Thursday,19 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)
Thursday,19 July, 2018
Issue 1290, (7 - 13 April 2016)

Ahram Weekly

The US we don’t know

The US primaries have pulled America to the left and right in an unprecedented way, standing as proof of sweeping changes on the political landscape, writes Abdel-Moneim Said

Al-Ahram Weekly

President Barack Obama said in a recent interview that in all his visits and conversations with people abroad, he is always asked, “What is going on in the US?”

The world is in a way astounded by the course the electoral primaries have taken this year, not just because of the lead that Donald Trump has gained in the Republican stream but also because of the level to which the political campaigning has sunk: the name-calling, insulting rival candidates’ wives, the refusal of the remaining contestants in the Republican Party ring to commit themselves to supporting the Republican candidate.

While some decorum still prevails in the Democratic ring, the contest there, too, has gradually declined to unprecedented levels as Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton’s rival, scored unexpected wins in the Democratic contest.

So what exactly is going on in the US? After all, that country is too important strategically and globally for us to ignore.

A quarter of a century has passed since the Soviet Union collapsed and the US won the title of the world’s sole superpower. Although a number of Americans, who came to be termed neoconservatives, imagined that this status would be permanent and that the 21st century would be even more an “American century” that the preceding one, three crucial developments happened in the interval.

The first is that the US sapped its strength in the wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which wars continue to drag on in their own ways. The war in Iraq, alone, cost more than a trillion dollars, which helped lay the foundations for the US/international fiscal crisis of 2008.

The second development is that the relative power of the US has declined due to the rise in the strengths of China and India, and even Russia’s ability to recover some of its prestige since Putin came to power. China’s GDP now approaches that of the US and is at parity if calculated in terms of purchasing power. More ominously for the US, entire industries have moved from the US to Asian countries and India and China are competing in the fields of satellite technology and computer software.

True, the US is still the world’s foremost military power. It is the only country to have a global military presence through its aircraft carriers and electronic military equipment. In addition, it holds a near monopoly in a number of industrial fields, such as information technology, aerospace aviation, genetic engineering and pharmaceutical research.

But the crucial point here is not Washington’s absolute strength but its “relative” strength. This has declined to a considerable extent during the past decade compared to how it stood during the first decade after the end of the Cold War.

The third major development has to do with demographic changes resulting from large waves of immigration. In tandem with population increase, American social and cultural homogeneity has decreased. That old saying “It’s as American as apple pie,” no longer holds amidst huge diversity.

True, that diversity has made the US rich in different cultures and multiple sources of knowhow and expertise, but it has also stirred an unprecedented degree of social and political tensions and divisions.

This phenomenon manifested itself palpably during the Democratic and Republican primaries where questions of immigration and relations with Muslims have become major issues of political wrangling.

In short, the US is changing enormously due to the sharp polarising tugs at both ends of the political spectrum. On the right, Trump, as mentioned in previous articles, not only opposes immigrants, Muslims and others, but has also stamped his campaign with a distinct isolationist tenor of the sort that had virtually vanished from US rhetoric since America’s great victory in World War II

In fact, it was America’s refusal to join the League of Nations that was one of the causes of World War II. Trump, for the first time, questioned the usefulness of the involvement of the United States in NATO. He also questioned the worth of the Japanese-US defence pact, the US’s strategic defence relations with the Gulf, and in fact, all the US’s military alliances, as well as its economic markets and commercial expansions, whether through its transatlantic relations, or NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement between the US, Canada and Mexico), or trans-Pacific trade agreements.

On the left, Sanders is waging a powerful assault against the American social and economic establishment, which has become prey to “Wall Street”, the American transnational conglomerates and rampant capitalism that have polluted the American political and media spheres with their powerful lobbies and cash. What Sanders has been saying is not new to the American political scene. American Marxists, communist and leftists, in general, have been saying much the same for a long time.

Big business is not what built the US, but it is what is destroying it now, they maintain. What is new, today, is that such views, which had always been marginal, have gathered massive support among voters who are generally political liberals or even centrists but who now reject Hillary Clinton and other “establishment” figures of that sort.

It is amazing to watch as Trump and Sanders pull US politics to the left and right, especially as they both rely on quite similar social strata. For example, young people generally make up the driving force and bulk of support bases of both sides. On the one side are the youth who are rooting for Trump as a leader of a movement (as opposed to an electoral nominee) that will make America great again.

Sanders, for his part, has fired up a “political” revolution that will save the US from the control of big money and big business lobbies. As far apart as these two candidates are politically, both draw on support from the industrial working classes coming from the least educated sectors of society, from the industrial cities whose industries have lost their ability to compete effectively in the world market (this applies especially to the steel and other heavy industries).

At the same time, both candidates depend on segments of the white upper middle classes who, on the one side, think that America’s allies are “ripping it off” or, on the other side, feel that the level of corruption in the US electoral system is no longer tolerable. It is not a coincidence that both candidates have taken stances against the freedom of world trade. Both claim to lead a drive for sweeping political, economic and social change.

Does this mean that either Trump or Sanders will make it to the White House? I believe that for both candidates this is still a difficult goal. But even if neither of them wins this time, it is impossible to ignore the fact that a profound process of change is sweeping the US. Analysts and observers agree that this year’s election is shaped by something new and unfamiliar in modern American history.

The American right produced Barry Goldwater in the 1960s and Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The left experienced major surges in the 1930s and 1960s. But neither right nor left has taken the shape of what we see today in the American political scene. It is very intriguing, but for now we can only wait and see.

The writer is chairman of the board, CEO, and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.

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