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Thinking Seriously While There Is Still Time: Classical Economic Wisdom at the Eleventh Hour

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 “The rich man glories in his riches, because he feels that they naturally draw upon him the attention of the world….At the thought of this, his heart seems to swell and dilate itself within him, and he is fonder of his wealth, upon this account, than for all the other advantages it procures him.”-Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759)

 President Donald Trump’s jumbled economic policies, resembling his corona virus policies and public policies in general, remain fundamentally anecdotal and conspicuously incoherent. Because they are detached from any sound theoretical foundations,[1] these programs will be continually disruptive without adding any compensating benefits for the United States.  Lamentably, all this largely self-imposed economic dislocation is taking place at a time when rampant biological plague is quite literally decimating the American Republic.

This decimation is palpably sweeping, and includes precipitously rising population levels of food insecurity. In brief, under President Donald J. Trump, the United States is becoming an increasingly disadvantaged and sorely imperiled nation. Along certain explicit and authoritative criteria of taxonomic division or status-differentiation, we are now a “third world country.”

Irrefutably.

It is high time for appropriate warning bells to go off. It is finally time, therefore, to think seriously and to properly value serious thought. Though it has been more than two centuries since Adam Smith, a capable look back over his classical and well-catalogued insights would still be well advised. In terms of the pertinent parlance of contemporary social scientific classification, such a retrospective look would prove “cost-effective.”

Assuredly.

As is true for any other disciplined sphere of human study, the American economic realm is a product of antecedent thought. For better or for worse, this means not just self-centered considerations of money and finance, but rather the cumulative result of genuinely human and humane examinations. Always, moreover, these examinations must be premised upon the core idea of “system,” that is, on the persisting interrelatedness “of all things.”[2]

There is more.  Economics and the pandemic are inextricably intertwined; it would be foolish and futile, therefore, to expect any progress in the former without achieving corresponding scientific advances in the latter. In relevant philosophic terms, death is the prototype of all injustice –  including economic failure –  and American death rates during the current plague have had a great deal to do with prevailing distributions of national wealth. Contrary to Mr. Trump’s very curious sense of logic, death rates will not decline if the nation cuts back on Covid19 testing.  Indeed, that any single American with an elementary school education would be unable to recognize the overwhelming fallacy of such “logic” is altogether difficult to process.

There are overriding intellectual obligations here that warrant mention. Americans must go beyond the barren observations and clichés of current presidential policies; inter alia, this means purposefully recalling classical economic theory in its most densely-layered and meticulously nuanced content. Soon, we should look with suitably “modernized” detail at Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) and also his better-known Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776). To be sure, very few Trump-appointed policy makers or followers  actually read books – especially books that call for some serious analytic or scholarly exertions –  but there would still be some tangible recompense. This recollected scholarship would “pay for itself.”

Already, back in the 18th century, and quite plainly without benefit of any computers or electric light, Smith managed to examine certain bewilderingly complex elements of international trade within an impressively broad intellectual context.

Adam Smith knew many things. For one, he had already understood that thoughtful economic insights were not just about disjointed numbers or reassuringly growing  bank accounts. Wealth was not written to advance the monetary or social interests of one particular class over another. On the contrary, at a time when cultural and historical literacy were expected of European public commentators, he openly acknowledged the essential “oneness” of all human affairs.

This meant a core human singularity hailed, among others, by Marcus Aurelius, Lucretius and the Jewish Scriptures,[3] not to mention Hinduism and Buddhism.[4]

Without such an acknowledgment, Smith would have amounted to little more than the current crop of half-educated Trump commentators one is now forced to endure on television, in  the newspapers and online. Abjuring banalities, the seminal economic thinker from Scotland sought to understand genuinely intricate operations of society and the market place. More than likely, he would have agreed with German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche’s later instruction in Zarathustra not to seek the “higher man” at any place of commerce. In essence, Adam Smith took special pains to highlight the prospective errors of analytically-baseless protectionist strategies, most notably of tariffs that could very plausibly and quickly be reciprocated.

Most famously, of course, Smith identified an “invisible hand,” or a credible “convergence of satisfactions.” Together with such a markedly gainful fusion, he reasoned, the perpetual collisions of individual self-interest and the myriad interests of nations could somehow be reconciled. Moreover, in the trendy language of today’s career economists or financial managers, such reconciliations could eventually prove “optimal.”

But how might these classical insights help us today? What might this 18th-century stance on money and markets have to do with our present American economic system, a complex network functioning as part of a much larger worldwide economy and civilization? In part, the best answer must begin with the widespread American belief that accelerating consumption is per se indispensable to economic well-being – both individual and collective.

Though never a plutocrat, Smith had argued persuasively that certain arrangements of private wealth enhancement could at least permit the poor to live tolerably. Rejecting his contemporary Jean Jacques Rousseau’s fully contrary position –  that is, that “the privileged few…gorge themselves with superfluities, while the starving multitude are in want of the bare necessities of life” –  he foresaw in capitalism not just an enviably rising productivity, but also the necessary foundations for an enduring political liberty. Naturally, whether or not he was actually correct in this assessment depends pretty much upon who exactly is being queried.

 Karl Marx had offered a plainly alternate view to Smith’s general optimism concerning capitalism. From his own formal disciplinary framework – a multi-layered academic context that was fashioned with intellectual underpinnings and a corollary analytic dexterity (this point is frequently overlooked amid the visceral chorus of dismissals shouted by American politicians, especially those who could never make it through even a single page of Capital) –  Marx had seen in capitalism a hideously corrosive source of  personal defilement and communal self-destruction.

 In his own time, Adam Smith was undaunted by any determinedly specious political arguments that were detached from core considerations of intellect. By applying various capitalistic modes of production and exchange, he asserted, an inextinguishable social inequality might still be favorably reconciled with measurable increments of human progress. In those especially troubling cases where the prevailing facts could have taken him in variously different directions, we may presently assume, he would have felt bound to accept certain corresponding modifications of his own basic theories.

Conspicuously, even among US President Donald Trump’s most senior economic advisors,  there is no Adam Smith, not one who is even close intellectually. However much these shamelessly servile advisors may seek to wrap themselves in the presumed propagandistic messages of Wealth, they wittingly ignore the daunting depth and visible exertions of Smith’s conceptual thought. Unsurprisingly, in light of their almost uniformly undistinguished academic  credentials, they freely disregard that Adam Smith’s preferred system of “perfect liberty” can never be consistent with narrowly partisan encouragements of crude and feveredaccumulation.

Back when the United States was born, on a date that coincides exactly with publication of Wealth, Adam Smith already understood what present-day Trump trade policies so blatantly disregard. This is the fact that certain inexorable laws of the marketplace, driven by a natural human competition, demand a principled disdainfor all vanity-driven consumption. It’s not a particularly complicated set of laws; nonetheless, it does call for some modicum of intellectual exertion.

 Adam Smith could never have abided a Black Friday-type “conspicuous consumption,” a phrase that would later be used more popularly and more effectively by sociologist Thorsten Veblen. This especially vulgar species of consumption, one driven by variously recalcitrant cravings related to assorted feelings of individual self-worth, ought never expect to become a rational engine for economic or wider social improvement. This still crucial point should resonate loudly and instructively with all who could still heap gratuitous praise upon a White House that equates personal success with the elicited envy of others. 

To be sure, the Trump White House makes its principal stand upon precisely such a humiliating equation. Reciprocally, at a moment when substantive wealth gaps in the United States augur fundamentally undemocratic odds of living and dying, Donald Trump’s endlessly committed supporters stay “loyal” for one presumed reason above all others. This is the notion that their own personal economic success – including the “elicited envy of others” – requires another four years of Trumpian ant-reason.

In essence, this means another four years of communal citizen disdain for more serious and challenging thought.

There is more. Under no imaginable circumstances could Adam Smith have championed a system of consumption premised on the demeaning notion that material acquisition ought to stem from a craven wish to impress other people.

 Although Adam Smith had already understood the psychological and economic dynamics of “conspicuous consumption,” he also feared and even loathed these dynamics. From his personal point of view, it was entirely reasonable that the marketplace should routinely regulate the price and quantity of available goods according to certain unchanging and “natural” arbiters of public demand. This marketplace, he had urged accordingly, should never be manipulated from above, by governments,  and by way of deceptively manipulative policies.

Now, in the withering declensions of Donald Trump’s dissembling rule,[5] America is losing all residual sight of Adam Smith’s “natural liberty.” In vain, this nation still attempts to construct a viable economic posture upon great oceans of shallow slogans and on twisting rivers of hideously empty witticisms. At their core, our derivative national problems of orchestrated trade barriers and manipulated hyper-consumption are not primarily economic. Rather, as Smith would himself have warned, because they are spurred on by seemingly ineradicable personal doubts of self-worth and self-esteem, these problems should be examined at a more appropriately psychological level.

But who today even wants to undertaken such an examination?

All Americans already believe, and more or less directly, that our national economic efforts must be oriented toward status-based purchasing.  Oddly enough, however, disregarding Adam Smith altogether, almost no one seeks to inquire: “What sort of society can we ultimately expect from an economic system that is based  upon feverish social imitation and on absolutely crass conformance”?  The answer in part, is a flaccid society of “mass,” a disordered and disordering amalgam of unreasoning people who are no longer thinking individuals.[6] 

Hence, we elect Donald J. Trump.

Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, the American Transcendentalist philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, had remarked presciently on  “self-reliance.” Any foolish “reliance upon property,” Emerson warned, is the predictable result of a “want of self-reliance.” What suitable corrective was needed? Emerson had answered succinctly, and without any discernible hesitation: “High thinking and plain living.”

How far have we now come from this once hopeful conjunction? Today, the relentlessly conformist call of American mass society remains loud, manipulative and seemingly persuasive. This is especially the case under the aegis of a president who is conducting ceaseless and systematic war upon intellect, education and all vulnerable elements of genuine learning. “I love the poorly educated,” said Trump during the 2016 presidential election campaign. “Intellect  rots the  brain,” said Third Reich Minister of Propaganda in 1934.

The true difference between these sentiments is not as great as might first be presumed.

In his Theory of Moral Sentiments, Adam Smith noted that human beings are not made any happier by their possessions, but that the rich, in seeking the “gratification of their own vain and insatiable desires,” may still advance the “interest of society.” With remarkable originality, therefore, Smith explained, the wealthiest members of the nation, without ever consciously intending any such generalized benefit, “are led by an invisible hand” to bring forth necessary reductions in social inequality.  

Back in the 18th century, however, Adam Smith would likely have shuddered with any foreknowledge of today’s brutally callous system of American economic exchange, not only because he would have been unsympathetic to the self-seeking supporters of such an injurious plutocracy, but also because he recognized the implacable consequences of any market theory founded upon  delusion. As long as our American economy remains animated, at its core, by rabid conspicuous consumption and by generally correlative trade wars, an accelerating process of class/cultural  warfare will be our sole driving narrative. As long as we inhabit a society that. at least in significant part, takes an evident pride in a presumptive presidential infallibility and a doctrinaire anti-intellectualism,[7] disease and economic dislocation will not merely coincide.

They will crush out any tangibly discernible remnants of a once-promising American civilization.[8]

Looking ahead to the November 2020 election, Donald Trump will remain fixedly intent upon garnering “the attention of the world.” Among many other grievous consequence of this president’s incoherent war against intellect and thought, this childlike objective will undermine America’s economy, safety and national security at the same time. Though Adam Smith could likely never have imagined any such far-reaching impairments spawned by crudely self-centered national goals, the largely unexamined synergies of pandemic and anti-reason could prove authentically lethal to the United States.

Perhaps even sooner rather than later.

At this fearful moment, when plague and nuclear war could erupt more-or-less simultaneously, the “whole” of  any American catastrophic outcome could far exceed the mere sum of its grievous “parts.” In the end, learning from Adam Smith, warnings about this portentous product could be anything but hyperbole. As always, thinking seriously is indispensable,[9] but such thinking must also always be undertaken in advance, “while there is still time.”

Very few “loyal” followers of Donald J. Trump could conceivably read and understand Adam Smith, but there is still abundant cause for the broader American society to favor Reason over further presidential manipulation and contrivance. Failure to understand this utterly vital obligation during a time of disease pandemic and economic uncertainty could prove not just discomfiting. It could also be abundantly lethal.


[1] “Theory is a  net,” we may learn from the German poet  Novalis, “only those who cast, can catch.” Later, this statement was famously cited by philosopher Karl Popper in his path breaking

work, The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Eng. tr., 1959).

[2] “The existence of ‘system’ in the world is at once obvious to every observer of nature,” says French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man, “no  matter whom….Each element of the cosmos is positively woven from all the others….”

[3] “The earth from which the first man was made was made was gathered in all the four corners of the world.”  (Talmud.)

[4] Apropos of such unassailable “oneness,”  we may learn from Epictetus, the ancient Greek Stoic philosopher, “You are a citizen of the universe.” A still-broader idea of human singularity followed the death of Alexander in 322 BCE; with it came a coinciding doctrine of “universality” or interconnectedness. By the Middle Ages, this political and social doctrine had fused with the notion of a respublica Christiana, a worldwide Christian commonwealth, and Thomas, John of Salisbury and Dante were looking upon Europe as a single and unified Christian community. Below the level of God and his heavenly host, all the realm of humanity was to be considered as one. This is because all the world had been created for the same single and incontestable purpose; that is, to provide secular background for the necessary drama of human salvation. Here, only in its relationship to the universe itself, was the world considered as a part rather than a whole. Says Dante in De Monarchia: “The whole human race is a whole with reference to certain parts, and, with reference to another whole, it is a part. For it is a whole with reference to particular kingdoms and nations, as we have shown; and it is a part with reference to the whole universe, which is evident without argument.” Today, the idea of human oneness can and should be fully

justified/explained in more purely historical/philosophic terms of human understanding.

[5] One ought not to set aside the single most fearful risk of such undisciplined rule, the risk of a catastrophic nuclear war by mistaken or calculated Trump decision. See, by this writer, Louis René Beres, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists  https://thebulletin.onuclear rg/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/  See also, by Louis René Beres, https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/ (Pentagon).

[6] As we may learn from Swiss psychologist and philosopher Carl G. Jung in The Undiscovered Self (1957): “The mass crushes out the insight and reflection that are still possible with the individual, and this necessarily leads to doctrinaire and authoritarian tyranny if ever the constitutional State should succumb to a fit of weakness.” At this point of almost fevered US citizen surrender to impresario Donald  J. Trump, a time also of ravaging disease pandemic, it is no longer difficult to imagine such a sweeping social downfall.

[7]  Twentieth century German writer  and Nobel laureate Thomas Mann would have called Trump a lethal champion of anti-reason, an aspiring “Fuehrer,” a sinister “magician.” See, on this extrapolation, Mann’s classic novella on the rise of Nazism, “Mario and the Magician” (1929). Regarding the post-Nazi idea of “anti-reason,” see too Karl Jaspers, Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952). Thinking originally of Adolph Hitler, but still perfectly applicable these days to Donald Trump, is the German philosopher’s generic and timeless warning: “Reason is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no argument, and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd as an unassailable presupposition….” Apropos of  this warning, at the end of July 2020, literally millions of Americans were openly describing the Covid19 pandemic as a “hoax.”

[8] This brings to mind a timely warning by French poet Guillaume Apollinaire, in The New Spirit and the Poets (1917): “It must not be forgotten that it is perhaps more dangerous for a nation to allow itself to be conquered intellectually than by arms.” In the expansively demeaning time of Trump, such an allowance has not only been tolerated. Now, nationally, it has been made de rigueur.

[9] “All our dignity,” says Pascal in his Pensées, “consists in thought. It is upon this that we must depend….Let us labor then to think well: this is the foundation of morality.” Among past American presidents, such sentiments would have been most conspicuously shared by Thomas Jefferson. Said the nation’s third chief executive: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

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 hegemony of knowledge and the new world order: U.S. and the rest of the world

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In today’s world, knowledge and technological advantages determine – to a large extent – differences in the management of international policy. The increase in a country’s intellectual power directly defines an increase in its economic power, thus changing its position in the international competition for dominance.

The power policy, first in the agricultural age and later in the industrial age, was characterised by military and then economic hegemony, while the power policy in the information age gradually reveals the characteristics of knowledge hegemony at both the scientific and intelligence levels.

The hegemony of knowledge in contemporary international relations manifests itself specifically as unequal exchange in international trade, exploitation of high-value information and various conditions related to technological production. Hence, we see the transfer of polluting industries from privileged to poor countries: energy-consuming and high-intensity activities.

Western culture and values are disseminated vigorously, through the so-called soft power in information and mass media, and take on obsessive and oppressively hypnopedic forms.

Developed countries have patents in the use of outer space, as well as in the development of deep sea resources and in the production of environmental resources that pollute, while developing countries can only sigh as they look at other’s oceans and satellites, which fly around, do reconnaissance activities and monitor them.

The resources of the great and deep seas – which should be shared by mankind as they belong to everybody like the air, the moon and the sun – are instead exploited by the developed countries. On the contrary, they freely and ‘democratically’ share with the wretched ones only the evil consequences of environmental pollution.

With specific reference to sanctions and armed interference in international relations, the technique of violent and conscious bullying is adopted: whoever is militarily stronger imposes the validity of their interests, also at legal level.

The root cause for generating knowledge hegemony lies in the polarisation of the intellectual status of the nation-State. Western developed countries have already crossed the threshold of an information society, while developing countries are still struggling to climb towards industrial civilisation from the most primitive and closed state of existence. Although developing countries hold most of the world’s natural and human resources (just think of Africa), they are far behind in science and technology. Just look at the continental histogram of the 207 Nobel Prizes in Physics from 1901 to 2017 (winners are counted by country of birth except for the Algerian Nobel Prize winner Claude Cohen-Tannoudji [1997], who was born when Algeria was a French territory):

Source: Nadua Antonelli <<Africana>> XXIII (2017) page 12

If they have no means to study, even the greatest and most brilliant brains cannot make discoveries or file patents, looking only at the sky and the earth.

About 80 per cent of science and technology staff and their achievements are concentrated in developed countries. The knowledge advantage gives developed countries the right to set the rules of the game and of communication for all global knowledge production and dissemination. In particular, the developed countries’ knowledge advantages in the military and high-tech media enable them to expand their influence on the civil and military fronts and achieve their strategic objectives.

Developing countries wander between traditional society, modern industrial civilisation and post-industrial civilisation, and are often challenged and oppressed by the third party’s hegemony of knowledge.

The new economy created by the information revolution is still a ‘rich-country phenomenon’, the core of what is called ‘advantage creation’, under the cover of ‘competitive advantage’, or rather: competitive towards those who cannot compete.

The country leading the information revolution is the United States, which is the biggest beneficiary of these achievements. The digital divide highlights the status of the US information superpower. In the global information sector, in 2000 the central processing unit production in the United States accounted for 92%, and software production for 86%.

IT (Information & Technology) investment in the United States was 41.5% of global investment, Microsoft’s Windows system accounted for 95% of global platform applications, while the US Internet users accounted for more than half of global Internet users, and 58% of all e-mail goes through US servers.

E-commerce is worth 75% of the global total and US commercial websites account for 90% of the planet.

Currently, there are almost three thousand large-scale databases in the world, 70% of which are in the United States. There are 13 top-level domain name servers in the world and 10 of them are located in the United States.

The above figures far exceed the share of US GDP, which is 28% of the world total. The United States is far ahead of all countries in the world, including the other developed countries. The leading position in information technology allows the United States to control the basics in the field of information with its strong economic and talent advantages, as well as to master the actual rights, and to set standards and formulate rules and regulations.

The status as cradle of the information revolution has brought enormous wealth and development benefits to the United States. Since the 1990s, the development of information technology and the rise of the related industry have become an accelerator of further economic advancement in the United States.

In the growth of US GDP – from 1994 (the beginning of the Internet) to 2000 – the share of the information industry in the value of the country’s total output has caused the economy to rise from 6.3% to 8.3%, and the contribution provided by the information industry development to the actual US economic growth is estimated at 30%.

At the beginning of the 21st century, the United States – with its strong national-global power and the relative hegemony of knowledge/information – was already ready to build a new world order.

Knowledge is also the soul of military hegemony. Since the 1990s the United States (after the USSR’s demise) has taken advantage of its absolute leadership in information technology to vigorously promote a new military revolution and equip its armed forces with a large number of modern sophisticated weapons, especially cyber weapons: an overwhelming advantage in the conventional field, clearly overtaking the Third World, as well as its Western allies.

The US superiority in equipment ranges from one to two generations (i.e. from 15 to 30 years) over developing countries and from 0.5 to one generation over allies. All this has established the hegemonic status of the United States as the world’s number one military power.

Gulf Wars II (1991) and III (2003) (the first was the Iran-Iraq War in 1980-88), the Kosovo War (1999), the Afghanistan War (2001- still ongoing), and the Iraq War (2003-2011) were four localised wars that the United States fought to establish a new world order after the Cold War. During those events, the US hegemony was strengthened on an unprecedented scale and its attempt to establish a new order made substantial progress.

Moreover, backed by strong military advantages (scattering the planet with its own bases and outposts), as well as economic and technological advantages, those events ensured that the United States had and still has a leading position in the world, thus making the White House a planner and defender of the new world order. (1. continued)

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Hardened US and Iranian positions question efficacy of parties’ negotiating tactics

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The United States and Iran seem to be hardening their positions in advance of a resumption of negotiations to revive a 2015 international nuclear agreement once Iranian President-elect Ebrahim Raisi takes office in early August.

Concern among supporters of the agreement to curb Iran’s nuclear program which former US President Donald J. Trump abandoned in 2018 may be premature but do raise questions about the efficacy of the negotiating tactics of both parties.

These tactics include the Biden administration’s framing of the negotiations exclusively in terms of the concerns of the West and its Middle Eastern allies rather than also as they relate to Iranian fears, a failure by both the United States and Iran to acknowledge that lifting sanctions is a complex process that needs to be taken into account in negotiations, and an Iranian refusal to clarify on what terms the Islamic republic may be willing to discuss non-nuclear issues once the nuclear agreement has been revived.

The differences in the negotiations between the United States and Iran are likely to be accentuated if and when the talks resume, particularly concerning the mechanics of lifting sanctions.

“The challenges facing the JCPOA negotiations are a really important example of how a failed experience of sanctions relief, as we had in Iran between the Obama and Trump admins, can cast a shadow over diplomacy for years to come, making it harder to secure US interests,” said Iran analyst Esfandyar Batmanghelidj referring to the nuclear accord, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, by its initials.

The Biden administration may be heeding Mr. Batmangheldij’s notion that crafting sanctions needs to take into account the fact that lifting them can be as difficult as imposing them as it considers more targeted additional punitive measures against Iran. Those measures would aim to hamper Iran’s evolving capabilities for precision strikes using drones and guided missiles by focusing on the providers of parts for those weapon systems, particularly engines and microelectronics.

To be sure, there is no discernable appetite in either Washington or Tehran to adjust negotiation tactics and amend their underlying assumptions. It would constitute a gargantuan, if not impossible challenge given the political environment in both capitals. That was reflected in recent days in Iranian and US statements.

Iranian Spiritual Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei suggested that agreement on the revival of the nuclear accord was stumbling over a US demand that it goes beyond the terms of the original accord by linking it to an Iranian willingness to discuss its ballistic missiles program and support for Arab proxies.

In a speech to the cabinet of outgoing President Hassan Rouhani, he asserted that the West “will try to hit us everywhere they can and if they don’t hit us in some place, it’s because they can’t… On paper and in their promises, they say they’ll remove sanctions. But they haven’t lifted them and won’t lift them. They impose conditions…to say in future Iran violated the agreement and there is no agreement” if Iran refuses to discuss regional issues or ballistic missiles.

Iranian officials insist that nothing can be discussed at this stage but a return by both countries to the nuclear accord as is. Officials, distrustful of US intentions, have hinted that an unconditional and verified return to the status quo ante may help open the door to talks on missiles and proxies provided this would involve not only Iranian actions and programs but also those of America’s allies.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks seemed to bolster suggestions that once in office Mr. Raisi would seek to turn the table on the Biden administration by insisting on stricter verification and US implementation of its part of a revived agreement.

To achieve this, Iran is expected to demand the lifting of all rather than some sanctions imposed or extended by the Trump administration; verification of the lifting;  guarantees that the lifting of sanctions is irreversible, possibly by making any future American withdrawal from the deal contingent on approval by the United Nations Security Council; and iron-clad provisions to ensure that obstacles to Iranian trade are removed, including the country’s unfettered access to the international financial system and the country’s overseas accounts.

Mr. Khamenei’s remarks and Mr. Raisi’s anticipated harder line was echoed in warnings by US officials that the ascendancy of the new president would not get Iran a better deal. The officials cautioned further that there could be a point soon at which it would no longer be worth returning to because Iran’s nuclear program would have advanced to the point where the limitations imposed by the agreement wouldn’t produce the intended minimum one year ‘breakout time’ to produce enough enriched uranium for a bomb.

“We are committed to diplomacy, but this process cannot go on indefinitely. At some point, the gains achieved by the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) cannot be fully recovered by a return to the JCPOA if Iran continues the activities that it’s undertaken with regard to its nuclear program…The ball remains in Iran’s court, and we will see if they’re prepared to make the decisions necessary to come back into compliance,” US Secretary Antony Blinken said this week on a visit to Kuwait.

Another US official suggested that the United States and Iran could descend into a tug-of-war on who has the longer breath and who blinks first. It’s a war that so far has not produced expected results for the United States and in which Iran has paid a heavy price for standing its ground.

The official said that a breakdown in talks could “look a lot like the dual-track strategy of the past—sanctions pressure, other forms of pressure, and a persistent offer of negotiations. It will be a question of how long it takes the Iranians to come to the idea they will not wait us out.”

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Wendy Sherman’s China visit takes a terrible for the US turn

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Photo: Miller Center/ flickr

US Deputy Secretary of State, Wendy Sherman, had high hopes for the meeting in China. At first, the Chinese side did not agree to hold the meeting at all. The reaction had obvious reasons: Antony Blinken’s fiasco in Alaska left the Chinese disrespected and visibly irritated. This is not why they travelled all the way.

So then the State Department had the idea of sending Wendy Sherman instead. The US government actually needs China more than China needs the US. Sherman was in China to actually prepare the ground for Biden and a meeting between the two presidents, expecting a red carpet roll for Biden as if it’s still the 2000s — the time when it didn’t matter how the US behaved. Things did not go as expected.

Instead of red carpet talk, Sherman heard Dua Lipa’s “I got new rules”. 

That’s right — the Chinese side outlined three bottom lines warning the US to respect its system, development and sovereignty and territorial integrity. In other words, China wants to be left alone.

The bottom lines were not phrased as red lines. This was not a military conflict warning. This was China’s message that if any future dialogue was to take place, China needs to be left alone. China accused the US of creating an “imaginary enemy”. I have written about it before — the US is looking for a new Cold War but it doesn’t know how to start and the problem is that the other side actually holds all the cards

That’s why the US relies on good old militarism with an expansion into the Indo-Pacific, while aligning everyone against China but expecting the red carpet and wanting all else in the financial and economic domains to stay the same. The problem is that the US can no longer sell this because there are no buyers. Europeans also don’t want to play along.

The headlines on the meeting in the US press are less flattering than usual. If the US is serious about China policy it has to be prepared to listen to much more of that in the future. And perhaps to, yes, sit down and be humble.

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The World Economic Forum’s Data for Common Purpose Initiative (DCPI) completed the first stage of two case studies demonstrating how...

South Asia9 hours ago

Turkey’s role in Afghanistan

North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) on Thursday launched a training program in Turkey for Afghan military personnel. This is the...

Eastern Europe12 hours ago

Ukraine’s Chance for Rational Behaviour

From the point of view of international politics, the most important thing in the recently-published article by the President of...

South Asia14 hours ago

North-East India Towards Peace and Prosperity: Bangladesh Paves the Way

Bangladesh has always been one of the brightest examples of religious harmony and peace. “secularism” is not only a word...

Defense16 hours ago

Russia in Libya and the Mediterranean

There are several myths about Soviet/Russian involvement in Libya in particular and the Mediterranean in general. Unfortunately, such “political stories”...

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