The United States - a great country - needs to know the limits of discretion, of power and power-broking, and be more self-critical, (yet not introverted) in its foreign policy formulation.

by Dr. William Mallinson for The International Chronicles



When the Berlin Wall was torn down, a widespread impression abounded that the accompanying end of bi-polarism would herald the end of many a conflict - whether between or within states - since many of these had resulted from US-Soviet ideological antagonism.  In other words, the defeat or demise of Communism would result in one big happy family of free-trading, freedom-loving and benevolent nation states, all getting rich and slapping each other on the back.

This starry-eyed and naive hope has so far proved illusory.  If anything, small conflicts are erupting into vicious wars of attrition, and international relations are in a precarious state.  Although it may sound trite to say so, it seems that the Communists have lost their God, while the Capitalists have lost their devil.  The plethora of conflicts - some still simmering just under the surface - suggests that the Cold War was a convenient means of controlling the deep causes of human violence.  The cracks were papered over, but now the Cold War wallpaper is being torn off, and the cracks are widening, in the form of atavistic local and regional antagonisms.  The Balkans and parts of Africa provide a good example.

The nature and form of violence have also developed.  Regional military axes, such as the US-promoted Turkish-Israeli one, and the “informal” US-British military co-operation in (or, rather, over) Iraq, are now coming into vogue.  These coalitions would not have been easy to organise before the fall of the Wall.  With strict US-Soviet ideological and geo-political dividing lines destroyed, clashes of economic interests are expressing themselves increasingly in tension and war, sometimes disguised as simple ethnic and/or religious clashes.

Traditional mental parameters between the concept of sovereignty and that of borders are becoming blurred by contradictory and confusing statements by politicians about autonomy and self-rule.  Old forms of pre-Cold War and “new-wave” violence are sprouting in the form of organised business and criminal lobbies, illegal manufacture of, and trade in, narcotics (often with state involvement), electronic piracy, environmental damage, industrial and military espionage, creation of agitation and, last but not least, increasing use of sanctions as a diplomatic tool.  Certainly, all these existed during the Cold War, but now they are erupting willy-nilly.  Newer technologies and improved communications have added a new dimension: more programmed ways of winning hearts and minds, whether through “agit-prop”, sanctions, torture, simple killing, press and academic manipulation in various subtle ways, or combinations thereof.

The two big questions are, firstly, whether the increase in conflict has caused, and therefore explains and even justifies, a more aggressive US drive to police the world and decide what is right and wrong; or, second, whether the US’s approach in filling an imaginary power vacuum created by the fall of the wall, is itself leading to an increase in world wide violence, owing to a concomitant reaction to perceived US “overkill”.

The answers to these questions are rendered a little clearer by reference to authoritative US papers by well known self-styled international relations experts and policy formulators.  Jesse Helms (notorious for the draconian Helms-Burton Law), for example, insisted in “Foreign Affairs” of January/February 1999 that sanctions have been vital weapons in America’s policy for more than two hundred years and that they “helped bring down the Soviet Union.”  According to Helms, sanctions cost each American a mere $3.77, or one Big Mac and fries, a small price to pay, he says, for a “moral foreign policy”.  He ends his somewhat sanctimonious and moralistic piece by stating that US policies should isolate terrorist regimes like Iran, Iraq, Libya, Syria and Cuba, and that US aid should not go to countries that commit genocide, harbour war criminals, support terrorism, or export illegal drugs.  He also criticises, in fairly emotional terms, sections of the US business lobby, for putting business before morals.  He is apparently unaware that the business lobby is often hand in glove with government interests.

This is all pretty strong stuff, yet makes sense in theory, until we realise that the US also supports some pretty rough regimes, where genocide, drug exporting, the development of weapons of mass destruction, political imprisonment and torture have been, and often still are, the order of the day; the US often supports terrorist groups - terming them “freedom fighters.” US support for the Contras in Nicaragua springs to mind, not to forget the creation of the Pinochet regime which, with clandestine CIA support, overthrew with military force, a democratically elected government.  As for Turkey, Israel and Saudi Arabia, the less said the better.  Perhaps the US should, in specific cases, impose sanctions on itself.

In an even more missionary vein, Charles Maynes, a former editor of “Foreign Policy”, concludes his piece in “Foreign Affairs” by stating that the West still faces an extraordinary opportunity.  “Rarely in history”, he writes, “do most major powers proclaim allegiance to one political and economic model, which happens to be our own - one which, if properly regulated, can bring enormous benefits to humanity.  It is equally rare that all the great powers essentially endorse the status quo, which happens to favor us.  Indeed, for the first time ever, all major powers prefer internal development to foreign expansion.  It is also the first time that communications make possible citizen-to-citizen contact on a truly global basis - and those citizens not only speak to one another largely in English, but they use reassuringly familiar Western concepts.  The United States and its allies could seize this opportunity.  To do so, however, will require a larger vision of the future than Western leaders have displayed in the 1990’s.  In the time remaining before the millennium ends, the West will not continue to have the luxury of standing pat.”

This statement is riddled with contradictions, inconsistencies, presumptions, and lacks academic evidence.  First, he appears to place an automatic reliance on “the West,” as if it is the saviour of the world, with the implication that everything that is “non-West” is inferior.  He sounds rather like the most extreme Soviet Marxist-Leninists at the height of the Cold War.  Second, he does not explain what he means by “the West”.  Does he mean NATO, the Graeco-Roman heritage, the old antithesis of the Communist “East”, the simple geographic concept, or “McWest”, in other words the “Coca-Cola, Rock n’Roll, blue-jeans consumer-oriented culture,” or a mixture of some or all of these?
Third, he avoids justifying or even explaining his presumption that “most major powers” proclaim allegiance to one political and economic model.  Most major countries’ economic systems are different to that of the US.  In Germany, for example, the social market economy is very different to the US system, while the French tendency towards a measure of centralised economic planning (viz. the first French planning Commissioner, Monet) is another system.  Only Britain begins to come close to the US economic model. and not that close, now that she has signed up to the European Social Chapter ( albeit with various derogations); as for the EU in general, it is eminently more “socially aware” in its social security policies than the purer “free market” hire-and-fire policy of the US economy.  Maynes’ ideas do not seem to have been thought out.

Fourth, he claims that all major powers essentially endorse the status quo, yet does not grace us with his definition of the status quo, if indeed one does exist.  Certainly, it did during the Cold War, and was generally respected, bar a few exceptions such as the Cuban missile crisis and Vietnam; yet even these exceptions tested - rather than attacked - Cold War parameters.

Fifth, Maynes appears to contradict himself by saying that “Fukuyaman” foreign policy - i.e. an assumption that open market economies are the only model that states would follow - has collapsed, having earlier implied the opposite, namely that “most major powers proclaim allegiance to one political and economic model, which happens to be our own.”

Sixth, by stating that citizens speak to one another largely in English (this is simply nonsense) and use reassuringly “Western” concepts, without at least explaining these concepts, he betrays superficiality.  If he means modern fashion and consumerism, he is treading on very thin intellectual ice, since beneath the façade and veneer of “westernisation” in traditionally “non-western” societies, lie reality and ancient characteristics that no amount of Coca-Cola can erase.  The case of Iran is a sad case in point, when the Shah’s artificially accelerated “Western” programme led to a horrible and exaggerated backlash.  As for Turkey, the artificial “westernisation” measures of Kemal Ataturk are also leading to political and social instability.

Seventh, he not only fails to define how the US “and its allies” (which one?) should seize this opportunity, but exactly what this opportunity is.  Perhaps he means a homogenised, English-speaking, free-trading, global (US) WASP village, where NATO rules the world; but the reader is left to either assume this, or wonder what he means.

What he writes is written sincerely and is well-intended and missionary in spirit, but does not stand up to academic scrutiny.  It reads more like the ideas of an up-market global Texas Ranger, who conveniently forgets the inconvenient.  In his favour, he does not shirk the history of his own country, but his description of the bad bit is chilling: “In effect, when the settlers arrived, the Native Americans knew that the US Army would not be far behind and that they would be cleansed from their own land.  They would not have a country for much longer.  Hence the savage nature of the struggle between the settlers and the Native Americans.”

Maynes also criticises the increases in the Pentagon budget and questions whether Americans wish to make sacrifices to control others, rather than defend themselves.  Oddly, however, he then raises the possibility of special voluntary US military units (“state mercenaries”?).  In the final analysis, Maynes has no real solutions, merely a naive optimism that the “West” must take “its opportunity.”  NATO must be central to his thinking, even if increased military expenditure is not.

On top of, and connected to, all this, we have the current US view - held more by the Pentagon than the State Department - of trying to “tame” the world through the creation of regional military axes (viz. Israel-Turkey), and expanding and using NATO as the “sheriff’s  posse”, with Britain as the deputy-sheriff (viz. Libya, Iraq and Cyprus). 

This “broad-brush” idea is dangerous, particularly within the Kosovo context: while Meynes actually questions the effectiveness of bombing the Serbs, the United States Institute for Peace - financed mainly by the USA Congress (or parts of it) - propounds the view, often through its “Executive vice-President”, that “a small group of NATO partners” should keep the peace in Kosovo, and that there should be a “permissive” deployment of troops.  She omits to say who will actually do the permitting, where, precisely, the troops should be deployed, or which NATO partners she means.  Juxtaposed with the Institute for “Peace”, James Bugajski of the Washington-based Centre for Strategic and International Studies advocates an independent Kosovo, under US and British protection, thus emphasising the US-British military axis.

When all is weighed up, it does seem that there is a strong stream of thought in the USA that envisages trying to control, or at least heavily influence, what goes on in the world.  We now come down to brass tacks: if indeed, the export (and imposition) of ethics and morals through the threat of sanctions and “gunship” diplomacy is going to improve the world, all very well and good.  Unfortunately, the selectivity of US foreign policy objectives brings down the whole carefully constructed house of cards: for the US also supports some of the most brutal regimes in the world, and is actually creating alliances with some of them. Of course, it is not fair to criticise only the US: France, for example, supports the Algerian government.

In essence, the US is trying to engineer consent through the threat of military power, applied selectively.  The Americans call one of the most important Kurdish groups a terrorist organisation, while they have stopped calling the Kosovar KLA terrorists.  The logic is bizarre: the Kurds have existed for thousands of years in the same area, and are clearly a Volk, a distinct people.  The ethnic Albanians in Kosovo are a recent manipulated demographic phenomenon in comparison to the Kurds.  Perhaps foreign policy selectivity is most evident in the way that the US supports the Iraqi Kurds, but works against the Turkish ones.

The most  curious thing is that as recently as February 1998, US envoy Gelbard described the KLA as terrorist, while  only one year later, the US banker Holbrook, in the guise of the new Balkan envoy, gave it the red carpet treatment.  The dispassionate observer is left wondering whether this was simply clumsy, inexperienced diplomatic “shooting from the hip”, or, more darkly, actually encouraging the Serbs to attack the KLA by calling the latter terrorist, so that the US could then justify intervention.

The paradox and danger in that this policy is actually stimulating antagonisms in the world.  Those in conflict are seeing through the expediency and selectivity (some would say double-standards) of the US “grasping the new opportunity.” - as a hegemonistic power seeking to “discover” and define reasons for demonising what it believes to be a misanthropic, inferior and dangerous “non-Western” world.  Consequently, certain elements of this demonised non-“Western” world are trying to justify their anti-hegemonistic stand with an approach based on macro-terrorism, “mafias”, secret organisations, sects and “religious” societies.  They justify their crude and dangerous methods as necessary to combat the “Western” and/or US approach to world-wide stability.

Many of the now more extreme organisations have stumbled towards criminality out of a sense of frustration.  Such is the case with various Balkan organisations and, of course, the Kurds.  Other examples included the IRA - actually helped by the USA, viz. NORAID, and Jerry Adams - the Sicilian Mafia, the PLO, Hamas and, in America, the Weathermen and the Ku-Klux clan.  To these we can add the Tupamaros, the FARK in Kosovo, the Tamil Tigers, RENAMO, the war in South Sudan (presented as a religious conflict to tone down the Negro-Arab conflict), certain extreme Zionist bodies and Palestinian groups other than the above, the Armenian, Kurdish and Albanian diasporas, the Chechyen rebels, and the Taleban.  These are but a small number of the groups and elements which have come to more prominence since the fall of the Wall, and are being fuelled by current policies of “intervention.”  The cycle is self-feeding.  The cynic would argue that NATO needs to promote conflict, or at least exacerbate it, in order to justify its expansion.

However well-intentioned it may sound, the attempt of a single, power even with a few allies, to control, or even orchestrate, the hundreds of trouble spots which have resurfaced since the fall of the Wall, is not realistic, especially when its own ethics are not applied equably.

The current lack of cohesion in international relations, especially the lack of a single European foreign and defence policy does, paradoxically, lend weight to most current US argumentation - including some of Helms’ and Meynes’ - simply for want of something better; yet it suffers from an excess of logic, an inability to distinguish and perceive nuances (the sum total of which cannot add up to good or bad) and plain double-standards.  Depending on an external communications network of alliances, regional axes and “partnerships” which, in moments of extreme, unpredictable, crisis (which no amount of psycho-politico-strategic planning can prevent), could result in a dangerous communications breakdown and spell disaster.

Lin Yutang wrote that psychologists could never catch the human mind, simply because it was uncatchable.  So it is with international relations: the future behaviour of countries, ethnic and self-interest groups can never be predicted with certainty, even if their objectives can be understood, and temporary patterns discerned.

Efforts to control the world, or a chunk of it, have inevitably ended in wars.  The British Empire is one example, the French one another.  Napoleon and Hitler came unstuck, Alexander’s empire split up into warring factions, and even the Roman Empire, perhaps the most successful and peaceful, ended in a series of vicious conflicts that continued for centuries after its fall. One of the most enduring empires, Byzantium, survived as long as it did (1,123 years) because of its Graeco-Roman heritage, yet even it crumbled in the face of internal corruption and external threats.  The Pope, with his crusading ideal, ended up condoning mass slaughter and theft, while the Moslem Selçuks and the Ottomans ended up in chaos.  Of course, all these empires had their different characteristics, but they all suffered, ultimately, from a period of decline, over-extension, and not knowing how to consolidate their raison-d’être and their Weltanschauung – and, very crucially, few understood the value of pluralism.  The Hapsburg push that led to the Thirty Years’ European Civil War is a classic example of this.
The United States - a great country - needs to know the limits of discretion, of power and power-broking, and be more self-critical, (yet not introverted) in its foreign policy formulation.  It should be aware that it is slowly teasing and provoking the Russian sleeping bear into aggression, when that bear is a crucial long-term lynchpin for world peace, along with China.  US foreign policy should become more introspective.

Perhaps the answer is a more pluralistic and consensual approach (one really based on the US Constitution).  This would promote more effective stability, rather than disguise business and strategic interests in a selection of pseudo-moral constructs, which simply leads to more terrorism.  The world is not yet as small as some would like to think.
Dr William Mallinson is professor of International History and lectures on British history, culture and literature at the Ionian University in Corfu. He is a former British diplomat and is the author of Cyprus: A Modern History (IB Tauris, London)


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published this page in The Attic 2012-03-26 22:40:03 -0400