Going Along with American Primacy as It is Challenged and What Else is New?
Going Along with American Primacy as It is Challenged and What Else is New?
By Fernando Gómez-Herrero.
All Participants in "The State of the Union?: US foreign policy and a new Congress:" Carolyn Quinn, Kim Darroch, Gideon Rachman, Leslie Vinjamuri, Chatham House (30th Jan 2023; FGH photography).
Polyphemus must be watched. All eyes on the U.S. from the English platform and you know they will mostly be English voices inside traditional think tanks –add one American or two and that’s that. On the 30th of January I attended the session “The State of the Union?: US foreign policy and a new Congress” at Chatham House: Kim Darroch, Gideon Rachman and Leslie Vinjamuri were fielding questions and Carolyn Quinn was asking them (The state of the union? US foreign policy and a new US Congress (chathamhouse.org).There was a good turnout in the hall, but it was not a full house. No solo recital, more like chamber music and some useful information, not a lot. There were no big, different vistas to what is the norm in the Anglophone world: going along with American primacy as it is challenged.
I have written about Rachman (Culture Fudge in the Anglozone: Gideon Rachman's "global west" (sic, in lowercase). (fernandogherrero.com)), also about Darroch’s Collateral Damage (Kim Darroch, el daño colateral de Trump (lavanguardia.com). The director of Chatham House, Bronwen Maddox, was not physically present in the session as far as I could see (Chatham House’s Director Bronwen Maddox’s 2023 Opening Lecture: the Less Said, the Better, for Whom? (fernandogherrero.com)). Her slim book In Defence of America (2008) –US spelling “s” and British spelling “c”—is the air-conditioning, post Robin-Niblett (Robin Niblett: "The More Coherent the World is, the Less Influential Britain will be." Interview. (fernandogherrero.com)). Vinjamuri has received my expressions of interest for an interview. There were no formal presentations, but short answers to assigned questions to the three participants. This is a summary of the morsels as I see them inside the Royal Institute of International Affairs and beyond.
The US administration handling of Ukraine? “Probably better than o.k.” (Darroch). A message of togetherness, united West and NATO. EU cannot be mentioned now in the U.K. and Darroch is, like virtually all civil servants, internationalist and Europeanist. Support for Ukraine must avoid direct conflict with Russia, a nuclear power.
Kim Darroch and Gideon Rachman, Chatham House, 30th Jan. 2023 (FGH photography).
The loss of the House by the Democrats –Chatham House is a Democrat-leaning environment at large—will increase pressure for 2023, which promises to be a crucial year in relation to Russia’s war in Ukraine and other matters. The question is how long will allies put up with this. Not clear. US public support, probably 65% (Rachman). The state of the Union speech of Biden, “more dynamic than usual” (Vinjamuri). The US discourse in general, more hawkish on Russia and extremely hawkish on China. It is going to get more difficult to shift gears and emotions out of this rhetorical belligerence as we move into 2023. China is the number-one foreign-policy issue. Predictably, amusingly, Darroch commented that State of the Unions are “strange events,” with lots of “greatest hits,” and too much orchestrated applause. Biden’s mid-term is better than Clinton and Obama. Foreign-policy in these speeches is typically not a big piece. Will Biden run again? All three participants said “yes.”
How seriously should we take Trump? “Seriously” (Rachman). He’s got a good shot, given his record. The bigger the pool of people running, the greater his chances. De Santis is “an untested quantity nationally” (Rachman). Light touch by Darroch: documents are now found in everybody’s closets. Vinjamuri did not think that Trump has a chance now that more Americans know about him after Jan. 6th. His chance, extremely small and Biden would prefer running against him (Vinjamuri). Track record in the last elections: no good for Trump. Still, it is hard to predict. Other names: Pete Buttigieg and perhaps another female Democrat candidate left unnamed. It is not fireworks.
Kim Darroch, Chatham House, 30th Jan. 2023 (FGH photography).
There was a reference to General Mike Minihan predicting war with China in 2025 given the proximity of presidential elections in the U.S. and Taiwan. There was an affirmation of the policy of strategic ambiguity and I wonder where “ambiguity” hides. “Yes, we would” was the answer to Quinn’s tendentious question, “would US intervene if China invades Taiwan?” The double international connection was made: if Ukraine prevails, it ought to make Xi [Jinping] think twice about Taiwan. Vinjamuri underlined the pressure to do a deal on Ukraine and the likelier conflict getting tougher toward China at the industrial and national-security levels. The session had no specifics.
Decoupling of US and China and the “RoW” will have to pick sides. There is US bipartisanship about this divergence or decoupling: also in relation to flows of goods pouring into the U.S. from China?, I do not think so. “The displacement of US primacy” is not something that will be allowed (Darroch). This was asserted matter-of-fact without apprehension or enthusiasm. Hence, bashing China is “too good a policy,“ rhetorically. The Americans are still from Mars and the Europeans, largely from Venus, except perhaps some Tories.
Darroch put in perspective the production challenge for the allies of Ukraine. In one month, about 25K missiles are fired by Russia and 5K by Ukraine. US-production per month is 15K. European output was not mentioned. It must be considerably lower. So, how to keep up if this war goes on? The message “Russia must be defeated in Ukraine” was endorsed by all, but it is not quite clear what “defeat” means (same thing with Maddox’s aforementioned opening lecture). No specifics were to be had.
Gideon Rachman, Foreign Affairs, Financial Times, 30th January 2023, Chatham House (FGH photography).
A wider lens brought the mention of Iran. It was, predictably, about protests and women’s rights. Iran is a major weapon supplier to Russia: drones. How annoyed are the Americans about that? There were one-liners. No analysis. This was not the core of interest.
There was some mea culpa and a bit of a history lesson from Darroch: 1998, Russia was collapsing, NATO could have brought Russia into the Council. We could have pushed for a different generation. The response to Georgia, weak. Such retrospective strategic level of discourse took the night. All positions on the chessboard are clear (good guys, allies, bad guys). The moment is one in which biting analysis is missing in public as far as I can see and not only inside the Royal Institute.
The anxiety over the state of U.S. democracy remains high –Jan 6th is the token date. I wonder: wasn’t this extremity known all along about Trump and others?, I wonder.
The retreat from Afghanistan was one of the low points in the relationship between the U.S. and the allies. Things are recovered a bit but these things are cyclical. The implication is that there is some upswing but not an awful lot.
Leslie Vinjamuri, US and the Americas, Chatham House, 30th Jan. 2023, Chatham House (FGH photography).
Vinjamuri surprised me at least in naming the “constant hypocrisy” in the longue durée of American supremacy, “which is probably over.” The denied democracy to African-Americans in the 1950s was mentioned. But hypocrisy is not the end of discourse but the beginning and there is more than hypocrisy in the possible interregnum towards a different type of world and this is what is not really addressed publicly. Who wants to risk big visions?, I wonder.
Darroch is “not despairing about China” in what is a marked contrast to American paranoid style of politics, Richard Hofstadter dixit in 1964. So, we are rehashing McCarthyism, but this is a brave new world. The panel: discretion. The session did not air the talk of “the new cold war.”
Carolyn Quinn, BBC Radio 4 political correspondent, Chatham House, 30th January 2023 (FGH photography).
Q&A opened up to the physical and virtual audience. Race and religion in US foreign policy. Difficult to measure up and this was not the type of session that was going to produce sociological charts and statistics.
Trump’s white-nationalist undertones signal an isolationist moment in the U.S., Vinjamuri (“white-nationalist” is euphemistic terminology for white racism in the American idiom). Rachman simply enunciated the potential convergence of Trump and Hispanics without elaborating further. Funny how the largest minority contingent in the U.S. is always addressed indirectly in passing as though the speaker were running to catch the bus. But he was sitting there with his notebook, unsmilingly.
Russia and China are linked threats in mainstream thought (Rachman) and they will remain so for a while. The “existential threat” of China Americans can see in their daily life (Vinjamuri). When I come to think of it, “Europe” was not mentioned once outside NATO. The “old” continent appears to fade away unless Ukraine comes up.
India? It will play at a higher level with 5% growth. The Middle East? Palestine and Israel? There is a diminishing interest in Palestine. It was a “really big issue some time ago at the Foreign Office” (Rachman). The Middle East region undergoes an unacknowledged relegation to a lower league. I see Latin America here too, typically unmentioned in standard Chatham House sessions. The “US and the Americas” program –funny name if there ever was one-- has effectively delinked from its “Latin” portion. Africa? Mostly missing, not even in its Commonwealth murmurs.
Kim Darroch, 30th Jan. 2023, Chatham House (FGH photography).
The role of leaks? Darroch made a light reference to his own experience. “It is mostly about individuals and less so about international relations among countries.”
To conclude, the UK finds itself in a rather peculiar conjuncture with no easy escape (Distopía británica en el Nuevo Desorden Mundial (lavanguardia.com)). I sense a contraction at Chatham House that is still wobbly after the Brexit referendum. The House is not close to Sunak’s Brexit government and it will try to rebuild with a new generation not yet visible. The House is contracting and there is a general national contraction in all aspects of life, harrowingly in university life that does not appear to provide any kind of guidance about things that matter: the dearth of Area-Studies experts of the areas explicitly mentioned in this session is glaring. None of the participants are experts in the areas and regions mentioned, the US takes the primary focus and it is the standpoint of American primary that they endorse without much strategic ambiguity. Where else would they go? What else are they going to do? Where is the Europeanist internationalism of the Royal Institute going to go at this juncture if not travel through NATO channels? Perhaps the Royal Institute will find some collaboration with Starmer’s social-democratic Blair-inspired Labour, if Labour wins the next election. There is caution about the tense present and what might come next, not only among the four participants in this session that was not meant to provide big revelations about American political life, let alone the knotty relations of Brexit Britain to the rest of the international world. 2023 may give some answers.
Gideon Rachman, FT Foreign Affairs, 30th January 2023, Chatham House (FGH photography).
Moving through Brexit, the U.K. still adjusting to a progressive divergence from its continent whilst digesting a perceptible debilitation inside the former North Atlantic core of world order that is now relocating elsewhere (NATO/EU tilting towards the “Indo-Pacific” region). John Bull is looking more and more like a bystander looking from the distance and holding inside a vicarious feeling of important things happening elsewhere. Such debilitation will not be broadcast and it is unlikely members of the current Sunak government will show up at Chatham House and talk for a full hour about what is going on in the world at large. I see a general impoverishment in all aspects of British life, from the produce one finds in conventional supermarkets, to the general cultural offers in the cities, the increasingly poor international coverage of the world at large (giving the limelight to missing peoples domestically over large collective forces and vast international events, the coverage of Russia’s war in Ukraine receding, etc.), the typical offerings in universities, certainly in the humanities and the ‘languages.’ The official position is one of alliance with the U.S. It is done almost by inertia, without incisiveness or enthusiasm. I miss strong analytical language that is comparative and perspectival. Continental Europe thins out beyond Dover, not even the Franco-German core says much of anything in this Royal Institute. The non-Anglo world travels sluggishly as though through a funnel, if it does travel at all. Global South –an unwieldy terminology to be sure—is rarely, tangentially referred to but never addressed directly and further explored. Big elephants amble amiably the air-conditioned rooms of the Royal Institute, undisturbed. China never has its spokesperson or even a good expert analysis (Chatham House only has one or two but they are never given big platforms). Russia is the mute “bad guy.” García Márquez got it wrong about the hundred years of solitude ending. Latin America remains the invisible (wo)man sitting in the Monroe-Doctrine-Western hemisphere patio under the sign “US and the Americas:” the first part is res cogitans and the latter whole is res-extensa and we know which mirror image John Bull uses for enlightenment. But the understanding is very partial. The session was never meant to furnish a rebuke of Uncle Sam, God forbid. “The State of the Union?: US foreign policy and a new Congress” was one light-touch session catching something of what is going on elsewhere in the series of conventional Chatham-House sessions in the last two-to-three years.
At the end of the session, I approached Kim Darroch and asked him how the U.K. could play any differently and if the belligerent language of the British press towards Russia and China, that of Boris Johnson for example, was useful. More diplomatic language would be better. He simply said that what Johnson was doing was pursuing his own interests.
Leslie Vinjamuri, US and the Americas, 30th January 2023 Chatham House (FGH photography).
Things will not clear in foreign affairs any time soon in this apparent interregnum and China ascendancy with the current Russia’s war in Ukraine. See the latest report by The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) Report (United West, divided from the rest: Global public opinion one year into Russia’s war on Ukraine – European Council on Foreign Relations (ecfr.eu) for the need for a new narrative to bring the bigger world onboard. It turns out that the Anglo world is the most belligerent towards Russia among its peers as though the further away from the border with Russia, the more belligerent the attitude, at least according to polls, with the exception of Poland. See the recent FT frontpage article (“West warns of ‘severe costs’ for nations aiding Russian war effort,” FT Weekend, 25-26 Feb. 2023) and pay attention to the “subject position” (Washington, G7, the US, the EU, Jens Stoltenberg…) apropos “Ukraine’s western allies.” “Aiding the war effort” is ample term that goes beyond military help, which to my knowledge it is only Iran’s. The article mentions 200 “entities” and 86 “groups” sanctioned. See who says what, who warns whom, who sets up sanctions in the name of what, who is directly interpellated with “should do this or that,” who goes along and who is not saying anything and is not included. The slapping of Russia and China assets is hard. The stakes are incredibly high. I would argue identical subject position is the one occupied by the four aforementioned participants.
In the “Life & Arts” section of the same day, David Manning and Jonathan Powell (the former was British Ambassador to Washington during the run-up to the invasion in Iraq and the latter is Tony Blair’s chief of staff from 1995-2007, who has Chatham House connections) ventriloquize George Kennan’s long telegram. Identical reading exercise can take place: “c” spelling for the “s” in the “defence/defense” of the American perspective that zeroing in on Europe thanks to Russia’s war in Ukraine. This is a mind-boggling if conventional recycling, 57 years later. Kennan uppercases “the Western World” and Manning and Powell lowercase “the west.” Putin /Stalin, Russia and the Soviet Union and the specter of Nazi German and the specter of WWII are brought to bear in today’s brave new world. This is the end of the piece: “Kennan’s prescription, built on allied unity and resolve, and the patient acceptance of the need to do whatever it took, and for long as it took, [FGH emphasis] carried the day. On the first anniversary of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, Kennan still has much to teach us.” Our English authors do not find any other English analyst, let alone other foreign nationals, to complicate the historical picture depicted by Kennan half a century ago.
The language of the ”new cold war” is surfacing. In it, WW2 is chapter one, but there is no lingering in other wars (Vietnam, Korea, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc.). Andrew Bacevich recalls his childhood memories. There is adult disenchantment. He also invokes Kennan but in such a way as to offer a more sobering approach to reconsider imperial pursuits (The Reckoning That Wasn’t: Why America Remains Trapped by False Dreams of Hegemony (foreignaffairs.com). Bacevich’s Uncle Sam’s march is not triumphant. There is something like bitterness, regret and remorse, expiation may be too strong a word. If the English look at the originator of the containment policy for encouragement about what to do with Russia, less so with China, their message is for American eyes mostly, and to a less degree NATO eyes too. Bacevich looks inward. His interlocutors are all American. His “situation room” remains asphyxiatingly American-only small. Yet, there are differences: Bacevich distances himself from Biden’s increasingly bombastic “new-cold-war” rhetoric and he deplores “the chimera” of American militarism as it is projected back to the last century and dangerously forward to the near future. I lean more to this critical American than your official English here in the end. Desperately, more names and other voices must be added.
FGH (PhD (Duke University), MA (Duke U, Wake Forest U, U of Salamanca), B.A. (U of Salamanca; fernandogherrero.com) has lately taught at the U of Birmingham and Manchester in Britain. He has taught at Duke U, Stanford U, U of Pittsburgh, Hofstra U, Oberlin College in the U.S. Latest work: ”Sobre postcolonialismos maltrechos, descolonizaciones malogradas y angostamientos universitarios,” Revista Umbral: Un Mundo en Crisis y Las Humanidades: Sus Retos y Futuro (Universidad de Puerto Rico): Vol. 18, Diciembre 2022) & “The Latest American Appropriation of Western Universalism: A Critique of G. John Ikenberry’s “Liberal International Order,” (http://journal.thenewpolis.com/archives/1.1/index.html