Readiness crisis for Joe Biden?
The US has long understood that it cannot rule the world alone. That seems to be the logical position of any nation committed to the idea of democracy. Isn’t democracy about preventing a monopoly of power? This is based on an ethical principle that is generally recognized as appropriate for democratic societies: respect for diversity. And as Machiavelli rightly pointed out long ago, princes who earn the respect of the people they govern find it easier to govern.
Democratic decision-making and respect, therefore, appear to be essential assets of any nation attempting to dominate the world order. The US has handled what it likes to call the “rules-based order” fairly unencumbered for the last 30 years. But neither the idea of democratic power-sharing nor the ethic of respect have played a significant role in the foreign policies of recent American administrations. Instead, a much simpler argument has prevailed. It derives from the one principle of the American capitalist creed that no honest citizen must doubt, summed up in three letters: ROI, Return on Investment.
At some point in the recent past, American presidents began to understand that the investments required to run the world would simply be too expensive for a single nation. It would even exceed the permanently expandable means of a nation whose money must be held and valued by every other nation in the world in order to indirectly and involuntarily support the American economy. Just as the wealthiest businessmen borrow other people’s money rather than risk their own when making the colossal investments that allow them to control powerful corporations, the US is leading the global economy by finding ways to outperform its allies persuade coalitions to invest.
The hegemonic strategy of using coalitions to structure one’s empire and letting them carry the brunt is a lesson Americans have learned from observing the fate of recent empires. Napoleon’s spectacularly successful but short-lived European empire discredited the idea of a centrally controlled empire. Britain’s far more enduring and extended global empire proved too cumbersome to manage in the face of competition. Going it alone will always be a costly business. Furthermore, centrally managed empires are easily the target of resentment from the downtrodden and neglected around the world.
After 9/11, George W. Bush decided unilaterally to punish the Afghan nation, not for organizing the attack on New York and Washington DC, but for the crime of insisting on defining an appropriate legal framework to contain Osama Bin Laden to effectively bring to justice simply to arrest the man whom the US had identified as the perpetrator. Invading Afghanistan alone would have been cumbersome. Bush claimed that a terrorist’s crime was an act of war and invoked NATO’s artificial solidarity to draw designated allies into a war they could not refuse.
When Bush decided in early 2003 to start a new war, which he described as “preemptive” – meaning he could not mobilize NATO because the US had not been attacked – he called for the formation of a “coalition of the willing” . Ironically, the name alone indicated the fragility and potential criminality of the endeavor. It also reflected a persistent American desire to divide humanity into two, in this case the willing and the unwilling.
The Russian invasion of Ukraine in February led to a similar logic. It was also about NATO, although no NATO state had been attacked. Like Bush, Biden demanded a literal “preparedness push” from potentially unruly partners.
The strategy seemed to work perfectly. Europe now awaits with growing concern a winter of discontent from its own people. Meanwhile, the US is clearly calling the shots. The first shot called – which the now-discredited Boris Johnson personally fired at superhero Volodymyr Zelenskyy – was an order to keep the gunfire going as long as possible. The US and its defense industry especially love wars that, like a good TV series, last multiple seasons.
The Joe Biden administration has attempted a similar move to assemble a coalition in East Asia, but this time with a different focus. As described by Sarah Zheng and Philip Heijmans in a Bloomberg article, the Biden Doctrine appeared decidedly non-confrontational in the Pacific. At the same time, the president and leader of his party did nothing to prevent Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi from reminding the world that the true character of the US is to be boldly confrontational. “Since taking office,” they explain, “President Joe Biden has sought to build a broad coalition in Asia to resist Chinese hyperbole, in part by telling smaller economies they don’t have to choose sides. “
Today’s Devil’s Weekly Dictionary Definition:
The choice that the United States normally offers to other countries once they have committed themselves to conflict with another state, a policy that can be summed up as: “Starting a fight always precedes taking sides.”
Since taking office in January 2021, Biden has repeatedly advocated a new Manichaean worldview that divides the world’s nations into two opposing camps: democracy vs. authoritarian regimes. At the same time, Bloomberg reporters describe a policy aimed at “building a more robust US leadership presence in Asia to confront China in a way that is comfortable for nations that need strong trade ties with Beijing to boost their economies.” . They point to “a stark contrast to the Trump administration,” which has pressured other nations to “take steps that would effectively force them to choose between the world’s largest economies.”
Pelosi’s provocation has clearly reduced Asian perceptions of American politics to their basic Manichaean position. The spokesman made it clear that it is always a question of choosing sides “as the world faces a choice between autocracy and democracy”. It is true that Trump’s “side picking” only focused on economic decisions, while the Biden-Pelosi administration framed the fight in quasi-apocalyptic terms to counter the equivalent of Gog (Russia) and Magog (China). “We stand on the brink of a war with Russia and China over issues that we partly created ourselves, with no idea how it will end or where it will lead,” Henry Kissinger recently told The Wall Street Journal.
The Bloomberg authors note the shift being felt across Asia. “But all of a sudden, after months of trying to make countries comfortable with joining the US, Pelosi’s visit forced Asia to take a stand on China’s most sensitive issue of all. And many governments just bow their heads.” Bending the head down strongly suggests losing face, an effect Asians will never dismiss and forget. When it comes to choosing sides, the US is in a decidedly weaker position.
When George Bush formed his “coalition of the willing” in March 2003, he had already made up his mind to go to war. Instead of consulting Britain, Spain and other “willing” nations, he simply invited them to do his will. This followed similar logic to his ploy 18 months earlier, when he forced NATO to accept the consequences of his refusal to consider working with the Taliban to bring bin Laden to justice, and thereby the presence of al Qaeda to neutralize in Afghanistan. In October 2001, The guard reported that “US officials appear to have rejected the proposal, instead hoping to create a split within the Taliban leadership.” They quickly stopped hoping. Instead, NATO obediently followed the US into a war that would last for two disastrous and fruitless decades.
Bush did exactly what is expected of a “leader of the free world.” He led so others could follow. In April 1999, NATO released a document proclaiming its founding principle: “Our Alliance is and must remain a Euro-Atlantic institution, acting by consensus. But we must be prepared to prevent, deter, and respond to the full spectrum of threats to Alliance interests and values.” Given the consistency of events in both 2001 and 2022, it should now be clear that “consensus” means automatic approval of all members with the unilaterally decided intentions of the USA means.
No one knows today whether the Biden administration’s strategy in Ukraine – with no NATO troops present, but with weapons plentiful – will produce the intended results. If you go to Afghanistan, hope could drag on for another 20 years. A parallel logic is now developing in Asia. The Bloomberg article ends with a quote from Harvard scholar Seong-hyon Lee. “What the US lacks is coherence and clarity in its China policy. It makes allies scratch their heads.” In Ukraine, they’ve stopped scratching their heads and are more focused on cauterizing their wounds.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of Fair Observer Devil’s Dictionary.]
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