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American Democracy and “The Barbarism of Specialisation”

Jose Ortega y' Gasset

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“The specialist ‘knows’ very well his own tiny corner of the universe; he is radically ignorant of all the rest.”-Jose Ortega y’ Gasset, The Revolt of the Masses (1930)

It has been almost one hundred years since Spanish philosopher Jose Ortega y’ Gasset  published The Revolt of the Masses (Le Rebelion de las Masas, 1930). A prescient indictment of anti-Reason, and an immediate forerunner of modern classical works by German scholars Martin Heidegger and Karl Jaspers,[1] Ortega was most plainly concerned about Europe’s growing fragmentation of learning. Witnessing a world rapidly abandoning the traditional goal of  broadly-educated or “whole” human beings, he worried about a future in which there would be more capable scientists than ever before, but where these scientists were otherwise unexceptional and without any wider embrace of erudition.

                These observations were seminal. Among other things, the prophetic philosopher foresaw “educated” societies in which even the proud holders of impressive university degrees were “conscientiously ignorant” of everything outside their own vocational bailiwicks. In essence, Ortega had anticipated the present-day United States. Here, even in an oft-vaunted “advanced society,” the most exquisitely trained physicians, lawyers, accountants and engineers generally reason at the same limiting level of analysis as technicians, carpenters or lightly schooled office workers.

               In large part, this is because “professional” education in the United States has effectively superseded everything that does not ostentatiously focus on making money. The adverb here is vital in this description, because the overriding lure of wealth in America remains the presumed admiration it can elicit from others. As we ought already to have learned from Adam Smith in his Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759): “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.”[2]

               Almost by definition, any American concerns for intellectual or historical issues per se have become extraneous. This does not mean, however, that our strenuous national efforts at improving professional education  have been successful  or productive. On the contrary, as we witness the multiple daily technical failures of American democracy – e.g. the all-too evident incapacity of our ballot calculating technologies to keep abreast of shifting vote-counting modalities – this beleaguered polity is failing on multiple fronts.

               For many reasons, many of them overlapping, this has been a lamentable retrogression. Above all, it has impaired this country’s capacity to sustain an enviable or even minimally credible democracy. Though Thomas Jefferson had already understood that proper human governance requires a purposeful acquaintance with historical and sociological learning, Americans now inhabit a country where the president can say unashamedly, “I love the poorly educated.” Significantly, this perverse preference of Donald J. Trump did not emerge ex nihilo, out of nothing.

               It is a portentous but credible echo of Third Reich Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels: “Intellect rots the brain.”[3]

               Ortega y’Gasset had a specific name for this generally defiling intellectual deformation. More exactly, he called it “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.”[4] Earlier, and in somewhat similar fashion, Friedrich  Nietzsche wrote about the “educated philistine.”[5] Both Ortega and Nietzsche recognized the irony that a society could become progressively better educated in various sub-fields of human knowledge and yet, simultaneously, become less and less cultured, less and less truly civilized.[6] In this regard, the German philosopher placed appropriate conceptual blame on what he preferred to call the “herd.”[7] For his part, the kindred Spanish thinker cast his particular indictment on the “mass.”

               Whatever the terminological differences, both sets of ideas were centered on the same basic critique; that is, that individuals had been casting aside the necessary obligation to think for themselves, and had, thereby, surrendered indispensable analytic judgments to “crowds.”[8]

               Today, both ideas can shed some useful light on American democracy, a system of governance under increasing assault by US President Donald J. Trump.        To the extent that American education has become rampantly vocational – that is, oriented toward more and more “pragmatic” kinds of specialization – the wisdom of Ortega y’Gasset and others is worth probing with ever-increasing care. Moreover, the corrosively “barbarous” impact of  specialization foreseen earlier by philosophers is now magnified by the injurious effects of worldwide disease pandemic. 

               Without doubt, this unwelcome magnification will need to be countered if American democracy is able merely to survive.[9]

               But analysis should begin at the beginning. Inter alia, it is a discomfiting beginning. Americans now inhabit a society so numbingly fragmented and rancorous that even their most sincere melancholy is seemingly contrived. Wallowing in the mutually-reinforcing twilights of submission and conformance, We the people have strayed dangerously far from any meaningful standards of serious learning. In consequence, though still a nation with extraordinary scientific, medical and commercial successes, the American public is often ill-equipped to judge candidates for  high political office.[10]

               As we have seen, utterly ill-equipped.

               Surveying ever-mounting damages of the Trump presidency,[11] some of which are synergistic or “force multiplying,” could anything be more apparent?

                The grievously baneful selection of Donald J. Trump in 2016 was anything but a cultural aberration.  It was, rather, the plausible outcome of an electorate relentlessly driven and even defined by “mass.” Without any real or compelling reasons, voting Americans freely abandoned the once-residual elements of Jeffersonian good citizenship.

               Together with the unceasing connivance of assorted criminals, charlatans and fools, many of them occupants of the present US Government’s most senior positions, a lonely American mass now bears core responsibility for allowing the demise of a once- enviable democratic ethos. To expect any sudden improvements to emerge from among this homogenized mass (e.g., by continuously making the citizens more particularly aware of this president’s manifold derelictions) would be to  overestimate its inclinations.  Though truth is always exculpatory, there are times when it yields to various forms of self-delusion.

               “What the mass once learned to believe without reasons,” queries Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, “who could ever overthrow with reasons?”

               There will be a heavy price to pay for America’s still-expanding ascendancy of mass. Any society so willing to abjure its rudimentary obligations toward dignified learning – toward what American Transcendentalist philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson had once called “high thinking” – is one that should never reasonably expect to survive.[12]

                There is more. Treating formal education as a narrowly instrumental obligation (“one should get better educated in order to get a better paying job”), Americans now more easily accept flagrantly empty witticisms as profundities (“We will build a beautiful wall;” “Barbed wire can be beautiful;” “The moon is part of Mars;”  “Testing for corona virus only increases disease;” “Just one percent of Covid19 victims have symptoms,” etc., etc), and consult genuinely challenging ideas only rarely.

               Always, the dire result of anti-Reason is more-or-less predictable; that is, a finely trained work force that manages to get a particular “job” done, but displays (simultaneously) nary a hint of  worthwhile learning, commendable human understanding or simple compassion. Concerning this last absence, empathy is not directly related to the “barbarisms of specialization,” but it does generally exhibit some tangible nurturance from literature, art and/or “culture.” Incontestably, the Trump White House is not “only” indifferent to basic human rights and public welfare,[13] it quite literally elevates personal animus to highest possible significations.

               This is especially marked where such animus is most thoroughly pedestrian.

               Intentionally mispronouncing the Democrat vice-presidential candidate’s first name is a small but glaring example of Donald Trump’s selected level of competitive political discourse. By its very nature, of course, this demeaning level is better suited to a first-grade elementary school classroom.

               There are even much wider ramifications of gratuitous rancor. When transposed to the vital arena of international relations, this president’s elevation of belligerent nationalism has a long and persistently unsuccessful history as Realpolitik or power politics.[14] Thinking himself clever, Donald Trump champions “America First” (the phrase resonates with those, like the president himself, who have no knowledge of history),but fails to realize that this peculiarly shameful resurrection of “Deutschland uber alles” can lead only to massive defeat and unparalleled despair.

               “I loathe, therefore I am,” could well become Donald J. Trump’s “revised” version  of  René Descartes “Cogito.”[15] Following Descartes, Sigmund Freud had understood that all human beings could somehow be motivated toward creating a “spontaneous sympathy of souls,” but America’s Donald Trump has quite expansively reversed this objective. Reinforced by the rampant vocationalism of this country’s education system, Trump has consistently urged citizens to turn against one another, and for no dignified, defensible or science-based reasons. In absolutely all cases, these grotesque urgings have had no meritorious or higher purpose.

               Instead, they remain utterly and viciously contrived.

               In the bitterly fractionated Trump-era United States, an authentic American individualhas become little more than a charming artifact.  Among other things, the nation’s societal “mass,”  more refractory than ever to intellect and learning, still displays no discernible intentions of ever taking itself seriously. To the contrary, an embittered American ‘mass” now marches in deferential lockstep, foolishly, without thought, toward even-greater patterns of imitation, unhappiness and starkly belligerent incivility.

               All things considered, the American future is not hard to fathom. More than likely, whatever might be decided in upcoming politics and elections, Americans will continue to be carried forth not by any commendable nobilities of principle or purpose, but by steady eruptions of personal and collective agitation, by endlessly inane presidential repetitions and by the perpetually demeaning primacy of a duly “sanctified” public ignorance.  At times, perhaps, We the people may still be able to slow down a bit and “smell the roses,”  but this is doubtful.

               Plainly, our visibly compromised and degraded country now imposes upon its increasingly exhausted people the breathless rhythms of a vast and omnivorous machine.

               This machine has no objective other than to keep struggling without spawning any sudden breakdowns or prematurely inconvenient deaths.

               Much as many might wish to deny it, the plausible end of this self-destroying machinery will be to prevent Americans from remembering who they are now and (far more importantly) who they might once still have become. At another reasonable level of concern, Americans remain threatened by nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, especially now, during the incoherent Trump-era. Significantly, although there exists a vast literature on law-based strategies of nuclear war avoidance, there is little parallel jurisprudential effort directed toward the prevention of nuclear terrorism.[16]

               In fact, presidential banalities aside, this is no longer a “nation of laws.” It is a nation of ad hoc, narrowly visceral response.

               There is more.  Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, we harbored a preciously unique potential to nurture individuals, that is, to encourage Americans to become more than a smugly inert mass,  herd or crowd. Then, Ralph Waldo Emerson (also fellow Transcendentalists Walt Whitman and Henry David Thoreau) described us optimistically as a people animated by industry and “self-reliance.”

               Now, however, and beyond any serious contestation, we are stymied by collective paralysis, capitulation and a starkly Kierkegaardian “fear and trembling.”

                Surely, as all must eventually acknowledge, there is more to this chanting country than Fuehrer-driven rallies, tsunamis of hyper-adrenalized commerce or gargantuan waves of abundantly cheap entertainments: “I celebrate myself, and sing myself,” rhapsodized the poet Walt Whitman, but today, the American Selfhas devolved into a delicately thin shadow of true national potential. Distressingly, this Self has already become a twisting reflection of a prior authenticity.  Now it is under seemingly final assault by a far-reaching  societal tastelessness and by a literally epidemic gluttony.

               Regarding this expressly gastronomic debility, it’s not that we Americans have become more and more hungry, but rather that we have lost any once residual appetites for real life.[17]

               In the end, credulity is America’s worst enemy. The stubborn inclination to believe that wider social and personal redemption must lie somewhere in politics remains a potentially fatal disorder. To be fair, various social and economic issues do need to be coherently addressed by America’s political representatives, but so too must the nation’s deeper problems first be solved at the level of microcosm, as a matter for individuals.

               In the end, American politics – like politics everywhere – must remain a second-order activity, a faint reflection of what is truly important. For now, it continues to thrive upon a vast personal emptiness, on an infirmity that is the always-defiling reciprocal of any genuine personal fulfillment. “Conscious of his emptiness,” warns the German philosopher Karl Jaspers in Reason and Anti-Reason in our Time (1952), “man (human) tries to make a faith for himself (or herself) in the political realm. In Vain.”

                Even in an authentic democracy, only a few can ever hope to redeem themselves and the wider American nation, but these self-effacing souls will generally remain silent, hidden in more-or-less “deep cover,” often even from themselves. In a democracy where education is oriented toward narrowly vocational forms of career preparation, an orientation toward “barbaric specialization,” these residual few can expect to be suffocated by the many. Unsurprisingly, such asphyxiation, in absolutely any of its conceivable particularities, would be a bad way to “die.”[18]

               Donald J. Trump did not emerge on the political scene ex nihilo, out of nothing. His incoherent and disjointed presidency is the direct result of a society that has wittingly and barbarously abandoned all serious thought. When such a society no longer asks the “big philosophical questions” – for example, “What is the “good” in government and politics”? or “How do I lead a good life as person and citizen”? or “How can I best nurture the well-being of other human beings”? – the lamentable outcome is inevitable. It is an  outcome that we are currently living through in the United States, and one that might sometime have to be “died through.”

               Going forward, what we ought to fear most of all is precisely this continuously self-defiling outcome, not a particular electoral result. To be certain, at this point, nothing could be more urgently important for the United States than to rid itself of the intersecting pathologies of Covid19 and Donald Trump, diseases that are mutually reinforcing and potentially synergistic, but even such victories would only be transient. More fundamentally, recalling philosopher Jose Ortega y’Gasset’s timeless warning about the “barbarism of specialisation,” this country must resurrect an earlier ethos of education in which learning benefits the whole human being, not just a work-related “corner of the universe.”

               Also vital is the obligation to acknowledge the fundamental interrelatedness of all peoples and the binding universality of international law.[19]

               To survive, both as a nation and as individuals, Americans need to become educated not merely as well-trained cogs in the vast industrial machine, but as empathetic and caring citizens. “Everyone is the other, and no one is just himself,” cautions Martin  Heidegger in Being and Time (1932), but this elementary lesson once discoverable in myriad sacred texts is not easily operationalized.  Indeed, it is in this single monumental failure of “operationalization” that human civilization has most conspicuously failed though the ages. To wit, in Trump-era American democracy, the president’s core message is not about the co-responsibility of every human being for his or her fellows, but about “winners,” “losers,” and a presumptively preeminent citizen obligation to “Make America Great.”

               In this Trumpian context, “greatness” assumes a crudely Darwinian or zero-sum condition, and not one wherein each individual favors harmonious cooperation over an endlessly belligerent competition.[20]

               How shall we finally change all this, or, recalling Plato’s wisdom in The Republic, how shall we  “learn to make the souls of the citizens better?”[21] This is not a question that we can answer with any pertinent detail before the upcoming US presidential election. But it is still a question that we ought to put before the imperiled American polity soon, and sometime before it is too late.[22]

               American democracy faces multiple hazards, including Ortega y’ Gasset’s “barbarism of specialisation.” To be rescued in time, each hazard will have to be tackled carefully, by itself and also in coordinated tandem with all other identifiable perils. Overall, the task will be daunting and overwhelming, but the alternative is simply no longer tolerable or sustainable.

               Donald Trump’s removal from office is a sine qua non for all applicable remedies, but even such an needed step would target only a catastrophic symptom of America’s national “pathology.” By itself, saving the United States from Donald Trump would surely be indispensable, but it would leave unchanged the country’s still most deeply underlying “disease.” In  the end,[23] because Americans will need to bring a less “specialized” form of learning to their citizenship responsibilities, the nation will quickly have to figure out practical ways of restoring educational “wholeness.”

               Can this sort of rational calculation be expected? Maybe not. Perhaps, like the timeless message of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, this warning has “come too soon.” If that turns out to be the case, there may simply be no “later.”


[1] See especially Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (Sein und Zeit;1953) and Karl Jaspers’ Reason and Anti-Reason in  our Time (1952). “Is it an end that draws near,” inquires Jaspers, “or a beginning?” The answer will depend, in large part, on what Heidegger has to say about the Jungian or Freudian “mass.” In Being and Time (1953), the philosopher laments what he calls, in German, das Mann, or “The They.”  Drawing fruitfully upon earlier core insights of Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Jung and Freud, Heidegger’s “The They” represents the ever-present and interchangeable herdcrowd, horde or mass. Each such conglomerate exhibits “untruth” (the term actually favored by Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard)  because it can encourage the “barbarism of specialisation” and suffocate broadly humanistic kinds of learning.

[2]Smith published Theory seventeen years before his vastly more famous and oft-cited Wealth of Nations (1776).

[3]See, on commonalities between Third Reich and Trump-era American democracy, by Louis René Beres at Jurist:  https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/05/louis-beres-america-rise-and-fall/

[4] Chapter 12 of The Revolt of the Masses (1930) is expressly titled “The Barbarism of ‘Specialisation.'”

[5]Here, philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche coined an aptly specific term, one he hoped could eventually become universal. This  German word was Bildungsphilister. When expressed in its most lucid and coherent English translation, it means “educated Philistine.” Bildungsphilister is a term that could shed useful light upon Donald Trump’s ongoing support from among America’s presumptively well-educated and well-to-do.

[6] On this irony, Kierkegaard says it best in The Sickness Unto Death (1849): “Devoid of imagination, as the Philistine always is, he lives in a certain trivial province of experience, as to how things go, what is possible, what usually occurs….Philistinism thinks it is in control of possibility….it carries possibility around like a prisoner in the cage of the probable, and shows it off.”

[7]Sigmund Freud introduced his own particular version of Nietzsche’s “herd,” which was “horde.” Interestingly, Freud maintained a general antipathy to all things American. He most strenuously objected, according to Bruno Bettelheim, to this country’s “shallow optimism” and also its corollary commitment to the crudest forms of materialism. America, thought Freud, was grievously “lacking in soul.” See: Bruno Bettelheim, Freud and Man’s Soul (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), especially Chapter X.

[8] In  essence, the “crowd” was Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s equivalent of Nietzsche’s “herd” and Ortega’s “mass.”

[9] The most ominous synergies of “barbarism” would link pandemic effects with growing risks of a nuclear war. On irrational nuclear decision-making by this author, see Louis René Beres, The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists: https://thebulletin.org/2016/08/what-if-you-dont-trust-the-judgment-of-the-president-whose-finger-is-over-the-nuclear-button/ See also, by Professor Beres,  https://warroom.armywarcollege.edu/articles/nuclear-decision-making/ (Pentagon). For authoritative early accounts by Professor Beres of nuclear war expected effects, 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). https://paw.princeton.edu/new-books/surviving-amid-chaos-israel%E2%80%99s-nuclear-strategy

[10] At a minimum, in this regard, the US public ought to be reminded of the explicit warning in Nietzsche’s Zarathustra: “Do not ever seek the higher man at the market place.” (Moreover, it would not be unfair to Nietzsche’s core meaning here to expand “higher man” to mean “higher person.”).

[11] Most egregious, in any assessment of these damages, is this president’s wilful subordination of national interest to his own presumed private interests. In this regard, one may suitably recall Sophocles’ cautionary speech of Creon in Antigone: “I hold despicable, and always have….anyone who puts his own popularity before his country.”

[12] Still the best treatments of America’s long-term disinterest in anything intellectual are Richard Hofstadter, Anti-intellectualism in American Life (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1964); and Jacques Barzun, The House of Intellect (Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1959).

[13] See, by Louis René Beres: https://www.jurist.org/commentary/2020/04/the-trump-presidency-a-breathtaking-assault-on-law-justice-and-security/

[14] The classic statement of Realpolitik or power politics in western  philosophy is the comment of Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic : “Justice is nothing else than the interest of the stronger.” (See Plato, The Republic, 29, Benjamin Jowett, tr., World Publishing Company, 1946.) See also: Cicero’s oft-quoted query: “For what can be done against force without force?,” Marcus Tullus Cicero, Cicero’s Letters to his Friends, 78  (D.R. Shackleton Baily tr., Scholars Press, 1988).

[15] “I think, therefore I am,” says René Descartes, in his Discourse on Method (1637). Reciprocally, in his modern classic essay on “Existentialism,” Jean-Paul Sartre observes that “…outside the Cartesian cogito, all views are only probable.”

[16] See, by Professor Louis René Beres: https://digitalcommons.law.uga.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1410&context=gjicl

[17] An apt literary reference for this condition of “lost appetite” is Franz Kafka’s story, The Hunger Artist.

[18] In more expressly concrete terms, average American life-expectancy, unenviable for several decades, has now fallen behind most of the advanced industrial world. While Trump boasts of a wall to keep out Mexicans and assorted “others,” more and more Americans are trying to cross in the other direction.

[19] Apropos of this universality, international law is generally part of the law of the United States. These legal systems are always interpenetrating. Declared Mr. Justice Gray, in 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 expressly codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[20] Here it could be helpful to recall the words of French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin in The Phenomenon of Man: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of `everyone for himself’ is false and against nature.”

[21] Long after Plato, Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought of “soul” (in German, Seele) as the very essence of a human being. Neither Freud nor Jung ever provides a precise definition of the term, but clearly it was not intended by either in any ordinary religious sense. For both, it was a still-recognizable and critical seat of both mind and passions in this life. Interesting, too, in the present context, is that Freud explained his already-predicted decline of America by various express references to “soul.” Freud was plainly disgusted by any civilization so apparently unmoved by considerations of true “consciousness” (e.g., awareness of intellect and literature), and even thought that the crude American commitment to perpetually shallow optimism and to material accomplishment at any cost would occasion sweeping psychological misery.

[22] “Sometimes,” says Swiss playwright Friedrich Durrenmatt, “the worst does happen.”

[23] “In the end,” says Goethe, “we are always creatures of our own making.”

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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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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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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U.S. & EU Set to Spend Hundreds of Billions of Dollars on Ukraine

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Image: US Army

On 9 May 2022, Reuters headlined “U.S. Congress plans nearly $40 bln more for Ukraine, COVID aid to wait” and reported that “U.S. congressional Democrats agreed to rush $39.8 billion in additional aid for Ukraine,” and:

The House of Representatives could pass the plan, which exceeds President Joe Biden’s request last month for $33 billion, as soon as Tuesday, and Senate leaders said they were also prepared to move quickly.

A proposal for additional COVID-19-related funding, which some Democrats had wanted to combine with the emergency Ukraine funding, will now be considered separately.

Biden on April 28 asked Congress for $33 billion to support Ukraine, including more than $20 billion in military assistance. That proposal was a dramatic escalation of U.S. funding for the war with Russia.

The U.S. Government, with virtual unanimity, view the war in Ukraine to be not so much Ukraine’s war with Russia, but actually as America’s war with Russia, and therefore as being the first direct battleground of World War III, which America will win at all costs. The plan is for America ultimately to become enabled to place its nuclear missiles on Ukraine’s border with Russia, just a five-minute flying-time away from blitz-nuking Moscow and thereby greatly weakening Russia’s command-and-control by eliminating Russia’s central command faster than Russia will be able to launch its retaliatory missiles (if any of those survive America’s initial attack). In 2006, America quietly and unilaterally (though never officially, because the policy-change was gradual and secret) abandoned the meta-strategy that had guided both Russia and the United States ever since the end of World War II, which was called “M.A.D.” or “Mutually Assured Destruction” (the use of nuclear weapons only in order to prevent a WW III) to, instead, “Nuclear Primacy” by America (the use of nuclear weapons to win a nuclear war). Even some top American nuclear scientists have spoken publicly against that plan. But with the participation now of over 98% of the members of the U.S. Congress who constantly are voting for it, and of all U.S. Presidents ever since the time of George W. Bush, that plan (“Nuclear Primacy”) is the plan, and it aims for America to conquer, actually, in the final analysis, the entire world. Ukraine has become central to this plan because Ukraine’s border is closer to Moscow (and the Kremlin) than any other is. (Therefore, Finland’s would be the second-best, from the U.S. Government’s point of view, the “Nuclear Primacy” view.) The EU, under Ursula von der Leyen and Charles Michel, is almost entirely united behind it, and, like France’s Emmanuel Macron, hopes to change the EU’s Constitution so as to eliminate the ability of each individual EU member nation to veto any foreign-affairs proposal such as for the EU to immediately admit Ukraine into its membership (thereby, vetoing for America to become enabled to get Ukraine into its military alliance against Russia, NATO). As Macron said on May 9th, it will take ‘several decades’ for Ukraine to join the EU, and therefore the EU’s founding documents need to be changed in order to prevent this sort of roadblock from ever happening again. So: America and EU both are in agreement that Russia must not be allowed to win this war, which is called Ukraine’s war but is really the U.S.-and-allied war to conquer Russia. (Any stragglers will then easily be able to be taken care of.) They are pulling out all the stops they can, to win this, to win in the first real battleground of WW III, which is Ukraine, on Russia’s border.

Also on May 9th, Bart M. J. Szewczyk, a nonresident senior fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States (which was set up to memoralize the Marshall Plan, which U.S. President Truman had set up in order to bribe European countries with billions of dollars of U.S. reconstruction money if they would join with America against the Soviet Union), headlined in America’s Foreign Policy magazine, “Ukraine Faces an Economic Abyss”, and wrote that “Ukraine may need $600 billion for postwar reconstruction — and more the longer the war drags on.” 

Washington’s instructions to Ukraine’s President Volodmyr Zelensky are to continue the war for as long as possible so as to enable as much weapons from Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, Raytheon, and other U.S. ‘Defense’ contractors, to pour into the country and maybe wear out Russia and force Russia to capitulate to Ukraine (i.e., to America) in this, the first round of WW III. That $600 billion, or so, would, of course, come from U.S. and EU not during the war, but AFTER the perhaps hundreds of billions of dollars will already have been spent during the war, in order to buy, from those firms, the weapons that Ukrainians will, by then, have used, in order to achieve Russia’s defeat in this non-nuclear opening round of what clearly now will be a long war to conquer Russia. Szewczyk went on to say that

The trans-Atlantic division of labor over the past eight years — roughly speaking, about 80 percent of economic aid for Ukraine from Europe and 80 percent of military aid from the United States — suggests likely future trends. As European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen argued this week, Europe has a “special responsibility” toward Ukraine and must allocate “massive investment” to sustain it. In particular, the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development — which has invested more than $150 billion across Central and Eastern Europe since its founding in 1991 — will be a key player in galvanizing this effort. The bank has already facilitated over $16 billion of investment in Ukraine and recently announced a new $2 billion package. Its annual meeting next week will already be dominated by the topic of Ukraine.

Of course, U.S. and EU taxpayers have already spent lots of money in order to get this war started, up till the point when, on 24 February 2022, Russia finally invaded. Szewczyk wrote that “the European Union and European financial institutions — Ukraine’s main backers — provided around $18 billion in grants and loans to Ukraine between 2014 and the start of Russia’s latest invasion on Feb. 24.” He ignored there the billions that America had spent, even prior to Barack Obama’s successful coup which had brought to power in Ukraine a rabidly anti-Russian regime there to replace the neutralist government that Ukraine had had prior to that U.S. coup, which undeniably did occur, and which had been in the planning stages of the Obama Administration ever since 2011 at the very latest.

Furthermore, Szewczyk wrote, 

An even deeper collapse of Ukraine’s wartime economy could send millions more refugees to Europe.

There are ample resources across the West to finance Ukraine’s wartime economy through grants, loans, and trade concessions. Getting Ukraine up and running is in the West’s — and above all, Europe’s — own interest. Not only does the EU need a functioning bulwark against an imperialist Russia, but the EU is also Ukraine’s main trade partner.

So, all of these estimates are far likelier to increase, instead of decrease, during the coming decade.

Szewczyk is the author of the 2021 book, Europe’s Grand Strategy: Navigating a New World Order, which his publisher introduces by saying of it, “This book proposes that the European Union should craft a grand strategy to navigate the new world order based on a four-pronged approach. First, European decision-makers (both in Brussels and across EU capitals) should take a broader view of their existential interests at stake and devote greater time and resources to serving them within the wider cause of the liberal order.” The description of him provided there is “Bart M.J. Szewczyk served as Member of the Policy Planning Staff at the US State Department and Adviser on Global Affairs at the European Commission’s think-tank.”

So: when Reuters headlined on May 9th that “U.S. Congress plans nearly $40 bln more for Ukraine, COVID aid to wait”, it was clearly a harbinger for “belt-tightening” by U.S.-and-EU publics on everything else than what is said by their respective governments to be “existential” matters, which means conquering the entire rest of the world, before such issues as “COVID” can be overcome. U.S.-and-allied ‘national security’ interests “against an imperialist Russia” (as Szewczyk put it) must come first, in these ‘democracies’. War must come first. That is clearly the policy now, because of the “existential” threat, not to Russia, but from Russia.

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