The root of Joe Biden's troubles
The world was watching, but not listening, when Biden met world leaders
Predicting the future is risky business, and even deciphering the present can be problematical, but when explaining the past, consensus often arrives swiftly and cruelly - as has been the case as the world seemingly has rushed in to pass judgment on escalating calamities that have befallen the United States.
The Economist asked four leading thinkers - author Robert Kaplan, political scientist Francis Fukuyama, diplomat Henry Kissinger, and historian Niall Ferguson - to opine generally on America's future, and particularly on whether the U.S. will be able to maintain its influence on global politics in the future. While in broad agreement on the fact of American decline, they brought varying perspectives on causation and what the path to the future might look like. Kissinger's diagnosis was particularly compelling: "The United States has torn itself apart in its counterinsurgent efforts because of its inability to define attainable goals and to link them in a way that is sustainable by the American political process."
In a recent Wall St. Journal article, "American Global Leadership Is In Retreat," Walter Russell Mead examined the world's dilemmas through an even wider lens and declared that the root cause of American decline - and more generally, the Western world's dysfunction - stems from the fact that "globalists have so far failed to master the challenges of the 21st century."
To understand the meaning of this judgment, we must go back 30 years to the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of the Cold War, and the appearance of Fukuyama's influential book, "The End of History and the Last Man," in which he posited that the worldwide spread of liberal democracy signaled the "end point" of humanity's sociocultural evolution and that system would become the final form of human government. However imperfectly understood, this doctrine in one form or another became the principal animating force behind political, economic and foreign policy throughout the Western world and beyond. It advanced dramatically with an aura of triumphalism nowhere more toxically than in the United States, which assumed unto itself the role of world leader and arbiter of the fate of other nations.
The governing mechanism of this New World came to be known as the "rules-based international order," which sought to empower supra-national organizations such as the United Nations, the European Union, the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and others as substitutes for nation-states that had been responsible for wars and economic disasters plaguing mankind for centuries. While theoretically attractive, this new regime of globalism was greatly responsible for growing ills such as income inequality, class warfare within and among nations, and latterly, a rising tide of populism, in which the working classes of many nations turned against the elites who controlled the economy and politics and amassed vast wealth while disrespecting poor people's lives and values.
All of this history is the necessary backdrop to understanding President Biden's recent speech at the United Nations, given that the "rules-based international order" has been exposed as dysfunctional and even counterproductive, largely owing to repeated and unpunished violations of said rules by authoritarian states. They use them skillfully to hamstring and manipulate the liberal democracies, which foolishly have continued to obey the rules even after it has been demonstrated repeatedly that totalitarian rogue states - China, Russia, Iran and North Korea - are playing by a very different and dangerous set of rules.
Had Biden with some humility acknowledged past mistakes, both recent and more distant, and proposed a bold change of course credibly aimed at rectifying errors, the applause he heard might have been sincere and even hopeful. Instead, a wondering audience and worried world heard a speech that seemed to come out of a time warp, in which it was still 1991 and not 2021 - lofty rhetoric still celebrating the triumph of liberal democracy, delivered by the strong and purposeful leader of an America with realistic plans for a better world, as well as the strength and will to implement them. Instead of such a clarion call, however, the United Nations heard only the fading notes of an uncertain trumpet echoing a world gone by.
Unsurprisingly, people are disinclined to listen when the words they hear are simply no longer believable.
William Moloney is a Fellow in Conservative Thought at Colorado Christian University's Centennial Institute who studied at Oxford and the University of London and received his Doctorate from Harvard University. He is a former Colorado Commissioner of Education.