a) The fallacy of Early Cold War Transformation Policy Assumptions in the early 21st Century
In May 2018, the Trump administration’s violation of the Iran nuclear deal (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, July 2014) has reawakened the debate about possible end-game scenarios and the degree to which Washington is prepared to unilateral policies in a highly integrated capitalist world and multi-polar global power structure. The gamble of US unilateralism became especially evident on 16 May 2018 when North Korea rejected US demand for de-nuclearization in exchange for the promise of economic aid, ahead of a planned summit meeting in June 2018.
A part of what many in the West label “Axis of Evil” ever since George W. Bush used the term in a State of the Union speech in January 2002, Iran and North Korea became demonized targets not just for sanctions, but possible military action and regime change through interventionist means that did not exclude covert operations. As an integral part of imperial expansion, interventionism is a familiar pattern in US foreign policy ever since the Spanish-American War. Bipartisan ultimately serving not just an ideology rooted in Manifest Destiny, but economic interests, interventionism is deeply rooted in the hegemonic culture of American society.
Democrats and Republicans alike, the financial elites, the media, and billionaire-funded think tanks and academics are convinced that Pax Americana operates today with the same level of global influence as it did in the heyday of the early Cold War when Truman used the ideological anti-Communist crusade to impose US hegemony abroad and engender institutional conformity at home. Can the US in early 21st century impose Cold War-style “transformation policy” as it did in the early 1950s when the CIA overthrew the duly-elected governments of Iran (Mohammad Mosaddegh) and Guatemala (Jacobo Arbenz)? Possibly so, but only in a weak Latin American or African nation, although this too may be problematic. Cold War foreign policy assumptions for the sake of maintaining rapidly eroding global economic status are obsolete today because the world is vastly different than it was at the end of the Korean War. Nevertheless, the “transformation policy” mode as a means of achieving imperial goals remains unchanged in the institutional culture and broader society throughout the US.
Based on ambitious early Cold War assumptions, ill-fated US foreign policy not just toward Iran and North Korea, but globally, can be defaulted to the megalomaniac President Donald Trump surrounded by opportunistic ideologues pursuing chaos for political considerations at home and abroad. This means everything from distracting the Special Counsel and other investigations of abuse of power, to creating chaos among allies and enemies alike as a means of seeking advantage in trade. Trying to prove that Pax Americana is as vibrant today as it was under Eisenhower or even under Reagan, who forced the Soviet bloc’s disintegration through various means, including an accelerated arms race to bankruptcy, the US is desperately resorting to aspects of isolationism that only backfire politically and economically.
While the US and its allies want the world to believe that the geopolitical struggle is between evil Communist North Korea and theocratic Iran led by evil leaders against the world, one must consider whether the world or even the neighbors of Iran and North Korea share the view of the US, Israel and some of their allies in Europe and Asia. Many would find it difficult to believe that South Koreans actually sympathize more with their northern neighbor than with the US. In fact, a recent public opinion poll shows that among Asians North Koreans have far greater confidence in China than in the US that has targeted South Korean for a trade war. Similarly, Iran is far more popular than the US in Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and throughout the Middle East even among those skeptical of Teheran’s goal to determine the regional balance of power. Even among US allies in Europe, most notably Germany, US foreign policy lacks support because the Europeans, also pursuing global economic expansionism often resorting to military interventionism, are hardly unaware that it is the US not Iran and North Korea that has been destabilizing the world and has the power to seriously compromise the sovereignty of other countries and undercut their various interests.
b.Reckless Imperialist or the Reckless Imperial Structure?
It is at best naïve and misguided to blame the reckless president who has been willing to sell US foreign policy if he can benefit his family interests and those associated with him. At the core of policy rests an imperial structure firmly in place historically that operates with the same goals no matter who is president. While many Cold War Democrats adamantly oppose the unilateral US violation of the multilateral Iran nuclear deal in May 2018, this does not mean that they are any less hawkish than their Republican counterparts. On the contrary, their obsession with Russia as a distraction for everything that has gone wrong with the American political economy indicates deliberate unwillingness to address very serious issues of gross inequality in society. At the same time, enthusiasm on the part of Democrats and their supporters of Trump bombing Syria on the pretext that President Assad has been using chemical weapons, without providing any proof or permitting the UN to investigate, illustrates that militarism is hardly a Republican monopoly.
From Truman to Obama, history has demonstrated bipartisan militarism and support of Pax Americana using foreign enemies as a pretext for imperial expansion. Obama and the Democrats that were on the same side as jihadists in Libya, Yemen, and Syria. Obama and the Democrats used drone warfare killing innocent civilians in the Middle East and Africa. Despite Obama’s promises to end military occupation of Afghanistan, the troops remain on the ground with no end in sight for withdrawal in a country where Pakistan and China enjoy far more influence.
Behind the bipartisan militarist foreign policy with proven ill-fated results since the Vietnam War we have what Bernie Sanders calls the “class of billionaires”, although it is in fact a larger institutional structure that includes everything from Wall Street, defense industries, law firms and consultants profiting from militarism whether in the form of the old or new arms race. In the absence of support for such a policy by big capital that benefits from militarist policies directly or indirectly, there would be no long-standing foreign policy consensus goals and no quest for imperial global hegemony that transcends political parties.
Hillary Clinton would not have violated the Iran nuclear deal. A Democrat administration would have a multilateral approach in its quest to normalize relations with North Korea and it would have taken into account continuity of globalization under neoliberalism without trying to address the US balance of payments deficit through trade wars threats and bilateral agreements. Just as obedient to Wall Street and the defense establishment, a Democrat administration would have opened other fronts for conflict; most likely they would have intensified conflict with Russia over Ukraine and assisted jihadists in Syria and Yemen much more than Trump has so far. US foreign policy goals would not have changed because Wall Street and a very broad Cold War institutional establishment determines them. As an integral part of foreign policy, military solutions and covert counterinsurgency operations will remain; only the theaters of conflict and modalities would be different and agency priorities with the State Department played a more visible role than the Pentagon.
Because imperialism as a US goal is hardly the domain of Trump and Republicans who are openly authoritarian and embrace the beneath-the-surface totalitarian nature of the neoliberal institutional structure, ill-fated US foreign policy in an increasingly multi-polar world will continue no matter the occupant of the White House. Considering that the US economy is so heavily parasitic, relying on “financialization” (the dominant role of market speculation at the expense of the economy), the political, financial and media/intellectual elites operate under the same set of assumptions about what accounts for ‘the national interest’. Therefore, they fall into the same trap of illusions regarding US foreign policy as an instrument of expanding the declining American empire, namely, the use of the world’s largest military arsenal as leverage to keep Pax Americana hegemonic in the 21st century, while pursuing neoliberal policies that keep widening the rich-poor gap at home.
c. Contradictions of the ill-Fated US Foreign Policy
Numerous contradictions backfire with domestic and foreign policy consequences and account for the ill-fated US foreign policy. For example, Iran is not economically integrated with the US, relying much more on China, the United Arab Emirates, Iraq, with EU playing a secondary role – mostly Germany and France. Only when the sanctions were lifted did the larger European countries accelerate trade with Iran in the domain of everything from energy to aircraft and automobiles. Unless the US places effective sanctions – not circumvented via third parties – on the EU doing business with Iran, a very real prospect with some exemptions, its foreign policy goals of trying to determine the balance of power in the Middle East by weakening Iran and strengthening Israel and Saudi Arabia are a dead end policy.
One possible method by which Washington can force its EU/NATO partners to choose between national economic interests and loyalty to Pax Americana is to engage Iran directly or indirectly through Israel/Saudi Arabia into a regional war, as both Tel Aviv and Riyadh would love. EU and Middle East leaders are well aware of such an inevitability, largely because the unlikely allies Saudi Arabia and Israel are promoting regional war against Iran. Saudi Arabia in fact paid $110 billion in US defense contracts in exchange for securing an openly hostile US policy toward Iran with the possibility of war down the road or at least continuing the disastrous war in Yemen. The contradiction here is that the US is indirectly on the same side as the jihadist terrorists it publicly claims it is fighting globally, thus exposing the vacuous rhetoric about the war on terror.
Unlike France and UK that joined the US in bombing Syrian targets in April 2018, all of Europe could adopt the German position of non-participation, if the US decides to hit Iran directly or indirectly. More than likely, the Europeans would call for a UN Security Council meeting to resolve the conflict diplomatically, just as they did in May 2018 amid the Israeli killings of Palestinians protesting the US embassy opening in Jerusalem. The military solution scenario targeting Iran would be a major illustration of an ill-fated US foreign policy not just regionally, but globally as it would force nuclear-club members China and Russia on Iran’s side. This situation would be further complicated if there is nothing that arises from US-North Korean negotiations in June 2018, or if such negotiations are perfunctory and simply keep the status quo with some perfunctory agreement about avoiding provocative military exercises on both sides in exchange for improved economic relations. The idea that North Korea would strip itself of the nuclear deterrent is simply another of many illusions on the part of naïve politicians, analysts and policymakers.
In both Iran and North Korea, US foreign policy will result into a two-front ill-fated solutions that would further erode America’s global status. China and Russia would inadvertently be seen as the powers seeking stability; Europe would be further alienated seeking closer ties to Russia and China; and die-hard apologists of Pax Americana would still not have learned the lesson that the world power structure of 2018 is not the same as it was in 1950. As the undisputed economic global hegemonic power that more and more countries are following, China is leaving behind the US which is relying more heavily on its military might as the only leverage to assert imperial power. While US military power cannot be underestimated as leverage in the pursuit of global hegemony, history has taught us that no power in history has ever been able to maintain hegemony for very long on the basis of bankrupting its civilian economy just to maintain a strong defense. This is especially true of the US today with an economy in decline relative to other powers and domestic income distribution resembling that of non-Western developing nations.
The political elites – both Republicans and Democrats – and the business elites that control the media, think tanks and enjoy enormous influence over academic institutions through their funding are pursuing an ill-fated foreign policy in part to retain global market share but also to keep the social order at home and abroad frozen under the neoliberal model of political economy, whether that model is pluralistic (under the Democrat Party) or rightwing populist (Trump’s Republican Party). Although mired in contradictions in terms of achieving its own state goals, the militarist-expansionist US foreign policy solution has many dimensions and implications domestically and globally. This should not come as a surprise to anyone if they simply examine that only erosion of power has been achieved by US intervention since the Vietnam War but especially in the last two decades in Afghanistan, Iraq, across North Africa and the Middle East.
Even by Trump’s own populist isolationist rhetoric, the result of militarism as a means of achieving regime change and integration of the country into the US orbit of influence has cost the US an estimated $7 trillion which has been added to the public debt. However, the combination of ideological, political, and economic impetus for “Empire As A Way of Life”, to borrow William Appleman Williams famous book title, has become “perpetual militarism and regime change as a way of life” under any administration. This is because Manifest Destiny indoctrination as a means of keeping capitalism viable remains deeply ingrained in the perceived short-term interests of the political and social elites that they see no alternative.
The question rarely arises about the heavy reliance on the defense sector’s inordinate influence in ill-fated foreign policy and the contradictions imbedded in such a policy. Despite losing market share over the past two decades because of increased competition from Asia, the United States still enjoyed the largest share of the global arms trade between 2012 and 2016 at 33 percent. From 2002 until the end of the Obama administration, America’s top ten arms buyers are Middle East countries led by Saudi Arabia $25.8 billion, followed by a commitment for $110 billion agreement signed with Trump in 2017; Egypt $17.1 billion; Israel $15.2 billion; Iraq $8.9 billion and United Arab Emirates $6.3 billion. Of the $1.7 spent on defense, the US accounts for $700 billion. Whereas the US spent 3.5% of its GDP on defense, China spends 2%, a reflection of the respective countries’ focus on defense vs. civilian economies.
Encouraged by the fall of the Soviet bloc, apologists of Pax Americana argue that the US “won the Cold War” and by extension the assumption is it has no rival, as though capitalism has national confines and determined by a nation’s military might. If this is indeed the case, why is there a new Cold War with Russia; in some respects just as contentious as the old Cold War? What exactly did the US “win” in the Cold War, other than weakening its civilian economy because of its massive transfer of funding from the civilian economy to the parasitic defense sector which remains as draining to the economy today as when President Eisenhower warned about the military industrial complex in his farewell address in January 1961.
- What are the Goals of the Ill-Fated US Foreign Policy?
- Sanctions as Global Economic Leverage: If the goal of the US is to use sanctions as another form of economic nationalism and to afford advantage to US-based companies, a policy that has been used especially toward Russia, then the goal will be achieved short-term but longer term sanctions are hardly a viable substitute for competitiveness in the international arena. While the terms of trade will be ephemerally tilted in favor of the US because of sanctions, the risk is alienating allies that will turn to China and the rest of the world. Appealing to the US to stop threatening trade war, the EU has been considering not to rely on the dollar as a means of exchange when dealing with Iran, thus further undercutting the value of the dollar as a reserve currency. Moreover, repercussions are inevitable if Iran-related sanctions targeting EU companies go into effect.
- Securing Satellites: If the goal of the US is to integrate Iran and North Korea economically and politically under its orbit, after pursuing containment in both cases, then it is deluding itself because China and Russia, among other countries, will do their utmost to undermine such a goal. In an increasingly multi-polar global power structure where the world economy is so thoroughly integrated, does the 19th century sphere of influence model make much sense, or is it simply a costly enterprise with not much to show for it?
- Fomenting a new Arms Race for the New Cold War: If the goal is to further destabilize these countries and foment an arms race that will benefit US defense contractors, that will be achieved. However, the gains are only short-term at a very high cost politically and economically to those sectors in the US economy not linked to defense. How much pain are the American financial and political elites are willing to impose on their shrining middle class to maintain the title of preeminent military superpower?
- Containing/Weakening Russia and China: The balance of power has always been important since the Peloponnesian Wars and it remains so even as the Great Powers recognize the need for self-imposed limitations. If the goal of the US is to determine the balance of power in the Middle East and East Asia, threatening military confrontation is a dead-end proposition. Even South Korean political leaders recognize as much for their region, although Saudi Arabia and Israel may not be imbued with such realism when it comes to their roles in the Middle East. The idea that North Korea will ever become a US satellite like South Korea, or that Iran will go back to the days of the Shah installed by the CIA in 1953 is an illusion best left to opportunists and ideologues in and outside of the US and other Western governments, and to warmongers in Israel and Saudi Arabia interested in dragging the US into a regional conflict and by extension forcing other countries to take sides.
- Militarism as Policy Tool in Imperial Conformity: If the goal of the US is flexing its military muscle to perpetually destabilize countries where and when it can have its way, then short-term the results will be positive, especially for corporations benefiting from government contracts. Although it is true that people rally around the flag and war unifies them while it is taking place, if the war does not end favorably and the costs are very damaging to the parties involved, then there is a high price to be paid for militarism as a tool of imperial conformity.
- Militarism as Policy Tool in Economic and Political Solidarity: If the goal is to keep traditional allies loyal to US militarily because economically they are becoming increasingly integrated into the Asian orbit under the aegis of China, Europeans recognize that the US is using its military muscle to gain global economic advantages for US-based corporations; a recognition that evokes resentment owing to manipulation of foreign policy not in the name of security but to strengthen specific companies. On 16 May 2018, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, twitted the following in a sharp response to threatened sanctions over Iran: “Looking at latest decisions of @realDonaldTrump someone could even think: with friends like that who needs enemies. But frankly, EU should be grateful. Thanks to him we got rid of all illusions. We realise that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.”
The mutual geopolitical and economic interests of the EU and US means continued cooperation. However, cooperation has its limits, as Tusk and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have pointed out. Although capitalism has no borders, politicians’ job is to protect national capitalist interests and forge popular consensus around national sovereignty issues. There is no denying that the eroding core status of the US and its tactics to retain hegemony at the expense of its allies will continue to drive a wedge between them. Eroding cooperation in a number of domains is also inevitable, largely because of the intense competition among capitalists in the core to retain global market share at any cost using the state to buttress their interests. War could bring NATO allies together, but it is hardly a long-term solution and the risks are even deeper divisions to follow after the war.
Jon V. Kofas, Ph.D. – Retired university professor of history – author of ten academic books and two dozens scholarly articles. Specializing in International Political economy, Kofas has taught courses and written on US diplomatic history, and the roles of the World Bank and IMF in the world.