Saturday, February 24, 2018

The Anti-Santa Claus: Transitions in American Power

US President Donald Trump has styled himself as the anti-Santa Claus. When the UN voted on a resolution with regard to Jerusalem, he and the US Ambassador to the US said that they will pay close attention to who votes for them and who votes against them. There will be fallout, we were told. Said differently, Trump was threatening to take away people's presents and, among his supporters, I suspect this really played well. After all, they tend to view foreign aid through the ideologically-inspired eyes. They see it as a give-away to people who have no gratitude and who spend their days and nights bad-mouthing the US despite its largess. Something like 68$ million has been pulled from Palestinian aid, for instance.

This might upset people, but there is something else to which we should pay attention here and that is the transitions that have undertaken American international power. In other words, rather than becoming angry at this development -- the transition of the US government to an anti-Santa Claus -- we should explore its meanings and implications.  There are two significant implications.

On the first level, one of the things that actually surprised me was how little money the US contributed to the Palestinians. $68 mil may seem like a big number but how little it was. The West Bank and the Gaza Strip are large receivers of US at least according to this quick guide on Wikipedia and I think we can and should give the US all due credit for that. But, there are some other things we that we might pause to notice about US government aid.  First, according to ABC News, the leading receivers of US aid are encapsulated in this chart for two recent years:



This is a bit out of date but what you can see is that this aid is going to a limited number of countries, there appear to be overt political connections, and friends of the US, as it were, already top the charts.

I don't want to get into a big discussion of the purpose of aid. It might be worth noting that something like 20-25% of all US government aid is military aid. The rest appears to be supporting friendly regimes that have problems with state stability and terrorism or in maintaining a western standard of living. The US taxpayer, for instance, is heavily subsidizing Israel. Other countries like Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, Iraq, Kenya, Nigeria, are on the front lines of the long "war on terror." One would have to be naive to believe that the heavy level of US support to these countries is accidental.

Said in other words, the first thing that we learn from the President and US Ambassador's threat is that it misses the mark. It threatens countries that it does not need to threaten and it is stated as if all aid were humanitarian aid, rather than politically tied. It does not tell people about the politics of aid, its purpose, who gets it and why. It works with ignorance and is, in this way, for domestic consumption.  After all, the governments that are getting US government aid are well aware of the fact that they are getting US government aid. It sounds tough but actually has no point.

The artificiality of this threat goes further. Has anyone noticed that aside from a minor cut in aid to Palestine, this story disappeared? Why? Because even if the threat were meaningful for some governments, it misses another key point: the US President and Ambassador threaten paper tigers. Does anyone seriously believe that the US is going to stop its aid of Israel? Or Afghanistan, or Egypt or Nigeria? Is the US going to risk a return to power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (or, what would be more likely, to see Egypt degenerate into civil war) or to see Boko Haram gain ground in Nigeria? This aid, in other words, is intended to prop up regimes for American political reasons not out of the kindness of one's heart. For that reason, it is not likely to end, regardless of how country X or Y votes on a UN measure.

The threat sounds like a threat -- it has a certain economy to it, as I tried to point out in earlier posts related to threats -- but that economy is artificial and domestic. It is intended to sound tough and win domestic support for the regime -- to claim that the regime is tough and is exercising its power -- but in reality it does not actually do anything at all on the international scale. The first transition of power to which this threat points is its utter meaninglessness as a matter of foreign policy but its deep importance, based on ignorance, for domestic politics. It works domestically -- solidifying support among the GOP base -- because the GOP base does not know what the US actually does with its foreign aid and assumes, for ideological reasons, that it is a give away.

The second transition might, however, be more significant. The current American regime is not unique in spinning international issues for domestic consumption, even if they are, in my view, more brazen about it. (I'll get to why that brazenness "works" in another blog.) The more significant feature of this threat is the perceived need to make it in the first place.

You might have read somewhere the old line "only the weak rule by force," which I think comes from Gramsci. He was referring to the state. What these Trumpian threats highlight is a transition in American power that is based on an increasingly narrow range of capacities. Following WWII -- and, indeed, even before it -- American power was based on a range of factors: economics, culture, politics, ideology, philosophy, science, among others. There was a lie to this power because, for instance, it ignored the deeply embedded racist violence in American society. The point, however, was that the US government and American society was powerful across the board. Its culture was appealing, its economics were alluring, its philosophy (of everyone being created equal, even while honoured in the breach) drew international acclaim and willing copycats, its social science and science were second to none and attracted international attention and, indeed, migration. In the arts, in lifestyle, in education, people wanted to be Americans, wanted to copy what America was doing and wanted to make connections with the US. In international affairs, this is evident in all the different demands for the US to "do something" about international problem X or Y. Without the US, there was, in effect, little in the way of international capacity.

There are important historical reasons for this but that is not the point. The point is that America was the top dog, as it were, and in a range of things. Canadians, for instance, if we go back to my childhood or even before that, say, the 1950s or 1960s, excepting a few old Tories, had no problems with the US. Canadians did not want to be Americans, but they felt quite OK about being Americans friends.

How much has changed. I might paraphrase Gramsci like this: "only the none great have to scream that they are." Trump is the product, among his base, of a long, generational international shift in American power. Where once, it was difficult to conceive of an international action without the US, now the US is often "odd man out" and the international community, whatever this precisely is,  decides to go on without it. The US is not interested in signing onto a treaty, OK, drag but that is their choice. It does not mean that the treaty-making process has stopped. The US wants out of NAFTA ... hmm .... drag but does anyone think trade will stop? Will 3/4ths of US states give up their leading export market in Canada? TPP -- I will confess not my kettle of fish -- but we *can* do it without the US. It won't be the same thing, but the US is not needed. It has no veto over other states' foreign policies.

There are still many people who want to move to the US because they live in poverty elsewhere or the US represents a step up and the US still has great schools and science and athletics and arts, etc. But, is is no longer the centre of international attention. In fact, it is beset on all sides by its own irrelevance. The Trump government threatens because that is the Trump government's discourse but it is also becoming the American discourse. Trump threatens to take away people's toys -- to be the anti-Santa Claus -- because he has no other mechanism of power to use. His government, the American government, cannot convince people of the merits of their perspective and so are reduced to threatening to get their way. The threats, however, expose their own weakness. They are not a sign of strength or power, but a sign of its absence.
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