Once upon a time in America, we could all argue about whether or not U.S. global power was declining. Now, most observers have little doubt that the end is just a matter of timing and circumstance. Ten years ago, I predicted that, by 2025, it would be all over for American power, a then-controversial comment that’s commonplace today. Under President Donald Trump, the once “indispensable nation” that won World War II and built a new world order has become dispensable indeed.
The decline and fall of American global power is, of course, nothing special in the great sweep of history. After all, in the 4,000 years since humanity’s first empire formed in the Fertile Crescent, at least 200 empires have risen, collided with other imperial powers, and in time collapsed. In the past century alone, two dozen modern imperial states have fallen and the world has managed just fine in the wake of their demise.
The global order didn’t blink when the sprawling Soviet empire imploded in 1991, freeing its 15 “republics” and seven “satellites” to become 22 newly capitalist nations. Washington took that epochal event largely in stride. There were no triumphal demonstrations, in the tradition of ancient Rome, with manacled Russian captives and their plundered treasures paraded down Pennsylvania Avenue. Instead, a Manhattan real-estate developer bought a 20-foot chunk of the Berlin Wall for display near Madison Avenue, a sight barely noticed by busy shoppers.
For those trying to track global trends for the next decade or two, the real question is not the fate of American global hegemony, but the future of the world order it began building at the peak of its power, not in 1991, but right after World War II. For the past 75 years, Washington’s global dominion has rested on a “delicate duality.” The raw realpolitik of U.S. military bases, multinational corporations, CIA coups, and foreign military interventions has been balanced, even softened, by a surprisingly liberal world order — with sovereign states meeting as equals at the United Nations, an international rule of law that muted armed conflict, a World Health Organization that actually eradicated epidemic diseases which had plagued humanity for generations, and a developmental effort led by the World Bank that lifted 40% of humanity out of poverty.
Some observers remain supremely confident that Washington’s world order can survive the inexorable erosion of its global power. Princeton political scientist G. John Ikenberry, for example, has essentially staked his reputation on that debatable proposition. As U.S. decline first became apparent in 2011, he argued that Washington’s ability to shape world politics would diminish, but “the liberal international order will survive and thrive,” preserving its core elements of multilateral governance, free trade, and human rights. Seven years later, amid a rise of anti-global nationalists across significant parts of the planet, he remains optimistic that the American-made world order will endure because international issues such as climate change make its “protean vision of interdependence and cooperation… more important as the century unfolds.”
This sense of guarded optimism is widely shared among foreign-policy elites in the New York-Washington corridor of power. The president of the influential Council on Foreign Relations, Richard Haass, has typically argued that the “post-Cold War order cannot be restored, but the world is not yet on the edge of a systemic crisis.” Through deft diplomacy, Washington could still save the planet from “deeper disarray” or even “trends that spell catastrophe.”
But is it true that the decline of the planet’s “sole superpower” (as it was once known) will no more shake the present world order than the Soviet collapse once did? To explore what it takes to produce just such an implosion of a world order, it’s necessary to turn to history — to the history, in fact, of collapsing imperial orders and a changing planet.
Admittedly, such analogies are always imperfect, yet what other guide to the future do we have but the past? Among its many lessons: that world orders are far more fundamental than we might imagine and that their uprooting requires a perfect storm of history’s most powerful forces. Indeed, the question of the moment should be: Is climate change now gathering sufficient destructive force to cripple Washington’s liberal world order and create an opening for Beijing’s decidedly illiberal one or possibly even a new world in which such orders will be unrecognizable?
Empires and World Orders
Despite the aura of awe-inspiring power they give off, empires have often been the ephemeral creations of an individual conqueror like Alexander the Great or Napoleon that fade fast after his death or defeat. World orders are, by contrast, far more deeply rooted. They are resilient global systems created by a convergence of economic, technological, and ideological forces. On the surface, they entail a diplomatic entente among nations, while at a deeper level they entwine themselves within the cultures, commerce, and values of countless societies. World orders influence the languages people speak, the laws they live by, and the ways they work, worship, and even play. World orders are woven into the fabric of civilization itself. To uproot them takes an extraordinary event or set of events, even a global catastrophe.
Looking back over the last millennium, old orders die and new ones arise when a cataclysm, marked by mass death or a maelstrom of destruction, coincides with some slower yet sweeping social transformation. Since the age of European exploration started in the fifteenth century, some 90 empires, large and small, have come and gone. In those same centuries, however, there have been only three major world orders — the Iberian age (1494-1805), the British imperial era (1815-1914), and the Washington world system (1945-2025).
Such global orders are not the mere imaginings of historians trying, so many decades or centuries later, to impose some logic upon a chaotic past. Those three powers — Spain, Britain, and the United States — consciously tried to re-order their worlds for, they hoped, generations to come through formal agreements — the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, the Congress of Vienna in 1815, and the San Francisco conference that drafted the U.N. charter in 1945. Should Beijing succeed Washington as the world’s preeminent power, future historians will likely look back on its Belt and Road Forum, which brought 130 nations to Beijing in 2017, as the formal start of the Chinese era.
Each of these treaties shaped a world in the most fundamental ways, articulating universal principles that would define the nature of nations and the rights of all humans within them for decades to come. Over this span of 500 years, these three world orders conducted what could be seen, in retrospect, as a continuing debate over the nature of human rights and the limits of state sovereignty over vast stretches of the planet.
In their spread across disparate lands, world orders become coalitions of contending, even contradictory, social forces — diverse peoples, rival nations, competing classes. When deftly balanced, such a system can survive for decades, even centuries, by subsuming those contending forces within broadly shared interests. As tensions swell into contradictions, however, a cataclysm in the form of war or natural disaster can catalyze otherwise simmering conflicts — allowing challenges from rival powers, revolts by subordinate social orders, or both.
The Iberian Age
During the last thousand years, the first of these transformative cataclysms was certainly the Black Death of 1350, one of history’s greatest waves of mass mortality via disease, this one spread by rats carrying infected lice from Central Asia across Europe. In just six years, this pandemic killed up to 60% of Europe’s population, leaving some 50 million dead. As lesser yet still lethal epidemics recurred at least eight times over the next half-century, the world’s population fell sharply from an estimated 440 million to just 350 million people, a crash from which it would not fully recover for another two centuries.
Historians have long argued that the plague caused lasting labor shortages, slashing revenues on feudal estates and so forcing aristocrats to seek alternative income through warfare. The result: a century of incessant conflict across France, Italy, and Spain. But few historians have explored the broader geopolitical impact of this demographic disaster. After nearly a millennium, it seems to have ended the Middle Ages with its system of localized states and relatively stable regional empires, while unleashing the gathering forces of merchant capital, maritime trade, and military technology to, quite literally, set the world in motion.
As Tamerlane’s horsemen swept across Central Asia and the Ottoman Turks occupied southeast Europe (while also capturing Constantinople, the Byzantine empire’s capital, in 1453), Iberia’s kingdoms turned seaward for a century of exploration. Not only did they extend their growing imperial power to four continents (Africa, Asia, and both Americas), but they also created the first truly global order worthy of the name, commingling commerce, conquest, and religious conversion on a global scale.
Starting in 1420, thanks to advances in navigation and naval warfare, including the creation of the agile caravel gunship, Portuguese mariners pushed south, rounded Africa, and eventually built some 50 fortified ports from Southeast Asia to Brazil. This would allow them to dominate much of world trade for more than a century. Somewhat later, Spanish conquistadores followed Columbus across the Atlantic to conquer the Aztec and Incan empires, occupying significant parts of the Americas.
Just weeks after Columbus completed his first voyage in 1493, Pope Alexander VI issued a decree awarding the Spanish crown perpetual sovereignty over all lands west of a mid-Atlantic line so “that barbarous nations be overthrown and brought to the [Catholic] faith.” He also affirmed an earlier Papal bull (Romanus Pontifex, 1455) that gave Portugal’s king rights to “subdue all Saracens and pagans” east of that line, “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery,” and “possess these islands, lands, harbors, and seas.”
To settle just where that line actually lay, Spanish and Portuguese diplomats met for months in 1494 in the tiny city of Tordesillas for high-stakes negotiations, producing a treaty that split the non-Christian world between them and officially launched the Iberian age. In its expansive definition of national sovereignty, this treaty allowed European states to acquire “barbarous nations” by conquest and make entire oceans into a mare clausum, or a closed sea, through exploration. This diplomacy would also impose a rigid religious-cum-racial segregation upon humanity that would persist for another five centuries.
Even as they rejected Iberia’s global land grab, other European states contributed to the formation of that distinctive world order. King Francis I of France typically demanded “to see the clause of Adam’s will by which I should be denied my share of the world.” Nonetheless, he accepted the principle of European conquest and later sent navigator Giovanni da Verrazzano to explore North America and claim what became Canada for France.
A century after, when Protestant Dutch mariners defied Catholic Portugal’s mare clausum by seizing one of its merchant ships off Singapore, their jurist Hugo Grotius argued persuasively, in his 1609 treatise Mare Liberum (“Freedom of the Seas”), that the sea like the air is “so limitless that it cannot become a possession of any one.” For the next 400 years, the twin diplomatic principles of open seas and conquered colonies would remain foundational for the international order.
Sustained by mercantile profits and inspired by missionary zeal, this diffuse global order proved surprisingly resilient, surviving for three full centuries. By the start of the eighteenth century, however, Europe’s absolutist states had descended into destructive internecine conflicts, notably the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714) and a global Seven Years War (1756-1763). Moreover, the royal chartered companies — British, Dutch, and French — that by then ran those empires were proving ever less capable of effective colonial rule and increasingly inept at producing profits.
After two centuries of dominion, the French East India Company liquidated in 1794 and its venerable Dutch counterpart collapsed only five years later. Final fatal blows to these absolutist regimes were delivered by the American, French, and Haitian revolutions that erupted between 1776 and 1804.
The British Imperial Era
The British imperial age emerged from the cataclysmic Napoleonic Wars that unleashed the transformative power of England’s innovations in industry and global finance. For 12 years, 1803 to 1815, those wars proved to be a Black Death-style maelstrom that roiled Europe, leaving six million dead in their wake and reaching India, Southeast Asia, and the Americas.
By the time the Emperor Napoleon disappeared into exile, France, stripped of many of its overseas colonies, had been reduced to secondary status in Europe, while its erstwhile ally, Spain, was so weakened that it would soon lose its Latin American empire. Propelled by a tumultuous and historic economic transformation, Britain suddenly faced no serious European rival and found itself free to create and oversee a bifurcated world order in which sovereignty remained a right and reality only in Europe and parts of the Americas, while much of the rest of the planet was subject to imperial dominion.
Admittedly, the destruction caused by the Napoleonic wars may seem relatively modest compared to the devastation of the Black Death, but the long-term changes engendered by Britain’s industrial revolution and the finance capitalism that emerged from those wars proved far more compelling than the earlier era’s merchant companies and missionary endeavors. From 1815 to 1914, London presided over an expanding global system marked by industry, capital exports, and colonial conquests, all spurred by the integration of the planet via railroad, steamship, telegraph, and ultimately radio. In contrast to the weak royal companies of the earlier age, this version of imperialism combined modern corporations with direct colonial rule in a way that allowed for far more efficient exploitation of local resources. No surprise, then, that some scholars have called Britain’s century of dominion the “first age of globalization.”
While British industry and finance were quintessentially modern, its imperial age extended key international principles of centuries past, even if in grim secular guise. While the Dutch doctrine of “freedom of the seas” allowed the British navy to rule the waves, the earlier religious justification for domination was replaced by a racialist ideology that legitimized European efforts to conquer and colonize the half of humanity whom the imperialist poet Rudyard Kipling branded the “lesser breeds.”
Although the 1815 Congress of Vienna officially launched the British era by eliminating France as a rival, the 1885 Berlin Conference on Africa truly defined the age. Much as the Portuguese and Spanish had done at Tordesillas in 1494, the 14 imperial powers (including the United States) present at Berlin four centuries later justified carving up the entire continent of Africa by proclaiming a self-serving commitment “to watch over the preservation of the native tribes and to care for the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being.” Just as that designation of Africans as “native tribes” instead of “nations” or “peoples” denied them both sovereignty and human rights, so the British century witnessed eight empires subjecting nearly half of humanity to colonial rule premised on racial inferiority.
Only a century after its founding, however, the contradictions that lurked within Great Britain’s global rule erupted, thanks to the way that two cataclysmic world wars coincided with the long-term rise of anti-colonial nationalism to create our current world order. The alliance system among rival empires proved volatile, exploding into murderous conflicts in 1914 and again in 1939. Worse yet, industrialization had spawned the battleship and the airship as engines for warfare of unprecedented range and destructive power, while modern science would also create nuclear weapons with the power to potentially destroy the planet itself. Meanwhile, the colonies that covered nearly half the globe refused to abide by the institutionalized denial of the very liberty, humanity, and sovereignty that Europe prized for itself.
While most of the 15 million combat deaths in World War I emerged from the destructive nature of trench warfare on the western front in France (compounded by 100 million fatalities worldwide from an influenza pandemic), World War II spread its devastation globally, killing more than 60 million people and ravaging cities across Europe and Asia. With Europe struggling to recover, its empires could no longer constrain colonial cries for independence. Just two decades after the war’s end, the six European overseas empires that had dominated much of Asia and Africa for five centuries gave way to 100 new nations.
Washington’s World Order
In the aftermath of history’s most destructive war, the United States used its unmatched power to form the Washington world system. American deaths in World War II numbered 418,000, but those losses paled before the 24 million dead in Russia, the 20 million more in China, and the 19 million in Europe. While industries across Europe, Russia, and Japan were damaged or destroyed and much of Eurasia was ravaged, the United States found itself left with a vibrant economy on a war footing and half the world’s industrial capacity. With much of Europe and Asia suffering from mass hunger, the swelling surpluses of American agriculture fed a famished humanity.
Washington’s visionary world order took form at Bretton Woods, New Hampshire, in 1944. There, 44 Allied nations created an international financial system exemplified by the World Bank and then, at San Francisco in 1945, by a U.N. charter to form a community of sovereign nations. In a striking blow for human progress, this new order resoundingly rejected the religious and racial divisions of the previous five centuries, proclaiming in the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights the “equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family,” which “should be protected by the rule of law.”
Within a decade after the end of World War II, Washington also had 500 overseas military bases ringing Eurasia and a chain of mutual defense pacts stretching from the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), and a globe-girding armada of nuclear-armed warships and strategic bombers. To exercise its version of global dominion, Washington retained the seventeenth-century Dutch doctrine of “freedom of the seas,” later extending it even to space where, for more than half a century, its military satellites have orbited without restraint.
Just as the British imperial system was far more pervasive and powerful than its Iberian predecessor, so Washington’s world order went beyond both of them, becoming rigorously systematic and deeply embedded in every aspect of planetary life. While the 1815 Congress of Vienna was an ephemeral gathering of two dozen diplomats whose influence faded within a decade, the United Nations and its 193 member states have, for nearly 75 years, sustained 44,000 permanent staff to supervise global health, human rights, education, law, labor, gender relations, development, food, culture, peacekeeping, and refugees. In addition to such broad governance, the U.N. also hosts treaties that are meant to regulate sea, space, and the climate.
Not only did the Bretton Woods conference create a global financial system, but it also led to the formation of the World Trade Organization that regulates commerce among 124 member states. You might imagine, then, that such an extraordinarily comprehensive system, integrated into almost every aspect of international intercourse, would be able to survive even major upheavals.
Cataclysm and Collapse
Yet there is mounting evidence that climate change, as it accelerates, is creating the basis for the sort of cataclysm that will be capable of shaking even such a deeply rooted world order. The cascading effects of global warming will be ever more evident, not in the distant future of 2100 (as once thought), but within just 20 years, impacting the lives of most adults alive today.
Last October, scientists with the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change issued a “doomsday report,” warning that humanity had just 12 years left to cut carbon emissions by a striking 45% or the world’s temperature would rise by at least 1.5 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels by about 2040. This, in turn, would bring significant coastal flooding, ever more intense storms, fierce drought, wildfires, and heat waves with damage that might add up to as much as $54 trillion — well over half the current size of the global economy. Within a few decades after that, global warming would, absent heroic measures, reach a dangerous 2 degrees Celsius, with even more devastation.
In January, scientists, using new data from sophisticated floating sensors, reported that the world’s oceans were heating 40% faster than estimated only five years earlier, unleashing powerful storms with frequent coastal flooding. Sooner or later, sea levels might rise by a full foot thanks to nothing but the thermal expansion of existing waters. Simultaneous reports showed that the rise in world air temperature has already made the last five years the hottest in recorded history, bringing ever more powerful hurricanes and raging wildfires to the United States with damages totaling $306 billion in 2017. And that hefty sum should be considered just the most modest of down payments on what’s to come.
Surprisingly fast-melting ice sheets in Greenland and the Antarctic will only intensify the impact of climate change. An anticipated rise in sea level of eight inches by 2050 could double coastal flooding in tropical latitudes — with devastating impacts on millions of people in low-lying Bangladesh and the mega-cities of southeastern Asia from Mumbai to Saigon and Guangzhou. Meltwater from Greenland is also disrupting the North Atlantic’s “overturning circulation” that regulates the region’s climate and is destined to produce yet more extreme weather events. Meanwhile, Antarctic meltwater will trap warm water under the surface, accelerating the break-up of the West Antarctic ice shelf and contributing to a rise in ocean levels that could hit 20 inches by 2100.
In sum, an ever-escalating tempo of climate change over the coming decades is likely to produce massive damage to the infrastructure that sustains human life. Seven hundred years later, humanity could be facing another catastrophe on the scale of the Black Death, one that might, once again, set the world in motion.
The geopolitical impact of climate change may be felt most immediately in the Mediterranean basin, home to 466 million people, where temperatures in 2016 had already reached 1.3 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels. (The current global average was still around 0.85 degrees.) This means that the threat of devastating drought is going to be brought to a historically dry region bordered by sprawling deserts in North Africa and the Middle East. In a telling example of how climate catastrophe can erase an entire world order, around 1200 BC the eastern Mediterranean suffered a protracted drought that “caused crop failures, dearth, and famine,” sweeping away Late Bronze Age civilizations like the Greek Mycenaean cities, the Hittite empire, and the New Kingdom in Egypt.
From 2007 to 2010, ongoing global warming caused the “worst three-year drought” in Syria’s recorded history — precipitating unrest marked by “massive agricultural failures” that drove 1.5 million people into city slums and, next, by a devastating civil war that, starting in 2011, forced five million refugees to flee that country. As more than a million migrants, led by 350,000 Syrians, poured into Europe in 2015, the European Union (EU) plunged into political crisis. Anti-immigrant parties soon gained in popularity and power across the continent while Britain voted for its own chaotic Brexit.
Projecting the Middle East’s history, ancient and modern, into the near future, the ingredients for a regional crisis with serious global ramifications are clearly present. Just last month, the U.S. National Intelligence Council warned that “climate hazards,” such as “heat waves [and] droughts,” were increasing “social unrest, migration, and interstate tension in countries such as Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, and Jordan.”
If we translate those sparse words into a future scenario, sometime before 2040 when average global warming is likely to reach that dangerous 1.5 degrees Celsius mark, the Middle East will likely experience a disastrous temperature rise of 2.3 degrees. Such intense heat will produce protracted droughts far worse than the one that destroyed those Bronze Age civilizations, potentially devastating agriculture and sparking water wars among the nations that share the Tigris and Euphrates rivers, while sending yet more millions of refugees fleeing toward Europe. Under such unprecedented pressure, far-right parties might take power across the continent and the EU could rupture as every nation seals its borders. NATO, suffering a “severe crisis” since the Trump years, might simply implode, creating a strategic vacuum that finally allows Russia to seize Ukraine and the Baltic states.
As tensions rise on both sides of the Atlantic, the U.N. could be paralyzed by a great-power deadlock in the Security Council as well as growing recriminations over the role of its High Commissioner for Refugees. Pummeled by these and similar crises from other climate-change hot spots, the international cooperation that lay at the heart of Washington’s world order for the past 90 years would simply wither, leaving a legacy even less visible than that block of the Berlin Wall in midtown Manhattan.
Beijing’s Emerging World System
As Washington’s global power fades and its world order weakens, Beijing is working to build a successor system in its own image that would be strikingly different from the present one.
Most fundamentally, China has subordinated human rights to an overarching vision of expanding state sovereignty, vehemently rejecting foreign criticism of its treatment of its Tibetan and Uighur minorities, just as it ignores equally egregious domestic transgressions by countries like North Korea and the Philippines. If climate change does, in fact, spark mass migrations, then China’s untrammeled nationalism, with its implicit hostility to the rights of refugees, might prove more acceptable to a future era than Washington’s dream of international cooperation that has already begun to sink from sight in the era of Donald Trump’s “great wall.”
In a distinctly ironic twist, a rising China has defied the long-standing doctrine of open seas, now sanctioned under a U.N. convention, instead effectively reviving the mare clausum version of imperial power by claiming adjacent oceans as its sovereign territory. When the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the original world court, unanimously rejected its claim to the South China Sea in 2016, Beijing insisted that the ruling was “naturally null and void” and would not affect its “territorial sovereignty” over an entire sea. Not only did Beijing in that way extend its sovereignty over the open seas, but it also signaled its disdain for the international rule of law, an essential ingredient in Washington’s world order.
More broadly, Beijing is building an alternative international system quite separate from established institutions. As a counterpoise to NATO on Eurasia’s western extremity, China founded the Shanghai Cooperation Organization in 2001, a security and economic bloc weighted toward the eastern end of Eurasia thanks to the membership of nations like Russia, India, and Pakistan. As a counterpoint to the World Bank, Beijing formed the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank in 2016 that quickly attracted 70 member nations and was capitalized to the tune of $100 billion, nearly half the size of the World Bank itself. Above all, China’s $1.3 trillion Belt and Road Initiative, 10 times the size of the U.S. Marshall Plan that rebuilt a ravaged Europe after World War II, is now attempting to mobilize up to $8 trillion more in matching funds for 1,700 projects that could, within a decade, knit 76 nations across Africa and Eurasia, a full half of all humanity, into an integrated commercial infrastructure.
By shedding current ideals of human rights and the rule of law, such a future world order would likely be governed by the raw realpolitik of commercial advantage and national self-interest. Just as Beijing effectively revived the 1455 doctrine of mare clausum, so its diplomacy will be infused with the self-aggrandizing spirit of the 1885 Berlin conference that once partitioned Africa. China’s communist ideals might promise human progress, but in one of history’s unsettling ironies, Beijing’s emerging world order seems more likely to bend that “arc of the moral universe” backward.
Of course, on a planet on which by 2100 that country’s agricultural heartland, the north China plain with its 400 million inhabitants, could become uninhabitable thanks to unendurable heat waves and its major coastal commercial city, Shanghai, could be under water (as could other key coastal cities), who knows what the next world order might truly be like. Climate change, if not brought under some kind of control, threatens to create a new and eternally cataclysmic planet on which the very word “order” may lose its traditional meaning.
What Does It Take to Destroy a World Order?
As the second year of Donald Trump’s presidency and sixth of Xi Jinping’s draws to a close, the world seems to be witnessing one of those epochal clashes that can change the contours of global power. Just as conflicts between American President Woodrow Wilson and British Prime Minister Lloyd George produced a failed peace after World War I, competition between Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and American President Harry Truman sparked the Cold War, and the rivalry between Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev and President John F. Kennedy brought the world to the brink of nuclear war, so the empowered presidents of the United States and China are now pursuing bold, intensely personal visions of new global orders that could potentially reshape the trajectory of the twenty-first century — or bring it all down.
The countries, like their leaders, are a study in contrasts. China is an ascending superpower, riding a wave of rapid economic expansion with a burgeoning industrial and technological infrastructure, a growing share of world trade, and surging self-confidence. The United States is a declining hegemon, with a crumbling infrastructure, a failing educational system, a shrinking slice of the global economy, and a deeply polarized, divided citizenry. After a lifetime as the ultimate political insider, Xi Jinping became China’s president in 2013, bringing with him a bold internationalist vision for the economic integration of Asia, Africa, and Europe through monumental investment in infrastructure that could ultimately expand and extend the current global economy. After a short political apprenticeship as a conspiracy advocate, Donald Trump took office in 2017 as an ardent America First nationalist determined to disrupt or even dismantle an American-built-and-dominated international order he disdained for supposedly constraining his country’s strength.
Although they started this century on generally amicable terms, China and the U.S. have, in recent years, moved toward military competition and open economic conflict. When China was admitted to the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001, Washington was confident that Beijing would play by the established rules and become a compliant member of an American-led international community. There was almost no awareness of what might happen when a fifth of humanity joined the world system as an economic equal for the first time in five centuries.
By the time Xi Jinping became China’s seventh president, a decade of rapid economic growth averaging 11% annually and currency reserves surging toward an unprecedented $4 trillion had created the economic potential for a rapid, radical shift in the global balance of power. After just a few months in office, Xi began tapping those vast reserves to launch a bold geopolitical gambit, a genuine challenge to U.S. dominion over Eurasia and the world beyond. Aglow in its status as the world’s sole superpower after “winning” the Cold War, Washington had difficulty at first even grasping such newly developing global realities and was slow to react.
China’s bid couldn’t have been more fortuitous in its timing. After nearly 70 years as the globe’s hegemon, Washington’s dominance over the world economy had begun to wither and its once-superior work force to lose its competitive edge. By 2016, in fact, the dislocations brought on by the economic globalization that had gone with American dominion sparked a revolt of the dispossessed in democracies worldwide and in the American heartland, bringing the self-proclaimed “populist” Donald Trump to power. Determined to check his country’s decline, he has adopted an aggressive and divisive foreign policy that has roiled long-established alliances in both Asia and Europe and is undoubtedly giving that decline new impetus.
Within months of Trump’s entry into the Oval Office, the world was already witnessing a sharp rivalry between Xi’s advocacy of a new form of global collaboration and Trump’s version of economic nationalism. In the process, humanity seems to be entering a rare historical moment when national leadership and global circumstances have coincided to create an opening for a major shift in the nature of the world order.
Trump’s Disruptive Foreign Policy
Despite their constant criticism of Donald Trump’s leadership, few among Washington’s corps of foreign policy experts have grasped his full impact on the historic foundations of American global power. The world order that Washington built after World War II rested upon what I’ve called a “delicate duality”: an American imperium of raw military and economic power married to a community of sovereign nations, equal under the rule of law and governed through international institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization.
On the realpolitik side of that duality, Washington constructed a four-tier apparatus — military, diplomatic, economic, and clandestine — to advance a global dominion of unprecedented wealth and power. This apparatus rested on hundreds of military bases in Europe and Asia that made the U.S. the first power in history to dominate (if not control) the Eurasian continent.
Even after the Cold War ended, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski warned that Washington would remain the world’s preeminent power only as long as it maintained its geopolitical dominion over Eurasia. In the decade before Trump’s election, there were, however, already signs that America’s hegemony was on a downward trajectory as its share of global economic power fell from 50% in 1950 to just 15% in 2017. Many financial forecasts now project that China will surpass the U.S. as the world’s number one economy by 2030, if not before.
In this era of decline, there has emerged from President Trump’s torrent of tweets and off-the-cuff remarks a surprisingly coherent and grim vision of America’s place in the present world order. Instead of reigning confidently over international organizations, multilateral alliances, and a globalized economy, Trump evidently sees America standing alone and beleaguered in an increasingly troubled world — exploited by self-aggrandizing allies, battered by unequal trade terms, threatened by tides of undocumented immigrants, and betrayed by self-serving elites too timid or compromised to defend the nation’s interests.
Instead of multilateral trade pacts like NAFTA, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), or even the WTO, Trump favors bilateral deals rewritten to the (supposed) advantage of the United States. In place of the usual democratic allies like Canada and Germany, he is trying to weave a web of personal ties to avowedly nationalist and autocratic leaders of a sort he clearly admires: Vladimir Putin in Russia, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Narendra Modi in India, Adel Fatah el-Sisi in Egypt, and Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
Instead of old alliances like NATO, Trump favors loose coalitions of like-minded countries. As he sees it, a resurgent America will carry the world along, while crushing terrorists and dealing in uniquely personal ways with rogue states like Iran and North Korea.
His version of a foreign policy has found its fullest statement in his administration’s December 2017 National Security Strategy. As he took office, the nation, it claimed, faced “an extraordinarily dangerous world, filled with a wide range of threats.” But in less than a year of his leadership, it insisted, “We have renewed our friendships in the Middle East… to help drive out terrorists and extremists… America’s allies are now contributing more to our common defense, strengthening even our strongest alliances.” Humankind will benefit from the president’s “beautiful vision” that “puts America First” and promotes “a balance of power that favors the United States.” The whole world will, in short, be “lifted by America’s renewal.”
Despite such grandiose claims, each of President Trump’s overseas trips has been a mission of destruction in terms of American global power. Each, seemingly by design, disrupted and possibly damaged alliances that have been the foundation for Washington’s global power since the 1950s. During the president’s first foreign trip in May 2017, he promptly voiced withering complaints about the supposed refusal of Washington’s European allies to pay their “fair share” of NATO’s military costs, leaving the U.S. stuck with the bill and, in a fashion unknown to American presidents, refused even to endorse the alliance’s core principle of collective defense. It was a position so extreme in terms of the global politics of the previous half-century that he was later forced to formally back down. (By then, however, he had registered his contempt for those allies in an unforgettable fashion.)
During a second, no-less-divisive NATO visit in July, he charged that Germany was “a captive of Russia” and pressed the allies to immediately double their share of defense spending to a staggering 4% of gross domestic product (a level even Washington, with its monumental Pentagon budget, hasn’t reached) — a demand they all ignored. Just days later, he again questioned the very idea of a common defense, remarking that if “tiny” NATO ally Montenegro decided to “get aggressive,” then “congratulations, you’re in World War III.”
Moving on to England, he promptly kneecapped close ally Theresa May, telling a British tabloid that the prime minister had bungled her country’s Brexit withdrawal from the European Union and “killed off any chance of a vital U.S. trade deal.” He then went on to Helsinki for a summit with Vladimir Putin, where he visibly abased himself before NATO’s nominal nemesis, completely enough that there were even brief, angry protests from leaders of his own party.
During Trump’s major Asia tour in November 2017, he addressed the Asian-Pacific Economic Council (APEC) in Vietnam, offering an extended “tirade” against multilateral trade agreements, particularly the WTO. To counter intolerable “trade abuses,” such as “product dumping, subsidized goods, currency manipulation, and predatory industrial policies,” he swore that he would always “put America first” and not let it “be taken advantage of anymore.” Having denounced a litany of trade violations that he termed nothing less than “economic aggression” against America, he invited everyone there to share his “Indo-Pacific dream” of the world as a “beautiful constellation” of “strong, sovereign, and independent nations,” each working like the United States to build “wealth and freedom.”
Responding to such a display of narrow economic nationalism from the globe’s leading power, Xi Jinping had a perfect opportunity to play the world statesman and he took it, calling upon APEC to support an economic order that is “more open, inclusive, and balanced.” He spoke of China’s future economic plans as an historic bid for “interconnected development to achieve common prosperity… on the Asian, European, and African continents.”
As China has lifted 60 million of its own people out of poverty in just a few years and was committed to its complete eradication by 2020, so he urged a more equitable world order “to bring the benefits of development to countries across the globe.” For its part, China, he assured his listeners, was ready to make “$2 trillion of outbound investment” — much of it for the development of Eurasia and Africa (in ways, of course, that would link that vast region more closely to China). In other words, he sounded like a twenty-first century Chinese version of a twentieth-century American president, while Donald Trump acted more like Argentina’s former presidente Juan Perón, minus the medals. As if to put another nail in the coffin of American global dominion, the remaining 11 Trans-Pacific trade pact partners, led by Japan and Canada, announced major progress in finalizing that agreement — without the United States.
In addition to undermining NATO, America’s Pacific alliances, long its historic fulcrum for the defense of North America and the dominance of Asia, are eroding, too. Even after 10 personal meetings and frequent phone calls between Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Donald Trump during his first 18 months in office, the president’s America First trade policy has placed a “major strain” on Washington’s most crucial alliance in the region. First, he ignored Abe’s pleas and cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact and then, as if his message hadn’t been strong enough, he promptly imposed heavy tariffs on Japanese steel imports. Similarly, he’s denounced the Canadian prime minister as “dishonest” and mimicked Indian Prime Minister Modi’s accent, even as he made chummy with North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un and then claimed, inaccurately, that his country was “no longer a nuclear threat.”
It all adds up to a formula for further decline at a faster pace.
Beijing’s Grand Strategy
While Washington’s influence in Asia recedes, Beijing’s grows ever stronger. As China’s currency reserves climbed rapidly from $200 billion in 2001 to a peak of $4 trillion in 2014, President Xi launched a new initiative of historic import. In September 2013, speaking in Kazakhstan, the heart of Asia’s ancient Silk Road caravan route, he proclaimed a “one belt, one road initiative” aimed at economically integrating the enormous Eurasian land mass around Beijing’s leadership. Through “unimpeded trade” and infrastructure investment, he suggested, it would be possible to connect “the Pacific and the Baltic Sea” in a proposed “economic belt along the Silk Road,” a region “inhabited by close to 3 billion people.” It could become, he predicted, “the biggest market in the world with unparalleled potential.”
Within a year, Beijing had established a Chinese-dominated Asian Infrastructure and Investment Bank with 56 member nations and an impressive $100 billion in capital, while launching its own $40 billion Silk Road Fund for private equity projects. When China convened what it called a “belt and road summit” of 28 world leaders in Beijing in May 2017, Xi could, with good reason, hail his initiative as the “project of the century.”
Although the U.S. media has often described the individual projects involved in his “one belt, one road” project as wasteful, sybaritic, exploitative, or even neo-colonial, its sheer scale and scope merits closer consideration. Beijing is expected to put a mind-boggling $1.3 trillion into the initiative by 2027, the largest investment in human history, more than 10 times the famed American Marshall Plan, the only comparable program, which spent a more modest $110 billion (when adjusted for inflation) to rebuild a ravaged Europe after World War II.
Beijing’s low-cost infrastructure loans for 70 countries from the Baltic to the Pacific are already funding construction of the Mediterranean’s busiest port at Piraeus, Greece, a major nuclear power plant in England, a $6 billion railroad through rugged Laos, and a $46 billion transport corridor across Pakistan. If successful, such infrastructure investments could help knit two dynamic continents, Europe and Asia — home to a full 70% percent of the world’s population and its resources — into a unified market without peer on the planet.
Underlying this flurry of flying dirt and flowing concrete, the Chinese leadership seems to have a design for transcending the vast distances that have historically separated Asia from Europe. As a start, Beijing is building a comprehensive network of trans-continental gas and oil pipelines to import fuels from Siberia and Central Asia for its own population centers. When the system is complete, there will be an integrated inland energy grid (including Russia’s extensive network of pipelines) that will extend 6,000 miles across Eurasia, from the North Atlantic to the South China Sea. Next, Beijing is working to link Europe’s extensive rail network with its own expanded high-speed rail system via transcontinental lines through Central Asia, supplemented by spur lines running due south to Singapore and southwest through Pakistan.
Finally, to facilitate sea transport around the sprawling continent’s southern rim, China has already bought into or is in the process of building more than 30 major port facilities, stretching from the Straits of Malacca across the Indian Ocean, around Africa, and along Europe’s extended coastline. In January, to take advantage of Arctic waters opened by global warming, Beijing began planning for a “Polar Silk Road,” a scheme that fits well with ambitious Russian and Scandinavian projects to establish a shorter shipping route around the continent’s northern coast to Europe.
Though Eurasia is its prime focus, China is also pursuing economic expansion in Africa and Latin America to create what might be dubbed the strategy of the four continents. To tie Africa into its projected Eurasian network, Beijing already had doubled its annual trade there by 2015 to $222 billion, three times that of the United States, thanks to a massive infusion of capital expected to reach a trillion dollars by 2025. Much of it is financing the sort of commodities extraction that has already made the continent China’s second largest source of crude oil. Similarly, Beijing has invested heavily in Latin America, acquiring, for instance, control over 90% of Ecuador’s oil reserves. As a result, its commerce with that continent doubled in a decade, reaching $244 billion in 2017, topping U.S. trade with what once was known as its own “backyard.”
A Conflict with Consequences
This contest between Xi’s globalism and Trump’s nationalism has not been safely confined to an innocuous marketplace of ideas. Over the past four years, the two powers have engaged in an escalating military rivalry and a cutthroat commercial competition. Apart from a shadowy struggle for dominance in space and cyberspace, there has also been a visible, potentially volatile naval arms race to control the sea lanes surrounding Asia, specifically in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea. In a 2015 white paper, Beijing stated that “it is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security.” Backed by lethal land-based missiles, jet fighters, and a global satellite system, China has built just such a modernized fleet of 320 ships, including nuclear submarines and its first aircraft carriers.
Within two years, U.S. Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson reported that China’s “growing and modernized fleet” was “shrinking” the traditional American advantage in the Pacific, and warned that “we must shake off any vestiges of comfort or complacency.” Under Trump’s latest $700-billion-plus defense budget, Washington has responded to this challenge with a crash program to build 46 new ships, which will raise its total to 326 by 2023. As China builds new naval bases bristling with armaments in the Arabian and South China seas, the U.S. Navy has begun conducting assertive “freedom-of-navigation” patrols near many of those same installations, heightening the potential for conflict.
It is in the commercial realm of trade and tariffs, however, where competition has segued into overt conflict. Acting on his belief that “trade wars are good and easy to win,” President Trump slapped heavy tariffs, targeted above all at China, on steel imports in March and, just a few weeks later, punished that country’s intellectual property theft by promising tariffs on $50 billion of Chinese imports. When those tariffs finally hit in July, China immediately retaliated against what it called “typical trade bullying” with similar tariffs on U.S. goods. The Financial Times warned that this “tit-for-tat” can escalate into a “full bore trade war… that will be very bad for the global economy.” As Trump threatened to tax $500 billion more in Chinese imports and issued confusing, even contradictory demands that made it unlikely Beijing could ever comply, observers became concerned that a long-lasting trade war could destabilize what the New York Times called the “mountain of debt” that sustains much of China’s economy. In Washington, the usually taciturn Federal Reserve chairman issued an uncommon warning that “trade tensions… could pose serious risks to the U.S. and global economy.”
China as Global Hegemon?
Although a withering of Washington’s global reach, abetted and possibly accelerated by the Trump presidency, is already underway, the shape of any future world order is still anything but clear. At present, China is the sole state with the obvious requisites for becoming the planet’s new hegemon. Its phenomenal economic rise, coupled with its expanding military and growing technological prowess, provide that country with the obvious fundamentals for superpower status.
Yet neither China nor any other state seems to have the full imperial complement of attributes to replace the United States as the dominant world leader. Apart from its rising economic and military clout, China, like its sometime ally Russia, has a self-referential culture, non-democratic political structures, and a developing legal system that could deny it some of the key instruments for global leadership.
In addition to the fundamentals of military and economic power, “every successful empire,” observes Cambridge University historian Joya Chatterji, “had to elaborate a universalist and inclusive discourse” to win support from the world’s subordinate states and their leaders. Successful imperial transitions driven by the hard power of guns and money also require the soft-power salve of cultural suasion for sustained and successful global dominion. Spain espoused Catholicism and Hispanism, the Ottomans Islam, the Soviets communism, France a cultural francophonie, and Britain an Anglophone culture. Indeed, during its century of global dominion from 1850 to 1940, Britain was the exemplar par excellence of such soft power, evincing an enticing cultural ethos of fair play and free markets that it propagated through the Anglican church, the English language and its literature, and the virtual invention of modern athletics (cricket, soccer, tennis, rugby, and rowing). Similarly, at the dawn of its global dominion, the United States courted allies worldwide through soft-power programs promoting democracy and development. These were made all the more palatable by the appeal of such things as Hollywood films, civic organizations like Rotary International, and popular sports like basketball and baseball.
China has nothing comparable. Its writing system has some 7,000 characters, not 26 letters. Its communist ideology and popular culture are remarkably, even avowedly, particularistic. And you don’t have to look far for another Asian power that attempted Pacific dominion without the salve of soft power. During Japan’s occupation of Southeast Asia in World War II, its troops went from being hailed as liberators to facing open revolt across the region after they failed to propagate their similarly particularistic culture.
As command-economy states for much of the past century, neither China nor Russia developed an independent judiciary or the autonomous rules-based order that undergirds the modern international system. From the foundation of the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 1899 through the formation of the International Court of Justice under the U.N.’s 1945 charter, the world’s nations have aspired to the resolution of conflicts via arbitration or litigation rather than armed conflict. More broadly, the modern globalized economy is held together by a web of conventions, treaties, patents, and contracts grounded in law.
From its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China gave primacy to the party and state, slowing the growth of an autonomous legal system and the rule of law. A test of its attitude toward this system of global governance came in 2016 when the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague ruled unanimously that China’s claims to sovereignty in the South China Sea “are contrary to the Convention [on the Law of the Sea] and without lawful effect.” Beijing’s Foreign Ministry simply dismissed the adverse decision as “invalid” and without “binding force.” President Xi insisted China’s “territorial sovereignty and maritime rights” were unchanged, while the state Xinhua news agency called the ruling “naturally null and void.” Although China might be well placed to supplant Washington’s economic and military power, its capacity to assume leadership via that other aspect of the delicate duality of global power, a network of international organizations grounded in the rule of law, is still open to question.
If Donald Trump’s vision of world disorder is a sign of the American future and if Beijing’s projected $2 trillion in infrastructure investments, history’s largest by far, succeed in unifying the commerce and transport of Asia, Africa, and Europe, then perhaps the currents of financial power and global leadership will indeed transcend all barriers and flow inexorably toward Beijing, as if by natural law. But if that bold initiative ultimately fails, then for the first time in five centuries the world may face an imperial transition without a clear successor as global hegemon. Moreover, it will do so on a planet where the “new normal” of climate change — the heating of the atmosphere and the oceans, the intensification of flood, drought, and fire, the rising seas that will devastate coastal cities, and the cascading damage to a densely populated world — could mean that the very idea of a global hegemon is fast becoming a thing of the past.
Beijing’s Bid for Global Power in the Age of Trump
Amid the intense coverage of Russian cyber-maneuvering and North Korean missile threats, another kind of great-power rivalry has been playing out quietly in the Indian and Pacific oceans. The U.S. and Chinese navies have been repositioning warships and establishing naval bases as if they were so many pawns on a geopolitical chessboard. To some it might seem curious, even quaint, that gunboats and naval bastions, once emblematic of the Victorian age, remain even remotely relevant in our own era of cyber-threats and space warfare.
Yet if you examine, even briefly, the central role that naval power has played and still plays in the fate of empires, the deadly serious nature of this new naval competition makes more sense. Indeed, if war were to break out among the major powers today, don’t discount the possibility that it might come from a naval clash over Chinese bases in the South China Sea rather than a missile strike against North Korea or a Russian cyber attack.
The Age of Empire
For the past 500 years, from the 50 fortified Portuguese ports that dotted the world in the sixteenth century to the 800 U.S. military bases that dominate much of it today, empires have used such enclaves as Archimedean levers to move the globe. Viewed historically, naval bastions were invaluable when it came to the aspirations of any would-be hegemonic power, yet also surprisingly vulnerable to capture in times of conflict.
Throughout the twentieth century and the first years of this one, military bases in the South China Sea in particular have been flashpoints for geopolitical change. The U.S. victory at Manila Bay in 1898, the fall of the British bastion of Singapore to the Japanese in 1942, America’s withdrawal from Subic Bay in the Philippines in 1992, and China’s construction of airstrips and missile launchers in the Spratly Islands since 2014 — all have been iconic markers for both geopolitical dominion and imperial transition.
Indeed, in his 1890 study of naval history, that famed advocate of seapower Captain Alfred Thayer Mahan, arguably America’s only original strategic thinker, stated that “the maintenance of suitable naval stations…, when combined with decided preponderance at sea, makes a scattered and extensive empire, like that of England, secure.” In marked contrast to the British Navy’s 300 ships and 30 bases circling the globe, he worried that U.S. warships with “no foreign establishments, either colonial or military… will be like land birds, unable to fly far from their own shores. To provide resting-places for them… would be one of the first duties of a government proposing to itself the development of the power of the nation at sea.”
So important did Captain Mahan consider naval bases for America’s defense that he argued “it should be an inviolable resolution of our national policy that no European state should henceforth acquire a coaling position within three thousand miles of San Francisco” — a span that reached the Hawaiian Islands, which Washington would soon seize. In a series of influential dictums, he also argued that a large fleet and overseas bases were essential to both the exercise of global power and national defense.
Although Mahan was read as gospel by everyone from American President Teddy Roosevelt to German Kaiser Wilhelm II, his observations do not explain the persistent geopolitical significance of such naval bases. Especially in periods between wars, these bastions seem to allow empires to project their power in crucial ways.
Historian Paul Kennedy has suggested that Britain’s “naval mastery” in the nineteenth century made it “extremely difficult for other lesser states to undertake maritime operations or trade without at least its tacit consent.” But modern bases do even more. Naval bastions and the warships they serve can weave a web of dominion across an open sea, transforming an unbounded ocean into de facto territorial waters. Even in an age of cyberwarfare, they remain essential to geopolitical gambits of almost any sort, as the United States has shown repeatedly during its tumultuous century as a Pacific power.
America as a Pacific Power
As the U.S. began its ascent to global power by expanding its navy in the 1890s, Captain Mahan, then head of the Naval War College, argued that Washington had to build a battle fleet and capture island bastions, particularly in the Pacific, that could control the surrounding sea-lanes. Influenced in part by his doctrine, Admiral George Dewey’s squadron sank the Spanish fleet and seized the key harbor of Manila Bay in the Philippines during the Spanish-American War of 1898.
In 1905, however, Japan’s stunning victory over the Russian Baltic Fleet in the Tsushima Strait (between southern Japan and Korea) suddenly revealed the vulnerability of the slender string of bases the U.S. then possessed, stretching from Panama to the Philippines. Under the pressure of the imperial Japanese navy, Washington soon abandoned its plans for a major naval presence in the Western Pacific. Within a year, President Theodore Roosevelt had removed the last Navy battleship from the region and later authorized the construction of a new Pacific bastion not in distant Manila Bay but at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, insisting that “the Philippines form our heel of Achilles.” When the Versailles settlement at the end of World War I awarded Micronesia in the Western Pacific to Japan, the dispatch of any fleet from Pearl Harbor to Manila Bay became problematic in time of war and rendered the Philippines essentially indefensible.
It was partly for this reason, in mid-1941, that Secretary of War Henry Stimson decided that the B-17 bomber, aptly named the “Flying Fortress,” would be the wonder weapon capable of countering the Japanese navy’s control of the Western Pacific and sent 35 of these new aircraft to Manila. Stimson’s strategy was, however, a flight of imperial fantasy that condemned most of those planes to destruction by Japanese fighters in the first days of World War II in the Pacific and doomed General Douglas MacArthur’s army in the Philippines to a humiliating defeat at Bataan.
As bomber ranges tripled during that global conflict, however, the War Department decided in 1943 that the country’s postwar defense required retaining forward bases in the Philippines. These ambitions were fully realized in 1947 when the newly independent republic signed the Military Bases Agreement granting the U.S. a 99-year lease on 23 military installations, including the Seventh Fleet’s future homeport at Subic Bay and the massive Clark Air Base near Manila.
Simultaneously, during its postwar occupation of Japan, the U.S. acquired more than a hundred military facilities that stretched from Misawa Air Base in the north of that country to Sasebo Naval Base in the south. With its strategic location, the island of Okinawa had 32 active U.S. installations covering about 20% of its entire area.
As the Cold War came to Asia in 1951, Washington concluded mutual defense pacts with Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia that made the Pacific littoral the eastern anchor for its strategic dominion over Eurasia. By 1955, the early enclaves in Japan and the Philippines had been integrated into a global network of 450 overseas bases aimed largely at containing the Sino-Soviet bloc behind an Iron Curtain that bisected the vast Eurasian continent.
After surveying the rise and fall of Eurasian empires for the past 600 years, Oxford historian John Darwin concluded that Washington had achieved its “colossal Imperium… on an unprecedented scale” by becoming the first power to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia” — in the west through the NATO alliance and in the east via those four mutual security pacts. During the later decades of the Cold War, moreover, the U.S. Navy completed its encirclement of the continent, taking over the old British base at Bahrain in 1971 and later building a multibillion-dollar base at the epicenter of the Indian Ocean on the island of Diego Garcia for its air and naval patrols.
Among these many bases ringing Eurasia, those along the Pacific littoral were of particular strategic import before, during, and after the Cold War. As the geopolitical fulcrum between the defense of one continent (North America) and control of another (Asia), the Pacific littoral has remained a constant focus in Washington’s century-long effort to extend and maintain its global power.
In the aftermath of the Cold War, as Washington elites reveled in their role as leaders of the world’s sole superpower, former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, a master of Eurasia’s unforgiving geopolitics, warned that the U.S. could preserve its global power only as long as the eastern end of that vast Eurasian landmass did not unify itself in a way that might lead to “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases.” Otherwise, he asserted with some prescience, “a potential rival to America might at some point arise.”
In fact, the weakening of those “offshore bases” had already begun in 1991, the very year the Soviet Union imploded, when the Philippines refused to extend the U.S. lease on the Seventh Fleet’s bastion at Subic Bay. As Navy tugs towed Subic’s floating dry docks home to Pearl Harbor, the Philippines assumed full responsibility for its own defense without actually putting any more of its funds into air or naval power. Consequently, during a raging typhoon in 1994, China was able to suddenly occupy some shoals in the nearby Spratly Islands that went by the name of Mischief Reef — and that would turn out to be just its first step in a bid to control the South China Sea. Without the ability to launch its own air and navy patrols, in 1998 the Philippine military, in an attempt to reassert its claim to the area, grounded a rusting U.S.-surplus ship on nearby Ayungin Shoal as a “base” for a squad of barefoot soldiers who were forced to fish for their rations.
In the meantime, the U.S. Navy suffered its own decline with a 40% reduction in surface warships and attack submarines from 1990 to 1996. Over the next two decades, the Navy’s Pacific posture weakened further as the focus of naval deployments shifted to wars in the Middle East, the service’s overall size shrank by an additional 20% (to just 271 ships), and crews strained under the pressure of ever-extending deployments — leaving the Seventh Fleet ill-prepared to meet China’s unexpected challenge.
China’s Naval Gambit
After years of seeming compliance with Washington’s rules for good global citizenship, China’s recent actions in Central Asia and the continent’s surrounding seas have revealed a two-phase strategy that would, if successful, undercut the perpetuation of American global power. First, China is spending a trillion dollars to fund a vast transcontinental grid of new railroads, highways, and oil and natural gas pipelines that could harness Eurasia’s vast resources as an economic engine to drive its ascent to world power.
In a parallel move, China is building a blue-water navy and creating its first overseas bases in the Arabian and South China seas. As Beijing stated in a 2015 white paper, “The traditional mentality that land outweighs the sea must be abandoned… It is necessary for China to develop a modern maritime military force structure commensurate with its national security.” Though the force it contemplates will hardly compete with the U.S. Navy’s global presence, China seems determined to dominate a significant arc of waters around Asia, from the horn of Africa, across the Indian Ocean, all the way to Korea.
Beijing’s bid for overseas bases began quietly in 2011 when it started investing almost $250 million in the transformation of a sleepy fishing village at Gwadar, Pakistan, on the shores of the Arabian Sea, into a modern commercial port only 370 miles from the mouth of the Persian Gulf. Four years later, President Xi Jinping committed another $46 billion to the building of a China-Pakistan Economic Corridor of roads, railways, and pipelines stretching for 2,000 miles from western China to the now-modernized port at Gwadar. It still avoided any admission that military aims might be involved so as not to alarm New Delhi or Washington. In 2016, however, Pakistan’s Navy announced that it was indeed opening a naval base at Gwadar (soon strengthened with two warships donated by China) and added that Beijing was welcome to base its own ships there as well.
That same year, China began building a major military facility at Djibouti on the Horn of Africa and, in August 2017, opened its first official overseas base there, giving its navy access to the oil-rich Arabian Sea. Simultaneously, Sri Lanka, located at a midpoint in the Indian Ocean, settled a billion-dollar debt to China by ceding it a strategic port at Hambantota, creating a future potential for dual military use there, too — in effect, the Gwadar stealth strategy revisited.
As controversial as these enclaves might be (at least from an American point of view), they paled before China’s attempts to claim an entire ocean. Starting in April 2014, Beijing escalated its bid for exclusive territorial control over the South China Sea by expanding Longpo Naval Base on its own Hainan Island into a homeport for its four nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines. Without any announcement, the Chinese also began dredging seven artificial atolls in the disputed Spratly Islands to create military airfields and future anchorages. In just four years, Beijing’s armada of dredges had sucked up countless tons of sand from the ocean floor, slowly transforming those minimalist reefs and atolls into active military bases. Today, China’s army operates a jet runway protected by HQ-9 anti-aircraft missile batteries on Woody Island, a radar base on Cuareton Reef, and has mobile missile launchers near runways ready for jet fighters at three more of these “islands.”
While fighter planes and submarines are pawns in China’s opening gambit in the contest for the South China Sea, Beijing hopes one day to at least check (if not checkmate) Washington with a growing armada of aircraft carriers, the modern dreadnaughts in this latter-day game of empires. After acquiring an unfinished Soviet Kuznetsov-class carrier from Ukraine in 1998, the naval dockyard at Dalian retrofitted the rusting hulk and launched it in 2012 as the Liaoning, China’s first aircraft carrier. That hull was already 30 years old, an age that would normally have assured such a warship a place in some scrap metal yard. Though not combat capable, it was a platform for training China’s first generation of naval aviators in landing speeding jets on heaving decks in high seas. In marked contrast to the 15 years needed to retrofit this first ship, the Dalian yards took just five years to construct, from the keel up, a much-improved second carrier capable of full combat operations.
The narrow hulls and ski-jump prows that limit these first two carriers to just 24 “Flying Shark” fighter planes won’t hold for the country’s third carrier, now being built from indigenous designs in Shanghai. When launched next year, it will be able to carry on-board fuel reserves that will give it a longer cruising range and a complement of 40 aircraft, as well as electromagnetic systems for faster launches. Thanks to an accelerating tempo of training, technology, and construction, by 2030 China should have enough aircraft carriers to ensure that the South China Sea will become what the Pentagon has termed a “Chinese lake.”
Such carriers are the vanguard of a sustained naval expansion that, by 2017, had already given China a modern navy of 320 ships, backed by land-based missiles, jet fighters, and a global system of surveillance satellites. Its current anti-ship ballistic missiles have a range of 2,500 miles and so could strike U.S. Navy vessels anywhere in the Western Pacific. Beijing has also made strides in mastering the volatile technology for hypersonic missiles with speeds of up to 5,000 miles per hour, making them impossible to stop. By building two new submarines every year, China has already assembled a fleet of 57, both diesel- and nuclear-powered, and is projected to reach 80 soon. Each of its four nuclear submarines carries 12 ballistic missiles that could reach anywhere in the western United States. In addition, Beijing has launched dozens of amphibious ships and coastal corvettes, giving it naval dominance in its own waters.
Within just five years, according to the U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence, China “will complete its transition” from the coastal force of the 1990s to a modern navy capable of “sustained blue water operations” and “multiple missions around the world,” including full-spectrum warfare. In other words, China is forging a future capacity to control its “home” waters from the East China Sea to the South China Sea. In the process, it will become the first power in 70 years to challenge the U.S. Navy’s dominion over the Pacific basin.
The American Response
After taking office in 2009, President Barack Obama came to the conclusion that China’s rise represented a serious threat and so he developed a geopolitical strategy to counter it. First, he promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation commercial pact that would direct 40% of world trade toward the United States. Then, in March 2014, after announcing a military “pivot to Asia” in an address to the Australian parliament, he deployed a full battalion of Marines to a base at the city of Darwin on the Timor Sea. A month later, the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines signed an enhanced defense cooperation agreement with that country allowing U.S. forces to be stationed at five of its bases.
Combining existing installations in Japan with access to naval bases in Subic Bay, Darwin, and Singapore, Obama rebuilt America’s chain of military enclaves along the Asian littoral. To make full use of these installations, the Pentagon began planning to “forward base 60% of [its] naval assets in the Pacific by 2020” and launched its first regular “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea as a challenge to the Chinese navy, even sending in full carrier strike groups.
President Trump, however, cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership right after his inauguration and, with the endless war on terror in the Greater Middle East grinding on, the shift of naval forces to the Pacific slowed. More broadly, Trump’s unilateral, America-first foreign policy has damaged relations with the four allies that underpin its line of defense in the Pacific: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia. Moreover, in his obsessive courtship of Beijing’s help in the Korean crisis, the president even suspended, for five months, those naval patrols into the South China Sea.
The administration’s new $700 billion defense budget will fund 46 new ships for the Navy by 2023 (for a total of 326), but the White House seems incapable, as reflected in its recent National Security Strategy, of grasping the geostrategic importance of Eurasia or devising an effective scheme for the deployment of its expanding military to check China’s rise. After declaring Obama’s “pivot to Asia” officially dead, the Trump administration has instead offered its own “free and open Indo-Pacific” founded on an unworkable alliance of four supposedly kindred democracies — Australia, India, Japan, and the United States.
While Trump stumbles from one foreign policy crisis to the next, his admirals, mindful of Mahan’s strategic dictums, are acutely aware of the geopolitical requisites of American imperial power and have been vocal about their determination to preserve it. Indeed, China’s naval expansion, along with advances in Russia’s submarine fleet, have led the Navy to a fundamental strategic shift from limited operations against regional powers like Iran to full-spectrum readiness for “a return to great power competition.” After a sweeping strategic review of his forces in 2017, Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson reported that China’s “growing and modernized fleet” was “shrinking” the traditional American advantage in the Pacific. “The competition is on,” he warned, “and pace dominates. In an exponential competition, the winner takes all. We must shake off any vestiges of comfort or complacency.”
In a parallel review of the Navy’s surface force, its commander, Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, proclaimed “a new age of seapower” with a return to “great power dynamics” from “near-peer competitors.” Any potential naval attack, he added, must be met with a “distributed lethality” capable of “inflicting damage of such magnitude that it compels an adversary to cease hostilities.” Summoning the ghost of Captain Mahan, the admiral warned: “From Europe to Asia, history is replete with nations that rose to global power only to cede it back through lack of seapower.”
Great Power Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century
As such rhetoric indicates, there is already a rising tempo of naval competition in the South China Sea. Just last month, after a protracted hiatus in freedom-of-navigation patrols, the Trump administration sent the supercarrier USS Carl Vinson, with its full complement of 5,000 sailors and 90 aircraft, steaming across the South China Sea for a symbolic visit to Vietnam, which has its own long-running dispute with China over oil rights in those waters.
Just three weeks later, satellite imagery captured an extraordinary “display of maritime might” as a flotilla of some 40 Chinese warships, including the carrier Liaoning, steamed through that same sea in a formation that stretched for miles. Combined with the maneuvers it staged in those waters with the Cambodian and Russian navies in 2016, China, like empires past, is clearly planning to use its gunboats and future naval bases to weave a web of de facto imperial control across the waters of Asia.
Naysayers who dismiss China’s challenge might remind us that its navy only operates in two of the metaphoric “seven seas,” a pale imitation of the U.S. Navy’s robust global posture. Yet China’s rising presence in the Indian and Pacific oceans has far-reaching geostrategic implications for our world order. In a cascading series of consequences, China’s future dominance over significant parts of those oceans will compromise the U.S. position on the Pacific littoral, shatter its control over that axial end of Eurasia, and open that vast continental expanse, home to 70% of the world’s population and resources, to China’s dominion. Just as Brzezinski once warned, Washington’s failure to control Eurasia could well mean the end of its global hegemony and the rise of a new world empire based in Beijing.
Gunboat Diplomacy and the Ghost of Captain Mahan
As 2017 ended with billionaires toasting their tax cuts and energy executives cheering their unfettered access to federal lands as well as coastal waters, there was one sector of the American elite that did not share in the champagne celebration: Washington’s corps of foreign policy experts. Across the political spectrum, many of them felt a deep foreboding for the country’s global future under the leadership of President Donald Trump.
In a year-end jeremiad, for instance, conservative CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria blasted the “Trump administration’s foolish and self-defeating decision to abdicate the United States’ global influence — something that has taken more than 70 years to build.” The great “global story of our times,” he continued, is that “the creator, upholder, and enforcer of the existing international system is withdrawing into self-centered isolation,” opening a power vacuum that will be filled by illiberal powers like China, Russia, and Turkey.
The editors of the New York Times remarked ruefully that the president’s “boastfulness and belligerence and tendency to self-aggrandizement are not only costing America worldwide support, but also isolating it.” Discarding the polite bipartisanship of Washington’s top diplomats, Obama’s former national security adviser, Susan Rice, ripped Trump for dumping “principled leadership — the foundation of American foreign policy since World War II” — for an “America first” stance that will only “embolden rivals and weaken ourselves.”
Yet no matter how sharp or sweeping, such criticism can’t begin to take in the full scope of the damage the Trump White House is inflicting on the system of global power Washington built and carefully maintained over those 70 years. Indeed, American leaders have been on top of the world for so long that they no longer remember how they got there. Few among Washington’s foreign policy elite seem to fully grasp the complex system that made U.S. global power what it now is, particularly its all-important geopolitical foundations. As Trump travels the globe, tweeting and trashing away, he’s inadvertently showing us the essential structure of that power, the same way a devastating wildfire leaves the steel beams of a ruined building standing starkly above the smoking rubble.
The Architecture of American Global Power
The architecture of the world order that Washington built after World War II was not only formidable but, as Trump is teaching us almost daily, surprisingly fragile. At its core, that global system rested upon a delicate duality: an idealistic community of sovereign nations equal under the rule of international law joined tensely, even tenuously, to an American imperium grounded in the realpolitik of its military and economic power. In concrete terms, think of this duality as the State Department versus the Pentagon.
At the end of World War II, the United States invested its prestige in forming an international community that would promote peace and shared prosperity through permanent institutions, including the United Nations (1945), the International Monetary Fund (1945), and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947), the predecessor to the World Trade Organization. To govern such a world order through the rule of law, Washington also helped establish the International Court of Justice at The Hague and would later promote both human rights and women’s rights.
On the realpolitik side of that duality, Washington constructed a four-tier apparatus — military, diplomatic, economic, and clandestine — to grimly advance its own global dominion. At its core was an unmatched military that (thanks to hundreds of overseas bases) circled the globe, the most formidable nuclear arsenal on the planet, massive air and naval forces, and an unparalleled array of client armies. In addition, to maintain its military superiority, the Pentagon massively promoted scientific research, producing incessant innovation that would lead, among so many other things, to the world’s first system of global telecommunications satellites, which effectively added space to its apparatus for exercising global power.
Complementing all this steel was the salve of an active worldwide diplomatic corps, working to promote close bilateral ties with allies like Australia and Britain and multilateral alliances like NATO, SEATO, and the Organization of American States. In the process, it distributed economic aid to nations new and old. Protected by such global hegemony and helped by multilateral trade pacts hammered out in Washington, America’s multinational corporations competed profitably in international markets throughout the Cold War.
Adding another dimension to its global power was a clandestine fourth tier that involved global surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) and covert operations on five continents by the Central Intelligence Agency. In this way, with remarkable regularity and across vast expanses of the globe, Washington manipulated elections and promoted coups to insure that whoever led a country on our side of the Iron Curtain would remain part of a reliable set of subordinate elites, friendly to and subservient to the U.S.
In ways that to this day few observers fully appreciate, this massive apparatus of global power also rested on geopolitical foundations of extraordinary strength. As Oxford historian John Darwin explained in his sweeping history of Eurasian empires over the past 600 years, Washington achieved its “colossal Imperium… on an unprecedented scale” by becoming the first power in history to control the strategic axial points “at both ends of Eurasia” through its military bases and mutual security pacts.
While Washington defended its European axial point through NATO, its position in the east was secured by four mutual defense pacts running down the Pacific littoral from Japan and South Korea through the Philippines to Australia. All of this was, in turn, tied together by successive arcs of steel that ringed the vast Eurasian continent — strategic bombers, ballistic missiles, and massive naval fleets in the Mediterranean, the Persian Gulf, and the Pacific. In the latest addition to this apparatus, the U.S. has built a string of 60 drone bases around the Eurasian landmass from Sicily to Guam.
The Dynamics of Decline
In the decade before Donald Trump entered the Oval Office, there were already signs that this awesome apparatus was on a long-term trajectory of decline, even if the key figures in a Washington shrouded in imperial hubris preferred to ignore that reality. Not only has the new president’s maladroit diplomacy accelerated this trend, but it has illuminated it in striking ways.
Over the past half-century, the American share of the global economy has, for instance, fallen from 40% in 1960 to 22% in 2014 to just 15% in 2017 (as measured by the realistic index of purchasing power parity). Many experts now agree that China will surpass the U.S., in absolute terms, as the world’s number one economy within a decade.
As its global economic dominance fades, its clandestine instruments of power have been visibly weakening as well. The NSA’s worldwide surveillance of a remarkable array of foreign leaders, as well as millions of the inhabitants of their countries, was once a relatively cost-effective instrument for the exercise of global power. Now, thanks in part to Edward Snowden’s revelations about the agency’s snooping and the anger of targeted allies, the political costs have risen sharply. Similarly, during the Cold War, the CIA manipulated dozens of major elections worldwide. Now, the situation has been reversed with Russia using its sophisticated cyberwarfare capabilities to interfere in the 2016 American presidential campaign — a clear sign of Washington’s waning global power.
Most striking of all, Washington now faces the first sustained challenge to its geopolitical position in Eurasia. By opting to begin constructing a “new silk road,” a trillion-dollar infrastructure of railroads and oil pipelines across that vast continent, and preparing to build naval bases in the Arabian and South China seas, Beijing is mounting a sustained campaign to undercut Washington’s long dominance over Eurasia.
During just 12 months in office, Donald Trump has accelerated this decline by damaging almost all the key components in the intricate architecture of American global power.
If all great empires require skilled leadership at their epicenter to maintain what is always a fragile global equilibrium, then the Trump administration has failed spectacularly. As the State Department is eviscerated and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson discredited, Trump has — uniquely for an American president — taken sole control of foreign policy (with the generals he appointed to key civilian posts in tow).
How, then, do those who have been in close contact with him in this period assess his intellectual ability to adapt to such a daunting role?
Although since his election campaign Trump has repeatedly bragged about his excellent education at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School as a qualification for office, he started there in the late 1960s thinking he already knew everything about business, prompting his marketing professor, who taught for more than 30 years, to brand him “the dumbest goddam student I ever had.” That brash unwillingness to learn carried into the presidential campaign. As political consultant Sam Nunberg, sent to tutor the candidate on the Constitution, reported, “I got as far as the Fourth Amendment before… his eyes are rolling back in his head.”
As Michael Wolff has recounted in his bestselling new book on the Trump White House, Fire and Fury, a few months later, at the close of a phone conversation with the president-elect about the complexities of the H-1B visa program for skilled immigrants, media mogul Rupert Murdoch hung up and said, “What a fucking idiot.” And last July, as no one is likely to forget, after a top-secret Pentagon briefing for the White House principals on worldwide military operations, Secretary of State Tillerson seconded that view by privately labeling the president a “fucking moron.”
“It’s worse than you can imagine. An idiot surrounded by clowns,” one White House aide wrote in an email, according to Wolff. “Trump won’t read anything; not one-page memos, not the brief policy papers; nothing. He gets up half-way through meetings with world leaders because he is bored.” White House Deputy Chief of Staff Katie Walsh claimed that dealing with the president was “like trying to figure out what a child wants.”
Those qualities of mind are amply evident in the administration’s recent National Security Strategy report, a vacuous document that wavers between the misguided and the delusional. “When I came into office,” Trump (or at least whoever was impersonating him) writes darkly in a personal preface, “rogue regimes were developing nuclear weapons… to threaten the entire planet. Radical Islamist terror groups were flourishing… Rival powers were aggressively undermining American interests around the globe… Unfair burden-sharing with our allies and inadequate investment in our own defense had invited danger.”
In just 12 short months, however, the president — so “his” preface indicates — had singlehandedly saved the country from almost certain destruction. “We are rallying the world against the rogue regime in North Korea and… the dictatorship in Iran, which those determined to pursue a flawed nuclear deal had neglected,” that preface continues in a typically Trumpian celebration of self. “We have renewed our friendships in the Middle East… to help drive out terrorists and extremists… America’s allies are now contributing more to our common defense, strengthening even our strongest alliances… We are making historic investments in the United States military.”
Reflecting his administration’s well-documented difficulties with the truth, almost every one of those statements is either inaccurate, incomplete, or irrelevant. Setting aside such details, the document itself reflects the way the president (and his generals) have abandoned decades of confident leadership of the international community and are now trying to retreat from “an extraordinarily dangerous world” into a veritable Festung America behind concrete walls and tariff barriers — in some eerie way conceptually reminiscent of the Atlantic Wall of beachfront bunkers Hitler’s Third Reich constructed for its failed Festung Europa (Fortress Europe). But beyond such an obviously myopic foreign policy agenda, there are vast areas, largely overlooked in Trump’s strategy, that remain critical for the overall maintenance of American global power.
All you have to do is note headlines in the daily media over the past year to grasp that Washington’s world dominion is crumbling, thanks to the sorts of cascading setbacks that often accompany imperial decline. Consider the first seven days of December, when the New York Times reported (without connecting the dots) that nation after nation was pulling away from Washington. First, there was Egypt, a country which had received $70 billion in U.S. aid over the previous 40 years and was now opening its military bases to Russian jet fighters; then, despite President Obama’s assiduous courtship of the country, Myanmar was evidently moving ever closer to Beijing; meanwhile, Australia, America’s stalwart ally for the last 100 years, was reported to be adapting its diplomacy, however reluctantly, to accommodate China’s increasingly dominant power in Asia; and finally, there was the foreign minister of Germany, that American bastion in Europe since 1945, pointing oh-so-publicly to a widening divide with Washington on key policy issues and insisting that clashes will be inevitable and relations “will never be the same.”
And that’s just to scratch the surface of one week’s news without even touching on the kinds of ruptures with allies regularly being ignited or emphasized by the president’s daily tweets. Just three examples from many will do: President Peña Nieto’s cancelation of a state visit after a tweet that Mexico had to pay for Trump’s prospective “big, fat, beautiful wall” on the border between the two countries; outrage from British leaders sparked by the president’s retweet of racist anti-Muslim videos posted on a Twitter account by the deputy leader of a neo-Nazi political group in that country, followed by his rebuke of British Prime Minister Theresa May for criticizing him over it; or his New Year’s Day blast accusing Pakistan of “nothing but lies & deceit” as a prelude to cutting off U.S. aid to that country. Considering all the diplomatic damage, you could say that Trump is tweeting while Rome burns.
Since there are only 40 to 50 nations with enough wealth to play even a regional, much less a global role on this planet of ours, alienating or losing allies at such a rate could soon leave Washington largely friendless — something President Trump found out in December when he defied numerous U.N. resolutions by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The White House soon got a 14-1 reprimand from the Security Council, with close allies like the Germans and the French voting against Washington. This came after U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley had ominously warned that “the U.S. will be taking names” to punish countries that dared vote against it and Trump had threatened to cut aid to those that did. The General Assembly promptly voted 128 to 9 (with 35 abstentions), to condemn the recognition — eloquent testimony to Washington’s waning international influence.
Next, let’s consider the “historic investments” in a central pillar in the architecture of American global power, the U.S. military, mentioned in Trump’s National Security Strategy. Don’t be distracted by the proposed whopping 10% increase in the Pentagon budget to fund new aircraft and warships, much of which will go directly into the pockets of giant defense contractors. Focus instead on what once would have been inconceivable in Washington: that the proposed Trump budget would slash funding for basic research in strategic areas like “artificial intelligence” likely to become critical for automated weapons systems within a decade.
In effect, the president and his team, distracted by visions of shimmering ships and shiny planes (with their predictable staggering future cost overruns), are ready to ditch the basics of global dominion: the relentless scientific research that has long been the cutting edge of U.S. military supremacy. And by expanding the Pentagon while slashing the State Department, Trump is also destabilizing that delicate duality of U.S. power by skewing foreign policy ever more toward costly military solutions (that have proved anything but actual solutions).
Starting on the campaign trail in 2016, Trump has also hammered away at another pillar of American power, attacking the system of global commerce and multilateral trade pacts that have long advantaged the country’s transnational corporations. Not only did he cancel the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which promised to direct 40% of world trade away from China and toward the United States, but he’s threatened to void the free-trade pact with South Korea and has been so insistent on recrafting NAFTA to serve his “America first” agenda that ongoing negotiations may well fail.
The Crumbling U.S. Geopolitical Position
As serious as all that might be, Trump revealed the deepest damage he was capable of doing to the geopolitical foundations of the country’s global power in two key moments on his trips to Europe and Asia last year. In both places, he signaled his willingness to deliver hammer blows to Washington’s position at those strategic axial ends of Eurasia.
During a visit to NATO’s new headquarters in Brussels in May, he chastised European allies, whose leaders reportedly listened “stone-faced,” for failing to pay their “fair share” of the military costs of the alliance and, while he was at it, refused to reaffirm NATO’s core principle of collective defense. Despite later attempts to ameliorate the damage, that sent shudders across Europe and for good reason. It signaled the end of more than three-quarters of a century of unchallenged, unquestioned American supremacy there.
Then, at an Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Vietnam in November, the president launched “a tirade” against multilateral trade agreements and insisted that he would always “put America first.” It was as if, in an Asia in which China was rising fast, he were again announcing that Washington’s post-World War II supremacy was an artifact of history. Appropriately enough, at that same meeting, the remaining 11 Trans-Pacific partners, led by Japan and Canada, announced major progress in finalizing the TPP agreement he had so symbolically rejected — and did so without the United States. “The U.S. has lost its leadership role,” commented Jayant Menon, an economist at the Asian Development Bank. “And China is quickly replacing it.”
Under Trump, in fact, Washington’s close relations with three key Pacific allies continue to weaken in visible ways. During a courtesy phone call upon taking office, Trump gratuitously insulted Australia’s prime minister, an act that only highlighted that country’s mounting alienation from the U.S. and a growing inclination to shift its primary strategic alliance toward China. In recent polls when asked what country they preferred as a primary ally, 43% of all Australians chose China — a once-unimaginable transformation that Trump’s version of diplomacy is only reinforcing.
In the Philippines, the inauguration of President Rodrigo Duterte in June 2016 brought a sudden shift in the country’s foreign policy, ending Manila’s opposition to Beijing’s bases in the South China Sea. Despite an aggressive courtship by Trump and a certain temperamental affinity between the two leaders, Duterte has continued to scale down the joint military maneuvers with the U.S. that were an annual event for his country and has refused to reconsider his decisive tilt toward Beijing. That realignment was already evident in a leaked transcript of an April phone call between the two presidents in which Duterte insisted that the resolution of the North Korea nuclear issue should rest solely with China.
It is, however, on the Korean peninsula that Trump’s limitations as a global leader have been most evident. In two uncoordinated, ill-informed initiatives — denigrating the Korean War-era U.S. alliance with South Korea and demanding total nuclear disarmament by the North — Trump fostered a diplomatic dynamic that has allowed Beijing, Pyongyang, and even Seoul to outmaneuver Washington.
During his presidential campaign and first months in office, Trump repeatedly insulted South Korea, demeaning its culture and demanding a billion dollars for installing an American missile defense system. No one should then have been surprised when Moon Jae-in won that country’s presidency last year on a “say no” to America platform and on promises to reopen direct negotiations with the North Korea of Kim Jong-un. Then, during a state visit to Washington last June, the new South Korean leader was blindsided when Trump called the free-trade agreement between their two countries “not fair to the American worker” and blasted Moon’s proposal for negotiating with Pyongyang.
Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un oversaw 16 rocket tests in 2017 that left his country with missiles that could potentially deliver a nuclear weapon to Honolulu, Seattle, or even by year’s end New York and Washington, while testing its first hydrogen bomb. Convinced that North Korea “seeks the capability to kill millions of Americans,” Trump became obsessed with curtailing Pyongyang’s nuclear program by any means, even threatening last August to unleash on that country “fire and fury like the world has never seen.”
Within days, however, then-White House strategist Steve Bannon exposed the empty bluster of all of this by telling the press, “There’s no military solution until somebody solves the part of the equation that… ten million people in Seoul don’t die in the first 30 minutes from conventional weapons.” So the threats failed and Trump flailed, repeatedly trash-tweeting Kim Jong-un as “little Rocket Man” and bragging that his own “nuclear button” is “much bigger” than the North Korean leader’s. These 12 months of bizarre, destabilizing presidential twists and tweets, almost without precedent in the annals of modern diplomacy, have pushed Seoul toward direct talks with Pyongyang — excluding Washington and weakening what had been a rock-solid alliance.
In the war of nerves with North Korea over its missile tests, Trump’s strategy of triangulation with China (that is, Washington nudges Beijing, Beijing shoves Pyongyang) has already inflicted a major, unrecognized defeat on American power in the Pacific. For the last six months, to encourage Beijing to pressure Pyongyang, the White House has suspended the “freedom of navigation” patrols that challenge Beijing’s spurious claims to territorial control over the South China Sea, effectively conceding this strategic waterway to China.
In a deft bit of dissimulation, Beijing has made a show of cooperation with Washington by expressing “grave concerns” over Pyongyang’s missile tests and imposing nominal sanctions, while playing a longer, smarter strategic hand. In the process, it has been working to curtail joint American-South Korean military maneuvers and neutralize the U.S. Navy in what China considers its home waters.
In this diplomatic edition of The Art of the Deal, Beijing is trumping Washington.
Taking Down the Empire
Quite understandably, many Americans have focused on the damage Trump’s first months in office have done domestically, from opening pristine wilderness areas and offshore waters to oil and natural gas drilling to threatening access to medical care, skewing the progressive tax code to favor the rich, cancelling net neutrality, and voiding environmental protections of every sort. Most if not all of these regressive policies can, however, be repaired or reversed if the Democrats ever take control of Congress and the White House.
Trump’s strikingly inept version of one-man diplomacy in the context of America’s ongoing global decline is an altogether different matter. World leadership lost is never readily recovered, particularly when rival powers are prepared to fill the void. As Trump undercuts the U.S. strategic position at the axial ends of Eurasia, China is pressing relentlessly to displace the United States and dominate that vast continent with what New York Times correspondent Edward Wong calls “a blunt counterpoint… synonymous with brute strength, bribery and browbeating.”
In just one extraordinary year, Trump has destabilized the delicate duality that has long been the foundation for U.S. foreign policy: favoring war over diplomacy, the Pentagon over the State Department, and narrow national interest over international leadership. But in a globalizing world interconnected by trade, the Internet, and the rapid proliferation of nuclear-armed missiles, walls won’t work. There can be no Fortress America.
The World According to Trump
[This piece has been adapted and expanded from Alfred W. McCoy’s new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.]
Not quite a century ago, on January 7, 1929, newspaper readers across America were captivated by a brand-new comic strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century. It offered the country its first images of space-age death rays, atomic explosions, and inter-planetary travel.
“I was twenty years old,” World War I veteran Anthony “Buck” Rogers told readers in the very first strip, “surveying the lower levels of an abandoned mine near Pittsburgh… when suddenly… gas knocked me out. But I didn’t die. The peculiar gas… preserved me in suspended animation. Finally, another shifting of strata admitted fresh air and I revived.”
Staggering out of that mine, he finds himself in the 25th century surrounded by flying warriors shooting ray guns at each other. A Mongol spaceship overhead promptly spots him on its “television view plate” and fires its “disintegrator ray” at him. He’s saved from certain death by a flying woman warrior named Wilma who explains to him how this all came to be.
Mongol airships fire disintegrator rays to destroy America.
(Buck Rogers, 2429 A.D., 2-9-1929, Roland N. Anderson Collection)
“Many years ago,” she says, “the Mongol Reds from the Gobi Desert conquered Asia from their great airships held aloft by gravity Repellor Rays. They destroyed Europe, then turned toward peace-loving America.” As their disintegrator beams boiled the oceans, annihilated the U.S. Navy, and demolished Washington, D.C. in just three hours, “government ceased to exist, and mobs, reduced to savagery, fought their way out of the cities to scatter and hide in the country. It was the death of a nation.” While the Mongols rebuilt 15 cities as centers of “super scientific magnificence” under their evil emperor, Americans led “hunted lives in the forests” until their “undying flame of freedom” led them to recapture “lost science” and “once more strike for freedom.”
After a year of such cartoons filled with the worst of early-twentieth-century Asian stereotypes, just as Wilma is clinging to the airship of the Mongol Viceroy as it speeds across the Pacific, a mysterious metallic orb appears high in the sky and fires death rays, sending the Mongol ship “hissing into the sea.” With her anti-gravity “inertron” belt, the intrepid Wilma dives safely into the waves only to have a giant metal arm shoot out from the mysterious orb and pull her on board to reveal — “Horrors! What strange beings!” — Martians!
Space Warrior Wilma is pulled from the Pacific into a Martian space orb.
(Buck Rogers, 2430 A.D., 2-27-1930, Roland N. Anderson Collection)
With that strip, Buck Rogers in the 25th Century moved from Earth-bound combat against racialized Asians into space wars against monsters from other planets that, over the next 70 years, would take the strip into comic books, radio broadcasts, feature films, television serials, video games, and the country’s collective conscious. It would offer defining visions of space warfare for generations of Americans.
Back in the 21st Century
Now imagine us back in the 21st century. It’s 2030 and an American “triple canopy” of pervasive surveillance systems and armed drones already fills the heavens from the lower stratosphere to the exo-atmosphere. It can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out enemy satellite communications at a moment’s notice, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. It’s a wonder of the modern age. Along with the country’s advanced cyberwar capacity, it’s also the most sophisticated military information system ever created and an insurance policy for global dominion deep into the twenty-first century.
That is, in fact, the future as the Pentagon imagines it and it’s actually under development, even though most Americans know little or nothing about it. They are still operating in another age, as was Mitt Romney during the 2012 presidential debates when he complained that “our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917.”
With words of withering mockery, President Obama shot back: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed… the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.” Obama then offered just a hint of what those capabilities might be: “We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space.”
Indeed, working in secrecy, the Obama administration was presiding over a revolution in defense planning, moving the nation far beyond bayonets and battleships to cyberwarfare and the future full-scale weaponization of space. From stratosphere to exosphere, the Pentagon is now producing an armada of fantastical new aerospace weapons worthy of Buck Rogers.
In 2009, building on advances in digital surveillance under the Bush administration, Obama launched the U.S. Cyber Command. Its headquarters were set up inside the National Security Agency (NSA) at Fort Meade, Maryland, and a cyberwar center staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees was established at Lackland Air Base in Texas. Two years later, the Pentagon moved beyond conventional combat on air, land, or sea to declare cyberspace both an offensive and defensive “operational domain.” In August, despite his wide-ranging attempt to purge the government of anything connected to Barack Obama’s “legacy,” President Trump implemented his predecessor’s long-delayed plan to separate that cyber command from the NSA in a bid to “strengthen our cyberspace operations.”
And what is all this technology being prepared for? In study after study, the intelligence community, the Pentagon, and related think tanks have been unanimous in identifying the main threat to future U.S. global hegemony as a rival power with an expanding economy, a strengthening military, and global ambitions: China, the home of those denizens of the Gobi Desert who would, in that old Buck Rogers fable, destroy Washington four centuries from now. Given that America’s economic preeminence is fading fast, breakthroughs in “information warfare” might indeed prove Washington’s best bet for extending its global hegemony further into this century — but don’t count on it, given the history of techno-weaponry in past wars.
Techno-Triumph in Vietnam
Ever since the Pentagon with its 17 miles of corridors was completed in 1943, that massive bureaucratic maze has presided over a creative fusion of science and industry that President Dwight Eisenhower would dub “the military-industrial complex” in his farewell address to the nation in 1961. “We can no longer risk emergency improvisation of national defense,” he told the American people. “We have been compelled to create a permanent armaments industry of vast proportions” sustained by a “technological revolution” that is “complex and costly.” As part of his own contribution to that complex, Eisenhower had overseen the creation of both the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, or NASA, and a “high-risk, high-gain” research unit called the Advanced Research Projects Agency, or ARPA, that later added the word “Defense” to its name and became DARPA.
For 70 years, this close alliance between the Pentagon and major defense contractors has produced an unbroken succession of “wonder weapons” that at least theoretically gave it a critical edge in all major military domains. Even when defeated or fought to a draw, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the Pentagon’s research matrix has demonstrated a recurring resilience that could turn disaster into further technological advance.
The Vietnam War, for example, was a thoroughgoing tactical failure, yet it would also prove a technological triumph for the military-industrial complex. Although most Americans remember only the Army’s soul-destroying ground combat in the villages of South Vietnam, the Air Force fought the biggest air war in military history there and, while it too failed dismally and destructively, it turned out to be a crucial testing ground for a revolution in robotic weaponry.
To stop truck convoys that the North Vietnamese were sending through southern Laos into South Vietnam, the Pentagon’s techno-wizards combined a network of sensors, computers, and aircraft in a coordinated electronic bombing campaign that, from 1968 to 1973, dropped more than a million tons of munitions — equal to the total tonnage for the whole Korean War — in that limited area. At a cost of $800 million a year, Operation Igloo White laced that narrow mountain corridor with 20,000 acoustic, seismic, and thermal sensors that sent signals to four EC-121 communications aircraft circling ceaselessly overhead.
At a U.S. air base just across the Mekong River in Thailand, Task Force Alpha deployed two powerful IBM 360/65 mainframe computers, equipped with history’s first visual display monitors, to translate all those sensor signals into “an illuminated line of light” and so launch jet fighters over the Ho Chi Minh Trail where computers discharged laser-guided bombs automatically. Bristling with antennae and filled with the latest computers, its massive concrete bunker seemed, at the time, a futuristic marvel to a visiting Pentagon official who spoke rapturously about “being swept up in the beauty and majesty of the Task Force Alpha temple.”
However, after more than 100,000 North Vietnamese troops with tanks, trucks, and artillery somehow moved through that sensor field undetected for a massive offensive in 1972, the Air Force had to admit that its $6 billion “electronic battlefield” was an unqualified failure. Yet that same bombing campaign would prove to be the first crude step toward a future electronic battlefield for unmanned robotic warfare.
In the pressure cooker of history’s largest air war, the Air Force also transformed an old weapon, the “Firebee” target drone, into a new technology that would rise to significance three decades later. By 1972, the Air Force could send an “SC/TV” drone, equipped with a camera in its nose, up to 2,400 miles across communist China or North Vietnam while controlling it via a low-resolution television image. The Air Force also made aviation history by test firing the first missile from one of those drones.
The air war in Vietnam was also an impetus for the development of the Pentagon’s global telecommunications satellite system, another important first. After the Initial Defense Satellite Communications System launched seven orbital satellites in 1966, ground terminals in Vietnam started transmitting high-resolution aerial surveillance photos to Washington — something NASA called a “revolutionary development.” Those images proved so useful that the Pentagon quickly launched an additional 21 satellites and soon had the first system that could communicate from anywhere on the globe. Today, according to an Air Force website, the third phase of that system provides secure command, control, and communications for “the Army’s ground mobile forces, the Air Force’s airborne terminals, Navy ships at sea, the White House Communications Agency, the State Department, and special users” like the CIA and NSA.
At great cost, the Vietnam War marked a watershed in Washington’s global information architecture. Turning defeat into innovation, the Air Force had developed the key components — satellite communications, remote sensing, computer-triggered bombing, and unmanned aircraft — that would merge 40 years later into a new system of robotic warfare.
The War on Terror
Facing another set of defeats in Afghanistan and Iraq, the twenty-first-century Pentagon again accelerated the development of new military technologies. After six years of failing counterinsurgency campaigns in both countries, the Pentagon discovered the power of biometric identification and electronic surveillance to help pacify sprawling urban areas. And when President Obama later conducted his troop “surge” in Afghanistan, that country became a frontier for testing and perfecting drone warfare.
Launched as an experimental aircraft in 1994, the Predator drone was deployed in the Balkans that very year for photo-reconnaissance. In 2000, it was adapted for real-time surveillance under the CIA’s Operation Afghan Eyes. It would be armed with the tank-killing Hellfire missile for the agency’s first lethal strike in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in October 2001. Seven years later, the Air Force introduced the larger MQ-9 “Reaper” drone with a flying range of 1,150 miles when fully loaded with Hellfire missiles and GBU-30 bombs, allowing it to strike targets almost anywhere in Europe, Africa, or Asia. To fulfill its expanding mission as Washington’s global assassin, the Air Force plans to have 346 Reapers in service by 2021, including 80 for the CIA.
Between 2004 and 2010, total flying time for all unmanned aerial vehicles rose sharply from just 71 hours to 250,000 hours. By 2011, there were already 7,000 drones in a growing U.S. armada of unmanned aircraft. So central had they become to its military power that the Pentagon was planning to spend $40 billion to expand their numbers by 35% over the following decade. To service all this growth, the Air Force was training 350 drone pilots, more than all its bomber and fighter pilots combined.
Miniature or monstrous, hand-held or runway-launched, drones were becoming so commonplace and so critical for so many military missions that they emerged from the war on terror as one of America’s wonder weapons for preserving its global power. Yet the striking innovations in drone warfare are, in the long run, likely to be overshadowed by stunning aerospace advances in the stratosphere and exosphere.
The Pentagon’s Triple Canopy
As in Vietnam, despite bitter reverses on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, Washington’s recent wars have been catalysts for the fusion of aerospace, cyberspace, and artificial intelligence into a new military regime of robotic warfare.
To effect this technological transformation, starting in 2009 the Pentagon planned to spend $55 billion annually to develop robotics for a data-dense interface of space, cyberspace, and terrestrial battle space. Through an annual allocation for new technologies reaching $18 billion in 2016, the Pentagon had, according to the New York Times, “put artificial intelligence at the center of its strategy to maintain the United States’ position as the world’s dominant military power,” exemplified by future drones that will be capable of identifying and eliminating enemy targets without recourse to human overseers. By 2025, the United States will likely deploy advanced aerospace and cyberwarfare to envelop the planet in a robotic matrix theoretically capable of blinding entire armies or atomizing an individual insurgent.
During 15 years of nearly limitless military budgets for the war on terror, DARPA has spent billions of dollars trying to develop new weapons systems worthy of Buck Rogers that usually die on the drawing board or end in spectacular crashes. Through this astronomically costly process of trial and error, Pentagon planners seem to have come to the slow realization that established systems, particularly drones and satellites, could in combination create an effective aerospace architecture.
Within a decade, the Pentagon apparently hopes to patrol the entire planet ceaselessly via a triple-canopy aerospace shield that would reach from sky to space and be secured by an armada of drones with lethal missiles and Argus-eyed sensors, monitored through an electronic matrix and controlled by robotic systems. It’s even possible to take you on a tour of the super-secret realm where future space wars will be fought, if the Pentagon’s dreams become reality, by exploring both DARPA websites and those of its various defense contractors.
Drones in the Lower Stratosphere
At the bottom tier of this emerging aerospace shield in the lower stratosphere (about 30,000 to 60,000 feet high), the Pentagon is working with defense contractors to develop high-altitude drones that will replace manned aircraft. To supersede the manned U-2 surveillance aircraft, for instance, the Pentagon has been preparing a projected armada of 99 Global Hawk drones at a mind-boggling cost of $223 million each, seven times the price of the current Reaper model. Its extended 116-foot wingspan (bigger than that of a Boeing 737) is geared to operating at 60,000 feet. Each Global Hawk is equipped with high-resolution cameras, advanced electronic sensors, and efficient engines for a continuous 32-hour flight, which means that it can potentially survey up to 40,000 square miles of the planet’s surface daily. With its enormous bandwidth needed to bounce a torrent of audio-visual data between satellites and ground stations, however, the Global Hawk, like other long-distance drones in America’s armada, may prove vulnerable to a hostile hack attack in some future conflict.
In 1929, Buck Rogers imagines America’s future spacecraft for space wars.
(Buck Rogers, 2429 A.D., 8-26-1929, Roland N. Anderson Collection.)
The sophistication, and limitations, of this developing aerospace technology were exposed in December 2011 when an advanced RQ-170 Sentinel drone suddenly landed in Iran, whose officials then released photos of its dart-shaped, 65-foot wingspan meant for flights up to 50,000 feet. Under a highly classified “black” contract, Lockheed Martin had built 20 of these espionage drones at a cost of about $200 million with radar-evading stealth and advanced optics that were meant to provide “surveillance support to forward-deployed combat forces.”
So what was this super-secret drone doing in hostile Iran? By simply jamming its GPS navigation system, whose signals are notoriously susceptible to hacking, Iranian engineers took control of the drone and landed it at a local base of theirs with the same elevation as its home field in neighboring Afghanistan. Although Washington first denied the capture, the event sent shock waves down the Pentagon’s endless corridors.
In the aftermath of this debacle, the Defense Department worked with one of its top contractors, Northrop Grumman, to accelerate development of its super-stealth RQ-180 drone with an enormous 130-foot wingspan, an extended range of 1,200 miles, and 24 hours of flying time. Its record cost, $300 million a plane, could be thought of as inaugurating a new era of lavishly expensive war-fighting drones.
Simultaneously, the Navy’s dart-shaped X-47B surveillance and strike drone has proven capable both of in-flight refueling and of carrying up to 4,000 pounds of bombs or missiles. Three years after it passed its most crucial test by a joy-stick landing on the deck of an aircraft carrier, the USS George H.W. Bush in July 2013, the Navy announced that this experimental drone would enter service sometime after 2020 as the “MQ-25 Stingray” aircraft.
Dominating the Upper Stratosphere
To dominate the higher altitudes of the upper stratosphere (about 70,000 to 160,000 feet), the Pentagon has pushed its contractors to the technological edge, spending billions of dollars on experimentation with fanciful, futuristic aircraft.
For more than 20 years, DARPA pursued the dream of a globe-girding armada of solar-powered drones that could fly ceaselessly at 90,000 feet and would serve as the equivalent of low-flying satellites, that is, as platforms for surveillance intercepts or signals transmission. With an arching 250-foot wingspan covered with ultra-light solar panels, the “Helios” drone achieved a world-record altitude of 98,000 feet in 2001 before breaking up in a spectacular crash two years later. Nonetheless, DARPA launched the ambitious “Vulture” project in 2008 to build solar-powered aircraft with huge wingspans of 300 to 500 feet capable of ceaseless flight at 90,000 feet for five years at a time. After DARPA abandoned the project as impractical in 2012, Google and Facebook took over the technology with the goal of building future platforms for their customers’ Internet connections.
Since 2003, both DARPA and the Air Force have struggled to shatter the barrier for suborbital speeds by developing the dart-shaped Falcon Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle. Flying at an altitude of 100,000 feet, it was expected to “deliver 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from the continental United States in less than two hours.” Although the first test launches in 2010 and 2011 crashed in midflight, they did briefly reach an amazing 13,000 miles per hour, 22 times the speed of sound.
As often happens, failure produced progress. In the wake of the Falcon’s crashes, DARPA has applied its hypersonics to develop a missile capable of penetrating China’s air-defenses at an altitude of 70,000 feet and a speed of Mach 5 (about 3,300 miles per hour).
Simultaneously, Lockheed’s secret “Skunk Works” experimental unit is using the hypersonic technology to develop the SR-72 unmanned surveillance aircraft as a successor to its SR-71 Blackbird, the world’s fastest manned aircraft. When operational by 2030, the SR-72 is supposed to fly at about 4,500 mph, double the speed of its manned predecessor, with an extreme stealth fuselage making it undetectable as it crosses any continent in an hour at 80,000 feet scooping up electronic intelligence.
Space Wars in the Exosphere
In the exosphere, 200 miles above Earth, the age of space warfare dawned in April 2010 when the Defense Department launched the robotic X-37B spacecraft, just 29 feet long, into orbit for a seven-month mission. By removing pilots and their costly life-support systems, the Air Force’s secretive Rapid Capabilities Office had created a miniaturized, militarized space drone with thrusters to elude missile attacks and a cargo bay for possible air-to-air missiles. By the time the second X-37B prototype landed in June 2012, its flawless 15-month flight had established the viability of “robotically controlled reusable spacecraft.”
In the exosphere where these space drones will someday roam, orbital satellites will be the prime targets in any future world war. The vulnerability of U.S. satellite systems became obvious in 2007 when China used a ground-to-air missile to shoot down one of its own satellites in orbit 500 miles above the Earth. A year later, the Pentagon accomplished the same feat, firing an SM-3 missile from a Navy cruiser to score a direct hit on a U.S. satellite 150 miles high.
In a 1929 comic strip, Buck Rogers fights space wars in the 25th Century.
(Buck Rogers, 2429 A.D., 5-8-1929, Roland N. Anderson Collection)
Unsuccessful in developing an advanced F-6 satellite, despite spending over $200 million in an attempt to split the module into more resilient microwave-linked components, the Pentagon has opted instead to upgrade its more conventional single-module satellites, such as the Navy’s five interconnected Mobile User Objective Systems (MUOS) satellites. These were launched between 2013 and 2016 into geostationary orbits for communications with aircraft, ships, and motorized infantry.
Reflecting its role as a player in the preparation for future and futuristic wars, the Joint Functional Component Command for Space, established in 2006, operates the Space Surveillance Network. To prevent a high-altitude attack on America, this worldwide system of radar and telescopes in 29 remote locations like Ascension Island and Kwajalein Atoll makes about 400,000 observations daily, monitoring every object in the skies.
The Future of Wonder Weapons
By the mid-2020s, if the military’s dreams are realized, the Pentagon’s triple-canopy shield should be able to atomize a single “terrorist” with a missile strike or, with equal ease, blind an entire army by knocking out all of its ground communications, avionics, and naval navigation. It’s a system that, were it to work as imagined, just might allow the United States a diplomatic veto of global lethality, an equalizer for any further loss of international influence.
But as in Vietnam, where aerospace wonders could not prevent a searing defeat, history offers some harsh lessons when it comes to technology trumping insurgencies, no less the fusion of forces (diplomatic, economic, and military) whose sum is geopolitical power. After all, the Third Reich failed to win World War II even though it had amazingly advanced “wonder weapons,” including the devastating V-2 missile, the unstoppable Me-262 jet fighter, and the ship-killing Hs-293 guided missile.
Washington’s dogged reliance on and faith in military technology to maintain its hegemony will certainly guarantee endless combat operations with uncertain outcomes in the forever war against terrorists along the ragged edge of Asia and Africa and incessant future low-level aggression in space and cyberspace. Someday, it may even lead to armed conflict with rivals China and Russia.
Whether the Pentagon’s robotic weapon systems will offer the U.S. an extended lease on global hegemony or prove a fantasy plucked from the frames of a Buck Rogers comic book, only the future can tell. Whether, in that moment to come, America will play the role of the indomitable Buck Rogers or the Martians he eventually defeated is another question worth asking. One thing is likely, however: that future is coming far more quickly and possibly far more painfully than any of us might imagine.
The Pentagon’s New Wonder Weapons for World Dominion
In the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks, Washington pursued its elusive enemies across the landscapes of Asia and Africa, thanks in part to a massive expansion of its intelligence infrastructure, particularly of the emerging technologies for digital surveillance, agile drones, and biometric identification. In 2010, almost a decade into this secret war with its voracious appetite for information, the Washington Post reported that the national security state had swelled into a “fourth branch” of the federal government — with 854,000 vetted officials, 263 security organizations, and over 3,000 intelligence units, issuing 50,000 special reports every year.
Though stunning, these statistics only skimmed the visible surface of what had become history’s largest and most lethal clandestine apparatus. According to classified documents that Edward Snowden leaked in 2013, the nation’s 16 intelligence agencies alone had 107,035 employees and a combined “black budget” of $52.6 billion, the equivalent of 10% percent of the vast defense budget.
By sweeping the skies and probing the worldwide web’s undersea cables, the National Security Agency (NSA) could surgically penetrate the confidential communications of just about any leader on the planet, while simultaneously sweeping up billions of ordinary messages. For its classified missions, the CIA had access to the Pentagon’s Special Operations Command, with 69,000 elite troops (Rangers, SEALs, Air Commandos) and their agile arsenal. In addition to this formidable paramilitary capacity, the CIA operated 30 Predator and Reaper drones responsible for more than 3,000 deaths in Pakistan and Yemen.
While Americans practiced a collective form of duck and cover as the Department of Homeland Security’s colored alerts pulsed nervously from yellow to red, few paused to ask the hard question: Was all this security really directed solely at enemies beyond our borders? After half a century of domestic security abuses — from the “red scare” of the 1920s through the FBI’s illegal harassment of antiwar protesters in the 1960s and 1970s — could we really be confident that there wasn’t a hidden cost to all these secret measures right here at home? Maybe, just maybe, all this security wasn’t really so benign when it came to us.
From my own personal experience over the past half-century, and my family’s history over three generations, I’ve found out in the most personal way possible that there’s a real cost to entrusting our civil liberties to the discretion of secret agencies. Let me share just a few of my own “war” stories to explain how I’ve been forced to keep learning and relearning this uncomfortable lesson the hard way.
On the Heroin Trail
After finishing college in the late 1960s, I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Japanese history and was pleasantly surprised when Yale Graduate School admitted me with a full fellowship. But the Ivy League in those days was no ivory tower. During my first year at Yale, the Justice Department indicted Black Panther leader Bobby Seale for a local murder and the May Day protests that filled the New Haven green also shut the campus for a week. Almost simultaneously, President Nixon ordered the invasion of Cambodia and student protests closed hundreds of campuses across America for the rest of the semester.
In the midst of all this tumult, the focus of my studies shifted from Japan to Southeast Asia, and from the past to the war in Vietnam. Yes, that war. So what did I do about the draft? During my first semester at Yale, on December 1, 1969, to be precise, the Selective Service cut up the calendar for a lottery. The first 100 birthdays picked were certain to be drafted, but any dates above 200 were likely exempt. My birthday, June 8th, was the very last date drawn, not number 365 but 366 (don’t forget leap year) — the only lottery I have ever won, except for a Sunbeam electric frying pan in a high school raffle. Through a convoluted moral calculus typical of the 1960s, I decided that my draft exemption, although acquired by sheer luck, demanded that I devote myself, above all else, to thinking about, writing about, and working to end the Vietnam War.
During those campus protests over Cambodia in the spring of 1970, our small group of graduate students in Southeast Asian history at Yale realized that the U.S. strategic predicament in Indochina would soon require an invasion of Laos to cut the flow of enemy supplies into South Vietnam. So, while protests over Cambodia swept campuses nationwide, we were huddled inside the library, preparing for the next invasion by editing a book of essays on Laos for the publisher Harper & Row. A few months after that book appeared, one of the company’s junior editors, Elizabeth Jakab, intrigued by an account we had included about that country’s opium crop, telephoned from New York to ask if I could research and write a “quickie” paperback about the history behind the heroin epidemic then infecting the U.S. Army in Vietnam.
I promptly started the research at my student carrel in the Gothic tower that is Yale’s Sterling Library, tracking old colonial reports about the Southeast Asian opium trade that ended suddenly in the 1950s, just as the story got interesting. So, quite tentatively at first, I stepped outside the library to do a few interviews and soon found myself following an investigative trail that circled the globe. First, I traveled across America for meetings with retired CIA operatives. Then I crossed the Pacific to Hong Kong to study drug syndicates, courtesy of that colony’s police drug squad. Next, I went south to Saigon, then the capital of South Vietnam, to investigate the heroin traffic that was targeting the GIs, and on into the mountains of Laos to observe CIA alliances with opium warlords and the hill-tribe militias that grew the opium poppy. Finally, I flew from Singapore to Paris for interviews with retired French intelligence officers about their opium trafficking during the first Indochina War of the 1950s.
The drug traffic that supplied heroin for the U.S. troops fighting in South Vietnam was not, I discovered, exclusively the work of criminals. Once the opium left tribal poppy fields in Laos, the traffic required official complicity at every level. The helicopters of Air America, the airline the CIA then ran, carried raw opium out of the villages of its hill-tribe allies. The commander of the Royal Lao Army, a close American collaborator, operated the world’s largest heroin lab and was so oblivious to the implications of the traffic that he opened his opium ledgers for my inspection. Several of Saigon’s top generals were complicit in the drug’s distribution to U.S. soldiers. By 1971, this web of collusion ensured that heroin, according to a later White House survey of a thousand veterans, would be “commonly used” by 34% of American troops in South Vietnam.
None of this had been covered in my college history seminars. I had no models for researching an uncharted netherworld of crime and covert operations. After stepping off the plane in Saigon, body slammed by the tropical heat, I found myself in a sprawling foreign city of four million, lost in a swarm of snarling motorcycles and a maze of nameless streets, without contacts or a clue about how to probe these secrets. Every day on the heroin trail confronted me with new challenges — where to look, what to look for, and, above all, how to ask hard questions.
Reading all that history had, however, taught me something I didn’t know I knew. Instead of confronting my sources with questions about sensitive current events, I started with the French colonial past when the opium trade was still legal, gradually uncovering the underlying, unchanging logistics of drug production. As I followed this historical trail into the present, when the traffic became illegal and dangerously controversial, I began to use pieces from this past to assemble the present puzzle, until the names of contemporary dealers fell into place. In short, I had crafted a historical method that would prove, over the next 40 years of my career, surprisingly useful in analyzing a diverse array of foreign policy controversies — CIA alliances with drug lords, the agency’s propagation of psychological torture, and our spreading state surveillance.
The CIA Makes Its Entrance in My Life
Those months on the road, meeting gangsters and warlords in isolated places, offered only one bit of real danger. While hiking in the mountains of Laos, interviewing Hmong farmers about their opium shipments on CIA helicopters, I was descending a steep slope when a burst of bullets ripped the ground at my feet. I had walked into an ambush by agency mercenaries.
While the five Hmong militia escorts whom the local village headman had prudently provided laid down a covering fire, my Australian photographer John Everingham and I flattened ourselves in the elephant grass and crawled through the mud to safety. Without those armed escorts, my research would have been at an end and so would I. After that ambush failed, a CIA paramilitary officer summoned me to a mountaintop meeting where he threatened to murder my Lao interpreter unless I ended my research. After winning assurances from the U.S. embassy that my interpreter would not be harmed, I decided to ignore that warning and keep going.
Six months and 30,000 miles later, I returned to New Haven. My investigation of CIA alliances with drug lords had taught me more than I could have imagined about the covert aspects of U.S. global power. Settling into my attic apartment for an academic year of writing, I was confident that I knew more than enough for a book on this unconventional topic. But my education, it turned out, was just beginning.
Within weeks, a massive, middle-aged guy in a suit interrupted my scholarly isolation. He appeared at my front door and identified himself as Tom Tripodi, senior agent for the Bureau of Narcotics, which later became the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). His agency, he confessed during a second visit, was worried about my writing and he had been sent to investigate. He needed something to tell his superiors. Tom was a guy you could trust. So I showed him a few draft pages of my book. He disappeared into the living room for a while and came back saying, “Pretty good stuff. You got your ducks in a row.” But there were some things, he added, that weren’t quite right, some things he could help me fix.
Tom was my first reader. Later, I would hand him whole chapters and he would sit in a rocking chair, shirt sleeves rolled up, revolver in his shoulder holster, sipping coffee, scribbling corrections in the margins, and telling fabulous stories — like the time Jersey Mafia boss “Bayonne Joe” Zicarelli tried to buy a thousand rifles from a local gun store to overthrow Fidel Castro. Or when some CIA covert warrior came home for a vacation and had to be escorted everywhere so he didn’t kill somebody in a supermarket aisle.
Best of all, there was the one about how the Bureau of Narcotics caught French intelligence protecting the Corsican syndicates smuggling heroin into New York City. Some of his stories, usually unacknowledged, would appear in my book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia. These conversations with an undercover operative, who had trained Cuban exiles for the CIA in Florida and later investigated Mafia heroin syndicates for the DEA in Sicily, were akin to an advanced seminar, a master class in covert operations.
In the summer of 1972, with the book at press, I went to Washington to testify before Congress. As I was making the rounds of congressional offices on Capitol Hill, my editor rang unexpectedly and summoned me to New York for a meeting with the president and vice president of Harper & Row, my book’s publisher. Ushered into a plush suite of offices overlooking the spires of St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I listened to those executives tell me that Cord Meyer, Jr., the CIA’s deputy director for covert operations, had called on their company’s president emeritus, Cass Canfield, Sr. The visit was no accident, for Canfield, according to an authoritative history, “enjoyed prolific links to the world of intelligence, both as a former psychological warfare officer and as a close personal friend of Allen Dulles,” the ex-head of the CIA. Meyer denounced my book as a threat to national security. He asked Canfield, also an old friend, to quietly suppress it.
I was in serious trouble. Not only was Meyer a senior CIA official but he also had impeccable social connections and covert assets in every corner of American intellectual life. After graduating from Yale in 1942, he served with the marines in the Pacific, writing eloquent war dispatches published in the Atlantic Monthly. He later worked with the U.S. delegation drafting the U.N. charter. Personally recruited by spymaster Allen Dulles, Meyer joined the CIA in 1951 and was soon running its International Organizations Division, which, in the words of that same history, “constituted the greatest single concentration of covert political and propaganda activities of the by now octopus-like CIA,” including “Operation Mockingbird” that planted disinformation in major U.S. newspapers meant to aid agency operations. Informed sources told me that the CIA still had assets inside every major New York publisher and it already had every page of my manuscript.
As the child of a wealthy New York family, Cord Meyer moved in elite social circles, meeting and marrying Mary Pinchot, the niece of Gifford Pinchot, founder of the U.S. Forestry Service and a former governor of Pennsylvania. Pinchot was a breathtaking beauty who later became President Kennedy’s mistress, making dozens of secret visits to the White House. When she was found shot dead along the banks of a canal in Washington in 1964, the head of CIA counterintelligence, James Jesus Angleton, another Yale alumnus, broke into her home in an unsuccessful attempt to secure her diary. Mary’s sister Toni and her husband, Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, later found the diary and gave it to Angleton for destruction by the agency. To this day, her unsolved murder remains a subject of mystery and controversy.
Cord Meyer was also in the Social Register of New York’s fine families along with my publisher, Cass Canfield, which added a dash of social cachet to the pressure to suppress my book. By the time he walked into Harper & Row’s office in that summer of 1972, two decades of CIA service had changed Meyer (according to that same authoritative history) from a liberal idealist into “a relentless, implacable advocate for his own ideas,” driven by “a paranoiac distrust of everyone who didn’t agree with him” and a manner that was “histrionic and even bellicose.” An unpublished 26-year-old graduate student versus the master of CIA media manipulation. It was hardly a fair fight. I began to fear my book would never appear.
To his credit, Canfield refused Meyer’s request to suppress the book. But he did allow the agency a chance to review the manuscript prior to publication. Instead of waiting quietly for the CIA’s critique, I contacted Seymour Hersh, then an investigative reporter for the New York Times. The same day the CIA courier arrived from Langley to collect my manuscript, Hersh swept through Harper & Row’s offices like a tropical storm, pelting hapless executives with incessant, unsettling questions. The next day, his exposé of the CIA’s attempt at censorship appeared on the paper’s front page. Other national media organizations followed his lead. Faced with a barrage of negative coverage, the CIA gave Harper & Row a critique full of unconvincing denials. The book was published unaltered.
My Life as an Open Book for the Agency
I had learned another important lesson: the Constitution’s protection of press freedom could check even the world’s most powerful espionage agency. Cord Meyer reportedly learned the same lesson. According to his obituary in the Washington Post, “It was assumed that Mr. Meyer would eventually advance” to head CIA covert operations, “but the public disclosure about the book deal… apparently dampened his prospects.” He was instead exiled to London and eased into early retirement.
Meyer and his colleagues were not, however, used to losing. Defeated in the public arena, the CIA retreated to the shadows and retaliated by tugging at every thread in the threadbare life of a graduate student. Over the next few months, federal officials from the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare turned up at Yale to investigate my graduate fellowship. The Internal Revenue Service audited my poverty-level income. The FBI tapped my New Haven telephone (something I learned years later from a class-action lawsuit).
In August 1972, at the height of the controversy over the book, FBI agents told the bureau’s director that they had “conducted [an] investigation concerning McCoy,” searching the files they had compiled on me for the past two years and interviewing numerous “sources whose identities are concealed [who] have furnished reliable information in the past” — thereby producing an 11-page report detailing my birth, education, and campus antiwar activities.
A college classmate I hadn’t seen in four years, who served in military intelligence, magically appeared at my side in the book section of the Yale Co-op, seemingly eager to resume our relationship. The same week that a laudatory review of my book appeared on the front page of the New York Times Book Review, an extraordinary achievement for any historian, Yale’s History Department placed me on academic probation. Unless I could somehow do a year’s worth of overdue work in a single semester, I faced dismissal.
In those days, the ties between the CIA and Yale were wide and deep. The campus residential colleges screened students, including future CIA Director Porter Goss, for possible careers in espionage. Alumni like Cord Meyer and James Angleton held senior slots at the agency. Had I not had a faculty adviser visiting from Germany, the distinguished scholar Bernhard Dahm who was a stranger to this covert nexus, that probation would likely have become expulsion, ending my academic career and destroying my credibility.
During those difficult days, New York Congressman Ogden Reid, a ranking member of the House Foreign Relations Committee, telephoned to say that he was sending staff investigators to Laos to look into the opium situation. Amid this controversy, a CIA helicopter landed near the village where I had escaped that ambush and flew the Hmong headman who had helped my research to an agency airstrip. There, a CIA interrogator made it clear that he had better deny what he had said to me about the opium. Fearing, as he later told my photographer, that “they will send a helicopter to arrest me, or… soldiers to shoot me,” the Hmong headman did just that.
At a personal level, I was discovering just how deep the country’s intelligence agencies could reach, even in a democracy, leaving no part of my life untouched: my publisher, my university, my sources, my taxes, my phone, and even my friends.
Although I had won the first battle of this war with a media blitz, the CIA was winning the longer bureaucratic struggle. By silencing my sources and denying any culpability, its officials convinced Congress that it was innocent of any direct complicity in the Indochina drug trade. During Senate hearings into CIA assassinations by the famed Church Committee three years later, Congress accepted the agency’s assurance that none of its operatives had been directly involved in heroin trafficking (an allegation I had never actually made). The committee’s report did confirm the core of my critique, however, finding that “the CIA is particularly vulnerable to criticism” over indigenous assets in Laos “of considerable importance to the Agency,” including “people who either were known to be, or were suspected of being, involved in narcotics trafficking.” But the senators did not press the CIA for any resolution or reform of what its own inspector general had called the “particular dilemma” posed by those alliances with drug lords — the key aspect, in my view, of its complicity in the traffic.
During the mid-1970s, as the flow of drugs into the United States slowed and the number of addicts declined, the heroin problem receded into the inner cities and the media moved on to new sensations. Unfortunately, Congress had forfeited an opportunity to check the CIA and correct its way of waging covert wars. In less than 10 years, the problem of the CIA’s tactical alliances with drug traffickers to support its far-flung covert wars was back with a vengeance.
During the 1980s, as the crack-cocaine epidemic swept America’s cities, the agency, as its own Inspector General later reported, allied itself with the largest drug smuggler in the Caribbean, using his port facilities to ship arms to the Contra guerrillas fighting in Nicaragua and protecting him from any prosecution for five years. Simultaneously on the other side of the planet in Afghanistan, mujahedeen guerrillas imposed an opium tax on farmers to fund their fight against the Soviet occupation and, with the CIA’s tacit consent, operated heroin labs along the Pakistani border to supply international markets. By the mid-1980s, Afghanistan’s opium harvest had grown 10-fold and was providing 60% of the heroin for America’s addicts and as much as 90% in New York City.
Almost by accident, I had launched my academic career by doing something a bit different. Embedded within that study of drug trafficking was an analytical approach that would take me, almost unwittingly, on a lifelong exploration of U.S. global hegemony in its many manifestations, including diplomatic alliances, CIA interventions, developing military technology, recourse to torture, and global surveillance. Step by step, topic by topic, decade after decade, I would slowly accumulate sufficient understanding of the parts to try to assemble the whole. In writing my new book, In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, I drew on this research to assess the overall character of U.S. global power and the forces that might contribute to its perpetuation or decline.
In the process, I slowly came to see a striking continuity and coherence in Washington’s century-long rise to global dominion. CIA torture techniques emerged at the start of the Cold War in the 1950s; much of its futuristic robotic aerospace technology had its first trial in the Vietnam War of the 1960s; and, above all, Washington’s reliance on surveillance first appeared in the colonial Philippines around 1900 and soon became an essential though essentially illegal tool for the FBI’s repression of domestic dissent that continued through the 1970s.
In the wake of the 9/11 terror attacks, I dusted off that historical method, and used it to explore the origins and character of domestic surveillance inside the United States.
After occupying the Philippines in 1898, the U.S. Army, facing a difficult pacification campaign in a restive land, discovered the power of systematic surveillance to crush the resistance of the country’s political elite. Then, during World War I, the Army’s “father of military intelligence,” the dour General Ralph Van Deman, who had learned his trade in the Philippines, drew upon his years pacifying those islands to mobilize a legion of 1,700 soldiers and 350,000 citizen-vigilantes for an intense surveillance program against suspected enemy spies among German-Americans, including my own grandfather. In studying Military Intelligence files at the National Archives, I found “suspicious” letters purloined from my grandfather’s army locker. In fact, his mother had been writing him in her native German about such subversive subjects as knitting him socks for guard duty.
In the 1950s, Hoover’s FBI agents tapped thousands of phones without warrants and kept suspected subversives under close surveillance, including my mother’s cousin Gerard Piel, an anti-nuclear activist and the publisher of Scientific American magazine. During the Vietnam War, the bureau expanded its activities with an amazing array of spiteful, often illegal, intrigues in a bid to cripple the antiwar movement with pervasive surveillance of the sort seen in my own FBI file.
Memory of the FBI’s illegal surveillance programs was largely washed away after the Vietnam War thanks to Congressional reforms that required judicial warrants for all government wiretaps. The terror attacks of September 2001, however, gave the National Security Agency the leeway to launch renewed surveillance on a previously unimaginable scale. Writing for TomDispatch in 2009, I observed that coercive methods first tested in the Middle East were being repatriated and might lay the groundwork for “a domestic surveillance state.” Sophisticated biometric and cyber techniques forged in the war zones of Afghanistan and Iraq had made a “digital surveillance state a reality” and so were fundamentally changing the character of American democracy.
Four years later, Edward Snowden’s leak of secret NSA documents revealed that, after a century-long gestation period, a U.S. digital surveillance state had finally arrived. In the age of the Internet, the NSA could monitor tens of millions of private lives worldwide, including American ones, via a few hundred computerized probes into the global grid of fiber-optic cables.
And then, as if to remind me in the most personal way possible of our new reality, four years ago, I found myself the target yet again of an IRS audit, of TSA body searches at national airports, and — as I discovered when the line went dead — a tap on my office telephone at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Why? Maybe it was my current writing on sensitive topics like CIA torture and NSA surveillance, or maybe my name popped up from some old database of suspected subversives left over from the 1970s. Whatever the explanation, it was a reasonable reminder that, if my own family’s experience across three generations is in any way representative, state surveillance has been an integral part of American political life far longer than we might imagine.
At the cost of personal privacy, Washington’s worldwide web of surveillance has now become a weapon of exceptional power in a bid to extend U.S. global hegemony deeper into the twenty-first century. Yet it’s worth remembering that sooner or later what we do overseas always seems to come home to haunt us, just as the CIA and crew have haunted me this last half-century. When we learn to love Big Brother, the world becomes a more, not less, dangerous place.
Exploring the Shadows of America’s Security State
The superhighway to disaster is already being paved.
From Donald Trump’s first days in office, news of the damage to America’s international stature has come hard and fast. As if guided by some malign design, the new president seemed to identify the key pillars that have supported U.S. global power for the past 70 years and set out to topple each of them in turn. By degrading NATO, alienating Asian allies, cancelling trade treaties, and slashing critical scientific research, the Trump White House is already in the process of demolishing the delicately balanced architecture that has sustained Washington’s world leadership since the end of World War II. However unwittingly, Trump is ensuring the accelerated collapse of American global hegemony.
Stunned by his succession of foreign policy blunders, commentators — left and right, domestic and foreign — have raised their voices in a veritable chorus of criticism. A Los Angeles Times editorial typically called him “so unpredictable, so reckless, so petulant, so full of blind self-regard, so untethered to reality” that he threatened to “weaken this country’s moral standing in the world” and “imperil the planet” through his “appalling” policy choices. “He’s a sucker who’s shrinking U.S. influence in [Asia] and helping make China great again,” wrote New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman after surveying the damage to the country’s Asian alliances from the president’s “decision to tear up the 12-nation Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade deal in his first week in office.”
The international press has been no less harsh. Reeling from Trump’s denunciation of South Korea’s free-trade agreement as “horrible” and his bizarre claim that the country had once been “a part of China,” Seoul’s leading newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, expressed the “shock, betrayal, and anger many South Koreans have felt.” Assessing his first 100 days in office, Britain’s venerable Observer commented: “Trump’s crudely intimidatory, violent, know-nothing approach to sensitive international issues has encircled the globe from Moscow to the Middle East to Beijing, plunging foes and allies alike into a dark vortex of expanding strategic instability.”
For an American president to virtually walk out of his grand inaugural celebrations into such a hailstorm of criticism is beyond extraordinary. Having more or less exhausted their lexicon of condemnatory rhetoric, the usual crew of commentators is now struggling to understand how an American president could be quite so willfully self-destructive.
Britain’s Suez Crisis
Blitzed by an incessant stream of bizarre tweets and White House conspiracy theories, observers worldwide seem to have concluded that Donald Trump is a president like no other, that the situation he’s creating is without parallel, and that his foreign policy is already a disaster without precedent. After rummaging around in history’s capacious closet for some old suit that might fit him, analysts have failed to find any antecedent or analogue to adequately explain him.
Yet just 60 years ago, a crisis in the ever-volatile Middle East overseen by a bumbling, mistake-prone British leader helped create a great power debacle that offers insight into the Trumpian moment, a glimpse into possible futures, and a sense of the kind of decline that could lie in the imperial future of the United States.
In the early 1950s, Britain’s international position had many parallels with America’s today. After a difficult postwar recovery from the devastation of World War II, that country was enjoying robust employment, lucrative international investments, and the prestige of the pound sterling’s stature as the world’s reserve currency. Thanks to a careful withdrawal from its far-flung, global empire and its close alliance with Washington, London still enjoyed a sense of international influence exceptional for a small island nation of just 50 million people. On balance, Britain seemed poised for many more years of world leadership with all the accompanying economic rewards and perks.
Then came the Suez crisis. After a decade of giving up one colony after another, the accumulated stress of imperial retreat pushed British conservatives into a disastrous military intervention to reclaim Egypt’s Suez Canal. This, in turn, caused a “deep moral crisis in London” and what one British diplomat would term the “dying convulsion of British imperialism.” In a clear instance of what historians call “micro-militarism” — that is, a bold military strike designed to recover fading imperial influence — Britain joined France and Israel in a misbegotten military invasion of Egypt that transformed slow imperial retreat into a precipitous collapse.
Just as the Panama Canal had once been a shining example for Americans of their nation’s global prowess, so British conservatives treasured the Suez Canal as a vital lifeline that tied their small island to its sprawling empire in Asia and Africa. A few years after the canal’s grand opening in 1869, London did the deal of the century, scooping up Egypt’s shares in it for a bargain basement price of £4 million. Then, in 1882, Britain consolidated its control over the canal through a military occupation of Egypt, reducing that ancient land to little more than an informal colony.
As late as 1950, in fact, Britain still maintained 80,000 soldiers and a string of military bases astride the canal. The bulk of its oil and gasoline, produced at the enormous Abadan refinery in the Persian Gulf, transited through Suez, fueling its navy, its domestic transportation system, and much of its industry.
After British troops completed a negotiated withdrawal from Suez in 1955, the charismatic nationalist leader Gamal Abdel Nasser asserted Egypt’s neutrality in the Cold War by purchasing Soviet bloc arms, raising eyebrows in Washington. In July 1956, after the administration of President Dwight Eisenhower had in response reneged on its promise to finance construction of the Aswan High Dam on the Upper Nile, Nasser sought alternative financing for this critical infrastructure by nationalizing the Suez Canal. In doing so, he electrified the Arab world and elevated himself to the top rank of world leaders.
Although British ships still passed freely through the canal and Washington insisted on a diplomatic resolution of the conflict, Britain’s conservative leadership reacted with irrational outrage. Behind a smokescreen of sham diplomacy designed to deceive Washington, their closest ally, the British foreign secretary met secretly with the prime ministers of France and Israel near Paris to work out an elaborately deceptive two-stage invasion of Egypt by 250,000 allied troops, backed by 500 aircraft and 130 warships. Its aim, of course, was to secure the canal.
On October 29, 1956, the Israeli army led by the dashing General Moshe Dayan swept across the Sinai Peninsula, destroying Egyptian tanks and bringing his troops to within 10 miles of the canal. Using this fighting as a pretext for an intervention to restore peace, Anglo-French amphibious and airborne forces quickly joined the attack, backed by a devastating bombardment from six aircraft carriers that destroyed the Egyptian air force, including over a hundred of its new MiG jet fighters. As Egypt’s military collapsed with some 3,000 of its troops killed and 30,000 captured, Nasser deployed a defense brilliant in its simplicity by scuttling dozens of rusting cargo ships filled with rocks and concrete at the entrance to the Suez Canal. In this way, he closed Europe’s oil lifeline to the Persian Gulf.
Simultaneously, U.N. Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld, backed by Washington, imposed a cease-fire after just nine days of war, stopping the Anglo-French attack far short of capturing the entire canal. President Eisenhower’s blunt refusal to back his allies with either oil or money and the threat of condemnation before the U.N. soon forced Britain into a humiliating withdrawal. With its finances collapsing from the invasion’s soaring costs, the British government could not maintain the pound’s official exchange rate, degrading its stature as a global reserve currency.
The author of this extraordinary debacle was Sir Anthony Eden, a problematic prime minister whose career offers some striking parallels with Donald Trump’s. Born into privilege as the son of a landholder, Eden enjoyed a good education at a private school and an elite university. After inheriting a substantial fortune from his father, he entered politics as a conservative, using his political connections to dabble in finance. Chafing under Winston Churchill’s postwar leadership of the Conservative Party, Eden, who styled himself a rebel against hidebound institutions, used incessant infighting and his handsome head of hair to push the great man aside and become prime minister in 1955.
When Nasser nationalized the canal, Eden erupted with egotism, bluster, and outrage. “What’s all this nonsense about isolating Nasser,” Eden berated his foreign affairs minister. “I want him destroyed, can’t you understand? I want him murdered, and if you and the Foreign Office don’t agree, then you’d better come to the cabinet and explain why.” Convinced that Britain was still the globe’s great power, Eden rejected sound advice that he consult fully with Washington, the country’s closest ally. As his bold intervention plunged toward diplomatic disaster, the prime minister became focused on manipulating the British media, in the process confusing favorable domestic coverage with international support.
When Washington demanded a ceasefire as the price of a billion-dollar bailout for a British economy unable to sustain such a costly war, Eden’s bluster quickly crumbled and he denied his troops a certain victory, arousing a storm of protest in Parliament. Humiliated by the forced withdrawal, Eden compensated psychologically by ordering MI-6, Britain’s equivalent of the CIA, to launch its second ill-fated assassination attempt on Nasser. Since its chief local agent was actually a double-agent loyal to Nasser, Egyptian security had, however, already rounded up the British operatives and the weapons delivered for the contract killers proved duds.
Confronted with a barrage of angry questions in Parliament about his collusion with the Israelis, Eden lied repeatedly, swearing that there was no “foreknowledge that Israel would attack Egypt.” Protesters denounced him as “too stupid to be a prime minister,” opposition members of parliament laughed openly when he appeared before Parliament, and his own foreign affairs minister damned him as “an enraged elephant charging senselessly at… imaginary enemies.”
Just weeks after the last British soldier left Egypt, Eden, discredited and disgraced, was forced to resign after only 21 months in office. Led into this unimaginably misbegotten operation by his delusions of omnipotence, he left the once-mighty British lion a toothless circus animal that would henceforth roll over whenever Washington cracked the whip.
Trump’s Demolition Job
Despite the obvious differences in their economic circumstances, there remain some telling resonances between Britain’s postwar politics and America’s troubles today. Both of these fading global hegemons suffered a slow erosion of economic power in a fast-changing world, producing severe social tensions and stunted political leaders. Britain’s Conservative Party leadership had declined from the skilled diplomacy of Disraeli, Salisbury, and Churchill to Eden’s bluster and blunder. Similarly, the Republican Party has descended from the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Eisenhower, and George H.W. Bush to a field of 17 primary candidates in 2016 who promised to resolve an infinitely complex crisis in the Middle East through a set of incendiary policies that included making desert sands glow from carpet-bombing and forcing terrorists to capitulate through torture. Confronted with daunting international challenges, the voters of both countries supported appealing but unstable leaders whose delusions of omnipotence inclined them to military misadventures.
Like British citizens of the 1950s, most Americans today do not fully grasp the fragility of their status as “the leader of the free world.” Indeed, Washington has been standing astride the globe as a superpower for so long that most of its leaders have almost no understanding of the delicate design of their country’s global power built so carefully by two post-World War II presidents.
Under Democratic President Harry Truman, Congress created the key instruments for Washington’s emerging national security state and its future global dominion by passing the National Security Act of 1947 that established the Air Force, the CIA, and two new executive agencies, the Defense Department and the National Security Council. To rebuild a devastated, war-torn Europe, Washington launched the Marshall Plan and then turned such thinking into a worldwide aid program through the U.S. Agency for International Development meant to embed American power globally and support pro-American elites across the planet. Under Truman as well, U.S. diplomats forged the NATO alliance (which Washington would dominate until the Trump moment), advanced European unity, and signed a parallel string of mutual-defense treaties with key Asian allies along the Pacific littoral, making Washington the first power in two millennia to control both “axial ends” of the strategic Eurasian continent.
During the 1950s, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower deployed this national security apparatus to secure Washington’s global dominion with a nuclear triad (bombers, ballistic missiles, and submarines), a chain of military bases that ringed Eurasia, and a staggering number of highly militarized covert operations to assure the ascent of loyal allies worldwide. Above all, he oversaw the integration of the latest in scientific and technological research into the Pentagon’s weapons procurement system through the forging of the famed “military-industrial complex” (against which he would end up warning Americans as he left office in 1961). All this, in turn, fostered an aura of American power so formidable that Washington could re-order significant parts of the world almost at will, enforcing peace, setting the international agenda, and toppling governments on four continents.
While it’s reasonable to argue that Washington had by then become history’s greatest global power, its hegemony, like that of all the world empires that preceded it, remained surprisingly fragile. Skilled leadership was required to maintain the system’s balance of diplomacy, military power, economic strength, and technological innovation.
By the time President Trump took his oath of office, negative, long-term trends had already started to limit the influence of any American leader on the world stage. These included a declining share of the global economy, an erosion of U.S. technological primacy, an inability to apply its overwhelming military power in a way that achieved expected policy goals on an ever more recalcitrant planet, and a generation of increasingly independent national leaders, whether in Europe, Asia, or Latin America.
Apart from such adverse trends, Washington’s global power rested on such strategic fundamentals that its leaders might still have managed carefully enough to maintain a reasonable semblance of American hegemony: notably, the NATO alliance and Asian mutual-security treaties at the strategic antipodes of Eurasia, trade treaties that reinforced such alliances, scientific research to sustain its military’s technological edge, and leadership on international issues like climate change.
In just five short months, however, the Trump White House has done a remarkable job of demolishing these very pillars of U.S. global power. During his first overseas trip in May 2017, President Trump chastised stone-faced NATO leaders for failure to pay their “fair share” into the military part of the alliance and refused to affirm its core principle of collective defense. Ignoring the pleas of these close allies, he then forfeited America’s historic diplomatic leadership by announcing Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris Climate Accord with all the drama of a reality television show. After watching his striking repudiation of Washington’s role as world leader, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told voters in her country that “we must fight for our future on our own, for our destiny as Europeans.”
Along the strategic Pacific littoral, Trump cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact on taking office and gratuitously alienated allies by cutting short a courtesy phone call to Australia’s prime minister and insulting South Korea to the point where its new president won office, in part, on a platform of “say no” to America. When President Moon Jae-in visited Washington in June, determined to heal the breach between the two countries, he was, as the New York Times reported, blindsided by “the harshness of Mr. Trump’s critique of South Korea on trade.”
Just days after Trump dismissed Moon’s suggestion that the two countries engage in actual diplomatic negotiations with Pyongyang, North Korea successfully test-fired a ballistic missile potentially capable of reaching Alaska or possibly Hawaii with a nuclear warhead (though experts believe Pyongyang may still be years away from effectively fitting such a warhead to the missile). It was an act that made those same negotiations Washington’s only viable option — apart from a second Korean War, which would potentially devastate both the region and the U.S. position as the preeminent international leader.
In other words, after 70 years of global dominion, America’s geopolitical command of the axial ends of Eurasia — the central pillars of its world power — seems to be crumbling in a matter of months.
Instead of the diplomacy of presidents past, Trump and his advisers, especially his military men, have reacted to his first modest foreign crises as well as the everyday power questions of empire with outbursts akin to Anthony Eden’s. Since January, the White House has erupted in sudden displays of raw military power that included a drone blitz of unprecedented intensity in Yemen to destroy what the president called a “network of lawless savages,” the bombardment of a Syrian air base with 59 Tomahawk missiles, and the detonation of the world’s largest non-nuclear bomb on a terrorist refuge in eastern Afghanistan.
While reveling in the use of such weaponry, Trump, by slashing federal funding for critical scientific research, is already demolishing the foundations for the military-industrial complex that Eisenhower’s successors, Republican and Democratic alike, so sedulously maintained for the last half-century. While China is ramping up its scientific research across the board, Trump has proposed what the American Association for Advancement of Science called “deep cuts to numerous research agencies” that will mean the eventual loss of the country’s technological edge. In the emerging field of artificial intelligence that will soon drive space warfare and cyber-warfare, the White House wants to reduce the 2018 budget for this critical research at the National Science Foundation to a paltry $175 million, even as Beijing is launching “a new multi-billion-dollar initiative” linked to building “military robots.”
A Future Debacle in the Greater Middle East
With a president who shares Sir Anthony Eden’s penchant for bravura, self-delusion, and impulsiveness, the U.S. seems primed for a twenty-first-century Suez of its own, a debacle in the Greater Middle East (or possibly elsewhere). From the disastrous expedition that ancient Athens sent to Sicily in 413 BCE to Britain’s invasion of Suez in 1956, embattled empires throughout the ages have often suffered an arrogance that drives them to plunge ever deeper into military misadventures until defeat becomes debacle, a misuse of armed force known technically among historians as micro-militarism. With the hubris that has marked empires over the millennia, the Trump administration is, for instance, now committed to extending indefinitely Washington’s failing war of pacification in Afghanistan with a new mini-surge of U.S. troops (and air power) in that classic “graveyard of empires.“
So irrational, so unpredictable is such micro-militarism that even the most fanciful of scenarios can be outpaced by actual events, as was true at Suez. With the U.S. military stretched thin from North Africa to South Korea, with no lasting successes in its post-9/11 wars, and with tensions rising from the Persian Gulf and Syria to the South China Sea and the Koreas, the possibilities for a disastrous military crisis abroad seem almost unending. So let me pick just one possible scenario for a future Trumpian military misadventure in the Greater Middle East. (I’m sure you’ll think of other candidates immediately.)
It’s the late spring of 2020, the start of the traditional Afghan fighting season, and a U.S. garrison in the city of Kandahar in southern Afghanistan is unexpectedly overrun by an ad hoc alliance of Taliban and Islamic State guerrillas. While U.S. aircraft are grounded in a blinding sand storm, the militants summarily execute their American captives, filming the gruesome event for immediate upload on the Internet. Speaking to an international television audience, President Trump thunders against “disgusting Muslim murderers” and swears he will “make the desert sands run red with their blood.” In fulfillment of that promise, an angry American theater commander sends B-1 bombers and F-35 fighters to demolish whole neighborhoods of Kandahar believed to be under Taliban control. In an aerial coup de grâce, AC-130-U “Spooky” gunships then rake the rubble with devastating cannon fire. The civilian casualties are beyond counting.
Soon, mullahs are preaching jihad from mosques across Afghanistan and far beyond. Afghan Army units, long trained by American forces to turn the tide of the war, begin to desert en masse. In isolated posts across the country, clusters of Afghan soldiers open fire on their American advisers in what are termed “insider” or “green-on-blue” attacks. Meanwhile, Taliban fighters launch a series of assaults on scattered U.S. garrisons elsewhere in the country, suddenly sending American casualties soaring. In scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975, U.S. helicopters rescue American soldiers and civilians from rooftops not just in Kandahar, but in several other provincial capitals and even Kabul.
Meanwhile, angry over the massive civilian casualties in Afghanistan, the anti-Muslim diatribes tweeted almost daily from the Oval Office, and years of depressed energy prices, OPEC’s leaders impose a harsh new oil embargo aimed at the United States and its allies. With refineries running dry in Europe and Asia, the world economy trembling at the brink of recession, and gas prices soaring, Washington flails about for a solution. The first call is to NATO, but the alliance is near collapse after four years of President Trump’s erratic behavior. Even the British, alienated by his inattention to their concerns, rebuff his appeals for support.
Facing an uncertain reelection in November 2020, the Trump White House makes its move, sending Marines and Special Operations forces to seize oil ports in the Persian Gulf. Flying from the Fifth Fleet’s base in Bahrain, Navy Seals and Army Rangers occupy the Ras Tanura refinery in Saudi Arabia, the ninth largest in the world; Kuwait’s main oil port at Shuaiba; and Iraq’s at Um Qasr.
Simultaneously, the light carrier USS Iwo Jima steams south at the head of a task force that launches helicopters carrying 6,000 Special Operations forces tasked with seizing the al-Ruwais refinery in Abu Dhabi, the world’s fourth largest, and the megaport at Jebel Ali in Dubai, a 20-square-mile complex so massive that the Americans can only occupy its oil facilities. When Teheran vehemently protests the U.S. escalation in the Persian Gulf and hints at retaliation, Defense Secretary James Mattis, reviving a plan from his days as CENTCOM commander, orders preemptive Tomahawk missile strikes on Iran’s flagship oil refinery at Abadan.
From its first hours, the operation goes badly wrong. The troops seem lost inside the unmapped mazes of pipes that honeycomb the oil ports. Meanwhile, refinery staff prove stubbornly uncooperative, sensing that the occupation will be short-lived and disastrous. On day three, Iranian Revolutionary Guard commandos, who have been training for this moment since the breakdown of the 2015 nuclear accord with the U.S., storm ashore at the Kuwaiti and Emirate refineries with remote-controlled charges. Unable to use their superior firepower in such a volatile environment, American troops are reduced to firing futile bursts at the departing speed boats as oil storage tanks and gas pipes explode spectacularly.
Three days later, as the USS Gerald Ford approaches an Iranian island, more than 100 speedboats suddenly appear, swarming the carrier in a practiced pattern of high-speed crisscrosses. Every time lethal bursts from the carrier’s MK-38 chain guns rip through the lead boats, others emerge from the flames coming closer and closer. Concealed by clouds of smoke, one finally reaches an undefended spot beneath the conning tower near enough for a Revolutionary guardsman to attach a magnetic charge to the hull with a fateful click. There is a deafening roar and a gaping hole erupts at the waterline of the first aircraft carrier to be crippled in battle since World War II. As things go from bad to worse, the Pentagon is finally forced to accept that a debacle is underway and withdraws its capital ships from the Persian Gulf.
As black clouds billow skyward from the Gulf’s oil ports and diplomats rise at the U.N. to bitterly denounce American actions, commentators worldwide reach back to the 1956 debacle that marked the end of imperial Britain to brand this “America’s Suez.” The empire has been trumped.
The Demolition of U.S. Global Power
In 2016, something extraordinary happened in the politics of diverse countries around the world. With surprising speed and simultaneity, a new generation of populist leaders emerged from the margins of nominally democratic nations to win power. In doing so, they gave voice, often in virulent fashion, to public concerns about the social costs of globalization.
Even in societies as disparate as the affluent United States and the impoverished Philippines, similarly violent strains of populist rhetoric carried two unlikely candidates from the political margins to the presidency. On opposite sides of the Pacific, these outsider campaigns were framed by lurid calls for violence and even murder.
As his insurgent crusade gained momentum, billionaire Donald Trump moved beyond his repeated promises to fight Islamic terror with torture and brutal bombing by also advocating the murder of women and children. “The other thing with the terrorists is you have to take out their families, when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families,” he told Fox News. “They care about their lives, don’t kid yourself. When they say they don’t care about their lives, you have to take out their families.”
At the same time, campaigning in the Philippines on a law-and-order program of his own, Rodrigo Duterte, then mayor of a remote provincial city, swore that he would kill drug dealers across the nation, sparing nothing in the way of violent imagery. “If by chance that God will place me [in the presidency],” he promised in launching his campaign, “watch out because the 1,000 [people executed while he was a mayor] will become 100,000. You will see the fish in Manila Bay getting fat. That is where I will dump you.”
The rise of these political soulmates and populist strongmen not only resonated deeply in their political cultures, but also reflected global trends that made their bloodstained rhetoric paradigmatic of our present moment. After a post-Cold War quarter-century of globalization, displaced workers around the world began mobilizing angrily to oppose an economic order that had made life so good for transnational corporations and social elites.
Between 1999 and 2011, for instance, Chinese imports had eliminated 2.4 million American jobs, closing furniture manufacturers in North Carolina, factories that produced glass in Ohio, and auto parts and steel companies across the Midwest. As a range of nations worldwide reacted to such realities by imposing a combined 2,100 restrictions on imports to staunch similar job losses, world trade actually started to slow down without a major recession for the first time since 1945.
The Bloodstained History of Populism
Across Europe, hyper-nationalist right-wing parties like the French National Front, the Alternative for Germany, and the UK Independence Party won over voters by cultivating nativist, especially anti-Islamic, responses to globalization. Simultaneously, a generation of populist demagogues either held, gained, or threatened to take power in democracies around the world: Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Vladimir Putin in Russia, Recep Erdogan in Turkey, Donald Trump in the U.S., Narendra Modi in India, Prabowo Subianto in Indonesia, and Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, among others.
Indian essayist Pankaj Mishra recently summed up their successes this way: “Demagogues are still emerging, in the West and outside it, as the promise of prosperity collides with massive disparities of wealth, power, education, and status.” The Philippine economy offered typically grim news on this score. It grew by an impressive 6% annually in the six years before Duterte launched his presidential campaign, even as a staggering 26 million poor Filipinos struggled to survive on a dollar a day. In those years, just 40 elite Filipino families grabbed an estimated 76% of all the wealth this growth produced.
Scholar Michael Lee suggests that a populist leader succeeds by rhetorically defining his or her national community by both its supposedly “shared characteristics” and its inevitable common “enemy,” whether Mexican “rapists” or Muslim refugees, much as the Nazis created a powerful sense of national selfhood by excluding certain groups by “blood.” In addition, he argues, such movements share the desire for an “apocalyptic confrontation” through a final “mythic battle” as “the vehicle to revolutionary change.”
Although scholars like Lee emphasize the ways in which populist demagogues rely on violent rhetoric for their success, they tend to focus less on another crucial aspect of such populists globally: actual violence. These movements might still be in their (relatively) benign phase in the United States and Europe, but in less developed democracies around the world populist leaders haven’t hesitated to inscribe their newfound power on the battered bodies of their victims.
For more than a decade, for instance, Russian President Vladimir Putin, a reasonable candidate for sparking this wave of populism, has demonstrated his famously bare-chested version of power politics by ensuring that opponents and critics meet grim ends under “mysterious” circumstances. These include the lethal spritz of polonium 210 that killed Russian secret police defector Alexander Litvinenko in London in 2006; the shooting of journalist and Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya outside her Moscow apartment that same year; a dose of rare Himalayan plant poison for banker and Putin nemesis Alexander Perepilichny in London in 2012; a fusillade that felled opposition leader Boris Nemtsov in downtown Moscow in 2015; and four fatal bullets this March for refugee whistleblower Denis Voronenkov on a Kiev sidewalk, which Ukraine has denounced as “an act of state terrorism.”
As an Islamist populist, Turkish president Recep Erdogan has projected his power through a bloody repression of, and a new war with, the country’s Kurdish minority. He portrays the Kurds as a cancer within the country’s body politic whose identity must be extinguished, much as his forebears rid themselves of the Armenians. In addition, since mid-2016, he’s overseen a wholesale purge of 50,000 officials, journalists, teachers, and military officers in the aftermath of a failed coup, and in a brutal round of torture and rape filled Turkish prisons to the brim.
In 2014, retired general Prabowo Subianto nearly won Indonesia’s presidency with a populist campaign of “strength and order.” In fact, Prabowo’s military career had long been steeped in such violence. In 1998, when the authoritarian regime of his father-in-law Suharto was at the brink of collapse, Prabowo, then commander of the Kopassus Rangers, staged the kidnapping-disappearance of a dozen student activists, the savage rape of 168 Chinese women (acts meant to incite racial violence), and the burning of 43 shopping malls and 5,109 buildings in Jakarta, the country’s capital, that left more than 1,000 dead.
During his first months in power, newly elected Philippine President Duterte waged his highly publicized war on the drug trade in city slums by loosing the police and vigilantes nationwide in a campaign already marked, in its first six months, by at least 7,000 extrajudicial killings. The bodies of his victims were regularly dumped on Manila’s streets as warnings to others and as down payments on Duterte’s promises of a new, orderly country.
And he wasn’t the first populist in Asia to take such a path either. In 2003, Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra launched his “red shirt” movement as a war on his country’s rampant methamphetamine abuse. In just three months under Thaksin’s rule, the police carried out 2,275 extrajudicial killings of suspected drug dealers and users, often leaving the bodies where they fell as a twisted tribute to his power.
Such examples of populist political carnage and the likelihood of more to come — including what Donald Trump’s presidency might have in store — raise certain questions: Just what dynamics lie behind the urge toward violence that seems to propel such movements? Why does the virulent campaign rhetoric of populist political movements so often morph into actual violence once a populist wins power? And why is that violence invariably aimed at enemies believed to threaten the imagined integrity of the national community?
In their compulsion to “protect” the nation from what are seen as pernicious alien influences, such populist movements are defined by their need for enemies. That need, in turn, infuses them with an almost uncontrollable compulsion for conflict that transcends actual threats or rational political programs.
To give this troubling trend its political due, it’s necessary to understand how, at a particular moment in history, global forces have produced a generation of populist leaders with such potential compulsions. And at the moment, there may be no better example to look to than the Philippines.
During its last half-century of bloodstained elections, two populists, Ferdinand Marcos and Rodrigo Duterte, won exceptional power by combining the high politics of diplomacy with the low politics of performative violence, scattering corpses scarred by their signature brutality as if they were so many political pamphlets. A quick look at this history offers us an unsettling glimpse of America’s possible political future.
Populism in the Philippines: the Marcos Era
Although now remembered mainly as a “kleptocrat” who plundered his country and enriched himself with shameless abandon (epitomized by the discovery that his wife possessed 3,000 pairs of shoes), Ferdinand Marcos was, in fact, a brilliant populist, thoroughly skilled in the symbolic uses of violence.
As his legal term as president came to an end in 1972, Marcos — who, like many populists, saw himself as chosen by destiny to save his people from perdition — used the military to declare martial law. He then jailed 50,000 opponents, including the senators who had blocked his favored legislation and the gossip columnists who had mocked his wife’s pretensions.
The first months of his dictatorship actually lacked any official violence. Then, just before dawn on January 15, 1973, Constabulary officers read a presidential execution order and strapped Lim Seng, an overseas Chinese heroin manufacturer, to a post at a Manila military camp. As a battery of press photographers stood by, an eight-man firing squad raised their rifles. Replayed endlessly on television and in movie theaters, the dramatic footage of bullets ripping open the victim’s chest was clearly meant to be a vivid display of the new dictator’s power, as well as an appeal to his country’s ingrained anti-Chinese racism. Lim Seng would be the only victim legally executed in the 14 years of the Marcos dictatorship. Extra-judicial killings were another matter, however.
Marcos made clever use of the massive U.S. military bases near Manila to win continuing support for his authoritarian (and increasingly bloody) rule from three successive American administrations, even effectively neutralizing President Jimmy Carter’s human rights policy. After a decade of dictatorship, however, the economy began to collapse from a too-heavy dose of “crony capitalism” and the political opposition started to challenge Marcos’s self-image as destiny’s chosen one.
To either sate or subdue an increasingly restive population, he soon resorted to escalating raw violence. His security squads conducted what were referred to as “salvagings,” more than 2,500 of them (or 77% of the 3,257 extrajudicial killings during his 14-year dictatorship). Bodies scarred by torture were regularly abandoned in public plazas or at busy intersections so passers-by could read the transcript of terror in their stigmata. In the capital, Manila, with only 4,000 police for six million residents, the Marcos regime also deputized hundreds of “secret marshals” responsible for more than 30 shoot-on-sight fatalities during May 1985, the program’s first month, alone.
Yet the impact of Marcos’s version of populist violence proved mutable — effective at the start of martial law when people yearned for order and counterproductive at its close when Filipinos again longed for freedom. That shift in sentiment soon led to his downfall in the first of the dramatic “people power” revolutions that would challenge autocratic regimes from Beijing to Berlin.
Populism in the Philippines: Duterte’s Violence
Rodrigo Duterte, the son of a provincial governor, initially pursued a career as the mayor of Davao City, a site of endemic violence that left a lasting imprint on his political persona.
In 1984, after the communist New People’s Army made Davao its testing ground for urban guerilla warfare, the city’s murders soared, doubling to 800, including the assassination of 150 policemen. To check the communists, who took over part of the city, the military mobilized criminals and ex-communists as death squad vigilantes in a lethal counterterror campaign. When I visited Davao in 1987 to investigate death squad killings, that remote southern city already had an unforgettable air of desolation and hopelessness.
It was in this context of rising national and local extrajudicial slaughter that the 33-year old Rodrigo Duterte launched his political career as the elected mayor of Davao City. That was in 1988, the first of seven terms that would keep him in office, on and off, for another 21 years until he won the country’s presidency in 2016. His first campaign was hotly contested and he barely beat his rivals, taking only 26% of the vote.
Around 1996, he reportedly mobilized his own vigilante group, the Davao Death Squad. It would be responsible for many of the city’s 814 extrajudicial killings over the next decade, as victims were dumped on city streets with faces wrapped bizarrely in packing tape. Duterte himself may have killed one or more of the squad’s victims. Apart from liquidating criminals, the Davao Death Squad also conveniently eliminated the mayor’s political rivals.
Campaigning for president in 2016, Duterte would proudly point to the killings in Davao City and promise a drug war that would murder 100,000 Filipinos if necessary. In doing so, he was also drawing on historical resonances from the Marcos era that lent some political depth to his violent rhetoric. By specifically praising Marcos, promising to finally bury his body in the National Heroes Cemetery in Manila, and supporting Ferdinand Marcos Jr. for vice president, Duterte identified himself with a political lineage of populist strongmen epitomized by the old dictator at a time when desperate Filipinos were looking for new hope of a decent life.
On taking office, President Duterte promptly started his promised anti-drug campaign and dead bodies became commonplace sights on city streets nationwide, sometimes accompanied by a crude cardboard sign reading “I am a pusher,” or simply with their faces wrapped in the by-now trademark packing tape used by the Davao Death Squad. Although Human Rights Watch would declare his drug war a “calamity,” a resounding 85% of Filipinos surveyed were “satisfied,” apparently seeing each body sprawled on a city street as another testament to the president’s promise of order.
At the same time, like Marcos, Duterte deployed a new style of diplomacy as part of his populist reach for unrestrained power. Amid rising tensions in the South China Sea between Beijing and Washington, he improved his country’s bargaining position by distancing himself from the Philippines’ classic alliance with the United States. At the 2016 ASEAN conference, reacting to Barack Obama’s criticism of his drug war, he said bluntly of the American president, “Your mother’s a whore.”
A month later during a state visit to Beijing, Duterte publicly proclaimed “separation from the United States.’’ By setting aside his country’s recent slam-dunk win over China at the Court of Arbitration in the Hague in a legal dispute over rival claims in the South China Sea, Duterte came home with $24 billion in Chinese trade deals and a sense that he was helping establish a new world order.
In January, after his police tortured and killed a South Korean businessman on the pretext of a drug bust, he was forced to call a sudden halt to the nationwide killing spree. Like his role model Marcos, however, Duterte’s populism seems to contain an insatiable appetite for violence and so it was not long before bodies were once again being dumped on the streets of Manila, pushing the death toll past 8,000.
Success and the Strongman
The histories of these Filipino strongmen, past and present, reveal two overlooked aspects of the ill-defined phenomenon of global populism: the role of what might be termed performative violence in projecting domestic strength and a complementary need for diplomatic success to show international influence. How skillfully these critical poles of power are balanced may offer one gauge for speculating about the fate of populist strongmen in disparate parts of the globe.
In Russia’s case, Putin’s projection of strength through the murder of selected domestic opponents has been matched by unchecked aggression in Georgia and Ukraine — a successful balancing act that has made his country, with its rickety economy the size of Italy’s, seem like a great power again and is likely to extend his autocratic rule into the foreseeable future.
In Turkey, Erdogan’s harsh repression of ethnic and political enemies has essentially sunk his bid for entry into the European Union, plunged him into an unwinnable war with Kurdish rebels, and complicated his alliance with the United States against Islamic fundamentalism — all potential barriers to his successful bid for unchecked power.
In Indonesia, Prabowo Subianto failed in his critical first step: building a domestic base large enough to sweep him into the presidency, in part because his call for order resonated so discordantly with a public still capable of remembering his earlier bid for power through eerie violence that roiled Jakarta with hundreds of rapes, fires, and deaths.
Without the popular support generated by his local spectacle of violence, President Duterte’s de facto abrogation of his country’s claims to the South China Sea’s rich fishing grounds and oil reserves in his bid for Chinese support risks a popular backlash, a military coup, or both. For the time being, however, Duterte’s deft juxtaposition of international maneuvering and local bloodletting has made him a successful Philippine strongman with, as yet, few apparent checks on his power.
While the essential weakness of the Philippine military limits Duterte’s outlets for his populist violence to the police killings of poor street drug dealers, Donald Trump faces no such restraints. Should Congress and the courts check the virulence of his domestic attacks on Muslims, Mexicans, or other imagined enemies and should his presidency run into further setbacks like the recent repeal-Obamacare humiliation, he could readily resort to violent military adventures not only in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Libya, but even in Iran, not to speak of North Korea, in a bid to recover his populist aura of overweening power. In this way, unlike any other potential populist politician on the planet, he holds the fate of countless millions in his much-discussed hands.
If populism’s need for what scholar Michael Lee calls an “apocalyptic confrontation” and a “mythic battle” proves accurate, it might, in the end, lead the Trump administration’s “systemic revolutionaries” far beyond even their most extreme rhetoric into an endlessly escalating cycle of violence against foreign enemies, using whatever weapons are available, whether drones, special operations forces, fighter bombers, naval armadas, or even nuclear weapons.
The Bloodstained Rise of Global Populism
In ways that have eluded Washington pundits and policymakers, President Barack Obama is deploying a subtle geopolitical strategy that, if successful, might give Washington a fighting chance to extend its global hegemony deep into the twenty-first century. After six years of silent, sometimes secret preparations, the Obama White House has recently unveiled some bold diplomatic initiatives whose sum is nothing less than a tri-continental strategy to check Beijing’s rise. As these moves unfold, Obama is revealing himself as one of those rare grandmasters who appear every generation or two with an ability to go beyond mere foreign policy and play that ruthless global game called geopolitics.
Since he took office in 2009, Obama has faced an unremitting chorus of criticism, left and right, domestic and foreign, dismissing him as hapless, even hopeless. “He's a poor ignoramus; he should read and study a little to understand reality," said Venezuela’s leftist president Hugo Chavez, just months after Obama’s inauguration. “I think he has projected a position of weakness and… a lack of leadership,” claimed Republican Senator John McCain in 2012. “After six years,” opined a commentator from the conservative Heritage Foundation last April, “he still displays a troubling misunderstanding of power and the leadership role the United States plays in the international system.” Even former Democratic President Jimmy Carter recently dismissed Obama’s foreign policy achievements as “minimal.” Voicing the views of many Americans, Donald Trump derided his global vision this way: “We have a president who doesn’t have a clue.”
But let's give credit where it's due. Without proclaiming a presumptuously labeled policy such as “triangulation,” “the Nixon Doctrine,” or even a “freedom agenda,” Obama has moved step-by-step to repair the damage caused by a plethora of Washington foreign policy debacles, old and new, and then maneuvered deftly to rebuild America’s fading global influence.
Viewed historically, Obama has set out to correct past foreign policy excesses and disasters, largely the product of imperial overreach, that can be traced to several generations of American leaders bent on the exercise of unilateral power. Within the spectrum of American state power, he has slowly shifted from the coercion of war, occupation, torture, and other forms of unilateral military action toward the more cooperative realm of trade, diplomacy, and mutual security — all in search of a new version of American supremacy.
Obama first had to deal with the disasters of the post-9/11 years. Looking through history’s rearview mirror, Bush-Cheney Republicans imagined the Middle East was the on-ramp to greater world power and burned up at least two trillion dollars and much of U.S. prestige in a misbegotten attempt to make that illusion a reality. Since the first day of his presidency, Obama has been trying to pull back from or ameliorate the resulting Bush-made miasmas in Afghanistan and Iraq (though with only modest success), while resisting constant Republican pressures to reengage fully in the permanent, pointless Middle Eastern war that they consider their own. Instead of Bush's endless occupations with 170,000 troops in Iraq and 101,000 in Afghanistan, Obama's military has adopted a more mobile Middle Eastern footprint of advisers, air strikes, drones, and special operations squads. On other matters, however, Obama has acted far more boldly.
Covert Cold War Disasters
Obama’s diplomats have, for instance, pursued reconciliation with three “rogue” states — Burma, Iran, and Cuba — whose seemingly implacable opposition to the U.S. sprang from some of the most disastrous CIA covert interventions of the Cold War.
In 1951, as that “war” gripped the globe, Democratic President Harry Truman ordered the CIA to arm some 12,000 Nationalist Chinese soldiers who had been driven out of their country by communist forces and had taken refuge in northern Burma. The result: three disastrous attempts to invade their former homeland. After being slapped back across the border by mere provincial militia, the Nationalist troops, again with covert CIA support, occupied Burma’s northeast, prompting Rangoon to lodge a formal complaint at the U.N. and the U.S. ambassador to Burma to resign in protest.
Not only was this operation one of the great disasters in a tangled history of such CIA interventions, forcing a major shake-up inside the Agency, but it also produced a lasting breach in bilateral relations with Burma, contributing to that country’s sense of isolation from the international community. Even at the Cold War’s close 40 years later, Burma’s military junta persisted in its international isolation while retaining a close dependency relationship with China, thereby giving Beijing a special claim to its rich resources and strategic access to the Indian Ocean.
During his initial term in office, Obama made a concerted effort to heal this strategic breach in Washington’s encirclement of the Eurasian land mass. He sent Hillary Clinton on the first formal mission to Burma by a secretary of state in more than 50 years; appointed the first ambassador in 22 years; and, in November 2012, became the first president to visit the country that, in an address to students at Rangoon University, he called the “crossroads of East and South Asia” that borders on “the most populated nations on the planet.”
Washington’s Cold War blunders were genuinely bipartisan. Following Truman and drawing on his own experience as Allied commander for Europe during World War II, Republican President Dwight Eisenhower proceeded to wage the Cold War from the White House with the National Security Council as his staff and the CIA as his secret army. Among the 170 CIA covert operations in 48 countries that Eisenhower authorized, two must rank as major debacles, inflicting especially lasting damage on America’s global standing.
In 1953, after Iran’s populist Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq challenged Britain’s imperial monopoly over his country’s oil industry, Eisenhower authorized a covert regime change operation to be engineered by the CIA and British intelligence. Though the Agency came perilously close to failure, it did finally succeed in installing the young, untested Shah in power and then helped him consolidate his autocratic rule by training a secret police, the notorious Savak, in torture and surveillance. While Washingtonians toasted the delicious brilliance of this secret-agent-style derring-do, Iranians seethed until 1979 when demonstrators ousted the Shah and students stormed the U.S. embassy, producing a 35-year breach in relations that weakened Washington’s position in the Middle East.
In September 2013, spurning neoconservative calls for a military solution to the “Iranian problem,” Obama dramatically announced the first direct contact with that country’s leader since 1979. In this way, he launched two years of sustained diplomacy that culminated in an historic agreement halting Iran’s nuclear program. From a geopolitical perspective, this prospective entente, or at least truce, avoided the sort of military action yearned for by Republicans that would have mired Washington in yet another Middle Eastern war. It would also have voided any chance for what, in 2011, Secretary of State Clinton first termed “a pivot to new global realities.” She spoke as well of “our strategic turn to the Asia-Pacific,” a policy which, in a 2014 Beijing press conference, Obama would tout as “our pivot to Asia.”
During his last months in office in 1960, President Eisenhower also infamously authorized a CIA invasion of Cuba, confident that 1,000 ragtag Cuban exiles backed by U.S. airpower could somehow overthrow Fidel Castro’s entrenched revolutionary regime. Inheriting this operation and sensing disaster, President John F. Kennedy forced the CIA to scale back its plans without stopping the Agency from proceeding. So it dumped those exiles on a remote beach 50 impassable miles of trackless, tangled swamp from their planned mountain refuge and sat back as Castro’s air force bombed them into surrender.
For the next 40 years, the resulting rupture in diplomatic relations and the U.S. embargo of Cuba weakened Washington’s position in the Cold War, the Caribbean, and even southern Africa. After decades of diplomatic isolation and economic embargo failed to change the communist regime, President Obama initiated a thaw in relations, culminating in the July 2015 reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana, closed for nearly 55 years.
Obama’s Dollar Diplomacy
Moving from repair to revival, from past to future, President Obama has been using America’s status as the planet’s number one consumer nation to create a new version of dollar diplomacy. His strategy is aimed at drawing China’s Eurasian trading partners back into Washington’s orbit. While Beijing has been moving to bring parts of Africa, Asia, and Europe into a unified “world island” with China at its epicenter, Obama has countered with a bold geopolitics that would trisect that vast land mass by redirecting its trade towards the United States.
During the post-9/11 decade when Washington was spilling its blood and treasure onto desert sands, Beijing was investing its trillions of dollars of surplus from trade with the U.S. in plans for the economic integration of the vast Eurasian land mass. In the process, it has already built or is building an elaborate infrastructure of high-speed, high-volume railroads and oil and natural gas pipelines across the vast breadth of what Sir Halford Mackinder once dubbed the “world island.” Speaking of pivots to Asia and elsewhere, in a 1904 scholarly essay titled “The Geographical Pivot of History,” this renowned British geographer, who started the study of geopolitics, redrew the world map, reconceptualizing Africa, Asia, and Europe not as three separate continents, but as a vast single land mass whose sheer size could, if somehow integrated, make it the epicenter of global power.
In a bid to realize Mackinder’s vision a century later, China has set out to unify Eurasia economically through massive construction financed by loans, foreign aid, and a new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that has already attracted 57 members, including some of Washington’s staunchest allies. With $4 trillion in hard-currency reserves, China has invested $630 billion of it overseas in the last decade, mostly within this tri-continental world island.
As an index of influence, China now accounts for 79% of all foreign investment in Afghanistan, 70% in Sierra Leone, and 83% in Zimbabwe. With a massive infusion of investment that will reach a trillion dollars by 2025, China has managed to double its annual trade with Africa over the past four years to $222 billion, three times America’s $73 billion. Beijing is also mobilizing military forces potentially capable of surgically slicing through the arc of bases, naval armadas, and military alliances with which Washington has ringed the world island from England to Japan since 1945.
In recent months, however, Obama has unleashed a countervailing strategy, seeking to split the world island economically along its continental divide at the Ural Mountains through two trade agreements that aim to capture nothing less than “the central global pole position” for “almost two-thirds of world GDP [gross domestic product] and nearly three-quarters of world trade.” With the impending approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), Washington hopes to redirect much of the vast trade in the Asian half of Eurasia toward North America.
Should another set of parallel negotiations prove successful by their target date of 2016, Washington will reorient the European Union’s portion of Eurasia, which still has the world’s largest single economy and another 16% of world trade, toward the U.S. through the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Finally, in a stroke of personal diplomacy that much of the U.S. media misconstrued as a sentimental journey, Obama has been courting African nations aggressively, convening a White House summit for more than 50 of that continent’s leaders in 2014 and making a state visit to East Africa in July 2015. With its usual barbed insight, Beijing’s Global Times has quite accurately identified the real aim of Obama’s Africa diplomacy as “off-setting China’s growing influence and recovering past U.S. leverage.”
When grandmasters play the great game of geopolitics, there is, almost axiomatically, a certain sangfroid to their moves, an indifference to any resulting collateral damage at home or abroad. These two treaties, so central to Obama’s geopolitical strategy, will bring in their wake both diplomatic gains and high social costs. Think of it in blunt terms as the choice between maintaining the empire abroad and sustaining democracy at home.
In his six years in office, Obama has invested diplomatic and political capital in advancing the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a prospective treaty that carefully excludes China from membership in an apparent bid to split its would-be world island right down its Pacific littoral. Surpassing any other economic alliance except the European Union, this treaty will bind the U.S. and 11 nations around the Pacific basin, including Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, and Vietnam, that represent $28 trillion in combined GDP or 40% of gross world product and a third of all global trade. By sweeping up areas like agriculture, data flows, and service industries, this treaty aspires to a Pacific economic integration unparalleled in any existing trade pact. In the process, it would draw these highly productive nations away from China and into America’s orbit.
Not surprisingly, Obama has faced ferocious opposition within his own party from Senator Elizabeth Warren and others who are sharply critical of the highly secretive nature of the negotiations for the pact and the way it is likely to degrade labor and environmental laws in the U.S. So scathing was this critique that, in June 2015, he needed Republican votes to win Senate approval for “fast track” authority to complete the final round of negotiations in coming months.
To pull at the western axis of China’s would-be world island, Obama is also aggressively pursuing negotiations for the TTIP with the European Union and its $18 trillion economy. The treaty seeks fuller economic integration between Europe and America by meshing government regulations on matters such as auto safety in ways that might add some $270 billion to their annual trade.
By transferring control over consumer safety, the environment, and labor from democratic states to closed, pro-business arbitration tribunals, argues a coalition of 170 European civil society groups, the TTIP, like its Pacific counterpart, will exact a high social cost from participating countries. While the European Union’s labyrinthine layers of bureaucracy and the complexity of relations among its sovereign states make completion of negotiations within the year unlikely, the TTIP treaty, propelled by Obama’s singular determination, is moving at light speed compared to the laggard Doha round of World Trade Organization negotiations, now in year 12 of inconclusive talks with no end in sight.
Grandmasters of Geopolitics
In his determined pursuit of this grand strategy, Obama has revealed himself as one of the few U.S. leaders since America’s rise to world power in 1898 who can play this particular great game of imperial domination with the requisite balance of vision and ruthlessness. Forget everyone’s nominee for master diplomat, Henry Kissinger, who was as inept as he was ruthless, extending the Vietnam War by seven bloody years to mask his diplomatic failure, turning East Timor over to Indonesia for decades of slaughter until its inevitable independence, cratering U.S. credibility in Latin America by installing a murderous military dictatorship in Chile, and mismanaging Moscow in ways that extended the Cold War by another 15 years. Kissinger’s career, as international law specialist Richard Falk wrote recently, has been marked by “his extraordinary capacity to be repeatedly wrong about almost every major foreign policy decision made by the U.S. government over the course of the last half-century.”
Once we subject other American leaders to a similar calculus of costs and benefits, we are, surprisingly enough, left with just three grandmasters of geopolitics: Elihu Root, the original architect of America’s rise to global power; Zbigniew Brzezinski, national security adviser to President Carter, who shattered the Soviet Empire, making the U.S. the world’s sole superpower; and Barack Obama, who is defending that status and offering a striking imperial blueprint for how to check China’s rise. In each case, their maneuvers have been supple and subtle enough that they have eluded both contemporary observers and later historians.
Many American presidents — think Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, George H.W. Bush, and Bill Clinton — have been capable diplomats, skilled at negotiating treaties or persuading allies to do their bidding. But surprisingly few world leaders, American or otherwise, have a capacity for mastering both the temporal and spatial dimensions of global power — that is, the connections between present actions and often distant results as well as an intuitive ability to grasp the cultural, economic, and military forces whose sum is geopolitics. Mastering both of these skills involves seeing beneath the confusion of current events and understanding the deeper currents of historical change. Root and Brzezinski both had an ability to manipulate the present moment to advance long-term American interests while altering, often fundamentally, the future balance of global power. Though little noticed in the avalanche of criticism that has all but buried his accomplishments in the Oval Office, Obama seems to be following in their footsteps.
Elihu Root, Architect of American Power
All but forgotten today, Elihu Root was the true architect of America’s transformation from an insular continental nation into a major player on the world stage. About the time Sir Halford Mackinder was imagining his new model for studying global power, Root was building an institutional infrastructure at home and abroad for the actual exercise of that power.
After a successful 30-year career as a corporate lawyer representing the richest of robber barons, the most venal of trusts, and even New York's outrageously corrupt William "Boss" Tweed, Root devoted the rest of his long life to modernizing the American state as secretary of war, secretary of state, a senator, and finally a plenipotentiary extraordinaire. Not only did he shape the conduct of U.S. foreign policy for the century to come, but he also played an outsized role, particularly for a cabinet secretary of a then-peripheral power, in influencing the character of an emerging international community.
As a prominent attorney, Root understood that the Constitution’s protection of individual liberties and states’ rights had created an inherently weak federal bureaucracy, ill suited for the concerted projection of American imperial power beyond its borders. To transform this “patchwork” state and its divided society — still traumatized by the Civil War — into a world power, Root spent a quarter-century in the determined pursuit of three intertwined objectives: fashioning the fragmentary federal government into a potent apparatus for overseas expansion, building a consensus among the country’s elites for such an activist foreign policy, and creating new forms of global governance open to Washington’s influence.
As secretary of war (1899-1904), Root reformed the Army’s antiquated structure, creating a centralized general staff, establishing a modern war college, and expanding professional training for officers. Through this transformation, the military moved far beyond its traditional mission of coastal defense and became an increasingly agile force for overseas expansion — in China, the Philippines, the Caribbean, Latin America, and, ultimately, Europe itself. With his eye firmly fixed on America’s ascent, Root also covered up atrocities that accompanied the army’s extraordinarily brutal pacification of the Philippines.
As secretary of state (1907-1909), senator (1909-1915), and special envoy to Russia (1917), Root then led a sustained diplomatic effort to make the country, for the first time, a real presence in the community of nations. To insert Washington — until then at the periphery of a world politics still centered on Europe — in the game of global power projection, Secretary of State Root launched an unprecedented tour of Latin America in 1906, winning the continent’s support.
With the backing of 17 Latin republics among the 44 nations present, Washington gained sufficient geopolitical clout at the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907 to conclude the first broad international legal agreement on the laws of war. To house the Permanent Court of Arbitration, the world’s first ongoing institution for global governance, which emerged from the Hague peace conferences, Root’s friend Andrew Carnegie spent $1.5 million, a vast sum at the time, to build the lavish Peace Palace at The Hague in 1913. A year later, as chair of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (1910-1925), Root helped establish The Hague Academy of International Law housed within that Peace Palace.
Simultaneously, he cemented a close alliance with Britain by promoting treaties to resolve territorial disputes that had roiled relations with the world’s preeminent power for the better part of a century. That effort won him the Nobel Peace Prize in 1912. Even in retirement at age 75, Root served on a League of Nations committee that established the Permanent Court of International Justice, realizing his long-held vision of the international community as an assembly of sovereign states governed by the rule of law.
Throughout these decades, Root was careful to cultivate support for an assertive foreign policy among the country’s ruling East Coast elites. As the culmination of this effort, in 1918 he led a group of financiers, industrialists, and corporate lawyers in establishing the Council on Foreign Relations in New York, which soon became the country’s most influential forum for shaping public consensus for an expansive foreign policy. He also cultivated academic specialists at leading universities nationwide, using their expertise to shape and support his foreign policy ideas. In sum, Root recast American society to forge a nexus of money, influence, and intellect that would sustain U.S. foreign policy for the next century.
Zbigniew Brzezinski, Destroyer of Empires
After a long period of indifferent international leadership, during Jimmy Carter’s presidency foreign policy came under the charge of an underestimated figure, National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski. Émigré Polish aristocrat, professor of international relations, and an autodidact when it came to geopolitics, he was above all an intellectual acolyte of Sir Halford Mackinder. Through both action and analysis, Brzezinski made Mackinder’s concept of Eurasia as the world island and its vast interior heartland as the “pivot” of global power his own. He would prove particularly adept at applying Sir Halford’s famous dictum: “Who rules East Europe commands the Heartland; Who rules the Heartland commands the World-Island; Who rules the World-Island commands the world.”
Wielding a $100 million CIA covert operation like a sharpened wedge, Brzezinski drove radical Islam from Afghanistan into the “heartland” of Soviet Central Asia, drawing Moscow into a debilitating decade-long Afghan war that weakened Russia sufficiently for Eastern Europe to finally break free from the Soviet empire. With a calculus that couldn’t have been more coldblooded, he understood and rationalized the untold misery and unimaginable human suffering his strategy inflicted through ravaged landscapes, the millions his policy uprooted from ancestral villages and turned into refugees, and the countless Afghan dead and wounded. Dismissing the long-term damage as "some stirred-up Moslems," as he saw it, none of it added up to a hill of beans compared to the importance of striking directly into the Eurasian heartland to free Eastern Europe, half a continent away, and shatter the Soviet empire. And these results did indeed mark Brzezinski as a grandmaster of geopolitics in all its ruthless realpolitik. (Mind you, the future suffering from those "stirred-up Moslems" now includes the rise of al-Qaeda, 9/11, and America’s second Afghan War, as well as the unsettling of the Greater Middle East thanks to the growth of the Islamic extremism he first nurtured.)
In 1998, in retirement, Brzezinski again applied Sir Halford’s theory, this time in a book titled The Grand Chessboard, a geopolitical treatise on America’s capacity for extending its global hegemony. Although Washington was still basking in the pre-9/11 glow of its newly won grandeur as the world’s sole superpower, he could already imagine the geopolitical constraints that might come into play and undermine that status. If the U.S. then seemed a colossus standing astride the world, Eurasia still remained “the globe’s most important playing field… with preponderance over the entire Eurasian continent serving as the central basis for global primacy.”
That Eurasian “megacontinent,” Brzezinski observed, “is just too large, too populous, culturally too varied, and composed of too many historically ambitious and politically energetic states to be compliant toward even the most economically successful and politically preeminent global power.” Washington, he predicted, could continue its half-century dominion over the “oddly shaped Eurasian chessboard — extending from Lisbon to Vladivostok” only as long as it could preserve its unchallenged “perch on the Western periphery,” while the vast “middle space” does not become “an assertive single entity," and the Eastern end of the world continent did not unify itself in a way that might lead to “the expulsion of America from its offshore bases.” Should any of these critical conditions change, Brzezinski warned prophetically, “a potential rival to America might at some point arise.”
Barack Obama, Defender of U.S. Global Hegemony
Less than a decade later, China emerged to challenge America’s control of Eurasia and so threaten Washington’s standing as the globe’s great hegemon. While the U.S. military was mired in the Middle East, Beijing quietly began working to unify that vast “middle space” of Eurasia, while preparing to neutralize America’s “offshore bases.”
By the time Barack Obama entered the Oval Office in 2009, there were already the first signs of a serious geopolitical challenge that only the president and his closest advisers seemed to recognize. In a speech to the Australian parliament in November 2011, Obama said: “Let there be no doubt: in the Asia-Pacific in the twenty-first century, the United States of America is all in.” After two long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan “that cost us dearly, in blood and treasure, “ he explained, “the United States is turning our attention to the vast potential of the Asia Pacific region,” which is “the world’s fastest-growing region — and home to more than half the global economy.” His initial deployment of just 2,500 U.S. troops to Australia seemed a slender down payment on his “deliberate and strategic decision” to become America’s first “Pacific president,” producing a great deal of premature criticism and derision.
Four years later, one CNN commentator would still be calling this “Obama’s pivot to nowhere.” Even seasoned foreign policy commentator Fareed Zakaria would ask, in early 2015, “Whatever happened to the pivot to Asia?” Answering his own question, Zakaria argued that the president was still mired in the Middle East and the centerpiece of that pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, seemed to be facing certain defeat in Congress.
To the consternation of his critics, in the waning months of his presidency, from Iran to Cuba, from Burma to the Pacific Ocean, Obama has revealed himself as an American strategist potentially capable of laying the groundwork for the continued planetary dominion of the United States deep into the twenty-first century. In the last 16 months of his presidency, with a bit of grit and luck and a final diplomatic surge — concluding the nuclear treaty with Iran to prevent another debilitating Middle Eastern conflict, winning congressional approval of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and completing negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership — Obama just might secure the U.S. a significant extension of its waning global hegemony.
Specifics aside, the world’s two most powerful nations, China and the United States, seem to have developed conflicting geopolitical strategies to guide their struggle for global power. Whether Beijing will succeed in moving ever further toward unifying Asia, Africa, and Europe into that world island or Washington will persist with Obama’s strategy of splitting that land mass along its axial divisions via trans-oceanic trade won’t become clear for another decade or two.
We still cannot say whether the outcome of this great game will be decided through an almost invisible commercial competition or a more violent drama akin to history’s last comparable imperial transition, the protracted rivalry between Napoleon’s “continental system” and Britain’s maritime strategy at the start of the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, we are starting to see the broad parameters of an epochal geopolitical contest likely to shape the world’s destiny in the coming decades of this still young twenty-first century.
Alfred W. McCoy, a TomDispatch regular, is the Harrington Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author, most recently, of Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation, and co-editor of Endless Empire: Europe’s Eclipse, Spain’s Retreat, America’s Decline.
Copyright 2015 Alfred W. McCoy
Grandmaster of the Great Game
The American surveillance state is now an omnipresent reality, but its deep history is little known and its future little grasped. Edward Snowden’s leaked documents reveal that, in a post-9/11 state of war, the National Security Agency (NSA) was able to create a surveillance system that could secretly monitor the private communications of almost every American in the name of fighting foreign terrorists. The technology used is state of the art; the impulse, it turns out, is nothing new. For well over a century, what might be called “surveillance blowback” from America’s wars has ensured the creation of an ever more massive and omnipresent internal security and surveillance apparatus. Its future (though not ours) looks bright indeed.
In 1898, Washington occupied the Philippines and in the years that followed pacified its rebellious people, in part by fashioning the world’s first full-scale “surveillance state” in a colonial land. The illiberal lessons learned there then migrated homeward, providing the basis for constructing America’s earliest internal security and surveillance apparatus during World War I. A half-century later, as protests mounted during the Vietnam War, the FBI, building on the foundations of that old security structure, launched large-scale illegal counterintelligence operations to harass antiwar activists, while President Richard Nixon’s White House created its own surveillance apparatus to target its domestic enemies.
In the aftermath of those wars, however, reformers pushed back against secret surveillance. Republican privacy advocates abolished much of President Woodrow Wilson’s security apparatus during the 1920s, and Democratic liberals in Congress created the FISA courts in the 1970s in an attempt to prevent any recurrence of President Nixon’s illegal domestic wiretapping.
Today, as Washington withdraws troops from the Greater Middle East, a sophisticated intelligence apparatus built for the pacification of Afghanistan and Iraq has come home to help create a twenty-first century surveillance state of unprecedented scope. But the past pattern that once checked the rise of a U.S. surveillance state seems to be breaking down. Despite talk about ending the war on terror one day, President Obama has left the historic pattern of partisan reforms far behind. In what has become a permanent state of “wartime” at home, the Obama administration is building upon the surveillance systems created in the Bush years to maintain U.S. global dominion in peace or war through a strategic, ever-widening edge in information control. The White House shows no sign — nor does Congress — of cutting back on construction of a powerful, global Panopticon that can surveil domestic dissidents, track terrorists, manipulate allied nations, monitor rival powers, counter hostile cyber strikes, launch preemptive cyberattacks, and protect domestic communications.
Writing for TomDispatch four years ago during Obama’s first months in office, I suggested that the War on Terror has “proven remarkably effective in building a technological template that could be just a few tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state — with omnipresent cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling ‘the homeland.’”
That prediction has become our present reality — and with stunning speed. Americans now live under the Argus-eyed gaze of a digital surveillance state, while increasing numbers of surveillance drones fill American skies. In addition, the NSA’s net now reaches far beyond our borders, sweeping up the personal messages of many millions of people worldwide and penetrating the confidential official communications of at least 30 allied nations. The past has indeed proven prologue. The future is now.
The Coming of the Information Revolution
The origins of this emerging global surveillance state date back over a century to “America’s first information revolution” for the management of textual, statistical, and analytical data — a set of innovations whose synergy created the technological capacity for mass surveillance.
Here’s a little litany of “progress” to ponder while on the road to today’s every-email-all-the-time version of surveillance.
Within just a few years, the union of Thomas A. Edison’s quadruplex telegraph with Philo Remington’s commercial typewriter, both inventions of 1874, allowed for the accurate transmission of textual data at the unequalled speed of 40 words per minute across America and around the world.
In the mid-1870s as well, librarian Melvil Dewey developed the “Dewey decimal system” to catalog the Amherst College Library, thereby inventing the “smart number” for the reliable encoding and rapid retrieval of limitless information.
The year after engineer Herman Hollerith patented the punch card (1889), the U.S. Census Bureau adopted his Electrical Tabulating machine to count 62,622,250 Americans within weeks — a triumph that later led to the founding of International Business Machines, better known by its acronym IBM.
By 1900, all American cities were wired via the Gamewell Corporation’s innovative telegraphic communications, with over 900 municipal police and fire systems sending 41 million messages in a single year.
A Colonial Laboratory for the Surveillance State
On the eve of empire in 1898, however, the U.S. government was still what scholar Stephen Skowronek has termed a “patchwork” state with a near-zero capacity for domestic security. That, of course, left ample room for the surveillance version of modernization, and it came with surprising speed after Washington conquered and colonized the Philippines.
Facing a decade of determined Filipino resistance, the U.S. Army applied all those American information innovations — rapid telegraphy, photographic files, alpha-numeric coding, and Gamewell police communications — to the creation of a formidable, three-tier colonial security apparatus including the Manila Police, the Philippines Constabulary, and above all the Army’s Division of Military Information.
In early 1901, Captain Ralph Van Deman, later dubbed “the father of U.S. Military Intelligence,” assumed command of this still embryonic division, the Army’s first field intelligence unit in its 100-year history. With a voracious appetite for raw data, Van Deman’s division compiled phenomenally detailed information on thousands of Filipino leaders, including their physical appearance, personal finances, landed property, political loyalties, and kinship networks.
Starting in 1901, the first U.S. governor-general (and future president) William Howard Taft drafted draconian sedition legislation for the islands and established a 5,000-man strong Philippines Constabulary. In the process, he created a colonial surveillance state that ruled, in part, thanks to the agile control of information, releasing damning data about enemies while suppressing scandals about allies.
When the Associated Press’s Manila bureau chief reported critically on these policies, Taft’s allies dug up dirt on this would-be critic and dished it out to the New York press. On the other hand, the Division of Military Information compiled a scandalous report about the rising Filipino politician Manuel Quezon, alleging a premarital abortion by his future first lady. Quezon, however, served the Constabulary as a spy, so this document remained buried in U.S. files, assuring his unchecked ascent to become the first president of the Philippines in 1935.
During the U.S. conquest of the Philippines, Mark Twain wrote an imagined history of twentieth-century America. In it, he predicted that a “lust for conquest” had already destroyed “the Great [American] Republic,” because “trampling upon the helpless abroad had taught her, by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.” Indeed, just a decade after Twain wrote those prophetic words, colonial police methods came home to serve as a template for the creation of an American internal security apparatus in wartime.
After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917 without an intelligence service of any sort, Colonel Van Deman brought his Philippine experience to bear, creating the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division (MID) and so laying the institutional foundations for a future internal security state.
In collaboration with the FBI, he also expanded the MID’s reach through a civilian auxiliary organization, the American Protective League, whose 350,000 citizen-operatives amassed more than a million pages of surveillance reports on German-Americans in just 14 months, arguably the world’s most intensive feat of domestic surveillance ever.
After the Armistice in 1918, Military Intelligence joined the FBI in two years of violent repression of the American left marked by the notorious Luster raids in New York City, J. Edgar Hoover’s “Palmer Raids” in cities across the northeast and the suppression of union strikes from New York City to Seattle.
When President Wilson left office in 1921, incoming Republican privacy advocates condemned his internal security regime as intrusive and abusive, forcing the Army and the FBI to cut their ties to patriotic vigilantes. In 1924, Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone, worrying that “a secret police may become a menace to free government,” announced “the Bureau of Investigation is not concerned with political or other opinions of individuals.” Epitomizing the nation’s retreat from surveillance, Secretary of War Henry Stimson closed the Military Intelligence cipher section in 1929, saying famously, “Gentlemen do not read each other’s mail.”
After retiring at the rank of major general that same year, Van Deman and his wife continued from their home in San Diego to coordinate an informal intelligence exchange system, compiling files on 250,000 suspected “subversives.” They also took reports from classified government files and slipped them to citizen anti-communist groups for blacklisting. In the 1950 elections, for instance, Representative Richard Nixon reportedly used Van Deman’s files to circulate “pink sheets” at rallies denouncing California Congresswoman Helen Gahagan Douglas, his opponent in a campaign for a Senate seat, launching a victorious Nixon on the path to the presidency.
From retirement, Van Deman, in league with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, also proved crucial at a 1940 closed-door conference that awarded the FBI control over domestic counterintelligence. The Army’s Military Intelligence, and its successors, the CIA and NSA, were restricted to foreign espionage, a division of tasks that would hold, at least in principle, until the post-9/11 years. So armed, during World War II the FBI used warrantless wiretaps, “black bag” break-ins, and surreptitious mail opening to track suspects, while mobilizing more than 300,000 informers to secure defense plants against wartime threats that ultimately proved “negligible.”
The Vietnam Years
In response to the civil rights and anti-Vietnam protests of the 1960s, the FBI deployed its COINTELPRO operation, using what Senator Frank Church’s famous investigative committee later called “unsavory and vicious tactics… including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths.”
In assessing COINTELPRO’s 2,370 actions from 1960 to 1974, the Church Committee branded them a “sophisticated vigilante operation” that “would be intolerable in a democratic society even if all of the targets had been involved in violent activity.” Significantly, even this aggressive Senate investigation did not probe Director Hoover’s notorious “private files” on the peccadilloes of leading politicians that had insulated his Bureau from any oversight for more than 30 years.
After New York Times reporter Seymour Hersh exposed illegal CIA surveillance of American antiwar activists in 1974, Senator Church’s committee and a presidential commission under Nelson Rockefeller investigated the Agency’s “Operation Chaos,” a program to conduct massive illegal surveillance of the antiwar protest movement, discovering a database with 300,000 names. These investigations also exposed the excesses of the FBI’s COINTELPRO, forcing the Bureau to reform.
To prevent future abuses, President Jimmy Carter signed the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) in 1978, creating a special court to approve all national security wiretaps. In a bitter irony, Carter’s supposed reform ended up plunging the judiciary into the secret world of the surveillance managers where, after 9/11, it became a rubberstamp institution for every kind of state intrusion on domestic privacy.
How the Global War on Terror Came Home
As its pacification wars in Afghanistan and Iraq sank into bloody quagmires, Washington brought electronic surveillance, biometric identification, and unmanned aerial vehicles to the battlefields. This trio, which failed to decisively turn the tide in those lands, nonetheless now undergirds a global U.S. surveillance apparatus of unequalled scope and unprecedented power.
After confining the populations of Baghdad and the rebellious Sunni city of Falluja behind blast-wall cordons, the U.S. Army attempted to bring the Iraqi resistance under control in part by collecting, as of 2011, three million Iraqi fingerprints,iris, and retinal scans. These were deposited in a biometric database in West Virginia that American soldiers at checkpoints and elsewhere on distant battlefields could at any moment access by satellite link. Simultaneously, the Joint Special Operations Command under General Stanley McChrystal centralized all electronic and satellite surveillance in the Greater Middle East to identify possible al-Qaeda operatives for assassination by Predator drones or hunter-killer raids by Special Operations commandos from Somalia to Pakistan.
Domestically, post-9/11, the White House tried to create a modern version of the old state-citizen alliance for domestic surveillance. In May 2002, President Bush’s Justice Department launched Operation TIPS with “millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees, and others” spying on fellow citizens. But there was vocal opposition from members of Congress, civil libertarians, and the media, which soon forced Justice to quietly kill the program.
In a digital iteration of the same effort, retired admiral John Poindexter began to set up an ominously titled Pentagon program called Total Information Awareness to amass a “detailed electronic dossier on millions of Americans.” Again the nation recoiled, Congress banned the program, and the admiral was forced to resign.
Defeated in the public arena, the Bush administration retreated into the shadows, where it launched secret FBI and NSA domestic surveillance programs. Here, Congress proved far more amenable and pliable. In 2002, Congress erased the bright line that had long barred the CIA from domestic spying, granting the agency the power to access U.S. financial records and audit electronic communications routed through the country.
Defying the FISA law, in October 2001 President Bush ordered the NSA to commence covert monitoring of private communications through the nation’s telephone companies without the requisite warrants. According to the Associated Press, he also “secretly authorized the NSA to plug into the fiber optic cables that enter and leave the United States” carrying the world’s “emails, telephone calls, video chats, websites, bank transactions, and more.” Since his administration had already conveniently decided that “metadata was not constitutionally protected,” the NSA began an open-ended program, Operation Stellar Wind, “to collect bulk telephony and Internet metadata.”
By 2004, the Bush White House was so wedded to Internet metadata collection that top aides barged into Attorney General John Ashcroft’s hospital room to extract a reauthorization signature for the program. They were blocked by Justice Department officials led by Deputy Attorney General James Comey, forcing a two-month suspension until that FISA court, brought into existence in the Carter years, put its first rubber-stamp on this mass surveillance regime.
Armed with expansive FISA court orders allowing the collection of data sets rather than information from specific targets, the FBI’s “Investigative Data Warehouse” acquired more than a billion documents within five years, including intelligence reports, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and private financial information. All of this was accessible to 13,000 analysts making a million queries monthly. In 2006, as the flood of data surging through fiber optic cables strained NSA computers, the Bush administration launched the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity to develop supercomputing searches powerful enough to process this torrent of Internet information.
In 2005, a New York Times investigative report exposed the administration’s illegal surveillance for the first time. A year later, USA Today reported that the NSA was “secretly collecting the phone call records of tens of millions of Americans, using data provided by AT&T, Verizon, and Bell South.” One expert called it “the largest database ever assembled in the world,” adding presciently that the Agency’s goal was “to create a database of every call ever made.”
In August 2007, in response to these revelations, Congress capitulated. It passed a new law, the Protect America Act, which retrospectively legalized this illegal White House-inspired set of programs by requiring greater oversight by the FISA court. This secret tribunal — acting almost as a “parallel Supreme Court” that rules on fundamental constitutional rights without adversarial proceedings or higher review — has removed any real restraint on the National Security Agency’s bulk collection of Internet metadata and regularly rubberstamps almost 100% of the government’s thousands of surveillance requests. Armed with expanded powers, the National Security Agency promptly launched its PRISM program (recently revealed by Edward Snowden). To feed its hungry search engines, the NSA has compelled nine Internet giants, including Microsoft, Yahoo, Google, Facebook, AOL, and Skype, to transfer what became billions of emails to its massive data farms.
Obama’s Expanding Surveillance Universe
Instead of curtailing his predecessor’s wartime surveillance, as Republicans did in the 1920s and Democrats in the 1970s, President Obama has overseen the expansion of the NSA’s wartime digital operations into a permanent weapon for the exercise of U.S. global power.
The Obama administration continued a Bush-era NSA program of “bulk email records collection” until 2011 when two senators protested that the agency’s “statements to both Congress and the Court… significantly exaggerated this program’s effectiveness.” Eventually, the administration was forced to curtail this particular operation. Nonetheless, the NSA has continued to collect the personal communications of Americans by the billions under its PRISM and other programs.
In the Obama years as well, the NSA began cooperating with its long-time British counterpart, the Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), to tap into the dense cluster of Trans-Atlantic Telecommunication fiber optic cables that transit the United Kingdom. During a visit to a GCHQ facility for high-altitude intercepts at Menwith Hill in June 2008, NSA Director General Keith Alexander asked, “Why can’t we collect all the signals all the time? Sounds like a good summer project for Menwith.”
In the process, GCHQ’s Operation Tempora achieved the “biggest Internet access” of any partner in a “Five Eyes” signals-intercept coalition that, in addition to Great Britain and the U.S., includes Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. When the project went online in 2011, the GCHQ sank probes into 200 Internet cables and was soon collecting 600 million telephone messages daily, which were, in turn, made accessible to 850,000 NSA employees.
The historic alliance between the NSA and GCHQ dates back to the dawn of the Cold War. In deference to it, the NSA has, since 2007, exempted its “2nd party” Five Eyes allies from surveillance under its “Boundless Informant” operation. According to another recently leaked NSA document, however, “we can, and often do, target the signals of most 3rd party foreign partners.” This is clearly a reference to close allies like Germany, France, and Italy.
On a busy day in January 2013, for instance, the NSA collected 60 million phone calls and emails from Germany — some 500 million German messages are reportedly collected annually — with lesser but still hefty numbers from France, Italy, and non-European allies like Brazil. To gain operational intelligence on such allies, the NSA taps phones at the European Council headquarters in Brussels, bugs the European Union (EU) delegation at the U.N., has planted a “Dropmire” monitor “on the Cryptofax at the EU embassy DC,” and eavesdrops on 38 allied embassies worldwide.
Such secret intelligence about its allies gives Washington an immense diplomatic advantage, says NSA expert James Bamford. “It’s the equivalent of going to a poker game and wanting to know what everyone’s hand is before you place your bet.” And who knows what scurrilous bits of scandal about world leaders American surveillance systems might scoop up to strengthen Washington’s hand in that global poker game called diplomacy.
This sort of digital surveillance was soon supplemented by actual Internet warfare. Between 2006 and 2010, Washington launched the planet’s first cyberwar, with Obama ordering devastating cyberattacks against Iran’s nuclear facilities. In 2009, the Pentagon formed the U.S. Cyber Command (CYBERCOM), with a cybercombat center at Lackland Air Base initially staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees. Over the next two years, by appointing NSA chief Alexander as CYBERCOM’s concurrent commander, it created an enormous concentration of power in the digital shadows. The Pentagon has also declared cyberspace an “operational domain” for both offensive and defensive warfare.
Controlling the Future
By leaking a handful of NSA documents, Edward Snowden has given us a glimpse of future U.S. global policy and the changing architecture of power on this planet. At the broadest level, this digital shift complements Obama’s new defense strategy, announced in 2012, of reducing costs (cutting, for example, infantry troops by 14%), while conserving Washington’s overall power by developing a capacity for “a combined arms campaign across all domains — land, air, maritime, space, and cyberspace.”
While cutting conventional armaments, Obama is investing billions in constructing a new architecture for global information control. To store and process the billions of messages sucked up by its worldwide surveillance network (totaling 97 billion items for March alone), the NSA is employing 11,000 workers to build a $1.6 billion data center in Bluffdale, Utah, whose storage capacity is measured in “yottabytes,” each the equivalent of a trillion terabytes. That’s almost unimaginable once you realize that just 15 terabytes could store every publication in the Library of Congress.
From its new $1.8 billion headquarters, the third-biggest building in the Washington area, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency deploys 16,000 employees and a $5 billion budget to coordinate a rising torrent of surveillance data from Predators, Reapers, U-2 spy planes, Global Hawks, X-37B space drones, Google Earth, Space Surveillance Telescopes, and orbiting satellites.
To protect those critical orbiting satellites, which transmit most U.S. military communications, the Pentagon is building an aerospace shield of pilotless drones. In the exosphere, the Air Force has since April 2010 been successfully testing the X-37B space drone that can carry missiles to strike rival satellite networks such as the one the Chinese are currently creating.
For more extensive and precise surveillance from space, the Pentagon has been replacing its costly, school-bus-sized spy satellites with a new generation of light, low cost models such as the ATK-A200. Successfully launched in May 2011, this module is orbiting 250 miles above the Earth with remote-controlled, U-2 quality cameras that now provide the “U.S. Central Command an assured ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) capability.”
In the stratosphere, close enough to Earth for audiovisual surveillance, the Pentagon is planning to launch an armada of 99 Global Hawk drones — each equipped with high-resolution cameras to surveil all terrain within a 100-mile radius, electronic sensors to intercept communications, and efficient engines for continuous 24-hour flight.
Within a decade, the U.S. will likely deploy this aerospace shield, advanced cyberwarfare capabilities, and even vaster, more omnipresent digital surveillance networks that will envelop the Earth in an electronic grid capable of blinding entire armies on the battlefield, atomizing a single suspected terrorist, or monitoring millions of private lives at home and abroad.
Sadly, Mark Twain was right when he warned us just over 100 years ago that America could not have both empire abroad and democracy at home. To paraphrase his prescient words, by “trampling upon the helpless abroad” with unchecked surveillance, Americans have learned, “by a natural process, to endure with apathy the like at home.”
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (University of Wisconsin), which is the source for much of the material in this essay.
Copyright 2013 Alfred W. McCoy
After a decade of fiery public debate and bare-knuckle partisan brawling, the United States has stumbled toward an ad hoc bipartisan compromise over the issue of torture that rests on two unsustainable policies: impunity at home and rendition abroad.
President Obama has closed the CIA’s “black sites,” its secret prisons where American agents once dirtied their hands with waterboarding and wall slamming. But via rendition — the sending of terrorist suspects to the prisons of countries that torture — and related policies, his administration has outsourced human rights abuse to Afghanistan, Somalia, and elsewhere. In this way, he has avoided the political stigma of torture, while tacitly tolerating such abuses and harvesting whatever intelligence can be gained from them.
This “resolution” of the torture issue may meet the needs of this country’s deeply divided politics. It cannot, however, long satisfy an international community determined to prosecute human rights abuses through universal jurisdiction. It also runs the long-term risk of another sordid torture scandal that will further damage U.S. standing with allies worldwide.
Perfecting a New Form of Torture
The modern American urge to use torture did not, of course, begin on September 12, 2001. It has roots that reach back to the beginning of the Cold War and a human rights policy riven with contradictions. Publicly, Washington opposed torture and led the world in drafting the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and the Geneva Conventions in 1949. Simultaneously and secretly, however, the Central Intelligence Agency began developing ingenious new torture techniques in contravention of these same international conventions.
From 1950 to 1962, the CIA led a secret research effort to crack the code of human consciousness, a veritable Manhattan project of the mind with two findings foundational to a new form of psychological torture. In the early 1950s, while collaborating with the CIA, famed Canadian psychologist Dr. Donald Hebb discovered that, using goggles, gloves, and earmuffs, he could induce a state akin to psychosis among student volunteers by depriving them of sensory stimulation. Simultaneously, two eminent physicians at Cornell University Medical Center, also working with the Agency, found that the most devastating torture technique used by the KGB, the Soviet secret police, involved simply forcing victims to stand for days at a time, while legs swelled painfully and hallucinations began.
In 1963, after a decade of mind-control research, the CIA codified these findings in a succinct, secret instructional handbook, the KUBARK Counterintelligence Interrogation manual. It became the basis for a new method of psychological torture disseminated worldwide and within the U.S. intelligence community. Avoiding direct involvement in torture, the CIA instead trained allied agencies to do its dirty work in prisons throughout the Third World, like South Vietnam’s notorious “tiger cages.”
The Korean War added a defensive dimension to this mind-control research. After harsh North Korean psychological torture forced American POWs to accuse their own country of war crimes, President Dwight Eisenhower ordered that any serviceman subject to capture be given resistance training, which the Air Force soon dubbed with the acronym SERE (for survival, evasion, resistance, escape).
Once the Cold War ended in 1990, Washington resumed its advocacy of human rights, ratifying the U.N. Convention Against Torture in 1994, which banned the infliction of “severe” psychological and physical pain. The CIA ended its torture training in the Third World, and the Defense Department recalled Latin American counterinsurgency manuals that contained instructions for using harsh interrogation techniques. On the surface, then, Washington had resolved the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices.
But when President Bill Clinton sent the U.N. Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included language (drafted six years earlier by the Reagan administration) that contained diplomatic “reservations.” In effect, these addenda accepted the banning of physical abuse, but exempted psychological torture.
A year later, when the Clinton administration launched its covert campaign against al-Qaeda, the CIA avoided direct involvement in human rights violations by sending 70 terror suspects to allied nations notorious for physical torture. This practice, called “extraordinary rendition,” had supposedly been banned by the U.N. convention and so a new contradiction between Washington’s human rights principles and its practices was buried like a political land mine ready to detonate with phenomenal force, just 10 years later, in the Abu Ghraib scandal.
Right after his first public address to a shaken nation on September 11, 2001, President George W. Bush gave his White House staff expansive secret orders for the use of harsh interrogation, adding, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.”
Soon after, the CIA began opening “black sites” that would in the coming years stretch from Thailand to Poland. It also leased a fleet of executive jets for the rendition of detained terrorist suspects to allied nations, and revived psychological tortures abandoned since the end of the Cold War. Indeed, the agency hired former Air Force psychologists to reverse engineer SERE training techniques, flipping them from defense to offense and thereby creating the psychological tortures that would henceforth travel far under the euphemistic label “enhanced interrogation techniques.”
In a parallel move in late 2002, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld appointed General Geoffrey Miller to head the new prison at Guantanamo, Cuba, and gave him broad authority to develop a total three-phase attack on the sensory receptors, cultural identity, and individual psyches of his new prisoners. After General Miller visited Abu Ghraib prison in September 2003, the U.S. commander for Iraq issued orders for the use of psychological torture in U.S. prisons in that country, including sensory disorientation, self-inflicted pain, and a recent innovation, cultural humiliation through exposure to dogs (which American believed would be psychologically devastating for Arabs). It is no accident that Private Lynndie England, a military guard at Abu Ghraib prison, was famously photographed leading a naked Iraqi detainee leashed like a dog.
Just two months after CBS News broadcast those notorious photos from Abu Ghraib in April 2004, 35% of Americans polled still felt torture was acceptable. Why were so many tolerant of torture?
One partial explanation would be that, in the years after 9/11, the mass media filled screens large and small across America with enticing images of abuse. Amid this torrent of torture simulations, two media icons served to normalize abuse for many Americans — the fantasy of the “ticking time bomb scenario” and the fictional hero of the Fox Television show “24,” counterterror agent Jack Bauer.
In the months after 9/11, Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz launched a multimedia campaign arguing that torture would be necessary in the event U.S. intelligence agents discovered that a terrorist had planted a ticking nuclear bomb in New York’s Times Square. Although this scenario was a fantasy whose sole foundation was an obscure academic philosophy article published back in 1973, such ticking bombs soon enough became a media trope and a persuasive reality for many Americans — particularly thanks to “24,” every segment of which began with an oversized clock ticking menacingly.
In 67 torture scenes during its first five seasons, the show portrayed agent Jack Bauer’s recourse to abuse as timely, effective, and often seductive. By its last broadcast in May 2010, the simple invocation of agent Bauer’s name had become a persuasive argument for torture used by everyone from Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia to ex-President Bill Clinton.
While campaigning for his wife Hillary in the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, Clinton typically cited “24” as a justification for allowing CIA agents, acting outside the law, to torture in extreme emergencies. “When Bauer goes out there on his own and is prepared to live with the consequences,” Clinton told Meet the Press, “it always seems to work better.”
Impunity in America
Such a normalization of “enhanced interrogation techniques” created public support for an impunity achieved by immunizing all those culpable of crimes of torture. During President Obama’s first two years in office, former Vice President Dick Cheney and his daughter Liz made dozens of television appearances accusing his administration of weakening America’s security by investigating CIA interrogators who had used such techniques under Bush.
Ironically, Obama’s assassination of Osama bin Laden in May 2011 provided an opening for neoconservatives to move the nation toward impunity. Forming an a cappella media chorus, former Bush administration officials appeared on television to claim, without any factual basis, that torture had somehow led the Navy SEALs to Bin Laden. Within weeks, Attorney General Eric Holder announced an end to any investigation of harsh CIA interrogations and to the possibility of bringing any of the CIA torturers to court. (Consider it striking, then, that the only “torture” case brought to court by the administration involved a former CIA agent, John Kiriakou, who had leaked the names of some torturers.)
Starting on the 10th anniversary of 9/11, the country took the next step toward full impunity via a radical rewriting of the past. In a memoir published on August 30, 2011, Dick Cheney claimed the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on an al-Qaeda leader named Abu Zubaydah had turned this hardened terrorist into a “fount of information” and saved “thousands of lives.”
Just two weeks later, on September 12, 2011, former FBI counterterror agent Ali Soufan released his own memoirs, stating that he was the one who started the interrogation of Abu Zubaydah back in 2002, using empathetic, non-torture techniques that quickly gained “important actionable intelligence” about “the role of KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] as the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.”
Angered by the FBI’s success, CIA director George Tenet dispatched his own interrogators from Washington led by Dr. James Mitchell, the former SERE psychologist who had developed the agency’s harsh “enhanced techniques.” As the CIA team moved up the “force continuum” from “low-level sleep deprivation” to nudity, noise barrage, and the use of a claustrophobic confinement box, Dr. Mitchell’s harsh methods got “no information.”
By contrast, at each step in this escalating abuse, Ali Soufan was brought back for more quiet questioning in Arabic that coaxed out all the valuable intelligence Zubaydah had to offer. The results of this ad hoc scientific test were blindingly clear: FBI empathy was consistently effective, while CIA coercion proved counterproductive.
But this fundamental yet fragile truth has been obscured by CIA censorship and neoconservative casuistry. Cheney’s secondhand account completely omitted the FBI presence. Moreover, the CIA demanded 181 pages of excisions from Ali Soufan’s memoirs that reduced his chapters about this interrogation experience to a maze of blackened lines no regular reader can understand.
The agency’s attempt to rewrite the past has continued into the present. Just last April, Jose Rodriguez, former chief of CIA Clandestine Services, published his uncensored memoirs under the provocative title Hard Measures: How Aggressive C.I.A. Actions after 9/11 Saved American Lives. In a promotional television interview, he called FBI claims of success with empathetic methods “bullshit.”
With the past largely rewritten to assure Americans that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation” had worked, the perpetrators of torture were home free and the process of impunity and immunity established for future use.
Rendition Under Obama
Apart from these Republican pressures, President Obama’s own aggressive views on national security have contributed to an undeniable continuity with many of his predecessor’s most controversial policies. Not only has he preserved the controversial military commissions at Guantanamo and fought the courts to block civil suits against torture perpetrators, he has, above all, authorized continuing CIA rendition flights.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Obama went beyond any other candidate in offering unqualified opposition to both direct and indirect U.S. involvement in torture. “We have to be clear and unequivocal. We do not torture, period,” he said, adding, “That will be my position as president. That includes, by the way, renditions.”
Only days after his January 2009 inauguration, Obama issued a dramatic executive order ending the CIA’s coercive techniques, but it turned out to include a large loophole that preserved the agency’s role in extraordinary renditions. Amid his order’s ringing rhetoric about compliance with the Geneva conventions and assuring “humane treatment of individuals in United States custody,” the president issued a clear and unequivocal order that “the CIA shall close as expeditiously as possible any detention facilities that it currently operates and shall not operate any such detention facility in the future.” But when the CIA’s counsel objected that this blanket prohibition would also “take us out of the rendition business,” Obama added a footnote with a small but significant qualification: “The terms ‘detention facilities’ and ‘detention facility’ in… this order do not refer to facilities used only to hold people on a short-term, transitory basis.” Through the slippery legalese of this definition, Obama thus allowed the CIA continue its rendition flights of terror suspects to allied nations for possible torture.
Moreover, in February 2009, Obama’s incoming CIA director Leon Panetta announced that the agency would indeed continue the practice “in renditions where we returned an individual to the jurisdiction of another country, and they exercised their rights… to prosecute him under their laws. I think,” he added, ignoring the U.N. anti-torture convention’s strict conditions for this practice, “that is an appropriate use of rendition.”
As the CIA expanded covert operations inside Somalia under Obama, its renditions of terror suspects from neighboring East African nations continued just as they had under Bush. In July 2009, for example, Kenyan police snatched an al-Qaeda suspect, Ahmed Abdullahi Hassan, from a Nairobi slum and delivered him to that city’s airport for a CIA flight to Mogadishu. There he joined dozens of prisoners grabbed off the streets of Kenya inside “The Hole” — a filthy underground prison buried in the windowless basement of Somalia’s National Security Agency. While Somali guards (paid for with U.S. funds) ran the prison, CIA operatives, reported the Nation’s Jeremy Scahill, have open access for extended interrogation.
Obama also allowed the continuation of a policy adopted after the Abu Ghraib scandal: outsourcing incarceration to local allies in Afghanistan and Iraq while ignoring human rights abuses there. Although the U.S. military received 1,365 reports about the torture of detainees by Iraqi forces between May 2004 and December 2009, a period that included Obama’s first full year in office, American officers refused to take action, even though the abuses reported were often extreme.
Simultaneously, Washington’s Afghan allies increasingly turned to torture after the Abu Ghraib scandal prompted U.S. officials to transfer most interrogation to local authorities. After interviewing 324 detainees held by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security (NDS) in 2011, the U.N. found that “torture is practiced systematically in a number of NDS detention facilities throughout Afghanistan.” At the Directorate’s prison in Kandahar one interrogator told a detainee before starting to torture him, “You should confess what you have done in the past as Taliban; even stones confess here.”
Although such reports prompted both British and Canadian forces to curtail prisoner transfers, the U.S. military continues to turn over detainees to Afghan authorities — a policy that, commented the New York Times, “raises serious questions about potential complicity of American officials.”
How to Unclog the System of Justice One Drone at a Time
After a decade of intense public debate over torture, in the last two years the United States has arrived at a questionable default political compromise: impunity at home, rendition abroad.
This resolution does not bode well for future U.S. leadership of an international community determined to end the scourge of torture. Italy’s prosecution of two-dozen CIA agents for rendition in 2009, Poland’s recent indictment of its former security chief for facilitating a CIA black site, and Britain’s ongoing criminal investigation of intelligence officials who collaborated with alleged torture at Guantanamo are harbingers of continuing pressures on the U.S. to comply with international standards for human rights.
Meanwhile, unchecked by any domestic or international sanction, Washington has slid down torture’s slippery slope to find, just as the French did in Algeria during the 1950s, that at its bottom lies the moral abyss of extrajudicial execution. The systematic French torture of thousands during the Battle of Algiers in 1957 also generated over 3,000 “summary executions” to insure, as one French general put it, that “the machine of justice” not be “clogged with cases.”
In an eerie parallel, Washington has reacted to the torture scandals of the Bush era by generally forgoing arrests and opting for no-fuss aerial assassinations. From 2005 to 2012, U.S. drone killings inside Pakistan rose from zero to a total of 2,400 (and still going up) — a figure disturbingly close to those 3,000 French assassinations in Algeria. In addition, it has now been revealed that the president himself regularly orders specific assassinations by drone in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia off a secret “kill list.” Simultaneously, his administration has taken just one terror suspect into U.S. custody and has not added any new prisoners to Guantanamo, thereby avoiding any more clogging of the machinery of American justice.
Absent any searching inquiry or binding reforms, assassination is now the everyday American way of war while extraordinary renditions remain a tool of state. Make no mistake: some future torture scandal is sure to arise from another iconic dungeon in the dismal, ever-lengthening historical procession leading from the “tiger cages” of South Vietnam to “the salt pit” in Afghanistan and “The Hole” in Somalia. Next time, the world might not be so forgiving. Next time, with those images from Abu Ghraib prison etched in human memory, the damage to America’s moral authority as world leader could prove even more deep and lasting.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A TomDispatch regular, he is the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror, which provided documentation for the Oscar-winning documentary feature film Taxi to the Darkside. His recent book, Torture and Impunity: The U.S. Doctrine of Coercive Interrogation (University of Wisconsin, 2012) explores the American experience of torture during the past decade.
Copyright 2012 Alfred W. McCoy
Impunity at Home, Rendition Abroad
In one of history’s lucky accidents, the juxtaposition of two extraordinary events has stripped the architecture of American global power bare for all to see. Last November, WikiLeaks splashed snippets from U.S. embassy cables, loaded with scurrilous comments about national leaders from Argentina to Zimbabwe, on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Then just a few weeks later, the Middle East erupted in pro-democracy protests against the region’s autocratic leaders, many of whom were close U.S. allies whose foibles had been so conveniently detailed in those same diplomatic cables.
Suddenly, it was possible to see the foundations of a U.S. world order that rested significantly on national leaders who serve Washington as loyal “subordinate elites” and who are, in reality, a motley collection of autocrats, aristocrats, and uniformed thugs. Visible as well was the larger logic of otherwise inexplicable U.S. foreign policy choices over the past half-century.
Why would the CIA risk controversy in 1965, at the height of the Cold War, by overthrowing an accepted leader like Sukarno in Indonesia or encouraging the assassination of the Catholic autocrat Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963? The answer — and thanks to WikiLeaks and the “Arab spring,” this is now so much clearer — is that both were Washington’s chosen subordinates until each became insubordinate and expendable.
Why, half a century later, would Washington betray its stated democratic principles by backing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak against millions of demonstrators and then, when he faltered, use its leverage to replace him, at least initially with his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a man best known for running Cairo’s torture chambers (and lending them out to Washington)? The answer again: because both were reliable subordinates who had long served Washington’s interests well in this key Arab state.
Across the Greater Middle East from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Yemen, democratic protests are threatening to sweep away subordinate elites crucial to the wielding of American power. Of course, all modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control — and for most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and set their own agendas was also the moment when it became clear that imperial collapse was in the cards.
If the "velvet revolutions” that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 tolled the death knell for the Soviet empire, then the "jasmine revolutions" now spreading across the Middle East may well mark the beginning of the end for American global power.
Putting the Military in Charge
To understand the importance of local elites, look back to the Cold War’s early days when a desperate White House was searching for something, anything that could halt the seemingly unstoppable spread of what Washington saw as anti-American and pro-communist sentiment. In December 1954, the National Security Council (NSC) met in the White House to stake out a strategy that could tame the powerful nationalist forces of change then sweeping the globe.
Across Asia and Africa, a half-dozen European empires that had guaranteed global order for more than a century were giving way to 100 new nations, many — as Washington saw it — susceptible to “communist subversion.” In Latin America, there were stirrings of leftist opposition to the region’s growing urban poverty and rural landlessness.
After a review of the “threats” facing the U.S. in Latin America, influential Treasury Secretary George Humphrey informed his NSC colleagues that they should “stop talking so much about democracy” and instead “support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.” At that moment with a flash of strategic insight, Dwight Eisenhower interrupted to observe that Humphrey was, in effect, saying, “They’re OK if they’re our s.o.b.’s.”
It was a moment to remember, for the President of the United States had just articulated with crystalline clarity the system of global dominion that Washington would implement for the next 50 years — setting aside democratic principles for a tough realpolitik policy of backing any reliable leader willing to support the U.S., thereby building a worldwide network of national (and often nationalist) leaders who would, in a pinch, put Washington’s needs above local ones.
Throughout the Cold War, the U.S. would favor military autocrats in Latin America, aristocrats across the Middle East, and a mixture of democrats and dictators in Asia. In 1958, military coups in Thailand and Iraq suddenly put the spotlight on Third World militaries as forces to be reckoned with. It was then that the Eisenhower administration decided to bring foreign military leaders to the U.S. for further “training” to facilitate “the ‘management’ of the forces of change released by the development” of these emerging nations. Henceforth, Washington would pour military aid into the cultivation of the armed forces of allies and potential allies worldwide, while “training missions” would be used to create crucial ties between the U.S. military and the officer corps in country after country — or where subordinate elites did not seem subordinate enough, help identify alternative leaders.
When civilian presidents proved insubordinate, the Central Intelligence Agency went to work, promoting coups that would install reliable military successors –replacing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who tried to nationalize his country's oil, with General Fazlollah Zahedi (and then the young Shah) in 1953; President Sukarno with General Suharto in Indonesia during the next decade; and of course President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973, to name just three such moments.
In the first years of the twenty-first century, Washington’s trust in the militaries of its client states would only grow. The U.S. was, for example, lavishing $1.3 billion in aid on Egypt’s military annually, but investing only $250 million a year in the country’s economic development. As a result, when demonstrations rocked the regime in Cairo last January, as the New York Times reported, “a 30-year investment paid off as American generals… and intelligence officers quietly called… friends they had trained with,” successfully urging the army’s support for a “peaceful transition” to, yes indeed, military rule.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington has, since the 1950s, followed the British imperial preference for Arab aristocrats by cultivating allies that included a shah (Iran), sultans (Abu Dhabi, Oman), emirs (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai), and kings (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco). Across this vast, volatile region from Morocco to Iran, Washington courted these royalist regimes with military alliances, U.S. weapons systems, CIA support for local security, a safe American haven for their capital, and special favors for their elites, including access to educational institutions in the U.S. or Department of Defense overseas schools for their children.
In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summed up this record thusly: “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy… in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
How It Used to Work
America is by no means the first hegemon to build its global power on the gossamer threads of personal ties to local leaders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain may have ruled the waves (as America would later rule the skies), but when it came to the ground, like empires past it needed local allies who could serve as intermediaries in controlling complex, volatile societies. Otherwise, how in 1900 could a small island nation of just 40 million with an army of only 99,000 men rule a global empire of some 400 million, nearly a quarter of all humanity?
From 1850 to 1950, Britain controlled its formal colonies through an extraordinary array of local allies — from Fiji island chiefs and Malay sultans to Indian maharajas and African emirs. Simultaneously, through subordinate elites Britain reigned over an even larger “informal empire” that encompassed emperors (from Beijing to Istanbul), kings (from Bangkok to Cairo), and presidents (from Buenos Aires to Caracas). At its peak in 1880, Britain's informal empire in Latin America, the Middle East, and China was larger, in population, than its formal colonial holdings in India and Africa. Its entire global empire, encompassing nearly half of humanity, rested on these slender ties of cooperation to loyal local elites.
Following four centuries of relentless imperial expansion, however, Europe’s five major overseas empires were suddenly erased from the globe in a quarter-century of decolonization. Between 1947 and 1974, the Belgian, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese empires faded fast from Asia and Africa, giving way to a hundred new nations, more than half of today’s sovereign states. In searching for an explanation for this sudden, sweeping change, most scholars agree with British imperial historian Ronald Robinson who famously argued that “when colonial rulers had run out of indigenous collaborators,” their power began to fade.
During the Cold War that coincided with this era of rapid decolonization, the world’s two superpowers turned to the same methods regularly using their espionage agencies to manipulate the leaders of newly independent states. The Soviet Union’s KGB and its surrogates like the Stasi in East Germany and the Securitate in Romania enforced political conformity among the 14 Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and challenged the U.S. for loyal allies across the Third World. Simultaneously, the CIA monitored the loyalties of presidents, autocrats, and dictators on four continents, employing coups, bribery, and covert penetration to control and, when necessary, remove nettlesome leaders.
In an era of nationalist feeling, however, the loyalty of local elites proved a complex matter indeed. Many of them were driven by conflicting loyalties and often deep feelings of nationalism, which meant that they had to be monitored closely. So critical were these subordinate elites, and so troublesome were their insubordinate iterations, that the CIA repeatedly launched risky covert operations to bring them to heel, sparking some of the great crises of the Cold War.
Given the rise of its system of global control in a post-World War II age of independence, Washington had little choice but to work not simply with surrogates or puppets, but with allies who — admittedly from weaker positions — still sought to maximize what they saw as their nations’ interests (as well as their own). Even at the height of American global power in the 1950s, when its dominance was relatively unquestioned, Washington was forced into hard bargaining with the likes of the Philippines’ Raymond Magsaysay, South Korean autocrat Syngman Rhee, and South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem.
In South Korea during the 1960s, for instance, General Park Chung Hee, then president, bartered troop deployments to Vietnam for billions of U.S. development dollars, which helped spark the country's economic "miracle." In the process, Washington paid up, but got what it most wanted: 50,000 of those tough Korean troops as guns-for-hire helpers in its unpopular war in Vietnam.
Post-Cold War World
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, ending the Cold War, Moscow quickly lost its satellite states from Estonia to Azerbaijan, as once-loyal Soviet surrogates were ousted or leapt off the sinking ship of empire. For Washington, the “victor” and soon to be the “sole superpower” on planet Earth, the same process would begin to happen, but at a far slower pace.
Over the next two decades, globalization fostered a multipolar system of rising powers in Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, Ankara, and Brasilia, even as a denationalized system of corporate power reduced the dependency of developing economies on any single state, however imperial. With its capacity for controlling elites receding, Washington has faced ideological competition from Islamic fundamentalism, European regulatory regimes, Chinese state capitalism, and a rising tide of economic nationalism in Latin America.
As U.S. power and influence declined, Washington’s attempts to control its subordinate elites began to fail, often spectacularly — including its efforts to topple bête noire Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in a badly bungled 2002 coup, to detach ally Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia from Russia’s orbit in 2008, and to oust nemesis Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Iranian elections. Where a CIA coup or covert cash once sufficed to defeat an antagonist, the Bush administration needed a massive invasion to topple just one troublesome dictator, Saddam Hussein. Even then, it found its plans for subsequent regime change in Syria and Iran blocked when these states instead aided a devastating insurgency against U.S. forces inside Iraq.
Similarly, despite the infusions of billions of dollars in foreign aid, Washington has found it nearly impossible to control the Afghan president it installed in power, Hamid Karzai, who memorably summed up his fractious relationship with Washington to American envoys this way: “If you're looking for a stooge and calling a stooge a partner, no. If you're looking for a partner, yes.”
Then, late in 2010, WikiLeaks began distributing those thousands of U.S. diplomatic cables that offer uncensored insights into Washington’s weakening control over the system of surrogate power that it had built up for 50 years. In reading these documents, Israeli journalist Aluf Benn of Haaretz could see “the fall of the American empire, the decline of a superpower that ruled the world by the dint of its military and economic supremacy.” No longer, he added, are “American ambassadors… received in world capitals as ‘high commissioners'… [instead they are] tired bureaucrats [who] spend their days listening wearily to their hosts' talking points, never reminding them who is the superpower and who the client state.”
Indeed, what the WikiLeaks documents show is a State Department struggling to manage an unruly global system of increasingly insubordinate elites by any means possible — via intrigue to collect needed information and intelligence, friendly acts meant to coax compliance, threats to coerce cooperation, and billions of dollars in misspent aid to court influence. In early 2009, for instance, the State Department instructed its embassies worldwide to play imperial police by collecting comprehensive data on local leaders, including “email addresses, telephone and fax numbers, fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.” Showing its need, like some colonial governor, for incriminating information on the locals, the State Department also pressed its Bahrain embassy for sordid details, damaging in an Islamic society, about the kingdom’s crown princes, asking: “Is there any derogatory information on either prince? Does either prince drink alcohol? Does either one use drugs?"
With the hauteur of latter-day imperial envoys, U.S. diplomats seemed to empower themselves for dominance by dismissing “the Turks neo-Ottoman posturing around the Middle East and Balkans,” or by knowing the weaknesses of their subordinate elites, notably Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s “voluptuous blonde” nurse, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s morbid fear of military coups, or Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud’s $52 million in stolen funds.
As its influence declines, however, Washington is finding many of its chosen local allies either increasingly insubordinate or irrelevant, particularly in the strategic Middle East. In mid-2009, for instance, the U.S. ambassador to Tunisia reported that “President Ben Ali… and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people,” relying “on the police for control,” while “corruption in the inner circle is growing” and “the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing.” Even so, the U.S. envoy could only recommend that Washington “dial back the public criticism” and instead rely only on “frequent high-level private candor” — a policy that failed to produce any reforms before demonstrations toppled the regime just 18 months later.
Similarly, in late 2008 the American Embassy in Cairo feared that “Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts… are being suffocated.” However, as the embassy admitted, “we would not like to contemplate complications for U.S. regional interests should the U.S.-Egyptian bond be seriously weakened.” When Mubarak visited Washington a few months later, the Embassy urged the White House “to restore the sense of warmth that has traditionally characterized the U.S.-Egyptian partnership.” And so in June 2009, just 18 months before the Egyptian president’s downfall, President Obama hailed this useful dictator as “a stalwart ally… a force for stability and good in the region."
As the crisis in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded, respected opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei complained bitterly that Washington was pushing “the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.” After 40 years of U.S. dominion, the Middle East was, he said, “a collection of failed states that add nothing to humanity or science” because “people were taught not to think or to act, and were consistently given an inferior education.”
Absent a global war capable of simply sweeping away an empire, the decline of a great power is often a fitful, painful, drawn-out affair. In addition to the two American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down to something not so far short of defeat, the nation’s capital is now writhing in fiscal crisis, the coin of the realm is losing its creditworthiness, and longtime allies are forging economic and even military ties to rival China. To all of this, we must now add the possible loss of loyal surrogates across the Middle East.
For more than 50 years, Washington has been served well by a system of global power based on subordinate elites. That system once facilitated the extension of American influence worldwide with a surprising efficiency and (relatively speaking) an economy of force. Now, however, those loyal allies increasingly look like an empire of failed or insubordinate states. Make no mistake: the degradation of, or ending of, half a century of such ties is likely to leave Washington on the rocks.
Alfred W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a TomDispatch regular, and author most recently of the award-winning book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. He has also convened the “Empires in Transition” project, a global working group of 140 historians from universities on four continents. The results of their first meetings were published as Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, and the findings from their latest conference, at Barcelona last June, will appear next year as Endless Empires: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, and America’s Decline. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which McCoy discusses why Washington is likely to cling disastrously to empire in the midst of decline, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Brett Reilly is a graduate student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying U.S. foreign policy in Asia.
Copyright 2011 Alfred W. McCoy and Brett Reilly
Washington on the Rocks
The crisis has come suddenly, almost without warning. At the far edge of American power in Asia, things are going from bad to much worse than anyone could have imagined. The insurgents are spreading fast across the countryside. Corruption is rampant. Local military forces, recipients of countless millions of dollars in U.S. aid, shirk combat and are despised by local villagers. American casualties are rising. Our soldiers seem to move in a fog through a hostile, unfamiliar terrain, with no idea of who is friend and who is foe.
After years of lavishing American aid on him, the leader of this country, our close ally, has isolated himself inside the presidential palace, becoming an inadequate partner for a failing war effort. His brother is reportedly a genuine prince of darkness, dealing in drugs, covert intrigues, and electoral manipulation. The U.S. Embassy demands reform, the ouster of his brother, the appointment of honest local officials, something, anything that will demonstrate even a scintilla of progress.
After all, nine years earlier U.S. envoys had taken a huge gamble: rescuing this president from exile and political obscurity, installing him in the palace, and ousting a legitimate monarch whose family had ruled the country for centuries. Now, he repays this political debt by taunting America. He insists on untrammeled sovereignty and threatens to ally with our enemies if we continue to demand reforms of him. Yet Washington is so deeply identified with the counterinsurgency campaign in his country that walking away no longer seems like an option.
This scenario is obviously a description of the Obama administration’s devolving relations with Afghan President Hamid Karzai in Kabul this April. It is also an eerie summary of relations between the Kennedy administration and South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon nearly half a century earlier, in August 1963. If these parallels are troubling, they reveal the central paradox of American power over the past half-century in its dealings with embattled autocrats like Karzai and Diem across that vast, impoverished swath of the globe once known as the Third World.
Our Man in Kabul
With his volatile mix of dependence and independence, Hamid Karzai seems the archetype of all the autocrats Washington has backed in Asia, Africa, and Latin America since European empires began disintegrating after World War II. When the CIA mobilized Afghan warlords to topple the Taliban in October 2001, the country’s capital, Kabul, was ours for the taking — and the giving. In the midst of this chaos, Hamid Karzai, an obscure exile living in Pakistan, gathered a handful of followers and plunged into Afghanistan on a doomed CIA-supported mission to rally the tribes for revolt. It proved a quixotic effort that required rescue by Navy SEALs who snatched him back to safety in Pakistan.
Desperate for a reliable post-invasion ally, the Bush administration engaged in what one expert has called “bribes, secret deals, and arm twisting” to install Karzai in power. This process took place not through a democratic election in Kabul, but by lobbying foreign diplomats at a donors’ conference in Bonn, Germany, to appoint him interim president. When King Zahir Shah, a respected figure whose family had ruled Afghanistan for more than 200 years, returned to offer his services as acting head of state, the U.S. ambassador had a “showdown” with the monarch, forcing him back into exile. In this way, Karzai’s “authority,” which came directly and almost solely from the Bush administration, remained unchecked. For his first months in office, the president had so little trust in his nominal Afghan allies that he was guarded by American security.
In the years that followed, the Karzai regime slid into an ever deepening state of corruption and incompetence, while NATO allies rushed to fill the void with their manpower and material, a de facto endorsement of the president’s low road to power. As billions in international development aid poured into Kabul, a mere trickle escaped the capital’s bottomless bureaucracy to reach impoverished villages in the countryside. In 2009, Transparency International ranked Afghanistan as the world’s second most corrupt nation, just a notch below Somalia.
As opium production soared from 185 tons in 2001 to 8,200 tons just six years later — a remarkable 53% of the country’s entire economy — drug corruption metastasized, reaching provincial governors, the police, cabinet ministers, and the president’s own brother, also his close adviser. Indeed, as a senior U.S. antinarcotics official assigned to Afghanistan described the situation in 2006, “Narco corruption went to the very top of the Afghan government.” Earlier this year, the U.N. estimated that ordinary Afghans spend $2.5 billion annually, a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product, simply to bribe the police and government officials.
Last August’s presidential elections were an apt index of the country’s progress. Karzai’s campaign team, the so-called warlord ticket, included Abdul Dostum, an Uzbek warlord who slaughtered countless prisoners in 2001; vice presidential candidate Muhammed Fahim, a former defense minister linked to drugs and human rights abuses; Sher Muhammed Akhundzada, the former governor of Helmand Province, who was caught with nine tons of drugs in his compound back in 2005; and the president’s brother Ahmed Wali Karzai, reputedly the reigning drug lord and family fixer in Kandahar. “The Karzai family has opium and blood on their hands,” one Western intelligence official told the New York Times during the campaign.
Desperate to capture an outright 50% majority in the first round of balloting, Karzai’s warlord coalition made use of an extraordinary array of electoral chicanery. After two months of counting and checking, the U.N.’s Electoral Complaints Commission announced in October 2009 that more than a million of his votes, 28% of his total, were fraudulent, pushing the president’s tally well below the winning margin. Calling the election a “foreseeable train wreck,” the deputy U.N. envoy Peter Galbraith said, “The fraud has handed the Taliban its greatest strategic victory in eight years of fighting the United States and its Afghan partners.”
Galbraith, however, was sacked and silenced as U.S. pressure extinguished the simmering flames of electoral protest. The runner-up soon withdrew from the run-off election that Washington had favored as a face-saving, post-fraud compromise, and Karzai was declared the outright winner by default. In the wake of the farcical election, Karzai not surprisingly tried to stack the five-man Electoral Complaints Commission, an independent body meant to vet electoral complaints, replacing the three foreign experts with his own Afghan appointees. When the parliament rejected his proposal, Karzai lashed out with bizarre charges, accusing the U.N. of wanting a “puppet government” and blaming all the electoral fraud on “massive interference from foreigners.” In a meeting with members of parliament, he reportedly told them: “If you and the international community pressure me more, I swear that I am going to join the Taliban.”
Amid this tempest in an electoral teapot, as American reinforcements poured into Afghanistan, Washington’s escalating pressure for “reform” only served to inflame Karzai. As Air Force One headed for Kabul on March 28th, National Security Adviser James Jones bluntly told reporters aboard that, in his meeting with Karzai, President Obama would insist that he prioritize “battling corruption, taking the fight to the narco-traffickers.” It was time for the new administration in Washington, ever more deeply committed to its escalating counterinsurgency war in Afghanistan, to bring our man in Kabul back into line.
A week filled with inflammatory, angry outbursts from Karzai followed before the White House changed tack, concluding that it had no alternative to Karzai and began to retreat. Jones now began telling reporters soothingly that, during his visit to Kabul, President Obama had been “generally impressed with the quality of the [Afghan] ministers and the seriousness with which they’re approaching their job.”
All of this might have seemed so new and bewildering in the American experience, if it weren’t actually so old.
Our Man in Saigon
The sorry history of the autocratic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon (1954-1963) offers an earlier cautionary roadmap that helps explain why Washington has so often found itself in such an impossibly contradictory position with its authoritarian allies.
Landing in Saigon in mid-1954 after years of exile in the United States and Europe, Diem had no real political base. He could, however, count on powerful patrons in Washington, notably Democratic senators Mike Mansfield and John F. Kennedy. One of the few people to greet Diem at the airport that day was the legendary CIA operative Edward Lansdale, Washington’s master of political manipulation in Southeast Asia. Amid the chaos accompanying France’s defeat in its long, bloody Indochina War, Lansdale maneuvered brilliantly to secure Diem’s tenuous hold on power in the southern part of Vietnam. In the meantime, U.S. diplomats sent his rival, the Emperor Bao Dai, packing for Paris. Within months, thanks to Washington’s backing, Diem won an absurd 98.2% of a rigged vote for the presidency and promptly promulgated a new constitution that ended the Vietnamese monarchy after a millennium.
Channeling all aid payments through Diem, Washington managed to destroy the last vestiges of French colonial support for any of his potential rivals in the south, while winning the president a narrow political base within the army, among civil servants, and in the minority Catholic community. Backed by a seeming cornucopia of American support, Diem proceeded to deal harshly with South Vietnam’s Buddhist sects, harassed the Viet Minh veterans of the war against the French, and resisted the implementation of rural reforms that might have won him broader support among the country’s peasant population.
When the U.S. Embassy pressed for reforms, he simply stalled, convinced that Washington, having already invested so much of its prestige in his regime, would be unable to withhold support. Like Karzai in Kabul, Diem’s ultimate weapon was his weakness — the threat that his government, shaky as it was, might simply collapse if pushed too hard.
In the end, the Americans invariably backed down, sacrificing any hope of real change in order to maintain the ongoing war effort against the local Viet Cong rebels and their North Vietnamese backers. As rebellion and dissent rose in the south, Washington ratcheted up its military aid to battle the communists, inadvertently giving Diem more weapons to wield against his own people, communist and non-communist alike.
Working through his brother Ngo Dinh Nhu — and this should have an eerie resonance today — the Diems took control of Saigon’s drug racket, pocketing significant profits as they built up a nexus of secret police, prisons, and concentration camps to deal with suspected dissidents. At the time of Diem’s downfall in 1963, there were some 50,000 prisoners in his gulag.
Nonetheless, from 1960 to 1963, the regime only weakened as resistance sparked repression and repression redoubled resistance. Soon South Vietnam was wracked by Buddhist riots in the cities and a spreading Communist revolution in the countryside. Moving after dark, Viet Cong guerrillas slowly began to encircle Saigon, assassinating Diem’s unpopular village headmen by the thousands.
In this three-year period, the US military mission in Saigon tried every conceivable counterinsurgency strategy. They brought in helicopters and armored vehicles to improve conventional mobility, deployed the Green Berets for unconventional combat, built up regional militias for localized security, constructed “strategic hamlets” in order to isolate eight million peasants inside supposedly secure fortified compounds, and ratcheted up CIA assassinations of suspected Viet Cong leaders. Nothing worked. Even the best military strategy could not fix the underlying political problem. By 1963, the Viet Cong had grown from a handful of fighters into a guerrilla army that controlled more than half the countryside.
When protesting Buddhist monk Quang Duc assumed the lotus position on a Saigon street in June 1963 and held the posture while followers lit his gasoline-soaked robes which erupted in fatal flames, the Kennedy administration could no longer ignore the crisis. As Diem’s batons cracked the heads of Buddhist demonstrators and Nhu’s wife applauded what she called “monk barbecues,” Washington began to officially protest the ruthless repression. Instead of responding, Diem (shades of Karzai) began working through his brother Nhu to open negotiations with the communists in Hanoi, signaling Washington that he was perfectly willing to betray the U.S. war effort and possibly form a coalition with North Vietnam.
In the midst of this crisis, a newly appointed American ambassador, Henry Cabot Lodge, arrived in Saigon and within days approved a plan for a CIA-backed coup to overthrow Diem. For the next few months, Lansdale’s CIA understudy Lucien Conein met regularly with Saigon’s generals to hatch an elaborate plot that was unleashed with devastating effect on November 1, 1963.
As rebel troops stormed the palace, Diem and his brother Nhu fled to a safe house in Saigon’s Chinatown. Flushed from hiding by promises of safe conduct into exile, Diem climbed aboard a military convoy for what he thought was a ride to the airport. But CIA operative Conein had vetoed the flight plans. A military assassin intercepted the convoy, spraying Diem’s body with bullets and stabbing his bleeding corpse in a coup de grâce.
Although Ambassador Lodge hosted an embassy celebration for the rebel officers and cabled President Kennedy that Diem’s death would mean a “shorter war,” the country soon collapsed into a series of military coups and counter-coups that crippled army operations. Over the next 32 months, Saigon had nine new governments and a change of cabinet every 15 weeks — all incompetent, corrupt, and ineffective.
After spending a decade building up Diem’s regime and a day destroying it, the U.S. had seemingly irrevocably linked its own power and prestige to the Saigon government — any government. The “best and brightest” in Washington were convinced that they could not just withdraw from South Vietnam without striking a devastating blow against American “credibility.” As South Vietnam slid toward defeat in the two years following Diem’s death, the first of 540,000 U.S. combat troops began arriving, ensuring that Vietnam would be transformed from an American-backed war into an American war.
Under the circumstances, Washington searched desperately for anyone who could provide sufficient stability to prosecute the war against the communists and eventually, with palpable relief, embraced a military junta headed by General Nguyen Van Thieu. Installed and sustained in power by American aid, Thieu had no popular following and ruled through military repression, repeating the same mistakes that led to Diem’s downfall. But chastened by its experience after the assassination of Diem, the U.S. Embassy decided to ignore Thieu’s unpopularity and continue to build his army. Once Washington began to reduce its aid after 1973, Thieu found that his troops simply would not fight to defend his unpopular government. In April 1975, he carried a hoard of stolen gold into exile while his army collapsed with stunning speed, suffering one of the most devastating collapses in military history.
In pursuit of its Vietnam War effort, Washington required a Saigon government responsive to its demands, yet popular with its own peasantry, strong enough to wage a war in the villages, yet sensitive to the needs of the country’s poor villagers. These were hopelessly contradictory political requisites. Finding that civilian regimes engaged in impossible-to-control intrigues, the U.S. ultimately settled for authoritarian military rule which, acceptable as it proved in Washington, was disdained by the Vietnamese peasantry.
Death or Exile?
So is President Karzai, like Diem, doomed to die on the streets of Kabul or will he, one day, find himself like Thieu boarding a midnight flight into exile?
History, or at least our awareness of its lessons, does change things, albeit in complex, unpredictable ways. Today, senior U.S. envoys have Diem’s cautionary tale encoded in their diplomatic DNA, which undoubtedly precludes any literal replay of his fate. After sanctioning Diem’s assassination, Washington watched in dismay as South Vietnam plunged into chaos. So chastened was the U.S. Embassy by this dismal outcome that it backed the subsequent military regime to a fault.
A decade later, the Senate’s Church Committee uncovered other U.S. attempts at assassination-cum-regime-change in the Congo, Chile, Cuba, and the Dominican Republic that further stigmatized this option. In effect, antibodies from the disastrous CIA coup against Diem, still in Washington’s political bloodstream, reduce the possibility of any similar move against Karzai today.
Ironically, those who seek to avoid the past may be doomed to repeat it. By accepting Karzai’s massive electoral fraud and refusing to consider alternatives last August, Washington has, like it or not, put its stamp of approval on his spreading corruption and the political instability that accompanies it. In this way, the Obama administration in its early days invited a sad denouement to its Afghan adventure, one potentially akin to Vietnam after Diem’s death. America’s representatives in Kabul are once again hurtling down history’s highway, eyes fixed on the rear-view mirror, not the precipice that lies dead ahead.
In the experiences of both Ngo Dinh Diem and Hamid Karzai lurks a self-defeating pattern common to Washington’s alliances with dictators throughout the Third World, then and now. Selected and often installed in office by Washington, or at least backed by massive American military aid, these client figures become desperately dependent, even as they fail to implement the sorts of reforms that might enable them to build an independent political base. Torn between pleasing their foreign patrons or their own people, they wind up pleasing neither. As opposition to their rule grows, a downward spiral of repression and corruption often ends in collapse; while, for all its power, Washington descends into frustration and despair, unable to force its allies to adopt reforms which might allow them to survive. Such a collapse is a major crisis for the White House, but often — Diem’s case is obviously an exception — little more than an airplane ride into exile for the local autocrat or dictator.
There was — and is — a fundamental structural flaw in any American alliance with these autocrats. Inherent in these unequal alliances is a peculiar dynamic that makes the eventual collapse of such American-anointed leaders almost inevitable. At the outset, Washington selects a client who seems pliant enough to do its bidding. Such a client, in turn, opts for Washington’s support not because he is strong, but precisely because he needs foreign patronage to gain and hold office.
Once installed, the client, no matter how reluctant, has little choice but to make Washington’s demands his top priority, investing his slender political resources in placating foreign envoys. Responding to an American political agenda on civil and military matters, these autocrats often fail to devote sufficient energy, attention, and resources to cultivating a following; Diem found himself isolated in his Saigon palace, while Karzai has become a “president” justly, if derisively, nicknamed “the mayor of Kabul.” Caught between the demands of a powerful foreign patron and countervailing local needs and desires, both leaders let guerrillas capture the countryside, while struggling uncomfortably, and in the end angrily, as well as resentfully, in the foreign embrace.
Nor are such parallels limited to Afghanistan today or Vietnam almost half a century ago. Since the end of World War II, many of the sharpest crises in U.S. foreign policy have arisen from just such problematic relationships with authoritarian client regimes. As a start, it was a similarly close relationship with General Fulgencio Batista of Cuba in the 1950s which inspired the Cuban revolution. That culminated, of course, in Fidel Castro’s rebels capturing the Cuban capital, Havana, in 1959, which in turn led the Kennedy administration into the catastrophic Bay of Pigs invasion and then the Cuban Missile Crisis.
For a full quarter-century, the U.S. played international patron to the Shah of Iran, intervening to save his regime from the threat of democracy in the early 1950s and later massively arming his police and military while making him Washington’s proxy power in the Persian Gulf. His fall in the Islamic revolution of 1979 not only removed the cornerstone of American power in this strategic region, but plunged Washington into a succession of foreign policy confrontations with Iran that have yet to end.
After a half-century as a similarly loyal client in Central America, the regime of Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza fell in the Sandinista revolution of 1979, creating a foreign policy problem marked by the CIA’s contra operation against the new Sandinista government and the seamy Iran-Contra scandal that roiled President Reagan’s second term.
Just last week, Washington’s anointed autocrat in Kyrgyzstan, Kurmanbek Bakiyev, fled the presidential palace when his riot police, despite firing live ammunition and killing more than 80 of his citizens, failed to stop opposition protesters from taking control of the capital, Bishkek. Although his rule was brutal and corrupt, last year the Obama administration courted Bakiyev sedulously and successfully to preserve U.S. use of the old Soviet air base at Manas critical for supply flights into Afghanistan. Even as riot police were beating the opposition into submission to prepare for Bakiyev’s “landslide victory” in last July’s elections, President Obama sent him a personal letter praising his support for the Afghan war. With Washington’s imprimatur, there was nothing to stop Bakiyev’s political slide into murderous repression and his ultimate fall from power.
Why have so many American alliances with Third World dictators collapsed in such a spectacular fashion, producing divisive recriminations at home and policy disasters abroad?
During Britain’s century of dominion, its self-confident servants of empire, from viceroys in plumed hats to district officers in khaki shorts, ruled much of Africa and Asia through an imperial system of protectorates, indirect rule, and direct colonial rule. In the succeeding American “half century” of hegemony, Washington carried the burden of global power without a formal colonial system, substituting its military advisers for imperial viceroys.
In this new landscape of sovereign states that emerged after World War II, Washington has had to pursue a contradictory policy as it dealt with the leaders of nominally independent nations that were also deeply dependent on foreign economic and military aid. After identifying its own prestige with these fragile regimes, Washington usually tries to coax, chide, or threaten its allies into embracing what it considers needed reforms. Even when this counsel fails and prudence might dictate the start of a staged withdrawal, as in Saigon in 1963 and Kabul today, American envoys simply cannot let go of their unrepentant, resentful allies, as the long slide into disaster gains momentum.
With few choices between diplomatic niceties and a destabilizing coup, Washington invariably ends up defaulting to an inflexible foreign policy at the edge of paralysis that often ends with the collapse of our authoritarian allies, whether Diem in Saigon, the Shah in Tehran, or on some dismal day yet to come, Hamid Karzai in Kabul. To avoid this impending debacle, our only realistic option in Afghanistan today may well be the one we wish we had taken in Saigon back in August 1963 — a staged withdrawal of U.S. forces.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade, which probes the conjuncture of illicit narcotics and covert operations over the past 50 years. His latest book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, explores the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations on the spread of internal security measures here at home.
Copyright 2010 Alfred W. McCoy
Originally posted at TomDispatch.com
America and the Dictators
In his approach to National Security Agency surveillance, as well as CIA renditions, drone assassinations, and military detention, President Obama has to a surprising extent embraced the expanded executive powers championed by his conservative predecessor, George W. Bush. This bipartisan affirmation of the imperial executive could “reverberate for generations,” warns Jack Balkin, a specialist on First Amendment freedoms at Yale Law School. And consider these but some of the early fruits from the hybrid seeds that the Global War on Terror has planted on American soil. Yet surprisingly few Americans seem aware of the toll that this already endless war has taken on our civil liberties.
Don’t be too surprised, then, when, in the midst of some future crisis, advanced surveillance methods and other techniques developed in our recent counterinsurgency wars migrate from Baghdad, Falluja, and Kandahar to your hometown or urban neighborhood. And don’t ever claim that nobody told you this could happen — at least not if you care to read on.
Think of our counterinsurgency wars abroad as so many living laboratories for the undermining of a democratic society at home, a process historians of such American wars can tell you has been going on for a long, long time. Counterintelligence innovations like centralized data, covert penetration, and disinformation developed during the Army’s first protracted pacification campaign in a foreign land — the Philippines from 1898 to 1913 — were repatriated to the United States during World War I, becoming the blueprint for an invasive internal security apparatus that persisted for the next half century.
Almost 90 years later, George W. Bush’s Global War on Terror plunged the U.S. military into four simultaneous counterinsurgency campaigns, large and small — in Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, and (once again) the Philippines — transforming a vast swath of the planet into an ad hoc “counterterrorism” laboratory. The result? Cutting-edge high-tech security and counterterror techniques that are now slowly migrating homeward.
As the War on Terror enters its ninth year to become one of America’s longest overseas conflicts, the time has come to ask an uncomfortable question: What impact have the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq — and the atmosphere they created domestically — had on the quality of our democracy?
Every American knows that we are supposedly fighting elsewhere to defend democracy here at home. Yet the crusade for democracy abroad, largely unsuccessful in its own right, has proven remarkably effective in building a technological template that could be just a few tweaks away from creating a domestic surveillance state — with omnipresent cameras, deep data-mining, nano-second biometric identification, and drone aircraft patrolling “the homeland.”
Even if its name is increasingly anathema in Washington, the ongoing Global War on Terror has helped bring about a massive expansion of domestic surveillance by the FBI and the National Security Agency (NSA) whose combined data-mining systems have already swept up several billion private documents from U.S. citizens into classified data banks. Abroad, after years of failing counterinsurgency efforts in the Middle East, the Pentagon began applying biometrics — the science of identification via facial shape, fingerprints, and retinal or iris patterns — to the pacification of Iraqi cities, as well as the use of electronic intercepts for instant intelligence and the split-second application of satellite imagery to aid an assassination campaign by drone aircraft that reaches from Africa to South Asia.
In the panicky aftermath of some future terrorist attack, Washington could quickly fuse existing foreign and domestic surveillance techniques, as well as others now being developed on distant battlefields, to create an instant digital surveillance state.
The Crucible of Counterinsurgency
For the past six years, confronting a bloody insurgency, the U.S. occupation of Iraq has served as a white-hot crucible of counterinsurgency, forging a new system of biometric surveillance and digital warfare with potentially disturbing domestic implications. This new biometric identification system first appeared in the smoking aftermath of “Operation Phantom Fury,” a brutal, nine-day battle that U.S. Marines fought in late 2004 to recapture the insurgent-controlled city of Falluja. Bombing, artillery, and mortars destroyed at least half of that city’s buildings and sent most of its 250,000 residents fleeing into the surrounding countryside. Marines then forced returning residents to wait endless hours under a desert sun at checkpoints for fingerprints and iris scans. Once inside the city’s blast-wall maze, residents had to wear identification tags for compulsory checks to catch infiltrating insurgents.
The first hint that biometrics were helping to pacify Baghdad’s far larger population of seven million came in April 2007 when the New York Times published an eerie image of American soldiers studiously photographing an Iraqi’s eyeball. With only a terse caption to go by, we can still infer the technology behind this single record of a retinal scan in Baghdad: digital cameras for U.S. patrols, wireless data transfer to a mainframe computer, and a database to record as many adult Iraqi eyes as could be gathered. Indeed, eight months later, the Washington Post reported that the Pentagon had collected over a million Iraqi fingerprints and iris scans. By mid-2008, the U.S. Army had also confined Baghdad’s population behind blast-wall cordons and was checking Iraqi identities by satellite link to a biometric database.
Pushing ever closer to the boundaries of what present-day technology can do, by early 2008, U.S. forces were also collecting facial images accessible by portable data labs called Joint Expeditionary Forensic Facilities, linked by satellite to a biometric database in West Virginia. “A war fighter needs to know one of three things,” explained the inventor of this lab-in-a-box. “Do I let him go? Keep him? Or shoot him on the spot?”
A future is already imaginable in which a U.S. sniper could take a bead on the eyeball of a suspected terrorist, pause for a nanosecond to transmit the target’s iris or retinal data via backpack-sized laboratory to a computer in West Virginia, and then, after instantaneous feedback, pull the trigger.
Lest such developments seem fanciful, recall that Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward claims the success of George W. Bush’s 2007 troop surge in Iraq was due less to boots on the ground than to bullets in the head — and these, in turn, were due to a top-secret fusion of electronic intercepts and satellite imagery. Starting in May 2006, American intelligence agencies launched a Special Action Program using “the most highly classified techniques and information in the U.S. government” in a successful effort “to locate, target and kill key individuals in extremist groups such as al-Qaeda, the Sunni insurgency and renegade Shia militias.”
Under General Stanley McChrystal, now U.S. Afghan War commander, the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC) deployed “every tool available simultaneously, from signals intercepts to human intelligence” for “lightning quick” strikes. One intelligence officer reportedly claimed that the program was so effective it gave him “orgasms.” President Bush called it “awesome.” Although refusing to divulge details, Woodward himself compared it to the Manhattan Project in World War II. This Iraq-based assassination program relied on the authority Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld granted JSOC in early 2004 to “kill or capture al-Qaeda terrorists” in 20 countries across the Middle East, producing dozens of lethal strikes by airborne Special Operations forces.
Another crucial technological development in Washington’s secret war of assassination has been the armed drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle, whose speedy development has been another by-product of Washington’s global counterterrorism laboratory. Half a world away from Iraq in the southern Philippines, the CIA and U.S. Special Operations Forces conducted an early experiment in the use of aerial surveillance for assassination. In June 2002, with a specially-equipped CIA aircraft circling overhead offering real-time video surveillance in the pitch dark of a tropical night, Philippine Marines executed a deadly high-seas ambush of Muslim terrorist Aldam Tilao (a.k.a. “Abu Sabaya”).
In July 2008, the Pentagon proposed an expenditure of $1.2 billion for a fleet of 50 light aircraft loaded with advanced electronics to loiter over battlefields in Afghanistan and Iraq, bringing “full motion video and electronic eavesdropping to the troops.” By late 2008, night flights over Afghanistan from the deck of the USS Theodore Roosevelt were using sensors to give American ground forces real-time images of Taliban targets — some so focused that they could catch just a few warm bodies huddled in darkness behind a wall.
In the first months of Barack Obama’s presidency, CIA Predator drone strikes have escalated in the Pakistani tribal borderlands with a macabre efficiency, using a top-secret mix of electronic intercepts, satellite transmission, and digital imaging to kill half of the Agency’s 20 top-priority al-Qaeda targets in the region. Just three days before Obama visited Canada last February, Homeland Security launched its first Predator-B drones to patrol the vast, empty North Dakota-Manitoba borderlands that one U.S. senator has called America’s “weakest link.”
While those running U.S. combat operations overseas were experimenting with intercepts, satellites, drones, and biometrics, inside Washington the plodding civil servants of internal security at the FBI and the NSA initially began expanding domestic surveillance through thoroughly conventional data sweeps, legal and extra-legal, and — with White House help — several abortive attempts to revive a tradition that dates back to World War I of citizens spying on suspected subversives.
“If people see anything suspicious, utility workers, you ought to report it,” said President George Bush in his April 2002 call for nationwide citizen vigilance. Within weeks, his Justice Department had launched Operation TIPS (Terrorism Information and Prevention System), with plans for “millions of American truckers, letter carriers, train conductors, ship captains, utility employees and others” to aid the government by spying on their fellow Americans. Such citizen surveillance sparked strong protests, however, forcing the Justice Department to quietly bury the president’s program.
Simultaneously, inside the Pentagon, Admiral John Poindexter, President Ronald Reagan’s former national security advisor (swept up in the Iran-Contra scandal of that era), was developing a Total Information Awareness program which was to contain “detailed electronic dossiers” on millions of Americans. When news leaked about this secret Pentagon office with its eerie, all-seeing eye logo, Congress banned the program, and the admiral resigned in 2003. But the key data extraction technology, the Information Awareness Prototype System, migrated quietly to the NSA.
Soon enough, however, the CIA, FBI, and NSA turned to monitoring citizens electronically without the need for human tipsters, rendering the administration’s grudging retreats from conventional surveillance at best an ambiguous political victory for civil liberties advocates. Sometime in 2002, President Bush gave the NSA secret, illegal orders to monitor private communications through the nation’s telephone companies and its private financial transactions through SWIFT, an international bank clearinghouse.
After the New York Times exposed these wiretaps in 2005, Congress quickly capitulated, first legalizing this illegal executive program and then granting cooperating phone companies immunity from civil suits. Such intelligence excess was, however, intentional. Even after Congress widened the legal parameters for future intercepts in 2008, the NSA continued to push the boundaries of its activities, engaging in what the New York Times politely termed the systematic “overcollection” of electronic communications among American citizens. Now, for example, thanks to a top-secret NSA database called “Pinwale,” analysts routinely scan countless “millions” of domestic electronic communications without much regard for whether they came from foreign or domestic sources.
Starting in 2004, the FBI launched an Investigative Data Warehouse as a “centralized repository for… counterterrorism.” Within two years, it contained 659 million individual records. This digital archive of intelligence, social security files, drivers’ licenses, and records of private finances could be accessed by 13,000 Bureau agents and analysts making a million queries monthly. By 2009, when digital rights advocates sued for full disclosure, the database had already grown to over a billion documents.
And did this sacrifice of civil liberties make the United States a safer place? In July 2009, after a careful review of the electronic surveillance in these years, the inspectors general of the Defense Department, the Justice Department, the CIA, the NSA, and the Office of National Intelligence issued a report sharply critical of these secret efforts. Despite George W. Bush’s claims that massive electronic surveillance had “helped prevent attacks,” these auditors could not find any “specific instances” of this, concluding such surveillance had “generally played a limited role in the F.B.I.’s overall counterterrorism efforts.”
Amid the pressures of a generational global war, Congress proved all too ready to offer up civil liberties as a bipartisan burnt offering on the altar of national security. In April 2007, for instance, in a bid to legalize the Bush administration’s warrantless wiretaps, Congressional representative Jane Harman (Dem., California) offered a particularly extreme example of this urge. She introduced the Violent Radicalization and Homegrown Terrorism Prevention Act, proposing a powerful national commission, functionally a standing “star chamber,” to “combat the threat posed by homegrown terrorists based and operating within the United States.” The bill passed the House by an overwhelming 404 to 6 vote before stalling, and then dying, in a Senate somewhat more mindful of civil liberties.
Only weeks after Barack Obama entered the Oval Office, Harman’s life itself became a cautionary tale about expanding electronic surveillance. According to information leaked to the Congressional Quarterly, in early 2005 an NSA wiretap caught Harman offering to press the Bush Justice Department for reduced charges against two pro-Israel lobbyists accused of espionage. In exchange, an Israeli agent offered to help Harman gain the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee by threatening House Democratic majority leader Nancy Pelosi with the loss of a major campaign donor. As Harman put down the phone, she said, “This conversation doesn’t exist.”
How wrong she was. An NSA transcript of Harman’s every word soon crossed the desk of CIA Director Porter Goss, prompting an FBI investigation that, in turn, was blocked by then-White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales. As it happened, the White House knew that the New York Times was about to publish its sensational revelation of the NSA’s warrantless wiretaps, and felt it desperately needed Harman for damage control among her fellow Democrats. In this commingling of intrigue and irony, an influential legislator’s defense of the NSA’s illegal wiretapping exempted her from prosecution for a security breach discovered by an NSA wiretap.
Since the arrival of Barack Obama in the White House, the auto-pilot expansion of digital domestic surveillance has in no way been interfered with. As a result, for example, the FBI’s “Terrorist Watchlist,” with 400,000 names and a million entries, continues to grow at the rate of 1,600 new names daily.
In fact, the Obama administration has even announced plans for a new military cybercommand staffed by 7,000 Air Force employees at Lackland Air Base in Texas. This command will be tasked with attacking enemy computers and repelling hostile cyber-attacks or counterattacks aimed at U.S. computer networks — with scant respect for what the Pentagon calls “sovereignty in the cyberdomain.” Despite the president’s assurances that operations “will not — I repeat — will not include monitoring private sector networks or Internet traffic,” the Pentagon’s top cyberwarrior, General James E. Cartwright, has conceded such intrusions are inevitable.
Sending the Future Home
While U.S. combat forces prepare to draw-down in Iraq (and ramp up in Afghanistan), military intelligence units are coming home to apply their combat-tempered surveillance skills to our expanding homeland security state, while preparing to counter any future domestic civil disturbances here.
Indeed, in September 2008, the Army’s Northern Command announced that one of the Third Division’s brigades in Iraq would be reassigned as a Consequence Management Response Force (CMRF) inside the U.S. Its new mission: planning for moments when civilian authorities may need help with “civil unrest and crowd control.” According to Colonel Roger Cloutier, his unit’s civil-control equipment featured “a new modular package of non-lethal capabilities” designed to subdue unruly or dangerous individuals — including Taser guns, roadblocks, shields, batons, and beanbag bullets.
That same month, Army Chief of Staff General George Casey flew to Fort Stewart, Georgia, for the first full CMRF mission readiness exercise. There, he strode across a giant urban battle map filling a gymnasium floor like a conquering Gulliver looming over Lilliputian Americans. With 250 officers from all services participating, the military war-gamed its future coordination with the FBI, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and local authorities in the event of a domestic terrorist attack or threat. Within weeks, the American Civil Liberties Union filed an expedited freedom of information request for details of these deployments, arguing: “[It] is imperative that the American people know the truth about this new and unprecedented intrusion of the military in domestic affairs.”
At the outset of the Global War on Terror in 2001, memories of early Cold War anti-communist witch-hunts blocked Bush administration plans to create a corps of civilian tipsters and potential vigilantes. However, far more sophisticated security methods, developed for counterinsurgency warfare overseas, are now coming home to far less public resistance. They promise, sooner or later, to further jeopardize the constitutional freedoms of Americans.
In these same years, under the pressure of War on Terror rhetoric, presidential power has grown relentlessly, opening the way to unchecked electronic surveillance, the endless detention of terror suspects, and a variety of inhumane forms of interrogation. Somewhat more slowly, innovative techniques of biometric identification, aerial surveillance, and civil control are now being repatriated as well.
In a future America, enhanced retinal recognition could be married to omnipresent security cameras as a part of the increasingly routine monitoring of public space. Military surveillance equipment, tempered to a technological cutting edge in counterinsurgency wars, might also one day be married to the swelling domestic databases of the NSA and FBI, sweeping the fiber-optic cables beneath our cities for any sign of subversion. And in the skies above, loitering aircraft and cruising drones could be checking our borders and peering down on American life.
If that day comes, our cities will be Argus-eyed with countless thousands of digital cameras scanning the faces of passengers at airports, pedestrians on city streets, drivers on highways, ATM customers, mall shoppers, and visitors to any federal facility. One day, hyper-speed software will be able to match those millions upon millions of facial or retinal scans to photos of suspect subversives inside a biometric database akin to England’s current National Public Order Intelligence Unit, sending anti-subversion SWAT teams scrambling for an arrest or an armed assault.
By the time the Global War on Terror is declared over in 2020, if then, our American world may be unrecognizable — or rather recognizable only as the stuff of dystopian science fiction. What we are proving today is that, however detached from the wars being fought in their name most Americans may seem, war itself never stays far from home for long. It’s already returning in the form of new security technologies that could one day make a digital surveillance state a reality, changing fundamentally the character of American democracy.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the author of A Question of Torture, among other works. His most recent book is Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State (University of Wisconsin Press) which explores the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations throughout the twentieth century in spreading ever more draconian internal security measures here at home.
Copyright 2009 Alfred W. McCoy
Welcome Home, War!
If, like me, you’ve been following America’s torture policies not just for the last few years, but for decades, you can’t help but experience that eerie feeling of déjà vu these days. With the departure of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney from Washington and the arrival of Barack Obama, it may just be back to the future when it comes to torture policy, a turn away from a dark, do-it-yourself ethos and a return to the outsourcing of torture that went on, with the support of both Democrats and Republicans, in the Cold War years.
Like Chile after the regime of General Augusto Pinochet or the Philippines after the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos, Washington after Bush is now trapped in the painful politics of impunity. Unlike anything our allies have experienced, however, for Washington, and so for the rest of us, this may prove a political crisis without end or exit.
Despite dozens of official inquiries in the five years since the Abu Ghraib photos first exposed our abuse of Iraqi detainees, the torture scandal continues to spread like a virus, infecting all who touch it, including now Obama himself. By embracing a specific methodology of torture, covertly developed by the CIA over decades using countless millions of taxpayer dollars and graphically revealed in those Iraqi prison photos, we have condemned ourselves to retreat from whatever promises might be made to end this sort of abuse and are instead already returning to a bipartisan consensus that made torture America’s secret weapon throughout the Cold War.
Despite the 24 version of events, the Bush administration did not simply authorize traditional, bare-knuckle torture. What it did do was develop to new heights the world’s most advanced form of psychological torture, while quickly recognizing the legal dangers in doing so. Even in the desperate days right after 9/11, the White House and Justice Department lawyers who presided over the Bush administration’s new torture program were remarkably punctilious about cloaking their decisions in legalisms designed to preempt later prosecution.
To most Americans, whether they supported the Bush administration torture policy or opposed it, all of this seemed shocking and very new. Not so, unfortunately. Concealed from Congress and the public, the CIA had spent the previous half-century developing and propagating a sophisticated form of psychological torture meant to defy investigation, prosecution, or prohibition — and so far it has proved remarkably successful on all these counts. Even now, since many of the leading psychologists who worked to advance the CIA’s torture skills have remained silent, we understand surprisingly little about the psychopathology of the program of mental torture that the Bush administration applied so globally.
Physical torture is a relatively straightforward matter of sadism that leaves behind broken bodies, useless information, and clear evidence for prosecution. Psychological torture, on the other hand, is a mind maze that can destroy its victims, even while entrapping its perpetrators in an illusory, almost erotic, sense of empowerment. When applied skillfully, it leaves few scars for investigators who might restrain this seductive impulse. However, despite all the myths of these last years, psychological torture, like its physical counterpart, has proven an ineffective, even counterproductive, method for extracting useful information from prisoners.
Where it has had a powerful effect is on those ordering and delivering it. With their egos inflated beyond imagining by a sense of being masters of life and death, pain and pleasure, its perpetrators, when in office, became forceful proponents of abuse, striding across the political landscape like Nietzschean supermen. After their fall from power, they have continued to maneuver with extraordinary determination to escape the legal consequences of their actions.
Before we head deeper into the hidden history of the CIA’s psychological torture program, however, we need to rid ourselves of the idea that this sort of torture is somehow “torture lite” or merely, as the Bush administration renamed it, “enhanced interrogation.” Although seemingly less brutal than physical methods, psychological torture actually inflicts a crippling trauma on its victims. “Ill treatment during captivity, such as psychological manipulations and forced stress positions,” Dr. Metin Basoglu has reported in the Archives of General Psychiatry after interviewing 279 Bosnian victims of such methods, “does not seem to be substantially different from physical torture in terms of the severity of mental suffering.”
A Secret History of Psychological Torture
The roots of our present paralysis over what to do about detainee abuse lie in the hidden history of the CIA’s program of psychological torture. Early in the Cold War, panicked that the Soviets had somehow cracked the code of human consciousness, the Agency mounted a “Special Interrogation Program” whose working hypothesis was: “Medical science, particularly psychiatry and psychotherapy, has developed various techniques by means of which some external control can be imposed on the mind/or will of an individual, such as drugs, hypnosis, electric shock and neurosurgery.”
All of these methods were tested by the CIA in the 1950s and 1960s. None proved successful for breaking potential enemies or obtaining reliable information. Beyond these ultimately unsuccessful methods, however, the Agency also explored a behavioral approach to cracking that “code.” In 1951, in collaboration with British and Canadian defense scientists, the Agency encouraged academic research into “methods concerned in psychological coercion.” Within months, the Agency had defined the aims of its top-secret program, code-named Project Artichoke, as the “development of any method by which we can get information from a person against his will and without his knowledge.”
This secret research produced two discoveries central to the CIA’s more recent psychological paradigm. In classified experiments, famed Canadian psychologist Donald Hebb found that he could induce a state akin to drug-induced hallucinations and psychosis in just 48 hours — without drugs, hypnosis, or electric shock. Instead, for two days student volunteers at McGill University simply sat in a comfortable cubicle deprived of sensory stimulation by goggles, gloves, and earmuffs. “It scared the hell out of us,” Hebb said later, “to see how completely dependent the mind is on a close connection with the ordinary sensory environment, and how disorganizing to be cut off from that support.”
During the 1950s, two neurologists at Cornell Medical Center, under CIA contract, found that the most devastating torture technique of the Soviet secret police, the KGB, was simply to force a victim to stand for days while the legs swelled, the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, and hallucinations began — a procedure which we now politely refer to as “stress positions.”
Four years into this project, there was a sudden upsurge of interest in using mind control techniques defensively after American prisoners in North Korea suffered what was then called “brainwashing.” In August 1955, President Eisenhower ordered that any soldier at risk of capture should be given “specific training and instruction designed to… withstand all enemy efforts against him.”
Consequently, the Air Force developed a program it dubbed SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape) to train pilots in resisting psychological torture. In other words, two intertwined strands of research into torture methods were being explored and developed: aggressive methods for breaking enemy agents and defensive methods for training Americans to resist enemy inquisitors.
In 1963, the CIA distilled its decade of research into the curiously named KUBARK Counter-intelligence Interrogation manual, which stated definitively that sensory deprivation was effective because it made “the regressed subject view the interrogator as a father-figure… strengthening… the subject’s tendencies toward compliance.” Refined through years of practice on actual human beings, the CIA’s psychological paradigm now relies on a mix of sensory overload and deprivation via seemingly banal procedures: the extreme application of heat and cold, light and dark, noise and silence, feast and famine — all meant to attack six essential sensory pathways into the human mind.
After codifying its new interrogation methods in the KUBARK manual, the Agency spent the next 30 years promoting these torture techniques within the U.S. intelligence community and among anti-communist allies. In its clandestine journey across continents and decades, the CIA’s psychological torture paradigm would prove elusive, adaptable, devastatingly destructive, and powerfully seductive. So darkly seductive is torture’s appeal that these seemingly scientific methods, even when intended for a few Soviet spies or al-Qaeda terrorists, soon spread uncontrollably in two directions — toward the torture of the many and into a paroxysm of brutality towards specific individuals. During the Vietnam War, when the CIA applied these techniques in their search for information on top Vietcong cadre, the interrogation effort soon degenerated into the crude physical brutality of the Phoenix Program, producing 46,000 extrajudicial executions and little actionable intelligence.
In 1994, with the Cold War over, Washington ratified the U.N. Convention Against Torture, seemingly resolving the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices. Yet when President Clinton sent this Convention to Congress, he included four little-noticed diplomatic “reservations” drafted six years before by the Reagan administration and focused on just one word in those 26 printed pages: “mental.”
These reservations narrowed (just for the United States) the definition of “mental” torture to include just four acts: the infliction of physical pain, the use of drugs, death threats, or threats to harm another. Excluded were methods such as sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain, the very techniques the CIA had propagated for the past 40 years. This definition was reproduced verbatim in Section 2340 of the U.S. Federal Code and later in the War Crimes Act of 1996. Through this legal legerdemain, Washington managed to agree, via the U.N. Convention, to ban physical abuse even while exempting the CIA from the U.N.’s prohibition on psychological torture.
This little noticed exemption was left buried in those documents like a landmine and would detonate with phenomenal force just 10 years later at Abu Ghraib prison.
War on Terror, War of Torture
Right after his public address to a shaken nation on September 11, 2001, President Bush gave his staff secret orders to pursue torture policies, adding emphatically, “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass.” In a dramatic break with past policy, the White House would even allow the CIA to operate its own global network of prisons, as well as charter air fleet to transport seized suspects and “render” them for endless detention in a supranational gulag of secret “black sites” from Thailand to Poland.
The Bush administration also officially allowed the CIA ten “enhanced” interrogation methods designed by agency psychologists, including “waterboarding.” This use of cold water to block breathing triggers the “mammalian diving reflex,” hardwired into every human brain, thus inducing an uncontrollable terror of impending death.
As Jane Mayer reported in the New Yorker, psychologists working for both the Pentagon and the CIA “reverse engineered” the military’s SERE training, which included a brief exposure to waterboarding, and flipped these defensive methods for use offensively on al-Qaeda captives. “They sought to render the detainees vulnerable — to break down all of their senses,” one official told Mayer. “It takes a psychologist trained in this to understand these rupturing experiences.” Inside Agency headquarters, there was, moreover, a “high level of anxiety” about the possibility of future prosecutions for methods officials knew to be internationally defined as torture. The presence of Ph.D. psychologists was considered one “way for CIA officials to skirt measures such as the Convention Against Torture.”
From recently released Justice Department memos, we now know that the CIA refined its psychological paradigm significantly under Bush. As described in the classified 2004 Background Paper on the CIA’s Combined Use of Interrogation Techniques, each detainee was transported to an Agency black site while “deprived of sight and sound through the use of blindfolds, earmuffs, and hoods.” Once inside the prison, he was reduced to “a baseline, dependent state” through conditioning by “nudity, sleep deprivation (with shackling…), and dietary manipulation.”
For “more physical and psychological stress,” CIA interrogators used coercive measures such as “an insult slap or abdominal slap” and then “walling,” slamming the detainee’s head against a cell wall. If these failed to produce the results sought, interrogators escalated to waterboarding, as was done to Abu Zubaydah “at least 83 times during August 2002” and Khalid Sheikh Mohammad 183 times in March 2003 — so many times, in fact, that the repetitiousness of the act can only be considered convincing testimony to the seductive sadism of CIA-style torture.
In a parallel effort launched by Bush-appointed civilians in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld gave General Geoffrey Miller command of the new American military prison at Guantanamo in late 2002 with ample authority to transform it into an ad hoc psychology lab. Behavioral Science Consultation Teams of military psychologists probed detainees for individual phobias like fear of the dark. Interrogators stiffened the psychological assault by exploiting what they saw as Arab cultural sensitivities when it came to sex and dogs. Via a three-phase attack on the senses, on culture, and on the individual psyche, interrogators at Guantanamo perfected the CIA’s psychological paradigm.
After General Miller visited Iraq in September 2003, the U.S. commander there, General Ricardo Sanchez, ordered Guantanamo-style abuse at Abu Ghraib prison. My own review of the 1,600 still-classified photos taken by American guards at Abu Ghraib — which journalists covering this story seem to share like Napster downloads — reveals not random, idiosyncratic acts by “bad apples,” but the repeated, constant use of just three psychological techniques: hooding for sensory deprivation, shackling for self-inflicted pain, and (to exploit Arab cultural sensitivities) both nudity and dogs. It is no accident that Private Lynndie England was famously photographed leading an Iraqi detainee leashed like a dog.
These techniques, according to the New York Times, then escalated virally at five Special Operations field interrogation centers where detainees were subjected to extreme sensory deprivation, beating, burning, electric shock, and waterboarding. Among the thousand soldiers in these units, 34 were later convicted of abuse and many more escaped prosecution only because records were officially “lost.”
“Behind the Green Door” at the White House
Further up the chain of command, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, as she recently told the Senate, “convened a series of meetings of NSC [National Security Council] principals in 2002 and 2003 to discuss various issues… relating to detainees.” This group, including Vice President Cheney, Attorney General John Ashcroft, Secretary of State Colin Powell, and CIA director George Tenet, met dozens of times inside the White House Situation Room.
After watching CIA operatives mime what Rice called “certain physical and psychological interrogation techniques,” these leaders, their imaginations stimulated by graphic visions of human suffering, repeatedly authorized extreme psychological techniques stiffened by hitting, walling, and waterboarding. According to an April 2008 ABC News report, Attorney General Ashcroft once interrupted this collective fantasy by asking aloud, “Why are we talking about this in the White House? History will not judge this kindly.”
In mid-2004, even after the Abu Ghraib photos were released, these principals met to approve the use of CIA torture techniques on still more detainees. Despite mounting concerns about the damage torture was doing to America’s standing, shared by Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice commanded Agency officials with the cool demeanor of a dominatrix. “This is your baby,” she reportedly said. “Go do it.”
Even as they exercise extraordinary power over others, perpetrators of torture around the world are assiduous in trying to cover their tracks. They construct recondite legal justifications, destroy records of actual torture, and paper the files with spurious claims of success. Hence, the CIA destroyed 92 interrogation videotapes, while Vice President Cheney now berates Obama incessantly (five times in his latest Fox News interview) to declassify “two reports” which he claims will show the informational gains that torture offered — possibly because his staff salted the files at the NSC or the CIA with documents prepared for this very purpose.
Not only were Justice Department lawyers aggressive in their advocacy of torture in the Bush years, they were meticulous from the start, in laying the legal groundwork for later impunity. In three torture memos from May 2005 that the Obama administration recently released, Bush’s Deputy Assistant Attorney General Stephen Bradbury repeatedly cited those original U.S. diplomatic “reservations” to the U.N. Convention Against Torture, replicated in Section 2340 of the Federal code, to argue that waterboarding was perfectly legal since the “technique is not physically painful.” Anyway, he added, careful lawyering at Justice and the CIA had punched loopholes in both the U.N. Convention and U.S. law so wide that these Agency techniques were “unlikely to be subject to judicial inquiry.”
Just to be safe, when Vice President Cheney presided over the drafting of the Military Commissions Act of 2006, he included clauses, buried in 38 pages of dense print, defining “serious physical pain” as the “significant loss or impairment of the function of a bodily member, organ, or mental faculty.” This was a striking paraphrase of the outrageous definition of physical torture as pain “equivalent in intensity to… organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death” in John Yoo’s infamous August 2002 “torture memo,” already repudiated by the Justice Department.
Above all, the Military Commissions Act protected the CIA’s use of psychological torture by repeating verbatim the exculpatory language found in those Clinton-era, Reagan-created reservations to the U.N. Convention and still embedded in Section 2340 of the Federal code. To make doubly sure, the act also made these definitions retroactive to November 1997, giving CIA interrogators immunity from any misdeeds under the Expanded War Crimes Act of 1997 which punishes serious violations with life imprisonment or death.
No matter how twisted the process, impunity — whether in England, Indonesia, or America — usually passes through three stages:
1. Blame the supposed “bad apples.”
2. Invoke the security argument. (“It protected us.”)
3. Appeal to national unity. (“We need to move forward together.”)
For a year after the Abu Ghraib exposé, Rumsfeld’s Pentagon blamed various low-ranking bad apples by claiming the abuse was “perpetrated by a small number of U.S. military.” In his statement on May 13th, while refusing to release more torture photos, President Obama echoed Rumsfeld, claiming the abuse in these latest images, too, “was carried out in the past by a small number of individuals.”
In recent weeks, Republicans have taken us deep into the second stage with Cheney’s statements that the CIA’s methods “prevented the violent deaths of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people.”
Then, on April 16th, President Obama brought us to the final stage when he released the four Bush-era memos detailing CIA torture, insisting: “Nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past.” During a visit to CIA headquarters four days later, Obama promised that there would be no prosecutions of Agency employees. “We’ve made some mistakes,” he admitted, but urged Americans simply to “acknowledge them and then move forward.” The president’s statements were in such blatant defiance of international law that the U.N.’s chief official on torture, Manfred Nowak, reminded him that Washington was actually obliged to investigate possible violations of the Convention Against Torture.
This process of impunity is leading Washington back to a global torture policy that, during the Cold War, was bipartisan in nature: publicly advocating human rights while covertly outsourcing torture to allied governments and their intelligence agencies. In retrospect, it may become ever more apparent that the real aberration of the Bush years lay not in torture policies per se, but in the President’s order that the CIA should operate its own torture prisons. The advantage of the bipartisan torture consensus of the Cold War era was, of course, that it did a remarkably good job most of the time of insulating Washington from the taint of torture, which was sometimes remarkably widely practiced.
There are already some clear signs of a policy shift in this direction in the Obama era. Since mid-2008, U.S. intelligence has captured a half-dozen al-Qaeda suspects and, instead of shipping them to Guantanamo or to CIA secret prisons, has had them interrogated by allied Middle Eastern intelligence agencies. Showing that this policy is again bipartisan, Obama’s new CIA director Leon Panetta announced that the Agency would continue to engage in the rendition of terror suspects to allies like Libya, Pakistan, or Saudi Arabia where we can, as he put it, “rely on diplomatic assurances of good treatment.” Showing the quality of such treatment, Time magazine reported on May 24th that Ibn al-Sheikh al-Libi, who famously confessed under torture that Saddam Hussein had provided al-Qaeda with chemical weapons and later admitted his lie to Senate investigators, had committed “suicide” in a Libyan cell.
The Price of Impunity
This time around, however, a long-distance torture policy may not provide the same insulation as in the past for Washington. Any retreat into torture by remote-control is, in fact, only likely to produce the next scandal that will do yet more damage to America’s international standing.
Over a 40-year period, Americans have found themselves mired in this same moral quagmire on six separate occasions: following exposés of CIA-sponsored torture in South Vietnam (1970), Brazil (1974), Iran (1978), Honduras (1988), and then throughout Latin America (1997). After each exposé, the public’s shock soon faded, allowing the Agency to resume its dirty work in the shadows.
Unless some formal inquiry is convened to look into a sordid history that reached its depths in the Bush era, and so begins to break this cycle of deceit, exposé, and paralysis followed by more of the same, we’re likely, a few years hence, to find ourselves right back where we are now. We’ll be confronted with the next American torture scandal from some future iconic dungeon, part of a dismal, ever lengthening procession that has led from the tiger cages of South Vietnam through the Shah of Iran’s prison cells in Tehran to Abu Ghraib and the prison at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan.
The next time, however, the world will not have forgotten those photos from Abu Ghraib. The next time, the damage to this country will be nothing short of devastating.
Alfred W. McCoy is the J.R.W. Smail Professor of History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, From the Cold War to the War on Terror (Metropolitan Books), which is also available in Italian and German translations. Later this year, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State, a forthcoming book of his, will explore the influence of overseas counterinsurgency operations on the spread of internal security measures here at home. To catch a TomDispatch audio interview in which McCoy discusses the CIA’s “Manhattan Project of the mind,” click here.
Copyright 2009 Alfred W. McCoy