America’s Military and Diplomatic Power in Visible Decline

By Dilip Hiro, the author, among many other works, of After Empire: The Birth of a Multipolar World. (Nation Books), His 36th and latest book is The Age of Aspiration: Power, Wealth, and Conflict in Globalizing India (The New Press). Originally published at TomDispatch

In the strangest election year in recent American history — one in which the Libertarian Party’s Gary Johnson couldn’t even conjure up the name of a foreign leader he “admired” while Donald Trump remained intent on building his “fat, beautiful wall” and “taking” Iraq oil — the world may be out of focus for many Americans right now.  So a little introduction to the planet we actually inhabit is in order.  Welcome to a multipolar world.  One fact stands out: Earth is no longer the property of the globe’s “sole superpower.”

If you want proof, you can start by checking out Moscow’s recent role in reshaping the civil war in Syria and frustrating Washington’s agenda to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.  And that’s just one of a number of developments that highlight America’s diminishing power globally in both the military and the diplomatic arenas.  On a peaceable note, consider the way China has successfully launched the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as a rival to the World Bank, not to speak of its implementation of a plan to link numerous countries in Asia and Europe to China in a vast multinational transportation and pipeline network it grandly calls the One Belt and One Road system, or the New Silk Road project.  In such developments, one can see ways in which the previously overwhelming economic power of the U.S. is gradually being challenged and curtailed internationally.

Moscow Calling the Shots in Syria

The Moscow-Washington agreement of September 10th on Syria, reached after 10 months of hard bargaining and now in shambles after another broken truce, had one crucial if little noted aspect. For the first time since the Soviet Union imploded, Russia managed to put itself on the same diplomatic footing as the U.S. As Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov commented, “This is not the end of the road… just the beginning of our new relations” with Washington. Even though those relations are now in a state of suspension and exacerbation, it’s indisputable that the Kremlin’s limited military intervention in Syria was tailored to achieve a multiplier effect, yielding returns both in that war-ravaged, devastated land and in international diplomacy.

In August 2015, by all accounts, President Assad was on the ropes and the morale of his dwindling army at rock bottom. Even the backing of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah had proven insufficient to reverse his faltering hold on power.

To save his regime from collapse, the Kremlin’s military planners decided to fill the gaping hole left by Syria’s collapsing air force, shore up its air defenses, and boost its depleted arsenal of tanks and armored vehicles. For this, they turned one of Russia’s last footholds abroad, an airbase near the Mediterranean port of Latakia, into a forward operating base, and shipped to it warplanes, attack helicopters, tanks, artillery, and armored personnel carriers. Russia also deployed its most advanced S-400 surface-to-air missiles there.

The number of Russian military personnel dispatched was estimated at 4,000 to 5,000.  Although none of them were ground troops, this was an unprecedented step in recent Russian history.  The last time the Kremlin had deployed significant forces outside its territory — in December 1979 in Afghanistan — proved an ill-judged venture, ending a decade later in their withdrawal, followed by the collapse of the Soviet Union in December 1991.

“An attempt by Russia and Iran to prop up Assad and try to pacify the population is just going to get them stuck in a quagmire, and it won’t work,” said President Barack Obama at a White House press conference soon after the Russian military intervention. He should have been an expert on the subject since a U.S.-led coalition had been bombing targets in Syrian territory controlled by the terrorist Islamic State (ISIS) since September 2014.  Nonetheless, the Pentagon soon signed a memorandum of understanding with the Kremlin over safety procedures for their aircraft, now sharing Syrian air space, and established a ground communications link for any problems that should arise.

During the next six months in a sustained air campaign, Russian warplanes carried out 9,000 sorties, claiming to have destroyed 209 oil production and transfer facilities (supposedly controlled by ISIS), and enabled the Syrian army to retake 400 settlements spread over 3,860 square miles. In the process, the Russians lost just five men. As the prospect of Russia playing an ongoing critical role in Syria grew, the mood in the White House started to change. In mid-March 2016, Secretary of State John Kerry met Russian President Vladimir Putin at the Kremlin. The implication, even if through gritted teeth, was that the U.S. recognized the legitimacy of the Russian position in Syria, and that closer coordination between the two leading players was needed to crush ISIS.

A year after the Russian campaign was launched, most major Syrian cities were back in government hands (even if often in rubble), and rebel-held eastern Aleppo was under attack.  The morale of the Assad regime had improved, even if the overall size of its army had diminished. It was no longer in danger of being overthrown and its hand was strengthened at any future negotiating table.

No less important to the Russians, just reemerging on the Middle Eastern stage, all the anti-Assad foreign players in Syria had come to recognize the pivotal position that the Kremlin had acquired in that war-torn land where a five-and-a-half-year civil conflict had resulted in an upper estimate of nearly 500,000 deaths, and the bombing of hospitals had become commonplace. On the first anniversary of the Russian campaign, Putin dispatched more planes to Syria, which made getting into a quagmire a possibility. But there can be no question that, in the interim, Putin’s strategy had served Russia’s geopolitical goals well.

Putin Sought Out by the Anti-Assad Arabs 

Between October 2015 and August 2016, top officials from Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain, and Turkey all held talks with Putin at different venues. The first to do so, that October, was the Saudi defense minister, Prince Muhammad, a son of Saudi King Salman.  They met at the Russian president’s dacha in the Black Sea resort of Sochi. Saudi Arabia had already funded the purchase of CIA-procured TOW anti-tank missiles, which had largely powered a rebel offensive against Assad in the summer of 2015. Now, the two agreed that they shared the common goal of preventing “a terrorist caliphate [ISIS] from getting the upper hand.” When Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir mentioned his concern about the rebel groups the Russians were targeting, Putin expressed readiness to share intelligence, which meant future cooperation between their militaries and security services.

Later that day, Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the deputy supreme commander of the armed forces of the United Arab Emirates, called on Putin. “I can say that Russia plays a very serious role in Middle Eastern affairs,” he stated afterwards, adding, “There is no doubt that we have a privileged relationship.”

The ruler of Qatar, Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, went a step further after meeting Putin at the Kremlin in January 2016.  “Russia,” he declared, “plays a main role when it comes to stability in the world.” Along with Jordan, Qatar had been providing the CIA with bases for training and arming anti-Assad insurgents.  A month later, the next Gulf chief to call on Putin in Sochi would be King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, which has hosted the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet since 1971. He presented a “victory sword” of Damascene steel to the Russian leader. After their talks, Foreign Minister Lavrov reported that the two countries had agreed to boost economic and military ties.

In August, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan traveled to St. Petersburg to meet “my dear friend” Putin. Their relations had fallen to a low point when the Turks shot down a Russian warplane over northern Syria.  Unlike Western leaders, however, Putin had personally called Erdogan to congratulate him on aborting an attempted military coup in July. “We are always categorically opposed to any attempts at anti-constitutional activity,” he explained. After three hours of talks, they agreed to mend their strained economic relations and, in a striking reversal, Erdogan suddenly stopped calling on Assad to step down.

In sum, thanks to his limited military intervention in Syria, Putin had acquired enhanced leverage in decisions affecting the future of the Middle East, which helped divert international attention from Crimea and the crisis in Ukraine.  To Putin’s satisfaction, he had succeeded in offering an on-the-ground rebuttal to Obama’s claim, made after Moscow’s seizure of Crimea, that “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors, not out of strength but out of weakness.”

As an added bonus, Putin had helped solidify his own popularity at home, which had spiked to a record 89% approval rating in the wake of events in Crimea and eastern Ukraine at a time when U.S. and European sanctions, combined with low oil prices, had led to a recession that would shrink the Russian economy by 3.7% in 2015.  It was a striking demonstration that, in domestic politics, popular perception about a strong leader trumps — if you’ll excuse the word — economic realities. This year the Russian economy is expected to shrink by perhaps another 1% and yet in recent parliamentary elections, the Putin-backed United Russia party won 54% of the vote, and 343 of 450 seats.

Chinese and Russian Geopolitical Interests Converge

As a result, in part, of Western sanctions, Russia has also been tightening its economic ties with China. In June 2016, Putin made his fourth trip to Beijing since March 2013 when Xi Jinping became the Chinese president. The two leaders stressed their shared outlook mirroring their countries’ converging trade, investment, and geopolitical interests.

“President Putin and I equally agree,” Xi said, “that when faced with international circumstances that are increasingly complex and changing, we must persist even harder in maintaining the spirit of the 2001 Sino-Russian strategic partnership and cooperation.” Summing up relations between the two neighbors, Putin offered this assessment: “Russia and China stick to points of view which are very close to each other or are almost the same in the international arena.” As co-founders of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 1996, the two countries regard themselves as Eurasian powers.

During his visit to Beijing last June, Putin cited 58 deals worth $50 billion that were then being discussed by the two governments. Russia was also preparing to issue yuan-denominated sovereign bonds to raise $1 billion and discussing plans to link China’s national electronic payment network to its own credit card system.  The two neighbors were already partners in a $400 billion deal in which the Russian energy company Gazprom is expected to supply China with natural gas for the next 30 years.

As an example of the Sino-Russian geopolitical convergence in action, Rear Admiral Guan Youfei, head of China’s Office for International Military Cooperation, recently visited the Syrian capital, Damascus. He met with Syrian Defense Minister Fahd Jassem al-Freij and held talks with the Russian general coordinating military assistance to that country. Guan and al-Freij agreed to expand Chinese training and humanitarian aid in order to counter religious extremism.

During Putin’s June visit, Xi called for closer cooperation between their news agencies so that both countries could “together increase the influence” of their media on world public opinion.  Each has actually already made significant forays into the global information stream. In China, the State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television started its “going out” project in 2001 through China Central Television. By 2009, its foreign language section was broadcasting programs globally via satellite and cable in Arabic, English, French, Russian, and Spanish.

In 2006, Putin set up RT as a brand of TV-Novosti, an autonomous non-profit organization financed by the Russian news agency, RIA Novosti, with a budget of $30 million, and gave it a mandate to present the Russian point of view on international events. Since then, RT International has been offering round-the-clock news bulletins, documentaries, talk shows, debates, sports news, and cultural programs in 12 languages, including English, Arabic, Spanish, Hindi, and Turkish. RT America and RT UK have been airing locally based content since 2010 and 2014 respectively.

With an annual budget of $300 million in 2013-2014, RT still lagged behind the BBC World Service Group, with its $367 million budget and news in 36 languages. During a visit to RT’s state-of-the-art studios in Moscow in 2013, Putin urged its employees to “break the Anglo-Saxon monopoly on global information streams.”

China’s Global Power Projection

In 2010, President Obama launched his “pivot to Asia” strategy to contain China’s rising power. In reply, within six months of becoming president, Xi Jinping unveiled a blueprint for his country’s ambitious One Belt and One Road project. It was aimed at nothing less than reordering the geostrategic configuration of international politics, while promoting the economic reconstruction of Eurasia. Domestically, it was meant to balance China’s over-reliance on its coastal areas by developing its western hinterlands. It was also to link China, Southeast Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia to Europe by a web of railways and energy pipelines. In February 2015, the first cargo train successfully completed a 16,156-mile round trip from the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu to Madrid, Spain, and back — a striking sign of changing times.

In 2014, to implement its New Silk Road project, Beijing established the Silk Road Fund and capitalized it at $40 billion. Its aim was to foster increased investment in countries along the project’s various routes. Given China’s foreign reserves of $3.3 trillion in 2015 — up from $1.9 trillion in 2008 — the amount involved was modest and yet it looks to prove crucial to China’s futuristic planning.

In January 2015, the Chinese government also established the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in Beijing. Two months later, ignoring Washington’s urgings, Great Britain became the first major Western nation to sign on as a founding member. France, Germany, and Italy immediately followed its lead. None of them could afford to ignore China’s robust economic expansion, which, among other things, has turned that country into the globe’s largest trading nation. With $3.87 trillion worth of imports and exports in 2012, it overtook the U.S. ($3.82 trillion), displacing it from a position it had held for 60 years.

China is now the number one trading partner for 29 countries, including some members of the 10-strong Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).  This may explain why ASEAN failed to agree to unanimously back the Philippines, a member, when the Arbitral Tribunal at the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague ruled in July in its favor and against China’s claims to rights in the South China Sea. Soon after, China announced the holding of a 10-day-long joint Sino-Russian naval exercise in those waters.

Reflecting its expanding gross domestic product (GDP), China’s military expenditures have also been on the rise. According to the Pentagon’s annual report on the Chinese armed forces, Beijing’s defense budget has risen 9.8% annually since 2006, reaching $180 billion in 2015, or 1.7% of its GDP. By contrast, the Pentagon’s 2015 budget, $585 billion, was 3.2% of U.S. GDP.

Of the four branches of its military, the Chinese government is, for obvious reasons, especially focused on expanding and improving its naval capacity.

A study of its naval doctrine shows that it is following the classic pattern set by the United States, Germany, and Japan in the late nineteenth century in their quest to become global powers. First comes a focus on coastal defense of the homeland; second, establishing the security of its territorial waters and shipping; and third, the protection of key sea-lanes it uses for its commercial interests. For Beijing, safeguarding the sea-lanes used to bring Persian Gulf oil to the ports of southern China is crucial.

The ultimate aim and fourth stage of this process for an aspiring world power, of course, is power projection to distant lands. At present, having reached the third stage in this process, China is laying the foundation for its final goal with a Maritime Silk Road project, which involves building up ports in Burma, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Pakistan.

The medium-term aim of China’s navy is to curtail the monopoly that the U.S. has enjoyed in the Pacific. It is rapidly building up its fleet of submarines for this purpose. Meanwhile, as a sign of things to come, China acquired a 10-year lease on a 90-acre site in Djbouti in the Horn of Africa to build its first foreign military outpost. In stark contrast, according to the Pentagon’s latest Base Structure Report, the U.S. has bases in 74 countries. The respective figures for France and Britain are 10 and seven. Obviously, China has a long way to go to catch up.

The Realistic Aims of China and Russia

At the moment, Chinese leaders do not seem to imagine their country openly challenging the United States for world leadership for, minimally, decades to come.  Ten years ago, the Beijing-based Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, the country’s most prestigious think tank, came up with the concept of “comprehensive national power” as a single, carefully calculated number on a scale of 100. In 2015, the respective figures for America, China and Russia were 91.68, 33.92, and 30.48.

At 35.12, Japan was number two on the list. At 12.97, India was number 10, although that has not deterred its prime minister, Narendra Modi, from declaring that his country has entered “the age of aspiration,” and insisting that the latter part of the twenty-first century will belong to India. To any realist, Modi’s claim lies in the realm of fantasy, but it is a reminder of just how multipolar the coming decades could turn out to be. (When it comes to distant power projection, India has done no better than to start building a radar network in Mauritius, the Seychelles, the Maldives, and Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean to keep tabs on Chinese merchant shipping and warships.)

The global scenario that the down-to-earth presidents of China and Russia seem to have in mind resembles the sort of balance of power that existed in Europe for a century after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815. In the wake of that fateful year, the monarchs of Britain, Austria, Russia, and Prussia resolved that no single European country should ever become as powerful as France had been under Napoleon.  The resulting Concert of Europe then held from 1815 until the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

China and Russia are now trying to ensure that Washington no longer exercises unrestrained power globally, as it did between 1992 and summer of 2008. In early August 2008, overwhelmed by the mounting challenges of its war in Afghanistan, and its military occupation of Iraq, the Bush administration limited itself to verbal condemnations of Russia’s military action to reverse gains made by the pro-western president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, in an unprovoked attack on the breakaway region of South Ossetia.

Think of that episode as a little-noticed marker of the end of a unipolar planet in which American power went mostly unchecked. If that is so, then welcome to the ninth year of a multipolar world.

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  1. PlutoniumKun

    Not mentioned, of course, is that TPP etc., are central to the US’s strategy to counter Russia and China, and it seems these Pacts are on the verge of failing miserably. There seems plenty of evidence in the Pacific in particular that many countries, from Myanmar and Philippines to Australia are trying to follow a strategy of neutrality, playing the big powers off each other, rather than attaching themselves to the US or China. I suspect we’ll see more of this in the Middle East and Europe and even South America.

    Also, militarily its worth pointing out that Russia and China etc., do not have to match the US’s fleets to gain equality on the oceans. They just have to have the technology for areal denial – i.e. sufficient long range missiles to make the US reluctant to send aircraft carriers within striking distance. This is similar to the early 20th Century situation where relatively cheap submarines allowed weaker countries to prevent the traditional great Naval Powers from having things their own way. Although in its own way, this proved very destabilising.

    The other factor not mentioned is that the the neocons have squandered the US’s greatest single strength – its ‘soft’ power. The US is simply not respected and liked around the world the way it was even in the Cold War. I think the hysteria around Obama’s election was at least partly based around the worlds longing for a US they could like. Among other things, Obama squandered that and left everyone with a choice between two detestable individuals, both of which are sure to make things worse.

    1. Colonel Smithers

      Thank you. Well said. Area denial is also cheaper and, probably, less corrupt.

      That is such a good point about the soft power squandered by Obama. I wonder if that will come to be seen as a failure on the scale that Kennan thought about Slick Willie’s reversal of policy towards Russia.

      A question for readers based in the US. I am the child of immigrants who came to the UK from a colony mentioned by Hiro in the mid-1960s, although we have ancestors who left these islands for that francophone colony in the early 19th century. Most, but not all immigrants in the UK and their children take tales of British superiority (vide why the UK will make Brexit a success) with a bucket of salt. Do our US peers do that? Obama seems like these British ministers of immigrant stock who need to prove that they belong and so adopt these positions that others / natives rarely bother with or express. In Obama’s case, he seems to bang on about American Exceptionalism more than anyone I can remember. Is Obama worried in case Joe Sixpack questions his background?

      On another note, thank you (to PK) for the anecdote about RC churchgoers. I was away on Monday evening and unable to say so.

      1. Moneta

        I don’t believe Obama squandered anything. He did what he could do with what he had and what the country would let him do. There’s a limit to what a man can do when standing in front of a moving train.

        Why anyone expected more beats me… My 2 cents.

        1. Colonel Smithers

          My parents and I, regular visitors to the US for three decades, used to think, but reckon that he was never interested in using the bully pulpit and exploiting the crisis and, especially since re-election, has shown his true colours.

          Not unrelated, it’s interesting to see the UK and US threaten the island where my parents come from. The islanders want the Chagos archipelago, including Diego Garcia, back, so John Bull and Uncle Sam are not happy. In the past year, the US ambassador has been mouthing off about golden bats and the treatment of immigrants and prostitutes, and musing about sponsoring NGOs (presumably to spark a colour revolution). The islanders wonder if they will be the Grenada of the 21st century.

          1. Moneta

            It’s hard for minorities to get to the top. The others in the group must let them move up so the agenda must stay in line. If not it’s usually because there’s a dirty job that no one wants to touch… that’s when the outsider or minority gets a chance at a thankless job stuck between a rock and a hard place.

            Americans want their American dream back. Their dream life consumes a disproportionate percentage of the world’s resources and they can’t imagine that this disproportionate share could end up going somewhere else. They want their President to defend something that probably can’t last.

        2. PlutoniumKun

          I’m sorry, but I don’t see how you can argue this with regard to foreign policy where (unlike domestic policy) the president has a much freer hand.

          Nobody forced Obama to continue drone strikes over much of the muslim world. Nobody forced him to put known ideological neocons into key positions of influence and power in State and the Pentagon. Nobody forced him to give Israel a free hand in Gaza and the occupied strip. Nobody forced him to help the French and British destroy the wealthiest country in Africa (Libya) and turn it into an Isis stronghold. Nobody forced him to encourage Ukrainian Nazi’s to attack ethnic Russians without consequence. Nobody forced him to pursue a ’tilt to the Pacific’ aimed at isolating China with the inevitable blow-back that we are now seeing. Nobody forced him to interfere in Syria with the aim of getting rid of Assad. Nobody forced him to continue a policy of isolating and undermining progressive democratic governments in South and Central America. He’s proven very good at giving the notion that all these things ‘just happened’ as he sat back looking on sadly. I don’t buy it.

            1. Synoia

              The list from PuKIm IS his list of accomplisments.

              Apoligies to PuKim, I suspect your list is incomplete :-), one significant omission is the Expansion of Warrentless Surveillance of all Peoples.

              This by a constitutional scholar apparently more interested in exploiting perceived holes in the constitution than upholding its grand principles.

              Oops, that’s a second great Obama accomplishment that was accidentally omitted form you list above.

          1. Moneta

            I don’t believe Obama could have done otherwise. Without a neolib ideology he would not have made it to President.

            So you are asking him to drop what made him rise to the top.

            1. PlutoniumKun

              I agree that he has demonstrated a neoliberal-lite ideology, although its a little complicated by the fact that he has several times seemed to have shown that he ‘gets’ that current policy is wrong headed, but he has consistently shown little or no indication to stand up to the hard liners within the administration. I don’t believe he has any foreign policy ideology other than his famous ‘don’t do stupid’ policy, and as such will always go with establishment groupthink.

              I suspect his judgement is not that he had to be a neoliberal to get to the top (Change! Hope!), but he needed to be a neoliberal to ensure he stayed at the top without either an assassins bullet, or a stray recording/email, knocking him off the summit.

              1. moneta

                I believe he made it to President because he was a Neolib who could make the population believe there would be change.

                10 years ago most of the population probably did not even know the word neolib existed. And most of the population thought helocs were God’s gift to the USA.

                The fact that Trump is actually a thing shows how screwed up the US is. I can’t imagine a president making decisions without dissonance, conflicts or contradictions.

                The us was based on a frontier mentality yet liberals think one Neolib president who spoke of change could change course.

                It’s going to take a few presidents because society determines individuals’ roles. When someone is very different, society might accept one eccentric touch but not multiple all at once.

                For example, maybe the us needs to go single payer but the golf from private to nationalized is so vast that you can only get there by iteration unless there is a huge shock that permits the leaders to do it in one scoop.

                1. Colonel Smithers

                  Helocs. I have not heard that word for years. I was at HSBC Investment Bank from late 2003 – late 2006 and BNY Mellon from late 2006 to May 2008 and remember that production line of toxic waste and the disruption to my non-work life.

                2. Ivy

                  Many view Obama as a type of Manchurian candidate, sleeper agent or otherwise not who he has been crafted to be. Combine that with a deep distrust by much of the populace, to the extent that they pay attention, of the media, as the latter as a group have largely demonstrated a profound disregard for truth and objectivity.
                  Politicians at least swear an oath upon taking office, even if many immediately ignore it, while so-called journalists no longer attempt to self-police or maintain integrity. The media seem to want to act as unelected officials with a seat at the top table.

                3. Crazy Horse

                  Love that slip of the tongue— “the golf from private to nationalized—”

                  It perfectly expresses the priorities of a “leader” who is either completely devoid of principles or too spineless to attempt to lead the country in a direction other than that of his handlers and masters.

                4. lin1

                  “The us was based on a frontier mentality” :

                  Settler colonialism. Think about it, the western hemisphere was “empty” (I know) when this whole capitalism thing started. Two entire large resource stuffed and packed continents were just sitting there for the exploiting. Capitalism was born filthy, filthy rich and thinks it pulled itself up by the bootstraps – but the trust fund is nearly depleted. Meanwhile, the melting ice caps, the “end of growth” and with the return of great power politics (inter imperialist war) looming and post modern sophistry having replaced enlightenment liberal rationalism, and with no better vision for civilization than, greed is good ! , when can we start drilling in the antarctic”?

              2. BRUCE E. WOYCH

                As plausible deniability goes, Obama merges statecraft with tradecraft seamlessly between overt and covert political propaganda. Charming and disarming to democrats and ideals, his passive stances are often a buffer to the more dangerous background signal being sent as a lurking threat. good guy / bad guy writ large. It can be argued that he has used the same role play domestically where most of his constitutional prejudices have been corporate and most of his financial policies equally republican.
                Obama Resists Hawks As U.S., Russia Step Up War Threats Over Syria
                Posted: 10 Oct 2016 04:25 AM PDT

                “Nobody forced Obama…” is a formidable listing while apologists are generally sympathetic to his charm and graceful very likeable personality.
                In fact, (after all is said and done) Obama (as world leaders go) may well go down in history as even a great president and world shaker where amoral realism is counted after all the smoke and mirrors clear.

                History is written by the victor as Napoleon stated succinctly. I suggest to you that his “legacy” that is currently being groomed so carefully, includes some items that researchers and historians will also have to explain more comprehensively than any cult of personality will cover.:

                1. different clue

                  He made the Bush Tax Cuts permanent.

                  He immunized and impunified whole categories of upper class crime.

                  He delayed Single Payer Canadacare for at least 5 decades.

                  He got a lot done, when you think about it.

              3. Mark P.

                PK wrote: ‘he had to be a neoliberal to get to the top (Change! Hope!), but he needed to be a neoliberal to ensure he stayed at the top without either an assassins bullet, or a stray recording/email, knocking him off the summit.’

                Moneta is correct. The TBTB knew what was coming. So much as Bernanke wth his academic expertise on QE and the Great Depression was preemptively put in place in 2006 at the Fed, Obama was heavily backed by Wall Street under conditions that would have been made clear to him in the 2006-2008 period.

                The most important element of TPTB ‘s program in backing Obama was the installation of Eric Holder as Attorney General, after Holder had been a primary architect of MERS and mortgage securitization at Covington Burling. Again, a preemptive move to protect Wall Street and forestall any prosecution of those at the top there (and Holder furthermore was conveniently a POC to continue the apparent Change!Hope! pitch).

                I think of it as the Eric Holder administration in retrospect, actually.

            2. Jack

              What made him rise to the “top” were a multitude of promises made to his party and independents, which he later failed to fulfill. And his failure is almost 100%. He gained the nomination and beat Clinton, who was and is a neo-con, by promising to be different. Instead, he outdid Bush in his war mongering. The promises he made were in part why he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, in advance of him actually having done anything, the award of which is sorely regretted now by those who made it. PlutoniumKun listed some of the things Obama could have avoided but did anyway. One item he failed to mention was the US support of Saudi Arabia in its war on Yemen which has now resulted in the US possibly being liable for the war crimes committed there.

              1. Portia

                the perfect Trojan Horse. and could not be criticized for the longest time because he is a minority. now we have a woman who will “make history”. never mind what they get up to while in office.

            3. Yves Smith Post author

              You forget how the country had been prostrated by the financial crisis. He had a window of opportunity when he took office, as Roosevelt did, to break a lot of china. He could credibly have taken the position that we couldn’t afford military adventurism any more. He could at least have stopped us getting in new entanglements (Libya, Syria, Ukraine, drone warfare).

              1. Moneta

                I’m not sure many leaders understand the monetary system so this crisis is a biggie… they come in with all their grand ideas and then realize they have to somehow finance these. Not to mention that the reserve currency status of the USD depends on military might. His finance course would have come from the bankers and not from politicians who did not even know what a CDO was.

                IMO, Americans are still asking for changes that are not practical when a country is a net importer with huge debt ratios on both the private and public side. It’s going to take time to understand what’s going on.

          2. sinbad66

            Nobody forced him to continue a policy of isolating and undermining progressive democratic governments in South and Central America.

            A point rarely mentioned. Well said!

          3. Griffith W Jones

            Absolutely agree. And furthermore, Obama had a Democratic Party controlled Congress for his first 2 years and chose to do nothing that he promised.

        3. pretzelattack

          maybe cause he talked a lot about change? you know, closing guantanamo, appointing liberals to the bench, prosecuting war criminals and financial criminals, stuff like that. not starting any more wars in the middle east. more will come to me if i think about it. oh yeah, marching with striking union workers. trying to get the public option. taking a hard look at the fisa court. sorry, running out of time here.

            1. Moneta

              I think there has been a lot is squandering but it’s a nationwide thing that has been happening for decades.

            2. Jack

              Of course it was doable. You are apparently overlooking the fact that for the first 2 years of the Obama presidency he pretty much had a free hand. Both houses of Congress were in the hands of democrats. Only later did the excuse of Republican vitriol have any weight. And lest you forget, the voters weighed Obama in the 2010 mid-terms and found him lacking. Most analysts point to the Democrat losses in that election as a result of Obama’s failure to carry out his promised agenda.

              1. Moneta

                In an alternate universe. Maybe it’s because I’m in Canada, but I did not think he would accomplish much. Hard to stop a slow moving train.

                1. Steve C

                  Good thing he didn’t even try then. And he keeps Wall Street and “people who matter” happy, so it’s all good then. And he plays such a “good guy” on TV. What more should we want? Right? If things are as you say, then the White House is for shit and anyone who wants it is a loser. And we all are screwed.

                  1. uncle tungsten

                    Way too cynical Steve C, sure it looks pretty certain a mongrel dog of either gender will win this next contest. So it goes. Hopefully the momentum for change demonstrated by all those thousands and millions who came out for one of the early contestants will carry change through in the near future.

                    I feel certain that the usa will never be the same again now that people have found they can show their power and commitment. Transformations on this magnitude take some doing but there are a huge number of people willing to do the doing just now.

                    1. Moneta

                      When Obama came into power, Americans wanted change thinking it would come from the president and not themselves.

                      Now they are starting to rise up.

              2. sid_finster

                Not only did Obama have a free hand in Congress, he had the biggest popular mandate for reform of any president since 1932.

                And he fucked up.

                1. different clue

                  He fucked up? No, actually he succeeded. He succeeded totally.

                  He burned all “hope” of “change” all the way down to the ground. On purpose. For which he expects to be paid hundreds of millions of dollars in the decades after leaving office.

              3. JohnnyGL

                In March of 2009, I recall an FT editorial by Martin Wolf of the Financial Times asking if Obama was already a failure. I had a nagging feeling he was right, and he was.

                On Foreign Policy, Obama’s got the thawing of relations with Cuba and the Iran deal. We’ll see if those are consolidated as a legacy or rolled-back by his successor.

                With regard to pretty much everything else Obama tried to do, he’s failed pretty badly. But supplying weapons to Al Nusra in Syria takes the cake for me. What happened to “don’t do stupid stuff?”

            3. Jeremy Grimm

              It’s really about acting like Hillary’s idea of Lincoln. Obama had the nation behind him and Congress, the Bully Pulpit mentioned below, the power to appoint and request the resignations of the leaders of the Executive Branch arms of power, he could have lobbied for changing Rule 22 in the Senate his first year and changed the Senate rules for filibuster, and if Congress sends him a bill he doesn’t like he can NOT sign it, and if there is a bill he does like he can actually get behind that bill and twist a few Congressional arms to get what he wants. Obama can and has accomplished a great deal in his presidency. The problem is he was accomplishing what he promised to his other supporters — not us.

              1. JohnnyGL

                That’s exactly true. The only items he’s made a real effort to get done were….

                Iran deal

                He didn’t care about much else.

                1. different clue

                  Well, he cared about making the Bush Tax Cuts permanent. And he succeeded. So there’s that, too.

        4. human

          This is the very purpose of the bully pulpit presented to Obama in ’08. Obama has always been in thrall to his paymasters as demonstrated by his actions during his administrations.

          1. Moneta

            And no paymasters leads to Trump? Let’s remember that he is a thing because of the cult of real estate and bankers’ easy money.

            1. Ivy

              America, land of many cults and opportunities. If my parents were still alive, they would be horrified at the current slate of candidates and at the state of public discourse, so I attempt to carry on their tradition.

        5. OIFVet

          What is larger, 200,000 or 6,000. The first nnumber is the number of people who attended candidate 0bama’s rally in Berlin in 2008. Heady, hopey changey times they were. The latter number is the number of people who attended president 0bama’s rally in Berlin in 2013.

          It is amusing to portray 0bama as a limp-wristed impotent figurehead. He isn’t, he believes in American exceptionalism with “every fiber” of his body. The results are clear, most regular everyday Euros are quite cynical about the US. 0bama surpassed Bush in creating a number of calamities, and has been heavy handed with our supposed allies, thus destroying the myth of about the supposed “partnership.”

        6. Adam Eran

          In a way, I agree. It’s not improbable that an aggressive Obama would have been assassinated. He had enough race-based assassination threats to at least worry.

          Nevertheless, we needed FDR and got Caspar Milquetoast.

          Just sayin…

    2. flora

      Excellent entire comment. On this point,
      ” militarily its worth pointing out that Russia and China etc., do not have to match the US’s fleets to gain equality on the oceans. They just have to have the technology for areal denial …”

      my 2 cents: world reserve currency status is indirectly maintained by military might and control of the sea lanes. This will get interesting.

    3. Science Officer Smirnoff

      As you recall the French Exocet, a souped-up V1 in respects, has been “out there” a long time.

      . . . In the years after the Falklands War, it was revealed that the British government and the Secret Intelligence Service had been extremely concerned at the time by the perceived inadequacy of the Royal Navy’s anti-missile defences against the Exocet and its potential to tip the naval war decisively in favour of the Argentine forces. A scenario was envisioned in which one or both of the force’s two aircraft carriers (Invincible and Hermes) were destroyed or incapacitated by Exocet attacks, which would make recapturing the Falklands much more difficult.

      Actions were taken to contain the Exocet threat. A major intelligence operation was also initiated to prevent the Argentine Navy from acquiring more of the weapons on the international market.[16] The operation included British intelligence agents claiming to be arms dealers able to supply large numbers of Exocets to Argentina, who diverted Argentina from pursuing sources which could genuinely supply a few missiles. France denied deliveries of Exocet AM39s purchased by Peru to avoid the possibility of Peru giving them to Argentina, because they knew that payment would be made with a credit card from the Central Bank of Peru. British intelligence had detected the guarantee was a deposit of two hundred million dollars from the Andean Lima Bank, an owned subsidiary of the Banco Ambrosiano.[17][18] wiki

      1. PlutoniumKun

        Yes, and it was an Exocet that put a big hole in the side of the USS Stark in 1987.

        The French are major proliferisers of modern weapon systems. They and the Russians have put a lot of weapons out there which are affordable for small States but have the potential even to worry the biggest militaries.

        Much of world history depends on the relative availability of defensive/offensive weaponry. Back when the castle was the apex of military might any local thug with the money to build one could become a lord and rule his little kingdom. Then when cannons became powerful enough to reduce them to rubble empires came back into vogue. When battleships ruled the waves, this allowed the great seagoing nations to dominate, but the invention of the torpedo along with submarines and long range bombers levelled things up for smaller nations such as Japan. Then the aircraft carrier swung things back to empires in the post war years. But now I think high speed sea skimming and ballistic missiles along with long distance torpedoes have swung things back to ‘weaker’ nations. Even the Houthi’s in Yemen seem to have obtained missiles capable of knocking out an ex-US combat vessel.

        1. Mark P.

          The democratization of missile technology is the big military story of the last three decades. Look at, for instance, at how Hezbollah’s Sheik Nasrullah kicked off the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict by striking an Israeli warship during a TV presentation. Very slick.

          In fac, talking of the USS Stark, all those ships with their big aluminum superstructures will burn down to their waterline when hit. The Emirates even recently banned aluminum in tower buildings recently.

          Aluminum’s vulnerability didn’t matter during the decades of the Cold War when if the Big One started the surface navy wouldn’t really do any fighting because it would all be up anyway, and meanwhile smaller groups and nations — especially those with brown skins — didn’t have access to serious missile technology.

          The big transition point came with the Falklands War when the UK’s admirals smartly stood their aircraft carriers beyond range till Margaret Thatcher phoned to Mitterand and intimated that the British might use their Polaris submarine to nuke Buenos Aires unless Mitterand gave up the Exocet codes. Think I’m kidding? Thatcher got the codes; they didn’t call her Mad Maggie for nothing.

          As for why they’re still building surface warships with aluminum superstructures, it’s military Keynesianism and everybody would have to be submariners otherwise, which wouldn’t be fun..

          1. JohnnyGL

            +1 to this

            I think the Pentagon did an analysis under GW Bush about attacking Iran and buried the idea.

            I believe this is why Iran made a big dash for surface-to-surface missiles to defend themselves, and DID NOT have to go for nukes. If you’ve got anti-ship missiles, you can push those carriers far enough out to sea which limits the ability to launch airstrikes.

            Plus, with anti-ship missiles, you can put the Persian Gulf on total lockdown and watch the Saudis suffocate. Iran has already been dealing with sanctions for years, so it’s no sweat to them!

            If the USA ever has an aircraft carrier sunk, the unipolar moment is indisputably over.

  2. Felix_47

    I suspect that for the money put out the Chinese get a lot more defense. In fact, if they are spending 200 billion and we are spending 600 billion we can be sure that they are close to parity. Of course, we are spending a lot more than 600 billion when you add in VA, disability and retirement costs as well as current war outlays. The entire defense industry in both China and the US is obsolete given modern communications and immigration trends anyway. How are you going to bomb Yemen when the excess population in Yemen ends up driving taxis in Washington D.C. or why bomb Syria when all it does is encourage the Syrians to move to the west? What is the difference between a Syrian or Afghan in Idaho or Berlin and one in Damascus or Kabul? The national state is becoming obsolete and military action is powerless against demography.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      The key paradox for the US military is that wars are won not by who has the greatest number of tanks, ships or aircraft, but by the country that can put the greatest number of tanks, ships and aircraft into the field of battle. The US has by far the biggest military in the world, but it has also put itself in the position of needing a military a multiple of everyone elses because of the sheer geographical spread of commitments. China’s military is tiny and primitive compared to the US, but in reality any war is likely to be geographically limited – to (for example) the South China Sea. China has every chance of being able to match the US in this kind of war.

      As for China’s blue sea commitments, I actually doubt they have any intention of really pursuing a long range war capacity. The Chinese know their history and know that a military on this scale can be economically ruinous. But there is a naval military concept known as fleet in being, which essentially means that even a theoretical threat can force an enemy to pour resources into trying to neutralise it. China I think is using this concept – continually setting off rumours of new strike missiles, long range attack aircraft, new aircraft carriers, etc., to force the US (aided and abetted by the defence industry) to spent countless billions on phantom threats. Some of these rumours may be true – many I suspect are simply deliberate mischief making by the Chinese, with the serious aim of dissipating America’s military strength.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        A new theatre for that mischief and dissipation is Africa. My parish has a Nigerian priest. When he’s away, we usually get another Nigerian. At supper for the Bishop last Saturday, our priest, an Ibo, and another, a Hausa from Kano, said that many, if not, most Nigerians think Boko Haram is assisted by the US and, to a lesser extent, France as it gives the pair an excuse to maintain troops in the region and keep their client state governments in line.

        1. PlutoniumKun

          Whether or not its true, the fact that intelligent people think that way shows everything you need to know about how US and Western soft power has been frittered away the past few years through stupidity and cynicism.

          1. JohnnyGL

            I recall a NYT or WaPo article saying those Iraqis were convinced the US was in bed with ISIS, too.

            Is there a pattern here?

    2. readerOfTeaLeaves


      Yes, and I still take taxis, so I hear a fair amount of Amharic and other African dialects.

      Unsure what the Uber drivers speak.

    3. lyman alpha blob

      Why bomb? Because then Uncle Sugar gets to take their stuff after they all leave their war torn countries. If some of the refugees are pissed off and blow up some people in their new homelands, why that’s just a little collateral damage and when has the establishment ever cared about that? It just gives them an excuse to surveil everyone.

      Ka-ching! – that’s why the bombs.

    4. Mark P.

      What can the world, or any nation in it, hope for if no turning is found on this dread road?

      The worst to be feared and the best to be expected can be simply stated.

      The worst is atomic war.

      The best would be this: a life of perpetual fear and tension; a burden of arms draining the wealth and the labor of all peoples; a wasting of strength that defies the American system or the Soviet system or any system to achieve true abundance and happiness for the peoples of this earth.

      Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.

      This world in arms in not spending money alone.

      It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

      The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities.

      It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population.

      It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals.

      It is some 50 miles of concrete highway.

      We pay for a single fighter with a half million bushels of wheat.

      We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed more than 8,000 people.

      This, I repeat, is the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking.

      This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.

      — that crazy commie madman, Dwight Eisenhower, in 1953 on military Keynesianism.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      I’d be very sceptical that the Russian military somehow avoids the rampant corruption in other parts of the Russian economy.

      By necessity, the Russian military has always been parsimonious and has had to get more firepower for its rouble than other wealthier countries. Much of their weaponry is very simple, effective and robust, and Russian tactics are as good if not better than any other major military. However, they’ve had their white elephants too – their new Yasen Class attack submarines are far too expensive as an example, and poor quality control in manufacturing has meant that many of their more advanced weapons have dubious real world utility. Their large ships are generally a disaster, a complete waste of money (this is why they were buying assault ships from France).

  3. Cry Shop

    USA military power is just as great as it has ever been, if not greater. What’s changed is the traction it had in forcing alignment from partners who held very little cultural/common ground with the USA.

    Biggest factor in that loss of traction is that Russia (and to a lesser extent China) is not exporting revolution anymore. Both China and Russia engage in real politic with limited military power that makes them a far less threatening partner than the USA for any state that is willing to transfer some of the wealth to them that the USA formerly extracted (and usually these new players pay much better price with less interference). Even Vietnam, which has real historical reasons to be Sinophobic, probably fears China less than it does a US Government which attempts to subvert Vietnam’s economy through currency dependency. How so Russia, which is no threat to any of Vietnam’s interests.

    What constrains Russia’s power isn’t the military, but it’s relatively minuscule consumer market. Similarly, China’s trade protectionism for semi-finished and finished goods has constrained it’s ability to project power to those nations, like Australia, Argentina & Russia, which subsist primarily on raw material exports. China is in a better situation than Russia to change this situation and expand it’s power into Europe, though I doubt Xi is the man for it.

    1. fajensen

      What’s changed is the traction it had in forcing alignment from partners who held very little cultural/common ground with the USA.

      I’d claim that the alignment came not so much from US military might but rather from the US offering better terms – at least to “white countries”; plenty of brutal regime change and CIA skulduggery was applied on brown folks, still is, in fact.

      Now, it seems to the world that the US have become so bloated with it’s own military and perceived cultural/economic superiority that the US offers pretty much nothing in return to anyone, regardless of the favors asked. Everyone are treated as colonies and vassals, except perhaps a few leaders and decision makers (Or maybe it was always like that but now we got the Internet and we know).

      This state of affairs pisses people off.

      In addition, people are beginning to understand that what is applied to brown people abroad today can happen to them also tomorrow. That in the US world order, everyone who is not an American have no value compared to an American* and can be killed, tortured, disappeared with no consequences what so ever. Because fuck Nürenberg.

      Therefore, everyone else being in some way enemies of the US merely by belonging to another tribe than America, has realized that there is no good thing coming from aligning with America, sooner or later the “military option” or “the regime change” will come out and we will be knifed in the back. Those who can actively resist, those who have the option aligns with other powers, those who cannot do this, will drag their feet and try to avoid direct confrontation, maybe something will show up?

      Stupid, weak, nations like Denmark and Sweden go all in with 110% effort on the fantasy that they will be seen as good people with an American core, struggling to claw it’s way out, from inside their unworthy un-American bodies and therefore they will be protected – at least for a while*.

      Americans themselves are beginning to realize that anyone who isn’t rich & covered in lawyers can be fined, jailed or even killed right in the street by the police for basically nothing at all. This is beginning to grate on their understanding of their place in the pecking order. But, everyone still blame Whites, Latinos, Blacks, Feminists … identity politics works, keeps the contraption from falling off the road.

      This also shows why the silly idea of escape by being super-American will not work: Americans are treated like shit too.

      1. Colonel Smithers

        Thank you. I like your point about “stupid, weak nations”. French is my second language. English is my third. I watch French TV news most days and visit the place regularly, business and pleasure, and studied there. I am surprised, but may be should not be, at how American France has become / is becoming. Hollande and Sarko, who has American connections by way of his stepmother and half brothers, have made the country a poodle in a way that de Gaulle and Chirac would not. Most French people I know seem ok or indifferent to that. Part of that Americanisation seems to be the English / Americanised English forenames given to French children. I have observed that trend in (western) Germany and even francophone communities well away from the French mainland.

        1. Synoia

          I am reminded of a friend of mine in South Africa, who was somewhat older than s 20 years Olds.

          Adolf, my friend, was born before WW II, and the name was quite popular then. It became less popular of after WW II.

      2. OIFVet

        Bravo! Sorry but I can’t resists linking to an old comment of mine to reinforce the point about stupid and weak nations.

        And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the best example of what being a loyal US “ally” entails: corrupt local elites working against their country’s own best interests lest they become a target for a color revolution. Meanwhile their much-suffering subjects don’t know which way to turn to hide their collective embarrassment.

        1. BRUCE E. WOYCH

          More current samples for your file sir:
          Hungary: MP Questioned Over Fraud Allegations

          Published: Wednesday, 12 October 2016 12:31
          Ukrainian Top Officials Involved in Secret Offshore Deals
          Published: Tuesday, 04 October 2016 09:00
          by Graham Stack


          1. OIFVet

            My files are bulging to the bursting point. The latest fiasco in Colonia Bulgaria was the election of the new GenSec of the UN. Bulgaria had a leading candidate, until Merkel decided that she wanted Germany to play an outsized role in the UN, and bring EU politics into the UN. Disaster ensued:

            So the initial Bulgarian candidate Bokova looked like the ideal choice. Here was a chance for little old Bulgaria to shine on the world stage for the first time in over a millenium, possibly since the Bulgars burst out of Central Asia on horseback. Add this to the background context: it is unprecedented for a country to nominate a candidate officially, a front-runner no less, and then do a public switcheroo before the world’s eyes. But that’s exactly what Bulgaria did just a week ago. Bokova was dumped and Georgieva spooned up. Disaster ensued, as I predicted it would in previous columns .

            Bulgaria lost its once-in-a-millenium chance at shaping the world. As the record shows, Gutteres won.

            If Bulgaria were a normal healthy country, the Prime Minister would now resign and the government would fall. Because, it was the Prime Minister’s decision to switch candidates. He did so despite knowing that two-thirds of Bulgarian citizens preferred his first candidate. Boyko Borissov is his name, a deeply underachieving dull-witted schemer-survivor in the wooden tradition of the region. A short-fingered Bulgarian if ever there was one. He first came to the fore as the bodyguard of the last Bulgarian Communist leader. That should give you a clue to the man’s qualities. So why did Boyko ‘switch horses’? Why did he do it?

            Brutal, just brutal kick in the butt from the ally’s MSM. And that’s only one of many reactions. Because even the bosses don’t like grovelling toadies. They want to control them, but they will never invite them for an afternoon tea. Particularly a marionette whose mafia ties the Congressional Quarterly wrote about. Not that these organized crime ties are a disqualifier, if anything the US likes that because it makes Borissov easy to control.

            At least Merkel’s scheming and Bulgaria’s humiliation had an unexpected positive effect: Power and Churkin managed to put on a BFF act in front of the cameras and allied to get Gutteres elected as SecGen, while delivering a massive kick in Merkel’s ample backside. Takes some doing to get the US and Russia to not only see eye to eye on anything, but to also work in concert. Bravo!

            PS This also proves a historical truth: doing Germany’s bidding never ends well for Bulgaria. Or for any other nation.

            1. BRUCE E. WOYCH

              OIFVet (compliments) You may need a new file…
              Somewhere over / under the rainbow…
              (orchestrated social media unrest)
              By ALBERTO ARCE and DESMOND BUTLER and JACK GILLUM Apr. 4, 2014 4:25 AM EDT
              WASHINGTON (AP) — In July 2010

              White House denies ‘Cuban Twitter’ ZunZuneo programme was covert
              Paul Lewis and Dan Roberts in Washington
              Thursday 3 April 2014 14.26 EDT

  4. hemeantwell

    global scenario that the down-to-earth presidents of China and Russia seem to have in mind resembles the sort of balance of power that existed in Europe.

    The article floats away here. China and Russia might want to have something that “resembles” that time, but the analogy overlooks the fact that the relatively calm state of affairs — Franco-Prussian war? — on the European continent after Napoleon coexisted with savage colonial expansion. The forms of superexploitation thereby obtained did much to help stabilize Europe, even as competition for colonial lands became more and more destabilizing and were part of what led to WW1.

    Now we’re in a situation in which superexploitation options are largely gone. Routine profit generation has become difficult due to global productive overcapacity, leading to behavioral sinkish behavior like the US cannibalizing its public sector to feed capital. Since the late 19th century US foreign policy has been organized around the open markets mantra. It may be possible for the Chinese, with their greater options for economy manipulation, to avoid the crashes the US feared from lack of market access. But the current situation on its face does not have anything like the colonial escape valve available in the 19th century.


      Of course,duplicitous political COPORATISM means systems over a systemic characterized by marked or even intentional deception that is now sustained and even spearheaded by state systems. Many contemporary liberal idealists living in urban strongholds of market mediated comfort zones will not agree to assigning such strong description to an Obama administration. It is too distant and remote to assign accountability to global international finance and currency wars that have hegemonic hedge funds pumping and dumping crisis driven anarchy over global exploit (ruled by market capital fright / fight and flight). To the extent that colonialism or neocolonialism does not actually hold fixed boundary ground is irrelevant, since assets are more differential and flexible needing only corporate law to sustain strict boundaries on possession or instruments that convert to the same power over assets. No one, of course, wants to assess stocks and bonds as instruments of global oppression or exploitation that far exceeds 19th century’s crude colonial rule. Recall, however, how “joint stock” corporations first opened chartered exploit at global levels under East and West Trading power aggregates that were profit driven enter-prize. So in reality the current cross border market system of neoliberal globalization is, in fact, a stealth colonialism on steroids. TPP is part of that process in all its stealthy dimensions.

      1. BRUCE E. WOYCH

        (TPP In a Nutshell

        “The TPP is a corporate power grab, a 5,544-page document that was negotiated in secret by big corporations while Congress, the public, and unions were locked out.
        Multinationals like Google, Exxon, Monsanto, Goldman Sachs, UPS, FedEx, Apple, and Walmart are lobbying hard for it. Virtually every union in the U.S. opposes it. So do major environmental, senior, health, and consumer organizations.
        The TPP will mean fewer jobs and lower wages, higher prices for prescription drugs, the loss of regulations that protect our drinking water and food supply, and the loss of Internet freedom. It encourages privatization, undermines democracy, and will forbid many of the policies we need to combat climate change.”
        TTP & TTIP: Map Shows How Trade Deals Would Enable ‘Polluter Power-Grab’
        by Andrea Germanos
        The new, interactive tool ‘gives people a chance to see if toxic trade is in their own backyard’

    2. John Rose

      From a long range view, 19th Century compitition using black and brown property and lives was an improvement over battling face to face with neighbors. It was an expansion of tribal boundaries, somewhat.
      Now, few argue openly (except in presidential debates) against those boundaries encompassing brown and black members of the human race. We engage our ruthlessness less openly in covert operations, corporate predations and financial hegemony.
      Even awful behavior can be seen as an advance.

  5. Dead Squashed Kissinger

    This is very handy, thanks. However the conclusion stops short of what the SCO is saying and doing. They have no interest in an old-time balance of power. They want rule of law, a very different thing. Look at Putin’s Syria strategy: he actually complies with the UN Charter’s requirement to pursue pacific dispute resolution. That’s revolutionary. When CIA moles in Turkey shot that Russian jet down, the outcome was not battles and state-sponsored terror, as CIA expected. The outcome was support for Turkey’s sovereignty and rapprochement. Now when CIA starts fires you go to Russia to put them out.

    While China maintains its purist line on the legal principle of non-interference, it is increasingly vocal in urging the US to fulfill its human rights obligations. That will sound paradoxical because of intense US vilification of Chinese authoritarianism, but when you push for your economic and social rights here at home, China is in your corner. Here Russia is leading by example. They comply with the Paris Principles for institutionalized human rights protection under independent international oversight. The USA does not.

    When the USA goes the way of the USSR, we’ll be in good hands. The world will show us how developed countries work.


      “RULE OF LAW” up front and personal (again?)
      Now why would the USA be worried about global rule of law?
      An Interesting ideal. No country above the law.

      “…US President Barack Obama has vetoed a bill that would have allowed the families of the victims of the September 11, 2001, attacks to sue the government of Saudi Arabia.

      In a statement accompanying his veto message, Obama said on Friday he had
      “deep sympathy” for the 9/11 victims’ families and their desire to seek justice for
      their relatives.

      The president said, however, that the bill would be “detrimental to US national interests” and could lead to lawsuits against the US or American officials for actions taken by groups armed, trained or supported by the US.

      “If any of these litigants were to win judgements – based on foreign domestic laws as applied by foreign courts – they would begin to look to the assets of the US government held abroad to satisfy those judgments, with potentially serious financial consequences for the United States,” Obama said.”
      To the tune of “Moma said…” by The Shirelles –
      ….Oh don’t you know…Obama said they be days like this,
      …..they would be days like this Obama said…

      1. BRUCE E. WOYCH

        One interesting irony is that in Obama’s TPP “The worst part is an Investor-State Dispute Settlement provision, which allows a multinational corporation to sue to override any U.S. law, policy, or practice that it claims could limit its future profits.”
        “Though the Obama administration touts the pact’s labor and environmental protections, the official Labor Advisory Committee on the TPP strongly opposes
        it, arguing that these protections are largely unenforceable window dressing.”

  6. Braden Smith

    I think you’re overstating the Russian military advantage in Syria and Ukraine, while ignoring the real dysfunction in US foreign policy. Key policy thinkers at State and Defense still believe that it’s worth the time and effort for the US to project military influence in Syria. This is a policy position entirely driven by Israel’s existential concern over Iran. There are no substantial US interests in Syria right now. We aren’t actually fighting ISIS, because if we were, we would be targeting the foreign funding coming from Saudi Arabia and Qatar. As a consequence, if we simply withdrew from Syria, Russia would be left propping up a regime that would be fighting an ongoing insurgency against foreign jihadists. In other words, it would be wasting its time and resources on a pointless fight to build a state in the Middle East (sounds familiar). Russia is the one with a military base in Syria that they need to protect. Let them waste the time and energy defending their military assets.

    Instead, the US should be reducing its Middle East footprint and selectively engaging in key diplomatic efforts. The Saudis and the Gulf States are committed to fighting it out with Iran for Middle East influence. There’s no reason for us to pick sides in this fight. Let them engage in proxy wars without US military assistance and then, when the time is right, we can offer our role as a neutral broker and negotiate terms that actually benefit our strategic interests.

    The reason we can’t play this role in the region is because we are so myopically focused on policies that are pro-Israeli. Eliminate Israel’s interests from the calculations, and our policies would change dramatically.

    1. Mark P.

      @ Braden Smith –

      What you say is true as far as it goes. But you overlook one big factor in the U.S. strategic calculus, besides Israel. Why do you think, for instance, that Russia is, as you say, ‘propping up a regime that would be fighting an ongoing insurgency against foreign jihadists’?

      It’s because if the U.S. can ensure a big natural gas supply piped straight up from Syria to Europe, then it could end Germany and N. Europe’s current dependence on natural gas from Russia, together with the currency stream that the Russian economy gets from supplying that gas.

  7. NotSoSure

    It’s a good thing. The US has become that quote in The Dark Knight: “you die a hero or long live enough to become the villain.”

  8. Adams

    Great article and comments. Surprised there has been no speculation here about what HRC will do with the geopolitical hash created by neo-lib economics and neo-con foreign and military policies. We know what Obama did (not) do with what was really a political mandate. Certainly he has been constrained politically and, perhaps, personally (…shame what happened to those nice Kennedy boys, they had so much “promise.”) However, as has been ably pointed out in comments above, his actions where he was not constrained are the flag in the wind. You don’t have to be a weatherman….

    Hillary, of course, has already shown her colors. There will be no Nobel based on promises and high expectations. She will relentlessly pursue the PNAC programme and the “exceptional, essential nation” fantasy, contra the analysis above. You can take the girl out of the Goldwater, but you can’t take the Goldman out of the girl.All that glitters…..

  9. readerOfTeaLeaves

    Fascinating thread, thanks.
    I stream a lot of Korean dramas, and lately Chinese dramas have also been showing up in my video feeds; it is clear that Taiwan and China are trying to access eyeballs globally, as a means to gain soft power – and revenue.

    The earlier Chinese dramas seeking a global audience seemed shrill, melodramatic, and approximately the production quality of the old static BBC costume dramas of the 1970s. I found them unwatchable.

    However, China has recently put out something that is quite possibly a masterpiece of storytelling. “Nirvana in Fire” [NiF] is an epic story of betrayal, treachery, loyalty, and trust, with some incredible martial arts into the mix. NiF is described as the Chinese Game of Thrones. (I am unable to make a good comparison, as I have not watched GoT). However, I’d argue that NiF is every bit as good as the BBC’s brilliant “The Tudors” (2007, with Jonathon Rhys Meyers).

    I take NiF as a sign that despite what sounds like a hideous housing bubble, China’s cultural endeavors are developing at a level that is as outstanding as anything that any nation can produce. And in a world where the Internet seems to be morphing into a vast, global video distribution service (woohoo!!), that is no small thing. Judging from social media stats, it appears to be quite formidable.

    This new Silk Road is often spoken of as physical, and I do not take it lightly; nevertheless, the silkier threads are probably the telecom infrastructure carrying subtitled dramas to mobiles, desktops, and smart TVs around the world.
    From the wiki page: “The drama was a commercial and critical success, surpassing ten million views by its second day,[4] and receiving a total number of daily internet views on iQiyi of over 3.3 billion by the end of the series.[5][6] Nirvana in Fire was considered a social media phenomenon, generating 3.55 billion posts on Sina Weibo that praised its characters and story-line.”
    I searched for ‘Facebook posts on GoT’ but could not get any results that I trusted enough to include here. It’s a fair guess, however, they did not amount to 3,550,000,000 comments. Whoever gets to stream their dramas across Africa and S. America will develop a formidable ‘soft power’ resource.

    1. PlutoniumKun

      That series sounds very interesting, I must look for it.

      I think the Chinese are quite serious about using film and TV as soft power, but they face a paradox in that it is hard to promote quality drama while also indulging in heavy censorship. The Chinese are very good at using carrots and sticks to ‘tame’ artists – just look at how a formerly great film maker like Zhang Yimou has gone from making beautiful and subtle allegories about Chinese society to now just making big empty commercial epics which are little more than propaganda pieces. I doubt Chinese film makers will ever have the freedom to make the sort of challenging work that Korean film makers do all the time (Japanese film makers once did this too, but seem to have given up). But they probably have enough talent to make plenty of entertaining fantasy TV and film, but whether it will travel so well I’m not sure.

    2. NotSoSure

      LOL, I watched that drama too, and I’d agree. Most Chinese dramas are unwatchable, but as NiF showed, it’s not because there are no capable series makers, etc, because there are plenty of those in China. The problem is rather the producers for whatever reason think that local audiences are only interested in melodramas and idols dressed in ridiculous costumes.

      And please, NiF is better than GoT. I am a big fan of the books, and the TV series to me is laughable.

  10. sgt_doom

    I just find this difficult to believe that America’s diplomatic power is in decline.

    After all, is the great-grandson of what was once the top dope dealer on the planet, Francis Blackwell Forbes, now the SecState (that would be John “Forbes, Winthrop, Dudley” Kerry)?

    Color me confused . . .


    “In 2010, President Obama launched his “pivot to Asia” strategy to contain China’s rising power.”
    “China and Russia are now trying to ensure that Washington no longer exercises unrestrained power globally, as it did between 1992 and summer of 2008”
    (quoted from above text)
    In further support of these developments:

    Richard Javad Heydarian
    Will Duterte End Philippine Alliance with America?
    10/12/2016 06:00 pm

    “I am ready to not really break ties [with America] but we will open alliances with China and . . . Medvedev [Russia],” the Philippines’ firebrand leader Rodrigo Duterte recently exclaimed. “I will open up the Philippines for them to do business, alliances of trade and commerce.”
    “”In a matter of months, the Philippines has jumped from likening China to Nazi Germany to flirting with the idea of an alliance with it. Astonishingly, Manila and Beijing are currently negotiating a twenty-five-year bilateral military agreement, allowing Manila to purchase Chinese weapons. By all measures, this is geopolitical drama on steroids.”
    “By dangling the Beijing and Moscow cards, Duterte, in a Cold War-style fashion, is trying to signal his independence from Washington.”


    One subsequent thought about this pacific ridge political altercation in process:

    It demonstrates that the Pacific Ridge is also drifting away from the old guard American
    “Sphere of Influence” directives that had dominated policy directives internally while “containment” occupied the overt channels externally. More importantly, it is immediate confirmation that the article is on the mark.

    I personally would not have “titled” this article as American “decline” since efforts and exported influences are stronger than ever, even if they are now more under concerted contest and new confederating challenges.
    Instead, and I think more accurately, I would have called this a process of diminishing returns against the provoked emergent and concerted tide of contentions.
    Under that perspective the “spheres of influence” are in fluctuation diametrically related to the contraction on containment pressures being orchestrated and forcing alliances that reshape new “evoked potentials” on the power grid. Therein is the distinction between internal and external formation(s).

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