Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*
This is the second of a five-part article looking at US foreign policy in historical context and its global implications under President Donald Trump.
BERGAMO, Italy (IDN) – With the arrival of the Trump administration, the threshold of potential use of the nuclear weapon has been lowered considerably, according to a logic that appears a further and dangerous development of the preventive war applied to an elusive enemy such as terrorism and its allies (more or less real or presumed).
Not only would the United States feel fully responsible “whichever State, terrorist group or other non-state actor supports or contributes to the efforts of terrorists to acquire or use nuclear devices”, but in the event of a nuclear attack by terrorists against the United States or its allies it would consider the “the ultimate form of retaliation”, according to the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.
Furthermore the “extreme circumstances” in which it would be possible to use the nuclear weapon now envisage “major non-nuclear strategic attacks that include but are not limited to attacks on the civilian population or infrastructure of the United States, allies or partners”, as well as on military objectives.
The nuclear posture is indicative of a particularly aggressive attitude that could be implemented through the use of conventional forces. The doctrine of the preventive attack could find new targets, according to a perception of threat subject to great discretion, propagandistic manipulation – as in the case of the alleged relationship between the Iraq of Saddam Hussein and Al-Qaeda – and errors of judgment.
A US president will never give up supporting the interests of US capitalism worldwide
The prosperity of North American capitalism is closely linked to the prosperity and expansion of world capitalism, which in this regard constitutes not only an end but a means for ensuring the military-political primacy of the United States, both through the financing of its military expenditure and through the political influence resulting from its economic centrality, a fundamental component of hegemony.
There is no country or coalition of countries that can replace the United States as the centre of the global economy and its contradictions.
However widespread US interests are in the countries of the periphery of the world or former colonies, it is the structure of economic relations with other countries with advanced capitalism that is absolutely vital for North American capitalism. This is why the United States entered the two world wars that exploded in Europe, contributed to the rebirth of defeated enemies and pushed for European integration.
If – and this is an absurd hypothesis – China were to close up like an oyster turning its back on the benefits of the American market, it would give rise to a crisis, but nevertheless surmountable: India could take its place. And, in abstractly economic terms, much of Africa is expendable as a market and production platform.
“National interest”, that is, what constitutes the interest of US capitalism in a given area or country, should not be identified with immediate economic interest, which can be irrelevant. Even in countries and areas where there is no consistent US economic interest, open or covert political or military intervention serves the objective of the local political stability necessary for the orderly metabolism of the world economy, as well as the interests of allies in the region.
For example, notwithstanding the humanitarian rhetoric, what made the administration of President Bill Clinton decide to engage in Bosnia was the consideration that NATO’s credibility was at stake; at the same time, on the other hand, the genocide in Rwanda proceeded undisturbed.
There is also the consideration that the United States has always been an advocate of the “open door” approach to international trade and investment from abroad, opposed to territorial empires and therefore averse to the reconstruction of a sphere of influence of Russian imperialism or the formation of a sphere of influence of Chinese imperialism.
This expresses the particular dynamism of US imperialism, which is the reason for its avant-garde position in the extension and deepening of capitalism on a global level. In general, this is the specificity and strength of capitalist imperialism compared with ancient, absolute states and “state socialisms”.
Just as capitalist imperialism does not allow for a position of balance with regard to non-capitalist social forms, corroding them, subordinating them and eliminating them, so US imperialism does not admit the “balance of power” except temporarily.
The above should not be understood in a functionalistic and harmonic sense: indicating what a president will not do does not mean that he/she will act in the best way for “national interest”, that military power will not encounter resistance, that the development and extension of capitalism proceeds without contradictions – far from it.
Each of those “missions” has its own limits from the outset or finds them along the way, while the goal of one “mission” can conflict with that of another. Political-military security strategy and international economic policy strategy can become contradictory, as is clear in discourses on the economic costs of overextension of military commitments abroad.
After World War II the United States contributed to the recovery and development of Germany and Japan not only for the purpose of containing communism, but also for economic convenience; however this, in turn, reduced the market share of the world market for US corporations.
Besides, the effectiveness of military action requires clarity of objectives and coherent command, which can fuel political contrasts with allies, and divergences and operational errors in the field during multinational military interventions.
American exceptionalism and the myth of splendid isolation
The isolationist characterisation of US foreign policy is devoid of scientific significance. Isolationism is a concept that should be set aside once and for all, relegated to the rest of intellectual trash.
For the United States, isolation has always been completely impossible and isolationism is at best an ideal, a way to emphasise the feeling of exceptionality, not an adequate concept for explaining its real foreign policy.
The image of the “city up on a hill” blessed by the Lord and given as an example to the people is the archetype of American exceptionalism, formulated in 1630 by John Winthrop – English lawyer whose writings and vision of the early American colony as a Puritan “city upon a hill” dominated American colonial development – in a sermon even before the ships of his group of settlers had touched the shores of the New World.
It was then natural to complete the ethical-social image of the religious mission of the colonial community with the geopolitical image of the United States as an island that the oceans protect from corrupt, despotic and warlike European monarchies.
Exceptionalism and isolationism were thus combined and the most authoritative expression of this is often pointed to in George Washington’s farewell address of September 1796, one of the most instructive documents in American political history. In his message, Washington indicated that it was in the interest of the United States to have the most extensive trade relations, while avoiding “artificial ties” with this or that nation of distant Europe, involvement in its alliances and conflicts, and the formation of permanent alliances.
The US isolationist tradition thus goes back in time, but isolation has always been an illusion for a commercial republic.
History shows that isolation was already impossible at the time of naval blockades during the Napoleonic wars, the searches and seizures of American ships, the arrest and forced enlistment of American sailors of English origin, the quasi-naval war with the France (1798-1800), the purchase of Louisiana, the commercial embargo established by Jefferson in 1805-1807, the expedition against the Barbary pirates of the Mediterranean and the 1812-1815 war with Great Britain.
Imprisonment of sailors, obstacles to ocean trade and naval blockade, incitement of Indians to go to war against the United States and killing of American settlers were the arguments raised by President James Madison in June 1812 in his appeal to both houses of Congress that led to declaration of war on Britain.
Certainly, its geographical position placed the new republic far from direct confrontation with the concentrated force of European monarchies, but not from the risk of invasion and naval war: in 1812, Britain had an army of 600,000 men and 600 ships compared with the 6,000 men and 16 vessels of North America’s regular armed force.
It is obvious that the balance of power in the American theatre was different, but not sufficient to prevent the British from occupying Washington for a day, forcing Madison and the government to flee and setting fire to the White House and several other public buildings.
In short, if isolation was impossible in the era of sailing ships, muzzle-loading cannons and sabre in hand boardings, it is an absurdity in the era of ballistic missiles, nuclear warheads, world capitalism and global ecological problems.
What is called isolationism – a political line, not a geopolitical datum – is therefore something that includes the feeling of difference between the political and social system of the United States and that of the Old World.
In practice it has never meant a closing of the United States into economic and political self-sufficiency but a certain way of interacting in the international arena: staying neutral in the face of conflicts in the Old World while manoeuvring to its advantage, with diplomacy and war, in North America and the Caribbean basin – the American Mediterranean; opposing aggressive moves by the European powers in the Americas and their imperial mercantilism, while affirming the right of the United States to full freedom to trade and expand the “empire of freedom” on the continent and beyond – in the Pacific Ocean.
This is a fundamental difference between the development of capitalism in the United States and in Europe, between American informal imperialism – supported by but not reducible to military force – and the mercantilistic imperialism of the Old World, a combination of the pre-capitalist past and the capitalist present.
The “splendid isolation” of the North American state from European conflicts ended forever in 1917, a date which in all respects marks the transition of the United States from a regional power to a world power with the will and capacity to delineate the structure of international relations through its strategic and economic decisions and non-decisions.
* 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 ‘La Politica Estera degli Stati Uniti e le Contraddizioni di Trump: Questioni di Metodo’. Translated by Phil Harris. [IDN-InDepthNews – 07 March 2018]
Related article > US Foreign Policy and Trump’s Contradictions – Part 1
Image: American troops during the Champagne-Marne offensive in a forest fighting Germans. Created 4 March 2004. Credit: Wikimedia Commons
IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate
Facebook.com/IDN.GoingDeeper – twitter.com/InDepthNews