Some challenges for the US in the Middle East

 The Middle East is a challenge by itself. The region is in a turmoil which originates new problems for the US. In particular there are two important issues: the Russian successful activism in the region and the possibility of emergence of Kurdistan.

The US has been playing an important role in the Middle East since the Truman Administration (1945-1952). After so many years it continues to strive for its regional military hegemony. In the past the US interest in the Middle East was defined by oil, however because the US itself has become a large oil producer – from 8 million barrels per day to about 14 million in 2014 – and it is attempting to shift to renewable energy such as solar power, wind power etc., why does the US is still involved in the Middle East?

There are other factors which make the US to be there. Firstly, Russia’s successful bid to expand its influence and tighten its ties with the US friends in the Middle East has been a source of concern for the US officials. Russia managed to get Israel neutral over the issue for which it has been sanctioned, namely, the territorial integrity of Ukraine. Additionally, Egypt has adopted Russia’s attitude towards the Syrian crisis, that it is about to have Assad there and have greater security in the region. Lastly, Syria – another country in the Middle East – has a government backed by Russia (http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/03/07/u-s-russia-competition-in-the-middle-east-is-back/). Traditionally, the US and Russia are perceived as two competing great powers, therefore, the current trajectory can be disadvantageous for the US. Losing or having less influence in the Middle East the US will suffer from the loss of its leverages which are exercised to dictate political climate in that part of the world. If Russia managed to have Israel – an important US ally – silenced over Crimea and get Egypt to think that it is better Assad to stay in power;it effectively means that in the future Russia may soften Israel’s attitude towards Iran and this can be a real damage to the US in terms of geopolitics.

Though, it is very hard to make predictions, but it is clear that Russia is a great power with the full right to enhance its interests and the US is the same. Therefore, we should draw a conclusion that the US and Russia have their peculiar interests, to see which one will be more successful in their Middle East policy is a matter of time.

Secondly, the Middle East is about to give birth to a new country (at least de facto) named Kurdistan. At present, the unborn country is an autonomous region – in the northern Iraq– under the rule of the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG). Obviously, the US has ‘something’ to do about it. The US involvement is also encouraged by Erbil and Bagdad (http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/07/18/iraqi-kurds-want-america-as-their-divorce-lawyer-kurdistan-referendum-independence/). On the one side, Iraqi Kurds want the US to support the call for independence referendum on September 25, and then assist to achieve independence. On the other side, Bagdad asks the US to foster its support for “One Iraq” policy. To solve this conundrum will require the US to be constructive and inclusive. By inclusive I mean to consider the interests of all sides, plus the interests of regional players i.e. Turkey. Turkish interest is more than clear-cut on the Kurdish issue – they do not want to see an independent Kurdistan.

NATO excessively relies on Turkey and has its second largest army there. Some argue that NATO is an important institution via which the US implements its policies to achieve the end goals. The consequences have shaped a situation where the US has to decide whether to give more weight to a NATO ally or stand for one of the most important American values which is defined by self-determination.

One of the first priorities of the US is to prevent any side – Iraq, Turkey or KRG –  to reignite a new fight in the region. Then, (this may sound utopian) to unite all sides against terrorism, because this fragile situation is made even worse by the presence of terrorists. Nevertheless, both peace and good political climate should be established to advance the Kurdish claims of having an independent country. The US has made this clear by asking the KRG to wait as it is not a good time for independence. It seems that Trump administration will be reluctant to support the Kurdish independent during these troubled times in the Middle East.

 

Taron Pipoyan
2nd year undergraduate in ‘Politics’
Department of Political Economy
taron.pipoyan@kcl.ac.uk

 

The New Democrats Era might be at a Shifting Point

The political effect of the global financial crisis reverberated across different countries according to national peculiarities. In the UK Corbyn climbed to the leadership of Labour, in Italy 5 Star Movement became the first party, in France Marie Le Pen won an extraordinary 34% at the presidential election and in Spain all of a sudden Podemos has established itself among the main parliamentary forces. In the US this trend was paralleled by Trump’s victory within the Republican Party and Sanders’ positive electoral experience. Since then, the Democratic Party has been the place of some auto critical discussion. In fairness Hillary Clinton won the presidential contest, still it felt like a substantial defeat which has not triggered an official internal debate even though concerns on the future political posture of the party have become a haunting issue.
The beginning of this story however goes as far as the early ’90s. Bill Clinton’s New Democrats revolution (http://www.jstor.org/stable/2152360?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents) aimed at challenging the Republican electoral dominion since the end of Johnson’s mandate by shifting the ideological axis of the party towards the centre and joining the “third way” (http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0745626750,subjectCd-PO50.html). Since the Democratic Party adopted Clinton’s model it has been a successful era, with four Democratic presidential mandates in 24 years. In the ‘90s the left-wing approach to free-market and globalism proved to be very profitable in terms of political consent. However after the crisis and after Obama’s mandates “it is increasingly apparent that Democrats cannot win in much of the country without a more coherent and overriding economic message” (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/democrats-economy.html?smid=tw-share). Despite the party has moved leftward on civil rights with Obama, some “Democrats share a growing recognition that Mr. Obama’s way may not be the best course in a country where many voters have experienced little income growth and where high-paying jobs can be scarce” (ibid.). If on the one hand it could be argued that Trump did not win against Hillary Clinton –  given that she won with an advantage of 3 million votes – on the other hand special elections confirmed the negative phase for the Democratic Party. The latter just lost four out of the five 2017 special elections for senate held so far – the other elections were in Kansas 4th, Montana’s At-Large, California 34th and South Carolina 5th.
The most painful of these defeats came in Georgia, where the candidate Jon Ossoff managed to lose after achieving the record for participating in the most expensive campaign of its kind in American history. In many admitted, like when Trump won, DP should stop looking for votes over the moderate centre where, particularly in Georgia, Republicans are strong. They say that “we need a bolder economic platform, our party needs to be for good jobs and better wages, [and] we have to have some bold economic ideas that are going to convince people that we get it,” (http://www.politico.com/story/2017/06/21/democrats-special-election-ossoffhandel-239827). In this instance it is interesting to bring back a 1993 article written in The American Prospect where the author provided this harsh but realistic description of what Bill Clinton’s project represented at the time: “when faced with such central public problems as falling real incomes, impoverished cities, uncompetitive industries, and stubbornly high unemployment, their vision falters. Like their own caricature of the Left, the New Democrats are trapped in a “politics of evasion,” obsessed with abstract debates over social values, while the nation stumbles into decline”. (http://prospect.org/article/myth-new-democrats). Trump’s victory, together with the rise of nationalism across Europe, tells that the Democratic Party is now paying the price for its early ‘90s ideological shift. In particular the Democratic Party is failing to speak to the most socially insecure strata of society. As reported in a recent study “stagnating income and limited job prospects have disproportionately affected lower-income and lower-skilled Americans, leading inequality to rise” (http://www.hbs.edu/competitiveness/Documents/problems-unsolved-and-a-nation-divided.pdf, p. 3). It is true that Obama recovered the 8 million jobs lost with the crisis, however it is clear that the kind of jobs he brought back are not of the same quality in terms of contract as they used to be. Meanwhile, the fast progress of technology – such as self-driving trucks and cashier-less shops – threatens to throw millions of workers out of their jobs – as it happened with agriculture in 20th century (Jeremy Rifkin, 1995, The End ff Work: The Decline of the Global Labor Force and The Dawn of the Post-Market Era, p. 109; ch. 8). As explained in a recent report: “Almost 88 percent of job losses in manufacturing in recent years can be attributable to productivity growth, and the long-term changes to manufacturing employment are mostly linked to the productivity of American factories” (http://conexus.cberdata.org/files/MfgReality.pdf, p. 6).
Because Trump has avoided this issue so far, there is a political space for the Democratic Party to fill. But fighting back technology means developing a critical analysis of capitalism. Therefore the question is “does the DP really want to tackle technological growth and unemployment”?

Zeno Leoni
PhD candidate
Department of European and International Studies
King’s College London
@multipolarorder

North Korea: is China gambling at the expense of US’ and its allies’ security?

Perhaps theorists should not be concerned about China as a current destabilising power but they have to be rattled over North Korean deadlocked nuclear issue. The country commenced its nuclear program since the Soviet era of 1960s. Over many years Kim dynasty could reach the point of being a country with nukes. The government of North Korea has stated multiple times about being reluctant to give up its nuclear programs and freeze them. This comes after tough and long negations over nukes.
At present, the relationship between US and North Korea is experiencing more than some bumps. North Korea has warned over its intentions of pre-emptive strike to the US and its allies if they will threat the existence of its regime, and it has conducted several missile tests some in the exclusive economic zone of Japan (US ally). Consequently, the two countries were many times at loggerheads, especially since Trump became president.
The aggressive behaviour of North Korea has raised security issues of the US and its allies at the top of their security agenda. In other words, the US and its Asian allies’ security is at stake. Since his presidential campaign Donald J. Trump has announced his solution about the North Korean issue. That is to use US economic leverage to put pressure on China to deal with North Korea (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/us-politics/north-korea-nuclear-missile-us-mainland-strike-hit-defence-intelligence-chief-lieutenant-general-a7755691.html). If not the US will solve the issue in its own way. China has reportedly asked the US and North Korea to restrain from any potential conflict. Moreover, China rejected North Korean coal ships in order to discipline Pyongyang. Also, at the official level China showed its anxiety about North Korean nuclear programs and missile tests (http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2017/05/north-korea-testing-nuclear-weapons-170504072226461.html). This all sounds good. However, one controversial question has always touched my thinking about the current trajectory of North Korean nuclear issue. Does China want to see a North Korea as it is under Kim Jong-un? I personally think that it is “yes” and “no”. It is “yes” because China won’t like to see a united Korea with American values such as democracy, free media outlets, and capitalist economy. The American values can pose a real threat to China’s non-democratic system. This keeps the Chinese alerted.

Additionally, as mainstream theories of IR – realism and liberalism – argue the international system is anarchic and the states try to survive and get more power. This can be the case with China. Having the current North Korea exerting threat to the US and its Asian allies can serve as a political tool for China to weaken and keep under a constant threat the US and its allies. This may sound like a conspiracy theory, but remember it is an anarchic system and countries strive for survival at the expense of others. Though, it is a paradox because North Korea is a shared security threat for the US and its Asian friends. This effectively means that the shared nuclear threat may act as an incentive for having even stronger alliance. Of course, it won’t be welcomed by China. Transcending the paradox requires patience and time.

Finally, the answer is “no” to the question stated previously because North Korea can be a potential threat to China as well. The US will prefer to develop the conflict in East Asia rather than wait until North Korea gets the capability of hitting its mainland with nukes. Subsequently, North Korea is a regional and may be a global threat. At least, it is considered as a rogue state. A potential conflict or war in that region will cause refugee crisis pretty much like the Syrian refugee crisis. Those millions of refugees will go to where? Make a guess. Undoubtedly, to China as they share border and the South Korean border is closed. It is not easy to tackle the issue of refugees because they put pressure on a state’s capacity and resources.

Moreover, the war especially, the nuclear war is not beneficial for China as it may have a direct negative impact on its economic development and growth. It may perish Chinese long term economic programs. Reigniting a new war in the region can also be a source of direct conflict between the US and China, meaning that the world will lose rather a particular country. The next article will be devoted to the topic of the US and the Middle East.

Taron Pipoyan
1st year undergraduate in ‘World Politics’
Department of Political Economy
taron.pipoyan@kcl.ac.uk

Obama’s strategy to contain China. A success or a failure?

The proponents of the “China threat” theory including John Mearsheimer himself have argued that China was a revisionist power which would challenge the Western world order. Unfortunately, Chinese officials have saddened the theory’s supporters because China is on the track of “peaceful rise.” China has been very much involved in Bretton Woods institutions and is trying to consolidate its position of what Robert Zoellick once called “responsible stakeholder” (Scott and Wilkinson, 2013). It strives for getting more powers inside those institutions rather challenging them – particularly since Trump’s withdrawal from TPP and Paris agreement. This factor and the striking economic growth and development alongside with military modernisation should be and is a concern for the US.
It is known that any relationship between two countries are shaped by actions originated from both sides. Thus, Obama’s actions have shaped different relations with China compared with his successor Donald J. Trump. Barack Obama stated “the relationship between the United States and China is the most important bilateral relationship of the 21st century” (https://www.brookings.edu/opinions/assessing-u-s-china-relations-under-the-obama-administration/). Obama’s initial approach to China has evinced that the US won’t try to contain Chinese advancement and the US won’t seek to be the “top dog.” Nevertheless, under the Obama administration there was a policy plan to curb China. It was dubbed as “rebalance to Asia-Pacific.” The policy shifted US focus from Europe to Asia, but to a limited extent. The plan contained trade isolationism of China. Namely, Trans-Pacific Partnership trade-agreement which did not involve China. Also, the Obama administration tried to take advantage of China’s problems with its neighbours. Despite these policy plans China could develop and become increasingly stronger. Its manufacturing industry has surpassed the US manufacturing industry which is a key industry for having a strong and rich economy.
Thus, a question flows out whether Obama failed to contain China or not? Well, my answer is yes. However, it will be foolish to ignore Obama’s success in bringing up a constructive China which has been ready for cooperation. Obama’s policy has failed because China has been successful enough to overcome trade-isolation and managed to strengthen its grasp over the BRICS, and initiated “One belt, One road” program. These programs enable China to enlarge and consolidate its economic growth and in the long term to be crowned as the world’s greatest economic power. This, of course, won’t be welcomed by the US. The factual reality tells us that notwithstanding Obama’s plans China could grow and keep up the fast pace of its economic growth.
With regard to trade China has been victorious. However China’s problems with its neighbours have been “exploited” effectively by the Obama administration, though there have been backfires as well. The South China sea dispute gave the US a chance to have a consistent plan of increasing the number of its allies in Asia. Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and other countries have grouped around the US even closer in terms of both military and economic cooperation. This trajectory of the US role in Asia is Obama’s legacy. From this perspective, the US could use effectively its “smart power.”
However, one could argue that the containment of China has had an indirect impact on current aggressive behaviour of North Korea. Supplying of arms and strengthening Asian allies has been a concern for North Korea and China. It was an incentive for China to modernise its army rapidly and North Korea started to show off its capabilities in the exclusive economic zone of Japan.  The evidence weakens Obama’s success in containing China. Obama has been a great president; however, it is key to understand that China is a natural great power and to limit its advancement may be implausible. For what concerns North Korea it may not be a backfire originated from Obama’s support of his Asian allies, but simply it may be a direct result of Trump’s aggressive rhetoric.
The article has discussed a little part of Obama’s strategy of curbing China. The result is believed to be more of a failure rather than a success. In another post I will explore further the issue of North Korea and great power politics.

Taron Pipoyan (taron.pipoyan@kcl.ac.uk)

Trump’s grand strategy and continuity with Obama: part I

What will be the grand strategy of Donald Trump? During the first travel abroad of the president some anticipation emerged coherently with what one could see between the electoral campaign and the first months into the presidency. To the surprise of many, US foreign policy under Trump will have some important elements of continuity with Obama’s foreign policy. His visit to Saudi Arabia – which he once attacked for its “complicity” with 9/11 – in part confirmed what stated in a previous post where I hinted at the resistance of Washington, D.C.’s establishment and at the possibility of a turn towards normalisation. In fact Donald Trump adopted a more indulgent and congratulatory stand with regard to terrorism while blaming regional instability onto Iran. This was “exactly the kind of rhetoric the Sunni strongmen of the region yearned for during the Obama years” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/21/donald-of-arabia-215170). Taking the distance from both Bush’s messianic discourse against Islam and Obama’s watered down version, Trump stated the US does not want to give lectures and let emerge a more pragmatic approach which sounds more similar to Obama’s style than Bush’s one: We are adopting a Principled Realism […] Our partnerships will advance security through stability, not through radical disruption. We will make decisions based on real-world outcomes – not inflexible ideology. […] And, wherever possible, we will seek gradual reforms – not sudden intervention” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/21/president-trumps-speech-arab-islamic-american-summit). On the other hand, this was also a smart way of phrasing Trump’s intention to relive the US from responsibilities in Middle East’s. The deal on military armaments signed with the Saudis was in continuity with Obama’s strategy of disengaging America’s power from the Middle East. However, as different state managers adopts different solutions for long term objectives, while Obama signed the deal with Iran, Trump preferred to maintain his idiosyncratic and braggart view against Tehran – despite Iran’s internal politics became more moderate since Bush – and make a deal of $110 billion dollars which will require Saudi Arabia to consolidate its military power. As he stated in his remarks: “the nations of the Middle East cannot wait for American power to crush this enemy for them. The nations of the Middle East will have to decide what kind of future they want for themselves, for their countries, and for their children” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/21/president-trumps-speech-arab-islamic-american-summit). This was too similar to when Obama stated that “enabling long-term stability in the region, requires more than the use and presence of American military forces. For one, it requires partners who can defend themselves. We are therefore investing in the ability of Israel, Jordan, and our Gulf partners to deter aggression […] (p. 26, http://nssarchive.us/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/2015.pdf). Meanwhile the deal was also aimed at receiving sounding billions in investments – $400 billion – which is a reminder of Trump’s money-driven politics. Coherently with this, Trump “scolded his Nato allies for their “chronic underfunding” (https://www.ft.com/content/9212b3ea-416a-11e7-82b6-896b95f30f58), confirming the “burden-sharing” philosophy that characterized Obama’s grand strategy (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1468-2346.2012.01073.x/full). In his remarks at the unveiling of Berlin Wall memorials he made clear in several passages what he further stressed in the conclusion of the speech: “this twisted mass of metal reminds us not only of what we have lost, but also what forever endures — the courage of our people, the strength of our resolve, and the commitments that bind us together as one” (https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/05/25/remarks-president-trump-nato-unveiling-article-5-and-berlin-wall). While Saudi Arabia and Nato are two of the issues where there is a certain continuity between Obama and Trump, the third foreign policy matter that presents some similarity between the two presidents is Germany and its hegemony in the EU. In fact in several occasions Obama reproved Germany – among others – for its mercantilist foreign trade policy and in general for its delay in “shifting from a competitive posture to increasing domestic consumption” (pp. 4, 7, 29, https://www.treasury.gov/resource-center/international/exchange-rate-policies/Documents/2016-4-29%20(FX%20Pol%20of%20Major%20Trade%20Partner)_final.pdf). Not to mention Obama’s tension with Merkel over NSA’s spy when he stated that “we will not apologize simply because our services may be more effective” (https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2014/01/17/remarks-president-review-signals-intelligence). Similarly but with a more aggressive language, Trump stated in his recent trip that Germans are “bad, very bad” and stressed his concern for US imports of foreign cars (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/business/news/donald-trump-g7-summit-germans-bad-very-bad-car-imports-curb-us-trade-surplus-president-a7757106.html) confirming what explained at the beginning of the year by Navarro when every chance for the TTIP to be signed vanished: “is a multilateral deal in bilateral dress” (https://www.ft.com/content/57f104d2-e742-11e6-893c-082c54a7f539). Of course Obama’s meeting with Merkel during Trump’s trip in Europe confirmed the Afro-American president’s endorsement for multilateralism (http://www.politico.com/story/2017/05/25/how-obama-undercuts-trump-238814), but it should not be perceived as if Trump’s attacks to Germany were born out of the new president’s madness, and it can be agreed that he “has a point” with regard to the fact that German exports are “artificially inflated”, as in fact Obama did (http://www.politico.com/agenda/story/2017/05/26/trump-right-about-germany-trade-000445).
What discussed so far will define Trump’s grand strategy – D.C.’s establishment permitting! – for the Middle East and Europe. However there is another issue which is the most important of all other and it concerns China. Again, also about China there are important continuities with Obama. This will be the object of another post.

Zeno Leoni
@multipolarorder

Trump, ideology and identity politics: “wrecking ball” or nationalism informed by a worldview?

Leftist people described president Trump like a member of the ruling elites which adopted  a populist rhetoric against Washington, D.C.’s establishment only to further decrease state control and revamp Corporate America with Reaganism. While this perspective must be taken into account, it overlooks important nuances about Trump’s worldview and it runs the risk of being reductionist. This post does neither agree nor disagree with Trump’s ideology – personally I find myself on the far left side of the political spectrum – but it is important to highlight the logic and the coherency that one can trace by looking at Trump’s discourse.
In this sense the work of Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, while it does not offer the kind of quality of academic works, it provides an interesting view of the new president.
They observed Trump’s statements since the 1980s and concluded that “he is not mere opportunist […] Trump emerges from the confluence of two long-dormant but now resurgent American political traditions: the blunt early 19th century appeal of Andrew Jackson to the “common man” and the protectionist isolationism which produced the Smoot-Hawley tariffs and Charles Lindbergh in the 1930s” (Donald Trump: The Making of a World View by Brendan Simms and Charlie Laderman, 2017). This argument is diametrically opposite to the view of all those that find in Trump a narcissist and sociopath, a personality driven by “sky-high extroversion combined with off-the-chart low agreeableness” (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2016/06/the-mind-of-donald-trump/480771/?utm_source=twb). This is not only the psychological analysis executed on Trump by observers but in a way it reflects the view of many rivals. To the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee – one of the members of “The Blob”, see previous post in this blog – the president looks rather like “a “wrecking ball” when it comes to longstanding American foreign policy […] determined “to just destroy everything about” the U.S. establishment’s view of the world” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/02/bob-corker-committee-foreign-relations-trump-214773). Others argued that Trump’s “Miami Vice”-like attitude for “law and order” that he adopted with regard to the war on drug it applies to his governmental style (https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trumps-weird-adherence-to-this-1980s-concept-explains-his-whole-presidency/2017/05/26/a7ecec0c-4094-11e7-9869-bac8b446820a_story.html?tid=sm_tw_pp&tid=sm_tw&utm_term=.a5ca93156f81). Certainly, the fact that he often says what he thinks and therefore is “too honest” – as suggested – does not help to calm institutional-bureaucratic tensions (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/05/23/trump-is-americas-most-honest-president-215180).
However Simms’ and Laderman’s observations about Trump’s worldview found confirmation in an interview that the new president released to The New York Times and which is crucial to understand the global perspective of the new American president. As the interview went through the most important issues in international politics, Trump explained that his idea of American greatness remains “the turn of the century, that’s when we were a great, when we were really starting to go robust” first of all, but also – in fairness – Truman’s years (https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/27/us/politics/donald-trump-transcript.html?_r=1).
As it can be read in previous posts of this blog, Trump encountered severe resistance to his ideological view. The president and some of his advisers had to compromise with the globalist establishment. This problem was portrayed clearly in an interesting piece which described well how Trump’s idiosyncrasies add complexity to the interaction between different foreign policy actors and in particular between the White House and the bureaucrats. Trump is isolated inside his own administration. It was argued that the president is part of “a tiny minority within his own administration. His national security team is primarily composed of people who want to maintain U.S. alliances, an open global economy and support for universal values. The reason why Trump ended up with such a team is, in part, because there are no think tanks or academic cabals that are working out how to translate his visceral beliefs into policy” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/trumps-jekyll-and-hyde-foreign-policy-214903). The ideological clash involved also people that are close to Trump such as daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kusher against Bannon and the Californians. It was argued that California’s history bore responsibilities for the intellectual incubation of people like Steve Bannon. Anticipating what then happened on a national scale – see blog post on Obama’s multiculturalism – the rise of Latinos and Asians explains why “California’s out-of-power Republicans […] hardened their own political views” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/04/how-california-gave-us-trumpism-215038).
This local process and Trump’s views on national identity are contiguous with what many Republican voters believe despite this represented a minoritarian faction inside the GOP which remained too close to Jacksonian Democratic Party. Donald Trump’s identity discourse in fact embeds the paleoconservative idea that “nations were defined by the specific cultural and historical heritage of their founders” rather than by a collective political experience (http://www.tabletmag.com/jewish-news-and-politics/218712/spencer-gottfried-alt-right). How profitable will this ideological posture be in terms of electoral success – in a demographically changing United States – it remains to be seen.

Zeno Leoni
@multipolarorder

Politics and Geography of Obama’s Nationalism for 21st century America

As election night delivered a fragmented society, the second Obama Administration passed the baton on to the highly ideological Trump. While one already knows what to expect from  Trump’s identity politics, understanding Obama’s approach to American exceptionalism is a less straightforward task, particularly because everyone agrees that the former president was not exceptional. In fact both detractors and devotees of the 44th president of United States believe that he was a post-ideological leader who did not characterised his policies with a personal and nationalist style.
On the one hand his enemies described him as a president who pushed American power towards decline because he was “not committed to America’s exceptional qualities”. They stated he was “apologist”, “abdicating”, “anti-American” and “non-nationalist”. On the other hand, those that admired him did so because of his preference for “caution over confrontation” and “consensus-building over ideology”. To sum up, both groups of observers agree that Obama’s ideological stance was moderate. To the first group this moderation meant weakness, to the second group it meant charm. Here I want to challenge both superficial views. For better or for worse Obama was a very nationalist president who coherently tied his identity discourse to some of the most traditional strands of American exceptionalism. He put forward a narrative which represented a quasi-autobiographical re-interpretation of American values. Firstly, he was called to lead the country at a time of economic turmoil and social anger.
As the financial crisis hit white-Americans and the demographic revolution triggered a trend towards a society of “minority-majority” – with Asian-American figuring as the fastest growing group – Obama had to play the role of social fireman. The politics of Obama’s exceptionalism was mainly committed to recover those foundational principles of American society and Constitution enclosed in the slogan e pluribus unum – out of many one. He stated extensively in his public speeches how inclusiveness lied at the foundation of his society and often reasserted that racial discrimination was unconceivable and “not American”. Despite being black, Obama went beyond the politics of Jesse Jackson and his negritude remained entangled with his multi-ethnic biological experience. Indeed Obama’s Afro-American background intersected with the fact he was born on a Pacific island become American thanks to the very last phase of continentalism. Obama’s mother had Irish origins and his father was from Kenya and both met at a Russian class. The former president lived in the Philippines – again on the route of American expansionism – and his white grandparents took part to WWII. He embedded the foundational paradigm of Americanness – many immigrants from Ireland, England, Scotland, Germany, Italy and Eastern Europe under the same flag – but for the 21st century. In this sense Obama’s speech from the Edmund Pettus Bridge in 2015 was one of the most meaningful, a statement of his attachment to American exceptionally diverse society.
Secondly, this domestic discourse found continuity in foreign policy with a more geopolitical inclination. The intersection between Obama’s worldview, the numerical increase of Latino and Asian-American, the economic decline of Europe and the rise of China in Asia-Pacific pushed the former president of United States to shift the focus of American exceptionalism away from Atlanticism. He returned once again to American history and to the centrality that the Pacific frontier had as a bulwark for commercial openness and wealth and as a space for the encounter of different civilizations for 19th and 20th century United States. Obama’s geo-ideological view was explicitly presented in his speech to the Australian Parliament in 2011 – and often reaffirmed in Japan and India – where he explained how the Pacific basin contained the history of international migration to and from America, the blood of American soldiers for important battles and the gift of prosperity all in once, and that this granted America with the right of being an Asia-Pacific nation. Given the importance of the Asia-Pacific in economic terms and given the current economic recession, Frederick Jackson Turner’s idea that the Pacific frontier would have swept away the “maladies” of his country resurrected in Obama’s discourse. This served the purpose to construct his nationalist narrative and to strengthen US power in a region which geopolitically speaking has become the most important in the world. If observers were concerned with Obama’s “weak” policy in the Middle East, only few noticed that he was “fixated” on the Asia-Pacific because it represents the “future”.
Obama’s nationalism recovered the old traditions of multiculturalism and Pacific identity and used it to carry America through a tremendous economic crisis and the geostrategic shift towards Asia.

Zeno Leoni
@multipolarorder

Trump, the state, ruling (politico-military) elites: part II

Trump’s style when dealing with corporations triggered a sense of “urgent need to restore faith in our vital economic and government institutions”. While in a previous post it was explained what this means with regard to state-capital relations, this post focuses on Trump’s relations with the politico-military establishment.
While Trump’s rhetoric is not anti-capitalist, his ideological positions and unpredictable attitude represent an obstacle to the objectives embedded in a US grand strategy which for decades was formulated and maintained by a globalist bureaucracy.
The main evidence of this tension is reflected in the reaction of the “Deep State” against Trump since he was elected. While bureaucrats understand that Trump is not a revolutionary, they see him as a threat to their sectional interests and decisional power, and above all to the pillars of post-WWII grand strategy – not everyone agrees on this argument about the arbitrary measures taken by the Deep State and it has been argued that the latter functioned as it was supposed to do. The New York Times was right in commenting that “Mr. Trump has put institutions under enormous stress. […] That has forced civil servants into an impossible dilemma: acquiesce, allowing their institution to be sidelined, or mount a defense, for example through leaks that counter Mr. Trump’s accusations or pressure him into restoring normal policy-maker practices”. This statements explains how Trump’s personality and attitude is perceived as an attack to the power of bureaucrats. But more interesting in terms of relations between the president and the establishment are the words of an Obama’s adviser.
In addition to the Deep State, he portrayed the opposition to Trump as a front formed by “The Blob”, which Ben Rhodes described as “the bipartisan class of foreign policy elites—Washington swamp dwellers like Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates and their assorted Ivy League hangers-on […]”. “Trump managed—or threatened—to blow up many of “The Blob”’s most cherished beliefs about American power. In doing so, he finally united Democrats and many Republicans, hawks and doves, neocons and Obamians, in a frenzy of worry” (http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/03/trump-foreign-policy-elites-insiders-experts-international-relations-214846). If anything this demonstrates that Trump is an atypical member of the elite – the ugly duckling in Washington, D.C. – and that the politicization of certain issues does complicate the plans of capitalist ruling classes and their political and military representatives. Pressures on American governments are shaped by internal struggles for power. Trump’s fight with the FBI is very indicative of the conflict between the presidency and “The Blob”. The firing of Comey was the culmination of this tension begun when the first news on Trump’s relation with Russia emerged. But this could also be seen with regard to the lack of candidates for the position of National Security Adviser. This was also confirmed in Walter R. Mead’s portrait of Jackson. The conservative scholar highlighted that “the establishment always has an uncomfortable relationship with Jacksonians” (https://www.the-american-interest.com/2017/01/19/the-winners-of-2016/). Rhodes and Mead are right. The struggle of power does not involve only the security apparatus but also the Republican Party which is increasingly divided.
On the one hand it lies Trump with people such as Peter Navarro, Robert Lighthizer, Wilbur Ross and Steve Bannon. On the other side there are Gary Cohn and Steven Mnuchin representing globaloney. However this portrait is more representative of the first 100 days of government rather than recent weeks. Since the launch of missiles in Syria there seems to have been some normalisation as Trump ceded to  the globalists, even though Comey’s case has revived the institutional-political conflict.
It is still too early to provide a comprehensive and coherent portrait of Trump’s relations with the establishment.

Zeno Leoni
@multipolarorder

Trump, the state, ruling (economic) elites: part I

Donald Trump’s presidency so far has provided important material for those interested in state theory. While his administration has never questioned capitalism, the new president maintained a much politicised posture by virtue of his strong electoral mandate, ideological worldview and arbitrary behaviour. There are mainly two critical views on what Trump’s experience might tell with regard to state-ruling class relations. The first view argues that Trump’s rhetoric is just populism to buy the consent of frustrated citizens by attacking elites only to then implement even further the programme of crony capitalism.
The second view instead maintains that the portrait is more complex and fragmented.
The former position is shared by elitists. City, University of London’s Professor Inderjeet Parmar from the columns of The Wire explained that Trump “has not drained the swamp but moved the government right into the middle of it and is immersing the departments of state in the calculus of the fast buck” (https://thewire.in/108191/trump-divide-and-rule/).
If one was to look at the profile of secretaries and advisers, for instance, he or she would realise that is correct. However my view is more sympathetic to the second perspective. Trump’s attitude, driven by his worldview and individual character produced a Byzanthine and Kafkaesque condition inside which big businesses have to interact with the White House. Several of Trump’s moves produced anxiety among the ruling class and the establishment in Washington, D.C. The immigration ban threatened to damage the bio-tech industry. The pharmaceutic sectors, it was commented, remained silent on that issue only because it wanted to use it as a good of bargaining for other favours from Trump. Anxiety hit automakers and mainly Ford given its interests in the Middle East, and spread across other sectors as well. Trump’s economic nationalism generated tensions and divided the ruling class along the lines of import and export companies after the plan for “border adjustment” tax regime was revealed. Those working in Mexico felt their interests were threatened, and certainly big shipping companies are extremely concerned about policies that might lead to restrictions of global trade. The Cadillac’s president announced the existence of “contingency planning” in case Trump was elected. Meanwhile Trump earned the support of Sean McGarvey, president of North America’s Building Trades Unions thanks to the promise of giving free way to the Keystone XL and Dakota Access pipelines. Trump’s posture on climate change also was used politically to consolidate consent from workers. It was acknowledged that, contrary to the theory that Trump is just lying to his electorate because he will only favour the interests of business elites, “business likes certainty” and that “business leaders seem intoxicated at the prospect of breaking bread with the most powerful man on earth”. Others compared Trump to a “natural disaster”.
In conclusion, the impression is that the ruling principle of state-capital relations during the Trump presidency will also depend on extemporaneous negotiations and tacit deals to accommodate the president’s and some of his advisers’ views. Above all this will serve to enable Trump to mediate between big businesses, his perspective on US global political economy, his idiosyncrasies and the ideologically strong mandate received after the elections. This point about new rules for negotiations between state and corporations was more precisely developed by Adam Tooze: “we might be talking of a new compromise under which protectionism buys political support for the priorities of key segments of US business that do retain influence within the party and in the White House and whose agendas coincide with the worldview of right-wing libertarians” (https://www.adamtooze.com/2017/03/17/americas-political-economy-trump-new-protectionist-alignment/).

Zeno Leoni
@multipolarorder

 

 

1820s, 1850-60s, 1930s, 1960s-70s…1980s-2010s? Trump, a new realignment and American history

The advent of Trump outraged many citizens and observers, and required students from all perspectives to work hard over the last months in order to keep up with events, as it remains unclear what direction Trump’s government might take – despite we saw a process of normalisation as I explained in another post on this blog.
One of the angles that were overlooked is that the phenomenon of Trump reminded of how peculiar remains the history of parties and ideologies in the United States.
Trump, for his symbiotic relation with the character of Andrew Jackson, could easily be a Democratic candidate if he was born in late 18th century. At the dawn of the market revolution in the United States, when in the second decade of the 19th century capitalism was attempting to make it through slavery, barter, craftsmanship and old forms of production it was Andrew Jackson to put at the centre of the agenda of the recently born Democratic Party the opposition to finance. Jackson attempted to oppose the spread of paper currency which was perceived as socially dangerous in a context where “producer were vulnerable and “moneyed men” powerful” (Hahn, 2016, p. 99; A Nation Without Borders: The United States and Its World in an Age of Civil Wars, 1830-1910, New York: Viking).
Jackson saw a “massive concentration of power “in the hands of a few […] Monied Capitalists” who could “oppress” the people” (ibid.). Not too differently from Trump’s “draining the swamp” Jackson stated that “the bank is trying to kill me, but I will kill it” (ibid.). In fairness, as Hahn explains – and much like Trump – in Jackson’s discourse the economic threat intersected with all sorts of social and political discontent of lower classes whose status was being disrupted by the new economy. Economic issues became the basis for what nowadays would be seen as a populist argument against “aristocratic and unjust” elites (p. 100). This front gathered together all the people that felt threatened by rising capitalism and it was a heterogeneous group going from “yeoman farmers” to “slaveholders planters” (ibid.). In Jackson’s Democratic Party the sentiment against crony capitalism intersected with civil and social conservatism and a small state approach.
This was just the first ideological realignment in US history. Later there was the realignment of the 1850s-60s triggered by the Kansas-Nebraska Act that allowed states to vote on slavery. But the most important realignments were those of the 20th century. The first started in the 1930s and was led by Roosevelt’s New Deal plan. This produced urbanisation in the US and stimulated blacks to migrate North. Later, this was followed by the most famous “racial realignment” which was unleashed by the Civil Rights Act and which saw a broad reshuffling of voters between the main parties.
All this well known history and the importance of looking at Andrew Jackson’s experience is very telling of how Trump may be at the verge of a process which has brought to a new realignment of the electorate. Eventually this process started in the late 1980s with Ronald Reagan and the acceptance by Republican of globalism and multiculturalism. The most striking evidence of this realignment is symbolised by the electoral shift in Rust Belt states from red to blue during the last election. In a time of economic crisis, when capitalism is believed to be delivering more troubles than benefits, changes in electoral choices can be explored through a historical perspective on American politics.

Zeno
@multipolarorder