“Are We Rome?” Cullen Murphy’s book with that title was published in the US in 2007, capturing the concern that America was an empire in decline. Today, the fashionable question in Washington is “Are we Weimar?” Is America, like Germany in the 1920s, a democracy in terminal decline?
These twin fears — Rome and Weimar — are linked. Internal and external weaknesses feed off each other. Conventional accounts of the fall of Rome, stress both the barbarians on the frontiers of the empire and the rot at its centre.
Joe Biden certainly believes he is fighting a two-front war for democracy. At home, the US president faces the threat of a Republican party that is still in thrall to Donald Trump — the first president in US history to refuse to accept defeat in an election. Overseas, he faces the challenge of a rising China — which Biden has framed as part of a larger struggle between democracy and autocracy that will define the 21st century.
In theory, these two battles are complementary. A stable and confident America is better placed to “make the world safe for democracy”, as Woodrow Wilson said. By contrast, a world in which authoritarianism is on the rise can poison the domestic political atmosphere in the US — witness the American right’s current fascination with Viktor Orban’s Hungary.
In practice, however, the two battles for democracy create contradictory pressures. Biden’s domestic situation means he is fighting the global battle for democracy with one hand tied behind his back. The Biden team know that there is no point winning the fight in Taipei or Kabul if you lose it in Washington. So the fight for democracy at home must come first.
Biden has promised a “foreign policy for the middle class” — which means every decision he makes, foreign or domestic, will be focused on voters in Middle America. This goes well beyond the normal urge of a political party to hold on to power. The Democrats fear a second Trump presidency would be openly authoritarian and that even a close election would give the Republicans an opportunity to try to overturn the result. That, in turn, could split the country into warring “red” and “blue” enclaves.
The urgency of the battle for democracy at home means that the Biden administration is prevented from making what would otherwise be obvious moves in the battle for democracy overseas.
The most obvious example of this constraint is the White House’s reluctance to make any new foreign trade deals — in deference to the protectionist mood that Trump whipped up. America’s paralysis on trade hands a big advantage to China. Biden’s foreign-policy people know that Chinese influence cannot be checked with aircraft carriers alone. They fear that, without an Asian economic strategy, the US will ultimately lose its battle with China.
The obvious US strategy would be to negotiate a new trade deal with Asian allies. The Obama administration concluded just such a deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, only for Trump to withdraw from it. But the protectionist mood in the US was already so strong — on the left, as well as the right — that Hillary Clinton had also repudiated the TPP while on the presidential campaign trail.
A smaller trade pact was kept alive by Japan and others and revived as the CPTPP. In an ideal world, the Biden foreign-policy team would love to join it. In practice, that would be too great a political risk. Instead, ironically, China has now applied to join the CPTPP. Washington policymakers think America’s Asian allies will only be able to block Chinese membership for a few years. Eventually, China will get its wish. A trade alliance originally intended to be a bulwark against Beijing will instead become its battering ram.
The US is now casting around for other economic instruments to boost its influence in Asia. A pact on technology standards looks potentially interesting. So do efforts to provide infrastructure funding, as an alternative to Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative. But these are, in truth, second-best solutions.
Biden’s decision to end the war in Afghanistan was also driven, in large part, by his determination to put the sentiments of Middle America above the instincts of the Washington foreign-policy “blob”. There was also a geopolitical case made for withdrawal; that quitting Afghanistan would free up US resources to concentrate on China and Russia. Both of these arguments have some force. But the triumph of the Taliban can hardly be chalked up as a win for democracy. Two weeks of televised chaos from Afghanistan were also a big blow to Biden’s reputation for competence at home.
The idea that Biden is a floundering incompetent is now being hammered home by the Republicans, who also point to the failure to control migration on America’s southern border — and to the administration’s struggle to get its spending package through Congress. One recent opinion poll saw Biden’s approval rating dipping to 38 per cent; others put him in the low 40s.
The White House is trying to project an image overseas of a resurgent America that is neither Rome nor Weimar. But in Biden’s Washington the fear that the president may fail — and the dread of what that might mean for America — now hovers in the background of every conversation.