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America’s ‘Liberalism’ and Other Inhumane Styles of Governance At Home and Internationally  

25 Feb

[Prefatory Note: With apologies for this long post, which attempts to situate the struggle for an ethically and ecologically viable political future for the United States and the world in the overheated preoccupation with Trump and Trumpism, which is itself a distraction from the species challenges confronting the whole of humanity at the present time. Many of us, and I include myself, have allowed the side show to become the main attraction, which is itself a reason for struggle against the enveloping darkness.]

 

America’s ‘Liberalism’ & Other Inhumane Styles of Governance At Home and Internationally

 

The Psycho-Politics of Geopolitical Depression

 

It should not be all about Trump, although his election in 2016 as U.S. president is symptomatic of a menacing national tailspin. This downward political drift in the United States, not only imperils Americans, but threatens the world with multiple catastrophes, the most worrisome of which involves Trump’s double embrace of nuclearism and climate denialism. Unfortunately at present, the U.S. global role cannot be easily replaced, although it always had its serious problematic aspects and should not be sentimentalized, not least of which were associated with its many often crude military and paramilitary efforts to block the tide of progressive empowerment in the post-colonial world: first, as the global guardian of capitalism, and later, as the self-anointed bearer of human rights and democracy for the benefit of the world’s unenlightened and often shackled masses. As disturbing, has been the American leading role in the emergence and evolution of nuclearism and its foot-dragging bipartisan responses to ecological challenges.

 

During the early post-Cold War presidencies of George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and George W. Bush, Washington was busy promoting the expansion of ‘market-based constitutionalism’ as supposedly leading the whole world to a bright global future, but such plans backfired badly, especially in the testing grounds of the Middle East, where intervention produced neither democracy nor order, but gave rise to turmoil, violence, and suffering that disrupted the lives of the peoples of the region. These democratizing ‘crusades’ were carried out beneath banners proclaiming ‘enlargement’ (the expansion of democratic forms of governance to additional countries) and ‘democracy promotion’ (induced by regime-changing military interventions and coercive diplomacy). Democracy as a term of art included the affirmation of property rights and market fundamentalism.

 

Trump comes along, building upon this inherited warrior phase of triumphalist global leadership that was a legacy of the Cold War, dramatized by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the resulting supposed geopolitical vacuum. The United States sought to fill this vacuum, including an ideological arrogance that underpinned its shameless reliance upon the most powerful military machine in history to gets its way all over the planet, thereby forfeiting the opportunity to strengthen international law and UN as well as eliminate nuclear weaponry. Seemingly more benignly the American leadership role also strongly reflected its globally endorsed popular culture in dress, music, and food as well as appreciated for its encouragement of cooperative arrangements, the constitutional atmosphere of diversity and governmental moderation in the American heartland, and consumerist conceptions of human happiness.

 

Trump’s diplomacy defiantly turns its back on this softer, gentler (albeit nevertheless deficient) profile of American leadership. The United States is now becoming a country that bargains, intimidates, even bullies to gain every possible advantage in its international dealings, whether at the UN, in trade negotiations, or in an array of bilateral and regional dealings concerning global warming and security policy, with almost every international dealing being converted into a demeaning win/lose transaction. Trump’s antiquated bluster about ‘America, First’ has stripped away the earlier more mellow and selectively constructive win/win claims of ‘America, Liberal Global Leader.” By turning away from this earlier brand of self-interested ‘liberal internationalism’ the U.S. is losing many of these benefits that often accrued from international cooperation and win/win understandings of 21st century statecraft, at least as conducted within the structural and ideological boundaries of neoliberal globalization and the geopolitical management of global security.

 

More concretely, Trump’s presidency has so far meant a record military budget, relaxed rules of military engagement, geopolitical militarism, irresponsible regional coercive diplomacy, a regressive view that the UN is worthless except as an enemy-bashing venue, a negative assessment of multilateral treaties promoting a cooperative approach to climate change and international trade, as well as a hawkish approach to nuclear weaponry that features bravado, exhibits unilateralism, and in the end, employs on hard power and irresponsible threats to achieve goals formerly often pursued by liberal international global leadership. Without exaggerating the benefits and contributions of liberal internationalism, it did give science and rationality their due, was willing to help at the margins those suffering from slow and uneven economic and social development, and relied on international cooperation through lawmaking and the UN to the extent feasible, which was always less than what was necessary and desirable, but at least, not taking such a cynical and materialist view of the feasible as to create a condition of policy paralysis on urgent issues of global scope (e.g. climate change, nuclearism, migration).

 

Trump’s ideological prism, which is alarmingly similar to that of the many other leaders throughout the world who have recently been leaning further and further rightwards. The internal politics of many states has turned toward chauvinistic and mean-spirited forms of autocratic nationalism, while cooperation in meeting common global challenges has almost disappeared. Instead of hope and progress, the collective consciousness of humanity is mired in despair and denial, and what is more, the dialectics of history seem to be slumbering, with elites and even counter-elites afraid of utopias on the basis of a widespread (mis)reading of 20th century political experience, seemingly entrapped in cages constructed by predatory capitalism and rapacious militarism, designed to render futile visions of change adapted to the realities of present and emergent historical circumstances. Inside these capitalist and militarist boxes there is no oxygen to sustain liberating moral, political, and cultural imaginings. Trump is not only a distasteful and dangerously dysfunctional leader of the most powerful and influential political actor in the world. He is also a terrifying metaphor of an anachronistic world order stuck in the thick mud of mindlessness when it comes to fashioning transformative responses to fundamental challenges to the ways our political, economic, and spiritual life have been organized in the modern era of territorial sovereign states.

 

 

America’s ‘Liberalism’ Observed

 

In American political discourse the word ‘liberal’ denotes someone who is devoted to humane values, supports such civil society actors as Human Rights Watch and Planned Parenthood, hopes that U.S. foreign policy generaly conforms to international law and be quietly respectful of the UN (while coping skillfully with its alleged anti-Israel bias), is rabidly anti-Trump, but considered Sanders either an unrealistic or undesirable alternative to Clinton, and currently hopes for that the 2020 presidential contender will be chosen from familiar, seasoned sources, which means Joe Biden, or if not, then Sherrod Brown or Corey Booker (Senators from Ohio and New Jersey). This kind of ‘liberal’ thinking scoffs at the idea of Oprah or Michelle Obama as credible candidates supposedly because they lack political experience, but actually because they do not project an identity associated with the Democratic Party organizational nexus. Such liberals support Israel, despite some misgivings about the expansion of settlements and Netanyahu’s style of leadership, and continue to believe that America occupies the high moral ground in international relations due to its support of ‘human rights’ (as understood as limited to social and political rights) and its constitutionalism and relatively open society at home.

 

In my view, such a conception of liberalism if more correctly understood as ‘illiberal’ in its essence under present world historical circumstances, at least in its American usage. The European usage of ‘liberal’ is centered on affirming a market-based economy of capitalism as preferable to the sort of state-managed economy attributed to socialism, and little else. In this sense, the U.S. remains truly liberal, but this is not the main valence of the term in its American usage, which is as a term of opprobrium in the hands of Republicans who brand their Democratic opponents as ‘liberals,’ which is then falsely conflated with ‘left’ politics, and even ‘socialism.’ Remember that George H.W. Bush resorted to villifying his Democratic opponent, Michael Dukakis, by identifying him with the American Civil Liberties Union, which he associated with being ‘in left field.’

 

More recently, the Trump base characterizes the Obama presidency as ‘leftist’ and ‘socialist,’ which is inaccurate and confusing. At most, on issue of domestic concern its policies could be characterized as ‘liberal’ or centrist, with no structural critique of capitalism or the American global imperial role. ‘Conservative,’ ‘American,’ ‘Nationalist,’ and ‘Patriotic’ are asserted as alternatives to what is being opposed. Part of this word game is to conflate ‘liberal’ with ‘left’ or ‘socialist,’ thereby depriving either term of any kind of usable meaning.

 

Such ideological and polemical labeling practices are confusing and wrong, muddling political categories. To be genuinely left in American politics means to care for the poor and homeless, and not be primarily preoccupied with the setbacks endured by the middle classes. It means to be skeptical of the Democratic Party establishment, and to favor ‘outliers’ as challengers on the national level at least as radical as Bernie Sanders or at least as humane and amateurish as Oprah Winfrey. Above all it means to be a harsh critic of Wall Street at home and neoliberal globalization as structurally predatory and ecologically hazardous. It also means anti-militarism, opposition to Washington’s ‘special relationships’ with Israel and Saudi Arabia, and a rejection of America’s role as the prime guardian of the established global order on the basis of its military prowess, specifically, its worldwide naval, space, and paramilitary and covert ‘full-spectrum dominance’ as deployed so as to project devastating destructive capabilities throughout the entire planet.

 

In effect, by this critique, the American liberal is more accurately regarded and sensitively perceived as mainly ‘illiberal.’ Why? Because insisting on swimming in the mainstream when it comes to political choices, reluctant to criticize Wall Street or world trade and investment arrangements, and above all else, reducing ‘human rights’ to civil and political rights, while disregarding ‘economic, social, and cultural rights,’ is to endorse, at least tacitly, an illegitimate status quo if assessed on the basis of widely shared ethical principles.

 

Such self-induced partial blindness allows ‘liberals’ to view Israel as ‘the only democratic state’ in the Middle East or to regard the United States to be the embodiment of democracy (with Trump and Trumpism viewed as a pathological and temporary deviation) despite millions mired in extreme poverty and homelessness, that is, by treating economic, social, and cultural rights as if they do not exist. Such ‘liberals’ continue to complain invidiously about the lack of freedom of expression and dissent in such countries as China, Vietnam, and Turkey while overlooking the extraordinary achievements of these countries if social and economic rights are taken into account, especially with respect to lifting tens of millions from poverty by deliberate action and in a short time. In other words, addressing the needs of the poor is excluded from relevance when viewing the human rights record of a country, which makes a country likeTurkey that has done a great deal to alleviate mass poverty of its bottom 30% no different from Egypt than has next to nothing when it comes to human rights. It is not a matter of ignoring failures with regard to political and civil rights, but rather of disregarding success and failure when it comes to economic, social, and cultural rights. It might also be noted that the practical benefits of achievements in civil and political rights are of primary benefit to no more that 10% of the population, while economic, social, and cultural rights, even in the most affluent countries, are of relevance to at least a majority of the population, and generally an even larger proportion.

 

Even if this discriminatory treatment of human rights were to be overcome, and the economic deprivations endured by the poor were to be included in templates of appraisal, I would still not be willing to join the ranks of American liberals, at least not ideologically, although lots of opportunity for common cause might exist on matters of race, gender, and governmental abridgement of citizen rights. Liberalism is structure-blind when it comes to transformative change for either of two reasons: the conviction that the American political system can only get things done by working within the established order or the firm belief that the established order in the country (and the world) is to be preferred over any plausible alternative. This reminds me of the person who drops a diamond ring in the middle of a dark street and then confines his search to the irrelevant corner where there the light happens to be shining brightly.

 

In my view, we cannot hope to address challenges of class, militarism, and sustainability without structural change, and the emergence of a truly radical humanism dedicated to the emergence of an ecological civilization that evolves on the basis of the equal dignity and entitlement of individuals and groups throughout the entire world. In other words, given the historical situation, the alternative to this kind of planetary radicalism is denial and despair. That is why I would not be an America liberal even if liberals were to shed their current ‘illiberal’ ways of seeing and being. At the same time, such a refocusing of political outlook entails the replacement of balance of power or Westphalian realism with some version of what Jerry Brown decades ago called ‘planetary realism.’

 

Yet progressives have their own blind spots. To denote the rise of Trump and Trumpism as ‘fascism’ is premature, at best, and alarmist at worst. There are plenty of reasons to complain about the failure of the leadership to denounce white supremists or to show respect for dissenting views, but to equate such behavior with fascism is not too much different from branding the Obama presidency as ‘socialist.’ There are tendencies on the right and left that if continued and intensified, could lead in these feared directions, but there are many reasons to doubt that such political extremism is the real objective of the varying forces vying for political control in the United States at the present time. The two sets of concerns are not symmetrical. A socialist future for the country seems desirable, if feasible, while for fascism, even its current glimmerings are undesirable. Of course, this is an expression of opinion reflecting an acceptance of a humanist ethos of being-in-the-world.

 

 

The End of American Democracy

 

There is a rather prescient article in the current issue of The Atlantic (March 2018, 80-87) written by Yascha Mounk, bearing the provocative title “America is Not a Democracy.” Mounk relies on recent empirical surveys of political effectiveness in political arenas to suggest results that are ‘shocking’ if appraised by reference to democratic myths about government of, by, and for the people of the country. What counts, according to Mounk, are “economic elites and special interest groups” (82) that can get what they want at least half of the time and stop what they don’t want nearly always. In contrast, the people, including mass-based public interest groups, have virtually zero influence on the policy process, and hence the conclusion, America is no longer democratic.

 

In Mounk’s words: ”across a range of issues, public policy does not reflect the preferences of the majority of Americans. If it did, the country would look radically different: Marijuana would be legal and campaign contributions more tightly regulated; paid parental leave would be the law of the land and public colleges free; the minimum wage would be higher and gun control much stricter; abortions would be more accessible in the early stages of pregnancy and illegal in the third trimester.”(82) All in all, such a listing of issues does make the case, especially if combined with the commodification of the electoral process, that America should no longer be considered a democratic states even if it maintains the rituals, and some of the practices of a genuine democracy—elections, freedom of assembly, freedom of expression.

 

Many, including Mounk, acknowledge that from the beginning the distinctive American undertaking was to establish a ‘republic,’ not a ‘democracy.’ As we all know, the founders were protective of slavery and property holders, opposed to women’s suffrage, and fearful of political majorities and special interests, degraded as ‘the mob’ and ‘factionalism.’ Yet little by little, with the American Civil War as one turning point and the New Deal as another, the legitimating foundation of the American system changed its foundational identity, increasingly resting its credibility on the quality of its ‘democractic’ credentials. Reforms associated with ending slavery and later challenging ‘Jim Crow’ racisim, through the support of civil rights, by giving women the vote and more recently validating claims to equality and accepting the need for adequate protection against harassment, and moving toward a safety net for the very poor and vulnerable were undertaken in the spirit of fulfilling the democratic mandate.

 

When it comes to social, economic, and cultural concerns, the U.S. leadership, personified by Trump and reinforced by the Trumpism of the Republican Party, the situation is even more grim than frustrating what Rousseau called ‘the general will.’ Anti-immigrant and anit-Muslim policies are openly espoused and enacted by the Executive Branch and Congress to the outer limits of what the courts, themselves being transformed to endorse the agenda of the right-leaning authoritarian state. Perhaps, even more revealing is the resolve of the Trump administration to save federal monies by cutting programs associated with the very poor. The Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), lending necessary food assistance to as many as 49 million Americans, known popularly as ‘food stamps’ is illustrative.

Although the government spent about $70 billion on SNAP in 2017 this was less than 2% of the $4 trillion federal budget on SNAP, and yet the Trump administration wants to cut coverage by nearly 30% over the course of the next decade and reconstitute the program in ways that harm the self-esteem and dignity of recipients.

 

The overseas record of the United States has inflicted death on millions of vulnerable people since the end of World War II, as well as sacrificed hundreds of thousands American on various foreign killing fields, including those maimed, inwardly militarized and suicidal, and otherwise damaged mentally and physically. And for what? The Vietnam War experience should have enabled the Pentagon planners to learn from failure and defeat that military intervention in the non-Western world has lost most of its agency in the post-colonial world. This American learning disability is exhibited by the repetition of failure and defeat, most notably in Afghanistan and Iraq, where the human losses were great and the strategic outcome eroded further American legitimacy as global leader and manager of global security.

 

In a notable article, Matthew Stevenson summarizes the persisting significance of the Vietnam War in the period since 1945: “The Vietnam War and the history that followed exposed the myth of America’s persistent claim to unique power and virtue. Despite our awesome military, we are not invincible. Despite our vast wealth, we have gaping inequalities. Despite our professed desire for global peace and human rights, since World War II we have aggressively intervened with armed force far more than any nation on earth. Despite our claim to have the highest regard for human life, we have killed, wounded, and uprooted many millions of people, and unnecessarily sacrificed many of our own.” [“Why Vietnam Still Matters: an American Reckoning,” Counterpunch, Feb. 23, 2018, the first of an eight-part article, highly recommended.]

 

Where Next?

For those seeking justice, a hopeful future, humane governance, and the cultural worldview of an ecological civilization globally, nationally, and locally, it is vital to acknowledge and recognize that we currently living in a lamentable period in human history with storm clouds hovering over every horizon in sight.

The American scene has hardly ever been worse. A president that bluffs about engaging in nuclear war and seems never more comfortable than busy bullying yesterday’s associate or getting high on a string of belligerent tweets. And if Trump would mercifully move on, we are left with Pence, a sober evangelical who will walk the plank to enact the Republican miscreant agenda. And if Pence would also favor us with disappearance, the stage is left free for Paul Ryan to walk upon, a dour architect of a meanly reconstituted American reality along the dystopian lines of hierarchy and domination that Ayn Rand depicted in Fountainhead. There is a there there where angels fear to tread.

Maybe there is enough wakefulness in the country that the Republicans will suffer a humbling defeat in the 2018 midterm elections. Maybe the youth of the country will march and issue demands, and not get tired, insisting on a Democratic Party that can be trusted with the nation’s future, and is not beholden to Wall Street, the Pentagon, and Israel. Symbolically and substantively this means a rejection of Joe Biden and Corey Booker as Democratic standard bearers. If fresh faces with fresh ideas do not take over the reins of power in Washington, we will do not better that gain a brief respite from Trump and Trumpish but the Doomsday Clock will keep clicking!

And even if the miraculous happened, and the Republican menace was somehow superseded, we would likely be left with the problems posed by the liberal establishment once reinstated in control of governmental practice. There would be no political energy directed toward nuclear disarmament, transforming predatory capitalism, and creating conditions whereby everyone residing in this richest of countries could look forward to a life where health care, education, shelter, and food were universally available, where international law genuinely guided foreign policy on matters of war and peace, and where ecological sensitivity was treated as the essence of 21st sovereignty. To address global migration patterns, walls and harsh exclusion would be replaced by direct attention to the removal of root causes explaining why people take the drastic step of uprooting themselves from what is familiar and usually deeply cherished for reasons of familiarity, memory, and sacred tradition.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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End of Nuclearism or the End of the World: Utopian Dreams, Dystopian Nightmares

9 Aug

 

We are living amid contradictions whether we like it or not, driving expectations about the future toward opposite extremes. Increasingly plausible are fears that the ‘sixth extinction’ will encompass the human species, or at least, throw human society back to a technology of sticks and stones, with a habitat limited to caves and forests. This dark vision is countered by gene editing designer promises of virtual immortality and super-wise beings programming super-intelligent machines, enabling a life of leisure, luxury, and security for all. Whether the reality of such a scientistic future would be also dark is a matter of conjecture, but from a survival perspective, it offers an optimistic scenario.

 

On political levels, a similar set of polar scenarios are gaining ground in the moral imagination, producing national leaders who seem comfortable embracing an apocalyptic telos without a second thought. The peoples of the world, entrapped in a predatory phase of global capitalism, are using their democratic prerogative to shut down dissent, rationality, and science. On one side, 122 governments pledge a legal commitment to the prohibition of nuclear weapons as an unprecedented prelude to the abolition of the weaponry; on the other side, all nine nuclear weapons states, and their closest allies, oppose the prohibition and opt for modernizing their nuclear weapons arsenals even devising strategic plans for their possible use, prompting an urgent search for counter measures.

 

John Pilger issues a solemn reminder that Nevile Shute’s On the Beach depicting a post-nuclear human future that is now more resonant than when it was published in 1957. Leaders that could bluff their way to shared catastrophe bellow forth in Washington and Pyongyang, each deluded by the belief that military options even with nuclear weapons are the only geopolitical security blanket worth relying upon, projecting a reckless obliviousness to the risk of losing their balance while engaging in inflammatory rhetorical posturing alarmingly close to the nuclear precipice.

 

As Pilger also points out, the liberal opposition to this right wing populism in the West is also dangerously disposed toward warmongering. Donald Trump is being pilloried by a bipartisan anti-Russian hysteria that imposes harsh sanctions, seemingly intent on driving Putin’s Kremlin into a corner from which there is no retreat except by way of confrontation, and possibly war.

 

We read of record heat waves, extreme weather events, extended droughts, and wild fires as common as clouds in the sky without blinking. The newspapers report that climate scientists are ready to push the panic button in reaction to the latest studies of grim global warning trends, while the Trump factor renews coal mining and treats denial a political virtue.

 

While these alarming realities dim the light of hope for many of us, the American stock market, a barometer of capitalist expectations by the shrewdest investors, achieves record heights. At the same time famine warnings have been officially endorsed for a series of long suffering populations: Syria, Yemen, South Sudan, northern Nigeria, Gaza. The entire Middle East is being turned into a war and conflict zone, with an anti-Iran warmongering coalition pressuring Iran to choose between nuclear deterrence and sectarian warfare inflamed by militarist Israeli/U.S. grand strategy that appears to be motivated by a regional vision of geopolitical pacification.

 

How best to endure in the face of such fatalistic dualisms? That may be the question of our time, dodged for the sake of sanity by almost all of us, at least most of the time. Business as usual, while living with therapeutic forms of cultural blindness, the opioids of those fortunate enough to live for now in gated communities, whether on the scale of private dwellings or walled off countries.

 

Recently a lively young woman told me that many of her friends had decided not to have children because they are so fearful of the storm clouds of the future, and refuse to wait around for liberating rainbows. At the other extreme, today’s International Edition of the New York Times contains a front page ad of enticement encouraging attendance at an International Luxury Conference to be held in Brussels, November 13-14, on the demeaning theme of “What’s Next: Luxury in a Turbulent World.” My somewhat impatient response—‘whatever turns out to be next, it will not be and should not be luxury!’ More likely, those grown accustomed to luxury will shift their residences to those underground homes built by Silicon Valley billionaires on vast tracts of lands in the New Zealand countryside as the ultimate hedge against an imminent global catastrophe. It could be that the NYT conference will devote its attention to this form of post-apocalyptic luxury living! Yet that assumes a quite unlikely focus on how the world of luxury is adapting to the unpleasant realities of the Sixth Extinction. 

Trump versus International Liberalism: Should We Care?

28 Apr

 

 

The pre-Trump establishment is anxiously discussing among themselves such questions as ‘is this the end game of liberalism’ and ‘how best to revive liberalism under present conditions?’ The contrary question I pose is the one assumed by the Washington/New York elites, that is, whether liberalism in its present and recent forms is worth saving. There is an embedded language problem. The mainstream arbiters of ‘political correctness’ here in the United States treat being liberal as a kind of leftist orientation associated with Democrats, being soft of crime, beholden to minorities, and friendly toward gay marriage and trans people, but such a designation is highly misleading when used to depict international policy positions. In these contexts, liberal is used synonymously with contemporary capitalism as currently ideologized as neoliberal globalization. True, ‘liberal’ in American political discourse is often used domestically to identify those who support civil liberties, a suspicion of state power, rights of suspected criminals, regulation of the police, the abolition of capital punishment, are suspicious of the military industrial complex, pro-UN and pro-human rights, and sometimes dislike military adventures abroad, but far from always. These ‘liberal’ positions tends to be situated left of center. These kinds of liberals overlap to a considerable degree with those on the right who champion market forces as protected by the American global state as the foundation of world order, and laud the achievements and benefits of international liberalism. That is, many Republican conservatives have long been collaborated international liberals, while decrying the social damage that they attribute to domestic liberalism.

 

Almost twenty years ago I published a small book, Predatory Globalization: A Critique (Polity, 1999), and although it needs updating, its central argument about the failings of international liberalism continue to seem relevant, perhaps, more so than when published. In the interim, these failings have given rise to an angry backlash that currently imperils the post-Cold War rule-based liberal international order, more popularly known as ‘the Washington consensus.’ The defining feature of this approach is its economistic view of the world, which contrasts with the outlook associated with old-fashioned European-schooled realists such as Hans Morgenthau and Henry Kissinger, and such American-oriented counterparts as George Kennan, Zbigniew Brzezinski, and Samuel Huntington who interpret the world through a predominantly geopolitical optic.

 

Perhaps, John Ikenberry is the most articulate, informed, and humane exponent of international liberalism, initially emergent after 1945 at the end of World War II, and then revamped significantly, in the Reagan/Thatcher years in the 1980s in ways that accentuated the autonomy of transnational capital flows in the 1990s in the triumphalist period after the end of the Cold War. [For a full presentation of Ikenberry’s views see his Liberal Leviathan (2011)] In two recent issues of Foreign Affairs several articles set forth the normative case for liberalism, insisting that compared to all past “imperial and anarchic systems..the liberal order stands alone.” [G. John Ikenberry, “The Plot Against American Foreign Policy: Can the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs 96:2-9 (2017). Ikenberry goes on to explain his affirmation: “..in terms of wealth creation, the provision of physical security and economic stability, and the promotion of human rights and political protections, no other order in history comes close.” In other words, so far as human experience is concerned, the world has never had as good as under liberalism. Gideon Rose, editor of this prestigious and influential organ of the American liberal establishment, echoes this mood of liberalism under imminent siege due to Trumpism, by observing that “if the new administration tries to put [its anti-liberal] vision into practice, it will call into question the crucial role of the United States as the defender of the liberal international order as a whole, not just the country’s own national interests.” [Foreign Affairs 96:1 (2017)] One doesn’t need to be a cryptographer to read such an admonition as celebrating the marriage of capitalism and militarism under the banner of the liberal internatonal order, which could be more transparently labeled as the American ‘global domination project.’ Rose is hopeful that once Trump starts governing he will see the light, and avoid a damaging retreat from its global leadership role. Some commentators regard Trump’s retreat from his most confrontational campaign positions on trade and economic nationalism as already vindicating this expectation.

 

For Ikenberry also, the demonic forces threatening the downfall of this best of all possible worlds are associated with the worldview of Donald Trump as he articulated it throughout his presidential campaign and in inaugural address, further reinforced by his extremist cabinet appointments and the issuance of several early policy directives emanating from the White House. In sum, Ikenberry regards early Trumpism as “a frontal attack on the core convictions of the postwar U.S. global project,” although after 100 days seems to be moving toward an embrace of the national security consensus, although it is too soon to tell which way the tree will fall.

 

Ikenberry explains what he means by setting forth the beneficial elements of the liberal economic order that he believes threatened by Trump’s feared nationalist approach. First, comes ‘internationalism,’ the commitment to a robust international engagement based on “rules, institutions, partners, and relationships,” and concretized in the form of security alliances. Trump clearly draws this bedrock approach into question by his ‘America First’ rhetoric and his apparent demand that close allies begin to pay their fair share or even act to uphold their security by developing their own needed military capabilities, even possibly nuclear weapons, without hovering any longer under America’s nuclear umbrella. Again, the evidence of whether Trump really intends to follow through on such departures from American foreign policy orthodoxy is difficult to assess at this point.

 

A second feature of international liberalism is the dependence upon a closely related open international trading and investment framework, including mechanisms for involving disputes with foreign governments arising over contested economic policies. Trump is criticized by liberals for adopting a transactional approach to trade and investment issues, an approach that looks for favorable deals rather than for the establishment of mutual beneficial cooperative frameworks, and capriciously risks the revival of protectionist regimes, imposing high tariffs, border taxes, and other burdens on imports that would invite retaliation by adversely affected trading partners.

 

The third pillar of Ikenberry’s version of liberalism is the network of institutions and rules that allegedly lent stability to a market-based world economy. It remains anchored in the so-called Bretton Woods institutions established after World War II, as well as the World Trade Organization and the UN. For Ikenberry this was a system that bound states together in mutually beneficial webs of interdependence and cooperation designed to deal effectively with both routine and crisis situations as these arose in the world economy. Ikenberry regards Trump’s stress on nationalist priorities as a serious threat to multilateralism in general, and thus as undermining America’s credibility as global leader.

 

The fourth pillar of the liberal edifice endangered by Trump is the challenge directed as America’s traditional support for receptivity to immigrants and societal openness. The crusade against illegal immigrants, constructing a massive wall on the Mexican border, and a general espousal of nationalist priorities adds up to an embrace of exclusionary nationalism, which again weakens the legitimacy of American global leadership, giving a nationalist edge to hostile populist backlashes against globalization already evident around the world.

 

Fifth and finally, Trump is derided by international liberals because he is seen as abandoning the bonding of likeminded liberal democracies as the basis for an extra-national ‘security community.’ Ikenberry notes with derision that Trump “trusts Merkel and Putin equally,” which implicitly repudiates the relationship between domestic liberalism and international cooperation. It is contended that such a leveling of relationship tempts America’s former closest friends to hedge their bets by forging more diverse alignments that could be better trusted to uphold their security and contribute to their prosperity under conditions of diplomatic uncertainty.

 

In the end Ikenberry is convinced that Trump, unless restrained (or self-restrained), will damage the liberal approach to world order, but Trump is not able to destroy the liberal edifice all by himself. Ikenberry hopes that other forces at home and abroad will create sufficient resistance to lead Trump to revise his policy agenda in ways compatible with the liberal agenda. He ends his article with these words: “If the liberal democratic world is to survive, its champions will have to find their voice and act with more conviction.” Such an expectation is rather opaque with respect to specifics as we do not know exactly who are these ‘champions’ or what they might do unless Ikenberry is hoping for the mobilization and intervention of the ‘deep state.’ If this is the case he should be mildly reassured by recent developments, the firing of 59 Tomahawk missiles at a Syrian airfield and the bellicose diplomatic response to North Korea’s nuclear program.

 

Joseph Nye, the doyen of celebrants of the benign effects of US global leadership also exhibits similar concerns about the Trump threat to the postwar global liberal order that Ikenberry seeks to sustain. [See Nye, “Will the Liberal Order Survive?” Foreign Affairs 96:10-16 (2017)] For Nye “[t]he liberal international order that emerged after 1945 was a loose array of multilateral institutions in which the United States provided global public goods such as freer trade and freedom of the seas and weaker states were given access to the exercise of American power.”[11] This strikes me as a peculiarly elliptical formulation, which presupposes that it is beneficial for weaker states to be given “access’’ to American power, whatever that access might mean as a practical matter! And we know what it meant for countries whose governments were perceived as moving left such as Iran (1953), Guatemala (1954), Chile (1973), and Vietnam (1963-1975). Nye does acknowledge that in the past there were “bitter debates and partisan differences over military interventions” but concludes by affirming “the demonstrable success of the order in helping to secure and stabilize the world over the past seven decades has led to a strong consensus that defending, deepening, and extending this system has been and continues to be the central task of U.S. foreign policy.”[12] There is revealingly no reference to the various failed American interventions in Muslim majority states or the rise of Islamophobia in the West. Nye considers the threat to international liberalism posed by the rise of China, the general diffusion of power internationally, and the rise of non-state transnational forces, yet he exhibits confidence that the liberal order can effectively cope with these challenges. What worries Nye most are not these challenges from without, but the challenge from within.

 

In this regard, Nye like Ikenberry, and the American national security establishment worry most about the rise of an illiberal populism within the United States that is hostile to economic globalization and its frameworks of multilateral rules and institution. Without mentioning Trump by name, Nye believes that polarization at home will diminish the effectiveness of a liberal order that he believes depends upon a continuation of a central American role in global policymaking and security arenas with respect to both hard and soft power. Nye believes that this role is imperiled by “[p]olitical fragmentation and demagoguery,” which undermine the ability of the U.S. “to provide responsible political leadership.”[16] Nye ends his essay on a forlorn note, suggesting that “Americans and others may not notice the security and prosperity that the liberal order provides until they are gone—but by then it may be too late.”[16] In effect, Nye is of the opinion that a danger is the tendency for Americans to take the benefits of liberalism for granted, and thus be complacent about its protection.

 

A more European perspective, more nuanced and less U.S.-centric, is provided by Robin Niblett, Director of Chatham House (the British counterpart to the Council on Foreign Relations) [Niblett, “Liberalism in Retreat: The Demise of a Dream,” Foreign Affairs 96:17-24(2017). Although agreeing with Nye that the main threat is internal as well as sharing the view of both Ikenberry and Nye that populism is challenging the liberal order, Niblett points out that the limitations of American-led global leadership preceded Trump. Niblett believes that the effort to spread the values and institutions of liberalism in the post-colonial world were not generally successful, failing most spectacularly in the Middle East, exemplified by the tragic fate of Syria. Niblett also stresses the innovative contributions to liberalism by way of the pooled sovereignty that characterized the European Union, which he believed to be the cutting edge of “a new liberalism” exhibiting many capabilities that exceeded those of states acting on their own, but he regards this promising past to be in deep trouble in the post-Brexit era. In this regard, Niblett is implicitly critical of those American intellectuals who think that liberalism is essentially an American contribution to world order, and do not properly acknowledge the co-equal European role.

 

Niblett is not optimistic about restoring the kind of liberalism that Ikenberry and Nye believe produced a long period of relative security and rapid economic growth and stability. Instead he sees things falling apart: “..over the past decade, buffeted by financial crises, populist insurgencies, and the resurgence of authoritarian powers, the liberal international order has stumbled.”[18] He attributes this downward spiral to “deep unease with globalization,” which is not likely to be soon reversed, and certainly not merely by reining in Trump. In Niblett’s view the liberal order has been decisively weakened in the West and can no longer serve as the basis of a coherent world order. Despite Niblett’s sensitivity to the weakness of liberalism his hopes for the future rest on the willingness to work out a kind of pragmatic coexistence between liberal and illiberal states reinforced by a continued realization that “a liberal international economic order” is indispensable for the maintenance of the “prosperity and internal security of both types of states.”[24] Note that this kind of diversely constituted community of states challenges the Ikenberry/Nye emphasis on domestic constitutionalism as an essential element of the international liberal approach to world order. In effect, Niblett detaches domestic public order considerations from the viability of international liberalism.

 

Despite this, Niblett sees the future as shaped by a new phase of ideological competition for hearts and minds, this time between liberalism and authoritarianism (fueled by right-wing populism and ultra-nationalism) as alternative internal public order systems. He concludes by observing “[i]f history is any guide, liberal democracy is the best bet.”[24]

 

I can only wonder whether history is a trustworthy guide in the twenty-first century, given the radical and unprecedented challenges confronting a state-centric system with very little capacity to generate global public goods, or to promote global interests as distinct from aggregating national interests. It is questionable whether the affirmation of the past American role as global leader during a period when the liberal consensus prevailed internally, at least in the West, can withstand critical scrutiny, given the degrees of inequality, persisting poverty, refusals to work toward nuclear disarmament, marginalization of the UN and international law with respect to war/peace issues, and patterns of militarism and interventionary diplomacy. What seems beyond serious question is that the collapse of this internal liberal consensus here in the United States, which long preceded Trump’s shattering of any illusions about the continuity of American foreign policy, makes impossible any reasonable expectation of responsible U.S. leadership in the near future. Although Obama was a dedicated domestic and international liberal, efforts to promote his policy agenda were increasingly stymied by a right-leaning Republican Congress, and when it came to counter-terrorism, his approach did not depart very significantly from the preferences of his illiberal critics. Whether it is any longer even accurate to locate the United States on the liberal side of the geopolitical balance sheet is an open question.

 

Other liberal heavyweights were also participants in this debate about the future of world order, which centered on offering prescriptive suggestions to offset the advent of Trump. For instance, Richard Haass, President of the Council of Foreign Relations, the publisher of Foreign Affairs, has his own way of trying to adapt to the challenges of the present. [Haass, “World Order 2.0: The Case for Soverign Obligation,” Foreign Affairs 96:2-9] He accurately avoids putting all the blame on Trump, and considers the problem of change in the global policy agenda to be at the root of the challenge to international liberalism, and seems to suggest that a response requires recasting the Westphalian state in rather fundamental ways. He rests his hopes for the future on states accepting a new identity that gives central importance to what he calls ‘sovereign obligation,’ the responsibility that each state should accept to gear its policies toward the provision of global public goods, a move so fundamental as to give rise to ‘World Order 2.0.’ We are never told how at a time of resurgent and inward looking nationalism almost everywhere, the political energy will come for such a deep change in the approach of governments to the balancing of national interests against the wider claims of global wellbeing. Underneath this call by Haass for reform is an affirmation similar to that of Ikenberry, regarding globalization, benign U.S. leadership, and mutually beneficial international cooperation as indispensable.

 

What is most missing from this debate, aside from self-scrutiny, is the failure to appreciate that Trump and the populist surge, are trivial distractions from addressing the more fundamental challenges to the very survival of the human species. There seemed absent from the Foreign Affairs symposium any awareness that nuclear weaponry and climate change are generating a biopolitical moment that is testing whether the human species has a sufficient collective will to survive to surmount the current array of global challenges. Whether we realize it or not, we may be living in end-times, meaning that the christening of this age as ‘the anthropocene’ is nothing more than an indirect acknowledgement of human responsibility for the ascendance of negativity.

 

Liberalism is an intergovernmental structure maintained and enforced by geopolitical actors, chiefly the United States. What is required to address the challenges of the biopolitical moment are globally constituted problem-solving mechanisms. Such mechanisms can alone provide enough support to achieve global public goods under current conditions, but are prevented from coming into being by the interacting resistance of global market forces and state-centrism. Only civil society militancy on an unprecedented scale can create a mandate for the kind of global transformation in ideas and structures are necessary to enable a sustainable future resting on the values of eco-humanism. If this analysis is correct, Trumpism and liberalism are nothing but sideshows.

On Progressive Democrats: Sanders v. Clinton

4 Feb

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In past years, I tried to distance myself from ‘liberals’ by describing myself as ‘progressive.’ It was admittedly a middle ground between being a liberal, which I associated with being a comforter of the established order while opting for humane policies at the margins, and being a ‘radical’ or ‘leftist,’ which struck me as terms of self-exile outside domains of relevant discourse. My basic objection to liberals and their agenda was that they swallowed ‘the system’ whole while excusing themselves by claiming the mantle of realism and moral concern. In my view, American structures of militarism and capitalism needed to be transformed in socialist directions if humanity was to have a positive future, and this is what the liberals I knew didn’t want to hear about, believing that such structural criticisms would hand the government over to Republicans by alienating the mainstream and thus be a prescription for the self-destruction of the Democratic Party, and political darkness.

 

In my lifetime there never was a progressive presidential candidate in my sense, although George McGovern came close, as did Gene McCarthy, and their political failures, were often cited as proof that the practical wisdom of the liberal position should be heeded. Whenever I acknowledged having voted for the third party candidate, Ralph Nader, in the 2000 elections, the best that I could hope for from my liberal friends was scorn, followed by the allegation of irresponsibility, pointing out that the Florida outcome would likely have gone Al Gore’s way if Nader’s name had not been on the ballot, and attracted the vote of some 90,000 wayward citizens. And so the misery of the George W. Bush years would have been avoided, and in its place the lesser misery of Gore would have been experienced.

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With these considerations in mind, I am startled by the amusing controversy between Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders as to whether Clinton is entitled to claim the mantle of ‘progressive.’ What seems odd and unexpected is that both candidates competing for support among Democrats, avoid any reference to being a ‘liberal’ and both proudly claim to be a ‘progressive.’ Actually, when challenged, Clinton does behave like a liberal, claiming realism is on her side, and dismissing Sanders transformative proposals (on health care, college tuition, wages, tax reform) as not achievable. In contrast, she bases her appeal on a commitment to finish what Obama started and a record of getting things done. In other words, she shares the abstract language of Sanders, but when it comes down to it, her promised contributions will be limited to the margins, identifying her in ways characteristic of her long political career—as a liberal. In fairness I suppose both candidates and their minders have made linguistic calculations. In Sanders’ case it is to run away as far as possible from being called ‘a socialist’ and for Clinton it seems to be wanting to avoid the deadend boredom of being classified as ‘a liberal.’

 

If I had to associate the word liberal with a particular set of views, I would probably select Nicholas Kristof, a regular opinion page columnist for the New York Times, as exemplifying the liberal worldview. And sure enough, in a true liberal mode Kristof jumped to Clinton’s defense with a condescending pat on Barry Sander’s back along the way. Under the headline “2 Questions For Bernie Sanders” [NYT, February 4, 2016] Kristof puts forward the usual liberal ‘higher wisdom’: first, Sanders’ sweeping proposals would never get enacted in the real world of Washington politics, and secondly, nominating a self-proclaimed ‘socialist’ would alienate American voters to such an extent as virtually to assure the election of a dangerous Republican reactionary such as Ted Cruz. There is no doubt that the current makeup of Congress would block the policymaking ambitions of any Democrat who lands in the White House, whether Clinton or Sanders, but if this is the case then the election is almost as irrelevant as many young people have believed in the past, at least until Obama and now Sanders came along. This cynicism is itself dangerously simplistic as a Democrat as president at least can be counted on to do less harm.

 

No sensible person would doubt that these practical considerations are serious concerns, but they must be balanced against the deep structural deformation long associated with neoliberal capitalism and geopolitical militarism. For too long these deeper maladies of American politics have been swept under the rug in deference to the imperatives of practical politics, and Kristof never dares even entertains an assessment of why it might finally make sense to give up on the liberal option.

 

In my view, Bernie Sanders is a true progressive because he has the courage to confront structurally Wall Street America, although he can claim only the weak form of progressivism as he has yet to confront Pentagon America. Sanders contends that his movement is a call for ‘revolution’ but if that is the claim then to be fully credible it must also call into question the American Global Domination Project, involving the network of foreign bases, naval supremacy throughout the world’s oceans, nuclear modernization program, and the ambitious militarizing plans for the management of space. In the meantime, while impatient for the revolution needed in America, I greatly prefer a true progressive to a disguised liberal, and so did 84% of the young voters who backed Sanders over Clinton in Iowa.