The return of the paranoid American foreign policy

Mar 17, 2023
People's Republic of China in a person's hands

When a severe political cancer returns after a period of remission, we have a recurrence. In serious cases, cells from the original cancer regrow and spread virulently. One of America’s best-known commentators, Fareed Zakaria, recently compared the current grave dysfunctionality and panic-driven decision making in Washington to the worst of the McCarthy era in the 1950s.

Zakaria, openly called for the US to step firmly away from a foreign policy “forged out of paranoia, hysteria and above all, fears of being branded as soft”. You can read the complete, acute analysis here: “Washington has succumbed to dangerous groupthink on China”, Washington Post, March 2, 2023.

The primary reason explaining why the US has created this egregiously self-harming geopolitical viewpoint for itself is the extraordinary rise of China. Janan Ganesh argued in The Financial Times, in late 2021, that the US has allowed itself to be consumed by a sequence of debilitating, if only we had not done that, recriminations, with respect to this rise. Ganesh viewed this as a form of political fantasy, adding that: “To deny that the rest of the world has a mind and will of its own was strange enough in 1949, when the US accounted for a large enough share of global output to at least aspire to shape distant events. To keep it up in this century is to live in a self-flattering delirium”.

The highly controversial project centred around the Republican Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s was stridently anti-communist from the outset. It swiftly developed into a massive political malignancy that gave rise to the term, McCarthyism, which has been defined as “demagogic, reckless and unsubstantiated attacks on the character of political opponents.”

McCarthy rose to prominence with an incendiary, Lincoln Day speech in February, 1950, where he was quoted as saying that, “the State Department is infested with communists”. Despite having a widely known, serious alcohol problem (and a less well-known morphine addiction) having inflated his military record and being described as “willfully clueless and supremely self- confident”, McCarthy still went on to run his Senate Sub-Committee on Investigations in 1953 as vehicle to flush out, intimidate, terrorise and punish suspected communists within government entities, included the US Army (a move which later proved to be conspicuously harmful for McCarthy).

Ultimately, deep unease about his methods and character surfaced. A Republican Congressman said in 1954 that, “McCarthyism has become a synonym for witch hunting, Star Chamber methods and denial of civil liberties.” President Truman came to regard McCarthy’s actions as an attempt “to sabotage the foreign policy of the United States”.

The malevolent effects spread well beyond the US, not least to Australia, where the highly politicised, 1954 defection of Vladimir Petrov from the Soviet Embassy in Canberra unfolded during Australia’s transplanted, McCarthy era.

Notwithstanding an enduring level of support from the politically powerful Kennedy family, McCarthy was eventually censured by the US Senate in late 1954 on certain, serious breach of protocol charges. As McCarthy’s infamy grew, and especially as his intimidating Senate-grounded power began to fade, the media ramped up the level of acute criticism and ridicule directed towards him. He died of alcoholism in 1957, a broken man, at the age of 48.

What brought the McCarthy era sharply back into Zakaria’s mind was, he said. watching the new House Select Committee on China, where both Republican and Democrat committee members tried to outdo each other in their denunciation of China, “blaming China directly for every problem in America from drug use to COVID-19 unemployment”. According to Zakaria, the new Select Committee suggested that those who dared to suggest improving SINO-American relations were giving comfort to the enemy.

Zakaria also referred to the recent hullaballoon saga. He noted how – in a panic – a US$400,000 missile was used to shoot down a hobby balloon than may have cost $12 lest anyone should contend that Joe Biden was soft on China.

According to this account, the making of American foreign policy is, once again, being shaped by a collective, rancorous, anti-communist paranoia. This is, inescapably, the pith and substance of the geopolitical leadership with which Australia is now so recklessly aligned. We have comprehensively signed up to “The greatest propaganda campaign in human history“. And how: “Today’s Sydney Morning Herald and The Age front page stories on Australia’s supposed war risk with China”, Paul Keating explains, “represents the most egregious and provocative news presentation of any newspaper I have witnessed in over fifty years of active public life.” See: If only our current PM said this…

McCarthyism was at least brought under control before its perilously disturbed essence triggered a new World War. Will heavy-duty American push-back help rescue Washington (and Canberra) from this latest extraordinary spasm of American paranoia about its relationship with China? There is no evidence of this happening at all, yet (though Zakaria lucidly argues that it should). And there is zero evidence of any push-back from the political mainstream in Australia – on the contrary. Will Washington trigger – by provocation – yet another huge war and possibly a World War, conscripting witless Australia as a primary ally? Place your bets ladies and gentlemen.

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