A Post-American America, Biden’s Saudi Arabia Visit and More

A Post-American America, Biden’s Saudi Arabia Visit and More
A video is displayed on a screen at a hearing of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, in Washington, June 21, 2022 (AP photo by Jacquelyn Martin).
One of the defining features of the United States is expressed by its Latin motto, e pluribus unum—out of many, one. This historical fact, that the nation was not born a solitary whole, but became one by merging its discrete parts, often hides in plain sight, even in the grammar used to describe the country: Though the states that make it up are plural, the United States is singular. And it is further obscured by an assumption, cooked into the national imaginary, that this resulting whole is greater than the sum of its parts. And yet, when the reality of the United States’ multiplicity resurfaces, as it periodically and inevitably does, it calls into question that assumption and many others on which the United States’ self-image and international standing are based. The past two weeks have seen just such a resurfacing. From the Supreme Court rulings undoing 50 years of settled law on abortion rights and federal regulatory powers, to the House committee investigating what increasingly looks like a failed coup on Jan. 6, 2021, the fundamental ties binding the United States together seem strained to the breaking point. To be clear, the United States’ numerous internal divisions are seared into the pages of its history, most visibly with regard to slavery and its pernicious legacy of racism and discrimination from the Civil War period to the Civil Rights era. And the fault lines that are currently on prominent display aren’t new. They are what Barack Obama, then a state senator from Illinois, pointed to in his famous “Red States, Blue States” speech at the 2004 Democratic Party convention that launched his own presidential ambitions.

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Nor are the grievances against an institutional architecture weighted to one side’s advantage a recent phenomenon. If conservatives have organized with such focus over the past 40 years to retake the Supreme Court through the appointment of radical ideologue justices, it is due to their own discontent with the court’s largely liberal bent that, from the 1950s through the 1970s, reshaped U.S. society and politics. And amid Democrats’ alarm over the anti-democratic constitutional and parliamentary rules that give the Republican Party disproportionate weight in the Senate, it’s easy to forget that, in congressional terms, the U.S. was essentially a one-party democracy dominated by the Democrats from 1932 to 1994. Still, if there is a difference today, it is the erosion of trust in the most fundamental arbiter in any democracy, the one meant to erect an unbreachable wall separating politics from violence and civil conflict: elections. As I argued on several occasions during the presidency of Donald Trump, the real threat he posed to the U.S. democratic order wasn’t a dictatorship, but a crisis of political legitimacy. The Capitol Insurrection on Jan. 6, 2021, showed that the two are not so easily dissociated, as a crisis of legitimacy, even a manufactured one, can be manipulated to support the anti-democratic claims to power of an aspiring autocrat. In any event, it now seems clear that the events surrounding the 2020 presidential election were just a foreshadowing of what’s to come. With the sanctity of U.S. elections now both questioned by Trump-inspired conspiracy theorists and threatened by a range of Trump-inspired state-level maneuvers, an eventual crisis of legitimacy seems ensured. And when it occurs, whether in November’s congressional midterm elections or the 2024 presidential election, the Supreme Court will no longer be in a position to satisfactorily arbitrate any resulting disputes, given the sense among Democrats that the court is no longer impartial, but a partisan political actor on the side of Republicans. The late U.S. Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan famously said, “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not his own facts.” In today’s America, however, alternate facts are as plentiful as opinions, and the result is a shared loss of faith in the founding principles and institutions that have historically undergirded the nation’s cohesion. The danger, as evidenced by the legal chaos that is already emerging with regard to state-level regulations on abortion, is that this presages a weakening of the internal functioning of the United States’ federal system. In that context, the long-standing political gridlock on display in Washington will become more costly, both at home and abroad, as instability and uncertainty become permanent features of U.S. politics and foreign policy. Over the past two decades, the secular trends driving the United States’ relative decline in global power fueled warnings of a coming post-American world. The worry now is that we may be seeing the early signs of a post-American America, in which the United States “is” no longer, replaced by a chaotic and unpredictable “they” that will essentially amount to a huge vacuum. Here are some recent WPR articles for more context on the erosion of U.S. democracy and national cohesion:

This Week’s Highlights

Like It or Not, Biden Can’t Ignore Saudi Arabia Any Longer. In a briefing Thursday, Frank Mirkow looked at what the Biden administration should be seeking to achieve through its reengagement with Saudi Arabia, ahead of President Joe Biden’s upcoming visit to the country.
  • Biden’s recently announced trip to Saudi Arabia has sparked controversy, given his vocal criticisms of Riyadh’s human rights record during the 2020 presidential campaign. Upon taking office, Biden talked about reorienting U.S.-Saudi relations to put greater emphasis on human rights, and he has refused to meet with the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, known as MBS. Now Biden is being accused of helping Saudi Arabia cast off the pariah status it has labored under since its state-sponsored murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. However, a nuanced U.S. approach would recognize that Saudi Arabia is already well on its way to regaining its active role in regional affairs and would therefore seek to leverage reengagement to advance U.S. interests.
  • The West’s outrage over the kingdom’s dismal human rights record as well as the personal role MBS played in the murder of Khashoggi is wholly appropriate. Nevertheless, Saudi Arabia has been an increasingly central actor in numerous key developments and trouble spots in the region, including as an active, if silent, partner in the signing of the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Saudi Arabia is also groping its way toward full reengagement with the Syrian regime, and last week, MBS visited Ankara, where he met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to further advance the normalization of relations between Turkey and Saudi Arabia. A Biden administration rapprochement with Saudi Arabia would not signal the kingdom’s return to the regional and world stage. That process is already well underway.
  • Recognizing that, the Biden administration should still leverage its reengagement with the Saudis in a manner that maximizes the benefits to U.S. national interests and advances regional stability. First, Washington must push for a substantive increase in Saudi and OPEC oil production as a sine qua non for further U.S. security support. Second, U.S. reengagement with Saudi Arabia should be the catalyst for some resolution to the brutal conflict in Yemen. And finally, Biden should use U.S. security support to make sure the Saudis back, or at least do not actively oppose, efforts to revive the multilateral nuclear deal with Iran. A more militarily secure Saudi Arabia would offer the best chance at peacefully restraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
  • While no amount of Saudi money or public relations can obscure the kingdom’s dismal human rights record or its role in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, Saudi Arabia is an inherently influential power in the Middle East, one that is steadily reemerging as an active participant in the politics of that perennially unstable region. The Biden administration should therefore leverage Washington’s reengagement with the kingdom to maximize the benefits to U.S. national interests. What is needed is not a piecemeal rehabilitation of Saudi Arabia, but rather a grand bargain that addresses an array of combustible issues in the region. The U.S. cannot marginalize the kingdom indefinitely, and Washington keeps Riyadh at arm’s length at its own peril.
Singapore’s Leadership Transition Comes at a Challenging Time. And in Wednesday’s briefing, Prashanth Parameswaran examined the domestic and regional challenges facing Singapore as it prepares for an upcoming leadership transition.
  • Singapore is deservedly heralded for its success in turning itself from a tiny so-called third-world country after the country’s independence in 1965 into a first-world city state under the leadership of its founding prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew. It did so by balancing efforts across various realms, including achieving significant domestic economic growth, supporting a regional balance of power underpinned by the United States, and being an active player in regional and international institutions, be it ASEAN or the United Nations. Yet today, under the leadership of Lee’s son, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, several of the key foundations of Singapore’s success are coming under stress globally, regionally and domestically.
  • Globally, the international system within which Singapore has thrived is under duress due to a confluence of global crises, including the COVID-19 pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and anxieties around globalization. Regionally, intensifying U.S.-China competition has reshaped thinking about the balance of power in Asia within which Singapore has historically thrived, even as Southeast Asia also confronts internal challenges. Singapore, traditionally a key U.S. strategic partner, has increasingly had to worry about being caught in the middle of growing U.S.-China rivalry. It has responded to these regional challenges by not only strengthening cooperation with both the U.S. and China, but also taking leadership in areas where it can and reinforcing regional institutions.
  • Domestically, Singaporeans are asking tougher questions of the ruling People’s Action Party, or PAP, on issues such as the rising cost of living, immigration and social welfare, while external challenges such as COVID-19 have compounded internal ones such as racial tensions and foreign disinformation. The government has responded by trying to adjust and reinforce the social compact with Singaporeans. The country’s latest budget released in February included efforts to support lower-income households as well as small and medium-sized enterprises affected by the pandemic, even as the PAP pushed forward with its plans for reopening the country and making long-term investments in its green energy transition.
  • Singapore’s efforts at managing these global, regional and domestic challenges face a number of constraints and uncertainties. At home, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong—tapped to succeed Lee as prime minister—and the PAP’s new generation of leaders will have to strengthen public support and navigate an uncertain external environment while determining when to hold the next elections before the November 2025 deadline. Whether Singapore continues to thrive and enjoy a position of relative influence in the region and beyond will in part depend on whether the new leaders will be able to navigate these challenges as effectively as the Lee family has done.

This Week’s Most-Read Story

For a ‘Young’ Country, the U.S. Has an Old and Outdated Constitution. And in this week’s top story by pageviews, Alexander Clarkson reexamines the familiar but misleading trope that contrasts an “old” Europe with a “young” United States:
While the EU has experienced a succession of shocks that have kept its young system in a state of flux, the polarization and gridlock paralyzing U.S. politics have been severely exacerbated by an inflexible U.S. constitutional order that is beginning to show its age. … An awareness of such dynamics and a more critical view of old tropes that portray the United States as young and Europe as decrepit does not mean ignoring the strengths of U.S. society or the weaknesses of the EU system. But it can provide a clearer understanding of the challenges both face when trying to secure stability, prosperity and democracy.

What’s On Tap

And coming up next week, we’ve got:
  • A column by James Bosworth on Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador’s counterproductive energy reforms.
  • A briefing by Charli Carpenter on the international treaty law that both sides of the U.S. abortion debate are ignoring.
  • A briefing by Meron Elias on the risks surrounding Kenya’s upcoming presidential election.
  • And a briefing by Omar Rahman on whether the participation of the Arab Islamist party Raam in Israel’s outgoing governing coalition was a one-off or a game-changer.

Judah Grunstein is the editor-in-chief of World Politics Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @Judah_Grunstein.

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