34 – The Unseen Crash of American Leadership (29 Apr 2011)

    The notion of American leadership is, today, a fantasy. When we speak of leadership we think of something that is positive. A leader who is accepted voluntarily is not going to lead you and your loved ones, along with all your compatriots, unnecessarily into dangerous waters. That kind of leadership is the lot of those who have been enslaved or seduced.
     American leadership used to exist. In fact it was crucial in shaping the post-World-War-II world, which in the second half of the twentieth century consolidated into a relatively peaceful and relatively stable international order, one hospitable to a Russia and China once these shed their ideologies that had isolated them with a rigid authoritarianism. But it crashed. While signs of serious political malfunctioning were observed long before that moment, we can pinpoint the actual crash to when an utterly incompetent president decided to appoint enemies at whim, and thereby broke with tradition, international agreements, and what had been achieved by international law; all that his predecessors in the immediate postwar period had helped establish.
     American leadership is a fantasy because a country can only be a good leader if possessed of a minimal degree of inner stability and self-control along with purposes that are shared by those being led.
 When Barack Obama entered the White House he told “every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity” on the planet that something had gone amiss with American leadership: as he continued his inaugural speech with the assurance that the United States is “ready to lead once more”. The more skeptical among those desiring a future of peace and dignity might have asked “leadership in what?”. In warmaking? In the gradual elevation and strengthening of corporate power and an oligarchy of wealth, at the expense of public goods? But of course, almost everyone listening to that speech in what used to be called the ‘free world’ had already been led to believe by him that he would use his incontestable power in attempts to reverse what had gone wrong and what had turned the United States into a force for international chaos instead of order.
     We now know that he was not as good as his word, and those who are not running away from reality understand that the window of opportunity for fundamental repair is now closed.
     Probably because the fact of American leadership is mostly taken for granted in the United States itself, and is there no less than a mandatory assumption for anyone aspiring to higher office or influential pundithood, the ubiquitous discussion centering on America’s decline consists mostly of evaluations about how much weight the United States can continue to swing around. More specifically, a weird dispute is taking place as to whether America’s top dog position may eventually be lost to China. Anti-declinists hold that in the economic realm and with its unchallenged and historically unprecedented military might, American power is still in very good shape and likely to remain so for quite a while.
     They are right. As a last resort, its new drones, recently employed by the hundreds in Pakistan, can blow to smithereens America’s alleged enemies, along with lots of innocents, by remote ‘pilots’ in comfortable offices, who moments later can sit down to dinner with their families. Power has never been quite so blatant. But power, which is the capacity to lord it over others, without authority, which is the acknowledged right to tell others what to do, is not enough for credible leadership.
     Unfortunately for the United States, the political elites of what used to be called the ‘free world’ have not yet found it convenient to contemplate all this seriously. I call this unfortunate, because supposed friends who avert their eyes from what has happened to the United States are not doing Washington or the American public a good turn. Absence of external checks on one’s conduct can be disastrous for countries as much as for individuals.
     There are several reasons for the indifference of America’s putative friends. One is simple ignorance. It is actually amazing how in this era of omnipresent world news and commentary, pushed instantaneously to a myriad of pocketable devices, Europeans or Japanese have little knowledge of the crises afflicting the United States. Most have no idea, to take a recent example, that the brouhaha about the budget is not about a budget but about dominant radical forces in the Republican Party intent on dismantling the American state even further, wrecking its provisions that deliver public goods.
     What are called America’s allies, but are treated by Washington as vassals, and identify themselves as part of a force for good in the world, have not done their homework. It has not occurred to them that the United States has no strategy. World domination is not feasible, and hence cannot be a serious long term goal. What used to be called the ‘free world’ shows as yet no signs of grasping the obvious fact that a common cause that held it together before the demise of the Soviet Union has vanished. Unending wars do not belong to the aims endorsed by the member states of the European Union, or Japan. So, the fundamental condition of any alliance — shared political purpose — does not obtain.
     Daily news about Egyptians and Lybians wrestling to free themselves from tyrannical regimes keeps alive imagery of Western values, and of a laudable effort to help along the democracy sought by others. What used to be called the ‘free world’ has not yet awakened to the reality that, with all its professed intention of spreading democracy and the rule of law over the world, the United States itself no longer has the functioning institutional underpinnings to be a democracy on the national level. Or, for that matter, that its legal system does not do the most important thing it is meant to accomplish: to protect common citizens against the rapacity, political priorities and caprices of powerful entities, which are not under other kinds of control.
     Which brings us to the reason towering above all others why American leadership today can only be a fantasy. American entities most responsible for the recent crises, for much international upheaval, economic misfortune and the tragic metamorphosis of what was once an admirable country are not shielded by guards against excess, and are eating away at the state. Both the Pentagon with its military-industrial complex appendages and the FED with its Wall Street appendages live lives of their own, beyond the control of the executive and in practice not accountable to anyone.
     Will the illusion of American leadership persist? It is inherent in what many countries of what used to be called the ‘free world’ believe to be normal or inescapable reality. The environment in which their politicians grew up never demanded of them to think independently about positioning themselves internationally in any way other than in obedience to their former protector.
     And a bit of American intimidation helps the illusion along as well. Japan’s recent attempt at establishing some independence, and slight diplomatic moves for strenthening relations with China, was effectively sabotaged by Washington as it engineered the fall of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama. His successor, Prime Minister Naoto Kan, is sufficiently scared that something like that may happen to him as well, hence U.S.-Japan relations are back on what Washington considers an even keel.
     As for the European Union, it is indirectly allowing American financial interests to dictate the future of its Euro zone. The lack of an independent European policy to solve the disastrous European repercussions of the American credit crisis has led to a program of saving speculating banks, at the expense of the populations of several member states. Make-shift policies substituting for necessary political adjustments have cut severely into any sense of solidarity amid resurgent nationalism in some of the member states of the Union.
     Europe’s heads of government, in the main, are today more parochial than their predecessors who made European integration possible, and are primarily interested in what works for their national political fortunes. As of now, nothing spurs them to gather enough political courage to get to grips with something that only part of their political elites experiences as a nagging back-of-the-mind understanding that Atlanticism has become a liabilty for their continent.
     The American leadership illusion impairs the movement to a further political integration of the European Union, and has undermined a breakthrough in Japan’s relations with its neighbours. But hovering beyond those concrete effects are the makings of a moral crisis.
     An honest contemplation of the world, seeing what Washington presents as threats for what they mostly are — fulfilling an American need for enemies — and remembering that economies do not exist for a massive upwards transfer of wealth and the fortunes of a plutocracy, has become difficult for Europeans too. The governments of several member states have had to lie, and to lie big, to their citizens as a condition for keeping the illusion of an Atlantic Alliance alive. Western civilization is not being defended by American arms in Afghanistan, or anywhere else. What is on offer from Washington is not participation in an alliance but membership in a system of vassalage, that almost solely serves American war aims and profiteering, at the expense of peaceful co-existence under less hostile and more egalitarian conditions.
     The story that has apparently captured the imagination of those who are blind to European serfdom in matters of global strategy portrays ‘the West’ as besieged by forces that wish to undermine or destroy its ‘values’. A paranoid fantasy about the American way of life being threatened by enemies now and enemies to come has crept into the discussions of European countries as well. Nonsense about the internal European peril of its Muslim inhabitants — a transformation into ‘Eurabia’ — has influenced European prattle about ‘Enlightenment values’ and gives an edge to populist fear mongering about an imagined assault on such principles as freedom of speech.
     The illusion of American leadership has begun a replay of an appalling historical phenomenon: avoiding reality becomes a habit. Lies accepted for supposedly practical reasons will gradually gain an aura of political veracity and respectability and become a kind of permanent false truth.
     European acceptance of the vassal status that has been on offer since 2001, and which means compliance with American purposes of maintaining a militarist empire, will come to mean that truth in political conversation and media analysis will eventually depend mostly on political exigency and opportunism. The same is true for Japan. When political truth is something produced by dominating powerholders, rather than something to be discovered collectively, this will bring us back to a state, most recently experienced with fascism and Stalinism, in which it grows out of the barrel of a gun. Isn’t that what the most honorable strand of Western intellectual tradition has fought against for centuries?