Who regulations the world? America is no longer the obvious answer

Challenged from all sides, the US is losing its tight grip on international power, Noam Chomsky writes, as world public opinion becomes a second superpower

When we ask who rules the world? we commonly adopt the standard convention that the actors in world affairs are countries, principally the great powers, and we consider their decisions and the relations among them. That is not incorrect. But we would do well to keep in mind that this level of abstraction can also be highly misleading.

States, of course, have complex internal structures, and the choices and decisions of the political leadership are heavily influenced by internal concentrations of power, while the general population is oftens marginalized. That is true even for the more democratic societies, and plainly for others. We cannot gain a realistic understanding of who rules the world while dismissing the masters of humankind, as Adam Smith called them: in his day, the merchants and manufacturers of England; in ours, multinational conglomerates, huge financial institutions, retail empires and the like.

Still following Smith, it is also wise to attend to the vile maxim to which the masters of mankind are dedicated: All for ourselves and nothing for other people a doctrine known otherwise as bitter and incessant class war, often one-sided, much to the harm of the people of the home country and the world.

In the contemporary global order, the institutions of the masters hold enormous power , not only in the international arena but also within their home countries, on which they rely to protect their power and to provide economic support by a wide variety of means.

When we consider the role of the masters of humankind, we turn to such nation policy priorities of the moment as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, one of the investor-rights agreements mislabeled free-trade agreements in propaganda and commentary. They are negotiated in secret, apart from the hundreds of corporate lawyers and lobbyists writing its most important details. The aim is to have them adopted in good Stalinist style with fast track procedures designed to block deliberation and allow only the choice of yes or no( hence yes ).

The decorators regularly do quite well , not amazingly. People are incidental, with the consequences one might anticipate.

The second superpower

The neoliberal programs of the past generation have concentrated wealth and power in far fewer hands while undermining functioning democracy, but they have aroused opposition as well, most prominently in Latin America but also in the centers of global power.

The European Union( EU ), one of the more promising growths of the post-world war II period, has been tottering because of the harsh effect of the policies of austerity during recession, condemned even by the economists of the International Monetary Fund( if not the IMFs political actors ).

Democracy has been undermined as decision-making shifted to the Brussels bureaucracy, with the northern banks casting their darknes over their proceedings.

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Riot police line up outside a closed branch of the National Bank of Greece during a general strike in protest against austerity measures. Photo: Milos Bicanski/ Getty Images

Mainstream parties have been rapidly losing members to left and to right. The executive director of the Paris-based research group EuropaNova attributes the general disenchantment to a mood of angry impotence as the real power to shape events largely shifted from national political leaders[ who, in principle at least, are subject to democratic politics] to the market, the institutions of the European union and firms, quite in accord with neoliberal doctrine.

Very similar processes are under way in the United States, for somewhat similar reasons, a matter of significance and fear not just for the country but, because of US power, for the world.

The rising opposition to the neoliberal assault highlightings another crucial aspect of the standard convention: it sets aside the public, which often fails to accept the approved role of spectators( rather than participants) assigned to it in liberal democratic hypothesi. Such disobedience has always been of fear to the dominant classes. Simply maintaining to American history, George Washington regarded the common people who formed the militias that he was to command as an exceedingly dirty and nasty people[ evincing] an unaccountable kind of stupidity in the lower class of these people.

In Violent Politics, his masterful review of insurgencies from the American rebellion to contemporary Afghanistan and Iraq, William Polk concludes that General Washington was so anxious to sideline[ the fighters he hated] that he came here close to losing the Revolution. Indeed, he might have actually done so had France not massively intervened and saved the Revolution, which until then had been won by guerrillas whom we would now call terrorists while Washingtons British-style army was defeated time after time and virtually lost the war.

A common feature of successful insurgencies, Polk records, is that once popular support dissolves after victory, the leadership suppresses the dirty and nasty people who actually won the war with guerrilla tactics and terror, for fear that they might challenge class privilege. The upper-class contempt for the lower class of these people has taken various forms throughout the years.

In recent times one expression of this contempt is the call for passivity and obedience( moderation in democracy) by liberal internationalists reacting to the dangerous democratizing effects of the popular movements of the 1960 s.

Sometimes countries do choose to follow public opinion, eliciting much ferocity in centers of power. One dramatic case was in 2003, when the Bush administration called on Turkey to join its intrusion of Iraq.

Ninety-five percent of Turks resisted that course of action and, to the astonishment and horror of Washington, the Turkish government adhered to their views. Turkey was bitterly condemned for this deviation from responsible behaviour. Deputy Secretary of Defense Paul Wolfowitz, designated by the press as the idealist-in-chief of the administration, chided the Turkish military for permitting the malfeasance of the government and demanded an apology. Unperturbed by these and innumerable other illustrations of our fabled yearning for democracy, respectable commentary continues to laud President George W Bush for his dedication to democracy promotion, or sometimes criticized him for his naivete in thinking that an outside power could impose its democratic yearns on others.

The Turkish public was not alone. Global opposition to US-UK aggression was overwhelming. Supporting for Washingtons war schemes scarcely reached 10% almost anywhere, according to international polls. Opposition triggered huge worldwide protests, in the United States as well, probably the first time in history that imperial aggression was strongly protested even before it was officially launched.

On the front page of the New York Times, journalist Patrick Tyler reported that there may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.

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An anti-war protester lays next to a flag-draped taunt casket outside the White House in 2016. Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/ Getty Images

Unprecedented protest in the US was a manifestation of the opposition to aggression that began decades earlier in the condemnation of the US wars in Indochina, reaching a scale that was substantial and influential, even if far too late.

By 1967, when the antiwar movement was becoming a significant force, military historian and Vietnam specialist Bernard Fall warned that Vietnam as a cultural and historic entity is threatened with extinction[ as] the countryside literally dies under the jolts of the largest military machine ever unleashed on a zone of this size.

But the antiwar movement did become a force that could not be ignored. Nor could it be ignored when Ronald Reagan came into office determined to launch an attack on Central America. His administration mimicked closely the following steps John F Kennedy had taken 20 years earlier in launching the war against South Vietnam, but had to back off because of the kind of vigorous public protest that had been lacking in the early 1960 s.

The assault was nasty enough. The victims have yet to recover. But what happened to South Vietnam and later all of Indochina, where the second superpower enforced its impedimentums merely much afterward in the conflict, was incomparably worse.

It is often was contended that the enormous public opposition to the intrusion of Iraq had no effect. That seems incorrect to me.

Again, the intrusion was horrifying enough, and its aftermath is utterly grotesque. Nevertheless, it could have been far worse.

Vice-President Dick Cheney, secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld, and the rest of Bushs top officials could never even contemplate the sort of measures that President Kennedy and President Lyndon Johnson adopted 40 years earlier largely without protest.

Western power under pressure

There is far more to say, of course, about the factors in determining nation policy the hell is put to the side when we adopt the standard convention that states are the actors in international affairs. But with such nontrivial caveats as these, let us nevertheless adopt the convention, at least as a first approximation to reality. Then the question of who rules the world results at once to such concerns as Chinas rise to power and its challenge to the US and world order, the new cold war simmering in eastern Europe, the global war on terror, American hegemony and American decline, and a range of similar considerations.

The challenges faced by western power at the outset of 2016 are usefully summarized within the conventional framework by Gideon Rachman, chief foreign-affairs columnist for the London Financial Times. He begins by reviewing the western picture of world order: Ever since the end of the cold war, the overwhelming power of the US military has been the central fact of international politics.

This is particularly crucial in three regions: east Asia, where the US navy has become used to treating the Pacific as an American pond; Europe, where Nato meaning the United States, which accounts for a staggering three-quarters of Natos military spending insures the territory integrity of its member states; and the Middle East, where giant US naval and air bases exist to reassure friends and to intimidate rivals.

The problem of world order today, Rachman continues, is that these security orders are now under challenge in all three regions because of Russian intervention in Ukraine and Syria, and because of China turning its nearby seas from an American pond to clearly contested water.

The fundamental question of international relations, then, is whether the US should accept that other major powers should have some kind of zone of influence in their neighborhoods. Rachman thinks it should, for reasons of diffusion of economic power around the world be included with simple common sense.

There are, to be sure, ways of looking at the world from different standpoints. But let us maintain to these three regions, surely critically important ones.

The challenges today: east Asia

Beginning with the American pond, some eyebrows might be raised over the report in mid-December 2015 that an American B-5 2 bomber on a routine mission over the South China Sea unintentionally flew within two nautical mile of an artificial island built by China, senior defense officials said, worsening a hotly divisive issue for Washington and Beijing.

Those familiar with the grim record of the 70 years of the nuclear weapons era will be all too aware that this is the kind of incident that has often go perilously close to erupting terminal nuclear war. One need not be a supporter of Chinas provocative and aggressive actions in the South China Sea to notice that the incident did not involve a Chinese nuclear-capable bomber in the Caribbean, or off the coast of California, where China has no pretensions of establishing a Chinese pond. Luckily for the world.

Chinese leaders understand very well that home countries maritime trade routes are ringed with hostile powers from Japan through the Malacca Straits and beyond, backed by overwhelming US military force. Accordingly, China is proceeding to expand westward with extensive investments and careful moves toward integration.

In part, these developments are within the framework of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization( SCO ), which includes the central Asian states and Russia, and soon India and Pakistan with Iran as one of the observers a status that was denied to the US, which was also called on to close all military basis in the region . China is constructing a modernised version of the old silk roads, with the intent not only of integrating the region under Chinese influence, but also of reaching Europe and the Middle east oil-producing regions. It is pouring huge sums into creating an integrated Asian energy and commercial system, with extensive high-speed rail lines and pipelines.

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China might someday be able to project power as far as the Persian Gulf. Photo: Claro Cortes Iv/ Reuters

One element of the program is a highway through some of the worlds tallest mountains to the new Chinese-developed port of Gwadar in Pakistan, which will protect petroleum shipments from potential US interference.

The program may also, China and Pakistan hope, spur industrial developed as Pakistan, which the United States has not undertaken despite massive military aid, and might also offer positive incentives for Pakistan to clamp down on domestic terrorism, a serious issue for China in western Xinjiang province. Gwadar will be part of Chinas string of pearls, bases being constructed in the Indian Ocean for commercial intents but potentially also for military use, with the expectation that China might someday be able to project power as far as the Persian Gulf for the first time in the modern era.

All of these moves remain immune to Washingtons overwhelming military power, short of annihilation by nuclear war, which would destroy the US as well.

In 2015, China also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank( AIIB ), with itself as the main stockholder. Fifty-six nations participated in the opening in Beijing in June, including US allies Australia, Britain and others which joined in defiance of Washingtons wishings. The US and Japan were absent.

Some analysts believe that the new bank might turn out to be a challenger to the Bretton Woods institutions( the IMF and the World Bank ), in which the United States holds veto power. There are also some expectations that the SCO might eventually become a counterpart to Nato.

The challenges today: eastern Europe

Turning to the second region, eastern Europe, there is a crisis brewing at the Nato-Russian border. It is no small matter.

In his illuminating and judicious scholarly analyze of the region, Frontline Ukraine: Crisis in the Borderlands, Richard Sakwa writes all too plausibly that the Russo-Georgian war of August 2008 was in effect the first of the wars to stop Nato enlargement; the Ukraine crisis of 2014 is the second. It is not clear whether humanity would survive a third.

The west insures Nato enlargement as benign. Not amazingly, Russia, along with much of the Global South, has a different opinion, as do some prominent western voices. George Kennan cautioned early on that Nato enlargement is a tragic misstep, and he was joined by senior American statesmen in an open letter to the White House describing it as a policy mistake of historical proportions.

The present crisis has its origins in 1991, with the end of the cold war and the collapse of the Soviet Union. There was later two contrasting visions of a new security system and political economy in Eurasia. In Sakwas terms, one vision was of a Wider Europe, with the EU at its heart but increasingly coterminous with the Euro-Atlantic security and political community; and on the other side there[ was] the idea of Greater Europe, a vision of a continental Europe, stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok, that has multiple centres, including Brussels, Moscow and Ankara, but with a common purpose in overcoming the divisions that have traditionally plagued the continent.

Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was the major supporter of Greater Europe, a theory that also had European roots in Gaullism and other initiatives. However, as Russia collapsed under the devastating marketplace reforms of the 1990 s, the vision faded, merely to be renewed as Russia began to recover and seek a place on the world stage under Vladimir Putin who, along with his associate Dmitry Medvedev, has repeatedly called for the geopolitical unification of all of Greater Europe from Lisbon to Vladivostok, to create a genuine strategic partnership.

These initiatives were greeted with polite contempt, Sakwa writes, regarded as little more than a cover for the establishment of a Greater Russia by stealth and an effort to drive a wedge between North America and western Europe. Such fears trace back to earlier cold war fears that Europe might become a third force independent of both the great and minor superpowers and moving toward closer links to the latter( as can be seen in Willy Brandts Ostpolitik and other initiatives ).

The western response to Russias collapse was triumphalist. It was hailed as signaling the end of history, the final victory of western capitalist democracy, almost as if Russia were being instructed to revert to its pre-world war I status as a virtual economic colony of the west.

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Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin before a meeting at the UN General Assembly in 2015. Photo: Kevin Lamarque/ Reuters

Nato enlargement began at once, in violation of verbal assurances to Gorbachev that Nato forces-out would not move one inch to the east after he agreed that a unified Germany could become a Nato member a remarkable concession, in the light of history. That deliberation kept to Eastern germany. The possibility that Nato might expand beyond Germany was not discussed with Gorbachev, even if privatelyconsidered.

Soon, Nato did begin to move beyond, right to the borders of Russia. The general mission of Nato was officially changed to a mandate to protect crucial infrastructure of the global energy system, sea lanes and pipelines, giving it a global region of operations. Furthermore, under a crucial western revise of the now widely heralded doctrine of responsibility to protect, sharply different from the official UN version, Nato may now also serve as an intervention force under US command.

Of particular concern to Russia are plans to expand Nato to Ukraine. These schemes were enunciated explicitly at the Bucharest Nato summit of April 2008, when Georgia and Ukraine were promised eventual membership in Nato. The wording was unambiguous: Nato welcomes Ukraines and Georgias Euro-Atlantic aspirations for membership in Nato. We agreed today that these countries will become members of Nato.

With the Orange Revolution victory of pro-western nominees in Ukraine in 2004, State Department representative Daniel Fried rushed there and underlined US support for Ukraines Nato and Euro-Atlantic aspirations, as a WikiLeaks report revealed.

Russias concerns are easily understandable. They are outlined by international relations scholar John Mearsheimer in the leading US establishment periodical, Foreign Affair. He writes that the taproot of the current crisis[ over Ukraine] is Nato expansion and Washingtons commitment to move Ukraine out of Moscows orbit and integrate it into the west, which Putin viewed as a direct threat to Russias core interests.

Who can blame him? Mearsheimer asks, pointing out that Washington may not like Moscows position, but it should understand the logic behind it. That should not be too difficult. After all, as everyone knows, The United States does not tolerate remote great powers deploying military forces anywhere in the western hemisphere, much less on its borders.

In fact, the US stand is far stronger. It does not tolerate what is officially called successful defiance of the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, which proclaimed( but could not yet enforce) US control of the hemisphere. And a small country that carries out such successful defiance may be subjected to the terrors of the earth and a crushing embargo as happened to Cuba.

We need not ask how the United States would have reacted had the countries of Latin America joined the Warsaw Pact, with plans for Mexico and Canada to join as well. The merest hint of the first tentative steps in that direction would have been terminated with extreme racism, to adopt CIA lingo.

As in the case of China, one does not have to regard Putins moves and motives favorably to understand the logic behind them , nor to grasp the importance of recognizing also that logic instead of issuing imprecations against it. As in the case of China, a great deal is at stake, reaching as far literally as questions of survival.

The challenges today: the Islamic world

Let us turn to the third region of major concern, the( largely) Islamic world, also the site of the global war on terror( GWOT) that George W Bush declared in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attack. To be more accurate, re- declared.

The GWOT was declared by the Reagan administration when it took office, with fevered rhetoric about a beset spread by depraved opponents of civilization itself( as Reagan set it) and a return to barbarism in the modern age( the words of George Shultz, his secretary of state ).

The original GWOT has been quietly removed from history. It very quickly turned into a murderous and destructive terrorist war afflicting Central America, southern Africa, and the Middle East, with grim repercussions to the present, even leading to condemnation of the United States by the World Court( which Washington dismissed ). In any event, it is not the right narrative for history, so it is gone.

The success of the Bush-Obama version of GWOT can readily be evaluated on direct inspection. When the war was declared, the terrorist targets were confined to a small corner of tribal Afghanistan. They were protected by Afghans, who mostly disliked or hated them, under the tribal code of hospitality which amazed Americans when poor peasants refused to turn over Osama bin Laden for the, to them, astronomical sum of $25 m.

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Marines pick out foe targets as they receive incoming fire in Main Poshteh, Afghanistan. Photo: Joe Raedle/ Getty Images

There are good reasons was felt that a well-constructed police action, or even serious diplomatic negotiations with the Taliban, might have placed those suspected of the 9/11 crimes in American hands for trial and sentencing. But such alternatives were off the table. Instead, the reflexive choice was large-scale violence not with the goal of deposing the Taliban( that arrived afterward) but to make clear US contempt for tentative Taliban offers of the possible extradition of bin Laden.

How serious these offers were we do not know, since the possibility of exploring them was never entertained. Or perhaps the US was just intent on trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They dont care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose.

That was the judgment of the highly respected anti-Taliban leader Abdul Haq, one of the many oppositionists who condemned the American bombing campaign launched in October 2001 as a big setback for their efforts to overthrow the Taliban from within, a aim they considered within their reach.

His decision is confirmed by Richard A Clarke, who was chairman of the Counterterrorism Security Group at the White House under President George W Bush when the plans to attack Afghanistan were made. As Clarke describes the meeting, when informed that the attack would violate international law, the president hollered in the narrow conference room, I dont care what the international lawyers tell, we are going to kick some ass. The attack was also bitterly opposed by the major aid organizations working in Afghanistan, who warned that millions were on the verge of starvation and that the consequences might be horrendous.

The repercussions for poor Afghanistan years later require barely be reviewed.

The next target of the sledgehammer was Iraq.

The US-UK invasion, utterly without credible pretext, is the major crime of the 21 st century. The intrusion led to the death of hundreds of thousands of people in a country where the civilian society had already been were destroyed by American and British sanctions that were regarded as genocidal by the two recognise international envoys who administered them, and resigned in protest for this reason. The intrusion also generated millions of refugees, largely destroyed the country, and provoked a sectarian conflict that are currently tearing apart Iraq and the entire region. It is an astonishing fact about our intellectual and moral culture that in informed and enlightened circles it can be called, blandly, the liberation of Iraq.

Pentagon and British Ministry of Defense polls found that merely 3% of Iraqis regarded the US security role in their neighborhood as legitimate, less than 1% believed that alliance( US-UK) forces-out were good for their security, 80% resisted the presence of coalition forces in the country, and a majority supported assaults on coalition troops. Afghanistan has been destroyed beyond the possibility of reliable polling, but there are indications that something similar is indeed true there as well. Particularly in Iraq the United States suffered a severe defeat, abandoning its official war purposes, and leaving the country under the influence of the sole victor, Iran.

The sledgehammer was also wielded elsewhere , notably in Libya, where the three traditional imperial powers( Britain, France and the US) find security council resolution 1973 and instantly contravened it, becoming the us air force of the rebels.

The effect was to undercut the possibility of a peaceful, negotiated settlement; sharply increase casualties( by at least a factor of 10, according to political scientist Alan Kuperman ); leave Libya in ruins, in the hands of warring militias; and, more recently, to provide the Islamic State with a base that it can use to spread terror beyond.

Quite sensible diplomatic proposals by the African Union, accepted in principle by Libyas Muammar Gaddafi, were ignored by the imperial triumvirate, as Africa specialist Alex de Waal reviews. A huge flowing of weapons and jihadis has spread terror and violence from west Africa( now the champ for terrorist slayings) to the Levant, while the Nato attack also sent a inundation of refugees from Africa to Europe.

Yet another triumph of humanitarian intervention, and, as the long and often ghastly record uncovers , not an unusual one, going back to its modern origins four centuries ago.

This piece was first published under TomDispatch.com . This is part one of a general overview essay from Noam Chomskys new book on American power and the world, Who Rule the World ?

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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