Conflicts Forum’s Weekly Comment 23-30 May

Managing the Void

What to make of Obama’s foreign policy speech at West Point?  At the more prosaic level, the White House has been briefing that the President was finally settling the issue:  America is definitely withdrawing from its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (by 2016) — a stance which is still the source of some deep anger directed towards the President who stands accused by his critics of pursing a foreign policy of ‘apology’ and of ‘cutting’ before wars are properly won. The (still) controversial affirmation (in US politics) naturally required a concomitant account of how an inflamed Middle East was to be managed for the future (apparently – and somewhat unconvincingly – through a stash of cash, and the forming of proxy partnerships that would target the jihadists).  It required also, it seems, the White House to believe that America’s allies need to be persuaded that nothing fundamentally is changing; that all is well with the present status quo.

The problem is that the President does not believe this, if we are to understand correctly Obama’s earlier thoughts as relayed to David Remnick in the New Yorker:  “Obama’s ‘long game’ on foreign policy calls for traditional categories of American power and ideology to be reordered. Ben Rhodes, the deputy national-security adviser for strategic communications, told me that Washington was ‘trapped in very stale narratives’”.

“In the foreign-policy establishment, to be an idealist you have to be for military intervention,” Rhodes explained. “In the Democratic Party, these debates were defined in the nineties, and the idealists lined up for military intervention. For the President, Iraq was the defining issue, and now Syria is viewed through that lens, as was Libya — to be an idealist, you have to be a military interventionist. We spent a trillion dollars in Iraq and had troops there for a decade, and you can’t say it wielded positive influence. Just the opposite. We can’t seem to get out of these boxes.”

Much of Obama’s West Point speech was devoted to making this point, using somewhat different argument: He was pushing back at the advocates of the Cold War myth that it is American economic and military power that must be the primary tool used to ‘stare down’ any opponent: “Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail”, was Obama’s pithy retort.

So far, so good: But in that same New Yorker interview it was heavily underlined that the world is indeed changing – the status quo is exactly not what it was: “Obama has a real understanding of the limits of our power. It’s not that the United States is in decline; it’s that sometimes the world has problems without the tools to fix them.” Members of Obama’s foreign-policy circle say that when he is criticized for his reaction to situations like Iran’s Green Revolution, in 2009, or the last days of Hosni Mubarak’s regime, in 2011, he complains that people imagine him to have a ‘joystick’ that allows him to manipulate precise outcomes.”

However in his West Point address, the President who so clearly has tried to nudge America along from its perception that most of the world’s problems can be solved by military intervention and ‘willpower’, does nothing to prepare the American people to come to terms with a changing geo-political reality. Rather, after saying that the world is changing, Obama simply emphasises the ‘myths’ of America: the benevolent leader of the global order, the indispensible nation – in short, he says the converse: nothing has changed; America’s leadership remains unimpaired and constant.

Ruling the Void is a scholarly book written, but not completed, by the Irish academic, Peter Mair (he died of a heart attack before finishing it). It deals primarily with Europe, and details the hollowing-out of politics, and the decline of political parties.  But since party politics is the skeleton around which politics has been built in Europe, the sclerosis of parties has occurred in parallel with the rise of a de-politicised, homogenized, technocratic style of governance. (In the case of the EU, it was a style of governance, which was deliberately adopted from the start, in order to create a ‘protected sphere’ – protected, that is, from the vagaries of representative democracy. Mair suggests that this reflected the European experience of democracy from the Thirties).

Consequently, parliaments in postwar Europe have been systematically weakened: whereas non-elected institutions – one may think here of the ECB, and of business and financial interests – have acquired such decisive influence over governance that effectively they have become, what might be termed, a form of  ‘Deep State’ (an invisible closed elite pulling the strings) within European states. (Mair does not use this term, however).

Mair’s key insight is that the decline of parties, of party government, and hence of party democracy in Europe has been in fact, one of mutual withdrawal: with ordinary voters abandoning engagement, and disdaining politics (many effectively becoming anti-system) – whilst politicians have adopted reciprocally what Mair calls an ‘anti-political sentiment’.  In 2000, Tony Blair could say with a straight face, ‘I was never really in politics,’ while a member of his cabinet trumpeted the ‘depoliticising of key decision-making’, Mair notes. In short, politicians have sought to create a de-politicised, docile politics by which to rule and manage the void – in which a (pseudo) technocratic approach provides the only one available ‘rational’ policy solution to every issue – and which therefore requires no debate. Mair notes that this leaves the citizen effectively disenfranchised since alternative mainstream parties usually adopt the consensus (elite) position on ‘hot’ (i.e. potentially divisive) issues.

This mutual estrangement just about jogged along for most people, so long as the elites could somehow be ignored – and so long as the decisions taken in the ‘protected sphere’ of the deep state, had no dramatic effects on people’s everyday lives. Neither condition holds true any longer. As Mair points out, it isn’t just individual politicians but the political class as a whole that has become a matter of contempt and disdain in many parts of Europe.  Four years of economic drought and imposed austerity have discredited centrist European parties who monolithically espoused it in the name of monetary union – resulting in the débacle of the recent EU parliamentary elections, with voters turning to anti-system parties on the extreme Left or Right in substantial numbers.

And here is the point:  It is not just that some of these same symptoms are present in the American polity (witness the rise of populist movements such as the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street), but that the political malaise, which Mair identifies, can be extrapolated to the global order too. We see the alienation and disengagement of the non-aligned UN members, who are becoming increasingly ‘anti-system’.  We see the same (pseudo) ‘rational’ and single policy solution to every international issue offered by the so-called ‘international community’: the adoption of the very system of governance and its values that is so patently in crisis in Europe and (in a different way) in America.

And, we see the same ‘Deep State’-style of economic, financial and other interests very much present in the capture of global governance (away from the UN) – and given over to small gatherings of intelligence and security officials, meeting in secret, and representing some or other, self-appointed “Coalitions of the Willing” and “Friends of” groupings — technocrats ready to impose ‘rational’ consensus courses of action (isolation and sanctions) on errant behaviour.  Just as in the microcosm of Europe this has led to the discrediting of the political class as a whole, so it has contributed to discrediting the present global order as a whole – and bringing American leadership of it increasingly into challenge.

The direct challenge to US ‘leadership’ of the global order emerging from Russia, from China, from Iran, from the BRICS, from Latin America, et alii, is too evident to require much further elaboration.  It is also of course not unconnected to the political malaise diagnosed by Mair in Europe.  The political leadership of Europe of course, is playing down the evidence from the recent EU elections, but the rest of the world are not fools: they recognise deep crisis when they see it.  But President Obama at West Point does not attempt to prepare or warn Americans of any impending change to the way others see Americans, or how they view its particular model for society.

Rather, Obama goes to lengths to heighten America’s expectation of its leadership role continuing within the present status quo. In fact, he polishes the ‘myth’, rather than try to manage perceptions down to a more realistic level.  This, in one way, is strange as Remnick in the New Yorker asserts forcefully that Obama is convinced that an essential component of diplomacy is the recognition of facts – of things as they are.  That to set up unrealistic expectations is to invite a subsequent train crash; but perhaps he felt forced by the huge pressures ranged against him at this time to prove his patriotic bona fides, by insisting repeatedly that the U.S. is ‘the indispensible nation’ and “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being”.

Perhaps, despite the growing mutual estrangement between the ‘leaders’ of the global order and its ‘led’, other states might have jogged along with the present system, so long as the western elite could somehow be fended off – or, at least, so long as the decisions taken in the ‘protected sphere’ of the Coalitions of the Willing or “Friends of” groupings had no dramatic effects on their peoples’ everyday lives.  But again, neither condition holds true any longer.  Neither Russia nor China today feel that they can ignore what they see as direct threats to their immediate interests and security, and America’s threatened use of its financial ‘neutron bomb’ (exclusion from the financial system) promises precisely the dramatic effect on the everyday lives of Russians and Chinese, which neither nation is willing or able to tolerate.

It is the threatened issue of the stealth weapon of the ‘scarlet letter’ devised under Section 311 of the US Patriot Act (see our previous Weekly Comment) to Russian financial institutions (potentially severing them from the international financial payments system that is dollar based) which has galvanized Russia and China out of their former passive ‘going along’ with the status quo into taking concrete action to defend themselves from the “boa constrictor’s lethal embrace”, as Mr Zarate, the Treasury and White House official, describes it.

This seeming point of inflection in the geo-strategic framework – with Russia and China ready to act in consert – both in terms of politics, but in the financial sphere too, should not surprise us.  Ray McGovern, who followed intimately the relationship between the then USSR and China when an analyst at the CIA, notes that “earthquakes begin slowly”.  He outlines the long history that has brought the two states to co-operate here.

The point here is not to critique Obama’s rhetoric (that may largely be a matter of domestic politics) but nonetheless to note that with this rhetoric America has been left psychologically unprepared for what may be unfolding.  If Ray McGovern is right that this time Russia and China are serious in working jointly, the potential consequences can indeed be ‘shaking’.

It is the unique interdependence which exists between America’s military dominance, closely linked to its monopoly control over the global financial system, which makes any moves by Russia or China (jointly, or with others) to challenge this privileged dollar reserve currency position so potent.  It is America’s ability to pay for its military dominance through (electronically creating) the virtual money that the rest of the world is obliged to hold (in order to participate in the financial system) that enables the US government to finance its wars.  Without the dollar as a world reserve currency, the ability of the US as a global superpower to lead world events inevitably diminishes.

At West Point, Obama boasted that it was American leadership and “our ability to shape world opinion [that ‘we’ were able to] isolate Russia right away. Because of American leadership, the world immediately condemned Russian actions. Europe and the G7 joined with us to impose sanctions, and NATO reinforced our commitment to Eastern European allies”.

If this style of assertive ‘leadership’ next finds it necessary to articulate itself (perhaps for domestic electoral reasons) by stepping up those sanctions to the point of sending out Mr Zarate’s ‘scarlet letters’ to Russia’s banks, then Mr Obama might find pause to wonder whether inadvertently, rhetorical and leadership flourishes (intended to meet domestic requirements), can of themselves, carry global consequences: they might even bring down its own ‘pillars’.  Ouroboros (from the Greek οὐροβόρος ὄφις – an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail, and ultimately consuming itself).


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