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The Caligula Presidency

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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”-From A Tale of Two Cities. “May you live in interesting times”-Chinese curse

[yt_dropcap type=”square” font=”” size=”14″ color=”#000″ background=”#fff” ] L [/yt_dropcap] ately, in Modern Diplomacy, and elsewhere in the publishing on-line world, we have had a spate of articles on the up-coming Trump Presidency and how it will transform the next four (or perhaps eight) years “interesting times.” I wonder if people writing these pieces, either singing the praises of, or berating the upcoming Presidency of Donald Trump, are cognizant of the fact that “to live in interesting times” is considered a curse by the Chinese, perhaps even by the Russians.

Be that as it may, I’d like to suggest that perhaps a quote from one of Charles Dickens’ novel A Tale of Two Cities may prove more appropriate: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.”

To understand such a subtle quip, we need to go back in time to another presidency some fifty years ago and another reign some 2000 years ago. I am referring to Kennedy’s presidency and Caligula’s reign. Those two regimes lasted only a few years, but Dickens’ quip seems to apply to both and it may well turn out to apply to Trump’s presidency too. Let’s see.

We need to go back to April 1961, when over fourteen hundred members of the Cuban Expeditionary Forces landed at the Bay of Pigs, in Cuba. Their mission was to overthrow the communist regime of Cuban President Fidel Castro. The mission was a failure. Almost immediately it became known that the American Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) trained the so called “freedom fighters.” John F. Kennedy had approved the mission.

President Kennedy soon after the failure spoke at a meeting of the American Association of Newspaper Editors and assumed all responsibility and blame. But soon after his staff began leaking information to reporters, blaming the failure on anyone except the administration. President Kennedy was quoted as saying, “How could I have been so stupid?” to trust the groups who were advising him, such as the CIA and the Joint Chiefs of Staff (JCS). Even more damning to the CIA was a reputed quote by President Kennedy that he wanted to “splinter the CIA into a thousand pieces and scatter it into the winds.”

Two and a half years after Kennedy supposedly uttered these words, he was assassinated along a motorcade route in Dallas, Texas. The official government story is that a lone gunman, Lee Harvey Oswald, killed Kennedy. A rather popular conspiracy theory, on the other hand, claims that because Kennedy was planning on dismantling the intelligence infrastructure, the CIA had Kennedy killed, and then later covered up the assassination plot. Now, it is not inconceivable that splintering the CIA into a thousand pieces might cause some in the CIA to wonder whether Kennedy was good for the CIA in particular and the entire country in general. And so the conspiracy theory remains alive.

Perceiving the President as a security threat would rationalize an assassination in Machiavellian “real politik” geo-political terms. Let us keep in mind that in our turbulent sad times of when the end seems to justify any means and any agenda, assassinations (as well as assassination of the truth via propaganda) may be part of those means to be employed to gain and retain power. That’s what Machiavelli’s Prince is all about. This is apparent in any authoritarian government around the world, including those who deny that they use those nefarious means. Let’s not be naïve; just look around.

But to go back to Kennedy, given Kennedy’s affinity for covert operations, the next question is whether Kennedy’s attitudes towards intelligence changed after the failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion. Was Kennedy’s confidence in the CIA undermined? It is historically true that, because of his feeling that he needed a better way of gaining intelligence, Kennedy instigated a review of the intelligence system. It is also true that President Kennedy, and his brother Attorney General Robert Kennedy had a habit of not working through the proper channels when it came to communicating with the CIA, and they did not take “I do not know” for an answer. In any case, after his review of the intelligence community, the President began to rely more closely than before on his National Security Advisor to provide him with information. This resulted in more accurate information and arguably helped prevent further fiascoes like the Bay of Pigs.

History may eventually render a final verdict on this popular conspiracy theory on the CIA’s role in Kennedy’s assassination. For the moment we have the official verdict of the government’s investigation. What concerns us here is the comparison with the present situation. To be sure, there are some parallels. Let’s analyze them.

President-elect Trump has been served with intelligence classified reports (which included the CIA intelligence agency) on Russia’s hacking and active interference in the US presidential elections. Mr. Trump has refused, so far, to acknowledge what the report claims, and talks about a fat man in New Jersey sitting on his couch and hacking away at his heart’s content; which of course sounds slightly deranged and more like a rationalization.

Moreover, the intelligence community has furnished Trump with some information which has been circulating for some time now. The information reveals some salacious news generated during his trip to Moscow in 2013 where allegedly Trump was compromised. Here again Trump and all his campaign staff have vehemently pushed back claiming on those rumors claiming that they are pure gossip and slander and the CIA should not have made them public. Actually it was not the CIA who made them public but CNN. Here the denial that followed the allegations of groping by a bunch of women a few months ago, jump to mind.

To place the above in a better context we now need to go back 2000 years when Emperor Caligula ruled the Roman Empire. Some scholars have called his five year rule the beginning of the end for the Empire. Why is that? Well, consider this: he was a man that on a personal psychological level, since his youth displayed psychopathic, extremely narcissistic, paranoid, dictatorial tendencies with a streak of vengefulness and sadism. He seemed to enjoy to disrespect and insult people, to see them hurt and humiliated, especially those who disagreed with him or opposed him in any way. In today’s parlance we would say that he had a thin skin and a fat ego. For example, he would invite a Senator and his wife to dinner; during the event he would invite the wife of the senator to follow him to his bedroom, have sex with her, and then return her to her humiliated husband sitting at the table. In modern Italian parlance he had in effect made a “cornuto” of the senator, a fellow senator of his horse.

He named his horse a senator to serve notice that he would tolerate no opposition from any body, not even from an august political democratic body such as the Senate. In fact, he had contempt for the traditional values of Rome. He took the Roman army to Normandy, supposedly to invade Britain, and had his generals dismount from their horses and collect shells on the beach for his shell collection. One can blame all this to the excesses of absolute power but here was something different, deranged, practically psychotic. He would tell his Praetorian guards to kneel before him not so much because he was emperor, but because he was an immortal god. He insulted and blamed them of incompetence on a daily basis. One was called a girl by him for having a soft voice.

He loved spectacles and games in the Coliseum dressed in extravagant clothes and rode around Rome showing off in a chariot of six horses. He did all those things all the more when he realized that he had become the toast of the people who enjoyed seeing the elites of Rome humiliated. That’s what an emperor should do. He, a member of the aristocracy, had managed to transform himself into a populist. The Republic was fast becoming an autocracy; something rather familiar in modern times. Think of Russia, for example. If all this is sounding familiar, it is because it is. All one has to do is transfer the six horse chariot to the Trump private plane and think of Putin, Trump’s friend, as the richest man in Russia.

We know how the story of Caligula ends: as he was walking out of the Coliseum, his own praetorian guards, those who had been called girls, incompetent and stupid, killed him. In effect they decided to prove their incompetence and the fact that he, Caligula, was just another mortal man. And of course, it was all justified as necessary for the security of the empire which could not be left in the hands of a madman.

But there is another lesson, a moral of sorts, to be derived from those three stories and it is this: it is not very wise to insult and treat with contempt the very people in charge of security, that of the state or one’s own personal security, those who are sworn to come to your defense. If one calls them incompetent, they will prove their incompetence and leave you defenseless to suddenly find out that all men are mortal and that as Socrates put it: “the issue is not whether we live or die, but whether corruption, which is faster than death, catched up with us, because once she has caught up, she may not relent her grasp.”

Professor Paparella has earned a Ph.D. in Italian Humanism, with a dissertation on the philosopher of history Giambattista Vico, from Yale University. He is a scholar interested in current relevant philosophical, political and cultural issues; the author of numerous essays and books on the EU cultural identity among which A New Europe in search of its Soul, and Europa: An Idea and a Journey. Presently he teaches philosophy and humanities at Barry University, Miami, Florida. He is a prolific writer and has written hundreds of essays for both traditional academic and on-line magazines among which Metanexus and Ovi. One of his current works in progress is a book dealing with the issue of cultural identity within the phenomenon of “the neo-immigrant” exhibited by an international global economy strong on positivism and utilitarianism and weak on humanism and ideals.

Americas

Interpreting the Biden Doctrine: The View From Moscow

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.

The newly unveiled Biden doctrine, which renounces the United States’ post-9/11 policies of remaking other societies and building nations abroad, is a foreign policy landmark. Coming on the heels of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, it exudes credibility. Indeed, President Biden’s moves essentially formalize and finalize processes that have been under way for over a decade. It was Barack Obama who first pledged to end America’s twin wars—in Iraq and Afghanistan—started under George W. Bush. It was Donald Trump who reached an agreement with the Taliban on a full U.S. military withdrawal from Afghanistan in 2021. Both Obama and Trump also sought, albeit in strikingly different ways, to redirect Washington’s attention to shoring up the home base.

It is important for the rest of the world to treat the change in U.S. foreign policy correctly. Leaving Afghanistan was the correct strategic decision, if grossly overdue and bungled in the final phases of its implementation. Afghanistan certainly does not mean the end of the United States as a global superpower; it simply continues to be in relative and slow decline. Nor does it spell the demise of American alliances and partnerships. Events in Afghanistan are unlikely to produce a political earthquake within the United States that would topple President Biden. No soul searching of the kind that Americans experienced during the Vietnam War is likely to emerge. Rather, Washington is busy recalibrating its global involvement. It is focusing even more on strengthening the home base. Overseas, the United States is moving from a global crusade in the name of democracy to an active defense of liberal values at home and Western positions abroad.

Afghanistan has been the most vivid in a long series of arguments that persuaded Biden’s White House that a global triumph of liberal democracy is not achievable in the foreseeable future. Thus, remaking problematic countries—“draining the swamp” that breeds terrorism, in the language of the Bush administration—is futile. U.S. military force is a potent weapon, but no longer the means of first resort. The war on terror as an effort to keep the United States safe has been won: in the last twenty years, no major terrorist attacks occurred on U.S. soil. Meantime, the geopolitical, geoeconomic, ideological, and strategic focus of U.S. foreign policy has shifted. China is the main—some say, existential—challenger, and Russia the principal disrupter. Iran, North Korea, and an assortment of radical or extremist groups complete the list of adversaries. Climate change and the pandemic have risen to the top of U.S. security concerns. Hence, the most important foreign policy task is to strengthen the collective West under strong U.S. leadership.

The global economic recession that originated in the United States in 2007 dealt a blow to the U.S.-created economic and financial model; the severe domestic political crisis of 2016–2021 undermined confidence in the U.S. political system and its underlying values; and the COVID-19 disaster that hit the United States particularly hard have all exposed serious political, economic, and cultural issues and fissures within American society and polity. Neglecting the home base while engaging in costly nation-building exercises abroad came at a price. Now the Biden administration has set out to correct that with huge infrastructure development projects and support for the American middle class.

America’s domestic crises, some of the similar problems in European countries, and the growing gap between the United States and its allies during the Trump presidency have produced widespread fears that China and Russia could exploit those issues to finally end U.S. dominance and even undermine the United States and other Western societies from within. This perception is behind the strategy reversal from spreading democracy as far and wide as Russia and China to defending the U.S.-led global system and the political regimes around the West, including in the United States, from Beijing and Moscow.

That said, what are the implications of the Biden doctrine? The United States remains a superpower with enormous resources which is now trying to use those resources to make itself stronger. America has reinvented itself before and may well be able to do so again. In foreign policy, Washington has stepped back from styling itself as the world’s benign hegemon to assume the combat posture of the leader of the West under attack.

Within the collective West, U.S. dominance is not in danger. None of the Western countries are capable of going it alone or forming a bloc with others to present an alternative to U.S. leadership. Western and associated elites remain fully beholden to the United States. What they desire is firm U.S. leadership; what they fear is the United States withdrawing into itself. As for Washington’s partners in the regions that are not deemed vital to U.S. interests, they should know that American support is conditional on those interests and various circumstances. Nothing new there, really: just ask some leaders in the Middle East. For now, however, Washington vows to support and assist exposed partners like Ukraine and Taiwan.

Embracing isolationism is not on the cards in the United States. For all the focus on domestic issues, global dominance or at least primacy has firmly become an integral part of U.S. national identity. Nor will liberal and democratic ideology be retired as a major driver of U.S. foreign policy. The United States will not become a “normal” country that only follows the rules of realpolitik. Rather, Washington will use values as a glue to further consolidate its allies and as a weapon to attack its adversaries. It helps the White House that China and Russia are viewed as malign both across the U.S. political spectrum and among U.S. allies and partners, most of whom have fears or grudges against either Moscow or Beijing.

In sum, the Biden doctrine does away with engagements that are no longer considered promising or even sustainable by Washington; funnels more resources to address pressing domestic issues; seeks to consolidate the collective West around the United States; and sharpens the focus on China and Russia as America’s main adversaries. Of all these, the most important element is domestic. It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the Biden administration, but the future of the United States itself.

From our partner RIAC

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Americas

AUKUS aims to perpetuate the Anglo-Saxon supremacy

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

On September 15, U.S. President Joe Biden worked with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison together to unveil a trilateral alliance among Australia-U.K.-U.S. (AUKUS), which are the major three among the Anglo-Saxon nations (also including Canada and New Zealand). Literally, each sovereign state has full right to pursue individual or collective security and common interests. Yet, the deal has prompted intense criticism across the world including the furious words and firm acts from the Atlantic allies in Europe, such as France that is supposed to lose out on an $40-billion submarine deal with Australia to its Anglo-Saxon siblings—the U.K. and the U.S.

               Some observers opine that AUKUS is another clear attempt by the U.S. and its allies aggressively to provoke China in the Asia-Pacific, where Washington had forged an alliance along with Japan, India and Australia in the name of the Quad. AUKUS is the latest showcase that three Anglo-Saxon powers have pretended to perpetuate their supremacy in all the key areas such as geopolitics, cybersecurity, artificial intelligence, and quantum computing. In short, the triple deal is a move designed to discourage or thwart any future Chinese bid for regional hegemony. But diplomatically its impacts go beyond that. As French media argued that the United States, though an ally of France, just backstabs it by negotiating AUKUS in secret without revealing the plan. Given this, the deal among AUKUS actually reflects the mentality of the Anglo-Saxon nations’ superiority over others even if they are not outrageously practicing an imperialist policy in the traditional way.

               Historically, there are only two qualified global powers which the Europeans still sometimes refer to as “Anglo-Saxon” powers: Great Britain and the United States. As Walter Mead once put it that the British Empire was, and the United States is, concerned not just with the balance of power in one particular corner of the world, but with the evolution of what it is today called “world order”. Now with the rise of China which has aimed to become a global power with its different culture and political views from the current ruling powers, the Anglo-Saxon powers have made all efforts to align with the values-shared allies or partners to create the strong bulwarks against any rising power, like China and Russia as well. Physically, either the British Empire or the United States did or does establish a worldwide system of trade and finance which have enabled the two Anglo-Saxon powers to get rich and advanced in high-technologies. As a result, those riches and high-tech means eventually made them execute the power to project their military force that ensure the stability of their-dominated international systems. Indeed the Anglo-Saxon powers have had the legacies to think of their global goals which must be bolstered by money and foreign trade that in turn produces more wealth. Institutionally, the Anglo-Saxon nations in the world—the U.S., the U.K, Canada, Australia and New Zealand—have formed the notorious “Five eyes alliance” to collect all sorts of information and data serving their common core interests and security concerns.

This is not just rhetoric but an objective reflection of the mentality as Australian Foreign Minister Payne candidly revealed at the press conference where she said that the contemporary state of their alliance “is well suited to cooperate on countering economic coercion.” The remarks imply that AUKUS is a military response to the rising economic competition from China because politics and economics are intertwined with each other in power politics, in which military means acts in order to advance self-interested economic ends. In both geopolitical and geoeconomic terms, the rise of China, no matter how peaceful it is, has been perceived as the “systematic” challenges to the West’s domination of international relations and global economy, in which the Anglo-Saxon superiority must remain. Another case is the U.S. efforts to have continuously harassed the Nord Stream 2 project between Russia and Germany.

Yet, in the global community of today, any superpower aspiring for pursuing “inner clique” like AUKUS will be doomed to fail. First, we all are living in the world “where the affairs of each country are decided by its own people, and international affairs are run by all nations through consultation,” as President Xi put it. Due to this, many countries in Asia warn that AUKUS risks provoking a nuclear arms race in the Asian-Pacific region. The nuclear factor means that the U.S. efforts to economically contain China through AUKUS on nationalist pretexts are much more dangerous than the run-up to World War I. Yet, neither the United States nor China likes to be perceived as “disturbing the peace” that Asian countries are eager to preserve. In reality, Asian countries have also made it clear not to take either side between the power politics.

Second, AUKUS’s deal jeopardizes the norms of international trade and treaties. The reactions of third parties is one key issue, such as the French government is furious about the deal since it torpedoes a prior Australian agreement to purchase one dozen of conventional subs from France. Be aware that France is a strong advocate for a more robust European Union in the world politics. Now the EU is rallying behind Paris as in Brussels EU ambassadors agreed to postpone preparations for an inaugural trade and technology council on September 29 with the U.S. in Pittsburgh. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen declared in a strong manner that “since one of our member states has been treated in a way that is not acceptable, so we need to know what happened and why.” Michael Roth, Germany’s minister for European affairs, went even further as he put it, “It is once again a wake-up call for all of us in the European Union to ask ourselves how we can strengthen our sovereignty, how we can present a united front even on issues relevant to foreign and security policy.” It is the time for the EU to talk with one voice and for the need to work together to rebuild mutual trust among the allies.

Third, the deal by AUKUS involves the nuclear dimension. It is true that the three leaders have reiterated that the deal would be limited to the transfer of nuclear propulsion technology (such as reactors to power the new subs) but not nuclear weapons technology. Accordingly, Australia remains a non-nuclear country not armed with such weapons. But from a proliferation standpoint, that is a step in the direction of more extensive nuclear infrastructure. It indicates the United States and the U.K. are willing to transfer highly sensitive technologies to close allies. But the issue of deterrence in Asia-and especially extended deterrence-is extremely complicated since it will become ore so as China’s nuclear arsenal expands. If the security environment deteriorates in the years ahead, U.S. might consider allowing its core allies to gain nuclear capabilities and Australia is able to gain access to this technology as its fleet expands. Yet, it also means that Australia is not a non-nuclear country any more.

In brief, the deal itself and the triple alliance among AUKUS will take some years to become a real threat to China or the ruling authorities of the country. But the deal announced on Sept. 15 will complicate Chinese efforts to maintain a peaceful rise and act a responsible power. Furthermore, the deal and the rationales behind it is sure to impede China’s good-will to the members of AUKUS and the Quad, not mention of their irresponsible effects on peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region.

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Americas

Was Trump better for the world than Biden, after all?

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

Joe Biden and the State Department just approved a major deal with the Saudis for 500mln in choppers maintanance. Effectively, the US sold its soul to the Saudis again after the US intelligence services confirmed months ago that the Saudi Prince is responsible for the brutal killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The Biden administration is already much more inhumane and much worse than Trump. Biden doesn’t care about the thousands of American citizens that he left behind at the mercy of the Taliban, the Biden administration kills innocent civilians in drone strikes, they are in bed with the worst of the worsts human right violators calling them friendly nations. 

Biden dropped and humiliated France managing to do what no US President has ever accomplished —  make France pull out its Ambassador to the US, and all this only to go bother China actively seeking the next big war. Trump’s blunders were never this big. And this is just the beginning. There is nothing good in store for America and the world with Biden. All the hope is quickly evaporating, as the world sees the actions behind the fake smile and what’s behind the seemingly right and restrained rhetoric on the surface. It’s the actions that matter. Trump talked tough talk for which he got a lot of criticism and rarely resorted to military action. Biden is the opposite: he says all the right things but the actions behind are inhumane and destructive. It makes you wonder if Trump wasn’t actually better for the world.

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