Alas America, the outlook is difficult; but should not be aggressive

Feb 14, 2021

Ignorance of the world, along with a belief in American exceptionalism, combines with an obsession with a capitalism that is rapidly increasing inequity. That is the USA.

These are not new phenomena but increasingly problematic in an era of political turmoil and a pandemic that is the biggest disaster in American history. President Biden seeks important reform within the US but some policies for the world are destructive, continuing the drift of the Obama years to solve problems by military means.

Australian perceptions of the US derive mainly from news sources in New York, Washington and commercial TV correspondents in Los Angeles; plus Hollywood … and these days doses of spin from Sky ‘News’. For most Australians, news is in tiny grabs. Great minds in Canberra and other lofty places are immured in the language of the American mighty.

When my wife and I travelled from Australia to work in the Washington embassy in the beginning of 1976, to better understand the USA we bought a second hand car in San Francisco and drove 4000 miles via LA, Arizona, Texas, New Orleans, Georgia, and so on to Washington, counterclockwise to avoid snow. Two things made lasting impressions of continuing relevance.

First, on that route after the San Francisco Examiner we saw no newspaper that reported the world beyond the local until we got to the Washington Post. This was a huge difference from Australia, where every city at that time had at least one newspaper that considered the world beyond Australia to be important — to report as facts not attitudes.

Nowadays, in vast tracts of the US there is an intergenerational depth of lack of knowledge of wider issues. Upon this the internet has burst with its information revolution, comparable to the arrival of the printing press in Europe around 1500, ripping into closeted knowledge and power, uprooting control of language, boosting rights to offend the mighty… Except that this revolution is much bigger, much faster. That last one just halved Christendom and led in the 1600s to separation of church and state and the rise of the modern state. They didn’t know what was under way then, nor do we know now where we are going.

Second, I realised back then in 1976 that I had never properly understood capitalism, capitalism without government engaged in wealth redistribution and support for the troubled. In America we encountered the extraordinary ability of people to rise to enormous wealth, or crash or remain in deep poverty, as a normal thing, deserving not even a shrug. There are vast pockets of disadvantage and intergenerational misery in the US. We have a little of that in Australia, not to be compared with the American ‘dream’.

How does this fit with the persistent belief in American exceptionalism?

When you put those two factors together in this newly open, YouTube-full-frontal-laughing-angry-Tik-Toky world, you need to add the depth of readiness for messianic belief and action in the US, which just licks like small bushfires in Australia, albeit happy clapping as far as the office of prime minister.

There is great openness to beliefs and actions which from a distance we might patronisingly describe as crazy, but needing to be understood with the anthropologist’s eye as central to what America is, deserving not just uncomprehending attitude.

In 2016 Hillary Clinton said half the Trump supporters were ‘deplorables’. That, in my view, lost her the election, defining her (as did much else) as the rich folks’ candidate. Consider the huge vote for Trump in 2020. Biden has not distanced himself from that Clinton remark. Consider the great glossy show of the recent presidential inauguration, yearned for so long, a must-have, but out of touch with demands for others to show restraint, living in the deadliest crisis in American history.

There was only brief critical reporting that more than a thousand National Guard members, imported to provide security for the event, were sent to sleep on the concrete floor of the Senate’s underground parking garage, midwinter. Security-vetted before deployment, with what fresh anger did they return home. Attitudes on race have been under attack, but attitudes (unthinking, natural) to lesser order people of whatever background contribute to the pot of discontent.

Put all such together when considering rebellious people in the midwest and elsewhere rejecting advice on mask-wearing. America is angry.

There is great virtue in reforming announcements by President Biden, but there are two problems. Domestically, the members of the House of Representatives are elected for only two years and it is impossible to know what the congress of 2022 will look like, with Trumpism likely to alter Republican representation as did the Tea Party movement in the 1990s. It is noble to hope that buckets of money will move mountains but as they say in Naples “who lives in hope dies desperate”. Turmoil will continue.

Chinese economists have expressed concern about the external effects of the massive pandemic relief budget being sought by the Democrats: that there will be a massive lift in American demand for Chinese goods and that this will impact on exchange rates and macroeconomic management in China. There will also be disruption in South East Asia, financial markets already briefly jolted with the announcement of the plan. The pandemic has thus far dramatically increased the wealth of the 1% in the US, as the ‘middle class’ and underclasses struggle. I have not seen how the package will reverse that. Biden has shown no indication he will reverse tax cuts granted the very rich by Trump.

Biden-Blinken strategic and foreign policies are a forced march away from erratic Trump follies, but thus far showing extremes of old style alliance shouting, spear shaking and inflexibility. With some puzzling nonsense. Endorsing the so-called Quad of US, Japan, Australia, and India is endorsing a square wheel of hostility to China. Japan invited to do more militarily will eventually lead to independent actions, declining fealty to the US. Japan in but South Korea out engages us in hostilities, preferences, and disrespect for the ROK. India as a democracy? – increasingly repressive Hindu nationalism, not least against its large (second largest after Indonesia) Moslem population, repression more ingrained and extensive than any such in China. Care we not about Kashmir?

Australia: we make our graduation from poodle to donkey, maintaining our enthusiasm for long strategic reach, legal or not, disrespecting our immediate neighbours as usual and opening a bottomless pit of defence expenditure, $270,000,000,000 in plan who knows what in eventuality, when we have serious and growing domestic social, economic, and environmental adjustment needs far more relevant to national security.

The Quad as a basis for economic integration away from China? Nonsense; compare the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership that Australia has signed, inclusive of our neighbours including China, but not the USA. Consider also the web of supply chains between China Mainland, Hong Kong, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan, pandemic permitting. A recent EU-China investment treaty. These are the realities. Along with more than 10,000 rail freight carriages between China and Europe in 2020. Contact a friendly freight forwarder, see what is normal, what we are missing out on.

The exclusion of China, Biden’s so-called ‘cold peace’, is destructive and unreal, and can’t be done. The objectives of the United States in many fields, especially on climate, cannot be done without a good relationship with China. The cold peace will weaken the world economy.

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