The West vs The Rest – II
by Michael Brenner on 08 May 2024 0 Comment

The same squalid resort to autocratic methods marks the European scene equally. In Berlin, riot police break into a meeting hall to disband forcibly a peaceful group assembled to discuss how to bring an end to the Gaza tragedy. Foreign participants are banned from ever again setting foot on German soil, a coterie that includes former Greek Treasury Minister Yanis Varoufakis. That summary action is in violation of both ‘quaint’ EU laws and German statutes.


In France, the leader of the main opposition party, France Insoumise, is hauled in by the police and grilled for hours for suspected abetting of terrorism because of public statements that place the Hamas outbreak in context. (Not to be upstaged by their Gallic confreres, the St. Louis riot police seized Jill Stein, Presidential candidate of the Green Party, shackled her, and throw her into an isolation cell for 6 hours – denying her the obligatory phone call or access to a lawyer. Her crime? Speaking to student demonstrators at George Washington University).


In Britain, Rishi Sunak holds an emergency press conference outside No 10 Downing Street announcing that the country faces a national emergency because a maverick independent, a vocal critic of his government’s complicity in the Gaza atrocities, won a Parliamentary by-election a day earlier. Across the liberal West, supposed free speech principles exclude criticism of their governments’ unqualified backing for the Israeli rampage. That spectacle is viewed with alarm, disgust and mourning beyond the boundaries of the ‘garden.’


6) Perhaps, the greatest fear is that government elites in North America and Europe will propel themselves farther down the path of reckless belligerence and immoral action abroad – matched by more repression at home. For to acknowledge betrayal, in the most heinous manner, of their vaunted Western values is to admit fatal flaws in their individual and collective selves. They are not brave enough, or honorable enough, to tolerate that.


In their senseless association with the crimes of Gaza, Western elites have left the world of rational thought and logical behaviour; they have entered the realm of collective psychopathology. That unsettling truth is dawning among the more sober, discerning leaders outside the West. So protecting oneself from the ensuing intemperate actions of the United States and its allies entails protecting the Western elites from their own self-destructive impulses.


7) Western governments’ mode of address to the ‘others’ is another indicator of their implicit sense of superiority. It characteristically, and increasingly, is rude, abrupt and peremptory. The tone is less discourse than it is dictation. Hence, Vladimir Putin is called a tyrant, a new Hitler, a killer, a baby-slayer, a would-be conqueror of all Europe who dreams of washing his boots in the Irish Sea. Xi Jinping is a dictator who rules a Communist totalitarian regime. The Iranian leaders are mad Mullahs bent on destroying Israel and attacking America’s friends in the region. Name-calling is the standard mode in reference to any other leader who opposes us: Bashir Assad in Syria, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela, Rafael Correa in Ecuador, Evo Morales in Bolivia, Alexander Lukashenko in Belarus, Imran Khan in Pakistan etc.


Over the past decade or so, a West that feels its supremacy threatened existentially by China and/or Russia has adopted an approach toward them that mixes audacious demands with menace – thereby, eschewing any form of dialogue with equals. Equals that have their own legitimate interests and concerns.  We pursue a diplomacy-free foreign policy. Outright lying and calculated deception from head-of-state to head-of-state is taken as an acceptable norm. Joe Biden, along with his underlings, repeatedly pledged to Beijing that the United States remains committed to the One China principle while it does everything within its power to promote Taiwan’s independence. Those steps include massive arms sales, the deploying of military personnel on offshore isles, provocative naval and aircraft intrusions.


In the economic sphere, Washington’s all-out campaign to stifle the Chinese economy by means fair or foul does not inhibit the US from sending high-level envoys to Beijing demanding that China decease providing any military-related technology or arms to Russia, that it cease selling dollars for gold on the currency markets, that China cut back its manufacturing capacity since its exports levels wreak havoc among American competitors.  That conforms to a pattern. Last year, between public declarations that China was America’s enemy No. 1, and that war was likely before the end of the decade, Blinken took himself off to Beijing to press the leadership to reduce its heavy oil imports which, in the tight market due to the energy embargo on Russia, were causing a spike in prices leading to high inflation in the US and Europe. You owe us that! Owe for what – don’t ask, won’t tell.


The attitude toward Russia is even more self-righteous – and condescending. A couple of astonishing incidents make the point. First, let us recall that the 2015 Minsk Accords agreed by Russia in good faith are now an admitted sham by the Western powers (France & Britain as official underwriters, the US as behind-the-scenes puppet master). There was never an intention to implement its provisions – by them or by the Kiev government. That has been boldly stated by former French President Francois Hollande and then German Chancellor Angela Merkel – both of whom congratulate themselves on their prescience and cleverness. They are proud of deceiving the Russians to buy time for arming the Kiev regime and preparing it to take back the Donbas and Crimea by force.


Yet, against this sordid background, the Western powers repeatedly sought to temp Moscow with similar subterfuges as the Ukraine crisis thickened in the winter of 2021-22.  They did so in disregard for their shorn credibility, along with obliviousness to the objective fact that they lacked the leverage to impose on a supposedly inferior Russia nostrums serving their own interests.


An episode involving Emmanuel Macron exposes the Western leaders’ underlying, warped mindset. In the fateful winter of 2021-22, the ever-self-important French President managed to lure Putin into a series of voluble exchanges wherein he set out to tutor the Russian President in what he saw as a grand scheme to avert a war over Ukraine by enveloping Russia in Europe’s civilizational compact – as embodied in the EU and NATO. Not membership, of course, just some elaborately vague formulation inspired by Macron’s fertile mind. He even presumed to give the Russian leader his reading of the historic choices that Russia faced in the past and, once again, at this critical moment.


Either follow the example of Peter the Great and tie the Russian realm to the progressive West or remain a backward and insular country on its margins. Today’s variation took the form of a postulated choice between letting go of the Ukraine obsession in realisation that Russia’s welfare lay in association with the benign West (in some form or other), or suffer isolation, stagnation in obstinate refusal to accept that the idea of a restored, grand Russia is gone forever. Be with the winners or suffer the fate of the Old Believers.


When Putin cut through the fog of Gallic abstractions, forcing Macron down from the lofty heights of theoretical modelling to the concrete and the immediate, the practical implications became starkly clear. Russia should acquiesce in Ukraine’s full autonomy – including NATO membership, it should find closure on the shelf-soiled Minsk Accords, it should cease attempts to act as spoiler of the West’s foreign policy plans, it should reopen the Russian economy to Western financial institutions and investment in the country’s mineral resources. In return, Russia would get a place at the European table (albeit well below the salt) with the prosperity certain to flow from the proposed reforms. Yield to the West’s “mission civilizatrice.’


At that point, Putin told Macron to shove it. He subsequently refused all communications from the aspiring master builder of a reborn Europe. Macron never has forgiven Putin for this summary dismissal of his exquisitely crafted mental construct. Hence, the envisaged dispatch of the French Foreign Legion to Odessa, “Russia must not be allowed to win in Ukraine,” Putin menaces European civilization, etc. etc.


A second revealing episode in the Ukraine drama involves the White House. There was a telephone exchange between Joe Biden and Vladimir Putin, initiated by the former, as tensions heightened in January 2022. The actual purpose was to establish a record of White House efforts to prevent a military conflict – one that the US had provoked and thought it would win whether Russia backed down or went to war. Biden held out the carrot in the form of a pledge that the US would not deploy missiles in Ukraine (as it had in Poland and Romania) whatever the country’s status.


He intimated that agreement on this point just might make the White House open to wider discussions on the security issues worrying Moscow. Apparently, there was quiet celebration in the Kremlin that war might be avoided. Within days, Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov met Tony Blinken at a pre-scheduled meeting in Istanbul. When a guardedly optimistic Lavrov referred to Biden’s promising proposal, Blinken demurred – stating that it was not a correct rendering of the official American position. He countered with a suggestion that Washington might consider discussions on certain undefined limitations on the missiles’ use.


What do these episodes tell us about Western – in particular American – attitudes toward the global ‘South?’ The first thing to say is that we properly should substitute the terms ‘non-Western’ or “the other.’ For what stands out are features of presentation and discourse common to dealings between powerful states and weaker, vulnerable states. That is to say, the most sharply etched dividing line separates those belonging to and self-identifying with Western countries and everyone else. You are with us or you are against us – and WE decide what the key criteria for your placement are. So, the presumption of superior authority, the judgmental tone, the disregard for the viewpoint of the other party, the casual editing of history, the tenuous connection between word and deed – those traits are all too familiar to political elites in Africa, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America. Traditional diplomacy as customary among sovereign states is a relic of the past.


A few recent examples highlight the latter point. Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan is thrown out of office at Washington’s instigation, and imprisoned because he was deemed “aggressively neutral” on the Ukraine conflict. President Maduro of Venezuela – long vilified by the United States, which made multiple attempts to topple him – suddenly becomes the object of pleadings from Washington when the sanctions imposed on Russia shut off the United States’ principal supply of the heavy crude oil suitable to American refineries.


Venezuela’s oil fits the bill perfectly; indeed, it was the main supplier to those refineries before the US embargoed it when seeking to strangle the Maduro regime economically. So, a high-level delegation arrives in Caracas to offer a deal. Resume sending us your oil and we’ll ease the pressure on you. If you behave, we might even release a portion of your gold reserves which we and the British sequestered in violation of international law. Let bygones be bygones? Recognize our legitimacy? Well, not quite – but you can trust us.


Then there is the instructive Egyptian episode in the wake of October 7. The Biden people make the fateful decision that Washington should back the Israeli plan to cleanse Gaza of Palestinians by expelling them into the Sinai desert. Blinken hurries to Cairo with a proposition for President Sisi which the US will make it hard for him to refuse. Accept the million+ refugees and we’ll write off billions of the mountain of debt Egypt owes American banks, the Treasury, the IMF.


Concern about a clear violation of international law – an action defined precisely as ‘genocide in the United Nations Convention on Genocide of 1948? Don’t worry. America will use its clout to block any attempt to hold Egypt accountable. Troubled by the prospect of the encampments becoming breeding grounds for terrorists in a locale where the government already has been fighting home-grown jihadis for years? You can count on us to deploy our vast array of counter-terrorism resources to keep them in check. Just look at Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Mali. Fear that an irate mob will storm the palace and lynch you? Well, you showed that you can handle that the way that you mowed down the Muslim Brotherhood supporters of the Mohamed Morsi government in 2013.


8) Let us look briefly at the economic dimension of the ‘North-South’ relationship. The network of international institutions established under America after WW-II had the interlocking purposes of preventing recurrence of the disastrous interwar errors, ensure predictability and stability, and facilitate the movement of manufactures, natural resources and finance. The goal was laudable and succeeded to a considerable extent. However, the system’s modalities and the workings of multilateral organizations had an ancillary objective: to favour the long-term interests of the developed countries – the United States first and foremost. That last concern has become increasingly prominent with the promotion of neoliberal ideology and the growing awareness of the US and its partners of their vulnerabilities in exposure to the emergence of peer rivals.


The picture today makes unmistakably clear that reality. The IMF, long an extension of the US Treasury and Federal Reserve Bank dedicated to making the world safe for American finance, now is locked into a rigid neo-liberal orthodoxy. It thereby has been politically instrumentalized on a comprehensive scale. The terms of conditionality it sets for borrowers stress unrestricted access to local commercial and financial markets, eliminating capital controls, austerity to suppress wages and end subsidies on essential consumer products, the supplanting of local agriculture with commodities from Western producers, and commitment to minimal government interference in the market place except to uphold property rights.


What this amounts to is a comprehensive strategy to entangle developing economies in the global system controlled by the West. That means denying those overly dependent countries the option of a strategy that focuses on preserving a greater measure of autonomy in order to build up national assets and foster national growth. It is noteworthy that the United States, Germany and Japan industrialized by following the latter model which included a measure of protectionism. China’s dramatic historic development, too, has been driven by a strategy whose key elements are antithetical to the IMF dogma.


The World Bank has been companion to the IMF in prioritizing the West’s interests. The balance it sought to strike earlier on satisfying its patrons and assisting the national development of poorer countries now is tilted sharply toward the former. To a certain extent, that orientation dovetails with the increasing politicization of activities by both institutions. However, the deeply entrenched doctrinal bias – plus the identification with the economic interests that benefit from it – can lead to a subordination of the political factor.


Tunisia is an outstanding case in point. Heralded as the one country to put down democratic roots in the wake of the Arab Spring, it faced considerable challenges in constructing resilient institutions and dealing with an economy shaken by revolutionary disturbances. One might have thought that Western governments would make every effort to ensure the country’s stability and well-being. They did not. After an initial flurry of assistance, they abandoned Tunisia to the IMF /World Bank dogmatists and their allies in Western governments.


A draconian austerity regime was imposed that significantly lowered standards of living without spurring growth; it had the inevitable effect of draining support from the new regime and its main political formations. The outcome? Democracy has been superseded by autocracy, the economy is in the doldrums, and MENA has lost its star performer. Meanwhile, the State Department continues to dispatch its envoys charged with tutoring countries in the region in democracy promotion.


9) These trends disadvantageous to the non-West are being accentuated by the United States’ shift toward protectionism. Its dedication to an open global economy has been seriously compromised by a reversion to policies intended to buffer its new-found economic vulnerability against economic forces originating (mainly) outside the West’s ambit. That strategy entails heavy subsidies to critical sectors (e.g. semi-conductors) accompanied by tariffs, quotas and sanctions. Many of these actions constitute violations of treaty obligations and international law. To avoid punitive consequences, Washington has set out to neutralize the World Trade Organization by sabotaging its key Dispute Resolution Mechanism.


10). Habitual unilateralism, accompanied by the retreat from international treaties as manifest in the economic realm, conforms to a growing pattern in American foreign relations overall. Over the past 20 years, it systematically has unravelled the network of arms control agreements designed to minimize the risks of armed conflict: the nuclear test ban treaty, the Intermediate Nuclear Weapons treaty governing deployment of nuclear-capable weapons in Europe, and the historic Joint Comprehensive Plan Of Action governing Iran’s nuclear program. These moves have a certain situational logic. Every legal system, every regime that delimits behaviour by agreed rules and regulations, is conservative in effect in the sense that it restricts the means and methods by which established authority can be challenged. It buttresses the status quo, thereby. Those who find the status quo congenial seek to reinforce and extend laws and rules. That was the United States’ philosophy until relatively recently – for the evident reason that those regimes served American interests.


What has changed is that institutionalized restrictive norms no longer are seen as unequivocally beneficial to the United States. America’s influence in world affairs is diminished; its grip on things is weakening. Rather than adapt to these emerging realities by scaling back its ambition to remain the global supremo – a position seemingly ensured by the collapse of the Soviet Union, it has recommitted itself to that audacious goal. Any hope of success depends on liberating itself from all manner of constraints. Washington’s mobilization of its Western partners in this inevitably quixotic enterprise (re. Russia, China, Iran; in Palestine) draws an ever-starker line of demarcation between the collective West and the ‘others.’


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