By Ferenc Laczo
“I was an American in a world that America had made in its own image, a world that now felt oddly foreign in its familiarity”, Ben Rhodes writes in his new book After the Fall, an engaging and somewhat ambivalent attempt to understand the ascendancy of authoritarianism and nationalism across the globe. A writer, political commentator and former Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting under President Barack Obama, Rhodes (b. 1977) identifies himself as a member of an emotionally committed, idealistic, and disillusioned generation. After the Fall is indeed testament to how its author had to wean himself off the somewhat naively nationalistic stories of his youth to grasp the arc of recent decades.
This process of reexamination leads Ben Rhodes – author of an excellent and much-discussed 2018 White House memoir The World as It Is – to question key assumptions and draw remarkably critical conclusions regarding the United States’ global role.
The key thesis of After the Fall is that the rise of nationalist authoritarianism and identity-based polarization are products of the world the US has created through its embrace of a blend of unbridled capitalism, military power, and technological innovation.
In Rhodes’ telling, the post-9/11 “forever war” discredited American leadership while opening the door to a hypersecuritized politics pursued under the guise of antiterrorism; the 2008 financial crisis collapsed not only the global economy, but also confidence in American-led globalization; social media unleashed a flood of disinformation and negative impulses that offer autocrats powerful new tools of social and political control.
As the conspiracy theories that accompanied the rise of Donald Trump’s grievance-fueled nationalism became ever more impactful, Ben Rhodes found himself on the wrong end of personalized information warfare. Just out of power after eight years and shocked by the outcome of the US election of 2016, Rhodes developed an intriguing plan: he decided to travel around the world to learn the stories of dissidents, activists, and oppositionists who experienced the political trends that he aimed to shape from the exalted distance of the White House. Beyond the US, After the Fall explores three countries – China, Russia, and Hungary – that were communist throughout the Cold War and that, as Rhodes underlines, are currently at the center of the political forces remaking the world.
Rhodes’ underlying interest is in how people in these places have been adjusting to the shift toward authoritarian nationalism or resisting it, and how they navigate questions of identity that now supplant the ideological debates of the last century. The resulting book is an earnest attempt to grasp and learn from the often-harsh experiences of non-Americans, including individuals whose political views Rhodes does not necessarily agree with (think Alexei Navalny in Russia or Bao Pu in Hong Kong), if it is also an attempt clearly circumscribed by Rhodes’ prime concern with America’s identity and role.
The US is indeed depicted as essential to the major developments the book explores. It is seen here as the wellspring of the capitalism and democracy that came to Hungary, it appears as the hubristic victor that cast a shadow over a privatizing Russia, and it is the global force that maintained that China’s rising technology-fueled prosperity would be accompanied by an opening of Chinese society.
Rhodes is especially prescient when he remarks that the Chinese Communist Party had taken American globalization and separated out any pretense of individual liberty, preserving the supply chains and movement of people and capital, but carefully removing the freedoms.
Rhodes’ focus on corruption, cynicism, harassment, intimidation, and demoralization in Russia today is well chosen and impressively developed via fine portraits of the likes of Zhanna Nemtsova, Alexei Navalny and Maria Stepanova, even if his overall interpretation of Putin’s regime is certainly not entirely novel. The parallels Rhodes draws between Hungary under Fidesz and the Republican Party in the US – a nationalism characterized by Christian identity, an insistence on national sovereignty, distrust of democratic institutions, opposition to immigration, and contempt for politically correct liberal elites – are striking and generally convincing, even though the comparison underplays key differences and, surprisingly in the light of the key thesis of the book, does not really factor in superpower influence on a more minor ally.
It is Ben Rhodes’ grappling with his country’s and his own political identity that infuses the narrative with an additional sense of drama. The author complains that the US did not really succeed at finding a new national purpose after the Cold War. He asserts that a new, democratic form of American nationalism is urgently necessary – which can only be developed via a reckoning with uncomfortable truths that applied well before the four years of Trump. The wars the US has launched in the early 21st century will unavoidably end short of victories, which amounts to acknowledging that the whole enterprise had been a mistake, the author asserts as part of that reckoning – a harsh-sounding but apt diagnosis.
At the same time, After the Fall suggests that Rhodes was not only susceptible to Reagan-era mythologizing in his youth, but also experienced the rise of Obama as a moment of re-enchantment – as “a noble entry into the redemptive story of American self-improvement.” Perhaps the most decidedly American point in Rhodes’ argumentation is his contrasting of “the corrupted system” and “the uncorrupted masses” – an optimistic dichotomy few Europeans would be comfortable suggesting after the age of extremes. There is indeed a slight tension between the author’s assertion that the US had earned its primacy and his brief remarks on how he himself took the country’s privileged status for granted while in power, on the one hand, and his more recent realization that America has become an unexceptional country in many ways, on the other.
To reinvent the American narrative, Rhodes suggests centering upon “the underdogs, the risk takers, the doers of big things”, which strikes this reader like a conflation of the heroic but marginalized with the wildly ambitious and successful.
For a book that points to consequential negative trends that had been building for decades and gives clear voice to its author’s belief that the post-Cold War world is irredeemable without a profound overhaul, the remedy offered here – reinventing American democratic nationalism – is rather short on the specifics of structural change.
Despite these limitations, After the Fall remains a fascinating read. It offers precious insights into how the US has been far from an “ideal superpower” that subordinated its interests to democratic values and how American hegemony has in fact designed a system that others found rather easy to manipulate. In Ben Rhodes’ urgent account, US actions have yielded remarkable reversals in recent years, with both globalization and the internet becoming more of a threat to the democracies that set them in motion than to rising techno-totalitarian regimes like China’s. Where the book might have done more is in probing the connections between its two main plotlines – the contemporary historical one concerning depressing democratic reversals and the more personal one grappling with how to reassess its author’s youthful American idealism. While critiquing the wrong incentive structure and damaging self-censorship of the American political and media establishment,After the Fall ultimately also makes clear that its author has not lost his faith that the United States can and should be a force for good.
After the Fall. Being American in the World We’ve Made. By Ben Rhodes. New York: Random House, 2021.