Sunday, May 19, 2024

America’s Undoing

Author: Samuel Moyn

Affiliation: Yale University

Organization/Publisher: Prospect Magazine 

Date/Place: December 6, 2023/UK

Type of Literature: Magazine Article

Number of Pages: 14


Keywords: United States, Gaza, Israel, Ukraine War, Democracy


Samuel Moyn argues that the global role of the United States as a model and defender of democracy, after being briefly revived in the Ukraine War, has taken a huge hit following the events of October 7th in Gaza, and one from which recovery is improbable. Both the Ukraine and the Gaza war are demonstrating the limits of America’s power and accelerating its downfall, all the while putting its own democracy at risk.

American foreign policy has sharply declined since the country’s emergence as the sole victor in the Cold War in 1989. Gloating in his victory, President George HW Bush announced a “new world” led by America for the benefit of humanity. His success in the First Gulf War set high expectations for US leadership, and buried the military failures of the Cold War. This did not last long though, as a serious of failures quickly discarded that early illusion. From the 2003 Iraq War to the ‘Global War on Terror’, America’s many wars only ever succeeded in making the world worse off. Eventually, they arguably led Trump to win the 2016 presidential elections, thus putting the US’s own democracy at risk.

Nonetheless, instead of studying how these endless wars abroad led to Trump’s unexpected victory, many have treated Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a grand opportunity for the US to redeem its image as a global leader and savior of democracy after this reputation was tarnished by the country’s military failures and the Trump administration. Biden seized the opportunity and European countries jumped on the bandwagon to claim a defensive victory in saving Ukrainian democracy. America moved backwards from the ethical complications of the War on Terror to a new Cold War and a familiar moral high ground. However, as observed by journalist Lily Lynch, only a year later “the breathless hype that characterised early media coverage has curled into doom.” Putin has demonstrated that he was also willing to pay the price. The tremendous funds and weapons provided by Western countries barely did anything after the much-celebrated recapture of the Kharkiv region in May of 2022. Thus, the said war proved to be a dead-end; a false hope for America’s desired redemption.

When Hamas launched an attack on Israel on October 7th, the US president placed Gaza in the same frame as Ukraine and insisted that it provided another opportunity for his country to return as the global guardian of democracy. This time, the credibility of America’s alleged promise to defend democracy on the world stage saw an immediate collapse. Despite its best attempts, the US government could not convince the world to unite on its policy as there was far less enthusiasm for it. The US faces the challenge of arguing that its policy is driven by the desire to save democracy, despite Israel recently facing a massive protest movement after Benjamin Netanyahu returned to power with a hard-right Israeli coalition despite corruption charges and attempting to curtail the Israeli Supreme Court’s authority.

More importantly, Hamas’ attack could not negate the colonial history that produced the situation in Gaza. The events made clear the degree to which Israel has lost popularity in recent years, especially among American youths, who seem to be catching up to the long enduring global support for the Palestinian cause.

Biden’s strategy for dealing with the overwhelming pressure to call for a ceasefire was to postpone it as much as possible by insisting that Israel adhere to humanitarian limits. The US government’s emphasis on humanitarian limits to vindicate itself in front of the public did not work. Israel’s massacre of Gazan civilians enabled by American aid continued, and the Biden administration never retracted its unconditional support. 

Countries of the Global South were understandably the first to show incredulity to the notion of America as a global savior of democracy in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Former US official Fiona Hill acknowledged that Ukraine’s defense has demonstrated America’s decline and legacy of double standards. She commented, “Perceptions of American hubris and hypocrisy are widespread. Trust in the international system(s) that the US helped invent and has presided over since World War II is long gone.” In this way, America’s Israel policy further decreased support for Ukraine, and crushed the remaining faith in US leadership.

New theories of American Power emerged, calling for a more indirect intervention: sending money and weapons instead of troops—i.e., the Biden doctrine. Nevertheless, the current deadlock in the war in Ukraine and the unpromising prospect of the current Israel-Palestinian conflict crushed any hope in that new vision.

Yet, the biggest consequence for America’s wars is the set back to its own democracy. Over two-thirds of Americans now back a ceasefire. Polls showed that voters would expect Trump’s presidency, upon a victory in the 2024 elections, to be the less likely to go to war. 

“The American dream of advancing democracy through force of arms is obsolete,” the author concludes. It keeps failing and it is domestically unsustainable when the US is on the verge of losing its own democracy. Following Ukraine, Gaza is the final testimony to America’s decline amidst all its wars, and calls for a need to find a new politics to replace said dream.

By: Asmaa Bahy, CIGA Research Intern



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