Jeremy Kinsman

 Jeremy Kinsman

Friends and foes look with varying degrees of baffled concern or schadenfreude at what is going on in and with America, asking themselves and each other what the uncertainties mean going forward, including for international cooperation on crucial global issues.

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland spoke for Canada early in her tenure as foreign minister in a speech to Parliament in 2017: “That our friend and ally has come to question the very worth of its mantle of global leadership puts into sharper focus the need for the rest of us to set our own clear and sovereign course. For Canada, that course must be the renewal, indeed the strengthening, of the postwar multilateral order.”

As competitive economic and political nationalism continues to weaken the multilateral system, the renewal project remains imperative.

Unlike his destructive predecessor, President Joe Biden unfailingly offers to lead global action on the world’s existential multilateral challenges, especially global warming and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, mindful of how America’s better instincts led the world out of the Second World War into a more co-operative multilateral order.

But potential US leadership is hobbled by American political issues. Donald Trump’s refusal to respect democracy’s defining obligation to defer to decisive electoral defeat clamps a perverse hold on his political party, plunging the nation into a schism of culture and purpose more vivid than any since the Civil War. Some, like writer Robert Kagan, fear that American democracy hangs in the balance.

Preoccupied with such domestic pressures and American voters, the US has resorted internationally to unilateral moves that has had allies wondering if the Biden administration’s allegedly globalist world view is in effect not just a nicer mask for Trump’s “America First” mantra, which has support in Congress, where globalization is still blamed for the loss of American jobs.

“Buy America” provisions affecting Canada, and protectionist tariffs on steel and aluminum imports from the EU, remain from the Trump era. The chaotic American exit from Afghanistan blindsided loyal NATO allies. For the sake of a surprise deal meant to rattle China and provide, in 19 years, submarines to Australia, the US trashed France. Closer to home, the US declines to respect a 1977 Canada-US Treaty on Transit Pipelines to block interruption by the state of Michigan of a pipeline for Canadian oil vital to Quebec and Ontario.

In bilateral relations, Canada tries to mobilize support in US public and political arenas, and show empathy with Biden’s administration that perhaps encouraged resolution of the Canada-China hostage crisis.

But more broadly, Canadians and others hope that the US will lean in to lead the positive reform of the world’s multilateral system, whose creation the US spearheaded after emerging victorious from the ruins of the Second World War.

That idealistic and pragmatic sense of mission, related to America’s original sense of exceptionalist promise, became more defensive and self-interested as the Cold War re-cast the challenges. The American public’s sense of exceptionalism became in the process increasingly invested in the necessity of maintaining unrivalled power, and of remaining “number one” among the world’s nations. All this forms the eternal puzzle of America itself, its sense of mission, self-absorption, and often ambivalent relationship to others, the subject of mountains of commentary and analysis.

We might look to literature for insight. Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” from “Leaves of Grass.” (1855) asks:
“Do I contradict myself?
very well then, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

Today, with the loudest political voices split into warring, distrustful halves, the competition between defining myths and objective reality is stark. Scott Fitzgerald made the sense of national greatness and exceptionalism, the “American Dream,” the allegorical subject of “The Great Gatsby” (1926). He cites America’s sense of its unique promise, felt by its first white settlers who came to occupy the “fresh, green breast of the new world,” against the ensuant contradictions of “the savage violence of the frontier brothel and saloon.” He depicts Jay Gatsby’s “extraordinary gift for hope” as America’s affirmation of the belief that all is possible, but vests it in his murky past as a swindler.

The ambivalence recalls Graham Greene’s “The Quiet American” set 30 years later in Vietnam where American interventionist idealism would crash and burn. CIA operative “Pyle” is there as “a soldier of democracy,” “absorbed in...the responsibilities of the West, determined to do a country, a continent, the world,” Fowler, Greene’s cynical Brit narrator, asserts he “never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.”

Gatsby’s relentless attention to the “drums of his (own) destiny” was more self-centered than Pyle’s but also caused a world of trouble. He clawed and possibly killed on his route to what he perceived as the American grail: the rewards of being rich. His obsessive but elusive prize would be Daisy Buchanan—whose voice was “full of money.”

Fitzgerald began a short story written around then by describing very rich people as “different from you and me.” He defined that difference in Gatsby through his portrayal of right-wing white supremacist Tom Buchanan and his feckless wife Daisy as “careless” people. “They smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

In The Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway recalled the line about how the rich are different from you and me by sneering, “Yes, they have more money.”

Substitute “military power” for “money,” and Fitzgerald’s description of the dominating Buchanans might stand for the impression America makes today in a world faced with the mess they made and left in Iraq and Afghanistan. Canadians who have spent lives working on international security issues with US colleagues know vividly how the customary assumption of unrivalled US military power on the part of American officials, military operators, and national security pronouncers has indeed made them “different from you and me.”

Frankly, they don’t get other people’s motives very well. Of course, millions of Americans have gone abroad as diplomats, scholars, humanitarians, teachers, and business people and do understand others, but they rarely inhabit the political-security milieux that frame the US political-military-technology narrative. Instead of figuring out what makes other people tick, the national security “blob” counts on US military dominance. To obtain influence in foreign countries, they rely on the CIA to identify local varieties of “our guy”—corrupt but compliant politicians, venal warlords, self-promoting fraud artists, whoever seems like an authoritative proxy to deliver the people, once overwhelming power has blown away armed opposition. Historian Andrew Bacevich in After the Apocalypse, blames this division of labour and such blind confidence in the technology of weaponry for America’s lost wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan to military inferiors.

Identification with vast differentiating power “from you and me” is a syndrome that dies hard for superpowers. Soviet-born writer Gary Shteyngart tells of a return visit to post-Soviet Russia. His agitated cab driver wanted to get out to America, but couldn’t get a visa. Shteyngart suggested he try Canada instead. “Canada???” the disheveled cabbie snorted as he spat out the window. “Impossible! I could only live in a superpower!”

After the USSR collapsed, the US enjoyed being the lone “hyperpower.” As Madeleine Albright put it in a 1998 interview, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future.” In her speech accepting the Democratic nomination in 2016, Hillary Clinton also reached back to the exceptionalist sense of self: “America is great because America is good.”

But polarized by inequity and grievances of all kinds, the nation succumbed to a nativist “America First” dissembler. As division persists and as China and others rise, America’s “number one” status now seems to many abroad more of a defiant and nostalgic boast than a safe bet.

But is it? America’s allies want to believe the best of America can come through. Though routinely humble on most matters, Joe Biden advises “don’t bet against America.” There is no need for him to preside over American retreat.

Different routes exist to renewing US leadership in a changing world.

According to the version now dominant with the national security “blob”, long-term strategic competition with China should be the prime organizing principle. The Atlantic Council anticipates “new alliance frameworks that connect transatlantic and transpacific partners ... under a common umbrella to advance a free and open Indo-Pacific.”

Much of the rhetoric, including Biden’s, frames this competition in terms of democracies versus authoritarians. The President indeed hopes to convene democracies at a summit to mobilize solidarity. US power remains a security comfort for countries in the Indo-Pacific region keen for constraints to China’s coercive behaviour. But while no-one would want a world led by China as a unipolar superpower, there is no keenness for a new ideological Cold War, a division of the world in two, especially for the sake of shoring up US primacy and maximum global influence.

Another non-divisive route for American global leadership is to help the world re-create in today’s terms the cooperative, effective, and inclusive rules-based multilateral system US leadership anticipated in 1945. In a recent closed conference sponsored by the Canadian International Council and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, 20 Canadian and German scholars, experts, and practitioners acknowledged that our new era’s changes in the distribution of global influence and power call for transformative thinking.

Louise Frechette, former Deputy Secretary General of the UN, advised that it must pay heed also to the generally neglected 150 most vulnerable members of the “silent majority” of the global community. They will support a more effective rules-based international order because it represents their best protection from coercion from greater powers.

But they wish a fairer, more equitable order, seeing systemic unfairness such as the current inequitable distribution of COVID vaccines as toxic to global confidence. Democracies will support human rights unconditionally and contest challenges from China and Russia to democratic principles (while working on getting our own houses in order) but should cease assuming the “rule of law” in international activity is synonymous with a need of domestic democratic governance. For many in the world, the West’s reflexive expectation that world order should be “liberal” evokes fears of domination of the system by Western states acting in their own interests, not necessarily a dismissal of the liberal democracy values of transparency and human rights.

Strategic competition between China and the US is a forefront reality of our era. The world hopes for mutual accommodation on rules of the road. Most countries are allergic to the notion of rival “teams,” fearing the hardening of ideological and adversarial strategy will foreclose essential cooperative outcomes, and aggravate multiple dangers including an accelerated and proliferating arms race.

During the CIC-Adenauer conference, German and Canadian panelists urged a resolution to the wider global competition between countries that privilege multilateral cooperation within a rules-based world order, and those that favour pursuing their interests in the international arena via national competition, that notably includes China, Russia and often the US.

Progress will be supported by a more variable geometry of alliances, coalitions and informal solidarity groups to mobilize cooperative solutions to overcome the gridlock in the formal system, such as the Ottawa Group for World Trade Organization reform, or the Human Security Network that Canada and Germany supported with like-minded partners and civil society to advance an essential multilateral paradigm shift a quarter-century ago.

If the US could re-direct its diplomatic power to such a drive for transformative change in the interests of all, it could be a global strategic game-changer more decisive than spending money and talent in races to stuff our oceans with more nuclear submarines.

Ultimately, in an increasingly interdependent world, only multilateral tools of international cooperation can deliver vital transnational outcomes, with demonstrable benefit to our own societies. This could be America’s leadership opportunity, offering fulfillment of its sense of exceptionalist promise from ages past.

Tags: Jeremy Kinsman