I love the peerless movie Casablanca beyond all others for its wit, intelligence, charm.
I love it for its beating heart of romanticism, all lying just under the strata of the most delightful cynicism imaginable.
But most of all I love it for its politics.
A perfect geopolitical allegory of the early 1940s, it finds American saloon-keeper Rick Blaine in full-fledged isolationist mode, making money at his cafe while refugees from all over Europe alight there, all in desperate hope of gaining safe passage to the US.
Vile Nazi Major Strasser has been sent from Berlin to put a stop to this, and to assess the unaffiliated American. Content that Rick is just “another blundering American”, Strasser relaxes and has a drink at Rick’s. Cynical, wise, and very funny (he really is a cinematic treat), Vichy functionary Captain Renault has the perfect political risk rejoinder: “We mustn’t underestimate American blundering. I was with them when they blundered into Berlin in 1918.”
This beautiful political scene in the perfect political movie encapsulates what is the pressing, immediate, political risk danger just now, as the United States enters a period of undoubted turbulence, centred around the tumultuous 2020 presidential campaign: that the world sees only the blundering chaos of America, and forgets the innate strength.
First, to the blundering. We could well be living (my political risk firm puts the percentage at an alarmingly high 50 per cent) in a chaotic post Election Day environment where Donald Trump will have an early lead that is steadily eroded, due to mail-in ballots (which favour Democrats) being counted after in-person voting.
In such a scenario, the US will spend days adding up these mail-in results, significantly delaying confirmation of the overall outcome. In this uncertain environment, Trump will surely dispute the result, a flurry of court cases will ensue, and the most powerful country in the world will be left in limbo, with its political system discredited.
Against the backdrop of America’s inward-looking and domestic chaos, the rest of the world will surely view US political haplessness with disdain, and may not stand still.
First and foremost, rising China — the world’s only other superpower — will reap a huge propaganda reward from all this election bungling. Ironically, despite the coronavirus originating in Wuhan and the Communist Party’s negligent effort in limiting its spread, Beijing is emerging as the real beneficiary of the immediate post-pandemic world.
Indeed, Chinese President Xi Jinping has an impressive narrative to share with the world: that of domestic authoritarian stability, a uniquely effective (if brutal) public health service, and economic growth in a world where there is none. If the US fumbles its election results, it amounts to another data point heralding American decline and China’s rise.
But here it is time to take a very deep breath. For it is in this febrile environment that a China — which has recently been throwing its weight around in Hong Kong, over the Himalayan border with India, and in the sky and seas around Taiwan — could well make a fatal error regarding American bungling. For twentieth century history is riddled with the graves of regimes that underestimated the United States, from the Kaiser and Hitlers’ Germany, to Imperial Japan, to Stalin’s Soviet Union.
Beyond its admittedly dysfunctional politics, the US private sector remains the innovative wonder of the world. Its graduate schools are the envy of higher education everywhere, winning more Nobel prizes in the sciences than anyone else. Both American high culture (its authors won the Nobel Prize for Literature five times in the twentieth century) and low culture influence the planet as no other.
In addition to all this economic and cultural prowess, the US possesses by far the planet’s premier military. If China is steadily gaining on it in all these areas, it is from a low base.
Beijing must not strategically miscalculate in Asia or it will rue the day that it did. A basic lesson of the twentieth century is this: underestimate America at your peril.
Nor is China alone in being tempted by America’s present political predicament. North Korea could well resume some sort of nuclear test in the interim (reminding everyone of its existence and sole foreign policy strategy of blackmail), and Iran and Turkey may look to continue and expand their efforts at adventurism in the Middle East.
I would merely remind all of them of the world-weary wisdom of Captain Renault. America has been the global ordering power since 1945, and remains so still, regardless of what may or may not happen after Election Day. They would be wise to not underestimate it.
Main image credit: Getty