Vengeance and global order
The fates of two journalists have an ominous significance for the rest of us, argues Paul Demarty
Misfortune is piled on top of misfortune for Alexei Navalny, the anti-Putin journalist.
Having apparently been poisoned with a Novichok nerve agent in August, it now transpires that his assets have been frozen in Russia - ostensibly as a result of a defamation case brought by a catering company that caught the attention of Navalny’s anti-corruption foundation. Given the diplomatic sensitivity of the Navalny saga, it is difficult to see how this could have happened without the connivance of the Russian state.
Navalny’s case continues to poach a few column inches from coronavirus and the US election - but the same cannot be said for the extradition hearing of Julian Assange. The Wikileaks founder is being packaged up for delivery to the tender mercies of the US administration, on espionage charges that could land him up to 175 years in prison. His lawyers argue that he has no reasonable expectation of a fair trial in America, which is true, but, more pertinently, his treatment in these hearings is utterly scandalous. Though open in theory, the hearing has been conducted in something close to secrecy. Public access to the courtroom has been limited, ostensibly due to Covid-19; human rights NGOs have had their access to the video stream cut off; and the bourgeois media has effectively boycotted the story entirely. It has fallen to journalists outside the mainstream to cover what is essentially a stitch-up that would embarrass Yezhov and Beria.
We do not propose to rehearse every dirty trick used by American prosecutors and an obedient British judiciary here - the anti-war activist and writer, Craig Murray, has been covering the trial day by day in extensive detail, and readers should consult his blog if they would like to be better informed - or simply feel depressed and helpless.1 The grim coincidence of Assange’s probably inevitable extradition and Navalny’s poisoning is instructive, however: though the two events are apparently unconnected, they may be expressions of a worrying trend towards more overtly vengeful forms of politics and statecraft.
The poisoning of Navalny clearly follows on from that of the British double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter, Yulia, who were the victims of a Novichok attack in Salisbury two years ago. Though the US pursuit of Assange has been going on for a decade, the Trump administration has brought a more nihilistic thirst for retaliation, and signalled its intentions by hurling Assange’s old source, Chelsea Manning, back in jail for contempt. Secretary of state Mike Pompeo is on record, also, as seeking the execution of the whistleblower, Edward Snowden, for treason, and is unlikely to be the only Trump appointee with that goal. Of course, it is not only the Americans and Russians who are up to such tricks, and surely no recent act of state retribution against an individual can match the gruesome murder and dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul - clearly by agents of Saudi crown prince Mohammad bin Salman.
Acts such as these are distinguished from the venerable profession of political assassinations by their apparent geopolitical uselessness. The Israeli state is probably the most notorious contemporary practitioner of old-fashioned state murder, and targets individuals with the express purpose of sowing chaos and discord among the Palestinian movement and its other enemies. It is difficult to know how far this has actually worked, as opposed to Israel’s various other tactics of creeping ethnic cleansing, border wars, terroristic bombing campaigns and fraudulent ‘peace plans’; but these assassinations have a straightforward instrumental purpose nonetheless.
Compare Khashoggi’s murder. Though only a handful of junior officials faced ‘justice’ for the crime, and presumably nobody important ever will, the net result was to expose as a laughable fraud MBS’s ‘moderniser’ image, and to focus more unwelcome attention on Saudi crimes than ever. Before his murder, Khashoggi was just an obscure journalist in a liberal broadsheet; now he is a synecdoche for the stoning and crucifixion of political and religious dissidents still routine in Saudi Arabia, the appalling cost of the war in the Yemen, and the apparent incompetence of the crown prince himself. The local government of Washington DC is in the process of renaming the street on which the Saudi embassy stands, in honour of Khashoggi. Though Donald Trump refused to countenance any sanction for the crime, he did so in such openly transactional terms that the moral scandal of western support for this despotic kingdom was, if anything, emphasised.
That, to be sure, is an unusually counter-productive example. The Putin regime’s attempt to rub out Navalny was made in the reasonable expectation that there would be no meaningful consequences. Navalny’s extraction to Germany has rather the effect of emphasising this. Germany (and much of the rest of Europe) is highly dependent on Russia for fossil fuel imports. A new natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany via the Baltic sea (Nord Stream 2) has been in limbo since American sanctions were imposed last year; but Nord Stream 1 still exists, and a more roundabout route was found through Bulgaria to supplement the existing supply. Angela Merkel may huff and puff, but at the end of the day Germany needs the gas, and the gas is in Russia. Thus the apparently remarkable level of prevarication on the part of Berlin.
As for the United States, its political dysfunction is such that its political class can no longer consistently produce presidents who will pay attention to the geostrategy poindexters at the state department; thus the embarrassing situation whereby Russia is subject to strategic encirclement, at the same time as the US president is widely suspected to be ambivalent at best in his attitude to this supposed enemy.
The irony of Assange’s case is, of course, that he is also suspected of crypto-Putinism by liberal-imperialist opinion. Leaked messages suggest that Wikileaks’s publication of internal emails of the Democratic national committee, exposing the cynicism with which the 2016 presidential primary was rigged in favour of Hillary Clinton, was an attempt by Assange to throw the election Trump’s way. Assange seems to have really believed in Trump’s isolationist rhetoric and considered him a lesser evil than Clinton, and in a certain sense he was correct to do so: Trump has not been sucked into any further military quagmires, though he has often made the ones he inherited from Bush and Obama worse and emboldened America’s more warlike client states (notably Saudi Arabia and Israel).
If Assange calculated that Trump would show gratitude, then he guessed very badly. Trump’s electoral strategy is built on the sense of affronted national pride among conservative Americans, who hope that they might revenge themselves on their enemies through him. Those enemies include whistleblowers and others providing proof of the ignobility of American militarism, and so certainly include Assange. If the latter is accused of working as a Russian agent, then so much the better - Trump can use him as a scapegoat and claim that he has ‘fixed’ the problem of ‘Russian interference’ the Democrats have been whining about.
It is from this perspective - from Trump’s carefully cultivated self-image as a vulgar instrument of revenge - that the geopolitical uselessness of these acts is revealed as merely apparent. There is a rationale, which takes the form of ‘low’ politics and electoral theatre, but in fact expresses something important about the global situation. It has long been an electoral tactic to engineer a crisis, or else a solution to a crisis. There is even a word for it in the US - an ‘October surprise’, after the early-November timing of presidential elections in that country.
The novelty of the Trump regime was expressed most clearly in the run up to the 2016 election; having said something approving about Putin, Trump was confronted by an interviewer with Putin’s record of political assassinations and regional political interference, and retorted that the US was hardly on the side of the angels on either of those matters. There was a great deal of pearl-clutching at this - perhaps the most absurd wave of outrage ever directed at Trump, since his riposte was so evidently true. Trump did not, however, mean to signify that he would not resort to revenge in this way; merely that he would dispense with the pretence of national nobility. He would tell us all what we already knew, but dared not say: that international relations under capitalism is a violent struggle for the top spot. Trump could be trusted to fight unencumbered by the ever more threadbare ideology of American moral leadership.
A change at the level of appearances is not necessarily unimportant, however. If there is a clear line from Daniel Ellsberg to Chelsea Manning and Julian Assange, there is also a clear line between them, which is that nothing is done in secret. The open glorying in repressive force - also highlighted by Trump’s recent demands for the “most vicious dogs” to be let loose on protestors - communicates something important, both to domestic opponents and to those abroad.
And at the level of international politics, the significance is clear - a swerve away from liberal-imperialist multilateralism towards negative-sum games between great power blocs. Such shifts usually start slow, but have a ‘tipping point’: it is rather like that classic negative-sum game, the prisoner’s dilemma, in that pious multilateralists - requiring as they do their ‘partners’ to operate in good faith - will always lose against sufficiently powerful adversaries who choose to fight dirty, and thus will tend to be supplanted by nationalist-revanchist types. Once America fell into that column in 2016, liberal global policy began to look spectacularly stupid in foreign offices the world over.
The fate of Assange and Navalny signifies, on one level, the prickliness of two major state regimes about people who dare to expose their corrupt, murderous and incompetent operations; but beyond that also a tectonic drift towards great power war. That tipping point may come sooner than we expect.