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....
Foreign Policy (2020): “5G Explained: Part One— Technology and Infrastructure,” 22 January, viewed on 5 July 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/01/22/5g-cellular-huawei-china-networks-technology-infrastructure-power-map/.
Huo, Shuhong and Inderjeet Parmar (2019): “‘A New Type of Great Power Relationship’? Gramsci, Kautsky and the Role of the Ford Foundation’s Transformational Elite Knowledge Networks in China,” Review of International Political Economy, Vol 27, pp 1–24.
Jha, Lalit K (2020): “Trump Administration Has Put Together ‘War Plan’ to ‘Take Down’ CCP: Steve Bannon,” Live Mint, July, viewed on 21 July 2020, https://www.livemint.com/news/world/trump-administration-has-put-together-war-plan-to-take-down-ccp-steve-bannon-11595301478234.html.
Kennedy, Brian T (2020): CPDC Open Letter to President Donald J Trump,” 28 June, viewed on 15 July 2020, https://presentdangerchina.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/UPDATED-SIGNER....
Mahbubani, Kishore (2020): “China: Threat or Opportunity?” NOEMA, 15 June, viewed on 15 July 2020, https://www.noemamag.com/china-threat-or-opportunity/.
Parmar, Inderjeet (2019): “Transnational Elite Knowledge Networks: Managing American Hegemony in Turbulent Times,” Security Studies, Vol 28, No 3, pp 532–64.
White House (2020): “United States Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China,” 1–16, viewed on 30 June 2020, https://www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/.uploads/2020/05/US-Strategic-Approach-to-The-Peoples-Republic-of-China-Report-5.24v1.pdf.
Swanson, Ana and Don Clark (2020): “Lawmakers Push to Invest Billions in Semiconductor Industry to Counter China,” New York Times, 11 June, viewed on 17 July 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/11/business/economy/semiconductors-chips-congress-china.html.
Young, Stephen B (2020): “Henry Kissinger: Architect of American Decline,” CPDC, viewed on 17 July 2020, https://presentdangerchina.org/2020/05/henry-kissinger-architect-of-american-decline/.
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.
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)
The former White House chief strategist's return signals the intensification of the bare-knuckle methods and messaging that may make the 2016 campaign seem mild by comparison.
Stephen Bannon, Donald Trump’s erstwhile chief strategist, is reportedly returning to rescue the American president from defeat in the November 2020 elections, due largely to mishandling the COVID-19 pandemic and an economy that’s heading towards the deepest depression since the 1930s. In early March, Bannon declared the global pandemic Trump’s ‘Churchill and FDR moment‘. Instead, it has turned into a political and economic disaster of historic proportions as tens of thousands of Americans have lost their lives to the coronavirus. President Trump’s tardiness, incompetence, political divisiveness, and rejection of scientific and expert advice are widely seen as exacerbating the crisis.
Bannon, CEO of Trump’s 2016 shock election victory, is reportedly close to several senior White House staffers – especially Stephen Miller – and may be recalled to have assisted Trump in digging himself out of a hole largely of his own making. President Trump, contrary to Bannon’s prediction, appears to be snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. Nevertheless, Bannon’s obsession with China’s growing stature and his support for alt-right (i.e., fascistic) positions on non-white immigration suggests he is tailor-made for the final months of Trump’s 2020 effort to remain in the White House.
But the ‘miracle’ of 2016 – when Trump won with a minority of the popular vote – occurred under quite specific conditions which, in the main, do not apply in 2020. Nevertheless, the return of Bannon – unofficial or official – signals the intensification of the bare-knuckle methods and messaging that may make the 2016 campaign seem mild by comparison.
The struggle is to shore up Trump’s loyal base, to win over a majority of independents, and slice away Democratic voters unhappy with Biden’s likely presidential nomination. And Trump, and his extreme, and alt-right supporters are not particularly concerned with the ‘collateral damage’ in the process to the American people and system. They are already citing the necessity of bloodshed to nourish the ‘tree of liberty’ – which we have seen the stirrings of in the heavily-armed ‘liberate Michigan’ etc movements orchestrated by the GOP, its billionaire backers, and the Trump administration.
The 2019 resurrection of the Committee on the Present Danger – China (CPD-C) is instructive. Bannon is among the leaders of the ultra-hawkish advocacy group. It indicates a renewed desire to contain and pressurise China, to foment regime change via the delegitimisation of the Communist Party. This is in line with official US policy that designates China a ‘strategic rival’ aiming to displace the United States from its hegemonic positions in east Asia and globally. CPD-C is reportedly funded by a billionaire Chinese businessman, Miles Kwok (aka Guo Wengui), a Bannon ally. CPD-C’s target is the Chinese Communist Party’s rule which, it claims, is oppressing the Chinese people, threatening the liberal norms of the international order, and the security and primacy of the West.
It is the CPD’s fourth incarnation: first formed during the Korean War in 1950, it was thoroughly networked with the most hawkish militarists within and beyond the Truman administration. It helped militarise George Kennan’s political ‘containment’ strategy against alleged Soviet expansionism. The CPD, which was linked with the authors and supporters of NSC-68 (including Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze), inflated the Soviet threat and demanded a massive increase in the US military budget. Written in April 1950, NSC-68 was dismissed as wildly unrealistic by President Harry S. Truman as Congress debated cutting the military budget. With the outbreak of the Korean War in June 1950, however, and its definition by Acheson and Truman as the opening shots of a Soviet bid for world domination, the message of NSC-68 was driven home. Its result was the boosting of NATO, the rearmament of West Germany, and the rise of the ‘military-industrial complex’ that President Dwight Eisenhower warned Americans about as he left office in 1961.
The mid-1970s saw the revival of the CPD, this time against US-Soviet détente, to counter the ‘Soviet threat’ across the world and reverse the ‘decline’ of American power in the wake of the defeat in Vietnam and Watergate scandal that brought down President Richard Nixon. Ronald Reagan rode the wave and swept into power, defeating Jimmy Carter in 1980, to ‘make America great again’. Again, over two dozen CPD members were appointed to senior positions in the Reagan administration – George Schultz as secretary of state and William Casey as CIA director. The Reagan administrations presided over a massive expansion of military power to ‘rollback’ alleged Soviet expansionism, fuelling a second cold war, and bringing the world alarmingly close to a much-feared nuclear war.
The post-9/11 war on terror inspired the third iteration of the CPD: to run a neo-conservative led campaign that defined ‘Islamic terrorism’ or ‘Islamofascism’ as the equivalent of the communist threat that had to be destroyed. It was backed by Senator Joe Lieberman, James Woolsey (Bill Clinton’s CIA director), and Paul Nitze – who had been present at the creation in 1950.
Bannon’s danger – China
The focus on China in the fourth coming of the CPD unifies the Trump administration and key networks that see China as a threat to US and western power. As Trump’s former head of policy planning at the state department stated, US rivalry with China is particularly intense because “it’s the first time that we will have a great-power competitor that is not Caucasian.” It revealed, according to University of Connecticut political scientist Paul Musgrave, “the racist, and dangerous, lens of the new U.S. statecraft.”
Bannon is a warrior preparing for inevitable global violence. He genuinely believes that a global religio-racial war between the West and the rest is inevitable and that the West, especially the US, has been weakened by liberals’ tolerance of diversity – which, to his alt-right mind equates to “white genocide” – and that Muslims, Chinese and pretty much the entire non-white world are on the march against Judaeo-Christian civilisation. He thinks that American history specifically is heading towards a so-called ‘fourth turn’ – with each previous turn ending in massive violence – from the Revolution, through the Civil War, and WWII.
Bannon is a hardcore racist opponent of immigration, nostalgic for a golden age of white, male dominance, who has added a few Italian fascist intellectuals’ dark fantasies to his lexicon.
But before world war, there is business closer to home for the Bannon-Trump axis – to liquidate the “enemies of the American people” in preparation for a battle royale for Western global supremacy. After destroying liberals and Democrats, Bannonites aim to eliminate the Republican party’s leadership and shift the party even closer to the fascistic right. The new-look GOP will then become a thinly-veiled white supremacist organisation at the core of which is a corporate-military hyper-nationalism, an authoritarian state headed by an imperial presidency.
The CPD-C, then, is an important step in that strategy, making essential Trump’s re-election.
The CPD-C’s networks include the right-wing Washington Times – numerous of the CPD-C’s supporters and members contribute articles and columns to the nativist newspaper. Its current opinion editor is Charles Hurt who also contributes to Fox News and Bannon’s old perch, Breitbart News. Bannon referred to Breitbart as a platform for the ‘alt-right’ i.e, American racists and fascists.
It was the Washington Times that ‘broke’ the story (on January 26, 2020) that the coronavirus was either accidentally or deliberately leaked from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China – based on an interview with a former Israeli intelligence officer. No evidence was provided to support the allegations but the message was picked up and amplified by Steve Bannon’s podcast programme – War Room – and, subsequently, moved all the way up to the Trump administration. Trump had previously heaped praise on President Xi Jinping for his handling of the Covid-19 crisis.
Bannon is also close to Mark Meadows, who replaced Mick Mulvaney as White House chief of staff at the end of March 2020. And he is very close to Stephen Miller who is the quiet architect of President Trump’s immigration policies, Muslim travel bans, and coherent legitimiser of Trump’s broadly white nationalist or white supremacist ‘America First’ views.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently revealed Miller’s extensive private email correspondence with a reporter at Breitbart News that exposed the former as promoting the most backward racist theories including ‘white genocide’. That is, the idea that the Euro-American white race is facing extinction and replacement by non-whites.
The revelations brought forth a congressional resolution calling for Miller’s removal from the White House: “…a known white nationalist and believer of white supremacist ideology in a position of power and influence over federal policy,” declared Texas congressman Joaquin Castro. “Americans…will never forget it was President Trump and Stephen Miller’s hateful rhetoric that helped inspire the deadly attack in El Paso where 22 individuals were killed for being Latino…” California Congresswoman Judy Chu stated that “..Miller…has been more than willing to disseminate and amplify white supremacist and neo-Nazi propaganda…”
Trump faces a different danger
But things are very different this time – the global pandemic may yet claim the life of the Trump administration. There is a massive death toll, and it is still rising; some suggest the final tally may number in the hundreds of thousands. And death is reaching all parts of America’s political map, including GOP-dominated states which had previously appeared remote and exempt. Ironically, the Trump-backed “liberate Michigan” protestors – some of whom travelled hundreds of miles to join the rallies and to storm the state capitol, spread the coronavirus on returning to their rural communities. And a desperate desire especially of the economy-obsessed President Trump to reopen businesses threatens a dreadful ‘second wave’ that, according to experts, maybe even more devastating than the initial phase.
Worryingly for President Trump, 70% of Republican voters, and a staggering 88% of Democrats, support the continuation of restrictions to protect lives.
And Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton – who was a divisive and polarising figure. Biden’s ahead of Clinton among white males of college and non-college educational levels, including in battleground states. If the election were today, Trump would most likely lose, according to detailed analysis by The Economist. Among voters over 65 years of age, private GOP polls show Trump’s lead slipping, especially in key swing states. Over 80% of all COVID-19 deaths in the US are among this age group.
Also Read: The Coronavirus Conspiracy Theory Doesn’t Add Up. It’s Also a Self-Defeating Diversion.
With healthcare a key election issue, even before the COVID-19 crisis, and Biden’s leftward shift under political pressure from Senator Bernie Sanders, young voters may yet turnout more strongly for Biden this time.
And four years of Trump in office means he is no longer an outsider; he has an impeachable record to defend – and deepening pandemic, economic, political crises to manage.
In ‘deconstructing the administrative state,’ as Steve Bannon declared at a C-PAC conference in 2017, Trump may well have won friends opposed to regulation, expertise, experience and science. That combination of pathologies has directly impacted Trump’s failures to unify and lead the US against the coronavirus.
But the act of bringing Bannon into the re-election campaign and, in so doing, re-legitimising him as a major political player, may also be seen as yet another in a long series of signs indicating the gradual deconstruction of the Trump presidency itself – and a further downward spiralling of what increasingly resembles a failed state.
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.
Even limited reform on inequality matters to the country now, as does the development of new forces opposed to America’s imperial war machine.
The ‘big picture’ and prospects for US politics in 2020 remain similar to the previous three years, but represent the culmination of the totality of the post-2016 experience: political turbulence, tension, social fractures, polarisation and division…but also the strengthening of socialistic tendencies in public opinion and in the Congress.
Rising geopolitical tensions – in the Middle East and north Africa, Far East, in Central Europe, in Latin America, a new nuclear arms race focused on hypersonic missiles with Russia and China, tensions over China’s rising economic muscle and self-confidence – provide opportunities for Trump personal agendas as well as for ramping up military spending to record levels.
The targeted killing of Iran’s General Qassem Soleimani by US drones ratchets up tensions and the threat of another regional war with global implications, just following the recent first-ever Iran, China and Russian naval exercises in the Gulf.
With Iran threatening reprisals, and President Trump claiming the assassination was not a move to all out war, and the approaching November presidential election, the chances are that the danger of an all out war will not be realised until after November 2020.
Also read: US Assassination of Iran’s General Soleimani Takes West Asia to the Abyss
Yet, there remains hope in the face of those threatening tensions in the form of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft (QI), a mainly Charles Koch-George Soros-funded think tank that unifies left and conservative realists opposed to US militarism and unnecessary ‘endless wars’ fuelled by ‘liberal hegemony’.
Less well known, but potentially-significant nevertheless, is the Security Policy Reform Institute (SPRI) that aims to develop a fresh new foreign policy based on US working class interests.
We are now moving to another major decision point in US politics – not just a battle over America’s ‘soul’ as so many representatives of the broader status quo call it. The big decision at hand is over whether or not Americans want to continue post-9/11, Trump-intensified, inequality and authoritarianism at home coupled with militarism and war abroad.
Viewed through such lenses the fault-lines in US party politics realign the major candidates. Joseph Biden and Pete Buttigieg align with one another as well as closer to mainstream traditional Republicans: steeped in Big Money politics and attendant political agendas (plus affluent-voter-oriented identity politics), and liberal interventionism abroad. Their programme necessitates corporate power, hard borders, increased state power over civilian life, and a continued strategy of global militarism and war.
The Bernie Sanders-Elizabeth Warren pole represents a position that approximates regulated market capitalism with higher corporate taxes, greater social spending and deep scepticism over record-level military budgets. The Sanders-Warren-Squad (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez et al) programme is conventionally referred to as ‘socialism’ by many of its adherents but particularly by its GOP and DNC opponents.
President Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers call it a spectre haunting the US, two centuries after the death in 2018 of Karl Marx.
Those are the major political fault-lines that appeared even in the political rhetoric of candidate Trump’s 2016 campaign – the placing at the centre of his programme the American worker as opposed to Wall Street and liberal elites who had ‘sold out’ to foreign interests. And a pledge to reduce American military interventions abroad – now referred to as ‘forever wars’.
Underpinning the fault-lines referred to above is an America whose social and economic contours betray deep inequalities even as stocks and share prices break all records: that the wealth and income of America is skewed towards the 1%, or more accurately, within the 0.1%.
The 99% are the part of the American population iceberg beneath the surface, that underpins its elite-based party politics. The pacification and mobilisation of the 99% during electoral cycles is the principal problem of the party system, and the main cause of its current and recent legitimacy crisis or crisis of authority.
The resulting politics has polarised America to the extent that elements of the party and governmental system connect at all with popular opinion and problems: authoritarian-populism from the right against predominantly melting pot Americanism from the Democrats.
Each position seeks to suppress the politics of class and income and wealth redistribution. Identity politics appears to be the principal strategy to that end, eliding the corporate domination of both political parties’ agendas.
The real sense of hope in 2020 is due to the rise of socialist beliefs across US society to which the CEA report on socialism is a significant response. Other surveys show the broad leftward shift in the US, especially among millennials.
The year 2019 saw the highest number of working days lost to strike action in over 40 years: at least 500,000 workers striked in 2019 across a range of sectors including schools, autos, hospitals, and delivery services.
There is an upsurge in worker-employer conflict in part driven by a tighter labour market and partly by the sheer disparity in rewards of corporate CEOs and their workers, and falling real wages.
The very rise of the socialist ‘squad’ (AOC, Rasha Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, etc.) reflects the crises of US established elites at home and the crisis of US power in a changing world (with the Iraq war, Guantanamo, Libya, refugee crisis, the 2008 great crash and recession, and galloping social inequality).
The ‘Tea Party’ movement, nurtured and funded by the billionaire Koch brothers, and the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ initiatives prefigured the class politics of 2016 and of today, as did the Trump-Fox News-promoted racist ‘birther’ phenomenon.
At the same time, US electors crave a return to pre-Trump ‘normalcy’, a tendency favoured by the DNC, Joseph Biden et al. Remove Trump and return to business as usual, an understandable position given the hated and exhausting politics, policies and rhetoric against immigrants, minorities, political opponents and workers, and in favour of corporations, of the Trump machine.
Also read: Behind the Paeans to McCain, a Lament Over New Tactics of Hegemony
But that desire for normalcy bumps up against a desperate desire for change as reflected in 2016 and in a plethora of attitude surveys, usually the same ones that suggest Democrats favour a white, middle aged, moderate male candidate for November 2020.
There is a distinct schizophrenia in the anti-Trump camp which plays into the hands of the broad status quo groups comprising the DNC and the Trump-dominated GOP.
As the dynamics of the Trump impeachment and removal process play out in hyper-traditional political theatrics in Washington, DC, popular attitudes display little real interest.
The main aim of the proceedings, after all, was and remains the political containment of anti-Trump popular revulsion. The Democratic leadership has so narrowly focused impeachment articles as to exclude major constitutional violations regarding spending decisions on the border wall, open courting and espousal of white supremacist positions, redeploying Pentagon budgets for southern border duties including construction of effective concentration camps. The human rights violations on the border are in direct contravention of US and international law, yet none of those matters feature at all in impeachment articles.
Elite politics focuses on the containment of popular dissent and protest because it fears popular discontent might become the basis for uncontrollable pressure for radical political and economic reforms.
The left’s rise offers new hope of reform and change especially around matters of social and economic inequality, representing a direct challenge to the corporate-dominated DNC leadership; it has mobilised new energy behind opposition to the Trump administration especially through calls for the abolition of the reviled Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), and the racist and misogynistic tropes emanating on a daily basis from the White House.
It has also brought greater attention to the Palestinian cause, not to mention opposition to ‘forever wars’ that seems to overlap with elements of the GOP and the conservative right; hence the significance of Quincy and SPRI.
Also read: How ICE Enforcement Has Changed Under the Trump Administration
President Trump, GOP and the DNC are already targeting the left as either the most dire threat to US democracy (see rhetoric about Venezuela-isation of America), or as unelectable.
The DNC of course has form on such targeting – the numerous examples of sabotage during the Sanders 2016 campaign, for example. The main parties are adept at using ‘insurgencies’ to bolster voting for them, while doing all in their power to domesticate and incorporate radical messages.
Ultimately, Congressional electoral politics is institutionally-limited – requiring little to no mass mobilisation even to bolster congressional politics, especially from radical movements for change, although Trump, with his mass rallies and bull horn signals to white supremacists and appointments to high office of the likes of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, is better at that.
Nevertheless, the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Great Society programmes showed how far to the left US politics can swing. Even limited reform on inequality matters, as does the development of new forces opposed to America’s imperial war machine.
The year 2020 promises to be another fascinating one in US politics, a political opportunity to defeat Trumpism and its effective supporters in the leadership of the Democratic party.
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