I don’t really get CounterPunch’s editorial position. I used to, or at least I used to think I did. And I approved of what I thought was its editorial position, to the point of opening up the old wallet when it made its annual calls for financial support.
These days I still turn to it because of writers like Gary Leupp and Michael Hudson. But all too often I find the kind of piece that wouldn’t look amiss in the Guardian. Yesterday’s offering by Walter Hixson is a case in point:
America’s Foreign Policy Death Spiral
American foreign policy today is in a reactionary death spiral. Never has a new “national security” policy paradigm been more desperately needed, yet there is not even a glimpse of salvation on the horizon—wherever you look you will find policies that speak to the past and offer little hope for a viable global future.
The paradigm that ensnares American diplomacy cemented some 75 years ago with World War II and the Cold War. Those cataclysmic events forged an enduring American national security state characterized by unlimited global intervention, cultivation of an ever-metastasizing “military-industrial complex,” and endless and often racialized enemy-othering followed by highly destructive yet ultimately losing wars replete with devastating blowback on the “homeland.”
No argument from me so far.
Urgently needed is a new foreign policy paradigm of cooperative internationalism centered on combating climate change, population control, control of infectious disease, investment to deal effectively with poverty and global migration, dramatic demilitarization, and renunciation of arms as well as human trafficking. The United States should take the lead in resurrecting and strengthening the United Nations to better enable it to pursue the mission of promoting global security, anti-racism, and universal human rights.
Oh dear. When change for the better is being called for, any sentence beginning, “The United States should take the lead …” can only mean one thing: idealistic liberal poppycock ahead.
Sound like idealistic liberal poppycock? Well, how do you like what the “realist” foreign policy paradigm has delivered—an endless series of forever wars, an utterly inept response to the existential threat of climate change, rampant destruction of animal and plant species, ongoing militarization of the planet amid poverty, epidemic disease, and little prospect of genuine national, much less international, security.
No, I don’t “like what the “realist” foreign policy paradigm has delivered” one bit, but on offer here is a false either/or. Can the US Empire mend its ways? I say it can’t, and that all talk of its reform flows from a failure to grasp the nature of capitalism in its advanced monopoly stage of imperialism, and of an unprecedented situation in which the most powerful empire in history – with the wherewithal to wipe out humanity and most other advanced life forms a hundred times over – is about to see its economy overtaken by a global challenger.
Still in the grip of the Cold War paradigm, the Biden administration is just as wedded to confrontation with China and Russia as Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, and every other administration since 1945. The sheer hubris at the core of American national identity—typically referenced as American exceptionalism—cannot abide the existence other great powers. Yes, China’s takeover of Hong Kong, efforts to establish hegemony in the South China Sea, and egregious human rights record, especially in Tibet and Xinjiang, are disturbing. Over time a viable UN—which realists have long hamstrung and condemned as an outpost idealistic universalism—could put meaningful pressure on China on human rights, but at this time cooperation on climate change is the greater priority.
Implicit here is the false moral equivalence (at best) Caitlin Johnstone and I took issue with a few days ago. When it comes to China, is Mr Hixson too eager to show himself a ‘responsible’ voice? He takes at face value accusations of risible provenance, sourced by ‘think tanks’ funded by a military industrial complex – whose existence he acknowledges in paragraph two – and dutifully relayed by media whose systemic corruption I have explored both in general terms and in reference to Sinophobia aimed at manufacturing consent for hostile acts up to and including war (by design or by one miscalculated provocation too many) in the name of every reason under the sun bar the real one.
As Caitlin Johnstone recently put it:
China is far, far better than the US … the US is far, far worse than anyone else in terms of tyranny and destructiveness. Working to destroy any population which disobeys you anywhere in the world makes you worse than anyone else.
The only reason nobody seems to recognize this in the west is because the US has such phenomenally excellent global narrative control. If it didn’t, the entire world would’ve laughed when the butchers of the Middle East started pretending to care about Muslims in Xinjiang.
But back to Mr Hixson, who continues:
The one thin reed of Biden diplomatic accomplishment–which can be credited to John Kerry rather than the plodding Secretary of State Anthony Blinken–was agreeing with Chinese leader Xi Jinping to pursue joint action, tepid as it has been to this point, on climate change. We have no choice but to work with other nations, especially China and India, and to do so immediately. There is only one clear vision on the global horizon, and that is the ever-rising tidal wave of climate change fueled by decades of US-led global oil addiction, which was yet another staple of the postwar paradigm.
The unfettered capitalism of the West is systemically incapable of environmental concern. And China’s capitalism? Being subordinate to state policy, it just might have a fighting chance.
US policy on Russia has been irrational since 1945. At that time a truly “realistic” foreign policy would have recognized and settled for trying to ameliorate an inevitable expansion of Soviet influence owing to the sacrifices of the USSR in the war. Well more than 50 Soviets died for every dead American in the conflict as the USSR deserved the lion’s share of the credit—which of course it never received from either Washington or Hollywood—for defeating the Nazis.
US policy on Russia has never been irrational. Liberals who believe otherwise never understood the cold war on the Soviet Union because, lacking a class perspective, they took at face value the declarations of Western politicians. (Many of whom believed what they were saying since they too bought into the fiction, of rule by and for the many, by which rule by and for the few is concealed.) This applies not only to peddlers of idealistic liberal poppycock. It applies too to pundits I have far more time for, like Paul Craig Roberts and the late Stephen Cohen.
Here’s what I wrote more than four years ago:
Suppose the old cold war was not about ‘defending our freedom’. Suppose it was instead about one sixth of the world’s land mass – its vast resources and markets – being closed off to Profit. Why suppose any such thing? Because for reasons beyond my current remit, capitalism’s inner laws of motion demand ceaseless accumulation, even as they drive a tendency to falling profits. I haven’t the space here to prove these things, nor do I ask anyone to accept them on my say so. I ask only that for purposes of inquiry we suppose them true. Things that don’t otherwise make much sense suddenly snap into focus.
Reagan won the old cold war for western capitalism. He forced the USSR into ever greater arms-spend when every rouble on defence bled the Soviet economy whereas, such is the insanity of capitalism, every dollar the Pentagon spent boosted a $10trn for-profit arms sector, biggest driver of the US economy. By this and other means – sanctions, funding terror in Afghanistan, manipulating world oil prices – Washington, aided by the USSR’s ossified leadership and brittle top-down economy, prevailed. Such was Reagan’s vacuity, and such the figurehead nature of his office, he genuinely believed the cold war over.
And so for a while it seemed. As free-market capitalism sent Russia into a tailspin of chaos and gangsterism, Yeltsin did everything asked of him. He did his own rolling over on Yugoslavia, its dismemberment exposing Russia while unleashing the corrupt state of Kosovo. With touching faith he believed Clinton on NATO ‘not advancing an inch’, and opened up the economy. That’s where things went off-script for the West.
I don’t doubt that squadrons of glassy-eyed Chicago Schoolers really do buy their own voodoo economics. I’m even prepared to deem some at least of the IMF Taliban naive enough to toke the smoke on liberalisation as economic cure-all. But to believe the same of the wolves of Wall Street? Sorry, no can do. For them, liberalisation means nothing if not boosted bottom lines and eye-watering bonuses. Read Naomi Klein: a good writer who documents meticulously. Chapters 10-11 of The Shock Doctrine chart exactly what went down in Russia. The fruits of privatisation, you see, had been stamped ‘for western hands’. Instead – this is funny if you’re in a good mood – they were trousered by ex KGB; the now semi-feudal oligarchy that blossomed and flourished under Yeltsin.
In comes strongman Putin. He cracks down on corruption (but must play a long game, so is with breathtaking chutzpah accused of deeds done by his predecessor to nods in Washington). He fixes a torched economy, allowing him among other things to beef up defence – now why would he want to do that? With Russia once more a global player, he stands up to NATO and effects his own rapprochement, with China, in part discussed in Perilous Days. All this, mind, coinciding with the slow economic decline – making it triply dangerous – of the most powerful and reckless nation on earth.
Since they failed to understand the first cold war, even the best of these “stern friend” critics of Washington cannot, for all their intellectual powers and insider insights, understand what is now happening with regard to China and Russia. I’m the first to describe the US ruling class (and its equivalents across the “Western” – i.e. imperialist – world) as criminally insane. They have to be, as the executives of a criminally insane system for organising wealth creation. But that does not make them irrational, other than in the sense noted by Polonius:
Though this be madness, yet there is method in ‘t.
Instead of addressing Soviet power realistically the United States declared and waged an ideological holy war, which produced militarized nightmares all over the world and notably in Indochina. After childishly trumpeting “victory” in the Cold War in 1991, the United States did the one thing that Russian experts notably George F. Kennan warned would ensure that the Cold War continued—it expanded NATO, a hostile anti-Russian military alliance, into Eastern Europe and then into the former Soviet republics.
More of the same. The US may have declared an ideological war but it was not waging one – or to be precise, that was only half the story. It was engaged in a long term project of rolling back the property gains of 1917 – not through ‘irrationality’ or even ‘greed’ but because capitalism is systemically incapable of tolerating, other than as a temporary setback, a socialised economy on so huge a scale as that represented by the USSR.
Today, Vladimir Putin has drawn the line in eastern Ukraine, a place in which millions of Russians live (they comprise nearly a two-thirds majority in the Crimea, which Putin has already secured) and where the Russian language is widely spoken. Rather than having the realism to recognize Russian national interests along its western border–and pursue common ground on climate change and perhaps non-intervention in each other’s domestic politics–the United States is choosing confrontation at the risk of an escalating military conflict.
True – placing the Black and Azov Seas up there with the South China Sea as the most perilous waters on earth, and not just for the locals.
Finally, postwar US foreign policy in the Middle East, anchored by support for reactionary regimes throughout the region—notably Egypt, Israel, and Saudi Arabia—has been an unmitigated disaster replete with forever wars, horrific blowback, and perennial instability. The only “success” in the region was to keep the oil flowing, which produced the existential crisis we now face.
Now, because the Biden administration is bowing to the Trump policy of torpedoing the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement, the possibility of yet another Middle East war has emerged before the dust has even settled in Afghanistan. Israel of course is the only country in the Middle East that actually has nuclear weapons, which it developed in the 1960s in defiance of the US-led nuclear non-proliferation agreement (1968). Israel and its lobby—by far the most powerful lobby of any foreign nation in American history–prefer war to diplomacy hence the openly racist former Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and now his successor, Naftali Bennett– who likes to boast about the number of Arabs he has killed–strive relentlessly to overturn the 2015 accord with Iran. The multilateral agreement was an excellent piece of diplomacy that would have kept Iran verifiably bomb-free in return for sanctions relief.
Israel, now widely and accurately recognized as an apartheid state, has with the assistance of the AIPAC-led lobby—which controls the US Congress as fully as Putin controls the Russian duma—every intention of provoking a war with Iran. Blinken, a longtime dedicated Zionist, might just accommodate them, pulling sleepy Joe along, rather than resurrecting the nuclear accord.
What is certain is that Congress will continue to give Israel, a tiny little country of some nine million people, more money than it gives any other country and even whole continents–$3.8 billion a year and $146 billion since 1948. This ongoing and absurd level of military assistance has made Israel the colossus of the Middle East, the world leader in targeted assassination with a specialization in waging indiscriminate warfare against Arabs especially in the captive Gaza strip, the site of repeated war crimes. For decades Israel has made a laughingstock of the mythical “peace process” as more than 700,000 “settlers” intruded into the illegally occupied Palestinian territories. Israel is in the process of taking over East Jerusalem, which was supposed to be the capital of an independent Palestinian state.
Just as Hixson fails to understand the logic of cold war on Russia and now China, he fails also to understand the nature of Washington’s relationship with Israel. There is nothing ‘absurd’ about it. Israel, as Stephen Gowans so accurately explores, is imperialism’s beachhead in the middle east.
US foreign policy has enabled and funded these actions by the Jewish state, which Israel proclaimed itself to be in 2018. The Jewish State Law made apartheid official, marginalizing Israel’s Arab population, 20 percent of the total, as well as the repressed Palestinians in the occupied territories.
The aforementioned George Kennan once compared US foreign policy to a brontosaurus, a large prehistoric beast that wreaked havoc with its powerful tail, which went unrestrained by its very small brain. The image has never been more appropriate than today.
A new foreign policy paradigm is desperately needed but, as with World War II, it will probably require a cataclysm to inspire the required tectonic shift. In the meantime, there will be a premium on survival.
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