The eyes and ears of the world were focused on an event taking place last week in Atlanta, Georgia, in the United States last week. It was the prepoll debate between the two top Presidential aspirants in that country: the Republican former President Donald Trump and the Democrat, the current incumbent in the White House, Joe Biden. Both are octogenarians, and oddly enough, the contest between one old man and an older one was not really based on any substantive social, political or economic issue, but on whether either of them would be fit enough, physically or cognitively to serve in the world's most important and challenging office. The person more interested to make the point that he was indeed fit, was Joe Biden. That being so, he failed miserably. He slipped, he fumbled, he stumbled and fell! He was largely incoherent, and often inaudible! For Joe Biden it turned out to be an unmitigated disaster, and within minutes, it was game, set and match to the far more pugnacious political pugilist, Donald Trump!

The Democratic Camp is rattled. At the beginning of Biden's term, the Democrats seemed well ensconced in power. It was largely thought the electorate had given short shrift to Trump, though it must be said that the latter had remained unpersuaded. But soon enough Biden began to slip, not so much on substance, but on style. He seemed to age more rapidly, both in body and mind, as his rival appeared to be rejuvenating, despite his legal travails rising like a kite against the wind. As I write, there is burgeoning discontent, even despair at the Democratic Camp, and understandably so. Already before the debate Trump was said to be leading by 45 per cent against Biden's 43 percent in the polls. Now many are persuaded that Biden cannot win this electoral contest and must step aside. The editorial Board of the New York Times, which endorsed him the last time, now wants a change, Michelle Obama is being mentioned as the possible alternative, but the Biden family is said to be set firm on continuity rather than change.

This domestic political dilemma in the US has grabbed the world's attention. But why? It is simply because a major factor shaping our socio political and economic life today is still the United States of America, which despite many assertions to the contrary remain the world's most influential nation: militarily, technologically, emotionally, intellectually, and strategically. To repeat an age old saying, when America catches cold, the world sneezes.

The US has had an inscrutable history. In many ways its society has been a bundle of contradictions. Nonetheless, it has been able to project itself as a beacon ff emulation over a sustained period. Around 1775-76. Thomas Paine published "The Common Sense", the most incendiary and popular pamphlet of the revolutionary era. The fact that the American War of Independence from English sovereignty almost coincided with the process leading to the French Revolution in Europe helped. The French political scientist Alexis de Tocqueville, in his works, extolled American values. Soon America was being projected as the "City on the Shining Hill", with the "Manifest Destiny" to expand territorially and ideologically. Eventually a political culture evolved that stressed what came to be known as "American Exceptionalism".

Till the European powers, their balancing stratagems having failed, sleepwalked into World War 1, America, 'the new world" remained quite content in its isolation in faraway "Fortress America, till it was called out in aid of "the old world" Europe, writhing in political pain. America responded, with US soldiers marching up in Paris to the statue of that great Fench champion of the American Revolution, saluting and saying in grateful reassurance: "Lafayette, nous voila!"-"Lafayette, we are here!" Thereafter it also helped to rebuild Europe on the ashes of the conflagrations of the war. The collaboration was achieved through trials and tribulations, as reflected in EH Carr's masterful tome "Twenty Years Crisis". In the decades that followed, and in the aftermath of World War 11, after aiding to defeat Nazi Germany, the US helped to create the Bretton Woods Institutions and the United Nations. A new "World Order" was constructed, setting down norms and standards for trade and commerce, arms control and disarmament, and relations between nation States. The opposing Communist ideology, espoused by Russia -turned the Soviet Union, was "contained" (a term coined by the US diplomat Geoge F Kennan, in a Cold war, till it imploded in the 1990s. America now emerged, in the worlds of the French politician, Hubert Vedrine, as the single "hyperpower" in a unipolar world.

With it came, as was perhaps wont to happen, a sense of hubris. This was evidenced in the invasion of Iraq under President George Bush. It was believed he was influenced by the powerful neo-conservatives, or 'neo-cons", many of whom, like Professor Leo Strauss of Chicago University, were disciples of the Greek Philosopher, Plato.

Now Plato preached that only a handful of individuals truly understood the essence of what is great and good. These were the 'Philosopher Kings" whose placement of 'empiricism' over 'abstraction' and 'shadow-learning; was laudable. This was characterized in his "allegory of the cave", perhaps the most famous apologue in history, contained in his work, "The Republic". Liberal intellectuals like Karl Popper or political practitioners like RHS Crossman have called Plato an "Enemy of Open Society ". Ironically, American Founding Fathers, the authors of the US Constitution, had initially drawn their intellectual nourishment, not from Plato, but from the study of Constitutions in ancient Greece by his student, Aristotle, whose viewpoints were different. Aristotle famously said of Plato: Amicus Plato sed magis amica veritas"- "Dear is Plato, but dearer still is the truth"!

Significant parts of the American ethos began to fail constrained by the "World Order" they had themselves helped to create. Misadventures in Afghanistan and Iraq did not help. America began to feel like Gulliver, bound by the Lilliputians as in Jonathan Swift's famous satire.

Into an America that was exhausted, entered Donald Trump in 2016. He was, as he may be again in 2024, the product of circumstances. For Ex Nihilo Nihil fit, 'Nothing Cones out of Nothing'-in other words, everything has a cause or causes. Trump tore up the rulebooks of traditional conduct, putting "America first", with the aim of "Making America Great Again". He sought to reengage with the world on new terms, appearing to treat friends and foes at par, effecting a virtual retreat into "Fortress America". Joe Biden in 2020, upon his win in elections, announced that the US was "back again", but to what became increasingly uncertain. The US faced a China on the rise, the fiasco in Ukraine with the likelihood of a Russian victory, the excruciating pains of Palestine, and the increasing tensions with the Global South. Might all this presage a return of Trump on US domestic and global scene? Yet too soon to tell perhaps, but the possibilities seem to increase every day.

Well over a century ago, the English author, Somerset Maugham, at the conclusion of one of his novels, had written thus of the Americans: "that conglomeration of confused masses of humanity, so lost on the world's confusion, so wistful on the outside, so diffident within, so kind, so hard, so cagey and yet so generous, that is the people of the United States!". Very apt then, just as now!

Ambassador Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury (Retd.) PhD, President, Cosmos Foundation and Former Foreign Advisor, Bangladesh Caretaker Government (2007-2009)

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