Friday, September 29, 2017

North Korea, Washington, and the end of US empire

While we were walking the Camino, I got persistent questions from friends watching President Blunderbuss heating up tensions with North Korea (and Iran, and everyone else with half a glimmer in the wide world), "why aren't we in the streets screaming against this madness?"

Returning to the unhappy USofA seems to mean I can no longer dodge thinking about this.

Serious people, including that wise historian of things vital and military Thomas Ricks, pictured here on tour promoting his book Churchill and Orwell, opine that there is a 50/50 chance of war with North Korea, a war that would almost certainly be nuclear. Oh shit, another generation has to live under the threat of fiery annihilation as mine did in the Fifties.

The usual campaigners for peace are making the usual appeals to Congress, but this does not seem equal to the horror of the prospect. The Orange Cheeto gives us unending white supremacist distractions; Congressional GOPers continue their crusade to transfer the nation's wealth to plutocratic sponsors; and most of us just try to get along.

But also, I don't think either the peace movement, or the left, or the Democratic politicians who dissidents are stuck with as a vehicle for influence in Washington, are ready to articulate the central reality that makes war so likely at present: US empire, US hegemony, is over. Cemented in place in 1945 when World War II had flattened the rest of the world, US pre-eminence has been eroding for decades. (Many of us knew this during the Vietnam war.) But mainstream US politics has never quite found a way to deal up front and honestly with this reality. So for all the handwringing over Trump and Korea, there's hardly any mainstream debate about how this powerful country should act as a force among many in a plural world.

Obama certainly had a glimmer about this, though like all of them, he couldn't allow himself to articulate clearly that the current object of US foreign policy has to be to manage the decline of empire. He was willing to suggest some US adventures were "dumb wars"; he knew his efforts at power projection would be undercut by too many dead US soldiers, so he favored drones and spooks over troop commitments; he generally eschewed loud displays of imperial dominance.

Since we mostly lack even language to talk about this, I was heartened to read a smart article by Jeet Heer that lays out Democratic pols' tongue-tied inertia over the country's stance in the world. The entirety is a good survey of the situation and highlights Bernie Sanders' attempt to find ground that mainstream Democrats might join him in.

Sanders’s recent foreign policy speech, notably in its strong defense of the Iran nuclear deal, was a careful attempt to claim Obama’s legacy by arguing for a liberal internationalist approach of alliance-building to solving the world’s problems. The central theme of the speech was the need to re-conceptualize foreign policy not just as a matter of military policy. “Here is the bottom line: In my view, the United States must seek partnerships not just between governments, but between peoples,” Sanders argued. “A sensible and effective foreign policy recognizes that our safety and welfare is bound up with the safety and welfare of others around the world.”

I'm no across-the-board Sanders fan (too often he reminds me of thousands of old white lefty men who never understood why women and people of color and queers might have different priorities) but if he can drive Democrats in this direction, he is serving the country well.

2 comments:

Michael Strickland said...

Great to have you and your writing back. Just read a short, fascinating article by Fintan O'Toole in the NY Review of Books called "Brexit's Irish Question" which looked at the travails of England, a majority of whose deluded inhabitants want to be both nativist and an empire at the same time, which doesn't work so well. Your remarks make me realize that the United States is in a similar spot, except we can annihilate the globe with just a stupid mistake.

Michael Strickland said...

Oh, and here's a link to the article online:

http://www.nybooks.com/articles/2017/09/28/brexits-irish-question/

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