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America Seethes and the World Watches

Blog

America Seethes and the World Watches

Even for a company that focuses primarily on international affairs, there is no avoiding the domestic unrest that has gripped the United States. (The distinction between domestic and international issues is largely an artificial one anyway.)

  • Over 100,000 Americans have died and almost 2 million more have been infected in a global pandemic. Both figures are the highest in the world by far.
  • The unemployment rate in the United States increased from 4.4 percent in March to 14.7 percent in April (May’s figures will be published on June 5). Over 20 million Americans lost their jobs in April alone, and over 40 million Americans have submitted initial claims for unemployment insurance in the last 10 weeks.
  •  Latest estimates by the U.S. Department of Commerce reflected a 5 percent decrease in gross domestic production during the first quarter of 2020. The US will likely enter a technical recession when preliminary data for the second quarter is released on June 25. The Dow Jones, which plunged by almost 40 percent after COVID-19 related shutdowns began, is still down 14 percent from its February 2020 high.  
  • A Minneapolis police officer has been charged with third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter after a video showed him with his knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Floyd’s death was the latest in a series of deadly attacks against black Americans, including Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery.  
  • Anger at Floyd’s death has sparked both non-violent protests and riots in over 140 American cities, some of which continue as of the time of this writing. The National Guard has been activated in over 20 states and curfews have been declared in over 40 U.S. cities and in some states. In some cities, like Minneapolis, rioters have set fire to police stations. In Chicago alone, 699 people were arrested, 132 police officers were wounded, 48 people were shot, and 17 people were killed over the weekend.
  • Floyd has become a global symbol. In war-torn Syria, an artist painted a mural of Floyd in Idlib province. Thousands of New Zealanders took to the streets in their own country to protest racism. Iran’s government has used Floyd’s death to criticize the U.S. for racism. China played a similar card and said it would work together “with Africa” to fight “all forms of racial discrimination and hatred.”
  • U.S. President Donald Trump has blamed “ANTIFA and the Radical Left” for the rioting and looting that has occurred. President Obama’s former National Security Adviser blamed Russia. Last Friday, the U.S. Secret Service reportedly rushed President Trump to an underground security bunker for his protection. In a phone call on Monday, President Trump excoriated American governors to “to dominate, if you don’t dominate you’re wasting your time.”
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the American presidential election campaign. Multiple lawsuits over the legality of the expanded use of mail-in ballots have been filed in U.S. courts. President Trump has publicly railed against expanding mail-in voting for fears of “fraud and abuse.”
  • A South Carolina 1st lieutenant named Trevarius Ravon Bowman became the 2,312nd U.S. soldier to die in Afghanistan. The US continues to make progress in withdrawing all its troops from Afghanistan by 2021. Even so, a UN report published on Monday concluded that the Taliban continues to work with al-Qaeda, and peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban have not begun.
  • The US has withdrawn from the Open Skies Treaty with Russia. The US has also begun negotiating with Russia on revising the New START treaty but is making any agreement contingent on Russia bringing China into the deal. As a result, according to Moscow, prospects for a deal are “rapidly moving close to zero.” The U.S. government is considering whether to conduct a nuclear test explosion for the first time since 1992.
  • In the latest salvo of the quickly worsening U.S.-China Trade War, the Chinese government reportedly told state-run agricultural companies to pause purchases of U.S. agricultural goods due to recent U.S. government statements pertaining to Hong Kong. A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said China was ready to take “all necessary measures” if the U.S. interfered in China’s internal affairs and lambasted the US for President Trump’s stated intention to withdraw from the World Health Organization.

Imagine for a moment that this litany of bullet points was about China rather than the United States. Imagine that an instance of police brutality in China had led to protests and riots in almost every major Chinese city and province; imagine that the People’s Liberation Army had to be mobilized and dispatched to hotspots around the country to quell the unrest; imagine that China was withdrawing from international agreements and threatening to test nuclear weapons whilst bogged down in a military conflict it had already lost half-a-continent away. Imagine that the Chinese economy was buckling, that the Chinese government had so badly bungled managing a public health crisis that hundreds of thousands of Chinese citizens were dying. Imagine that there was legitimate uncertainty at home and abroad about how the mechanics of an upcoming potential leadership transition were supposed to work.

Most geopolitical experts faced with a data set like that would be declaring the end of the People’s Republic. (Plenty have declared its imminent demise on the basis of far less.) In all honesty, we probably would too. Which lends the obvious question that arises an uncomfortable quality of being too close to home: should we be talking about the imminent demise of America’s Republic? It has been over 50 years since the watershed year of 1968, when Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and presumptive Democratic presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated within a few months of each other, when a year of race-riots and anti-Vietnam war unrest threatened to destroy the social fabric of the nation and catapulted Richard Nixon to the White House, when The Rascals sang that, “All the world over, so easy to see! People everywhere just wanna be free.” Has the old adage, “The more things change, the more they stay the same” ever been more apt?

There is, of course, an inherent problem with comparing the United States to China – or comparing any country to another, for that matter. At the risk of stating the obvious, the United States is not China. Comparing political instability in the United States to political instability in China is apples and oranges. There are different standards of justice; different understandings of government’s ultimate purpose (and how far a government can or should go to maintain social stability), not to mention entirely different levels of individual rights and personal freedoms. All nations have their warts and their virtues. In the sage words of American comedian Dave Chappelle, “can’t do comparative suffering.” In truth, the hardest thing to do in political analysis is to analyze one’s own country because we all want to believe that our country is different, our country can do better, our mistakes can be explained and corrected.

What is happening in America right now is not just about President Trump, or the endurance of racism at the heart of American politics, or the global pandemic that brought the economy to a grinding halt, or the economic pain and suffering of lower and middle class Americans, or the historically unprecedented levels of wealth inequality that were already present in the country even before the pandemic, or dissatisfaction and disillusionment with the role the US has played in the world and disagreement over what role it should play in the future. It is all of these forces intermixing and intermingling at the same time. When truly united by common purpose and deed, the United States is still the most tremendously powerful country in the world, probably the most powerful country in the history of the world. The reason Syrians are painting George Floyd’s face in the middle of a civil war, why New Zealanders give two sheep about racism in America, why U.S. rivals like Iran and China are gleefully covering America’s metastasizing dysfunction, is because for as bad as things are right now, there is an idea of America that is better than this.  

And yet beneath that idea of America has always lurked the reality of America. The men who held these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal were the same men who thought darker skin color made you 3/5ths a man and left out women entirely. For humans like George Floyd, the American dream is an American nightmare. The periods in which the United States is at its weakest on the world stage are also those moments when it falls shortest of the lofty standards its constitution sets for it. America’s faith in its own principles is proportional to its strength in the world. When President Nixon came to power, it should be remembered, he believed that the emergence of a multipolar world and the deterioration of America’s position in that world was already a fait accompli. He did the unthinkable and made peace with Chairman Mao and Red China because he assessed the US was too weak to balance against the Soviet Union much longer. The United States did not so much win the Cold War as it avoided being the power that collapsed under the weight of its own myth-making first…and then proceeded to take its foe’s collapse as evidence that the myths were true.

Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not soon perish from the earth. But the United States will also never again be the same country it was before 2020. Whether that is a good or bad thing remains to be seen. At this point, it is too early to know what kind of American nation will emerge from the elections, protests, riots, conflicts, and arguments taking place right now. At the global level, however, the situation is slightly more predictable. America’s loss of faith in itself at home will translate into the continued atrophy of American strength abroad. To global disillusionment with American political principles. To a shift away from a U.S.-centric global economic order. To American rivals more successfully pursuing economic self-sufficiency, techno-nationalism, and even territorial gains. To an American unwillingness to deploy the military abroad (and ineffectiveness when it occasionally does) because of an inability to agree on the desired political objectives of military force. It is a testament to the awesome scope of America’s power that as it changes, so too will the world – and it is disquieting to consider that for all of America’s shortcomings, many of which have been on painful and public display in recent weeks, it is unlikely to be a change for the better.