21st-Century US Foreign Policy Is Shaped by Fears of China’s Rise, Chomsky Says

Is China’s increasing influence on international affairs a threat? The United States and Britain, its closest ally, think so. In fact, the U.S. and China rivalry will dominate world affairs in the 21st Century. This geostrategic game will see some states other than the west security community, such India, play a significant role in the new stage imperialism. The U.S. can no longer dictate unilaterally and is a declining power, as Noam Chomsky highlights in this exclusive interview Truthout, the decline of the U.S. is “mostly from internal blows.” As an imperial power, the U.S. poses a threat to world peace as well as to its own citizens. In the event that Trump is elected president in 2024, there is a radical plan to destroy any remaining democracy in the United States. The plan could be enforced by other Republican winnable dictators. What’s next for U.S. imperial power, and its impact on the world stage?

Chomsky is emeritus institute professor in the department of linguistics and philosophical at MIT and laureate Professor of Linguistics and Agnese Nelms Haury Head in the Program in Environment and Social Justice of the University of Arizona. One of the world’s most-cited scholars and a public intellectual regarded by millions of people as a national and international treasure, Chomsky has published more than 150 books in linguistics, political and social thought, political economy, media studies, U.S. foreign policy and world affairs. His latest books include The Secrets of Words(with Andrea Moro, MIT Press, 2022); The Withdrawal: Iraq and Libya, Afghanistan, and the Fragility Of U.S. Power(with Vijay Prashad; The New Press 2022); The Precipice: Neoliberalism, The Pandemic and The Urgent Need for Social Change (with C.J. Polychroniou; Haymarket Books, 2021).

C.J. Polychroniou: Noam, western powers are responding to China’s rise as a dominant economic and military power with ever-increasing calls in favor of bellicose diplomacy. U.S. General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a recent trip to the Indo-Pacific that China has become more aggressive in the region and the Biden administration has described it as a “pacing threat.” Rishi Sunak, currently the leading candidate to replace outgoing prime minister Boris Johnson, said China is the U.K.’s “biggest threat.” Sunak has promised to ban Confucius Institutes, learning centers funded and run by an organization affiliated with the Chinese government, from the U.K. if he becomes the next prime minister. What does this say about imperialism in 21st-century America?

Noam Chomsky: It might be helpful to briefly examine the history of the fears and then the geostrategic context of their current manifestations. We are speaking here of the West in a narrow sense, specifically the Anglo-American “special relationship,” which since 1945 has been the United States with Britain a junior partner, sometimes reluctant, sometimes eager to serve the master, strikingly in the Blair years.

These fears have a wide reach. They go back to 1917 in the case of Russia. Secretary of State Robert Lansing warned President Wilson that the Bolsheviks were appealing “to the proletariat of all countries, to the ignorant and mentally deficient, who by their numbers are urged to become masters… a very real danger in view of the present social unrest throughout the world.”

Lansing’s concerns were reiterated in different circumstances by Secretary of State John Foster Dulles 40 years later, when he lamented that the U.S. is “hopelessly far behind the Soviets in developing controls over the minds and emotions of unsophisticated peoples.” The basic problem, he elaborated, is the Communist “ability to get control of mass movements . . . something we have no capacity to duplicate…. The poor people are the ones they appeal to and they have always wanted to plunder the rich.”

These are the recurrent fears of the privileged throughout history.

Scholarship substantially agrees with Lansing’s concerns. The acknowledged dean of Cold War scholarship, John Lewis Gaddis, traces the Cold War back to 1917, with the Bolshevik challenge “to the very survival of the capitalist order… a profound and potentially far-reaching intervention by the new Soviet government in the internal affairs, not just of the West, but of virtually every country in the world.” The Bolshevik intervention was what Lansing recognized: working people around the world might take note and react, the feared domino effect, a dominant theme in planning. Gaddis goes on to argue that the Western (including U.S.) invasion of Russia was a justified act of self-defense against this intolerable challenge to what is right and just, what is now termed “the rule-based international order” (in which the U.S. sets the rules).

Gaddis was appealing to a concept that the U.S. War Department in 1945 called “logical illogicality,” referring to the postwar plans for the U.S. to take control of most of the world and surround Russia with military force, while denying the adversary any comparable rights. The superficial observer might regard that as illogical, but it has a deeper logic, the War Department recognized — a logic called “imperialism” by the unkind.

Today, the U.S. defends its self against Eurasian threats using the same doctrines as logical illogicality. The U.S. expands NATO, an aggressive military alliance, to its Western border. At the Eastern border, the U.S. defends itself by establishing a ring of “sentinel states” to “encircle” China, armed with high precision weapons aimed at China, backed with huge naval military exercises (RIMPAC) aimed not very subtly at China. All of this is part of the more extensive efforts at encirclements, jointly with “subimperialist” Australia, which we have discussed earlier, borrowing Clinton Fernandes’s term and analysis. One effect could be to increase China’s desire to attack Taiwan to free itself from the encirclement, and allow them open access to the oceans.

It is obvious that there are no reciprocal rights. Logical absurdity.

Always the actions are in “self-defense.” If there was a violent power in history that wasn’t acting in “self-defense,” it would be helpful to be reminded of it.

Fear of China is more visceral because it draws from deep racist currents which have poisoned American society from its beginnings. In the 19th century, Chinese people were kidnapped and brought to work as virtual slaves to build railroads as the nation expanded to its “natural borders”; the slur that was applied to them (“coolie”) was an import from Britain, where Chinese workers also served as virtual slave laborers generating Britain’s wealth. Chinese people trying to settle in Britain were subject to racial attacks. Chinese laborers were prohibited entry for 10 year under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. Chinese were also banned in the racist 1924 immigrant act, which was primarily aimed at Jews and Italians. Many were sent to gas chambers after being denied entry to America.

Yellow Peril hysteria was reawakened in the 1950s, after China’s stunning defeat of MacArthur’s army in Korea. These fears are common and vary widely in nature. At one level, Lyndon Johnson warned that without superior air power, unless we stop “them” in Vietnam, “they” will sweep over us and take all “we” have. At another level, when Congress breaks its GOP-imposed logjam to pass legislation to reconstruct collapsing infrastructure and the crucial chip industry, not because the U.S. needs them but to overcome the challenge of China’s development.

There are other imminent threats that could endanger our survival. Russia is the main threat right now. The Chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Adam Schiff, draws on deeply rooted cultural maladies when he warns that unless we stop them in Ukraine, they’ll be attacking our shores.

There is never a dearth of terrifying enemies, but the “heathen Chinese” have always conjured up special fears.

Let’s turn from understandable paranoia about the poor who want to plunder the rich to the second topic: world order and imperialism in the 21st century, and the intense U.S.-U.K. geopolitical concerns about an emergent China.

It’s useful to recall the experience of our predecessor in global dominance. An island off the coast of Europe, Britain’s primary concern was to prevent unification of Europe into a force beyond its control. Similarly, though magnified far beyond, the U.S. and its western hemisphere domains can be regarded as an “island” off the coast of the Eurasian land mass — which is the basis for world control according to the “heartland theory” of Halford Mackinder, a founder of modern geopolitics, whose thoughts are now being revived by global strategists.

Extending the logic of imperial Britain, then, we would expect the U.S. to be seeking to prevent unification of the “heartland” as an independent force, not subject to U.S. domination. The self-defense activities at the western and eastern edges of the heartland also fit into place.

Conflict over the unification of the coreland has been a prominent theme in post-1945 history. During the Cold War years, some European initiatives were made to build a unified Europe with Russia that would be an independent force for world affairs. Charles de Gaulle was a prominent advocate of such ideas. There were also echoes in Germany. They were defeated in favor of the Atlanticist system. It is NATO-based and largely controlled from Washington.

The collapse of the Soviet Union gave birth to the idea of heartland unification. The idea of a “common European home” from Lisbon to Vladivostok was advanced by Mikhail Gorbachev, who looked forward to transition to social democracy in Russia and its former domains, and to a coequal partnership with the U.S. in creating a world order based on cooperation rather than conflict. These topics are the subject of extensive scholarship. explored in unusual depth by historian Richard Sakwa.

Predictably, the U.S. — the island off the coast of Eurasia — strongly opposed these initiatives. Given power relations and the dominant doctrine about the Kremlin’s conspiracy to conquer the globe, they weren’t much of a problem throughout the Cold War. With the collapse of Soviet Union, this task took on new forms. With some wavering at the margins, the U.S. quickly adopted the policy of “enlargement” of the Atlantic power system, with Russia participating only on subordinate terms. Until recently, coequal partnership proposals were still being made during the Putin years. They were “anathema to those who believe in enduring hegemony of the Atlanticist power system,” Sakwa observes.

Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, after dismissing tentative French and German efforts to avert the tragic crime, have settled the issue, at least for now. For now, Europe has succumbed to the Atlanticist doctrine, even adopting the formal U.S. goal of “weakening Russia” severely, whatever the cost to Ukraine and well beyond.

For now. Russia and Germany-based Europe will likely fall apart without integration. Russia, with its vast natural resources, will likely continue to drift towards the massive China-based Eurasian project, the Belt-and-Road Initiative, (BRI), which is now expanding to Africa, and even Latin America.

Europe will be more inclined to join the BRI, a strong temptation already. The German-based integrated production system in Europe, stretching from the Netherlands to Russia’s former Eastern European satellites, has become the most successful economic systemThe world. It relies heavily on the huge export market and investment opportunities in China, and on Russia’s rich natural resources, even including metals needed for transition to renewable energy. Abandoning all of that, along with access to the expanding global BRI system, will be quite a price to pay for hanging on to Washington’s coattails. Such considerations will not be absent as the world system takes shape in the wake of the COVID crisis and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

The question of Eurasian Integration in a Common European Home falls within a wider framework, which cannot easily be forgotten. Either the great power will work together to overcome ominous global crises. Or they will march to oblivion.

It might seem impossible to imagine such cooperation today because of the bitter antagonisms. It is possible to achieve this idea. In 1945, it was not less possible to imagine France, Germany, England and other smaller European powers working together in a Western Europe with no borders and some common institutions. They have their internal problems and Britain recently pulled out, threatening to become a U.S. satellite. It is still a stunning reverse of centuries of mutual destruction that reached its zenith in the 20th century.

Taking note of that, Sakwa writes, “What for one generation is a sad delusion, for another becomes a realistic and necessary project.” A project that is essential if a livable world is to emerge from today’s chaos and violence.

China-Russia ties have deepened after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though there are probably limits to the partnership. Is there anything else to this strategic relationship between two autocratic countries other than the concern for limiting U.S. influence and power? What extent could the U.S. use the potential tensions and divisions in Sino-Russian relations as it did during Cold War era?

The Cold War record is instructive. Even when Russia and China were close to war, the U.S. kept insisting on the immense threat posed by the imagined “Sino-Soviet alliance.” Something similar was true of North Vietnam. Its leaders realized that China was their real enemy. The U.S. could destroy Vietnam with its incomparable violence, but it would disappear. China would be a permanent threat. Planners in the United States refused to listen.

Kissinger’s diplomacy belatedly recognized the facts and exploited China-Russia conflicts. I don’t think that carries lessons for today. The circumstances are different.

Putin and his associates appear to be dreaming of a Russian-based sphere that could occupy a separate place between the China-based and Atlanticist global systems. It does not seem likely that this will happen. China is more likely than not to accept Russia as its subordinate, providing advanced weapons, raw materials, scientific talent, and possibly more.

The Atlanticist power and their Asian subimperial friends are becoming increasingly isolated on the global scene. The Global South is mostly aloof and does not join in with sanctions against Russia. Despite having serious internal problems, China continues to develop, invest, loan programs abroad, and technological advancements at home. It is far ahead in the fast-growing sector of sustainable energy and has just shocked the world by creating a super advanced chip. Although it is still years away from production, it is a key part of the modern advanced economy.

There are many uncertainties. However, it seems reasonable to assume that these tendencies continue. If there is a break it could be the unwillingness of German-based Europe not to continue to feel the effects of subordination within the Atlanticist system. With major implications for the world order, the benefits of a common European home might become more attractive.

China, Russia, as well as the U.S. are trying to lure India. What is India to be concerned about in a strong Sino/Russian partnership. Can the Quad trust India to cooperate fully in achieving its objectives in the Indo-Pacific?

Before discussing India’s foreign policy concerns, let’s not forget some stark facts. South Asia is facing major disaster. The extreme heat of summer is already making it impossible for many to survive, and the worst is yet to come. India and Pakistan should cooperate in dealing with this and other related crises like the management of diminishing water resources. Instead, both countries are committing scarce resources to unwinnable military conflicts, which is unacceptable for Pakistan.

Both countries have serious internal problems. In India, PM Modi has been leading an effort to destroy India’s secular democracy, which, with all its flaws, is still one of the great achievements of the post-colonial era. His program aims to create a racist Hindu ethnocracy. He is a natural member of the growing alliance of states that share similar characteristics: Hungary, Israel, and its Abraham Accord partners. They are closely linked to the core sectors in the GOP. That’s aside from the brutal repression of Kashmir, reportedly the most militarized territory in the world and the scene of harsh repression. His occupation of foreign territory qualifies him again for association with Abraham accords. These include the other two cases, Israel and Morocco, of criminal annexation/occupation.

All of that is part of the background for addressing the serious questions of India’s international relations.

India is currently engaged in a difficult balance act. Russia remains by far its major source of arms. It is involved in a long-running and increasingly serious border dispute with China. It must be concerned about the Russia-China alliance’s growing strength. The U.S.-run Quad (U.S.-Japan-Australia-India) is intended to be a core part of the encirclement of China, but India is a reluctant partner, unwilling to fully adopt the subimperial role. It joins the rest the Global South in refusing involvement in what they view as a U.S. Russia proxy war in Ukraine. India can’t go too far in alienating America, which is a natural ally in the context of the emerging GOP-centered alliance reactionary states.

It is a complex situation all in all, even ignoring the immense internal problems facing South Asia.

The U.S. is in political and socio-economic turmoil and could be in the middle of a historic transformation. Its influence has been declining in recent years. The institutions of the United States are under attack by dark and reactionary elements. In fact, the U.S. democracy is in serious decline and there is talk of a radical restructuring plan for the federal government in case Donald Trump returns in 2024. How much has the overstretch of imperialism contributed to the decline in the domestic society? And how can domestic politics influence foreign policy decisions? Is a declining U.S. more or less likely to pose a threat to global security and peace?

For decades, there has been much talk about the U.S.’s decline. It does have some truth. It’s hard to find a historical precedent for the U.S. peak power. It was 1945. That obviously couldn’t last and has been declining since, though by some measures U.S. power remains about as it was then, as Sean Kenji Starrs shows in his important studies of control of wealth by transnationals.

This topic is well-researched and discussed elsewhere. The narrower question remains: the U.S.’s recent decline is mainly due to internal problems. It is serious. Mortality is one of the most important measures. The headline of one recent study reads: “America Was in an Early-Death Crisis Long Before COVID.” The study goes on to show that “Even before the pandemic began, more people here were dying at younger ages than in comparably wealthy nations.” The data are startling, going well beyond even the “deaths of despair” phenomenon among working-age white Americans that has led to increasing mortality, something unheard of apart from war and pestilence. This is only one of many striking indicators of how the country has been crumbling socioeconomically, politically, and politically since the neoliberal attack was put in place by Reagan-Bush and Clinton and their successors.

The “radical plan” to undermine the remnants of American democracy was announced a few days before the November election, and quickly forgotten in the ensuing turmoil. It was revealed only recently in an Axios investigation.The idea is to reverse all the programs from the 19th Century to create an apolitical civilian service, an essential foundation of a functioning democracy. Trump issued an executive ordering granting the president (intended for him or Him) the authority fill the top ranks in the civil service with loyalists. This was a step towards the fascist idea of a powerful party controlled by a Maximal leader. Biden reversed the order. The Congressional Democrats seek to pass legislation that would prohibit such an attack against democracy. But Republicans are unlikely not to support this bill. They are anticipating that their many efforts to establish their permanent rule over the minority party will be successful. The reactionary Roberts Court might be a good fit.

More could be on the way. The Court accepted an unusual case. Moore v. HarperThe Court could approve this bill, which would allow state legislatures (mostly Republican due to well-known GOP structure advantages) to elect electors who reject the popular voter and remain loyal to their party. This “independent state legislature theory” does have some constitutional basis but has been considered so outrageous that it has been dismissed — until now, as the GOP hurtles forward in its campaign to hold on to power no matter what the irrelevant population wants.

It doesn’t seem to me that the GOP campaign to undermine democracy results from imperial overstretch. There’s a good deal of valuable scholarshipAbout its roots and nature, which seem to lie elsewhere. They are primarily seeking power.

It’s not clear what the impact would be on foreign policy. Trump is a loose-leaf cannon who has no clear idea other than ME. He also has a penchant for wrecking whatever anyone else has helped construct — while always adhering very closely to the primary principle: Enrich the super-rich and corporate power, at least that part that doesn’t veer to some criticism of his august majesty. His GOP competitors are so fearful of his power over the masses voting base that they speak very little.

It is easy to see the implications of Trump’s actions in this domain for global security and peace. Trump’s triumphs in this domain were to greatly enhance the two major threats to survival of organized human society: environmental destruction and nuclear war. He was a wrecker for both. He pulled out from the Paris climate agreements and did his best to remove regulations that could somewhat mitigate the impact on Americans. G.W. Bush started the GOP program. He continued it. Bush) to destroy the arms control system that was laboriously designed to reduce the threat to nuclear war. He also destroyed the Joint Agreement with Iran on Nuclear Policy (JCPOA), which was in violation of the UN Security Council endorsement. This further exacerbates global threats.

What he might do on particular issues is anyone’s guess. Maybe he was just listening to something he heard. Fox News.

The idea that the world’s future might soon be in their hands is almost beyond belief.

There’s no shortage of vital tasks ahead.

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