A few weeks before the inauguration of a new American president, the congressional building was stormed by protestors who did not agree with the results of the election. How do you, as a political scientist, view this?
“I was watching it live. My wife saw on Instagram that something strange was happening on Capitol Hill. At first, I thought it was just an ordinary demonstration. But then we switched on CNN and it turned out there were people inside. The problem lies in the symbolic significance of this event. The parliament of the oldest democracy in the world has been stormed. That is a very serious problem for the notion that it is pays to have a free, open, democratic society.
“US foreign policy over the past century has revolved around the universal promotion of democracy, to the ever-increasing chagrin of leaders who felt there were other ways to become a successful, prosperous country. It is no coincidence that on the very same night, memes were circulating of Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping raising their glasses to the fall of the great America. Everyone who has been slapped on the wrist by the US in recent decades sat back and gloated.”
Michal Onderco is a political scientist at the Erasmus School of Social and Behavioural Sciences who specialises in diplomatic affairs, geopolitics and international relations, particularly in the field of nuclear non-proliferation.
Is America really the oldest democracy in the world?
“It is in any case the only country that has been governed democratically for so long. And more importantly, it is how Americans like to see themselves. There is no other country where ordinary people invoke the constitution so often. The American sense of exceptionalism runs deep.”
CNN constantly referred to it as a coup. Do you think that’s a fair term, or was it a demonstration that got out of hand?
“This was no normal protest. A lot of planning had gone into it and the participants were also supported and cheered on by the sitting president, Donald Trump. At the same time, you need to be a bit more convincing when you stage a coup; you really can’t do it without the army. But the army was not involved. If it ever was a real attempt at a coup, it was very amateurish.”
The twentieth century has sometimes been called the American century. If you had to pinpoint a moment when America emerged as a world power, when would that be?
“There are people who believe that American hegemony began with the end of the Second World War. It may seem that way from a Western point of view, but I come from a part of the world (Slovakia, ed.) that was under Soviet rule until 1989. America only truly became a world power after the end of the Cold War. NATO expanded during that period, even to former Soviet countries. The European Union was gaining ground, something America had always been strongly in favour of, because Washington believed that this would bring more stability to the region. America succeeded in steering the war in the Balkans towards a solution with the help of military intervention. China was still in the growth phase and people were under the impression that they would liberalise there. At one point, Russia even wanted to join NATO and the World Trade Organisation. Back in the 1990s, there really was no one who could compete with the US.”
The American journalist George Packer claims that the end of American supremacy was ushered in by the Iraq war.
“I think it was in the aftermath of September 11 that we began to realise that while America can do good things as a superpower, it can also sometimes do more damage than is intended. The Iraq war caused a rift between Europe and the US. From that moment on, things went from bad to worse. The real end of US hegemony, I think, is marked by the global financial crisis that erupted in 2008.”
Are we now watching a country that is in the process of collapsing?
“That’s a question that has been bandied about since the 1970s. Back then, there was a belief that Japan would take over the role of economic superpower from the US, which did not happen. We even have a term in the scientific community for the idea that America will soon be dethroned: American Declinism. What we are now witnessing for the first time is a serious challenger, a country that proves that you don’t need democracy to get rich. And that country is trying to rearrange the world. Not without America, but independent of America.”
You’re referring to China, right?
“Yes. Never before has economic cooperation been built up on such a scale without the US. The Soviet Union had the Warsaw Pact, but that essentially involved military cooperation. What China is accomplishing with the New Silk Road and the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation , is absolutely unprecedented.”
The US has also inflicted a lot of misery in recent decades. How bad would it be if China took over part of the US role?
“The specifically American notion that people have the right to live in a free society has become very powerful and widespread and you should never underestimate that. I come from Eastern Europe, after all. If China – with its idea that a government can do what it wants as long as wealth increases – had been in charge, I wouldn’t be having this conversation with you now. I would be working in a factory in Eastern Slovakia. The communist regime would never have fallen. And a country like the Netherlands would never have opened up to someone like me.
“Economic globalisation really doesn’t work for everyone in an equal way, I know that. Plenty of questions can be raised about inequity. But we also know from economic research that poverty has fallen dramatically around the world. Nowadays, the average person in the world is genuinely better off than a few decades ago. And that is thanks to the fact that a number of successive American governments have persevered with the idea that opening up markets is good for countries and people.”
What effect does the loss of that pressure that the US exerted have?
“A lot is being said about Xi Jingping’s overtly Marxist agenda. But when I look at China’s foreign policy, I hardly see any evidence of that. Even there, getting rich seems to be the goal. And China is only too happy to promote the idea that this can also be accomplished without a free, democratic society. It is not so much that a great ideological alternative to capitalism is being presented. The aim appears to be more to discredit democracy as the ideal way.”
To what extent is the storming of the Capitol a bad thing? You could also argue that it opens up a discussion on the importance of a healthy democracy and what it takes to achieve one.
“I think it’s very cynical to say that you have to attack such an important symbol in order to start a discussion. I think we can have that debate just fine without storming a congressional building. The only important discussion that is finally taking place as a direct result of this event is about freedom of expression and the extent to which big technology companies should play a role in this.”
What role do you see for Europe, caught between the US on one side and China on the other?
“I think you could ask a hundred Europeans this question and get a different answer each time. In Eastern European countries, people will call for a solid alliance with the US. Here, in North-Western Europe, people tend to be more enthusiastic about a more independent course. A new trade agreement has just been ratified between Europe and China that has been widely criticised in the US. That criticism is striking because, in fact, this puts European companies the same position in relation to China as American companies. We have become a bit more equal.”