Rhodes Returns, After the Fall

by Adele A Wilby

Many of us read with interest Ben Rhodes’ insider account of his time as a speech writer and advisor to Barack Obama during that historic presidency in his book The World as It Is: Inside the Obama White House. There were suggestions of his displeasure at some aspects of US politics in that publication, as for example the racism he thought Obama was subjected to while in office. His new book After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made, goes further and is a clearer articulation of his concern about US and international politics. The conclusions he draws could be viewed as a personal coming of age in his understanding of the impact of American foreign policy on the world, and indeed experiencing and confronting more realistically, the ‘darker’ angels in US domestic politics.

The phrase ‘after the fall’ in the title of the book hints at what is to come and suggests any one of two things, or indeed both. It could be seen as a metaphor to his personal experience after the transfer of power to Trump’s administration in 2016. Power, as many know, has its own intoxication and it would not be surprising if, on a personal level, Rhodes experienced the loss of his high-powered job and access to the highest office in the land as a ‘fall’. The personal reflections of this period in the book are certainly laced with indications of what was indeed an extra-ordinary career experience for Rhodes: it is the rare individual who gets to write ‘thousands’ of speeches for a president, let alone an historic president such as Obama, that Rhodes makes clear in this book that he did. Only time will tell however whether such a revelation about the extent of his involvement in shaping Obama’s thought will have an impact on Obama’s legacy, but such a revelation, we can assume, has Obama’s concurrence. Still, these personal accounts and reflections are worth a read in themselves.

The second understanding of the phrase ‘after the fall’ is concerned with the bigger picture, with what he considers as the decline of America’s politics over recent times and his attempt to understand and account for the election of Trump in 2016. Rhodes viewed Trump’s 2016 electoral victory as more of a symptom of the politics of the times than as a causative factor. Nevertheless, the politics leading up to and during Trump’s presidency have profoundly impacted on Rhodes. For him, ‘it was the fact that American voters elected him in the first place’, that seems to have been the most disappointing aspect of the 2016 US politics, and many others both inside and outside the US would readily concur with such a sentiment. Indeed, so profound has been the impact of the election of Trump and the US ‘experiment’ with ‘fascism’ it has left Rhodes with the feelings of being an ‘outsider’ in his own country, a rather drastic sentiment from a person who had been an insider to American political power for so many years. However, such sentiments can only draw the reader into the book, we want to know the fuller story of the dynamics that transformed Rhodes’ diehard loyalty to the system to a more critical thinking of what America is, its impact on the world, and his evaluation of what it means to be an American in the world today, as the second part of the book title indicates. Thus, his book can be seen as his personal political journey from, arguably, an idealist to a more realistic commentator of the politics of the US and its impact on the world.

While Rhodes is rather taken aback by his feelings of being an ‘outsider’, I suspect they resonate with many Americans who have looked more critically at its politics, or non-Americans who have been on the receiving end of American power perhaps since before Rhodes was born in the early 1980s. Many might ask why it has taken him so long to replace his rose-coloured glasses with darker shades in his assessment of America, since the country’s history is noted for its social and economic inequality and racism and its abundance of self-confidence in the assertion of its authority and power throughout the world. Likewise, he is dismayed at the ascent of right-wing politics that Trump’s presidency signified, and indeed in other countries also, a position that a reader might have difficulty in understanding since the US itself has a long history of supporting right wing governments in different regions throughout the world when it has served their national interests.

Nevertheless, Rhodes sets out to understand the political forces at play shaping the international swing in the direction of right-wing nationalism with authoritarian tendencies in many countries, and in the US also. He decides to travel as extensively as possible and meet ‘dissidents’ and ‘activists’ in different countries, to meet anybody who ‘looked at power from the perspective of an outsider’ and ‘see American more clearly… through the eyes of outsiders in other countries’. Thus, he meets and discusses with ‘outsiders’ from Hungary, Russia and indeed the opposition forces to Chinese authority in Hong Kong, and others also. However, his understanding of ‘dissidents’ and ‘activists’ is limited and falls within his liberal world view. He engages fundamentally with ‘dissidents’ espousing liberal democracy in opposition to authoritarian states. Arguably, should he really aspire to grasp the views of ‘dissidents’ it would be useful for him to engage also with activists that fall outside the confines of democratic processes yet frequently articulate their politics within the ideals of freedom, democracy and their assertion of human rights within different understandings of political activism. In that sense, what otherwise might be considered as a ‘radical ‘aspiration on his part to meet ‘dissidents’ and understand the ‘outsider’ as the terms suggest is, in fact, limited.

Be that as it may, his conversations with ‘outsider’ opposition forces to authoritarian states contributed to him identifying and drawing together political, economic and technological factors to account for the consolidation or emergence of right-wing forces in different countries. Ultimately, he concludes he ‘began to see the outlines of how America’s own actions over the last thirty years made this transformation possible’, that is, in the post-Cold War years. Capitalism, consumerism, globalisation and liberal democracy that the US has pushed with messianic vigour around the globe in pursuit of its own national interest, has had, as he now realises, unexpected political and social consequences.

The post-Cold War era is the period Rhodes focuses on a relatively short period of time in terms of history. In this way he avoids confronting the devastating impact and destruction of American foreign policy and human rights violations in different countries that has so disturbed him over recent time. Nevertheless, by focusing on the last three decades, Rhodes shows how unregulated capitalism, globalisation, new technologies and the social and economic inequality that it has generated have literally turned on the hand that fed them and given rise to a politics that is the antithesis of what the US holds as political and economic ideals. Unregulated capitalism and its offspring rampant consumerism have brought the world to the edge where the very basis of life itself is threatened; globalisation has generated social inequalities and social alienation and allowed nationalism and its close relative racism to foster and fester and cast doubt on the merits of democracy, along with challenging the credibility of the political elites.

According to Rhodes, vast social and economic inequality within states and across the globe, a sense of alienation from politics amongst the populations, a disillusionment with the political elites who promised and gained much and gave little, provided the space for nationalism to replace globalisation with a new sense of identity and pride for many people. All that remained to do for the political leaders such as Putin in Russia and Orban in Hungary was to pack the judiciary with political supporters, buy up and take control of the media sources to produce the propaganda, and fill cronies’ coffers with bundles of cash to buy loyalty, and authoritarian politics is set in place, as has happened in Hungary and Russia. Hungary, he points out, has shifted from a more liberal politics to a right-wing nationalist politics with Orban the Prime Minister consolidating his authoritarian leadership. Russia also, in Rhodes’ analysis, is more authoritarian and nationalist under Putin and the same process has taken place in China, and of course in the US under Trump.

The US invasion of Iraq in 2004 and its the impact on the US image is also addressed in the book. An invasion based, as we soon learned, on false information about weapons of mass destruction, discredited politicians and democracy in the eyes of the people across the globe. We do get an admission from him that the assault on Iraq was misguided in terms of what America stood for and what it practiced. As he says, ‘Iraqis didn’t want us to occupy the country to setup democracy… America had proven woefully incompetent as an occupier because of our hubris, brutality, ignorance of local culture, and incapacity to think more than a few months ahead’. Additionally, images of torture of prisoners at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and reports of waterboarding at secret prisons and of renditioning, contradicted in the most brutal way all the principles that the US declared it represented: democracy, human rights and commitments to international law. However, these violations and brutalities are not new to anybody with a more critical reading of the history of US intervention in the affairs of other countries since the end of World War II, and in that sense the surprise about the book is that Rhodes is shocked by such realisations. Nor it is surprising that the political outcome has been, predictably, a discrediting of democracy. As Rhodes rightly observes ‘history looks very different depending upon which window you open to look at it’ and there are many who look quite differently at history and individual country’s history than from the perspective of the United States, as Rhodes now realises.

Rhodes concludes that ‘America is no longer a hegemon’, a comment that will no doubt provoke contestation, while for others such an acknowledgement might provoke sighs of relief. Likewise, his comment that in 2017 ‘I was for the first time to consider what it meant to be an American while living in a country that no longer made sense to me… I now had to measure what I had thought that it meant to be American against an enemy within’ is not a bad thing either. Self-reflection is always to be welcomed, especially when it leads to more constructive outcomes as Rhodes’ tryst with his journey meeting ‘dissidents’ and his confrontation with the reality of the implications of American foreign policy for international and domestic politics obviously has.

The reader senses that Rhodes has, to some degree, faced a personal crisis with the realisation that the liberal democratic principles he believes America stands for and the international order it has constructed over the past seven decades, and particularly since the end of the Cold War, has not had the ‘progressive’ effect on the world that he had thought, and hoped. Rather than the expansion of liberal democracies, human rights and social equality across the globe, Rhodes shows how unregulated capitalism and globalisation have fuelled authoritarianism and nationalism and a distrust of liberal elites and a disregard for human rights in countries such as Hungary and consolidated those politics in Russia and China.

Rhodes’ sentiments and analyses are to be welcomed; it takes some courage to confront the reality that political ideals do not always stand up to scrutiny and may in fact have done more harm than good. His comments that he ‘began to question the entire story that my own nation told about itself’, is a laudable exercise, if not somewhat late. In the final pages we see him working with and inspired by Obama to rethink that narrative in what amounts to projecting the ‘better’ angels in American history. Likewise, he sees no reasons for capitalism to have the negative effects that it has had, nor indeed for any of the other complications generated by American foreign policy, but one wonders if those before him have not thought the same only to see the system repeat itself as, for example, after the 2008 economic collapse. He recognises that the US is not infallible, that it is ‘not an exception to reality’, and he remains optimistic that working in solidarity with people who come from everywhere offers hope for the future. Indeed, the realisation that US foreign policy may have contributed to the unleashing of anti-democratic right-wing forces in various states, including the US, has made him ‘love more fiercely what America is supposed to be’.

Only time will reveal how far his optimism without fundamental policy and structural changes in the political system is realistic, and he is not repeating the optimism that others before him surely would have had. Undoubtedly, while there are those who will agree with Rhodes’ analysis of the global trend towards more right-wing politics, others might think he has gone too far or not far enough in either his assessment of the history of American foreign policy in his analysis or its consequences. However, the book makes for interesting reading for anybody interested in US politics and contemporary international political trends, and the political and personal journey of a man who has had first-hand access to shaping those forces, and how he envisions the future as an American in a constantly shifting political world.