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Maxim Suchkov: America has a problem with love and fear

Uncle Sam doesn’t know whether to look for affection or to coerce other states into towing the line. The elites need to make up their mind

The US presidential campaign is not only a central event in the country’s social and political life, but also a time for reflection on the big issues: where America is going, what is its place in the world. And what it should be. 

In this sense, this year’s candidates’ rhetoric towards each other is quite revealing. Biden and the Democrats never miss an opportunity to tell voters that under Trump, Americans will be ashamed that their great country is represented by a psychopath, and allies will shun the US like lepers. Trump and the Republicans, for their part, insist that their country is being led by an old senile man whom no one in the world respects.

Old-timers in the foreign policy establishment are watching all this with concern and trying to speak out. Usually cautiously, albeit clearly. The leading journal Foreign Affairs recently published an interview with former CIA director and defence secretary Robert Gates, headlined “Is Anyone Still Afraid of the United States?” On the one hand, the 80-year-old tried to cheer up his fellow citizens by saying that the US navy is of higher quality than China’s, that Russia is not as strong as it likes to appear, and that Moscow and Beijing have never had – and will never have – an alliance. But on the other hand, Gates calls the United States a “dysfunctional power”, complains about partisan divisions, “uncertainty” within the US domestically and allies’ anxiety about a possible Trump victory. It’s all a mess.

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An accomplished Sovietologist who served as the nation’s top intelligence officer under Bush senior and top military officer under Bush junior, and in between was president of one of America’s leading universities, Texas A&M, Gates has long been an outsider among his own. But he has always stood up for the interests of the establishment at difficult moments for the country. And now, as American politics has descended into unbridled buffoonery, Gates is trying to impress upon politicians what he sees as the most important message: “We are no longer feared, so we are no longer respected.”

In the early 1990s, when Washington was celebrating victory over the USSR, proclaiming “the end of history” and believing that the whole world would now rise up under the banner of liberal democracy and the market economy, Gates became head of the CIA. The main task at the time was to make the most of the “unipolar moment” –  to widen the gap between the US and its competitors, to turn yesterday’s enemies into friends, friends into allies, and them make them all vassals. Another fashionable concept of the time – which still occupies the minds of many internationalists – was “soft power”. This justified America’s global dominance by virtue of the appeal of its culture (music, cinema, education). No one wanted to argue with this, especially when videotapes of action films like Rambo and Terminator, and later the queues at the first Moscow McDonald’s, clearly proved the validity of such an ideology. American pop culture made the world extremely permeable to American ideas and interests. The task of various structures, including the one headed by Gates, was to make as many ordinary people (and politicians, of course) around the world fall in love with America, believe in the myth of the “American Dream” and adopt it as their way of life.

As the “unipolar moment” faded and the international environment became more difficult for the US, it became more and more difficult to get others to feel the love. Especially after the bombing of Yugoslavia. A brief period of global sympathy for the Americans after the attacks of 11 September 2001 was replaced by outrage over the invasion of Iraq. Even some of the closest NATO allies did not approve of the illegal intervention. In the post-Soviet space, attempts at “colour revolutions” – to replace rulers who did not love America fervently enough – were somewhat effective in the short-term, but exacerbated disagreements with Moscow.

Vladimir Putin’s manifesto speech at the Munich Conference in 2007 signalled the end of the romance with the US, not only for Russia but for many other countries as well. Most states were still open to American cultural and educational products, but Washington’s policies were increasingly perceived critically. In acute situations, dissatisfaction with America as a power was projected onto cultural images associated with it – images of windows broken at McDonald’s, Stars and Stripes set on fire, etc. 

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Gradually, American soft power collided with its use of hard power. Washington used NGOs to invest billions in public diplomacy and educational exchange programmes, in the manipulation of “civil society” and the media. However, Washington’s coercive actions undermined efforts to win the sympathy of the world’s peoples.

Meanwhile, Gates returned to Washington as head of the Pentagon to rescue the Bush Jr. administration from the fiasco in Afghanistan and Iraq. Led by Vice President Dick Cheney, the team was less concerned with winning the love of the rest of the world than with Theodore Roosevelt’s principle: ‘If you’ve got them by the balls, their hearts and minds will follow.”

The term “neoconservatives” is associated more with Republicans. In fact, it is a large and influential bipartisan, ideologically charged, group in the establishment for whom the primacy of “make them afraid of us” over “encourage them to love us” is unquestioned.

Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory swung the ideological pendulum in the opposite direction, favouring love over fear. Administrators from the Clinton presidency returned to the White House, and Obama himself spoke of ‘inclusion’, a new globalisation and hopes for a democratic revival. Gates was the only secretary of state to retain his post under the new Democratic president. Even during the election campaign, Obama had promised to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus, a pragmatic, cross-party Secretary of Defence seemed the best solution. The aforementioned Roosevelt had an apt saying for this case: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick”. Obama was responsible for the former, Gates for the latter. “However, the “big stick” did not help much: by the end of the 2010s, pro-Iranian forces were ruling a fragmented Iraq, and in Afghanistan, attempts to put an end to the Taliban (an organisation banned in the Russian Federation) by increasing the US contingent and allocating astronomical sums of money to the authorities in Kabul did not yield results. 

Gates was hardly personally to blame, but his belief that the measure of success was a fearful enemy did more harm than good. The final straw for this policy came in Libya in 2011, when Gates commanded an invasion of US troops to help rebels overthrow Muammar Gaddafi. Two months later, on 1 July 2011, Obama awarded Robert Gates the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest US award. Since then, American policy has alternated several times between intimidating the rest of the world and trying to win back its “love”.

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Donald Trump, who replaced Obama, did not so much consciously try to scare the world as to frighten it with his eccentricity and unpredictability. Biden began by trying to restore, if not love, then at least sympathy for America – a number of his initiatives were designed to do just that. But the pile of international problems that had accumulated by the time he was elected, coupled with his cynical principle of “walking and chewing gum at the same time” (i.e. co-operating where it is profitable and maligning the rest), became a natural constraint on policy. After the start of the Russian military operation in Ukraine, America returned to the “fear-mongering” mode. Moscow’s offensive became a new excuse for the US establishment to mobilise, and use fear to keep other Western allies in line.

Interestingly, the US has stopped loving itself and is actively reaching for nostalgia in own identity and the recent past – especially in culture and politics. The resulting yearning for a time when America was “great” calls for efforts to regain that greatness by any means necessary.

Whether leadership should be based on fear or love is one of the key questions in the theory and practice of leadership. In his sixteenth-century treatise The Prince, the Florentine thinker and politician Niccolo Machiavelli argued: “The answer is that one would like to be both the one and the other; but because it is difficult to combine them, it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.” This maxim has been adopted by many rulers in different historical periods. But problems began for those who forgot that Machiavelli went on to warn:“a prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred.”

This article was first published by Profile.ru translated and edited by the RT team

April 15, 2024 at 02:00AM

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