In May 2017, as the number killed during protests against the regime of Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela climbed toward 40, and with more than 130 injured and over 1,300 arrests, many in the United States and the region asked, “How much longer could it go on?”
In addition to the crisis within Venezuela, the collapse of its economy and the escalating criminal and political violence have also produced a massive outflow of refugees to neighboring Colombia and Brazil, to the nearby Caribbean islands of Trinidad and Tobago, Aruba, and Curaçao, and to other locales throughout the region. In total, an estimated 1.5 million of Venezuela’s 32 million people have left the country since the government of Hugo Chávez came to power in 1999. Venezuela’s neighbors watch the unfolding drama not only with concern for the Venezuelan people but also from the perspective of how that crisis could affect them as it deepens and possibly becomes more violent.
The situation in Venezuela is often mistakenly diagnosed as principally a political or economic crisis. It is better understood as a criminal act without precedent in Latin America: the capture and systematic looting of a state, achieved by first capturing its institutions through mass mobilization and bureaucratic machinations, then increasing control of the state through military force, as the criminal nature of the act and its consequences become apparent to the nation’s citizens. Former Venezuelan government officials have suggested that as much as $300 billion may have been diverted over the last decade from national coffers to private accounts through the currency control system alone.
The crisis in Venezuela is a problem for the country and the region that neither international law nor existing multilateral institutions are well equipped to handle. For neighboring states, politically acceptable alternatives appear to be few. For example, it is unlikely that the United States, or organizations such as the United Nations or the Organization of American States (OAS), will choose to physically intervene or be able to act in a manner sufficiently impactful to alter the current trajectory of Venezuela toward a broader and more violent internal crisis. Yet, both the United States and multilateral institutions do have plausible alternatives and may yet have the ability to play a decisive role in managing the consequences of that crisis for the region without direct intervention.
The Situation in Venezuela
It is difficult to anticipate when or how the Maduro regime in Venezuela will collapse, yet it is clear that its current course is both economically and politically unsustainable. In economic terms, destructive government policies, including expropriations, price controls, and currency controls, in combination with rampant corruption and mismanagement in government enterprises, have progressively eliminated the capacity of the Venezuelan economy to produce even the most basic goods required by the people of the country to survive. Additionally, declining petroleum output, high production costs, debt service obligations, an accumulation of adverse legal judgements from past expropriations, and increasing reluctance of creditors (even politically supportive China and Russia) to lend new money are shutting off Venezuela’s access to hard currency to buy goods from abroad, even though international oil prices have recently trended upward.
Defaulting on the loan obligations of Petróleos de Venezuela, S.A. (Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, PDVSA) to use the hard currency to import more goods (to ease political pressures) would trigger legal consequences that could bring about the seizure of the company’s assets, even oil shipments abroad, aggravating the regime’s liquidity crisis in a way that could endanger its ability to maintain power. The Venezuelan government has thus engaged in an increasingly desperate series of delays, legal actions, and fund shifting to make bond payments, while making a minimum quantity of foreign currency available to state organs and friends of the regime for the purpose of importing goods to maintain the support of the military and other key regime support groups.
These measures have included drawing down remaining international reserves (largely in gold), continuing to expropriate companies such as General Motors, rolling over bond payments, mortgaging assets such as the petroleum refiner and distributor CITGO, seeking new loans from state partners such as China and trusted companies such as Rosneft, and filing creative legal actions to delay decisions and awards against the government. Yet, little new credit is coming in, and the government is running out of assets to mortgage and legal options to postpone payments.
Venezuela is unable to produce needed goods domestically and lacks the cash to import them. The result, as increasingly evidenced in reports coming out of Venezuela, is ever greater scarcity of everything from food and medicine to toilet paper. Store shelves are empty, and people are spending significant portions of their day seeking food and other necessities. Seventy-two percent of Venezuelans report having lost weight in the past year because of such shortages. As Wall Street Journal reporter John Forero put it, “Venezuela is starving.”
The Maduro government has attempted to address the political implications of such shortages by appointing the military to distribute scarce food. As a result, the system mainly channels the little available food to those who support the regime while also ensuring the military both has reliable access to food for itself as well as opportunities for earning money by selling food on the black market.
With respect to political dynamics, the maneuvers adopted by the Maduro regime have demonstrated its determination to maintain power at any cost and its unwillingness to pursue a sincere political compromise or a constitutional solution that could result in its loss of power. A string of events and U.S. government actions in recent years against leaders in the current Venezuelan regime has highlighted that there are likely solid criminal cases against a significant number of persons in that government, thus signaling to them that a loss of political power could lead to their extradition and imprisonment in the United States. Indicative events include the July 2014 arrest of former Venezuelan security chief Hugo Carbajal when he left the country to become his country’s ambassador to Aruba, the November 2015 arrest in Haiti (and subsequent conviction on narcotrafficking charges) of Maduro’s nephews, and the U.S. Treasury Department’s February 2017 designation of Venezuelan Vice President Tareck El Aissami as a foreign narcotrafficking kingpin.
Reflecting such incentives to maintain power, Maduro and his fellow Chavista elites have violated Venezuela’s constitutional order in increasingly egregious ways, demonstrating that a resolution of Venezuela’s political and economic crisis through democratic processes is increasingly improbable. Key actions in this regard include dubious rulings by the pro-Maduro National Electoral Council and the Venezuelan Supreme Court
- preventing the opposition from using the supermajority it won in December 2015 elections (by blocking the seating of three opposition congressmen, giving pro-Maduro legislators two-thirds of the chamber);
- blocking a constitutionally stipulated recall referendum against the president;
- stripping the opposition-dominated congress of budgetary and other authority;
- ruling unconstitutional virtually all of the initiatives passed by that congress;
- postponing state and local elections; and
- eliminating key opposition leaders, including jailing Leopoldo López and disqualifying Henrique Capriles.
The Maduro regime has further begun a process of “renewing” the nation’s political parties, likely designed to disqualify parties and leaders hostile to the regime if currently delayed local elections or future presidential elections are held. Its boldest step to date, however, was its May 2017 initiative to form a constituent assembly and rewrite the constitution, a process almost certain to eliminate the elected opposition-dominated parliament.
If such actions demonstrate the unwillingness of the Maduro regime to respect constitutional processes and limits that could lead to their loss of power, the Venezuelan military has equally demonstrated its unwillingness to intervene to restore the democratic order or to avert a further economic and political meltdown in the country. While Venezuela’s armed forces have traditionally acted as guarantors of the nation’s constitutional order, during the eighteen years of rule by populist leader Hugo Chávez and his successor, Maduro, the military has been politicized and heavily indoctrinated with pro-regime ideology. In addition, virtually the entire cadre of its senior leaders has been replaced by regime loyalists.
Further decreasing the likelihood that the armed forces would act to restore Venezuela’s constitutional order, the military leadership (and particularly the National Guard) has become too deeply involved in drug trafficking, contraband, and other illicit activities to risk allowing or bringing about such change. Furthermore, the regime has embedded Cuban intelligence and counterintelligence agents throughout the military to keep an eye out for defectors.
While the United States has been highly critical of the actions of the Maduro regime, it has not, to date, indicated a disposition to move beyond the imposition of economic sanctions. And, while the OAS under Secretary Luis Almagro has strongly denounced the interruption of the democratic order in Venezuela, the organization principally functions on consensus, and the block of left-leaning anti-U.S. governments represented by the Bolivarian Alliance for the People of Our Americas (ALBA) continues to oppose any anti-Venezuela action by the OAS. Venezuela’s fellow ALBA countries may not agree with Maduro’s decisions in governing Venezuela, but, arguably, they do not find it in their strategic interest for the OAS (in which the United States is an important actor) to condemn Venezuela or play a significant role in the region’s politics in general. Even if the OAS were to expel Venezuela from the organization for violation of its democratic charter, the Maduro regime already gave its notice in April of its intention to leave the body.
Similarly, while the United Nations Security Council, in theory, could authorize an intervention in Venezuela, permanent members Russia and China would likely veto such action, insofar as each has significant business interests in the country, as well as strategic interest in the persistence of a Venezuelan regime that actively resists the expansion of U.S. influence in the region.
Adding to Venezuela’s problems, the probability that violence will escalate is increased by the government’s creation and deployment throughout the country of collectivos, relatively undisciplined armed bands of civilians, to enforce its will. This will ensure a high cost in lives of Venezuela’s own military or of a foreign military if anyone attempts to change the regime by force.
Potential Scenarios for Venezuela
The plausible scenarios for Venezuela (all negative) loosely fall into three groups, based on assumptions regarding which side prevails and whether violence is sustained or dissipates: (1) resistance burnout and consolidation of the criminal state, (2) escalating violence resolved by imposition of a pseudodemocratic compromise regime, and (3) prolonged criminality, repression, and insurgency.
Resistance burnout and consolidation of the criminal state. In this scenario, the military and the government maintain cohesion, and there is no foreign intervention. Eventually, through the regime’s control of resources and brutal repression (including violence by the collectivos), the majority of civil resistance is suppressed or flees the country. Millions depart the country as economic or political refugees, or to escape the criminal violence. With the diminishing of resistance, the regime consolidates its totalitarian order, probably imposing a new constitution and legislative body. Following the imposition of stability, Maduro is killed or pressured to step down, and power passes to a new leader, similarly committed to the populist ideology and the criminal enterprise, but with more rational economic policies and improved managerial capabilities.
With some stability and improved leadership, key anti-United States statist investors such as the Chinese and the Russians begin loaning new money to the regime, further expanding their access to Venezuela’s oil resources. New credit from these allies, possibly assisted by rising petroleum prices, supports further consolidation of power by the regime.
Escalating violence resolved by imposition of a compromise regime. In this scenario, violence increases significantly over that manifested in May 2017, possibly involving sporadic major confrontations between collectivos and Venezuelans identifying with the opposition and demanding the restoration of the previous constitutional order. Armed, self-interested groups are involved on all sides.
Violence exceeds the ability of Venezuela’s National Guard to control; the regular military, already reluctant to participate in the repression of civilians, is deployed but refuses to act, possibly with some units dissolving or declaring themselves loyal to the opposition. Key extrahemispheric players, including the Chinese and the Russians, make a tacit agreement with the opposition in return for guarantees of the protection of their businesses and other interests in the country. Maduro and other key regime leaders are killed or leave the country, while others cut a deal for a power transition, with the support of key military leaders, in return for limited immunity and protection from extraditions.
Prolonged criminality, repression, and insurgency. In this scenario, like the prior one, violence increases significantly, and the regular military splinters or is too unreliable to be employed. Some key figures possibly flee the country. By contrast to the previous scenario, however, a deal involving a power transition cannot be achieved. Key external players such as Russia and China maintain a “wait-and-see” posture. Protest-based violence, including selective attacks against protesters by collectivos, deteriorates into broader, bloodier efforts by pro-regime forces to intimidate or silence regime opponents through large-scale violence, sparking reprisals by anti-Maduro groups, and occasionally drawing the National Guard and regular military forces into the conflict.
Continuing violence, including possible sabotage of oil installations and other government assets, leads to a broad economic collapse and the highest outflow of refugees of the three contemplated scenarios. In this scenario, major foreign actors, including China, would likely coordinate to evacuate their workers. Depending on the risk posed to Russian, Chinese, and other oil installations, United Nations Security Council agreement to a peacekeeping or peace enforcement mission could be possible, presuming that Chavista forces would see permitting such deployments as advantageous, or would no longer be able to block them.
There is no inherent limit to the deepening of suffering, violence, and criminality that could occur. Indeed, the economic plight and abuses by the regimes in Zimbabwe and North Korea serve as reminders of how much a people can suffer at the hands of a totalitarian regime that pursues irrational policies but is determined to maintain itself in power with the acquiescence of its military.
Implications for Venezuela’s Neighbors
Each scenario discussed implies an expansion of the already significant outflow of refugees to neighboring Colombia and Brazil, nearby Caribbean islands such as Aruba, Curaçao, and Trinidad and Tobago, and the rest of the region, as well as the export of arms and broader impacts on the criminal and political landscape.
Colombia. Historically, people and goods have always moved relatively freely across the Venezuela-Colombia border; the mother of Maduro was born in Colombia, and possibly the president himself was as well. Nonetheless, the influx of Venezuelans into Cúcuta and other Colombian border towns has created some resentment among Colombians. Some perceive the new arrivals as competing with them for jobs, particularly in the informal sector, and some believe the refugees have undermined security.
In 2016 alone, over 150,000 people entered Colombia from Venezuela. Some enter on a temporary basis to earn money in the informal or illicit economy and purchase goods not available in their home country, while others choose to remain indefinitely. The Colombian border town of Cúcuta has been the focus of this movement, with significant increases in the population of Venezuelans in the city, including those who work in the informal sector as prostitutes and street vendors, and in other activities. A portion of those crossing the border from Venezuela into Colombia are actually Colombians by birth who had immigrated to Venezuela years or decades prior in search of economic opportunity or to escape violence.
Colombia’s major cities such as Bogotá, Medellín, and Cali have also registered significant increases in Venezuelans. However, because two major roads from Venezuela’s capital, Caracas, converge on the Colombian border near Cúcuta, an expanded flow of migrants from a deteriorating situation in Venezuela would probably concentrate there and, to a lesser extent, to the north in La Guajira department, including the town of Riohacha, and Valledupar in Cesar department. Nonetheless, some of those leaving Venezuela will also enter Colombia at more southerly points, including Arauca, Puerto Carreño, and Inírida, where controls are weaker.
Of those who initially migrated to Venezuela from Colombia, many now returning are expected to settle in the border region, since they have family or other contacts in the region. Of those arriving from cities on Venezuela’s Caribbean coast, such as Caracas, Puerto Cabello, Maracay, and Valencia, many will likely migrate toward Colombia’s own Caribbean coast, to cities such as Maicao, Barranquilla, and Sincelejo, where the climate and culture are familiar. By contrast, Venezuelans coming from more rural areas to the south of the nation’s principal mountain range will likely gravitate toward cities in the interior of Colombia on the other side of its flatlands, such as Villavicencio and Bogotá.
Other migration routes notwithstanding, the focus of migration on Cúcuta and La Guajira raises particular concerns for Colombia since the area, particularly Catatumbo and other parts of the province of Norte de Santander, is a hotbed of criminal and terrorist activity, with Colombia’s notorious Gulf Clan and the National Liberation Army (ELN) vying to fill in areas being vacated by the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC). In this complex dynamic, the newly arriving immigrants are both potential victims of and recruits for those organizations. Indeed, given the established history of cross-border smuggling, Colombian security officials believe that some people crossing the border are moving drugs and contraband, among other illicit activities.
Venezuela and Neighboring Countries
Further to the south, in border towns such as Arica, Puerto Carreño, and Inírida, although the current and expected volume of immigration from Venezuela is less of a problem, the area is the center of the illicit mining for coltan, a strategic mineral used in a wide array of advanced batteries and electronics products.
In addition to the potentially destabilizing impact of refugee flows on both the Colombian economy and centers of organized crime in the country, Colombian security experts worry that some of Venezuela’s collectivos and other groups will sell their FN FAL (light automatic) rifles and other military equipment to help maintain themselves, flooding contested criminal areas such as Catatumbo with arms as well as people in economic need.
As the Venezuelan crisis deepens and the flow of refugees grows, de facto encampments are likely to form, particularly around Cúcuta. It will be in the interest of Colombia to formally manage such camps to alleviate suffering and to prevent them from becoming centers of criminal recruitment and victimization, given the challenging environment of the zone.
In preparation for a refugee crisis, the Colombian government has an established system, the “national entity for the management of the risk of disasters,” that was used when Venezuela expelled more than six thousand Colombians from the country in August 2015. Nonetheless, security experts in Colombia are concerned that the resource requirements and the complexity of a massive flood of refugees from Venezuela would likely overwhelm the system’s capacity.
For Colombia, such challenges come at a time in which its military’s resources for operations and maintenance are declining significantly, while the government is searching for the resources to fund the substantial obligations that it incurred in the agreement that it signed with the FARC in November 2016. Colombia must also deal with the upsurge of criminal and other violence between the ELN and criminal bands as the FARC demobilizes and withdraws from its former territory.
Beyond outflows of people and guns, as the position of the Maduro leadership in Venezuela becomes more uncertain, Colombian security and defense professionals also worry that Venezuela could seek to provoke a war; this would serve to divert the attention of the Venezuelan people and the international community as well as maintain the unity of the Venezuelan military. Indeed, Venezuela has a long history of aggressive posturing toward Colombia, including territorial claims over La Guajira and substantial parts of Colombia’s eastern plains in Venezuela’s 1999 constitution. In March 2008, then President Chávez called to move ten Venezuelan armored brigades to the Colombian border in response to Colombia’s signing of a base status agreement with the United States. It further conducted a war game that year, Guaicaipuro, focused on a preemptive Venezuelan invasion of the Guajira. More recently, provocative Venezuelan actions include its conduct of a nationwide mobilization exercise, Zamora 200; its deployment of a small military force across the Arauca River into Colombia in March 2017; and the increasingly bellicose rhetoric of the Maduro regime toward Colombia, calling the nation a “failed state.”
Brazil and Guyana. While Colombia has, to date, borne the brunt of the spillover effects of the Venezuela crisis, Venezuelans have also crossed into the Brazilian state of Roraima. On one weekend in June 2016 alone, an estimated 150,000 Venezuelans crossed into Brazil, although only a portion stayed, while others came to purchase food and other goods. In May 2017, the mayor of the Brazilian city of Manaus declared an emergency after more than 350 Venezuelan refugees appeared on its streets, while more Venezuelan refugees have also been seen in the provincial capital of Boa Vista.
With respect to Venezuela’s other neighbor, Guyana, although the two countries share a land border, the relative lack of infrastructure connecting the two across Guyana’s Essequibo region and the lack of population in the area has limited the migration of Venezuelans to Guyana to date. As with Colombia, however, Guyanese worry that in a moment of crisis, the Maduro regime could provoke a military crisis with Guyana as a diversionary tactic, based on a historical dispute over the Essequibo region. The Maduro regime attempted to resurrect the dispute in September 2015, just months after ExxonMobil discovered significant oil deposits off the coast of the disputed area.
Island nations. In addition to the countries that share a land border with Venezuela, instability in the country is affecting its neighbors in the Caribbean. Venezuelans looking to obtain supplies or to escape economic and other hardship in the country are crossing the relatively narrow expanse of Caribbean water to the nearby islands of Aruba, Curaçao, and Trinidad and Tobago. In Trinidad and Tobago, Venezuelans reportedly take a ferry or hire local boats to cross the seven kilometers of water separating the two countries in order to buy goods in Trinidadian stores. In some cases, they bring guns from Venezuela to trade for food and other basic goods. And, the interchange between Venezuela and its island neighbors, exacerbated by the combination of sheer economic need and the breakdown of law and order, has also contributed to piracy off its coast.
In Trinidad and Tobago, as in the La Guajira region on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, an additional risk is created by the possible migration of persons with ties to radical Islamic groups such as Hezbollah. During recent years, Iran reportedly used Venezuela as a point of entry for its Qods forces (religious paramilitary agents), while Venezuelan authorities sold government-issued passports to refugees from Syria and other parts of the Middle East.While there has been little evidence of the outflow of such migrants to date, the established Muslim communities in Trinidad and Tobago and La Guajira make both a logical destination if the crisis in Venezuela deepens. Given that Trinidad and Tobago is already a leading source on a per capita basis for foreign fighters to the Middle East, migration from Venezuela of those affiliated with radical Islamic groups would have a potentially radicalizing and destabilizing effect on the Islamic communities in those areas.
Recommendations for the United States
Despite the systemic looting of Venezuela by the Maduro regime, U.S. intervention in Venezuela would be strategically unwise. While such action could topple Venezuela’s Bolivarian socialist government, it would reinforce the historic perception of the United States in the region as interventionist, sowing distrust and other anti-U.S. sentiment. In addition, in the short-term, it would leave behind an economically decimated, highly corrupted and politically polarized state. Following intervention, the United States would face the dilemma of allowing the newly “liberated” but broken Venezuelan state to continue as a source of criminality and instability in the region or engaging in the lengthy, expensive effort of trying to rebuild the country. In the process, as in the Middle East, the U.S. presence in Venezuela would likely become the focal point for rallying anti-U.S. sentiment, and U.S. forces in Venezuela would present a tempting target for the Chavista “resistance” and leftist terrorist groups posturing as resistors of the “yanqui invasion.”
While it would be unwise for the United States to intervene in Venezuela and unrealistic for the international community to do so, both nonetheless have an important role in shaping the evolution of the situation in a positive direction, and in managing the consequences of the crisis in Venezuela on its neighbors. With respect to Venezuela itself, the United States should give the fullest support possible to the OAS, currently under Secretary Almagro, in condemning the departure from the democratic order established by Venezuela’s constitution, and it should support the OAS and other multilateral and bilateral efforts pressuring the Chavista elite to restore that order. Also, it is imperative that the United States continue to highlight publicly the illegitimacy of the Maduro regime as a criminal elite that has, through administrative machinations, stolen control of the resource-rich state from its people, and which is increasingly relying on the force of arms to continue looting the state with an eye to making good a “getaway” with the money.
As part of such efforts, the United States must lead the international community in isolating the Chavista leadership through individually targeted economic sanctions, cooperating with other players in the international community to deny the Chavistas sanctuary in other countries after their rule. The U.S. State Department, Treasury Department, and other appropriate organizations should particularly focus on the legal and financial arenas, supporting Venezuela’s National Assembly as it invalidates contracts made by the Chavista elite outside the constitutional order. This approach may have only limited short-term impacts in Venezuela itself, but it may help change the calculations of key Maduro regime benefactors such as China and Russia, convincing them that their best strategy for securing their oil holdings and other interests in the country is by working through the constitutionally legitimate National Assembly rather than the executive branch, whose operation outside the constitution leaves its commitments of Venezuelan resources to others without legal validity.
Beyond addressing the crisis in Venezuela itself, the United States should actively work with the country’s neighbors to prevent the byproducts of the crisis, including the outflow of refugees and arms, from destabilizing the region. Venezuela’s neighbor, Colombia, confronts the double challenge of being the country most impacted by the flow of Venezuelan refugees and arms (and possible military provocations), while dealing with the enormous resource and internal security challenges arising from its government’s peace agreement with the FARC. While the Colombians take pride in their own capabilities, they will need more (and different) support from the United States, not less, in the months ahead.
In the short term, the United States should coordinate with Colombia, as well as Aruba, Curaçao, Trinidad and Tobago, and other states, in conjunction with the International Committee of the Red Cross and other nongovernmental organizations, to support the needs of the refugees. It should collaborate with the governments of the region to provide logistics, intelligence, and other support as permitted by national laws to help protect those refugees from victimization and criminal recruitment, as well as to monitor who is coming in, where they are going, and how they are affecting the local criminal environment. Particularly in Colombia, the United States should consider increased intelligence, training, and material support to police, prosecutors, and special military units combatting organized crime, which will likely expand through the refugee and arms flows.
In the unlikely, but not inconceivable, event that the Maduro administration attempts to provoke a military conflict with Colombia or Guyana, the United States should be prepared to provide military and other support to defend the territorial sovereignty of each. However, it should avoid direct military intervention in Venezuelan territory aside from possible selective removal of offensive capabilities being used against Venezuela’s neighbors, such as combat aircraft and helicopters in their bases, or forward-deployed armored vehicles.
As the United States supports the countries of the region in their response to the Venezuelan crisis, it should, wherever possible, work through the OAS and other multilateral institutions of the Inter-American System, including a coordinated response to the handling of refugees. The United States should also look for ways to leverage the events of the Conference of American Armies, of which it is head during the current two-year cycle, as a vehicle for such coordination in military affairs. Finally, the United States should be prepared to work with the United Nations to deploy a peacekeeping or peace enforcement force into the region when the evolution of the crisis and the positions of the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council make such action feasible.
The crisis in Venezuela is a tragedy with grave implications for its neighbors and the region. Yet, in that tragedy, there is also opportunity for the United States to strengthen its relationship with countries in the region by tangibly demonstrating its commitment to work with them to mitigate the effects of the crisis. It is also an opportunity to do so in a way that strengthens the OAS and Inter-American System (in whose functionality the United States has a strategic interest) as the principal multilateral vehicle for addressing regional security issues.
The Venezuela crisis may be the first opportunity of the Trump administration to define its vision for democracy, security, and good governance in the region, and to demonstrate its commitment to the partner nations with which the United States shares the Western Hemisphere. Given U.S. connectedness to the region through geography, commerce, and family ties, doing so is critical not only for the Trump administration and Venezuela’s neighbors but also for the United States and the region as a whole.
First published in the Journal “Military Review” July-August 2017, Republished by Author’s permission
Perils of Belligerent Nationalism: The Urgent Obligations of Planetary Community
“…the worst are full of passionate intensity, while the best lack all conviction.”-William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming
By definition, former President Donald J. Trump’s doctrinal emphasis on “America First” signified a rejection of human community and universal cooperation. The enduring effect of this rejection has been palpable acceleration of global chaos, a dissembling speedup that includes corollary risks of war, terrorism and genocide. To the extent that these more-or-less plausible risks might sometime display a nuclear dimension, any further continuity of belligerent nationalism could propel the United States and other countries toward certain irretrievable forms of human catastrophe..
Ultimately, whatever the particular outcomes, truth will likely win out over shortsighted expressions of political wizardry. A core component of any such truth is that American survival and prosperity are inextricably linked with a much wider global vulnerability. In essence, it would be foolish to suppose that the American nation – or, indeed, any individual nation – could meaningfully secure itself at the expense of other nations.
For an especially timely example of such profound intellectual error, one need look no further than the now-persistent “plague” of worldwide disease pandemic. As in cases of belligerent nationalism regarding military security matters, the effective management or conquest of Covid19 will require full scale rejections of zero-sum thinking. Here, where it is understood as a metaphor of much wider problems, authentic planetary community is indispensable.
There is more. Learning must always be theory-based. With its inherently self-deceiving nature, however, belligerent nationalism is gratuitously crude and injurious. Going forward, the only sensible posture for a sitting U.S. president must express some determinedly coherent variant of “all in the soup together.”
Such an improved mantra need not be all that difficult to operationalize. It is usefully discoverable in the succinctly prescient writings of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of everyone for himself,” summarizes the late Jesuit scientist and philosopher, “is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”
Prima facie, the core message here is both simple and incontestable. It is that no single country’s individual security can ever be achieved at the tangible expense of other countries. Moreover, no such individual state security is conceivably sustainable if the world as a whole must thereby expect a reciprocally diminished future.
There is more, No conceivably gainful configuration of Planet Earth can ever prove “secure” if the conspicuously vast human legions which comprise it remain morally, spiritually, and intellectually adrift. It is, of course, precisely such a willful detachment from stable national and international moorings that was openly fostered by Donald Trump’s “America First.”
Earlier, observed William Butler Yeats, in what represented a more broadly metaphorical indictment of chaos, “Theblood-dimmed tide is loosed.” But just as it appeared for the empathetic Irish poet, today’s still-expanding global chaos is really just a symptom. It is, as the professional philosophers would likely claim, “merely epiphenomenal.”
The philosophers would be “on course.” For the world as a whole, chaos and belligerent nationalism are never themost truly underlying “disease.” Always, that more determinative pathology remains rooted in certain seemingly great and powerful states that stubbornly fail to recognize the remorseless imperatives of human interrelatedness or community. This core failure has been a long-term problem, and is not one that is particular to any particular American president or to the United States in its decisional entirety.
Following former President Donald Trump’s “America First,” world politics will increasingly encourage an already lethal human deficit. This deficit is the reluctance of individual citizens and their respective states to discover authentic self-worth as individual persons, within themselves. Precisely such a significant deficit had already been foreseen in the eighteenth century by America’s then-leading person of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today, revealingly, the still-vital insights of “American Transcendentalists” remain recognizable and meaningful to only an excruciatingly tiny minority. Unsurprisingly, especially after Trump, the “life of the mind in America” is a very shallow narrative.
Despite their impressive intellectual antecedents, including some earlier occupants of the White House, Americans almost never read seriously challenging books. Such a cryptic observation is not offered here in an offhanded or gratuitously mean spirited fashion. Quite the contrary, it is presented as an unassailable fact of American life, one famously commented upon during the first third of the nineteenth century by French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America. This same fact led the Founding Fathers of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson (the most identifiably democratic figure among them), to rail against uneducated mass participation in the new republic.
As the necessary corrective, Jefferson set forth in his Notes on Virginia a plan of elementary schooling by which, he argued, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.”
Somehow, whatever we might now think of Jefferson’s earlier expectations for “The People,” former president Trump managed to defile what is most urgently important to our common future. This factor is the critical inner horizon to world politics and whatever it implies. In literature, this subtle horizon is not in any fashion conspicuous. Nor is it “practically” oriented toward commerce or personal wealth aggrandizement. It can be encountered and clarified in the “inner horizon” writings of Sören Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung, Jose Ortega y’Gassett and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Here on earth, the tribe, in at least one form or another, is always the determinative microcosm. From the beginning, from the muddled primal promiscuity of our very earliest global politics, determinative behavior in world affairs has been driven by some kind or other of individual group elevation and resultant inter-group conflict. From the identifiable human origins of all our so-called “civilizations,” and from the pitiably aggregated totals of individual human souls seeking some ultimately satisfying forms of redemption, most people have felt themselves utterly lost or hideously abandoned outside the warmth of a “protective” tribe.
Today, it is precisely this degrading and potentially lethal inclination that is fostered by any and all forms of belligerent nationalism.
The veneer of human civilization remains razor thin. Oddly, certain whole swaths of humankind remain dedicated to certain ancient and grotesque sacrificial practices. In this connection, shamelessly linking violence and the sacred, most terrorist murders are now reassuringly justified as “holy war” or as “freedom fighting.” But their net effect is always plainly insidious and thoroughly dissembling.
As a stipulated response to these serious challenges, belligerent nationalism remains wholly misconceived. Left unchallenged, this atavistic mantra would only further harden the hearts of humankind’s most recalcitrant enemies, and thereby exacerbate the indispensable search for some truly viable American remedies. What we need, instead, is broadening support for a much more enduring impulse of global solidarity and human interconnectedness.
From the seventeenth-century Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 ended the last of the great religious wars sparked by the Reformation, to the present precarious moment, international relations and international law have been shaped by a protean “balance of power,” and by the evident corollaries of war, terror, and genocide. To be sure, hope still exists, but now, it must sing softly, in an undertone, that is, with circumspection, inconspicuously, almost sotto voce. Although counter-intuitive, the time for visceral celebrations of science, modernization, technology, and even social media is already partially over. Now, to survive, together, on an imperiled planet, all of us must energetically seek to rediscover an individual life that is consciously detached from nationally patterned conformance, cheap entertainments, shallow optimism, and disingenuously contrived visages of tribal happiness.
With such refreshingly candid expressions of the awakened human spirit, we Americans may yet learn something that is both useful and redemptive. We may learn, even during the declension “Time of Trump,” that a commonly felt agony is more important than astrophysics; that a ubiquitous mortality is more consequential than any transient financial “success;” and that shared human tears may reveal much deeper meanings and opportunities than narrowly self-serving tax reductions or imbecilic border walls.
In his landmark work, The Decline of the West, first published during World War I, Oswald Spengler inquired: “Can a desperate faith in knowledge free us from the nightmare of the grand questions?” It remains a noteworthy query, one that will likely never be raised in our universities, let alone on Wall Street or in the White House. We may, however, still learn something about these “grand questions” by studying American responsibility for the still-expanding chaos in world politics.
At that time, we might finally learn that the most suffocating insecurities of life on earth can never be undone by militarizing global economics, by building larger missiles, by abrogating international treaties, or by replacing one abundantly sordid regime with another in the naively presumed interests of “national security.”
In the end, even amid an endlessly squalid American politics, truth is exculpatory. Accordingly, in a promising paradox, Trump’s “America First” expressed a lie that could still help to see the truth. This cosmopolitan truth, worldwide in scope, is that Americans require above all else a consciousness of unity and relatedness between human beings and their particular nation-states. Always, as this essay has expressly underscored, this indispensable consciousness must be rooted in pertinent international law.
Though widely unrecognized, such an elementary consciousness is integral to all meaningful possibilities of both American security and planetary well-being. Now, before it is too late, represents the human community’s literally last chance to replace the “passionate intensity” of Realpolitik with a vitally revised “conviction.” At this point, armed with a vision that rejects zero-sum or “everyone for himself” thinking in world politics, the grave dangers of belligerent nationalism could finally collapse under the unsustainable weight of their own contradictions.
No other conceivable replacement could prove more necessary.
 The legal principle of “universal cooperation” is founded upon a presumption of solidarity between states in their common struggle against criminality. It is mentioned in the CORPUS JURIS CIVILIS; in Hugo Grotius’s DE JURE BELLI AC PACIS LIBRI TRES (Book II, Ch. 20); and in Emmerich de Vattel’s LE DROIT DES GENS (Book I, Ch. 19).
 For authoritative early accounts of nuclear war effects by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).
 “Reason,” warns Karl Jaspers, “is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no logical argument, and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd….” See the 20th century philosopher’s Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time, Archon Books, 1971, p. 78.
 “Theory is a net,” observes the German poet Novalis, “and only those who cast, can catch.” This apt metaphor was embraced by philosopher of science Karl Popper as the epigraph to his classic Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934).
 In both logic and law, the rights assured by the Declaration and Constitution can never be confined to the people of the United States. This is because both documents were conceived by their authors as the indisputable codifications of pre-existing Natural Law. Though generally unrecognized, the United States was expressly founded upon the Natural Rights philosophies of the 18th century Enlightenment, especially Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Thomas Jefferson was well acquainted with the classical writings of political philosophy from Plato to Diderot. In those early days of the Republic. an American president could not only read serious books, but also write them.
 The classical example is Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic.
 Although composed in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan offers a still- illuminating vision of chaos in world politics. Says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII, “Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery:” “During such chaos,” a condition which Hobbes identifies as a ‘time of War,’ it is a time “…where every man is Enemy to every man… and where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” At the time of writing, Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition existing among individual human beings. This owed to what he called the “dreadful equality” of individual men in nature concerning ability to kill others, but this once-relevant differentiation has now effectively disappeared together with the global spread of nuclear weapons. More precisely, today, “weaker” states that are nonetheless nuclear can still bring insufferable harms to the “stronger” states.
 Early on, William Blackstone, the jurist upon whose work the United States owes its own basic system of law, remarks at Book 4 of his Commentaries on the Law of England: “The law of nations (international law) is always binding upon all individuals and all states. Each state is expected, perpetually, to aid and enforce the law of nations as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon the offenses against that universal law.”
 See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Oxford University Press: https://blog.oup.com/2011/09/the-people/ See also, by Professor Beres, at The National Interest, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/america-becomes-what-its-founders-feared-16000?nopaging=1
The term “mass,” favored by Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung, is roughly identical in meaning to Sigmund Freud’s term “horde” (itself derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd”) and to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s “crowd.” Always, warns Kierkegaard insightfully, “The crowd is untruth.”
 “Civilization,” adds Lewis Mumford, “is the never-ending process of creating one world and one humanity.” Still the best syntheses of contemporary creative outlines for a world civilization are W. Warren Wagar The City of Man (1967) and W. Warren Wagar, Building the City of Man (1971).
 For the authoritative sources of international law, see art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice; done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, Oct. 24, 1945; for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945. 59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, 3 Bevans 1153, 1976 Y.B.U.N., 1052.
 Under international law, the question of whether or not a true “state of war” exists between countries remains ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before a true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius: The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chs. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war obtains only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, declarations of war may be tantamount to admissions of international criminality, because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law, and it could therefore represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to formal and prior declarations of belligerency. It follows that a state of war may now exist without any formal declarations, but only if there exists an actual armed conflict between two or more stat and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war.”
 This balance creates a “vigilante” system of “Westphalian” law. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.
 International law is an integral part of United States jurisprudence. In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900)) See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”
 Throughout history, geopolitics or Realpolitik has been associated withpromises of personal immortality. To wit, in his posthumously published lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end unto itself, drew originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy – that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of tangible legal regulation in their interactions.
 This brings to mind a comment by Italian film director Federico Fellini: “The visionary is the only realist.”
 One such contradiction concerns the crime of “aggression” under international law. Punishment of aggression is a firm and longstanding expectation of international criminal law. The peremptory principle of Nullum Crimen sine poena, “No crime without a punishment,” has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728 – 1686 B.C.E.); the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.E.); the even earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.E.) and the law of exact retaliation, or Lex Talionis, presented in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah. Punishment of aggression is a firm and longstanding expectation of international criminal law. The peremptory principle of Nullum Crimen sine poena, “No crime without a punishment,” has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728 – 1686 B.C.E.); the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.E.); the even earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.E.) and the law of exact retaliation, or Lex Talionis, presented in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah. Since World War II, aggression has typically been defined as a military attack, not justified by international law, when directed against the territory of another state. The question of defining aggression first acquired legal significance with the Draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance of 1923. One year later, the Geneva Protocol of 1924 provided that any state that failed to comply with the obligation to employ procedures of peaceful settlement in the Protocol or the Covenant was an aggressor. Much later, an authoritative definition of aggression was finally adopted without vote by the UN General Assembly on December 14, 1974.
Sino-American confrontation and the Re-binarized world
Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances), to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation. Finally, a Copernican-turn: the US spotted no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China. This signalled a ‘new opening’: West imagined China’s coastal areas as its own industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence (in this marriage of convenience): Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation. Both spiced it by nearly religious approach to trade.
However, for each of the two this was far more than economy, it was a policy – Washington read it as interdependence for transformative containment and Beijing sow it as interdependence for a (global) penetration. In the meantime, Chinese acquired more sophisticated technology, and the American Big tech sophisticated itself in digital authoritarianism – ‘technological monoculture’ met the political one.
But now with a tidal wave of Covid-19 and binary blame-game, the honeymoon is over. While the US-led west becomes disappointment, China provoked backlash instead of gaining global support and adoration. Is any new form of global centrality in sight?
(These days, many argue that our C-19 response is a planetary fiasco, whose size is yet to surface with its mounting disproportionate and enduring secondary effects, causing tremendous socio-economic, political and psychosomatic contractions and convulsions. But, worse than our response is our silence about it.)
Still to be precise, the C-19 calamity brought nothing truly new to the already overheated Sino-American relations and to the increasing binarization of world affairs: It only amplified and accelerated what was present for quite some time – a rift between alienated power centres, each on its side of Pacific, and the rest. No wonder that the work on the C-19 vaccine is more an arms race that it is a collaborative humanistics.
This text examines prehistory of that rift; and suggests possible outcomes past the current crisis. It also discusses location and locality (absence of it, too). This since, geography is a destiny only for those who see their own history as faith.
Origins of Future
Does our history only appear overheated – as rearly monocausal, while it is essentially calmly predetermined? Is it directional or conceivable, dialectic and eclectic or cyclical, and therefore cynical? Surely, our history warns (no matter if the Past is seen as a destination or resource). Does it also provide for a hope? Hence, what is in front of us: destiny or future?
Theory loves to teach us that extensive debates on what kind of economic system is most conductive to human wellbeing is what consumed most of our civilizational vertical. However, our history has a different say: It seems that the manipulation of the global political economy (and usage of fear as the currency of control) – far more than the introduction of ideologies – is the dominant and arguably more durable way that human elites usually conspired to build or break civilizations, as planned projects. Somewhere down the process, it deceived us, becoming the self-entrapment. How?
* * * *
One of the biggest (nearly schizophrenic) dilemmas of liberalism, ever since David Hume and Adam Smith, was an insight into reality: Whether the world is essentially Hobbesian or Kantian. As postulated, the main task of any liberal state is to enable and maintain wealth of its nation, which of course rests upon wealthy individuals inhabiting the particular state. That imperative brought about another dilemma: if wealthy individual, the state will rob you, but in absence of it, the pauperized masses will mob you.
The invisible hand of Smith’s followers have found the satisfactory answer – sovereign debt. That ‘invention’ meant: relatively strong central government of the state. Instead of popular control through the democratic checks-&-balance mechanism, such a state should be rather heavily indebted. Debt – firstly to local merchants, than to foreigners – is a far more powerful deterrent, as it resides outside the popular check domain.
With such a mixed blessing, no empire can easily demonetize its legitimacy, and abandon its hierarchical but invisible and unconstitutional controls. This is how a debtor empire was born. A blessing or totalitarian curse? Let us briefly examine it.
The Soviet Union – much as (the pre-Deng’s) China itself – was far more of a classic continental military empire (overtly brutal; rigid, authoritative, anti-individual, apparent, secretive), while the US was more a financial-trading empire (covertly coercive; hierarchical, yet asocial, exploitive, pervasive, polarizing). On opposite sides of the globe and cognition, to each other they remained enigmatic, mysterious and incalculable: Bear of permafrost vs. Fish of the warm seas. Sparta vs. Athens. Rome vs. Phoenicia… However, common for both (as much as for China today) was a super-appetite for omnipresence. Along with the price to pay for it.
Consequently, the Soviets went bankrupt by mid 1980s – they cracked under its own weight, imperially overstretched. So did the Americans – the ‘white man burden’ fractured them already by the Vietnam war, with the Nixon shock only officializing it. However, the US imperium managed to survive and to outlive the Soviets. How?
The United States, with its financial capital (or an outfoxing illusion of it), evolved into a debtor empire through the Wall Street guaranties. Titanium-made Sputnik vs. gold mine of printed-paper… Nothing epitomizes this better than the words of the longest serving US Federal Reserve’s boss, Alan Greenspan, who famously quoted J.B. Connally to then French President Jacques Chirac: “True, the dollar is our currency, but your problem”. Hegemony vs. hegemoney.
House of Cards (Forever r>g)
Conventional economic theory teaches us that money is a universal equivalent to all goods. Historically, currencies were a space and time-related, to say locality-dependent. However, like no currency ever before, the US dollar became – past the WWII – the universal equivalent to all other moneys of the world. According to history of currencies, the core component of the non-precious metals’ money is a so-called promissory note – intangible belief that, by any given point in future, a particular shiny paper (self-styled as money) will be smoothly exchanged for real goods.
Thus, roughly speaking, money is nothing else but a civilizational construct about imagined/projected tomorrow – that the next day (which nobody has ever seen in the history of humankind, but everybody operates with) definitely comes (i), and that this tomorrow will certainly be a better day then our yesterday or even our today (ii).
This and similar types of collective constructs (horizontal and vertical) over our social contracts hold society together as much as its economy keeps it alive and evolving. Hence, it is money that powers economy, but our blind faith in constructed (imagined) tomorrows and its alleged certainty is what empowers money.
Tellingly, the universal equivalent of all equivalents – the US dollar – follows the same pattern: Bold and widely accepted promise. For the US, it almost instantly substan-tiates extraterritorial economic projection: American can print (any sum of) money without fear of inflation. (Quantitative easing is always exported; value is kept home.)
(Empire’s currency loses its status when other nations lose confidence in ability of that imperial power to remain solvent. For the pre-modern and modern history, it happened with 5 powers – two Iberian, Dutch, France and the UK – before the US dollar took the role of world reserve currency. Interestingly, each of the empires held it for roughly a century. The US century is just about to expire, and there are already contesters, territorial and non-territorial, symmetric and asymmetric ones. On offer are tangibles and intangibles: gold, cryptocurrencies, and biotronics/nano-chemoelectricals.)
But, what does the US dollar promise when there is no gold cover attached to it ever since the time of Nixon shock of 1971?
Pentagon promises that the oceanic sea-lanes will remain opened (read: controlled by the US Navy), pathways unhindered, and that the most traded world’s commodity – oil, will be delivered. So, it is not a crude or its delivery what is a cover to the US dollar – it is a promise that oil of tomorrow will be deliverable. That is a real might of the US dollar, which in return finances Pentagon’s massive expenditures and shoulders its supremacy.
Admired and feared, Pentagon further fans our planetary belief in tomorrow’s deliverability – if we only keep our faith in dollar (and hydrocarbons’ energized economy), and so on and on in perpetuated circle of mutual reinforcements.
These two pillars of the US might from the East coast (the US Treasury/Wall Street and Pentagon) together with the two pillars of the West coast – both financed and amplified by the US dollar, and spread through the open sea-routs (Silicone Valley and Hollywood), are an essence of the US posture. Country that hosts such a dream factory, as the US does Hollywood, is easy to romanticize – though other 3 pillars are to take and to coerce.
This very nature of power explains why the Americans have missed to take the mankind into completely other direction; towards the non-confrontational, decarbonized, de-monetized/de-financialized and de-psychologized, the self-realizing and green humankind. In short, to turn history into a moral success story. They had such a chance when, past the Gorbachev’s unconditional surrender of the Soviet bloc, and the Deng’s Copernicus-shift of China, the US – unconstrained as a lonely superpower – solely dictated terms of reference; our common destiny and direction/s to our future/s.
Winner is rarely a game-changer
Sadly enough, that was not the first missed opportunity for the US to soften and delay its forthcoming, imminent multidimensional imperial retreat. The very epilogue of the WWII meant a full security guaranty for the US: Geo-economically – 54% of anything manufactured in the world was carrying the Made in USA label, and geostrategically – the US had uninterruptedly enjoyed nearly a decade of the ‘nuclear monopoly’. Up to this very day, the US scores the biggest number of N-tests conducted, the largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry, and it represents the only power ever deploying this ‘ultimate weapon’ on other nation.
To complete the irony, Americans enjoy geographic advantage like no other empire before. Save the US, as Ikenberry notes: “…every major power in the world lives in a crowded geopolitical neighborhood where shifts in power routinely provoke counterbalancing”. Look the map, at Russia or China and their packed surroundings. The US is blessed with its insular position, by neighboring oceans. All that should harbor tranquility, peace and prosperity, foresightedness.
Why the lonely might, an empire by invitation did not evolve into empire of relaxation, a generator of harmony? Why does it hold (extra-judicially) captive more political prisoners on Cuban soil than the badmouthed Cuban regime has ever had? Why does it remain obsessed with armament for at home and abroad? Why existential anxieties for at home and security challenges for abroad? (Eg. 78% of all weaponry at disposal in the wider MENA theater is manufactured in the US, while domestically Americans – only for their civilian purpose – have 1,2 small arms pieces per capita.)
Why the fall of Berlin Wall 30 years ago marked a beginning of decades of stagnant or failing incomes in the US (and elsewhere in the OECD world) coupled with alarming inequalities. What are we talking about here; the inadequate intensity of our tireless confrontational push or about the false course of our civilizational direction?
Indeed, no successful and enduring empire does merely rely on coercion, be it abroad or at home. The grand design of every empire in past rested on a skillful calibration between obedience and initiative – at home, and between bandwagoning and engagement – abroad. (Thus, the main battle is traditionally between the television and the refrigerator.) In XXI century, one wins when one convinces, not when one coerces. Hence, if unable to escape its inner logics and deeply rooted appeal of confrontational nostalgia, the prevailing archrival is only a winner, rarely a game-changer.
How did we miss to notice it before? Simply, economy –right after history– is the ideologically most ‘colored’ scientific discipline of all. (Our ‘mainstream’ narrative is thus full of questionable counterfactuals.)
To sum up; After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans accelerated expansion while waiting for (real or imagined) adversaries to further decline, ‘liberalize’ and bandwagon behind the US. One of the instruments was to aggressively push for a greater economic integration between regional and distant states, which – as we see now, passed the ‘End-of-History’ euphoria of 1990s – brought about (irreversible) socio-political disintegration within each of these states.
A Country or a Cause, Both or None?
Expansion is the path to security dictatum, of the post-Cold War socio-political and (hyper-liberal) economic mantra, only exacerbated the problems afflicting the Pax Americana, which acidified global stewardship; hence oceans, populations and the relations to the unbearable levels. That is why and that is how the capability of the US to maintain its order started to erode faster than the capacity of its opponents to challenge it. A classical imperial self-entrapment (by the so-called bicycle theory: keep pedalling same way or topple over).
Clearly, the US post-Cold War preponderance is now challenged in virtually every domain: America can no longer operate unrestrained in the traditional spheres of land, sea and air, not in newer ones like the (near and deeper) outer space and cyberspace. The repeated failure to notice and recalibrate such an imperial (over-)emasculation and consequent retreat brought the painful hangovers to Washington, the most noticeably, by the last two presidential elections.
Inability to manage the rising costs of sustaining the imperial order only increased the domestic popular revolt and political pressure to abandon its ‘mission’ altogether. In that light the recent Saigon II – withdrawal from Afghanistan, too. The pullout was not a miscalculation or ill-made move but a long overdue shift to realism in American foreign policy. Perfectly hitting the target to miss everything else …
In short, past the Soviet collapse Americans intervened too much abroad, regulated too little at home, and delivered less than ever – both at home and abroad. Such model attracts none. No wonder that today all around the globe many do question if the States would be appealing ever again. Domestically, growing number of people perceive foreign policy mostly as an expensive destruction; divinized trade and immigration as destroyers of jobs and communities. Its political system is unable to decouple and deconcentrate wealth and power which suffocates the very social fabrics.
Hence, Americans are not fixing the world anymore. They are only managing its decline. Look at their footprint in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Georgia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine or Yemen (GCC, Israel, Poland, Baltics, Taiwan soon too) – to mention but a few. Violence as a source of social cohesion is dying out. This explains why Americans nowadays nearly obsessively turn to promise of technology. Still, what the US plans to do becomes overshadowed by what others are already doing.
* * * *
When the Soviets lost their own indigenous ideological matrix and maverick confrontational stance, and when the US dominated West missed to triumph although winning the Cold War, how to expect from the imitator to score the lasting moral or even a temporary economic victory?
Dislike the relationship with the Soviets Union which was on one clear confrontational acceptance line from a start until its very last day, Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances) to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation.
American strategy to westernize [xihva] and split up [fenhva] China failed short there, but worked well for Yugoslavia and Soviet Union – weakening and delegitimizing central government by antagonizing nationalities, and demonizing party and army. Hence, a Copernican-turn: While offshore balancing Asian continent, the US ‘spotted’ no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China.
This signalled a ‘new opening’ – China’s coastal areas to become West’s industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence: Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation. However, for both it was far more than economy lubricated by sanctified free trade, it was a policy – Washington read it as interdependence for transformative containment and Beijing sow it as interdependence for (global) penetration. American were left in a growing illusion that the Sino growth is on terms defined by them, and Chinese – on their side – grew confident that these terms of economic growth are only accepted by them.
The so-called Financial crisis 2008/09 (or better to say the peak time of Casino economy) undermined positions of the largest consumer of Chinese goods (US), and simultaneously boosted confidence of the biggest manufacturer of American products (PRC). Consequently, soon after; by 2012, Beijing got the first out-of-Deng’s-line leadership. (One of the famous dicatums of this Bismarck of Asia was ‘hide the capabilities, bide your time’ – a pure Bismarckian wisdom to deter any domestic imperialism in hurry.)
However, in the process of past few decades, Chinese acquired more sophisticated technology, and the American Big tech sophisticated itself in digital authoritarianism.
But, as America (suddenly) returns home, the honeymoon seems over now. (Although heavily criticising Trump in past years, the Biden administration – along with the leading Democrat’s foreign policy intellectuals, is more of the Trumpistic continuity than of a departure from it. It especially refers to the Sino-American relations.)
Why does it come now? Washington is not any more able to afford treating China as just another trading partner. Also, the US is not well situated to capitalize on Beijing’s eventual belligerence – be it compliance or containment (especially with Russia closer to China than it was ever before).
The typical line of western neo-narrative goes as: ‘The CCP exploited the openness of liberal societies and particularly its freedom of speech as to plunder, penetrate and divert’. And; ‘Beijing has to bear the reputational costs of its exploitative practices’.
Accelerating collision course already leads to the subsequent calls for a strategic decupling (at best, gradual disengagements) of the two world’s largest economies and of those in their orbits. Besides marking the end of global capitalism which exploded since the fall of Berlin Wall, this may finally trigger a global realignment. The rest of the world would end up – willingly or not – in the rival (trade) blocks. It would not be a return to 1950s and 1960s, but to the pre-WWI constellations.
Epilog is plain to see: Neither more confrontation and more carbons nor more weaponized trade and traded weapons will save our day. It failed in our past; it will fail again any given day.
Entrapment in Imitation
Interestingly, China opposed the I World, left the II in rift, and ever since Bandung of 1955 it neither won over nor (truly) joined the III Way. Today, many see it as a main contestant, a leader from the global South. But, where is a lasting success?
There is a near consensus among the economists that China owes its economic success to three fundamental factors. Firstly, it is that the People’s Republic embraced an imitative economic policy (much like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan or ROK did before, or VietNam does now) through Deng-proclaimed opening aided by the tiny middle class of political police and the national army of working class. Second goes to a modest domestic consumption, and German-like thick home savings (steered by the Neo-Mandarin cast of Communist apparatchiks in higher echelons of Beijing ruling court).
Finally, as the third factor that the economists attribute to Chinese miracle, is a low production costs of Sino nation – mostly on expenses of its aging demography, and on expenses of its own labor force and country’s environment.
In short, its growth was neither green, nor inclusive, nor sustainable. Additionally, many would say – while quantifying the negative externalities of Chinese authorita-rianism – that Beijing mixes up its nearly obsessive social control, environmental negligence and its dismal human and minority rights with the right to development.
Therefore, many observers would agree that the so-called China’s miracle is a textbook example of a highly extractive state that generates enormous hidden costs of its development, those being social, environmental and health ones as much as expanding and lasting. And indeed, energy-intensive exports (especially carbon footprint) from China as well as its highly polluting industrial practices (overall ecological footprint) were introduced to and then for a long while tolerated in People’s Republic by the West.
Further on, China accepted a principled relation with the US (Russia, too), but insists on transactional one with its neighbors and BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) clients. This reduces the choice (offered by the two protagonists) on selection between the colonial democracy and authoritarian paternalism.
None of the above has an international appeal, nor it holds promise to an attainable future. Therefore, no wonder that the Imitative power fights – for at home and abroad – a defensive ideological battle and politics of cultural reaction. Such a reactive status quo has no intellectual appeal to attract and inspire beyond its borders.
So, if for China the XIX was a “century of humiliation”, XX “century of emancipation”, should it be that the XXI gets labeled as a “century of imitation”?
(The BRI is what the most attribute as an instrument of the Chinese planetary posture. Chinese leaders promised massive infrastructure projects all around by burning trillions of dollars. Still, numbers are more moderate. As the 2019 The II BRI Summit has shown – and the BRI Summits of November 2020 and of 2021 confirmed, so far, Chinese companies had invested USD 90 billion worldwide. Seems, neither People’s Republic is as rich as many (wish to) think nor it will be able to finance its promised projects without seeking for a global private capital. Such a capital –if ever – will not flow without conditionalities. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS or ‘New Development’ – Bank have some $150 billion at hand, and the Silk Road Infrastructure Fund (SRIF) has up to $40 billion. Chinese state and semi-private companies can access – according to the OECD estimates – just another $600 billion (much of it tight) from the home, state-controlled financial sector. That means that China runs short on the BRI deliveries worldwide. Ergo, either bad news to the (BRI) world or the conditionalities’ constrained China.)
How to behave in the world in which economy is made to service trade (as it is defined by the Sino-American high priests of globalization), while (preservation of domestic jobs and) trade increasingly constitutes a significant part of the big power’s national security strategy? And, how to define (and measure) the existential threat: by inferiority of ideological narrative – like during the Cold War; or by a size of a lagging gap in total manufacturing output – like in the Cold War aftermath. Or something third? Perhaps a return to an inclusive growth.
If our civilizational course is still the same – the self-realization of mankind; than the deglobalization would be a final price to pay for re-humanization of labor and overall planetary greening. Are we there yet?
Promise of the Schumann Resonance
Earlier in this text, we already elaborated on imperial fictions and frictions: Empires and superpowers create their own realities, as they are not bound to ‘situation on ground’. For them, the main question is never what they can but what they want in international conduct. However, the (illiberal) bipartisan democracy or one-party autocracy is a false dilemma, both of nearly the same dead end.
Currently, Party slogans call for China to “take center stage” on the world stage and architecture “a community of common destiny for mankind”. But despite heated rhetoric, there is no intellectual appeal in a growth without well-being, education that does not translate into fair opportunity, lives without dignity, liberalization without personal freedom, achievement without opinionisation.
Greening international relations along with a greening of socio-economic fabrics (including the shift to blue and white, sea and wind, energy) – geopolitical and environmental understanding, de-acidification and relaxation is that missing, third, way for tomorrow.
(Judging the countries’ PEM /Primary Energy Mix/ and the manufacturing footprint, the American e-cars are actually run on the tar sands and fracked oil/gas, while Chinese electric vehicles are powered by coal.)
This necessitates both at once: less confrontation over the art-of-day technology and their de-monopolized redistribution as well as the resolute work on the so-called Tesla-ian implosive/fusion-holistic systems. That would include the free-transfer non-Hertzian energy technologies (able to avoid life in an electromagnetic, technologically generated soup of unbearable radiation toxicity, actually able to de-toxicate our troposphere from dangerous fields, waves and frequencies emittance – drawing us closer to a harmony of Schumann resonance); carbon-sequestration; antigravity and self-navigational solutions; bioinformatics and nanorobotics. Surely, with the bioinformatics and nanorobotics being free from any usage for eugenics’ ends (including the vaccination for microchipping purpose).
In short, more of initiative than of obedience (including more public control over data hoovering). More effort to excellence (creation) than a struggle for preeminence (partition). Leader of the world needs to offer more than just money and intimidation.
‘Do like your neighbor’ is a Biblical-sounding economic prophecy that the circles close to the IMF love to tirelessly repeat. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a formidable national economic prosperity, if the good neighborly relations are not built and maintained. Clearly, no global leader has ever in history emerged from a shaky and distrustful neighborhood, or by offering a little bit more of the same in lieu of an innovative technological advancement.
(Eg. many see Chinese 5G – besides the hazardous electrosmog of IoT that this technology emits on Earth’s biota – as an illiberal innovation, which may end up servicing authoritarianism, anywhere. And indeed, the AI deep learning inspired by biological neurons (neural science) including its three methods: supervised, unsupervised and reinforced learning can end up by being used for the diffusion of digital authoritarianism, predictive policing and manufactured social governance based on the bonus-malus behavioral social credits.)
Ergo, it all starts from within, from at home; socio-economically and environmentally. Without support from a home base (including that of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet), there is no game changer. China’s home is Asia. Its size and its centrality along with its impressive output is constraining it enough.
Conclusively, it is not only a new, non-imitative, turn of socioeconomics and technology what is needed. Without truly and sincerely embracing mechanisms such as the NAM, ASEAN and SAARC (eventually even the OSCE) and the main champions of multilateralism in Asia, those being India Indonesia and Japan first of all, China has no future of what is planetary awaited – the third force, a game-changer, discursive power, lasting visionary and trusted global leader.
If there was ever in history a lasting triumph, this is over by now. In the multipolar world of XXI century dominated by multifaceted challenges and multidimensional rivalries, there is no conventional victory. Revolution or restauration?
To varying degrees, but all throughout a premodern and modern history, nearly every world’s major foreign policy originator was dependent (and still depends) on what happens in, and to, Russia. So, neither a structure, nor content or overall direction of world affairs for the past 300 years has been done without Russia. It is not only a size, but also a centrality of Russia that matters. That is important as much (if not even more), as it is an omnipresence of the US or a hyperproduction of the PR China. Ergo, that is an uninterrupted flow of manufactured goods to the whole world, it is a balancing of the oversized and centrally positioned one, and it is the ability to controllably corrode the way in and insert itself of the peripheral one. The oscillatory interplay of these three is what characterizes our days.
Therefore, reducing the world affairs to the constellation of only two super-players – China and the US is inadequate – to say least. It is usually done while superficially measuring Russia’s overall standing by merely checking its current GDP, and comparing its volume and PPP, and finding it e.g. equal to one of Italy. Through such ‘quick-fix’, Russia is automatically downgraded to a second-rank power status. This practice is as dangerous as it is highly misleading. Still, that ill-conceived argument is one of the most favored narratives which authors in the West are tirelessly peddling.
What many analysts miss to understand, is in fact plain to see throughout the entire history of Russia: For such a big country the only way to survive – irrespectively from its relative weaknesses by many ‘economic’ parameters – is to always make an extra effort and remain great power (including colossal military expenditures).
To this end, let us quickly contrast the above narrative with some key facts: Russia holds the key positions in the UN and its Agencies as one of its founding members (including the Security Council veto right as one of the P5); it has a highly skilled and mobilized population; its society has deeply rooted sense of a special historic mission (that notion is there for already several centuries – among its intellectuals and enhanced elites, probably well before the US has even appeared as a political entity in the first place). Additionally and tellingly, Moscow possesses the world’s largest gold reserves (on surface and underground; in mines and its treasury bars); for decades, it masters its own GPS system and the most credible outer space delivery systems (including the only remaining working connection with the ISS), and has an elaborate turn-key-ready alternative internet, too.
Finally, as the US Council of Foreign Relations’ Thomas Graham fairly admits: “with the exception of China, no country affects more issues of strategic and economic importance to the US than Russia. And no other country, it must be said, is capable of destroying the US in 30 minutes.”
 Flow and irreversibility (as well as the non-directionality and the Boltzmann’s unfolding) of time is one of the fundamental principles that governs visible (to say; comprehensible) universe. If and when so, the Future itself must be certain, but unshaped. Hence, (directionality of time towards) Future is nothing else but a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics (one of the fundamental principles of chemo-physics that governs us). At the same time, it also has to be (a net sum of) our collective projection onto the next: Collapse of the (multivectoral) probability and its realisation into (a four dimensional) possible tomorrow. For a clerical reason, we tend to deduce future events from human constructs (known as the theoretical principles) or to induce them from deeply rooted/commonly shared visions (known as past experience).
 Complementing the Monroe Doctrine, President Howard Taft introduced the so-called ‘dollar diplomacy’ – in early XX c. – that “substitutes dollars for bullets”. This was one of the first official acknowledgements of the Wall Street – Pentagon symbiotic link.
 Average American worker is unprotected, unorganised/disunionised, disoriented, and pauperised. Due to (the US corporate sector induced) colossal growth of China, relative purchasing power of American and Chinese labourer now equals. At present, the median US worker would frictionlessly accept miserable work conditions and dismal pay, not too different from the one of the Chinese labourers – just to get a job. The first to spot that and then wonderfully exploited it, was a Trump team.
 E.g. during the peak times of its longest – and fiasco ending – foreign intervention, the US was spending some $110 billion per annum in Afghanistan, roughly 50% more than annual American federal spending on education.)
 “A rogue superpower … colossus lacking moral commitments … aggressive, heavily armed, and entirely out for itself. … some US security guaranties have started to look like protection rackets. … participates in international institutions but threatens to leave them when they act against US narrow interests; and promotes democracy and human rights, but mainly to destabilize geopolitical rivals” – enumerates some in the long list of contemporary US sins prof. Beckley (Beckley, M. (2018) Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the world’s Sole Superpower, Cornell University Press).
 Abandoning a traditional bipartisan system, the US is already by now a one-party (illiberal) democracy. Many within the corporate world would accept (even overt) extensive socio-economic reengineering as to transform the system into the one-party autocracy.
 It will forever remain unknown what the MAD (Mutual Destruction Assurances) in the Cold War prevented and deterred: Aggregation of these events is a history (of probabilities) that didn’t unfold.
 Withdrawal of recognition from Formosa to Beijing formally opened relations between the two on 1 January 1979. On a celebratory tour to America later that very month, Deng Xiaoping recommended that China and the US were ‘duty bound to work together [and unite] to place curbs on the polar bear’.
 Non-interference promise between China and the US brought about 3 decades of colossal interdependence between the two: The internal order was in hands of CCP and the international order was in American hands. Neither party was to interfere the affairs of the other. But the paradox of inversion was sudden and severe – the internal order has been strengthened by the US (authoritarian) technology and the international (liberal) order à la Americana has been running on cheap Chinese goods. Changed roles urge for fundamental readjustment of positions.
 The most favoured tool for containment or compliance of the US foreign policy – economic sanctions do not only reveal American decline but accelerate it, too. Instead of being imposed to defend commonly accepted universal principles, they are increasingly imposed for national security reasons – as a stalking horse for trade protectionism. Despite its simplicity of conception and flexibility of application, in retrospect, the crippling potency of sanctions is still sound but historically their effectiveness remains rather modest.
 High tech and know-how appropriation via mandated/forced technology transfers and copy-cats, joint ventures, discriminatory patent-licencing practices and cross-sectoral state-led industrial modernisation have lifted China up the value chain. No wonder that its GDP per capita has jumped from $194 (1980) to over $9,000 (2019). Beijing is modernising its navy, and is engaged in international economic expansion and geopolitical projection via its Belt and Road Initiative, and so far has bought, built or is operating 42 ports in 34 countries. In the meantime, Washington is publicly lamenting return to a ‘worker-focused trade policy’ – as the Trump’s US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer called it – and openly objecting to both ‘market-distorting state capitalism in China and a dysfunctional WTO’. “No trade policy decision since the end of WWII proved more devastating to working people than the extension of permanent normal trade relations to China in 2000. Despite President Clinton’s predictions… , the opposite occurred” – he concludes. (FAM, 99/04/20)
 Undeniably, China managed to expand its economic presence, but so far is short of any prevailing and lasting strategic influence despite weaponization of trade and overseas aid. Simply, Beijing achieved some short-term objectives, but China’s long-term strategic influence remains limited and reversable. People’s Republic did not secure major shifts in geopolitical alignments. Beijing still has to learn how its grand strategy might play in different geographic and socio-political contexts. While the US-led west becomes disappointment, China provoked backlash instead of gaining global support and adoration. Clearly, political control, economic growth, surveillance and transport infrastructure alone do not necessarily make a durable nation. Having all that without psychological attachment and moral sentiment cannot sustain cohesion of nation on long run.
 Fully aware of it, China and Russia (in their historical and yet still ongoing rapprochement) are pushing on a new Asian continental/regional security organisation. Building on the best legacy of comprehensive pan-European security mechanism – that of the Vienna-based OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), these two are committing themselves to and inviting their neighbours to join with the CICBMA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia), architecting the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and the QCCM (Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism). It is on a top of already elaborate SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and well-functioning economic FORAs – China-run AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and Russia-backed EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union). Hence, in a matter of just two decades the central section of Eurasian continent became the most multilateralised – and therefore stabile, region of the world. The collective one is far better than the bilateral or selective/Ad Hoc security arrangement preferred by the US in the Asia-Pacific. Alliances are built on shared interested, solidified by formulated principles and maintained on reliability and predictability – hence, are structural stabilisers.
 Seems that China leads but is not alone with its much-criticised bonus-malus social credit system powered by facial recognition technology. Human Rights monitory agencies (including the US Carnegie Endowment’s AI Global Surveillance Index) report that practically each and every of the G-20 countries extensively uses the AI-enabled surveillance appliances, including variety of facial recognition programs, aimed at social ‘predictability’. Not to mention that such new technologies are particularly dangerous for weak democracies since many of their digital tools are dual use technology.
 Technology, its innovation and to it related norm-setting institutions are not a fancy item for round-tables’ discussions – it is a central element of contemporary global and regional geopolitical competition. Finally, data is nonrival, but data is also disruptive if not encapsulated in clear rules of engagement.
 Over the past perido, People’s Republic has upped the ante in nearly all of its many territorial disputes and even provoked new ones, in another departure from past practice. Beijing has also reversed course when it comes to its national periphery. “Past Chinese leaders, notably Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, believed in the institutionalized processes of collective leadership. Xi has disabled or neutralized many of these channels. The world may now be getting a sense of what China’s decision-making looks like when a singularly strong leader acts more or less on his own” – noted professor Rapp-Hooper recently in her book. That of course triggers constant shockwaves all over Asia. While Indonesia is contemplating the NAM’s reload as well as the ASEAN block strengthening, others are reactive. India and Japan, two other Asian heavyweights (and champions of multilateralism), are lately pushed to sign up on the so-called Indo-Pacific maritime strategy with the United States (balancing the recent Pacific trade deal of RCEP). However, none of these three has any coherent plan on what to do on the Asian mainland. They all three differ on passions, drives and priorities. This is so since the truly pan-continental organization is nonexistent in Asia.
The Forgotten Analogy: World War II
Pundits are searching for adequate analogies to explain the growing China-U.S. rivalry and predict its future direction. Two main ones appear: the pre-World War I era and the Cold War. Both have their merits. The early twentieth century pitted Germany, a rising power, against status quo Britain and France. The Cold War also shares similarities to the current situation. The United States engaged in a prolonged struggle to contain a nuclear-armed great power. However, neither the Cold War nor the First World War offers an entirely appropriate analogy to make sense of the current world order.
Wilhelmine Germany was a formidable power but it largely stood alone, cornered in the center of Europe. London, Paris, and Saint Petersburg had an easy time concentrating their forces to balance against Berlin. Although it had Asia as secondary and the rest of the globe as tertiary theaters, the heart of the Cold War was also Central Europe. There were only two great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, wholly occupied checkmating each other.
Today’s international politics differs by the number and locations of the main protagonists. Although China legitimately attracts most of the attention, Russia remains a great power. Both China and Russia are the sole great powers of their respective regions — Asia and Europe. Both are bent on correcting the balance of power to their advantage and pushing the United States out of their neighborhood. On its side, Washington has a deep-seated interest in making sure that no great power competitor dominates Asia or Europe because both regions concentrate a big share of the world’s wealth and advanced industries. Indeed, a regional hegemon in possession of such resources would be strong enough to potentially overpower the United States.
Washington found itself in the same position during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Nazi Germany had become the strongest power on the European continent and seemed bound to dominate all of it. Imperial Japan’s bid for Asian hegemony was unfolding unabated. The Americans had a vested interest in ensuring that neither Berlin nor Tokyo would seize control of their neighborhood because local powers were unlikely to get the job done on their own. It is now Beijing and Moscow occupying these roles.
Asia and China
China is the strongest state in Asia by a wide margin. No regional state can counterbalance Beijing on its own. Even a coalition of current U.S. partners — say Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea — would likely be too weak to seriously deter China without America’s support and strength. If Washington wants to prevent a Chinese bid for regional hegemony, it needs to throw its weight behind the balancing effort.
During the World War II era, America had to work alongside allies with widely divergent interests (notably Britain, Free France, and the Soviet Union) against the would-be German and Japanese hegemons. In a similar vein, the United States needs to help repair the relations between Japan and South Korea and accommodate those who have had rocky relations with Washington (India, Vietnam) or that are non-democracies (Singapore). The sheer power of China and the challenge of putting together a working balancing coalition imposes to the United States an “Asia First” strategy in the same way that the Third Reich’s superior military and industrial capabilities forced “Europe First” during World War II.
Another similarity with the World War II era is that power dynamics are rapidly changing. In Europe, the primary focus of American planners, Germany was with little doubt the strongest power on the continent. But the balance of power was evolving and the Soviet Union, still reeling from its civil war and Stalin’s purges, appeared to the Germans as a rising threat. Today, Beijing is growingly wary of India, a state as populous as (and very soon, probably more than) China and enjoying economic growth rates superior to China’s.
Europe and Russia
While most Asian states are directly exposed to Chinese military power, the states of Western and Southern Europe are separated from Russia by several other states in-between. Therefore, many European states feel less threatened by Russia and have been slow to balance against Moscow. Although France has been increasing its military spending and Britain vowed to redeploy heavy forces to Germany, these small incremental changes do little to correct the overwhelming military superiority of Moscow. No Western European state is ready or willing to confront Russian power head-on. Europe needs American leadership for that. It is not unlike the late 1930s, when the Soviet Union, separated from Germany by Poland, readily passed the buck of containing Berlin to London and Paris, with disastrous results.
On paper, European states — most notably Britain, France, and Germany — have enough latent capabilities to counterbalance Russian power. But geography and the collective action problem stand in the way. Indeed, Russia is not an immediate threat to Western Europe like the Soviet Union was. Today’s Russian army is unable to threaten the survival of France or Germany due to the East-Central European states acting as a buffer. Even if the Western Europeans acknowledge the resurgence of Russian power and are slowly rearming, they just do not feel the same sense of urgency as in Eastern Europe.
Collective action is difficult when many actors have to provide for a common good. An instinct is to do as little balancing as possible and wait for others to take the mantle of deterring Russia. Also, with no clear leader, effective decision-making is unlikely. Berlin, London, Paris, and others will push for their own preferences, thus resulting in lowest-common-denominator policies and under-balancing. Russia would then be free to cherry-pick its small neighbors and subjugate opposition. Eventually, Western Europeans would balance more effectively; but by the time they do so, Russia will have grown its power base and will already dominate Eastern Europe, thus representing a far more formidable challenge.
NATO is a powerful but imperfect tool to contain a Russian aspirant hegemon. The misaligned interest between many western and southern states and those closest to Russia stands in the way of effective balancing. A potential cure would be to form an additional smaller and more focused alliance system of Poland as the main bulwark, the Czech Republic, Romania, the three Baltic states, and maybe Sweden. In any case, to overcome buck-passing tendencies and problems of coordination, American political leadership is inescapable.
No Easy Fix
Historical analogies are always risky and no situation ever recurs in the exact same way. Yet, if we are to compare the current international situation with a past example, the World War II analogy appears more powerful than the World War I and Cold War ones.
Indeed, the United States faces the same conundrum of having to deal with two formidable rivals on two different continents. World War II had Germany as the most powerful opponent and Europe as the theater concentrating the most resources. Now, both the strongest competitor and the main loot are in Asia. During World War II, U.S. policymakers wanted to focus their forces on taking down Germany but they also had to cope with Japan out of fear that Tokyo would successfully absorb much of East and Southeast Asia and become a far greater threat than it already was. Today, although Russia lacks the power potential of China and Asia has now more wealth than Europe, with potential hegemons in both Asia and Europe, Washington is forced into a gigantic act of dual containment. Therefore, the same dilemma that plagued the United States eight decades ago plagues the Americans of today.
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