This past week President Obama honored a gathering of WWII veterans in remembrance of the US landing at Normandy also known as D-Day. Few historical events evoke feelings of triumphalism and American exceptionalism as powerfully as this intervention in Nazi occupied Europe. Peter Baker of the New York Times described how President Obama and Russian President Vladimir Putin went to extreme lengths not to acknowledge one another at the commemoration. “Mr. Obama and Mr. Putin did not speak, did not shake hands and in fact seemed eager not to encounter each other, much like divorced parents both invited to a child’s graduation.” While informal meetings of this kind are of little significance in understanding the geopolitics of US-Russia relations, it does provide a striking symbol of the increasingly belligerent stance of the US as it tries to maintain its role as the world’s leading superpower. Challenges to this role can be identified in Dilip Hiro’s exhaustive study of economic and political alternatives to US global domination After Empire. Adopting a method of analysis divorced from the assumptions of Washington elites, Hiro portrays a world combating President Obama’s vision that America is “exceptional”, a notion that he embraces with “every fiber of [his] being.” This move away from the unipolar world dominated by Washington towards a multipolar world where economic and political power is distributed diversely began seven years after the fall of the Soviet Union during the Clinton administration. Former Russian Prime Minister Yevgeny Primokov foiled President Clinton’s plan to attack Iraq on the pretext that Saddam wasn’t allowing UN officials to inspect his nuclear facilities. This act of defiance “gave a preview of a multipolar world, where a superpower is successfully stymied by an alliance of great powers.” Excepting the administration of Boris Yeltsin, who was highly deferential to Washington in his adoption of “market” reforms, Russia figured prominently as a chief obstacle to US power on the international scene. Using its wealth of oil and gas resources Russia formed bonds with Iran and China, jeopardizing US hegemony in the Middle East and Southeast Asia.
Russia has also utilized its oil riches to develop ties with the European Union, supplying “more than two-fifths,” of its gas imports, a figure expected to “rise to half by 2030 with the exhaustion of the North Sea gas deposits.” The significance of this energy relationship may help explain why European leaders have been much more restrained than the Obama administration in taking action against Putin for his invasion of Ukraine. Germany is of particular interest in this respect. Alongside the “return of the Russian bear”, as Hiro phrases it, there is also plenty of informed commentary on the burgeoning influence of Iran as a serious actor in the international community. Unphased by threats of force from Washington, a violation of the UN Charter, Iran has served as an example to the region of independent development and has used its strategically vital energy resources to undermine US power not only in the Middle East but also in Latin America. In 2006 Iranian energy company Petropars entered into an agreement to “invest $4 billion dollars in Venezuela’s hydrocarbon industry.”
This collaboration between Venezuela and the Islamic Republic is a major source of US animosity toward the Bolivarian Revolution and the example of Hugo Chavez. Chavez’s fight for a more egalitarian and participatory form of government free from the decrees of Washington elites made him the object of extreme hostility in western circles of power. Unlike US-backed dictators like Augusto Pinochet and Jorge Videla, Chavez’s election signaled a “profound change in South America” that ended the “traditional white settler monopoly over power since the colonization of the continent by Spain.” Efforts to restore this monopoly are underway in Venezuela today in the wave of street actions aiming to overthrow the Maduro administration, a welcome prospect in Washington’s business and political establishment. Surely the powerful in America are alarmed by the formation of regional alliances like ALBA, Mercusor, CSD and UNASUR which threaten to block US economic, political and military penetration. The CSD (Conselho Sul-Americano de Defensa) is perhaps the most innovative addition to this defensive front. Designed to “block the Pentagon’s military forays into South America,” the CSD operates under a “NATO-like structure” and is likely to present an effective deterrent to US violence in the region. Similar developments can be perceived in China, a country that evolved from a primarily state centered economic system under the leadership of Chairman Mao to a more “managed”, state-guided economy with market features. With its admission into the World Trade Organization, China was officially recognized as a competitor with some of the wealthier, state-capitalist industrial countries in the world i.e. United States, France, Britain, etc.
Unlike many so-called advanced industrial powers, China did not suffer significantly in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. This was due primarily to the fact that China’s banking system is nationalized and was therefore not exposed to many of the inherent risks that accompany market-based economics. China also made major advances on the African continent, developing commercial relations with a series of African countries from Zambia and Congo Brazzaville to oil-rich Nigeria. In the six years prior to the China-Africa forum in 2006 “China’s trade with Africa had quadrupled to $48 billion,” and “nearly five hundred companies were active in Africa on their own or in partnership with local firms.” This expansion of China in Africa likely motivated the invention of the US Africa Command (AFRICOM) and its deepening role in Africa. The US military’s coordination with the Nigerian military in its conflict with Boko Haram offers one obvious example of this.
The growth of AFRICOM is just one sign of the US attempt to counter this shift toward a more multipolar world, as is Washington’s “pivot” to Asia and aggressive efforts to eliminate Iran’s nuclear energy program. Diverging from the propagandistic line of the establishment press, Hiro observes that there is no empirical evidence to support the existence of an Iranian nuclear weapons program. Furthermore, he notes that if Iran were to develop a nuclear weapon it would serve as a “uniquely powerful deterrent” to US aggression in the Middle East. Developing nuclear weapons is “an effective step for a regime to take when its survival is at stake.” Iran’s sovereignty is indisputably threatened by US power. Evidence of this can be found in the fact that President Obama “did not cancel or repudiate the ongoing covert US program of destabilizing Iran, with a budget of $400 million.” Policymakers in the US are unable to perceive this because they lack the “empathy … to ask and understand what is driving [Iran] to behave the way it does, regard its fears as genuine, and address them.”
Last Fall when the Obama administration was preparing to militarily strike Syria, Vladimir Putin published an Op-Ed in the New York Times warning American citizens that “it is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation.” Regardless of what one thinks of Putin’s policies, we ignore this message at our own peril. The same can be said with regard to global public opinion. A recent WIN/Gallup poll surveying 65 countries around the world revealed that the US is perceived to be “the greatest threat to peace in the world.” The ruins of Iraq and Afghanistan serve as a horrifying reminder of just how severe a threat the US remains. While some lament the decline of the US as a global hegemon, those with a genuine desire to live in a more peaceful world can only welcome this development. Anything that impedes US military aggression and economic domination is likely to open the way for more democratic and inclusive systems where the voices of the oppressed are heard. In this era of nuclear weapons and environmental decay, such possibilities are not only desirable but very much necessary for survival.