Imagine yourself the head of state of Saffronia, a midsized country which looks to America for its security. You are on your way to Washington for your first official visit, in the hope of opening negotiations over a trade deal that would enrich the people who just elected you. A closer trading relationship would also tilt Saffronia towards the United States, which already provides some security guarantees to your country, and away from China. This seems like what the Americans call win-win.
Washington has its own way of measuring your importance: who will take your meeting? First prize is an audience with President Joe Biden in the oval room with the big desk and the thick carpet. Second prize—above the vice-president, the Senate or House majority leaders or members of cabinet—is the national security adviser, Jake Sullivan.
Mr Sullivan’s position is important and impossible. Important, because for all the angst about decline, America is still the greatest military and economic power in history, and it falls to Mr Sullivan to co-ordinate simultaneous responses to what is happening in Israel, Gaza, Ukraine, Sudan, Myanmar, China and other potential conflagrations that you probably haven’t thought about yet but he has. As is often the case with national security advisers, he is also the administration’s foreign-policy brainbox. His job is impossible, because expectations that the president should manage the entire world are unrealistic.
Great news! Your chief-of-staff confirms that Mr Sullivan has time for you. He has both fewer hours available than most important people, because of the absurd demands of his job, and more—because reports suggest he works more than anyone else in America. You browsed his Wikipedia page on the plane coming over and noted that he studied at Yale as well as Oxford, won Rhodes and Marshall scholarships, was a champion debater and had already been the adviser to a vice-president and to two presidential campaigns before starting his current job. He is all of 46. You daydream for a while about your children one day amassing a similar haul of credentials.
When you get back to your briefing book, which contains copies of recent speeches and articles by Mr Sullivan, your sense of wonder turns to alarm. They describe what penitent celebrities call “a journey”. After Hillary Clinton lost to Donald Trump in 2016 Mr Sullivan, who was Mrs Clinton’s policy adviser on the campaign, went away and re-examined his assumptions about economics and foreign policy.
His diagnosis was that the benefits of trade to American voters had been oversold, that inequality was eating the American middle class, that the government had stopped believing it had a role to play in fostering scientific and technological progress, and that companies spent too much energy dodging tax. America could be strong abroad only if it was once again strong at home. Foreign-policy wonks had ceded too much ground to international-economics wonks. The answer is: a foreign policy for the middle class. This does not sound promising.
In person Mr Sullivan is nice and just as bright and persuasive as Wikipedia suggested. Most Washington grandees, whether through insecurity or vanity, spend half of any meeting on just how important they are. Mr Sullivan doesn’t bother with that. But it soon becomes clear that there’s nothing doing on increased market access. If Saffronia had rare earths or commodities required to help the green transition along then exceptions could be made. But a free-trade agreement is not on offer. That’s bad news, evidently, for Saffronia. Might it be bad for America as well?
Part of the difficulty for Mr Biden and his foreign-policy team is that what it calls the new Washington consensus—in favour of an industrial policy to tackle climate change and boost the wages of middle-class Americans—will take time to pay off, if it ever does. Meanwhile, the link between domestic and foreign policy, about which Mr Sullivan is surely correct, at least in a generic sense, is undermining America in the eyes of Saffronia (and many other countries too) right now.
The home front
On the plane home you become increasingly cross. How can America, where a UPS driver can expect a package of pay and benefits worth $170,000 a year, have convinced itself that the global economy which it did so much to create has screwed the working man? Real wages for those at the bottom of the income distribution have been rising modestly for a decade and have accelerated since 2020. Income inequality in the us soared in the 1990s and 2010s but has been flat since then. Sure, the needs to reorganise the economy to slow climate change are real, as is the need to keep cutting-edge technology out of the hands of the People’s Liberation Army. You would love to have America’s economic problems.
Besides, during your visit to Washington it became clear that even with an Übermensch like Mr Sullivan co-ordinating the administration’s foreign policy, America itself might not be that committed to American values. Republicans in the House of Representatives seem on the point of selling-out Ukraine for reasons even they struggle to articulate. If they cannot carry on supporting a country where not a single American soldier, pilot or sailor has been deployed, then what use are the security guarantees from America that Saffronia places so much trust in? China may be authoritarian and overbearing, but it is at least dependably ruthless.
Your next foreign trip is to Beijing. The meetings there will be stilted and scripted. The city has no vistas as stirring as the view from the Lincoln Memorial over the reflecting pool. If there must be a contest between Americana and Chinese values, you would rather be on the side that has Netflix, Taylor Swift and one person one vote. But if Beijing makes you an offer, what will you say to the people of Saffronia?■
Read more from Lexington, our columnist on American politics:
The Gaza war could help set speech free again (Nov 2nd)
Mitt Romney is the fixed point revealing the Republicans’ slide (Oct 26th)
Joe Biden has shown a steady hand in the Gaza crisis (Oct 18th)