The danger to the world of a divided and self-obsessed America

The international order has been weakened by the US's abandonment of the pillars that prop up trade and security

A member of a conservative group waves a flag bearing a message of support for U.S. President Donald Trump in the 2020 U.S. presidential election in front of the U.S. embassy in Seoul, South Korea, November 4, 2020.    REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
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These are a few stories you may not have heard about over the past few weeks because the US election has sucked the oxygen out of everything on social and news media.

The number of coronavirus cases in north-west Syria, which is under rebel control and where many people live in crowded camps for the displaced, increased twenty fold in recent weeks, from 138 cases on September 8 to 2,865 cases as of October 19. The virus is surging across the Middle East, with thousands of cases a day in Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and elsewhere. Much of Europe is going back into lockdown.

ISIS killed 22 people at Kabul University in Afghanistan, in a barbaric, hours-long assault.

Ethnic violence is flaring up in Ethiopia, threatening to undermine years of development and democratic progress. The largest protests since the fall of communism are taking place in Poland, and thousands of Belarusians continue to protest against the regime of Alexander Lukashenko.

The fighting between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh continues, with brutal results. Algeria had a constitutional referendum on Sunday.

Of course, none of these stories are likely to affect the lives of as many people as the outcome of elections in the globe’s hegemon, with its military capabilities and propensity to intervene in faraway conflicts, its influence on global trade, and its weight on matters of global significance such as the fight against climate change or the coronavirus. We are all at the mercy of America’s mood swings.

Nevertheless, the America-centrism of news and social platforms is a jarring and overpowering experience for all of us watching from the sidelines, and deeply skews one's perceptions and analysis of global events because of the primacy of the American worldview. One writer in The Atlantic last week described it as being akin to sharing your living room with a rhinoceros.

One example of this is the propensity to declare that the world is ending on a regular basis, whether due to incremental political developments or more substantial moments such as elections, even though the world has been in the throes of monumental and revolutionary upheaval for much of the last decade.

I had an epiphany of sorts about this many years ago now, in January 2020, when the US assassinated Iranian general Qassem Suleimani. Suleimani was the leader of Iran’s covert and offensive special military apparatus that carried out numerous crimes in Iraq and Syria. Many American pundits immediately decried the move because they said it may lead to region-wide conflict, ignoring the fact that the region had already been enduring the ongoing violent convulsions that emerged out of the 2003 Iraq invasion, the 2011 Arab uprisings, the decade-long war in Syria and regional conflicts and rivalries.

In politics, this has had the effect on me of consciously and subconsciously framing matters within an American-centric worldview that determines what is good or bad, who are rogue and evil actors and who are good, by sheer force of the dominant political narrative. It also creates a sense of expectation that US involvement and support is either positive or benign, an outdated belief based on an idealised image of America that did not pan out in Iraq, or when it failed to live up to its stated support for democratic ideals in Syria. It is not that US involvement is always bad, but that in the course of its pursuit of shaping the world in its image, America often succeeds in missing the opportunity to do the right thing.

This tendency also has cultural effects, because it lends primacy to American cultural products, values and debates and centres them in global discourse. The whole world closely followed the racial justice protests in the US over the past few months, and even appropriated some of its symbolism and language, but the sheer dominance of the American narrative dictates the terms of the debate and its appropriate terminology.

Part of the reason I found it difficult over the past few weeks to discuss the recent spate of attacks in Europe that were motivated by the republishing of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed is that discussions of extremism and de-radicalisation and religious reform are limited by the shallow discourse of America's war on terror. The online outrage culture makes it impossible to have substantive, good faith debates.

Over four years of Donald Trump, the international order, a forum of co-operation crucial in tackling our most acute global challenges, has been weakened. That is the risk of an isolationist America that abandons the pillars that underpinned global trade and security – particularly an America as divided and self-obsessed as Tuesday’s election and its aftermath suggest. The challenge of a resurgent one is not to be subsumed within its hubris.

After the election, the rest of the world will go back to tending its own affairs, taking care to avoid the rhinoceros in its living room.

Kareem Shaheen is a veteran Middle East correspondent in Canada and a columnist for The National