RICHARD BUTLER. The State of the Union: Pantomime, With Menaces

Feb 2, 2018

Trump’s State of the Union speech was filled with menaces to enemies both foreign and domestic. US policy is now comprehensively militarized and in the hands of Trump’s Generals. It was a dangerous pantomime, with much cheering from Republicans who still seem to hope that no one will notice the Faustian bargain they have done with Trump and militarism. 

They all do it; hold grand and usually over-blown public events, to celebrate the Nation.

The Great Hall of the People, site of the massive Party Congresses; the Grand Hall of the Kremlin, where the re-integration of Crimea into Russia was proclaimed; and,Tiananmen Square, Red Square, the Champs Elysee, The Mall, Kim Il Sung square in Pyongyang: all sites where grand military parades are held.

There doesn’t appear to be a single comparable place in the US, although they certainly have a taste for spectacles, most of which include major patriotic elements, whatever the rationale for the event; for example, this weekend’s NFL Superbowl will include a fly-over by military aircraft.

In the middle of this week, a constitutionally mandated event took place at the US Capitol: the State of the Union address by the President.

Section 3 of the Constitution provides that the President;

“shall from time to time give to the Congress Information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their Consideration such measures as he may judge necessary and expedient”.

This event draws, in some measure on the conventions, which in the UK system, produces the address to Parliament by the Monarch, the speech from the Throne, on the opening of a new session. The Monarch wears a crown and reads a text prepared by its ministers.

Trump’s first State of the Union address was both prepared by him and read by him. He is, after all, both Head of the Executive Government and Head of State. He wore no crown, after all that was the point of the American Revolution; it created a Republic.

But, this was not its chief distinguishing feature; instead, it was that it was a pantomime: which the dictionary tells us is:

“a form of dramatic entertainment originating in Roman mime…an absurdly exaggerated piece of behavior”.

Trump’s pantomime was laced with menaces, in all directions: to immigrants and their families; to the various enemies of the US, Iran, North Korea; countries who disagreed with his decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; to a variety of US trading partners; and, of course the plethora of terrorists, who in his thinking, define themselves, as being direct enemies of the US, wherever they are and operate. And, the Mexicans apparently define themselves as the country, against whom, he considers it essential to build a border wall.

His speech was relatively thin on specifics, especially with respect to the menaces, threats, he articulated. But, this was its organizing principle: the threat of muscle, retaliatory actions by the US against its opponents, such as in cutting aid to developing countries who disagreed with him on Jerusalem, and in key cases, military action.

Republicans in the chamber relished the pantomime, standing applauding and cheering all such threats, and indeed, at the end chanting “USA, USA”.

Those Democrats who attended, some simply boycotted the event, sat in silence but winced at his call for and end to divisions in the Congress and expressed his preference for unity of purpose in the country. Democrat leaders, Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi, were seen, on camera, in attitudes of stunned incredulity. Some Democrats broke protocol and hissed when he announced his intention to end migration based on family re-unification.

On migration and migrants, its now beyond doubt that Trump assesses this issue as key to his standing, indeed durability in office; possibly even more important than whatever comes out of the Russia investigation and of the probity of his personal and financial conduct.

It was on migration that his possibly most disturbing political confidence trick was in evidence: he attempted to identify the problem of the “dreamers’ with the murderous actions of a handful of illegal immigrants in a gang called MS13.

The FBI estimates that MS13 represents, at best, 1% of criminally active gangs in the US. There are 800,000 dreamers, undocumented migrants who were brought as babies, children, to the US by their parents. Most of them are now adults who have built independent lives in the US. The key device he deployed to set up a classic xenophobic distinction was his declaration that; “Americans are dreamers too”, which received loud acclamation from the republican side of the chamber. They would have the dreamers deported, in some cases, decades after had been brought to the US.

The other feature of Trump’s performance, plainly in view, was the militarization of virtually every aspect of US foreign policy. He will send to the Congress a budget that includes an increase in military expenditures to a staggering $716 billion. This represents an expenditure greater than that of the next 9 counties, combined. He has already approved a policy of an increase in the US’ nuclear weapons arsenal, involving an expenditure of some $1.2 Trillion.

It was argued, when Trump came to office, that his evident unfitness for the job, perhaps especially with respect to his serving as Commander in Chief and the ultimate source of authorization for the use of nuclear weapons, would be compensated for, smoothed–out, by his having around him; sane, experienced, informed senior staff and Cabinet members: adults in the room.

All of his appointments to those roles are former Generals; those who were sitting in the chamber during his speech. His foreign policy chief, Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, is widely regarded as the ineffectual member of that staff. But then, why not, given his track record in the job and, the evident lack of interest in the team and by Trump, in any of the roles the State Department and diplomacy can perform.

So, all problems are militarized, whether at home (Trump promised in his speech to send more arms to domestic units fighting MS13), or in the wider world; Syria, Afghanistan, North Korea, Iran, arms sales to Saudi Arabia, further military support for Israel; to mention only outstanding examples of conflicts/zones, in which the US continues to be engaged.

The US has been involved in wars, by its own choice, continually since the end of the Second World War and, the Cold War. It has prevailed in none of them or at least has had to face outcomes, not of it’s choosing. This includes the Cold War, on which the embedded US version of those events is to claim that it “won” the Cold War, and that was because of Ronald Reagan’s military policies. So, by this reasoning, military solutions work.

A clearer eyed analysis concludes that the Cold War ended because of the internal failure of the Soviet system. Gorbachev’s recognition of this, was demonstrated through his policies of Perestroika and Glasnost. The Cold War ended for Russian domestic reasons, as much as for any external reason.

It’s possibly because of repeated failure of the US to win wars against perceived lower level adversaries, the Vietnamese are the key example, that it is now in search of real heavy-weight enemies; Russia and China, so they can get back into a real contest, the outcome of which would, they think, be determined by their superior weaponry.

In it’s leader, this week, The Economist has written of; “The Next War: the growing threat of great-power conflict”. Indeed, it has a special report on the subject.

While it is engaging and well researched reading, as might be expected, it’s framed in a mind-set of: the superiority of western interests, minimising the notion that others have legitimate interests as well; and, it pays scant regard to the notion that a global system for cooperation and peaceful settlement of disputes exists and could serve us all better than the current resurgence of great power competition.

So, Trump’s generals sat there smiling through his speech, a little like the cat with the cream. The correct order of things seems to be sliding into view, the hierarchy of: the US military/intelligence/weapons industry/ complex shaping both policy and the US economy; the certainty of wars the US would be comfortable in fighting and they think, likely to win; diplomacy relegated to imposing victors terms after that; the American imperium intact; America made great again.

An important aid to thinking about all this, in a better informed, saner way, not tainted by US imperial pretensions and anxieties is given in the an article by Dmitri Trenin, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Moscow Center: Avoiding US-Russia Military Escalation During the Hybrid War.

Trenin makes the crucial point that the chief accomplishment of the Cold War was that it was kept cold. Unfortunately, such a perspective on military policy seems unsupported in the Trump administration whose stance, at present seems irretrievably wedded, or is it joined at the hip, to the notion that wars can be fought and won, if you just have the necessary fire-power.

Richard Butler AC former Ambassador to the United Nations, Diplomat in Residence at the Council on Foreign Relations, New York, Professor of International Affairs at NYU and Penn State University


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