Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*
This is the second of a four-part article looking at the approach to Russia and China in the national security strategy of the United States under the administration of President Donald Trump. The article is a follow-up to the five-part article by the same author on ‘US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions’ published earlier by IDN. – The Editor.
ROME (IDN) – Obviously, it is not difficult to list the many cases in which the United States has worked against democratically-elected governments or supported dictatorships: during the Cold War, political liberalisation in peripheral or developing countries was subordinated to the “containment of communism” and limited by the risk that it would trigger processes of social and political mobilisation that would bring parties favourable to the Soviet Union or China to power. Practical Wilsonianism has been rather selective.
However, it must be said that the theory of democratic peace also had some notable successes, in particular in the partial and no less real “democratic stabilisation” of former enemies Germany, Japan and Italy, and which allowed a critique of foreign policy from within the system of American values.
Remaining in the “American creed” of freedom, it is in fact possible to unmask the falsity and hypocrisy of the government, and strongly challenge the contradiction of a foreign policy that claims to defend democracy and national independence by supporting coups d’état or the economic interests of US multinationals, bombing a small underdeveloped country like Vietnam or supporting the Somozist Contras in Nicaragua, death squads in Salvador and massacres in Indios villages of Guatemala.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and its block of allies freed the theory of democratic peace from the constraints posed by the containment of “communism”, receiving new and remarkable momentum.
In the years of Bush Sr. and Clinton it was no longer a matter of containing “communism” but of extending and consolidating liberal and capitalist regimes, integrating the countries of Central Europe – and also Russia – in the world economy in all respects: this was a successful operation.
Aligning national security interests and US values seemed easier in a world that was characterised by the “end of ideologies” (read as Soviet “communism”) and bipolar confrontation between superpowers, if not by the “end of history”; even those who saw in the power of the United States a sort of empire could dress it in the cloak of benevolence and declare that war now had a humanitarian purpose.
Ideological camouflage of imperialism? Of course, but not only.
The reference to values is also an expression of the informal nature of North American imperialism and of the traditional claim of freedom of trade and investment, which once passed through the fragmentation of empires into independent and formally equal states, and now through financial liberalisation and the privatisation of state services and activities.
And however hypocritical, “humanitarian” war has on its side a reality in which the drama of our age is condensed: that is, that the regimes against which it is turned have nothing to do with socialism or democracy and that their anti-imperialism is actually the mask of brutal nationalisms and the power of very specific political castes.
During the 1990s, the active promotion of democracy became the declared aim on which there could be agreement – although not completely around the times and ways – among intellectuals-neoliberal officials of the Democratic Party and intellectuals-officials of the second generation of neoconservatives (young people who had started working in the Ronald Reagan administration), two differently “idealistic” currents in contrast to the “realists” of the Cold War and the Henry Kissinger school.
It should be noted that the first generation of neoconservatives opposed the policy of détente initiated by the Nixon-Kissinger duo and Jimmy Carter’s rhetoric of human rights – to which these neoconservatives attributed the “loss” of Iran and Nicaragua – but which is distinguished from its second generation because it did not make the promotion of democracy an immediate objective of foreign policy.
For these neoconservatives, the “realistic” distinction of Jeane Kirkpatrick (foreign policy adviser throughout Reagan’s 1980 campaign and presidency) between authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes was valid: the former less repressive than the latter and with greater possibilities of liberalisation – a thesis that earned her the nomination by Reagan as ambassador to the United Nations; Kirkpatrick had long been a Democratic, but in 1976 along with others of her party she had joined the Republican hawks and neoconservatives on the Committee on the Present Danger (CPD) contrary to detente.
Thus, the second generation of neoconservatives is distinguished from the first because it fitted the liberal and “idealistic” glove of promotion of democracy on the steel fist of military intervention.
It is very doubtful that the Bush Jr. administration was born neoconservative and that neoconservatives could be said by the president to be the main holders of the power to decide foreign policy and preparation of the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but undoubtedly the neoconservatives, who were well represented as deputies and collaborators, had had a clear goal for years – Iraq – and a rhetoric appropriate to the needs of the administration.
The theory of democratic peace can be applied in different ways and does not exclude unilateral intervention, indeed it lends itself to legitimising it; but it also requires being combined with multilateralism, not necessarily on the basis of the authorisation of military intervention by the oligarchy that dominates the UN Security Council, but in the form of coalitions of “willing parties” prepared to provide even just symbolic support.
It should be noted that the foreign policy of the governments of China and Russia also presupposes the theory of democratic peace, but with a less universalist sense, limiting it to the development of economic and diplomatic relations with the advanced capitalist powers.
In the name of state sovereignty – a principle incompatible with socialist internationalism – those governments instead defend their internal regime and that of their “friend” countries from criticism of the lack of respect for human rights and bind military intervention to consensus in the UN Security Council where they have the right of veto.
This is because the West – the economic and military capacities of the countries with advanced capitalism, first of all the United States – is at the same time the admired and feared ‘other’ from which recognition is claimed of the status of great power that is entitled to its sphere of influence, to its own regional imperial sphere.
The worldview of NSS 2017 and critique of the theory of democratic peace
NSS 2017 qualifies the ritual reference to “US principles” with a view that opposes that of the previous documents even in deliberate theoretical references. From the outset, Trump’s NSS states that his strategy is based on realism, which is “driven by results, not by ideology” and “is based upon the view that peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad”.
In concluding, it says that the strategy is “realist” because it acknowledges the central role of power in international politics”, affirms that”sovereign states are the best hope for a peaceful world” and clearly defines our national interests“.
The reference to realism is neither casual nor neutral. It must be understood not in a generic sense but according to the meaning it assumes in the theory of international relations, which after the great season of German geopolitics is now largely an Anglo-Saxon creation.
In this context, the term realism evokes a substantially Hobbesian world, populated by states that pursue their own “national interest” defined above all – but not exclusively – as power and military strength.
According to the classic Politics Among Nations. The Struggle for Power and Peace by Hans Morgenthau, both in the domestic sphere and in the international sphere, politics is struggle for power.
In the international arena, this struggle can be aimed at maintaining the distribution of power among states unchanged, thus maintaining the status quo; or at increasing the power of the state beyond its borders, thus changing its status (what Morgenthau called imperialism); or following a prestigious policy to maintain or increase power through demonstrations of power .
An NSS it is not a theoretical treatise, which is why it is not difficult to identify the steps and proposals that presuppose collaboration rather than competition, participation in international institutions and agreements instead of isolationism, multilateralism rather than unilateralism.
For the United States – as for Russia and China – the combination according to areas and opportunities for different complementary tactics is inevitable, and a certain ambiguity is useful. Areas in which the different interests require mediation and negotiations are flanked by those in which positions are at odds.
It is also a matter of times and diplomatic tactics – the alternation of rigidity and flexibility can serve to negotiate more advantageous terms from a position of strength, also on behalf of third parties – and unpredictable developments due primarily to the initiative of local forces, which then oblige the powers to take a position on the side of one or other of the parties.
Examples are the negotiations on Iran’s nuclear programme between 2013 and 2016, involving the member states of the UN Security Council (hence also China and Russia) plus Germany, and those with North Korea starting from the 1993 missile test in which China and Russia also took part.
On the other hand, examples of events in which the great powers had to take a stance after they had been initiated by local conditions and forces – unless we overestimate the power of the CIA with a logic similar to that of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion – are the “Arab Spring” and the “coloured revolutions” in the former Soviet countries.
It is therefore important to distinguish in what the rhetoric of NSS 2017 differs from a pure and coherent theoretical realism. However, it is equally important to take note that the atmosphere of this NSS is far from the Wilsonian idealism that characterised all previous editions.
The point concerns not only the rhetoric and the way in which the strategy is legitimised. What should be noted through the formula of principled realism is the shift from an attitude that emphasises the pursuit of national interest through international cooperation – clearly always reserving to the United States the right to unilaterally resort to force “if necessary”, and then with the willingness for diplomatic compromises and exchanges between national security and international economic policy – to an attitude which, having made the necessary distinctions, is competitive in all fields and with all international actors.
Doubts in this regard are dispelled by statements such as: “the contests over influence are timeless. They have existed in varying degrees and levels of intensity, for millennia. Geopolitics is the interplay of these contests across the globe” (NSS, p. 26).
“Geopolitics” is a term loaded with sinister associations because it is associated with the politics of power, the defence or construction of empires and spheres of influence and the Cold War: for this reason, in the NSS it is rare and is however used in a generic way – as in NSS 2006 – instead of with historical value as in NSS 2017.
There we read instead that “after being dismissed as a phenomenon of an earlier century, great power competition returned. China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally” and “they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favour”.
China and Russia in previous NSS documents
Of course, with the collapse of the Soviet Union – while China had already been a partner for almost two decades – the threat that oriented the entire North American foreign policy in a unified manner disappeared. So, in NSS 1993 under Bush Sr., one could read that “today’s challenges are more complex, ambiguous and diffuse than ever before. They are political, economic, and military; unilateral and multilateral; short-and long-term”.
The variety and complexity of the challenges and threats – not just military – in a world characterised by interdependence is also the leitmotiv of the seven NSS of the two Clinton administrations: they feature ethnic conflicts, “rogue” states and the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, fugitives fleeing conflict but also transnational and non-state threats such as terrorism, drug trafficking and human trafficking; socio-economic problems such as degradation of the environment, rapid growth of the world’s population and the fight against poverty, and economic globalisation.
In addition to managing enlargement of the community of democratic states – which then also included Russia in the 27-country Partnership for Peace – the Clinton strategy called for preventing the creation of a power vacuum and the arms race which could destabilise some regions of the world, preparing deterrence and, in case of necessity, defeating of aggression by states “potentially hostile to the United States” such as North Korea, Iran and Iraq.
After the September 11 attacks, during the administrations of Bush Jr., a well-defined threat returned to centre stage to be countered with a war of “uncertain” duration, around which the US foreign policy had to orient itself: this was the “crossroads of radicalism and technology”, that is of terrorism, “rogue states” and weapons of mass destruction (NSS 2002), for which the usual notion of deterrence was no longer adequate.
Instead, an end had to be put to tyranny and democracy promoted as “the most effective long-term measure for strengthening international stability; reducing regional conflicts; countering terrorism and terror-supporting extremism; and extending peace and prosperity” (NSS 2006).
The national security strategy of the Obama administrations did not deny but operationally redefined the doctrine of preventive war, managing Bush’s legacy in Afghanistan and Iraq. Not at all pacifist, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate (!) distinguished between the bad ”war of choice” in Iraq and the good ”war of necessity” in Afghanistan.
The big difference between the policies of Bush Jr. and Obama is that the latter was characterised by the intention to shift foreign policy from the centrality of a “single threat or region” (terrorism and the Middle East) to define instead a “diversified and balanced set of priorities appropriate for the world’s leading global power with interests in every part of an increasingly interconnected world” (NSS 2015).
In part, therefore, a return to the complexity of the Clintonian vision. Included in this process was the emphasis on cooperation with the allies, but also the intention to restore better relations with Russia, in addition to trying to rebalance the American position in the Pacific.
* Michele Nobile has published essays and books on the contradiction between capitalism and the environment (Goods-Nature and Ecosocialism, 1993), on the theory and history of imperialism (Imperialism. The Real Face of Globalisation, 2006), and on the transformations of the state and economic policy in the crisis (Capitalism and Post-Democracy. Economics and Politics in the Systemic Crisis, 2012). He is one of the founders of the international association Utopia Rossa (Red Utopia) which published the full version of this article in Italian under the title ‘Russia e Cina nella National Security Strategy dell’Amministrazione Trump’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 17 April 2018]
Related article > Back to the Past with Trump’s National Security Strategy – Part 1
Photo: Nicaraguan Contra Rebels who were among the various U.S.-backed and funded right-wing rebel groups that were active from 1979 to the early 1990s in opposition to the socialist Sandinista Junta of National Reconstruction government in Nicaragua. CC BY-SA 3.0
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