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Looking into America’s dark places

Sankaran Krishna
15 February 2007

Michael Lind believes that a "concert of power" strategy based on dialogue between global great powers is a better way for the United States to conduct its foreign policy than the currently prevalent unilateralist model. The latter, however, commands a wide and bipartisan following, and its commitment to US hegemony is shared by US Democrats and Republicans alike.

Lind correctly believes that in the "competitive multipolar" world of today, such American Lone Ranger-ism is suicidal, as evident in the quagmire in Iraq. While pessimistic about a "concert of power" strategy informing US foreign policy anytime soon, Lind suggests that talking and coordinating policies, with Syria and Iran (at the regional level) and Russia, China and other world powers (at the global level) offers a possible way out of Iraq for the US. Such a global concert, moreover, is even more essential for curtailing Iran's nuclear ambitions and its threat to Israel and US interests.

Sankaran Krishna is responding to the article by Michael Lind:

"What next? US foreign policy after Bush" (12 February 2007)

Also in openDemocracy:

Mary Kaldor, "America’s Iraq plight: old and new thinking" (13 February 2007)

Richard Falk, "On a collision course with the future"
(14 February 2007)

Lind's recommendations reflect the thinking of Henry Kissinger, whose first book, A World Restored: Metternich, Castlereagh and the Problems of Peace, 1812-1822, was a paean to the diplomatic virtuosity and skilful balance-of-power strategies of Klemens Wenzel von Metternich, once foreign minister of the Austro-Hungarian empire, and especially his partnership with Lord Castlereagh, his English counterpart. Their joint conducting of the "concert of Europe" is credited (in the lore of international relations and diplomatic history) with inaugurating one hundred years of peace, from 1815 to 1914.

Kissinger's diplomatic career can be seen as a vainglorious attempt to relive the conservative Metternich's life in the 20th century, especially the idea of a concert of great powers maintaining stability through steady-handed statecraft and geopolitical dexterity.

The problem is that the "hundred-years peace" is a Eurocentric fiction: 1815-1914 was one of the bloodiest centuries ever, if one counts the millions slaughtered in colonial conquests and competition all over Asia and Africa by and among European powers. By a sleight of semantics, such European massacres of natives do not besmirch the hundred years of "peace" because they did not involve direct wars between sovereign (white) powers. From this vantage-point, Metternich's achievement was to displace great-power conflicts from European soil to the non-western world.

Lind inherits the limitations of Kissinger's model just as fully as the latter inherited those of Metternich. Kissinger believed, as Lind points out, that the way to victory in Hanoi would be through Moscow and Beijing. This underestimated the power of Vietnamese nationalism, which was thoroughly shot through with anti-colonialism (against the French, Americans and Chinese).

Three questions

To think that China or the Soviet Union could stifle the Vietnamese desire for independence showed Kissinger's obsession with a theory of "balance of power" politics and ignorance of the actual history of Vietnam or southeast Asia. Today, Lind argues, a solution in Iraq or the way to bring Iran "around" is for the United States to ratchet up the pressure by working together with regional and global powers. I am sceptical that this will work, for three reasons.

First, as in Vietnam during the era of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, the US is thinking of a "concert of power" mode of diplomacy today not from a position of strength but one of impending defeat in Iraq. The US is fooling no one when, after years of unilateral arrogance, it suddenly wishes to consult with regional and global powers.

Second, if the only point of a great-power concert is to dominate smaller, third-world nations, all it amounts to is imperialism-by-condominium instead of unilateralism. As a century-long record of decolonisation and third-world resistance shows, such strategies will ultimately fail.

Third, since Lind proposes widening the circles of analysis, I would suggest the most important circle has to enclose the US domestic socio-political realm and ask the following questions (for beginners):

  • why has there been no credible opposition to the Iraq war from within the two major political parties?
  • why have so many senators and congressmen, like sheep, participated in the assault on the core tenets of a democracy?
  • why are such serious assaults being ratified with a degree of unanimity in the US congress that rivals the Soviet politburo in its Stalinist heyday? Why, even after the results of last November's elections, do we still not see a single, credible anti-war candidate on the horizon? Are states like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's Iran pariah, as Lind has it, or is it the US that is the true threat to the survival of the planet?

I wish Michael Lind would turn away from the warmed-over theories of a war criminal like Kissinger to the connections between the profoundly undemocratic character of US domestic politics and foreign policy. It is there that one might find the political means to stop the US from its disastrous middle-east adventurism.

Ultimately, his analysis reminds me of someone looking for his wallet underneath the streetlight, not because he lost it there but because that is where the light is.

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