Lessons from recent US history

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For much of the period since the breakup of the Soviet Union, the US was politically, militarily and economically unchallenged. The US was now the world’s hegemon and, to remain dominant, it couldn’t allow powerful challengers to arise. This goal meant that the US viewed the relationship with nations such as Russia and China as a zero-sum game, thus reducing the space for cooperation.

If we examine the past 30 years, what might one conclude about the outcome of this period? Has the US been a benign hegemon or has it acted primarily to remain the hegemon and to advance its corporate interests? There are many issues one could examine, but four major threats during this period were climate change, nuclear conflict, food insecurity and the wealth gap.

I’ll focus on the first two of these issues which are clearly existential. We already knew something about the climate change threat in the 1980s. Exxon scientists raised concern about climate change being real and human caused in the late 1970s and early 1980s. James Hansen, then the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, testified before the Senate Energy Committee in 1988. He said: “The greenhouse effect has been detected, and it is changing our climate now.” The Earth Summit held in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 began the effort to address this issue.

However, the Rio agreement and subsequent conferences lacked any real enforcement mechanisms. Disappointingly, instead of pushing for enforceable limits on greenhouse gas emissions, the US was one of the nations that led opposition to them. This shameful US position demonstrated the power of the fossil-fuel lobby in our system of legalized bribery of politicians. Had the US acted responsibly in the 1990s, could it have convinced other major fossil-fuel extracting nations to take real action to combat climate change?

We are now seeing the failure of the tepid approaches that were adopted. Record high temperatures, huge fires, long-lasting droughts, unprecedented flooding and rising sea levels are just some examples of this human-caused chaos, and they are occurring much sooner than predicted. Despite this overwhelming evidence, some US politicians and those in other major extractive fossil-fuel nations still oppose enforceable limits on greenhouse gases. The greed of fossil-fuel corporations knows no limits and they are apparently willing to sacrifice the future of humans on the planet. We big-brain humans are making the small-brain dinosaurs look a lot smarter as the dinosaurs did not cause their own extinction.

Regarding the other existential threat of nuclear conflict, the Doomsday Clock was created by the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists to assess how close we are to destroying the world through our technologies and, since 2007, climate change. Since 2020 the Clock has remained at 100 seconds to midnight, the closest the Clock has been to midnight in its 75-year history. This assessment is frightening and represents a huge change since 1991 when the Clock was at 17 minutes to midnight.

A key moment occurred in February 1990 when the Soviet Union agreed to allow the reunification of West and East Germany and the US and allies promised not to expand NATO one inch eastward. Within a few years, the Clinton administration reneged on the promise and began the expansion of NATO towards Russia’s borders.

In 1996, George Kennan, architect of the U.S. containment policy towards the Soviet Union after WWII, warned that NATO’s expansion into former Soviet territories would be a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions.” In 1998, Thomas Friedman solicited Kennan’s reaction to the Senate’s ratification of NATO’s eastward expansion. Kennan said: ”I think it is the beginning of a new cold war. I think the Russians will gradually react quite adversely and it will affect their policies. I think it is a tragic mistake. There was no reason for this whatsoever. No one was threatening anybody else.”

In 2007 and again in 2008 Russia strongly opposed Ukraine and Georgia joining NATO. Russia was concerned about having a hostile military alliance on its border threatening its security. To understand this situation, recall how the US was willing to risk a nuclear conflict over Soviet missiles in Cuba.

NATO nations, particularly the US, have been providing huge amounts of weapons and training to Ukraine, in effect turning this conflict into a proxy fight between US/NATO and Russia. Instead of providing more weapons and risking an unintended nuclear conflict, the US needs to strongly support a diplomatic resolution.

Turning to China, its long-term economic and political outreach, particularly its ‘Belt and Road Initiative’, to much of the world has proven to be far more popular than the US approach of relying on military power. The US has reacted by: 1) provoking China through its military presence close to China’s coastline; 2) creating a military alliance against China; and 3) arming Taiwan, despite allegedly accepting that Taiwan is part of China. The US is again unnecessarily increasing tension with another nuclear power.

In addition, the criminal and cruel unilateral US sanctions against many nations, for example, Cuba, Venezuela and Iran, have greatly harmed tens of millions. The US war crimes in the Middle East and its support for criminal Israeli actions have also played a major role in devastating much of that region.

Looking at these past 30 years, the US political leadership has shown itself to be grossly incompetent and shamefully uncaring about the lives of the other. It has also wasted trillions of dollars on unnecessary and terribly destructive military campaigns instead of dealing with looming environmental catastrophes. The US leadership has also needlessly increased tensions by withdrawing from weapons agreements. The elite US media played a major role in these horrific crimes as it enabled the government’s actions by misinforming the US public.

Ron Forthofer is a retired Professor of Biostatistics at the University of Texas School of Public Health, Houston, Texas; former Green Party candidate for Congress and for Governor of Colorado


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