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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               In large part, this is because “professional” education in the United States has effectively superseded everything that does not ostentatiously focus on making money.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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Interpreting the Biden Doctrine: The View From Moscow

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Official White House Photo by Carlos Fyfe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From our partner RIAC

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AUKUS aims to perpetuate the Anglo-Saxon supremacy

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Image credit: ussc.edu.au

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Americas

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

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Joe Biden
Official White House Photo by Adam Schultz

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

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

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