A new ancien regime arrives in the White House

A new ancien regime arrives in the White House
8 min read
23 Aug, 2016
Comment: When the Obama administration leaves office, little fundamental will change - although a pivot away from a confrontational foreign policy is needed, writes Michael Brenner.
The relationship between the US and China will be crucial in determining world affairs [Getty]

The United States is indeed exceptional. It is the only country that ushers in a new presidency by displacing thousands of the highest executive branch officials. That leaves in place almost none of those who make policy, guide its implementation or review it. "Change" you can count on - because it is dictated by law and rooted tradition. 

How do institutional integrity and coherent programmes survive this upheaval? Residents from overseas in particular fret over how they are going to handle fresh personalities and new ideas. After all, all this motion could jeopardise their own plans and commitments.

Anxiety abates somewhat when they look back at other transitions to find that continuity eclipses innovation by a wide margin. There is more change of style than of substance. That holds for both persons and policies.

Placed in historical perspective, it is striking that shifts by Washington, and hence adjustments required of other powers, tend to be marginal. Think of the Cold War. Premises and purposes varied ever so slightly between Harry Truman and Ronald Reagan.

Events, more than leaders, were the primary cause of significant alterations in the modalities of the governing system. Stalin's death, the Berlin Wall, the Cuban Missile Crisis (above all), Vietnam, the 1973 complex of Middle East crises, the fall of the Shah, Afghanistan and then - finally and conclusively - the arrival in the Kremlin of Mikhail Gorbachev.

The post-Cold War era has witnessed similar continuity. Six successive administrations headed by four different presidents have dedicated America to accomplishing the same ends.

They have been: to promote the extension of a globalised world economy grounded on neoliberal principles are far as possible; foster democratic political systems headed by leaders sympathetic to Washington's philosophy and leadership; isolate and bring down any government that actively resists this campaign; and maintain the United States' dominant position as rule-setter in international organisations.

The horror of 9/11 has forced some modification in the modus of this strategy, insofar as it announced a unique threat threat. Subsequently, the country's political class called for the deployment of military force under the rubric of the "war on terror".

Its application only became divisive when advertised deceitfully and led to embarrassing failure in Iraq. There was a collective effort to blur that reality, along with the implicit agreement to renounce the idea of holding any person or group accountable for Washington's misdoings in Iraq. Once accomplished, that mission managed to dull the whole experience in the evanescent collective American memory; the "war on terror" has proceeded along the rails laid down in 2001.

The much-publicised Obama deviations from the Bush approach do not amount to much. Its basic pillars remain firmly in place. True, Obama has not repeated the Iraq intervention elsewhere. But in fact there has been no opportunity or reason to repeat it.

In Libya, Obama managed to create chaos on a scale that even exceeds Iraq without putting American boots on the ground.

To take military action against Iran was always ridiculous since any threat from that quarter was intangible and indirect. Also, the consequences would be intolerable for all but the most hardcore devotees of American expansionism.

Moreover, the Iranians made it clear years ago that they were ready for a deal on their non-existent nuclear programme any time that an American president was ready to sit down for serious negotiations with a charter member of the "Axis of Evil". On that score, Obama has not changed the depiction of the Islamic Republic other than its nomenclature.

Elsewhere, America has moved aggressively using drones, Special Forces and political pressure to suppress a wide range of "bad guys" who may or may not be terrorists, or threats to the US. They include groups in Mali, Chad, Niger, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq-again, Syria, as well as those old standbys Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In Libya, Obama managed to create chaos on a scale that even exceeds Iraq without putting American boots on the ground. A few are there now that the country has become a Club Med for the Islamic State group, al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups of domestic origin.

What about Russia? Washington's relations with Moscow carry greater consequence for long-term American interests, especially in Europe, than anything going on in the Middle East. The unspoken truth is that the Middle East would hardly register on the US radar were it not for Israel, oil and the export of terrorism.

And the last of these is in good part a derivative of what we have done in regard to the first two. Europe is another matter entirely.

The unspoken truth is that the Middle East would hardly register on the US radar were it not for Israel, oil and the export of terrorism

The flaming of a new Cold War is laden with consequence - including risk of serious conflagration. Since the Kiev coup of February 2014, tensions between Moscow and the West have risen to dangerous levels.

Many in the United States seem to welcome the development. Prominent among them are those who since 1991 have set as a cardinal national goal the permanent subordination of Russia within international structures designed and directed by the West.

Putin's dedication to preventing that fate cast him as an opponent, and now enemy, of the United States. In this line of thinking, peace and stability in Europe are predicated on winning this struggle. That means isolation, restricting Russian influence of any kind anywhere, and eventually supplanting him with someone prepared to accept that country's predestined place in the envisaged pax Americana.

Developments in the Ukraine, the seizure of Crimea and the fighting in the Donetsk basin have all created the opportunity for this contest to take on the dimensions of a full-blown geopolitical conflict. We should bear in mind a few inconveniently neglected facts.

Washington under Bush pressed very hard for the inclusion of Ukraine and Georgia into NATO as far back as 2007-08 - prevented only by resistance from the West Europeans sensitive to Russia's concerns about being encircled. 

The United States remains officially committed to that expansion of NATO. From Moscow's vantage point, NATO in the post-Cold War era looks to have as its main purpose the exclusion of Russia from the main arena of European diplomacy.

On Russia, as on Syria, there exists a uniformity of thinking among US political elites grounded in a simplistic narrative wherein we wear the white hats and Putin wears the black hat - with the discernible imprint of a red star.

However divorced from reality these images are, they are held with near universality. Obama has taken as tough a line on Russia as a rational person could. Hillary has done the same - with the addition of some muscle flexing, such as comparing Putin's campaign to issue passports to Ukrainians with Russian connections with Adolf Hitler's actions in the run-up to the Second World War.

Will there be persons in the new administration ready to take a dispassionate view of Russia and move us off the current confrontational track?

If truth be told, US policy-makers were far more comfortable with Yeltsin's enfeebled, declining, oligarch-ridden and compliant Russia, than they have been with Putin's Russia.

The real question is not whether American policy towards Russia will become more belligerent - and it cannot without risking outright war. Rather, will there be persons in the new administration ready to take a dispassionate view of Russia and move us off the current confrontational track?

At the moment, there is no evidence of any. Indeed, the atmosphere is redolent of the 1950s in its stark imagery, self-righteousness, bellicosity and Manichean perspective. The only thing missing is a justification.

Washington policy-makers have segregated Russia from their thinking about relations with China. This reflects an all too common habit of a disjointed, serial approach to matters whose complex linkages are beyond the capacity of our strategists.

Russia is important for three reasons: It is a major presence in the European geopolitical space; it has considerable military capability along with a demonstrated will to use it; and it is contiguous to and experienced in the greater Middle East where it has serious national interests.

However, Russia today is not the global power that it was in Soviet days.

China, by comparison, is well on its way to becoming a global world power. It has now and is expanding all of the requisite assets: economic, military and political. China also has an ancient history of seeing itself as the centre of the world - "The Middle Kingdom" - that is closely associated with a self-image of exceptionalism and superiority.

As a result, every reasonable observer recognises that the future shape of world affairs will be determined primarily by the terms of an evolving relationship between the United States and China. Everything else we do should take that into account.

The inner logic of this situation points to the conclusion that Washington should bend its efforts towards the maintenance of as cordial relations with other powers as possible, and to avoid unnecessarily alienating or antagonising them.

Its credibility and its authority, as well as our tangible power, dictate that we follow that axiom. In regard to Russia, we are doing the exact opposite. 

Would a President Clinton, and her administration, be aware of the imperative to engage in this kind of probing reassessment? We see no indications of such an inclination. Indeed, quite the opposite.

Michael Brenner is professor of International Affairs, Emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh and a fellow of the Center for Transatlantic Relations SAIS/Johns Hopkins in Washington. He has held previous academic appointments at Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, MIT and the Brookings Institution.  

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.