Commentary No. 381, July 15, 2014
On July 10, the German government demanded the immediate departure of the head of the CIA mission in Berlin. Such demands are not unusual, even between ostensible allies. What is unusual is that it should be publicly announced, and with much fanfare. What accounts for what some are already calling an “unprecedented breach” in the very close relations after 1945 between the United States and the German Federal Republic?
It only took one day for the subject to become the occasion of two major articles, one an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times and the other a major story in Germany’s Der Spiegel. Both are pessimistic that the unprecedented breach can be swiftly, if ever, repaired.
The op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, written by Jacob Heilbrun, was entitled “The German-American Breakup.” The word “breakup” is unequivocal, or almost. After an overview of various German commentaries, Heilbrun ends with this admonition:
“If Obama is unable to rein in spying of Germany, he may discover that he is helping to convert it from an ally into an adversary. For Obama to say Auf Wiedersehen to a longtime ally would deliver a blow to American national security that no amount of secret information could possibly justify.”
If Heilbrun seems to have little hope that his viewpoint will be heard in Washington, it pales before the lead article in Der Spiegel on the same date. The long article is entitled “Germany’s Choice: Will It Be America or Russia?” One section of the article is entitled “The Last Straw.” It cites not someone on the left or someone who has long advocated closer relations with Russia. It cites instead a conservative advocate of the free economy and of rocksolid relations with the United States, who chairs an organization called Atlantic Bridge. In a tone of desperation, he says: “If [the latest allegations about spying] turn out to be true, it’s time for this to stop.” Note that the article says it’s time for it to stop, not that it’s time for further discussions or negotiations about it. Just stop.
One last poignant detail: The U.S. ambassador to Germany speaks no German. The Russia ambassador is so fluent one scarcely notices his accent. Entrance to the U.S. Ambassador’s office is protected by the highest-level security possible, surpassing that which governs the entrance to the White House’s Oval Office. Entrance to the Russian embassy is so casual that it prompts disbelief.
Is this unprecedented breach so sudden and so unpredictable? By now, every major or minor paper in Germany, the United States, France, Great Britain and elsewhere is featuring the story, analyzing the causes, and preaching the solution. Above all, most articles are searching for whom to blame. The principal suspects are the National Security Agency (NSA) and President Obama. But is it simply the unwise decisions of the NSA or of Obama? In other words, could it have been different? Well, surely in detail. The U.S. government has been stupid and very clumsy. However, the problem is structural and not the passing mistakes and stupidity of those in power in the United States.
The basic problem is that the United States is, and has been for some time, in geopolitical decline. It doesn’t like this. It doesn’t really accept this. It surely doesn’t know how to handle it, that is, minimize the losses to the United States. So it keeps trying to restore what is unrestorable – U.S. “leadership” (read: hegemony) in the world-system. This makes the United States a very dangerous actor. No small number of political agents in the United States are calling for some sort of decisive “action” – whatever that could possibly mean. And U.S. elections may depend in large part on how U.S. political actors play this game.
That is what Europeans in general, and now Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany in particular, are realizing. The United States has become a very unreliable “partner.” So even those in Germany and elsewhere in Europe who are nostalgic for the warm embrace of the “free world” are reluctantly joining the less nostalgic others in deciding how they can survive geopolitically without the United States. And this is pushing them into the logical alternative, a European tent that includes Russia.
As the Germans, and the Europeans in general, move inexorably in this direction, they have their hesitations. If they can no longer trust the United States, could they really trust Russia? And, more importantly, could they make a deal with the Russians that the Russians would find it worthwhile and necessary to observe? You can bet that this is what is being discussed in the inner circles of the German government today, and not how to repair the irreparable breach of trust with the United States.
Commentary No. 380, July 1, 2014
The worldwide attention to the growing strength of the forces led by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) has spawned an enormous debate about what ought to be done by all non-ISIS actors to contain what is widely perceived as a very dangerous movement. At some point however, the expansion of ISIS will reach its limits, and Iraq and the larger region will settle down into some de facto arrangement and set of boundaries. We might think of this as the middle-run scenario.
The world actors can only decide – and promote – one of the two really competing middle-run scenarios for Iraq, and they are very different indeed. One is a partition of Iraq into three autonomous ethnic states (at least de facto, possibly formally). The second is a reunified inclusive Iraqi state, based on Iraqi nationalism. These alternatives, to the extent they are openly discussed, are usually presented as an analytic debate. They are in fact a political debate.
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Commentary No. 379, June 15, 2014
A jihadist movement, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), has just scored a stunning and sweeping victory by capturing Mosul, Iraq’s third city located in the north of the country. Their forces are proceeding southward towards Baghdad and have seized Tikrit, hometown of Saddam Hussein. The Iraqi army seems to have fallen apart, having also ceded Kirkuk to the Kurds. ISIS has also taken prisoner Turkish diplomats and truckers. It now controls effectively a large chunk of the north and west of Iraq as well as a contiguous zone in the northeast corner of Syria. Commentators have labeled this trans-border zone Jihadistan. ISIS seeks to reestablish a caliphate in as large an area as possible, one based on a particularly strict version of sharia law.
The shock and fear that the successes of this movement have inspired may lead to major geopolitical realignments in the Middle East. Geopolitics is an arena of frequent surprises, in which known antagonists suddenly reconcile themselves and transform their relation into one of what the French call frères ennemis (friendly enemies). The most famous instance in the last half-century was the trip of Richard Nixon to China to meet with Mao Zedong, a trip that fundamentally revised the alignments within the modern world-system and has underlain the China-United States relationship ever since.
Commentary No. 378, June 1, 2014
Governments, politicians, and media in the “western” world seem incapable of understanding geopolitical games as played by anyone elsewhere. Their analyses of the newly proclaimed accord of Russia and China are a stunning example of this.
On May 16, Russia and China announced that they had signed a “friendship treaty” that would last “forever” but was not a military alliance. Simultaneously, they announced a gas deal, in which the two countries will build a gas pipeline to export Russian gas to China. China will lend Russia the money with which to build its share of the pipeline. It seems that Gazprom (Russia’s major gas and oil producer) made some price concessions to China, an issue that had been holding up an agreement for some time.
Commentary No. 377, May 15, 2014
The list of countries with enduring and worsening civil strife is growing. A short while ago, the world media were highlighting Syria. Now they are highlighting Ukraine. Will it be Thailand tomorrow? Who knows? The variety of explanations of the strife and the passion with which they are promoted is very striking.
Our modern world-system is supposed to permit the Establishment elites who hold the reins of power to debate with each other and then come to a “compromise” that they can guarantee. Normally these elites situate themselves in two basic camps – center/right and center/left. There are indeed differences between them, but the result of the “compromises” has been that the amount of change over time is minimal.
Commentary No. 376, May 1, 2014
On January 1, 2014, the Ejército Zapatista de Libéración Nacional (EZLN) celebrated the twentieth anniversary of its uprising in Chiapas. This year, they are engaging in a self-appraisal. In April, in the official outlet of the EZLN, Rebeldía Zapatista, Insurgent Subcommandant Moisés published an editorial about the “war against forgetting.” He says that in a mere nineteen years, the struggle of the EZLN has “held in check” (toreado) the evil system that has been oppressing the indigenous peoples for 520 years.
What has been the achievement of the EZLN? In what sense can it be said to have been a success? The EZLN has been scoffed at not only by the world right but by certain elements of the world left as being largely irrelevant to the world struggle against imperialism and neoliberalism. What have they accomplished, ask the critics? Has their trajectory been more than a public relations show?
Commentary No. 375, April 15, 2014
The United States and Iran are in the midst of difficult negotiations about the possible acquisition by Iran of nuclear weapons. The likelihood that these negotiations will result in an agreed-upon formula seems relatively low, since there are powerful forces in both countries that are strongly opposed to an accord, and are working very hard to sabotage any agreement.
The standard view in the United States and western Europe is that the issue is how to keep a presumably untrustworthy country, Iran, from acquiring weapons with which Iran might impose itself on Israel and on the Arab world generally. However, in reality this is not the issue at all. Iran is no more likely to use a nuclear weapon, if she acquired one, than any of the ten other states that already have such weapons. And Iran’s capacity to safeguard weapons against theft or sabotage is probably higher than most countries.
Commentary No. 374, April 1, 2014
The general elections of most countries with parliamentary systems have largely functioned in the same way. They have had some regular alternation between two parties, one ostensibly left-of-center and one ostensibly right-of-center. In these systems, there has been little difference between the two main parties in terms of foreign policy and only a limited set of differences on internal politics, centering on issues of taxation and social welfare.
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