Flash! President Li of China, writing in Foreign Affairs has announced his long-awaited Atlantic-first strategy, in which a battle group of super carriers will ply the waters from Portsmouth to Charleston, set to commence upon the signing of a mutual security treaty with Bermuda, where the carriers are presently docked, along with long-range bombers having nuclear capabilities. This “pivot,” in which important military assets and diplomatic initiatives (including the offer of joint-maneuvers) presents a new framework of regional penetration and geopolitical thinking, has resulted from top-secret meetings of Li’s national-security advisers and the highly placed intelligence experts drawn from China’s own NSA and CIA, the agencies which have been given carte blanche by the president to act on his doctrine of permanent war. Some Chinese defense experts are skeptical in that they desire a more direct confrontation than is afforded by the broadly construed containment policy, a view with which the president finds himself in agreement. But all sides of the civilian-military establishment are in agreement that a war posture is good, and perhaps necessary, both to ensure domestic conformity and provide an economic stimulus to prevent stagnation and ward off recession. Li is particularly fortunate in having a compliant parliamentary body to work with, patriotic and reactionary to the core, wholly submissive to the policies of intervention, targeted assassination, domestic spying, a lax-to-nonexistent regulatory protocol to foster monopolism, above all, perhaps, a somewhat inchoate yet at the constant-ready-to-be-acted-on vision of universal counterrevolution, starting here with bringing the US into line, that is, accepting China’s leadership and guidance in world affairs.
Sound familiar? I have merely taken Obama’s Pacific-first strategy and inverted the imagery to suggest, rather, what the US has done with respect to China, in which a confrontational military, diplomatic, economic, and ideological posture, all rolled into one, has been advanced by the United States to contain, isolate, and, to the extent that it is viewed as a statist formation, liberate China, so that it will be free to enjoy the fruits of American-style capitalism—what, in grandiose form, is meant by the phrase, “liberal humanitarian interventionism.” Obama’s specialization, which combines the “just war” policies of Brennan, the rhetoric of Rhodes, the new window dressing on intervention with the appointments of Rice and Power, the widening in the CIA’s mission and jurisdiction, is unashamedly global dominance, as though by Divine right, or at the least, the self-evidence of Exceptionalism, coupled with a dollop of modernized nuclear weaponry and the use of paramilitary forces (JSOC) in support of the framework.
Global dominance need not be Hitlerian, hardly proper to the recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize—although stranger things have happened. Despite critics’ efforts at psychological understanding of Obama, he thus far, and expertly, eludes analysis. But we do have a record, not, as his supporters would hope, a bundle of contradictions that allows for escape hatches (e.g., Republican obstructionism), but a unitary direction: pro-intervention, pro-corporate wealth, anti-environment, anti-regulation, and, if his record on mortgage relief, job creation, and, at large, the social safety net is any indication, anti-poor, anti-working people, all taken together, a quite despicable elitism saturated with military-authoritarian values of social and economic hierarchy and a puristic market fundamentalism reflecting the unimpeded accumulation of wealth. This noble set of virtues has to be defended at all costs—not only from China, but from America’s citizens at home, and for Obama, the best defense, next to military power, is the secrecy of government. Hence, not Hitlerian, but domestic self-pacification. How? One technique is to create the conditions for the body politic to be suspicious of all things radical (here, not necessarily Marxian collectivism, but simply, the questioning of Authority, whether on war policy or the free pass to oil companies, and the list stretches long into the night).
Increasingly, the Obama government is conflating radicalism and terrorism, the ace it plays to infuse Americans with a war psychology that permits not only the “war on terror,” but also the Pacific-first strategy and greater military presence in the region. China is terribly significant to America’s purposes. In Dulles-like splendor, Obama is playing rollback, China being the Supreme Challenge to Freedom-Loving America, an oblique reference to terrorism generically conceived and perhaps one step removed. It cannot be otherwise, for how else prepare Americans for a get-tough policy that might eventuate in conflict? With this consideration in mind, one has reason to link US China policy with the widespread use of surveillance, and relatedly, an equally widespread practice of overclassification of government documents, in both cases, an imperial flexing of political muscle serving notice on all and sundry that the US has a permanent place at the top of the global-power pyramid. In a sense, this is, for within the US, psychological-ideological overkill, because few Americans remain critical of government-business hegemony in the world. But why take chances? And so, surveillance is very much in order, less to prevent a resumption of radical movements, than to foster the internalization of conformity (aka, social discipline).
The recent Li-Obama meetings at Sunnylands was a piece of social theater, a pro forma gathering which, especially on the issue of cyberwarfare, could not possibly lead to agreements when, on that very day, Obama’s cyberwar against his own people was becoming revealed. We now know, if we didn’t before, that he does not shame easily. Targeted assassination? Nothing. Mammoth defense budgets. Ditto. Guantanamo? Nope. Extreme disparities of wealth and power in America? Not a word. But to question China’s assertiveness in international matters, when the US sits on a world system of military bases, remains engaged in military intervention, has “assets” off the China coast or in its vicinity, requires cynicism fully transparent to the Chinese, who can only admire his chutzpah. The US will persist in its demand for global preeminence, but the world structure is metamorphosing into a multi-polar system, a decentralization of power, in which China is a threat to American hegemony, but one that can be lived with, and which appears to be to China’s liking, because, absent America’s unilateral supremacy governing international trade and investment, it is able, as presently in Africa and Latin America, to seek its own welfare—as can also Russia, Japan, the European Union, Brazil, and Third World countries undertaking their own modernization and industrialization. America is saying “NO!” to an irresistible historical flow, and, notwithstanding militarism, or perhaps because of it, is in danger of being left behind. More interventions, more surveillance, ultimately, more “blowback,” in which the voices of the dispossessed and the victims will be heard.
Norman Pollack is the author of “The Populist Response to Industrial America” (Harvard) and “The Just Polity” (Illinois), Guggenheim Fellow, and professor of history emeritus, Michigan State University.