The on-going disorder does not allow observers to be distracted from the political struggle in the United States. Interest is caused not only by the development of events directly in the country, but also by what consequences the divided America brings to the world. Meanwhile, in the light of historical experience and current trends, it seems that the greatest significance for the international order will not be the aggravated contradictions between political forces, but spontaneously emerging points of convergence, writes Valdai Club expert Igor Istomin.
Unfinished political play
The end of the presidential race did not lead to a fading of political passions in the United States. The exhausting marathon of the election campaign was replaced by controversy in the counting of votes, non-recognition of the results, and massive demonstrations among Donald Trump’s supporters. The tension resulted in clashes in the capital with the capture of the Capitol and human casualties. Washington saw the inauguration of the new leader as a besieged fortress.
Unsurprisingly, Joseph Biden’s first speech as president was a call for unity. However, hopes that Trump’s departure from the top office will lead to public peace have little chance to be fulfilled. Although the Democrats have concentrated in their hands control over three key political institutions (the executive branch, the Senate, and the House of Representatives), the level of political agitation remains high.
Firstly, unlike his predecessors, the 45th president did not leave the game, remaining an active political figure. Moreover, he does not spare criticism even of former Republican allies, whom he actually accuses of treason. Second, although Trumpism lost the election, it remains a serious force. Illustratively, in 2020, 74 million people voted for the Republican candidate — 12 million more than four years earlier. Third (and this is often forgotten), the victorious democratic coalition itself is highly heterogeneous. Its more passionate left wing is eager to impose an activist agenda on the moderates wing seeking to return to the good old normality.
So, as the song goes, the show must go on. A split remains in American society and its elites, both in assessing the current state and in determining the direction of the country’s development — neither the end of the political cycle nor the reshuffle of figures in Washington can change this.
As Walt Whitman wrote in Leaves of Grass, which could be considered a manifesto of almost all American poetry: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then, I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” The consequence of these multitudes is an on-going struggle between different visions of what the United States should be.
Unhappy families are unhappy in their own way
What are the foreign policy implications of current divisions in the United States? And more broadly: how do they affect the situation in the world, given the country’s continuing weight in the international community? The most obvious answer is that internal contradictions weaken America, disorient its foreign policy apparatus, and make it difficult to mobilise the entire, enormous potential of American society. Given the continuing discord, it is logical to expect a decrease in Washington’s activity in the international arena. Historical record contains many illustrations of how the internal political struggle has narrowed the possibilities of American diplomacy.
For example, in the 1870s and 1880s, the rivalry between the executive branch and lawmakers did not afford them the chance to realise the expansionist ambitions of the rising United States. As a result, numerous plans for territorial acquisitions in the Caribbean and the Pacific did not materialise. In the 1920s, the isolationist lobby prevented Washington from joining the system of international institutions created at its own initiative. The victim of another round of confrontation between the president and Congress was the refusal to ratify the charter of the League of Nations, which laid a mine under the interwar order.
At the same time, in these cases, foreign policy apathy was the result of a tug of power between the rival branches of government. This isn’t the problem today. Moreover, the current situation is a rare example of one party controlling the White House and both houses of Congress. Naturally, even among Democrats, there is a rivalry for political influence, but it is unlikely that Biden will face the same obstruction from party lawmakers as some of his predecessors.
Another aggravating circumstance in American politics periodically emerges with protests against the excessive, in the opinion of the average man, costs associated with foreign policy (primarily human losses). So, in the 1970s and 2000s, massive discontent forced the country’s leaders to withdraw their troops, first from Vietnam, then from Iraq.
Since the early 2010s there has been a stable consensus in the United States with virtually no arguments over the goals in the international arena — the need to restore American dominance, contain China and Russia, and reduce obligations in the Middle East. The main points of disagreement have to do with the methods of pursuing interests and not with their nature. Republicans rely more on the unilateral actions of the United States, while Democrats prefer to rely on a coalition of like-minded countries.
The current political controversy in the United States focuses on internal agenda. Tensions are generated primarily by socioeconomic inequality, the deteriorating position of the middle class, the inability of a significant part of the population to adapt to changing market demands, the exacerbation of racial and ethnic divisions, and a general sensitivity to identity issues. Superimposed on these fundamental challenges is widespread scepticism toward the establishment and state institutions. The impact of such problems on American foreign policy activity is less clear than in the examples above.
An internal storm and an external onslaught?
In the past, heated debates over national development issues have often accompanied Washington’s assertive stance in the international arena. This was the case during the Progressive Era at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and in the 1960s against the background of the struggle for civil rights, and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, amid frustration caused by economic stagnation. In many cases, ideological disputes, waves of protest, and intense party struggles got along well with an activist foreign policy.
The last decade has not been an exception to this logic. Both the Barack Obama period and the Trump presidency were marked by irreconcilable opposition between Democrats and Republicans. Epic internal battles did not prevent both administrations from playing an active role on the world stage, coming up with high-profile initiatives and leaving their own mark in international affairs. Their activities did not always lead to the expected results and not all plans were brought to fruition. However, neither one nor the other leader can be suspected of apathy in foreign policy.
Moreover, at times, internal struggles further spurred US activism in international affairs. This is evident in the competition between Democrats and Republicans over the past four years for the honorary status of the main hawk on Russia. Representatives of both parties rightly feared giving into Moscow, knowing that the opposite side would not fail to accuse it of betraying national interests. Such attacks were motivated not so much by fundamental differences (as noted above, there are few of them), as by the desire to score points in the inter-party struggle.
This toxic environment leads to hard policies. US policymakers vie in seeking ever-more sophisticated ways to pressure foreign policy adversaries. However, this does not contribute to the diplomatic settlement of international disputes, where the development of a compromise a priori presupposes a willingness to make concessions. This path also requires long-term commitments from the country, but it is difficult to rely on them when abandoning the decisions of predecessors brings electoral dividends. Meanwhile, openness to dialogue with foreign policy opponents in and of itself is often interpreted in Washington as an unacceptable surrender.
The continuing intensity of the internal political struggle dictates the scrutiny of Biden’s foreign policy by the domestic critics for evidence of stupidity or treason. However, the current administration may be less vulnerable to this type of criticism than the previous one.
In search of lost time?
Many observers associated the rise to power of Joseph Biden with the return of the United States to the role of the defender of the “liberal world order”. From the very first days, he already began to justify the advances, speaking in the spirit of the famous statement of Tsar Alexander I that “now everything will be like grandma’s.” — i.e. everything would be done as it was during the reign of his grandmother, Catherine the Great. At the same time, in the light of the foregoing considerations, the question arises: is the United States capable of fulfilling the role attributed to it in the international arena in the absence of internal peace? One might ask even more polemically — would they want to follow it at all?
The point is not only that internal contradictions divert US resources, undermine confidence in American guarantees, and darken its image as a “citadel of democracy”. In America itself, deep discontent with the current status quo has accumulated, on both sides of the political division. The leftists gaining strength in the Democratic camp see in it the embodiment of the repressive practices of Western, capitalist, masculine civilisation. For the right-wingers rallied around Trump, the status-quo is the fruit of an anti-national project of the globalist elites.
Despite complete mutual rejection, both sides of the party spectrum converge in denial of the neoliberal orthodoxy that has shaped America’s post-Cold War rebuilding efforts. Only the political centre remains committed to it. But its resource of resistance to the growing pressure on both sides is limited. In attempts to manoeuvre, the establishment that remains at the helm has to move away from laissez-faire principles, making concessions either to the demands of national protectionism, or to the demands for social equality, positive discrimination, and environmentalism.
The revision of the old neoliberal dogmas is clearly manifested in the approaches to the regulation of the world economy, where the United States has exchanged the principle of “free trade” for the slogan “fair trade”. The latter appeared in rhetoric of the last two administrations, although each attached its own meaning to this phrase. Biden at the time of entering the office, unlike his predecessors, enjoys a reputation as a centrist (both Obama and Trump came as outsiders), but it is difficult for him to ignore demands for change not only in domestic affairs, but also in the world.
Probably, he will be ready to express rhetorical adherence to the behests of the “golden age”, and to strive to veil revision under the guise of reform. Nevertheless, he will be able to preserve the title of a liberal in relation to the existing order only through its radical rethinking. In any case, doing things “as grandma did” is no longer an option.