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.
His decision to walk away from the Open Skies Treaty is part of a pattern aimed at converting the bipolar era arms control regime into one which could unrestrain the US and hold China down.
US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the vital if obscure Open Skies Treaty (OST) represents a tangible and symbolic step towards the deconstruction of the international arms control regime between the major nuclear powers, an escalation of a new arms race, and the continued attempt to bind and freeze Chinese military power.
It is also another material gift to the largest arms manufacturing firms which have benefitted enormously from Trump’s destabilising rhetoric and actions undermining peace and security in numerous world regions. Finally, it is an ideological-electoral move to further assuage his far right and paleo-conservative ideological cronies, and his loyal America First voter bank.
Thus far, the Trump administration has withdrawn the United States from several significant international institutions and agreements that were the hallmark of its post-1945 global strategy. While other postwar administrations withdrew wholly or partially from such organisations, or sometimes refused to join when US sovereignty was considered at stake, no previous administration has philosophically and methodically challenged the very idea of the international.
Under Trump, there has been a veritable bonfire of global alphabet agencies: One of his earliest acts upon taking office in January 2017 was to disown the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Since then, the US has withdrawn from the Paris climate accord, the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), UNESCO, the INF treaty, and the JCPOA. Most recently, of course, the US has accused the World Health Organisation (WHO) of China-centrism, promptly defunded it during the worst global pandemic since 1918 and has just announced the US withdrawal from the global body. The message could hardly be more starkly conveyed.
In addition, we might note US threats to other international bodies unless their members comply with demands for greater resourcing or funding. NATO is a prime example. The World Trade Organisation is also in the administration’s cross-hairs.
And the violation of international law – on asylum seekers, refugees, and the assassination of foreign leaders, for example – indicates the other front on which the US is acting unilaterally in a systematic fashion.
None of the above is new in and of itself, of course. What is new is the systematic, concentrated, and determined character of the zero-sum thinking at the heart of the Trump administration. This suggests a basic philosophical shift – not to withdrawal from world affairs, not towards ‘isolationism’. – but in mentality towards the ‘global’.
President Trump is a national Darwinist. In world politics, he represents a survival-of-the-fittest mentality, a reverence for power as the arbiter of disagreements. Hence, US power is being systematically weaponised – the dollar, the international payments system, the “whole-of-society threat” and ‘response’ to China, the US market, trade tariffs to incentivise greater investment inside the US, the threat of withdrawal from international treaties when others exercise independence. And US military predominance is adding a ‘space force’ to its plans, to add to its cyber and other forces.
Another international regime unravelling
In the mid-1950s, Moscow rejected President Eisenhower’s proposal to allow aerial reconnaissance flights over each other’s territory. Towards the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush pushed for negotiations on the proposal between NATO and Warsaw Pact countries. After painstaking negotiations, the Open Skies Treaty entered into force on January 1, 2002, with 34 states party to the treaty.
The OST aimed to establish a regime of unarmed observation flights over the territories of state parties to assure they are not preparing for hostile military action. It was a confidence-building measure that worked.
Yet, some say Trump apparently grew uneasy with the OST when a Russian aircraft flew directly over his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey, in 2017. With due notice of 72 hours, the plane was legally permitted to fly through the restricted airspace under the treaty.
As ever, Trump’s idiosyncratic behaviour is encased within a strategic logic – record levels of US military spending including on new nuclear missile systems and forces can now no longer be observed by Russia. And allegations of Russian violations of the OST – that Russia excludes over-flights in Ossettia, South Abkhazia, and the enclave of Kaliningrad, for strategic reasons – though correct, have been tolerated for over a decade. They could have formed the basis of discussions between the signatory powers.
Since 2002, the US has undertaken three times as many over-flights of Russia than vice versa. In 2019, for example, the US made 18 such flights compared to seven by Russia. Given the sophistication of US satellite technologies, however, it has clearly decided that such over-flights are either unnecessary or that the OST regime needs to be broken and replaced with a comprehensive global treaty that also includes China.
This is another move that undermines, if not dismantles, the existing nuclear arms-control regime, breaking the confidence-building mechanisms that reduced the threat of nuclear exchange. This may well lead to greater misunderstanding between Russia and the US. This happened at the height of the Cold War in 1960, for example, when the erstwhile Soviet Union shot down an American U-2 spy plane on a reconnaissance mission over its territory.
However, the OST move is also ‘red meat’ to Trump’s far right ideological allies, the GOP leadership, and to his political base. In an election year, “Trump-stands-up-to-Russia” and moves to pressure China takes the heat out of the impeachment decision and allegations that he’s been ‘soft’ on Russia, too cosy with Putin, and with Xi Jinping.
Nuclear agreements melting down, an eye on China?
In May 2018, Trump withdrew from the Iran nuclear agreement (JCPOA), despite Iran’s compliance with its protocols and conditions, including the most intrusive inspection regime administered by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Again, the other major signatories, including Germany, France, China, and Russia, objected to US withdrawal but to no avail.
In August last year, the Trump administration completed the process of withdrawal from the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, leaving the nuclear arms control regime in the lurch. One aim is to extend the agreement to include China’s cruise missiles.
It is now pretty clear that President Trump will seek an exit from the 2010 New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), the only remaining agreement to ensure that the United States and Russia limit their deployed nuclear missiles to 1,550 each. This pact is due to expire in February 2021. It could hardly be clearer that the aim is to seek a new trilateral pact that includes China. The basic idea is to bring Beijing’s nuclear arsenal under control and to curtail any desires to attain nuclear parity with Washington. But Beijing is not interested; its nuclear arsenal (numbering in the hundreds) is tiny in comparison with the US and Russia (numbering in the thousands).
But such a move would be in line with the longer-term strategic aim of simultaneously containing, engaging and now, rolling back, China’s great power capabilities and ambitions, real, imagined, or potential, to knock the US from its sole superpower position.
The idea of a winnable nuclear war remains
But there is one other factor that should be borne in mind. The idea of a winnable nuclear war – however horrific it may sound – has never been fully excised from US strategic thinking. Ever since the dropping of two atomic bombs over Japan in 1945, and the ever-present talk of using tactical or low yield nuclear bombs over North Korea in 1950-53, the very idea of containable, limited nuclear war remains embedded. A so-called low yield nuclear bomb is the equivalent of the size that annihilated Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
The US has around 1000 low yield bombs in its stockpile – about 150 of them deployed in Europe. President Trump has indicated a desire to attach low yield nuclear warheads to submarine-launched ballistic missiles, thus multiplying America’s nuclear arsenal.
While such weapons have been available for decades, they have never been used.
Having low or high yield nuclear weapons is either a reflection of ‘mad man theory’ – a rational irrationality – or it’s for real: and that’s the point. It keeps everyone guessing. As Charles Kupperman, Trump’s former deputy national security adviser, argues: “a nuclear war is winnable in the classical sense if one side emerged the stronger, even if there were tens of millions of casualties.”
American paleo-conservatives want to integrate the nuclear with non-nuclear military options to legitimise the use of strategic nuclear weapons in a “limited” way. Donald Trump’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released in early 2018, brought low-yield nuclear weapons back into the nuclear debate. It stated that the US was not averse to resorting to the use of nuclear arms in response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” against it. The NPR approved the production of a low-yield nuclear warhead, increasing nuclear tensions. Trump favours an aggressive nuclear policy and is willing to rock the boat moored to mutually-assured destruction (MAD).
More recently, it is rumoured that the US is considering conducting nuclear tests again for the first time in decades. Administration sources suggest, without evidence, that Russia and China are already conducting low yield nuclear tests, to justify their possible shift of position. It is also suggested that the threat of new nuclear testing, which would violate the de facto compliance by all nuclear powers (except North Korea) of the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty of 1996, would give the US leverage to force Russia and China to trilateral talks to hash out a new agreement.
For Trump, the moves are driven by personal preference – he gets more headlines; a geopolitical great game; material gain to arms firm donors to his re-election campaign; a sop to the Republican leadership; encouragement to his far right nationalist unilateralists; and gives his voters something to shout about. And he can call Joe Biden “soft on China” – “Beijing Biden”.
It’s win-win politics, for him. The only problem is that the fate of the world then rests on unilateral American decision-making.
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.
Dr Atul Bhardwaj is an honorary research fellow in the department of international politics at City, University of London. He is the author of India-America Relations (1942-62): Rooted in the Liberal International Order (Routledge, 2018)
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