The year 2014 proved the West cannot yield power to emerging powers

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As the world sadly ends the year 2014, perhaps capped off with another air travel disaster in Indonesia, the geopolitical situation between the West and the East (Russia, China, and the Rest) has perhaps made the world a more difficult place to live in.

The economic implications of trying to isolate Russia (and to a lesser extent, China) have had a profound effect not only in Europe and South East Asia, but also back to the energy lands of the Middle East. Not to be heard in the mainstream media to be sure, the petroleum kingdoms of the Middle East are unsure whether they can really stand the lowest oil prices not seen in many years.

The ever sluggish economic performance of the EU has not really made the peoples of Europe more prosperous.  The search for decent jobs is still a struggle for millions, while economic activity in the continent almost solely relies on a resurgent Germany. It is widely accepted that if it weren’t for Berlin, the entire EU project could’ve fallen apart.

South East Asia remains a hotspot for territorial brawls, with China on one side, and South East Asian countries becoming more ‘assertive’ and being emboldened by the ever-present United States on the other. The situation in South America, especially with the anti-West stance of Brazil and other major economies there, is a little more bearable as the recent major elections have maintained the Leftist attitude of Latin leaders.

And yet, everywhere you look at the headlines, from the resurgent Islamic movements in Syria and Iraq, to energy uncertainties transiting the Russian-Ukraine border all the way to Europe, or to expanded American military presence in Australia, Japan and the Philippines to ‘contain’ China, the West has shown it is reluctant to yield to the powers of ‘the Rest’. The problem with this of course is the intensifying clashes from the Middle East to Ukraine, which has resulted in countless lives lost.

The scandals between the NSA and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have not even put a stop to the continued moral violations the United States is committing to the world. For instance, Guantanamo Bay still exists (which is surprising especially since Obama promised he will close it during his presidency) and those curious personalities like Edward Snowden and Julian Assange continue to be described in the West as ‘traitors’.

Drone attacks, which kill significant numbers of civilians, continue pursuing their own little “Mission Accomplished” strikes in Pakistan and elsewhere in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Under Obama, the United States has committed more of these drone sorties than his supposedly war hungry predecessor.

As the geopolitical situation in most parts of the world remain unresolved, and with no resolution in sight, we can only expect to remember this year as perhaps the major turning point in a future global conflict that might finish the human populace for good. Whether that catastrophic future will arrive or not, we can only admit that the West will still play the greater role in helping foster another century of peace, or whether they will not relinquish their centuries-old power to emerging powers and risk global annihilation.

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Obama finally hails American Exceptionalism

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After years of downplaying America’s supposed exceptionalism, Obama’s recent West Point speech finally confirmed once and for all where he stands in this who-gets-to-police-the-world creed.

From a belief in everyone else’s exceptionalism, last week’s West Point speech calls for Obama’s belief in “American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being.” He elaborated on what this means for the unsuspecting world: the US military has “the power to launch unilateral attacks when America’s interests are directly threatened.” Notice the subtle word changes: from the right to intervene when America’s “security” is directly threatened to “interests” directly threatened.

Indeed it is astonishing how American elections can mask the fundamental differences between the Democrats and the Republicans. It can be remembered Obama distinguished himself (and his party) from McCain’s and Bush-Cheney’s global conquest bidding when he famously decalred “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism” in a NATO summit in 2009.

At the time, this disbelief in a sole American exceptionalism and the enduring threat of isolationism ruffled some feathers, especially among conservatives, and was widely interpreted as vindication of Obama’s plan to retreat America from the world. This meant, first and foremost, rolling back the US war machine from overseas deployment, especially from the dreaded adventurism in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Despite Obama’s proposal to retreat from the Middle East, it can be recalled that during his first few years in office, he proposed and got Congress approval for an increase in the number of troops deployed in Afghanistan, famously known as the ‘surge’, lasting until 2012.

Now halfway into his second term, Obama is no longer a wolf hiding in sheep’s clothing; that the guessing game on what his intentions for America’s global military domination is finally over: American will remain the sole policeman of the world whether you (Russia, China, Iran, Venezuela) like it or not.

Another word change worth nothing includes the shift from “war on terror” of the Bush-Cheney years to “the capacity of terrorists to do harm” and from “coalition of the willing” to “mobilize allies and partners to take collective action.”

Obama’s term, marketed as a move away from Bush’s imperialist policies, have so far been defined by more violations of international law and by increases of some kind, including more eavesdropping (even of allied leaders), astronomical increase in the Pentagon budget, the refusal to close illegal overseas prisons, the hijacking of popular uprisings, and support for disputes against its perceived long-term enemies.

Obama ends his West Point speech in a reassuring note, just in case his audience elsewhere doubts his exceptionalist revelation: “the military that you have joined is and always be the backbone” of US “leadership.”

Europe an Ally, but an Enemy as well?

This week will see the European Summit discuss a quite unusual issue: that of America’s snooping on its allies. Barely a week has passed since the revelations that America’s NSA tapped on government phone calls from Spain and France, and now we have Germany’s top leader Angela Merkel to add to this sorry list of compromised allies.

The fresh NSA leaks showed that the NSA has been tapping on the Chancellor’s phone calls as far back as 2002.

This recent revelation by NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden infuriated both Paris and Berlin, where Merkel was quoted saying “Spying between friends—that’s just not done.” “I said that to US President Barack Obama when he came to Berlin and again on the phone [Wednesday],” Merkel said.

As hard-hitting as these relationship snippets between the Western allies are, the mood and tone Britain is quite disconnected from its European friends.

British Prime Minister David Cameron was more worried about how these things are revealed in the first place, expressing concerns that the Snowden leak “is frankly signaling to people who mean to do us harm how to evade and avoid detection”, citing the recent Kenya mall massacre. He added that “it (revelation) is going to make our world more dangerous”.

Just a few days ago, a conservative British politician called for the prosecution of the paper Guardian for publishing NSA documents and “aiding terrorism and endangering national security.” The fear-mongering official diverted the issue of America spying on its allies and instead argued that “once an adversary knows if and how we can read their communications, they will change their behavior.”

Rewind just a couple of weeks ago and you end up opening your morning papers with the less-publicized furry of Brazil’s president Dilma Roueseff over similar NSA accusations. And if you go back a decade ago, you end up with a leaked NSA memo calling for increased “surveillance of and interception of phone calls and emails from United Nations delegations crucial to the (then) upcoming Security Council (Iraq invasion) vote.”

“Everyone spies on friends”

Surprisingly for a conflict-hungry leader, Obama pacified Merkel’s anger, saying he did not know about the spying. The same air brushing language was employed by the president earlier this year: “We should stipulate that every intelligence service —not just ours, but every European intelligence service, every Asian intelligence service, wherever there’s an intelligence service — here’s one thing that they’re going to be doing: They’re going to be trying to understand the world better, and what’s going on in world capitals around the world…If that weren’t the case, then there’d be no use for an intelligence service.”

However, these days, not even his allies are impressed. French president Francois Hollande demanded the US to immediately stop any more eavesdropping, saying “we cannot accept this kind of behavior from partners and allies.”

Snowden’s status in Russia

It was August 1 when the NSA whistleblower was granted his application to seek temporary political asylum in Russia. He has since left the Sheremetyevo airport in Moscow and his whereabouts are not disclosed, although it is believed Edward Snowden might now intend to apply for full refugee status.

According to Veronika Krasheninnkova, Director General of Institute of Foreign Political Studies and Initiatives in Moscow, Russia has no choice but to grant Snowden asylum.

The Director said “this is the decision made by an independent sovereign state. Additionally, well, Russia has been left without much choice. Mr. Snowden’s passport was cancelled when he was on Russia’s territory. And furthermore when President Obama said on June 27 that he would not send fighter jets to intercept the plane transporting Mr. Snowden, and only a few days later indeed a plane was intercepted with the President of Bolivia Eva Morales on the suspicion that Mr. Snowden was on board. So in this situation it was very difficult to conduct negotiations with Washington. I think that was the only right thing to do and Russia did it.”

She also added that “what is appalling in this situation in the United States is that a young man who helped the government to fight against glaring violations of American constitutional law and International Laws instead of being helped by the government is being prosecuted. Well, that is, and President Obama who as a trained constitutional lawyer  definitely knows the Constitution, well, it is too bad that they have to face hundreds plus years of prison rather than indeed being helping those cases being investigated and the true perpetrators of these violations being punished.”

Social Upheaval of the Times: A New Perspective

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The span of time since the unraveling of socialism a little over twenty years ago has given us, contemporary observers, the opportunity to look at this event with unprecedented depth and a bigger perspective. Indeed, that span has uncovered and brought back from obscurity the real factors that contributed to the collapse of this ideology, very much like how history is vindicated well after it has unfolded. What is obvious to us today surely was not clear for that age’s participants and observers, thus, a better say on what truly happened, from the personalities who betrayed socialism to the unwelcome external elements that intervened, is aching to be told especially in this time of mass protests in Europe and privacy scandals plaguing America.

Almost exactly twenty years before the financial blunder of the West, Eastern Europe was undergoing a major political transformation; the masses are confronted with a choice that would dictate how their lives will be from then on: to keep under socialism or to succumb to the allure of the supposedly more democratic ways of their Western neighbors. The reverse is true today: Americans are increasingly becoming aware but less patient with how they should be governed, from how taxpayer money should be used in times of crisis to how their private lives are eroded by an increasingly paranoid government. Without realizing it, people are citing elements of socialism to serve as antidote (Occupy Movement) to the woes of contemporary life in ‘the land of the free.’ In Europe, calls for a loosening of the highly bureaucratic and elitist European Union is needless to say, gaining more ground as state after state succumb to strings-attached-ridden bailouts and the claws of austerity measures eating at people’s welfare and ultimately, their existence.

How can you preach ‘democracy’ when you treat your citizens with distrust, as with the recent Manning-Assange-Snowden expose reveal? In fact, even America’s allies can’t escape this inexorable surveillance menace. How can you preach ‘more integration’ for the so-called European Union if you continue to keep out the assignment of management of the continent beyond the approval of citizens? Such trappings were the wedge of classic anti-socialist/communist rhetoric during the Cold War. Can we look at who’s speaking now? Indeed we can, with the help of what others call “the ordeal of careful scrutiny.”

With Age Comes Greater Understanding: The Truth behind Socialism’s Collapse in the 1980s

The typical Western triumphalist thinking has all the success-over-socialism-the-enemy covered in the Cold War dialogue, where claims rest mostly in the belief that socialism is doomed from the beginning, as was the case with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. In the specific case of the dissolution of the USSR, there are six theories that try to ‘explain’ why socialism failed, including:

  • flaws of socialism
  • popular opposition
  • external factors
  • bureaucratic counter-revolution
  • lack of democracy and over-centralization, and
  • the Gorbachev factor

The first theory argues that socialism was doomed from the start because it had an inherent anti-human nature flaw. It is misguided thought because it requires a predisposition that socialism in the USSR should’ve failed before even more pressing challenges, such as collectivization or the Nazi invasion, had gripped the relatively young socialist state.

The second theory subscribes to the idea that popular opposition brought down socialism in the Soviet Union and even Eastern Europe. However, subscribers to this theory fail to explain the fact that a real opposition to Gorbachev did not turn out in the beginning of his reforms. To begin with, mass discontent did not appear during Gorbachev’s early years as General Secretary. Moreover, surveys showed that people were actually satisfied with their lives and the system.

While others falsely believed that, some were comfortable with blaming external factors as behind the collapse of socialism in the Soviet Union. Proponents of this theory believe in the pressure that Reagan put on the reforming Soviet system, especially on military terms. On the contrary, despite rhetorical musings, there is no evidence of such triumphalism, especially on the buildup of arms that was supposed to ‘bankrupt’ the Soviets into spending. In fact, archives show that the American military buildup was not reciprocated by the armed forces of the Soviet Union. Proponents of this theory fail to cite the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan and the plan of Gorbachev to end conscription in the military as well as the eventual reduction of the armed forces.

The fourth theory promote the belief that as Gorbachev’s reforms unleashed forces beyond the control of the state, slow-moving leaders were left with no choice but to ride the waves of a fast-emerging market economy by privatizing state assets for their own wealth. Although some in the elite saw an opportunity in the unraveling of the centralized economy, it was motivated by their interest in hanging on to power, rather than subscribing to the return of capitalism.

The fifth theory traces the root of the Soviet collapse to the inability of the state to “democraticize”, at least in the Western sense of the word. However, over time, the meaning of democracy changes. In Roger Keeran’s and Thomas Kenny’s thesis, neither capitalism nor liberalism has an exclusive claim to democracy. To be sure, democracy came to the United States in gradual terms, and was constantly improved as rights became more pervasive and expanded. In fact, ‘popular participation’ was built-in in the Soviet political and decision-making system. Indeed, the spread of power was even more dispersed than in a Western democracy. As for over-centralization, scholars miss the fact that the USSR was the first socialist country to embark on such economic path; there is no guarantee the plan will work, but nevertheless it produced a system that will achieve the goals of socialism, including free education, housing, guaranteed jobs, zero-inflation and others.

The sixth theory also has the trappings of an incomplete thesis: that Gorbachev was the man to blame, especially because of his abandonment of traditional communism. There is no denying that Gorbachev’s policies unleashed wanton forces beyond his control. However, few recall that his earlier policies where a mirror of Andropov’s reforms. At best, this theory fails to fully convince, especially since Gorbachev, according to Keeran and Kenny, “was both a legatee of a certain tradition and the product of his times and not just a lone factor making history.”

Rebuffing Western Though on the Collapse: Other Areas of Discussion

Even after the end of the First World War, it is undeniable that the Soviet people underwent a major upheaval, when the country retreated from the major war and succumbed to civil war. To think that the ‘crisis’ from 1985 onward was an insurmountable challenge would therefore be invalid, after all, the USSR had survived far greater calamities after the Second World War.

Although the economy of the USSR was slowing down in the 1980s, economists still saw the single digit GDP growth as manageable, one that did not threaten the stability of the country’s economy. Although the price of oil surely caused trouble to Soviet finances, adjusted for inflation, the price of oil was higher than in the previous decade.

The Soviet Union’s military and diplomatic standing is correctly judged as having accomplished or managed well it’s objectives in the 1970s through to the 1980s. Even with Reagan’s military buildup, especially with the threat of SDI, this did not receive serious attention by military and economic planners in the USSR; simply SDI was treated as unfeasible in the short to medium term. Years later, historian Adam Ulam would quip that in 1985, “no government of a major state appeared to be as firmly in power, and its policies as clearly set in their course, as that of the USSR.”

The real situation then was, as with the previous decade, the USSR of the 1980s was a stable one, with no unemployment, no inflation, no mass protests and strength in its foreign policy. There were problems, but there was clearly no real crisis that can threaten the country’s existence. Perhaps more importantly for a country that had many autonomous republics and regions; there were no observable conflicts among its nationalities and ethnicities.

Even with a one-party system, the Soviet bureaucratic machine had many decision makers from top to bottom. Millions participated in the collective soviets, which are institutions of power. More than 150 million workers were involved in unions, and contrary to bourgeoisie denunciations, these institution are not ‘fake’ and functioned with vitality and much room for policy. As for the people themselves, a referendum as late as 1991 showed that the majority of Soviet people (75 percent) where in favor of keeping the Union intact.

Indeed even during the end of the 1980s and early 1990s, the Soviet central planning in politics and economics was more complex than ever because of the expansion of the economy and the increased freedoms of its people. In fact, as Roger Keeran says “it was the erosion of planning and the flowering of the second (underground) economy that raised barriers to economic growth in the USSR.”

As for the Soviet leader himself, Thomas Kenny rightly observes that “we do not believe that Gorbachev ever acted consciously at the outset to betray socialism and restore capitalism. In contrast to Andropov, who was a deep and genuine Marxist-Leninist, Gorbachev was a brilliant actor…without great theoretical preparation” but that over time Gorbachev “took the conscious decision that he was no longer a communist, but a social democrat…he no longer believed any more in planning, social ownership of the means of production, the role of the working class, socialist democracy.”