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A Vast “Tyranny” Over Mind: Donald Trump and The Death of “High Thinking” in America

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“I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”-Thomas Jefferson

Once upon a time, Americans were still being instructed to value a life of the mind. Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson, following Thomas Jefferson, had called sensibly upon the young country to embrace “plain living and high thinking.” Today, this earlier plea for enhanced personal and social equilibrium has been discarded, even ridiculed, replaced by shameless exhortations to follow a dissembling president. If not worrisome enough, this president – a self-described “very stable genius”- is loudly and proudly illiterate.

Credo quia absurdum, warned the ancient philosopher Tertullian. “I believe because it is absurd.”

But there is much more to tell. It was Donald Trump who commented several times during the 1916 campaign: “I love the poorly educated.”For anyone seeking an apt historical precedent for such a patently retrograde observation, there is the infamous statement by Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels: “Intellect rots the brain.”

Still further explanation is required, one that can offer us both lucidity and purpose. To begin at the beginning, we must examine America’s longstanding orientation to formal education. In these United States, from every student’s very first day in grade school, a core message is received: “Your education isn’t going to be about anything pleasant or fascinating or ennobling. It will be about the statutory fulfillment of assorted institutional and personal obligations. Hopefully, it will also help prepare you for a job. Don’t expect anything more.”

So, dear students, continues this implicit but conspicuous message, “Sit back, be obedient and just try not to shoot anyone.”

Remaining unhidden, not only our multiple systems of education, but also our presidential elections, are shaped by certain primal disfigurements. In essence, America’s cumulative political ambitions remain integrally bound up with variously embarrassing and mutually-reinforcing simplifications. In this most revealingly barren sphere of American public life, one driven by stupefying clichés and empty witticisms, even the most witting buffoon can make himself or herself electable. This is the case, inter alia, at least as long as he or she has somehow managed to accumulate great wealth, and (as another evident sine qua non) to avoid being labeled an “intellectual.”

In Trump’s America, no denigrating epithet could conceivably be more damning.

A nefarious evolution is underway. From Thomas Jefferson to Ralph Waldo Emerson to the present moment, America’s public declension, along with pertinent bifurcations, has been both obvious and disabling. Money good; intellect bad. Amid our corrosive national ethos of competitive achievement, wealth, however acquired, signifies success. Always, prima facie, it displays irrefutable evidence of “being smart.” Here, upon examination, the tortuous circularity of misguided reasoning is baneful yet unambiguous.

Plausibly, both Thomas Jefferson and American Transcendentalist thinker Ralph Waldo Emerson would have been shaken. Our early presidents and philosophers, after all, were often people of some genuine accomplishment and original thought. We remember them, surely, not for any glittering successes in the vulgar marketplace of mundane things to be bought and sold, but instead for their auspicious presence in a mind-centered marketplace of ideas.

“One must never seek the Higher Man in the marketplace” warns Friedrich Nietzsche’s Zarathustra.

 Why, then, are American presidential politics so profoundly demeaning and so utterly debased? Where, exactly, have we gone wrong? Perhaps we ought to approach these core questions as “physicians” of the national body politic. Accordingly, as with any other insidious pathology, we must identify the disease before we can be rid of it.

But what exactly is this underlying “disease”?

There is an answer. It begins, as does every systematic or scientific assessment, with the individual, with the microcosm. Inevitably, our American electorate, here the relevant macrocosm, can never rise any higher than the combined capacities of its members. “When the throne sits on mud,” recognizes Zarathustra, “mud sits on the throne.”

Ultimately, every democracy must represent the sum total of its constituent souls;[1] that is, those still-hopeful citizens who would seek some sort or other of “redemption.” In our deeply fractionated American republic, however, We the people – more and more desperate for a seemingly last chance to “fit in” and “get respect” – inhabit a palpably vast wasteland of lost opportunity. Within this grievously grim and contrived human society, we (T S Eliot’s “hollow men” or women) are chained to more-or-less exhausting and tasks, buffeted incessantly by a hideously dreary profanity and watched over by a smugly demeaning theology of engineered consumption.

There is more. Literally bored to death by the prosaic obligations of everyday American life, and beaten down by the grinding struggle to “stay positive” while suffocating in traffic and while completing interminable forms of inane paperwork, Americans grasp anxiously for almost any identifiable lifeline of intoxication or distraction. Unsurprisingly, our most publicized national debates are now about guns and killing, and never about literature, ideas, art or beauty. Within this vast and still-growing intellectual wasteland, huge segments of an unhappy population are perpetually drowning in drugs, submerged deeply enough to swallow entire millennia of human achievement and whole oceans of sacred poetry/

What else should we expect to endure amid the breathless American rhythms of circus-like conformance, submission and debasement? More than anything else, We the people have learned something crass and lethal. We have learned to cheerlessly embrace a corrupted and directionless national society, one that offers precious little in the way of any meaningful personal fulfillment. Let us be candid. Now, more than ever, Americans “don’t get no satisfaction.”

As a people, there can be little doubt, we unhesitatingly accept decline, without serious protest and without even a murmur of discernible courage. Above all, perhaps, Americans in the Trump Era continue to think aggressively against history, viscerally, immensely pleased that virtually no one takes the trouble to read or learn anything valuable. Ironically, even the most affluent Americans now inhabit this loneliest of crowds, living out their depressingly imitative lives at hotels and airports, pushed forward not by any once-lofty goals, but instead by coffee, alcohol, exercise equipment, and (representing the ultimate “reward” of modern America) accumulating frequent flier miles.

It is remarkably small wonder that millions of Americans cling desperately to their smart phones or derivative “personal devices.” Filled with a deepening horror of sometime having to be left alone with themselves, these virtually connected millions are clearly frantic to claim membership in the anonymous American public mass. Earlier, back in the 19th century, Soren Kierkegaard, had foreseen and understood this deadly “mass.”

 “The crowd,” opined the prophetic Danish philosopher succinctly, “is untruth.”

I belong, therefore I am.”  This is not what French philosopher René Descartes had in mind back in the 17th century, when he so insightfully urged greater thought and(as indispensable corollary) greater doubt. This is also, inherently, a very sad credo. Unhesitatingly, it almost shrieks that social acceptance is equivalent to physical survival and that even the most ostentatiously pretended pleasures of inclusion are worth pursuing.

Desperately worth pursuing.

Should there remain any doubts about such a plainly pathetic credo, one need only consult the latest suicide statistics for the United States. To reduce these revealing numbers will require far more than silly and sterile Trumpian promises to “make America great again.” Above all, it will require a citizenry that finally wants more for itself than to chant evident gibberish in chorus.

There is more. A push-button metaphysics of “apps “reigns supreme in America. At its core, the immense attraction of this infantile social networking ethos stems in part from America’s expansively machine-like existence. Within this icily robotic universe, every hint of human passion must be suitably directed along certain ritualistically uniform pathways.

And woe to any citizen who would dare stray from this vicarious route.

Naturally, as we may still argue quite correctly, all human beings are the creators of their interdependent machines, not their servants. Yet, there does exist today an implicit and simultaneously grotesque reciprocity between creator and creation, an elaborate and potentially murderous pantomime between the users and the used. This is a reciprocity that needs to be carefully studied before it can be reversed.

Adrenalized, our fevered American society is making a machine out of Man and Woman. Rapidly, in a flagrantly unforgivable inversion of Genesis, it may soon seem credible that we have been created in the image of the machine. Mustn’t we then ask, as residually sober Emersonian thinkers, Freudian soul searchers and Cartesian doubters, “What sort of redemption is this?”

For the moment, Americans remain grinning but hapless captives in a deliriously noisy and airless crowd. Proudly disclaiming any meaningful interior life, they proceed tentatively, and in every existential sphere, at the lowest common denominator. Or expressed in more palpable terms, our air, rail, and land travel has become insufferable and positively screams for remediation.

Trumpian red hats notwithstanding, what sort of “greatness” is this?

There is more. Our vaunted universities are in much the same sort of decline. Once regarded as a last remaining beacon of some genuine intellectual life, they are typically bereft of anything that might even hint at serious learning. This can hardly be unexpected, however, as entire legions of newly-minted American professors receive their Ph.D. with barely a hint of demonstrated literacy or original accomplishment.

To the point, try to talk to a young professor about literature, art, music or philosophy. With precious few exceptions, it will be a brief and distinctly one-sided conversation.

For explanations, our transforming context is everything. In Trump’s America, the traditionally revered Western Canon of literature and art has been replaced by more reassuring emphases on football scores, university rankings and voyeuristic reality shows. Apart from their pervasive drunkenness and enthusiastically tasteless entertainments, the once-sacred spaces of “higher education” have become a commerce-driven pipeline, an all-consuming roadway to nonsensical and unsatisfying jobs.

Could anyone reasonably doubt this conclusion?

There is more. For most of our young people, learning has become an inconvenient but mandated commodity, nothing else. At the same time, as everyone can readily understand, commodities exist for only one purpose. They are there, like the next batch of mass-produced college graduates, to be bought and sold. 

More than ever before, American is about Nietzsche’s marketplace.

Though faced with markedly genuine threats of war, illness, impoverishment and terror, millions of Americans still prefer to amuse themselves by resorting to various forms of morbid excitement, inedible or tangibly injurious foods and by the blatantly inane repetitions of an increasingly vacant political discourse. Not a day goes by that we don’t notice some premonitory sign of impending catastrophe. Still, our anesthetized Trumpian country continues to impose upon its exhausted and manipulated people a shamelessly open devaluation of serious thought and a continuously breakneck pace of unrelieved work.

Small wonder that “No Vacancy” signs now hang securely outside our psychiatric hospitals, our childcare centers and, above all, at our prisons.

Soon, even if we should somehow manage to avoid nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, the swaying of the American ship will become so violent that even the hardiest lamps will be overturned. Then, the phantoms of great ships of state, once laden with silver and gold, may no longer lie forgotten. Then, perhaps, we will finally understand that the circumstances that had once sent the compositions of Homer, Maimonides, Goethe, Milton, Shakespeare, Freud and Kafka to join the disintegrating works of long forgotten poets were neither unique nor transient.

In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson inquired sensibly about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us to choose to be genuine?” he asked. This president had answered “yes,” but only if Americans first refused to stoop to join the injurious “herds” of mass society. Otherwise, as Wilson had already understood, an entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead also with that rusty demise of broken machinery, more hideous even than the inevitable decompositions of each individual person.

In all societies, as Jefferson, Emerson and assorted others had recognized, the scrupulous care of each individual human soul is most important. Meaningfully, there can be a “better”American soul, and a correspondingly improved American politics, but not until we first acknowledge a compelling prior obligation. This is a far-reaching national responsibility to overcome the staggering barriers of Trumpian crowd culture and to embrace once again the liberating imperatives of “high thinking.”

The only alternative is to continue to quash any residual thought. But that choice would only forge a resigned peace with America’s still-expanding tyranny over the “mind” of its citizens. In short order, it would represent a broadly lethal and unforgivable choice.


[1] Sigmund Freud explained his already-predicted American decline by assorted explicit references to “soul” (Seele in German). In this connection, he was unforgiving of any civilization that could remain unaffected by true considerations of human consciousness; that is, by a verifiable appreciation of intellect, literature and history. More particularly, Freud thought that the evidently crude American commitment to endlessly shallow optimism and material gain would only occasion a vast psychological misery.

LOUIS RENÉ BERES (Ph.D., Princeton, 1971) is Emeritus Professor of International Law at Purdue. His twelfth and most recent book is Surviving Amid Chaos: Israel's Nuclear Strategy (2016) (2nd ed., 2018) https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy Some of his principal strategic writings have appeared in Harvard National Security Journal (Harvard Law School); International Security (Harvard University); Yale Global Online (Yale University); Oxford University Press (Oxford University); Oxford Yearbook of International Law (Oxford University Press); Parameters: Journal of the US Army War College (Pentagon); Special Warfare (Pentagon); Modern War Institute (Pentagon); The War Room (Pentagon); World Politics (Princeton); INSS (The Institute for National Security Studies)(Tel Aviv); Israel Defense (Tel Aviv); BESA Perspectives (Israel); International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence; The Atlantic; The New York Times and the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

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The Secret U.S. & UK War Against Europe

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The secret U.S.-and-UK war against Europe is well documented but little known, and some conceptual and historical background is pre-requisite in order to understand that documentation.

Historically, nations which share the same currency don’t go to war against one-another unless one of them is a colony of the other and is (like America’s colonies were in 1776) in a revolution to establish its independence against the imperialist one of them. Having a common currency is therefore a strong factor — but not a decisive one — toward peace between nations.

UK (Britain) has its pound, EU (the European Union) has its euro, and U.S. (America) has its dollar. U.S. (its dollar) and UK (its pound) are now in a war against EU (its euro), so as to help to extend into the future the dollar’s (America’s) existing dominance as the main global reserve currency — the future political and financial dominance by America, heading ultimately to control over all nations by America’s Government, practically obviating the United Nations and its (crippled) role till now as the authoritative source of international law: the laws that govern not within nations but instead between nations — replacing that existing body of international laws, by “the international rules based order,” in which America’s Government will be setting those “rules.” It’s an international struggle to replace the U.N. and all international laws, by a global dictatorship either by the U.S. and the UK, or else by the U.S. and the EU. All three of those currencies are, however, agreed together, to prevent there ever being control over international laws by the U.N. and its agencies, or by anything OTHER THAN the nations that are in America’s fundamental military alliance, which is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization: NATO. NATO is to be expanded in order to increase the U.S. Government’s (and the U.S. dollar’s) dominance, and thereby weaken the U.N.’s authority and its already-crippled and ever-weakening power. 

UK’s aristocracy took control of American foreign policies on 25 July 1945, when, at the Potsdam Conference, America’s Anglophile General Dwight Eisenhower seconded Winston Churchill’s hostility against Joseph Stalin by telling the naive new U.S. President Harry Truman (who practically worshipped Eisenhower) that either the U.S. would ultimately conquer the Soviet Union, or else the Soviet Union would conquer America; and, so, the Cold War was then born, on that date, in Truman’s head, by his decision to agree with Eisenhower’s viewpoint and commence what became called “the Cold War” so as ultimately to conquer Russia. Truman then backed General George Marshall’s plan, The Marshall Plan, in 1948, to provide billions of dollars in U.S. reconstruction aid to any European country that would side with America against the Soviet Union in order to establish the planned future all-encompassing U.S. global dictatorship (control of the world by America’s billionaires and their corporations, especially granting them access to all countries’ natural resources).

America’s NATO military alliance was then created in 1949 to assist in the intended ‘anti-communist’ (actually anti-U.S.S.R) ultimate conquest (which would be the crowning achievement of America’s conquest over the entire world). Subsequently, America’s CIA brought America’s European allies together into what ultimately became the European Union, so that European nations would be controlled from Washington both militarily and economically. However, whereas formerly, the European Union was controlled by the U.S. Government almost as much as America’s NATO anti-Russian military alliance is, that is no longer the case; and, therefore, UK’s aristocracy, during 2016-2020, led a secret campaign, to remove UK altogether from the EU, and to install at 10 Downing Street, Prime Minister Boris Johnson to do Brexit — British exit from the EU — in what Britain’s billionaires saw as being the right way, keeping “the Anglosphere” (U.S. and UK) in control over the world, as opposed to the way in which UK’s then Prime Minister Theresa May was negotiating with the EU, which would have weakened not only America’s control over Europe, but also UK’s control over Europe, which latter (control over Europe) the UK controls only indirectly by virtue of its “Special Relationship” with the U.S. Government, which controls Europe. (For UK to lose its voting privilege in the EU was puny in comparison to UK’s increased power over the EU through being uniquely allied with America’s Government, which controls the EU.) That constitutes the necessary conceptual and historical background, in order to understand the following:

On May 15th, Kit Klarenberg at The Gray Zone bannered “Operation Surprise: leaked emails expose secret intelligence coup to install Boris Johnson”, and demonstrated from leaked private documents, that an authentic conspiracy by a clique of supremely well-connected individuals within Britain — Britain’s Deep State, answerable only to Britain’s billionaires and hereditary aristocracy — had actually engineered Theresa May’s downfall as Prime Minister and her replacement by Boris Johnson, so that UK would no longer be allied with EU except as being EU’s superior, because of Britain’s unique bonding with its former colony, America.

Here is how the leader of that cabal or conspiracy explained, on 4 October 2019, his strategy to a small group of followers — students, perhaps — which fortunately still remains on youtube:

However, his jargon in that stunningly revealing video (which now must be understood in light of Klarenberg’s 15 May 2022 revelations) requires some additional important historical and terminological background. 

“The five-eyes alliance,” that speaker said, “keeps the free world free,” but what does this mean? His “free” is actually a lie; really, it’s the opposite of free; it is the voting and taxpaying publics’ enslavement to the U.S. and British Military-Industrial Complexes (or “MICs”), after the 1991 termination of the U.S.S.R and of its communism and of its Warsaw Pact military alliance that mirrored America’s NATO, and it now means only the U.S. regime’s rule of the world by its aristocracy, who are psychopathic and who control and profit from their armaments-makers while their publics pay for it in taxes and destructions and corpses. It means precisely what the originator of this conspiracy, Cecil Rhodes, had first stated in 1877, and it does constitute the “Special Relationship” that UK and U.S. have had ever since this “Special Relationship” was finally and fully in place and fully functioning, starting on 25 July 1945, when Truman set America onto this fateful path, of conquering the entire world — Rhodes’s vision of the world’s future, and of how Rhodes would create the organization to bring it about. Here is from that historic 1877 statement, by Rhodes (which the speaker in that video was actually — and very skiilfully — representing: this is the original statement of that viewpoint):

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. …

Why should we not form a secret society with but one object the furtherance of the British Empire and the bringing of the whole uncivilised world under British rule for the recovery of the United States for the making the Anglo-Saxon race but one Empire. …

What has been the main cause of the success of the Romish Church? The fact that every enthusiast, call it if you like every madman finds employment in it. Let us form the same kind of society a Church for the extension of the British Empire. …

To and for the establishment, promotion and development of a Secret Society, the true aim and object whereof shall be for the extension of British rule throughout the world, the perfecting of a system of emigration from the United Kingdom, and of colonisation by British subjects of all lands where the means of livelihood are attainable by energy, labour and enterprise, and especially the occupation by British settlers of the entire Continent of Africa, the Holy Land, the Valley of the Euphrates, the Islands of Cyprus and Candia, the whole of South America, the Islands of the Pacific not heretofore possessed by Great Britain, the whole of the Malay Archipelago, the seaboard of China and Japan, the ultimate recovery of the United States of America as an integral part of the British Empire, the inauguration of a system of Colonial representation in the Imperial Parliament which may tend to weld together the disjointed members of the Empire and, finally, the foundation of so great a Power as to render wars impossible and promote the best interests of humanity.

This was to be, and is, the foundation-stone of the renewed British Empire’s Deep State. (Here is its full document.)

Rhodses’s phrase “the best interests of humanity” expressed actually his racist-cultural viewpoint. It is, ultimately, an allegation that Her Majesty’s Government will be better to rule over international relations than any alternative, such as FDR’s intention for an armed United Nations, could ever be. Though Rhodes wanted international relations to be ruled by Britain’s aristocracy, FDR wanted it to be ruled by a U.N. which would be an armed democracy (federation) of nations. Hitler had his vision of a “Thousand-Year Reich,” but Churchill, who was an ardent Rhodesist, and who had been a protégé of Rhodes, favored, instead, Britain’s version of such an all-encompassing global empire, and this was/is to be achieved by harnessing Britain’s empire to the back of the far stronger American horse. Rhodes knew, even in 1877, that this would be the only way that the British Empire could successfully continue into future centuries.

Right now, the EU is sinking because by adhering to America’s demand to halt importation of gas and oil from the EU’s main supplier, which is Russia, energy-costs throughout the EU will soar and destroy their economy. And this is the strategy of Biden, and of Johnson. Biden, too, is a Rhodesist — just as Obama and Trump and Bush I & 2 and Clinton and Reagan were. The Governments of both U.S. and UK are Rhodesist. This doesn’t mean that in each and every matter, the two dictatorships agree, but that almost always they do; and, that when they don’t, UK’s Government doesn’t prod its American horse to buck and throw off its British rider, because those Brits know that this — riding on the American horse — is the ONLY way that they can continue the British empire to the extent that they have been allowed to do after WW II. The Rhodesists, and their “Five-Eyes Alliance” (Prins also refers to it as “the Anglosphere”, which is yet another phrase for what Rhodes was advocating for) are realists, who are trying to extend for as long as possible into the future their joint and collective aristocratic exploitation of the entire world. This means: keep Europe down, and all other countries out. It’s especially the case with regards to Germany, which is the EU’s industrial giant. As the New York Times reported on 5 April 2022:

Already Germany has reduced its dependence on gas from Russia [from 55%] by 15 percent, bringing it down to 40 percent in the first three months of the year, the energy ministry said.

But industry leaders have pushed back against imposing sanctions on Russian natural gas. Turning off the taps would cause “irreversible damage,” warned Martin Brudermüller, the chief executive of BASF, the chemical producer based in southwestern Germany. Making the transition from Russian natural gas to other suppliers or moving to alternative energy sources would require four to five years, not weeks, he said.

“Do we want to blindly destroy our entire national economy? What we have built up over decades?” Mr. Brudermüller said in an interview with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung last week.

Already, due to pressure from the Biden Administration, and against German popular opinion and the pleas by German businesses of all sizes not to do it, Germany recently cancelled the recently completed Nord Stream II mammoth gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, which would have reduced gas prices in Europe. Instead, those prices are expected soon to double. And almost all of the EU will be taking a big hit from such decisions by Germany and other EU nations. It is a U.S./UK war against not only Russia but also Europe.

That is what Gwythian Prins, the leader of their cabal or conspiracy, who speaks in that youtube video, was actually talking about. (Klarenberg’s article says nothing about Rhodes, but what Prins says in this yotube video of him is likewise totally in keeping with Rhodes’s plan, about which the article by Klarenberg reveals lots of private evidence.) And America’s European stooges are doing everything they can to impose American rule, despite the fact that in certain details, UK’s aristocracy are profoundly dissatisfied with the extent to which the EU is not doing everything that UK’s aristocrats want them to do. UK’s aristocrats know that bucking the American horse would cause them to be thrown off of it. So, they choose, instead, to stay on it, and to merely nudge it whenever they want a minor change in its direction. And that is what Prins is advocating for, against the EU, upon his colleagues and students.

And that explains the documentation linked-to here regarding the U.S.-and-UK war against Europe. It is their war to keep Europe down, and all the rest of the world out, and only Britain still in the saddle riding the American horse to permanent victory, against the publics everywhere. It is for continuation of “the Washington Consensus.”

Klarenberg’s article includes lots of fascinating documentation, such as this photo of Prins’s email dated “September 22, 2018 at 4:53 AM” to a certain “Julian Blackwell, addressing his chum as ‘Trooper,’ a reference to the publisher’s SAS special forces background, and thanking him for his ‘hugely welcome and generous willingness to cover my foregone income for effectively the first half of this FY [financial year] [so that Prins would be able to engineer Boris Johnson’s replacing Theresa May].’” It would all be highly incriminating, if UK weren’t a dictatorship and Prins himself weren’t one of that dictatorship’s key agents. Interestingly, the organization at which Prins was speaking, “Veterans for Britain” (of which Prins is a board-member) was revealed on 5 December 2017 to be a “Dark Money” group fronting for Conservative Party UK and for Republican Party U.S. financial backers; and the group which revealed that was “Open Democracy,” which itself is funded by mainly Labour Party UK, and Democratic Party U.S., financial backers, but also by some middle-of-the-road (i.e., anti-Trump) U.S. Republican Party financial backers — in other words: “Open Democracy” is funded by billionaires in both America and Britain. In both countries, membership in the dictatorship class (the nation’s aristocracy) requires being a billionaire, or else close to that. The public are merely their suckers, to be manipulated (via propaganda from their media) however at least some of the billionaires want them to be suckered. There is consequently a constant contest between conservative and liberal billionaires, in order to s‘elect’ into national office only politicians who are backed by at least SOME of the billionaires. And one of the things that all of the billionaires are funding is propaganda in favor of keeping U.S. and UK on top, ruling the rest of “The Anglosphere,” and keeping Europe down, and all other countries out.

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A U.S.-ASEAN summit—a face or a farce

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Photo credit: The White House

Inherited from the classic diplomacy of Europe, summit is a globally recognized instrument of highest-level meeting for common interests among nations. It has been practiced from time to time until now. Ad hoc summit principally aims to promote symbolic purpose rather than specific negotiations, therefore, it is reasonable to suggest that though controversial over its essential functions, summit is better suited to the promotion of friendly relations with an emphasis on ceremonial functions. Due to this, the U.S.-ASEAN summit held on May 12-13 is no exception.

At the end of the summit, the United States and ASEAN member states reiterated in the joint vision statement the importance of adhering to key principles, shared values and norms enshrined in the Charter of the United Nations, the ASEAN Charter, the Declaration on Zone of Peace, Freedom and Neutrality (ZOPFAN), the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in Southeast Asia (TAC), the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) and the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ). In addition, they committed to strengthen and build more comprehensive ASEAN-U.S. Dialogue Relations, which have been seen indispensable to bilateral ties as well as the broader region and the international community.

It is clear that the U.S. officials had entertained the design to make the case that Russia’s invasion demonstrated the fragility of the international system while China’s tacit support for the invasion equally made a contrast with the United States’ principled stance. Yet, ASEAN members in general kept their heads down and avoided the issue rather than getting in the middle of a dispute between major powers. Rather than clearly denouncing the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the U.S. has acted globally, the joint vision statement called on an immediate cessation of hostilities and creating an enabling environment for peaceful resolution, and genuine respect for sovereignty, political independence, and territorial integrity in line with the U.N. Charter and international law. As a result, it is inevitable that the geostrategic hawks in Washington were disappointed their unsuccessful persuasion of ten Asian countries to take side with the United States and its allies and partners. Because of this, the U.S. aid package to the ASEAN was seen as a joke because it agreed to offer $150,000,000 for peace in a sharp contrast to the multiple-billions dollars for supporting a long war to weaken its geopolitical rival Russia, as U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said.

ASEAN is a regional economic community founded in 1967, yet it has been seen as the most dynamic economic powerhouse in the 21st century. With its hugely rich natural resources and technological innovation capacities, ASEAN has committed to preserve the Southeast Asian region as a Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone and free of all other weapons of mass destruction, as enshrined in the Treaty on the Southeast Asia Nuclear Weapon-Free Zone (SEANWFZ Treaty). Therefore, ASEAN vow to fully comply with the relevant UN Security Council resolutions, taking into account the international community’s call for diplomacy as the instrument to maintain peace and security in the region.

It is understandable that amid the Ukraine war, Washington was highly motivated to hold this special summit to demonstrate its leading role in the world affairs including Asia. As the Biden administration has said that it was the high time to show its enduring commitment to ASEAN and that the Indo-Pacific region is a U.S. national security priority. Yet, although China’s power projection in Southeast Asia figures prominently into the summit, the two-day meeting did not touch the question openly and collectively. Instead, the summit primarily discussed a host of other critical issues — from COVID to climate change to the uncertain scenario in Myanmar. Actually, as Brian Harding explained prior to the summit that considering the Biden administration’s geostrategic design, Washington as the host was sure to address how ASEAN factors into Biden administration’s Indo-Pacific Strategy and how the nations showed their supports to Ukraine during the ongoing war with Russia. Essentially, while competition with China is at the heart of the United States’ regional strategy, support for a cohesive and resilient ASEAN is one of the critical means for success in advancing a free and open Indo-Pacific alongside modernized alliances like the Quad (i.e., the U.S., Australia, India and Japan). However, it is not easy to achieve since ASEAN is an extremely diverse group of 10 countries that operates by consensus, meaning it is rarely nimble nor bold, even on its best day.

It is self-evident that ASEAN countries are highly alert to the fact that relations between the United States and China have important implications for themselves. Accordingly, they all want an engaged and present multiple players including United States, China, Japan, India, Australia and the EU member states to be involved into the regional equilibrium. As former Indonesian Foreign Minister Marty Natalegawa has called it more positively, a dynamic equilibrium. Yet, what they do not want is to be forced to choose between the United States and China.

China and ASEAN approved the comprehensive strategic partnership in 2021, and now it stands ready to strengthen coordination and collaboration with ASEAN countries to update the action plan and to deepen cooperation in fields such as digital connectivity, green economy, public health, and industrial and supply chains. More sensible is that China hopes that the consultations on a code of conduct in the South China Sea will maintain the positive momentum and reach a consensus since Beijing has openly declared that the South China Sea is common asset of all the countries in the region.

From a geostrategic perspective, China opines that the ASEAN-centered regional cooperation architecture has formed in East Asia, which is the key to maintaining peace and stability in the region. Consider that the U.S. Indo-Pacific strategy moves toward against the common and long-term interests of regional countries, China has to react against the U.S. to advocate the Cold War mentality and the relevant approaches such as establishing QUAD, a typical of bloc confrontation in the region, and promoting AUKUS which is essentially provoking an arms race in the region. Although China welcomes any countries outside the region to play a constructive role in the peace and development in the region, but it does not accept any actions that undermine peace, stability, solidarity and cooperation in the region. In brief, no matter what regional strategy is proposed by one country, the purpose should be mutual benefit and win-win results rather than a zero-sum game.

Despite all these arguments, there is no reasons for the world to underestimate the close and comprehensive cooperation between the United States and ASEAN. This summit agenda were primarily focused on apolitical areas cooperation, such as clean energy, health security, the digital economy and the deteriorating situation in Myanmar. President Biden was aware of the wisdom of not making his ASEAN guests to be as frustrated with the situation as himself since there was deep divisions among ASEAN member states on the issues and challenges they have to face. Accordingly, it is fair to say that the U.S.-ASEAN summit recently held in Washington was good enough in public relations but insufficient in tackling the real global issues from poverty, climate change and illegal change of regime by “color revolution”.

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Americas

Peace and Punishment: “Saving” Ukraine or Embarrassing Putin?

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

As we near 100 days of the special military operation in Ukraine it would be good to take a strategic-analytical step back and see where the current situation is in real terms. Unfortunately, despite all sides and all parties giving extensive and continuous rhetoric to the interests of peace and the cessation of violence, the reality is the Ukraine conflict does not seem to be close to ending and instead seems more poised to hunker down into an old-fashioned military quagmire. Unlike quagmires of the past, where historians and political scientists tend to examine missed opportunities and strategic missteps that made said conflicts almost inevitable devolutions into non-progressive stalemates, the Ukraine conflict today does not seem to structurally mimic those previous lessons. As such, the question that needs to be asked is not whether this is about striving for peace and peace alone as much as it might be about how one side is striving for peace AND punishment.

On May 9, President Biden signed a new Lend-Lease Act which would facilitate the easier transfer of weapons systems and other military aid to Ukraine in its defense against Russia. The US Senate passed the bill unanimously, a rare act of unity given the current state of domestic politics in America. Unfortunately, this bipartisanship is no signal of new-found friendship across both aisles between Republicans and Democrats. They still mistrust each other as much as they ever did. But, interestingly, the bipartisan unanimity of the bill does show that despite their differences and animosity for each other, the desire to “send a message” to President Vladimir Putin and the overall desire to continue to cause problems for the Russian military within Ukraine is a “single-issue unification” factor for the United States Senate. No matter what President Biden says publicly on the microphone, this military aid and the delivery of major weapons systems is not aimed at solely achieving peace. At least, not a constructive peace in which both sides are able to walk away with a semblance of dignity and self-respect (which is truly the only way this conflict will end and stay ended). Aid like the Lease-Lend Act is quite literally the opposite of the wiser intention of trying to create a “Gentleman’s Exit” that would be enticing for Putin. Rather, the peace Biden is really talking about with this measure (but never explicitly explained to the American people) is a peace in which Putin is first embarrassed and Russia is humiliated. THIS is the real goal. So, in this way, the so-called peace measure instead adds fuel to the fire because President Putin is neither naïve nor blind. It will not be difficult for him to see the real essence of the maneuver. Consequently, it will quite possibly force a reaction in which there is no capitulation but instead a ratcheting up of conflict.

Why else would all of these declarations of new military aid take place on “Victory Day” in Russia? Do not forget the Lend-Lease bill is reviving a form of military aid from WWII, where the US was helping the UK fight Germany more readily. Thus, in a humorlessly ironic way, the US is sending a signal that Putin is the Hitler-like figure, exactly on the day when Russia celebrates its own victory against actual Nazis in WWII. It is without doubt a vicious message. The West says it had to be sent because they were more worried Putin would officially declare a formal war against Ukraine on this day. But one must ask: logically speaking, does it make sense to say America is worried about Putin going deeper into war with Ukraine so therefore it must send even more weapons and deadly munitions into Ukraine? In other words, more weapons will make it “less” of a war??? It is almost laughable if not so tragic.

If one is relying on the acute intuition of the American people to see through these contradictions and put a stop to such counter-intuitive “peace” initiatives, then frustration can be expected. Unfortunately, the American public attention span has held true to form in that most people are no longer really paying that much attention to Ukraine. Unquestionably, they still generally support Ukraine as Americans always love supporting and rooting for the underdog. Especially when cheering for the underdog in this case not only comes without any physical risk to American soldiers but also adds on the benefit of getting to humiliate your rival while assisting the lesser power. That is a “win-win” in American public eyes.

But the fevered following of the news and exhaustive social media blasts garnering endorsement for Ukraine’s efforts do not, to me, seem as intense or as comprehensive as they did just two months ago. Thus, the frustration: this lack of attention to conflict details means no one can expect any kind of pressure from the American people seeking an end to the conflict. They will simply follow, sheep-like, the narratives being provided. Ergo, providing more weapons is the way to “peace.” Embarrassing Putin is the only way to “save Ukraine.” Humiliating the Russian military is what brings “greater security.” If there was even a modicum of greater introspection by the American people, there would be more questions about whether or not this is really the most efficient and best way to achieve peace. You would think after America’s own travails this century in Afghanistan, it would understand that quagmires benefit no one except the military-industrial complex and the many powerful corporations that feed into it. While not trying to be overly cynical, this is really the only side that truly and most obviously benefits from an extended and protracted military stalemate in Ukraine.

As for reports and rumors that the United States was actually considering the Lend-Lease Act back in January, that is, before the actual Russian declaration of a special military operation, I would not put too much conspiracy theory into the idea that this proves the United States was already intending to foment violence itself in Ukraine with Russia. The reality is tension between the US and Russia has existed over Ukraine for quite a long time and the United States Intelligence Community is extremely good at its job, ie, acquiring data and collecting information that gives it insights into the future maneuvers of other countries. I have no doubt the USIC had an inkling of suspicion that the special military operation was coming or at least quite likely. And as soon as this suspicion emerged, it would have instantly begun preparing responses and counteractions to undermine said operation. More importantly, this isn’t even the right question to focus on for the global community. The right question is this: are we truly convinced these American initiatives are aimed only at achieving the quickest and most efficient end to the conflict and establishing peace or is it aimed more than anything at using Ukraine as a field of play to ensure that Russia is damaged and weakened for decades after the conflict is finished?

The US and UK have made it rather clear that peace alone is not enough. Tranquility in Ukraine is not the only goal. Peace AND punishment is. Which is without a doubt the most depressing and dangerous aspect to the whole affair. The United States currently is trying to deftly balance itself on a knife edge of military and psychological speculation: how far can it go in helping Ukraine inflict damage on Russian military units? How much weakening of Russian power can occur before the situation becomes desperately untenable and the Russian side might be inclined to enact “more reckless” initiatives? It is not coincidence that American mainstream media pushes out daily reports about the worries and concerns NATO and the West have about Putin intending to utilize chemical, biological, radiological, or nuclear weapons as the conflict in Ukraine gets ever murkier and more unclear for his side. What the media leaves out, however, in this lament is the fact that it is not Ukraine creating the murkiness: it is the weapons systems being pumped into Ukraine and the Western “advisors” on the ground and embedded within Ukrainian units, teaching them how to use the systems with deadly efficiency, that potentially push Russia toward a so-called reckless edge. In short, the Americans declare concerns over dilemmas that are their own creation. And that, again, is because what is transpiring today in Ukraine has nothing to do with peace exclusively. The West does not want peace as soon as possible and by any means necessary. It wants peace with a lesson attached, with a weakening of power that places Russia back into a docile and less assertive state.

In which case, if true, perhaps everyone in this conflict is focusing on the wrong Germany. On both sides, the imagery constantly being invoked is of Nazi Germany, the Germany of WWII. In reality, the country everyone should be worried about is WWI Germany, the one that simply had to be humiliated and laid low for its hubris and aggression. The country that everyone had to make sure would never be in a position to threaten the world again. It was that Germany that directly led to the insanity and atrocity of WWII. We would be well-warned to remember the lessons of one hundred years ago when pride in the punishment was a higher priority than peace itself. When security was thought better established through humiliation and emasculation rather than through diplomacy and enhanced collaborative communication. Hopefully, the West remembers eventually that even an imperfect peace is preferable to peace through punishment. The former allows for development and evolution. The latter brings only destruction and devolution.

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