The edifice of neoliberalism is now under unprecedented challenge and de-legitimation by a variety of critics. The Greek debt crisis exposed just how inhumane financial regulation and trans-national banking could be. Brexit showed that yes, a majority of “forgotten people” could overrule their social “betters” and that working class people might not, in the worlds of Hillaire Belloc, “hold tight to Nurse for fear of finding something worse”.
In the United States Donald Trump has, whether or not he actually wins the White House, raised questions about the viability of NATO that were thought settled by bipartisan consensus with the defeat of Robert Taft in 1952. That is an urgent issue as Turkey, a key NATO member, is behaving in a manner that prompts doubts about whether US nuclear weapons should be stationed in that country.
The 2016 Presidential Campaign has been marked by a debate over foreign policy that is unprecedented since 1952 and maybe since 1948. Verities that have been unquestioned since the end of World War II are being questioned not only by a Presidential candidate but a major party’s nominee for the first time since the 1920 election of Warren G. Harding led to a retreat from Wilsonianism in the 1920s.
These verities, which were placed beyond debate by a bipartisan consensus in 1949 under what became known as the Truman Doctrine, were restated by former Secretary State Hillary Clinton in her address to the American Legion National Convention. on August 24, 2016. Clinton said:
In fact, we are the indispensable nation. People all over the world look to us and follow our lead. My friends, we are so lucky to be Americans. It is an extraordinary blessing. It’s why so many people, from so many places, want to be Americans too. But it’s also a serious responsibility. The decisions we make and the actions we take, even the actions we don’t take, affect millions even billions of lives.
Clinton goes on to clarify what she means by ” exceptional.”
My opponent misses something important. When we say America is exceptional, it doesn’t mean that people from other places don’t feel deep national pride, just like we do. It means that we recognize America’s unique and unparalleled ability to be a force for peace and progress, a champion for freedom and opportunity. Our power comes with a responsibility to lead, humbly, thoughtfully, and with a fierce commitment to our values.
Because, when America fails to lead, we leave a vacuum that either causes chaos or other countries or networks rush in to fill the void. So no matter how hard it gets, no matter how great the challenge, America must lead.
And by leadership, Clinton argues: “American leadership means standing with our allies because our network of allies is part of what makes us “exceptional”
Conspicuously absent from this address is the issue that Donald Trump has indirectly raised – the matter of the degree to which the United States has the means to stand by its allies and, more directly, whether the allies of the United States are making a sufficient contribution to enable the United States to make an adequate stand. These are conundra that would be reasonable if American alliances were to be seen in contractual terms (which, by the way were the terms by which the signatories to the 1776 Declaration of Independence saw the Colonial relationship with Great Britain).
Treating the partnership between the US and its allies as contractual means that such a relationship is breakable if one party does not live up to it’s obligations, as Thomas Jefferson suggests in the Declaration of Independence. When Clinton proposes that to do so amounts to “insulting our allies” and that American leadership is “like building personal relationships”, she is telling Americans that their country’s alliances are not contractual, but actually hearken back to something far older.
To understand the basis for America’s relationship to its allies, it pays to go back to the actual text of a key treaty, the NATO Treaty and look at what it says – and also what it does not say. Article 5 of the NATO Treaty says that “the Parties agree that an armed attack against one or more NATO members shall be an attack on all”, which is generally understood. Going on to Article 13: “After the Treaty has been in force for twenty years, any Party may cease to be a Party one year after its notice of denunciation has been given to the Government of the United States of America, which will inform the Governments of the other Parties of the deposit of each notice of denunciation.”
In other words, a party to NATO may withdraw from the NATO Treaty, but we look in vain for any mechanism for collective membership of NATO to expel a member of NATO for hostile action against another member, let alone default in men, materiele or monies on NATO treaty obligations.
For example, the United States maintains a number of obsolete nuclear weapons at Incirlik AFB in Turkey approximately 50 miles from the border with Syria. Those weapons are, since the failure of the coup against Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan, in a precarious position and under the de facto shared custody with a nation that is drawing closer to Russia. While there are no launch codes for the missiles at Incirlik or even heavy bombers that could deliver those missiles, those weapons could fall into hostile hands and either be re-engineered and reprocessed or simply have the fissible material turned into the material for “dirty bombs”.
Yet withdrawing those missiles calls into question the US commitment to Turkey as a member of NATO and to the alliance in general. It would be difficult to find another NATO member willing to host those weapons. All of which may have arguably given Turkey leverage in obtaining US acquiescence in it’s intervention into Syria against the YKK Kurds who are also a US ally (though not with the same level of obligation of a NATO member.
A set of treaty obligations that is both open ended and indissoluble (the US could pull out of NATO but not, in concert with other NATO members expel Turkey) is not a contractual arrangement. Rather, such an arrangement resembles more a feudal lord-vassal arrangement. The lord’s obligation to the vassal is independent of the vassal’s relationship to the lord, although such arrangements were violated repeatedly in the Middle Ages. Vassals often were punished for faithless behavior.
Means do not tend to enter into such relationships, which lack checks and balances. And this is what Hillary Clinton appears to allude to when she emphasizes the importance of maintaining “relationships” and particularly, personal relationships.
How did the United States come by a set of treaty obligations, which are not limited to NATO and uncannily resemble Austria’s relationship to the rest of the Holy Roman Empire in the early modern period?
Until the dawn of the 20th Century, the United States basically carried out a neutral foreign policy, avoiding overseas entanglements. The Theodore Roosevelt Era marked the beginning of both an extension of the Monroe Doctrine to include a policing role in Latin America and more explicit support for Great Britain, which had become the US’s largest trading and investment partner. All of which resulted, during World War I in ostensible neutrality becoming a cover for support of Great Britain and France against Germany and, finally, America’s brief entry into World War I against the latter.
Woodrow Wilson, who had been an academic in political science prior to becoming President, attempted to build support for a League of Nations that would function as a more explicit version of the post-Napoleonic Concert of Europe, only built on principles like self-determination for peoples instead of repression of national aspirations, as well as deterring further aggression. Rules such as holding national borders sacrosanct and proscriptions against ethnic cleansing (honoured in the breach by Greece and Turkey) come to the fore at this time. Wilson was able to sell most nations on the League of Nations but not the US Congress.
The American entry into World War II changed all that. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a decided Wilsonian and favored collective security. The Alliance against Nazi Germany was formally re-titled the United Nations, which was open to those who had fought against Hitler. And, significantly, the new United Nations included one of the Allies who had played a crucial role in the war effort, the USSR.
A backlash developed against cooperation with the USSR, and against communism as a whole, sparked by US business interests within Congress. An early sign of this backlash was the appointment of one of the movement’s leading spokesmen, Senator Harry S. Truman, as Roosevelt’s running mate in 1944. Truman famously declared that the US was in conflict with both Nazi Germany and the USSR and should work to balance the two so that they destroyed each other.
After Roosevelt died, Truman attempted to reverse many of Roosevelt’s moves toward cooperation with the USSR. Eastern European nations conceded to a Russian – and communist – sphere of influence by FDR were now conceived of as “captive nations” by Truman and Churchill in Churchill’s famous 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech. Support for communism at home and membership in groups like Communist Party USA, tolerated under FDR, was re-framed as treason against the United States.
European nations were cemented into effective vassalage by tying the Marshall Plan aid to decolonization, which would in turn open newly independent former colonies to American business interests. The new set of ties were formalized in the NATO Treaty of 1949, which arguably superimposed a quasi-feudal alliance on the collective security arrangements of the United Nations in Europe, not so much the proverbial pax Americana but a new “holy Roman empire”.
A religious component was created in the successful campaign to enlist the Catholic Church’s aid in defeating the Communist Party in Italy’s 1948 election which created an ongoing tie between official Washington and the Vatican that would endure until the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI. Thus the “holy” element of the new empire became pronounced, and the Cold War rhetoric of the “Free World” versus “godless Communism” emerged as the new norm.
This lord-vassal relationship of such an empire was enforced in 1956, when the US, acting perhaps out of fear of war breaking out with the USSR, which was reducing Eastern Europe more formally to its own vassals with the invasion of Hungary, sold British pounds and French francs short to force an economic crisis to force the UK, France and Israel to pull out of the Sinai Peninsula and the Suez Canal. The so-called “Suez crisis” during the same year Dwight D. Eisenhower was re-elected to a second term set Europe on the course of decolonization coupled with attempted integration in the European Union.
In his book The Grand Chessboard (1997) Zbigniew Brezinski tellingly speaks of American geopolitical neccessities in feudal and imperial terminology (35-6). According to Brezinski, Eurasian geo-strategy for the US involves the purposeful management of “dynamic” states and the careful handling of “catalytic” states, in keeping with the interests of America in the short-term. These include preservation of America’s unique global power and transformation in the long run of that power into increasingly institutionalized global cooperation.
To put it in a terminology that hearkens back to the more brutal age of ancient empires, the three grand imperatives of imperial ge-ostrategy are to prevent collusion and maintain dependence for security among the vassals, to keep tributaries pliant and protected, and to prevent the “barbarians” from coming together. Such an approach was the mainstay of the Austrian Habsburg (“Holy Roman”) domains in Central Europe, the last remnant of feudalism which survived from the Middle Ages into the early twentieth century.
In his Book In Europe’s Shadow: Two Cold Wars and a Thirty-Year Journey Through Romania Robert Kaplan, one of Brezinski’s proteges and co-founder of the private intelligence service Stratfor, even more explicitly looks for some kind of revival of Habsburg geostrategy Austria as an antidote to the kind of “blood and soil” nationalism that plunged Europe into an era of bloodshed. The bureaucratic model of nineteenth century Austria-Hungary, in which none of it’s borders encompassed the entirety of any ethnic group, becomes Kaplan’s prototype for a redesigned European Union with America playing a role something like the Habsburg state.
It is not difficult to see how such a de facto imperium evolved in the case of the United States. The American System of international law really begins with Woodrow Wilson a hundred years ago. Wilson, who grew up during the Civil War, was profoundly influenced by that disaster and deeply concerned about nationalism and its tendency to legitimate aggression, which he saw as the cause of World War I.
The Habsburgs were famous for avoiding European conflict through intermarrying, thus literally maintaining their empire for centuries by “making love not war.” The same might be said somewhat analogously for Wilson in his League of Nations project.
What the United States was doing during the post-war period, when it assumed its imperial posture, was what historical sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein calls “consolidation of hegemony”. It is what nations that have won international system-wide wars do. And Wallerstein traces this behavior in his multi-volume opus World Systems Analysis in four previous international systems – Spain in the 16th century, the Netherlands in the 17th, and Great Britain in the 18th and then the 19th Century.
Wallerstein sees the previous century of unquestioned US dominance as extending from 1945 to 1970, when NATO was beyond reproach. The emnity between the US and the USSR – and after 1949, China – reinforced each other’s hegemony of their vassal nations. This hegemony came under challenge abroad as a result of the failure of the United States to have its way in the Vietnam War abroad and wide ranging cultural challenges at home.
Voltaire said of the Austrian imperium that it was neither “holy” nor “Roman” nor an “empire”. The same cannot, however, be said of the American empire. World War I and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been fought as “holy wars” in the name of American a democratic exceptionalism that has exhibited all the religious fervor of the Crusades.
The only thing that is doubtful is its “Romanness.”
Martin Katchen is an independent scholar, teacher, and researcher living in California. He specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly the state of Israel. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney (Australia).