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Belt and Road Hazards, Coming to the Americas

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The Chinese train that came and went
At a nationally-televised press conference in Panama City in March 2019, a China-funded team of Chinese and Panamanian engineers took the stage. They unveiled the results of their feasibility study of the proposed Panama-Chiriquí Railway. They announced the megaproject would cost $4.1 billion and take six years to build. It would cut travel time from the capital to the Costa Rican border from eight hours to three. On this sunny day, Panama’s President Juan Carlos Varela was on hand to cut the blue ribbon, beaming alongside Wei Qiang, China’s Spanish-fluent ambassador. Varela said new urban areas would be created along the route, helping to develop Panama’s neglected interior. He added that the train would increase the export-competitiveness of Panama’s rural producers—noting it is currently cheaper to send cargo to Panama’s ports from Shanghai than from its own coffee-growing Chiriquí Highlands. Panama would modernize its slow, fragmented land transport, and China Railway Design Corporation would get a big fat contract. Everyone agreed it was a win-win.

“Win-win projects” are indeed the stated goal of China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), also known as the New Silk Road. Introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the BRI is China’s global economic strategy for the twenty-first century: to finance and build new infrastructure in partner countries around the world, linking them to China and Chinese-operated logistics hubs, putting China and its influence at the center of global commerce.

The Panama-Chiriquí Railway was to be China’s first BRI project in the Americas. Panama became the first country in the region to join to the BRI in November 2017. That was the year of what a local newspaper called a “honeymoon dance” between President Varela and Xi, when Varela cut Panama’s diplomatic relations with Taiwan and opened them with China. That same year, a Chinese firm won a $165 million contract to build the Amador Cruise Terminal at the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. At the Atlantic end, another Chinese firm began construction of a $900 million liquid natural gas (LNG) power plant and the $1.1 billion Panama Colón Container Port, to be the largest port in Panama. With hard hats and shovels, President Varela and Wei Qiang stood together at the ceremony to lay the port’s first stone—Varela noting it was the biggest investment China had ever made in Panama. The deal also meant Chinese firms would soon control three of the six container ports on the Panama Canal, as Hong Kong-based Hutchinson Ports already manages the ports of Balboa and Cristóbal. China was on a roll in Panama.

As Chinese firms poured billions into real estate and infrastructure projects at both ends of the Panama Canal, many locals worried that Panama’s sovereignty was being threatened—a sovereignty only recently achieved, when the US handed over the Canal Zone to Panama in 1997. In a 2018 editorial in La Estrella, Universidad Interamericana de Panama professor Euclid Tapia warned of the debt-trap diplomacy for which China has become infamous in many other BRI countries. Tapia cited Sri Lanka, “where to pay its debts to Chinese creditors the country was forced to lease its most important port for 99 years.” He said similarly, and with little public attention, China was now seeking to construct a new fourth set of locks on the Panama Canal at an “unspeakable” cost of $15 to $20 billion—which “will gladly be financed by China,” precisely because Panama would likely be unable to pay it back. “Knowing the degree of corruption of our governments,” wrote Tapia, “it is highly probable that the fate of the Panama Canal will follow that of the Suez Canal, which due to Egyptian debt, England took from France. China could take over our canal and swallow us by osmosis.”

Perhaps slow to respond, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo flew to Panama City in October 2018 to discuss US concerns with President Varela. Pompeo warned the president of the “predatory economic activity” of China’s state-owned enterprise (SOEs). “In parts of the world,” he told local news, “China has invested in ways that have left countries worse off, and that should never be the case. Any time there is investment that comes from outside of a country, it certainly should be a good investment for the investor, but it has to be something that’s good for the country that hosts that investment as well.” Through the media, Pompeo issued a warning to all of Latin America: “When China comes calling, it’s not always to the good of your citizens.”

Pompeo also broached another thorny topic: the four-hectares at the Pacific entrance of the Panama Canal that Varela had offered China to build its new embassy. The idea of a giant Chinese flag waving before incoming ships at the mouth of the canal the US built did not appeal to the Trump administration. The month after Pompeo’s visit, Panama announced that plans for the Chinese embassy by the canal entrance had been cancelled.

Despite Pompeo’s warnings, Varela and Xi danced on. In December 2018, two months after Pompeo flew out, Xi flew in, becoming the first Chinese president to visit Panama. During the 24-hour visit, the countries signed 19 cooperation agreements on trade and infrastructure. In a televised address, Varela recalled that Xi had once told him that China’s economy is an ocean, adding: “I want to complement those words by saying Panama connects two oceans, and [Xi’s] visit consolidates our country as China’s commercial arm and gateway to Latin America.” A day after Xi left the country, Varela announced that Chinese firms had won a $1.4 billion contract to build a fourth bridge over the Panama Canal.

China-Panama relations were growing closer than ever. By spring 2019, the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project was rolling ahead full steam. But it hit a snag: Varela was reaching the end of his term limit. Panama elected a new president from an opposing party, Laurentino Cortizo, who took office in July 2019. By now having awoken to the threat of Chinese influence in Panama, the US wasted no time in putting pressure on Cortizo to rethink his country’s relationship with China. By September, Cortizo had scrapped the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project. In October, his administration announced an audit of Panama’s twenty-five-year contract with Hutchinson Ports, which ends in 2022. The Hong Kong firm has for decades been accused of not revealing its financial records and not paying the Panamanian government its 10% share of dividends from port operations.

Not losing a step, four months after leaving office, now ex-President Varela was again dining with Xi—this time in Shanghai at the China International Import Expo. But in December 2019, a bombshell dropped: Varelaleaks.com posted a phone chat between Panamanian officials indicating that Varela had received a $143 million bribe from China in June 2017—the moment he had switched Panama’s diplomatic relations from Taiwan to China. There were calls for an investigation, which remains stuck in Panama’s bureaucracy.

Belt and Road hazards
The recent tug-of-war between US and Chinese interests in Panama foreshadows many more to come throughout the Americas in the twenty-first century. In the past decade, three of seven countries in the world to switch allegiances from Taiwan to China have been in the Americas, as El Salvador and the Dominican Republic followed Panama’s lead in 2018. (Taiwan claims China offered the Dominican Republic $3.1 billion in loans and investments to change allegiances.) Since Panama signed on to the BRI, eighteen of thirty-three countries in Latin America have done the same.

China markets the BRI as a more expedient alternative to traditional development projects funded by International Financial Institutions (IFIs), such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF). In some ways, this is true. IFIs often make project funding contingent on countries’ agreement to structural adjustment programs as well as the creation of jobs programs which allow local workers to actually do the work. China asks for none of this. Instead, it presents itself as a friendly banker-contractor making an offer at a low price—the “China Price”—to do the job, do it fast, and loan the money—no strings attached.

But China’s BRI deals do come with strings attached—albeit different sorts of strings from those of IFIs. Among them, China’s debt-trap diplomacy and its penchant for targeting corrupt regimes and bribing officials have already been well-documented. But there are many other hazards along the New Silk Road which countries in the Americas should recognize.

Creating new geographies of corruption
China ranked second only to Russia on the Bribery Players Index published by Transparency International in 2011. Does China’s culture of bribery and corruption travel along to its overseas construction projects? It does, according to a 57-page 2016 Journal of Public Economics  paper entitled Chinese Aid and Local Corruption by Ann-Sofie Isaksson and Andreas Kotsadam. The study found that areas of Africa located within 50 km of a Chinese project showed significantly increased corruption. The results were based on matching data from 98,449 respondents to four Afrobarometer survey waves across 29 African countries with a new georeferenced dataset on the subnational allocation of Chinese development finance projects between 2000-2012. Notably, the study found that the new culture of corruption stays around long after Chinese constructions projects end—and that aid projects from other sources actually have the opposite effect:

“The results consistently indicate that Chinese aid projects fuel local corruption. Moreover, the effect seemingly lingers after the project implementation period, and does not appear to be driven simply by an increase in economic activity, but rather seems to imply that the Chinese presence impacts local norms. Moreover, China stands out from the World Bank and other bilateral donors in this respect. In particular, whereas the results indicate that Chinese aid projects fuel local corruption but have no observable impact on local economic activity, they suggest that World Bank aid projects stimulate local economic activity without fueling local corruption. Indeed, if anything, they suggest the opposite; there is some indication that World Bank health projects help reduce corruption. In line with this, suggestive evidence indicates that World Bank aid projects are successful in raising awareness of corruption. This is interesting considering that the World Bank has been at the forefront of the ‘anti-corruption movement’ among major international organizations, with explicit anti-corruption policies as part of their agenda. Comparing with other bilateral donors, who just as China might not have an equally explicit anti-corruption agenda as the World Bank, Chinese aid projects still stand out in terms of their estimated effects on local corruption. Indeed, in Uganda, Japanese and American aid projects, if anything, appear to bring reduced local corruption. Hence, the comparison of the local corruption effects of Chinese and other aid does not speak in China’s favor.”

What is especially concerning about these findings is that reducing corruption and bribery and establishing the rule of law are among the most difficult targets to attain within the UN Sustainable Development Goals. They are difficult to monitor and cannot be budgeted for in a development package like funds for a bridge or a port, which can be traced to their end use. As legal scholar Katherine Erbeznik puts it:

“Money can’t buy you law… Rule of law reform efforts have stalled. One reason is that reform has focused solely on formal rule of law institutions, rather than on the informal political or cultural norms that are needed to support such institutions. Little is known, however, about how to foster such political and cultural norms where they are lacking.” In Africa, which—like Latin America—is already struggling to make progress in changing cultural norms surrounding corruption, the Chinese presence on the ground is turning the dial backwards, further exacerbating the problem—an effect opposite that of any other development source.

Natural resource theft: the “Chinese Takeaway”
China is also the world leader in natural resource theft, and the BRI is only exacerbating this trend. For example, for over a decade, Chinese illegal logging has been rampant in Africa—dubbed by locals the “Chinese takeaway.” China has stringent regulations on domestic logging, so it looks abroad to feed the growing demand for luxury furniture among China’s middle class—and US demand for furniture made in China. Chinese agents pay Africans by the thousands to cut down trees for them—including in protected areas—and bribe local officials to get transport permits and sustainability certifications to allow the logs to be exported. China is now building an Industrial Wood Processing Park in Mozambique, where logs will be turned into chips, facilitating “log laundering.” Chinese illegal logging is already rampant in the Americas, including timber from the Brazilian Amazon and rosewood from Mexico and Guatemala. Increased Chinese presence and control of transport linkages in the Americas will only intensify bribery and the speed at which the region’s forests are pillaged.

The same is true in the seas. China sates its immense appetite for seafood in part by being the world’s largest perpetrator of distant-water illegal fishing, and the Americas have been a prime target. The US (especially Alaska), Canada, Mexico, Colombia, Peru, Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina regularly intercept and detain Chinese fishing pirates in their coastal waters. The Argentines have shot at and sunk Chinese vessels in the last several years. Chinese mafias collude with Latin American fishing cartels in multimillion-dollar smuggling networks supplying traditional Chinese medicine. For example, Ecuador apprehended Chinese ships poaching endangered hammerhead sharks for shark fin soup in Galapagos National Park. Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel colludes with Chinese pirates in smuggling bladders of the totoaba fish caught in the Gulf of California, which can sell for over $20,000 per kilogram on the black market in China. BRI port and rail projects in the Americas, manned by Chinese personnel, promise to facilitate more Chinese maritime piracy.

Spying by any other name
US cybersecurity firm FireEye, among others, reports that China has used BRI projects for cyber espionage many times and in numerous countries. In particular, FireEye notes that state-sponsored Chinese hackers have used infrastructure built as part of BRI projects to spy on a) foreign leaders who make BRI-related decisions, b) regional opponents of BRI projects, and c) government entities managing elections in BRI countries.

Take for example the new $200 million African Union headquarters in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. China built it for free as a “gift” in 2012. In 2017, French newspaper Le Monde and other sources reported that China had hacked all the confidential data from the African Union’s IT network, recorded conversations throughout the building with microphones it had planted in the walls and furniture, and uploaded all this information to Shanghai every night from 2012-2017.

Chinese telecom giant Huawei provided the digital surveillance equipment in the African Union building. A 2019 Wall Street Journal investigation reported that Huawei technicians also helped African leaders in Uganda and Zambia spy on their opponents. In February, the US government accused Huawei of being able to secretly retrieve “sensitive and personal information” from users of 4G networks the company has built and maintained—in the US and around the world—via technological “back doors” designed to be used only by law enforcement. Yet the firm is already responsible for building up to 70% of the telecommunications infrastructure in Africa. Now it is building the first 5G network in Southeast Asia in Cambodia. Huawei is the leading contender to create new 5G networks throughout Latin America, including Panama. It is now seeking to build a system of security cameras in Colon Free Zone, Panama’s largest free trade zone, home to over 3000 companies from around the world. Thus the Huawei security system is a potential vehicle for Chinese spying on thousands of commercial operations in Panama.

In short, every element of telecommunications infrastructure built under the BRI—the Digital Silk Road—should be viewed as a potential instrument for cyber espionage.

A future as one of China’s somewhere elses
China today is in the early stages of attempting to transition from being the world’s factory to managing factories around the world. Chinese companies are moving to outsource manufacturing—to go from Made in China to Made by China, Somewhere Else. China is using BRI projects to create a global network of Chinese-controlled somewhere elses, where it can manufacture, transport, and sell. These include Chinese-built, Chinese-operated industrial zones overseas, where Chinese-managed factories set up shop, overseeing local workers. They also include Chinese-built, Chinese-run logistics hubs, including ocean ports and “dry ports” for rail cargo transshipment. And they include Chinese-built, Chinese-managed overseas marketplaces like malls, shopping centers, and tax-free zones, where China can sell.

The roots of China’s offshore manufacturing push precede the BRI. Having hosted foreign-owned factories since 1978, in 1999 China began its “Going Out Policy,” a push to engage in outward foreign direct investment. More recently, the explosion of China’s middle class has driven the cost of labor up sharply, prodding Chinese firms to outsource manufacturing. Many BRI projects create new spaces to do just that. To illustrate, one need only look to the experience of Africa, where China is involved in infrastructure projects in some thirty-five countries.

Take Djibouti, where China built the $3.5 billion Djibouti International Free Trade Zone (DIFTZ) in 2018—the largest free trade zone in Africa. It was soon filled with Chinese-managed factories employing local workers at rock-bottom wages. China connected Djibouti to Ethiopia by building the 754-km Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, which will be operated by Chinese managers and drivers until at least 2023. Countries in the Americas should take notice that—while not sold as such—a key purpose of the BRI is to repeat this pattern: to create Chinese-controlled logistics networks accessing cheap labor markets to which Chinese companies can outsource factory jobs.

Or take Transsion, maker of the most popular smartphones in Africa, which sell under brand names such as Tecno and Itel. Transsion is a Chinese company, but it does not sell any phones in China and most Chinese people have never heard of it. It makes all of its African phones in factories in Ethiopia run by Chinese managers.

BRI projects have built extensive new transport networks in Africa to ship Transsion phones and thousands of other Chinese products now flooding the continent’s markets. (China is also using these new transport links to remove Africa’s natural resources at an astounding rate—legally and illegally—and discussed below.) In Kenya, China has already completed the Port of Mombasa—the largest port in East Africa—as well as the high-speed Mombasa-Nairobi Railway, the Thika Highway, and malls including Two Rivers Mall, the largest in Sub-Saharan Africa. In the works is the Mombasa-Nairobi superhighway. Laying down thousands of kilometers of road and railways, China hopes to use Kenya as its primary gateway for commerce with 120 million people in East Africa. The plan is to funnel Chinese products through Kenya and on to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, northern Tanzania, and South Sudan. Inside Kenya, products manufactured in Chinese-operated factories will be transported across Chinese-built highways and rail networks and sold in Chinese shops in Chinese-built malls.

China hopes to replicate this model the Americas. It wants to make Panama one of its Kenyas in Latin America, a gateway to commerce with Central and South America. The Panama-Chiriquí Railway would have opened the door for Chinese firms to outsource factories throughout Panama’s interior and ship the products easily by rail to the ports it controls on the Panama Canal. To be sure, Panama sorely lacks manufacturing and high-tech industries—which is why it could be tempted into signing on to projects that would, in actuality, yield large numbers of extremely low-paid manufacturing jobs. Panama would be well on its way to becoming one of China’s somewhere elses.

Part of China’s New World
Besides products, China unloads people through the BRI. In recent decades, over one million Chinese, mostly men, have permanently moved to Africa, as documented by Howard French in his book China’s Second Continent. Another million Chinese are currently working in Africa indefinitely, with more to come. Most came to work on Chinese construction projects and decided to stay. In Africa, Chinese workers often find blue skies, clean air, and freedom from the Communist Party for the first time. Many Chinese men have found African wives—an important factor, as China has a gender imbalance of 32 million more men than women due to the One Child Policy and families’ preference for boys, which led to the abortion of millions of girls. Many Chinese job-hop from one African country to another, gaining skills and experience and taking advantage of the vast assortment of Chinese projects—and Africa’s lax border controls. The highest-grossing Chinese movie of all time, 2017’s Wolf Warrior 2, is about Chinese who made a new life in Africa.

Chinese emigration to BRI countries also helps reduce potential social unrest in China. BRI workers often come from the poorer, more neglected provinces in China’s interior, where development lags far behind that of the coast. Opportunities for advancement there are much rarer. But in Africa, Chinese workers often find they can apply their skills far more, get promoted much faster, and make more money.

While Africa has been a new world for many Chinese, this sort of influx of millions of Chinese workers is the last thing the Americas region needs. It is already plagued by broken borders and illegal migration—from the two million escaping Venezuela’s economic meltdown to the half million fleeing drug violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America to the nearly one million arrested along the US border each year. Migrants fleeing conflict zones, disasters, and repressive regimes around the world—such as Haiti, Cuba, and Syria—are currently spilling over Panama’s dangerous jungle border with Colombia, the Darien Gap, in the hope of continuing northward to seek refugee status in the US. Yet many of these migrants end up staying in Panama, a small, poor country of four million people. The US and the UN Refugee Agency have been working with the Panamanian government to manage this migrant overload, but it has been anything but easy. For example, with some 2,000 migrants stuck in a camp in Peñitas, Panama on the Colombian border and running out of money for food and water, some threatened to burn down the shelter they were staying in. Add a few million Chinese BRI workers looking to stay indefinitely to the Americas’ chaotic migration picture and stir, and it’s a recipe for havoc.

On the receiving end of the Great Unloading
Through BRI projects, China unloads many of its own excesses—products, construction, and also people. Building malls, ports, and railways overseas involves immense quantities of steel, cement, glass, pipes, wires, tools, construction machines, and other products—all of which come from China, where they are massively overproduced by its state-owned enterprises (SOEs). At home, China unloads these products by (unnecessarily) tearing down and rebuilding buildings every 20 to 30 years, making construction the top industry in China—(artificially) driving up the GDP and helping to stave off unemployment (while destroying tens of thousands of demolition workers’ lungs through the inhalation of silicon dust without adequate protection). BRI projects provide new opportunities for Chinese firms running out of infrastructure-building opportunities in China, while unloading China’s excess construction materials all over the world.

However, the quality of Chinese construction does not always match its quantity. In China, construction is often rushed and/or uses cheap materials and/or unqualified workers, leading to many shoddy buildings—including outright disasters such as collapsed bridges and skyscrapers. These have earned the nickname doufuzha gongcheng, or “tofu-dreg projects”—worse than the leftover dregs from making tofu. These includes the flimsy schools that fell like a house of cards during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, killing the students inside them. Time will tell if China has been exporting tofu-dreg construction along the New Silk Road.

Loading up and land grabs
As China unloads products and people out over the New Silk Road, it also uses it to load up on natural resources and farm products to meet the demand of its enormous population. For example, China has built new ports in a dozen countries in Africa, where it has been by far the largest extractor of the continent’s natural resources—such as oil from Angola, timber from Gabon, iron from Guinea, and cobalt from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In Victoria, the only Australian state thus far to sign on to the BRI, Chinese firms bought the Port of Melbourne—the country’s busiest port—in 2016 for $9.7 billion. China also bought northern Australia’s Port of Darwin in 2015. China now owns 2.3% of Australia’s land, including cattle farms, dairies, and wineries, and it uses its new ports to connect to its rapidly-expanding “land grab” farms.

Chinese investors have been buying up millions of acres of farmland around the world at an alarming rate. Chinese entities own roughly 200,000 acres of farmland in the US, and Chinese investment in US farming has multiplied tenfold in less than a decade. Along with South Korea and Saudi Arabia, China is one of the top “land grabbers” in Latin America today. It owns vast swathes of the South American soy giants Brazil and Argentina. Currently, China has a controversial $3.5 billion offer on the table to double the number of pigs in Argentina and turn it in to one of its main pork suppliers—a deal opposed by a petition signed by some 400,000 Argentines. The Panama-Chiriquí Railway project would have facilitated new Chinese land grabs around the hinterlands of Panama—and potentially neighboring Costa Rica and Colombia—by providing a way to easily get the farm products to ports controlled by China.

China’s land grabs help support its dietary transition, driven by increasing affluence. UCLA historian Philip Huang found that, in recent decades, China’s diet has shifted from an historical 8:1:1 ratio of grains to meat to vegetables to 4:3:3 today. However, 40% of China’s own farmland has been degraded by overuse, erosion, and pollution, forcing it to look for new farmland overseas.

Controlling the Crossroads
Chinese influence in Panama has special importance for the US for several reasons. Built in 1914 under Teddy Roosevelt, the Panama Canal is the US’ own signature megaproject. The Panama Canal Zone was a US territory from 1903 to 1979, similar to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the US Virgin Islands. US public schools operated there, and “Zonians” received US mail addressed with the state postal abbreviation CZ. Heavy and growing Chinese influence in Panama today challenges the US’ historic cultural dominance of the “Crossroads of the Americas.” China’s control of Panama’s ports, in particular, is a threat to future US trade security. Today 63% of the cargo passing through the canal is headed to or from the US. China is currently violating nine other countries’ coastal waters in the South China Sea, persecuting over a million Uyghurs in re-education camps, and breaching its treaty with the UK on the governance of Hong Kong. So it is not hard to imagine that China could use its control of three Panama Canal ports to interfere with US trade in a time of war or other conflict. Further, China has for years tried to build new alternatives to the Panama Canal. These include plans for a maritime canal through Nicaragua (which would be an ecological disaster) as well as “dry canals” across Costa Rica and Colombia, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans by rail. If any of these new canals materialize, China could use its BRI partnerships to redirect shipping to Chinese-built canals.

Alternatives Wanted
In the Americas, China sees opportunity. And in the BRI, countries in the Americas see opportunity. Argentina is the eighth-largest country in the world, yet it has no viable train system. In 2018 it signed a $1 billion deal with China Railway Construction to modernize its cargo rail by 2025. Mexico has the thirteenth-longest coastline in the world, but its aging ports use outdated technology. So it hired China Harbour Engineering Company to build a new $1.5 billion terminal at the Port of Veracruz—now the second-largest port in Mexico since the project’s completion in 2019. Colombia, a strong US ally, has had the least Chinese investment of the major countries in the Americas. But in 2019 the city of Bogotá signed a $4 billion deal for China Harbour Engineering to build a new metro system—and operate it for twenty years.

Panama’s canal has made it one of the world’s most globally-connected countries. Yet its internal connectivity lags far behind. As a result, Panama suffers from sharp regional inequalities. The average per capita GDP of the three provinces surrounding the canal is four times that of the seven outlying provinces. China promised to help change that with the Panama-Chiriquí Railway project and future investments, which would have opened the door to integrated development throughout the country—something the US never did in the 76 years of the Canal Zone era. While the Chinese project fell through, Panama is still looking for options—and China will present more offers. “We don’t offer constricting belts or a one-way road,” said US Vice President Mike Pence. But without alternatives, warnings are not enough.

“We need, and we have asked, that [the US] look toward the region more—the region, not just Panama,” said President Cortizo. “They need to pay more attention. While they’re not paying attention, another one is making advances.”

Robert C. Thornett is a social science educator and writer who has taught in four colleges and universities as well as international schools in seven countries. His work has been published in Yale Environment 360, Earth Island Journal, and The Solutions Journal. He currently teaches at the International School of Panama.

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Americas

Perils of Belligerent Nationalism: The Urgent Obligations of Planetary Community

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“…the worst are full of passionate intensity, while the best lack all conviction.”-William Butler Yeats, The Second Coming

By definition, former President Donald J. Trump’s doctrinal emphasis on “America First” signified a rejection of human community and universal cooperation.[1] The enduring effect of this rejection has been palpable acceleration of global chaos, a dissembling speedup that includes corollary risks of war, terrorism and genocide. To the extent that these more-or-less plausible risks might sometime display a nuclear dimension,[2] any further continuity of belligerent nationalism could propel the United States and other countries toward certain irretrievable forms of human catastrophe..

                Ultimately, whatever the particular outcomes, truth will likely win out over shortsighted expressions of political wizardry.[3] A core component of any such truth is that American survival and prosperity are inextricably linked with a much wider global vulnerability. In essence, it would be foolish to suppose that the American nation – or, indeed, any individual nation – could meaningfully secure itself at the expense of other nations.

                For an especially timely example of such profound intellectual error, one need look no further than the now-persistent “plague” of worldwide disease pandemic. As in cases of belligerent nationalism regarding military security matters, the effective management or conquest of Covid19 will require full scale rejections of zero-sum thinking. Here, where it is understood as a metaphor of much wider problems, authentic planetary community is indispensable.

               There is more. Learning must always be theory-based.[4] With its inherently self-deceiving nature, however, belligerent nationalism is gratuitously crude and injurious. Going forward, the only sensible posture for a sitting U.S. president must express some determinedly coherent variant of “all in the soup together.”

               Such an improved mantra need not be all that difficult to operationalize. It is usefully discoverable in the succinctly prescient writings of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin: “The egocentric ideal of a future reserved for those who have managed to attain egoistically the extremity of everyone for himself,” summarizes the late Jesuit scientist and philosopher, “is false and against nature. No element can move and grow except with and by all the others with itself.”

               Prima facie, the core message here is both simple and incontestable. It is that no single country’s individual security can ever be achieved at the tangible expense of other countries. Moreover, no such individual state security is conceivably sustainable if the world as a whole must thereby expect a reciprocally diminished future.[5]

               There is more, No conceivably gainful configuration of Planet Earth can ever prove “secure” if the conspicuously vast human legions which comprise it remain morally, spiritually, and intellectually adrift. It is, of course, precisely such a willful detachment from stable national and international moorings that was openly fostered by Donald Trump’s “America First.”

               Earlier, observed William Butler Yeats, in what represented a more broadly metaphorical indictment of chaos, “Theblood-dimmed tide is loosed.”  But just as it appeared for the empathetic Irish poet, today’s still-expanding global chaos is really just a symptom. It is, as the professional philosophers would likely claim, “merely epiphenomenal.”[6]

               The philosophers would be “on course.” For the world as a whole, chaos and belligerent nationalism are never themost truly underlying “disease.”[7] Always, that more determinative pathology remains rooted in certain seemingly great and powerful states that stubbornly fail to recognize the remorseless imperatives of human interrelatedness or community. This core failure has been a long-term problem, and is not one that is particular to any particular American president or to the United States in its decisional entirety.[8]

               Following former President Donald Trump’s “America First,” world politics will increasingly encourage an already lethal human deficit. This deficit is the reluctance of individual citizens and their respective states to discover authentic self-worth as individual persons, within themselves. Precisely such a significant deficit had already been foreseen in the eighteenth century by America’s then-leading person of letters, Ralph Waldo Emerson. Today, revealingly, the still-vital insights of “American Transcendentalists” remain recognizable and meaningful to only an excruciatingly tiny minority. Unsurprisingly, especially after Trump, the “life of the mind in America” is a very shallow narrative.

               Despite their impressive intellectual antecedents, including some earlier occupants of the White House, Americans almost never read seriously challenging books. Such a cryptic observation is not offered here in an offhanded or gratuitously mean spirited fashion. Quite the contrary, it is presented as an unassailable fact of American life, one famously commented upon during the first third of the nineteenth century by French visitor Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America. This same fact led the Founding Fathers of the United States, including Thomas Jefferson (the most identifiably democratic figure among them), to rail against uneducated mass participation in the new republic.[9]

               As the necessary corrective, Jefferson set forth in his Notes on Virginia a plan of elementary schooling by which, he argued, “twenty of the best geniuses will be raked from the rubbish annually.”

               Somehow, whatever we might now think of Jefferson’s earlier expectations for “The People,” former president Trump managed to defile what is most urgently important to our common future. This factor is the critical inner horizon to world politics and whatever it implies. In literature, this subtle horizon is not in any fashion conspicuous. Nor is it “practically” oriented toward commerce or personal wealth aggrandizement. It can be encountered and clarified in the “inner horizon” writings of Sören Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, Friedrich Nietzsche, Hermann Hesse, Carl Jung,[10] Jose Ortega y’Gassett and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

               Here on earth, the tribe, in at least one form or another, is always the determinative microcosm. From the beginning, from the muddled primal promiscuity of our very earliest global politics, determinative behavior in world affairs has been driven by some kind or other of individual group elevation and resultant inter-group conflict. From the identifiable human origins of all our so-called “civilizations,”[11] and from the pitiably aggregated totals of individual human souls seeking some ultimately satisfying forms of redemption, most people have felt themselves utterly lost or hideously abandoned outside the warmth of a “protective” tribe.

               Today, it is precisely this degrading and potentially lethal inclination that is fostered by any and all forms of belligerent nationalism.

               The veneer of human civilization remains razor thin. Oddly, certain whole swaths of humankind remain dedicated to certain ancient and grotesque sacrificial practices. In this connection, shamelessly linking violence and the sacred, most terrorist murders are now reassuringly justified as “holy war” or as “freedom fighting.” But their net effect is always plainly insidious and thoroughly dissembling.

               As a stipulated response to these serious challenges, belligerent nationalism remains wholly misconceived. Left unchallenged, this atavistic mantra would only further harden the hearts of humankind’s most recalcitrant enemies, and thereby exacerbate the indispensable search for some truly viable American remedies. What we need, instead, is broadening support for a much more enduring impulse of global solidarity and human interconnectedness.

                From the seventeenth-century Peace of Westphalia, which in 1648 ended the last of the great religious wars sparked by the Reformation, to the present precarious moment, international relations and international law[12] have been shaped by a protean “balance of power,” and by the evident corollaries of war,[13] terror, and genocide.[14] To be sure,  hope still exists, but now, it must sing softly, in an undertone, that is, with circumspection, inconspicuously, almost sotto voce. Although counter-intuitive, the time for visceral celebrations of science, modernization, technology, and even social media is already partially over.  Now, to survive, together, on an imperiled planet, all of us must energetically seek to rediscover an individual life that is consciously detached from nationally patterned conformance, cheap entertainments, shallow optimism, and disingenuously contrived visages of tribal happiness.

               With such refreshingly candid expressions of the awakened human spirit, we Americans may yet learn something that is both useful and redemptive. We may learn, even during the declension “Time of Trump,” that a commonly felt agony is more important than astrophysics; that a ubiquitous mortality is more consequential than any transient financial “success;” and that shared human tears may reveal much deeper meanings and opportunities than narrowly self-serving tax reductions or imbecilic border walls.

               In his landmark work, The Decline of the West, first published during World War I, Oswald Spengler inquired: “Can a desperate faith in knowledge free us from the nightmare of the grand questions?” It remains a noteworthy query, one that will likely never be raised in our universities, let alone on Wall Street or in the White House.  We may, however, still learn something about these “grand questions”  by studying American responsibility for the still-expanding chaos in world politics.

               At that time, we might finally learn that the most suffocating insecurities of life on earth can never be undone by militarizing global economics, by building larger missiles, by abrogating international treaties, or by replacing one abundantly sordid regime with another in the naively presumed interests of “national security.”

               In the end, even amid an endlessly squalid American politics, truth is exculpatory. Accordingly, in a promising paradox, Trump’s “America First” expressed a lie that could still help to see the truth. This cosmopolitan truth, worldwide in scope, is that Americans require above all else a consciousness of unity and relatedness between human beings and their particular nation-states. Always, as this essay has expressly underscored, this indispensable consciousness must be rooted in pertinent international law.[15]

               Though widely unrecognized, such an elementary consciousness is integral to all meaningful possibilities of both American security and planetary well-being. Now, before it is too late, represents the human community’s literally last chance to replace the “passionate intensity” of Realpolitik[16] with a vitally revised “conviction.” At this point, armed with a vision that rejects zero-sum or “everyone for himself” thinking in world politics,[17] the grave dangers of belligerent nationalism could finally collapse under the unsustainable weight of their own contradictions.[18]

               No other conceivable replacement could prove more necessary.


[1] The legal principle of “universal cooperation” is founded upon a presumption of solidarity between states in their common struggle against criminality.  It is mentioned in the CORPUS JURIS CIVILIS; in Hugo Grotius’s DE JURE BELLI AC PACIS LIBRI TRES (Book II, Ch. 20); and in Emmerich de Vattel’s LE DROIT DES GENS (Book I, Ch. 19). 

[2] For authoritative early accounts of nuclear war effects  by this author, see: Louis René Beres, Apocalypse: Nuclear Catastrophe in World Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); Louis René Beres, Mimicking Sisyphus: America’s Countervailing Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1983); Louis René Beres, Reason and Realpolitik: U.S. Foreign Policy and World Order (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1984); and Louis René Beres, Security or Armageddon: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (Lexington, Mass., Lexington Books, 1986). Most recently, by Professor Beres, see: Surviving amid Chaos: Israel’s Nuclear Strategy (New York, Rowman & Littlefield, 2016; 2nd ed. 2018).

[3] “Reason,” warns Karl Jaspers, “is confronted again and again with the fact of a mass of believers who have lost all ability to listen, who can absorb no logical argument, and who hold unshakably fast to the Absurd….” See the 20th century philosopher’s Reason and Anti-Reason in Our Time, Archon Books, 1971, p. 78.

[4] “Theory is a net,” observes the German poet Novalis, “and only those who cast, can catch.” This apt metaphor was embraced by philosopher of science Karl Popper as the epigraph to his classic Logic of Scientific Discovery (1934).

[5] In both logic and law, the rights assured by the Declaration and Constitution can never be confined to the people of the United States. This is because both documents were conceived by their authors as the indisputable codifications of pre-existing Natural Law. Though generally unrecognized, the United States was expressly founded upon the Natural Rights philosophies of the 18th century Enlightenment, especially Locke, Hobbes, Montesquieu and Rousseau. Thomas Jefferson was well acquainted with the classical writings of political philosophy from Plato to Diderot. In those early days of the Republic. an American president could not only read serious books, but also write them.

[6] The classical example is Plato’s parable of the cave in The Republic.

[7] Although composed in the seventeenth century, Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan offers a still- illuminating vision of chaos in world politics. Says the English philosopher in Chapter XIII, “Of the Naturall Condition of Mankind, as concerning their Felicity, and Misery:”  “During such chaos,” a condition which Hobbes identifies as a ‘time of War,’  it is a time “…where every man is Enemy to every man… and where the life of man is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” At the time of writing, Hobbes believed that the condition of “nature” in world politics was less chaotic than that same condition existing among individual human beings. This owed to what he called the “dreadful equality” of individual men in nature concerning ability to kill others, but this once-relevant differentiation has now effectively disappeared together with the global spread of nuclear weapons. More precisely, today, “weaker” states that are nonetheless nuclear can still bring insufferable harms to the “stronger” states.

[8] Early on, William Blackstone, the jurist upon whose work the United States owes its own basic system of law, remarks at Book 4 of his Commentaries on the Law of England: “The law of nations (international law) is always binding upon all individuals and all states. Each state is expected, perpetually, to aid and enforce the law of nations as part of the common law, by inflicting an adequate punishment upon the offenses against that universal law.”

[9] See by this writer, Louis René Beres, at Oxford University Press:  https://blog.oup.com/2011/09/the-people/ See also, by Professor Beres, at The National Interest, https://nationalinterest.org/feature/america-becomes-what-its-founders-feared-16000?nopaging=1

[10]The term “mass,” favored by Swiss psychologist Carl G. Jung, is roughly identical in meaning to Sigmund Freud’s  term “horde” (itself derived from Friedrich Nietzsche’s “herd”) and to Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard’s “crowd.” Always, warns Kierkegaard insightfully, “The crowd is untruth.”

[11] “Civilization,” adds Lewis Mumford, “is the never-ending process of creating one world and one humanity.” Still the best syntheses of contemporary creative outlines for a world civilization are W. Warren Wagar The City of Man (1967) and W. Warren Wagar, Building the City of Man (1971).

[12] For the authoritative sources of international law, see art. 38 of the Statute of the International Court of Justice; done at San Francisco, June 26, 1945. Entered into force, Oct. 24, 1945; for the United States, Oct. 24, 1945.  59 Stat. 1031, T.S. No. 993, 3 Bevans 1153, 1976 Y.B.U.N., 1052.

[13] Under international law, the question of whether or not a true “state of war” exists between countries remains ambiguous. Traditionally, it was held that a formal declaration of war was necessary before a true state of war could be said to exist. Hugo Grotius divided wars into declared wars, which were legal, and undeclared wars, which were not. (See Hugo Grotius: The Law of War and Peace, Bk. III, Chs. III, IV, and XI.) By the start of the twentieth century, the position that war obtains only after a conclusive declaration of war by one of the parties was codified by Hague Convention III. This treaty stipulated that hostilities must never commence without a “previous and explicit warning” in the form of a declaration of war or an ultimatum. (See Hague Convention III Relative to the Opening of Hostilities, 1907, 3 NRGT, 3 series, 437, article 1.) Currently, declarations of war may be tantamount to admissions of international criminality, because of the express criminalization of aggression by authoritative international law, and it could therefore represent a clear jurisprudential absurdity to tie any true state of war to formal and prior declarations of belligerency. It follows that a state of war may now exist without any formal declarations, but only if there exists an actual armed conflict between two or more stat and/or at least one of these affected states considers itself “at war.”

[14] This balance creates a “vigilante” system of “Westphalian” law. See: Treaty of Peace of Munster, Oct. 1648, 1 Consol. T.S. 271; and Treaty of Peace of Osnabruck, Oct. 1648, 1., Consol. T.S. 119, Together, these two treaties comprise the Peace of Westphalia.

[15] International law is an integral part of United States jurisprudence. In the words of Mr. Justice Gray, delivering the judgment of the US Supreme Court in Paquete Habana (1900): “International law is part of our law, and must be ascertained and administered by the courts of justice of appropriate jurisdiction….” (175 U.S. 677(1900))  See also: Opinion in Tel-Oren vs. Libyan Arab Republic (726 F. 2d 774 (1984)).The specific incorporation of treaty law into US municipal law is codified at Art. 6 of the US Constitution, the so-called “Supremacy Clause.”

[16] Throughout history, geopolitics or Realpolitik has been associated withpromises of personal immortality. To wit, in his posthumously published lecture on Politics (1896), German historian Heinrich von Treitschke observed: “Individual man sees in his own country the realization of his earthly immortality.” Earlier, German philosopher Georg Friedrich Hegel opined, in Philosophy of Right (1820), that the state represents “the march of God in the world.” The “deification” of Realpolitik, a transformation from mere principle of action to a sacred end unto itself, drew originating strength from the doctrine of sovereignty advanced in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Initially conceived as a principle of internal order, this doctrine underwent a specific metamorphosis, whence it became the formal or justifying rationale for international anarchy –  that is, for the global “state of nature.” First established by Jean Bodin as a juristic concept in De Republica (1576), sovereignty came to be regarded as a power absolute and above the law. Understood in terms of modern international relations, this doctrine encouraged the notion that states lie above and beyond any form of tangible legal regulation in their interactions.

[17] This brings to mind a comment by Italian film director Federico Fellini: “The visionary is the only realist.”

[18] One such contradiction concerns the crime of “aggression” under international law. Punishment of aggression is a firm and longstanding expectation of international criminal law.  The peremptory principle of Nullum Crimen sine poena, “No crime without a punishment,” has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728 – 1686 B.C.E.);  the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.E.);  the even earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.E.) and the law of exact retaliation, or Lex Talionis, presented in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah.  Punishment of aggression is a firm and longstanding expectation of international criminal law.  The peremptory principle of Nullum Crimen sine poena, “No crime without a punishment,” has its origins in the Code of Hammurabi (c. 1728 – 1686 B.C.E.);  the Laws of Eshnunna (c. 2000 B.C.E.);  the even earlier Code of Ur-Nammu (c. 2100 B.C.E.) and the law of exact retaliation, or Lex Talionis, presented in three separate passages of the Jewish Torah.  Since World War II, aggression has typically been defined as a military attack, not justified by international law, when directed against the territory of another state. The question of defining aggression first acquired legal significance with the Draft Treaty of Mutual Assistance of 1923. One year later, the Geneva Protocol of 1924 provided that any state that failed to comply with the obligation to employ procedures of peaceful settlement in the Protocol or the Covenant was an aggressor. Much later, an authoritative definition of aggression was finally adopted without vote by the UN General Assembly on December 14, 1974.

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Sino-American confrontation and the Re-binarized world

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USA China Trade War

Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances), to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation. Finally, a Copernican-turn: the US spotted no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China. This signalled a ‘new opening’: West imagined China’s coastal areas as its own industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence (in this marriage of convenience): Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation. Both spiced it by nearly religious approach to trade.

However, for each of the two this was far more than economy, it was a policy – Washington read it as interdependence for transformative containment and Beijing sow it as interdependence for a (global) penetration. In the meantime, Chinese acquired more sophisticated technology, and the American Big tech sophisticated itself in digital authoritarianism – ‘technological monoculture’ met the political one.

But now with a tidal wave of Covid-19 and binary blame-game, the honeymoon is over. While the US-led west becomes disappointment, China provoked backlash instead of gaining global support and adoration. Is any new form of global centrality in sight?

(These days, many argue that our C-19 response is a planetary fiasco, whose size is yet to surface with its mounting disproportionate and enduring secondary effects, causing tremendous socio-economic, political and psychosomatic contractions and convulsions. But, worse than our response is our silence about it.)

Still to be precise, the C-19 calamity brought nothing truly new to the already overheated Sino-American relations and to the increasing binarization of world affairs: It only amplified and accelerated what was present for quite some time – a rift between alienated power centres, each on its side of Pacific, and the rest. No wonder that the work on the C-19 vaccine is more an arms race that it is a collaborative humanistics.

This text examines prehistory of that rift; and suggests possible outcomes past the current crisis. It also discusses location and locality (absence of it, too). This since,  geography is a destiny only for those who see their own history as faith.

Origins of Future

Does our history only appear overheated – as rearly monocausal, while it is essentially calmly predetermined? Is it directional or conceivable, dialectic and eclectic or cyclical, and therefore cynical? Surely, our history warns (no matter if the Past is seen as a destination or resource). Does it also provide for a hope? Hence, what is in front of us: destiny or future?[1]

Theory loves to teach us that extensive debates on what kind of economic system is most conductive to human wellbeing is what consumed most of our civilizational vertical. However, our history has a different say: It seems that the manipulation of the global political economy (and usage of fear as the currency of control) – far more than the introduction of ideologies – is the dominant and arguably more durable way that human elites usually conspired to build or break civilizations, as planned projects. Somewhere down the process, it deceived us, becoming the self-entrapment. How?

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One of the biggest (nearly schizophrenic) dilemmas of liberalism, ever since David Hume and Adam Smith, was an insight into reality: Whether the world is essentially Hobbesian or Kantian. As postulated, the main task of any liberal state is to enable and maintain wealth of its nation, which of course rests upon wealthy individuals inhabiting the particular state. That imperative brought about another dilemma: if wealthy individual, the state will rob you, but in absence of it, the pauperized masses will mob you.

The invisible hand of Smith’s followers have found the satisfactory answer – sovereign debt. That ‘invention’ meant: relatively strong central government of the state. Instead of popular control through the democratic checks-&-balance mechanism, such a state should be rather heavily indebted. Debt – firstly to local merchants, than to foreigners – is a far more powerful deterrent, as it resides outside the popular check domain.

With such a mixed blessing, no empire can easily demonetize its legitimacy, and abandon its hierarchical but invisible and unconstitutional controls. This is how a debtor empire was born. A blessing or totalitarian curse? Let us briefly examine it.

The Soviet Union – much as (the pre-Deng’s) China itself – was far more of a classic continental military empire (overtly brutal; rigid, authoritative, anti-individual, apparent, secretive), while the US was more a financial-trading empire (covertly coercive; hierarchical, yet asocial, exploitive, pervasive, polarizing). On opposite sides of the globe and cognition, to each other they remained enigmatic, mysterious and incalculable: Bear of permafrost vs. Fish of the warm seas. Sparta vs. Athens. Rome vs. Phoenicia… However, common for both (as much as for China today) was a super-appetite for omnipresence. Along with the price to pay for it.

Consequently, the Soviets went bankrupt by mid 1980s – they cracked under its own weight, imperially overstretched. So did the Americans – the ‘white man burden’ fractured them already by the Vietnam war, with the Nixon shock only officializing it. However, the US imperium managed to survive and to outlive the Soviets. How?

The United States, with its financial capital (or an outfoxing illusion of it), evolved into a debtor empire through the Wall Street guaranties. Titanium-made Sputnik vs. gold mine of printed-paper… Nothing epitomizes this better than the words of the longest serving US Federal Reserve’s boss, Alan Greenspan, who famously quoted J.B. Connally to then French President Jacques Chirac: “True, the dollar is our currency, but your problem”. Hegemony vs. hegemoney.

House of Cards (Forever r>g) 

Conventional economic theory teaches us that money is a universal equivalent to all goods. Historically, currencies were a space and time-related, to say locality-dependent. However, like no currency ever before, the US dollar became – past the WWII – the universal equivalent to all other moneys of the world. According to history of currencies, the core component of the non-precious metals’ money is a so-called promissory note – intangible belief that, by any given point in future, a particular shiny paper (self-styled as money) will be smoothly exchanged for real goods.

Thus, roughly speaking, money is nothing else but a civilizational construct about imagined/projected tomorrow – that the next day (which nobody has ever seen in the history of humankind, but everybody operates with) definitely comes (i), and that this tomorrow will certainly be a better day then our yesterday or even our today (ii).

This and similar types of collective constructs (horizontal and vertical) over our social contracts hold society together as much as its economy keeps it alive and evolving. Hence, it is money that powers economy, but our blind faith in constructed (imagined) tomorrows and its alleged certainty is what empowers money.

Tellingly, the universal equivalent of all equivalents – the US dollar – follows the same pattern: Bold and widely accepted promise. For the US, it almost instantly substan-tiates extraterritorial economic projection: American can print (any sum of) money without fear of inflation. (Quantitative easing is always exported; value is kept home.)

(Empire’s currency loses its status when other nations lose confidence in ability of that imperial power to remain solvent. For the pre-modern and modern history, it happened with 5 powers – two Iberian, Dutch, France and the UK – before the US dollar took the role of world reserve currency. Interestingly, each of the empires held it for roughly a century. The US century is just about to expire, and there are already contesters, territorial and non-territorial, symmetric and asymmetric ones. On offer are tangibles and intangibles: gold, cryptocurrencies, and biotronics/nano-chemoelectricals.)

But, what does the US dollar promise when there is no gold cover attached to it ever since the time of Nixon shock of 1971?

Pentagon promises that the oceanic sea-lanes will remain opened (read: controlled by the US Navy), pathways unhindered, and that the most traded world’s commodity – oil, will be delivered. So, it is not a crude or its delivery what is a cover to the US dollar – it is a promise that oil of tomorrow will be deliverable. That is a real might of the US dollar, which in return finances Pentagon’s massive expenditures and shoulders its supremacy.

Admired and feared, Pentagon further fans our planetary belief in tomorrow’s deliverability – if we only keep our faith in dollar (and hydrocarbons’ energized economy), and so on and on in perpetuated circle of mutual reinforcements.[2]  

These two pillars of the US might from the East coast (the US Treasury/Wall Street and Pentagon) together with the two pillars of the West coast – both financed and amplified by the US dollar, and spread through the open sea-routs (Silicone Valley and Hollywood), are an essence of the US posture. Country that hosts such a dream factory, as the US does Hollywood, is easy to romanticize – though other 3 pillars are to take and to coerce.

This very nature of power explains why the Americans have missed to take the mankind into completely other direction; towards the non-confrontational, decarbonized, de-monetized/de-financialized and de-psychologized, the self-realizing and green humankind. In short, to turn history into a moral success story. They had such a chance when, past the Gorbachev’s unconditional surrender of the Soviet bloc, and the Deng’s Copernicus-shift of China, the US – unconstrained as a lonely superpower – solely dictated terms of reference; our common destiny and direction/s to our future/s.

Winner is rarely a game-changer

Sadly enough, that was not the first missed opportunity for the US to soften and delay its forthcoming, imminent multidimensional imperial retreat. The very epilogue of the WWII meant a full security guaranty for the US: Geo-economically – 54% of anything manufactured in the world was carrying the Made in USA label, and geostrategically – the US had uninterruptedly enjoyed nearly a decade of the ‘nuclear monopoly’. Up to this very day, the US scores the biggest number of N-tests conducted, the largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry, and it represents the only power ever deploying this ‘ultimate weapon’ on other nation.

To complete the irony, Americans enjoy geographic advantage like no other empire before. Save the US, as Ikenberry notes: “…every major power in the world lives in a crowded geopolitical neighborhood where shifts in power routinely provoke counterbalancing”. Look the map, at Russia or China and their packed surroundings. The US is blessed with its insular position, by neighboring oceans. All that should harbor tranquility, peace and prosperity, foresightedness.  

Why the lonely might, an empire by invitation did not evolve into empire of relaxation, a generator of harmony? Why does it hold (extra-judicially) captive more political prisoners on Cuban soil than the badmouthed Cuban regime has ever had? Why does it remain obsessed with armament for at home and abroad? Why existential anxieties for at home and security challenges for abroad? (Eg. 78% of all weaponry at disposal in the wider MENA theater is manufactured in the US, while domestically Americans – only for their civilian purpose – have 1,2 small arms pieces per capita.)

Why the fall of Berlin Wall 30 years ago marked a beginning of decades of stagnant or failing incomes in the US (and elsewhere in the OECD world) coupled with alarming inequalities. What are we talking about here; the inadequate intensity of our tireless confrontational push or about the false course of our civilizational direction? 

Indeed, no successful and enduring empire does merely rely on coercion, be it abroad or at home. The grand design of every empire in past rested on a skillful calibration between obedience and initiative – at home, and between bandwagoning and engagement – abroad. (Thus, the main battle is traditionally between the television and the refrigerator.) In XXI century, one wins when one convinces, not when one coerces. Hence, if unable to escape its inner logics and deeply rooted appeal of confrontational nostalgia, the prevailing archrival is only a winner, rarely a game-changer.

How did we miss to notice it before? Simply, economy –right after history– is the ideologically most ‘colored’ scientific discipline of all. (Our ‘mainstream’ narrative is thus full of questionable counterfactuals.)

To sum up; After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans accelerated expansion while waiting for (real or imagined) adversaries to further decline, ‘liberalize’ and bandwagon behind the US. One of the instruments was to aggressively push for a greater economic integration between regional and distant states, which – as we see now, passed the ‘End-of-History’ euphoria of 1990s – brought about (irreversible) socio-political disintegration within each of these states.

A Country or a Cause, Both or None?

Expansion is the path to security dictatum, of the post-Cold War socio-political and (hyper-liberal) economic mantra, only exacerbated the problems afflicting the Pax Americana, which acidified global stewardship; hence oceans, populations and the relations to the unbearable levels. That is why and that is how the capability of the US to maintain its order started to erode faster than the capacity of its opponents to challenge it. A classical imperial self-entrapment (by the so-called bicycle theory: keep pedalling same way or topple over).

Clearly, the US post-Cold War preponderance is now challenged in virtually every domain: America can no longer operate unrestrained in the traditional spheres of land, sea and air, not in newer ones like the (near and deeper) outer space and cyberspace. The repeated failure to notice and recalibrate such an imperial (over-)emasculation and consequent retreat brought the painful hangovers to Washington, the most noticeably, by the last two presidential elections.[3]

Inability to manage the rising costs of sustaining the imperial order only increased the domestic popular revolt and political pressure to abandon its ‘mission’ altogether. In that light the recent Saigon II – withdrawal from Afghanistan, too. The pullout was not a miscalculation or ill-made move but a long overdue shift to realism in American foreign policy.[4] Perfectly hitting the target to miss everything else …

In short, past the Soviet collapse Americans intervened too much abroad, regulated too little at home, and delivered less than ever – both at home and abroad.  Such model attracts none.[5] No wonder that today all around the globe many do question if the States would be appealing ever again. Domestically, growing number of people perceive foreign policy mostly as an expensive destruction; divinized trade and immigration as destroyers of jobs and communities. Its political system is unable to decouple and deconcentrate wealth and power which suffocates the very social fabrics.[6]

Hence, Americans are not fixing the world anymore. They are only managing its decline. Look at their footprint in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Georgia, Libya, Syria, Ukraine or Yemen (GCC, Israel, Poland, Baltics, Taiwan soon too) – to mention but a few. Violence as a source of social cohesion is dying out. This explains why Americans nowadays nearly obsessively turn to promise of technology. Still, what the US plans to do becomes overshadowed by what others are already doing.

*                    *                            *                            *                           

When the Soviets lost their own indigenous ideological matrix and maverick confrontational stance,[7]  and when the US dominated West missed to triumph although winning the Cold War, how to expect from the imitator to score the lasting moral or even a temporary economic victory?

Dislike the relationship with the Soviets Union which was on one clear confrontational acceptance line from a start until its very last day, Americans performed three very different policies on the People’s Republic: From a total negation (and the Mao-time mutual annihilation assurances) to Nixon’s sudden cohabitation.[8]

American strategy to westernize [xihva] and split up [fenhva] China failed short there, but worked well for Yugoslavia and Soviet Union – weakening and delegitimizing central government by antagonizing nationalities, and demonizing party and army. Hence, a Copernican-turn: While offshore balancing Asian continent, the US ‘spotted’ no real ideological differences between them and the post-Deng China.

This signalled a ‘new opening’ – China’s coastal areas to become West’s industrial suburbia. Soon after, both countries easily agreed on interdependence:[9]  Americans pleased their corporate (machine and tech) sector and unrestrained its greed, while Chinese in return offered a cheap labour, no environmental considerations and submissiveness in imitation. However, for both it was far more than economy lubricated by sanctified free trade, it was a policy – Washington read it as interdependence for transformative containment and Beijing sow it as interdependence for (global) penetration. American were left in a growing illusion that the Sino growth is on terms defined by them, and Chinese – on their side – grew confident that these terms of economic growth are only accepted by them.

The so-called Financial crisis 2008/09 (or better to say the peak time of Casino economy) undermined positions of the largest consumer of Chinese goods (US), and simultaneously boosted confidence of the biggest manufacturer of American products (PRC). Consequently, soon after; by 2012, Beijing got the first out-of-Deng’s-line leadership. (One of the famous dicatums of this Bismarck of Asia was ‘hide the capabilities, bide your time’ – a pure Bismarckian wisdom to deter any domestic imperialism in hurry.)   

However, in the process of past few decades, Chinese acquired more sophisticated technology, and the American Big tech sophisticated itself in digital authoritarianism.

But, as America (suddenly) returns home, the honeymoon seems over now. (Although heavily criticising Trump in past years, the Biden administration – along with the leading Democrat’s foreign policy intellectuals, is more of the Trumpistic continuity than of a departure from it. It especially refers to the Sino-American relations.)

Why does it come now? Washington is not any more able to afford treating China as just another trading partner. Also, the US is not well situated to capitalize on Beijing’s eventual belligerence – be it compliance or containment (especially with Russia closer to China than it was ever before).[10]  

The typical line of western neo-narrative goes as: ‘The CCP exploited the openness of liberal societies and particularly its freedom of speech as to plunder, penetrate and divert’. And; ‘Beijing has to bear the reputational costs of its exploitative practices’.

Accelerating collision course already leads to the subsequent calls for a strategic decupling (at best, gradual disengagements) of the two world’s largest economies and of those in their orbits. Besides marking the end of global capitalism which exploded since the fall of Berlin Wall, this may finally trigger a global realignment. The rest of the world would end up – willingly or not – in the rival (trade) blocks. It would not be a return to 1950s and 1960s, but to the pre-WWI constellations.

Epilog is plain to see: Neither more confrontation and more carbons nor more weaponized trade and traded weapons will save our day. It failed in our past; it will fail again any given day.

Entrapment in Imitation

Interestingly, China opposed the I World, left the II in rift, and ever since Bandung of 1955 it neither won over nor (truly) joined the III Way. Today, many see it as a main contestant, a leader from the global South. But, where is a lasting success?

There is a near consensus among the economists that China owes its economic success to three fundamental factors. Firstly, it is that the People’s Republic embraced an imitative economic policy (much like Japan, Singapore, Taiwan or ROK did before, or VietNam does now) through Deng-proclaimed opening aided by the tiny middle class of political police and the national army of working class. Second goes to a modest domestic consumption, and German-like thick home savings (steered by the Neo-Mandarin cast of Communist apparatchiks in higher echelons of Beijing ruling court).

Finally, as the third factor that the economists attribute to Chinese miracle, is a low production costs of Sino nation – mostly on expenses of its aging demography, and on expenses of its own labor force and country’s environment.[11]

In short, its growth was neither green, nor inclusive, nor sustainable. Additionally, many would say – while quantifying the negative externalities of Chinese authorita-rianism – that Beijing mixes up its nearly obsessive social control, environmental negligence and its dismal human and minority rights with the right to development.

Therefore, many observers would agree that the so-called China’s miracle is a textbook example of a highly extractive state that generates enormous hidden costs of its development, those being social, environmental and health ones as much as expanding and lasting. And indeed, energy-intensive exports (especially carbon footprint) from China as well as its highly polluting industrial practices (overall ecological footprint) were introduced to and then for a long while tolerated in People’s Republic by the West.

Further on, China accepted a principled relation with the US (Russia, too), but insists on transactional one with its neighbors and BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) clients. This reduces the choice (offered by the two protagonists) on selection between the colonial democracy and authoritarian paternalism.   

None of the above has an international appeal, nor it holds promise to an attainable future. Therefore, no wonder that the Imitative power fights – for at home and abroad – a defensive ideological battle and politics of cultural reaction. Such a reactive status quo has no intellectual appeal to attract and inspire beyond its borders.[12]  

So, if for China the XIX was a “century of humiliation”, XX “century of emancipation”, should it be that the XXI gets labeled as a “century of imitation”?

(The BRI is what the most attribute as an instrument of the Chinese planetary posture. Chinese leaders promised massive infrastructure projects all around by burning trillions of dollars. Still, numbers are more moderate. As the 2019 The II BRI Summit has shown – and the BRI Summits of November 2020 and of 2021 confirmed, so far, Chinese companies had invested USD 90 billion worldwide. Seems, neither People’s Republic is as rich as many (wish to) think nor it will be able to finance its promised projects without seeking for a global private capital. Such a capital –if ever – will not flow without conditionalities. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS or ‘New Development’ – Bank have some $150 billion at hand, and the Silk Road Infrastructure Fund (SRIF) has up to $40 billion. Chinese state and semi-private companies can access – according to the OECD estimates – just another $600 billion (much of it tight) from the home, state-controlled financial sector. That means that China runs short on the BRI deliveries worldwide. Ergo, either bad news to the (BRI) world or the conditionalities’ constrained China.)

How to behave in the world in which economy is made to service trade (as it is defined by the Sino-American high priests of globalization), while (preservation of domestic jobs and) trade increasingly constitutes a significant part of the big power’s national security strategy? And, how to define (and measure) the existential threat: by inferiority of ideological narrative – like during the Cold War; or by a size of a lagging gap in total manufacturing output – like in the Cold War aftermath. Or something third? Perhaps a return to an inclusive growth.

If our civilizational course is still the same – the self-realization of mankind; than the deglobalization would be a final price to pay for re-humanization of labor and overall planetary greening. Are we there yet?

Promise of the Schumann Resonance

Earlier in this text, we already elaborated on imperial fictions and frictions: Empires and superpowers create their own realities, as they are not bound to ‘situation on ground’. For them, the main question is never what they can but what they want in international conduct. However, the (illiberal) bipartisan democracy or one-party autocracy is a false dilemma, both of nearly the same dead end.

Currently, Party slogans call for China to “take center stage” on the world stage and architecture “a community of common destiny for mankind”. But despite heated rhetoric, there is no intellectual appeal in a growth without well-being, education that does not translate into fair opportunity, lives without dignity, liberalization without personal freedom, achievement without opinionisation.

Greening international relations along with a greening of socio-economic fabrics (including the shift to blue and white, sea and wind, energy) – geopolitical and environmental understanding, de-acidification and relaxation is that missing, third, way for tomorrow.

(Judging the countries’ PEM /Primary Energy Mix/ and the manufacturing footprint, the American e-cars are actually run on the tar sands and fracked oil/gas, while Chinese electric vehicles are powered by coal.)

This necessitates both at once: less confrontation over the art-of-day technology and their de-monopolized redistribution as well as the resolute work on the so-called Tesla-ian implosive/fusion-holistic systems. That would include the free-transfer non-Hertzian energy technologies (able to avoid life in an electromagnetic, technologically generated soup of unbearable radiation toxicity, actually able to de-toxicate our troposphere from dangerous fields, waves and frequencies emittance – drawing us closer to a harmony of Schumann resonance); carbon-sequestration; antigravity and self-navigational solutions; bioinformatics and nanorobotics. Surely, with the bioinformatics and nanorobotics being free from any usage for eugenics’ ends (including the vaccination for microchipping purpose).

In short, more of initiative than of obedience (including more public control over data hoovering). More effort to excellence (creation) than a struggle for preeminence (partition). Leader of the world needs to offer more than just money and intimidation.

‘Do like your neighbor’ is a Biblical-sounding economic prophecy that the circles close to the IMF love to tirelessly repeat. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a formidable national economic prosperity, if the good neighborly relations are not built and maintained.[13]  Clearly, no global leader has ever in history emerged from a shaky and distrustful neighborhood, or by offering a little bit more of the same in lieu of an innovative technological advancement.

(Eg. many see Chinese 5G – besides the hazardous electrosmog of IoT that this technology emits on Earth’s biota – as an illiberal innovation, which may end up servicing authoritarianism, anywhere.[14] And indeed, the AI deep learning inspired by biological neurons (neural science) including its three methods: supervised, unsupervised and reinforced learning can end up by being used for the diffusion of digital authoritarianism, predictive policing and manufactured social governance based on the bonus-malus behavioral social credits.[15])

Ergo, it all starts from within, from at home; socio-economically and environmentally. Without support from a home base (including that of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet), there is no game changer. China’s home is Asia. Its size and its centrality along with its impressive output is constraining it enough.

Conclusively, it is not only a new, non-imitative, turn of socioeconomics and technology what is needed. Without truly and sincerely embracing mechanisms such as the NAM, ASEAN and SAARC (eventually even the OSCE) and the main champions of multilateralism in Asia, those being India Indonesia and Japan first of all, China has no future of what is planetary awaited – the third force, a game-changer, discursive power, lasting visionary and trusted global leader.[16]  

If there was ever in history a lasting triumph, this is over by now. In the multipolar world of XXI century dominated by multifaceted challenges and multidimensional rivalries, there is no conventional victory.  Revolution or restauration?

Post Scriptum:

To varying degrees, but all throughout a premodern and modern history, nearly every world’s major foreign policy originator was dependent (and still depends) on what happens in, and to, Russia. So, neither a structure, nor content or overall direction of world affairs for the past 300 years has been done without Russia. It is not only a size, but also a centrality of Russia that matters. That is important as much (if not even more), as it is an omnipresence of the US or a hyperproduction of the PR China. Ergo, that is an uninterrupted flow of manufactured goods to the whole world, it is a balancing of the oversized and centrally positioned one, and it is the ability to controllably corrode the way in and insert itself of the peripheral one. The oscillatory interplay of these three is what characterizes our days.

Therefore, reducing the world affairs to the constellation of only two super-players – China and the US is inadequate – to say least. It is usually done while superficially measuring Russia’s overall standing by merely checking its current GDP, and comparing its volume and PPP, and finding it e.g. equal to one of Italy. Through such ‘quick-fix’, Russia is automatically downgraded to a second-rank power status. This practice is as dangerous as it is highly misleading. Still, that ill-conceived argument is one of the most favored narratives which authors in the West are tirelessly peddling.

What many analysts miss to understand, is in fact plain to see throughout the entire history of Russia: For such a big country the only way to survive – irrespectively from its relative weaknesses by many ‘economic’ parameters – is to always make an extra effort and remain great power (including colossal military expenditures).

To this end, let us quickly contrast the above narrative with some key facts: Russia holds the key positions in the UN and its Agencies as one of its founding members (including the Security Council veto right as one of the P5); it has a highly skilled and mobilized population; its society has deeply rooted sense of a special historic mission (that notion is there for already several centuries – among its intellectuals and enhanced elites, probably well before the US has even appeared as a political entity in the first place). Additionally and tellingly, Moscow possesses the world’s largest gold reserves (on surface and underground; in mines and its treasury bars); for decades, it masters its own GPS system and the most credible outer space delivery systems (including the only remaining working connection with the ISS), and has an elaborate turn-key-ready alternative internet, too. 

Finally, as the US Council of Foreign Relations’ Thomas Graham fairly admits: “with the exception of China, no country affects more issues of strategic and economic importance to the US than Russia. And no other country, it must be said, is capable of destroying the US in 30 minutes.”


[1] Flow and irreversibility (as well as the non-directionality and the Boltzmann’s unfolding) of time is one of the fundamental principles that governs visible (to say; comprehensible) universe. If and when so, the Future itself must be certain, but unshaped. Hence, (directionality of time towards) Future is nothing else but a manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics (one of the fundamental principles of chemo-physics that governs us). At the same time, it also has to be (a net sum of) our collective projection onto the next: Collapse of the (multivectoral) probability and its realisation into (a four dimensional) possible tomorrow. For a clerical reason, we tend to deduce future events from human constructs (known as the theoretical principles) or to induce them from deeply rooted/commonly shared visions (known as past experience).

[2] Complementing the Monroe Doctrine, President Howard Taft introduced the so-called ‘dollar diplomacy’ – in early XX c. – that “substitutes dollars for bullets”. This was one of the first official acknowledgements of the Wall Street – Pentagon symbiotic link.  

[3] Average American worker is unprotected, unorganised/disunionised, disoriented, and pauperised. Due to (the US corporate sector induced) colossal growth of China, relative purchasing power of American and Chinese labourer now equals. At present, the median US worker would frictionlessly accept miserable work conditions and dismal pay, not too different from the one of the Chinese labourers – just to get a job. The first to spot that and then wonderfully exploited it, was a Trump team.

[4] E.g. during the peak times of its longest – and fiasco ending – foreign intervention, the US was spending some $110 billion per annum in Afghanistan, roughly 50% more than annual American federal spending on education.)

[5] “A rogue superpower … colossus lacking moral commitments … aggressive, heavily armed, and entirely out for itself. … some US security guaranties have started to look like protection rackets. … participates in international institutions but threatens to leave them when they act against US narrow interests; and promotes democracy and human rights, but mainly to destabilize geopolitical rivals” – enumerates some in the long list of contemporary US sins prof. Beckley (Beckley, M. (2018) Unrivaled: Why America Will Remain the world’s Sole Superpower, Cornell University Press).  

[6] Abandoning a traditional bipartisan system, the US is already by now a one-party (illiberal) democracy. Many within the corporate world would accept (even overt) extensive socio-economic reengineering as to transform the system into the one-party autocracy.  

[7] It will forever remain unknown what the MAD (Mutual Destruction Assurances) in the Cold War prevented and deterred: Aggregation of these events is a history (of probabilities) that didn’t unfold. 

[8] Withdrawal of recognition from Formosa to Beijing formally opened relations between the two on 1 January 1979. On a celebratory tour to America later that very month, Deng Xiaoping recommended that China and the US were ‘duty bound to work together [and unite] to place curbs on the polar bear’. 

[9] Non-interference promise between China and the US brought about 3 decades of colossal interdependence between the two: The internal order was in hands of CCP and the international order was in American hands. Neither party was to interfere the affairs of the other. But the paradox of inversion was sudden and severe – the internal order has been strengthened by the US (authoritarian) technology and the international (liberal) order à la Americana has been running on cheap Chinese goods. Changed roles urge for fundamental readjustment of positions.  

[10] The most favoured tool for containment or compliance of the US foreign policy – economic sanctions do not only reveal American decline but accelerate it, too. Instead of being imposed to defend commonly accepted universal principles, they are increasingly imposed for national security reasons – as a stalking horse for trade protectionism. Despite its simplicity of conception and flexibility of application, in retrospect, the crippling potency of sanctions is still sound but historically their effectiveness remains rather modest.

[11] High tech and know-how appropriation via mandated/forced technology transfers and copy-cats, joint ventures, discriminatory patent-licencing practices and cross-sectoral state-led industrial modernisation have lifted China up the value chain. No wonder that its GDP per capita has jumped from $194 (1980) to over $9,000 (2019). Beijing is modernising its navy, and is engaged in international economic expansion and geopolitical projection via its Belt and Road Initiative, and so far has bought, built or is operating 42 ports in 34 countries. In the meantime, Washington is publicly lamenting return to a ‘worker-focused trade policy’ – as the Trump’s US Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer called it – and openly objecting to both ‘market-distorting state capitalism in China and a dysfunctional WTO’. “No trade policy decision since the end of WWII proved more devastating to working people than the extension of permanent normal trade relations to China in 2000. Despite President Clinton’s predictions… , the opposite occurred” – he concludes. (FAM, 99/04/20)

[12] Undeniably, China managed to expand its economic presence, but so far is short of any prevailing and lasting strategic influence despite weaponization of trade and overseas aid. Simply, Beijing achieved some short-term objectives, but China’s long-term strategic influence remains limited and reversable. People’s Republic did not secure major shifts in geopolitical alignments. Beijing still has to learn how its grand strategy might play in different geographic and socio-political contexts. While the US-led west becomes disappointment, China provoked backlash instead of gaining global support and adoration. Clearly, political control, economic growth, surveillance and transport infrastructure alone do not necessarily make a durable nation. Having all that without psychological attachment and moral sentiment cannot sustain cohesion of nation on long run.   

[13] Fully aware of it, China and Russia (in their historical and yet still ongoing rapprochement) are pushing on a new Asian continental/regional security organisation. Building on the best legacy of comprehensive pan-European security mechanism – that of the Vienna-based OSCE (Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe), these two are committing themselves to and inviting their neighbours to join with the CICBMA (Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia), architecting the CSTO (Collective Security Treaty Organisation) and the QCCM (Quadrilateral Cooperation and Coordination Mechanism). It is on a top of already elaborate SCO (Shanghai Cooperation Organisation) and well-functioning economic FORAs – China-run AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank) and Russia-backed EAEU (Eurasian Economic Union). Hence, in a matter of just two decades the central section of Eurasian continent became the most multilateralised – and therefore stabile, region of the world. The collective one is far better than the bilateral or selective/Ad Hoc security arrangement preferred by the US in the Asia-Pacific. Alliances are built on shared interested, solidified by formulated principles and maintained on reliability and predictability – hence, are structural stabilisers. 

[14] Seems that China leads but is not alone with its much-criticised bonus-malus social credit system powered by facial recognition technology. Human Rights monitory agencies (including the US Carnegie Endowment’s AI Global Surveillance Index) report that practically each and every of the G-20 countries extensively uses the AI-enabled surveillance appliances, including variety of facial recognition programs, aimed at social ‘predictability’. Not to mention that such new technologies are particularly dangerous for weak democracies since many of their digital tools are dual use technology.

[15] Technology, its innovation and to it related norm-setting institutions are not a fancy item for round-tables’ discussions – it is a central element of contemporary global and regional geopolitical competition. Finally, data is nonrival, but data is also disruptive if not encapsulated in clear rules of engagement. 

[16] Over the past perido, People’s Republic has upped the ante in nearly all of its many territorial disputes and even provoked new ones, in another departure from past practice. Beijing has also reversed course when it comes to its national periphery. “Past Chinese leaders, notably Deng Xiaoping and Jiang Zemin, believed in the institutionalized processes of collective leadership. Xi has disabled or neutralized many of these channels. The world may now be getting a sense of what China’s decision-making looks like when a singularly strong leader acts more or less on his own” – noted professor Rapp-Hooper recently in her book. That of course triggers constant shockwaves all over Asia. While Indonesia is contemplating the NAM’s reload as well as the ASEAN block strengthening, others are reactive. India and Japan, two other Asian heavyweights (and champions of multilateralism), are lately pushed to sign up on the so-called Indo-Pacific maritime strategy with the United States (balancing the recent Pacific trade deal of RCEP). However, none of these three has any coherent plan on what to do on the Asian mainland. They all three differ on passions, drives and priorities. This is so since the truly pan-continental organization is nonexistent in Asia.

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Americas

The Forgotten Analogy: World War II

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Pundits are searching for adequate analogies to explain the growing China-U.S. rivalry and predict its future direction. Two main ones appear: the pre-World War I era and the Cold War. Both have their merits. The early twentieth century pitted Germany, a rising power, against status quo Britain and France. The Cold War also shares similarities to the current situation. The United States engaged in a prolonged struggle to contain a nuclear-armed great power. However, neither the Cold War nor the First World War offers an entirely appropriate analogy to make sense of the current world order.

Wilhelmine Germany was a formidable power but it largely stood alone, cornered in the center of Europe. London, Paris, and Saint Petersburg had an easy time concentrating their forces to balance against Berlin. Although it had Asia as secondary and the rest of the globe as tertiary theaters, the heart of the Cold War was also Central Europe. There were only two great powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, wholly occupied checkmating each other. 

Today’s international politics differs by the number and locations of the main protagonists. Although China legitimately attracts most of the attention, Russia remains a great power. Both China and Russia are the sole great powers of their respective regions — Asia and Europe. Both are bent on correcting the balance of power to their advantage and pushing the United States out of their neighborhood. On its side, Washington has a deep-seated interest in making sure that no great power competitor dominates Asia or Europe because both regions concentrate a big share of the world’s wealth and advanced industries. Indeed, a regional hegemon in possession of such resources would be strong enough to potentially overpower the United States. 

Washington found itself in the same position during the late 1930s and early 1940s. Nazi Germany had become the strongest power on the European continent and seemed bound to dominate all of it. Imperial Japan’s bid for Asian hegemony was unfolding unabated. The Americans had a vested interest in ensuring that neither Berlin nor Tokyo would seize control of their neighborhood because local powers were unlikely to get the job done on their own. It is now Beijing and Moscow occupying these roles.

Asia and China

China is the strongest state in Asia by a wide margin. No regional state can counterbalance Beijing on its own. Even a coalition of current U.S. partners — say Australia, Japan, the Philippines, Taiwan, and South Korea — would likely be too weak to seriously deter China without America’s support and strength. If Washington wants to prevent a Chinese bid for regional hegemony, it needs to throw its weight behind the balancing effort.

During the World War II era, America had to work alongside allies with widely divergent interests (notably Britain, Free France, and the Soviet Union) against the would-be German and Japanese hegemons. In a similar vein, the United States needs to help repair the relations between Japan and South Korea and accommodate those who have had rocky relations with Washington (India, Vietnam) or that are non-democracies (Singapore). The sheer power of China and the challenge of putting together a working balancing coalition imposes to the United States an “Asia First” strategy in the same way that the Third Reich’s superior military and industrial capabilities forced “Europe First” during World War II.

Another similarity with the World War II era is that power dynamics are rapidly changing. In Europe, the primary focus of American planners, Germany was with little doubt the strongest power on the continent. But the balance of power was evolving and the Soviet Union, still reeling from its civil war and Stalin’s purges, appeared to the Germans as a rising threat. Today, Beijing is growingly wary of India, a state as populous as (and very soon, probably more than) China and enjoying economic growth rates superior to China’s.

Europe and Russia

While most Asian states are directly exposed to Chinese military power, the states of Western and Southern Europe are separated from Russia by several other states in-between. Therefore, many European states feel less threatened by Russia and have been slow to balance against Moscow. Although France has been increasing its military spending and Britain vowed to redeploy heavy forces to Germany, these small incremental changes do little to correct the overwhelming military superiority of Moscow. No Western European state is ready or willing to confront Russian power head-on. Europe needs American leadership for that. It is not unlike the late 1930s, when the Soviet Union, separated from Germany by Poland, readily passed the buck of containing Berlin to London and Paris, with disastrous results.

On paper, European states — most notably Britain, France, and Germany — have enough latent capabilities to counterbalance Russian power. But geography and the collective action problem stand in the way. Indeed, Russia is not an immediate threat to Western Europe like the Soviet Union was. Today’s Russian army is unable to threaten the survival of France or Germany due to the East-Central European states acting as a buffer. Even if the Western Europeans acknowledge the resurgence of Russian power and are slowly rearming, they just do not feel the same sense of urgency as in Eastern Europe.

Collective action is difficult when many actors have to provide for a common good. An instinct is to do as little balancing as possible and wait for others to take the mantle of deterring Russia. Also, with no clear leader, effective decision-making is unlikely. Berlin, London, Paris, and others will push for their own preferences, thus resulting in lowest-common-denominator policies and under-balancing. Russia would then be free to cherry-pick its small neighbors and subjugate opposition. Eventually, Western Europeans would balance more effectively; but by the time they do so, Russia will have grown its power base and will already dominate Eastern Europe, thus representing a far more formidable challenge.

NATO is a powerful but imperfect tool to contain a Russian aspirant hegemon. The misaligned interest between many western and southern states and those closest to Russia stands in the way of effective balancing. A potential cure would be to form an additional smaller and more focused alliance system of Poland as the main bulwark, the Czech Republic, Romania, the three Baltic states, and maybe Sweden. In any case, to overcome buck-passing tendencies and problems of coordination, American political leadership is inescapable.

No Easy Fix

Historical analogies are always risky and no situation ever recurs in the exact same way. Yet, if we are to compare the current international situation with a past example, the World War II analogy appears more powerful than the World War I and Cold War ones.

Indeed, the United States faces the same conundrum of having to deal with two formidable rivals on two different continents. World War II had Germany as the most powerful opponent and Europe as the theater concentrating the most resources. Now, both the strongest competitor and the main loot are in Asia. During World War II, U.S. policymakers wanted to focus their forces on taking down Germany but they also had to cope with Japan out of fear that Tokyo would successfully absorb much of East and Southeast Asia and become a far greater threat than it already was. Today, although Russia lacks the power potential of China and Asia has now more wealth than Europe, with potential hegemons in both Asia and Europe, Washington is forced into a gigantic act of dual containment. Therefore, the same dilemma that plagued the United States eight decades ago plagues the Americans of today. 

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