America’s Long-Term Relationship with the Rest of the World is at Stake in Today’s Election
Ian Buruma in Conversation with Andrew Keen on Keen On
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On today’s episode, author and thinker Ian Buruma discusses the synergy when it comes to nationalism between the US and the UK.
From the episode:
Andrew Keen: I don’t want to tempt fate, Ian, and I know you don’t either. We were talking before the show about the likelihood of Trump’s defeat, and it seems likely, if we’re to believe the pollsters. But if indeed he is defeated on Tuesday, does that speak of a profound setback of this Brexit/wall project, this return to authoritarian nationalism in the early part of the 21st century?
Ian Buruma: Well, it won’t do away with it, but I certainly think it will be a setback in the sense that the president of the United States has been a great booster of the fortunes of similar demagogues in other countries. He’s given them a certain kind of legitimacy, and even countries that are not democratic at all, what Trump has done is give them the argument that they can say, well, all this talk about democracy is very fine but look what happens—you get a guy like Trump. And so, he’s been terrible in that respect abroad. His influence has been terrible. And I think his defeat would at least knock the ball back a little bit in the other direction. Biden is going to be more of an internationalist.
So, yes, I think it it would be a good thing. But what Trump and Farage and other demagogues, Viktor Orbán in Hungary and so on, have been able to exploit, those resentments, those people who feel left behind and not sufficiently listened to and acknowledged by the elites, they’re not going to go away. Those sentiments will be there, and it’s still politically very flammable material.
Andrew Keen: I’m sure you watched the debate last week between Biden and Trump. I was particularly struck by the absence of any real discussion about foreign policy outside North Korea, which isn’t really foreign policy. What do you make of the seemingly insular nature of the discussion, not only in the Trump camp but in the Biden camp as well?
Ian Buruma: Well, I think the United States, like all big continental countries, always has been rather insular. I mean, most people in most parts of the United States are not terribly interested in the world outside. They never see it. I think still probably the majority of Americans don’t have a passport, including congressmen. So, the outside world always has been remote for many Americans, just as it is for Indians or Chinese or Russians. The interest in foreign policy is largely an elite one on the two coasts, especially on the East Coast. So if you want to be successful as a presidential candidate, on the whole, you stay away from foreign affairs because people don’t care about it. You talk about the economy. You talk about things that people feel in their daily lives.
And so, I think in the case of Biden, that’s why he didn’t talk about it very much, even though he is quite interested in foreign policy. In the case of Trump, I really don’t think the outside world, except perhaps to do business, is something that preoccupies him particularly. Even though Trump, who contradicts himself not only every day but sometimes within minutes, has been fairly consistent in one sense, which is his hostility to China. I mean, he’s talked about that for years. That did come up in the debate. But I don’t think that this year—even though the level of the debate, certainly the first one, was lower than and ruder and crasser than anything seen before—I don’t think it’s unusual in that foreign policy doesn’t get very much of a look in.
Andrew Keen: There’s been an outcry among the liberal commentariat, particularly the internationalist one, perhaps best represented by Martin Wolf, the economics writer for the Financial Times who’s been on this show before, about this being such a critical election because the US global role is at stake. Roger Cohen of The New York Times has also written a similar piece. Everybody says that this is the most important election for a generation or perhaps forever, blah, blah, blah, so we don’t need to return to that or repeat that. But do you think this election will determine US’s role in global affairs in the 21st century? Is it critical for that?
Ian Buruma: I think it is, but I don’t think you can separate international affairs from domestic affairs. One of the great strengths of the United States has been its soft power, its role not so much as a military force, even though that’s important, but its role as a kind of model—
Andrew Keen: This is the Joseph Nye idea of soft power, which he has popularized—the notion that that’s how you get strong in the world, not through your military power but through your cultural power.
Ian Buruma: In the case of the US, of course, it’s both. But despite all its flaws, the United States always has represented hope for a liberal democracy. If that gets wrecked inside the United States, then it loses one of the main reasons for its raison d’être in the outside world. And so, yes, I think it is extremely important.
Ian Buruma teaches at Bard College. His books include A Tokyo Romance, Their Promised Land, Year Zero, The China Lover, Murder in Amsterdam, Occidentalism, God’s Dust, Behind the Mask, The Wages of Guilt, Bad Elements, and Taming the Gods.