The dream of global hegemony

Print edition : September 20, 2013

February 4, 1945: British Prime Minister Winston Chruchill, U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin during the Yalta Conference towards the end of the Second World War. Photo: AP

Two books, written from opposite viewpoints, help one better understand the forces at play today in America’s dealings on the global stage.

A COUNTRY’S foreign policy is shaped by its notion of its place in the world and by its image of the world order. Europe, a predominant player in the global order, twice committed suicide in the last century when its powerful nations went to war, needlessly and with lasting consequences. The United States intervened in both wars. But, while in 1919 it decided to turn its back on Europe, in 1945 it decided to stay on and impose its hegemony.

Charles de Gaulle, a great French nationalist, European and a realist to the core, recognised as early as in the summer of 1944, even as war was raging, that President Roosevelt was aiming for U.S. hegemony in the post-War world (Geoffrey Warner’s essay “Franklin D. Roosevelt and the post-War world” in David Duncan (ed.), Statecraft and Diplomacy in the Twentieth Century, Liverpool University Press, 1995, pages 155-156).

Zbigniew Brzezinski remarks: “Roosevelt’s highly principled opposition to colonialism did not prevent him from pursuing an acquisitive U.S. policy determined to gain a lucrative position for America in the key oil-producing Middle Eastern [West Asian] countries. In 1943, President Roosevelt not so subtly told Britain’s ambassador to the United States, Lord Halifax, while pointing at a map of the Middle East, that ‘Persian oil is yours. We share the oil of Iraq and Kuwait. As for Saudi Arabian oil, it’s ours.’” But he would not let two of Europe’s most powerful leaders enter into a similar pact about their own continent. He sabotaged the Churchill-Stalin Percentages Agreement, in Moscow on October 8, 1944, on Eastern Europe on the dishonest ground that he was opposed to spheres of interest. Winston Churchill revealed the details in 1954 in the last volume of his war memo. Churchill meekly complied, hoping to resume the dialogue with Joseph Stalin later. But he toed the American line, meanwhile, under the farcical banner of “a special relationship”, which Americans ridicule. De Gaulle retained his goal and sought to build a global order with France as an equal partner or a European order in accord with the Soviet Union.

The brutal methods that Stalin used to impose his version of “friendly states” on the borders of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) and, indeed, within his own country should not blind one to the fact that 80 per cent of German battle casualties were suffered on the Eastern Front. “Without this contribution, it would have been impossible for the West to defeat Hitler…. The Red Army, paradoxically, played a crucial part in saving Western Democracy” (David Wedgwood Benn, “Russian Historians Defend the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact 1939”, International Affairs, 2011, pages 709-715).

With the Soviet Union having suffered 16 million casualties in the war, including eight million deaths, not to forget Anglo-French attempts to make peace with Hitler, it is hard to blame Stalin for seeking some territorial gains to ensure a secure frontier. Matters did not end there. Russia was cheated twice over after the collapse of the USSR in December 1991.

NATO expansion

The U.S. and West Germany secured Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev’s consent to the reunification of Germany on the clear understanding that the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) would not expand eastwards. This was arranged in talks in Moscow between U.S. Secretary of State James Baker III and Gorbachev on February 9, 1990, and between Gorbachev and German Chancellor Helmut Kohl the next day. Much of the tension between the U.S. and Russia today is due to the U.S. reneging on that understanding. St Petersburg was once roughly 1,200 miles (1,920 kilometres) away from the edge of NATO but is now less than 100 miles (160 km) away thanks to the enlistment of Estonia.

As in 1945, so in 1992, the U.S. treated victory as a step towards fully achieving “the American Dream”. The Cold War was governed by NSC-68 of 1948, the U.S. National Security Council’s document on “containment” of the USSR. In 1992, a paper of much wider import cropped up, which Patrick E. Tyler reported in The New York Times of March 8, 1992. The headline summed up the thesis: “U.S. Strategy Plan Calls for Insuring No Rivals Develop”. On May 15, 2006, The Washington Post disclosed a top-secret “Interim Global Strike Order” directing the military to assume and maintain a readiness to attack hostile countries, with nuclear arms if necessary.

This is “the story of the pursuit of unrivalled American power” as James Mann aptly calls it, Cold War triumphalism in excelsis. It led the U.S. to attack Afghanistan instead of responding to the Taliban’s offers of talks; invade Iraq; forcibly remove Muammar Qaddafi after he had agreed to shed the nuclear option; and go after Syria to the delight of the Taliban and the Salafists. Four countries of the Third World have been laid waste. North Korea cannot be touched because it has nuclear weapons. Iran’s overtures for talks are ignored. The United Nations has been emasculated completely.

The arrogance percolates downwards. The New York Times columnist Ross Douthat calls Egypt “a bought-and-paid-for (and Israel friendly)” country which is the U.S.’ “client”. India, no one can call a “client” OF ANY POWER. But India’s leverage is much more limited than what “a group of self-styled ‘experts’”, as The Economist called them, imagine.

The two books under review, written from opposite viewpoints, help one better understand the forces at play today. Not that this understanding will instil wisdom, given the culture of ad hoc knee-jerk reactions. Contrast this with the practice of China’s leadership. “The Chinese leaders have made efforts to anticipate problems, and even to study jointly pertinent foreign experience in tackling the unavoidable complications of domestic policy successes. (In quite a remarkable exercise, the Chinese politburo periodically convenes to study for a whole day some major external or internal issue in order to draw relevant foreign and historical parallels. The very first session dealt, rather revealingly, with the lessons to be learned from the rise and fall of foreign empires, with the most recent identified as being the American.) The current generation of leaders, no longer revolutionaries or innovators themselves, has thus matured in an established political setting in which the major issues of national policy have been set on a long-term course.”

This is high praise coming as it does from Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former U.S. National Security Adviser in the Jimmy Carter Administration. A certified hawk, he persuaded Carter to create Moscow’s “own Vietnam war”. He said in an interview with the Paris weekly Le Nouvel Observateur (January 15-21, 1998): “The reality, secretly guarded until now, [is that] it was 3 July 1979 that President Carter signed the first directive for secret aid to the opponents of the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul. And that very day, I wrote a note to the President in which I explained to him that in my opinion this aid was going to induce a Soviet military intervention…. We didn’t push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would.” The U.S. in a sense provoked Soviet intervention in Afghanistan.

William Pfaff is one of the most insightful writers on international affairs. The International Herald Tribune closed his column because of his opposition to the U.S.’ invasion of Iraq, which its new owner, The New York Times company, resented.

In retirement, Brzezinski has mellowed, but he remains convinced that stories of America’s decline are exaggerated and that the U.S. can still perform as the world’s sheriff. “A stable global order ultimately depends on America’s ability to renew itself and to act wisely as the promoter and guarantor of a revitalised West and as the balancer and conciliator of a rising new East” (italics here in the original).

He is realistic enough to accept the need for change though not at the price of American supremacy. The book seeks to respond to four major questions: “1. What are the implications of the changing distribution of global power from the West to the East, and how is it being affected by the new reality of a politically awakened humanity? 2. Why is America’s global appeal waning, what are the symptoms of America’s domestic and international decline, and how did America waste the unique global opportunity offered by the peaceful end of the Cold War?... 3. What would be the likely geopolitical consequences if America declined from its globally preeminent position,… and could China assume America’s central role in world affairs by 2025? 4. Looking beyond 2025, how should a resurgent America define its long-term geopolitical goals, and how could America, with its traditional European allies, seek to engage Turkey and Russia in order to construct an even larger and more vigorous West?...”

China—not Europe or Russia or India—is the centre of his attention. “The crisis of global power is the cumulative consequence of the dynamic shift in the world’s centre of gravity from the West to the East, of the accelerated surfacing of the restless phenomenon of global political wakening, and of America’s deficient domestic and international performance since its emergence by 1990 as the world’s only superpower.… This book seeks to outline the needed strategic vision, looking beyond 2025.”

It is a thought-provoking book that takes a good overview of the volatility of contemporary international relations. As late as the year 1800, Asia accounted for about 60 per cent of the world’s total gross national product (GNP), in contrast to Europe’s 30 per cent. India’s share alone of the global GNP in 1750 amounted to 25 per cent. The decline began in the 18th and 19th centuries. He is right in holding that “in every significant and tangible dimension of traditional power—military, technological, economic, and financial—America is still peerless. It has by far the largest single national economy, the greatest financial influence, the most advanced technology, a military budget larger than that of all other states combined, and armed forces… capable of rapid deployment abroad…”.

But the author has an exaggerated estimate of America’s image abroad. Its Congress is paralysed by fierce partisanship—like our Parliament. The credibility of its chief executive has plumbed low. Its President personally approves the names of men to be assassinated. Its Supreme Court is a scandal, especially after its dishonest ruling on George W. Bush’s election. The universities still command respect as does America’s civil society.

Brzezinski is hopeful. “The continued attraction of the American system —the vital relevance of its founding principles, the dynamism of its economic model, the goodwill of its people and government—is therefore essential if America is to continue playing a constructive global role. Only by demonstrating the capacity for a superior performance of its social system can America restore its historical momentum, especially in the face of a China that is increasingly attractive to the Third World…. A state perceived by others to be riding the crest of history finds it less difficult to secure its interest” (emphasis added). There lies the rub. The U.S. is seen as promoting its own narrow self-interest—as every other member of global society does, India included.

His comments on India are not flattering. “Contemporary India is a complicated mixture of democratic self-governance, massive social injustice, economic dynamism, and widespread political corruption. As a result, its political emergence as a force in world affairs has lagged behind China’s. India was prominent in sharing leadership of the so-called non-aligned nations, a collection of neutral but politically wavering states, including Cuba and Yugoslavia, all allegedly opposed to the Cold War. Its brief military collision with China in 1962, which ended in India’s defeat, was only partially redeemed by its military successes in the two wars with Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. By and large, the prevailing view of India until relatively recently has been one of a country with strong moralistic opinions about world affairs but without commensurate influence.…

“India’s political elite is motivated by an ambitious strategic vision focussed on securing greater global influence and a conviction of its regional primacy. And the gradual improvement in U.S.-Indian relations during the first decade of the twenty-first century has further enhanced India’s global stature and gratified its ambitions. However, its simmering conflict with Pakistan, which includes a proxy contest with it for greater influence in Afghanistan, remains a serious diversion from its larger geopolitical aspirations. Therefore, the view —held by its foreign policy elite—that India is not only rival to China but also already one of the world’s superpowers lacks sober realism.”

Brzezinski’s comments on the domestic set-up are as sharp as those on the media’s hysterics on China. Read these. “The Indian political system has yet to prove that it can function as ‘the world’s largest democracy’. That test will take place when its population becomes truly politically awakened and engaged. Given the country’s very high levels of public illiteracy as well as the connection between privilege and wealth at the top of the political establishment, India’s current ‘democratic’ process is rather reminiscent of the British aristocratic ‘democracy’, prior to the appearance of trade unions, in the second half of the nineteenth century. The operational viability of the existing system will be truly tested when the heterogeneous public at large becomes both politically conscious and assertive. Ethnic, religious, and linguistic differences could then threaten India’s internal cohesion…. In that potentially conflicted setting, the stability of Asia will depend in part on how America responds to two overlapping regional triangles centred around China….

“On India’s side, the existing tensions and reciprocal national animosities are fuelled by the relatively uninhibited hostility towards China expressed in India’s uncensored media and in India’s strategic discussions. Invariably, China is presented in them as a threat, most often territorial in nature, and India’s publications frequently make reference to China’s 1962 occupation by force of disputed borderline territories. China’s efforts to establish an economic and political presence in Myanmar’s and in Pakistan’s Indian Ocean ports are presented to the public as a strategic design to encircle India. The Chinese mass media, under official control, are more restrained in their pronouncements but patronise India as a not-so-serious rival, further inflaming negative Indian sentiments.

“To a considerable extent, such Chinese feelings of aloofness towards India are derived from China’s superior societal performance. Its GNP is considerably larger than India’s, and its population is considerably more literate as well as ethnically and linguistically more homogenous. In any case, both sides are the strategic captives of their subjective feelings and of their geopolitical context. The Indians envy the Chinese economic and infrastructural transformation. The Chinese are contemptuous of India’s relative backwardness (on the social level most dramatically illustrated by asymmetrical levels of literacy of their respective populations) and of its lack of discipline. The Indians fear Chinese-Pakistani collusion; the Chinese feel vulnerable to India’s potential capacity to interfere with Chinese access through the Indian Ocean to the Middle East and Africa.

“America’s role in this rivalry should be cautious and detached. A prudent U.S. policy, especially in regard to an alliance with India, should not however be interpreted as indifference to India’s potential role as an alternative to China’s authoritarian political model…. The unwise U.S. decision of 2011 to sell advanced weaponry to India, in contrast to the ongoing embargo on arms sales to China, while also enhancing India’s nuclear programmes is already earning the United States the hostility of the Chinese by conveying the impression that America sees China as its enemy even before China itself had decided to be America’s enemy.”

On russia

It is important to note this thinking of an important school of opinion in the U.S. As one might expect of Brzezinski, Russia remains his blind spot. “Russia, twenty years after the fall of the Soviet Union, still remains undecided about its identity, nostalgic about its past, and simultaneously overreaching in some of its aspirations. Its efforts to create ‘a common economic space’ (under the aegis of the Kremlin) in the area of the former Soviet Union naturally worry the newly independent post-Soviet states. The dominant elements in its power elite still manoeuvre to dilute transatlantic links, and they still resent Central Europe’s desire for deep integration within the European Union and its defensive membership in NATO, even while also worrying about China’s growing power on the very edge of Russia’s mineral-rich and sparsely populated far east. At the same time, however, the increasingly politically important Russian middle class is evidently adopting the lifestyles of the West while a growing number of Russia’s intellectual community speak more openly of their desire for Russia to be a part of the modern West.”

The truth is that Russia is very much alive to its heritage, as a successor to the USSR as well as to tsarist Russia. It rightly complains of America’s expansionism, unilateralism and interference in its internal affairs. Unless the U.S. addresses Russia’s concerns about its security and treats it as an equal, tension between these two powers will persist.

William Pfaff’s assessment of Barack Obama in 2010 has proved all too true. “Wholly lacking military experience, preoccupied by the world economic crisis and his legislative campaign for health care reform, Mr Obama already had accepted the interpretation of the Afghanistan and Pakistan situation generally held in Washington and the press. Indeed, his campaign advisers had proposed a considerably exaggerated version of the dominant Washington scenario, emphasising the risk of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons falling into terrorist hands (and seemingly deaf to the risk of powerful Pakistani popular as well as official reactions against U.S. interference in the country’s affairs).”

Pfaff has been deservedly lauded by the American Academy of Diplomacy in its Award for Distinguished Reporting and Analysis of Foreign Affairs. “Few can rival his impact on thinking about the deepest dilemmas for foreign policy and of prime movers in human society. We are inspired by his moral vision of the proper uses of power and limits on its abuse.”

Recalling America’s expansionist career, he writes of the militarism that has possessed it. “Militarism is the domination of the military in society, an undue deference to military demands, and an emphasis on military considerations, spirits, ideals, and scales of value, in the lives of states. It has meant also the imposition of heavy burdens on a people for military purposes, to the neglect of welfare and culture, and the waste of a nation’s best manpower in unproductive army service.” We are no less militaristic.

The future is bleak. “Americans today conduct a colossally militarised but morally nugatory global mission supported by apparent majorities of the political, intellectual, and academic elites of the nation. It has lacked from the very beginning an attainable goal. It cannot succeed. George W. Bush is quoted by Bob Woodward as having said that American strategy was ‘to create chaos, to create vacuum’, in his enemies’ countries. This was very unwise. The United States risks becoming such a strategy’s ultimate victim.”