While Joe Biden is a more civil representation of the US than Donald Trump, he won’t significantly change the foreign policy of the outgoing president. America will still be hyper-aggressive, but in a more courteous way.
“America is back!” said Joe Biden this week, as he prepares to take over as president. It’s a sentiment that has, of course, been championed by liberals, but what exactly does it mean? And did America ever really go away?
If you ask any critic of Donald Trump, the answer is quite obvious. They will point to his erratic behaviour, his negation of alliances, his apparent abrogation of leadership and the damage he has done to America’s standing around the world. Biden, of course, has pledged to end all of that, vowing to steer the US back to dignity and respect, to be a country admired rather than loathed and to promote ‘American values’ abroad, which Trump downplayed with his ‘America First’ doctrine.
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For liberals, Biden’s victory has been packaged as a supposed ‘catch all’ solution to America’s international problems, which apparently have been caused exclusively by Trump. The current president isn’t representative of a broader pathology within America’s socio-economic order, but simply a bad smell which will eventually pass on. Therefore, “America is back.”
But this denies the bigger problem at hand, that America never really went away. Trump was not a coincidence, an accident or a mere mistake, he was a physical manifestation of what America truly is and a continuation of what it has always done, albeit in a blunt and unpleasant package.
Biden is not such a contemptible individual, but he merely represents America with a ‘mask on,’ a kinder and more humane version of the same thing, the same America which has waged war and caused chaos around the world for centuries.
Trump is a living, breathing manifestation of the country’s vices, who makes many Americans feel uncomfortable. As a mega-rich, privileged and egotistical individual, he not only highlighted the deep inequality of the US and its system, he treated all his opponents and rivals with utter disrespect, cheated in his dealings with others and using a form of gangster-like extortion as his primary mode of diplomacy.
For example, he regularly tried to deliver one-sided, preferential terms for the US by strangling other countries with one-sided tariffs, sanctions and threats of annihilation, including nations that are supposed to be allies. Rivals were to be crushed mercilessly. It was ‘law of the jungle’ politics, tactics derived from his real-estate days. It is no wonder America’s image suffered.
On a personal level, Biden is not like Trump and, of course, he vows not to be. He is not inherently dislikeable, yet that is precisely the point: the system he represents is very much the same thing. It will be just as aggressive to the world, which is in America’s DNA, but in a less obvious, callous manner. And, so, it is hard to argue America is back, because it never went away.
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Let’s pause and question why Trump was despised, including by the so-called ‘never Trumpers.’ It wasn’t for malign actions across the world, it was because of ‘him’ as a person. The US establishment, for one, only ever truly criticized Trump’s foreign policy when it was not ‘aggressive’ enough, such as his attempt to make peace with North Korea. When he threatened to “totally destroy” the country, there was silence. Similarly, his cold war approach to China received no criticism, only bipartisan support.
Thus the ‘issue’ with Trump was not so much what he did, but how he did it. Objections to the president never represented complaints about the US system as a whole, but that he simply did not ‘live up’ to it. America First was disliked because it focused on naked self-interest for the US and did not try to market its cause as something virtuous and heroic, which the longstanding legacies of wars, bombings, meddling in other countries and other interventions have all been marketed as.
In pre-Trump America, the Iraq war (which Biden supported) was not a brazen attempt to control oil, but a ‘fight for freedom’ against evil. And, yet, by normal US standards, George W. Bush is considered acceptable, while Trump is the problem.
Given this, Biden represents a ‘reset’ to the apparent normal, where America doesn’t act so obviously like a charlatan but ‘pretends’ it is the good guy and is worthy of respect. Trump’s brazen America First doctrine, which was so blatant in its intentions, will be replaced again with the righteous zeal of US exceptionalism that masks its interests behind bleeding-heart altruism.
And this is what Biden means by “America is back.” He is kinder, but not softer, he is more likeable, but not trustworthy, he is more respectable, yet no less treacherous and more tolerable, yet just as ruthless, and this is how it has always been. Trump did not diminish America, he showed us what it really is and ever more tactfully will it continue.
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