America’s Withering Dims Age of Enlightenment

Liberty Leading the People by Eugène Delacroix, 1830. Public domain.

Liberty Leading the People, Oil on canvas, Eugène Delacroix, 1830. Public domain.

JONATHAN MANTHORPE: International Affairs
October 22, 2016

Donald Trump will lose the United States presidential election in November, but the curse of Pandora is now out of the box and the age of the collapse of the American Imperium is upon us.

Trump did not create the dumb rage he represents. It was already festering in the gangrenous wing of the Republican Party that is so bone headed it has spent the last eight years making the administration of the U.S. dysfunctional, and will assuredly try to do the same during a Hillary Clinton presidency whether or not it retains control of Congress.

The cancer will only get worse and spread. The U.S. political system, as historian Francis Fukuyama eloquently set out in an essay in Foreign Affairs1 journal in 2014, is deeply flawed and always has been. The Founding Fathers were so fearful of creating a George III they designed a system where the checks always outweigh the balances.

Mother Nature always has a wonderful sense of irony, of course. So in their maniacal efforts to avoid George III, Americans have created George III in the shape of Donald Trump, or whichever mad demagogue succeeds him as the mouthpiece for Americans suffering from self-disenfranchisement. (Actually, George III appears to have been a rather pleasant man, unfairly besmirched by history.)

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America’s allies have already seen during the George W Bush and Barack Obama presidencies that Washington is no longer a predicable and dependable friend in a crisis. For all Obama’s attempts to turn a page after the disastrous junior Bush years, he has been caught in the headlights of the “war on terror” and unable to get out of the withering beam of that foolish concept. The decline of Washington as a reliable arbiter of world affairs will only get worse as the U.S. continues to wrestle with its inner demons.

When the British Empire approached its decline in the winter of 1918 after a century as the world’s pre-eminent super power, she was fortunate to have a blood cousin and fellow democracy in the U.S. to whom to pass the torch. As it confronts its own decline after its own century at the helm, modern America has no such luxury.

The looming powers come from beyond the North Atlantic basin of democratic culture and are dominated by fascist states China and Russia. For middle powers like Canada, the component parts of some of Europe, and others spread around Asia, Africa and Latin America that want to keep their democratic social, legal and political structures, the world is looking an increasingly threatening place.

Even membership of such groups of circled wagons like the European Union doesn’t seem to give sufficient confidence to defy the new fascism. On Friday efforts to intensify sanctions against Russia for its involvement in the bombing of the rebel-held parts of the Syrian city of Aleppo were watered down to nothing. Italy led the drive to avoid offending Russian President Vladimir Putin, with Spain, Austria and Greece hurrying to sign on to appeasement. Europe’s schism between those who want to censure Putin and those who want to avoid prodding the bear is now deep. Just how deep will be seen in January when the EU is due to renew sanctions against Moscow for its intervention in Ukraine and takeover of Crimea.

The collapse on Friday of the free trade talks between Canada and Europe because of fears in the southern Belgian region of Wallonia of cheap agricultural imports is a broader black mark against the future dependability of the EU. By giving its regions a veto over the trade deal, the EU gave up control over one of its critical central powers. It will be difficult to put that cat back in the bag.

There was a painfully farcical demonstration this week of what future relations with Russia and China may hold. The Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte — a phantasmagoric version of Donald Trump, if such a thing is imaginable – was in Beijing to pledge allegiance to the Chinese regime.

In a scene not witnessed in Beijing since vassal states came to perform the kow tow and bring tribute in return for gifts at the height of the Ching Empire in the early 1800s, Duterte announced: “In this venue, your honours, in this venue, I announce my separation from the United States. Both in military, not maybe in social, but economics also, America has lost.”

The message did not need driving home, but Duterte is never one to hold back when on a roll. “I’ve realigned myself in your ideological flow and maybe I will also go to Russia to talk to (President Vladimir) Putin and tell him that there are three of us against the world – China, the Philippines and Russia. It’s the only way.”

Duterte’s pilgrimage to kneel before the imperial throne of what is politely called “authoritarian capitalism” – fascism in plain language – may be the most theatrically outlandish seen thus far, but it is not the first. To one degree or another several other Asian countries, such as Cambodia and Laos, and many in Africa have already sworn fealty in return for Beijing’s gold.

The Beijing regime is very good at taking small and seemingly innocuous steps, which only months or years down the road pull into focus and suddenly show major changes in strategic and security geography. Witness Beijing’s salami slicing tactics in the South China Sea in the last 20 years. These are now resolving themselves into China’s domination of one of the world’s most important trade waterways and Beijing’s authority over the littoral states such as the Philippines.

Similarly, this week Chinese troops were on a joint exercise with 10,000 local soldiers in Tajikistan on the border with Afghanistan. This follows China’s participation in war games in Kyrgyzstan in September. Beijing is making itself an indispensable security partner in Central Asia, while being careful not to excite Moscow’s suspicions.

Small countries like the “Stans” of Central Asia and those in Southeast Asia have always been vulnerable. They have a history of seeking the protection of whomever is the regional alpha male of the moment and of making whatever cultural, political, economic and even territorial compromises are necessary in return for security.

As U.S. global authority declines, the danger is that Canada and other middle power democracies that have depended on Washington having their back will feel compelled to make the same kind of compromises with the rising fascist states.

Just look at the visit to Ottawa this week of a group of Chinese billionaires, headed by Ma Weihua, who immediately got access to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in order to try to get him to override British Columbia’s 15 per cent tax on foreign real estate speculators. The tax has been brought in to try to curb the pillaging of the Lower Mainland housing market by Chinese buyers, which has played a large part in putting the home ownership beyond the means of most local people.

If Ma’s China Entrepreneur Club were indeed a simple organization of successful business people one might be able to regard its access in Ottawa with equanimity. But anyone with eyes to see knows that these plutocrats are mere agents of the regime and have become rich through one form of corruption or another. Indeed, a new book by the noted China scholar, Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College in California, sets out the crass reality of “China’s Crony Capitalism.”

Pei delineates how, after the shock of the 1989 national uprising against the Communist Party, mistakenly minimised in the narrow western vision as “The Tiananmen Square Massacre,” the Communist Party sought to create stability and spark industrial development by allowing its friends and relatives to loot state assets. Corruption in modern China is not a result of lack of attention by the authorities; it is the very root and bone of how authority is administered in China by this regime.

Ma reported that in their meeting Trudeau “himself expressed very clearly to support the business collaborations in the two countries.” As well Trudeau might. The upper echelons of the Liberal party and its allies in business and academia have been targets of Beijing’s seductive dances since the 1960s. Now, a free trade agreement with China is high on the list of the Trudeau government’s objectives. The Beijing regime is using this as leverage for an extradition agreement so it can run down, threaten and capture its political enemies in Canada without having to resort, as is does now, to sending its secret agents here masquerading as tourists.

Trade between China and Canada now totals around $85 billion. But only around $20 billion of that is goods Canada sells to China, most of them commodities and natural resources of one sort or another. In return China sends to Canada about $65 billion-worth of manufactured goods, most of them of shoddy quality. But the profit margins for importers are so massive because of China’s cheap, indentured labour that another major import is income inequity and widening economic disparity in Canada, as it is in most other countries with which China does business.

A Canada-China free trade agreement will only exacerbate the already dangerously unbalanced and distorted pattern of trade. One of the dangerous fallacies in circulation is that free trade agreements between states can function in isolation. This is rubbish. For states to have satisfactory, comprehensive trade relationships they need also to have cultural, political, judicial and social compatibility. (After a troubling meeting this week with a group of graduate international business students and their instructors, I am more than ever convinced that business schools that do not teach the political and cultural context of international trade are dooming their students and this country to failure.)

Canada has no political, judicial or social meeting point with the current regime in China, and never will have. I had another telling moment this week talking to Canadian trade negotiators. The only justification they could put forward for seeking a free trade agreement with China was to try to create a forum to arbitrate the problems Canadian business people get into when doing business there. There’s a simple answer to that problem: politicians should stop encouraging Canadian businesses to risk their livelihoods in that thieves’ market. In reality, the only reason Canadian politicians lead trade missions to China is in the hope of winning approval at election time from the immigrant population. The economic benefits of these road shows are always marginal at best and disastrous at worst.

In his 2013 book “How We Lead: Canada in a Century of Change,” former Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Joe Clark set out an agenda for coping with life after the end of the American Imperium. Clark said that middle power democracies like Canada must gather together and cement their relationships if their values are to survive the assault from the regimes that are becoming dominant. He identifies three qualities that should identify partner nations for Canada. Those are:

  • “Nations that are forward-looking and outward-reaching, seeking seriously to embrace a changing world.
  • “Nations that are innovators or problem-solvers, at home and how they see the world.
  • “Nations whose wealth, or location, or cultural composition, or history equips them to understand and address these new sources of conflict.”

It’s a good litmus test and Clark goes on to list countries he thinks fit the template. The Nordic countries are obvious ones, and so are Canada’s blood relatives Australia and New Zealand. In the post-Brexit era Britain should also be added.

In Asia, Clark identifies Indonesia, which is rapidly emerging as one of the few Southeast Asian countries that has got right the transition from autocracy to democracy. He points also to South Korea, another of the few countries in the world that has successfully navigated the rough passage from military rule to a representative and accountable government.

Clark neglected Japan and he doesn’t mention Taiwan, which he should have done. Taiwan, like South Korea, is an outstanding example of successfully making the fraught transition to democracy from the military one-party state. Canada should be taking every opportunity to enhance trade and political relations with Taiwan. This would have too the highly desirable bonus of confronting the bullying and blackmail of Beijing, which claims to own the island nation and its 23 million people without significant historical or legal justification.

In Latin America, Clark identifies Mexico, with which Canada already has the strong link of the North American Free Trade Agreement. (In the unlikely event that Trump wins next month and junks NAFTA, as he promises, Canada and Mexico now have a strong enough relationship to go it alone.) The Canada-Mexico link is beginning to be a carriage for partnership in endeavours, such as peacekeeping, in other parts of Latin America.

In Africa, Clark identifies Ghana as a logical partner. Again, he is right. Ghana has had its ups and downs, but it has been more successful than most on the continent in overcoming the challenges of the post-colonial world and the potentially calamitous bonus of a massive oil and gas industry. Other African countries worth sticking with are Kenya and South Africa, which are also going to be hubs for regional development if they can keep on a positive track.

In the Middle East, Clark identifies two countries whose suitability in my view have been overtaken by events since he finished his manuscript. One is Qatar, which despite being a centre for education and innovation, has blotted its copy book mightily by giving financial aid and arms to terrorist Islamic groups. Clark’s other dubious Middle Eastern pick is Turkey, which since he wrote has tumbled towards becoming its own fascist mini-state under the leadership of President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

For the foreseeable future, the Middle East is a wasteland for Canada seeking like-minded partners. The exception is Israel, but Israel is soon going to have to decide whether it is a democracy or a religious state. Its future depends on the choice.

As events since Clark wrote show, no such list is ever complete or cast in stone. What ought to be consistent is a strong sense in Canada of our values, and our dedication to protecting and enhancing them with like-minded partners in what promises to be an increasingly challenging world.

Canada has good foundation relationships on which to build with all likely partner countries. What is needed is a clearer focus and recognition that playing footsie with fascist states like China is a fool’s game.

Copyright Jonathan Manthorpe 2016

Contact, including queries about syndication/republishing: jonathan.manthorpe@gmail.com

Link:

Francis Fukuyama, Foreign Affairs: https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2014-08-18/america-decay

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Manthorpe B&WJonathan Manthorpe is a founding columnist with Facts and Opinions and is the author of the journal’s International Affairs column. He is the author of “Forbidden Nation: A History of Taiwan,” and has been a foreign correspondent and international affairs columnist for nearly 40 years. Manthorpe’s  nomadic career began in the late 1970s as European Bureau Chief for The Toronto Star, the job that took Ernest Hemingway to Europe in the 1920s. In the mid-1980s Manthorpe became European Correspondent for Southam News. In the following years Manthorpe was sent by Southam News, the internal news agency for Canada’s largest group of metropolitan daily newspapers, to be the correspondent in Africa and then Asia. Between postings Manthorpe spent a few years based in Ottawa focusing on intelligence and military affairs, and the United Nations. Since 1998 Manthorpe has been based in Vancouver, but has travelled frequently on assignment to Asia, Europe and Latin America.

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