill smiles, too—a frozen smile, but one that suggests she is at least aware of what is going on. Dr. Jill waves, left arm hoisted high. The two are holding hands.

What is it about this image, among so many others, that causes it to linger in my mind? I conclude it was the utter emptiness of the poses and the gestures. I have seen few photographs of prominent pols, and in this case the spouse, so abjectly devoid of sincerity and authenticity.

It has something to do with the moment, too. This is a president who has supplied and financed a proxy war in Ukraine that has failed after killing scores of thousands of soldiers and displacing millions more. This is a president who now sponsors a genocide in Gaza as the world watches in real time—a genocide, do you hear me? This president’s signature project—America will lead democratic nations in a crusade against the world’s authoritarians—is virtually nowhere taken seriously. This is a man who presides with imperial distance over a republic that has tumbled into spiritual and social collapse and extreme economic inequality, all the while displaying more or less complete indifference to this national plight. This is a president facing articles of impeachment based on plentiful evidence that he participated in the influence-peddling schemes of his son and brother.

This is a man who is smiling. At the end of the video Dr. Jill has to lead President Joe off the stage. He does not stop smiling as she does so. I suppose the intent is to encourage as many Americans as possible to assume—to assume without thinking too much—all goes swimmingly as 2024 begins, the outlook altogether hunky-dory. My read of the Valley Forge image is upside down to this. I find the president and First Lady’s fixed expressions, and their evident determination that they must not betray any of what lies behind the smiles, frightening.

This is what “victory culture” looks like when it is videoed or photographed, to borrow Tom Engelhardt’s very useful phrase. When Tom published The End of Victory Culture in 1995, he thought he had written the epitaph for the peculiarly American preference for the illusion of never-ending “wins,” success everywhere one looks. He knows better now, as a revised edition of this fine book makes clear. If I find the image of Joe and Dr. Jill Biden at Valley Forge frightening, I also find it dangerous. And I may as well add, I find it abusive.

This is a time of many defeats for America and Americans. There is the list noted above. The war in Ukraine is out-and-out lost no matter how long and perversely the U.S. and its clients continue wasting lives and money to avoid this truth. The Israelis will prevail on the ground in Gaza, as argued recently in this space, but Israel and America have already lost big, very big, if we think in strategic terms rather than tactically. The Gaza crisis, in turn, has further shredded the social and political fabric at home. Federal and state legislatures, the courts, the universities, the media, rights of assembly and free speech: How far will America go until it recognizes that U.S. support for an out-of-control Zionist state is damage America inflicts on itself?

I look now to a defeat greater than all of these. Ours is a passage in history that, however difficult it is, we must recognize for its sheer magnitude. It was a long time coming, but the pathological savagery of the Israelis as they exterminate the Palestinians of Gaza announces the end of any claim America and the West altogether have to global leadership on any kind of moral basis, legal basis, or any assumption that the West possesses superior ideals, principles of government, or what have you. Israel’s genocide, we had better acknowledge, has many antecedents. In this way the apartheid state, as it exposes its own grotesquerie, also exposes the West’s centuries of sins.

This is epochal, no less. This is the defeat that will mark our time, at least as the better historians will record it. “Something Lost, Never to Be Found Again” is the head on a superbly reflective piece Alastair Crooke published last week in Strategic Culture Foundation. Ours is “a culture that has become debased; its lures that used to trap us into the ‘Myth of the West’ lie withered, as patently false idols,” writes the former British diplomat, who now runs the Conflict Forum in Beirut. “The dimming fire has squandered any sense of ‘magic’ in the guttering West, or indeed of hope to recoup this something ‘lost.’ It is the wistful realisation that—as it stands—the myth is never likely to offer anything of lasting value again.”

Here is Crooke further on in this unmissable essay:

Where we stand now is where we’ve always stood—in the quicksands of time. A passing of the guard; one world fading, deep into the slow, declining burnout phase, the natural process of decay and renewal, whilst taking us forward towards some next, still-to-sprout, green shoots. A sense of something lost and never to be found again, which we all endure these days.

The ‘Elect,’ though, have deliberately raised the stakes. They do not want to ‘let go.’ They have determined that, with the western train wrecked on its own cultural ‘wall,’ the ‘End of Time’ story of convergence on a common future is ‘over’ too.

And along with it, the claimed western mandate to dictate the ‘direction forward’ is over also.

Crooke borrowed liberally from a piece Simplicius, the always interesting blogger, published as “Bones of Tomorrow” on New Year’s Eve. Theirs is the kind of language — encompassing, far-seeing, unshy, grand in its way—our moment requires if we are to understand it. Name a Western leader who speaks it, and you can range well beyond the cartoon characters who think grotesque grins will get them and us through. They cannot speak it because they are too busy “flipping every narrative,” as Crooke puts it, into “another Western ‘win.’” This is what I mean when I suggest that Joe and Dr. Jill’s smiles are dangerous. Either they cannot see or they cannot handle what they see—and so they cannot lead and, indeed, are not meant to lead.

There is much to be said for defeat, I have long argued. Loss gives the vanquished the opportunity to retreat, rethink the errors and the worldview altogether, and rejoin the human community with different aspirations and a different purpose. The addiction to a variant of victory culture evident among those who purport to lead us deprives us of this salutary benefit. Apart from those whose eyes are open to the frauds of “the Elect,” it keeps us, too, from understanding our world in any kind of sound way such that we are able to act wisely upon it. It leaves us in a paralyzing state of uncertainty and confusion. This is what I mean by abusive. We are consigned to darkness, tormented in the bargain with monstrous Jack Nicholson smiles.

I do not imagine I am the only one disappointed by the non–West’s tepid-to-quiescent response to apartheid Israel’s barbarities in Gaza. Early in the conflict a number of non–Western nations recalled their ambassadors to Tel Aviv and, in the case of Bolivia, severed relations altogether. I was not alone then, either, as I applauded. But little has happened since. I would have wanted to see militantly imposed sanctions, the expulsion of all Israeli officials, the breaking of ties at various functional levels. China proposed playing a role in a settlement of the Israel–Palestine question but has done nothing about this since. Only the Houthis, citing the legally mandated obligations of others to intervene against the perpetrators of genocidal actions, have responded to the Gaza crisis as they think just under international law.

The past year or two has been notable for the extent to which non–Western nations have coalesced in various formations, along with an elaboration of bilateral ties of all sorts. I have applauded this, too, as the makings of a new world order, as the Chinese think of it. Gaza, it seems to me, was the first major challenge to this drift toward a common cause among non–Western powers. It came too soon, as I read it. They are not ready for it.

The BRICS–Plus, as the original bloc has expanded from Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa, along with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, are the two big groups that have drawn attention these past years. But we must now understand what they are and are not. I will use a comparison to make this point. In the first postwar decades Asians lived with what was called a spokes-and-hub arrangement in their foreign relations. All of them—all the non–Communist nations, this is to say—had ties to the U.S., but their ties to one another were  weak. It took considerable thought and effort to get past this unfortunate circumstance, the remnants of which linger in cases such as Japan.

It seems to me the non–West as a whole is attempting something of the same as it seeks to declare itself decisively beyond postcolonial patterns. But this is a long process, as East Asians found it to be. Non–Western formations such as the BRICS–Plus and the SCO are so far loose associations of nations with individual priorities and interests, most of them economic as against diplomatic or political. Neither has a secretariat. Neither has a defined common cause as, say, NATO does. We cannot expect too much of them at this early moment, then. There may come a day when BRICS–Plus will have the capacity to act influentially in a crisis such as Gaza, to assume one or another kind of a leadership role, but this day lies in the future.

South Africans, who know all about apartheid and the wages of its sins, have brought a case against Israel that the International Court of Justice heard Thursday and Friday. The outcome of this action will be clear in several weeks and as of now is an open question given how thoroughly the U.S. has corrupted international public space over many decades. The court heard South Africa’ charges Thursday that America’s No. 1 ally in the Middle East (and maybe worldwide) is in breach of the Genocide Convention of 1948; on Friday Israel presented its defense that it is not in breach. For the sake of expedience, South Africa requested a temporary restraining order rather than, at this time, a final judgment. We cannot assume the court’s judgment is an open-and-shut finding in South Africa’s favor, Israel’s barbarities notwithstanding.  “They make a plausible case,” Norman Finkelstein, the noted scholar, remarked in a video interview the other day. “But these things are not decided by law. They are decided by politics.”

I find the politics discouraging. They look like this. The five members of the U.N. Security Council—the U.S., Britain, France, China, Russia—are all represented on the ICJ’s 15–member bench. Finkelstein, interestingly, is skeptical that the latter two will support the South African case: Russia faces a pending ICJ case having to do with its conduct in Ukraine; China is accused of genocide in the case of Uighurs. “Do they want to open up the Pandora’s box?” Finkelstein asks. “I would say very unlikely.” The South Africans need 8 of the 15 judges to vote with them. Massaging the arithmetic, Finkelstein reckons they will come up short one vote—too many others either siding with Israel or compromised in one or another way as Russia and China appear to be.

The South African case at The Hague is important on its own merits: The Palestinians of Gaza deserve justice, and certainly an immediate restraining order. It is also a reminder we are well to heed. The old order has collapsed before our eyes. History being very short of perfect symmetries, what will replace it by whatever name is in formation but has not yet come to be.

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