The big question for the US president-elect, Joe Biden, who has taken “build back better” as his motto, is whether this will mean genuine renovation or mere restoration. Americans desperately need a pivot after the madness of Donald Trump. And when Biden takes the reins of power from his predecessor, there is no doubt that a big reset will come. But the risk of complacent restoration is nowhere greater than in US foreign policy – especially since it is a domain in which the office of president has so much authority, even in the midst of legislative gridlock.
“Everything must change so that everything can remain the same,” says the aristocratic hero of Giuseppe di Lampedusa’s novel The Leopard (1958). It seems to be the motto of current elites eager to bracket the Trump years in the name of the status quo ante.
Since the shock of 2016, Washington foreign policy elites, both mainstream Democrats out of power and their Never Trump Republican allies, have developed a just-so story about their benevolent role in the world. It goes like this: the US was once isolationist, but then committed after the second world war to leading a “rules-based international order”, a phrase that is increasingly hard to avoid in assessments of the presidential transition. In this story, Trump’s election represented atavism and immorality, the return of rightly repressed nationalism and nativism at home and abroad. In response, the agenda has to be to restore US credibility and leadership as the “indispensable nation” by embracing internationalism again.
Trump’s boorish attack on traditional pieties understandably makes Washington traditions seem like comfort food after a hangover. The darker truth this response conceals is that generations of foreign policy mistakes both preceded and precipitated Trump – who often went on to continue them anyway. The record of Washington’s “wise men”, who coddled dictators, militarised the globe, and entrenched economic unfairness at home and abroad, opened an extraordinary opportunity for any Trump-like demagogue – making his ascendancy less a matter of atavism than another form of the blowback to mistakes that America perpetually made abroad. If his presence shamed US foreign policy elites, it was because they helped make him possible.
Read the full article in The Guardian.