Never mind the stereotype of military leaders from the fevered brow of left-wingers, going back to George Grosz’s satirical drawings of generals with spiked-Prussian helmets, ample bosoms in the manner of Hermann Goring, bedecked with five-to-seven rows of ribbons. Never mind their look-alikes and wannabes in America, composites of Douglas MacArthur, Curtis LeMay, and Dr. Strangelove, who at West Point and Annapolis (we forget that admirals also comprise this military caste system, though their names, for some reason, aren’t as familiar to us) have learned to resolve the conundrum posed and made famous by Gerald Ford, of how to chew gum and walk at the same time. Never mind the evolution of top brass via the revolving door to plum positions in the defense industries, government agencies, Wall Street (all requiring the square-jawed determination breeding confidence that covers up their nefarious activities). Rest assured that out of this fascistic-inclined mold emerges the occasional soldier-statesman, a David Petraeus, or as now, Wesley Clark, to mark the path to American Greatness, prescribing in learned words, with acumen and discernment, a doctrine of world supremacy that hardly differs in substance from that of their troglodytic compeers. Militarism = Patriotism, is all you have to know.
Our homespun Clausewitz, US Army General (ret.), former NATO supreme Allied commander in Europe, and author of the aptly titled, “Don’t Wait for the Next War: A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership,”—that is, why wait(?) when NOW is the time to confront China, our major world adversary, and claim once-for-all US unilateral dominance in an American-defined international order—Clark is indeed a formidable voice of military opinion which, judging from Obama’s Pacific-first strategy, appears to resonate throughout official Washington. But now, in all modesty, he should be regarded and may so regard himself, as a “defense intellectual” like Paul Wolfowitz and Richard Perle, braided cap to the wind and ribbons in the drawer: a selfless prophet of confrontation in the Kissinger-mold, bravely and gravely facing the prospect of nonpareil conflagration in the name of freedom and democracy (a wise teacher to today’s policy makers). West Point valedictorian class of ’66, Rhodes Scholar, altogether to be taken seriously as the authentic voice of modern warfare—in brief, as I see it, one who professionalizes the use of force to secure the fruits of war, intervention, assassination, civilian deaths, saturation bombing, whatever it takes to keep America on top, albeit in scholarly language whenever possible.
Clark’s New York Times op-ed article, “Getting Real About China: To Manage China, Fix America First,” (Oct. 11), adapted from his aforementioned book, begins with a geopolitical proposition that ensures the proper conclusion—we’ve been duped by China, and further talk of reconciliation is self-defeating: “China’s harsh suppression of political dissent, from Hong Kong to Xinjiang, and its close ties to Russia, Iran and North Korea, have finally laid to rest the dream many Western leaders have had since the 1990s: that ‘constructive engagement’ would eventually, inevitably lead to more openness and democracy.” This shedding of crocodile tears about suppression of political dissent (especially coming from an America where dissent is silenced in presumably more legitimate ways, from the narrowing of political choice to media manipulation to massive surveillance encouraging people to check the habit of critical thinking) is not the point so much as is the fear of a China-Russia rapprochement after decades of mistrust and the capacity for unified resistance to American global leadership and power. Moreover, was “constructive engagement” ever really tried since the Chinese Revolution of 1949? Except to force “openness and democracy” American-style, to wit, capitalism, commercial penetration and investment rights, etc.—which, oddly, appears to be happening despite the atmosphere of confrontation (and, for Marxists still around, a betrayal of principle, and of socialism).
When one factors in capitalist changes in China, Clark’s (and official Washington’s) opposition seems to rest, not on ideology, but on power, pure and simple, the dislodging of the US from its topmost place as the military-economic regulator of the World System to its exclusive advantage. China-Russia, no longer Mao-Stalin, but perhaps the more formidable pairing of Xi-Putin, not standing in awe of Leviathan and each rejecting multipronged encirclement, whether TPP- or EU-implemented, on America’s behalf, as now sharing common ground. Divide-and-conquer seems the geostrategic card to play so as to maintain unilateral power, whether here, the US, respecting China and Russia, or, e.g., Israel, with respect to the Palestinian Authority and Gaza. Hegemony detests competition.
For Clark, China is to blame for the failure of constructive engagement, naturally. I say, “naturally,” in that he believes America has so much to offer the world, domestically, human rights, internationally, principles of organization favoring peace. China’s crime is its assertiveness (further on, its ascendance) in world politics, not coming hat-in-hand to the American-laid table: “Instead, the opposite [to openness and democracy] has occurred: China is more confident, more assertive, and also more closed.” The last-named is problematic, given that very ascendance and transactional context thereby implied. As one probes Clark’s mental-set, not power but power conjoined to economic success gripes him, as though in combination affording the way out of American world domination: “Thirty-five years after Deng Xiaoping freed up the economy, the Communist Party is using material prosperity and nationalist ideology to maintain its legitimacy in the face of wrenching social tensions. It has rejected both the move toward democracy and the acceptance of human and civil rights that Americans had hoped would emerge from China’s ASTONISHING ECONOMIC RISE.” (caps., mine)
The last is an especially bitter pill to swallow, coming as it does under Communist Party auspices (even though, objectively, the party has made a shambles of Marxian orthodoxy), Clark’s own reification of economics—what I’ll term, “economism”—in which development and growth necessarily are equated with “acceptance of human and civil rights,” the absence of which testifying to a sinister government of repression. That America has a tarnished record in those areas need not detain him—the target is China rather than a relative absence of internal democratization in America. In fact, he projects on to China a salient trait of US foreign policy, not, of course, seeing the irony in his charge: “Even more worrisome, China’s foreign policy relies on keenly calculated self-interest [no-one, critic or supporter, would find the US deficient on this score], at the expense of the international institutions, standards and obligations the United States has sought to champion.” As will be seen, beyond the UN, which America, like Israel, has often viewed with mistrust, he includes the IMF and World Bank as institutions exemplifying democracy. Not surprisingly, even thus far, Clark posits conflict, feigning disbelief, however, that it has, on China’s part, a rational basis: “It increasingly views the United States as a rival and potential adversary.”
Hence the question, “What went wrong?” Clark’s version of what went wrong depicts China, first, as wanting closeness to the US military as protection against Soviet expansion, and then, perceiving US weakness and decline, integrating its economic ascent with its own militaristic ambitions and finding a clear field to expand, presumably at the expense of both. This would make China a world menace, with America particularly on the path of conquest to be overcome. Essentially, a two-stage argument, China, because opposing America, once a normalization of relations with Russia was achieved, is regarded by the US as treacherous, ungrateful, the primary Enemy at the gates.
The earlier post-Revolution stage is fantasyland itself: “In the late 1970s, when the United States and China fully normalized relations [“fully,” a somewhat extravagant term], Beijing sought a strategic partnership with Washington, to deter a perceived Soviet threat. By the late 1980s, China was unconcerned about the Soviets, though willing to listen and learn from the United States military.” It is as though, from his perspective, Clark, quoting a “young, well-connected Communist Party leader” to the effect that friendship with America would, like the way England gave America world leadership, give China also “’leadership of the world.’” Permit me a raised eyebrow, not that the discussion did not occur, but that the geopolitical dynamics, and the relationships themselves, were the same. Through the whole period, 1949-2014, China has been regarded as prime ground for Kennan-containment if not also and always Dulles-liberation policies, political-economic-military in nature, thought beyond reach until recently, as Obama busily positions American military “assets” in the Pacific and firms up military and/or trade alliances throughout the region.
Clark finds China having been “especially impressed by our prowess in the 1991 Persian Gulf war,” and that, while concentrating on “its agricultural, industrial and technological strength,” had made “military modernization… a second-tier priority.” Save for the growth, this was definitely a preferable situation. Then came “the financial crisis of 2008 and its aftermath,” and the turn-around in “China’s assessment of America,” so that now it was tasting blood and moving in for the kill: “While still respectful of our military might, China began to see the United States as a failing system, with a debt-saddled economy and a dysfunctional government, vulnerable to being replaced as the world’s leader.” Again, he has an informant, “a well-placed Chinese associate,” in 2011 confirming US fears that China sought to dominate the South China Sea, and in 2013 “this associate’s warnings had become even more ominous.” Still there is not a word about America’s military build-up in the Pacific, joint exercises with the Philippines and encouragement of Abe, in violation of the Japanese Constitution, to rearm, or the Trans-Pacific Partnership both for the exclusion of China and itself as an economic foundation for an otherwise region-wide defense system.
The inevitable step back, scholar-general in academic mode, so as not to appear overzealous: “China doesn’t need conflict—it can achieve most of its goals by adroitly combining traditional diplomacy with its vast economic power.” That said (and a few more caveats down the road to prove himself balanced and trustworthy), Clark notes: “But neither will it avoid conflict. It has in the past used its military ‘pre-emptively’ rather than defensively [a dubious assertion]. A danger is that an ascendant China seeking recognition of its power and rights, will, whether deliberately or through miscalculation, spark conflict.” If the shoe were on the other foot in “seeking recognition of its power and rights,” would Clark find the US culpable? As for sparking conflict, the Pacific-first strategy, combined with, yes, perhaps easy to forget, Ukraine and the confrontation, utilizing the EU and NATO, with Russia, when attention is drawn to China, returns us to the source of the criticism, America, and its projection on to The Other of its own hostile plans.
Projection, but let’s skip the jargon, for this is revealing of an arrogance, self-righteousness, the claim to Exceptionalism, not on his part alone, of course, but embedded in the National Mythology justifying US world domination, which Clark quaintly phrases in the terms of liberal humanitarianism: “But the deeper strategic problem for America is China’s more fundamental challenge to the GLOBAL ARCHITECTURE of trade, law and peaceful resolution of disputes that the United States and its allies created after World War II.” (caps., mine) The setting is important; even before war’s end, we see the construction of an anti-Soviet international framework which served equally as the launching pad for an American-initiated world order of imperialism and counter-revolution. That Clark sees in that beneficence to the nth power is only fitting—and consistent with his geopolitical vision.
As he warms to the denunciation of China, underlying fears are difficult to hide, including still to this day the fear of international communism as the universal imprisonment of humankind: “China’s strategic rise—patient, nuanced and farsighted [descriptive terms of opprobrium, which in any other context might be seen as complimentary, but here that of a slithering snake ready to strike]—threatens all of this. Just as the United States has sought the worldwide adoption of democratic values and American norms of international behavior, China will seek structures and relationships that support Communist Party rule at home, and its policy that countries should not intervene in one another’s affairs.” Clark regards the rejection of intervention into the internal affairs of other countries, as well he might, as a mortal sin of international politics, for what else is America’s guiding principle and mechanism for ensuring world power?
Before we leave the topsy-turvy world of American imperialism (i.e., blame the other guy as you put the handcuffs on and burn down his house), we owe it to ourselves to have a further glimpse into the mind-set of the military practitioner (I would argue, from Obama on down). Clark continues: “The ascendancy of naked and direct self-interest as an organizing principle would mean a fundamental weakening of Western institutions and values, including the rule of law.” Methinks he protesteth too much, for where do we most find if not nakedly-declared then practically followed SELF-INTEREST than in the case of the US, likewise, contempt for the rule of law? Reading Clark is like burrowing into the American psyche in toto, the powers of deniability and all. And he has this flourish: “This would be a step backward, toward 19th-century ideas of the balance of power and spheres of influence.” He then has the chutzpah to quote the person most associated in America with those ideas: “The question, as Henry A. Kissinger has framed it, is ‘whether China can work with us to create an international structure in which, perhaps for the first time in history, a rising state has been incorporated into an international system and strengthened peace and progress.”
Translated: accommodation to American power, China’s rise somehow sublimated into an international system predefined to incorporate US global hegemony as its foundation and guiding light. Poor China, a child of paranoia in viewing encirclement, military, political, economic, as inimical to its interests: “The United States will emphasize multilateral forums for resolving disputes through international law, and fulfill our commitments to allies. China, in contrast, views this international order and these formalized obligations as being heavily tilted against it.” From carrier battle groups to long-range bombers to the “formalized obligations” (to which China is not a signatory and, in fact, which serve as mutual defense pacts directed against it), there may be ample grounds for suspicion of US intent.
Yet Clark’s apprehension about the future is very real, considering—though he does not—the consistent record of and current provocation offered by America: “We should be under no illusion about the difficult road ahead. China operates on a long-term vision [again, often thought salutary, but perhaps now the subliminal fear, recalling the boast of the Soviet leadership, “we will bury you”], driven by its own interests. By some estimates, China’s gross domestic product could surpass that of the United States sometime in the next decade. By then, Chinese military strength… will be formidable. Even without any military confrontation, the balance of power in the western Pacific will shape the Chinese predisposition to push, threaten or compromise.” In other words, Stand Up Firmly against them. To be followed by a litany of threats: “The Chinese must understand that their expanding military capabilities have consequences.”
The US must “strengthen its ballistic missile defense system,” this with respect to China, but Clark also has the big picture in mind. Though he does not quite say it, and I may be giving him too much credit for envisioning it, the real battleground has never been China exclusively, but a world of counterrevolution, in which China and Russia become inseparable threats to American global hegemony. Here he broaches the subject: “China is closely observing events in Ukraine, and what our statements and actions there may mean for Asia. We must help China understand that a closer, more assertive alignment with Russia will only provoke the United States and our allies. The pivot to Asia makes sense, but must not come at the expense of our obligations to our allies in Europe and elsewhere.” This caveat, if it be that, is meant both as a corrective to the Pacific-first strategy and a renewal of the emphasis on keeping pressure on Russia, whether as containment and isolation or ultimate dismemberment. The US does not feel safe, nor its interests protected, if either, or, Heaven forefend, both, provide a challenge to America’s global supremacy. Here the UN, IMF, and World Bank: “A China that turns its back on these institutions [the latter two, especially, under US control] will find itself isolated and defensive, no matter how great its economic and military might.”
Clark in proof of his scholarly respectability does, as I noted, have qualifications of sorts to his analysis. On the right of intervention: “While Americans should hope that China embraces democracy and human rights in the long term, in the short run, we must accept that China has a right to its own system of government and its own standards for political legitimacy and social justice.” This is dangerous ground for a committed imperialist, and so we see now a tightrope act implying that he has kept his balance: “We must help China see a distinction between its principle of ‘noninterference in internal matters of other states’ and respect for basic human rights and dignity.” This is followed by his admission which he places in parentheses: “(For our part, we must also demonstrate our own acceptance of the responsibilities of global leadership by, for example, joining the International Criminal Court and the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.)” A damning indictment for the creator of a global architecture of social justice!
But for one point, we can leave Clark on that note, in recognition that a refusal to join the International Criminal Court not merely shows disdain and contempt for the rule of law, that for which America charges China, but also denies jurisdiction for the arraignment and prosecution of US real and potential war crimes. The further point concerns the subtitle for his article, “To Manage China, Fix America First,” to which he gives scant attention, except to register national pride: “Our natural resources, the rule of law, our entrepreneurial culture, and our vast head start in higher education and science are strong factors in our favor.” Where the “fix” comes in, if any is needed, is this: “If we are to retain our global leadership, and be a constructive, countervailing force as China rises, America needs a long-term strategic vision of our own: a strong, growing economy built on a foundation of energy independence; a vibrant, effective democracy; assertive, patient diplomacy backed by supportive allies; and a military capable of standing toe to toe with China in a crisis.” Given that, then America can lead China out of the darkness into the light of a US-centered world order. “Perhaps then,” he closes, “China’s leaders will feel secure enough to grant real democracy to its people. But it will be a long journey.” One, however, that will not alter the balance and structure of world power.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at email@example.com.