Resistance Radio: Alfred McCoy on Empire, Part Two

Featured image: Demonstration against TTIP. Sebastian Heidelberger, creative commons licence

Editor’s note: This is the second part an edited transcript of Derrick Jensen’s December 10, 2017 Resistance Radio interview with Alfred McCoy. Read Part One here. McCoy’s first book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (New York, 1972), sparked controversy when the CIA tried to block publication. But after three English editions and translation into nine foreign languages, this study is now regarded as the “classic” work on the global drug traffic. His more recent cover on covert operations, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror explores the agency’s half-century history of psychological torture. A film based in part on that book, “Taxi to the Darkside,” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2008.

His most recent book, In the Shadow of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, focuses on the key instruments in its exercise of this hegemony, including geopolitical dominion, control of subordinate states, covert operations, worldwide surveillance, torture, and military technology. The work concludes by analyzing China’s challenge and the complex of forces that will likely lead to an eclipse of U.S. hegemony by 2030.

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DJ: Let’s talk about the American response and the question of some commonalities of the response to empires on the decline of their own power, if you could fit those two together.

AM: First of all the American response. This is where the White House actually matters. You can make an argument that the Presidency doesn’t make that much difference in the fabric of American life, but when it comes to foreign policy, and particularly military power; the presidency matters. The man in charge makes a difference. Because you’ve got the economic apparatus, the diplomacy, the military, all of these concerted forces arrayed at the fingertips of a single person.

Under the Obama administration: Obama was what I call a geopolitical genius. He’s one of three Americans in the past 120 years who understood geopolitics and knew how to play it. Obama sensed the nature of the Chinese challenge, and he came up with an explicit strategy to counter it, a three-fold strategy. First of all, he realized that the logic of the Chinese infrastructure and their big new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, was basically to make sure that the trade of the Eurasian landmass was heading towards China. Obama countered that very deftly. He negotiated, mostly in the course of his second term in office, two international trade pacts. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, with a dozen nations who together account for about 40% of world trade. He also launched negotiations for another pact called the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP, with the European Union, that controlled about another 20% of trade.

Through these two trade pacts, Obama had the idea of draining the world island the life blood of commerce. China could build its railroads and its pipelines to its heart’s content, but if Obama’s plans had gone through, these preferential trade pacts would have diverted the trade from Asia, the Pacific, and Europe, across the Atlantic, across the Pacific towards the United States.

The second part of Obama’s strategy was that because of the energy independence of the United States through fracking and the Canadian oil boom, we no longer needed Middle Eastern oil. He felt that we were energy-self-sufficient, and indeed we’re going to start exporting pretty soon. He said basically “We’re going to pull our surplus forces out of the Middle East where we don’t really have any real interests anymore, and we’re going to shift them to rebuild the U.S. position on the axial end of Eurasia” along that Pacific island chain from Japan through South Korea down to the Philippines and Australia.

He went to Australia in 2011 and announced what was called the Pivot to Asia. He then arranged for a U.S. Marine battalion to be based at Darwin along with some Navy vessels, giving the United States ready access to the South China Sea through the Indonesian archipelago. His diplomats negotiated the right of U.S. forces to position equipment and have ready access to five Philippine bases in the South China Sea, renewing that long but now fated strategic alliance. He worked with South Korea to build a new base at Jeju and he renewed the strategic alliance with Japan. He got Japan to back the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to the hilt. And by the time Obama left office, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was running into trouble, but it still had a chance of passing. The European treaty ran into the populism in Europe, which was rising very strongly. That was going to have a much more problematic passage.

The other part of Obama’s strategy was his major Africa diplomatic initiative. He had a summit meeting for about 50 African leaders. He made a major Presidential visit to Africa, which was not the sentimental journey that people imagined, but serious diplomacy. He was hoping to use diplomacy to get African nations to redirect their trade and investment toward the United States. So he had a systematic strategy.

President Trump intuited the pillars of U.S. power and began attacking them systematically in a kind of demolition job with almost a kind of unerring instinct, a malign design, if you will. In his first week in office, despite the pleas of Japan’s Prime Minister by phone call and personal visit to Trump Tower, Trump canceled the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Prime Minister Abe of Japan said “This is a serious mistake, because China has its own regional cooperation pact with 16 members, that’s going to capture all the trade. So if you don’t have the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China’s going to direct all that trade towards it. You’ll lose out.” Trump didn’t pay any attention, he went ahead with that.

The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was already fading before Obama left office. The other thing that Trump has done is he’s systematically damaged our relationship with all of the four pillars underlying those axial ends of the Eurasian landmass. When he made his visit to NATO in May of this year, he refused to defend the mutual defense clause in NATO. Without that clause, there is no NATO. It was a major blow. Then we have the transcript of his first presidential phone call with the Prime Minister of Australia, in which Trump says it’s the worst phone call he’s ever had and slams the phone down. That accelerated the alienation of the Australian people away from the United States and towards a primary alliance with China.

We have the transcript of his presidential phone call last April with President Duterte of the Philippines. Trump’s calling up about the North Korean missile launches. It’s a very interesting transcript and it has a significance that nobody realized. Trump says “Kim Jong Un’s a real problem” and Duterte says “I’m going to call China.” President Trump says “Look, I got two nuclear subs right in the area. Very powerful subs.” Duterte says “I’m going to call China.”

And Trump says “You know, we got 20 times the bombs of North Korea.” President Duterte says “I’m going to call China.” It’s very clear. The Philippines is gone. The Philippines has moved into China’s orbit. That treaty for access to the five bases in the Philippines is basically a dead piece of paper.

Trump systematically attacked Korean history and politics, alienating Korea, so that the current President of South Korea, President Moon Jae-in, ran on a campaign slogan of “Say No to America.” I think that in the fullness of time, the tensions in the Korean peninsula are going to play out in a way that the U.S. bilateral pacts of both Korea and Japan are going to be very seriously diminished. I don’t know if they’ll become dead letters, but very pretty close to it.

Through his inept leadership on the global stage, Trump is accelerating the decline of the U.S. geopolitical position. He’s undercutting those axial ends of Eurasia that have been the pillars of U.S. geopolitical power for the past 70 years.

DJ: What are some commonalities of the end of empire that we can see manifesting in the U.S.?

AM: Empires decline through a complex series of processes. First of all, the numbers. The trade, the military dominance, the technological primacy that a rising empire has at its start, is inevitably eroded over time as other powers acquire similar skills, or they become more vital and newer economies. So the long-term trends are for any empire, at some point, they start to head downward. When the power is fading, the elites of a society who’ve enjoyed this kind of psychological sense of empowerment and dominion — the masters of the globe, the titans astride the planet – get irrational. They then can conduct military operations that are called by historians “micro-militarism.” The prime example is the United Kingdom. In the mid-1950’s, the United Kingdom had full employment, had dug themselves out of the rubble from the bombing of World War II. They had organized a systematic and very disciplined liquidation of their empire. They were giving up, through negotiations, political control over India, Malaya, etc. They were retaining the substance of their trade and investment as they negotiated their way out of colonial rule. It looked like Britain, in the mid-1950s, was on a path of comparative decline, but it was carefully managed, it was a slow decline that was leaving Britain in a pretty good position economically and diplomatically.

Then came Sir Anthony Eden in the Conservative Party. Somehow, the process of losing empire produced a psychological crisis. So when Gamal Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, the British Conservative Party collectively reacted in an irrational fury. They secretly plotted with the French and the Israelis to launch the massive Suez invasion, concealing this operation from the United States, Britain’s prime ally: 300,000 troops, six aircraft carriers, and the Israeli Army launched itself across Sinai. They occupied half the Canal before the operation began to fall apart diplomatically. The British pound in Britain couldn’t sustain this operation. It was the global reserve currency and it began to lose value. The first bailout by the IMF was not done for Mexico or some impoverished third world country. It was done for Britain in the aftermath of Suez. That’s where the bailout came from. Because the world’s global reserve currency was trembling at the brink of collapse.

Suddenly Britain went from the mighty imperial lion to kind of a toothless tiger that would now roll over when America cracked the whip. And that all happened in the space of a month, through this micro-military invasion. Clearly, leaders can accelerate the decline of imperial power. Leaders that are reacting irrationally, that are brash and bold and kind of thunder and trumpet, laying claim to power that’s slipping away from them. In doing so, they actually accelerate the loss of power.

If there were ever a Sir Anthony Eden figure to take over the United States government, that would be Donald Trump. And the micro-military disaster can occur in the South China Sea, in the Korean peninsula, or somewhere in the Middle East. It awaits us. In fact, there are those who would argue 30 years from now, that America’s real micro-military disaster was the Iraq invasion of 2003. That was the same thing. American conservatives feeling a loss of U.S. global power, decided on a bold military strike. Capture Baghdad; build a massive embassy, the Green Zone; insert the U.S. in the heart of the Middle East; unleash the tides of democracy and capitalism. Break down these kind of socialist autocracies and bring the Middle East firmly into the American camp. Didn’t quite work out. Proved to be closer to Suez than a brilliant imperial coup.

So that pathology of power that’s so rational when the empire’s on the ascent, becomes dangerously irrational when an empire’s in decline.

DJ: Leaving off the sort of immorality of having an empire in the first place, and acting in the self-interest of the imperial power in decline, how would you see a reasoned and rational response to a decline of empire playing out? What would those at the center of empire do if they were continuing to act in their imperial self-interest and perceiving the decline? How would they age gracefully?

AM: First of all, we not talking about colonies anymore. We’re talking about the U.S., what’s known in the rubric as an informal empire, where we don’t actually control the sovereignty of nation-states. Back in the heyday of the British empire, a quarter of the globe, both population and territory, were British colonies, painted red on the map. But another quarter of the globe were part of the British informal empire. From the 1820’s to the 1890’s that included Latin America. At one point it included Egypt, Iran, and China. So there was another quarter of humanity that was in the British informal empire.

The U.S. iteration of empire looks like that British informal empire. The 190+ sovereign states of the world all have presidents and prime ministers, they have sacrosanct boundaries and national sovereignty. And yet, the United States exercises hegemony over them. The U.S. empire has overtones like the British.

Now, the question is not “whether empire.” It’s what kind of empire are you going to have? You take Professor Niall Ferguson’s point, that there have been 69 major empires over the last 4000 years of human history. The possibility of the next 100 years being without an empire seems pretty remote. Think back to one of the great events that shaped the world we live in: World War II. That was a clash between two powers: the British empire – Churchill was very proud, he didn’t talk about Britain, he talked about the British empire, – and the U.S. as an ascendant imperial power on one side. And there were the Axis powers on the other. Hitler had the largest control over Europe, a continental empire. Even larger, through his allies, than Napoleon. And the Japanese empire, if you count the population, through their conquest of China and Southeast Asia, and their occupation of Korea and Taiwan, had in terms of population the largest empire in human history.

So World War II was a clash of empires. Personally, I think most of us would agree that it’s probably a good idea that the British empire and the American hegemony defeated the Axis empires Japan and Germany. Because they didn’t offer much except exploitation of the subject peoples to benefit the metropole.

The U.S. empire has not only had its dark chapters, as every empire does, but we’ve been a distinctive empire in several ways. One of them has been that at the peak of our power, right after World War II, when the world was in ruins and rival industrial powers were heavily damaged, we had something like 50% of the world’s industrial production under our control. The United States presided over the construction of a new international order: The United Nations. Then they established the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was the predecessor of the World Trade Organization. They created the instruments for the management of the global economy; the IMF and the World Bank.

The United States also believed in the rule of law. There was an international court that was linked to the United Nations, and instead of lining up the defeated heads of the Axis empires, the Germans and the Japanese, and just shooting them, or throwing them into some prison island, the United States conducted tribunals at Nuremberg and Tokyo. Those established, admittedly somewhat problematically but nonetheless established certain international rules of law. The Nuremberg Medical Code, for example.

This was an international order, grounded in the idea of inviolable national sovereignty. Every nation was sovereign. Second, nations did not conduct their affairs via conflict and war but by the rule of international law. Third, that there were human rights, and the object of this international order was to realize the human potential, the liberation of every individual. Though we all can list, chapter and verse, all the times we failed our own values, nonetheless, those values stand. So it’s important to have a kind of slow, managed transition, so that even as U.S. global power fades, that liberal international order that we built up at the peak of our power survives us.

That’s I think the troubling part of China’s rise. Because China does not stand for those principles.

DJ: What we can do to maintain these efforts toward human rights in the decline of the U.S. empire?

AM: I think that one of the most positive signs that we saw was when President Trump imposed his initial ban on travel from predominantly Muslim nations. That looked very clearly like a betrayal of the Constitutional protection of religious liberty, and furthermore a betrayal of the part of the mission of the U.N.:  to deal with refugees. There’s a U.N. High Commission for Refugees. It manages what happens when people leave their state and they’re in the kind of limbo between states. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees moves in and does human rights work, provides food, clothing, shelter, education; and ultimately tries to get other states to take in people that have left their own state. This is a very important part of the maintenance of international order. In many ways, it’s the realization of the belief in human rights. We manifest it, we prove it by the way we treat those that are within the International order, who are stateless.

President Trump was challenging that very important international principle, imposing that Muslim ban and keeping the refugees out. This is triumphant nationalism: in his endless talks about sovereignty at the U.N. he undercuts the international community of nations, the rule of law, and the commitment to human rights. Sovereignty and boundaries transcends all. So there are Americans fighting that: hundreds of thousands of people across the country turned up at airports, lawyers came out and sat in the arrivals lounge with their laptops, filing appeals on behalf of people that were in INS holding behind the Customs barrier. That sort of popular outpouring in the United States represented a very deep commitment from a certain sector, I think a majority of the American people, to these principles and ideals. I think it’s important to keep up that kind of activity to defend these principles.

Sometimes our small actions, fighting for a refugee to get a visa, seems very small, just one individual or family. But it has profound implications for the principles of the U.S. liberal international order.

Then there is the resistance against some of the more excessive moves by the Trump administration. People who are fighting the wall, for example, which is a visible symbol of the closed nation-state, nationalism above all else. There are all kinds of manifestations of opposition to Trump that are ongoing. And that’s important, because whether consciously or unconsciously, all of the impacts upon the liberal international order.

DJ: I understand what you’re saying about the importance of resistance to Trump. That makes sense. With an ascendant Chinese imperial form, how does one maintain those human rights associated with the United States internationally? How does one extend that across the world?

AM: In very real terms, there was a lot of popular opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nobody liked the secret arbitration tribunals that were going to be created by it. The Obama administration argued that in fact labor rights, environmental protections were inbuilt in the treaty far more than any other trade treaty. So there was a heavy debate on that issue. But basically, progressives joined nationalists and conservatives in an attack on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And at the time, when we were titans standing astride the globe, with our power seemingly unchallenged, I don’t think people realized what was at stake. That 40% of world trade was at stake. And that if we gave it up it would go to China.

So the issue on the left, and even on the right was just “stop the TPP.” People were unaware of the implications of what would happen when you did that. That it would represent a kind of retreat of the United States from international trade. It would weaken our relationships with those 11 other nations, which were critical trade and strategic partners for the United States.

People looked just at the domestic side of the equation, and they didn’t realize the very important international implications. I would argue that, on balance, a kind of liberal response, maybe a centrist response to the TPP should not have been “stop it.” It should have been “Reform it, revise it.”

There will be other treaties like that. Something will come again, it has to. Because another administration is going to realize that China is capturing all this trade through these preferential agreements, and there will be a revival of these negotiations.

At that point I would say that we should have learned our lesson from the TPP. That popular forces should go in eyes wide open, realizing the trade-offs. You want to reform it, you want to revise it, you want to get the best deal possible, but if you kill it, China’s going to capture the trade and they are not concerned about the environment or the working conditions of workers. There will be no protections in the Chinese trade pacts. So if you’re concerned about the people in Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and in the future, Burma, who are going to be working in those factories, producing goods for export; better that they’re in an American trade pact with sensitivity to those kinds of environmental and human rights and labor protections, than in a Chinese trade pact where it’s all realpolitik cash and carry, and the Chinese don’t care about those conditions.

I think we’re going to miss the American liberal international order, now that it’s fading and disappearing. We are going to come to appreciate it. We know its excesses to a fare thee well: manipulations of elections, torture, abortive wars, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the rest. But there’s the other side. The principles we stood for, and the international community we tried to build. We’re going to miss American hegemony as it fades away. We are going to miss the international rule of law, the environmental protection, the human rights, the community of nations that the U.S. has constructed. For that reason, it’s very important to realize the stakes, and to campaign in a way so that we manage this transition to a more multipolar world carefully and cautiously.

 

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