The World Around Us
October 13, 2020
America the hero and anti-hero

I HAVE LONG BEEN a fan of superhero movies because often, they represent the triumph of good over evil. Superheroes tend to have a keen sense of morality. They also represent a sort of exceptionalism in that they tend to be otherworldly, above the fray of typical human indecency and they also seek to do the right things for the right reasons. Typically, superheroes are kindhearted and selfless.

Anti-heroes on the other hand lack the conventional heroic virtues of a hero. For example, it is not uncommon for an anti-hero to display moral ambivalence and to act almost purely out of self-interest.

Over the centuries, America has tended to walk a very fine line between heroism and anti-heroism. Its dark past (and present) of racism towards Native Americans, blacks and brown people casts it as an anti-hero. Some of its military misadventures abroad as well as its perceived interference in the affairs of other countries also paint it in a negative light. Similarly, insinuations of America first (and perhaps everyone else be damned) fail to paint the country in a positive light.

Writing in the November/ December 2020 issue of the Foreign Affairs Magazine, Michael Beckley reminds readers that President Trump’s “America first” approach to foreign policy is not new but has deep roots in United States (US) history. For instance, Beckley writes that before 1945, the US expressed its interests narrowly, mostly in terms of money and physical security, and pursued them aggressively, with slight regard for the effects on the rest of the world. According to Beckley, the US espoused liberal values such as freedom and liberty, but applied them selectively, both at home and abroad.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings and ambiguities, it is also America, more than any other country, that has often stepped forward to respond to global crises. For example, even as it is on the verge of leaving the World Health Organization (assuming President Trump wins re-election), America has been the single largest contributor to this global body, accounting for roughly 76 percent of voluntary funding. These funds have gone a far way towards aiding global efforts with respect to HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, access to medicines and health technologies, access to vaccines, reproductive and maternal health and global health emergencies and hazards among others.

Furthermore, since the end of World War II, the US has often perceived its role in the world as the main underwriter of a democratic capitalist way of life and the chief advocate of a rules-based international system constructed on liberal values. In this regard, America provides dozens of countries with military protection, it secures global shipping routes, and it has fairly open and robust financial and capital markets that most countries can participate in. The outcome of the US elections on November 3, will not change this dichotomy between the heroic and anti-heroic tendencies, which seem endemic in America’s DNA. However, the winner is likely to determine which side of the coin is fed more.

A Trump re-election could potentially expedite America’s exit from the global order as we know it. For instance, America might forego multilateral trade rules in favour of bilateral trade agreements based on US regulatory standards. It may also eschew international cooperation and instead proceed on the basis of a more selective and transactional approach to foreign policy.

On the other hand, a Biden presidency may be more reassuring to America’s allies, it may shore up multilateralism and it may return more predictability to US foreign policy. Of course, neither outcome is guaranteed and irrespective of the winner, we are likely to continue to see America as bit-parts hero and anti-hero.

Finally, many of us, including me, enjoy observing and analyzing developments in the US. I do it primarily for two reasons – first, the US occupies an outsized position at the head of the global pecking order and its decisions and actions are not without global consequences. Second, I also see America as a mirror-image for the rest of us.