While Donald Trump advocated the ‘America First’ position, his successor speaks of ‘extreme competition’ with China to continue to address US concerns with China’s trade practices.
Over the past four years, Sino-US relations reached a post-Mao era low point. For now, with the newly-minted US administration, the biggest question facing the two countries is: to what extent will President Joe Biden’s China strategy differ from or resemble that of his transactional and aggressive predecessor?
It was three weeks after his inauguration that Biden held the first telephone call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. During the call, Biden stressed that China should expect ‘extreme competition’ from the US but, significantly, that this did not mean inevitable Sino-US conflict. He raised concerns over China’s ‘coercive and unfair economic practices’, Hong Kong, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Taiwan. The two leaders also discussed global challenges such as the COVID-19 pandemic and climate change.
Like Trump, Biden’s rhetoric remains tough on China, but he is committed to steering a different approach, or policy-and-rhetorical mix, based on a focus on the rules-based order, and democracy. It appears that Biden’s team’s rhetoric will remain strident, but a clear recalibration of China policy is underway, one aimed at avoiding zero-sum mentalities, a balance between competition and cooperation. This may fall somewhere between Trump’s China as a “strategic rival” and the EU’s China as a “systemic rival” strategies. It signals the wary, turbulent, competitive-interdependence of the world’s two largest economies.
With regard to trade and economic relations, the Biden administration has a stronger emphasis on supporting US domestic competitiveness and innovation through direct federal action. Therefore, no criticism has been advanced on Trump’s trade war with China as damaging to US business. Biden inherits many of Trump’s (and Barack Obama’s) concerns over China’s trade practices and industrial policy.
Of course, the Trump administration took an aggressive stance towards China over economic and trade practices. It labelled China as a ‘strategic competitor’. The White House’s ‘2020 Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China’ states that ‘Beijing’s poor record of following through on economic reform commitments and its extensive use of state-driven protectionist policies and practices harm United States companies and workers, distort global markets, violate international norms, and pollute the environment.’
Trump’s approach to addressing these concerns was to curb China with industrial policies by starting a prolonged trade war, decoupling economies, prohibiting technology transfer, blacklisting Chinese high-tech companies, and tightening China export control including a large number of sensitive technologies to end-users in China, pushing the US and European firms to quit China.
Despite being critical of Trump’s failure on those issues, Biden is continuing to address US concerns with China’s trade practices. Biden said, “I want to make sure we’re going to fight like hell by investing in America first in areas such as advanced materials, energy, artificial intelligence, 5G and energy as a way of generating more leverage to better compete with China, not just complaining about it.” He then added there is no immediate action to remove the 25% tariffs that Trump imposed on half of Chinese exports to the US.
‘America First’ and ‘Extreme Competition’ may not differ fundamentally after all.
Biden and his advisors also inherit Trump’s tough posture such as ‘decoupling’ methods in tackling China’s technology transfer and industrial ambitions and strategies. The existing bans of Chinese companies including Huawei, ZET, and Xiaomi, and Chinese apps such as TikTok, will likely remain in place and possibly further escalate, signalling Biden’s turn towards Tech Cold War to crackdown on Chinese technology companies. Gina Raimondo, Biden’s pick for commerce secretary, said she would ‘use the bold toolkit at my disposal to the fullest extent possible to protect Americans and our network from Chinese interference or any kind of backdoor influence’. Biden also argued that ‘as new technologies reshape our economy and society, we must ensure that these engines of progress are bound by laws and ethics…and avoid a race to the bottom, where the rules of the digital age are written by China and Russia’. Getting American allies on the same page to set technology standards is also one major priority of increasing leverage to deal with China.
The Biden administration is likely to focus more on building domestic competitiveness to compete with the Chinese economy. While Biden has not yet articulated a systematic economic stance, particularly in the technology sector, toward China, a cooperative approach on trade and China’s industrial policy will be possible only when US interests are protected and maximised. His comment on ‘extreme competition’ serves as an important warning for China’s tech industry.
In terms of military strategy, Biden plans to continue Trump’s policies to counter China’s ‘military expansion’ (in its own regional waters) by sending ships through the Taiwan Strait, through naval exercises in the South China Sea. The difference is that Biden will consolidate a system of regional alliances and partnerships, including Japan, to meet the China challenge and could appear less aggressive than his predecessor. This is the strategy of ‘hegemonic ordering’ rather than bilateral transactional coercion, as Parmar and Turner suggest.
The Trump administration’s 2018 National Defence Strategy stated: “as China continues its economic and military ascendance, asserting power through an all-of-nation long-term strategy, it will continue to pursue a military modernization program that seeks Indo-Pacific regional hegemony in the near-term and displacement of the United States to achieve global pre-eminence in the future.” A strong US commitment was shown to Taiwan’s defence by selling sophisticated military hardware to Taipei. In 2020, US battleships transited the waterway thirteen times.
The Biden team has displayed signs to build on Trump’s commitment. A guided-missile destroyer was already mobilised by the US Navy through the Taiwan Strait for the first time under Biden. The US secretary of state Antony Blinken said this is to ensure Taiwan’s ability to defend itself against aggression and to demonstrate US long-term and strong bipartisan commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific. Additionally, hours before his call to Xi, Biden announced a new China task force to review all China-related military policy and craft a comprehensive China policy including economic, political and diplomatic elements, pledging to counter the China challenge and ensure ‘Americans will win the competition of the future’.
Another important element of President Biden’s approach will be rhetorically-underscoring human rights, democracy and liberal values as a part of ‘extreme competition’ with China. Biden and his advisors appear rhetorically-determined to forge common democracy and human rights-focused positions with European and Asian allies to impose costs on China’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Taiwan. The key question is to what extent it might work with them together, particularly because regional Asian partners depend on China for trade and investment, and the EU is increasingly stressing its ‘strategic autonomy’, particularly in light of the instability of the US political system as broadcast most graphically on January 6, 2021.
Trump portrayed China’s authoritarian political system as a threat to the US and global interests. In 2020 his secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, reported to Congress that Hong Kong no longer merits ‘autonomous status’ from China, and before leaving office, he declared China’s repression of Uighurs as ‘genocide and crimes against humanity’ [Emphasis added]. In addition, the Trump administration signed the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020, which authorises the imposition of US sanctions against the Chinese Community Party’s detention and persecution of Muslim Uighurs. This however contradicts his earlier support of Beijing’s internment camps in Xinjiang. Biden echoes Trump official’s genocide claims.
This hawkish stance was also echoed by Antony Blinken. The new secretary of state tweeted after the call with Yang Jiechi: ‘the US will defend our national interests, stand up for our democratic values, and hold Beijing accountable for its abuses of the international system’. A bipartisan Bill was reintroduced to ban imports from the Xinjiang region, allowing for US sanctions on Chinese officials and companies responsible for Uighur forced labour.
One major difference between the two administrations is that Biden seeks the return of multilateralism and international cooperation for addressing shared global challenges, such as climate change and the COVID-19 pandemic. Biden shows a clear signal of embracing multilateralism again to offset the most damaging dimension of Trump’s legacy. Unlike Trump, who withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, Biden has prioritised climate change and re-joined the Accord. US special climate envoy John Kerry stressed that one of his central goals will be collaborating with China on climate change, but this cooperation is a ‘critical standalone issue’, which has no trade-off against sanctioning China on its human rights record.
This strongly suggests that although the Biden administration provides the possibility of readjusting US-Sino relations, there is also a strong tendency towards continuing the zero-sum competition approach to China. But much of that may be driven by party politics rather than real-world actions. This is because, at a fundamental level, the two states and economies are interdependent.
Sino-America: Competitive but interdependent
China’s economic system has been highly integrated into the international system since the death of Mao. Huo and Parmar indicate that since 1978, the Ford Foundation has played a significant role in supporting China’s economic reform through its generously funded education programmes which introduced (western) modern Economics as a discipline in China, particularly under state-affiliated think tanks and university programmes. Those Ford funded institutions facilitated the establishment of a transnational elite knowledge network that further enabled Chinese policy elites’ acceptance of international norms and their implementation of trade liberalisation and a so-called ‘socialist’ market economy.
Consequently, economic interdependence has profoundly increased the cost of destroying the Sino-US relationship and expanded common interests between them. Despite the Trump administration’s efforts to curb China, decoupling the economies, prohibiting technology transfer, blacklisting Chinese high-tech companies, and tightening China export control including a large number of sensitive technologies to end users in China, pushing the US and European firms to quit China, becomes extremely difficult. For instance, the Wall Street Journal reveals that 2020 surveys indicated “89% of European and 87% of US companies had no intention to move any business activities out of China”. Furthermore, the Sino-US bilateral investment relationship has become the world’s largest and fastest-growing that belies geopolitical tensions, as reported by the Financial Times.
Importantly, as China’s economic power grows, it becomes hard to convince other countries including US allies to take the US side over China. According to a UK-based Centre for Economics and Business Research report, China’s economy will surpass the US and become the world’s largest economy by 2028. The report noted that there will be a global economic and soft power struggle between the two great superpowers, and the COVID-19 pandemic has already pushed this rivalry in China’s favour. A former Singaporean diplomat and scholar, Kishore Mahbubani points out that the majority of countries are not willing to take sides. The recent EU-China Comprehensive Agreement on Investment is a good example of this. Moreover, in terms of its expectation of inviting Japan to join the ‘Anglosphere’ to decouple China, ‘only 7.2% of Japanese companies in China either planned or considered shifting production out of China, down from an already paltry 9.2% in 2019’.
This is not a new cold war between rival ideologies, military camps, and largely independent economies. This is a struggle for the retention of the US’s “top dog” status in world politics, with racial undertones, regional competition, but also many shared global challenges and economic interdependencies.
Additionally, the US’s increasing sanctions and decoupling strategy have not devastated Chinese technology sectors but rather pushed China to become more self-reliant on domestic technologies and supply chains, especially in semiconductors. Last year, China established a new chip university in Shenzhen with a focus to develop cutting-edge technologies such as 5G, AI, third-generation semiconductors, and quantum computing. Furthermore, industry data shows that in 2020 alone China’s research and development investment for chips increased 400% to $21.69 billion.
Finally, it is important to mention that the US overemphasis on human rights issues in Xinjiang reveals a more material concern: its inability to control the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). It is entirely credible that the US picked Xinjiang as a key concern because it is home to many core elements of the BRI, a project that links Beijing with 140 countries around the world. This initiative is proposed by some, and seen by many, as an alternative to the US-led liberal international order, which many Americans believe is a hegemonic threat to the US, even though the project is more complex than such a zero-sum approach suggests.
Martin Wolf, the chief economic commentator at the Financial Times, suggests that ‘containing China is not a feasible option’. A pro-punitive type of extreme competition with China could be extremely difficult to achieve.
The US and the West are having to come to terms with fundamental truths in regard to world economy, politics, and handling major emergencies such as the pandemic. The West remains important but the world is moving on: the real energy, the motive forces, are no longer Western.
Shihui Yin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, and an alumna of City, University of London.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank). He is a columnist at The Wire. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.
The multiple crises that President Joe Biden faces are too many and too deep and systemic to be tackled in the old way or papered over – they require massive state intervention comparable in scale and character to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘New Deal’ of the 1930s, and embedding in a new global grand bargain acknowledging multipolarity and the effective twilight of the US’s global preponderance. Just like white Americans must accommodate the fact of their ‘majority-minority’ status in 20 years – they will be the largest single racial group but no longer a majority of the population – so must the foreign policy establishment accommodate to the US as the strongest, but no longer totally preponderant, world power.
The American crisis is stark. Look at the US federal capital – with over 20,000 national guard erecting a ring of steel around the inaugural platform. The US Capitol building in Washington, DC, looks increasingly like Baghdad’s Green Zone – with more US troops deployed for a ‘peaceful transfer of power’ than are based in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria. The FBI is vetting national guardsmen for extreme right-wing links in case an attack should be launched from within the ‘security’ services. It is a state in the centre of a perfect but terrible storm, reaping the whirlwind sown by the hyper-authoritarian, fascistic, Trump regime, but which is also rooted in a range of crises going back several decades.
There is a feeling that the imperial homeland is on the brink of a descent into an abyss.
Can Biden actually advance an agenda of change and reform – relief, recovery, and reform (the 3 Rs of the FDR era) – and also handle the upcoming Senate impeachment trial of former President Donald Trump? He must, and simultaneously, because the challenges are interlinked. The impeachment trial goes way beyond Trump alone, though he is its focal point. It involves numerous simultaneous congressional investigations of the power and connections of the far right, its extension into the GOP and law enforcement agencies, not to mention the underlying neoliberal philosophy underpinning and necessitating a coercive state to stem the tide of popular resistance and rebellion.
Biden’s political opportunity vs entrenched neoliberalism and corporate power
Biden has control of the White House, the House of Representatives and a wafer-thin advantage in the US Senate. This provides him the political opportunity to shift approach towards concerted state intervention, but Democratic party ideology and corporate donorship threaten to place brakes on any radical agenda. On the other hand, the incendiary character of the political environment in the US – as shown by the January 6 Capitol insurrection but also in the nationwide uprisings against racist police violence – indicates urgent need for far-reaching government and government-coordinated efforts to deal with underlying social, economic, political-ideological, racial-cultural issues and divisions.
In Biden, we may have the basis of ‘pragmatic radicalism’. The sheer depth and extent of the pandemic, and economic, social, and international-systemic challenges or crises could be the mother of ‘pragmatic radicalism’ – meaning that no democratic government could or should continue in the old way of doing things because they have not worked, or have only exacerbated the crises. This will not be driven a change of philosophy but pragmatic realisation that the old ways cannot deliver political stability or global power projection.
A key factor weighing towards pragmatic radicalism is Biden’s age, and possibly health, which suggest a one-term-only outlook going into the White House. This brings into play Biden’s sense of his legacy into calculations: how does he want to be remembered by history? Is it as a leader who extirpated Trumpism and the legacies of division and climbing inequality, or one who did business-as-usual elite politics? The latter may well pave the way for Trump II, or Trumpism without Trump. If Biden’s claim is true, that what forced him to run against Trump was the president’s support for white supremacist and neo-Nazi riot at Charlottesville in 2017, then we may expect a thorough-going effort to get to the roots of Trumpism in the GOP.
US crises – a perfect but terrible storm
The US’s crises have converged into a near-perfect but terrible storm: at root, there are basic crises of democracy and election-legitimacy; incendiary partisan division; and discontent over inequality and police violence against minorities across America’s cities. There are millions of working people and their children going to bed hungry in the world’s lone superpower, its City upon a Hill.
The COVID-19 pandemic – the mother lode crisis – is causing a devastating loss of life which shows few signs of abating anytime soon, and has generated a social and economic catastrophe for working people, while enriching the wealthiest billionaires at the same time. This alone represents a political tinderbox of unimaginable proportions. It has highlighted every nook and cranny of a political-economic system that offers little of anything resembling normal life let alone the American dream.
Political protest and violence appears to have become a feature of the American political landscape, a part of its political terrain. It has reared up every few years, but the eruptions of 2020 crossed a psychological line on 6 January – it reached the very halls of government. It was not taken at all seriously by the Democratic party’s national leadership when the Michigan state capitol was invaded by heavily armed extreme right-wingers and white supremacists, threatening to kidnap and assassinate the governor. It’s a different matter when members of congress House and Senate were forced to flee for their lives from Trump’s insurrectionary storm-troopers on 6 January.
And it is clear that US authority in world system – among allies and foes alike – has diminished. This was part of a longer term process, of course, as new powers emerged or re-emerged on the world scene, increasing/demanding multipolarity.
Trump’s responses to the above deep crises – i.e., use of intense coercion, America First unilateralism, government and personal irresponsibility, and ‘laissez-faire’ crony-corporate ‘strategy’, anti-immigrant and racial divisions, authoritarianism and encouragement of far right, political polarisation – failed. Not only did they fail, Trump’s solutions to US power crises exacerbated and deepened them and led to his decisive electoral defeat in November 2020, bringing his one term of office to a disgraceful ending with a second historic impeachment to his name and legacy – for “incitement of insurrection” that left 5 people dead.
Biden’s agenda is ambitious, and needs to be
Biden has his work cut out – a deadly pandemic; ailing economy; domestic political instability; climate change crisis; and repairing international relationships and alliances.
In foreign policy, Executive Orders (EO) and Presidential Proclamations are vital to overturn Trump’s largescale EO programme – 210 in four years compared with Obama’s 276 in eight years, Bush’s 290 in eight years and Clinton’s 254 also in eight years. There are numerous significant policy shifts awaiting Biden’s attention – he can overturn the Muslim travel ban, rejoin the Iran nuclear agreement, stop arms sales to Saudi Arabia, extricate the US from its deadly support of Saudi war on Yemen, return US to World Health Organisation membership as well as the UN Human Rights Council, and rebuild diplomatic relations with Cuba. EOs and Presidential Proclamations are highly effective and an instrument of choice to avoid congressional opposition.
But the biggest issue is the shape of the global system, and the US’s role in it vis-a-vis allies, partners, competitors and rivals, and the extent to which US remains the post-1945 world’s preponderant power or one of the most powerful among a number of powerful international actors.
But alongside managing all of the above, especially the pandemic, the extreme right-wing threat to the US system of government must be one of the most urgent. It is probably the single most critical crisis that goes to the very heart of state power, as well US world power, and global role and standing. That makes the Senate impeachment trial, and a number of other congressional investigations into the long- and short-term sources of the 6 January insurrectionary attack on the US Capitol, central to the Biden agenda.
Senate impeachment trial: An essential reckoning
This will clearly take time and attention from the enormous burden of immediate government business, as I argue above. But there should be no stone left unturned in getting to the bottom of the power of the far right and its reach into the police, military and the GOP. Any superficial truce on this matter only papers over the cracks in the name of ‘national healing’ and ‘unity’. Burying the problem now will only store up a far greater explosion in the future. There should be no appeasement of the violent extreme right and their allies in Congress.
It is essential to draw a line under the failed strategy and abuses of power of President Trump and his extremist political faction by full, public investigations and radical reform. We are not talking about a truth and reconciliation commission but something that exposes to the light the roots, organisational power, networks, and reach of the extreme Right in America. The Senate impeachment process will supplement and encourage other congressional investigations of the events and roots of the 6 January insurrection. It will expose and tackle the roles of law enforcement at all levels in the Capitol insurrection.
There is an added political advantage by doing this for Biden and the Democratic party: it may further divide and weaken the Republican party – auguring a probable ‘political’ win for the Democrats going into 2022 mid-term elections.
In the end, American government is ‘party government’. And it is driven by short-term electoral calculations, and massive corporate donations. But we are in unprecedented times. Will President Biden, who has reached the pinnacle of his long political career at so critical a moment, govern with the bigger picture in mind – embrace a politics of pragmatic radicalism? He has the opportunity. Does he have the will?
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank). His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.
The political climate remains toxic but with a certain level of 'anxiety-laden' hope.
President Donald Trump’s stealthy, creeping ‘coup attempt’ remains a major political issue as we enter the final stretch of his presidency. He has successfully carried out his threat to contest by any means available to him the election defeat of November 2020, including legal action, political pressure, encouragement of mass protest by the extreme Right, not to mention threats of violence against election officials, including Republicans.
Trump is now calling for the US Senate and House to challenge the Electoral College vote on January 6, and his supporters to ‘march on Washington DC’, which could descend into violence. In addition, the administration is ramping up baseless fears of ‘retaliatory’ attacks by Iranian forces to mark the January 3 anniversary of the drone killing of General Suleimani, and reinforcing US naval, air and military forces in the Gulf.
Through a combination of manufactured confusion over the election, orchestrated domestic political unrest, and the threat of military intervention that could lead to catastrophic loss of life, including US forces, Trump is creating the chaotic and confused conditions for a potential declaration of a national emergency.
The US military’s senior officers are reportedly very concerned that Trump will engineer either domestic political violence in Washington DC on January 6 (or on January 20, President Joseph Biden inauguration) as Congress confirms the Electoral College vote and announces Biden elected. Trump tweeted a call to his supporters to protest the process – saying it’ll be “wild” while maintaining his baseless stolen election conspiracy theories.
Senior uniformed military worry that Trump will engineer a foreign military adventure as we approach the January 3 anniversary of US drone killing of Iran General Suleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis. Trump has also stated a desire to attack Iran for rocket attacks on the US embassy in Baghdad. Either could be a basis for mobilising the US military, declaring a national emergency and refusing to leave office: this has been discussed in such overt terms in a series of respected media including the Washington Post, Newsweek, The Hill and CNN. Trump’s coup attempt has also been called out in such terms by leading scholars, including the historian of authoritarianism, Professor Timothy Snyder at Yale University.
Meanwhile, Biden’s national security team is being denied access to key security-related information by the Trump administration.
A declaration of martial law was mooted in a recent media interview by General Michael Flynn, Trump’s first national security adviser, to organise a re-run of “battleground state” elections (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, among others), and was subsequently discussed at the White House. So concerned is the US military that it was considered necessary to issue a formal statement that they will not intervene in US elections – which is in itself a marker of the depth of the crisis of US politics and government. The question remains, of course, as to any support among the military’s senior officers that Flynn may command.
Trump has only added fuel to the fire since his decisive defeat in November 2020. He removed the existing civilian leadership at the Pentagon because they objected to his threats to attack Iran and misuse the military at home, and appointed Trump loyalists. It is now reported that Trump is heading back to the White House from Florida, missing his New Year’s party. Missouri Republican Senator Josh Hawley has stated he will object to the Electoral College vote on January 6 and demand a congressional enquiry into the November elections. Hawley is positioning himself for a presidential run in 2024 by siding with Trump and his loyal voter base; other senators may follow his example. It is clear that Trump will be in Washington, DC, overseeing, orchestrating and co-ordinating a concerted attack on US democratic forms by exploring every means at his disposal of clinging to office.
This ‘crisis politics’ is on full display in the Georgia run-off elections scheduled for January 5: there have been death threats against the GOP governor, a Trump loyalist who refused to challenge the election result in his state, and against other elected representatives. Trump has called on Governor Kemp to resign. In the meantime, Georgia’s GOP is still engaging in large-scale voter suppression tactics – some of which have been overturned in the courts. The more extreme Trump supporters are demanding Republicans boycott the elections due to election-rigging claims. With large-scale early voting, likely to lean towards the Democrats, the GOP may well receive in Georgia its comeuppance – blowback – for its facilitation and appeasement of Trump and Trumpism over the past four years.
Trump heaps manufactured crises on to real crises that he has no interest in tackling. His last-minute demand for larger payouts to the millions of economic victims of the pandemic has nothing to do with ordinary people who are in dire straits, and everything to do with pressuring and dividing the Republican party, and lining up support for his own political agenda. Senate Republican majority leader Mitch McConnel’s position will become untenable if the GOP loses the Georgia senate seats. That the Georgia election looks as close as it does suggests depth of Trump’s effects there, and his ability and willingness to take on the most powerful leader of the GOP.
Crisis and divisions of both main parties
The GOP is increasingly divided: paying the price of enabling and appeasing Trump and Trumpism. The Democrats are divided between Bidenites and the confident group of recently-elected progressives in Congress. Biden remains silent on the Trump coup d’etat that is in progress, fearful of a mobilised progressive movement against fascism and authoritarianism.
However, it is important to remember that Trump’s defeat in November was pretty decisive, overall. The US electorate drew a line against white supremacy politics, border wall and draconian attacks on immigrants, disastrous handling of the pandemic, and against the definition of racist police violence as a mere ‘law and order’ issue. The election also resuscitated the idea, however flawed in practice, of the US as an open, tolerant, diverse and welcoming democratic ‘soft’ power. But note the largely negative character of the line – against Trump, with a sliver of anxiety-ridden hope that Biden might tackle the US’s biggest problems from a progressive perspective.
The anxiety of that hope, however, is that Biden will not want to be outflanked from the Right and will expend most of his political capital by reaching out to a Trumpist GOP (remember Trump’s 74 million votes and possibility of 2024 run), and side-lining progressive Democrats who did so much to energise the youth, student and minority votes. Their alienation could be disastrous in 2024. Will Biden do comprehensive healthcare reform? Climate change policy that’s really effective? Infrastructure investment in middle-class US? Something on college tuition fees and student debt?
The Big Picture is that the US remains in a deep and long-lived legitimacy crisis – the loss of popular authority by both political parties and government, rising mass discontent, economic precarity, a pandemic roaring on, people going hungry.
Alongside popular misery and anger, the stock market recovers, as does US economic activity to near-pre-pandemic levels, enriching the few, and underlining to the many of both parties that the US political system really has little to offer them in practice.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and a Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics. He is a columnist at The Wire. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.
By Inderjeet Parmar and Shihui Yin
This op-ed was originally published on The Wire
The authority of the liberal international order that grew out of imperial-internationalism, and further embedded Western power in world affairs, is unravelling at home and challenged by rising powers abroad.
Chatham House, the erstwhile Royal Institute of International Affairs (RIIA), one of the world’s oldest and most influential think tanks, is 100 years old this year. Located near Westminster and Whitehall, it is a key institution in the discussion of British foreign affairs and world politics. Its flagship journal, International Affairs, is a sprightly 98 years old.
It leads in the University of Pennsylvania’s global rankings of think tanks. Despite such long-lived influence, however, the very liberal-imperial order founded on Anglo-American power that it championed, is unravelling. It has its work cut out to take on the forces of populism, nationalism, opposition to Western interventionism, and the ‘rise of the rest’, in its second century.
Made in war and revolution
Chatham House was formed in the wake of the First World War and the rise of an increasingly assertive, democratic and socialistic public opinion, especially among the working class and women. Claiming to be objective, non-political and even scientific, it promised to democratise the making of foreign policy, and to end the Foreign Office’s jealously-guarded monopoly over foreign and imperial policy. Steeped in its own elitism, and patronised by the monarch, it aimed at educating public opinion, the very embodiment of what American political commentator Walter Lippmann called a ‘secular priesthood’ to manage the masses in the age of popular discontent and revolution.
It never really achieved its stated goals, remaining wedded to imperial-internationalism, elitist in character in ‘educating’ newly-awakened ‘public opinion’, and supportive of a racialised world view wedded to Anglo-Saxonism. At the core of the Chatham House project lay the aim of an alliance with the United States as Britain’s imperial power declined. Such attitudes were on full display at the Paris Peace Conferences in 1919-20, where Chatham House was conceived as the British branch of an Anglo-American institute of international affairs.
Saturated with a haughty attitude to inferior colonials considered incapable of self-government, Chatham House elites looked down on an increasingly assertive organised working class, galvanised by the experience of bloody trench warfare, and inspired by the dramatic effects of the Russian revolution, and Lenin’s calls for workers to get out of the war and overthrow ‘their’ governments.
Made by Empire
Chatham House was a descendant of the Round Table, an openly imperialist group whose goal was the preservation of the British empire. Its main achievement was probably the making of the South African constitution under Sir Alfred Milner – which is instructive. It highlighted the group’s imperial and racist attitudes as that constitution embedded and codified racial inequality, laying the initial foundations of apartheid.
But increasing dominions’ nationalism, World War I, the virtual collapse of the moral authority of empire, and the rise of anti-colonial nationalist revolts, not to mention the Bolshevik revolution, forced a major rethink in elite circles. The post-1918 world was one of the crisis of colonial hegemony as the United States emerged as a dominant world power with a new, modern, scientific, concept of global governance, liberal internationalism.
In particular, a group of discontented colonial and other officials, and their allies, were largely ignored in the Paris Peace Conference deliberations and decided to form an institute of international affairs that would make the making of foreign policy more democratic and scientific. Chatham House was born as the weaker twin of its US counterpart, the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). The CFR publishes the influential review, Foreign Affairs, that reflects the mindsets and preoccupations of the US foreign policy establishment.
But its imperial credentials and elitist mentalities, with their embedded Anglo-Saxonist notions of racial superiority, meant that Chatham House was destined to broaden the basis of oligarchy rather than democratise foreign policy. It meant that Chatham House became ever more integrated into the mentalities and machinery of the official foreign policy making process, even receiving direct funding from the state to supplement its corporate donations and US foundation grants. It was, moreover, part of a set of transatlantic, especially Anglo-American, elite networks that cemented politics, government, finance and cultures.
Leaders of Chatham House supported the appeasement of fascism in the 1930s, endorsing the official policies of the British government towards Nazi Germany. In the Second World War, the Institute was virtually nationalised by the Foreign Office to engage in conceptualising and planning for the post-war new world order, in which its Anglo-American origins and connections permitted it to leverage influence in regard to the making of policy but also conducting semi-official information campaigns, and diplomacy via the Institute of Pacific Relations (IPR). In the latter, Chatham House was the IPR’s UK national council, using the transnational forum to defend the ‘achievements’ of British colonialism against challenges from its US, Canadian, and Asian counterparts. Chatham House left its institutional imprint in the Foreign Office through the formation of its Research Department, which exists today as FCO Research Analysts. WWII was probably the height of Chatham House’s influence and prestige though it remained close to government, media, academia and embassies in London, not to mention West End clubland.
The liberal international order of the post-1945 period – the Bretton Woods system of UN, IMF, World Bank – and even the later Marshall Plan, and the concept and practice of ‘foreign aid’ for Third World ‘development, were debated and conceived in elite networks at the centre of which sat Chatham House, the Council on Foreign Relations, and their states’ respective foreign ministries.
By the1950s Chatham House had also become a model for think tanks across the empire and dominions. Versions of Chatham House appeared from the 1920s and 1930s in Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, India, and even across Europe. The Anglo-Saxonist core of the organisation, and its relations with the US and the rest of the English-speaking world, remained significant well into the postwar period.
Yet the winds of change forced a formal shift against overt racism in world politics. In the 1960s, Chatham House was accused of showing obvious bias against South Africa in the invitation to dialogues with a succession of sufficiently moderate black representatives. The aim was a negotiated revolution to ensure the smooth transfer of power to responsible black elites suitably attached in mind and interests to western capital.
Moreover, although the institute had no affiliation to any political party, it actually operated within and was greatly influenced by a particular ideological consensus or framework that reflected the mainstream of parliamentary politics – especially in its attachment to US global strategies, while ignoring alternatives. Yet in the chilly atmosphere of Thatcherism and Reaganomics of the 1980s, Chatham House suffered serious attacks when it showed its willingness to start dialogues with an unreformed Soviet Union.
As Chatham House enters its second century in 2020, much as its US counterpart the CFR, it faces a crisis of authority of the liberal international order that it helped conceptualise, foster, and engineer in and after the Second World War. As Antonio Gramsci noted, “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”
Indeed, Chatham House is one of the key elements of a complex international elite knowledge network that is waging a battle for hearts and minds in the wake of Trumpism, Brexit, growing popular opposition to military interventionism in the Middle East, and the dissolution of the United Kingdom itself. The authority of the liberal international order that grew out of ‘liberal-empire’ – imperial-internationalism – and further embedded Western power in world affairs, is unravelling at home and challenged by rising powers abroad.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank). He is a columnist at The Wire. His twitter handle is @USEmpire.
Shihui Yin is a doctoral candidate at the University of Edinburgh, and an alumnae of City, University of London.
As the Black Lives Matter protests put European universities under renewed pressure to decolonise the curriculum, one prime candidate for restoration is India's 'Grand Old Man'.
Statues and monuments to the previously-great and the good seem to be falling at a rapid rate in the new Black Lives Matter-fuelled era. Across the US and Britain, the statues of imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford University, slave-trader Edward Colston in Bristol, have fallen. Confederate symbols on US state flags such as that of Mississippi have been removed. Universities across the European world are under renewed pressure to ‘decolonise the curriculum’ and recognise the contributions of scholars of colour, women, and the global South, to enhance study and teaching of the role of empire and imperialism in the making of the modern world. City, University of London, for example, has dropped Sir John Cass’s name from its Business School because Cass profited from the slave trade.
Intertwined with the ‘tear it down’ movement, and as part of furthering public knowledge of the vagaries of hidden histories, there is a process of uncovering past progressive figures who have slipped away from popular memory. We have the opportunity to tell a more full story of our shared past. One prime candidate for restoration is Dadabhai Naoroji, who inspired Mahatma Gandhi, championed the education and equal rights of girls and women in India, women’s suffrage, opposed poverty in India and in Britain, and championed Irish home rule.
Dadabhai Naoroji, Indian businessman, scholar, and activist, was also the first Asian member of parliament in the British House of Commons. Incredibly, this was way back in 1892, in the Clerkenwell district of the City of London where, of course, City, University of London, is located. A relatively discreet plaque in Naoroji’s honour adorns an exterior wall of Finsbury Town Hall; Naoroji Street, a Clerkenwell backstreet, commemorates him too.
Yet this hardly seems sufficient given Naoroji’s historic significance to Britain and India.
He was a champion of free mass education in India, and once he arrived in Britain he built productive alliances with the “ragged schools” movement leader Mary Carpenter. She, in turn, helped in promoting education for the poor in colonial India.
Naoroji was a skilled and critical economist who used vast caches of hard economic data to describe the real poverty of India and its causes. He rejected the-then conventional economic theory that as economies worked on the basis of “natural laws”, the wealth and poverty of nations was beyond human action. In reports and articles, lectures and testimony at House of Commons’ committees, Naoroji challenged dominant economists, India Office civil servants, and colonial administrators, to show that the poverty of India was the direct result of British rule, especially the taxation that went to finance the Indian government and military.
If the above idea of the role of an economist challenges orthodoxy even today, Naoroji used his economic and statistical research to develop and crystallise political demands for reform and justice – a far cry from the poverty of economics today. His “economic drain” theory of imperialism places him in the company of J.A. Hobson and Henry Hyndman, and brought him to the attention of the leaders of the Second International such as Karl Kautsky and Rosa Luxemburg.
Winning a seat in the House of Commons, however, required a skilled politics. There was no ready-made ethnic India voter base in the 1890s. Naoroji fostered and built political alliances that were transnational, multiracial, and mobilised women suffragists, and working-class voters demanding action on their economic and social rights. This was not narrowly-conceived identity politics of separate struggles that pit one disadvantaged group against another but the politics of building broad fronts of the oppressed to stand together and fight for change.
Naoroji’s example also shows how powerful is precise, meticulously organised knowledge, and the significance of wedding knowledge to politics and movements for change. Education, research, and teaching were central to Naoroji’s life, and politics. A full professor at Elphinstone College in Bombay before departing for England, he served for a time as ‘professor of Gujerati’ at University College, London. And of all the awards and honours heaped on him over his lifetime, the one of which he was most proud was the title “professor”. He seemed to be that very combination of knowledge and action that Karl Marx might have been referring to when he noted that “philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point however is to change it”.
To change the world, Naoroji went to the very heart of world power at that time.
The House Commons, Imperial Parliament
The Manchester Guardian, in its July 26, 1892, edition, noted the political significance of Naoroji’s election to parliament: “If there is anything corresponding to a conquering power in India, it is in the House of Commons that its centre is to be found.” It also noted that one of India’s own sons would now speak for Indians to Britain and the world, and share “in the sovereignty of the Empire”.
Naoroji’s election dealt a severe blow to Conservative Prime Minister Lord Salisbury, who had controversially asserted that the country was “not ready to elect a black man”. Yet, in heavily working-class Central Finsbury, Naoroji won the seat with a majority of just five votes, earning the nickname “narrow-majority” from his critics. Working-class, liberal Finsbury was ready, but only just.
Given the rather easy resort nowadays among political scientists and politicians alike to complacently accept 19th century racism as the unchallengeable convention, with white racial superiority sanctified by ‘scientific’ research, the uproar against Salisbury across Britain was instructive. Against the undoubted racism of the time, there were also powerful forces for freedom for Ireland, votes for women, economic rights for workers, and a fair shake for the underdog.
Hence, the Newcastle Leader had cause to remind PM Salisbury that “by far the larger proportion of the British subjects are black men”, and that to condemn a man merely for his colour was reminiscent of the “very worst days” of slavery.
Naoroji blazed a trail that led to Indian independence
Naoroji had hardly landed in Liverpool (in 1855) to set up the first Indian business in Britain, when he felt moved to challenge the way British colonial rule drained the wealth of India, causing untold hardship and immiseration, and blocked the aspirations of the educated. He spoke thus, for example, before the East India Association on May 2, 1867, regarding what educated Indians expect from their British rulers, containing an implicit warning of rising discontent:
“The difficulties thrown in the way of according to the natives such reasonable share and voice in the administration of the country as they are able to take, are creating some uneasiness and distrust. The universities are sending out hundreds and will soon begin to send out thousands of educated natives. This body naturally increases in influence…”
Naoroji condemned “the deplorable drain [of economic wealth from India to England], besides the material exhaustion of India… All [the Europeans] effectually do is to eat the substance of India, material and moral, while living there, and when they go, they carry away all they have acquired… The thousands [of Indians] that are being sent out by the universities every year find themselves in a most anomalous position. There is no place for them in their motherland… What must be the inevitable consequence?”
Through Naoroji’s collaborations with British socialist Henry Hyndman, Naoroji’s drain theory made its way to Karl Marx, according to the Indian scholar’s biographer, Dinyar Patel. Hyndman had urged Marx to meet Naoroji because of his analysis of how British rule bled India. A few days later, Marx wrote to a Russian economist of British colonial rule as “a bleeding process with a vengeance,” as the empire “appropriated…more than the total sum of income of the 60 millions of agricultural and industrial labourers of India..”
By the 1890s, despite the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 (with Naoroji as a founding member), little had changed. As Pherozshan Mehta, a Naoroji ally, noted in 1892, it was time to bring the movement to Britain. Naoroji must advance the INC’s ‘policy of carrying the war, as it were, into the enemy’s country…’
The ‘war’, it turned out, was to be waged with petitions and leaflets, the pen and the word, not the sword. And Naoroji adopted the mantle of British imperial patriotism in order to educate and shift British opinion on the Indian empire’s ultra-exploitation and exclusion from the benefits of imperial wisdom.
In the House of Commons, at the heart of empire, Naoroji courageously “proposed measures such as free education and the extension of the Factory Acts, supported Home Rule for Ireland in 1892, and also wished to introduce reforms for India, particularly to the Indian Civil Service and legislative councils…” The Factory Acts aimed specifically at working conditions, health and safety, wages, the rights of women, and child workers, in Britain’s “dark Satanic mills”
Naoroji dropped demands for Indian ‘home rule’ in order to build an alliance with progressives and political elites at a time when most Britons knew little of how empire actually worked.
Naoroji and the Indian National Congress
Ironically, in a previous incarnation, Lord Salisbury, the PM who inadvertently made Naoroji famous throughout the UK, had been the Secretary of State for India (1866-67). In that capacity, he had done all he could to prevent Indian participation in the governance of British India itself, including in the Covenanted Civil Service.
In that regard, Salisbury was violating Britain’s self-declared policy since the 1830s, including the infamous words of the East India Company’s Thomas Babington Macauley. Macauley dismissed Indian culture and learning:
“It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected from all the books written in the Sanskrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the most paltry abridgement used at preparatory schools in England.”
On that basis, Macauley inaugurated a Western “civilising mission” through Anglicising Indians through schooling:
“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect. To that class we may leave it to refine the vernacular dialects of the country, to enrich those dialects with terms of science borrowed from the Western nomenclature, and to render them by degrees fit vehicles for conveying knowledge to the great mass of the population.”
The implementation of the Macauley Minute of 1835 came to haunt the British Raj. Decades later, as Naoroji noted, the pressure from educated and talented Indians was increasing to such an extent that many colonial officials feared a turn to greater radicalism than mere ‘home rule’. A ‘safety-valve’ became necessary to channel discontent, to incorporate educated Indians, and moderate their demands. In a roundabout way, the formation of the Indian National Congress in 1885 was fundamental to the process. In addition, British colonial officials feared that unemployed and discontented Indian intellectuals might provide the leadership of a mass revolutionary movement to overthrow British rule.
Hence, more or less in line with that view, and to hold the colonial line, Lord Dufferin (Viceroy to India) gave a qualified blessing to the INC, despite fearing the emergence of an alliance of educated Indians, elements of the Indian aristocracy, and radical Liberals in the British House of Commons.
“Carrying the war into the enemy’s country”
Hansard reported Naoroji’s maiden speech in parliament thus:
“After a hundred years of British administration—an administration that had been highly paid and praised— an administration consisting of the same class of men as occupied the two Front Benches, India had not progressed, and while England had progressed in wealth by leaps and bounds—from about £10 in the beginning of the century to £40 per head—India produced now only the wretched amount of £2 per head per annum. He appealed to the House, therefore, to carefully consider the case of India.”
More pragmatically, Hansard reports that “He [Naoroji] knew that Britain did not want India to suffer—he was sure that if the House knew how to remedy the evil they would do justice to India…” Naoroji was careful to maximise support for his positions in parliament and country, and kept his support for Indian ‘home rule’ private. He even promoted his motivation as driven by British patriotism.
In another parliamentary intervention, Naoroji criticised opium sales and taxes in India:
“..would this House understand the mischiefs under which India was suffering; then, and then only, would they know how it was that, after 100 years of the rule of the best administrators, and the most highly-paid administrators, India should be the poorest country in the world. He could adduce testimony from the beginning of the century down to the present time to show that there was nothing but poverty in India. That could not be satisfactory to England, who desired that India should appreciate British rule, though how that could be expected he could not understand, seeing that an income of £6,000,000 or £7,000,000 a year was made by poisoning another great people, and that taxes—the most cruel that had ever been conceived in the whole history of mankind, such as the heavy Salt Tax—were imposed. Such should not be the method of British administration, and such should not be the result of British rule. There was no reason why it should be so. If the existing errors and evils were discovered and grappled with, he had no doubt that India would bless the name of British rule.”
In 1893, Naoroji formed the Indian Parliamentary Party within the House of Commons to focus attention on Indian matters. The group went on to have 200 members by 1906. Naoroji was a member of the Royal Commission on Indian Expenditure in 1895. His main aim was to demonstrate that the British empire was draining the wealth of India to the tune of millions of pounds annually and had reduced the ‘jewel in the crown’ to utter desperation and poverty as a result. The “drain theory” of empire was eventually published in Naoroji’s book, Poverty and Un-British Rule in India (1901).
Sumita Mukherjee’s journal article notes:
“Naoroji and Bhownaggree [Britain’s second Asian MP] should not be forgotten or seen as anomalies of the late Victorian era. Although studies of Victorians and racism emphasize scientific racism, xenophobia, class and assimilation, Naoroji and Bhownaggree are clear examples of the range of racial attitudes in existence, and of the high regard many British people had for their Indian colony. Their election in predominantly working-class constituencies demonstrates that racism was not a prejudice held by all uneducated Britons. Moreover, racial prejudice was very apparent in those who were MPs and had power over the Empire..”
Indeed, as Dinyar Patel shows in his excellent biography of Naoroji, racism was stronger among the apparatchiks of the Liberal party and elite than among the working classes.
Naoroji’s Liberal opponents resorted to “England for the English” rhetoric in their desperation to thwart his campaign. “In their ability to single out and malign Naoroji with racial epithets,” Patel argues, “[Liberal] party officials in Central Finsbury gave stiff competition to the Conservative prime minister”. Where elites across the Liberal-Conservative spectrum vied with each other to show how much of an ‘outsider’ or ‘foreigner’ Naoroji was, thousands of local workingmen “gathered on Clerkenwell Green to protest against.. [the racist anti-Naoroji clique].. and pass a resolution recognising Naoroji as the official Liberal candidate…”
The campaign to prevent Naoroji’s Liberal candidacy was ferocious as rivals sought to play the race card with party leaders and voters alike. Yet, interestingly, such moves drew vociferous criticism at mass meetings in the constituency, with the racists shouted down by local residents.
Nevertheless, Naoroji showed great tenacity and determination in his bid to secure the nomination. “They think they can keep down the mild Hindoo,” he told a British friend. “I will show them.” And he proceeded to mobilise his numerous India-based allies to pepper the British press with articles on Naoroji as the voice of India’s teeming millions, deserving of representation in the Imperial parliament. And Central Finsbury’s Liberal electors lapped up the idea that their candidate for parliament would bring “the blessings.. [of] 250,000,000 [people of] India..”
Naoroji’s opponents were forced to admit that his claim to represent an entire sub-continent was his “trump card”. Naoroji’s Indian allies’ media blitz reached all the way to William Gladstone, the Liberal Party leader.
Also Read: At Last, a Biography of India’s Grand Old Man
To commemorate Naoroji is to write an inclusive, more complex history
Naoroji’s is a remarkable story and one that is largely forgotten. Yet, there is so much to be learned about British society and politics, India, the empire, and the rise of the voices and movements of the colonised and humiliated. In short, Naoroji’s is a story of the making of the modern world with all its twists and turns, and ambiguities. In our polarised times, we may yet appreciate by examples such as Naoroji that passion, cold analysis, and deft political strategies of alliance-building across divides, may yet offer pathways to progress.
Naoroji taught Gujerati literature at University College London, and represented the working-class constituency in which City, University of London, is located. The original mission of the institute that developed over a century into City was “the promotion of the industrial skill, general knowledge, health and well-being of young men and women belonging to the poorer classes”. The University’s motto is “to serve mankind”.
He ventured into the imperial lion’s den, brought the struggle for justice and dignity to the very core of the Raj. The empire was not something that happened somewhere “out there”; its true power, its very beating heart, centred in the Imperial Parliament in London.
The core and periphery of world power were, and are, after all, indivisible. As are our stories.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank). He is a columnist at The Wire. His twitter handle is @USEmpire.
By Professor Inderjeet Parmar & Dr Atul Bhardwaj
This op-ed was originalyl published on Economic and Political Weekly
As Donald Trump faces the possibility of a catastrophic electoral defeat in November 2020, he has constructed an enemy that can be constantly vilified, and whose alleged intentions and actions to end American primacy may generate fear psychosis among American voters and also among as many of his international allies he can persuade or coerce. Yet, his strategy may backfire as domestic uprisings against police racism and brutality against peaceful protestors, combined with a pandemic reaching deep into Trump’s own political heartlands, continue to demolish his credibility. And the levels of economic interdependence between the United States (US) and China, between American farmers and Chinese consumers, not to mention with Asian and other major economies, indicate that whatever security concerns animate strategy, China is too economically significant to be permanently alienated.
Other powers might fear China’s military and technological strength, but they look with hungry eyes at the economic opportunity it represents, especially in recovering from the pandemic-induced global crisis.
This is not, therefore, a new version of the US-Soviet Union Cold War. There is no existential threat from China to the US and the West, no division of the world into rival ideological camps, and no competing military blocs. This is a straightforward geopolitical competition underpinned by economic interdependence.
Trump needs a foreign enemy, and hence is rallying a broad US elite that distrusts his motives regarding China. Democrats do not believe that Trump represents US national interests; his only interest being in political survival and cronies’ financial interests. Yet, even cronies like Sheldon Adelson have significant interests in China’s casinos (Cuccinello 2019).
The US foreign policy establishment believes Trump has alienated allies like the European Union, weakened America’s hand in competing with China, and has brought US power into disrepute across the world. They have a more nuanced view of China, as a security concern and economic opportunity and potential future (junior) partner or “responsible stakeholder,” that is, as a subordinate to US hegemonic strategies. The scenario today is more Karl Kautsky than Vladimir Lenin, with inter-capitalist class shared interests with sharp competition, even tension and turbulence, rather than inevitable inter-imperial warfare (Parmar 2019; Huo and Parmar 2019).
Great Power Competition
The war on terror is definitely over, which has been the case since Barack Obama–Hillary Clinton’s pivot to Asia a decade ago. Great power rivalry is back on the agenda, embedded in the 2017 National Security Strategy. And the Communist Party of China (CCP) and President Xi Jinping are the villains of the piece.
While outrightly condemning the CCP and regime, the strategy claims to support the Chinese people. According to the White House, “The US has a deep and abiding respect for the Chinese people … We do not seek to contain China’s development, nor do we wish to disengage from the Chinese people” (White House 2020: 1). Yet, the Trump administration has threatened to sanction all 90 million members of the CCP and their families—which could amount to almost a quarter of China’s population.
Trump is not, however, fundamentally different from the foreign policy elite. His levels of personal and political desperation, however, threaten the broader US elite programme of bringing China to heel. He has launched a desperate multipronged propaganda campaign against the CCP, blaming it for almost all evils:
economic espionage, data, and monetary theft and illegal political activities, using bribery and blackmail to influence US policy and last but not the least for being “engaged in a whole-of-state effort to become the world’s only superpower by any means necessary.” (BBC 2020)
The Trump administration’s strategy of demonising China is succeeding, its propaganda is being promoted by the GOP (the Republican Party) as an effort to advance a higher cause. And members of Congress are busy vying with each other to be the top China hawk. On the other hand, the Chinese media blitzkrieg, in defence of its own actions, is falling flat. Xi’s anger and humiliation are spilling over in violence on Himalayan borders, in the South China Sea, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.
The Pentagon has identified 20 Chinese commercial firms operating in the US, branding them proxies of the People’s Liberation Army. In an open letter to Trump, Brian Kennedy, president of Committee on the Present Danger: China (CPDC) alleges, “under Beijing’s intelligence statutes, all PRC companies and nationals are required to conduct espionage” (Kennedy 2020). Hard evidence, as ever, appears unnecessary when it comes to the vilification of any competitor state that may appear to have future potential to challenge the world’s self-declared hegemonic power.
Besides elections, the second driver of Trump’s China policy is the American problem with the 5G technology that the Chinese company Huawei has unleashed globally.
The 5G Problem
Nobody understands penetration of sovereignty—through soft and hard power—better than the US. It has adroitly used its imperial skills to advance the “American century” since 1945. For the first time in decades, US hegemony is confronted by a potentially comprehensive counter-hegemonic force. But the China challenge is greater than the Soviet strategy of militarily irritation. Far more significantly, China is marching ahead in the technological sphere.
For more than three decades, American corporations and Wall Street elites have happily coexisted with and helped to build Chinese capitalism, including the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). So what is so different now? Why is the US feeling so threatened by one Chinese company namely Huawei?
The basic problem is that Huawei has introduced 5G technology to the world, which revolutionises network speeds and ushers in the era of the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies. This is a great leap forward by the Chinese that has caused frenzy among Americans, who are deluded into believing that they will remain technologically superior to all others for posterity. The American fear is that the Chinese 5G will colonise or subordinate them.
To make matters worse, the consortium of US companies—Microsoft, Dell, and others—are still struggling to come up with an effective counter to Huawei’s 5G products. According to Foreign Policy magazine, Huawei is way ahead of other competitors in the field. Huawei 4G infrastructure is already being used by 170 countries and the “majority of countries in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Latin America have begun working with Huawei to develop their 5G networks” (Foreign Policy 2020).
To the US foreign policy elite, and their representatives in the US Congress, it seems they are losing to the Chinese, and lagging so far behind that catching up may become impossible. The US failure to lead the technological revolution is being watched by the world.
It is not that Washington has surrendered. The “Sputnik moment” in the late 1950s triggered the Dwight Eisenhower administration to create the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) to avoid future technological surprises. Likewise, there is bipartisan consensus among the lawmakers in Washington that tens of billions of dollars should be invested in “America’s semiconductor industry over the next 5 to 10 years to help the US retain an edge over Beijing” (Swanson and Clark 2020).
The net result is that 5G is a game-changing technological issue with geopolitical ramifications. Washington is worried that it is losing its grip over the world. In May 2019, Trump signed an executive order to ban Huawei from accessing US information and communications technology and services supply chain (Doffman 2019).
The Ultra Hawkish Think Tank
At the core of the anti-Huawei campaign is the recently-resurrected and retooled CPDC, which has 60 members from varied backgrounds, government, non-government and international actors. According to an ongoing study of the CPDC by the authors of this article, more than 40% of the committee members are former military and intelligence officers.
The three most prominent members of the CPDC team are its president Brian T Kennedy, vice president Frank Gaffney, and Steven Bannon, the former White House strategist. Kennedy is former president of the Claremont Institute, a California-based conservative think tank. The essay titled “The Flight 93 Election,”1 published in the Claremont Review of Books played a crucial role in making Trump acceptable to conservatives. Kennedy is also the president of the American Strategy Group2 that works on “the existential threats to the US and western civilisation presented by the Islamic world, Russia, China, and the loss of America’s founding principles.”
The vice president of CPDC, Frank Gaffney, is the executive chairman of Center for Security Policy (CSP), an anti-Islamic think tank that advocates hawkish attitude towards Syria and Iran. Bannon, a former navy officer and hedge fund manager, is one of the most active members on the international stage, playing an important role in forging an international right-wing movement and in convincing right-wing parties across the world about the supposed dangers posed by the CCP. In a recent statement, Bannon declared that the Trump administration has a war plan against China, including aiding India on the borders of “Chinese-occupied Tibet” (Jha 2020).
The CPDC is influential with direct reach to the White House. It has all the elements to show that it is a part of the deep state that runs the US and its foreign policy.
Other prominent CPDC members are James Fanell, former US navy captain and director of Intelligence and Information Operations, US Pacific Fleet, and R James Woolsey, former Central Intelligence Agency director and venture capitalist. Rod Martin is recognised as one of the leading experts on the linkages between technology and politics. Martin was senior advisor to Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal. Thiel is an important pillar of conservatism in the Silicon Valley, and major Trump backer.
The committee has five Chinese dissidents, including Xiaoxu ‘’Sean’’ Lin, who works for the US Army as a microbiologist, specialising in viral diseases. He claims to be a survivor from the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in Beijing and a victim of persecution by Chinese authorities for following Falun Gong, a religious cult. An active networker and broadcaster, he founded WQER-LP community public radio and the Sound of Hope Radio Network, a Chinese radio network in America.
CPDC, the hotbed of American conservatives, believes that Henry Kissinger was one of the main architects of American decline, and there is a fundamental need to steer the foreign policy away from old shibboleths.
Kissinger Contra Americanism
Trump is now the self-styled “Wartime President” who is fighting an “invisible enemy,” which he and his administration have identified as the “China virus” or “Kung Flu.” Trump’s style of diplomacy based on name-calling and insulting the adversary, according to Kishore Mahbubani (2020), lacks what George Kennan had identified as “spiritual vitality.” This lack comes from the fact that paleo-conservatives who deride classical conservatism believe that blatant Islamophobia and Sinophobia provide the much-needed moral clarity to understand that American civilisation is worth defending. This ideological stance considers Trump’s aversion to political correctness as an indispensable qualification for a commander-in-chief.
Inspired by CPDC and other conservative think tanks in May this year, the White House released a report titled, “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” enunciating its China strategy. The report highlights the obduracy of the CCP to resist any form of convergence with the free and open order, a euphemism for the US empire. The report laments that the CCP’s desire to shape the international order has “compelled the US to adopt a competitive strategy, guided by a return to principled realism” (White House 2020: 7). The phrase is considered to be the bedrock of Trump’s foreign policy doctrine since its use in National Security Strategy, 2017.
In an article by Stephen B Young, available on the website of CPDC, “principled realism” is explained as “principle as an inspiration for action and realism as a constraint.” The article is critical of Kissingerian realism, which it considers unprincipled and “idolatry” because it is rooted in the appeasement of the powerful and devoid of values and idealism. Kissinger’s realism “justifies cronyism—the sucking-up to those with power, celebrity, and money” (Young 2020).
Kissinger’s crimes include détente with the Soviet Union and cultivation of Deng Xiaoping after Mao Zedong. Trump’s China policy is not interested in offering Beijing détente nor any cultural and economic carrot because it does not consider them capable of constraining Chinese expansion and undermining its authoritarianism. Trump’s foreign policy self-servingly claims that the CCP is inherently aggressive. Hence, China must be placed under perpetual pressure. American power is reasserting itself and is pitching for a regime change in China.
Trump’s foreign policy wants sovereignty as the lynchpin of the world order. The fact, however, is that strong nation states in the age of 5G and digital currencies is a contradiction in terms. Yet, anxieties over global supremacy in security terms, and the enticing reality and prospect of economic interdependence remain the source of global tensions and schizophrenia, exacerbated by Trump’s political desperation to remain in the White House until 2024.
Atul Bhardwaj (email@example.com) is an honorary research fellow at the Department of International Politics, City, University of London. Inderjeet Parmar (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches international politics at City, University of London, LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank), and is visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. Member of the advisory board of INCT-INEU (Brazil’s National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States).
1 See the paper here: https://claremontreviewofbooks.com/digital/the-flight-93-election/.
2 For more details, see https://www.amstrategy.org.
BBC (2020): “FBI Director: China Is ‘Greatest Threat’ to US,” 8 July, viewed on 10 July, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-53329755.
Cuccinello, Hayley C (2019): “Trump Megadonor Sheldon Adelson Got $1.2 Billion Richer This Week, In Part Thanks to a Trump Tweet,” Forbes, viewed on 12 June 2020, https://www.forbes.com/sites/hayleycuccinello/2019/12/14/sheldon-adelson-trump -macau/#24ef79ad21c7.
Doffman, Zak (2019): “Trump Signs Executive Order That Will Lead To US Ban On Huawei,” Forbes, 15 May, https://www.forbes.com/sites/zakdoffman/2019/05/15/trump-expected-to-sig....
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By Professor Inderjeet Parmar and Imran Choudhury
This op-ed was originally published on The Conversation
US corporations including Walmart, Nike and Sony Music pledged up to US$450 million for social and racial justice causes in the wake of the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The sudden outbreak of brand activism among major corporations in recent months is likely to be related to surveys which suggest consumers shift spending according to the political and social stands that businesses take. But this raises significant concerns in the wake of a longer pattern of philanthropy through foundations attached to American corporate wealth that has focused on racial equality and civil rights causes.
Black Lives Matter emerged in 2013 but gained national attention from 2016 as the effective face of the Movement for Black Lives. It has expanded to local chapters across the US, Canada and the UK. It has become the leading radical organisation for structural change to eradicate racial injustice and police brutality, reform criminal justice and protect voting rights. It has also led calls to defund the police, which have grown stronger since Floyd’s killing in May.
Among the Black Lives Matter movement’s earliest and most generous benefactors in 2016 was the Ford Foundation, one of America’s largest corporate foundations and the legacy of the industrial titan Henry Ford. Alongside the Ford Foundation – which is a separate entity to the Ford Motor Company – the Black Lives Matter movement received major grants from Borealis Philanthropy and the Open Society Foundations.
But as the historian Karen Ferguson argued in the wake of Ford’s donation, the foundation’s understanding of the roots of police violence differed strikingly from that of Black Lives Matter. She argues that Ford’s communication about its support actually sent a problematic “all lives matter” message.
Civil rights and identity politicsSuch grants from foundations established by large corporates fit into a longer history in which radical social movements have been co-opted and channelled into directions more acceptable to the political and economic status quo.
Research has shown that fear among corporate elites of radical organisations during the civil rights and black power movements of the 1960s led to an increase in corporate donations and foundation grants to more moderate black organisations, as well as federal spending on diversity programmes.
Some have argued that these elite-funded programmes actually tend to strengthen the US establishment and dampen radicalism. This happens through a shift from demands for structural reform to more incremental change within the existing political and economic framework. This is a way to bring the outsider into the system, and it limits the extent of change. Such programmes, it’s argued, co-opt some leaders by promoting them in the media, or among established political parties, or provide them with a perch in non-profit organisations. Key minority leaders become institutionalised and so operate from within establishment political structures – rather than from beyond them.
Research has shown how minority groups that integrate and assimilate into dominant, mainstream institutions lose more and more of their minority cultural characteristics and imbibe dominant cultural values and behaviours, limiting their reformist ambitions. This leaves the deeper sources of oppression within American society largely untouched. The reinterpretation of black power into policies backing black capitalism is an excellent example of this process.
Creating a New Elite
Philanthropic foundations took an early interest in the “race question” in the years after the second world war. This was mainly due to the imperatives of cold war competition, and the anti-racist and anti-colonial appeal the the Soviet Union and China had for newly independent states in Asia and Africa.
But it was during the 1960s when the Ford Foundation, under the leadership of McGeorge Bundy, former national security adviser to presidents Kennedy and Johnson, addressed key issues affecting the African-American community. The foundation created programmes and donated money to civil rights and black power groups. However, these were seen by scholars and critics to be part of the liberal-elite plan to domesticate the more radical elements or marginalise the radicals by promoting and funding “moderates”.
Ford and other foundations, such as the Rockefeller Foundation, envisioned racial inequality as resolvable through the creation of a new African American and Latino elite. The plan was that this new elite would assimilate the values and align with the mainstream politics of dominant American liberal and conservative elites. They would then advocate change within the boundaries of a capitalist political economy and mainstream party politics. President Richard Nixon, therefore, promoted black capitalism as part of that broader strategy.
The fatal flaw, however, was that such a strategy would go on to improve the lives of only a small percentage of African Americans, leaving the majority behind. It also helped fuel a politics around blaming poorer African Americans as a way to explain their “failures”.
Yet, the assimilationist strategy’s greatest success was the presidency of Barack Obama, a mere half-century after the assassination of Martin Luther King. In a grim reminder of the myth of a “post-racial America”, the Black Lives Matter movement began life during Obama’s second term. This demonstrated both the successes of the assimilationst strategy and its shallow foundations. It has produced a black elite incorporated into the dominant political order. Yet, it has failed to eliminate the stigma of race, or to break down the political and class structures that still perpetuate racial inequality.
Ford’s backing for Black Lives Matter has drawn flak from the political right, who claim the foundation is funding what they argue is a radical leftist group. Yet, the liberal-capitalist credentials of the current president of the Ford Foundation, Darren Walker, an African-American, could hardly be more stark.
In a 2015 interview with Bloomberg, Walker upheld the need for solving inequality by improving capitalism, rather than challenging corporate power itself with an alternative system of government ownership or regulation. He was recently appointed to the board of a New York-listed payments company and on June 19, rang the bell at the New York Stock Exchange to mark the end of slavery in 1865. This indicates an attachment to the type of corporate capitalism that has been the driver of racial and class inequality in America.
The Black Lives Matter movement has certainly caught the public imagination. But history urges us to be cautious about the prospects of deep-seated radical change via movements whose finances are so closely tied up with America’s influential corporate foundations.
The threat to the US's positions in Latin America appears to lie in the policies pursued by the Trump administration itself.
As we approach the US presidential election in November 2020, amidst a global pandemic that President Donald Trump has seriously mishandled, and angry national and worldwide demonstrations in the wake of the racist police killing of George Floyd, America’s position and prestige has taken a major hit.
If Trump is unpopular at home, how is he faring in what has historically been seen by US elites as ‘Uncle Sam’s backyard’? What effects have Trump’s references to Mexicans as “criminals” and “rapists”, and Latin Americans more generally as vectors of disease, had on the US’s standing in the region? And has the US lost ground in the so-called great geopolitical game that so many have declared is in full swing? Has China really taken over Latin America, made the region “dependent” on its largesse, as US elites, without irony, proclaim?
After all is said and done, the biggest threat to US positions in the Latin American and Caribbean region may be the United States itself, and not any external powers. The golden opportunity for the US to demonstrate global and regional leadership and enhance its soft power – brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic which originated in China – has been squandered. China has not really won this particular round of the ‘soft power war’, it has been handed the victory largely due to the Trump administration’s botched, divisive and anti-expertise-based approach to combating the coronavirus at home, and its ‘America First’ attitude internationally, including defunding and withdrawing from the World Health Organisation (WHO) in the very middle of the crisis.
Also Read: Breaking Down the China-US Tussle for Global Order Amid COVID-19
Talking up a China threat
According to Professor R. Evan Ellis, a specialist on Latin America at the US Army War College, there is no military threat to US interests in the region. Indeed, the threat has been absent for decades. “Since the end of the Cold War, no US competitor has positioned forces in Latin America or the Caribbean so as to pose a credible threat to the US homeland.”
“Nonetheless,” Ellis continues, “in the event of a global conflict with a rival such as the PRC, the latter could employ its commercial investments in the region, in fields such as shipping, ports, banking, electronics, and manufacturing to project and sustain intelligence agents and other operatives in Latin America” (emphasis added).
Past and present SOUTHCOM commanders are understandably hawkish. Admiral Kurt Tidd, who led SOUTHCOM from 2016 to 2018, reported to the US Senate that “China’s commercial and diplomatic advances move it closer to its larger strategic goal of reshaping global economic and governance architectures.”
SOUTHCOM’s current head, Commander Craig Faller, warns of so-called Chinese ‘dollar diplomacy’, Russia’s military and propaganda footprint, and Russian and Cuban assistance to Venezuela, viewing Cuba as “a gateway for Russia’s access to the Western Hemisphere.”
Yet, there is a strong possibility that a defense department review may yet reduce SOUTHCOM’s $1.2 billion budget. It would appear that even the Trump administration isn’t fully buying the China threat in the region.
US strategic thinkers are protecting their turf, mentally preparing for a possible future war with China, and building up a China-threat narrative to justify their military presence and active interference in the region. And the anti-China narrative is politically functional in an election year.
Naked self-interest, not hegemony, drives US policy
Despite declarations of defending democracy and human rights in Latin America, US policy under President Trump marches to a different drum: naked self-interest. The Trump administration’s diktat has replaced the idea of leadership, coercion replaced hegemony, bilateralism for multilateralism, and illiberal-authoritarianism stands instead of liberal internationalism. Trump, however, offers a continuation of American strategy and coercive methods, not a radical departure. But he has forcefully backed the most right-wing leaders and regimes. The US has developed and promoted an axis of right-wing authoritarianism throughout the western hemisphere, reflecting the kind of US Trump favours – plutocratic rule underpinned by white supremacy and police power. The racist politics of the “Yellow Peril” – the Chinese ‘threat’ – hover over the US’s regional and international strategies. But, despite remaining the major great power in the region, US legitimacy is being eroded by the very coercive strategies it pursues.
Nevertheless, the US State Department has provided over $112 million in aid to Latin America to fight the coronavirus. Yet, President Trump’s decision to pull funding from the WHO, the Pan-American Health Organisation, (and to leave the Trans-Pacific Partnership that also included Chile, Mexico and Peru), speaks volumes. It demonstrates a commitment to reshaping international and regional relations to maximise US ‘zero-sum’ returns and attempt to maintain a competitive edge over a non-existent threat from China.
But in the process, the US is increasingly alienating international and Latin American public opinion, and unintentionally driving key states into the arms of China and Russia.
Coercive bilateralism – Trump’s new normal
Trump’s illiberal internationalism is partly reflected by US maintenance of bilateral deals such as Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), and multilateral endeavours over groupings of weaker states that strongly favour US firms, such as The Dominican Republic-Central American FTA (CAFTA-DR). Trump has also attempted to secure a fresh trade deal with Brazil, which could seriously undermine the Mercosur market which has acted as an impediment to signing such agreements without permission from other members. The US has taken an especially hard-line approach to its perceived enemies. Mirroring President George W. Bush’s ‘axis of evil’, three regional states have been targeted by the US as a “Troika of Tyranny” – namely Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. Each has relations with other states deemed threats to US national security, including China, Russia, and more spuriously, Iran.
Also Read: From Coolies to Patrons and Partners: The Chinese Paradigm Shift in Latin America
To complicate such matters, Donald Trump has blamed the COVID-19 crisis on China, as the Asian powerhouse woos Latin American statesman through ‘medical diplomacy’. The loss of American soft power in Latin America only fuels fears of China. The recently-resurrected hawkish Committee on the Present Danger: China (CPDC), led by Trump’s 2016 election campaign CEO and erstwhile White House chief of strategy, Stephen Bannon, reflects a growing focus on the Chinese ‘threat’ as a staple of US electoral politics. But there is hardly a mention on the CPDC’s website of any threat from China with regard to Latin America.
Yet, Latin American relations with (the US’s white allies in) the European Union are perceived as less of a threat to the US, despite accounting for 55% of all FDI inflows in the region, compared to the US’s 20%, and China’s paltry 1.1%, according to 2017 UN estimates.
The threat to the US’s positions in Latin America, however, appears to lie in the policies pursued by the Trump administration itself. Trump has barred crucial medical supplies due for Latin America, cut aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, over his anti-immigration policies, and is considering a full travel ban on the region due to COVID-19. He is actively weaponising US power. While Congress has managed to act as a check on Trump’s power, such as by increasing aid to the region, the overall thrust of US realpolitik is clear.
China’s regional influence is real but…
Although Latin American states only comprised 1.1% of Chinese F.D.I. in 2017, China sees the area as a huge reservoir of natural resources for its 1.4 billion population, investing largely in energy, agriculture, mining and infrastructure projects. To add to this, Chinese investments in the region tally 4th behind the US, the EU, and Canada, it has been Brazil’s largest trading partner since 2008, when it overtook the US, more firmly embedding it in the region.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative has recruited 19 states in Latin America and the Caribbean, ensuring billions of dollars of investment. The region has therefore increased exports to China during the COVID-19 Crisis, especially Brazilian sugar and soy, and Argentine beef. China likewise has helped provide medical equipment, enhancing its soft power. This adds to the soft power of China’s 41 regional Confucius centres.
China’s regional diplomacy has, however, earned it observer status at the Organisation of American States, membership of the Inter-American Development Bank and the Caribbean Development Bank, and an active role in the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. Recently, China has provided medical assistance to battle COVID-19. China has also joined a regional forum that excludes the US and Canada – the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC). The forum states agreed to a five-year cooperation plan involving security, trade, investment, finance, infrastructure, energy, agriculture, science, and people-to-people exchanges. And at least 19 regional states are participating in the Belt and Road Initiative.
Meanwhile, Russia is perceived to undermine US leadership through enhancing energy, trade, arms transfers, and anti-drug arrangements in the region. Russian relationships in Latin America were viewed as early as 2015 as a return to Cold War tactics by John Kelly, the-then head of US SOUTHCOM. Nevertheless, Russian influence remains limited.
On the other hand, US military power in the region is unparalleled – it has 76 military bases in the Latin America and Caribbean region, as well as the 4th US naval fleet. Colombia’s military is increasingly close to NATO, while US SOUTHCOM works in close conjunction with the Brazilian military. Yet, the over 50 port agreements China’s negotiated in the region, and its being the US’s largest and Latin America’s second biggest trading partner, while the reach of its Belt and Road Initiative expands to Argentina, is raising eyebrows in the US. Yet, China has no naval, air or military bases in the region.
Also Read: US Navy: Moving Forward by Going Back to Buccaneering?
Venezuela – maximum pressure campaign intensified
In echoes of President Richard Nixon’s instructions to the CIA regarding Chile in the early 1970s, Trump’s strategy is to make Venezuela’s economy ‘scream’. Trump placed a bounty on President Maduro’s head on narco-terrorism charges and, more recently, backed mercenaries’ failed attempt to overthrow the Venezuelan government. America has imposed sanctions on Venezuela’s imports and exports, has confiscated their foreign currency deposits, assets and gold reserves, and prevented IMF loans in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis.
But China has managed to fill some of Venezuela’s funding gaps. 40% of China’s regional loans, often tied in with oil bartering, now head to beleaguered Venezuela. China also supports Venezuela on satellite projects, infrastructure and mining research. The Asian powerhouse has furthermore helped Venezuela gain a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council. Yet, the dire state of its economy, especially impacted by long-term US sanctions, and the collapse of oil prices, has pushed over 90% of Venezuelans into poverty.
The Brazilian dilemma – a Trumpist president, China’s largest trading partner
Brazil’s pro-Trump President Jair Bolsonaro, sometimes referred to as “Trump of the Tropics”, has threatened to leave the WHO, while his son blames China for the COVID-19 crisis. Brazil also voted with the US against a UN General Assembly resolution denouncing the US embargo against Cuba. Brazil recently cancelled a BRICS Plus meeting which had included other regional members who refused recognition of Juan Guaido as president of Venezuela.
But while ideology, politics and diplomacy demand friendship with Trump, pragmatism and Brazilian big business demand a strong economic relationship with China. Brazil’s domestic economy is very much intertwined with China’s and considerable internal pressures remain for Brazil not to break such relations so as not to impact agricultural and mining exports and its ongoing BRICS relationship.
US standing in Brazil, and the rest of Latin America, is at rock bottom. Prior to the pandemic, President Trump had slashed aid to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras by almost 33% of the amount allotted by Obama in 2016. An additional $3 billion decrease in international global health programmes. Of the $73 million in pandemic aid indicated in the US State Department’s recent announcements a large proportion is existing funding redirected from other programmes. Finally, Brazil’s health minister recently accused the US of hijacking shipments of medical equipment and supplies Brazil had purchased from China.
Yet, Brazil is second only to the US for the number of coronavirus cases and deaths. Last week, it registered over 41,000 deaths, as some projections suggest that the death toll could be over 140,000 by August 2020.
The regional economic effects of the pandemic have been devastating. Prior to the crisis, the IMF had projected a 1.6% regional economic growth rate in 2020. This has now been set to a contraction of 5.2%. Meanwhile, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean predicts around 29 million people in the region will sink into poverty this year.
According to the Pew Research Center’s global attitudes survey of early 2020, only 28% of Brazilians expressed confidence in the US to “do the right thing” in world affairs; this dropped to just 22% in Argentina. Another Pew survey showed a net disapproval rating of President Trump of 80% among Brazilians.
Brazil is also Russia’s largest trading partner in the region, importing 90% of Brazilian pork exports, with overall trade totalling $4.3 billion, in 2017. Russia has supplied weapons and technological expertise to Brazil and worked on a variety of sea, air, space and land defence projects, as well as helping Brazil improve its cyber-security capabilities. Russia has also contributed oil after regional suppliers struggled to meet their demands.
There are good reasons for Latin American and Brazilian pragmatism in regard to their superpower to the North.
Despite antagonisms, President Bolsonaro has managed to successfully balance between power-brokers that offer starkly alternative foreign policy approaches to Latin America.
In contrast to China, overall Russian investment in Latin America over the years has been relatively minimal and trade with the region remains infinitesimal compared to the United States. It is Russian encroachment into military affairs and Chinese acquisition of firms in the region that appears to be the largest perceived threats to US supremacy in Latin America. The Covid-19 Crisis has heightened such relationships through advancements in soft power for US rivals.
But the threats to US interests are largely constructed. They mainly boil down to “China is a lot more competitive than it used to be and we don’t like it.” The region’s openness to business, the persistence of regimes which the US loathes, and a fear of possible future geopolitical rivalries, are fuelling American anxieties of decline, and justifying the greater weaponization of US power.
The US sees the region through a security lens only, and has handed China a small, but qualified, victory in the soft power wars.
Daniel Taylor is an independent researcher and scholar of US-Latin American relations, and Editor and Researcher at the Elite Power Investigation Centre. Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, a visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank), and visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.
Commerce-raiding or attacking merchant ships using non-state actors is now being reintroduced into the naval lexicon as the best way to negate Chinese maritime power.
The Trump administration’s Cold War-style “whole-of-society” approach to a constructed “China threat” appears to know no bounds. Having weaponised trade through tariffs, defunded and withdrawn from the “China-centred” World Health Organization, and threatened China with sanctions over its new national security law in Hong Kong, some leading naval analysts are mulling a return to old-fashioned piracy on the high seas to restore order. That is, to put China in its place, by licensing privateers to plunder China’s massive merchant marine.
China, it seems, is the only question in US and world politics today so far as the Trump administration and its most vocal cheerleaders are concerned. While the ‘rise of China’ has concerned previous administrations of both parties, the Trump administration’s obsession with the matter is palpable, especially in an election year in which over 100,000 Americans have died because of the coronavirus, over 40 million rendered unemployed and nationwide protests against police violence are taking place.
Trump is presiding over what increasingly appears to be an illegitimate, failing state, whose moral authority is sinking and whose leadership and institutions have been deconstructed by design over decades.
A Cold War type existential external threat is being conjured up by the Trump administration and its hawkish allies such as Frank Gaffney and Stephen Bannon’s recently-resurrected “Committee on the Present Danger: China”. This is to distract attention from glaring problems and crises that are homegrown and rooted in a failing political-economic model that places corporate interests and profit-making front and centre. In administration policy briefs and documents, this is frequently referred to as “protecting a free and open rules-based international order” against China’s malign influence.
There is no hint of irony in this oft-repeated mantra, even as the Trump administration itself systematically undermines international institutions and international law.
America’s naval-gazing paranoia
The US Navy has ruled the waves, and waived the rules, since the Second World War. No other power came anywhere close to challenging it. But the Chinese miracle has catapulted its naval forces, by some, albeit crude, measures, to international status.
Paradoxically, continental China is now a significant maritime power, with more than 300 warships and a merchant fleet of over 4,000 vessels. In sharp contrast, the US Navy force levels are stuck at 295 warships, while only 246 merchant ships fly the US flag. The Chinese Navy has more ships, or hulls, than the navies of the UK, India, Germany and Spain, combined.
Yet, mere hulls do not tell the whole story. The US navy retains fundamental advantages over China’s. In sheer tonnage, the US force is three times greater. The US has 11 nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, China’s carrier strength is two, both conventionally powered. The US’s are globally deployed, while China’s is largely for coastal defence operations. It is decades away from coming close to challenging the US on the high seas.
Threat inflation justifies action
America, the sole sea-faring world superpower, appears to be indulging in one of its regular bouts of hand-wringing, even paranoia, over its relative decline and what to do about it. The stress is apparent in ongoing debates in US elite naval circles, where some strategists suggest that the best way to negate China’s maritime strength is to attack its merchant ships at sea using non-state actors. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a call for open piracy, a legally-tenuous solution to face a purportedly enormous threat which should “limit the salience of law”. Decoded, it means international law may be set aside when the US says so.
The very viability of the century-old US naval strategy of maintaining order at sea, the “freedom of the seas”, protecting the sea lanes of communication for trade to flourish, is being questioned. Commerce-raiding on the high seas – a strategy dismissed by top US naval strategists like Alfred Thayer Mahan and Julian Corbett – is being reintroduced into the naval lexicon. The naval agenda would appear to be shifting in line with the US’s totalised approach to rolling back and subordinating China’s great power status.
Guerrilla warfare on the high seas
This revisionism in naval thought rests on the ‘strategy of the weak’, starkly expressed in two articles published in the April issue of Proceedings, the US Naval Institute’s monthly magazine, whose “Vision” is to give a “voice to those who seek the finest [US] Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard”. It is the publication of record of the naval-military establishment, having served its active duty and retired readers since 1874. The magazine articles conclude that the US Navy should be directly involved in the trade war with China by employing ‘licensed pirates’ to target and plunder Chinese merchant ships and their cargoes at sea.
In “Unleash the Privateers!”, Brandon Schwartz, a former media relations manager of the influential Washington, DC, think tank, the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), and retired Marine Corps Colonel Mark Cancian (senior adviser at CSIS), make a radical recommendation. Rather than using the more time-consuming but legal option of confronting Chinese defences using state-owned naval forces, Congress, which is constitutionally-mandated (by Article 1, section 8, clause 11) to issue ‘letters of marque’ to civilian ship-owners, should provide legal cover to capture, destroy, or loot, Chinese merchant ships and bring the booty home for sharing with the government.
Also read: India ‘Chased’ a Chinese Ship from its EEZ but US Intrusions Go Unchallenged
A “letter of marque” is effectively permission to any so authorised private ship to arm itself and to commit piracy. Irregular warfare, the weapon of the weak, is now being promoted as an increasingly attractive strategy of the world’s most powerful navy.
The second article’s title is so unconsciously Orwellian it may as well have been “Crime is Legal”. In fact, in “US Privateering Is Legal,” Schwartz adds that according to the 1977 Additional Protocol I (AP I) of the Geneva Conventions, privateers cannot be labelled “mercenaries” so long as they are a national of a party to a conflict or a resident of territory controlled by a party to the conflict.
Yet, The International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries 2001, as ratified by 35 countries (except the UK, US, Russia, and China), shows that there is hardly any distinction between a privateer and a mercenary. Both are motivated to indulge in hostilities by the desire for private gain. In addition, a ‘Letter of Marque” is a gross violation of the principles of natural justice under customary international law, besides being a violation of the international law on the use of force.
Privateering, however, is not limited to war-time, because it becomes applicable in situations when a particular part of an ocean is declared a hostile zone. For example, when sanctions are imposed on another state, such as Iran or North Korea, the surrounding waters become a war-zone where privateers can attack trade.
Recruiting privateers to overthrow governments is against international law under a 1977 UN Security Council resolution that rejects the recruitment of mercenaries with the objective of overthrowing governments of the member states of the United Nations.
Sailing boldly back into the past: The return of East India Company
The state-licensed raiding of commercial vessels was a popular business from 1689 to 1815. However, as international maritime trade picked up momentum, increased costs dissuaded merchants from arming their ships. But as “trade followed the flag”, and vice versa, privateering declined with the rise of the naval power of the British state. This was also the time when India witnessed a violent transfer of power from the East India Company to the Crown.
Privatised combat at sea and re-introducing guerrilla warfare on the high seas is a recipe for anarchy. However, despite past experience and legal constraints, private navies may gain legitimacy because the Anglo-American world appears set on their re-introduction. The ‘War on Terror’ – especially the Afghan and Iraq Wars – re-energised private military companies (PMCs) into the battlespace to provide logistical support and repair services for weapons. The elevation of PMCs to combat roles would complete the process of “mecenarisation” of the profession of arms.
America is not alone in privatising war. The Russians actively use the Wagner Private Military Company in Syria, a formally private entity with very close links with the state. But it provides sufficient distance to permit “plausible deniability” to President Putin.
Erik Prince, the founder of one the most notorious PMCs, Blackwater (rebranded as Academi) has openly proposed that the US government restructure the war in Afghanistan by withdrawing the US national military completely and handing over operations to his company. In an interview, Prince pointed to the East India Company during British colonisation as a source of emulation for US policy in Afghanistan. In an op-ed in USA Today, Prince wrote, “This approach would cost less than 20% of the $48 billion being spent in Afghanistan this year.”
Prince is the brother of the secretary of education, Betsy DeVos. Betsy is married to former Amway CEO Dick DeVos. The DeVos clan is one of the biggest sponsors of conservative think-tanks, which includes the American Enterprise Institute.
Prince’s pronouncements are to be taken seriously and one needs to look at the long-term consequences of such a move on world order. How the East India Company, a corporate entity acting under the guise of ‘delegated sovereignty’, metamorphosed into a colonising power forms an important part of India’s historical experience. And the explosion of violence that caused the Company’s demise should also be remembered.
American conservatives cherish a minimal state, promoting privatisation as and when required. The corporatisation of combat is the next big step towards handing over one of the key functions entrusted to the nation-state. The paleo-conservatives currently dominating the political-intellectual space in America seek to redeem such backward-looking ideas. J. Michael Waller, at the Center for Security Policy (CSP), for example, has proposed that Congress issue letters of marque and reprisal to private American entities to make the CCP (Communist Party of China) “pay” for the global pandemic, and share the (ensuing) wealth with the American taxpayer.
The CSP is an influential conservative think-tank led by Frank Gaffney. Gaffney along with Steve Bannon, former Trump 2016 election campaign CEO, and White House chief strategist, is leading the diplomatic onslaught against China through the Committee on the Present Danger – China (CPD-C) an ultra-hawkish advocacy group
The 21st century Trump political agenda, obsessed with China’s apparently overwhelming threat, is attempting to reinstate pre-modern practices to subordinate its rivals. It is driven as much by elections, as by ideology and nostalgia for a bygone age when China knew its place. It is rhetorically justified by claims to defend the rule of law and international order while its plans and actions challenge the order’s very essence.
Dr Atul Bhardwaj is a former naval officer and currently an honorary research fellow at the Department of International Politics, City, University of London. Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, a visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank), and visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. He is a columnist at The Wire and a member of the advisory board of INCT-INEU (Brazil’s National Institute of Science and Technology for Studies on the United States).
The killing of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police has sparked a furious response from all sections of American society. One poll showed that 55% of Americans believe police violence against the public is a major problem, while 58% support the view that racism is one of today’s biggest problems. Another poll showed two-thirds of Americans believe their country is heading in the wrong direction.
The US has been brought to this point by a long-term legitimacy crisis of the American elite, accompanied by rising levels of mass discontent and coercive state responses. The Floyd killing appears to be the spark that lit the fuse. The protests are fuelled by anger at other recent deaths of minorities from police brutality, and at the disproportionate effects of the coronavirus pandemic on African-Americans.
At the same time, America’s global image as world leader has further diminished as it adopts increasingly coercive attitudes to allies, competitors, rivals and international institutions, to protect its positions in the face of greater competition. This is a long-term shift that President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach has systematically intensified to previously unseen heights.
The European Union, using language normally reserved for undemocratic states, expressed grave concerns over Floyd’s killing and police response. It hoped “all the issues” related to the protests in the US “will be settled swiftly and in full respect for the rule of law and human rights”.
In the broadest sense, at home and internationally, the US is moving towards coercion and the exercise of hard power, and away from its previous strategies based on soft power and international leadership.
Racism and foreign policyAmerica, the land of the ethno-racial melting pot, is once again facing what the Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal optimistically called The American Dilemma in 1944. He explained this as the chasm between white American’s apparently deeply-held creed of equality – a fundamental attachment to democracy, freedom, equality and humanity as defining core values – and the country’s glaring levels of racial inequality.
In truth, Myrdal and his philanthropic sponsors at the Carnegie Corporation were imbued with the ideology of white supremacy and sought to find ways to preserve it on a global scale. In their view, the future of African-Americans lay in assimilation into white culture because black culture was pathological.
Yet, there was also US elite recognition, in the context of the anti-Nazi second world war, that scientific racism and American racial segregation were politically untenable. This was reinforced by the needs of wartime production and the imperatives of US-Soviet cold war competition to recruit allies at the UN from among newly independent, post-colonial states.
The position was clear: for the US to lead the world, not just the west, it had to deal with its domestic racial inequalities, or at least their most visible manifestations. This created permissive space for key Supreme Court decisions such as Brown vs Board of Education, which ended state-sanctioned racial segregation in schools. The permissive environment also helped create favourable conditions for the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.
To be a world leader after 1945, the US had to be seen to be anti-racist. The world was watching to see what kind of culture the fledgling American superpower really was.
From Obama to TrumpAspirations for a post-racial America soared with the election of President Barack Obama in 2008. America’s moral authority, so severely dented by the Iraq War, seemed to have been rescued.
But the longed-for post-racial society was exposed as a myth even before the end of Obama’s first term. Obama, known among pollsters as a moderate “no-demands black”, had largely circumvented issues of structural racism in a sea of soaring rhetoric about the American dream.
Despite two terms of office, poverty and inequality in general and especially for African-Americans increased to levels greater than prior to Obama’s election, as did police violence. Numerous deaths of African-Americans occurred at the hands of the police during his presidency, leading to major uprisings including in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014.
And it was in the wake of Obama’s electoral victories that Trump, who questioned the president’s very identity as an American, cut his political teeth as a leader of the “birther” movement, and won the 2016 presidential election on a platform of (white) America First.
The whole world is watchingAmerican media has long projected its news and culture to a fascinated global audience. And the world has been watching as Trump tries to remake American identity along even starker racial lines. Trump harnessed growing anxieties among white, mainly Republican, voters, about an emerging non-white majority in the US population, predicted by demographers to occur around 2044.
In foreign policy, Trump has controversially challenged, undermined and begun coercing or withdrawing from key institutions of the liberal international rules-based order. The US under Trump has stepped back from multilateral cooperation, and “soft power”, and adopted a coercive and transactional approach to foreign policy steeped in America First nationalism. In doing so, it has retreated from its position as a world leader.
A world view based around ideas of western and white superiority is embedded in the Trump administration at home and abroad. It is evident in its policies regarding immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and attitudes towards China. The immigrant is frequently portrayed as a disease-carrier, the coronavirus is “Chinese”, and China is a “non-Caucasian” challenger to US and western power.
This trend has been confirmed by the fourth resurrection of the infamously hawkish Committee on the Present Danger, a group of national security experts, think tank members and former military staff, some with links to the far right. This time its sole focus is on China, and it is headed by Trump’s former chief strategist, Stephen Bannon.
As Trump’s America seeks neither global approval nor cross-party electoral appeal, it no longer worries so much about who is watching. Coercion is trumping leadership at home and abroad.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, a visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank), and visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford.
THE ELITE POWER BLOG
On this page one of the EPIC members as well as occasional guests will regularly publish blogs commenting on news and developments in world politics showing the power of elites or the resistance to elite power