America 2021: Rife with Disappointment
Biden’s most undeniable failures have come in international relations, flirting with wars, both hot and cold, with China and Russia, the latter over NATO expansions, while leaving behind absolute chaos and catastrophe in Afghanistan.
It was another one of those years in China-U.S. relations, except that it wasn’t. One wants to write with nonchalance about a post-pandemic, post-Trump new normal, and yet, here we are. Slipping further into a new cold war while COVID-19 rages on and the planet continues to overheat.
Each of these calamities is reversible and to be sure, there was great optimism for quick turnarounds when Joe Biden defeated his predecessor. Not even the nonsensical coup attempt on January 6, 2021, dampened moods. In fact, that day, plus all the others when Trumpists spewed absolute malice and nonsense, had finally brought the tumor of U.S. politics into full view, giving Americans the chance to confront this cultural cancer and cure it once and for all.
While Biden deserves some credit for improving America’s response to the outbreak, the total number of U.S. deaths due to COVID-19, now exceeding 800,000, has more than doubled since he took office. With the Omicron variant surging and poor controls in place, it’s almost certain the U.S. death toll will top 1 million before the midterm elections in November, right as Federal Reserve rate hikes start to bite at a limping economic recovery.
Regarding global warming, Biden returned the U.S. to the Paris Agreement, like he promised, and we’ve likewise seen strong verbal commitments for reducing emissions. And yet, where are the results? By every indicator, global warming has worsened, use of fossil fuels increased, and chaotic weather patterns accelerated, devastating communities across the U.S.
Just as there is little to no federal capacity to impose effective public health controls, the same holds for environmental policymaking. And it’s not just the lack of institutional capacity; it’s the complete unreliability of American voters to elect responsible leaders who won’t again abandon the Paris Agreement or disavow the recent Glasgow UN Climate Change Conference commitments. And if a recent Wall Street Journal editorial holds true, European leaders, too, will back away from their commitment in 2022, when they come face to face with the true costs.
A more generous assessment might conclude that Biden has done all he can to address the pandemic and climate change, but in costly and dangerous times like these, who—except the 1 percent—can afford to be generous?
A global rabble-rouser
Whatever his considerable shortcomings in domestic policymaking, Biden’s most undeniable failures have come in international relations, flirting with wars, both hot and cold, with China and Russia, the latter over NATO expansions, while leaving behind absolute chaos and catastrophe in Afghanistan.
Before the first U.S.-China high-level meeting after Biden took power early last year, which was held in Anchorage, Alaska, in March 2021, there was reason to be optimistic. It was impossible to imagine Biden continuing Trump’s racist anti-China propaganda campaign. It was impossible to imagine Biden continuing Trump’s self-defeating trade war. And yet, here we are.
Not only did these things continue, Biden managed to add gravitas to Trump’s bluster while also proliferating nuclear weapons to Australia via the AUKUS alliance consisting of Australia, the UK and the U.S., revealing the presence of U.S. troops in China’s Taiwan, and continuing provocations in the South China Sea, even wrecking one American nuclear submarine on a seamount. The icing on the Cold War cake: a diplomatic, whatever the American definition thereof may be, boycott of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
As we put the past year in perspective, let’s review: Biden has seen more Americans die from COVID-19 than Trump did, but he also pushed the world closer to war on two fronts, made a new cold war highly likely, and made anti-China animosity “respectable.” While the more ignorant say China brought this on itself, standing up to hegemony and unilateralism, talking back, insulting Western sensitives with “wolf warrior” woofs, wisecracks or whatever, all things considered, Beijing has demonstrated remarkable restraint. It has not followed the U.S. tit-for-tat down the dark rabbit hole of hopelessness.
Where have all the clearheaded, intelligent voices gone? American sinologists have demonstrated they are little more than tired turtles: They withdrew into their shells during the outbreak and have remained there since. They know better, and yet, say nothing. Why jeopardize plum advisory spots, the privilege of Congressional testimony, federal grants, access to key journals, and so on? Such is America’s vaunted freedom of speech and academic integrity. Washington burns with Cold War fever, but they keep quiet and count the cash.
Meanwhile, who do we hear but these howling historians who know more about the Peloponnesian War than modern politics and little to nothing about China? These dark theoreticians who call themselves realists, like political scientist and international relations scholar John Mearsheimer, seem to be ravenous for war and hail hegemony in the name of human rights.
America’s corrupt imperialist puppetry was so bad in Afghanistan that it made the Taliban look good by comparison. And now we see the shedding of crocodile tears, Orientalist rescue fantasies gone awry, while pivoting to Asia and cheering as more children die.
Are there no more true fathers or mothers amongst Americans, despite clinging to old patriarchies like fake fathers far removed from all reality and responsibility? No wonder American sovereignty crumbles from within. Its moral compass apparently points to hell on earth.
And still, Biden wags a finger, asserts a moral high ground on human rights and hosts a “democracy summit.” Who can believe this pseudo-humanity, this fake democracy? Not even the Americans themselves it seems.
How to explain such bouts of American self-destruction? I can only imagine a deep-seated self-contempt, a sociopathy of knees on necks, necks on the line, and long lines for food and funerals. Whether the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, the continued mass shootings or the dramatic increases in child abuse and suicides—these are all symptomatic of the larger social problem of people against people, tearing each other down, even laying themselves low with self-harm.
The author is a professor of politics and international relations at East China Normal University in Shanghai.