AuthorTopic: Alfred McCoy Breaks Down the History of America’s Geopolitical Maneuvering  (Read 175 times)

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The following is the transcript of an interview Jeremy Scahill (JS) conducted with Alfred McCoy (AM) for "Intercepted," a weekly podcast put out by the Intercept. I listened to it during my commute and was amazed and edified. You'll remember Prof. McCoy from some reviews and discussion of his recent book, “In the Shadows of the American Century," mentioned below. In this interview, one he discusses the working of Empire, you easily infer how the John Perkins phenomenon fit into the conduits of control, although he never addresses that directly.

If you are interested in listening to the entire podcast, find it here:



It also features an interview with Immortal Technique, a highly political rapper. I am NOT a fan of rap, yet the interview, and his work, was compelling.
Caveat Emptor.

Historian and Professor Alfred McCoy Breaks Down the History of America’s Geopolitical Maneuvering and How It Has Shifted Under President Trump

JS: This week, I’m in Wisconsin. It’s my home state. I’m giving some talks here. And I decided since I was in town, to check in with one of the most interesting historians of our time: Alford McCoy. He is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of the now-classic book: “The Politics of Heroin: CIA Complicity in the Global Drug Trade.” Al McCoy’s latest book is “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.”

Last summer, Al McCoy joined us on Intercepted for a wide-ranging discussion on Trump and Russia, the history of CIA interference in elections around the world, the Iran-Contra Scandal, CIA crack-cocaine epidemic, U.S. proxy wars, narco-trafficking in Afghanistan, and much more. In that interview, Al McCoy predicted that China is set to surpass the influence of the U.S. globally, both militarily and economically and he says it’s going to happen by the year 2030. At that point, Al McCoy asserts, the United States empire as we know it will be no more. He also told us that the Trump presidency is a byproduct of the erosion of U.S. global dominance but not its root cause.

Al McCoy joins me now. Al, welcome back to Intercepted.

Al McCoy: Jeremy, wonderful to be back.

JS: I want to begin with the broad situation with Donald Trump right now. It seems on the outside, and even according to some insiders, that the administration is sort of in a crumbling phase. You’ve studied authoritarian regimes through history, what is your analysis of where we are right now with this administration? Is it crumbling?

AM: Not only is the Trump administration kind of immobilized but indeed the whole U.S. foreign policy apparatus is.

Trump is unique as an American president. First of all, as we know, he alienated all the Republican foreign policy elites so he didn’t have a very deep bench to select from. He picked a man, Rex Tillerson, whose primary objective as a secretary of state is this reorganization and downscaling of the size of the State Department. And Trump then made it very clear by humiliating Tillerson every time he tried an initiative that he was running U.S. foreign policy.

It’s a hyper-centralization in the hands of one man and that man has used that concentration of power, which is remarkable under the American executive, anyway, to kind of deliver hammer blows to U.S. foreign policy.

If you look at his two overseas trips that he’s done, his main one, in May 2017, he traveled to the Middle East and Europe and at the NATO headquarters he, first of all, attacked the allies for their failure to pay their fair share, and then very importantly, he refused there to reaffirm the principle of common defense. And without common defense, NATO is not NATO. And although the White House, later on, said, “Oh yeah, we actually meant to say that,” nonetheless that just reverberated through Europe like shock waves. That’s when all of Angela Merkel said Europe and Germany have to decide their own destiny.

Then in November, he made his big trip to Asia. At the big Asia Pacific Economic Council meeting in Vietnam, he stood up and gave a full-throated defense of his anti-trade, America-first policy. He had already, in his first week of office, canceled the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the TPP, which was going to, as Obama planned it, direct 40 percent of the world’s trade towards the United States.

At that meeting, the surviving eleven members of the TPP, actually announced that they’d made progress. They are now going to inaugurate the treaty minus the United States, because Japan says that if we don’t organize the trade, China will. And China’s got a 16-nation regional cooperation pact that’s going to direct all that trade towards China.

So, in effect, both axial ends of the massive Eurasian landmass, which is the epicenter of global power, Donald Trump has used the power of the president to deliver hammer blows to the U.S. position and NATO in the West and those four critical bilateral alliances in the East: Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia.

JS: Is there an ideology at play here? Or, is there a strategy, or is Trump just sort of doing this seat of his pants and listening to a lot to generals?

AM: First of all, Trump has no strategy per se. He has some ideas he kicks around. OK, but the trouble with relying on the military is that they’re tactically very skilled. You give them a military problem, and particularly given the sophistication of the U.S. military, they will solve it. You want to invade Iraq and rip it to pieces? They can do that for you. You want to blast Syria? They’ll do that for. You want to send troops into Afghanistan? They can, they can do that.

But what they’re not good at, and what the American military has always relied on, is the office of the president to provide the strategy, the overview. And in this case, it’s geopolitics.

And we’re in a changing world, a fundamentally changing world that nobody in Washington and very few among the American foreign policy elite appreciate at all. Look, for 70 years the U.S. global power, U.S. geopolitical power, rested on, apart from the military, the diplomacy, the dominance of the global economy, all that was important, but in the geopolitics, the integration of land, people, and power, making these movable pieces on the global chessboard, the U.S. geopolitical position rested upon an axial anchor in Western Europe, another axial anchor down the Pacific literal of Asia, and then layers of steel tying together the 6th fleet in the Mediterranean, the 5th in the Persian Gulf, the 7th in the Pacific, 100s of air bases and then in the last 10 years, 60 drone bases stretching from Sicily to Guam, these layers, successive layers of steel, and then the mutual defense pacts, all of this meant that we encircled and dominated the Eurasian landmass, the epicenter of global power. And we can find China and Russia behind the Iron Curtain. Well in the aftermath of the Cold War, we were still overwhelmingly powerful, so they even though they were free to range beyond the collapsed Iron Curtain, we still dominated Asia.

What is changing now is a fundamental rearrangement in geopolitics. That China is launching this one belt, one road strategy, $2 trillion to integrate Europe, Asia, and Africa into a unitary landmass linked by a comprehensive infrastructure of roads, rails and pipelines stretching from the Atlantic all the way the Pacific, directing all that trade and power towards China.

And moreover, with global warming, the Arctic seas are melting so that world island has now got a 360-degree ambit as China pulls it together, leaving these other islands like Greenland and North America and South America to float off in the irrelevance.

JS: What is China’s strategy right now? I want to, I want to share with you something that I read in The Financial Times. “China’s largest state-owned conglomerate has expanded its stake in Erik Prince’s private security company,” — Erik Prince being the founder of Blackwater — “with an eye to expanding operations across Asia, including western China and Pakistan … which aims to provide the expertise of U.S. special warfare veterans to Chinese state companies investing abroad.”

But China was constantly hammered on by Trump during the campaign and you would have come away, just on the surface, with believing that Trump was going to really stick it to China. Is there something I’m missing? Why would it benefit quote-unquote America to have someone like Erik Prince operating in that capacity in China?

AM: The Trump Administration has an interestingly ambiguous relationship with the emerging authoritarian challenges to U.S. global power. And, mind you, in every imperial transition, unless it’s an open war, it’s a curious mix of competition and cooperation the last one we saw was a handoff, an imperial handoff from Britain to the United States, where Britain turned over base by base, country by country, to the United States, and then reduced Britain to a tertiary power and took over the residue of its influence.

What we’re looking at right now is this eruption of Russia and China out of the functional Iron Curtain to challenge dominion over Eurasia and challenge the United States for that dominion. The economic intertwining of China and United States was — the liberal, intellectual elites in Washington thought — would actually be cooperative, China would buy into the world on our terms and they bought the world order as long as it served them and now that it’s acquired $4 trillion dollars in surplus capital and access to markets worldwide, it’s now changing the terms of that world order.

Instead of the World Bank  — they don’t mind the World Bank but they’re marginal within it so they created the Asian infrastructure development bank that has 57 nations and half the money of the World Bank already.

You know, there’s NATO so they started the Shanghai Cooperation Agreement with Russia, an alternative structure. They’re creating an alternative universe. And that alternative universe is perfect for the likes of Erik Prince: Again, economic cooperation without any of the ideological trapping that the United States has insisted that’s a mark of the U.S. liberal regime — human rights, women’s rights, gay rights, environmental protection, labor protection. With China — none of that.

JS: I want to talk about the Philippines. Trump is very fond of Duterte, specifically for the very tactics and practices that much of the world condemns and human rights organizations investigate. What is it that Duterte offers someone like Trump?

AM: Duterte is emblematic of a generation of new style, populist political leaders of which Trump is a minor addition.

JS: [Laughs.]

AM: And they thunder a nationalist rhetoric, they have undertones of extreme violence. So, for example, Putin who was in many ways the first of this generation, more or less publicly murders his opponents. He started off doing it kind of quietly. But then he got rather public just gunning people down in Moscow as a show of power.

Well, Duterte not only harasses his enemies, but he has unleashed the Philippine police in this drug war, which between the police and related vigilante organizations, has killed about 8,000 people so far. This was a source of a breach between President Obama and President Duterte. Trump whose own rhetoric of violence and nationalism is very much of that same kind.

JS: I can murder someone on Fifth Avenue and it wouldn’t change anything. Right.

AM: Or I can run the biggest drone strike in history in Yemen, I can bomb Syria.

JS: Drop the mother of all bombs in Afghanistan.

AM: Exactly. The spectacular pyrotechnic plays of violence, but, in the words: We’re a global power. We don’t do our violence at home, we do it abroad.

Duterte, a regional power with no geopolitical reach, does it at home. But it’s this intertwining of the nationalism, the power, the blunt speech and the violence that’s a testimony to the power.

And there’s a paradoxical effect by combining the — the nationalism, the aura of personal power, and the violence. The violence is critical for this. They have a way of intimidating and captivating people.

JS: The way that Trump and Jeff Sessions and others in that administration talk about the police, they really appeal to police forces, sheriff’s departments around the country and encouraging them, “Oh, when you’re putting their head in a car, don’t worry about if you smack it against there. In fact, push ’em hard, it’s fine, I told you, you can do it.”

AM: Trump is also dealing with a Republican form of politics that was invented by Ronald Reagan. Reagan picked up Nixon’s drug war, and he gave it two distinct dimensions: One, attacking coca in the Andes, and two, increasing domestic penalties so that the U.S. prison population doubled under Ronald Reagan.

Look, from 1930 to 1980, for 50 years, one figure didn’t change in American public life, from Depression through the boom years of Eisenhower, we had 100 prisoners per 100,000. Today we have 700 prisoners per 100,000. And there is a political logic that Reagan, in his genius, never articulated but practiced.

So, you sweep the inner cities, round up the African Americans, fill the prisons, 53 percent of the federal prisoners of the United States are in for nonviolent drug offenses.

When they’re incarcerated, they’re off the voter rolls. When they come out, in 17 states, I believe it is — it changes — they are disenfranchised for life. Where do you put your prisons? Upstate New York. Northern Wisconsin. Areas with dying populations, you pack thousands of inner-city people who are enumerated in the census. You count those prisoners in that electoral district, but they don’t get to vote.

So who gets the voting power? The prison guards who are very conservative. So, it’s a genius strategy of disenfranchisement of African-Americans. That’s the Republican electoral strategy. It’s a couple of percentage points but you play out of that margin district after district, and before you know it you’ve got majority control of most of the state legislatures in the United States, the U.S. Congress, the U.S. Senate. It works.

JS: What are your thoughts about the special prosecutor Robert Mueller and the line of inquiry regarding Trump-Russia collusion, the 2016 election. How do you see this in the big picture?

AM: Yeah, it’s a part of that eruption of Europe, of Russia and China. And it’s not only a physical eruption of Soviet forces coming into Georgia, Crimea, Ukraine but it’s also Russia beginning to penetrate politics in Europe and the United States.

And this penetration involves not only electoral manipulation but also the use of finance as a political weapon to court allies and build influence. And Mueller, I think, by following the money, is going to lay down a trail that shows collusion between the Kremlin, Russian oligarchs, their surplus capital and loans to key members of the Trump firms, the Trump family — a pattern of financial collusion and intertwining that’s a part of this new world order that we’ve been talking about. Just like China’s dealing with Erik Prince in this bizarre way that was unimaginable during the bifurcation of the Cold War — well, Russia is doing the same thing.

JS: Well I mean one of the parts of the book that Michael Wolff wrote, “Fire and Fury,” that was, you know, all the rage for a while. One part of it that I found interesting was Steve Bannon saying that all of this leads to money laundering. That he was sort of pooh-poohing the idea that there was a political collusion, and you’re tracing it back to the old, original sin: Let’s make as much money as we can.

AM: The two are complimentary. One, collusive packs among elites across the border to build up influence, going into business, making loans and then also, you know, this very powerful media machine that Russia has that Putin operates, that can influence public opinion and shape elections.

I mean, let’s not forget: Carnegie Mellon University did an interesting study that found between 1946 and the year 2000, there were I think about 100 consequential elections worldwide that were influenced by either Russia or the United States, the United States’ influence through penetration, disinformation, bribes, and funding. 70 percent of those elections influenced by foreign powers. This was part of the apparatus of U.S. global power during the Cold War.

And now that our power is waning, once a superpower, we manipulated other people’s elections, now, as a fading, declining power, our elections get manipulated like other countries.

JS: I know the last time that we had you on the show, we talked a bit about Trump being kind of a symptom or a symbol of the decline of the American empire. You sort of characterized it as Trump grew out of this, rather than Trump pushing this decline at a faster rate as the primary factor that we’re discussing. How do you see the Trump presidency in the broader context of the scholarship that you’ve done on American empire and your thesis that states that it is in decline and that it will actually decline to the point that it’s recognizable to ordinary people and across the world?

AM: Who is the Trump figure in past imperial decline? Sir Anthony Eden. OK? Sir Anthony Eden was a British aristocrat, he was Winston Churchill’s acolyte, he worked his way up through the conservative party and although he was fluent in Persian, he became obsessed with Nasser, Nasser threatened him, angered him, upset him and when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, Anthon Eden freaked out. He lost it. And he launched one of these desperate, dangerous military operations that are the sign of a dying, declining empire, that historians called “micro-militarism.”

He sent this massive military expedition to invade and occupy the Suez Canal. He lied to Parliament about it. He concealed it from his closest ally, shattered the U.S. Alliance, he destroyed Britain’s reputation. A carefully managed imperial recessional which allowed Britain to withdraw from the world, preserving its investments, retaining its military bases, where it wanted them, suddenly that all imploded. And when it was, in a matter of months, Sir Anthony Eden had transferred Britain from a strong power moving to a strong secondary status to a kind of toothless circus lion that would roll over whenever Washington cracked the whip. Trump is that kind of man. The damage he’s doing to U.S. foreign policy, the damage he’s doing to U.S. trade relations, not only presiding of the death of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, but now with his threatened trade war, thinking trade wars are good, that slapping these tariffs, 25 percent on steel, 10 percent on aluminum, China is actually the 10th largest steel exporter of the United States. Canada’s the largest. You go down the list — Germany’s a major one. Key allies.

You know this is an attack on the economic fabric of alliances, the trade that was such a critical part of U.S. global power since the end of World War II. I mean it’s a mindless attack on that that’s provoking a revolt within the ranks of his own Republican Party, but he may plunge ahead.

And then, you know, the capacity for some kind of ill-fated micro-military operation is disastrous as the British Suez — Trump’s capacity to do one of these things is still untested. We still have three more years to go.

JS: And on that, I sometimes wonder now that we’re a year into the Trump era, if Bernie Sanders were president, and you had multiple former recent directors of the CIA, the NSA, DNI, many of the neo-conservative architects of the Bush-era foreign policy, all of those entities are in concert together in attacking Donald Trump, and this gives credibility to the notion that’s floated by Trump allies that the deep state, quote-unquote, is against Trump.

But if Bernie Sanders was president, wouldn’t you and I be sitting here saying the deep state is trying to undermine Bernie Sanders? You’ve got former directors of the CIA in bed now with the MSNBC liberals, in bed with the neo-cons and they’re all attacking Bernie Sanders? I mean there’s all sorts of caveats that need to be in place there, but we would view this, I think, as career CIA people steeped in covert action trying to undermine the democratically elected president of the United States.

AM: I think would have happened to Sanders is what happened to Obama. That Obama was two things: He was a domestic progressive and he was a very traditional American architect of global power. In fact, I put Obama up there as one of the three great American geopolitical players who tried to extend and amplify U.S. global power.

Obama had the CIA right on site. You know, he went to CIA headquarters and announced, in that controversy over torture, that that’s the past and we’re moving on. “Forget it, you guys will not be prosecuted.” I mean he was solid with the intelligence agencies. Obama was very clever in realizing that U.S. global power was declining, the defense budget was essentially unsustainable at the level and so he made a very clever shift away from expensive, heavy military. Obama’s vision was seeing the Middle East because of U.S. energy independence as a geopolitical dead end. In other words: Pull out all the forces possible out of the Middle East, reposition them to rebuild the U.S. position along the axial ends of Eurasia.

Under Obama, the Pentagon committed themselves by 2020, just eighteen months from now, that they would have 60 percent of all U.S. naval, air, space, and cyber resources, concentrated in Asia, challenging and checking China. Well, under Trump, that’s not happening.

So, Obama played a very conservative, very skillful imperial hand. He was a brilliant architect of U.S. global power. And I think Sanders, being a rationalist, would have come to the same sort of opinion. I mean, what would the calculus have been? Well the calculus has been — OK, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, maybe retrograde, but you know what? China’s treaty is even worse: the qualified environmental protections, the somewhat compromised labor protections in the Trans-Pacific Partnership — well, China’s regional cooperation has none of them. So, we may not be great, but we’re better. And so that’s what would get people on the Democratic left to play along with the idea of maintaining U.S. global power.

JS: Well then, what’s behind this strange coalition that is trying to remove Trump from power?

AM: For democratic liberals in the United States, global power is manifest in the United Nations, the World Health Organization, the International Criminal Court, this liberal apparatus of the global community.

For conservatives, it’s manifest in the other side of it, the military, the trade, the power. But both of them the can agree that America should be a major international presence, should be a world leader and they debate about the tactics but everybody agrees on the strategy and Trump is the first president that’s challenged the strategy.

So almost anybody else, you know, I think Mike Pence, I think Hillary Clinton, I think Bernie Sanders, I mean, Elizabeth Warren — you can go on and name them, they would all more or less if they were in the office, they would do as Obama did as president. They would try and become the leaders, the organizers, the preservers of power.

What’s extraordinary about Trump is that he’s not. That it’s so fundamentally misguided, that even now, in his trade policy, his party is attacking him. They have to! Because it’s devastating. It’s absolutely irrational.

JS: You have to go on a moment to go teach a course on covert action, and I wanted to just, I want to ask you to give an overview of that course for people, because I wish that it could be provided to everyone in this country that we could sort of share your teaching with the world and not just students at the University of Wisconsin, but give an overview of that course that you’re now going to teach?

AM: Sure. Within the apparatus of U.S. global power, there was that delicate duality I was just talking about between the sort of the raw power of military trade and covert operations on the one hand, and then that liberal apparatus. The United States as a global power presided over the decolonization of the globe, transforming six overseas European empires into basically 100 new nations. So this created a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the U.S. global order. The United States stood up for the UN in which every nation in the world is a member and has absolute sovereignty, inviolable sovereignty, immune to foreign intervention. And yet, as the global hegemon, the United States had to exercise asymmetric power, had to intervene.

So how do you intervene in a world order that you’ve created when you can’t intervene? You do it covertly. You do it by surrogate armies when that’s necessary. You do it by coups. Between 1958 and 1965, about a quarter of the sovereign nations on the planet changed government via military coup. The CIA was behind most of them. And then there’s the electoral manipulation.

So what we look at is all of these instruments, and the instruments are many fold: one, psychological warfare; two, covert intervention — Iran, Guatemala. And then, over time a shift via the Internet to cyber warfare, space warfare as a part of the new architecture of U.S. global power. And we’re trying to understand: What is this covert realm? This covert netherworld? And it’s this metaphysical space where criminal syndicates, the traffic and drugs and intelligence agencies that operate covertly beyond the bounds of civil society, where they interpenetrate societies.

And during the Cold War, the Soviet Union, the United States, Britain, and France they all exercised their power covertly. And as we move into the 20th century, via cyber warfare, via covert operations, U.S. Special Operations Forces are operating at any given time in 75 percent of the countries on the planet, they are the latest adjunct to this covert operettas: 70,000 strong, they give the CIA and the intelligence community boots on the ground in 140 countries in the world over the last couple of years. At any given time, they’re operating worldwide.

So we’re going to see in the 21st century, I think is more and more covert operations, the kind that we’ve seen Putin exercising, the grey men that turn up in Ukraine and in Crimea that are the cutting edge, that are sort of off-the-shelf military, the media apparatus that’s manipulating, penetrating elections in the United States.

And this part of this geopolitical contestation is going to be increasingly covert.

JS: Well, Al McCoy, thank you for giving us a seminar here that we can share with people across the country and across the world. We’ll let you get to your actual classroom. Thanks so much for joining us again on Intercepted.

AM: Jeremy, it’s been a real pleasure as always.

JS: Al McCoy is the Harrington professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He’s the author of several books. His latest is: “In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power.”
"It is difficult to write a paradiso when all the superficial indications are that you ought to write an apocalypse." -Ezra Pound


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