The streets of Hanoi would have been empty when Kamala Harris was there last week. The city’s five million people are under lockdown as Vietnam, which has the lowest vaccination rate in Southeast Asia, grapples with the spread of the Delta variant. Events in Afghanistan increased the scrutiny on Harris, a potential future president with relatively little foreign policy experience. The tour of Singapore and Vietnam was her second foray abroad as VP. When she went to Guatemala and Mexico in June, she was criticised for telling would-be migrants not to attempt the journey to the US, and for deflecting questions about why she hadn’t visited the US-Mexico border by saying she’d ‘never been to Europe’ either.
Trump was often derided as an isolationist by the imperial bureaucracy, for whom the term is a stock insult. His opponents liked to say he was tearing down the US-led ‘liberal international order’. In the Washington Post, Josh Rogin wrote that Biden held the promise of salvation from the Trump days: ‘a return to a bipartisan, internationalist foreign policy that moderate Republicans and Democrats have long championed’. In fact the Trump administration’s foreign policy was more orthodox than is generally admitted. Many of his appointees were old regime hands. Having pledged to ‘get out of foreign wars’, he did nothing of the sort. He pursued the global assassination programme established under Obama. The US-backed war in Yemen, begun while Biden was vice president, continued. The military budget increased.
For much of the Second World War, Isaiah Berlin worked at the British Embassy in Washington DC, where he carried out intelligence gathering for both the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office. I recently came across a file in the archive of the Political and Secret Department of the India Office, now held at the British Library, which gives a fascinating glimpse into the nature of Berlin’s work in Washington, and into the history of US-Saudi relations.
Back in the day, the rhetoric of American power was thick with talk of high moral purpose. The 'international community', the label of choice for the United States' Facebook fanbase, proved compliant in the face of US-sponsored mass killing in Indonesia under Suharto, the fire-bombing of civilians in Vietnam, and the decades-long portfolio of Monroe Doctrine-inspired murderous dictatorships in Latin America. Hot on the heels of Vietnam and the secret bombing of Cambodia, Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize. Latterly the high moral tone took a bit of a knock from the bungled crusades in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya. But now, in the dying days of the Obama regime, it’s back.
According to conventional American wisdom, a crucial lesson emerged from the Second World War: the world could not get along without us. This assumption animates the foreign policy elite that has dominated US public discourse for seven decades: the bipartisan interventionist establishment that includes Congress and the executive branch as well as significant parts of the academy and the press. Madeleine Albright summarised the perspective in 1998, when she called the United States the ‘indispensable nation’.