“He hated America very deeply,” John le Carré wrote of his fictional Soviet mole, Bill Haydon, in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Haydon had just been unmasked as a double agent at the heart of Britain’s secret service, one whose treachery was motivated by animus, not so much to England but to America. “It’s an aesthetic judgment as much as anything,” Haydon explained, before hastily adding: “Partly a moral one, of course.”
I thought of this as I watched the scenes of protest and violence over the killing of George Floyd spread across the United States and then here in Europe and beyond. The whole thing looked so ugly at first—so full of hate, and violence, and raw, undiluted prejudice against the protesters. The beauty of America seemed to have gone, the optimism and charm and easy informality that entrances so many of us from abroad.
At one level, the ugliness of the moment seems a trite observation to make. And yet it gets to the core of the complicated relationship the rest of the world has with America. In Tinker Tailor, Haydon at first attempts to justify his betrayal with a long political apologia, but, in the end, as he and le Carré’s hero, the master spy George Smiley, both know, the politics are just the shell. The real motivation lies underneath: the aesthetic, the instinct. Haydon—upper class, educated, cultured, European—just could not stand the sight of America. For Haydon and many others like him in the real world, this visceral loathing proved so great that it blinded them to the horrors of the Soviet Union, ones that went far beyond the aesthetic.
Le Carré’s reflection on the motivations of anti-Americanism—bound up, as they are, with his own ambivalent feelings about the United States—are as relevant today as they were in 1974, when the novel was first published. Where there was then Richard Nixon, there is now Donald Trump, a caricature of what the Haydons of this world already despise: brash, grasping, rich, and in charge. In the president and first lady, the burning cities and race divides, the police brutality and poverty, an image of America is beamed out, confirming the prejudices that much of the world already have—while also serving as a useful device to obscure its own injustices, hypocrisies, racism, and ugliness.
It is hard to escape the feeling that this is a uniquely humiliating moment for America. As citizens of the world the United States created, we are accustomed to listening to those who loathe America, admire America, and fear America (sometimes all at the same time). But feeling pity for America? That one is new, even if the Schadenfreude is painfully myopic. If it’s the aesthetic that matters, the U.S. today simply doesn’t look like the country that the rest of us should aspire to, envy, or replicate.
Even in previous moments of American vulnerability, Washington reigned supreme. Whatever moral or strategic challenge it faced, there was a sense that its political vibrancy matched its economic and military might, that its system and democratic culture were so deeply rooted that it could always regenerate itself. It was as if the very idea of America mattered, an engine driving it on whatever other glitches existed under the hood. Now, something appears to be changing. America seems mired, its very ability to rebound in question. A new power has emerged on the world stage to challenge American supremacy—China—with a weapon the Soviet Union never possessed: mutually assured economic destruction.
China, unlike the Soviet Union, is able to offer a measure of wealth, vibrancy, and technological advancement—albeit not yet to the same level as the United States—while protected by a silk curtain of Western cultural and linguistic incomprehension. In contrast, if America were a family, it would be the Kardashian clan, living its life in the open glare of a gawping, global public—its comings and goings, flaws and contradictions, there for all to see. Today, from the outside, it looks as if this strange, dysfunctional, but highly successful upstart of a family were suffering a sort of full-scale breakdown; what made that family great is apparently no longer enough to prevent its decline.
The U.S.—uniquely among nations—must suffer the agony of this existential struggle in the company of the rest of us. America’s drama quickly becomes our drama. Driving to meet a friend here in London as the protests first erupted in the States, I passed a teenager in a basketball jersey with Jordan 23 emblazoned on the back; I noticed it because my wife and I had been watching The Last Dance on Netflix, a documentary about an American sports team, on an American streaming platform. The friend told me he’d spotted graffiti on his way over: I can’t breathe. In the weeks since, protesters have marched in London, Berlin, Paris, Auckland, and elsewhere in support of Black Lives Matter, reflecting the extraordinary cultural hold the United States continues to have over the rest of the Western world.
At one rally in London, the British heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua rapped the lyrics to Tupac’s “Changes” alongside other protesters. The words, so jarring, powerful, and American, are yet so easily translatable and seemingly universal—even though Britain’s police are largely unarmed and there are very few police shootings. Since the initial outpouring of support for George Floyd, the spotlight has turned inward here in Europe. A statue of an old slave trader was torn down in Bristol, while one of Winston Churchill was vandalized with the word racist in London. In Belgium, protesters targeted memorials to Leopold II, the Belgian king who made Congo his own genocidal private property. The spark may have been lit in America, but the global fires are being kept alive by the fuel of national grievances.
For the United States, this cultural dominance is both an enormous strength and a subtle weakness. It draws in talented outsiders to study, build businesses, and rejuvenate itself, molding and dragging the world with it as it does, influencing and distorting those unable to escape its pull. Yet this dominance comes with a cost: The world can see into America, but America cannot look back. And today, the ugliness that is on display is amplified, not calmed, by the American president.
To understand how this moment in U.S. history is being seen in the rest of the world, I spoke to more than a dozen senior diplomats, government officials, politicians, and academics from five major European countries, including advisers to two of its most powerful leaders, as well as to the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. From these conversations, most of which took place on the condition of anonymity to speak freely, a picture emerged in which America’s closest allies are looking on with a kind of stunned incomprehension, unsure of what will happen, what it means, and what they should do, largely bound together with angst and a shared sense, as one influential adviser told me, that America and the West are approaching something of a fin de siècle. “The moment is pregnant,” this adviser said. “We just don’t know what with.”
Today’s convulsions are not without precedent—many I spoke to cited previous protests and riots, or America’s diminished standing after the Iraq War in 2003 (a war, to be sure, supported by Britain and other European countries)—yet the confluence of recent events and modern forces has made the present challenge particularly dangerous. The street protests, violence, and racism of the past few weeks have erupted at the very moment the country’s institutional failings have been exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic, reinforced by its apparently unbridgeable partisan divide, which is now even infecting parts of the American machine that have so far been untouched: its federal agencies, diplomatic service, and the long-standing norms underpinning the relationship between civilians and the military. All of this is happening in the final year of the first term of the most chaotic, loathed, and disrespected president in modern American history.
Of course, not all of this can be laid at Trump’s door; indeed, some of those I spoke to said he was the inheritor and even the beneficiary of many of these trends, the cynical, amoral yang to Barack Obama’s first post–Pax Americana yin, which itself was the result of U.S. overreach in Iraq after September 11. Blair and others were also quick to point to the extraordinary depth of American power that remained regardless of who was in the White House, as well as the structural problems faced by China, Europe, and other geopolitical rivals.
Most of those I spoke to were, however, clear that Trump’s leadership has brought these currents—in tandem with the pressure of relative economic decline, the rise of China, the reemergence of great power politics, and the decline of the West as a spiritual union—to a head in a manner and speed previously unimaginable.
After almost four years of the Trump presidency, European diplomats, officials, and politicians are to varying degrees shocked, appalled, and scared. They have been locked in what one described to me as a “Trump-induced coma,” unable to soften the president’s instincts and with little by way of strategy other than signaling aversion to his leadership. They have also been unable to offer an alternative to American power and leadership, nor much of a response to some of the fundamental complaints consistent to both Trump and his Democratic challenger for the presidency, Joe Biden: European free riding, the strategic threat from China, and the need to tackle Iranian aggression. What has united almost all of them is the sense that America’s place and prestige in the world are now coming under direct attack by this sudden coming together of domestic, epidemiological, economic, and political forces.
Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria who served at the United Nations during the Iraq War, and who now works as a special adviser to the Paris-based think tank Institut Montaigne, told me the nadir of American prestige has, until now, been the revelations of torture and abuse inside the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad in 2004. “Today, it is much worse,” he said. What makes things different now, according to Duclos, is the extent of division within the United States and the lack of leadership in the White House. “We live with the idea that the U.S. has an ability to rebound that is almost unlimited,” Duclos said. “For the first time, I’m starting to have some doubts.”
As Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy reaches its conclusion, Smiley patiently listens to Haydon’s long, rambling attacks on Western immorality and greed. “With much of it,” le Carré wrote, “Smiley might in other circumstances have agreed. It was the tone, rather than the music, which alienated him.”
As the world watches the United States, is it the tone or the music that is causing such a visceral response? Is it an aesthetic thing, in other words, an instinctive reaction to all that Trump represents, rather than the content of his foreign policy or the scale of the injustice? Why, if it is the latter, have there not been marches in Europe over the mass incarceration of Uighur Muslims in China, the steady stifling of democracy in Hong Kong, and Russia’s annexation of Crimea, or against murderous regimes across the Middle East, such as Iran, Syria, or Saudi Arabia? Is it not the case, as many of those I spoke to said, that George Floyd’s killing and Trump’s response to it have become metaphors for all that is wrong and unfair in the world—for American power itself?
If this is true, is the revulsion at the U.S. simply another bout of “politics as performance art,” in the words of one senior adviser to a European leader—a symbolic act of defiance? Are we witnessing America’s imperial possessions metaphorically taking a knee to signal their opposition to the values the Empire has come to represent?
The world has, after all, opposed the music of American policy before: over Vietnam and Iraq, world trade, and climate change. Occasionally, the tone and the music have even come together to alienate America’s closest allies, as under George W. Bush, who was widely mocked, reviled, and opposed abroad. But even this opposition was never to the same extent as it is today—remember, it was a young Angela Merkel, then in the opposition, who wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post in 2003 titled “Schroeder Doesn’t Speak for All Germans” signaling her party’s continued alliance with the United States despite Germany’s opposition to the war in Iraq. Put bluntly, Trump is unique. At the most basic level, Bush never recoiled from the core idea that there was a Western song, and that the lyrics should be composed in Washington. Trump today hears no unifying music—only the dull beat of self-interest.
One senior adviser to a European leader, who did not want to be named relating private deliberations, told me that continental snobbery at the notion of American leadership of the free world, of the “American Dream” and other clichés dismissed until now as hopelessly naive, has suddenly been exposed by Trump’s cynicism. Only once the naïveté has been taken away, the adviser said, could one see that it had been “a more powerful and organizing force than most … realized.” The rot, in this reading, started with Obama, a professorial cynic of the West, and has culminated in Trump, whose abandonment of the American idea marks a break in world history. Yet if America no longer believes in its moral superiority, what is left but moral equivalence?
It is as if Trump were confirming some of the accusations leveled at America by its most fervent critics—even when those claims are not true. The British historian Andrew Roberts and others have noted, for example, that a seam of anti-Americanism runs through le Carré’s novels, finding its expression in a moral equivalence that does not stand up to scrutiny. In Tinker Tailor, le Carré took the reader back to a moment in the past when Smiley attempts to recruit the future head of Russia’s secret service. “Look,” Smiley says to the Russian, “we’re getting to be old men, and we’ve spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. I can see through Eastern values just as you can through our Western ones … Don’t you think it’s time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”
As my colleague Anne Applebaum has shown, the Soviet Union oversaw famine, terror, and the mass murder of millions. Whatever America’s recent flaws, they have been practically and morally incomparable to those horrors. Today, with Beijing overseeing the mass surveillance of its citizens and incarcerating one ethnic-minority group almost en masse, the same can be said of China. And yet this claim of moral equivalence is no longer the smear of a foreign cynic but the view of the president of the United States himself. In an interview with Bill O’Reilly on Fox News in 2017, Trump was asked to explain his respect for Putin, and he replied with the usual generalities about the Russian president leading his country and its fight against Islamist terrorism, prompting O’Reilly to interject: “Putin’s a killer.” Trump then responded: “There are a lot of killers. We’ve got a lot of killers. What, do you think our country is so innocent?” (Before he became president, Trump also praised China’s apparent strength in violently suppressing the pro-democracy Tiananmen Square protests.)
Such cynicism—that all societies are as corrupt and self-serving as the next—had previously been wholly rejected by the United States. Today, international relations is little more than a transactional bargain for the United States, and power—not ideals, history, or alliances—is the currency.
The irony is that this globalized morally equivalent world order, shorn of naive notions of the “free world” of democratic nation-states, finds its mirror image in the internationalized, post-national street protests against racism that we have seen over the past few weeks. Demonstrators have taken to the streets in Australia and New Zealand, both of which have their own distinct racial divides and history of abuse, as well as in Britain and France, each with histories of colonialism and continuing race and class divisions. It is remarkable, as Ishaan Tharoor of The Washington Post has pointed out, that it took the death of a black man in Minneapolis for Belgian authorities to pull down a statue of the person responsible for some of the most heinous colonial crimes in history.
For Europe, in particular, continued domination by the U.S.—culturally, economically, and militarily—remains its fundamental reality. Some of those I spoke to said it wasn’t just the protesters who were guilty of a form of selective blindness, but Europe’s leaders themselves who sought America’s protection, while refusing to bend to any democratically expressed concerns that went beyond Trump. “There’s been too much management [of Trump] and not enough movement,” one adviser to a European leader told me. Right now, the extent of Europe’s strategy appears to be to simply wait out Trump and hope life can return to the previous “rules-based” international order after he leaves office. In London and Paris, however, there is an increasing acknowledgment that this cannot be the case—that there has been a fundamental and permanent shift.
Those that I spoke to divided their concerns, implicitly or explicitly, into those caused by Trump and those exacerbated by him—between the specific problems of his presidency that, in their view, can be rectified, and those that are structural and much more difficult to solve. Almost everyone I spoke to agreed that the Trump presidency has been a watershed not just for the U.S. but for the world itself: It is something that cannot be undone. Words once said cannot be unsaid; images that are seen are unable to be unseen.
The immediate concern for many of those I interviewed was the apparent hollowing out of American capacity. Lawrence Freedman, a professor of war studies at King’s College London, told me the institutions of American power themselves have been “battered.” The health system is struggling, the municipalities are financially broke, and, beyond the police and the military, little attention is being paid to the health of the state itself. Worst of all, he said, “they don’t know how to fix it.”
Such are the internal divisions, in fact, that many foreign observers are now concerned that it is affecting Washington’s ability to protect and project its power abroad. “Will there be a day when these societal problems affect the country’s capacity to rebound and to meet the international challenges it faces?” Duclos said. “This is now a question that is legitimate to ask.”
Take the confusion over the coming G7 summit in September. Trump sought to broaden the group, notably including Russia and India, with the aim, I was told, of building an anti-China concert of powers. But this was rejected by Britain and Canada, and Merkel refused to show up in person during the pandemic. (Behind the scenes, France has been trying to mend fences—this is not how a superpower is supposed to be treated.) “This was going to be [Trump’s] show, and people just don’t want to be associated with him,” Freedman told me.
The U.S. has, however, been here before and shown its ability to bounce back, from the Great Depression to Vietnam to Watergate. At these moments, however, men of stature occupied the White House—flawed, sometimes corrupt, occasionally even criminal, but all sure of America’s unique role in the world.
A European ambassador told me Trump himself is an expression of American decline. “Choosing Trump is a way of not very successfully adapting to the globalized world,” the diplomat, who asked for anonymity, said. It is a sign of the United States following other great powers downward, something Biden—a septuagenarian who must be shielded from crowds because he is among the most vulnerable populations for the novel coronavirus—only illustrates further. “That shows there’s a permanent element in the new U.S. that is not very healthy,” this ambassador said.
Duclos agreed: “The Netherlands were the dominant global power in the 18th century. Today they are a successful country, but they have simply lost their power. To some extent the U.K. and France are on the journey to become the Netherlands, and the U.S. is on the journey to be Britain and France.” Bruno Maceas, Portugal’s former Europe minister, whose book The Dawn of Eurasia looks at the rise of Chinese power, told me, “The collapse of the American Empire is a given; we are just trying to figure out what will replace it.”
Not everyone is convinced. Blair, for example, told me he was skeptical of any analysis that suggested America’s time as the world’s preeminent power was coming to an end. “You’ve always got to distinguish in international relations between whatever people think of President Trump’s personal style and what they think of the policy substance,” he said—the aesthetic and the underlying reality, in other words.
Blair offered three “very large caveats” to the idea of American decline. First, he said, there is more support for the substance of Trump’s foreign policy than might appear. He cited Europe’s need to “up its game” on defense spending, the American willingness to put China’s trade practices on the table, and Trump’s pushback against Iran in the Middle East. Second, Blair argued that the United States remains extraordinarily resilient, whatever its current challenges, because of the strength of its economy and political system. A final caveat, according to the former British leader, is China itself, whose global omnipotence or respect should not be overstated.
Blair—a committed Americanophile—nevertheless stressed that the U.S.’s long-term structural strengths do not minimize its immediate challenges. “I think it’s fair to say a lot of political leaders in Europe are dismayed by what they see as the isolationism growing in America and the seeming indifference to alliances,” he said. “But I think there will come a time when America decides in its own interest to reengage, so I’m optimistic that America will in the end understand that this is not about relegating your self-interest behind the common interest, it’s an understanding that by acting collectively in alliance with others you promote your own interests.
“I don’t diminish the situation at the moment,” he continued, “but you have to be really careful of ignoring deep, structural things which hold that American power together.”
Ultimately, even in this moment of American introspection and division, as it withdraws from its role as the world’s only superpower, for most countries in its orbit there is no realistic alternative to its leadership. When Trump pulled the United States out of the Iranian nuclear deal, Europe’s big three nations—Britain, France, and Germany—attempted to keep it alive themselves, with little success. American financial and military may mean that even their combined power was irrelevant. In Libya, under Obama, Britain and France could only intervene with American help. Like teenagers screaming to both be left alone and be dropped off at the club by their parents, America’s Western allies want to have it all ways.
The truth is that we live in an American world, and will continue to do so, even as its power slowly fades. At one level, the Europe that sent tens of thousands of people to listen to Obama speak at the Brandenburg Gate when he was not even yet president is the same one that packed tens of thousands into European capitals at the height of a global pandemic to call for justice for George Floyd: It is an international community obsessed with America, and dominated by it. It is one that feels as if it had a stake in America, because it does, even if it is not constitutionally a party of it.
If this is a uniquely humiliating moment for the United States, then, it is also, by definition, a uniquely humiliating one for Europe. Each of the continent’s major countries has the freedom to break from American power should it summon the political will to do so, but prefers to offer symbolic opposition while hoping for a change in leadership. In some respects, Europe’s response since 2016 has been almost as lamentable as Trump has been to American prestige.
By 1946, when Winston Churchill arrived in Fulton, Missouri, to deliver his famous Iron Curtain speech, the might of the United States was obvious. The U.S. had the weapons to destroy the world, the military reach to control it, and the economy to continue growing rich from it. Churchill opened his speech with a warning: “The United States stands at this time at the pinnacle of world power. It is a solemn moment for the American democracy. For with primacy in power is also joined an awe-inspiring accountability to the future. If you look around you, you must feel not only the sense of duty done, but also you must feel anxiety lest you fall below the level of achievement.”
America’s problem is that the rest of the world can see when it has fallen below its achievements. In moments such as the current one, it is hard to dispute some of the criticisms leveled by the country’s most vociferous critics from abroad: that it is irredeemably racist or overly ambivalent to poverty and violence, police brutality and guns. The rights and wrongs don’t appear particularly complicated in this dilemma, even if the country itself is.
Yet this is also a nation that is not Russia or China, as much as its own leader would have us all believe. In Moscow and Beijing, for starters, it would not be possible to protest in such numbers and with such vehemence. From a European perspective, it is also striking to see the energy, oratory, and moral authority once again bubbling up from below—the beauty of America, not the ugliness. To listen to an Atlanta rapper address a press conference, or a Houston police chief speak to a crowd of protesters, is to watch a more accomplished, powerful, and eloquent public speaker than almost any European politician I can think of. What is different today is that the same cannot be said of the president or the Democratic candidate who wants to replace him.
Furthermore, as much as there is obvious racism in America, there remains subtle, deep, and pervasive prejudice in Europe that means its failures may be less obvious but are no less prevalent. Where, one might ask, are the opportunities for black and ethnic-minority success and advancement greatest, in Europe or America? A quick look at the makeup of the European Parliament—or almost any European media outlet, law firm, or company board—is sobering for anyone inclined to believe it is the former. As one friend living in the States put it to me, there’s still a hell of a lot of glue holding the United States together, with or without Trump.
Over America’s history, it has had any number of crises—and any number of detractors. Le Carré is just one of many who have delved into the conflicting well of emotions that the United States manages to stir in those who watch from outside, part horrified, part obsessed. In his travel book, American Notes, for instance, Charles Dickens recalls his loathing for much of what he saw on his adventures through the country. “The longer Dickens rubbed shoulders with Americans, the more he realised that the Americans were simply not English enough,” Professor Jerome Meckier, author of Dickens: An Innocent Abroad, told the BBC in 2012. “He began to find them overbearing, boastful, vulgar, uncivil, insensitive, and above all acquisitive." In other words—it’s the aesthetic again. In a letter, Dickens summed up his feelings: “I am disappointed. This is not the republic of my imagination.”
Dickens, like le Carré, captured America’s unique hold on the world and the fundamental reality that it can never live up to people’s imagination of what it is, good or bad. As it watches today, it recoils but cannot stop looking. In the United States, the world sees itself, but in an extreme form: more violent and free, rich and repressed, beautiful and ugly. Like Dickens, the world expects more of America. But as le Carré observed, it is also, largely, an aesthetic thing—we don’t like what we see when we look hard, because we see ourselves.