What America Has Lost

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Dr. Rizal Ramli Former coordinating minister of maritime affairs for the Republic of Indonesia.

IO – The days ahead in American politics will invariably be dramatic and fraught with danger. After last week’s shocking storming of the U.S. Capitol, Washington is bracing for yet more violent protest in the days leading up to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on the twentieth of January. Law enforcement agencies are also expecting armed protests by extremist groups in all 50 state capitols, starting on the sixteenth of January and even beyond the inauguration.

The big risk for America is that political extremism and violence could extend far beyond Biden’s first days in office. And as Americans brace for the worst, their country’s allies and enemies will be watching very closely. America must come to grips with the fact that the departure of Trump does not mean that the world will simply hit the reset button. It will mean a new chapter is being opened, but not one that Americans will find familiar.

President-elect Biden must come to grips with the fact that the United States’ reputation has been indelibly transformed and it will be extraordinarily difficult to win back the trust and confidence in America that was lost during the Trump years. Biden and his foreign policy team will find it challenging to find ways in restoring America’s prestige on multiple fronts, not only within international institutions and traditional alliances, but also on issues such as human rights and democratization, issues that once took front stage in U.S. foreign policy and were treasured as being at the core of American values.

Even if Biden proves to be a steady hand, there will be lingering doubts about the reliability of the United States as a long-term partner and ally. American politics has been and will more than likely remain deeply polarized. And it could get worse, making extremism a more prominent feature of the political landscape. Everybody understands now that there is nothing to prevent a Trump-like president ascending to power in the future, meaning there is little reason for America’s friends to bankroll their national interests on a country that could turn on them once again.

America’s loss of prestige as the leading democracy of the world and its being perceived as a dysfunctional state means that its adversaries will find it easier to ignore Washington’s entreaties. And if Biden is unable to convince Trump’s supporters to go home, lay down their arns and respect the rule-of-law, the consequences will be dire. Beijing will be able to more easily argue that its model of governance is far superior. Criticism of the loss of Hong Kong’s political freedoms will be brushed aside. Telling the world that countries that are unstable should not possess nuclear arms will fall on deaf ears. And when elections are stolen in other countries and their leaders turn themselves into demagogues, America will be in no position to criticize. In the end, Biden will be preaching to an empty choir.

America’s losses will also prove to be losses for others. If America remains adrift and is consumed by extremism, nations across the Indo-Pacific will believe they have no alternative other than to subjugate themselves to Beijing or, alternatively, arm themselves more heavily. Europe, which recently signed a big trade deal with China, will increasingly look towards Beijing for improving its economic fortunes. Illiberal leaders, far right political parties and wanna-be authoritarians in electoral democracies will see America in disarray and consequently believe that nothing could stop them from trying to further undermine their people’s political and civil rights. In a word, all of the ugly trends we experienced during the Trump years will continue, even without Trump at the helm.

The remaining question is, can America recover from this crisis and reverse its decline?

Much will depend, of course, on how leaders inside both the Republican and Democratic parties decide to move forward. Both parties need to reform themselves if America is to heal.

Republicans must disown themselves from Trump and the values he stood for. They must also denounce radicalism and, most importantly, reject the type of mendacity and conspiratorial thinking that poisoned American politics under Trump. Only then can they act as a loyal opposition and work with the Democratic party to help America heal.

The  Democrats,  on  the  other hand, need to ask themselves what were the underlying reasons for so many people to give their support to Trump. Rather than ostracize them, Democrats need to reflect and come to terms with their party’s own failings. Until they do, America’s politics will be remain troubled.