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What Was the Liberal International Order?

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There are sound critiques of Trump’s policies, then judgments marred by ignorance. Laments for the coming collapse of the “liberal international order” belong in the latter category.

Articles on this system’s decay run through what Steven Bannon derides as “elite media”: The Atlantic, Foreign Affairs, the New York Times, Washington Post and others. They suggest Trump’s “opposition to free trade” and “support for authoritarianism” clash with U.S. diplomatic practice stretching back 70 years– to the time when, post-World War II, “American statesmen…took the lead in building a network of alliances and institutions to promote…international security and universal human rights,” “to defend democratic ideals.”

A pleasing thought. But to really know the world the U.S. fashioned we must confront history. Washington’s World War II conduct previewed its policies in the Cold War and beyond.

Think of the “strategic”– one geographer preferred “terror”– bombing of Japan, which wrecked over 60 cities before nuclear inferno engulfed Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Two scholars concluded this campaign amounted to genocide, others argue it presaged similar assaults elsewhere.

Like Korea: 386,037 tons of bombs over three years, killing 2 or 3 million, mostly noncombatants. Pyongyang was 90% obliterated, northern and central Korea ruined. A Hungarian correspondent there felt he was “travelling on the moon, because there was only devastation,” saw a “city of 200,000 inhabitants” reduced to “thousands of chimneys and that—that was all.” Washington bombed “everything that moved” there, Dean Rusk, Secretary of State under Kennedy and Johnson, conceded.

“Anything that flies, on anything that moves” was Kissinger’s prescription for Cambodia. Nixon agreed: “I want them to hit everything.” Bombing actually started under Johnson, in October 1965—not 1970, as was thought—and totaled 2,756,941 tons, more than the Allies unleashed in World War II. Low estimates put the number of killed civilians at 50,000-150,000.

The Laotian Plain of Jars was home to 50,000 before it fell in the crosshairs of U.S. statesmen. Fred Branfman called the Plain “the first society to vanish through automated warfare.” Georges Chapelier, Belgian UN adviser, described how “the intensity of the bombings was such that no organized life was possible in the villages” there by 1968, before the assault escalated. “Nothing was left standing” in 1969, the year of “systematic destruction of the material basis of the civilian society,” leaving survivors “in trenches and holes or in caves.”

But these campaigns only hint at the benefits Washington bestowed as defender of the liberal order. Consider Vietnam. In the North, bombing killed some 65,000 civilians. In the South, 10 million tons of bombs killed an unknown number. The Defense Department thought maybe 195,000 died, a U.S. Senate subcommittee, in 1975, figured 415,000. Pathetic guesses. Nick Turse cites research by scholars from Harvard and the University of Washington putting the number at 3.8 million, though “even this staggering figure may be an underestimate.”

Martti Ahtisaari, UN Undersecretary-General, underestimated the ruin in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War. He and his team “were fully conversant with media reports regarding the situation” there, but were not prepared “for the particular form of devastation” they witnessed on arrival. The scene was “near-apocalyptic,” with “most means of modern life support” either “destroyed or rendered tenuous,” damning Iraq “to a pre-industrial” status. Only then did Washington effect sanctions intended, Joy Gordon writes, “to inflict the most extreme economic damage possible on Iraq.”

Or look at the damage the U.S. inflicted on democracy worldwide. The CIA’s 1953 Iranian coup marked “the end of democracy” there “and the emergence, in its place, of a royal dictatorship” that “did not tolerate dissent and repressed opposition newspapers, political parties, trade unions, and civic groups,” notes Stephen Kinzer.

The Agency, the next year, toppled Guatemala’s Jacobo Árbenz. U.S. intelligence had concluded, in October 1952, that the man’s “social reform ideas stem from the US New Deal,” that he wished “to establish a ‘modern democracy.’” This report came after Árbenz signed his June 1952 land reform. “US aid officials considered it moderate,” writes Nick Cullather, akin “to agrarian programs the United States was sponsoring in Japan and Formosa.”

But Washington forced Árbenz out anyway. The CIA compiled hit lists for his successor and “hundreds of Guatemalans were rounded up and killed” after the coup. The new regime quickly “banned all political parties,” adds Kinzer, and a top police official “outlawed subversive literature” by Dostoevsky, Hugo, and other incorrigible radicals.

Then repression intensified: 200,000 were butchered on the altar of “counter-terror.” State Department official Viron Vaky warned of the slaughter in March 1968, calling Guatemalan state “counter-terror”—not “terror,” since we supported it—“indiscriminate,” with victims “killed or dissappear [sic] on the basis of simple accusations,” detained for interrogation where “torture is used and bodies are mutilated.”

Chileans faced similar abuse by a U.S.-approved regime: “at least 28,000 people survived physical and psychological agony” under Pinochet, explains Lubna Z. Qureshi. One woman testified that “they raped me with bottles.” Another, 25 years old, that she “became pregnant when the torturers raped me.” International security. “They forced me to consume drugs and raped and sexually harassed me with dogs, put live rats in my vagina;” she miscarried in prison. Universal human rights. Another woman, three months pregnant: “They beat me on the abdomen,” “burned my body,” “made me eat excrement.” She miscarried. Democratic ideals. Kissinger, meeting Pinochet in June 1976, reassured the dictator he was “sympathetic with what you are trying to do,” citing the 1973 Chilean coup as “a great service to the West.”

Months later, in October 1976, U.S. statesmen urged the Argentine military to speed up their repression. “The quicker you succeed the better,” Kissinger affirmed. Some 10,000-30,000 were disappeared in Argentina from 1976-1983. To encourage one man to talk, interrogators “placed his newborn son on his chest before applying the electric cattle prod to his whole body.” A woman’s body, after autopsy, “revealed that ‘two live rats had been sewn into [her] vagina and had torn her body apart as they tried to get out.’”

The $6 billion Carter, Reagan and Bush I funneled to El Salvador fueled state terror that tore that country to shreds. Government forces did “more than 85 percent of the killings, kidnappings, and torture” from 1980-1992, when 75,000 died and conflict displaced a third of the population. Freedom. Symptoms like “insomnia, nervous tics, asthma, aggressiveness and autism” plagued the uprooted. Security. One peasant woman, Tonita, arrived home to find “her mother, sister, and three children” sitting around a table. “The decapitated heads of all five had been placed in front of each torso,” with “a large plastic bowl filled with blood” at the table’s center. Prosperity.

There are many reasons to fear Trump’s foreign policy. But Washington’s world system makes hellscapes. All the better if it crumbles.

Nick Alexandrov lives in Washington, DC.  He can be reached at: nicholas.alexandrov@gmail.com

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