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MaltaToday 24 August 2022 MIDWEEK

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15 maltatoday | WEDNESDAY • 24 AUGUST 2022 WORLD disunited states of America As one analyst put it, consum- er confidence is dropping like a stone. Nor is it just weak growth that loomed. According to an- other poll, a full-scale recession is waiting over the horizon. Biden's team could of course claim, and have, that under his leadership COVID-19 no longer wreaks 'havoc' on the country, that unemployment is 'near his- toric lows' and that new busi- nesses are being created at 're- cord rates'. Nonetheless, going into a mid-term election when there is still so much economic uncertainty poses a huge po- litical challenge. Whether this leads to the 'historic shellacking' that some are predicting is by no means a given. But there can be little doubt that 'high prices and economic uncertainty are weighing heavily on the minds of many voters'. For a President whose approval ratings contin- ue to be as low as they are – 40 percent and falling in June – the political omens are not good. Ukraine to the rescue? It has often been argued that the most effective way of unit- ing a nation at home is for it to engage in a war abroad. Having an enemy at the metaphorical gate, as the British classicist Ar- nold Toynbee once observed, is the best means of rallying people and cementing their loyalty to the state. But it does not always work out like that. Indeed, Biden began his presi- dency not with a declaration of war but the opposite. He may well have supported the inter- ventions in Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, but he was po- litically astute enough to know that by the time he became President several years later, the American people were fast looking for a final withdrawal from both and a move to focus laser-like on sorting out the na- tion's many domestic woes As it turned out, pulling back from Iraq (where only a couple of thousand troops remained anyway) proved relatively pain- less. Getting out of Afghanistan, however, turned into a night- mare with damaging images broadcast around the world of Afghans desperately trying to flee the country fearing (rea- sonably) its take-over by a com- pletely unreformed Taliban. There is little doubt that the way in which the withdrawal from Afghanistan was man- aged severely damaged Biden's already less than stellar repu- tation for competence. He may not have regretted his decision to leave. Nor it seems did the American people. Nevertheless, images of 'crowded runways of people desperate to get out, with some hanging from the outsides of US cargo planes' did nothing to improve his or Amer- ica's standing domestically or internationally. Biden may have claimed in his successful run for office that under his stewardship America would be 'back' leading the West. But perceptions across the Atlantic after Afghanistan were overwhelmingly negative. Indeed, even the most avid of Atlanticists feared that the US was not only retreating from the world, but also appeared to have little or no interest in what its closest allies either thought or said. As one US news outlet gen- erally more sympathetic to Biden was forced to concede, there was 'no way' of spinning 'events' in Afghanistan 'as anything but a domestic political, and geopolit- ical, wreck'. In one of more extraordinary twists of history, an invasion that nearly everybody – except the American intelligence commu- nity, Biden, and a few experts – claimed would never happen, appeared to provide the Biden administration with a way back. Russia's 'special military oper- ation' against Ukraine not only spelled the end of the post-Cold War era in Europe, it also provid- ed Biden personally and the Bid- en team more generally with an opportunity to restore some sem- blance of credibility. Republicans may have claimed that if Trump had been in the White House, Putin would never have dared in- vade Ukraine. This however was not the feeling amongst his allies in Europe. Here the US looked as if it was leading from the front culminating in late June with a crucial summit in Madrid which, in effect, transformed NATO. Meantime at home, Biden scored several successes in per- suading Congress to pass six aid packages for Ukraine. This may not have persuaded his political enemies that he was doing a good job. Still, various surveys taken at the time told a slightly more posi- tive story with around a half of all Americans polled in March sup- porting his actions over Ukraine. Even so, the split between Dem- ocrats and Republicans remained as high as ever with only 18 per- cent of Republicans supporting his policies. Americans overall may have been keen to back Ukraine, but the chasm between the two parties remained as wide as ever. Previous wars in which the United States had been in- volved tended to unite Ameri- cans around their 'Command- er-in-Chief'. Such was the level of polarization after Trump that this simply did not happen. Nor finally was the war in Ukraine without its risks for Biden. His own party may have stood four square behind him, yet few Americans wanted to see the United States getting more deeply involved in Ukraine itself. Many, moreover, looked forward to some settlement of the conflict within the not-too-distant future. There was the additional problem for Biden that some Americans might either begin to make a link between their own difficult eco- nomic situation at home and the conflict going on in Ukraine – in- creased gas prices being the more obvious connection – or more likely, wonder what the country was doing getting involved in an overseas war when the real chal- lenges facing the United States were at home. Backing Ukraine remained the morally right and strategically necessary thing to do according to Biden and most foreign policy experts. Whether an increasingly inward looking American public would continue to buy into that narrative if the costs continued to escalate, and the war looked as if it would go on for an indeterminate period of time, remains to be seen. But what about the world? But what about the world 'out there'? How is it viewing what is happening? The simple answer in most cases is with very great trep- idation. Putin may be wondering how best to exploit America's problems, while China no doubt hopes the current crisis will make the US less able to play a lead- ing role in Asia. But it is hardly a secret that America's principal allies remain very worried about the future. Trump's going may have brought temporary relief. Yet the very real concern re- mains in Europe that Trumpism remains alive and well and could easily make a comeback as it looks like it could do in the mid- term elections of 2022 and has a fair chance of doing in the race for the White House in 2024. It is of course possible that the very extremism displayed by Trump and his allies and sup- porters will help the Democrats. Some Democrats are even hop- ing that recent decisions taken by the Supreme Court on abortion and gun control will drive more moderate Republicans into their welcoming arms. This however may be grasping at straws given the state of the economy, Biden's very low personal ratings, and the contempt in which he is held by most Republicans. Trump meanwhile continues to loom large in the shadows. The odds of him running and winning in 2024 may have been slashed because of recent revela- tions about his role in the attack on Congress in January 2021. Yet even if he does not run – and that is by no means a given – this will not change the direction in which the republican party has been traveling since he exploded onto the political scene in 2016. Nor will it help heal the deep di- vide that has pulled the United States apart over the past few years. As the foremost interna- tional historian of global crises Adam Tooze recently observed, the US is confronting an 'alarm- ing constellation of threats' which are not just threatening the Democrats or Biden, but the stability of the republic itself. The stakes for the US, and in- deed for the world at large, could hardly be higher. Convinced the election was stolen, thousands of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol building on 6 January 2021 as Congress counted and certified the Electoral College vote

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