American Geopolitics: Believing Impossible Things

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By YVES SMITH*

America's hubris in the face of the war in Ukraine and its growing obsession with China are not sticking as the propaganda has begun to dissipate very quickly.

Back when financial piracy struck fear in the hearts of the American corporate world, mergers & acquisitions professionals were the big stars of the business media. One of the main investment and management firms at the time, Lazard Frères (today Lazard Asset Management), prided himself on his skills in freak psychology, otherwise known as managing CEOs. One of his most important pieces of advice to them was the danger of believing your own public relations propaganda.

In the American corporate world, there is a virtuous risk that falsehood may be discovered by competitors, by speculators (“short sellers”), whistleblowers (“whistleblowers”) or simply by carefully reading the financial audits. That said, it is notable that Jack Welch held reality in check for a long, long time, to the detriment not only of General Electric, but also of its many imitators.

By contrast, in politics, avoiding reality is usually the key to a long career with a successful façade, as witnessed, for example, by Eurocrats' fondness for “pushing with the belly” strategies. This propensity becomes particularly dangerous when certain political elites show themselves to be selfish and short-sighted. Indeed, there was a time when many people joined government because of its core functions, not because of the revolving doors.[1] and networks of influence. There was also a time, before the rise of global elites, when the powerful had ties to specific physical communities, and some were interested in their progress. In other words, even if there were plenty of social climbers and mediocre ones at the helm, there were often enough people in the room who were concerned about the long-term risks to police predatory behavior.[2]

Today, however, the improvement in advertising effectiveness has emboldened politicians and their media amplifiers/allies to indulge in selling big lies. And the worst thing is that there are no consequences for the miscreants. The revelation of how the first systematic use of propaganda was made on a large scale, by the Creel Committee in 1917, during what was then called the Great War, scandalized the American public. In a relatively short span of time, this multi-channel campaign transformed American opinion from lighthearted to furiously anti-German, through fabricated reports about atrocities such as German soldiers bayonetting babies to death. A wide examination of conscience was carried out, as well as reviews by people like Walter Lippmann, about the need for specialists to interpret not only technical information, but also matters of general interest, for citizens who are intrinsically incapable of perceiving reality, due to prejudices and truncated information.

More recently, however, not only have overconfident storytellers become overconfident, but this attitude has been dangerously inflated in the wake of such abject inventions as Iraq's weapons of mass destruction and the Russiagate. It even seems that Americans are remarkably eager to become students of the White Queen, of Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll:

"How old are you?" asked the queen.

"I'm exactly seven and a half years old."

“You don't have to say 'exactly'” – objected the queen. “I can believe without it. Now I'll give you something to believe: I'm only one hundred and one years, five months and one day."

"I can not believe this!" Alice said.

"You can not?" - said the Queen said in a tone of pity. "Try again! Take a deep breath and close your eyes.”

Alice laughed. “It's no use trying,” she said. "You can't believe in impossible things."

"I daresay you just haven't had much practice," snapped the Queen. “When I was your age, I always practiced half an hour a day. Today I believe up to six impossible things before breakfast.”

America's arrogance in the face of the war in Ukraine and its growing obsession with China are not sticking, as the propaganda has begun to dissipate very quickly in the Global South, and is losing its potency in the West itself. It's hard to maintain the pretense of an inevitable and resounding victory in Ukraine after the fall of Bakhmut, as Volodymyr Zelensky made the city's resistance the centerpiece of his grand fraternization in the US Congress last December. Oh! But Ukraine still tries to deny that the city was lost, just as it did with Mariupol and Soledar until well after the fait accompli.

Or how about Ukraine firing 30 Patriot missiles in about two minutes, which is about 10% of the annual output destined for all countries, in an unsuccessful effort to stop a hypersonic Kinzhal missile? or that the usually highly visible Ukrainian Commander-in-Chief, General Valerii Zaluzhny, has been lost in action for weeks, and that Ukraine, echoing rumors that he was seriously wounded in a Russian bombing raid, presents old footage of him as if they were current?

Analogously, trying to intimidate countries that had no reason to take sides to align themselves against Russia, and then doubling down on the intimidation, would be nothing more than confirming President Vladimir Putin's speech about the old colonial powers trying to reassert their historical role of explorers? This new cold war ended up seeing many countries prefer to move to the supposedly “anti-democratic” side of the Iron Curtain, much to the impotent rage of the West.

The United States and NATO need to maintain an image of success in Ukraine, because that adventure quickly devolved into a bizarre public display of the coalition's guts, peppered with arguments among NATO members over who really should dump their military stockpiles in favor of cause – not to mention the shadow that hangs over less public discussions about Ukrainian refugees. Even as the press in countries of the “collective West” has become cheerleaders for war – despite recent (and increasingly insistent) admissions that such bravado is watering down – there is a growing feeling among United States and even in certain parts of Europe (such as Germany), that the bellicose enthusiasm of the pedestrian citizen is waning.

Another problem is that NATO is simply not suited to this purpose. It was designed with defense in mind, with many nations configuring their own weaponry, consistent with their own logistical pipeline. (Wouldn't it be better to share the meat quotas and then share the roast, as the European Union successfully did with Airbus?). Brian Berletic, Colonel Douglas Macgregor, and Scott Ritter have explained at length why delivering disparate, mostly new, weapons systems to Ukraine is a recipe for failure. As if all this were not enough, insofar as NATO forces have only experienced combat in minor wars and against insurgents, none of that experience can help in the case of Ukraine.

Balkanized weapons systems are, in fact, symptomatic of NATO's lack of cohesion at the institutional design level, which is now being tested by this conflict to its breaking point. Article 5 of its statute is often invoked, incorrectly, as the basis of a mutual defense pact, of the “one for all and all for one” type. In fact, all that Article 5 obliges member states to do, in the event of aggression against one of them, is to take whatever measures they deem necessary. Each state decides on its own whether it wants to commit armed forces or… whatever else it may be.

Likewise, US officials may have been telling themselves the tale that most of the world would view China with suspicion because of its often overheated rhetoric and its hypersensitivity to others' scorn. But those self-comforting beliefs about China's position on the world stage received a serious warning when China brokered the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and later Syria. Now China is creating even more problems by roaming the backyards of the United States (like Europe), advertising its own out-of-the-hat Ukraine peace plan. This program may not go anywhere, but the Chinese moves alone have the effect of casting the country as a peacemaker for conflicts (as opposed to the United States, which tries to fan them), intensifying the already visible divisions within the Atlantic Alliance.

So America's efforts now to pretend that everything is going well already look a bit tattered. Without exaggerating the analogy, the United States seems to be in a strange phase of the Kübler-Ross paradigm of the five stages of grief, which are: denial, anger bargaining, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. There is still a lot of denial. Just look at the expectations surrounding the great Ukrainian counter-offensive, which intends to change the game one day, after many deliveries of revolutionary weapons, such as drones Bayraktars, Javelins bazookas, HIMARS missiles and Leopard tanks, in addition to other efforts deposited in unduly optimistic messages, made in very unfavorable conditions in the theater of operations. Zelensky has just given two self-sabotaging talks, to the Arab League and the G-7, full of rage about how much more support he is entitled to and what the hell he is in.

Most intriguing, however, is the strange bargain, much like the death bargain of the Kübler-Ross model, which is to bargain with yourself. For some time now, at least since General Mark Milley's quickly deflated test balloon last November, there has been more and more commentary by experts, and even government officials, about how Ukraine should deal with Russia, after some experience of retaking land, to improve the country's position in the negotiation.

Of course, the idea that Russia would negotiate just for the sake of appearances is illusory. As former Indian diplomat MK Bhadrakumar reminded readers in his last article, Vladimir Putin warned Ukraine and its supporters last July that the longer the conflict lasted, “the more difficult it would be to negotiate with us”. And that was before Angela Merkel and François Hollande bragged about their double game in securing the Minsk Accords, prompting Putin to make bitter statements about the mistake of trying to cooperate with the West.

Vladimir Putin has a history of striving not to repeat mistakes. Russia was already describing the United States as “unable to sustain agreements” even before the Minsk revelations. And even though there was regime change in Washington, Putin has repeatedly seen presidents make commitments to him that they then renege on. He – perhaps charitably – attributed this to a permanent bureaucracy, which is really in charge.

The United States is again negotiating with itself to approve the supply of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine by allies. They try to claim that this is not an escalation because they will not be used against Russian territory, ignoring the Russian view that not only Crimea but also the four oblasts already annexed are now, legally, Russian territory.

Russia's sour response, via the TASS agency, was: "Western countries remain on the path of escalation, and Moscow will take into account its plans to send F-16 aircraft to Ukraine, said Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko, to TASS on Saturday.”

“We can see that Western countries are still stuck in an escalation scenario, which carries huge risks for them. In any case, we will take this into account when making plans. We have all the necessary means to achieve our goals,” he said on the sidelines of the 31st Assembly of the Foreign and Defense Policy Council, when asked to comment on the possible supply of F-16 aircraft to Ukraine.”

A new taste of copium (antidepressant/antifrustrating) Western is the latest idea of ​​a "frozen conflict" tossed in a trial balloon in the magazine Politico: “American officials are considering the growing possibility that the Russia-Ukraine war could turn into a frozen conflict lasting many years – decades perhaps – and join the ranks of similar protracted clashes on the Korean peninsula, in South Asia and beyond. . Options discussed by the Biden administration for a long-term “freeze” include where to draw potential lines that Ukraine and Russia would agree not to cross, but which would not have to be official borders. Discussions – albeit tentative – took place at various US agencies and at the White House.”.

Again, this is intellectual masturbation. The United States is obviously talking to itself. It became increasingly clear to the Russian side that the war must be continued until Ukraine is decisively defeated. This means that Russia dictates the terms and installs a puppet regime or, somehow, manages to carry out the scenario suggested by Dmitri Medvedev, in which Poland, Hungary and Romania eat pieces of Western Ukraine and leave “Ukraine” something like a Big Kiev, that is, too small to serve as a platform for anything.

It is possible to consider that Russia could create a demilitarized zone – which is not the same as agreeing with the West on one – creating a very large de-electrified zone, where only some version of survivalists of Eastern Europe could inhabit. And now that the West has decided to deploy long-range Storm Shadows missile launchers, that zone would have to be at least 400 kilometers wide, to keep Russian territory out of range of any attack.

On China, the US position is also internally oriented and therefore inconsistent. As we and others have already pointed out, the US hawks looking to China have been quietly feuding with Russia haters for some time. The implicit commitment that Russia would be dispatched quickly so that the United States could turn against China is not working. Anti-Chinese camp hardliner Charles Brown is expected to replace General Mark Milley on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, but that may not be enough to shift the US focus decisively to China and allow the Ukraine is silently abandoned. Joe Biden, Anthony Blinken and Victoria Nuland are all heavily engaged in the “beat Putin” project and will likely be unable to let go of it. Furthermore, with close to $100 billion already invested, some congressmen are likely to demand results or an explanation.

The last display of the anti-China front was the G-7 meeting, which gave resolute signs of hostility to that country. Admittedly, the official statement it was delivered in flabby NGO language, beginning with a nod to UN principles and membership in Ukraine “for as long as it takes”.

But then the barbs against China emerge. For example: “We will uphold international principles and shared values: (…) to strongly oppose any unilateral attempt to change the peacefully established status of territories by force or coercion, anywhere in the world, reaffirming that the acquisition of territory by force is prohibited. (…) We stand together as G7 partners on the following elements, which underpin our respective relations with China: We are prepared to build constructive and stable relations with China, recognizing the importance of engaging openly and expressing our concerns directly to China. We act in our national interest. It is necessary to cooperate with China, given its role in the international community and the size of its economy, both in global challenges and in areas of common interest”.

“We call on China to engage with us, including in international forums, in areas such as the climate and biodiversity crisis and the conservation of natural resources under the Paris and Kunming-Montreal Accords, addressing the debt sustainability of vulnerable countries and the financing needs, global health and macroeconomic stability”..

“Our policy approaches are not designed to harm China nor do we seek to impede that country's progress and economic development. A growing China that abides by international rules would be in the global interest. We are not dissociating or turning inward. At the same time, we recognize that economic resilience requires risk reduction and diversification. We will take steps, individually and collectively, to invest in our own economic vitality. We will reduce over-dependencies in our critical supply chains.”

“With the aim of enabling sustainable economic relations with China and strengthening the international trading system, we will seek a level playing field for our workers and companies. We will seek to address the challenges posed by China's non-trade policies and practices that distort the global economy. We will fight evil practices such as illegitimate transfer of technology or disclosure of data. We will promote resilience to economic coercion. We also recognize the need to protect certain advanced technologies that could be used to threaten our national security without unduly limiting trade and investment.”

There is much more, but the excerpt reproduced already understands its essence. There is much to criticize, but the mentions of “not trying to harm China” and “not decoupling, but reducing the risk” seem particularly suggestive.

The interpretation of Financial Times of the G-7 statement, in the form of a feature story was: the G7 issues the strongest condemnation of China in stepping up the response to Beijing.

Yet somehow Joe Biden thinks that all this backbiting will lead to better relations, as if China were some sort of battered wife who meekly accepts abuse as something better than neglect. Another article from pink newspaper, suggests that Joe Biden expects an imminent “thaw” in relations with China: “Joe Biden said he expects to see a “thaw” in US relations with Beijing, even after concluding a G7 summit in Japan that made an effort together to combat threats to China's military and economic security. The US president told a news conference at the end of the three-day summit that talks between the two countries had broken down after a "silly balloon" carrying spy equipment flew over North America in February before being shot down by the military. North Americans".

Yes, the fact that the US and China are talking now could technically be considered an improvement in relations, but that's not saying much. The “silly balloon” remark comes into play as Joe Biden seeks to shift the blame to China and downplay the hysterical response from the United States. And that's not going to make things better. Furthermore, the G-7's attitude is offensive, as if it were the defender of territorial integrity, when it is the United States that is persistently promoting and financing separatism in Taiwan.

Confirming the idea that any improvement is no more than marginal, the May 12 press conference (as in the pre-G7) with Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin, the France-Press Agency asked him why an eight-hour meeting between the Director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, Wang Yi, and Jake Sullivan produced no more than small notes. The response was concise and contained a nugget: "The two sides have had frank, in-depth, substantive and constructive discussions on ways to . . . stabilize the deteriorating relationship." This points to extremely low expectations on the Chinese side.

The interview also included a detailed complaint about the act of the american congress that it no longer considers China a developing country; and that it instructs the State Department to pressure the World Trade Organization, as well as other international organizations, to revoke China's developing nation status. Wang Wenbin cited the main criteria by which China can still be considered as a developing nation, and argued that the United States does not have the authority to change this status internationally.

Chinese responses were measured until a reporter asked about the expectation that the G-7 would, as it did, accuse China of practicing economic coercion. From the official translation:

“If any country should be criticized for economic coercion, it should be the United States, which has overextended the concept of national security, abusing export controls and taking discriminatory and unfair measures against foreign companies. This seriously violates the principles of market economy and fair competition”.

“According to media reports, the establishment of sanctions by the United States government increased by 933% between 2000 and 2021. The Trump administration alone imposed more than 3.900 sanctions, or three a day on average over four years. More than 9.400 sanctions went into effect in the United States through fiscal year 2021. The United States has imposed unilateral economic sanctions on nearly 40 countries, affecting nearly half of the world's population.”

“Not even the G7 members were spared from US economic coercion and bullying. Companies such as Japan's Toshiba, Germany's Siemens and France's Alstom have all fallen victim to US repression. If the G7 Summit is going to discuss the response to economic coercion, perhaps it should first discuss what the US has done. As host of the G7, would Japan express some of these concerns to the United States, on behalf of the rest of the group, which has been bullied by the Americans? Or at least sketch out some real words?”

“Rather than a perpetrator, China is a victim of US economic coercion. We have firmly opposed economic coercion by any country in the world, and urge the G7 to embrace the trend towards openness and inclusion in the world, stop forming exclusive blocs and not become complicit in any economic coercion.”.

As this article is already extensive, I refrain from reporting further Chinese reactions to readers, but the Global Times, the Chinese government's English-language channel, insists that the G7 has turned into a “anti-China workshop” and that, contrary to world trends, a manipulative G7 is, yes, criticizable for its exclusivism.

The net Bloomberg signaled how much this G-7 was not a great success: “United States-China relations should improve “very soon”, says Biden / G-7 struggles to win over indecisive nations courted by China and Russia / Ukrainian leader’s plans to meet Lula at the G-7 fail / Biden's focus on Japan's G-7 is disturbed by the dispute in Washington over the public debt”.

That kind of thing would normally just be scary, like watching a TV broadcast. Britain's Got Talent (British TV talent show) where a performer enthusiastically performs a bad number, lacking any self-awareness to allow him to realize how bad he has done. But here the stakes are much higher, and we will all have to deal with the consequences.

*Yves Smith is the pseudonym of Susan Webber, economist specializing in management consulting, founder of the alternative economic media site Naked Capitalism.

Translation: Ricardo Cavalcanti-Schiel.

Originally published in Naked Capitalism.

Translator's notes


[1] In the United States, this term is used to express the transit back and forth between government positions and directing/advising companies, think tanks and other institutions, which lead to socially and financially successful careers.

[2] I'm not saying the old system was wonderful. He bequeathed us, for example, Vietnam and a suspicious fondness for regime change operations. But there was much less open corruption.


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