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The Old Man in the White House

While the world can be thankful that Joe Biden is now America's president, he personifies an international order crumbling so fast that it almost no longer exists. The sun is setting on Pax Americana, and not only because everything must end at some point.

LONDON – The world can be thankful that Donald Trump is no longer president of the United States. When he was in office, Trump envied Russian President Vladimir Putin for his brutal authoritarianism, and infamously took the Kremlin strongman’s word about election meddling over that of US intelligence agencies. And, having described Putin’s tactics vis-à-vis Ukraine as “genius” just hours before Russia launched a massive invasion of the country, Trump had the gall to claim that the attack would not have happened under his watch.

When Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert, US President Joe Biden reacted with a necessary and seasoned calm. What a panicked Trump might have done does not bear thinking about.

After Trump used his presidency to undermine America’s allies in Europe and East Asia, Biden has managed with great patience and tact to restore unity among them. Even Germany, by finally boosting its defense budget, has done what several US administrations, including Trump’s, had sought, and it is now playing a significant role in support of Ukraine (though this may reflect Putin’s actions more than anything Biden did).

But according to a recent opinion poll, 62% of Americans believe that Russia would not have invaded Ukraine with Trump in the White House, and 59% think that Biden’s weakness is to blame for the Russian attack. A separate Fox News poll conducted before the invasion found that, while 81% of Republicans have a negative view of Putin, 92% of them dislike Biden.

Although opinion polls are not always reliable, these remarkable numbers demand an explanation. On foreign policy (something that does not interest most Americans), Biden can’t win. Many see him either as a weak-kneed appeaser who abandoned Afghanistan, coddles the Europeans, and is soft on Russia, or as a Cold Warrior who provoked the Russian invasion by refusing to accommodate Putin’s security concerns.

Biden also has the bad luck of having to deal with the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic, including high gasoline prices (something that does interest most Americans), surging inflation, and rising street crime. These things are not Biden’s fault, but he is stuck with them. As a result, the Democrats could easily lose their slim congressional majority in midterm elections this November.

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I think Biden’s problem runs deeper, however. This is partly a matter of age. At 79, he is an old man. And not only that, but he is an old white liberal man, who personifies a world crumbling so fast that it almost no longer exists. His is the battered, wrinkled face of Pax Americana, the sometimes benign, sometimes perfidious US hegemony over what used to be called the “free world.” Safe in the bosom of US military power, West Europeans, as well as Japanese and South Koreans, have enjoyed unprecedented security ever since the end of World War II.

The sun is setting on that US-led world, and not only because everything must end at some point. The rise of rival superpowers is inevitable. Contrary to triumphalist Western claims at the end of the Cold War, history never ends. America’s relative decline also has something to do with its tendency toward hubris. Reckless wars, notably in Vietnam and the Middle East, ended in disasters that greatly damaged America’s global standing.

Still, external enemies are rarely the only reason why an empire ends, even an informal one like America’s. It is more common for the empire to run out of steam. The Indian writer Nirad C. Chaudhuri once ascribed the collapse of the British Raj in India to “sheer funk.” He was being provocative, of course, but he had a point. When the imperialists stop believing in their own cause, the end is nigh.

Something like that happened in the Soviet Union around 1990, when the leaders of a sclerotic Communist Party lost their desire to prop up a decaying empire. So, it collapsed quickly, and the US and its allies did nothing to soften the humiliation. Putin, who was a KGB officer in East Germany in the late 1980s, has been plotting his revenge ever since.

Things probably won’t unravel quite so rapidly in the American case, not least because the US is still a very rich country with a formidable military. But fewer and fewer Americans nowadays feel the need to maintain Pax Americana, which is after all expensive. Republicans in thrall to Trump long to return to the 1930s, when America Firsters promoted US isolation from foreign conflicts and would have been happy to make a deal with Hitler, a leader some of them rather admired anyway.

Many younger Democrats today are just as unenthusiastic about the US throwing its weight around in the world, regarding this as noxious neo-imperialism. Their main interest instead lies in diversity and inclusivity at home, expressed through causes such as gender equality, LGBTQ rights, and Black Lives Matter. The old guard of Atlanticists, who still believe in a liberal world order led by benevolent men (and a handful of women), are now the last of the Mohicans.

Biden is one of those Mohicans. I am glad he is in charge now, and not an America Firster or a politician entirely focused on domestic social issues. But, once Biden has played his part in this time of crisis, I hope he will swiftly leave the stage with good grace. It is time for a younger Democrat, who is neither an isolationist nor a quasi-imperialist, to seek the presidency. Such a person need not be a woman, a person of color, or gay, but it might help.