The U.S. government seeks to impose neo-liberal economics on the world even though those “free-market” policies funnel global wealth to a tiny fraction at the top, cause widespread despair and spark political turmoil, Michael Brenner explains.
By Michael Brenner
The United States has been pursuing an audacious project to fashion a global system according to its specifications and under its tutelage since the Cold War’s end.
For a quarter of a century, the paramount goal of all its foreign relations has been the fostering of a system whose architectural design features the following:
–a neo-liberal economic order wherein markets dictate economic outcomes and the influence of public authorities to regulate them is weakened;
–this entails a progressive financializing of the world economy which concentrates the levers of greatest power in a few Western institutions – private, national and supranational;
–if inequality of wealth and power is the outcome, so be it;
–security provided by an American-led concert that will have predominant influence in every region;
–a readiness to use coercion to remove any regime that directly challenges this envisaged order;
–the maintenance of a large, multi-functional American military force to ensure that the means to deal with any contingency as could arise;
–all cemented by the unquestioned conviction that this enterprise conforms to a teleology whose truth and direction were confirmed by the West’s total victory in the Cold War.
Therefore, it is inherently a virtuous project whose realization will benefit all mankind. Virtue is understood in both tangible and ethical terms.
The motto: There is a tide running in the affairs of man; so, now is the time for America to steer the current and fulfill its destiny.
The project has registered some remarkable successes (at least by its own definitions). The Washington sponsored Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and its counterpart`, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTPI), ensconce a privileged position for corporate interests that supersedes that of governments in binding international law.
The towering financial conglomerates have emerged from the great financial panic and Great Recession, which they caused, not only unscathed but bigger, stronger and with a stranglehold over macro-economic policy across most of the globe.
The United States, the progenitor of neo-liberalism and its operational guide, has seen its democracy converted into a plutocracy in all but name. The more things change, the more they must be made to seem the same.
These tenets of neo-liberalism have been codified into an orthodoxy whose dogma permeates the intellectual fiber of academia, the media and the corridors of state power. Challengers are ruthlessly put down – as witness the crucifying of Greece’s first Syriza government. Political leaders who deviate find themselves the object of international campaigns to oust them, e.g., Honduras, Venezuela, Bolivia, Paraguay, Brazil, Argentina, Iran and Russia.
As an indirect consequence of the project’s successes, political resistance now comes not from the Left but rather from a recrudescent nationalist Right as is occurring in Europe – the rebellion in both the East and the West against the European Union’s brave new world of technocracy of, by and for the corporate elites.
Trumpism represents the analogous phenomenon decked out in stars-and-stripes garb. This exacerbates the tensions generated internally by the guided globalization project. Within the decision centers of Washington power, that could either provide new impetus to the external dimension of establishing a global order under American aegis – or handicap it.
Whichever proves to be the case, the turn toward authoritarianism and xenophobia within the liberal democracies shows how ill-conceived and ineptly executed the design for a new world order is. For it has overreached at home and abroad.
At home, the flaw (fatal or not) is the absence of all restraint in grabbing for riches and powers without leaving a reasonable portion, along with credible illusions of democratic control, for the mass of citizenry. Abroad, hubris fed by a combination of faith in American exceptionalism, the intoxication of power, and studied ignorance has generated fantasies of molding alien societies in our image – while ignoring the strength of countervailing forces as embodied by China, Russia and the multiple expressions of fundamentalist Islam.
It is in the political/security sphere that the historic American project faltered badly. Individual developments signal at once basic design flaws and obtuse implementation The upwelling of serious counter currents carries the message that setbacks are neither temporary nor readily containable.
The Middle East, of course, is where the pressure cooker of our own creation has exploded leaving a mess that covers the entire region, with the further risk of spreading beyond it.
Every major initiative has failed – and failed ignominiously. Iraq has fragmented into factions none of whom are reliable friends of Washington. Once a forbidden zone for Islamist jihadis, our intervention has spawned the most dangerous movement yet – ISIL, while inspiring Al Qaeda and its other spin-offs.
Syria, where we have dedicated ourselves to unseating the still internationally recognized government, is embroiled in an endless civil war whose main protagonists on the anti-Assad side are ISIL and Al Qaeda/Al Nusra & Assoc. So, the Obama people have put themselves in the position of feeding arms and providing diplomatic cover to groups who were our No. 1 security threat just yesterday.
Accordingly, for all of our bluster, we refuse to confront Turkey which has provided invaluable aid, comfort and refuge for both groups. Nor do we call out the Saudis for their succoring with money and political backing.
Embracing the Saudis
Washington’s deference to the Saudi royals has reached the extremity of its participating in the Saudi organized and led destruction of Yemen despite the cardinal truths that the Houthis, their enemy, is not a foe of the United States, and that Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula has made extensive gains as a result of the war (and ISIL has succeeded in implanted itself there as well).
For these contributions to the War on Terror, Secretary of State John Kerry effusively thanks Deputy Crown Prince Mohammed bin-Salman – the author of these reckless Saudi policies – for the fulsome contribution the Kingdom is making to suppress Islamic extremism. Why? American diplomacy is locked into the idea that it must reassure Saudi Arabia of our loyalty in the wake of the Iran nuclear deal.
Hence, we embrace an obscurantist autocratic regime whose self-defined interests are antithetical to our stated objectives, and whose behavior highlights the hypocrisy of America’s trumpeted crusade to promote democracy and to protect human rights. It has the added effect of vitiating any chances to engage Iran pragmatically to deal with the civil wars in Iraq and Syria.
Fifteen years ago, the United States launched its Middle East wars to make us secure from terrorism and to politically transform the region. Instead, we face a greater menace, we have destroyed governments capable of maintaining a modicum of order, we have registered no success in nation-building or democracy building, and we have undercut our moral authority worldwide.
Our leaders talk of “pivots” away from the turbulent Middle East, President Barack Obama voices an ambition to demilitarize foreign policy, yet the reality is that today there are American troops fighting in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia, and now Libya with no prospect of those conflicts concluding.
The most stunning, and noteworthy, reaction at home to this unprecedented record of unrelieved failure is the lack of reaction. All the elements in America’s fantastic views of another, post-Cold War American Century not only survive, they exercise near total influence over our foreign policy elite – in government and outside it. The learning curve is flat.
The number of places where the U.S. is militarily engaged grows rather than diminishes. The definition of “terrorism,” of security, of American national interest broadens rather than narrows. The defense budget points upwards rather than downwards. The contradictions multiply. How to explain this perverse pattern?
Avoidance behavior is a natural if not universal response to stress and cognitive dissonance. It passes into the range of the pathological when it becomes persistent and diverges more and more from experienced reality. At that point, it enters the realm of fantasy – often, with fantasies succeeding each other in serial fashion.
To adapt what Clarence Ayres has written: “In important ways, (American foreign policy) is being run by a web of Belief that has been separated from Reason and Evidence. Its ways resemble … the network of mythological convictions” that characterize some primitive tribes. “The contradiction between experience and one mystical notion is explained by reference to other mystical notions.”
Hence, the Belief that human societies carry the innate political DNA for democracy (to be spontaneously recognized by Iraqis once liberated by the Americans) is supplanted by the belief in COIN (counter-insurgency warfare) which, in turn, is supplanted by faith in the power Special Operations forces … ad infinitum.
This behavior pattern matches that associated with classic avoidance devices. One feature is compulsive reiteration. In terms of actions, that means the repeated attempt to resolve complex political problems through the application of coercive force. The national instinct when confronted with a challenge is to hit out – from Congolese warlords and Nigerian thugs to Islamist jihadis and anyone whom our so-called friends dislike, e.g., the Houthis.
This is the mind-set of the muscle-bound bully whose mental development hasn’t caught up with his physical development. In Afghanistan, we continue fighting and spurring the hapless Kabul government to keep it up when there isn’t a snowball’s chances in hell of defeating the Taliban (an outfit that never has killed an American outside of Afghanistan).
In Iraq-Syria, we struggle mightily to check the ISIL irregulars while blithely allowing them to carry on a lucrative oil commerce without interference from the U.S. air force. There, too, we make believe that the Russian presence doesn’t exist even though it has done more to shift the balance away from the jihadist groups than we have. Why? The powers-that-be have decided that Putin’s Russia actually is a bigger threat to America than is ISIL and Al Qaeda.
Black Hats/White Hats
Reiteration also takes the form of populating the strategic map with good guys and bad guys whose identification never changes whatever the evidence says. Hence, the white hats include the Saudi royals along with their school of Gulf Cooperation Council minnows, Erdogan’s Turkey, and of course Israel.
The black hats include: Iran, the Baathist regime in Syria, Hezbullah, Hamas, some Shi’ite factions in Iraq (Moqtada al-Sadr), and whoever opposes our sponsored, obedient would-be leaders in Libya, Yemen, Somalia, or wherever (think Latin America). Washington’s costume department does not stock gray hats.
The Global War on Terror notwithstanding, this casting makes us friends of ISIL’s and Al Qaeda’s friends and enemies of their enemies. No intellectual effort is evident to make the reconciliation.
In extreme circumstances, one resorts to outfitting with white hats whatever bunch of guys you can round up through Central Casting. That is exactly what we currently are doing in cobbling together an odd lot of stray Libyans into an ersatz “government” which Washington and its more obedient allies literally escorted into a bunker outside of Tripoli last month where they are offering themselves as national saviors.
This so-called Government of National Accord (GNA), which no significant body of Libyans had asked for, is meant to supersede the democratically elected government whose parliament is seated in Benghazi and engaged in a multi-party civil war with an array of sectarian and tribal formations.
Our seven-man GNA controls no territory but has entered into tacit alliance with a variety of Islamist militias attracted by the money and arms which the United States and partners have transferred to them from official Libyan accounts abroad. Shades of Syria circa 2011 -2013.
Prolonged residence in one or another fantasy bubble is made all the more comfortable by eluding contact with any respected party who might offer a different perspective that more closely conforms to reality. An oddity of our times is that the only criticism within range of power centers comes from those whose answer to all these dilemmas is to “hit ‘em harder.”
That is to say, the John McCains and fellow travelers among Republican hawks reinforced by the aggressive neocon contingent ensconced in the think tanks and media. The unfortunate consequence is that the President, and his less than sterling foreign policy team, now add the belief in their own moderation and prudence to their complacent plodding along the same rutted paths to nowhere.
We got a candid, uncensored look at one member of Obama’s inner circle when Ben Rhodes, Deputy National Security Adviser, was featured in that embarrassing Sunday New York Times Magazine story a few weeks ago.
Susan Rice, National Security Advisor and Presidential confidant since 2007, put herself on display via an interview with Fareed Zakaria (May 15) where she declared that “almost the whole Russia Air Force is deployed in Syria.” The truth is that the 70-odd Russian aircraft in Syria represent roughly 5 to 6 percent of their combat aircraft and about 2 to 2.5 percent of all aircraft in the Russian Air Force. It is one thing to off by a factor of 20 when spouting forth at a think-tank seminar where other participants’ minds are on their own next intervention or imagining whom they plan to latch onto during the coffee break. It is quite another to be so casually ignorant when you are in a position to shape actions that could affect the lives of millions and major interests of the United States.
This all too typical failure to recognize the difference helps to explain why the Obama administration’s foreign policy-making is so undisciplined and its diplomacy is so disjointed.
There is yet another pathological element in this mix of illusion and faith. Manifest failure poses a threat to the powerful image of prowess and superiority imbued in our national leaders, and in the country’s collective personality.
Heavy doses of reality by now should have brought to light our ultimate “ordinariness” – however impressive the national record of accomplishment has been. That, though, is proving very hard for Americans to swallow.
Instead, we discern a pattern of denying manifest outcomes while relentlessly searching for fresh opportunities to establish our unique greatness. It took decades and much self-induced amnesia to come to terms with the loss of Vietnam. We seemingly shed that shroud in the first Gulf War. But then came 9/11 and the vengeful reaction of a scared country which led us into a new string of failures.
One psychological method for handling that dissonance is to claim that the game isn’t really over. The fat lady hasn’t sung (or if she did, we tuned her out). In Iraq, our most ignominious failure, the concrete manifestation of that failure in ISIL, gives us a second chance to demonstrate that Americans are winners after all.
In this warped psychology, if we are able to push them back and/or cripple them, that achievement somehow will confirm that we are winners. It just took a little while longer than expected. Political chaos in Baghdad and across the country? No one is perfect – only Allah. Besides, there are always the Iranians to blame.
What about Afghanistan? There, too, the final whistle hasn’t blown. There is no time limit – 48 minutes, 60 minutes, or nine innings – or 15 years. Operation Eternal Effort.
A quite different psychological coping mechanism, one that carries the seed of far greater risk, is to demonstrate macho self-confidence by searching out additional challengers to confront. That mechanism not only offers several new chances to prove to oneself and to the world how great we are; it also demonstrates our brave sense of duty.
So, we expand Special Operations and send teams of various sizes into scores of countries to take on the bad guys. More demonstrably, we make it known that our nuclear deal with Tehran notwithstanding, we’re ever ready to go one-on-one with the mullahs who just aren’t our sort of people.
Fighting the Big Boys
The ultimate expression of this psycho-mentality is to pick a fight with the really big guys: Russia and China. We know them from the last movie – and everybody remembers how we whipped the Russians’ ass – to use the hard-nosed parlance favored around Washington.
The extreme hostility toward a more assertive Russia and Vladimir Putin personally goes well beyond any realpolitik calculus. It has an emotional side clearly evident in the cartoonish exaggeration that marks almost all coverage of the country and the man – and the remarks of President Obama himself. Indeed, it is all the starker for the contrast to Putin’s cool rationality.
Obama, personally, cannot abide Putin. To continue the line of psychological analysis, we might find some clues why in the President’s behavioral record. He typically is uneasy around, and therefore tries to avoid, strong, independent-minded persons who are at least as intelligent as he is. None of his inner circle are exceptions to this generalization.
The real tough guys on Wall Street and in the Pentagon/Intelligence Establishment he defers to – anticipating what they want and holding them at a respectful distance. Putin fits neither category. In addition, he is as cerebral and exhibits as much self-control as does Obama – thereby challenging the latter’s sense of uniqueness and superiority. Putin also is an infinitely more skillful politically.
Of course, there is ample evidence that significant elements of the American government and foreign policy Establishment have long viewed Russia as a potential obstacle to the American grand design. Therefore, they have reached a calculated conclusion that it must be denatured as a political force or eliminated.
The resources that we expended in bending Russian institutions and policies to our will during the Yeltsin years testify to that. Putin, though, has shown himself a far sterner, autonomous character with his own pronounced view as to how the world should be structured and Russia’s place within it.
His objective from the first was to restore Russian dignity, Russian independence and a measure of Russian control over its strategic space. That inevitably brought him into conflict with the American plan to keep Russia dependent, weak and marginalized.
The central element of that strategy was the policy of bringing all of the former Soviet republics into Western institutions – Ukraine above all, as Zbig Brzezinski has explained with brutal candor. The Washington encouraged coup in Kiev two years ago was the culmination of a plan that temporarily had been thwarted by Moscow’s maneuvers that aimed at keeping Ukraine out of the E.U. (aka NATO) orbit.
Putin’s unexpectedly decisive action on Crimea, the Donbas and then Syria has changed the strategic map and upset American assumptions about the insignificance of its old foe. That in itself helps to explain the intensity and emotionalism of Washington reaction.
In the Middle East, in particular, the Russians have been useful partners: in winning Iran’s acquiescence to concessions that cleared the way for the nuclear accord; in resolving of the sarin gas crisis when Putin opened an avenue for Obama to escape the corner he had painted himself into by making hasty accusations that were contradicted by the intelligence community; and finally by forcing us to face up to the unwelcome truth that the only alternative to Assad is a radical jihadist dominated regime that would empower the very people we have been trying to exterminate since 2001.
Rather than acting on that pragmatic logic, the Obama administration – egged on by the country’s entire foreign policy Establishment – has decided to treat Russia as America’s global enemy No. 1, officially.
In Syria, blocking the Russians at every turn and doubling-down on the ouster of Assad now shapes everything else we do in that country. In Europe, the United States has pushed NATO into a full-blown confrontation: stationing several brigades in the Baltics and Poland; staging a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Romania for the missile defense system that also can serve as a platform for nuclear tipped cruise missiles; conducting exercises in Georgia; and proposing to make Georgia and Ukraine de facto NATO members whose militaries would be integrated into the NATO command structure (the 28 + 2 formula).
These moves have been accompanied by a barrage of bellicose rhetoric from top American commanders and the Secretary of Defense to the President himself. These are all steps that contravene long established treaties, some dating back to the Soviet era, and fly in the face of solemn promises made by President George H.W. Bush and Secretary of State James Baker to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev between 1989 and 1991.
This provocative strategy is justified as a response to Russia’s alleged aggressive and growing moves darkly portrayed as a precursor to a possible assault against former lands of the defunct Soviet empire. The empirical evidence for this dire assertion is lacking – nor is there interest in making the case with a modicum of empirical logic. For the impulses spring from within the American political psyche – not from our external environment.
There are those who calculatingly have actively sought to isolate Russia, topple Putin and remove both as thorns in the side of American grand strategy. And there are those, including President Obama, whose behavior reveals a deep compulsion to portray a complex situation in terms of a simple, exaggerated threat; to show their mettle; to strut; and to compensate for the frustrations and failures that have bedeviled the United States’ foreign policies.
This is foreign policy by emotion, not by logical thought. It is rooted in the psychological reaction to the hopelessness of the post-Cold War grand design. It stems as well from the unpalatable experience of being unable to live up to the exalted self-image that is at the core of Americans’ national personality.
And it is intensified by the need, compensating for heightened insecurities, to prove that America is Number One, always will be Number One, and deserves to be Number One. That maelstrom of emotion was almost palpable in Obama’s last State of the Union Address where he declaimed:
“Let me tell you something. The United States of America is the most powerful nation on Earth. Period. It’s not even close. Period. It’s not even close. It’s not even close!”
So? Is this meant as a revelation? What is the message? To whom? Is it any different than crowds of troubled and frustrated Arab demonstrators shouting “ALLAH AKBAR!” Words that are neither a prelude to action nor inspire others to act – nor even impart information – are just puffs of wind. They are affirmations of self rather than communication. As such, they are yet another avoidance device whereby bluster substitutes for a deliberate appraisal of how to adjust to the gap between aspiration and declining prowess.
Making Narratives Fit
A complementary device for perpetuating a crucial national myth of exceptionalism and superiority is to stress systematically those features of other nations, or situations, that conform to the requirements of the American national narrative while neglecting or downplaying opposite features.
Currently, we are witnessing the unfolding of an almost clinical example in the treatment of China. The emergence of the PRC as a great power with the potential to surpass or eclipse the United States poses a direct threat to the foundation myth of American superiority and exceptionalism. The very existence of that threat is emotionally difficult to come to terms with.
Psychologically, the most simple way to cope is to define it out of existence – to deny it. One would think that doing so is anything but easy. After all, China’s economy has been growing at double digit rates for almost 30 years. The concrete evidence of its stunning achievements is visible to the naked eye.
Necessity, though, is the mother of invention. Our compelling emotional need at the moment is to have China’s strength and latent challenge subjectively diminished. So what we see is a rather extraordinary campaign to highlight everything that is wrong with China, to exaggerate those weaknesses, to project them into the future, and – thereby – to reassure ourselves.
Coverage of Chinese affairs by the United States’ newspaper of record, The New York Times, has taken a leading role in this project. For the past year or two, we have been treated to an endless series of stories focusing on what’s wrong with China. Seemingly nothing is too inconsequential to escape front page, lengthy coverage.
The current signs of economic weakness and financial fragility have generated a spate of dire commentary that China’s great era of growth may be grinding to a halt – not to be restarted until its leaders have seen the error of their ways and taken the path marked out by America and other Western capitalist countries.
This latest upwelling of China-bashing could well serve as a clinical exhibit of avoidance behavior. For it goes beyond sublimation and simple denial. It also reveals the extreme vulnerability of the American psyche to the perceived China “threat,” and the compelling psychological need to neutralize it – if only by verbal denigration.
At present, the United States has no strategic dialogue with either China or Russia. That is a failure of historic proportions. There is no vast ideological chasm to bridge – as in the Cold War days. There are no bits of contested geography that directly involve the parties. Putin and Xi are eminently rational leaders – whether we agree with them or not.
The Russian leader, in particular, has laid out his conception of the world system; of the Russo-American relations; of why Russia is pursuing certain polices – all with a concision and candor that probably is unprecedented. He also stresses the need for cooperation with Washington and offers guidelines for sustained exchanges. We have done nothing analogous. Indeed, it appears that no policy-maker of consequence even bothers to read or listen to Putin.
To take him seriously, to engage the Chinese on the strategic plane, require statesmanship of a high order. An America – and its leaders – who are tied into psychological knots by their inability to view reality with a measure of detachment and self-awareness never will muster that statesmanship.
Michael Brenner is a professor of international affairs at the University of Pittsburgh. firstname.lastname@example.org