THE PLAGUE OF MANIFEST DESTINY & 'AMERICA FIRST'

Any thought that 2018 was to be just another year for further disappointing human affairs has been retreating in the face of the growing realisation of the wider implications of the election of Donald Trump to a unique authority in the world. Could there perhaps be something better - or perhaps even worse on the horizon - than this apparent event of national self-harm, with a capacity for international disaster, barely yet understood? 

The single strongest support for this latter view is that there seems in public consciousness, a heightening awareness of the predicament in which the human race now finds itself, in terms of its overall governance. But that generality has long been obvious to some. It might even be true to say that the world of 2018 and its immediate future -‘facing both the rocks’, in terms of leadership … and ‘a hard place’, of globally dissatisfied political entities – the USA itself showing its deep divisions in the Trump election and the European Union struggling with Brexit,’ has come to look like the reality, dominated by a great looming climate of uncertainty –and lack of direction in world affairs – almost across the board.

The world is now and has been over the year since the Trump election, steeped politically in one of its most shambolic, less coherent phases in history. But it is not just uncertainty that dominates. Inadvertently, partly because of its relatively good experience of US leadership back since WWII, the world situation has taken a most dangerous turn.

It was simply that in the immediate post-communist world from 1990-1,with US leadership in the long Cold War, conclusively confirmed and successfully accomplished, Russian communism, terminated by Russians themselves, and with China ‘looming,’ not yet having taken an international role, the leading western players in the r-o-w acquiesced ‘informally’ many years ago, to continuing the ‘de facto’ US leadership since the Cold War, in many, even most, world policy areas, whilst at that time fully expecting this to broadly be benign, yet still muscular. Thus, on this issue and the many that stemmed from it, the 350 year old Westphalian manner of achieving settlements between ‘nation states’, was discarded informally, whilst US leadership became, de facto, paramount.

Indeed for quite a long period the US hegemony that largely replaced what had gone before, can be said to have been benign - although no-one would expect Vietnam or some other SE Asian states to endorse that view. But as US power has grown -the stimulus was always the outside threat - the US president’s constitutional position in the nation that elected him has come to include some mechanisms from other sovereign states, absolute powers, that filters upward to the very summit in Washington DC within the US and tends to have spread amongst the US’s allies –the most obvious and necessary being military alliances. These, already established, took a leap forward during the two- term presidency of George. W. Bush when there was, for the first time, before the Iraq invasion, a serious infiltration of doctrinaire ‘neocons’ into the US State Department and other higher reaches, which has never gone away. But this did ‘change the game’ with a different view of the US government’s executive power and reach which led internally to such ‘extensions’ as Guantanamo, the special prison outside of the United States’ constitutional authority, by-passing the Congress (and US Court challenges), similarly such as the president’s authorization of torture, and emboldened a conception of ‘universal’ relevance and validity that has been held to justify the arbitrary use of power to impose the national will. 

This is altogether a view that Trump, according to everything we know about him, must find appealing to his fundamental instincts – those of the ‘absolutist’ business chief executive, rather than the statesman, quick to reach for and use such epithets as, “ “Don’t waste my time,” “Do it,” or even, “You’re fired!” His behaviour from his long business life and revelations from that; his 1st year in office, his pronouncements on race, immigrants, women even, show him to be thuggish, prejudiced and a sociopath. Not the man whose finger should ever be anywhere close to a nuclear button, but there in the White House he is immovable and short of an unlikely impeachment, impregnable for at least for another three years. 

As C in C, with little if anything in the way of checks and balances, particularly when the Congress is dominated by the same political party as the presidency, the office wields supreme military power and also heads the nation’s political power, as manifested in the Congress and the Supreme Court. The Presidency carries not only this rare authority, but includes great powers of one to one sponsorship, indeed extra-constitutional ‘proprietorship,’ which long ago spilled over into expecting to have a conclusive voice over the wider world of international banking and finance. The presidency’s formal powers over human affairs in the USA and heading up various alliances in the West, quite clearly makes his the most authoritative voice on earth – with limits that have perhaps never been tested. 

In this context, observe the words of a much milder predecessor, George W Bush;

”There seems no doubt that US presidents on the whole believe that they have a divine mission and are answerable to a God in whom many people simply do not believe, or if he/she /it does, do not think is relevant”.

Amongst other notable presidents, before George W. we had President Wilson telling a journo that he believed God had chosen the United States “to show the way to the nations of the world, how they shall walk in the paths of liberty”. Elsewhere Wilson said, “that World War I would be the war that would end all war, producing permanent peace, by no plan of our conceiving, but by the hand of God, who led us into this way.” such claims surpassed historical possibility, but they subsequently became integral to the vocabulary and ambition of American national politics and are probably not only widely accepted by many Americans, but given a lot of traction by its political leaders. Whatever else, the US political scene is studded with populist groups which purport to be primarily religious, with whom many politicians publicly empathise, which have a surprising degree of ‘clout’ in political matters – a dangerous combination for the 21st Century.

That post-cold war non-negotiated confirmation of ‘de facto’ transfer of leadership powers, most obviously military leadership through NATO and other pan-geographic alliances, was achieved, ‘eyes fully open,’ not because the US necessarily demanded, although they expected it, but by a bruised world, at this turning point in world history, from about the time of the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990’’s and yet it is only now many years later, even ‘though only a year since Trump was actually elected, that the world needs to face up to what it has done, or failed to do. 

In short –to have given an unprecedented level of authority without time limits, beyond the remit of the US government into the potentially dangerous territory of confrontation. 

There is and remains the illusion of a wide spread of control in the ordering of world affairs, probably because of the deceptive notion that ‘there ought to be’! Nation states are still operating as before, some new ones have emerged. Emperors may be wearing no clothes – whilst others, ducking and weaving, remain just about upright whilst much else is falling apart. The other world grouping than the US’ being in these times a traditional bulwark of political stability, Europe and the EU, is engrossed in wrestling with the UK, one of its most senior members who for 18 months have been illogically pursuing a policy of economic self-destruct and quittance from the EU, based on concepts, it seems derived from largely doctrinaire material from the neocon playbook.

There is now a degree of internationalist concern as to ‘direction’ in world affairs: political, military, economic; other than the momentum involved. Newspapers, radio and TV current affairs are as ever, stuffed full of ‘news’ ‘though much of it not necessarily more than ‘claque opinion’ relating to events and often reflecting the particular editorial bias associated with proprietorship. There is movement, but not a lot of positive action. Except… except, that is not quite universal. Some entities are pursuing rational courses, whilst others are flailing around, partly now in response to the breath taking in their implications, changes that have taken place in WDC. 

It can reasonably be argued that the lack of continuity in policies and strategies in western democracy, as dramatically exhibited in the recent elections in the USA, cannot fit into any global pattern with forms of government - other than democratic –but given the realpolitik, how can this be challenged, where is the World HQ that serves up the subtle transfers of power de facto, to the US President? Hardly the UN, whose advent caused such hope for the world in the dark days of WWII. 

The UN has long been mastered by its most powerful members and its potential muscle used only as they determine. It has a significant Assembly which does allow the member nations an outlet, their chance to give their sadly ‘puny judgements,’ a worldwide airing. It has several agencies some unique and of the very highest quality and has many dedicated people that are capable of rising above the narrow interests of their nation state, for which purpose member states have their permanent ambassadors and teams, the senior ones of which are the fixers. 

The UN is essential but it does not act as ‘the HQ of the world’ and the idea that it could in any way contain the behaviour of its most powerful member the US, or its President, is not sustainable. Year One of The Trump Presidency saw some fundamental shifts in relationships between the ‘US friendly’ nations and itself. Trump pulling out of the TTIP designed to support the open trading system that the US had itself created. Trump’s ambiguous support for the rule of law has been manifested by his criticism of close allies and failure to defend the values of a shared democracy. It has been said that by 2017 there was a realisation that its generally applauded values –described in such documents as the pre-amble to the UN Charter - were not favoured by Trump and co. 

The fundamental divide that has emerged in year one is that Trump has completely reversed the course of US trade policy and seemingly has expected free-world friends of the US to likewise tear up those deeply instilled concepts of free trade –along which the US had previously led them - and go the Trump route, since that is what he has decided is currently right for the USA 

What has happened, in fact, partly because his attitudes and persona have so conflicted US allies, that they are not interested in reversing and overturning their trading philosophies and existing practices, in favour of a selective system predicated on what that might mean for jobs in America. 

The bounce-back of 'the TTIP 11' is a parting of the ways. This will clearly over time, confuse Trump loyalists mostly in the US and it remains to be seen how he will respond, considering that his policy focus is now entirely on that of the US and he is not himself celebrated for his subtlety. 

He has said that his first action in office was to order the modernisation and upgrade of the US nuclear armoury, which he claims has now been accomplished. But it is in the general ‘retreat from Asia’ - the withdrawal from TTIP where the seeds of future trouble have already been sown, once he had determined that the US’s and his own interests now lay in reducing US trade with China, and in the world-wide trade that had so recently been the touchstone of pivoting to Asia. It was of course noted from Davos, that he talked confusingly and in a different light on Free Trade, to his previous exclusion of the USA from this, given his election promises but few will rejoice at these ambiguities.

By contrast today China radiates confidence, partly due to its rapid growth and military modernisation, but perhaps also as to what it sees as the United States’ decline.

Now whilst the US has pulled back from the TTIP and its implications of concentrating on its former mantra of free trade, there has been a military initiative, again dating from the Obama era, of an association of southern hemisphere nations from the ‘Quad’’ countries of the –‘Indo Pacific’ –Australia, India and Japan and the US is clearly pointing out the direction it wishes this bloc to take. It is much more than a variation, more indeed of a different direction.

Our concerns are, given the nature of Trump, how this clear distinction will play over the next few years –Trump’s 1st term! With such a self- absorbed leader, ruling through a Republican Congress, in which disappointingly very few elected members seem prepared to take individual viewpoints, it is unsurprising that the White House is substantially getting all its own way, although that may not last. Fear of the mid-term elections could cause that to go either way. 

The intervening years since the Cold War say since 1991, have enormously consolidated the leadership position of the US. Now holding over a thousand military bases outside US territory, girdling the earth. (why so vast an expansion?) Also the US has alone, before its alliances, by far more military strength, than any other nation or combination of powers on earth, with such advanced weapons developed, and in development, the specification against esoteric threats specialists say, which could have no relevance to any other nation or combination of nations, or perceived enemies generally, unless an invasion from Mars were imminent. 

For purposes of perspective, a great illustrative example of the changes right now, could be to compare the US with China, looked at from a European perspective. The Asian giant appears to be progressing rationally and not provoking internationally, anything other than economic competition and with growing influence, enlarging its role in a world where so many nations look for that kind of leadership - as witness the line-up for the Transformed TTIP excluding the US.  But now handed down a vacuum on where the US policy stands, on what were so recently ‘articles of faith ‘by the US and ‘the Donald.’ (see this issue’s article on the Transformed TTIP).

The burning issue of course is that in the USA, executive government by rational politicians, advised by respected professionals, meanwhile has descended , in the 2016 election, into the nation becoming subject to a bizarre, irrational personality cult of a president, with all the awesome powers of the USA, convincingly elected as the successful combined nominee of the US’s two most extreme electoral economic groups; the first, tiny yet the richest in the nation, a hardly unselfish group that for generations has been driven by politically prioritising the exclusion of taxes from the often inherited fortunes won by their forbears, generally known as the ‘richest 1%’ of the entire US population (and much of the world).

This combined in the elections of 2016, with a mass element of the US population that has suffered the full fallout of the collapse of the ‘rustbelt industries’. The ‘1%’ are already the quick winners, since the Republican Congress controlled by their nominees, could and did simply change the nation’s tax and spending laws, appoint their chosen supreme court justices, and can now achieve the ‘required’ boost in personal fortunes, politically concerned only with the 2nd term elections. 

This, whilst the many millions of Americans often described as ‘middleclass,’ displaced over past years, from the long and valid expectation of growing incomes after accompanying growing output with industrial ‘efficiencies’, currently remain swept away by new and superior efficiencies, made possible by the new machines – robots, against whom eventually human repetitive skills are inevitably less efficient. This is not just a marker of change. It logically results in mass-manufacturing and the mid-20th c mass employment that brought that about, floundering in the stew of contradictions newly created, all of which amount to massive uncertainty. But call it ‘America First’ and it has changed perceptions of the game, worldwide.

The international political situation is, as always, complex. The US regretfully does not feel it can leave some of the issues alone, including that for which it had no familiarity at all in which it has been substantially bruised, such as Afghanistan and Iraq, where western military expeditions have not enjoyed any convincing success, dominated as it by the highly complex religious dispute – many centuries old between the two main branches of the Islamic religion, Sunni and Shia that have their ‘birthplace’ in the middle-east. For 16 years, following the great hurt of 9/11, the US has maintained armies in remote, central Asian Afghanistan and substantial forces in the Gulf to dominate the region. Although from the outset claiming that they were not there as nation-builders, that is in fact the role, partly due to the de facto vacuum of civil power that the US has sought to establish and play there. And they are not enjoying the upper hand in the unceasing civil wars, particularly Afghanistan.

Many observers would say that they are in a no-win predicament there, but amongst other things, US military prestige is involved. The US having been attacked in 9/11 by al Qaeda terrorists with its high command headquartered in Afghanistan, the subsequent invasion by the US with Nato allies, became inevitable once the Afghan ‘Taleban’ government refused to expel their fellow religionists, al Qaeda. Afghanistan, not unusually, was already in a state of civil war- mainly tribalists –v- the religious reformers, the Taleban (co-religionists but in their case uncompromising adherents of particular interpretations of how life must be lived in their country, where to not conform is to invite death). All these years later it still is. It grinds on! Now the latest Islamic terror org, ISIS is present and active – and ‘in competition’ with al Qaeda.

Whilst keen and continuing involvement in Afghanistan was inevitable –after 3000 New Yorkers were killed by the al Qaeda terror group that destroyed NY’S 'Twin Towers’ in Manhattan, finally the US ‘caught up with its revenge ’ and killed the al Qaeda leader, Obama bin Laden. At that point they could have declared ‘mission accomplished’ and withdrawn, military honour intact. But they did not…. 

The case in respect of the invasion and war against Iraq had its roots in the feeling high up in the neocon- influenced WDC, that it was necessary following 9/11 for its home audience, to demonstrate the US’s strength more widely in the region to ‘the towel-heads,’ as the arabs were crudely and colloquially being called at the time. There in Iraq, although in no way involved with 9/11 the US departed from justifiable civilised ‘norms’ by mounting an invasion, accusing it of developing nuclear weaponry, which in fact was never established and almost certainly should be regarded as untrue. Thereafter the US became fully and unjustifiably involved in mid-east politics –a major problem in a highly alien situation for any western non- moslem power, which continues intrusively to seek to ordain events involving Sunni Arabs - Saudi Arabia particularly, and its clients, particularly its ‘extreme’ Wahhabi sect of the Sunni Islamic faith, which seems happily locked into its 17th C understanding with the al Saudi royal family, and with other hereditary Gulf powers. 

That has now brought a new conflict to the region. Trump has backed Saudi Arabia as well of course as the constant interests of Israel, in effectively threatening the large and ancient nation of IRAN, itself subject to a religious government, but which is not in contention with the nations of the West. Early in his administration Trump threatened Iran, noted by observers including ourselves, as a potential victim if Trump decided it was opportune to demonstrate the US’s formidable military clout. Iran is unlikely to ‘roll over’ but It is no pushover and earlier successfully fought off Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, armed unofficially by the US and financed by the Gulf States, in a terrible, bloody eight year war. 

Whatever else, Saudi Arabia often through financing, via its many fabulously rich royal princes seeking religious approval, has led the charge against the substantial Shi’ite presence in the middle east, whose ultimate authority is to be found in neighbouring Iran. In Syria they supported numerous rebel fighter groups raised by the call of jihad, from many nations of the world, many individuals still there, to take part in seeking the destruction of Syria’s Shiite government under the rule of the Assad family, which failed. Turkey, next door to Syria, also supported secular anti- Assad fighters – and still do, but they are engaged in their own power games which has led to another and ongoing military breakout from Turkey into northern Syria. Obama when campaigning for the presidency promised to withdraw US ground forces from middle -east adventures and largely did so, but the US contributed US airforce resources very effectively against the lethal ISIS. Trump seems destined to seek to interfere, even though that menace is largely defeated, unmoved by the fact that the ‘US has no dog in this fight.’ 

Nationalist Iran and Saudi rivalry with Iran is comparatively recent –Saudi wasn’t a nation state until the earlier 20th C. The Saudi clan was however important in the southern Arabian peninsula for centuries, with oil transforming its existence with important US sponsorship – it was US oilmen that discovered Saudi oil and helped found the state. 

The nationalist quarrel with Iran is between neighbours, one of the world’s oldest nations with a culture to match (see Iran editorial this issue) – and the petro- kingdom, the newest kid on the block with long pockets for buying western arms. Thus the US has become immersed in the affairs of the mid-east, partly it must be added, because of its domestic interest in the future of Israel, yet it has taken sides, in what appears to be one of the most intransigent and backward regions of the world. There is little to encourage belief that the US can somehow stand above any such quarrels and rivalry. It remains a high risk area for the world as a whole; and Trump based on everything observed and known about him, is just not trusted to deal equitably, in this role as ‘unofficial leader’ of the World’. 

The story, one year after Trump’s victory, is now of a wide global division with those bigger players many of whom have their own key approach to world trade. 

The Donald HAS DECREED that from here on in, this ‘free trade’ shall be governed by a mantra of isolationism , as required by his US election promises, whilst much of the rest of the world having been encouraged down that route by former US governments, are already embarked on classic free trade. The split has come. It has already been noted that, “the president can say whatever he wants, but the way this is being perceived is as a pullback of American influence” (the Center for Strategic and International Studies).

With a bully in charge of the US’s decisions, how long can it be before serious breaches in relationships occur? Does the world now bend its knee to the present incumbent of the White House? He has distanced himself from his predecessors by statements and actions relating to immigration into the USA, his contempt manifest for certain nations: “shithole nations.” 

Hitherto the US, unchallenged leader in modern times amongst nation-state economies, has halted its previous headlong rush towards growth through its policies of international trade treaties, carefully put together over recent generations with all the traditional arguments for free trade. The most spectacular upset to this in recent times, ’though by no means alone, has been this repudiation of the TPP involving serious partner- nation states and with its many years of build-up, primarily aimed at Asia. Whatever else this proposed deal was to have achieved, it would have boosted even further US dominance over the world economy. The TTIP (see accompanying article, this issue) had two important strategic objectives; one to consolidate Asian trade with the US and the west, an enormously ambitious programme in itself. The second was to stabilise the political balance which many of the Asian Pacific powers feared as being ‘tilted’ by China’s dominating presence. That’s now gone out of the window. 

The US’s walking away from ten and more years negotiations, must appear to be like a complete abdication of power and influence to the nations that slogged away, making the TTIP possible during the Obama years. 

For the world at large, international politics are obviously tightly interwoven with their economies. It can hardly be otherwise and in this context, the world is now bemused by what is the role of our most powerful nation. 

Following the globally changing events of world wars 1 and 2 and the trial of strength between new revolutionary emerging powers and those long established pillars of more stable states, the lessons were learned that leadership was essential but also that this could only become possible in organising mutually vital powers to nation states, by a collegiate process- hence the rationale for the United Nations. The problems didn’t stop coming and the less capable were carried along by their more responsible and able members. 

Back in the 1940’s and at war, the USA had decided to depart from its self-chosen pre-war obscurity following WWII and had produced the stimulus for the UN and the World Bank and IMF. It had demonstrated its foresight, and also it’s generosity to former foes, via Marshall Aid. The cold war was still firmly in place. The US stood resolute against soviet empire building, based on the ruins of post- war Europe. It persuaded Japan, amongst the most militaristic of nations, to travel the road of peace. It no longer tried to turn back, along with the Europeans, to plunder China, once that lumbering giant had decided on its own way forward. The era of empire had finished as a route to the future, calling off the ‘military dogs’ of warlords and indeed European ‘re-colonisers,’ after ‘Suez’, which military adventurism by the UK, France and Israel, it slapped down firmly. 

Europeans in particular began to feel that the US had become unique, in that it had enabled the vital outcome of the defeat of fascists and communists to become the vital bulwark against dictatorships and tyrants- the free world’s natural leader beyond dispute, a role that none of the others could fill. 

Thus the US easily slipped into the role that its mature and experienced leaders had been glad to call ‘manifest destiny’ a quasi-religious understanding that pleased their home audience that the US did lead the world, ‘that it was intended to do so,’ and that it had consolidated its massive military dominance for the good of the wider world as well as of itself- but that it would be wholesome and it would be recognised to be so. 

So looming over all else in world events was the recognition that the US was now justifiably the first ever ‘de facto’ leader of the world, and would generally see the rules for the future put into place on the basis of democratic possibilities. 

But looking objectively we still see one dominant power with 1000 military bases outside the territorial USA, world-wide, 'girdling the earth'. We see an untried president threatening war against an established ancient nation Iran, for no good reason. That same President’ s White House policy unit is, the NYT tells us, working on expanding the rules governing the purpose - the rules of engagement, for the US’s stock of nuclear warfare materials. There is no international curb other than public opinion, that can control ultimate weapons use in war. Those who saw it only as the most effective of potential deterrents against nuclear attack, which it remains (see North Korea), have no power other than the capability of retaliation, to stop the US and by extension any other nuclear power, from using this frightful weapon for any military purpose they choose. 

Specifically when the issues don’t suit the USA, in theory at any rate, this President can unilaterally change that. As for economic world leadership that currently the US holds also, that in itself with the new doctrine of ‘America First,’ at what point might militarism be inserted into the context of trade – note the somewhat menacing ‘China Seas’ debates of the late Obama period. 

Instead, all these years later it looks as though there is likely to be an acceleration of this role as a reaction towards China, who appear to be peacefully continuing its policies of growth in civil competition.

In itself that is remarkable, but such is the relationship between economic growth and international political leadership, that it can fairly be said that the US’s unquestioned power in the world may not remain paramount. This is particularly affected by the fact that the US’ chief executive, their 45th president, is by now infamous for decisions, attitudes and actions in relation to his chosen ‘enemies,’ perceived by events in the past.

So long the subliminal fear of ultimate war had kept the lid on international violence, so that religious and civil strife have generally been contained regionally, with the casus belli confined to specific issues, well understood by the participants. Nothing could more dramatise that than the throwback to the continuing wars of Islam, mostly in the middle east, but now spreading in Africa and Central Asia, even western China, where a resurgent Islam is fighting back against both material progress and colonialism, seeing it as a diversion from holy writ. 

Whilst progress in these matters can be asserted, even if in fits and starts, it can be seen over the centuries that economic competences in industrialisation introduced a ready and high priority military engineering capacity which still powerfully manifests itself. Traditional inherited leadership in the advanced nations led their ambitions, at home and abroad, into military domination reaching its apogee at the end of WWII where the logical outcome, ultimate weaponry arrived to dominate that scene. This is weaponry - chemical, nuclear, viral and with delivery systems that cannot be guaranteed to be impervious to any known form of interdiction. Suddenly in the mid 20th C this was the new reality emerging before WWII was finished, that has changed the inevitable escalation in the scale of warfare. But it has not affected the causes. 

Back in September 2014 newnations issued an article ‘The War to end all Wars’.  It was a wry attempt to look BACK at when this was first promoted during WWI with its promise of being just that - the war to end all wars` - and how it fetched up. 
 
A century since WWI experiencing the worst, most costly wars that the world has ever seen including the two twentieth C world wars, the concept of nuclear and other ultimate weapons has faded, largely through their perceived unusability. With perhaps ten ‘nuclear weapons powers’, already one war Iraq, was fought, it was claimed ,to interdict their usage, from which carnage it emerged there weren’t any nuclear weapons there at all - the casus belli! 

‘A little more circumspection is being displayed by owners of such systems, but as has recently been dramatically been shown in N.Korea, the ownership of such technology and hardware makes a nation uniquely protected - since its best defence thereafter is the threat of unacceptable reprisals on the aggressor. It could be said that N.Korea has now achieved its ‘hands-off’ objective rendering it ‘un-invadable’.

What next awaits us? 

Clive Lindley