America declares ‘War’ – II
by Michael Brenner on 07 Nov 2023 0 Comment

Alternative 1


Objectively speaking, alternatives did exist. The first we might call inertial ad-hocism. Its features would have been the continued segmentation of the country’s external dealings into more-or-less discrete packets – geographical and functional. The Middle East’s two sub-categories: Israel and the Gulf; the desultory “War On Terror” wherever; the aggressive promotion of neo-liberal globalization featuring the ensconcing of a heteroclite corporate /technocratic /political elite as guides and overseers; bilateral relations with new economic powers like India and Brazil to bring them into the neo-liberal orbit; business-as-usual with the rest of the Global South.


As for China and Russia, one would be treated as a formidable rival and the other as an overreaching nuisance to be stymied in places in Syria and Central Asia. Concrete steps to counteract the Chinese commercial and technological challenge to be taken either unilaterally or in hard-nosed direct bargaining. Support for Taiwan would increase but stop short of ruffling Beijing’s feathers by calling into question the one-China principle. The foundational premise of this approach is that an ever-deepening neo-liberal system would pull China into its field as a politico-economic centrifugal magnet. Hence, by an incremental process a potential challenge to American-Western hegemony would be gradually neutralized – avoiding a direct confrontation.


Russia, for its part, could be treated more roughly: the post-2014 sanctions tightened, its approaches in Syria and on other matters rebuffed, and the quiet build-up of Ukraine continued. This, in essence, was the tack taken by Obama and Trump.


Today’s uniform assumption that a momentous battle with the Chinese is written in the stars, the culmination of a zero-sum rivalry for global dominance, is of relatively recent vintage. Not so long ago, the consensus was that the most sensible strategy composed two elements: (1) peaceful engagement emphasizing economic interdependence leading to China’s participation in a more-or-less orderly world system whose rules-of-the-road might have to undergo some modification but where power politics was restrained and contained; (2) a measure of military balancing to remove any temptation as might exist in Beijing for empire-building while reassuring neighbors. The open question focused on exactly where and how the balance should be struck.[3]


That was the prevailing perspective until roughly the second Obama administration. These days, that approach has lost its place in the mainstream of foreign policy discourse. There is no fixed day or event, though, that marks the abrupt and sharp change of course.


This disjointed incremental line of approach has its advantages despite its leaning toward conflict. Paramount is that it avoids locking the United States into a position of implacable hostility vis-à-vis China. There is no embedded logic propelling us toward armed conflict. It implicitly leaves open the possibility of American thinking moving in a more positive direction. Whatever the odds on such an evolution occurring, and on the arrival in the White House of a President with the bold vision of a true statesman, such a development would not be excluded as it is by the current mobilization for generational ‘war.’


Alternative 2


There is another, radical alternative grounded on the belief that it is feasible to fashion a long-term strategy of nurturing ties of cooperation with Russia and China. Taking some form of partnership, it would be grounded on a mutual commitment to the maintenance of political stability and fashioning mechanisms for conflict avoidance. This is by no means as farfetched as first glance might suggest – in concept. 


The idea of great power concert comes to mind. However, we should envisage an arrangement quite different from the historic Concert of Europe that emerged at the Conference of Vienna in the aftermath of the Napoleonic wars. One, the objective would not be a buttressing of the status quo by the dual strategy of refraining from armed conflict among the underwriting states, and suppressing revolutionary movements that could endanger existing monarchies. Its attendant features were: the concentration of custodial power in the Big 5 co-managers of the system; the stifling of political reform across Europe; and the disregard of forces appearing outside their purview.


By contrast, a contemporary partnership among the major powers would presume a responsibility for taking the lead in designing a global system based on the mutually reinforcing tenets of openness, sovereign equality, and the promotion of policies that deliver plus-sum outcomes. Rather than rule by a directorate, international affairs would be structured by (a) international institutions modified in terms of philosophy, multilateral decision-making and a measure of devolution that empowers regional bodies; (b) an established pattern of consultation among those governments whose economic weight and military capacity quite naturally should be expected to play an informal role in performing system maintenance functions; (c) facilitating the involvement of other states. Legitimacy? To be established through conduct and performance. The drastic fall in respect for American world leadership will facilitate that process – as the BRICs’ successes already demonstrate.


The crucial starting point for such a project is a meeting of the minds among Washington, Beijing, and Moscow – accompanied by dialogue with New Delhi, Brasilia et al. There is reason to believe that conditions, objectively speaking, have been conducive to an undertaking of this order for several years. However, it was never recognized in the West, much less seriously considered – an historic opportunity lost.


The most significant sufficient factor is the temper of Chinese and Russian leadership. Xi and Putin are rare leaders. They are sober, rational, intelligent, very well informed, capable of broad vision, and while dedicated to securing their national interests – above all the well-being of their peoples, they do not harbor imperial ambitions. Moreover, they have long tenures as heads of state. They have the political capital to invest in a project of this magnitude and prospective. Washington, unfortunately, has not had leaders of similar character and talents.[5]


Summit meetings by Bush, Obama, Trump or Biden always have concentrated on either small-bore issues or instruction on what their opposite number should be doing so as to conform to the American view of the world. Both are wastes of precious time insofar as the imperative to foster a long term, common global perspective is concerned. The sensible approach to inaugurate a serious dialogue might be a President with statesmanlike qualities to sit down alone with Putin and Xi and introduce an open-ended session by putting to him the question: ’What do you want, President Putin /President Xi? How do you see the world 20 years from now and your country’s place in it?”


Would they be prepared to expound an articulate response? Putin certainly would. That is exactly what he has been proposing since 2007 – on numerous occasions vocally or in his writings.  Instead, he was stonewalled, and the – since 2014 – treated as a menacing pariah to be defamed and personally insulted.


Here is Barack Obama’s take:

The Russian President is a “physically unremarkable” man, likened to “the tough, street-smart ward bosses who used to run the Chicago machine.” This comment from Obama’s first volume of his published memoirs (The Promised Land) says more about his own inflated yet vulnerable ego than Putin’s character. In fact, it was the Chicago machine along with money and encouragement from the Pritzker network that made Obama what he became.


Contrast: when Bismarck met Disraeli at the 1878 Berlin Conference – going so far as to invite him, a Jew, home twice for meals – he did not nag the British Prime Minister about trade restrictions on German exports of textiles and metallurgical goods – or about the systematic British abuse of tea plantation workers in Assam. Nor did he comment on the man’s physique. Bismarck was a serious statesman, unlike the people in whose custody we place the security and well-being of our nations. 


The upshot is that Putin and Xi seem puzzled as how to treat with their feckless Western counterparts who disregard the elementary precepts of diplomacy. That should be a concern of ours as well – unless, of course, we intend to conduct our ‘war’ in a linear manner that pays little attention to the thinking of other parties. 


The vitriol that is thrown at Putin with such vehemence by his Western counterparts is something of a puzzle. It manifestly disproportionate to anything that he has done or said by any reasonable measure – even if one distorts the underlying story of Ukraine. Obama’s condescension suggests an answer. At its core, their attitude reflects envy. Envy in the sense that he is subconsciously recognized as clearly superior in attributes of intelligence, knowledge of contemporary issues and history, articulateness, political savvy and – most certainly – diplomatic skill.


Try to imagine any of our headmen emulating Putin’s performance in holding 3-hour open Q & A sessions with citizens of all stripes – responding directly, in detail, coherently and with good grace. Biden? Trudeau? Scholz? Sunak? Starmer? Macron? Von der Leyen? Kaja Kallis? Even Barack Obama from whom we’d get canned sermons cast in high-minded language that distills into very little. That’s why the West’s political class assiduously avoids paying attention to Putin’s speeches and press conferences – out of sight, out of mind. Act in reference to the make-believe cartoon instead of the real man.


These days, in the Ukraine era, the rigid Washington consensus is that Vladimir Putin is the quintessential brutal dictator – power mad, ruthless and with only a tenuous grip on reality. Indeed, it has become commonplace to equate him with Hitler – as done by such leading lights of America’s stellar power elite as Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi – as well as ‘opinion makers’ galore. Even 203 noble Nobels lend their collective brains and celebrity credentials to an ‘open letter’ whose first sentence pairs Russia’s attack on Ukraine with Hitler’s assault on Poland in September 1939.


Sadly, the argument that those who make those decisions should bother to know what they are talking about is widely deemed as radical if not subversive. In regard to Putin, there is absolutely no excuse for such painful ignorance. He has presented his views on how Russia visualizes its place in the world, relations with the West and the contours /rules of a desired international system more comprehensively, historically informed, and coherently than has any national leader I know of.


Shouted declarations “we’re number ONE and always will be – you better believe it” (Obama) are not his style. The point is that you may be troubled by his conclusions, question his sincerity, suspect hidden strands of thought, or denounce certain actions. However, doing so has no credibility unless one has engaged the man based on what is available – not on cartoon caricatures. So, too, should we recognize that Russia is not a one-man show, that it behooves us to consider the more complex reality that is Russian governance and politics.


President Xi of China has escaped the personal vilification thrown at Putin – so far. But Washington has made no greater effort to engage him in the sort of discourse about the future shape of Sino-American relations and the world system for which they are destined to be primary joint custodians. Xi is more elusive than Putin. He is far less forthright, more guarded, and embodies a political culture very different from that of the United States or Europe. Still, he is no dogmatic ideologue or power-mad imperialist. Cultural differences too easily can become an excuse for avoiding the study, the pondering and the exercise in strategic imagination that is called for.[5]


The approach outlined above is worth the effort – and low costs it entails. For it is the understandings among the three leaders (and their senior colleagues) that are of the utmost importance. That is to say, agreed understandings as to how they view the shape and structure of world affairs, where their interests clash or converge, and how to meet the dual challenge of (1) handling those points of friction that may arise, and (2) working together to perform ‘system maintenance’ functions in both the economic and security realms.


At the moment, there is no chance that American leaders can muster the gumption, or have the vision, to set out on this course. Neither Biden and his team, nor their Republican rivals are up to it. In truth, American leaders are psychologically and intellectually not capable of thinking seriously about the terms for sharing power with China, with Russia or with anybody else – and developing mechanisms for doing so over different timeframes. Washington is too preoccupied with parsing the naval balance in East Asia to reflect on broad strategies. Its leaders are too complacent about the deep faults in our economic structures, and too wasteful in dissipating trillions on chimerical ventures aimed at exorcising a mythical enemy to position ourselves for a diplomatic undertaking of the sort that a self-centered America never before has faced.[6]


We are close to a condition that approximates what the psychologists call “dissociation.”  It is marked by an inability to see and to accept actualities as they are for deep seated emotional reasons. The tension generated for a nation so constituted when encountering objective reality does not force heightened self-awareness or a change in behavior if the dominant feature of that reality is the attitudes and expressed opinions of others who share the underlying delusions. 




3] Regarding the restructuring of existing international organizations, the IMF stands out. Since its post-war founding, the United States has held veto power over any or all of its actions. It adamantly refuses to relinquish it despite the drastic shifts in the constellation of global financial and monetary power. Hence, the IMF serves as a de facto subsidiary of the State Department. This state of affairs soon will prove absolutely unacceptable to China and the BRICs.


4] China’s traditional goal always has been to exact deference from other countries while bolstering their own strength – not to impose an imperium on them. Much less do they share the American impulse to arrange the affairs of the entire world according to a universalization of their own unique civilization. Therein lies an opportunity to avoid a ‘war of transition.’ However, there is no American leader on the horizon who recognizes this overarching reality and who seems prepared to grasp the opportunity to “bend the arc of history.” Obama briefly toyed with the idea – before relapsing into the stale rhetoric of American exceptionalism: “We’re number One – you better believe it. Nobody else is even close!”


5] As for our allies, no counsel of restraint can be expected from that quarter. Those loyal vassals have moved from being craven irrelevancies to active, if junior, partners in crime. It is stomach-churning to observe the leaders of Europe lining up for slap-on-the-back meetings with Bibi Netanyahu in Tel Aviv while he inflicts atrocities on Gazans. Barely a word of concern for 2 million civilians, just the hurried dispatch of more weapons diverted from the Ukrainian killing fields.  This odious spectacle conjures visions of Hell’s Angels bikers rushing to get in on a gang-rape.


6] A drive to revalidate on presumed virtue and singularity now impels what we do in the world. Hence, the calculated stress placed on slogans like “democracy vs autocracy.” That is a neat metaphor for the uneasy position in which Uncle Sam finds himself these days. We proudly pronounce our enduring greatness from every lectern and altar in the land, pledge to hold our standing as global Number One forever and ever; yet, we constantly bump our head against an unaccommodating reality. Instead of downsizing the monumental juggernaut or applying ourselves to a delicate raising of the arch, we make repeated attempts to fit through in a vain effort to bend the world to fit our mythology. Invocation of the Concussion Protocol is in order – but nobody wants to admit that sobering truth.  



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