National Post (Latest Edition)
U.S. debate reminds us decline is a choice
For all of America’s imperfections, it’s still the last great hope. — speer
Tuesday’s presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden was expected to be marked mostly by vitriol and little substance. But even that proved to be an understatement. The 90- minute debate, which is to be the first of three between now and Oct. 22, was, in a word, grim.
President Trump was self- evidently the more obnoxious and less presidential of the two candidates. His non- stop ramblings and interruptions were off- putting. But we’ve mostly come to expect that. His equivocal answer about whether he’d accept the election results, however, was something different. It was genuinely alarming.
Former vice- president Biden was better but that’s only on a forgiving curve. Although he’s far less transgressive than Trump, it’s hard to produce an affirmative case for why he ought to be the next president. His entire strategy seems to be about winning by default. For better or worse, it will probably work.
Notwithstanding the most fervent partisans, it’s difficult for the rest of us to watch this presidential campaign without an overwhelming feeling of consternation. The world is facing several big challenges. The global pandemic is only the most immediate. American leadership has never been more important. And yet neither candidate has given us much reason to believe he’s up to the challenge. The whole spectacle seems to corroborate Charles Krauthammer’s axiom: “decline is a choice.”
It seems important at this point to emphasize that this isn’t an anti- American screed. These observations aren’t derived from a sense of self- righteousness or a fit of delight. Instead they reflect trepidation about a world in which U. S. leadership is no longer assured.
This nagging question didn’t just emerge over the past three years or so. The Trump presidency is, in many ways, a symptom of the problem rather than its cause. It reflects deeper, structural issues including rising political polarization, the economic and social consequences of deindustrialization, and a general listlessness that has taken over American culture and society.
The net effect of these developments ( which, of course, helped to bring Trump to the White House in the first place) is a sapped sense of ambition and confidence that was painfully on display in Tuesday’s debate. This wasn’t a contest of competing visions for America’s future. It was a small and narcissistic debate between two of yesterday’s men.
As Canadians, we can’t feel good about these trends. Whether we want to admit it or not, our future economic and security interests depend on a self- confident and forward- looking United States. The problem is we don’t have much say in the matter. That choice ultimately rests with the American people. And, after this first debate, it’s hard to know which way they’ll go.
One way to think of it is this: The most important political development in the past few days was actually far removed from the debate stage. It was the under- reported speech by Chinese President Xi Jinping on his country’s science and innovation policy to a national symposium of scientists in Beijing.
The basic point of Xi’s remarks is that China’s longterm economic vision isn’t just to keep copying Western technologies in the name of catching up to us. Its ultimate goal is to leap ahead with “zero to one” breakthroughs in such critical areas as biomedicine and medical equipment. And, as Xi outlined, the Chinese government has a sophisticated and well-conceived strategy to get there.
Graeme Moffat, who is among Canada’s most interesting thinkers on these matters, described the speech as “such an astonishingly serious, clever science and innovation policy that it’s impossible to imagine anything comparable from a North American politician.”
It’s hard to argue with Moffat after the presidential debate. Neither Biden nor Trump said anything about science or innovation or how they intend to maintain their country’s overall economic advantage. China represents a significant threat to American geopolitical and technological superiority and Tuesday’s debate gave little reason to believe that its political class is ready to compete and win in this race for global leadership.
This is troubling for the rest of us. For all of America’s imperfections, it’s still the last great hope. A world of Chinese economic and military superiority would be a Hobbesian step backwards from the relative co- operation and stability that’s been achieved during the era of American unipolarity.
The outcome ultimately depends on the United States rediscovering its sense of ambition and purpose. And nothing from Tuesday’s debate would give much reason to be optimistic. But maybe a seed of optimism can be found in Winston Churchill’s apocryphal quote: “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”