One of the GODFATHER’s most dramatic episodes is the ‘Day of the Long Knives.’ Michael executes a plan to liquidate all of the Corleone family’s enemies. Everybody from Barzini and Tattaglia to Moe Green and Carlo is eliminated in orchestrated acts of ruthless violence. The Corleone family then bestrode the criminal world – in unchallenged command.
There is a rough parallel to be drawn between that crescendo of murderous strikes in all directions and the United States’ current confrontations across the globe with foes big and small. Washington is simultaneously provoking mano a mano duels with multiple rivals. One is the faceoff with Russia whose epicenter is Ukraine while its scope is all of Europe – and its repercussions world-wide. At the same time, it chooses to raise tensions between the US and China to the boiling point by initiating a series of provocative moves that constitute a project to promote Taiwan independence. In the Middle East, it pulls the rug from under the negotiations with Iran and a possible revival of the JCPOA while building an avowedly anti-Iranian alliance with Israel, Saudi Arabia and the UAE. India, too, is placed on the Washington blacklist because of its refusal to obey commands that it join the sanctions war against Russia (going so far as directly to issue reprimands to Mumbai port authorities threatening penalties – by-passing Delhi). All of these hostile actions are accompanied by personal insults and offensive language.
The main difference between Michael Corleone’s all-out war and the American hegemonists’ flailing about is that the former was guided by a strategic plan with well-defined set of objectives. Washington’s storm of blows and threats demonstrates neither. It more closely resembles the tantrum of a juvenile filled with uncontrollable anger.
However, it is not entirely powerful emotions alone that are driving the United States. The hegemonists who now control Washington’s foreign policy are indeed passionate about retaining American global supremacy. That means stymying all challengers and, when necessary, taking coercive measures designed to isolate and to subdue them. So, each policy initiative is not impulsive or random. They all derive logically from that overarching ambition. Let’s look at Ukraine from this perspective.
On the surface, it would appear that the Biden administration is in a dilemma. For it has ruled out any negotiation with the Russians that might include territorial concessions and formal stipulation of Ukraine’s demilitarization and neutrality. At the same time, the U.S. and its allies – along with the Zelensky government propped up by ultra-national factions and needled by NATO – assert unequivocally that the fight must go on to clear the country of Russian occupation right back to the 2014 borders. The latter is a military impossibly as is recognized privately by nearly all parties. Given the irreconcilability of those two givens, what do officials in Washington plan to do, hope to achieve?
Evidence is mounting that irresolution itself is their objective. American leaders want the war to continue. That means to feed more and more lethal arms to the Ukrainians; it means trying to enforce ever more restrictive sanctions against 3rd parties who, until now, have refused to play along (India, Indonesia, Brazil, even Saudi Arabia that buys cheap Russian oil at a discount and then resells it on the spot market as Saudi crude at elevated prices); it means demanding that its European allies and Asians who together form the Collective West go further in breaking commercial ties with Russia and blacklisting Chinese businesses deemed close to Russian enterprises. So long as the U.S. can keep enough Ukrainian soldiers upright and able to shoot, they believe that Russia’s strength can be drained away as in Afghanistan. From this perspective, they could be content with Russian forces on the Dnieper, the Donbass and adjacent areas annexed, so long as the fighting goes on.
Harassment by what remains of the Ukrainian army and nationalist militia would be given the necessary support. Setting aside a host of doubts about Ukrainian resilience, depleted Western arms stocks, and a parlous popular support base in Western Ukraine, what about likely retaliatory measures from Moscow? Already, Gazprom is gradually twisting the dial counter-clockwise. The most drastic step would be a complete, sudden shut-off of all natural gas deliveries to Europe along with an embargo on other critical natural resources. That would plunge America’s allies into deep recession, perhaps a prolonged depression. The harsh truth, though, is that the dominant elites in Washington assess that concern as subordinate to its grand plan for gravely weakening the Sino-Russian bloc. To put it bluntly, they feel that the U.S. owes its allies no special consideration since it is America that is leading the epic, historic battle of civilizations wherein the stake is paramountcy of the Collective West.
Paradoxically, that view has been given its most succinct, unvarnished expression by two prominent Europeans. A couple of weeks ago, Josep Borrell – the Catalonian who is the EU’s Commissioner for External Relations – admonished European leaders whom he accused of dragging their feet on plans for further sanctions in placing their selfish national interests before the overriding collective interest of bringing Putin to heal.“Many diplomats are more concerned with their own national interests than punishing Russia with economic sanctions for attacking Ukraine.” His counterpart at NATO, Secretary General of NATO Jen Stoltenberg, in a similar vein, fulminated at the assembled European Parliament that they had a sacred obligation to loosen the purse strings so as to ‘pay for the support, pay for the humanitarian aid, pay the consequences of the economic sanctions, because the alternative is to pay a much higher price later on.”
The American economy, too, would be hurt by a global recession. But less severely and possessing a greater capacity for a domestically sustained recovery. Moreover, Washington politicos are confident that they can continue to bamboozle the public with the circuses, happenings, political slapstick and narcissistic distractions that have worked so well until now in tempering popular protests of serial policy failures of equal magnitude – at home as well as abroad.
As far as the European allies are involved, Washington’ foreign policymakers know from long experience that government leaders there have neither the courage nor the conviction to resist American pressure. They are psychologically incapable of anything other than submission. The current crop of European leaders responds to whatever the U.S. is pressing them to do by standing at attention as soon as they are alerted to an upcoming command or visit from a White House bigwig.
The psychology of the dominant-subordinate trans-Atlantic relationship is multiform. For it is not (and never been) a straightforward matter of the stronger/more forceful partner imposing itself on the weaker. However we might characterize the post-war years, these days an explanation that references mainly the unequal military capabilities doesn’t carry us very far below the surface of things. After all, we are 75 years beyond WW II, 30 years beyond the Colds War’s end and the demise of the Soviet Union, well past the era of towering American superiority in manufacturing and commerce, and at a rough par on the standard-of-living scale.
So, one seeking understanding must look at the mindset of each side. Europe’s dependency syndrome has been discussed – briefly here, at greater length as well as in other commentaries. What as to the American political elite’s attitudes toward its European partners, the West Europeans in particular?
Perhaps the central truth is that those who manage Washington’s external relations are moved by crude calculations of utility – not sentiment or some vague sense of a values community. They look at Europe primarily in terms of what governments there can do to advance American ends and purposes: promote and sustain global hegemony; compensate the U.S. by accepting its economic privileges and claims to primacy – ‘the indispensable nation.’
Otherwise, the politico-military-economic alliance is an ever-ready Swiss Army knife from which Washington can extract whatever it needs for any particular project. Advice and counsel are not among them. American leaders themselves legitimize this unequal relationship by the premise of America’s inborn superiority and exceptionalism.
In recent years, that inflated self-image has co-existed with a creeping sense of diminishing prowess and increasing vulnerability. That generates a free-floating current of apprehension. As with individuals who experience something similar, that mood does not lead to reflection and a sober examination of oneself, one’s status, one’s aims and purposes. Quite the opposite. It tends to make leaders more compulsive in doing things that confirm the correctness of that idealized national. Goals expand rather than reined in, the risk calculus becomes more audacious, self-assertion sheds restraint. Tests of prowess are sought – whether posed by dragons or salamanders. The outcome is that the United States’ ambition and actions in the world these days are defined, and driven, by a combination of seemingly opposing emotional sets. Therefore, it is singularly incapable of fine differentiations and nuanced actions.
Regarding allies/partnerships, the cavalier assumption of command and obedience actually gains strength – as now evident in respect to Ukraine, to Russia, and China. One manifestation of the resulting concern about demonstrating prowess is the self-conscious emphasis on appearances of fortitude. Seeming to play it safe contradicts the core principle of compensatory masculinity: never show weakness – toward foe or friend. In this state of mind, regard for the welfare of the Europeans, as seriously jeopardized by the all-out economic war being conducted against Beijing as well as Moscow, barely figures in Washington’s policy equation. This near total lack of empathy is a hallmark of a narcissistic personality. In a sense, collective America – especially its elites – has acquired a narcissistic personality.
Once they launch a self-interested enterprise (and, for the narcissist, every enterprise is self-interested), they immediately become so single-minded, so obsessive as to disregard totally the interests of others. There may well be some sense of this discomforting reality in the Kremlin or even Beijing. There is none is Western capitals. For European leaders are utterly lacking in the perceptiveness, in the self-awareness, in the political cum diplomatic skills required to confront the full dimensions of their predicament. If they don’t respect themselves enough to make independent judgments that affect the well-being of their citizens, they will not be respected by American leaders – or the Russian and Chinese either.
European leaders are among the last true believers in the vision of ‘America the transcendent’ – part history, part myth – that Americans themselves are devoutly faithful to. That is the United States born against history, parting itself from the autocracy, the hierarchy and the games of power politics that were the hallmarks of the Old World. It no longer lives up to that exalted standard of enlightened progress, of justice, of generosity, of the world’s main producer of public goods. Americans are largely oblivious to how wide a gap has opened between that ideal and the grubbier reality of how it conducts its foreign relations. Their faith is genuine, not hypocritical in terms of a knowing deception – for the most part. Objectively, though, behavior speaks for itself – as do the perceptions of others.
Washington’s policy elites themselves are more calculating. Promotion of the old, idealized image is used as an instrument of influence. Think of the supposed commitment to the democratic cause and to serving as the champion of Human Rights. The latter has been deployed effectively against China in the contrived campaign of painting the PRC as the black hat in the duel for global supremacy. Washington unrelentingly has been stigmatizing China as beyond the pale of civil international society, inherently immoral. Democracies vs autocracies; free societies against regimented societies. Advocates of a “rule-based international system” vs self-interested mavericks and outlaws. A titanic contest that will shape the world system of the future. To the extent that these formulations are accepted, they constitute the success of ‘soft power.’ Success is being limited by its contradiction with realities, though. Example: the self -described rule-based United States has broken, abrogated, violated more treaties and agreements since 2000 than any other state by a wide margin.
The compulsion with which the country has launched itself along this path carries the further liability of a diminished ability to learn from experience. We are now engaged in a no-holds-barred campaign to undercut the Chinese economy – confident that America will come out the winner. Thus, at the very moment that the debacle of the economic war against Russia has invalidated every assumption about the West’s holding the stronger hand, Washington escalates its confrontation with China. The fault is exacerbated by relying on economic analyses that are either professionally incompetent or disingenuous in telling senior officials what they evidently want to hear. Compulsion is the enemy of sober, reasoned foreign policy. The absence of such sobriety courts disastrous failure.
How does the juxtaposition apply to Saudi Arabia, the Gulf states, Egypt, Turkey, Chad, Brazil under Bolsonaro, Honduras or Guatemala? In terms of external behavior, how does it apply to the unprovoked, illegitimate invasion/occupation of Iraq, to Abu Ghraib/Guantanamo and other ‘black sites,’ to kidnapping/rendition of foreign nationals abroad with no semblance of due process, to the tacit alliance with al-Nusra cum al-Qaeda in Syria, to crucial accomplice in the mass killings of Yemenis, to the Maidan coup, to the attempted coups in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Nicaragua? How can the reputation for civic decency in the U.S. itself be reconciled with the treatment of immigrants that uses family separation and the abusive detention of children as instruments of deterrence, with the record of police criminality, with an inequitable judicial system, with a vast, intrusive surveillance network operated as a public-private partnership that routinely skirts the law, with comprehensive, arbitrary censorship of all social media by commercial corporations, with kidnapping/rendition/torture of foreign national abroad – and with January 6?
The practical implications of these disparities are three-fold. First, they are widening a division between the countries of the Collective West (includes Japan, South Korea, ANZUS) who remain loyal to a self-regarding America, on the one side, and the rest of the nations on the other – not a single one of whom has subscribed to Washington’s call for crippling sanctions on Russia. That will advance the steady weakening of American influence – forcing it to rely more and more on coercive means to work its will. Second, it will be more likely to find itself in situations roughly similar to either the one in Ukraine or the one over Taiwan wherein Washington’s presumption of a right to act with impunity and to dictate outcomes leave it faced with impossible choices between humiliation and tempting wars that it doesn’t actually want to fight. Third, America’s self-doubts and anxiety will sharpen to the point where it could seek resolution by tempting fate in high-risk actions.
So, Americans seem to be marching in lock-step across a minefield as on a quest to retrieve a sacred Covenant conferring on them the overlordship of planet Earth that they believe is their birthright. Almost no one of influence realizes that that only thing real in this imaginary world are the mines. Those few who do echo their calls of alarm in a wilderness far removed from where the country’s destiny is being decided.