Obama’s Pacific-First strategy, the so-called “pivot” to Asia, implemented through a shift in military assets to a theater of operations designated in geopolitical planning and strategy as America’s major arena for political-economic-ideological EXPANSION, and therefore, the means of maintaining its global hegemony in the face of the simultaneous rise to power of Russia and China, themselves brought into closer working relationship to counter US unipolar world leadership/dominance, has been put on display at the G-20 Summit meeting in Australia. Beijing provided the springboard for the splendidly executed, intentionally directed, one-two punch against China and Russia in the more formal inauguration of a foreign policy aimed at the re-polarization of the international system. “Re-“ is of course arbitrary, for the US never abandoned through thick and thin the Cold War framework as, in every respect, most suited to the organization and mobilization of American power—in the service of the national interest, yes, but as mediated through the lens of advanced capitalism as the only secure and acceptable holistic posture.
Whether American Exceptionalism drives Capitalism in America, or Capitalism drives Exceptionalism, is best left to nationalistic metaphysicians and ideologues, so intertwined are they throughout US history. But without the Cold War mentality and political economy of financial-industrial militarism, America would not be where it is—or rather, has been during the period since 1900, a steadily ascendant world power not challenged until now. Here Obama takes on world-historical significance, not, obviously, in his own right, a trickster, con man, moral cipher with unbending ambition (disguised as “cool”), but as presiding formally over a System menaced by its own impending decline and the transformation of the world structure of power. Impending decline: militarism sucking the lifeblood from a polity nominally democratic but incapable of sustaining a social-welfare underpinning that would provide a decency of living conditions (i.e., strong safety net) and semblance at least of equalitarian class and race relations. And transformation of the world structure of power: despite America’s single-minded counterrevolution on a global scale, Third World nations are emerging from dependency on the US and finding other sources of support and opportunity, while on the main stage very definite independent centers of power have de-centered the global framework, led by China and Russia—not coincidentally, the main targets of American hostility.
Ergo (and by that I’m not sarcastic or simplistic), we see at this historical moment the US re-polarization of the world structure, an upward notching of the Cold War which had been allowed to simmer under the radar, in recognition that this alone can keep America at the top: a dramatization of conflict, Putin and Russia especially as scapegoats, by which to rally the EU and other “friends and allies” into a unified front, under US leadership, against the Forces of Darkness, the hodgepodge (here throw in China, ISIS, whatever can be made to terrify a confused public) necessitating a stabilization of the status quo.
This is the context for Brisbane. Without an apparent major blunder at Beijing—his pushing of the Trans-Pacific Partnership at the meetings, because excluding China and Russia, and more, done specifically to curtail their influence and activity in the region, not called out as inappropriate if not also hostile—Obama comes to Brisbane on winged foot, the darling of like-minded members of G-20 who are satisfied with US global leadership, satellites of the metropole in the shared distribution of global wealth (and prepared to solidify the arrangement through military support), because he allegedly held his own with Xi and, that to his credit, could lead in the ostracism of Putin. Exactly what happened, Putin made the renegade, the likes of Stephen Harper and Tony Abbott throwing barbs from behind Obama’s ample nuclear-armed backside, while he himself danced around the word “invasion” in characterizing Russia’s role in the Ukraine. Cold War II, if you will, off to a good start.
Actually, despite reaching several agreements, Obama and Xi gave the clear impression that little had changed, Obama still able to conjure up China as an Enemy-in-waiting, and Xi, mindful of the American deployment of forces to the Pacific, had no illusions about partnerships or even stability in the region free from US continued attempts at China’s containment and isolation. On that point, Obama’s denial was itself confirmation of the opposite. At the closing news conference, as reported by New York Times correspondent Mark Landler, Nov. 12, Obama said that his meetings with Xi “had given him the chance to debunk the notion that ‘our pivot to Asia is about containing China.’” What else could it be about, especially in tandem with the Trans-Pacific Partnership and continued joint-military maneuvers in the area (e.g., with the Philippines)? Landler notes the lack of personal warmth between the two leaders. Tensions surfaced at the press conference. Even though there may be a common interest on issues such as climate change, North Korea, and Iran, Landler, revealing his own Cold war bias, writes that there are “countervailing tensions when a rising power flexes its muscles against an established one, and as a Communist empire bristles at the judgments [US criticism of press freedom in China] of a powerful democracy. All of this was on vivid display Wednesday.” We’re back to Red China, and that “powerful democracy,” America.
Landler’s dispatches from Brisbane are more factual; his article, “Finishing Asia Tour, Obama Promotes More Ambitious Foreign Policy,” (Nov. 15), strikes the correct note in seeing a foreign- policy shift of some kind, though he is unclear as to its significance. Not “a landmark climate-change agreement with China, a trade deal with the Chinese on technology products,” progress on pushing TPP, or the “pledge to a climate-change fund for developing countries” defines what constitutes “ambitious,” but rather the confrontation with Russia and China as presumed interrelated threats, always implied in earlier Cold War assumptions and practices, now becomes more direct and pointed as Obama bounces from one to the other seeking to tie them together in policy terms: Ukraine, the downing of MH-17, sanctions, and, on China, a more generalized threat of a Red Asia via military expansion. For “friends and allies,” the propaganda offensive worked like a charm, Obama, the Man of the Hour.
In his last Asia trip (the Philippines in April) Obama talked about hitting singles and doubles and avoiding “reckless errors”; now—but for disputed reasons—over the fence. “The scorecard for this trip looks drastically different from the last one,” the reason being climate change, etc., stiffening his back, or as his (to me) ventriloquist, Ben Rhodes, always on point for such occasions, put it: “’Even as we have to manage crises, we want to make sure we’re focusing on an affirmative agenda. I think that’s the common thread on this trip.’” Part of the full-court persuasion was the ballyhoo about US economic performance, what Landler termed the pursuit of “more expansionary economic policies to stimulate demand and create jobs,” because IMF-World Bank oriented designedly widening differences with the adversaries. Hints are dropped. “Even in Brisbane,” Landler closes, “where he spoke hopefully of the reinvigorated American role in Asia, Mr. Obama referred to the other headaches he faced, singling out the international response to the ‘appalling’ downing of a Malaysian jetliner in Ukraine, which killed 38 Australian citizens and residents.”
Emma Fitzsimmons, writing in NYT, “Putin Gets a Cool Reception From G-20,” (Nov. 15), illustrates the aforementioned “affirmative agenda,” i.e., here the demonization of Putin, with such items as Harper, Canadian PM, cordially greeting Putin’s approach, “’I guess I’ll shake your hand, but I have only one thing to say to you: You need to get out of Ukraine.’” Obama, to a Brisbane university audience, cordiality to a fault, “called Russia’s aggression against Ukraine a ‘threat to the world as we saw in the appalling shootdown of MH-17, a tragedy that took so many innocent lives, among them your fellow citizens.’” Abbott, Australian PM, not to be outdone, said he planned to “shirt-front” Putin (whether Australian football or rugby, pretty direct) at the meeting, and instead—though he told reporters, “’I am going to be saying to Mr. Putin: Australians were murdered [MH-17]. They were murdered by Russian-backed rebels using Russian-supplied equipment. We are very unhappy about this’”—they politely shook hands on stage. Perhaps Abbott got off lucky, not going Putin toe-to-toe!
Time for high comedy, were the facts not so tragic. Landler’s article, “Obama Moves Close to Calling Russian Action in Ukraine an Invasion,” (Nov. 16), describes Sunday’s Obama news conference, which followed Obama’s earlier warning to Putin in Beijing about continued sanctions “for actions in Ukraine that he edged close to calling an invasion,” and now said, in full POTUS majesty, America was “’very firm on the need to uphold core international principles, and one of those principles is YOU DON’T INVADE OTHER COUNTRIES.’” (My caps.) Like Iraq? Afghanistan? Airstrikes and drone assassinations in multiple countries?
Finally, because Beijing and Brisbane are closely linked in American policymakers’ minds as a unified next step in implementing the global hegemonic framework, I turn back to China and Washington Post’s Steven Mufson, for his article, “China, the new indispensable nation?”, (Nov. 14), for additional coverage on the foreign-policy approach. In his case, his American-centered perspective enables Mufson to see clearly how Team Obama views China—short, that is, of frank acknowledgment of open hostility. China is to be confronted on tip-toe, at least until irreconcilable differences surface necessitating limited war. And then? In our time, there seems to be a logic to events, backed by nuclear arsenals. None of this last in Mufson, but that China is undeniably on America’s mind comes through. Madeleine Albright once said, “’If we have to use force, it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation.’” This in 1998, addressed to the use of force in Iraq. Mufson, raising the obvious, in light of contemporary reality: “Maybe there are two indispensable nations.”
Yes, the national-security party line: “Now, however, while America still possesses unparalleled military superiority and bears a unique burden in intervening in foreign conflicts or humanitarian crises, [a voice of liberal burden-bearing via endemic interventionism—mine], China has grown into an indispensable nation on issues such as climate change, trade, and peace and stability in the Asian Pacific.” What the reporter does not admit is that the latter, peace and stability in the Asian Pacific, either represents the clash between two indispensables, or more likely, America reserves to itself the role of supervising and implementing regional peace and stability as a newly declared to-be-achieved sphere of influence. The US under Obama has resurrected the Open Door under very different global circumstances, less for the purposes of non-colonial imperialism, as in the latter 19th century, although market penetration is never far from mind, but imperialism at a higher stage which takes in world supremacy in all its regalia, armed force at the ready, aimed foremost at Russia and China as the currently perceived challengers.
The process described here is that of absorption into the American power orbit. China must learn to play by the rules, American style. As on climate change and trade, “China—the biggest emitter of greenhouse gases, and the world’s largest or second-largest economy, depending on the method of measurement—must play an active role.” The rub—by whose definition of active role, responsible leadership, or other phrases suited to and generated from politicized content. Mufson continues: “But how will China play that role? No matter how much the United States urges China to take on new responsibilities, Washington still views China’s leadership with some unease. And China returns the favor.”
Fine, and to be expected, but he now gives away what I take to be the US thinking, the veiled threat implicit in the background should China refuse to knuckle under—or what we politely term, channeling its energies into American-defined ground rules, internal (non-socialist) and international (for starters, market fundamentalism): “For decades, the United States—regardless of which party or president has been in power—has tried to channel China into the safe, bland, bureaucratic uniformity of EXISTING INTERNATIONAL INSTITUTIONS: the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organization and the U.N. Security Council.” (My caps.) The problem is, these institutions are anything but bland; they reflect a power relationship capped by US across-the-board dominance, without which America would experience drastic decline, saved, if at all, by pre-emptive nuclear war.
China and Russia’s compliance with the IMF, World Bank, WTO, and Security Council veto-at-the-ready, and myriad financial and other global arrangements, becomes the standard of international order, the departure from which is believed catastrophic and deserving of punishment. Indeed, Obama’s approach to China and Russia (and he, of course, is only code for the whole national-security, intelligence, military apparatus) is closer to traditional imperialism, World War I vintage, as marked by both his Pacific-first strategy and sanctions-regime against Russia, than—although still very much present—the program of selected intervention and covert operations for regime change. We are back in the Big Leagues with the present mode of confrontation. China is not Libya, nor Russia, Iraq.
I spoke of absorption; sublimation would also do, whatever it takes to deny and negate the autonomous development of political economies, cultures, etc. deemed suspicious by US standards. “The idea was,” Mufson perhaps innocently writes, “that as China played a larger role in such institutions, it would come to abide by the international rules of the road,” from safeguarding intellectual property to helping out in the Ebola epidemic, but in reality, not mentioned, complete subservience to the particular construction of world capitalism favored by America. I’ll give the next-to-last word to Robert Zoellick, who, in 2005, as deputy secretary of state, told the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations: “’For the United States and the world, the essential question is: How will China use its influence? To answer that question, it is time to take our policy beyond opening doors to China’s membership into the international system: We need to urge China to become a responsible stakeholder in that system.’”
A responsible stakeholder: code for China as willing appendage of America’s political-economic outreach in the Pacific and adoring supplicant at its shrine of militarized capitalism. The last word—I accept. What we are witnessing, simultaneous pressure applied to China and Russia, has the unintentional consequence of drawing them together. Or perhaps, intentional, for drawing them together accords with an inner American ideological propulsion, bred in the bone (so to speak), of welcoming what I have termed the re-polarization of the world structure, the Cold War renewed, intensified, perpetuated, as the only psychologically satisfying recourse to feelings of security and wellness, Americans having been wholly habituated to war and conflict as the summum bonum of the moral life, Exceptionalism with a cherry on top.
Norman Pollack has written on Populism. His interests are social theory and the structural analysis of capitalism and fascism. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.