Tuesday, September 04, 2018

From Mr. Woodward's "Fear" to Fear of America First: Initial Thoughts

The release of the much anticipated book by Bob Woodward about the administration of the presidency of Donald Trump, Fear: Trump in the White House (Simon & Schuster (September 11, 2018)) was met with substantial emotion from all quarters of the political spectrum. Mr. Woodward
paints a harrowing portrait of the Trump presidency, based on in-depth interviews with administration officials and other principals. Woodward writes that his book is drawn from hundreds of hours of interviews with firsthand participants and witnesses that were conducted on “deep background,” meaning the information could be used but he would not reveal who provided it. His account is also drawn from meeting notes, personal diaries and government documents. ( Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, "Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency," The Washington Post (4 Sept. 2018))
It is no doubt a marvelous work of its kind. It is also likely to keep global elites quite busy as they ponder ways to draw maximum utility from the materials in the service of whatever agenda moves them. And yet Fear may yet serve a useful purpose beyond the utility of the gossip about the aristocracy that that book serves up in generous portions. That utility goes to illustrating the structures of power within enclosed and self reflexive  structures that sometimes mark powerful states. I have written about this from the perspective of the architecture that such states leave behind:
There is a certain trans-cultural element to architecture of a certain kind. There is certainly what appears to be a universal approach to an architecture to power. That architecture should serve as a lesson to those who tend to like to wield it. In a different age the architecture of power was expressed in the palace complex. For all their contextual quirks, the Forbidden City, the Topkapi Palace and Versailles all express the same complex set of symbols and gestures. And each reveals the same fatal weakness. (Forbidden Cities 2008)
Americans appear to have been intent on building their own palace complex within the White House. If so, and it is possible Mr. Woodward might agree, then the object, of course, translated into the language of American political culture, is to make the case for the illegitimacy of the office of the United States because, if one believes the gossip, then the President is no longer actually exercising his office.  Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, writing for the Washington Post puts it this way: "Woodward describes “an administrative coup d’etat” and a “nervous breakdown” of the executive branch, with senior aides conspiring to pluck official papers from the president’s desk so he couldn’t see or sign them." ( Philip Rucker and Robert Costa, "Bob Woodward’s new book reveals a ‘nervous breakdown’ of Trump’s presidency," The Washington Post (4 Sept. 2018)). More importantly, it may serve as an important tool in shaping mass opinion on the eave of elections in the United States that may shift the balance of power among some of the aggressively antagonistic leadership factions in the United States.The effect may be useful to those who have no love for the current administration-- to provide the performance that the population can then vote on  the way people submit their votes during one of the many television talent or reality TV dramas.  And, indeed, one might see Fear as a political version of "The Voice" or more likely "Survivor".

This post considers the other side of "Fear"--the fear that the state of the internal workings of the U.S: administration is reflected in the state of the workings of American foreign policy.  That is it considers the way that the "Fear" administration has developed a new architecture for U.S. engagement in a world, whose leaders read Mr. Woodward's Fear, with the same eager anticipation as many Americans. It is organized in the context of a conversation I recently had with a foreign colleague.  It draws no conclusions about either, but it does suggest a dissonance between analysis and passion in this age increasingly marked by "Fear" at every turn.


1-Nowadays we are witnessing great gaps and differences among G7 member states while SCO member states are moving forward more convergence. Some believe that the orders and the regimes created after World War II are declining and because of this reason the US is not going to pay the costs of regimes like NATO, WTO and different free trade treaties like NAFTA,… What do you think of this? Why the US is not ready to pay the costs of the regimes and orders as before?

It is true enough that the current crop of influential intellectuals and their political clients in our largest states, and their colleagues elsewhere, have undertaken a great campaign to instill in the masses (and perhaps to convince themselves) that, indeed, the events of the last decade must evidence a “decline of the West and rise of the rest.” But consider whether the events of the last decade are capable of interpretation in a different light.  I have written about this before (e.g., Picture and Communique: Agit Prop at the G7 (10 June 2018) (“The idea, I suppose, was that unity über alles, über alles in der Welt (an ironic allusion to the Deutschlandlied) was now the touchstone of successful trade and international relations”)) and consider it further here.

First, appearance and reality are two very different things.  Leaders use optics for a variety of purposes.  This has been true not just in the modern era but from ancient times. Everything from architecture to the ceremonies of power have been crafted through the ages to deliver a message.  Usually that message is meant to reinforce hierarchy, authority and legitimacy.  People appear comforted by these performances and so they have remained popular for thousands of years, adjusting to the times and ideological context in which they must be performed.  Indeed, the responsibility to produce that comfort in the masses, the sense of order, coherence, control, and competence, has been a central element of leadership irrespective of the nature of the state or the character of the community. The appearance of a necessary public unity may, and usually does, mask private difference. Most people understand that, but prefer the appearance of unity as a show of good order.  It is perhaps for that reason that much is made of the disorder of the G7 and the relations between the United States and its partners. It may, however, be useful to remember that the strategic value of unity is centered on appearance, and not substance.  That is, the appearance of unity is meant to be projected outward onto the observer, rather than to reinforce the self-reflexive understanding of the institution attempting to appear united.  The appearance of unity is a commodity meant to be distributed and used to purchase influence and induce behaviors among those onto whom it is made available. It is for that reason that, like a narcotic, it ought to be ingested with great caution and only to alleviate greater harm.

Second, it is sometimes strategically useful to play against expectation.  Given the strong cultural affinity toward leader unity, and ceremonies of power and authority, there may be strategic value in behaving in ways that surprise and challenge. There is substantial risk as well.  If one assumes that the objective of the current strategy is to put a spotlight on and change past behaviors, then the course of conduct undertaken by Mr. Trump might be risky, but can certainly meet that objective better than to resort to the easily dismissed conventions of “polite society” in state to state relations.  This is not to say that traditional good manners in state to state relations have gone out of style in the Trump Administration.  Quite the reverse—it is the strategic use of “bad” behavior that tends to appear to be used to strategic advantage. Here the objective is to break bad habits and to shake up what might have, in the opinion of some, be viewed as the ossified patterns of relations between the United States and its allies in the face of “new era” threats and behaviors.  It is possible that some in the current administration might take the position that it makes no sense to encourage European behaviors respecting Russia, for example, based on the over-use of gesture (especially for example with respect to the so-called annexation of Crimea) without substance, while effectively creating strong trade arrangements with Russia. On the other hand, U.S: policy toward European engagement with China (in some sense even more intricate) has been noticeably off the public radar.

Third, the appearance of unity does not invariably suggest forward movement while the appearance of disarray does not invariably suggest lack of positive movement. Formal expressions of unity make for great optics—of the sort brilliantly captured, for example, by Soviet Poster Art form the first half of the 20th century.

(Radio: Iz voli Millionov sozdadim edinuiu voliu (Radio: From the Will of Millions we will create a single will)1925 Leningrad; FIU Wolfensohn Museum Miami Beach, FL)

But it can hide disagreements as well as project unity.  Indeed, except for any importance attached to its making and its utility in discerning hints about underlying disunity or the relative positions of participants in these exercises in optics, unity provides very little substance. It is obvious that an SCO that includes China, India and Pakistan, is an organization in which deep unity is unlikely.  There one encounters an organization with substantial efforts at surface accord and unity within deep division.  Might it be possible to see in the NATO and G/7 meetings of 2018, surface division within deep unity. What is most certain, though, is that old public behavior patterns have changed, and those changes must have meaning.  Beyond that is speculation.  

Fourth, it is becoming understood  and, perhaps grudgingly, accepted  that the post Second World War Order is disappearing.  The extent and success of this passing perhaps may be gauged by the intensity of internal U.S. (and European) opposition generated by those sectors of the intelligentsia, the public and non-governmental sectors and among business elites, who were the guardians, and beneficiaries of that passing world order. That is not to suggest that this order, in its time, was neither brilliant nor useful. Indeed, history will look back on that ordering as a golden age moment that came exceptionally close to fundamentally changing the human community for a long time.  But it did not.  And it could not for a number of reasons. Some of these reasons were sourced in the internal contradictions of the fundamental premises of that ordering.  Some of them were the product of the failures of individuals, and communities, at critical moments, to do more than give lip service to the responsibilities imposed under that order.  And, of course, some of them were grounded in the strength of the tendencies toward barbarity against which this post World War II order was created. In the end, though, human mortality did more to undermine that old order than any external force.  As new generations arose, commitments and understandings, interest and prejudices changed, and those were reflected not just in culture but in geo-politics as well.  What that suggests, of course, is that in this period between great epochs, there will be both instability and change.  And some of these may be both painful and quite dangerous. Saplings sometimes are nurtured from and grow on the decaying trunks of its parents.

Fifth, change can suggest a positive transformation as well as an inevitable decline. The problem with change is that, at the time of occurrence, it is difficult to determine the direction of that change.  For the enemies of the United States, or at least for those communities whose interests are at the moment adverse to that of the United States, change is most usefully characterized as evidence of decline. For American elites whose interests are averse to that of the current President, change is understood as evidence of temporary decline that can be corrected were the masses to vote in the right way. Disagreement, here, can be used to advance local political agendas.  For the Party in power, such disagreement may indicate strength in forging a new path forward. But none of this is helpful except for the sort of short term political analysis many of us are trained to believe is the only thing that matters. For the longer term, my sense is that the changes one is witnessing is not of decline but of transformation.  The old multilateral order is going way to a new multilateral order.  The power of the great states are changing in character and application, but they may not necessarily be declining or increasing. It is too soon to tell.  What is clear is that overplaying one’s hand in this dynamic period can have consequences—that is appearing to be evident in the context of the so-called trade wars behind the veil of which the global economic order is changing.

Sixth, the problem of cost sharing in Western alliances is an old one; Presidents Bush and Obama complained as well (e.g., here).  But it goes back almost to the beginning of the alliance (see, e.g., ).  This was not a Republican Party exercise. In 1963, President Kennedy spoke to the issue of European free riding, not just with respect to NATO but with respect to other multilateral efforts on which European prosperity after 1945  was dependent. 

One effort we must make, the President continued, is to seek to prevent European states from taking actions which make our balance of payments problem worse. For example, we maintain large forces in Germany. We must firmly oppose West Germany if it increases its agricultural production to our detriment. We have not yet reached the point of wheat against troops but we cannot continue to pay for the military protection of Europe while the NATO states are not paying their fair share and living off the “fat of the land.” We have been very generous to Europe and it is now time for us to look out for ourselves, knowing full well that the Europeans will not do anything for us simply because we have in the past helped them. (Foreign Relations of the United States, 1961–1963, Volume XIII, Western Europe and Canada; 168. Remarks of President Kennedy to the National Security Council Meeting (Washington, January 22, 1963)).

Beyond what appears to be President Kennedy’s early and informal expression of what President Trump has fashioned as the “America First” Policy, these sentiments and the underlying issues, suggest more a continuity than a break with the past respecting the management of American alliances. However, the issue of NATO cost sharing has been one marked by a singular unwillingness to revisit cost sharing except exceptionally (a1998 GAOP Report is instructive, see GAO/NSIAD-98-172 NATO, though written in the context of enlargement. The exigencies of U.S. Middle Eastern wars appeared to have shaped the focus over the last two decades (see, NATO Common Funds Burdensharing: Background and Current Issues (2012) p. 8 drawing ion the 1998 GAO Report) by emphasizing capabilities and commitment contributions for cash contributions).  There has been some effort to draw a parallel between the world of the 1970s and that of 2018 in that respect, suggesting that the geo-political situation may push NATO partner contributions higher out of threats fear and because the Europeans have the funds (see, e.g., What NATO’s burden-sharing history teaches us). The problem here, perhaps, has been one of tactics rather than of objectives.  Prior Presidents have been much more discrete, and polite, in using their power to influence changes. Mr. Trump has applied a much more direct and brutal style—one that permits little room for face saving and the operations of the routine “behind the curtain” politics of Europe. Mr. Kennedy complained to his staff; Mr. Trump complains to European leaders. That stings; and it brings the appearance of retaliation.

Seventh,  the tiff over burden sharing, then, suggests the outward character of the inward transformation of the alliance over which the United States has played a leading role. The United States is not ready to pay the costs of the regimes and orders as before perhaps because it no longer needs to, or because it no longer feels that it is fair to be taxed for the burden of supporting allies with diminishing returns, or because the U.S. seeks something else form them.  And indeed, it would be useful, in this context, to consider the (mis)alignments between U.S.-European ideologies of economic policies, and military relationships.  In the end, however, absent extraordinary shocks in Europe or the U.S., the alliance will remain sound.  Fundamental interests are too closely aligned; familial connections are too strong; cultural structures are too close to suggest a permanent rupture at this stage.  But the avoidance of rupture does not mean that there will not be a breech. And if European power is seen to decline further in relation to that of other blocks, the space within which Europe may negotiate  terms may shrink. That will not happen in the long term, but I suspect there are people in many capitals that are even now plotting the trajectories of power.   

2-While the US president Donald Trump attended the NATO and G7 summits with an aggressive approach toward Washington’s allies, he is trying to improve relation with North Korea and Russia with a reconciling approach. Why?

This makes perfect sense in a way; to deal with one’s opponents requires a different approach than to engage with one’s allies. As mentioned above, the United States has form time to time taken quite aggressive stances when it seeks to discipline its allies.  The difference with the past is that this time the aggression is public. That may be a function of changes in mass democratic politics or the adoption of new strategies.  Or it may suggest a negotiating style more in keeping with the preferences of those who now lead. One would have to ask them; or their biographers. While the United States may aggressively seek to change the working styles of relationships with allies, it requires only the attainment of objectives with respect to its opponents. One might be able to read that approach into the 2017 U.S. National Security Strategy (From Global to Fortress America; Thoughts on "National Security Strategy of the United States" (4 Dec 2017)). I would expect more of this sort of behavior in the future as the great powers begin to sort their alliances and develop objectives with respect to their opponents for mutual benefit and to minimize risk.  Conflict will come with failures of alignment of objectives and the interpretation of risk.  To that extent communication will become increasingly important; but more than communication, a common  basis for calculation will have to be developed.  Perhaps that will be possible as states shift from individual discretionary policy decisions, to AI aided decisions.  Rumors have already begun circulating of Chinese foreign ministry experiments in this area; that the rumors have been permitted to go public suggests that the project may already be in an advanced stage (e.g., generally Next Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan (新一代人工智能发展规划; specifically “China Is Using Artificial Intelligence to Help Make Diplomatic Decisions”).  

3-The international community is experiencing a new era in which while the US is retreating from the old orders and regimes, China is trying to impose its own orders and regimes by reviewing ancient Silk Road project. To what extent the developments in the Middle East especially in Syria are affected by international systems structure which is changing?

The Syrian situation has proven to be an interesting space.  In some ways it is symbolic of the growing political division of Islam, again, and of its political manifestation  between its Ottoman, Persian, and Arabic parts.  In part it suggests a continuation, interrupted by a  century, in the relationships between the Russian empire and the dar al-Islam. Lastly, it reminds us of the role of the Middle East in trade and energy. Syria has appeared to be of significant value both to renewed Ottoman ambitions (in religious and political terms) and to the Russian Federation.  For the moment Russian influence is deeply felt, and its ability to coordinate the militaries of normally quite antagonistic forces is remarkable. But these things seldom last in a region whose divisions seem to mark its most permanent characteristic.  The U.S. remains an important player, though in a changing way, and the Chinese appear to be acquiring more influence. Yet it is useful to note the differences in the working styles of each of these major actors.  The Chinese working style might be best compared to its Tong dynasty policy of protecting trade to China through a system of well protected roadways.  The image of the Silk Road is thus powerful not just for its imagery but also for its sense of the shape of the policy behind it. That policy, in turn, is given concrete shape in the architecture of Chinese projections abroad.  The most emblematic, in the Middle East at least, is the style fo fortress being built by the Chinese in Djibouti (e.g., “Satellite imagery offers clues to China’s intentions in Djibouti”).  At the same time, the U.S. has been tilting toward the Arab bloc.  That produces warmer relations with Saudi Arabia and Egypt and makes it more likely that Turkey and Iran will align with Russia.  Syria, again, suggests the outlines of that pattern. In that sense, then, one might look to the Middle East to see the glimmerings of the way in which the new global order—with “Silk Roads” leading to Washington; Beijing; and Moscow—might manifest itself in political and economic relations.  But as road, rather than empires, these alignments will mask much activity across  alignments.  And these alignments will produce distinct kinds of relationships.  The Chinese, Russians, Americans and Europeans are cultivating now increasingly distinct styles at their core, even as they begin to converge at their edges.  Most telling in this respect is the creation of the Japanese-American version of the Chinese led Asian infrastructure initiative (e.g., “Australia, Japan Join U.S. Infrastructure Push in Asia”).

4-Some theoreticians including John Mearsheimer believe that one of the most important elements of president Trump’s foreign policy is to move toward offshore balancing and reduction of troops and increasing of animosity with Iran. Do you agree with this? Will the US decrease the number of its troops in Middle East? If we accept that the mentioned elements be the base for Trump’s foreign policy, how will Washington confront with Iran’s regional influence?

I have some sympathy for the offshore balancing strategy, and its focus on regrouping forces. As a matter of strategy it has strengths.  At the same time, there are risks.  No state with which the U.S: cultivates relationships wishes to find itself drawn outside the line of principal protection.  And, with respect to Latin America, the political consequences, again, could prove quite distracting.  Indeed, the United States has been lucky to date that given its relative inattention to Latin America, that the Chinese and Russia and have not exploited the situation to their benefit.  But that may be changing, especially as the Chinese travel all over Latin America embedding themselves in the local economy in ways that will work toward their benefit. Still, even with a policy of neglect, the cost of Russian and Chinese deep penetration may not be worth the price, all things being equal. On the other hand, map drawing of this sort always tends to have risks—as the Spanish and Portuguese discovered after the 1490s, when having divided the New World with the blessing of the Pope in the Treaty of Tordesillas, discovered that none Catholic England and Catholic France were all to happy to make itself at home in North America. More importantly, U.S. strategic interests worth fighting for have a tendency to change, and sometimes change quickly.  Line drawing runs the risk of a rigidity that may impede good analysis and better response to the protection of U.S: interests.  On the other hand, the basic point, that the United States ought not to consider itself the automatic first responder for every situation that is the least bit disquieting, is sound. But in a way that sort of strategy had been more or less discernable in Africa, where the U.S. usually was able to rely on the old colonial powers (especially France) for responses to instability and crisis within its old empire.

That leaves the issue of Iran.  First, it is not clear that one can consider Iran without also considering Turkey.  These are two rising regional powers which are quickly adjusting to new circumstances in ways that might change expected behaviors, objectives and strategies. Second, Russian interests, like U.S. interests, are served in the long term by stability.  Of course, instability for the purpose of installing or preserving regimes friendly to the superior power, will be tolerated.  As a consequence, it would be difficult to predict Iranian and Turkish policy objectives without considering Russia.  Lastly, even if the United States appears to retreat, it is unclear whether that means its interests will not be indirectly protected.  The test of that change in strategy, perhaps, may be in gestation in the Yemeni conflict. In this sense, one might not speak to Syria without also considering Yemen. 

5-Reacting to President Trump’s remarks calling EU as the US foe, Donald Tusk, president of the European Council asked Trump and Putin not to disturb world order. Do you think that Trump and Putin are going to create a new world order? If your answer is yes, how will the new polarization be in the new order?

Donald Tusk’s heart was in the right place, certainly, when he offered that plea. And to some extent, the world order, in general terms, will survive roughly in the form in which the post WWII Allies created it. But by the time Mr. Tusk offered that plea, the world order he hoped to preserve was already going.  Perhaps a century from now historians will debate whether the transformation began with the political turmoil of the World Trade Center attacks, or perhaps in the aftermath of the global recession of 2007-2008.   But change has come, both to the economic and to the political order.  Discourse is moving in important circles from one that focuses on multilateralism within which states are subordinate, to regional trading blocs and the national characterization of international consensus. The new world order might be built around aggregating bilateralism structured around powerful states and enterprises.  The tensions between political regionalism and economic globalism framed through supra national production chains will likely occupy policymakers for some time as they try to deliver regimes of stability and economic development  with national characteristics.  For many, these changes may be imperceptible—certainly that is true when measured by the small transactions that mark everyday life within ordinary families. Goods continue to circulate freely, so does capital, and even for the most part investments.  Yet, the four previous questions already nicely suggest the trajectory of the changes to the global order, the risks inherent in those changes, and the worries that those changes bring.

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