OPERATION BIDENOSSA: TARGET BEIJING
American attitudes toward national security are outgrowths of our insecurities. We are experiencing the gnawing sensation that the United States’ exceptionalism as pre-ordained from our birth in a state of ‘original virtue’ no longer conforms to reality. A belief that we were born against history, distanced from the flaws and derelict behavior of all those unblessed societies that preceded us, has seeded the unquestioned conviction that we have a mission -whether as model or agent – to serve in the forefront of a teleology threaded around the globe. That has provided blanket justification for all our acts; it legitimizes our right – indeed, obligation - to judge others; it sanctifies dominance. Moreover, this exalted self-image shores up the self-esteem of many individuals whose own merits are less than exceptional.
This characterization of America and Americans is not original. Some ingredients were first remarked upon by de Tocqueville in 1832. Much has been written more recently about the implications of the ingrained notions of American exceptionalism that pervade the near entirety of the foreign policy community – broadly defined. The ensuing discussion, though, remains rarified and limited. It has barely nibbled at the edges of the foreign policy establishment and is almost undetectable among politicos. As for the galaxy of think tanks, the biggest – Brookings, Council on Foreign Relations, RAND, CSIS, Atlantic Council – make sure that there is a wide expanse of blue water between themselves and their piratical would-be intellectual rivals. Same for the media, of course. An ancillary outcome is that the general public continues to view the world through the distorting lens of American mythology and conceit. This inertial mindset does not mean that total complacency reigns. There is creeping anxiety about the prospect of losing our current predominance, that the American Century was an interlude rather than a culmination, that our best years are behind us rather than in Barack Obama’s rosy future. These feelings remain subliminal, for the most part, with transitory upwellings into consciousness. That’s true for the public. Our political class, in particular the foreign affairs crowd, recognize that the rise of formidable other powers, above all China, poses a challenge to both the United States’ preeminence worldwide, and thereby to the nation’s collective psyche. How they are responding is the subject of this essay.
Free-floating anxieties about a conjectured American decline (a vintage notion dating back 35 years) now are being reified in the form of the People’s Republic of China. Abstract speculation has become reality in the most tangible forms. China’s awakening has been deeply unsettling because of its rapidity and its comprehensiveness. Moreover, it coincides with the post-Cold War period of triumphalism that was felt with collapse of the Soviet Union. To the extent that apprehension exists, subliminal or conscious, the swiftness of the intersection between these two curves could not fail to produce a measure of disorientation and vertigo. That is not a psychological state conducive to sober, logical thinking. Its absence from American foreign policy provides evidence in support of that proposition.
The steadily growing strength of China along with is increasing activism on the global scene (still modest by our standards – or that of the USSR) is distinctive in a number of ways. First, the challenge is not primarily military. Expansion of its forces has been steady but at a deliberate pace. It is better seen as derivative of the country’s formidable economic and technological successes than its driving force. Second is the multi-dimensionality of China’s growing prowess. In is manifest in ever domain. In short, we are witness to a phenomenon of civilizational dimension – hence one that will continue along its current trajectory for the foreseeable future. In short, there is nothing any outside power(s) can do to reverse it or to stymie it. Let us recall the historical record of the many centuries when China was the most advanced society on the face of the earth. So what we are seeing is a sort of Sino-Renaissance. That is the way that most Chinese visualize it – certainly its leadership. That instills self-confidence in dealing with the West and imagining its place in the universe of nations.
American leaders, and elites generally, have never encountered anything like this. The United States itself admittedly had to climb to the apex of the global pecking order; let’s bear in mind, though, that our moral superiority and destiny were always taken as givens. In our experience as supreme power over the past century, the great rivals were all flawed. The might of Hitler’s Germany was a strictly military and limited to the security realm. once defeated on the battlefield, it could be treated as an historical epiphenomenon, however grotesque its actions. In the long chronicle of time, Hitler figures in same league as Timur. As for the USSR, it was more formidable and enduring because its ideological strength extended beyond its borders and legitimized a truly radical reconstruction of society which undergirded a powerful state apparatus. Nonetheless, it had inherent contradictions and flaws that proved its eventual undoing. China, by contrast, exhibits none of those debilitating features cum vulnerabilities. Hence, it poses an unprecedented challenge to American ‘exceptionalism’ as well as to our international dominance.
By its very existence, the China of today and tomorrow threatens Americanism – hence, a truly EXISTENTIAL threat.
American reactions tell us much about the collective national psyche and our capacity for fashioning a strategy at once plausible in terms of objective reality and tolerable for that increasingly ginger national psyche. The salient Chinese challenge serves as a dye placed in the body’s circulatory that enables us to observe with clarity what’s going on within our polity and psyche both.
So, what does the ongoing test show us? Most notable characteristics are: a groping to put our hands on a plethora of possible of practical actions; the frequency of tactical shifts; the consequence that there is no coherent, sustainable strategy; a persistent resistance to alter in any significant way our sense of prerogative and privilege rooted in American mythology.* Psychology and social-psychology play a greater role in this process than do cool-header calculations of interest or sober diplomacy. Here are some of those psychological dynamics.
1. The reliance on simplistic models and analogies. A cursory look at the past tells us that when a predominant power is challenged by an upcoming rival the inescapable conflict is resolved by combat – war. The one outstanding exception was the gradual transition from the British Empire to American hegemony. The were two singular factors that made it possible: the unique ties between the two powers, and Britain’s absorption in European power struggles that endangered its status and then its very existence. Nearly all strategic planners ignore the Anglo-American example – not without reason. Instead, their scanning of the historical record sharpens the instinctive feeling that mortal combat indeed will be unavoidable. Thus, the Pentagon’s concentration on military build-ups, constellation of forces, and war games. Their satellites in the think tanks do pretty much the same. The more simplistic approaches use the great air-sea battles with the Imperial Japanese Navy as point of reference – wittingly or not. They visualize a replay of the Battles of the Coral Sea and Leyte Gulf using advanced, high-tech weapons. The tight focus on the military dimension exemplifies the general tendency to respond to a multifaceted threat by reducing it in scale and kind in order to make the threat more comprehensible and easier to plan for.
In doing so, they miss the obvious: in the atomic age, all-out war between nuclear armed super-powers is tantamount to mutual suicide.**
The Pentagon, backed by their loud claque in Congress, the think tanks and the media are particularly prone to making the implicit error of doing strategic planning without regard for the wider context. They concentrate on the purely military danger – demanding bigger budgets, push-back in the South China Sea and around Taiwan, and greater vigilance. In truth, that is not the mode that China is following as its presence and influence spreads around the world. Not only does the dual logic dictated by nuclear weapons and economic interdependence militate against it, so does Chinese history as well. Over two millennia, successive dynasties have shown little appetite for empire building much less for ruling alien peoples. There are exceptions, of course, the several hundred years of controlling the politically inchoate Vietnamese lands during the first millennium CE, one disastrous attempt to invade Japan (under the Mongol dynasty) and a few forays into Burma. The country’s expansion territorially was derivative of its perpetual wars against the Turkic or Mongolian incursions from the North and West.
The military mind is inclined to elide these ‘complications’ – with exceptions of course. These are intelligent people, but let’s remember that their professional raison d’etre is to fight wars and even a graduate degree in history does not override it. This is not to say that the Pentagon is an advocate of war with China. However, that possibility is foremost on their strategic minds. Most important, they implicitly encourage the hawkish instincts and ambitions of other players, mainly civilian, in the national security game: office-holders, politicos, advisers, defense ‘intellectuals,” media pundits etc.
The very fact that the primary Chinese challenge to American hegemony is non-military makes it look all the more insidious and seemingly dangerous. An appropriate response all the more elusive.
2. In this context, and against this backdrop, American leaders have begun to move in lock-step in their bellicose talk about China as The enemy – an enemy that must be confronted. Rhetoric toughens, hawkist coalitions harden, and maverick skeptics are silenced and/or ignored. How, though, do you “take on” China? There’s the rub. The jingoist language in itself will not intimidate the Chinese leaders. The days when Beijing would go out of its way to avoid contention are over. They have made that crystal clear by word and deed. That new reality doesn’t seem to have registered in Washington. This is classic AVOIDANCE BEHAVIOR. A natural response to cognitive dissonance is to overlook or to downplay evidence that could undermine your core beliefs, convictions and aspirations (not to speak of your electoral prospects). As a result, the Biden administration (like its predecessors) has boxed itself into a corner. There is no realistic/sane way that one can act in the manner indicated by the rhetoric, i.e. to prepare to go to war. Speak loudly and carry a big stick of a kind you can’t use is not a viable strategy.
Washington should have learned this lesson just a month or two ago in Ukraine. Biden, long the absentee overseer of Ukraine under Obama, backed a plan to put an end to the secessionist, Russified provinces of Lugansk and Donetsk in the Donbass. It was seen as a way to discipline Vladimir Putin whose interference in Syria and blood-minded actions elsewhere irritated American policy-makers, to complete Russia’s isolation (along with an overthrow of the Belarus government), and to solidify NATO/EU control of the European continent. Washington expanded its program of arming and training the Ukrainian army arm and militias (including the neo-Nazi Azov battalion), gave President (and ex-comedian) President Vladimir Zielenski the green light to move his military to the contact line, and led an orchestrated denunciation of Russia and all its work loudly reinforced by the ever-obedient chorus of European dependents. Biden himself struck the tone in declaring that Putin was a ‘killer.’ It was classic coercion via military intimidation – although hardly classic in insulting your opponent unless you follow up with a bugle call for attack. The entire project is now in ruins – a miserable failure. The ‘why’ carries heavy – if unrecognized – lessons.
3. The Kremlin had given clear signs that it no longer was going to turn the other cheek to what it saw as hostile, belittling Western moves. The eastward expansion of NATO right to Russia’s border, the Washington approved Georgian assault on South Ossetia by American trained/advised forces, the color revolutions culminating in the American instigated Nuland coup in Kiev that toppled a democratically elected President, undocumented accusations of meddling in the tranquil waters of American politics, the repeated sanctions, the relentless campaign to sabotage Nordstrom II etc. etc. Those clear signs were ignored, as are all other facts that don’t conform with the self-serving, self-deluding Washington narrative. There, gross misinterpretations of conditions in Russia prevail.*** They truly believe that Navalny is the country’s great white hope when in truth his modest support lies only among the liberal intelligensia of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Putin’s popularity, especially in regard to relations with the West, is undiminished. The public fully backs Putin. Moreover, he is at the ’soft’ end of a continuum among political elites - including officials within his government. Hence, his response to the renewed threat to the Donbass was quick and decisive. He deployed 75,000 heavily armed army units with supporting air power to the border while Lavrov stated baldly that any offensive by the Ukrainians would be met with overwhelming force, and that would mean the destruction of the current Ukrainian regime. The United States and its allies had no counter; they had to back down. Within days, Biden made an impromptu call to ‘killer’ Putin calling for a relaxing of tensions while looking forward to stable, predictable relations between their two countries. That week, Blinken flew to Kiev to bluntly tell Zielenski to call it all off. If that meant throwing him to the ultra-nationalist wolves in Kiev, he always had his comedian gig to fall back on. Great power politics as burlesque!
There was a dawning awareness that contending with a fully aroused Russia, in Europe and elsewhere, was no piece of cake. It followed that the United States should not be conducting all-out ‘Cold War’ with China and Russia simultaneously. Since China was the much greater challenger to American global hegemony, somehow working out a tacit modus vivendi, or, at least, ceasefire, with Moscow was called for. That should have been obvious for at least the past 12 years to anyone with a strategic brain. Instead, American leaders had done everything possible to solidify a Sino-Russian alliance as has materialized in their ‘strategic partnership’ which grows in strength and confidence by the day.
4. Dominant states faced with strong, growing rival normally draw on a repertoire of standard tactics. The most obvious move is to drive a wedge between the pretender and its important allies. That logic has been followed since time immemorial. Kissinger and Nixon used it against the USSR by its audacious opening to Communist China – with considerable effectiveness. The great exception is the United States in the present era which took the opposite tack in treating Russia and China as hostile powers who should be weakened and stymied at every turn. As noted above, the consequence has been to provide powerful incentive for each to enter into close partnership with the other. only belatedly has Biden national security team awakened to the counterproductive effect of doing. The abject failure in Ukraine (simultaneously with the thwarted attempt to overthrow Lukashenko in Belarus) shook Washington’s unbounded self-confidence enough for it to recognize the error of its ways.
A series of moves in Europe signaled the intention to change course. The announced dispatch of a naval battle group to the Black Sea was summarily cancelled, pressure on Germany to prevent the completion of Nordstrom II was lifted, and the plans for a Ukrainian attack on the Donbass was abruptly dumped. Biden clearly intends next week’s meeting with Putin in Geneva as a crucial step paving the way for a tempering of the hostility that has marked relations between Washington and Moscow. The hope is that the gestures noted above combined with an expressed readiness to work together on handful of contentious issues can mollify Russian antagonism toward the West. That, in turn, could cool its enthusiasm for the strategic partnership with Beijing – making it easier for the U.S. to concentrate on its struggle for global supremacy with China while weakening the latter’s hand.
The ploy is doomed to failure. one cannot undue the cumulative effects of nearly 30 years of disparagement and 10 years of punitive actions accompanied by batteries of insults in a single coffee date. Russia’s leaders since Gorbachev have set as their goal a respected place in the European ‘home’ that did not cast them as perpetual subordinates or denied them to have any right to their own national interests. We never have accorded them that status. For some time, Washington has treated Russia as an intransigent enemy while dreaming of regime change. Its acceptance into Europe has been conditioned by its acceptance of the neo-liberal doctrine that would open the country to the predations of the West’s corporate powerhouses, especially America’s rapacious banks, hedge funds, and private equity groups – under a weak state. Russia is not a weak state, nor a ‘declining’ one as MI-6 Director said in comparing it to the formidable British lion. Hence, Putin and his colleagues have given up on a Western oriented conception of Russia’s future. The intensifying partnership was China is now a fait accompli. That historic development creates a whole new constellation of global forces that alters the balance in the contest between the U.S. and China.
5. Denigration of one’s enemy is the most fascinating of responses to the China challenge – in psychological terms. We are witnessing the odd phenomenon of the American political class, along with government policy-makers to a lesser degree, engaged in a relentless disparagement of China as a society. The most glaring evidence is provided by the NYT. A few years back, it began running frequent stories on what was going wrong in the country and the troubles that lie ahead for its economy. Its reporters scoured the country for conditions or events that conveyed incompetence, corruption, misjudgement and injustice. No matter was too small to escape their probing eye. Correspondingly, stories about China’s great successes became rarities. As the Chinese threat to American supremacy has grown, so has this negative narrative. The 2-3 well publicized negative stories a week grew to almost daily accounts of what was going wrong over there. These days, there often are multiple stories in a single issue; on a couple of occasions, there were 3. Editors perfected their craft in this peculiar artform over the years of castigating everything Russian in similar terms. Russia still remains an object of disparagement; but these days it has ceded ignominy of place to China.
The point that deserves emphasis is that this pattern does not fall into the category of stigmatizing as irretrievable evil one’s opponent. That type of propaganda is par for the course - and it can run parallel to the disparagement meme. Rather, the latter receives the sharpest focus because the threat of a formidable challenge is, above all, a threat to the American myth of exceptionalism, of innate superiority. Denigration is a form of therapy for a wounded and worried national psyche. Balm and sedative.
The practical effect on dealings with China is minimal; after all, it is not the audience and the Chinese pay no attention to these stories. It is the effect on Americans that counts.
Of course, there now is a companion campaign to stigmatize the PRC as evil incarnate. Led by the White House, it is joined by the entire political class and the media. This conforms to the normal psychological preparations for battle – a modern-day counterpart to a gorilla beating its chest or a lion roaring (more exactly, if that encourages other members of the tribe or pride to follow suit). In this manner, Congress passes resolutions excoriating Chinese officials for ’genocide’ against the Uighurs, ascribe to them brash acts of undocumented cyber warfare – as with Russia, and broadcasts loudly the assertion that China’s ambition entails aggression in Asia akin to that of Japan in the 1930s and 40s. The renewed efforts to ‘blame’ China for the COVID19 outbreak fit the same pattern. Alleged laxness at the Wuhan lab are melded with insinuations by some that the virus’ release and spread was part of some far-fetched diabolical plan to weaken the West (the rest of the world presumably being ‘collateral damage’).The total lack of any tangible evidence and the conclusions of a WHO investigation clearing the Chinese authorities of the charges do nothing to stall the campaign of denunciation which now has reached hysterical proportions.
(Anyway, even if an accidental leak is conceivable, it should be put in perspective. Leaks from biological or chemical laboratories are commonplace in every country. In a high-grade lab at the University of North Carolina – for example – 27 leaks were reported in just one year. At the Wuhan facility, by the way, Anthony Fauci was involved financially and in research design for a program that pushed the boundaries of viral science).).
Hysteria, or simply over-the-top irrational response to threat, is exemplified by the bizarre Biden order to the CIA and FBI to marshal resources for a full-blown Intelligence operation on the Wuhan target. This move, of course, is ridiculous on the face of it. Are they expected to hack into the lab’s computer files; to kidnap and rendition to a ‘black site’ some highly placed official who then will be tortured by force-feeding him copious amounts of American chop suey until he coughs up the dark truth; to devise ingenious algorithms that will exploit Big Data for car park numbers at the lab and Wuhan city hospitals, to discern dire meanings in any deviations from the norm during the critical period; to send camouflaged agents to spy on the ‘live market’ where a cluster of Covid19 cases emerged early on to uncover traces of the Mother Virus’ passage. The sad truth is that once you are disengaged from reality all kinds of weird and irrational behavior can be expected – from anyone. A large part of this story, therefore, resides in the domain of psycho-pathology rather than politics. (I guess that we can derive one small consolation from this absurd episode: evidently, our Intelligence/security agencies have nothing better to do in this serene period of American Life).
The relentless, intense accusations thrown at the Chinese leaders represent, in good part, the psychology of ‘projection’. Washington accuses China of belligerency, of interference in our politics, of hacking, of using economic assets to extract political concessions from other countries, of inhumane treatment of minorities. Yet, a look at the record shows that we preceded and surpassed them in nearly all categories. It is the United States that has designated itself the world’s singular judge of good conduct and meted out punishments accordingly, that employs a plethora of methods to influence political outcomes in other countries around the globe – including the uninhibited use of military force, that operates a dense network of electronic surveillance which intrudes into the inner circles and most sensitive areas of foreign governments – including close allies, that exploits America’s unique place in the world economy, especially its financial sphere, to intimidate others to bend to our will, e.g. threatening to lower the boom on its European allies if they continued economic transactions with Iran despite their obligations under treaty to do so, that has launched a broad program of dedicated assassination by drone, that set a precedent in being the first to engage in cyber warfare by attacking Iran’s computers with the STURNEX virus – also, committing other acts of physical sabotage including the assassination of Iranian scientists (the latter together with the Israelis), that historically has oppressed blacks, indigenous peoples, and Latinos – a continuing tale now punctuated by the cynical, inhumane practice of separating young children from their immigrant parents and imprisoning them in camps run by callous privateers as part of a strategy to deter would-be Latinos from trying to enter the U.S. illegally.
Of course, China – and Russia – do mischievous things in these spheres. The point is that our holier-than-thou criticisms of them are little more that antagonistic propaganda which, in the eyes of third parties, reeks of hypocrisy.
Psychological projection typically involves displacing one’s unsavory but unacknowledged behavioral impulses onto somebody else. This may be done defensively to insulate the compromised self or aggressively to stigmatize another party, as in the case of China. In this latter form, projection behavior serves the double purpose of 1) releasing the tension generated by the contradiction between those inner impulses and one’s self image, 2) stigmatizing an enemy by indicting it for alleged acts that are heavily weighted with emotion - thereby making our condemnations and punishments all the more justifiable in our own mind.
How does one reconcile the latter drumbeat campaign of vituperation supposed exposing the other guy’s abuse of power with the disparagement campaign? You cannot – they are incompatible. So, nobody tries. They simply are two contradictory impulses to different forms of perceived threat: to our tangible interests, and to the foundations of faith in ourselves. The inability to see these contradictions evinces the extent to which the American mind has lost contact with reality.
What’s the alternative? It has been laid out cogently and in detail by Ambassador Charles Freeman in a series of lectures which I have distributed. A copy of one is attached. Admittedly, it will be tough for Americans to accept and to implement. For it entails acknowledging the need to amend that article of national belief that is exceptionalism. It means accommodating another superpower on the world scene. That implies revising some of the semi-institutionalized rules of the so-called “rule-based” system that inherently has served American interests and which we violate with impunity when we deem it necessary. A glaring example is the invasion/occupation of a sovereign Iraq with no lawful mandate whatsoever. Another is the imposition of economic sanctions on third parties (even when the U.S. is a not a stakeholder in the affair as with the Russo-German gas pipeline) in direct violation of international law and custom. It means working out informal ‘rules-of-the-road’ for dealing with both third party generated crises and tensions between the United States and the Sino-Russian bloc. It means that a highly skilled, sustained diplomacy is the sine-qua-non for our success in such a daunting enterprise.
Are we up to it? Take a look around and then venture an answer.
* MANIFEST DESTINY a la Walt Whitman
“What has Mexico, inefficient Mexico – with her superstition, her burlesque upon freedom, her actual tyranny by the few over the many – what has she to do with the great mission of peopling the new world with a noble race? Be it ours to achieve that mission….For our part, we look upon the increase in territory and power, not as a doubter looks, but with the faith a Christian has in God’s mystery”
The most quintessentially American of our poets herein sums up with cogency and succinctness the good, the bad & the self-righteous of the great American saga.
It is a fair judgment that, from the broadest historical perspective, the Idea of America has contributed more to the betterment of the world than has the reality of American actions in the world -even if, on balance, both are judged net positives. That proposition holds even taking account of the singular contribution made in WW II and in the post-war reconstruction of Europe and Japan. Of course, this is not to gainsay the evident truth that lives of millions of voluntary immigrants and their descendants were improved by their settling into an imperfect America.
**Even if the U.S. were to win a war miraculously kept conventional, what would be the strategic outcome? China would still be China – the world’s biggest industrial economy with vast financial resources, unconquerable and therefore autonomous, and an America diminished in the ensuing non-military competition because of our deep-seated structural and political fissures. Assuming further that in some magical way the U.S. succeeds in displacing the present Chinese regime, what might replace it?
***White House Press Secretary Psaki: “Well, I think the President’s view is that Russia is on the outside of the global community in many respects… What the President is offering is a bridge back. And so, certainly, he believes it’s in their interests to take him up on that offer.” This is the mind of somebody who is living in a pure fantasy world. Anyone who gave such clear signs of disconnection from reality in ordinary life would be advised to seek counseling and urged, in the meantime, to avoid taking any consequential decisions.