In international politics, how the worm has turned for the United States

May 10, 2023
US America and China flags on chess pawns soldiers on a chessboard.

The historian of American foreign policy Gabriel Kolko would often say that those who seek to determine the destiny of humankind were in for surprises and, ultimately, disappointment.

Any vainglorious and limitless ambition to rule the world is doomed to failure, regardless of the state. The world, whether it be the global economy or the politics of other countries, is simply too complex for rational management, even by the world’s only superpower.

Interference and invasions inevitably produce too many unexpected consequences and insoluble problems: specifically terrorism, insurgencies and resistance. Wars usually go awry and become uncontrollable, as Vladimir Putin has come to understand in Ukraine.

Cynical, promiscuous and unsuccessful interventions have long been a feature of US foreign policy regardless of the President of the day. They have almost always left the world more dangerous and uncertain, whilst enhancing anti-Americanism around the world.

The administration of George W. Bush was characterised by illusions, fantasies, incompetence, ignorance and capriciousness. However, these were not unprecedented features of US government, nor did they end with the ascension of Barack Obama in 2009: they are normal for every government which will not learn from history. This is especially true of Great Powers which believe it is their manifest destiny to rule the world.

No state is indispensable, though some clearly have an inflated view of their own influence. Washington’s refusal to acknowledge the limits of its power has long been its greatest strategic error.

The United States has not realised that its comparative advantage in military power rarely, if ever translates into geo-political influence and positive outcomes. That’s because wars are won politically or not at all. Recent disasters in Afghanistan and Iraq are textbook examples of this rule, as was Vietnam in the previous century.

Ultimately, a rival power will appear on the horizon. When it does, prospects for accommodation and co-operation quickly yield to competition and conflict. However, the problems for Washington will only be exacerbated if the new rising Great Power, China, declines to play the arms race game that Washington would always win. That’s one lesson Beijing learnt from the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Whilst the US has a geo-political comparative advantage in weapons, violence and intervention, China is developing a very different one: economic development programs in Eurasia and the Global South: new silk roads, both land and maritime, together with extensive overseas lending and development finance.

Weapons and violence cannot counter this kind of threat, in the same way that strong standing armies are next to useless in the face of non-state terrorism.

In the past Washington’s strength rested on its ability to convince other nations that it was in their vital interests to see the United States prevail in its global role. This is no longer the case, and hasn’t been since George W. Bush’s strident unilateralism after 9/11. As the Biden Administration discovered when it recently tried to procure support for NATO’s proxy war against Russia in Ukraine, Washington’s influence in the Global South has significantly waned.

To Washington’s horror, Beijing has stepped in to broker a reconciliation between Iran and Saudi Arabia, may finally bring the Palestinian factions together, and has Volodymyr Zelensky interested in its plans for a peace settlement between Russia and Ukraine. Meanwhile, the government of its closest ally and largest aid recipient in the Middle East, Israel, is thumbing its nose at the Biden Administration. How the worm has turned!

The US national economy is structurally geared to a permanent war status, even in peacetime. It needs the perception of ‘security threats’ as much as it requires willing buyers of its weapons of death.

Noam Chomsky reminds of the perspicacious words of Henry Stimson, US Secretary of War, who just prior to World War 2 conceded that:

“If you are going to try to go to war, or to prepare for war in a capitalist country, you have to let business make money out of the process, or business won’t work.”

Under a policy of military Keynesianism, the Pentagon transfers billions of taxpayer dollars to private military contractors for the development of futuristic weapons, many of which never work, in the mistaken belief that there are technological solutions to Washington’s political, economic and social challenges around the world: it’s a form of technological fetishism.

As John Mueller has explained, to justify expenditure on these weapons, existing threats must be grossly exaggerated and new ones confected. Today, alleged dangers posed to the West by Russia and China are being reprised through the tried and tested ideological system with a compliant Fourth Estate, conformist academics and obedient think tanks only too happy to take the lead. Russia’s attack on Ukraine has been a stupendous bonanza for America’s military industrial complex.

Earlier concoctions such as ‘communist aggression’, the ‘war on terror’, ‘pre-emption’ and ‘democracy enhancement’ have been succeeded by ‘Chinese aggression’ and the ‘new authoritarianism’. The descriptions may change but the intent doesn’t: keep the public frightened.

Washington’s friends in Canberra, salivating at the technological boost provided by the AUKUS submarine acquisitions, are more than happy to echo and amplify these warnings. Transferring half a trillion dollars of public monies to private British and American military contractors for baroque weapons and boondoggles can only be achieved if the public is very scared of something, even if it is your most important trading partner.

Australia has vicariously adopted America’s technological fetishism, believing there are technological fixes such as nuclear-armed submarines and other high-tech weaponry, to Australia’s geo-political challenges in the Asia-Pacific. This view is likely to have the same unsuccessful outcomes that it has had in the past for the United States.

The West, especially Australia, needs China for trade and as a low cost manufacturing centre: its role is to complement the economic interests of transnational capital.

However US capital is not monolithic and is divided between a consumer sector based around offshore manufacturing centres, and the military sector which profits handsomely from arms sales to Taiwan and confronting the so-called China threat. These factions of capital have very different interests. Which prevails?

In April, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen said China’s economic rise is fine providing it acknowledges US “leadership” of the global economy, a euphemism for terms dictated by Washington. She made it clear that national security takes precedence over the commercial interests of US investors in China, a view shared by National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan. This is bad news for those who believe in the pacifying tendencies of liberal economic interdependence.

Washington is already in an economic war with China, especially in high technology. It is pressuring the Netherlands, South Korea and Japan to break off exports to China. Australia is only exempt from this injunction because we have nothing high tech which China wants to buy.

What is the end game here, if there even is one? Do Canberra and Washington seriously believe that China will suddenly abandon its quest to be the dominant power in East Asia? Or will old Cold War binaries and enduring hostilities intensify, based on China’s refusal to take orders from the US and the need to maintain Western military dominance in the Asia-Pacific?

China is demonstrating that successful defiance of the US is both possible and popular outside the Western hemisphere. Meanwhile, Australia is clinging to a world view that, in significant respects, is heading in the opposite direction and is of diminishing relevance to the modern world.

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