When U.S. President Joe Biden went to Cornwallis, England, to meet with the world leaders of the G7, he wanted to impress upon everyone that Trump’s reign was over. “America is Back!” was the big, bold statement Biden’s team projected throughout the meeting.
Months later, as the U.S. scrambled to evacuate military and civilian personnel from Kabul in scenes reminiscent of the fall of Saigon, it seems the president’s claim was all too true — but not in the way the president had intended. Biden may have tried to style himself as a new FDR, but today’s America looks a lot less like the 1940s and a lot more like the 1970s, both domestically and in its foreign policy.
Americans in the 1970s were starting to feel the negative impacts of the Keynesian economic system that had ruled over the U.S. since the end of World War II, with high inflation and unemployment plaguing the nation. We’re facing a similar inflationary cycle today, albeit under different circumstances. The pandemic forced millions out of their jobs, some temporarily, others permanently. Although unemployment rates are recovering from the worst of the pandemic (5.2% in August), they are still higher than before the pandemic, and the current labor shortage is making it difficult to restore supply chains to normality. The Democrats’ current plan to keep on printing trillions of dollars to the economy isn’t helping.
Today, as in the 1970s, the social fabric and national identity of the U.S is being called into question. During the seventies, it was flag burning and a nascent counterculture movement that questioned the foundations of America itself. Today, revisionist views of American history and negative portrayals which depict the U.S. as inherently racist have gained acceptance in the mainstream conversation.
In foreign affairs, the comparison between the present day and the 70s is even more poignant. Both feature a traumatic withdrawal from the longest wars in U.S. history to date. The helicopters from Saigon and the planes from Kabul are terrible illustrations of the current state of American power abroad. Meanwhile, American rivals take notes and make moves. In 1979 it was the Soviet Union invading Afghanistan despite American protests, and Iran assaulting the U.S. embassy in Tehran, kidnapping American diplomats for 444 days.
Today, it’s the Chinese Communist Party cozying up to the Taliban and making dangerous military maneuvers near Taiwan.
Finally, in the 1970s as in 2021, it was and is considered excusable to think that American decline is unavoidable. But that wasn’t true then, and it shouldn’t be true today. There are a few things politicians and thought leaders can do to straighten the ship of state. We did it in the 1980s by following more economic orthodoxy and a muscular foreign policy. It worked then, so why not now?
Economically, the U.S. can’t afford to mortgage its future any more than it already has. The federal government has already spent almost $9.1 trillion on COVID-19 related expenditure, according to the CRFB — that’s $27,726 per American. Although much of this expenditure could have been justified at the height of the pandemic, reckless spending like this cannot continue in a sustainable way. Spending an additional $3.5 trillion will not help us in our dual fight against debt and growing inflation.
America’s foreign challenges will be centered on one simple fact: China is rising, and America must contain it. This challenge might be even more daunting than defeating the USSR, as China is expected to surpass the U.S. economy in a few years. However, the Chinese model has its deficiencies and is facing a looming demographic crisis.
To contain China the U.S. can do two things: We can refocus our traditional military alliances towards the Indo-Pacific region, and we can rebuild our economic ties in the region.
The U.S. has already taken some positive steps in the first direction. Like Trump before him, Biden has resuscitated the so-called “Quad” between the U.S., India, Japan, and Australia, while also deepening the defense ties between America, Britain, and Australia, although this latter point should have been managed in a more graceful way with the French. Both of these moves could be cornerstones to strengthen a united front against China, which is why Beijing is so upset.
Common defense alone, however, will not be enough to provide a viable counter to Chinese power. After all, China’s immense market remains its biggest geopolitical asset, with Beijing being a major trade partner in the region. This is why the U.S. should either reconsider its decision to abandon the TPP or redraft a new trade agreement with countries in the region. The U.S. market is smaller than China’s, but that doesn’t mean we should do nothing as Beijing expands its political influence through its commerce.
The succession of the Trump and Biden administrations might remind us of the Nixon-Ford and Carter presidencies when the U.S. suffered a historic series of domestic and foreign-policy defeats. However, if the historic analogy holds true, then we are just a few years away from an American revival á la 1980s. Let’s hope we can find our Reagan/Bush ticket.
Daniel Chang Contreras is a political scientist and economics graduate from the University of South Florida. He worked as a congressional intern at the House of Representatives for Rep. Gus Bilirakis from January to May 2020, and for the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Studies, and as a contributor to El American, a digital media outlet. He writes on domestic and foreign affairs. The views expressed are the author's own.