politics

Why the Rest of the World Cares So Much About American Politics

We often know more about what's going on in the White House than our local government.

by Oscar Rickett
Jan 23 2017, 4:39pm

All photos from protests in London against Trump's inauguration on Friday by Chris Bethell

This post originally appeared on VICE UK.

An estimated 2 million people across the globe took to the streets this weekend for the women's marches in opposition to the Trump presidency. It was a compelling example of America's enduring importance on the world stage: Donald Trump is not the only bad dude with a terrifying fighting force at his disposal, but as president of a country that remains—just about—the most powerful and influential in the world, his election really matters.

America—still the world's imperial power, still the driver of a largely anodyne global culture dominated by big brands, pop behemoths, and Hollywood—continues to hold the world's attention more than any other nation. During the inauguration last Friday, the BBC flashed through headline news reports from around the world: Trump was the top story everywhere.

This fixation on the US isn't always helpful. Across the world, we may find ourselves knowing more about President Trump than we do about what our local government is doing. In Britain, it may well have done us all some good to have known a little bit about the history and function of the European Union, to better understand how decisions made in Brussels actually affected us—but for reasons of language, culture, and history, we have always tended to look to the US.

This is an attitude that sits at the heart of government in Britain. Theresa May becomes the first foreign leader to meet with Trump in person, later this week. It seems as though, no matter who the American president is, Britain will be there to play lapdog, to help with the drone strikes, free trade deals, and rendition sites. "Every time I wrap up a meeting at the British foreign office," a Syrian negotiator told me recently, "they tell me they'll speak to the Americans then get back to me."

Simon Tate, author of A Special Relationship? British Foreign Policy in the Era of American Hegemony, tells me that it is important to remember Cold War history here: "The rest of the world was rightly interested in US elections as the US provided the security guarantee for the West. Lives depended on the words the president said and what he did."

Today, Tate says, being worried about what the American president does—particularly when that president is President Trump—is a key part of why people seem to care more about American politics than the politics of other nations or regions: "Will Trump withdraw the US from NATO? What will he do about ISIS and climate change? Will there be a post-Brexit Anglo American trade deal? His answers these questions will affect us all."

Tate also points out that the eyes of the world are fixed on American politics right now because of how "the non-Western parts of the world—and much of the Western world—now think about America not as Uncle Sam, but as egotistical, materialistic, bombastic, arrogant, imperialistic, and racist. In their minds, Trump personifies that caricature of the US and reinforces it, which is a problem for the US in terms of its global standing and global relations."

A Trump effigy

Vijay Prashad, an Indian historian, journalist, and professor at Trinity College in Connecticut, adds that "there is also the realization that the US—with its vast military footprint—has an impact on matters elsewhere. So too on US decisions on trade… China, India, Brazil, South Africa—all must relish the thought of the suicide of the Western Bloc."

As Washington's intelligence community howled about Russian interference in the American election, the rest of the world remembered the countless elections America has seen fit to meddle in, often with disastrous, tragic, and ongoing consequences. In this way, too, what happens in America is important for the rest of the world.

Away from geo-politics, there is the circus. In the last year, American politics has turned into the greatest, darkest show on Earth, with Trump the largest, angriest bear turning increasingly bizarre and dangerous tricks, his audience recoiling but unable to look away. Trump, the brand, the reality TV star, the tweeter, the divisive, outrageous rabble-rouser, has turned American politics into even more of a reality TV show than it was before. Even people who hate him can't help but give him airtime—and now that he's president, he gets airtime whether we like it or not.

The US Embassy in London

"There's something about US politics at the moment which makes it weirdly hypnotic, even if you aren't that interested in politics," says Tate. "In part, it's the expectation of waiting for Trump's next gaffe, outrageous comment, or revelation—like when you get a bad contestant on The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent, you know it's going to end in some sort of disaster, but you still want to watch it. And given the really important issues in Trump's inbox, that's a tragedy, really."

Vijay Prashad agrees that "there is a desperate fascination with the US elections and the new president," but points out that there is more to it than that. "Recall the great prevalence of the US media," he says, "which frames stories not only on what should matter—TRUMP—but also on how to understand conflicts Syria, for instance." The American media, with its resources and reach, can fill the world's screens with its programming.

Yes, we should all know more about what is happening in our own country and in the rest of the world, but with President Trump in power, knowing as much as we can about American politics is certainly worthwhile.

Follow Oscar Rickett on Twitter.