By Jonathan Power
It might seem that the world is going to pot in a hand-basket. Not quite true. There are ways out. Asia has shown how to deal with the Coronavirus and how to stay politically stable. Europe, except for wise Sweden, has muddled along, following belatedly the conventional wisdom of its scientific community. As for the United States, President Donald Trump has made a fool of himself and his country, ending up with the highest death rate in the world.
No longer can the West rely on the US to be its leader. Even if Trump is deposed in the November election, the Europeans, the Canadians and Japanese should not let it return to being treated as number one.
It is too beholden to the military/legislative/industrial/academic complex. The consensus appears to be that confronting China and Russia is the right thing to do. The Coronavirus has shown up how badly the health establishment treats lower-income people. The country seems incapable of dealing with the poverty of the poorest, and its income distribution worsens by the decade.
These views and activities preceded Trump and they aren’t going to go away. He has merely made the situation worse. Why should the West any longer choose America to be its leader? Its priorities, practices and concerns are not the rest of the West’s.
If Joe Biden becomes president, he is likely to keep his promise to be tough with Russia and China, perhaps even tougher. Europe would be foolhardily to follow American policy any longer on this policy. Actually, it was never a good idea that America dominated the world.
The US has a record of inflating military threats that goes right back to Fidel Castro’s Cuba in the 1960s. It poured money into countering imagined enemies, or enemies it created with its political wilfulness. Think of Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Central America, Granada, Angola, Panama, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Iran and Somalia.
A report published on April 27 by the respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute showed that today the US is driving the global growth in military spending. For all the accusations that Trump is in the pocket of President Vladimir Putin, Trump raised military spending by over 5% last year to an astronomical 732 billion US dollars. This accounts for 38% of the world total.
In comparison, Russia spends 65 billion and China 261 billion. Superiority in arms has become an end in itself. Trump has shown no interest in reducing nuclear armaments.
On the plus side America has given a good amount of money and effort to deal with the AIDS pandemic, population growth and UN peacekeeping and, before Trump came to power, climate change. But the amounts spent on these are small compared with expenditure on the military. US-charged capitalism has presided over a world where the wealthiest 1% of the world’s population has steadily climbed, whereas that of the bottom 50% has stagnated. The US military consumes more oil and produces more greenhouse gases than any other institution in the world.
The US has to demilitarize its foreign policy. It’s made a mess of Afghanistan, although one must admit that the Soviet Union and the British did before. After America’s longest war it should get out. A transition is as useless as it was in Vietnam. Likewise, it should get out of Iraq and eastern Syria. Fighting only disturbs what political equilibrium there is, supports repression and often enough kills the innocent.
Every country and region must find its own balance of power on its own. Only then will these countries become responsible adults. This is what happened once the fighting was over in Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, El Salvador, Panama and Angola.
North Korea remains a more complex problem. Here one must support Trump’s early attempts to find a way out of the imbroglio. From the time of Bill Clinton onwards negotiated agreements with the North were not honoured by the US as a Republican controlled Senate either refused to let them go forward or seriously amended them.
This created a political vacuum which North Korea filled by eventually building a nuclear bomb and subsequently creating an arsenal. Now the US has to face the fact the horse has already bolted and all it can do is to limit the damage.
At the beginning of his term Trump worked with China to find a way out of the impasse. But since then, despite a good start in China relations, Trump has alienated China with the way he has fought over trade matters, and now with his attacks on China over its role in dealing with the Corona virus. Not clever. But is Biden going to repair the damage in its relationship with China? Judging from what he is saying, it is unlikely.
The US under a Biden government needs to quickly return to the agreement made with Iran by Obama that limited its nuclear research activity. There should be no extra demands as some Democrats are suggesting.
The US must downgrade its relations with Saudi Arabia. With oil costing zero dollars, Saudi Arabia is on its back. The country is led by a murderer. Let it suffer. Its people, likewise, in Egypt, have to find their own way out.
Finally, two questions. For what reason would Russia ever threaten NATO countries? A majority of Western historians believe Stalin never had an urge to take over parts of Western Europe, so why should Putin?
In what other way is Russia a threat? Syria? A country of only 17 million people in a world of 7.7 billion. Let’s keep things in proportion. Where else? There may be “little green men” in Ukraine, but it is not the might of the Russian military by any means.
For what reason would China challenge the US? Over the last 1000 years, China has never been an expansionist power. Its occupation of the offshore island may be questionable, but a US military presence doesn’t solve anything. Pull the aircraft carriers and spy planes away, and China would then perhaps be more amenable to neutral adjudication.
Taiwan has to find its way to make a balanced relationship with Beijing. It has many of the cards. Its scientists, engineers and computer industry more or less powered the Chinese technological take-off. Does China really want to take over a sullen and uncooperative nation?
The unipolar strategy does not work. The Coronavirus in America is like a bird taken down the mine to test the air. The US has become airless, a spent star, and it needs first and foremost to look after itself-– its often counterproductive foreign policy, its poverty, its third rate health services, its misdistribution of income, its irresponsible policy on climate change and the environment and, right now, to save the economy and to save those most hurt by the Coronavirus crisis.
The US needs to use the money from its military budget to fashion weapons to deal with these problems. Gradually the US may become an acceptable leading nation again in a multi-polar world, as it was for a handful of years when the Cold War ended. But there is little sign of it now.
*Note: Copyright Jonathan Power. Website: www.jonathanpowerjournalist.com. The writer was for 17 years a foreign affairs columnist and commentator for the International Herald Tribune.