Turkey-Syria earthquakeBiden's farewell to empathy
More than 24 hours had passed since the earthquake on the northern edge of the Arabian Plate when Joe Biden appeared before the U.S. Congress in the Capitol at 9 p.m. local time on 7 February to deliver the president's annual State of the Union address. The extent and consequences of the earthquake on both sides of the Syrian-Turkish border were clear. Tens of thousands were known to be buried under the rubble, many dead and many still alive at the time.
U.S. presidents traditionally use the State of the Union address – this unique political ritual – not only to talk about the state of their own nation but also to share foreign policy guidelines and their vision of America's role in the world. The USA has, after all, been the most powerful country on earth for the last 80 years. Tens of millions of Americans watch the live screening, more than those Germans who watch the football.
At the State of the Union address in 2002, George W. Bush christened Iraq, Iran and North Korea the "axis of evil"; in 2015 Barack Obama emphasised his determination to destroy the terrorist organisation Islamic State – for the good of the people in the Middle East, naturally.
Joe Biden made no mention of the earthquake in Syria and Turkey on 7 February. His silence was massively at odds with the dimension of the catastrophe and masked a disturbing message. It reflected a departure from empathy. "Something is missing". These words by Bertolt Brecht seem fitting, not least because the poet himself also experienced what it was like to stand in front of Congress in Washington.
Compassion limited to fellow Americans
Compassion for the millions grieving and bereaved between Aleppo and Gaziantep apparently has no place in the political discourse of the United States. That is not to say that Biden was wholly without compassion. But the focus was entirely inward-looking. He promised to create well-paid jobs for hard-working American families, and ensure that medicines remain affordable, even for the 10 percent of Americans who suffer from diabetes.
Key players on the political stage in the USA, including the president, view their audience as a mass of potential Trump voters. They are not interested in what happens overseas, even if it is a quake of the century. And the Middle East is a red flag to them anyway. Panic about Trump voters is driving both the debate and the silence. The trend has been noticeable for years: in this year's State of the Union address, it was blatantly obvious.
It marks a break from tradition. It used to be important for the USA to prove in such situations, be it the Ebola epidemic in West Africa or a deadly storm in the Philippines, that no one had as large and as quickly deployable capacities for aid missions as it did. It was part of its claim to being a global power that also aspired to moral authority. The world should know that the USA were the good guys.
Following the quake of the century in Lisbon in 1755, the philosopher Voltaire wrote about the hundred thousand unfortunates, the children crushed against their mother's breast ("what transgression did they commit?") and those still gasping under the rubble. His poem "Desastre de Lisbonne", a founding document of the Enlightenment, revealed a new, expanded horizon of thought.
To sympathise is human
It was an appeal to sympathise with the suffering of others, however far away that suffering may be. The Persian poet Saadi expressed something similar 500 years earlier. When human beings ignore the suffering, even of distant strangers, they become alienated from themselves, Voltaire warned.
More than any other country, the United States is a child of the Enlightenment. Voltaire considered it problematic that Paris continued to dance while Lisbon lay in ruins. In this sense, the indifference demonstrated by President Biden seems a huge step backwards.
Other things besides the earthquake were also missing from his speech. He ignored Iran, where people have been taking to the streets for freedom, craving the overthrow of the anti-American regime. He didn't waste a single syllable on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is threatening to escalate more sharply than ever, following the inauguration of the hypernationalist government led by Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich.
Received wisdom has it that no one but the USA can really influence the opposing parties. Those pursuing extreme goals in this conflict are likely to feel emboldened by Biden’s failure to mention them in his State of the Union address.
Two days after the speech, the U.S. government finally announced $85 million in aid for the earthquake victims. American search teams arrived in the Turkish disaster area. But it all happened rather quietly. The many millions of Americans who listened to the State of the Union address probably didn't notice. The bottom line is: they were not supposed to.
The Middle East was a glaring omission from Biden's speech. Some might say that was a good thing. After all, many have criticised the USA for invading Iraq and Afghanistan in the name of democracy and freedom without realising these noble goals. The invocation of Enlightenment values was only a cover, so the accusation goes. In this sense, such critics may now be happy with this newfound indifference.
But it is not that simple. Abandoning the claim to political influence does not mean total isolationism. Militarily, the USA is more present than ever. In Norway, for example, and in the Pacific, new bases are being upgraded. The Ukrainian army is being supplied with weapons so that it can withstand a Russian attack. Biden mentioned this briefly in passing.
China is the main adversary, the president made that very clear in his speech. He did not need many words for that either. Before he took office, there had been talk of China expanding its power in the world at the expense of the USA. "Not anymore!" declared Biden, assuring that America would strike whenever there was an attack on "our sovereignty".
It sounds as if foreign policy is being reduced to a battle of the titans. If the USA limits humanitarianism to its own people, if soft power is withdrawn from the rest of the world, leaving only hard power, then the willingness to go to military extremes will inevitably increase.
© Qantara.de 2023
The author works as a television journalist for the ARD political magazine Panorama.