Can Europe break free of a dying Empire?

13 Feb

Instead of a real military threat from Russia and China, the problem for US strategists is the absence of such a threat … What worries them is NATO nations and countries along the Belt & Road seeing the benefits of peaceful trade and investment. With no Russian or Chinese plan to invade or bomb, 1 what need of NATO? What need for heavy purchases of U.S. military hardware by affluent allies? And why would foreign countries sacrifice their trade and financial interests by relying on U.S. exporters and investors?


Writing in the Guardian four days ago on the Ukraine standoff, Bernie Sanders called Vladimir Putin “a liar and a demagogue”. This interested me. I’ve had two exchanges this past week with friends who damned the Russian President. 2  You can follow one of those exchanges here – or, speaking more broadly, check out my post, “We have evidence”  is not evidence.

Here’s what the BBC said of Mr Putin in 2018:

Over successive terms as president and prime minister he has overseen an economic boom, military expansion and the re-establishment of Russia as a major power. Living standards for most Russians improved, and a renewed sense of stability and national pride emerged. But the price, many say, was the erosion of Russia’s fledgling democracy. 3

I’m not, of course, given to taking as gospel the BBC’s word on anything to do with Russia. But it is a time-honoured principle of jurisprudence that the words of an otherwise dubious source gain credibility when they speak against that source’s own interests and agendas.

In any case a wealth of unimpeachable data (some of it used in that BBC page) shows that life has indeed improved for most Russians following the chaos and gangsterism, the plummeting living standards and life expectancy, into which that country was plunged by shock therapy IMF ‘reforms’ – amply aided by the pliant drunkard, Boris Yeltsin. 4

My own view, drawing on sources including but not confined to such mainstream offerings as that BBC web page, is that Mr Putin is one smart cookie who has been extraordinarily good for Russia and her people. On this I may be wrong, but it’s time to fess up. I haven’t been entirely honest about Bernie’s depiction of the man. Here’s what he actually said in his opinion piece of February 8:

Putin may be a liar and a demagogue, but it is hypocritical for the United States to insist that we do not accept the principle of “spheres of influence”. For the last 200 years our country has operated under the Monroe Doctrine, embracing the premise that as the dominant power in the western hemisphere, the United States has the right to intervene against any country that might threaten our alleged interests. Under this doctrine we have undermined and overthrown at least a dozen governments. 5 In 1962 we came to the brink of nuclear war with the Soviet Union in response to the placement of Soviet missiles in Cuba, 90 miles from our shore, which the Kennedy administration saw as an unacceptable threat to our national security.

And the Monroe Doctrine is not ancient history. As recently as 2018, Donald Trump’s secretary of state, Rex Tillerson, called the Monroe Doctrine “as relevant today as it was the day it was written”. In 2019, Trump’s former national security adviser, John Bolton, declared “the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well”.

Here’s another confession. This post isn’t about whether Vladimir Putin is a demon or a good egg. It’s true I deplore the way evidence-free, and even evidence-defiant, accusations against him are made by those with undeclared axes to grind, and by intellectuals whose confidence in their critical reasoning power is not always justified. But what got my attention in Bernie’s piece wasn’t what he did and – the biggest whoppers being those of omission – did not say about the Russian President. It was this:

The sanctions against Russia and Russia’s threatened response to those sanctions, could result in massive economic upheaval – with impacts on energy, banking, food and the day-to-day needs of ordinary people throughout the entire world. It is likely that Russians will not be the only people suffering from sanctions. And, by the way, any hope of international cooperation to address the existential threat of global climate crisis and future pandemics would suffer a major setback. (My emphasis.)

Bernie being Bernie, 6 and the USA being the billionaire run duopoly dressed up as a democracy it actually is, he of course followed with this:

We should be clear about who is most responsible for this looming crisis: Vladimir Putin. Having already seized parts of Ukraine in 2014, the Russian president now threatens to take over the entire country and destroy Ukrainian democracy. In my view, we must unequivocally support the sovereignty of Ukraine and make clear that the international community will impose severe consequences on Putin and his associates if he does not change course.

Which tells me, having spent a few score hours getting up to speed on Ukraine and its history, 7 either that what Bernie Sanders knows of the subject can be scratched on the back of a nickel, or that he’s a liar and a coward. I’m charitable enough to go with the first reading.

Especially since what he wrote in the Graun was, for all its gaping flaws, tantamount to treason on the Beltway.

But as with Putin, Ukraine isn’t the prime focus of this post. Its real focus, with Ukraine merely an especially alarming angle on it, is Europe’s relations with the Empire Centre. At issue, with Nordstream 2 a highly visible aspect, is a question of seismic import: in the context of Eurasia rising, under what circumstances is Europe likely to break – or by slow degree wriggle – free of the US Empire?

Here’s a piece by Michael Hudson: the man Paul Craig Roberts, frequently cited in these posts, calls the world’s greatest living economist. Personally I think that damns Mr Hudson with faint praise. More than an economist, he’s a man with an unusually comprehensive grasp of global realpolitik. Here he is, writing in CounterPunch, February 11, on Western Europe’s relations, 8 fraught and set to worsen, with a fading and by that fact frightening Empire. If you read nothing else this week, do read this. Coming at the subject from many angles – most notably oil, arms and dollar hegemony – he sets out a remarkably lucid and coherent case for concluding that …

America’s Real Adversaries are its European and Other Allies

The U.S. aim is to keep them from trading with China and Russia

The Iron Curtain of the 1940s and ‘50s was ostensibly designed to isolate Russia from Western Europe – to keep out Communist ideology and military penetration. Today’s sanctions regime is aimed inward, to prevent America’s NATO and other Western allies from opening up more trade and investment with  Russia and China. The aim is not so much to isolate Russia and China as to hold these allies firmly within America’s own economic orbit. Allies are to forego the benefits of importing Russian gas and Chinese products, buying much higher-priced U.S. LNG and other exports, capped by more U.S. arms.

The sanctions that U.S. diplomats are insisting that their allies impose against trade with Russia and China are aimed ostensibly at deterring a military build up. But such a build up cannot really be the main Russian and Chinese concern. They have much more to gain by offering mutual economic benefits to the West. So the underlying question is whether Europe will find its advantage in replacing US exports with Russian and Chinese supplies and the associated mutual economic linkages.

What worries American diplomats is that Germany, other NATO nations and countries along the Belt and Road route understand the gains that can be made by opening up peaceful trade and investment. If there is no Russian or Chinese plan to invade or bomb them, what is the need for NATO? What is the need for such heavy purchases of U.S. military hardware by America’s affluent allies? And if there is no inherently adversarial relationship, why do foreign countries need to sacrifice their own trade and financial interests by relying exclusively on U.S. exporters and investors?

These are the concerns that have prompted French Prime Minister Macron to call forth the ghost of Charles de Gaulle and urge Europe to turn away from what he calls NATO’s “brain-dead” Cold War and beak with the pro-U.S. trade arrangements that are imposing rising costs on Europe while denying it potential gains from trade with Eurasia. Even Germany is balking at demands that it freeze by this coming March by going without Russian gas.

Instead of a real military threat from Russia and China, the problem for American strategists is the absence of such a threat. All countries have come to realize that the world has reached a point at which no industrial economy has the manpower and political ability to mobilize a standing army of the size that would be needed to invade or even wage a major battle with a significant adversary. That political cost makes it uneconomic for Russia to retaliate against NATO adventurism prodding at its western border trying to incite a military response. It’s just not worth taking over Ukraine.

America’s rising pressure on its allies threatens to drive them out of the U.S. orbit. For over 75 years they had little practical alternative to U.S. hegemony. But that is now changing. America no longer has the monetary power and seemingly chronic trade and balance-of-payments surplus that enabled it to draw up the world’s trade and investment rules in 1944-45. The threat to U.S. dominance is that China, Russia and Mackinder’s Eurasian World Island heartland are offering better trade and investment opportunities than are available from the United States with its increasingly desperate demand for sacrifices from its NATO and other allies.

The most glaring example is the U.S. drive to block Germany from authorizing the Nord Stream 2 pipeline to obtain Russian gas for the coming cold weather. Angela Merkel agreed with Donald Trump to spend $1 billion building a new LNG port to become more dependent on highly priced U.S. LNG. (The plan was cancelled after the U.S. and German elections changed both leaders.) But Germany has no other way of heating many of its houses and office buildings (or supplying its fertilizer companies) than with Russian gas.

The only way left for U.S. diplomats to block European purchases is to goad Russia into a military response and then claim that avenging this response outweighs any purely national economic interest. As hawkish Under-Secretary of State for Political Affairs, Victoria Nuland, explained in a State Department press briefing on January 27: “If Russia invades Ukraine one way or another Nord Stream 2 will not move forward.” The problem is to create a suitably offensive incident and depict Russia as the aggressor …

The full piece is 4,361 words. 9 Here again is the link.

* * *

  1. China and Russia are now impregnable; their hypersonic missiles nullifying a central element of US strategy. They are no longer vulnerable to a huge first strike taking out their defence capacity, leaving ‘star wars’ shields to shoot down what remains of their strike-back. Washington has no answer to incoming missiles at Mach 10+. But unlike the USA, with its vast military budget and bases ringing the planet, China and Russia have invested in defensive systems. Invulnerability to US/NATO aggression does not constitute aggressive intent. As Mr Hudson convincingly asks: where’s the motive?
  2. Besides being a ‘bully’ frequently likened to Hitler, and a ‘homophobe’ (as if – I speak as one with a daughter in a loving same sex relationship – this weighed a bean in DC calculations other than for propaganda purposes) Putin is routinely called corrupt. See my Pandora Papers post. It shows the Guardian opening a major feature on them with a photocollage of leaders showcasing Putin at twice the size of the others. This despite him not being named in those papers! (Tony Blair, who was  named, does not feature at all.) By such means – insult stacked on unsubstantiated insult – is a liberal intelligentsia led to draw conclusions, dangerous ones at that, it fondly believes it arrived at independently. I cannot stress too highly the perils attendant on assuming, often subliminally by folk who can lecture all day on evidence based reasoning, that corporate media – liberal corporate media in particular – are capable of speaking the truth on matters of non negotiable import to power.
  3. As one highly critical of what I call the chimera of liberal democracy, a call I’m ready to back up should it be challenged, I’m not much moved by the charge, even when not made by those with huge undeclared interests in damning this man, that Mr Putin has overseen an “erosion” of democracy in Russia. Rising living standards, after the chaos of the Yeltsin era, count for more with me than whether or not the leader this socially conservative nation consistently elects is authoritarian.
  4. Chapters 11-12 of Naomi Klein’s excellent Shock Doctrine draw on screeds of evidence to show (a) just how disastrous for ordinary Russians those IMF led ‘reforms’ were, (b) how huge Western investors were ‘robbed’ of the fruits of the biggest privatisation in history when powerful apparatchiks stepped in to snatch them instead. Our corporate media have successfully pinned the rise of that semi feudal oligarchy on Putin, who as a skilled politician must reckon with and negotiate its consequences. Meanwhile Gen Z – but no one else! – might be forgiven for having no idea his sozzled predecessor ever existed.
  5. “At least a dozen governments” undermined or overthrown by the USA is an absurdly low estimate.
  6. Progressives who put their faith in Sanders were dismayed by his rapid endorsement, after he had been cheated by the DNC, of a Hillary Clinton who then went on to lose – where Sanders might well have won – against Donald Trump.
  7. For more of my writings on Ukraine, and those of others, use the search bar at upper right.
  8. It’s not just Western Europe’s relations with the imperial hub at issue here. Fault-lines can also be seen in – to name a few high profile players – Ankara, Canberra, Ottawa and New Delhi. (And even Riyadh flirted with buying Russia’s world-beating S-400 air defence system. That it ultimately walked away indicates in all likelihood a high price extracted from Washington as quid pro quo.)
  9. Tip for Kindle users. For online documents of any length I prefer to copy the text, paste into MS Word, strip out any garbage and send to my Kindle. It’s easy to do.

8 Replies to “Can Europe break free of a dying Empire?

  1. Greetings Phil.

    As always a very insightful post, on a day when literally the first thing I did this morning was scan my various sources for any news on the Ukraine saga. I watched the German evening news for the first time in weeks, and went to bed wondering if this could finally be the day things got totally out of hand….

    Anyway, I digress.

    Just wanted to give you and your readers a link to a lengthy video interview with Michael Hudson and mainly Max Blumenthal of the Grayzone. I have watched/listened to it more than once, as it`s full of the most jaw-dropping stuff.

    Cheers, Billy

    • Hi Billy and danke schön – I’ll be downloading the Grayzone/Hudson interview to my phone so I can listen on my battered and dog-chewed bluetooth headset while walking the delinquent canines!

  2. Even The Guardian (even Simon Tisdall!) 13.02.22. has acknowledged some US / Europe tensions within NATO (admittedly through a BREXIT lens). Galling that Kier Starmer has chosen this moment to dis The Stop The War Coalition and commit Labour to seemingly uncritical support of NATO. He no doubt felt he had no choice – but there was wriggle room to exploit and it would have been good to see him try!

    • I haven’t read the Tisdall piece, Bryan – I find the bloke a pompous know-nothing – but I’m glad you raised the subject of Brexit. I meant to work it into my intro to Michael’s piece but decided it was a complication too far.

      I detest the EU, for reasons I’ve gone into before, and don’t buy the idea peddled by Yanis Varoufakis that it can be reformed. See in this regard a piece two days ago in Defend Democracy Press on Greece’s shafting. (As Modern Monetary Theorists point out – MMT gets a positive nod from Michael, btw – had Greece kept the drachma she’d still have had many problems, but would have been able to conduct her very own QE. She didn’t, so wasn’t, and countless Greeks have gone to needlessly early graves.)

      Nevertheless I voted Remain, and have said why in other posts on this site. One thing that would have made a huge difference to the plunging living standards attendant on BoJo’s car-crash Brexit would be a UK government willing to look eastwards to Belt & Road. It goes without saying that no such government, with the possible exception of one headed by Corbyn and McDonnell, has ever been remotely on the horizon.

  3. Two points. The first is that I made much the same point as Hudson in a reply to one of your earlier pieces on Ukraine – i.e. that the yanks are desperate to stop Germany in particular from getting easy access to Russian gas as they have their own more costly stuff to sell. ironically the Germans have put themselves into this uncomfortable position by closing down all their (non-carbon producing) nuclear power plants. Of course they need us as clients (allies) to sell stuff to, especially weapons as these are probably all they are competitive in outside services. As i said before, it’s all about interests. Unfortunately, while Russia and the USA are clear about theirs, we seem very confused, and mistake our “allies” interests with our own.

    The second point is that pretty much anything can be reformed. The question is, how likely is it, and how easy is it. The first depends on persuading an entrenched system that it needs to change – look how well that is going with our own political system. Of course those who benefit from it are hardly going to want to change it. So, likelihood of EU reform – low. Would it be easy? Not in the sense of getting the process on the table, but in the sense of actually making changes that would turn it into a genuinely democratic, progressive and positive entity. I suspect that this could be done without excessive difficulty, as it could to our system, but in the absence of any will to do it, it won’t happen.

    A word of caution. Watching from the side-lines and criticising is far, far, far easier than trying to actively make change happen. Yanis is one of those who has got stuck in to try to improve a rotten system, and mostly failed, but that is inevitable. Success in this context is discouragingly rare, so those who keep trying deserve our support and encouragement.

    • One of the problems in play is that far too often there is a misinterpretation of the origins and basis of positions taken.

      There is a tendancy to take the easy option and wish away reality by simplistically reducing every difficulty down to one of interests.

      One of the first lessons we learned in Union negotiating was to analyse a difficulty or problem to determine whether the conflict generated was one of interests or values.

      Conflicts of interest were straightforward to deal with in negotiating terms.

      Conflicts of values were an absolute bastard to try and resolve.

      We had the same difficulties with those who thought it was possible to interchangeably turn a qualitative value into a quantitative one.

      Ron Suskind’s well known quote attributed to Karl Rove about the reality based community and those who make up their own reality had its origins in management theory and practice.

      • Values are often a disguise for interests. I would find it difficult to name the values that, for example, the US holds that are leading to a conflict with Russia because it holds opposing values. Both are out for control of resources and maintenance of their power structures, which, as far as I can see, are interests, not values. No doubt the average yanks would say they hold “freedom” as their greatest value, but what this meant would be all about interests and would vary from person to person. In fact, I would go further an say that while true values can motivate individuals, this is not usually true for organisations or states. This is why it is so easy for a national government to take or sanction action that is contrary to the perceived or claimed “values” of that society. If this were not the case (i.e. interests trump values) then the “west” would be honest, trustworthy, peaceful, tolerant and generous, and would never subvert, undermine, assassinate, plunder and destroy societies across the world.

        • Both are out for control of resources and maintenance of their power structures, which, as far as I can see, are interests, not values.

          From a Political Realism School standpoint this makes sense. (I have points of commonality and of difference with Mearsheimer et al.) Corret me if I’m wrong but several of your comments on this site suggest that’s where you’re coming from.

          As a comment on what is unfolding, you won’t be surprised to hear I find it specious in its implied equivalence. Neither Russia nor China encircles the planet with military bases, has an economy addicted to war, plays brinksmanship in ways that endanger us all and imposes starvation sanctions and murderous wars on states which disobey its will. Will they do so if and when they gain the capacity? They might. But neither you nor I can know that, and I’m not in the business of calling out crimes yet to be committed.

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