All political rhetoric pivots around key words or phrases that resonate with an audience and are evocative of deep-seated images and symbols. Among Americans the most potent are democracy and freedom. They are sprinkled liberally in public communications of any kind – spoken or written. They are used interchangeably. For, in our minds, they are shorthand for the entire American experience as it has been absorbed over a lifetime. The legendary American experience.
Those two words, hackneyed to the jaded, have received a new birth of as the United States embraces the idea of a Cold War sequel between ‘Democracy’ and ‘Autocracy.’ Objectively, of course that is code for the contest for global primacy between the reigning hegemon (the US) and the formidable challenge from China&/or Russia. That reality is expressed in the addition of the phrase “National Security.” Together they form a doctrinal iron triangle that crystallizes sentiment at home. In the wider world, “rules based international order” is substituted for “national security.” That rallying cry falls flat as the iron turns into rubber abroad.
The overriding purpose is to etch a stark line between ‘we’ and ‘they.’ The former encompasses the fellow liberal democracies cum allies of the North Atlantic area which is extended figuratively to the ANZUS countries, Japan and South Korea – the amalgam constituted as the Collective West. The ‘they’ is composed of China – above all, Russia, Iran, North Korea and whomever demonstrates either an affinity for the above or opposes Western designs and policies. They are seen as the “running dogs’ of the threatening powers – Venezuela, Cuba, Nicaragua, Syria inter alia.
Then there is that fluid and indistinct grey area occupied by the neutrals and uncommitted. The most strategically significant of these ‘independents’ are Turkey, India, Brazil, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Argentina, Pakistan. It has been the aim of the Biden administration to mobilize the maximum support possible among these states on matters of basing rights, energy commerce, finance, trade embargos/boycotts. Before the Ukraine crisis became acute in February of last year, the primary target was China. The emphasis was on containing the expansion of China’s global influence – pressing the argument that such a development constitutes a multiform menace to the national interests of other states and to global stability overall.
This abstract strategic formulation acquired sharper definition with the onset of the confrontation with Russia over Ukraine. Washington leader had provoked the conflict in the expectation of inflicting a mortal politico-economic defeat on Putin’s Russia – eliminating it as a major factor in the grand equation of forces between ‘we’ and ‘they.’ They moved quickly and decisively to draw an irreversible “line of blood” between Russia and the NATO/EU European countries. Deferential governments across the continent – from London to Warsaw to Tallin – enthusiastically fell into line. That instinctive display of solidarity conforms to the psychological dynamic of the dominant/subordinate relationship that has determined the Euro-American connection for the past 75 years. So deeply rooted, is has become second nature to political elites.
The extremity of the prerogatives granted the United States to act in disregard for European sovereignty and interests was demonstrated in Washington’s destruction of the Baltic gas pipeline. That extraordinary episode punctuated the unqualified Europeans’ commitment to serve as an America satrap in its all-out campaign to prevent China as well Russia from challenging its hegemony. Securing the obedience of the European economic power bloc undeniability represents a major strategic success for the United States. So does cutting off Russia’s access to capital investment, technology and rich markets to the West. The heaviest costs are being paid, though, by the Europeans. In effect, they have mortgaged their economic future for the sake of participating in the ill-thought through severing all connection with what now is an implacably antagonist Russia whose abundant energy and agricultural resources have been a prime element in their prosperity and political stability.
In the eyes of the objective observer, Washington’s gains in Europe have been more than offset by the absolute failure to achieve its primary aim to gravely weaken Russia. The latter’s striking economic resilience (a complete surprise to poorly informed Western planners) left Russia not only standing, but in a healthier position– thanks to a series of beneficial reforms (above all, in the financial system) that auger well for the future. The West’s economic war has led to an accentuation and acceleration of a Russian program of reconfiguration largely unrecognized by analysts in Washington, London and Brussels. Sharply reduced vulnerability to external pressures, such as the misfiring American-led sanctions campaign, and the knitting of a new network of global economic relations, is the outcome. Indeed, Russia’s demonstrated strengths in design and manufacture of military hardware, along with its abundant natural resources, mean that its contribution to the overall power of the Sino-Russian combine make it an all the more formidable rival to the American bloc.
The binary structure of the international system taking shape is easily accommodated by American elites and populace alike. A Manichean view of the world neatly fits the country’s self-image as Destiny’s child preordained to lead the world into the light of freedom and democracy. Since it is an article of faith to Americans that the country was imbued with political virtue at its founding that any party who opposes them stands in the way of an incontrovertible teleology. It follows that a political entity that challenges American supremacy is not only a hostile threat to the United States’ security and well-being, but by that very fact, it also is morally flawed. Righteousness denigration of our foes readily mutes into their designation as ‘evil’ incarnate. Who treats with Satan?
The implications are profound. A conflictual relationship is presumed, co-existence deemed unnatural and fragile, diplomacy devalued and negotiation viewed as a poker game instead of horse-trading. Success becomes defined as victory that eliminates the enemy. That attitude has been reinforced by the 20th century experience. Defeat of the Central Powers in WW I, the crushing of Germany and Japan in WW II, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the evaporation of international Communism. Forgotten are the straightforward powers plays in the invasion of Mexico and the confiscation of its territories, the Spanish-American War, innumerable interventions and occupations in Central America and the Caribbean. The moral crusades of the next century facilitated the erasure memory of those profane events and the preservation of belief in the United States inherent virtue.
This continuity helps to explain the near unanimous, uncritical acceptance of Washington’s precipitous casting of Russia and China in the mold of past enemies. Thus, today’s Russia is viewed as the avatar of the Soviet Union, and China as posing an even more ominous danger that did Imperial Japan. Ignorance of far more subtle and complex realities is cultivated seemingly as an automatic preference for s stereotypes that conveniently match American self-identity, subjective experience, philosophical conceptions, and national mythology. As a consequence, we act on what are gross caricatures.
Russia is denounced as a tyranny under the ruthless rule of dictator Putin. In truth, Putin is the head of a collective leadership that receives highly favorable ratings from the populace, his copious writings and speeches provide no evidence of aggressive ambitions, and – despite political controls – there is a greater diversity of opinion on Ukraine expressed in the media and by popular Russian bloggers than there is in the United States or anywhere among our European allies. Considerably more than in Ukraine where draconian controls have been imposed.
China, too, is depicted in terms so warped and simplistic as to be almost cartoonish. The Beijing leadership’s clear vision of its prominent place in Asia – and beyond – bears no resemblance to Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere and Empire-building. This should be evident to anyone with either a passing knowledge of Chinese history or reflection on its current activities. Yet, official Washington – and the near entirety of our foreign policy community – insists on accusing China as bent on belligerence and hostility toward us even as we ourselves take the aggressive measures of flouting the half-century pledge to the One-China principle and promoting Taiwan independence. That distorted vision has the Pentagon clamoring for a massive build-up of our naval forces in the Indo-Pacific region in expectation that the great sea battles of WW II will repeat themselves, while computerized war games have a become an avocation. The theme music of ‘Victory At Sea’ sounding in the background?
The extremity of efforts to paint Russia (and to a somewhat lesser extent China) as irremediable sinners who indulge in acts of criminality that qualify as war crimes express the American impulse to righteously judge others. This rash moralism is rooted in the theological dimension of its peculiar sense of ‘exceptionalism.’ It also serves a strategic political purpose in helping to marshal support for a ‘we vs them,’ zero-sum game. A striking future of the current Ukraine/Russia situation is that an objective observer must strain to find a compelling reason to lock oneself into so rigid position. Washington minds drenched in neo-con dogma and anxious about the durability of its global hegemony lacks that objectivity and foresight.
That impulse to stigmatize the enemy is matched by the impulse to burnish the democratic credentials of the parties whom Washington is backing. Ukraine is incessantly portrayed as carrying the banner of enlightened political values. Mr. Zelensky is heralded as its bearer and honored in the hallowed halls of Congress and elsewhere. Yet, the manifest reality is quite otherwise. Ukraine is an authoritarian state – one infamous for its corruption. All parties other than that supporting the current government are banned; the media are totally controlled and permitted only to spout propaganda; the offices of any civic groups are shuttered, and not least – the neo-Nazi and similar intra-nationalist forces exercise disproportionate influence in the security services and the corridors of official power. Some boldly display Nazi insignia emblazoned on their uniforms and statues are erected in the memory of Josef Bandera, the wartime ally of the SS who directed mass murders of Nazi opponents.
Such is the power of rhetorical imagery, and so strong is the need for moralistic justification of a high-stakes power political ploy, that this glaring reality is collectively sublimated.
When we shift our attention from the bipolar dimension of the emerging world system to the wider arena that includes other states, the American values-based approach to designating friends and foes loses cogency. Indeed, it becomes a distinct liability. For those countries neither accept the United States’ self- proclaimed conceit of being the cynosure of political virtue – at home and abroad, nor the demonization of countries with whom they have had productive, pacific relations. They do not base high-stakes strategic decisions on what Beijing is or is not doing to the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Even Blonken & Company recognize this basic fact of international life. Washington, therefore, is forced to make its appeals for allegiance in very practical, conventional terms. While it does lip-service to the ‘historic’ struggle between ‘democracy’ and tyranny, that facile formulation cuts little ice in Ankara, Delhi, Brasilia, Riyadh or other capitals. Some are anything but bastions of freedom themselves (Saudi Arabia); are led by people who have suffered the pernicious effects of American support for anti-democratic opponents (Lula who was jailed by the autocratic Bolsonaro cabal favored by Washington); have close dealings with Moscow or Beijing on matters of paramount national importance (Erdogan in Turkey); or, while constitutionally democratic, prefer to apply the term in its less than pristine purity (Modi’s India).
India is a particularly instructive case. American strategists plotting their counter to the rise of Chinese strength presumed that they could engage India in an Entente Cordiale encompassing Japan, South Korea, the ANZUS and whomever else in the region they could entice or coerce into joining. That hope always was vain; at least it was to analysts less obsessed with the China ‘bête noir.’ Although relations between Delhi and Beijing had been chilly ever since the Himalayan war of 1962, and though India elites have felt an anxious sense of rivalry with a surging China, Indian leaders are committed to dealing with what has become a more complex relationship on their own terms and by their own means. India is a civilizational state (like China) that harbors deep feelings of resentment at how the British Raj for 175 years subjugated them, exploited them and used India’s resources for their own strategic ends. Today’s self-confident India is not about to allow itself to serve as a subaltern in a perilous American campaign to maintain its dominance in the Asian region.
Furthermore, in regard to Russia, the two countries historically have had close, mutually beneficial dealings – economic and diplomatic. It should have been no surprise that Delhi has spurned Biden’s demand that it join the project of isolating and punishing Moscow. Instead, it has done just the opposite. India today is the second largest purchaser of Russian oil – a substantial portion of which is refined and sold on the international market at a handsome profit. Some goes to buyers in Western Europe including the UK. Even the United States is a buyer of the trafficked heavy-grade Russian petroleum that it needs. The Kingdom shares in this lucrative boycott-busting with Saudi Arabia.
So, contrary to the standard American and allied rhetoric that Russia has been isolated by the worId community, the awkward truth is that, to date, not a single government outside the Collective West has signed on to the US-directed sanctions regime. Incessant claims that Russia is a global pariah suffering shunning and scorn, is obviously wrong. They pass muster only in the distorted echo chamber of Western officialdom and media.
These distinctive geostrategic and economic security priorities of these ‘independent’ powers have obligated the United States to orient its approach and to fashion its rhetoric quite differently than that employed among the Collective West and in its portrayal of Russia and China. In effect, it needs to think and to communicate on two planes. That is proving a daunting challenge. It is not that America is alien to the traditional game of ‘realpolitik’ and hard-nosed national interest. After all, it did so around the world for the 40 years of the Cold War. Rather, it is unconvincing when it crudely deploys arguments and pressure on ‘independent’ states to associate themselves directly in a cause that poses risks and imposes tangible costs. Moreover, most see the American cause as based on specious grounds – in both ethical and practical terms.
The American inventory of instruments to cajole or coerce remains impressive. However, the vulnerability of other parties is diminished by two, mutually reinforcing factors. One is their own valued assets (be it oil, markets and commercial interdependence in a highly integrated global economy, or critical regional influence in sensitive areas – the Middle East). The second are the options that have opened by the shift of the locus of world economic activity toward Asia and Euro-Asia. China itself is the world’s dominant manufacturing center by a wide margin. The country’s manufacturing sector is larger than those of the U.S. and the EU. Russia’s criticality as a principal source of energy and agricultural products, made manifest by the Ukraine affair, means that aligning with the severe strictures demanded by the United States exacts an intolerably high price. Washington can, and does, freely apply sanctions against any country that flouts its will. And, yes, it retains a stranglehold over financial transactions via SWIFT – that acts as the international monetary clearinghouse, the dollar’s role as the world’s transaction currency that forces others’ payments and reserves to pass through American banks, and the de facto American control of IMF lending.
These levers of influence are being used with growing frequency and in more dramatic ways. The starkest case in point is Washington’s arbitrary seizure of Russian reserves in the order of $300 billion. It is now hinting that the United States might take actual possession of the trove and dispense it for Ukrainian ‘reconstruction.’ There have been precedents regarding financial assets of Iran, Afghanistan and Venezuela (the last in conjunction with the Bank of England). But the unilateral anti-Russian move is of such a magnitude as to evoke concerns that the Americans could abuse its supposedly custodial monetary role to hold hostage the assets of any party that defies Washington. That concern has prompted drastic action by Saudi Arabia, and others, to draw down their very large holdings in American financial institutions. The consequent spreading trend toward de-dollarization threatens a major pillar of the United States’ dominant global position. It is encouraged by the China-led plans already being implemented to create a set of alternative global monetary institutions.
Developments in the monetary sphere expose a fundamental flaw in the American project to set ‘rule observance’ as one of the key ‘values’ for definitively classifying ‘good’ and ‘bad’ states. For the theft of another state’s monetary assets violates every rule, law, norm and standard practice in international dealings. The already thin credibility of Washington’s proposed formula cannot survive such blatant, self-interested unilateralism. In the wake of the illegal invasion of Iraq, producing carnage and accompanied by widespread torture mandated from the White House, one might wonder whether the United States would be better off by simply claiming raison d’etat without the moralistic flourishes.
Everyone understands the former – even when disagreeing with specific actions, but resent the latter.
Foreign policy driven by dogma, that mistakes shibboleths for ideas, whose audacious and grandiose ambitions defy reality is doomed to fail. That leaves two open questions: how much damage – direct or collateral – it will do en route to failure; and whether a fanatical pursuit of the unreachable will end in a cataclysm.