If anyone is tempted, though, to list those ills as a reason for 80-year-olds to retire from active public life, I heartily recommend clearing a couple of hours in the diary, and watching the whole of President Joe Biden’s State of the Union address, delivered to the US Congress on Tuesday. Biden, as his critics often point out, carries about him many of the signs of ageing; indeed they love to taunt him with the nickname “Sleepy Joe”.
Yet what he delivered, on Tuesday night in Washington, was a 100-minute, wide-awake masterclass in joined-up social democratic thinking for the 21st century, in a speech of impressive underlying clarity, with a strong sense of moral authority. In telling the story of his first two years in office, Biden talked of 12 million new jobs created since 2020, 800,000 of them in manufacturing; of infrastructure, from roads and bridges to broadband, set to be renewed and improved by a massive wave of public investment; and of a huge state-sponsored switch to investment in green energy.
There have also been major measures to stop price-gouging at the expense of ordinary households, and sharply reduce the cost of vital prescription medicines; and it will all be paid for – Biden hopes – by increased taxes on wealthy individuals and corporations. He also talked of how many of these measures had had bi-partisan support, speaking respectfully and even affectionately to Republicans in his audience.
Yet despite all this masterly Rooseveltian stuff – and much UK commentary inviting Keir Starmer to consider Biden’s bold example – there was one aspect of Biden’s speech that must have raised a ripple of concern for many Europeans; and that lay in its profound and unapologetic economic nationalism, its insistence that Americans and their government should buy American, invest in American-made materials for infrastructure projects, and secure vital supply chains – notably in hi-tech areas such as computer chips – by ensuring that all their major components are made in America.
It’s not that Biden is a political isolationist; indeed he spoke at length about America’s vital role in the global coalition to support Ukraine. Yet we in Europe have lived through 70 years when it has been almost axiomatic, on this side of the Atlantic, that one way to reduce conflict among nations is to create economic interdependence, and to do it deliberately. The European Union was based on that single idea; and, particularly in terms of the key relationship between France and Germany and the consequent peace in once war-torn western Europe, it has been an outstanding success.
So what are progressive Europeans to make of the new economic nationalism adopted by Biden, and mirrored in more reactionary style by both China and Russia, now both retreating, with some mutual assistance, into ideas of national self-sufficiency in all the key goods and services of 21st-century life? After this year’s Davos World Economic Forum in January, the UK economist and journalist Will Hutton observed how Davos watchers could see the big economic blocs – the EU, the United States and China/Russia – all seeking “strategic autonomy” in key sectors such as hi-tech, energy, renewables development and finance; and he wondered what this shift would mean for the UK economy, now no longer part of any of those blocs.
Yet human beings are not driven only by economics; and the world should surely now be aware of the risk that this withdrawal from economic interdependency also brings with it other and far more dangerous kinds of shutdown. The withdrawal of legal rights and even basic empathy from economic migrants is perhaps the most obvious and chilling image of our protectionist times; but it is part of a much wider shift in atmosphere that includes a huge range of losses, including the departure back to their countries of tens of thousands of EU citizens who once felt welcome here in the UK.
The Chinese, it seems, are no longer new friends to be cultivated, but potential enemies to be treated with suspicion; and for my generation – who lived through the huge opening-up that came with the fall of the Iron Curtain, and who revelled in our new freedom to work and travel across a reunited Europe – there is a real edge of tragedy in this conscious rebuilding of walls, epitomised in the UK Government’s trumpeting of “the end of freedom of movement”, as if such a death knell of a phrase could ever be a cause for celebration.
For all of us in Europe know, if we understand our history at all, exactly where dreams of national self-sufficiency, laced with hostile language about other nations, can all too easily lead. In that sense, the terrible war in Ukraine is not only a tragedy in itself, but a vivid warning of where we are heading, if our commitment to international co-operation, friendship and institution-building is allowed to wither. In the last 30 years, the world may have learned a hard lesson about the dangers of globalisation led by a form of capitalism that cared too little about human and environmental consequences, and that helped to create the post-industrial armies of the “left behind” in North America and across Europe.
To give up on globalism and internationalism entirely, though, is another matter, and a profoundly dangerous step. And as Biden continues his work on repairing and restoring America, we can only hope that he will also be seeking to build an international order that will serve the people better than the globalisation of the past generation, and stand a better chance of finally achieving the greatest prize of all – a planet at peace, and able once again to look to a sustainable and hopeful future.