If one country out of the 200 nations on earth starts behaving in an erratic, anti-social way, it shouldn’t worry the entire planet. But when it’s the United States of America, which is following its “God-given right” to lead the world, the rest of humanity is understandably concerned, and growing more so by the day. Richard Cullen considers the issues through the lens of Americas’s culture-based image of itself.
THE QUESTION IN THE title is seriously posed today more frequently than ever before. Caitlin Johnstone recently argued that: “[T]he US is as far from a normal country as can be”.
Certain primary issues raised by this question are explored in this article. Of course, one response might be: Has America ever been a normal country?
I believe the answer to this interrogation is: yes. Not a perfect country – there is no such thing outside of the imagination of political philosophers. But the US was once a comparatively normal, positively-focused country (albeit a superpower) in decades past.
Let’s begin by taking a look at American TV from another era to see what that can tell us about where the US finds itself in 2023. The American CBS TV series, Perry Mason, ran from 1957 until 1966. The show was based on the Perry Mason lawyer-detective books written by Erle Stanley Gardner, the first of which appeared in 1933. Gardner wrote over 80 of these novels built around an exceptional defence attorney, who rarely lost a case. A number were turned into films in the 1930s. But it is the remarkable, long-term TV series that is best remembered.
Many present-day law graduates from my generation surely first thought, after watching Perry Mason when much younger: perhaps I’ll be a lawyer when I grow up. In fact, current Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) Justice, Sonia Sotomayor, told the US Senate, at her confirmation hearing in 2009, that she was “influenced greatly” to become a prosecutor after watching a particular episode of Perry Mason.
The narrative approach of both the TV series and the novels (with total sales of over 300 million) was formula-based. In each instance, the second half of the story was devoted to a court room resolution. Still, as one critic noted, the variety of persons and circumstances employed and the ingenuity of detail Gardner created were “astonishing and entrancing.”
Also captivating then – and still today – were certain other aspects of the series. First, apart from a single episode, the entire series was shot in black and white. All that Californian sunshine helped – but the cinematography was consistently outstanding. Black and white filming also allows for the use of contrast and shadows in ways that colour does not.
Next, there was a lot of exterior shooting where huge American cars wallowed magnificently around corners like water-beds on wheels. Sixty years ago, who would not want to own such a supremely affirmative motor car? Never mind that these huge automobiles consumed around four times as much fuel per kilometre as the average car does today. This was all happening in the pre-oil-shock era when petrol was cheap.
In fact, Perry Mason epitomized the extraordinary confidence of the US in the immediate post-War decades. And America’s sure-footedness. Apart from that photography, the scripts were tight, the pool of superior acting talent was huge and the casting was very good. The series, like many others made in the US during that era, radiated American conviction about itself and where it was going. Which was where you might be able to come too – if only largely in your dreams across most of the world.
By the time Perry Mason began to appear on TV, the Cold War had been underway for about a decade, of course. Hollywood was energized to market America as never before and it did so with immense vigor and skill and colossal assertiveness.
But what was it actually marketing – or rather, what was it not marketing?
The confident, cohesive America where episodes of Perry Mason played out was overwhelmingly White America. All the primary characters were white – and largely male. Asian and Hispanic persons did feature in minor and subsidiary roles – sometimes as villains or servants. Black Americans were still more rarely seen despite comprising some 11% of the population or around 20 million persons.
Most of the mainstream American TV entertainment of that era, radiated real confidence, it is true, but it was a confidence – often stressing ethical behaviour – that was underpinned by almost a century of post-Civil War, segregated, race-based cohesiveness that could not last.
One significant background factor driving the huge Civil Rights movement that gained such traction by the 1960s in the US was the vital role that Black Americans had played in the US military in World War II. Despite that role, African-Americans were still subject to sometimes gross discrimination within the military. The Chequer Board, a novel published by the distinguished British writer, Nevil Shute, in 1947 has a plot centred on intense prejudice within the US forces based in the UK.
Changes fostered by the Civil Rights movement in America were already evident by the 1950s with the SCOTUS decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, in 1954, which ruled that State laws in the US establishing racial segregation in public schools were unconstitutional. Subsequently, in the following decades, the earlier underpinnings of America’s racially separated, cohesive confidence were massively disrupted.
New freedom-breakthroughs were secured for many minorities, not least for African-Americans. But new polarizations emerged across the American political spectrum and these have intensified ever since to the point where, a year ago, the New York Times asked: “Is it possible all this internal division could culminate in a civil war?”.
Yet, America is still sending out signals of strident assertiveness. Republicans are going to: “Make America Great Again” – the MAGA movement. Joe Biden, meanwhile, asserted at his first press conferences after becoming President that he would not let China become “the leading country” globally.
The race-based foundations of the clear assurance evident in the US over 60 years ago may have been comprehensively disassembled due to changes triggered by the Civil Rights movement, but it has been replaced, today, by bi-partisan, top-down proclamations of ultimate confidence.
It feels increasingly like a form of confidence-by-decree. And it matters, because the US is still the most powerful nation economically by any measure. And, more acutely, its military vastly outguns the rest of the world combined.
Collective figures from the City University of New York and Macrotrends indicate that total, basic US military spending over that last 70+ years exceeds US$30 trillion. Current spending exceeds $800 billion annually and rising. The US spends more on its military than the next 10 countries combined.
The “Global War on Terror” alone cost US$8 trillion and killed over 900,000 people according to Brown University in the US.
Just the budget for the US Navy, which has awe-inspiring superiority in terms of aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and aircraft, is about the same as China’s total military budget. Overall: “The US has the world’s largest, powerful and most advanced military”.
Plus, America maintains about 750 military bases around the world in at least 80 countries, with the highest number in Japan, followed by Germany and South Korea. Naturally, America was still continually meddling offshore throughout the post-war period, including organizing coups and other deviant political interventions. Latin America was a primary zone for such activity.
Mao Zedong said, that: “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”. The US has acted in firm accordance with this dictum since its creation arising out of the American Revolutionary War.
FATEFUL TURNING POINT
First, we need to consider, once more, that immediate post-war era in the US. Notwithstanding the discrimination-based cohesiveness of that period, America’s confident positive outlook was real. Thus, when the US threw itself into significant global rebuilding after World War II, with a special focus on Europe (via the Marshall Plan) and Japan it did so with immense constructive purpose. The aim was to secure American geopolitical and global economic interests, of course. But these moves also drove the uplift in many economies around the world.
And the US was building and renovating across the homeland, where incomes were rising for the majority, not just elites. The American Dream had substance for many. America was the almighty, world superpower but, within that brash reality, it was also still a comparatively normal country. It was doing more to look after its own people and it was leading what Washington called the free world (whether it wanted that leadership or not) with a confident perspective on the future.
Geopolitically the US also did act constructively to defuse certain conflicts. Once again this was to serve American interests but President Jimmy Carter was surely right when he said that: “Of all I was able to achieve during my term as president, normalization [of relations] with China [in 1979] may have been most beneficial to world peace and understanding.”
By 1989, however, it was becoming clear that America had “won” the Cold War. This turning point could have been used to apply peace-consolidating magnanimity to relieve global tensions. Instead, it implanted refreshed arrogance into the American view of itself. We have got so much right, was the implicit message promoted by Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 powerful, victory-lap essay, which later became a book in 1992: The End of History and the Last Man.
But why has so much gone so badly wrong since that exultant time?
Today, the US finds it must repeatedly tell itself (and the world) in a loud voice that it is still number one – and no one can change this. Moreover, it began volubly applying this self-reassurance-therapy at least 30 years ago.
By 1992, the US had brazenly developed a strategy to ensure that no rival to American global dominance – in this new post-Cold War era – would be allowed to emerge in the future. This secret plan to safeguard American global dominance is also well explained in the video below:
At that point, China was still the focus of rapidly rising US business – and political – attention as its post-Mao, open door policy gained traction. Thus, Washington reasoned that if Beijing could be drawn into the globally dominant American business regime, it would eventually be persuaded – seduced as needs be – to become the largest (bigger by four times) American tributary state ever. America subsequently discovered that China had brazenly crafted its own modernization plans. The first US reaction was astonishment – followed by infuriation.
CHINA IS A NORMAL COUNTRY – AND THAT IS THE PROBLEM
As China looks to the future it faces immense challenges, related, for example: to maintaining strong economic progress (linked to political stability and national security) in a more hostile geopolitical environment; addressing the fallout from continuing comparative poverty; tackling climate change hazards and so on and so on.
Moreover, from the beginning of the 19th century, China endured over a century of continuing warfare and degradation, including: multiple foreign incursions; a colossal Japanese invasion; the demise of Imperial China; two revolutions, severe US hostility where invasion via Korea was threatened; a massive famine; and the profound turmoil of the Cultural Revolution. This was not a time when China could have called itself a normal country.
But China has, over the last forty-plus years, successfully overcome all these extraordinary setbacks and a range of huge developmental problems in a manner never seen before on such a scale in world history. Its economy is around 50 times larger, in real terms, than it was 50 years ago and it has lifted over 800 million people out of abject poverty, according to the World Bank. It has launched an International Space Station and landed a mobile rover on the Moon. The list goes on and on.
China has, of course, retained an enduring single party-state and many (Westerners especially) have stressed that such a system acutely enhances the risk of systemic abuse of state power. This is concern is constantly emphasized – and overstated – but it is a credible concern. The violent, militarized clearing of Tiananmen Square in 1989 offers confirmation. (Although, consider the missing parts of the story by clicking here.)
But the abuse of public power is a general concern, which applies to all species of state power. Thus, we have long been told that Israel is the sole democratic state in the Middle East, yet that democratic essence has been of zero assistance in preventing an horrific genocidal revenge being visited on Gaza in response to the deadly, savage Hamas attack on Southern Israel on October 7.
In fact, Beijing has consistently demonstrated greater political impulse control than many states in the Global West over the last several decades – tilted Western narratives on Tibet, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Hong Kong notwithstanding. This helps explain the enduring high regard enjoyed by the Central Government in China, confirmed in a long term-Harvard survey.
By any realistic measure, China has, on balance, steadily become a remarkably normal country: one which has focused relentlessly for over four decades on helping all Chinese people in order to elevate China itself, comprehensively. In 2021, in the Financial Times, Elon Musk summarized why, in his view, China had achieved so much: “The work ethic, just the sheer number of hard-working, smart people in China is a wonder to behold — both amazing and slightly scary. And they’re going to get things done”.
There is a Chinese Dream that is materializing steadily, imperfections notwithstanding, because China is working collectively, intelligently and with immense diligence on this very long-term project. Moreover, China is drawing on its incomparable, documented extended history as the world’s largest ever and oldest existing civilizational-state. Notably, China has engendered a civilization that, unlike so many others, shunned the need for warrior worship as a primary aspect of defining its originating identity, elevating education worship in its place.
China has engendered a civilization that, unlike so many others, shunned the need for warrior worship
Across the Pacific, however, the rise of China has come to be seen as a grave problem for America, no matter who is in the White House. MAGA Republicans have been making this stridently clear for over half a decade, while Joe Biden has tried to trump their intense anti-China glaring by promising to put a stop to the intrigues of a feverishly demonized-China: “to become the most powerful country in the world”. “That’s not going to happen on my watch,” Biden assured America as he took office. Ideally, China is presumably meant to tremble and obey.
Leading American commentators like Robert Gates do not need to engage in this sort of political self-embellishment but they they are, if anything, still more anxious about the rise of China, wondering how a dysfunctional superpower can deter China and Russia. Another leading American commentator, Fareed Zakaria, earlier this year openly called for the US to step firmly away from a foreign policy “forged out of paranoia, hysteria and above all, fears of being branded as soft”.
FROM BAD TO WORSE
President Jimmy Carter reminded us in 2019, that the US has lapped the world several times over when it comes to waging war: “America is the most warlike nation in the history of the world,” he said.
Over the last two years, Washington has reconfirmed Carter’s analysis with horrifying fervor. The US has entered into two terrible proxy-wars in Ukraine and Gaza despite stark, informed advice from within the US to step back resolutely. Plus, America is now constantly swinging between re-committing to the One China Policy – and, soon after, “dog whistling” a level of support for Taiwan independence.
The clashing US policies on Taiwan are discussed in the video below.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine was unforgiveable but the US-led baiting and militarized provocation of Russia dating back well over a decade was inexcusable. And the Anglo-American torpedoing of peace talks soon after the war began was reprehensible. Today, even The Economist, which has championed this war against Russia with frightening enthusiasm, is wondering if Russia may be winning.
Even worse has been the US participation in the medieval horror of the Israel-Palestine War centred on Gaza.
Israel launched a homicidal revenge attack on Gaza, following the brutal, deadly Hamas attack on Southern Israel on October 7. Commentators worldwide, including from the UN, have argued that this Israeli response presents the clearest case of genocide.
The father of Miko Peled (an Israeli-Jew) was a respected General in the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Peled, now a writer and peace activist, joined the Special Forces in Israel after high school but left that position as soon as he was able to. Around 10 years ago he described the IDF as one of: The best trained, best equipped, and best fed terrorist organizations in the world, notwithstanding the Generals and nice uniforms.
Walter Bagehot in his book, The English Constitution (1867) explained that the UK Prime Minister from 1766 – 1768, Lord Chatham (William Pitt the Elder) “was in the habit of kneeling at the bedside of [King] George III while transacting business.” There were no bedroom visits on October 18 when President Biden took himself to Israel. But Joe Biden did give the Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu a brazen, public buddy-hug on arrival, while reassuring him that Washington was more committed than ever to supporting Israel, without reservation. Naturally, the US opposed any serious move within the UN Security Council to call for an unconditional ceasefire, to bring a halt to the egregious Israeli slaughter of Palestinians trapped in Gaza.
Some 15,000 Palestinians including 6,000 children and 4,000 women have been killed since October 7 and around 30,000 have been wounded and 6,000 are missing according to the distinguished, international (former New York Times) journalist, Chris Hedges. His latest report on Gaza follows Israel’s renewed mass-homicide attack on Gaza. It carries the terrible but apt headline: “Israel Reopens the Gaza Slaughterhouse”.
At about the same time, Doctors Without Borders, pleaded with the UN to “Stop the Absolute Horror in Gaza”.
Once again, the US refreshed its support for Israel’s “right to defend itself” with barely any qualification. Any shred of the remaining claims by the US to be the leader of the global human rights project are being cremated in Gaza. The Economist recently argued that Russia is, “helping turn the Global South against America.” America needs zero help from President Putin – it is doing this, spectacularly and terribly, all by itself.
This, then, is the latest context within which those shrill, top-down declamations of American superiority are being made. Its intensely marketed Rules Based International Order (RBIO) has been progressively confirmed as an exceptionally self-serving geopolitical creation.
The whole world is watching and understanding what they are seeing. And not just across the Global South.
Basic sound judgment in Washington has been severely rattled over the last two decades by, amongst other factors, a range of ill-fated American war-based geopolitical adventures and the shocking level of growing, internal political conflict. There is, moreover, no measurable sign of recovery in trustworthy, geopolitical good judgment in the US.
Most disastrous has been the wilful avoidance by Washington of the fundamental task of dealing with the extraordinary rise of China in a consistent and geopolitically mature way. The intensifying bipartisan, wildly adverse view of China has added still more aggravation to the wretched political stir-fry that worries Robert Gates so much. It has led directly to the sordid solution of fabricating a unifying demon-enemy, despite lucid warnings that this is bad idea from primary American geopolitical observers like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Nye.
America remains an immensely impressive country measured in absolute economic terms and with respect to its incomparable military might. And it retains huge research and higher education strengths, amongst many other positive attributes.
But it is a deeply divided state permeated by intense conflict and gross inequalities. Recent figures from The Economist confirmed, for example, that you are 13 times more likely to be murdered in the US than in China. When you square the ledger, America itself has verified that it is a no longer a normal country.
Richard Cullen is an adjunct law professor at the University of Hong Kong and a popular writer on current affairs.