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 Democratic leadership may well prefer the return of a right-wing extremist Trump, than lose ground to the Left in their own party.
President Donald Trump’s racist tweets targeting four progressive Democratic congresswomen – also known as “the Squad”– on the Left of the party have sparked a furious row that some are calling a political civil war over the essential identity of America as an open, diverse, multiracial society.
In other words, the principal analyses and reactions to Trump’s tweets urging the minority elected congresswomen – all of whom are American citizens – to “go back” to the countries they came from, and orchestrating “send her back” chants in regard to Representative Ilhan Omar at a subsequent political rally, have largely focused on the very turf that Trump has carved out and on which the Democratic party bases its political and electoral strategy: identity politics.
The “birther” president who up to the November 2016 general election maintained that Barack Obama was not American-born is continuing his campaign to redefine American identity as “whites only”.
Yet, the ramifications and understandings of Trump’s embrace of what is variously called “white identity politics”, “white nationalism” or the politics of “white supremacy”, while broadly sound, merely skim the surface of the racial politics, class economics, and state authoritarianism of the Trump phenomenon.
Also read: Trump Relished Racist Rally Chant, Claims Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez
And the matter is rarely, if ever, linked with the fundamental attempt to close down opposition to the populist-authoritarian Mr Trump, and simultaneously deconstruct the administrative-regulatory state while bolstering its coercive agencies and powers.
This is more than a class war too – for its enemies include elements of the liberal media, any dissenting parts of the GOP, the Supreme Court when it differs with the president (as on the census citizenship question), the House of Representatives on funding US military deployments to the southern border, and the Senate when it votes against US arms sales and military assistance to the Saudis’ war on Yemen.
This is a presidency that features in addition a personalist dictatorial president who wishes to run the White House like a semi-criminal enterprise with himself as its autocratic and tyrannical godfather.
Trump’s is a presidency that is praised by openly neo-Nazi groups and seen as an ally and champion. His tweets are an open incitement to racist and political violence against elected representatives, particularly as Trump has falsely claimed that they support al Qaeda and terrorism, and noted how the latter are killing American soldiers.
In the context of the mail bomber last year targeting Democrats, the shootings at mosques and the Pittsburgh synagogue, neo-Nazi violence including the murder of Heather Heyer at Charlottesville, and the coast guard arrested with a cache of weapons and an assassination list of Trump opponents, president Trump is playing with fire.
This is principally for electoral gain as well as to engineer a radical shift to the Right within the US state and body politic, its coercive agencies, and a more actively mobilised mass of right wing extremists from among his political base.
The blatantly racist attacks, even as parts of the mainstream media continue to debate their degree or otherwise of racism, from the aptly-named “bully pulpit” the US president occupies are the tip of a spear: that spear has already pierced so much of an admittedly rather limited armour of a regulatory state that held corporations to account on environmental, worker and other protections, slashed their taxes and transferred billions into the pockets of America’s wealthiest.
Also read: Trump Renews Racist Criticism of Democratic Congresswomen
At the other end of the social spectrum, teachers, nurses, manufacturing workers, warehouse staff and drivers for UPS and Amazon, are being denied living wages, pensions, let alone long-term security.
Undocumented workers and immigrant communities live in fear of midnight and dawn raids as Trump threatens to deport a million people, split families and wreck communities. Concentration camps dot the border with Mexico as Trump praises ICE even as official reports document widespread violations of basic human rights and international and US law, and thousands of ICE and CBP staff are exposed and under official investigation for belonging to racist and fascistic extremist Facebook and other groups.
Trump’s foreign economic strategy is the political counterpart to his domestic strategy: what his former chief strategist Stephen Bannon calls “America-first economic nationalism” is the global counterpart to the domestic politics of exclusion, economics of class power, and state coercion.
The immigrant worker in America, “foreign” workers in their own country, are blamed for job losses to “real” Americans even as “real” Americans – white black, brown and other – are facing the full brunt of government austerity and wage cuts, as the richest reap the dividends of a Wall Street president.
On this front of a real civil war, the GOP and the Democratic leadership (including its Left elements such as Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders), backed by the trade unions and most of the mainstream media, are united behind the blame China policy, a policy that backs tariffs and blames foreign workers for American workers’ plight.
This is the real war – a class war – that is going on that hardly merits mention let alone analysis in the din of media discussions of Trump’s racist tweets. White worker against minority and immigrant worker at home; American workers against their counterparts overseas. There is a spectre haunting the United States and international ruling elites – that of a rising tide of resistance and support for a radical political change that is happy to see the end of capitalism.
And seen in that larger global context, we may also see why the condemnations of Trump’s tweets ring so hollow if they ring at all: so many other states across the world are run by governments that embrace the very same politics – class war wrapped in the flags of a xenophobic Brexit, coalitions and cozying up with the extreme Right in Germany, in massive resistance from ordinary French people to austerity (that is, class war) as Macron praises the World War II fascist collaborator Marshall Pétain as a war hero, and the US builds concentration camps under a manufactured emergency.
While Trump’s rather obvious and crude racist tweets in the Orwellian world of the current GOP leadership and supporters are declared the opposite, the condemnation and attacks on the so-called Squad of progressive congresswomen as alien because they are socialists is even less widely discussed.
The silence is instructive: it speaks to how safe Trump feels in condemning socialism as alien, foreign and un-American: after all, House leader Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership stands four-square against the leftward drift in the party since the November 2018 mid-terms, not to mention the shocks Senator Bernie Sanders delivered in 2016 when he won over 13 million primary election votes on an avowedly socialist platform. And recall how the DNC engineered his defeat and Clinton’s victory?
This is all to say that the Democratic leadership may well prefer the return of a right-wing extremist Trump, who has already ‘joked’ about not ceding power should he face defeat in 2020, than lose ground to the Left in their own party. After all, the Left threatens Wall Street and corporate power, even if only mildly, and the two main political parties are two branches of one party that supports and is backed by Wall Street.
And president Trump, by ‘tarring’ the Democratic party as the party of foreigners, immigrants and aliens – including the “alien/Venezuelan” ideology of socialism – helps divide that party, drive it further to the Right, galvanise his political base but also, critically, pick up more white votes. It is the politics of fear that he champions, a most potent weapon in American politics.
In his seminal 1969 essay Prejudice And Politics In The American Past And Present, sociologist Seymour Martin Lipset wrote: “The use of ethnic, racial and religious appeals against the supposed threat of minority groups is… as old as the American system itself.
“Status insecurity has been an enduring characteristic of American life. New regions, new industries, new migrant groups, new ethnic and religious groups, have continually encroached upon the old.”
In Lipset’s quote though lie both the tragedy and hope of US politics – its elite politics and political culture can sink, and drag decent people to levels resembling fascism as its checks and balances go absent without leave; but its mass political culture never fully loses and eventually recovers in abundance to produce a New Deal or a Great Society, a civil and workers’ rights movement and leaders like Martin Luther King Junior, producing massive resistance to war and racism.
The problem is that in the interregnum there is political strife, state violence and mass suffering.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor in international politics at City, University of London. He tweets @USEmpire.
The message to Assange and Wikileaks is clear: blow the whistle on anyone else, but not on the global powers that be.
The full fury of the American power elite – with regard to the exposure by classic investigative journalism seeking to hold accountable imperial power – is now being felt by Wikileaks co-founder Julian Assange, who was handed over to British police by the Ecuador embassy in London.
This not only heightens the war on independent checks on imperial power – including America’s war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, its violation of international law while spying on allies and foes alike, supporting Saudi Arabia and other Gulf state sponsors of political Islamist terror groups. It also intensifies censorship, in general, against anti-imperial, anti-war, socialist and progressive voices. It signals a full drive towards authoritarianism that violates the basic tenets of democracy, freedom of expression, and the rule of law.
Ben Wizner, of the American Civil Liberties Union, warned that:
“Any prosecution by the US of Mr Assange for WikiLeaks’ publishing operations would be unprecedented and unconstitutional, and would open the door to criminal investigations of other news organisations. Moreover, prosecuting a foreign publisher for violating US secrecy laws would set an especially dangerous precedent for US journalists, who routinely violate foreign secrecy laws to deliver information vital to the public’s interest.”
The extra-territorial application of US laws to foreign citizens not residing in the US is the height of imperial arrogance.
President Trump hypocritically declared parts of the corporate media, with which he has a mutually-beneficial relationship, enemies of the people. Fox News, virtually a state-sponsored private media corporation, is so close is it to the Trump White House, its essentially Trump’s Ministry of Propaganda.
Trump has declared socialism to be the enemy of the US, along with immigrants and refugees. The targeting and stigmatising of sections of the people is a key strategy of the representatives of the corporate rich when their political system is at so low an ebb, with so deep a legitimacy crisis, that they have no positive solutions, only mass repression.
Also Read: The Importance of Being a Conscientious Objector Within Systems of Power
Try as he might to build a mass movement of the most backward elements of American society, Trump’s core support is derived from the corporate class, corporate media, and the coercive police and military forces that he has empowered and emboldened since his election in 2016.
Suppressing dissent is core to his programme and he is fully backed, in that respect, by the Democratic leadership which has led the charge, based on spurious claims of Russian interference, Chinese ‘sharp power’, via social media in US elections and politics. In that charge, hundreds of Facebook and Twitter accounts have been shut down, principally belonging to socialist, progressive, anti-war and anti-imperial organisations and individuals.
Given the above, it was only a matter of time that US pressure would lead Ecuador – a state in economic and political crisis and in need of American aid and debt relief – to buckle and hand over Assange to the British authorities who are eager to extradite him to the US to be prosecuted under various laws, including the 1917 Espionage Act. The Espionage Act was passed to crush dissent against American participation in World War I and against corporate exploitation.
President Barack Obama used the Espionage Act six times during his presidency, twice as many times as it had been used by all the previous presidents, to crush dissent and especially to deter and punish whistle-blowers who exposed US imperial crimes, like waterboarding inmates at the Guantanamo Bay detention facility. Numerous public servants’ lives were destroyed and careers ruined by the ‘liberal’ Obama administration.
Also Read: The War against Julian Assange Must End
President Trump has intensified the process of mass repression and suppression of dissent, against the Left and progressives, that Obama enforced after the financial crisis of 2008 and in the wake of mass opposition to corporate bailouts and the rise of the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protests.
The fury of the US establishment has never abated since Wikileaks published, via several media outlets like the New York Times and the Guardian, hundreds of thousands of State Department cables and Afghanistan war logs, including a video – Collateral Murder – graphically showing the killing of 12 innocent civilians and journalists in Iraq by US helicopter gunships.
Chelsea Manning, who had leaked the State Department cables to Wikileaks, was imprisoned and tortured in a US Marines prison, according to the UN Rapporteur on Torture, and is now in prison again for refusing to lie in court that he conspired with Assange.
A sealed grand jury indictment has been active for several years, initially denied by the US authorities, but now openly declared as the US is pressing for Assange’s extradition. The Guardian, Britain’s self-appointed defender of the liberal conscience, which benefitted from its collaboration with Wikileaks, has hardly lifted a finger to campaign to end Assange’s persecution.
Indeed, for years The Guardian denied there was any wish on the part of the US to extradite Assange. Had they bothered to conduct some of their own investigative journalism, they would have seen so clearly that, this was the case and that the Swedish state’s case against Assange was riddled with flaws.
Given Sweden’s close relations with the US, despite its image as a pacifist, and the violations of Swedish legal and police procedures in pursuing cases of sexual assault against Julian Assange, there was always sufficient cause to worry that the Swedes would quite easily be persuaded to extradite him for prosecution in the US with the possibility of Assange being tried for a capital offence.
Sweden contributes military forces under US-NATO control in Afghanistan; it contributed military assistance during the Libyan intervention which has made it a failed state; Swedish ministers report regularly on military and intelligence matters to the US embassy; its Afghanistan-based aid agencies supply intelligence to the US on a regular basis.
It collaborated with the US on extraordinary rendition programmes by the CIA of people who had applied for asylum to Sweden. Assange’s Wikileaks website exposed a whole range of US-Swedish cooperation deals that did not reflect well on Sweden’s global image as “a good state”.
The violations of police and judicial procedures during the early part of the investigation of Assange’s alleged sexual assault and rape of two Swedish women – which he denies – had an essential political context that was missing in most mainstream analyses of the matter.
Also Read: Rusbridger on Hacking, Snowden, Wikileaks and Making The Guardian Financially Secure
Some issues that are pertinent – based on the legal opinion of Sven-Erik Alhem, former Stockholm District Prosecutor, who now lectures at Lund University, among other roles, as submitted to the Stockholm Court are indicated below.
Together, they cast doubt on the nature of the investigation of rape allegations against Assange and, according to Alhem, made a fair trial in Sweden unlikely:
1. The police interviewed both female complainants together rather than separately which, according to Alhelm, was “a mistake” that “contaminated the evidence” which was “not professional”.
2. The prosecution informed the media of Assange’s identity during the investigation phase against normal procedure; rape trials are normally held in secret and the identity of suspects is maintained until after successful prosecution.
“Such confirmation of the identity of a suspect to the media is, in my view, completely against proper procedure and in violation of the Swedish law and rules regarding preliminary investigations.”
Alhelm also noted in his expert witness statement that the prosecutor should not have done this although there is no remedy against this in Swedish law. Hence, the word spread to the world’s media that Assange was a rape suspect, despite the early stage of the preliminary investigation.
3. Despite Assange making himself available for interview by police while still in Sweden, the prosecutor chose not to do so, even though one of the alleged rape victims was re-interviewed while Assange was in the country. Failing to obtain the alleged suspect’s side of events, at an early stage of the preliminary investigation, prevented the full picture of events from emerging, from all sides.
4. Assange could still have been interviewed in London, including at the Ecuadorian embassy, and had indicated his willingness to be interrogated by Swedish police, but to no avail.
5. Alhelm argues that issuance of European Arrest Warrant is “against the principle of proportionality”.
6. The-then Stockholm Prosecutor, Marianne Ny, could have sought British permission to interview Assange in London but claimed it was against Swedish law – a claim Alhelm denies has any grounds under Swedish law.
It is difficult to understand why Assange was not interviewed by Ny in Sweden when he was there and offered to be interrogated, or in London thereafter. To ask for extradition of an individual who was not interrogated when available and had yet to be charged with an offence was wholly disproportionate.
Also Read: Newspaper Editorials Across US Rebuke Trump for Attacks on Media
At the very least, there are grounds for Assange to credibly claim that he is unlikley to be dealt with fairly in Sweden and, at worst, to be handed over to the US for prosecution for the most heinous of crimes – leaking official information on how American power really works.
In that context, the-then UK Foreign Secretary, William Hague’s, thinly veiled threat to send in police to arrest Assange from within the Ecuadorian embassy, were reminiscent of the sort of gunboat diplomacy British imperial rule was built upon, with scant regard for international law.
It demonstrates that Hague – in citing a 1987 UK law passed after the shooting from the Libyan embassy of a policewoman – considered Assange to be a terrorist, just as much as many leading American politicians did and do, for leaking to the world’s publics information vital to understanding the nature of US power.
Indeed, the secret US embassy cables showed, among other things, that Hillary Clinton, Obama’s secretary of state, ordered the CIA to violate the Vienna Convention to gain information on UN diplomats and representatives.
But the rule of law is hardly a principle when it comes to imperial interests and protecting the ‘special relationship’. As former British diplomat Craig Murray argued after Assange’s summary hearing a few hours after his arrest by London police:
“What we have seen today is extraordinary. It’s amazing that you can be dragged out of somewhere by armed police and within three hours brought up before a judge and found guilty of a crime involving a serious jail sentence. There was no jury and no chance to mount a proper defence or have a proper hearing.”
“The whole Sweden case has been a charade. It has always been about whether a journalist should be punished for publishing leaked documents showing a government offending against international law.
“I am hoping, maybe a long-shot, that the media pundits of a liberal disposition will realise that this is a fundamental threat to press freedom. If anyone who publishes a US leaked document wherever they are in the world can be dragged to the US and imprisoned, then the American government is going to have impunity for its crimes for ever more. All journalists must decide where they stand on this fundamental test of media freedom.”
Blow the whistle on anyone else, but not on the global powers that be – that’s the message of the case against Julian Assange and the Wikileaks organisation. In pursuing Assange the way they have, the Swedish and British authorities have demonstrated their slavish compliance with US power.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor in international politics at City, University of London. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire
The Donald Trump vs John McCain comparison is about two parts of the establishment at war over how aggressive and globally interventionist US strategy should be.
The recent death of US Senator John McCain has inspired an establishment ‘fightback’ against the ‘dangerously isolationistic’ Donald Trump presidency. There is near complete personalisation of US politics around mostly fictional political positions united by the desire to perpetuate American global preponderance, but at loggerheads over tactics.
McCain is painted as an all-American hero, almost a god and certainly a saint, while Trump is a pantomime villain at whom it is perfectly polite to hiss and boo. The former backed a broadly hegemonic ordering strategy for US global domination while Trump backs bilateral transactionalism resulting in part from his business experience and partly from the conservative-nationalist playbook.
In truth, neither McCain nor Trump occupy anything other than positions extolling the virtues of an aggressive and violent American empire at war virtually across the globe and responsible for mass suffering caused by illegal wars – Iraq, Libya, Syria, Yemen, and unconditional support for the Israeli onslaught against Palestinians, among others. The debate is over tactics to be deployed against America’s main perceived ‘rivals’ – Russia and China – and the way of dealing with traditional US allies to those ends. It is largely that simple.
Born at the arrogantly self-proclaimed ‘American century’s’ birth, to a family steeped in the country’s armed services, a man of the establishment, John McCain appears to have passed away in the midst of what some are claiming is the American century’s twilight. And he and his establishment allies view President Donald Trump as the extinguisher of America’s ‘light’. Hence, against all the evidence, McCain – who is relatively unknown beyond America’s shores – has been elevated to national hero and the voice of the global oppressed.
He is the non-existent hero the American establishment needed, and has therefore had to invent.
His much-lauded career as an honourable naval officer and ‘public’ servant is starkly contrasted with Trump’s acknowledged low moral standing, military service evasion and political buffoonery.
Yet McCain is hardly beyond criticism: he may have represented another, past, Republican party but it was he who ushered in the era of right-wing populism with Sarah Palin as his vice-presidential running mate in 2008. Palin enthused the GOP base against Barack Obama, championed overt lying over any comprehensible political position, and hastened the emergence of the Tea party, the birther movement and eventually the rise of President Trump, if not a virulent Trumpism that may well outlive the man himself.
The establishment likes to paint Trump as an aberration. His roots, however, lie deep in the establishment’s own drive to the Right – since at least the time of Richard Nixon in the 1970s and the backlash against civil and women’s rights, and the crushing failures of an unchecked globalising corporate sector at home and its war machine abroad.
Of course, McCain claimed later to regret choosing Palin. But who had been his first choice? US Senator Joe Lieberman – the neoconservative who had backed the Iraq war and the whole war on terror against the so-called ‘axis of evil’. Not for nothing did Lieberman declare at McCain’s funeral that “The name John McCain was a source of hope and inspiration for oppressed people around the world.”
It was a staggeringly Orwellian moment, even by the standards of US hegemony.
The oppressed of Iraq felt the full fury of McCain’s inspiration. Having backed US military aggressions including Vietnam, he argued that the US military should remain in Iraq for a hundred years. He was honoured that the latest massive military budget passed by Congress had his name on it.
At home, Senator McCain largely backed every measure that has increased corporate power and diminished workers’ rights and conditions, opposed legitimate trade unionism, and supported tax cuts for the richest in American society. In the 1980s, as a Congressman, he voted against a national holiday to honour Martin Luther King, Jr.
According to FiveThirtyEight, McCain voted with Trump initiatives 83% of the time, 21% higher than he would have been predicted to on the basis of his positions in 2016.
McCain’s death has reopened fractures within US foreign policy elites on its global role, as ‘traditional’ imperial establishments at home and globally weigh in on praising McCain’s support of NATO and transatlanticism, opposition to Russia, among other things.
Trump is aggressive, nationalistic, and imperialistic but ultimately backs a more selective global engagement strategy to manage US power in globally-challenging conditions. His principal crime is to refuse the ‘hegemonic ordering’ strategy favoured by the establishment since 1940s, in favour of aggressively-nationalistic bilateral transactionalism. Where the establishment largely favoured building orders – the UN system, Bretton Woods, NATO, the European Union, and more recently NAFTA, WTO, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership – Trump favours a strategy of bilateral transactionalism to weaken blocs and agreements, and deal with each nation separately from America’s position of strength. He is leveraging American power in the most crude, brutal ways, showing its true face.
Trump recognises other states’ and blocs’ ‘bottom line’, and understands America’s most significant strengths – military superiority, dollar power in global finance and trade, and the leverage offered by a massive US domestic market.
And he is wielding it like a bludgeon. And bringing it into disrepute, diminishing its ‘moral’ authority, the cover of ‘soft’ power which the traditional establishment prefers.
Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, and the author of Foundations of the American Century. His twitter handle is @USEmpire
By Naná de Graaff and Bastiaan van Apeldoorn
This op-ed was originally published on International Affairs Blog
Amidst the clamour over the erratic leadership of the Trump presidency, and the predicted end of a liberal international order, what tends to get overlooked is that there is, at root, a crisis of leadership within America’s economic and political elite.
Trump is the symptom rather than the cause of this crisis, although he has arguably aggravated it. For decades the American power elite has been characterized by close entanglements between of the political and corporate elites, a power configuration that has become increasingly bound up with stagnant wages and widening inequality. Neo-liberal policies implemented at home have been mirrored by an ‘open door’ policy abroad, expanding free markets and maximizing the freedom of (above all) US capital — underpinned, crucially, by a globe-spanning military apparatus and US-centred multilateral institutions. Both these policies have reinforced the position of the power elite, with the top 1% becoming increasingly insulated from the rest of society. It is this which has generated the massive public discontent that has been mobilized by both the right and the left, and is one of the key reasons why Trump was elected.
The crisis of elite leadership which Trump epitomizes, however, greatly accelerates a power shift from a world centred around Western power and built on US hegemony, to a more multipolar world order that includes non-Western powers — in particular China — that has been in the making for decades. From climate governance to trade, America’s retreat from multilateral agreements rolls out the red carpet for China . This opportunity to provide global leadership is not lost on the Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has been driving forward a signature shift in China’s foreign policy, from ‘keeping a low profile’ (tao guang yang hui) to ‘striving for achievement’ (fen fa you wei). Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement turned the US into something of a pariah (the next G20 summit was immediately recoined G19+1) and his retreat from the Trans-Pacific Partnership — the crown jewel in Obama’s ‘Asia Pivot’ — only had the effect of self-isolation: negotiations on free trade in the Pacific are now pursued without the US. China is stepping into this void created by the US, not with an explicit claim to global leadership, but with the convenient argument that it is just behaving as the ‘responsible stakeholder’ US foreign policy makers always pressured it to be. While former Chinese premier Deng Xiaoping advised to: ‘bide our time’, the timing of Xi Jinping’s assertiveness couldn’t have been better and he is making the most of the unexpected helping hand from the US. As New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wryly wrote, Trump is ‘helping make China great again’.
Xi’s Elite Power Concentration
The crisis and fragmentation of elite leadership in the US coincides with a strengthening and centralizing of elite leadership around the Communist Party and the leadership of its General Secretary Xi, on a scale not seen in China since Deng Xiaoping. Internal dissent, both within the Party and beyond, has effectively been ‘disciplined’ through an anti-graft campaign and a general strengthening of censorship and surveillance. Xi’s philosophy of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era’ has been incorporated as the guiding ideology of the Party, while Xi himself, ‘Chairman of Everything’, has centralized control over economic policy-making and the military, and has elevated himself to historical heights of political power, which rests on a solid and cohesive elite power base and wide legitimacy. This concentration of power was further enhanced by the recent announcement that the two-term limit for Xi’s presidency is to be scrapped.
A Hybrid Scenario
What does this mean for US–China relations and future of the liberal international order? As we argue in our International Affairs article, in contrast to many alarmist accounts, we do not see a major US–China conflict in the making, let alone an outright war. The interdependencies and mutual interests in terms of investments and trade on both sides are too large to make a major conflict scenario likely, bar any fatal accidents. But neither can we expect China to become entirely co-opted into the liberal order, contrary to what many US policy makers and liberal scholars have assumed until recently. The Chinese economy is increasingly integrated into the world economy, and as a result its leaders are embracing ‘inclusive’ globalization and advocating an open door to trade and investment. However, as we show in our article, China’s economy remains wedded to a ‘state-directed’ form of capitalism, which involves a partial adaptation to the liberal rules of the game, but also selective and decisive resistance against it. We therefore envisage a third, more hybrid scenario of co-existence, which will entail both competition and cooperation.
This hybrid scenario, however, does not imply the absence of contestation and, crucially, hinges on the resolution of domestic political and social contestation within both the US and China. The key question here is whether and how the American and Chinese elites are able to manage their societal contradictions, domestically and internationally. This will require, among other things, major structural solutions and a (re)distribution of social, societal and natural resources in order to lower inequality, improve employment opportunities, solve the immigration conundrum and to ecologically save the planet. China is facing many domestic challenges, from spiralling national debt to the middle income trap, nevertheless it seems to be in a better position to address these crises than the US under Trump.
Nana de Graaff is Assistant Professor in International Relations at the Department of Political Science at the VU University Amsterdam.Bastiaan van Apeldoorn is Reader in International Relations in the Department of Political Science at the VU University Amsterdam.
Their co-authored article, ‘US–China relations and the liberal world order: contending elites, colliding visions’, appeared in the January 2018 special issue of International Affairs, ‘Ordering the world: liberal internationalism in theory and practice’.
Read the article here.
Explore the rest of the special issue here.
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Will Trump make China great again? The belt and road initiative and international order | Astrid H. M. Nordin & Mikael Weissmann
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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