Mostly because I cannot remember a time when Donald Trump’s presidency was not regarded as a danger to “national security” by the media and foreign policy establishment in this country, I am surprised that curiously little attention has been paid to reports about his telephone conversations with world leaders, including the German chancellor Angela Merkel, whom he is said to have called “stupid.”
Merkel is our greatest living statesman. She does not appear to have taken any offense. Instead she recognized Trump’s words for what they were: confirmation of her belief that America is entering a period of well-nigh terminal decline, one that will necessitate, among other things, taking a long look at the question of how the continent will provide for its own defense in the absence of leadership abroad.
Merkel’s view, which she recently discussed with reporters from six European newspapers, is widely shared in America. We have been living in the autumn of the United States for decades, since well before the former host of Celebrity Apprentice took the oath of office. When might we expect the first frost? Is winter in fact coming? How harsh will it be? Instead of speculating about the precise date at which I expect the United States to collapse, it seems to me more valuable to inquire about the origins of our decline.
If there is one thing that we have learned in the course of the last two decades it is that maintaining a de facto empire abroad, one that is capable of, say, winning minor land wars in Central Asia, is impossible when at home we are being torn apart by moral paroxysms that the rest of the world finds baffling. In the United States we argue about flags and heaps of granite and the exact proportion of unwokeness in decades-old television programs and whether mothers should be referred to instead as “birthing persons.” This is not because we are an especially reflective people. It is because the the first principle of the American republic is capital accumulation, which can only be sustained by the ongoing systematic destruction of all received forms of common life. The absence of shared values at home renders us incapable of projecting strength, confidence, and humanity to the rest of the world.
So much for identifying the disease. What about the prognosis? I do not see a cure. We will argue about the meta-ethics of statue removal as unemployment surges, wages fall, and infrastructure collapses in front of our eyes. This will be the case regardless of whether the president is re-elected in November.
Meanwhile, it is worth asking what, if anything, will come of our no longer being the “indispensable nation” in the eyes of the global community, which Merkel and her counterpart President Emmanuel Macron in France both expect to happen eventually. It would be naive, I think, to imagine anything like a fully fledged return to the competing nationalisms of the pre-World War I order. Instead what I expect is that all of the worst trends we are experiencing now will continue apace, albeit under Chinese rather than American suzerainty. This is true not only in Europe, where our supposed allies are more interested in acquiring 5G on the cheap than in countering Chinese industrial policy, but in Central Asia, the Middle East, sub-Saharan Africa, and even Latin America.
What would be preferable to American hegemony? The internationalization of China’s slave economy? I ask not because we have a choice in the matter but because, whatever our shortcomings, I have a hard time believing that the latter is morally superior to the former. This does not mean seeking to explain away American wrongdoing, only the acknowledgement that Chinese authoritarian capitalism is barbaric in ways which, one hopes, we will never become familiar with on these shores, no matter how well known they become in Africa and other parts of Asia. The United States may have lost her way long ago. China appears totally uninterested in finding hers.
America’s decline is undeniable. It is also, as Merkel has shown us, regrettable.
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