Exercise in double standards
Joe Biden’s forthcoming ‘summit for democracy’ is all about securing US hegemony, argues Daniel Lazare
Fans of ‘Roadrunner’ cartoons always relish the moment when Wile E Coyote freezes in mid-air after running off a cliff. He looks down at the canyon floor, looks back at the audience, looks down again, and then gulps before plummeting thousands of feet below.
American imperialism has been frozen in a similar state for years. It was more or less on solid ground back in the 1980s, when it was still immersed in its crusade against the Soviet bloc - aka ‘the evil empire’. But the Soviet collapse of 1989-91 left it unmoored. After a series of jolly romps in Panama, the Persian Gulf war, and the Balkans, post-Soviet unilateralism gave way to the forever wars of post-2003. The more the troops slogged on, the more Americans demanded to know what it was all for.
Now Joe Biden is trying to rev up imperialism with a new theme: democracy versus autocracy. The effort kicks off next week, when, starting on December 9, more than 100 countries are expected to participate in a virtual “summit for democracy” to discuss corruption, authoritarianism, human rights and other such problems.1 Although no-one knows what comes next, presumably it will entail an abundance of mutual back-scratching and applause, followed by more coups, as the trend toward dictatorship accelerates. Already, one think tank says that “the number [of countries] moving in the direction of authoritarianism is three times the number moving towards democracy”.2 So the process will likely continue, as pressures build due to the economic slowdown, climate change and a pandemic that just will not quit.
The upshot, as ‘democratic imperialism’ further unravels, is that Wile E Coyote will once again go crashing to the floor. This is how empires die - not with a bang or a whimper, but with endless diplomatic gabble.
Not that the news about the summit is all bad, since the US state department - determined not to look too ridiculous in the eyes of the world - was careful to leave the most egregious offenders off the list. Thus, Saudi Arabia will not be attending despite its long-standing partnership with the US, and neither will ultra-dictatorial petro-states, such as Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Also off the list are El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras - three disaster areas, in which corruption, racism and brutality are all off the charts. Ditto Hungary and Turkey, whose authoritarian tendencies are rampant and whose strategic value as far as Washington is concerned is growing less and less.
Other non-invitees, on the other hand, were a foregone conclusion from the start. China is off the list, because it is guilty of a double sin in US eyes: making too much money by manufacturing goods the US no longer chooses to make and then using the profits to create a powerful military defence system in order to ward off an angry and jealous US bent on revenge. Next is Russia, whom the US constantly accuses of aggression because it insists on opposing aggression by Nato, as it pursues its relentless drive to the east. Iran is persona non grata because it signed a nuclear accord with the US that Washington no longer cares to honour. And then there is Cuba, whose crime is similar: ie, resisting a 60-year US economic siege, aimed at restoring the corrupt old Batista regime or something very close to it. The only thing worse than pissing Washington off is refusing to accept American punishment in return.
Then there are small fry, such as Nicaragua, which has infuriated the US by repeatedly disregarding instructions not to vote president Daniel Ortega back into office; Bolivia, which had the temerity to oppose a US-backed coup d’état in April 2020, and Syria, whose chief offence is failing to submit to sectarian slaughter at the hands of pro-al Qa’eda head-choppers, funded by the US and Saudi Arabia.
What does it all mean? Simply that ‘democracy’ is America’s latest rationale for lining up a global majority against a small number of ‘rogue states’ that, for one reason or another, have come into its line of fire. Since the Biden administration assumes that democracy is something that everyone agrees on, then it figures that everyone will line up behind a Washington-led crusade against those it regards as not making the grade. The fact that other countries’ sins are worse has nothing to do with it. If the US says that China and Russia are undemocratic, then that is all that counts and the rest of the world should join in the US drive to isolate and harass them.
To paraphrase the political theoreticians, Rodgers and Hammerstein:
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people the Americans hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught …
And the US?
What makes it even worse is the fact that US is in no position to judge. As threadbare as American imperialism appears post-Afghanistan, American democracy is looking even worse. Every day brings a new horror, as the country’s 18th century political structure continues to disintegrate. An unelected Supreme Court is preparing to overturn ‘Roe v Wade’ - the 1973 landmark ruling guaranteeing the right to abortion. Republicans are redistricting such battleground states as Texas, North Carolina, Ohio and Georgia in order to lock in political control for years to come.3
The acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse - the teenager who used an assault rifle to kill two people and injure a third during a night of political unrest in Kenosha, Wisconsin - is an invitation to white backlash, vigilantism and civil war. The fact that Republicans are rallying more strongly than ever around the big lie that Biden stole the 2020 election does not bode well for elections in 2022 and 2024.
If US democracy is retreating at home, then where does America get off advising others how to build it abroad? Incapable of confronting its own problems in an honest manner, all America can do is blame others for its woes, while clapping itself on the back ever more enthusiastically.
Meanwhile, the invitation list grows odder and odder, the closer one looks. Colombia is a country marked by bitter class warfare and violent police repression, in which killings of community activists have reached levels that Amnesty International describes as “shocking”.4 But, since it is a key partner in the US drug war as far back as the 1980s, it gets an invitation, while neighbouring Venezuela - a thorn in Washington’s side since the rise of Hugo Chávez in the late 1990s - does not.
To absolutely no-one’s surprise, Israel makes the cut, even though it tramples human rights on a daily basis. This is the case not only in the occupied territories, but in the Jewish state itself, where not only Arabs, but hundreds of thousands of ex-Soviet immigrants and their children, are treated as second-class citizens, because they do not qualify as Jewish according to rabbinic law. With the Jewish share of the population now down to less than 48% in ‘greater Israel’ - the entire zone under effective Zionist control from the Jordan to the Mediterranean - Israel is more and more a Herrenvolk state, whose democratic ties are increasingly frayed. Yet all that the United States cares about is that it is the reigning military power in the Middle East and therefore can do no wrong.
Then there is Iraq, which received an invitation for opposite reasons: ie, because Washington cannot bring itself to admit that nearly 20 years of US military occupation have resulted in a country nearly as broken as Afghanistan. Poland made the cut, even though it is a Catholic crusader state marked by xenophobia, anti-Semitism and anti-gay bigotry. But what do such trifles matter, as long as it is a reliable military ally that happens to share a border with Russia and Belarus? With a combined population of nearly 1.6 billion, India and Pakistan are both too big to fail and too strategically situated to ignore, which is why Washington has invited them as well, despite menacing Hindu authoritarianism, on the one hand, and growing Islamic jihad, on the other. Indonesia is a stronghold of Saudi-sponsored Wahhabism, but it too makes the grade, because Washington needs it to fill out its growing anti-China alliance in the western Pacific.
The point is clear: Biden’s summit is less about democracy than about shoring up US strategic interests. During the height of the cold war, the two camps were separated by a clear class line, with workers’ states, deformed or degenerated, on one side and capitalist powers on the other. But today’s line-up could not be more confused. China may still be a workers’ state in some attenuated sense, and so might Cuba. But others on the US ‘enemies list’ fall into a whole slew of different categories: nationalist, religious fundamentalist, social democratic, neo-tsarist and whatnot.
Since they have little in common with each other, the only thing that unites them is negative, which is to say a refusal to bow to US dictate. This is not because they are stubborn or unreasonable, but because doing so would be tantamount to suicide. In the case of Russia, for instance, Nato is not only clearly aiming at encirclement, by extending membership to Georgia and the Ukraine and establishing a pro-EU government in Belarus, but break-up and dismemberment of the sort that Zbigniew Brzezinski recommended in 1997.
This is when he wrote in his best-seller, The grand chessboard, that the ultimate solution to the Russian problem was to break it up into three parts: “a European Russia, a Siberian Republic and a Far Eastern Republic”.5 In the western Pacific, US control of the South China Sea means bringing US naval power right up to China’s doorstep - a situation that the United States would not tolerate for an instant if Chinese warships suddenly took to patrolling off the coast of Hawaii or California. In Cuba, Iran, Nicaragua, etc, the US goal is nothing less than Libyan-style regime change, in which people like Ortega might well end up swinging from a rope.
Unlike the mafia, the US insists on making offers that such countries cannot possibly accept. So its fallback position is to isolate the refuseniks, punish them with economic sanctions and embargoes, and then cajole the rest of the world into going along. ‘Democracy’ is the latest American battle cry, but it is the least convincing of all.
Biden’s “summit for democracy” is an exercise in double standards and little else.
For the full list of participants, see: www.state.gov/participant-list-the-summit-for-democracy.↩︎
International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance Global state of democracy report 2021 Stockholm: www.idea.int/gsod/sites/default/files/2021-11/the-global-state-of-democracy-2021_1.pdf.↩︎
Z Brzezinski The grand chessboard: American primacy and its geostrategic imperatives New York 1997, p202.↩︎