Air Force One is a period fantasy of U.S idealism and supremacy. The Soviet Union has collapsed. American hegemony is unchallenged. At a dinner in Russia, James Marshall, the President, explains why the two countries have jointly apprehended the leader of a rogue state.
“The truth is…we acted too late. Only when our own national security was threatened did we act. Tonight I come to you with a pledge to change America’s policy. Never again will I allow our political self-interest to deter us from doing what we know to be morally right.”
The film was released in 1997, during the decade or so between the fall of the Berlin Wall and Al Qaeda’s attack on 9/11. And some ten years before Chinese communism began to fill the gap that Russian communism had left.
This is the world that most of us have lived the longest in: the one that came into being after the United States got out of Vietnam and before it got into Iraq – and Afghanistan.
America is still the most powerful country in the world, at least if one turns to one of those indices that try to measure economic strength, military muscle, diplomatic reach and international influence.
It remains the lynchpin of NATO, which has helped to keep the peace in Europe since 1945, and maintains an armed presence in Germany, Kosovo, South Korea, Iraq, Djibouti and elsewhere.
Furthermore, it isn’t inevitable that China will wax while the United States wanes. The collapse of communism, Khomeine’s rise to power in Iran, the so-called “Arab Spring”: none of these were foreseen by western governments.
Perhaps China will somehow crumple again into the “celestial chaos” of the early years of the last century. Who knows? But as we gaze appalled at barbarism rampant, innocents dying and the West humiliated in Afghanistan, we can only weigh likelihoods.
When Joe Biden proclaimed “America’s back!”, he wasn’t telling a lie – even if its frantic retreat from Kabul, captured in the most mortifying footage for the U.S since the fall of Saigon, suggests otherwise.
The President has returned America to the communal fold on Iran, climate change, and engagement, ending the use of Twitter as a tool of presidential statecraft, if that’s quite the right word for it.
But it is crucial to grasp, as so much of our reflexively anti-Trump media didn’t, that America is back on Biden’s terms, and while these may be multinational diplomatically they are unilateral militarily, or at least have that flavour.
Indeed, Trump’s Afghanistan policy begat Biden’s, because the latter inherited the Doha Agreement, pledging the withdrawal of U.S troops from Afghanistan, signed last year.
And Trump was successful at Doha where Obama had previously failed. The former President’s administration tried at least three times to hold negotiations with the Taliban.
Such has been the direction of travel since George W.Bush – a kind of President Marshall on steroids – responded to Islamist terrorism with neo-conservative doctrine, attempting to build western, liberal, democratic states in Asia backed by American firepower.
Biden would presumably honour America’s NATO obligations were Vladminir Putin to open a new front in the Baltic States, though he has taken Russia’s part over the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipline.
Perhaps he can cobble together an international alliance against China that re-establishes U.S. leadership – though how he will to do so after his grotesque miscalculation in Afghanistan, goodness knows.
Nonetheless, British policy-makers would be wise to look at the trends in America over the last decade or so. And not merely the ones in security.
The Obama-Trump-Biden withdrawals from Afghanistan and Iraq (the President wants U.S troops out of the latter by the end of the year) haven’t taken place in a social, economic and cultural vaccuum.
The United States is becoming less united, more extreme (within both the main parties), more woke, more spendthrift, less religious, more druggy, more violent, more porous, less prosperous (at least compared to its main rival).
The British state shows no sign of coming to terms with the speed and scale of the change, and reviewing assumptions that have more or less held since the Second World War and the Marshall Plan.
And were America no longer to be there for us, for better or worse, we would be uniquely exposed – at least as our security policy is concerned.
Perhaps ConservativeHome is taking a rosy-tinted view of British security policy, but it seems to us that, in the balance between realpolitik and justice, the latter weighs more heavily here than among our European neighbours.
Poland and other Eastern European states are fighting back, and Britain, Brexit or no Brexit, remains their most committed military ally, with our troops exposed in Estonia in what Lord Ashcroft reported as “Operation Tethered Goat”.
London may be awash with Putin money, but it is our Government, alert to human pressures in Parliament and outside it, that has imposed “Magnitsky sanctions” on 25 Russians (and others).
Turn then to China, towards which British policy, echoing Biden’s, is more ambiguous – describing it in the Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy as a “systemic competitor” rather than, like Russia, as an “acute and direct threat”.
But while Boris Johnson wants to keep its options open on the Chinese communist state, an entire House of Parliament, plus a significant slice of the Conservative Party, does not.
The political push to hold China’s government accountable for crimes against humanity has found spectacular expression among peers and MPs over the past year.
Three times the Lords sent an amendment to the Trade Bill down to the Commons which would, if passed, have seen China’s leaders pursued through British institutions over the most heinous crime on the charge sheet: genocide.
On the last occasion, the Government squeaked through by 18 votes, and 29 MPs voted against the Party line – including a former Party leader, Iain Duncan Smith.
He and four other Tory MPs, including the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Tom Tugendhat, and our former columnist Neil O’Brien, now Chairman of the Party’s Policy Board, have now been sanctioned by China.
Is this site alone in pondering the possibility that the trend to isolationism in America gathers speed, returning us to the kind of world that we haven’t seen since the 1930s, in the vanished days when Britain still had an empire?
If so, can we be so noisy about Russia and China at once? Furthermore, what about Islamist extremism and, with an eye to Plymouth, home-grown terror?
Might we not have to choose – in a Europe in which Russia is the nearest and biggest threat to our national security? Can a Britain with smaller forces really afford a “tilt to Asia“?
Air Force One ends with the vigorous President Marshall, played by Harrison Ford, despatching a terrorist with the cry of “get off my plane”. Biden is shut up in the presidential jet, metaphorically speaking, and heading for home.