[Correspondent’s column] Why America’s leaders are dropping the act

Posted on : 2023-12-01 17:18 KST Modified on : 2023-12-01 17:18 KST
We’re seeing less and less of the air of magnanimous empire from America these days
US President Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Oval Office in the White House on Oct. 19 regarding the clash between Israel and Hamas. (AFP/Yonhap)
US President Joe Biden addresses the nation from the Oval Office in the White House on Oct. 19 regarding the clash between Israel and Hamas. (AFP/Yonhap)

By Lee Bon-young, Washington correspondent

An empire is always composed and collected. Their majesty and magnanimity are two sides of the same coin. Just as Chinese dynasties often bequeathed more than their vassals gave as tribute, during the Cold War, the Soviet Union gave free aid to Eastern European countries that were better off than the union itself.

Keeping up the act of a gracious, caring entity, even if one is leeching off others, is one of the ways that empires kept power.

We’re seeing less and less of this sort of air of empire from America these days. Just as we’re more likely to fess up to the truth when backed into a corner, the US is now coming out and saying the quiet parts behind its actions a little more loudly.

President Joe Biden said in an Oct. 19 speech that further aid to Ukraine would create American jobs. Deputy Secretary of State James O’Brien told a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Nov. 8 that turning over arms stocks to Ukraine would allow US arsenals to be filled with new, more efficient weapons, and that almost all aid to Ukraine is an investment in the US.

The White House even created a map showing how much of the money goes to each state where the weapons plants are located. They’re telling Republicans, who’re claiming that this is a waste of taxpayer dollars: “You idiots, that money ends up in your districts!”

It shows that there are cold calculations behind the “noble” support for defending Ukraine’s freedom. The bizarre situation of lobbying firms offering to lobby for the Ukrainian government for free also shows the shortsightedness of the trickle-down argument.

The money is going to the US defense contractors, and the lobbyists will get their cut. This unusual explanation, which reads like a trade secret from the military-industrial complex, shows that the US is now forced to reveal the truth it has been hiding from itself, as it cannot convince voters otherwise.

This shift in attitude comes at a cost to the free trade order that the US has helped to build. “Supply chain stability” is all about stopping the rise of China.

From the US’ point of view, it is as if a child who was always top of her class lent her notes to a friend, taught them the basics of problem-solving, only to have them surpass her. Hence, all pretense of grace and composure has disappeared.

Biden has also been unusually candid about the Israeli military’s mass murder of civilians in Gaza. During a joint press conference with Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese on Oct. 25, when it was pointed out that many Palestinians are being killed, he said, “I’m sure innocents have been killed, and it’s the price of waging a war.”

The implication is that if you’re on the side that started the war, even the innocents have to pay the price.

The decline of US influence and the rise of China will make the US more anxious and outspoken. There will be pressure on allies like South Korea to give more to their cause. Donald Trump skillfully capitalized on this mood to become president.

Few people are better liars, but paradoxically, he was very honest. A lifetime of honesty and loyalty in the face of desire has allowed him to capitalize on the public’s frank grievances, crises, and complexes into a rallying cry of “America First!”

Would it be going too far to call his candor the key to his success?

Whether a nation or an individual ditches any pretense of composure and dignity, one is suddenly faced with a stubborn, scary entity. The US is likely to follow that path at a slower pace if Biden is reelected, but at a faster pace if Trump comes out on top in next November’s election.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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