The Blind Conversing With The Blind: U.S. Foreign Policy
Official U.S. foreign policy discussions take place between what are called the realists and the liberal internationalists. The former assume that all nations are motivated by exactly the same things (e.g. rationality and security) and although some level of consensual agreements and coalitions are possible (especially for what are called defensive realists) international relations tends to boil down to “every country for themselves” and “might makes right”. On the other hand, the liberal internationalists laud something called “capitalist democracy” (really a universalization of U.S. ideology) as a civilizing influence that will create world peace (hence democratic peace theory) and therefore the U.S. (the par excellence of capitalist democracy) is obligated to interfere in other nations to help them achieve what wonders the U.S. possesses – otherwise known as liberal interventionism or humanitarian interventionism. If in the latter two, you smell the redolent fumes of “the White man’s burden” to civilize the <insert derogatory terms for other national and racial groups> you would not be mistaken. Within such a world view are seen as “conflicts arise primarily from the aggressive impulses of autocrats, dictators, and other illiberal leaders” (Walt 2021); not the saintly and well-meaning capitalist democracies.
The realists have many times pointed out the supposedly self-defeating policies of a U.S. foreign policy establishment which is overwhelmingly liberal internationalist, irrespective of which president is in power (notably in the case of the Trump presidency that sparked an outright rebellion against a sitting president), while wondering why the U.S. keeps making foreign policy decisions that are not in its interests. This is because they assume that it should refer to the U.S. as a whole, rather than the capitalist elite that predominantly control what happens within the country and in its relations with other countries. The liberal internationalists, being liberal, assume a plural democratic system that represents the will of the “average voter”. Both are studiously blind to the realities of domestic and international relations, a blindness required to move up in an ideologically disciplined U.S. foreign policy establishment (state foreign policy organizations, think tanks predominantly funded by the state and the rich, and academia). This blindness is on full display in a recent article in Foreign Policy, one of the organs of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, written by Stephen M. Walt – one of the most well-known realist scholars.
In this article he quite correctly identifies liberal internationalist policies as the underlying cause of the current Ukrainian crisis, with a title of “Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis”; the use of the term “illusions” already gives away his studious blindness. He considers that the U.S. and its European allies have “succumbed to hubris, wishful thinking, and liberal idealism” (Walt 2021). Nowhere is mentioned the possibility of a capitalist elite wanting to open up and dominate new geographies for profit making and exploitation, and to extinguish any base of a counter movement. He puts down the expansion of NATO and the EU eastwards to Russia’s and Belarus’ borders, in direct contravention of guarantees given to the Russian president Gorbachev at the time of German reunification, to “benign intentions” (Ibid.) A much more accurate assessment was made by van der Pijl (2012, p. 504), probably not a man to be invited to the White House to discuss geopolitics, who identifies a capitalist ruling class with a strategy designed to “open up contender state/society complexes, dispossess the state classes, and replace them by a governing class submitting to liberal governance and ‘open for business’”. From this point of view, the eastward expansion was a huge win for U.S. and Western capitalist elites – providing whole new geographies of profit making and huge new populations to be added to the reserve army of labor. The logical conclusion of such a strategy is that it encompasses the whole globe, a conclusion seemingly possible in the 1990s, but removed by among other things the recovered nationalism and sovereignty of Russia (as well as the rise of China and the resistance of other nations such as Iran).
The U.S. capitalist elite, whose interests are those of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, will not easily give up their drive to either integrate Russia, or seal it off at its borders. At the same time the profit-making and careerist motives of the U.S. Military Industrial Complex (MIC), when combined with the increasingly rabid rentier nature of a hubristic U.S. capitalist elite, leads to highly dysfunctional decisions and outcomes. Examples are a the US$60 billion per year Afghanistan occupation, three times the Afghan GDP, which mostly benefitted profiteers and careerists rather than the rebuilding of the nation and its reorientation into the Western fold. Compounding this failure is the current theft of US$9.5 billion from the Afghan treasury while famine becomes a real possibility within the country. Another is the illegal invasion and occupation of Iraq, part of a campaign to dominate the Middle East, which seems to have only served to again benefit profiteers and careerists while greatly increasing the position of Iran within Iraq and diminishing the image of the U.S. internationally. Another is the wanton destruction of the wealthiest nation in Africa at the time, Libya, to clear away the opposition of its leader Gaddafi from U.S. military and economic expansionism; turning a middle-income nation into a socio-economic disaster where even black slavery has re-emerged (with GDP per capital collapsing from US$12,000 to US$5,000 with that income concentrated in a small elite [Sher 2017]) The defeat of the working class at home, showcased by the near destruction of private-sector unions and the turn away of the Democratic Party from even a fig leaf of support for union rights, has also facilitated the off-shoring of large parts of a U.S. manufacturing sector critical to national security; the profits of labor arbitrage and the belief in the opening up for business of China overrode such realist concerns.
The move to integrate Georgia and the Ukraine, both states bordering Russia, into NATO is a natural part of the US capitalist elite driven foreign policy. The ongoing resistance of the U.S. foreign policy establishment toward anything that would resemble a strategic retreat that would remove profit-making possibilities and reduce the pressure on Russia is the core problem that the Russian position is trying to overcome. The slow realization of the U.S. foreign policy makers that what they have achieved in the last 25 years is a tightening and highly symbiotic coalition between China, Russia and Iran which also encompasses Central Asia and Belarus, is creating a moment of extreme cognitive dissonance. The negative responses of the Association of South East Asian Nation (ASEAN) countries to US requests for a united front against China, together with the loss of Afghanistan, the increasing legitimacy of the Syrian Assad government, and Chinese inroads into Africa, only serve to increase U.S. elite exasperation.
As Alexander Mercouris (2022) recently noted, the U.S. state has been reduced to searching for natural gas supplies for Europe so that sanctions against Russia will not backfire massively upon their allies; a doomed attempt in a tight international gas market supplied by nations who are fellow members with Russia of the OPEC+ group.
Walt also has to debase himself with the usual U.S. insults with respect to a Russian leader who seems to be doing a more than adequate job of managing his nation’s national interests with the limited resources available, “The Russian leader deserves no sympathy, as his repressive domestic policies, obvious corruption, repeated lying, and murderous campaigns against Russian exiles who pose no danger to his regime make abundantly clear” (Walt 2022). Such rank propaganda does seem as a general requirement for acceptance within official U.S. institutions and publications, somewhat like the old Soviet need for authors to rail against “bourgeois capitalist scum” to be allowed to officially share their highly disciplined words. Also, the supposed “illegal seizure of Crimea”, after a vote of the majority Russian population and on the same grounds of many of the post-Yugoslavian nations welcomed into existence by the West; self-determination. Of course, in this case the people voted for the “wrong” outcome and must be corrected. Also, no mention of the extensive U.S. and European involvement in the 2014 coup against the democratically elected Ukrainian government.
Russia has brought the U.S. elite to a foreign policy crossroads that it was already travelling toward; that of acceptance of the end of the “unipolar moment” and a return to international pluralism and spheres of interest, or a war against the rising powers that it has helped to ally together. The former will increasingly impinge on the profiteering activities of the U.S. elite, but will allow for a slow, measured and negotiated retreat. A continued refusal to accept the new reality, and act as if it does not exist, will lead to an increasingly reduced position and much unrest among allied nations and the possibility of war. This latter possibility can only lead to defeat (as so many U.S. war games have shown) or an escalatory spiral where humanity loses.
The most worrying possibility is that the U.S. elites and its foreign policy representatives are locked into a delusional worldview that produces an increasingly dysfunctional policy orientation, as the realist Layne has detailed (2017). With no substantive opposition at home, a U.S. elite that has become used to winning may bring upon its own downfall; one that it has already done much to accelerate with its own short-sightedness, rentier characteristics, and hubris. The recent spectacle of a state giving yet more money for the MIC to waste on expensive adventures and toys while relatively small attempts to rebuild the national socio-economic base are defeated says much about that elite. So does the inability to make peace with Iran, and détente with Russia, in order to focus on the main threat to U.S. dominance and the ability of its elites to open up other nations to its profiteering. The inevitable denouement is approaching, as very much understood by Russian and Chinese elites; who do their best to wait patiently while the U.S. elites continue their self-wounding behavior at a safe distance.
The U.S. attempts to place NATO missiles and armies on the border of Russia were a step too far, and means that patience is no longer the best option for Russia; at least until the issue is resolved favorably to Russia. Either the U.S. retreats, as Kennedy did with the missiles in Turkey in 1963, or Russia will increase the pressure until it does. This will not involve an invasion of Ukraine, as Putin and his advisors are far too competent to be drawn into such a morass (and Russia remembers its problems in Afghanistan); the repeated Western warnings of such an invasion seem to be more an externalization of their hopes rather than any Russian intention. China will also wait patiently with respect to Taiwan, as time is upon its side, unless the U.S. crosses the red line of acceptance of Taiwan as an independent state. As the US has found, there is no appetite in the ASEAN nations for such a confrontation.
It seems that we will continue with the realists advising the U.S. elites of prudent foreign policy options (from the standpoint of the interests of the U.S. population as a whole), while not being able to at least publicly understand why the liberal internationalists keep winning the debate. In the meantime, this doubly blind debate will not address the underlying domestic power dynamics, and the U.S. will continue to stagger toward a compromise forced upon it by external actors; through peaceful or military means.
Walt is left with utter delusion that the “best hope for a peaceful resolution of this unhappy mess is for the Ukrainian people and their leaders to realize that having Russia and the West fight over which side ultimately gains Kyiv’s allegiance is going to be a disaster for their country” and the hope that it could “formally pledge not to become a member of NATO or join the Russian-led Collective Security Treaty Organization” (Walt 2022). That the Ukraine is dominated by a group of right-wing oligarchs and fascist nationalists brought to power with the aid of the U.S. and Western elites (Golinkin 2019), and that have rejected the Minsk Accords because they see the absolute subjugation of the Russian-speaking east of the nation as a core objective, is at least publicly invisible to Walt. The Ukrainian people have very little, if any, say in their own future and their rulers are certainly not their representatives.
He does rightly surmise that “The most tragic element in this whole unhappy saga is that it was avoidable. But until U.S. policymakers temper their liberal hubris and regain a fuller appreciation of realism’s uncomfortable but vital lessons, they are likely to stumble into similar crises in the future”, but without any publicly stated understanding of the underlying reasons why that tempering is so difficult for the U.S. elites and their policymaker representatives.
Golinkin, Lev (2019, Feb 22). Neo-Nazis and the Far Right Are On the March in Ukraine. The Nation.
Layne, Christopher. (2017). The US foreign policy establishment and grand strategy: how American elites obstruct strategic adjustment. International Relations 54(3), 260-275.
Mercouris, Alexander (2022, Jan 23). Theatre of the Absurd: UK's Surreal Claim of Moscow's Plot to Install 'Puppet Gov' in Kiev.
Sher, Nathaniel (2017). Why Is Libya Poor? The Borgen Project. https://borgenproject.org/why-is-libya-poor/
van der Pijl, Kees (2012). Is the East Still Red? The Contender State and Class Struggles in China. Globalizations 9(4), 503-516.
Walt, Stephen M. (2022, Jan 19). Liberal Illusions Caused the Ukraine Crisis. Foreign Policy