Viewpoint by Michele Nobile*
This is the third of a five-part article looking at US foreign policy in historical context and its global implications under President Donald Trump.
BERGAMO, Italy (IDN) – The development of capitalism is global but structurally unequal: its contradictions are also expressed through the hierarchy of the system of States. And, subjectively, the great power induces great ambitions and produces great errors: hence the oscillations between rollback and containment, aggressive posture and detente.
It is known that omnipotence is the attribute of divine, not earthly power, yet there appears to be seems to be a sort of theology of disillusionment or illusion at work in the thesis of American decline which, from the discovery that power is not unlimited or constant, dates from its relentless obsolescence.
Despite the discourse on American decline having been around for half a century, the alleged challengers vanish one after the other.
For example: while leaving aside other considerations – such as the need to export to the US market – the fact remains that, no matter how large the domestic product of China may be, its product per inhabitant it is at the level of Algeria and Montenegro, at equal purchasing power, and about ten times lower than that of the US dollar, which is then the measure that counts for the purpose of international power relations. Not to mention that the distribution of income in China is certainly more unequal than in the United States.
The decline of American power existed in relation to the post-Second World War situation; but that was an exceptional condition and not at all healthy for capitalism, where prosperity — like US interest — required that imbalance be corrected by producing new ones, but on a higher overall level of the world economy.
And yet, to paraphrase Susan Strange’s Casino Capitalism, which of the major powers has greater capacity to exercise the structural power to shape and modify production, knowledge, credit or the security within which the others are forced to live if they want to participate in the global market economy?
The United States did not win the Cold War: this was archived in a concordant way as a fact of the past by the statements of Michail Gorbachev and George H.W. Bush at the end of the Malta summit of December 3, 1989, two years before dissolution of the Soviet Union.
What “won” the Cold War were the internal contradictions of China and the Soviet Union, their internal corrosion, the opportunism of the dominant castes (of their substantial fractions) that decided to transform social privileges that were dependent on position in the political hierarchy into private property.
But it is a fact that Chinese capitalism is dependent on American capitalism and, while it is true that the United States did not win the Cold War, it is also true that ultimately something was accomplished that had been pursued for decades, even creating a division between those who attribute the merit of the final result to all post-war administrations (for example, Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to Jimmy Carter) or to Ronald Reagan alone (second generation neoconservatives).
Faced with an occurrence that changes the history of the world such as the capitalist transformation of China, Russia and Central and Eastern Europe, the figures for the alleged “American decline” are trifling.
Conceptual fetishism: multilateralism/unilateralism, unipolarity/multipolarity
US foreign policy is mostly characterised by dichotomies: internationalism/isolationism, multilateralism/unilateralism, universalism/exceptionalism, interventionism/non-interventionism, hegemony/empire, hard power/soft power.
The use of these pairings could be mainly descriptive, but in fact it is strongly normative: it serves to indicate what should be the right policy. And, especially when they are used as if one term were the antithesis of the other, they do not really explain the policies actually pursued because, in practice, the peculiar nature of administrations and their particular tone result from the way in which all the trends expressed by those terms merge with each other, from their relative weight in defence or international economic policies, and in different moments and situations.
After criticism, they can only serve as generically descriptive terms, not as explanatory concepts.
For example: Barack Obama vigorously insisted on multilateralism – economic as well as political and military, as with the Libyan crisis – and on compliance with international standards, but did not hesitate to act unilaterally, such as with the massive and lethal use of drones in countries with which the United States was not at war (Pakistan, Somalia, Syria and Yemen), and to give the go-ahead to an operation – the purge of Osama bin Laden – which violated the sovereignty of Pakistan in spectacular fashion.
The panorama becomes even more complicated if we consider that terms such as unilateralism and multilateralism refer to policies, while the various polarities (uni-, bi-, tri- or multi-) refer to the structure of the international system as a matter of fact or a policy objective.
Logically, policies and structures can be combined in different ways: for example, the goal of maintaining or achieving a unipolar world can be pursued with a unilateral or multilateral policy; inversely, the goal of a multipolar world can be pursued in a unilateral or multilateral way.
So we can say that the American neoconservatives are unipolar and unilateralist, but paleoconservatives like Pat Buchanan are multipolar and unilateralist while most neoliberals are unipolar and multilateralist.
The European Union could be called multipolar and multilateralist, but how could Hitler or Stalin have been classified? Multipolar and unilateralist? And Russia or China today?
Could we say that in order to make progress in the multipolar world and create one’s own spheres of influence – as opposed to the “hegemonism” of the United States, but also in latent contrast between them – multilateralism and unilateralism combine according to convenience and the opportunity to legitimise unequal relationships?.
It is very doubtful whether a unipolar way ever existed or could exist. As for multilateralism, in reality it is a battlefield: the strongest can come to feel like Gulliver among the Lilliputians, or the latter can have a totally unbalanced relationship with the giant.
The dichotomies are even more misleading when applied as if their particular meaning remained unchanged when referring to a period of the nineteenth century, the period between the world wars, after World War II, the 1980s or the more recent international scene.
Changes in the balance of power among classes within countries and processes of national liberation, changes in national political regimes, relations between the great powers and the lethality of armaments (the nuclear weapon marks an epochal discontinuity), and transformations of the world economy come into play.
The fundamental problem of the concepts of the prevailing theories of international relations which are variants of neorealism is that, although applied to different historical situations and to transformations of the international system of states, they are socially and historically indeterminate.
States are assumed as “black boxes”, their economy is considered only as regards the contribution to military power and their position in the structure of the international system; and dominant States oriented towards maintenance of the status quo differ from revisionist States of the existing order, regardless of the specificity of their societies.
Consequently, the definition of “national interest” refers to the survival and integrity of the State, assumed as a fetish that conceals the stratification of society, the class nature of political power and the various international political interests that may derive from the contrasts among social classes.
When we take into consideration the subjectivity of statesmen and the perception of threats and opportunities, this is nevertheless placed in relation to a “national interest” that is socially neutral.
The bipolar world of the Cold War was not simply divided between two blocs of states, but between two different social systems (capitalism and a totalitarian bureaucratic statism or “state socialism”). Inversely, the great powers of today’s multipolar world are unequal but homogeneous as regards social relations: they are very different capitalisms.
Beyond the information content and interest of partial analysis, the prevailing theories of international relations are based on fetishism of the state and are seriously limited in explaining historical process – for example, collapse of the Soviet system.
Another way of looking at the question is that US foreign policy oscillates between making the country an example for the world – therefore with limited inclination to interventionism – and acting as a crusader state actively engaged in promotion of democracy throughout the world.
The reality is much more complex and contradictory than these simplifications: for example, it can be said that the Bush Jr. presidency began under the banner of example and moderation, and then developed badly as a crusade against terrorism and for the “promotion of democracy”.
* 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 – 10 March 2018]
Photo: Cold War. Courtesy of Creative Commons
IDN is the flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate
Facebook.com/IDN.GoingDeeper – twitter.com/InDepthNews