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Goodbye To The American Century

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch

Let me rant for a moment. I don't do it often, maybe ever. I'm not Donald Trump. Though I'm only two years older than him, I don't even know how to tweet and that tells you everything you really need to know about Tom Engelhardt in a world clearly passing me by. Still, after years in which America's streets were essentially empty, they've suddenly filled, day after day, with youthful protesters, bringing back a version of a moment I remember from my youth and that's a hopeful (if also, given Covid-19, a scary) thing, even if I'm an old man in isolation in this never-ending pandemic moment of ours.

In such isolation, no wonder I have the urge to rant. Our present American world, after all, was both deeply unimaginable -- before 2016, no one could have conjured up President Donald Trump as anything but a joke -- and yet in some sense, all too imaginable. Think of it this way: the president who launched his candidacy by descending a Trump Tower escalator to denounce Mexican "rapists" and hype the "great, great wall" he would build, the man who, in his election campaign, promised to put a "big, fat, beautiful wall" across our southern border to keep out immigrants ("invaders!") -- my grandpa, by the way, was just such an invader -- has, after nearly three and a half years, succeeded only in getting a grotesquely small wall built around the White House; in other words, he's turned the "people's house" into a micro-Green Zone in a Washington that, as it filled with National Guard troops and unidentified but militarized police types, was transformed into a Trumpian version of occupied Baghdad. Then he locked himself inside (except for that one block walk to a church through streets forcibly emptied of protesters). All in all, a single redolent phrase from our recent past comes to mind: mission accomplished!

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Donald Trump And The New Global System

Reprinted with permission from The Washington Spectator.

Well, Trump has certainly done what he promised he would do, and more, especially on foreign policy. No fake news there. In only the first three weeks of his presidency he set in motion an almost total disruption of U.S. foreign policy as we have known it for the last seven decades. From this apparent chaos, Trump hopes to create a system that favors the United States and its interests.

As former National Security Adviser Lt. General Michael Flynn wrote in his February 13, 2017, resignation letter: “In just three weeks [Trump] has reoriented American foreign policy in fundamental ways to restore America’s leadership.” In truth, the Trump foreign policy chaos is likely to accelerate centrifugal forces in the global system that will be the death-knell of American exceptionalism and leadership, hastening a rebalancing of global power with the United States as just another player.

The outcome of this chaos and disruption is likely to be different from what the president intends, and it means a dramatically different modus operandi for U.S. foreign policy, with no hope of returning to the “old order.”

In the first three weeks Flynn referred to, the litany of disruptions heralding the new chaotic era is long: insulting Mexico; a phone call with Vladimir Putin, denouncing the strategic nuclear New Start agreement and seeking a different partnership with Russia; calling the 70-year-old NATO treaty “obsolete”; banning travelers from seven predominately Muslim countries; halting refugee entry into the country for 120 days and cutting the U.S. refugee admission target in half; declaring that the United States will stop China if it tries to take over islands in the South China Sea; canceling U.S. participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement; seeking to reduce U.S. funding for international organizations; insulting the Australian Prime Minister over a trivial refugee issue; promising a massive military budget increase and military buildup while calling for an end to military “nation building”—and surely many more actions I have left out.

Defenders of the way business used to be done have been outraged, on behalf of alliances, friends, treaties, agreements, or the legacy of what they accomplished when they were in office. But the seemingly random, uncoordinated, free-form Trump assault on 70 years of U.S. foreign policy, in its somewhat childish way, may accelerate the rebalancing trend already well underway before January 20, 2017. A Clinton presidency might have delayed this trend, but, inevitably, we are seeing the emergence of a different, non-hegemonic international system, one already apparent since the late 1990s, a world more similar to the Great Powers of the 1890s than to the “Cold Warriors” busily defending the old order.

Over the past 28 years, since the end of the Cold War, while neo-conservatives raged on about the victory of democracy and American global domination as far as the eye could see and pundits could predict, beneath the apparently calm surface of American hegemony, cracks in the Cold War system were already emerging, sometimes with a helping hand from the U.S. administration of the moment.

While NATO expansion, which provided reassurance to the former Warsaw Pact nations, was seen as a vital part of the Cold War victory, the expanded reach of the alliance and an implied promise that countries on the Russian border might soon become part of the “West” set Russian teeth on edge, contributing to an inevitable revival of Russian power and its unilateral self-assertion in the world. The rise of China, which began even before the end of the Cold War, was not something the United States could “contain” by military force or assertive policy; it is something that must be accommodated by recognizing that power relationships have changed and the previous rules in the Pacific, even broader global rules, had to evolve.

U.S. diplomatic and military dominance in the Middle East had already eroded well before the Obama administration offered support to democracy movements. Iran was already engaged in cross-region support for regimes and movements, a process that goes back to 1979. Saudi support for fundamentalist, violent jihadism was already apparent. Al Qaeda existed since the mid-1990s, its appeal amplified by the U.S. military presence in Saudi Arabia, the spiritual home of Sunni Islam. The Bush administration accelerated the cracking of the Middle East political glacier by invading Iraq. The later military “surge” put a pretty face on what was a strategic, military, and political failure and no sustained increase of U.S. troops could have guaranteed security or prevented the outbreak of tension between Sunni and Shia in the region.

Significant and growing U.S. counter-terrorism efforts that began in the Clinton administration, expanded with Bush’s Iraq invasion, and doubled-down with Obama’s drone strikes and special operations deployments did little to stem the metastasizing terrorist organizations. U.S. policy may even have stimulated the expansion and attractiveness of terrorist behavior by providing the extremists apparent evidence, however untrue, that the United States was an enemy of Islam.

Other fractures in the system were also appearing before Trump. Although the United States had been central to the creation of the global security and financial institutions of the Cold War, by 2015 both China and Russia had created new international institutions: organizations like the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (China, Russia, four other members, and organizational ties with India, Pakistan, and Turkey, among others, but not the United States); the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (57 members, including the U.K., but not the United States); and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (16 Asian nations, including China and India). In addition, Turkey, long a close NATO ally, resisted using its territory to create a northern front in the 2003 invasion of Iraq. And Indian military power and international assertion have been well under way over the past 20 years.

Almost all of Trump’s foreign policy actions have pumped on the gas, incentivizing others to accelerate the redistribution of power and influence and undermining of the former order. It is as if he intended, through disruption, to blow up business as usual. By unleashing battles with nations allied with the United States since the 1940s, insulting neighbors, abandoning carefully negotiated trade agreements, and asserting that America should come first, Trump has pushed buttons around the globe. The result is even less U.S. leadership and even more “go-it-alone” behavior.

As Trump moves close to Putin, the architecture of sanctions against Russia for annexing Crimea and invading Ukraine crumble and both Germany and France could move closer to Russia. As the United States emphasizes “old energy” and rejects the existing architecture of global trade agreements and dismisses international climate accords, China asserts a stronger role in global climate change and trade discussions. As the U.S. stance toward Iran toughens, China emerges as a potentially potent partner for Iran.

The Iraq invasion already condemned the U.S. to a marginal role in Syria; the Trump stance accelerates a role Russia was already playing in that country, including closer Turkey-Russia cooperation, independent of the United States. Russia organizes a conference to explore resolution to the conflict in Afghanistan, and invites everyone except the United States and NATO countries supporting the Kabul regime.

In Europe the centrifugal trend is very clear. The U.K. has decided to leave the E.U., further weakening that bulwark of the old order. France may move toward a more authoritarian regime this spring, with consequences for the future of European security and economic arrangements. The President of the E.U. Council of Ministers, Donald Tusk, described the changes in Washington as one of the “threats” now facing the E.U. And Germany, which has emerged as a more assertive power, faces difficult choices about how far it moves toward accommodation with Russia and whether it should develop more traditional instruments of power, such as military forces and nuclear weapons.

As the new German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier put it: “The old world of the 20th Century is gone.”

President Obama seemed to understand that centrifugal forces were at work in the world and, whatever the critique of his foreign policy, was working to adapt the United States to that change, while continuing its leadership. He asserted the necessity, even the inevitability, of American leadership, but with a lighter and less interventionist hand. Wherever one looks, the unpredictability of the Trump White House—its insistence on the foreign and economic policy nationalism rooted in “America First,” its hostility toward immigrants, its stalwart assertion of the critical need to protect America’s borders, his determination to expand America’s military—all point toward the end of exceptionalism and American leadership, as well.

History was already writing a concluding chapter to the role of the United States as global leader. That conclusion may come faster than we expect, with high risk and dramatic change. It is not clear that the Trump administration will be able to cope with this change; dealing with the arrival of the new international order may fall to the next administration, should this one survive the chaotic transition.

Gordon Adams is Professor Emeritus at American University, a Fellow at the Stimson Center, and a policy consultant, living in Brunswick, Maine.

IMAGE: U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One to travel to Palm Beach, Florida from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, U.S.,  February 3, 2017. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

On Refugees: Remembering The Legacy Of John F. Kennedy

In these churning days of American politics, under scrutiny is the very essence of our nation’s exceptionalism: freedom to escape inhumane conditions and reinvent oneself on America’s soil. President Trump’s order to ban visitors from seven Muslim-majority countries undercuts this historical guarantee and by extension U.S. leadership in the world today.

While there are precedents of such drastic actions—Chinese exclusion in the nineteenth century, Japanese American internment in the 1940s—the legacy of these policies have not fared well in history books. Indeed, such exclusionary measures betray America’s promise as a safe haven for the persecuted.

In the current climate, one would do well to dwell on the words and actions of John F. Kennedy regarding refugees. Kennedy won the 1960 election, in part, because he ably portrayed himself the more muscular and hawkish anticommunist. The Massachusetts senator had to convince America that he could prevent the spread of communism and ensure the nation’s superiority over the Soviet Union better than his opponent, Vice President Richard Nixon, the man who had served eight years alongside the inestimable Dwight Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander during World War II.

But when he entered office, Kennedy showed an additional side to the world’s desperate populations. In 1961, he wrote a letter to the president of the senate, Vice President Lyndon Johnson, and Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn, urging them to pass legislation appropriating more financial assistance to refugees. In its entirety, the letter is another illustration of Kennedy’s eloquent and pragmatic compassion. One excerpt follows thusly:

“From the earliest days of our history, this land has been a refuge for the oppressed and it is proper that we now, as descendants of refugees and immigrants, continue our long humanitarian tradition of helping those who are forced to flee to maintain their lives as individual, self-sufficient human beings in freedom, self-respect, dignity and health. It is, moreover, decidedly in the political interests of the United States that we maintain and continue to enhance our prestige and leadership in this respect.”

Kennedy’s vision led to the Migration and Refugee Assistance Act of 1962, which drastically expanded resources and assistances for refugees. The chief beneficiaries of this measure were Cubans fleeing Castro, whose numbers grew to 250,000 between 1959 and 1962. At a time when McCarthyism, though its namesake by now dead and largely discredited, still held sway, this group could easily have been turned away for fear of possible “bad ones.” The vetting process in those days was nothing like it is today.

But Kennedy’s America estimated that the country derived more benefit domestically and internationally by keeping faithful to its long-held promises of liberty and prosperity rather than give into isolationist forces of exclusion. In many respects, yesterday’s communism is today’s terrorism with respect to the fear each has bred in the American psyche. But that fear need not drive the country to abandon its valuable and enviable commitment to freedom and sanctuary.

IMAGE: President Kennedy at a news conference. State Department Auditorium, Washington, D. C. Please credit “Abbie Rowe, National Park Service/John Fitzgerald Kennedy Library, Boston” for the image.

Obama Lays Out His Vision For Stopping Trump And The GOP

Reprinted with permission from AlterNet.

On the surface, President Barack Obama’s farewell address in Chicago on Tuesday night recounted his achievements, values, and still-hopeful vision for America—much like the best speeches. But not far below was a clear template telling his supporters how and where to defend against threats by Donald Trump and the GOP to the America they believe in.

That arc of history is one embraced by larger-than-life figures like Abraham Lincoln and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. who believed in the imperfect quest to create a more perfect union and the slow but inevitable pace of progress. But it also embraced the historic rise of immigrants who bettered their lives and communities after settling here and the country’s increasingly multi-cultural and open-minded youths, who Obama urged to stay active in politics and work for the change they seek.

“This generation coming up—unselfish, altruistic, creative, patriotic—I’ve seen you in every corner of the country,” Obama said, near the speech’s conclusion. “You believe in a fair, just, inclusive America; you know that constant change has been America’s hallmark, something not to fear but to embrace, and you are willing to carry this hard work of democracy forward. You’ll soon outnumber any of us, and I believe as a result that the future is in good hands.”

Obama’s farewell also recounted his legacy, his greatest social and economic achievements, foreign policy successes without new major wars, and challenged Republicans to find ways to improve Obamacare without ending coverage to 20 million Americans who now have health insurance. But like his greatest speeches from the 2008 presidential campaign or two terms, Obama spent an inordinate amount of time focused on the idea of what it means to be an American.

That idea, which he said was threatened by widening economic inequality, by knee-jerk racism and grievance-based politics, began and was steeped in communitarian values, he said, such as faith, family, dignified work, shared notions of the common good and a belief in participatory democracy.

“It was on these streets where I witnessed the power of faith, and the quiet dignity of working people in the face of struggle and loss,” Obama said, early in his speech, as he laid a foundation explaining his values and philosophy. “This is where I learned that change only happens when ordinary people get involved, get engaged, and come together to demand it. After eight years as your president, I still believe that. And it’s not just my belief. It’s the beating heart of our American idea—our bold experiment in self-government.”

But Obama reminded Americans and deflated Democrats that the arc of progress is never a straight line, but filled with setbacks.

“For every two steps forward, it often feels we take one step back,” he said, referring to the election results. “But the long sweep of America has been defined by forward motion, a constant widening of our founding creed to embrace all, and not just some… We remain the wealthiest, most powerful, and most respected nation on Earth. Our youth and drive, our diversity and openness, our boundless capacity for risk and reinvention mean that the future should be ours. But that potential will be realized only if our democracy works. Only if our politics reflects the decency of the our people.  Only if all of us, regardless of our party affiliation or particular interest, help restore the sense of common purpose that we so badly need right now.”

With that last phrase—“that we so badly need right now”—Obama began to steer his remarks toward a criticism of Trump and the destructive politics that fueled his election. In a way that Hillary Clinton never quite could, Obama started challenging Trump with her 2016 campaign slogan, “stronger together,” and then laid out the platform to politically retake the country.

“Understand democracy does not require uniformity,” he said, returning to first principles. “Our founders quarreled and compromised, and expected us to do the same. But they knew that democracy does require a basic sense of solidarity—the idea that for all our outward differences, we are all in this together; that we rise or fall as one.”

Citing economic inequality as one issue the country must address, Obama said there were not “quick fixes,” but then warned against imaginary enemies from abroad—like Trump’s scapegoats. “I agree that our trade should be fair and not just free. But the next wave of economic dislocation won’t come from overseas. It will come from the relentless pace of automation that makes many good, middle-class jobs obsolete.”

“And so we must forge a new social compact,” he continued, laying out the agenda to fight for and defend. “To guarantee all our kids the education they need; to give workers the power to unionize for better wages; to update the social safety net to reflect the way we live now and make more reforms to the tax code so corporations and individuals who reap the most from the new economy don’t avoid their obligations to the country that’s made their success possible.”

This new social compact must place race at the center of the discussion, Obama said, and not do what many Republicans have done, which is cite Obama’s presidency as evidence that the country has moved beyond race and no longer needed to pay attention to it.

“After my election, there was talk of a post-racial America,” he said. “Such a vision, however well-intended, was never realistic. For race remains a potent and often divisive force in our society… But we’re not where we need to be. All of us have more work to do. After all, if every economic issue is framed as a struggle between a hard-working white middle class and undeserving minorities, then workers of all shades will be left fighting for scraps while the wealthy withdraw further into their private enclaves.”

Obama quickly shifted to a fulsome defense of all immigrants. “If we decline to invest in the children of immigrants, just because they don’t look like us, we diminish the prospects of our own children,” he said, “because those brown kids will represent a larger share of America’s workforce. And our economy doesn’t have to be a zero-sum game.”

The idea of America that Obama espoused is not about the privileged and wealthier becoming yet more privileged and wealthier, but about immigrants and ordinary people rising. That class struggle, he said, transcends race and was a factor that unites people even if it forces them to think differently about their predicaments and their neighbors.

“For blacks and other minorities, it means tying our own struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face—the refugee, the immigrant, the rural poor, the transgender American, and also the middle-aged white man who from the outside may seem like he’s got all the advantages, but who’s seen his world upended by economic, cultural, and technological change.” Obama said. “For white Americans, it means acknowledging that the effects of slavery and Jim Crow didn’t suddenly vanish in the ‘60s; that when minority groups voice discontent, they’re not just engaging in reverse racism or practicing political correctness; that when they wage peaceful protest, they’re not demanding special treatment, but the equal treatment our Founders promised.”

“For native-born Americans, it means reminding ourselves that the stereotypes about immigrants today were said, almost word for word, about the Irish, Italians, and Poles,” he continued. “America wasn’t weakened by the presence of these newcomers; they embraced this nation’s creed, and it was strengthened.”

Obama said the fragmentation of the media and reemergence of partisan politics based on hateful principles—two pillars of Trump’s campaign—undermine the ties that should bind people.

“For too many of us, it’s become safer to retreat into our own bubbles, whether in our neighborhoods or college campuses or places of worship or our social media feeds, surrounded by people who look like us and share the same political outlook and never challenge our assumptions,” he said. “The rise of naked partisanship, increasing economic and regional stratification, the splintering of our media into a channel for every taste—all this makes this great sorting seem natural, even inevitable. And increasingly, we become so secure in our bubbles that we accept only information, whether true or not, that fits our opinions, instead of basing our opinions on the evidence that’s out there.”

After saying that climate change was real and the best paths forward should be debated, not avoided—and to deny that reality is to condemn future generations—Obama summed up his prior remarks and issued the warning that most directly addressed the threat posed by Trump and his brand of politics.

“It’s that [American] spirit—a faith in reason, and enterprise, and the primacy of right over might, that allowed us to resist the lure of fascism and tyranny during the Great Depression, and build a post-World War II order with other democracies, an order based not just on military power or national affiliations but on principles—the rule of law, human rights, freedoms of religion, speech, assembly, and an independent press,” Obama said. “That order is now being challenged—first by violent fanatics who claim to speak for Islam; more recently by autocrats in foreign capitals who see free markets, open democracies, and civil society itself as a threat to their power,” he continued. “The peril each poses to our democracy is more far-reaching than a car bomb or a missile. It represents the fear of change; the fear of people who look or speak or pray differently; a contempt for the rule of law that holds leaders accountable; an intolerance of dissent and free thought; a belief that the sword or the gun or the bomb or propaganda machine is the ultimate arbiter of what’s true and what’s right.”

The counter and solution to this threat, Obama said, was an active participatory democracy.

“But protecting our way of life requires more than our military. Democracy can buckle when we give in to fear. So just as we, as citizens, must remain vigilant against external aggression, we must guard against a weakening of the values that make us who we are,” he said. “That’s why I reject discrimination against Muslim Americans. That’s why we cannot withdraw from global fights—to expand democracy, and human rights, women’s rights, and LGBT rights—no matter how imperfect our efforts, no matter how expedient ignoring such values may seem. For the fight against extremism and intolerance and sectarianism are of a piece with the fight against authoritarianism and nationalist aggression. If the scope of freedom and respect for the rule of law shrinks around the world, the likelihood of war within and between nations increases, and our own freedoms will eventually be threatened.”

Obama closed his speech by appealing to his supporters to participate more, not withdrawal.

“Our democracy is threatened whenever we take it for granted,” he said, wrapping up. “All of us, regardless of party, should throw ourselves into the task of rebuilding our democratic institutions. When voting rates are some of the lowest among advanced democracies, we should make it easier, not harder, to vote. When trust in our institutions is low, we should reduce the corrosive influence of money in our politics, and insist on the principles of transparency and ethics in public service. When Congress is dysfunctional, we should draw our districts to encourage politicians to cater to common sense and not rigid extremes. And all of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power swings.”

Obama sought to end his farewell address on the same hopeful note that he began his presidency, by urging people not to give up on their visions and dreams, and to help make the political world a better reflection of those values.

“I am asking you to hold fast to that faith written into our founding documents; that idea whispered by slaves and abolitionists; that spirit sung by immigrants and homesteaders and those who marched for justice; that creed reaffirmed by those who planted flags from foreign battlefields to the surface of the moon; a creed at the core of every American whose story is not yet written: Yes We Can. Yes We Did. Yes We Can.”

Steven Rosenfeld covers national political issues for AlterNet, including America’s democracy and voting rights, campaigns and elections, and many social justice issues.

IMAGE: President Barack Obama acknowledges the crowd as he arrives to deliver his farewell address in Chicago, Illinois. REUTERS/John Gress