Decadence and insurrection

Decadence and insurrection are two sides of the same coin. This article focuses on the geopolitical dimension of these two concepts.

Regarding decadence

Patience and diplomacy are the virtues that should guide foreign policy when a country no longer is the supreme power. The worst thing it can do is playing the role of a neighborhood bully, the kind who threatens but retreat when someone defies him or her. In the bully’s universe that is over-simplistic, everything is black-or-white, all-or-nothing, good-or-bad. It is not necessary to quote Machiavelli to realize that in politics—both foreign and domestic—the good handling is very different[1]. Power is not pushiness, but rather, as French president Mitterrand used to say, a calm force and many times a three-cushion cannon game. A paradigmatic case is that of United Kingdom in the past. The decadence of the British Empire stimulated a successful retreat plan –one of the most resourceful strategies the Western world has known, such as the creation of the Commonwealth of Nations. Thanks to it, the British were able to keep a privileged position, with commercial allies crucial for their subsistence[2].

It is difficult to think of a similar solution to apply to the current American case. However, we can point out that a similar strategy should include the preservation of alliances and cultural influence even in the current diverse and globalized world. In addition, it is possible to specify that commercial treaties and dominance over international law has been a useful tool for United States apart from the exorbitant privilege of US dollar as universal reserve currency. As long as this privilege continues, United States can feel capable of doing whatever they please. The day when that is no longer the case, American dominance will fall like a house of cards. Today, Trump uses mercantilist measures with tariffs and embargoes to maintain the supremacy of his country. Those are clumsy and double-edged weapons. He thinks that rules only apply to the weak.

However, as I stated in my previous article, American decadence has accelerated from its previous geopolitical supremacy under Trumps’ administration, with measures that move away from the design I have just drawn. Some rightly argue that the clumsy exercise of what is left of American world power (which is still great) could have been avoided with a more rational and better-informed administration. It is true. However, I believe there is a significant continuity in foreign policy from previous American administrations. It is not fair to blame one government for the many strategic mistakes that are made. Instead, it behooves to understand the change in the global context where they take place.

Until the beginning of this century, these mistakes could be overcome by the USA because no one overshadowed this great country. On the one side, China was rising rapidly, hitched as a large wagon to the locomotive of American demand. Sooner or later, this “chimeric” situation would end with the predictable rise of a stronger China and with the equally predictable deindustrialization of their Yanquee partners.  By the year 2000, the honeymoon was ending.

In the Middle East, the American invasion of Iraq backfired spectacularly. The armed forces and the treasury were severely dented by the strategic impasse in that country and in Afghanistan. These endless wars have cost at least five trillion dollars. The net winner of this fiasco was without a doubt the Islamic Republic of Iran as the regional power. Russia as well won its own game of chess in the region. The sudden retreat of American forces from the north of Syria meant that on the chess board Putin took the bishop using the Kurdish as pawns. Facing this changing scenario, only two options were left for the Americans: 1) reinforcing the web of traditional alliances and also creating others to negotiate a slow strategic retreat (the English model), or 2) assuming a more warlike and defensive position, offending both rivals and friends, treating them as enemies, regardless of old alliances and new diplomatic efforts.

Trump’s choice of this second option was a huge strategic mistake. Among other things, it sanctioned the forceful change of frontiers by the Turks, thus legitimating in retrospective Crimea’s capture by Russia. It also facilitates the revival of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh), repositioning Russia as external umpire in the Middle East and reinforcing the genocidal regime of Assad.  As for Iran, the Islamic Republic adopts Napoleon Bonaparte’s strategic attitude: “I do not interrupt my enemy when he is making a mistake.” Trump does not realize that the alternative to a massive and permanent military presence is not a complete and hasty withdrawal but rather the measured use of force as diplomatic leverage. With his intractable mentality, he forced his best strategist, general Mattis, to resign.

An example of the first strategic option was the policy of Obama’s administration, particularly with three of his initiatives: a new Pacific alliance, the denuclearization treaty of Iran, and world leadership in terms of climate control (the Paris Accord). Obama made serious mistakes on other game boards, particularly in Libya and Syria, but those mistakes did not seriously affect the aforementioned initiatives.

At the opposite end, Trump’s administration took a most erroneous path. His foreign and domestic policies have been nothing less than the systematic inversion of Obama’s policies. In Syria’s case, Obama’s mistake was his quiet and timid retreat; Trump’s mistake was his stentorian and hasted ineptitude in retreat, American policy moved from quiet shyness to boisterous stupidity. However, one and the other have ceded ground to other powers. As time goes by, Trump will be remembered not by his demagogic motto “Make America Great Again,” but by his strategic mistake “make Russia great again.”   Lenin had an expression to portray similar characters: полезный идиот (useful idiot). Sooner or later, Trump will disappear from the scene but the country he will leave behind will be much different from the USA we know. It will be a strong power but one among others without being the main leader and without spurring the previous inspiration for copying its economic, social, and political model.

In a certain sense, Trump was and still is a prisoner of the political base that took him to power, by taking advantage of a defect in the American constitutional design. In indirect elections, this allows the representation in the Electoral College to slip past the will of the majority of voters (in the direct vote—not allowed by the Constitution—Trump lost by three million votes).  The little legitimacy of the president in this situation forces him to pressure continuously his base to remain in power and look for reelection. He has constitutional legitimacy, not democratic legitimacy.  Instead of governing, he is always on campaign. This is a characteristic of totalitarian regimes. In other times, when Westerners criticized the Soviet system, it was said that he difference between the two systems resided in that in Western democracies there campaigns took placed before the election and not afterwards (as in the persecution of opposition leaders in the name of an alleged “general will”). Today, the difference has faded with the appearance of national populism. American democracy appears fragile and weak. It is like an old tiger that roars a lot but has lost the marks on its skin.

Regarding insurrection

The American retreat in central regions of the planet leaves Latin America (a region that has been geopolitically marginal until now) in a precarious situation. Reduced to being a regional power, the United States will defend their dominance in what, since the old Monroe doctrine, they have considered their “backyard.” Compared with other regions (the retreat from Syria is emblematic), they would be less inclined to leave here a power vacuum that might be taken advantaged by other powers (though both Russia and China already have a significant presence in the continent). It is likely to deploy a larger, though maybe clumsier, intervention in the region.

Latin America’s situation is precarious for various reasons. With few exceptions, the countries of the region have had an economic growth below the standard of other regions, even far below the already low growth of the most developed countries. However, even in Latin American countries with a higher growth rate, the little sustainability of bonanzas, rampant inequality, a huge concentration of wealth, lack of insertion into global productive chains and the excessive dependence on natural resources and in general on commodities, have exacerbated the class struggle and delegitimized structures of power, both democratic and authoritarian.

In each country, one of the above-mentioned variables is more impressive than the rest, but popular unrest has generalized. Though the weight of the causes is variable, the causes are not disconnected. On the surface, the situation is as follows: diverse causes with the same effect. What is missing is an integral analysis capable of explaining the paradox. As I mentioned in my book Strategic Impasse, there are strong signs of exhaustion of late capitalism at the global level. Among establishment economists, the concern is expressed in the concept of secular stagnation[3]. However, these concepts are a mere approximation: there is no general theory of the crisis of late capitalism. The most complete approach is in the already classic book of Thomas Piketty Capital in the XXI century, which, however, is fundamentally descriptive[4]. In sum, there is concern among the best analysts regarding social inequalities and proposals for establishing fiscal, investment, and income policies of global scope to moderate disparity. Among them: taxes on wealth and inheritance, a universal basic salary, and a kind of new global New Deal focused on investments in infrastructure and sustainable environmental policies (Green New Deal). 

The other shortage is political. The expression of global discontent with late capitalism is for the time being contradictory, with opposing signs both progressive and reactionary where it is worth mentioning very serious defects. Among the reactionary backlash, the main defect is the fall into nationalisms that are xenophobic, racists, and neo-fascist. To paraphrase Borges, these movements “have all the past ahead of them.” Among progressive protest movements, the main defect is the lack of sustainable organization and leadership. To use another metaphor: as the River Plate, they are very wide but not too deep. They run viral quickly but they also get exhausted with the same speed.

In my modest opinion, today, the world is in a situation that is comparable, to that of the French regime in the final stages of the XVIII century.

[1] . See the following excellent book by John Lewis Gaddis, On Grand Strategy, New York: Penguin Books, 2018

[2] . Brexit has put this traditional British wisdom on edge.

[3] . Larry Summers, “Secular Stagnation? The Future Challenge for Economic

[4] . Capital in the Twenty-First Century, Harvard University Press, 2014, ISBN 978-0674430006

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