February 05, 2009

Rope-a-Dope: The Chump Factor in U.S. Foreign Policy

Dear Friends:

Here's the sequel to the "Conspiracy" article, posted below. There will be one more in the series, which I'll post in a few days (stay tuned). Both of these were/will be posted at www.bestcyrano.org.

Rope-a-Dope: The Chump Factor in U.S. Foreign Policy*

In my previous article (posted at Cyrano’s Online Journal on 24 November 2008), I wrote about the unconscious mythologies, or “Conspiracies,” that have guided U.S. foreign policy for a long time now. Chief among these is the belief, going back to 1630, that America is God’s chosen nation, a “city on a hill,” put on this earth for other countries to learn from and emulate. It is not too much to say that the vast majority of Americans are under the impression that everyone on earth, in their heart of hearts, harbors the hope of becoming an American some day, and that it is the sacred mission of the U.S. to bring the American Way of Life to all the peoples of the world.

Looking at such a belief-system from the outside, it comes off as being not merely arrogant, but frankly demented; and yet, it really is what most Americans believe. In this regard, it is supported by a second mythology, that of the “civil religion” of the United States, whereby what is actually worshiped is the nation itself. Taken together, these two “Conspiracies” have an enormous hold on the American psyche, leading to a kind of national blindness in U.S. foreign policy. In particular, they set Americans up to be chumps, and most nations of the world learned long ago that the way to deal with Washington is simply to tell it what it wants to hear. “Though Americans rarely discuss their national tendency to credulousness,” writes the Irish journalist Eamonn Fingleton, “it is a fact of life that is well understood by tricksters and con men around the world.” This holds true even for America’s Anglo-Saxon allies, such as Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations, for whom the naïveté of Americans is legendary. We can expect, then, that it would be even truer for the countries of East Asia, as Fingleton describes it in his illuminating book, In the Jaws of the Dragon.

As a prime example of this, Fingleton recounts the story of postwar Japan. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of the occupying forces there, sought to “Americanize” the Japanese, get them to embrace Western capitalism and democracy. That he succeeded remains, to this day, part of the U.S. national mythology. In MacArthur’s view, democracy was irresistible, and one year after his arrival he spoke of a “spiritual revolution” that “ensued almost overnight,” reversing 2,000 years of Japanese tradition. “This revolution of the spirit among the Japanese people represents no thin veneer to serve the purposes of the present,” he proudly declared.

But of course, a thin veneer was exactly what it represented. What MacArthur failed to grasp was that a few months’ contact with friendly American GI’s was not enough to bring about such a cultural miracle. In fact, the Japanese were very clever in deflecting MacArthur’s attempts to impose American values upon them, and they were able to do this because they understood that he was a chump. They recognized quite quickly that he was vain and self-absorbed, so they treated him like an emperor–which worked like a charm. A similar type of flattery was also effective with other top U.S. officials stationed in Japan. These men were completely ignorant of this very old civilization, of its history and its psychology, and yet saw themselves as capable of miraculously transforming it. After all, how could the Japanese not want to be Americans? To this day Americans believe that it is only a matter of time before non-Western nations come around to American values.**

The problem was that the Americans had to work through Japanese officials to bring about the reforms they sought. These officials rarely said no, but were adept at scuttling any such initiatives. The expression for this in Japanese is menju fukuhai–to cooperate with the face, but disobey with the belly. Hence the Japanese worked hard to make relations with the Americans as smooth as possible, on the surface, and cooperated with them on many unimportant issues. But behind the smiles was a deep bitterness over the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which caused the grisly deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians.

It proved easy to play the Americans for fools. Right under MacArthur’s nose, the Japanese created a cosmetic, democratic persona, writes Fingleton, a pseudo-democracy that was presented to outsiders as the real thing. Meanwhile, Japan’s elite bureaucrats quietly arranged sweeping powers for themselves, enabling them to rule from behind the scenes. The reality of postwar Japan has been a semi- authoritarian society with a nationalist agenda, not an American-style democracy. So while the Americans saw postwar Japan as a showcase of capitalism, the truth is that it had features such as a system of lifetime employment and a government-controlled banking industry. Contrary to MacArthur’s claim, it was very much a “thin veneer to serve the purposes of the present.”

And of the future as well. The fact is that the Japanese were in it for the long haul, and now, as creditors to a debtor nation, they underwrite a wasteful and self-indulgent lifestyle that they could cripple quite severely, if they chose to do so. Indeed, by the end of last year Japan was the major purchaser of U.S. Treasury bills, to the tune of nearly 1.2 trillion dollars.

If Japan managed to exploit the chump factor in American foreign policy quite brilliantly, China can be said to have elevated the rope-a-dope technique to an art. Fingleton points out that the belief in Washington (following the mythology of universal democracy) has been, for many years now, that as China prospers it will become more democratic. China lets the U.S. believe whatever it wants, but the truth is just the opposite: China is getting rich because it is authoritarian, because it is opposed to Western values and to the notion of a laissez-faire market economy. The Chinese economic system is rather one of state capitalism run by iron bureaucratic control, and involving a labyrinthine system of trade barriers, an artificially undervalued currency, and widespread institutionalized bribery–a “shark tank,” as one China-watcher has called it. Writing in Newsweek magazine (19 January 2009), Rana Foroohar says that this is a place “where the state doctors statistics, manipulates the stock markets, fixes prices in key industries, owns many strategic industries outright, and staffs key bank posts with Communist Party members.” While pundits such as Thomas Friedman and Francis Fukuyama continue to believe that Western logic is universal and will eventually sweep the world, and the Wall Street Journal proclaims that the Asian nations are “racing to build an American-style consumer economy,” the Chinese use this kind of American self-deception as a cover for their own non-Western agenda. For Chinese society follows a very different set of rules, ones partly derived from Confucius, in which ideology counts for nothing and results count for everything. In this system, the end justifies the means all the time; “truth” is not a matter of great concern. In the Confucian scheme of things, the “truth” is merely contextual–you just say what is appropriate in the circumstances, not what actually is the case. This is what, from a Western point of view, would be called amoral, but the Chinese see it as simply pragmatic. Deng Xiaoping, who was the de facto leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1978 to the early 1990s, captured the attitude succinctly when he remarked, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is white or black, as long as it catches the mouse.” As for the masses, they are expected to exhibit obedience, loyalty, and self-sacrifice; nothing more. The key concept is “harmony”–true of Japanese society as well.

Western observers such as Friedman are regarded by the Chinese as preachy fools–like MacArthur, deeply self-absorbed and easily taken in by phony praise for writing the approved Chinese version of things. China will, for example, display a token openness, such as allowing Coca-Cola and McDonalds to set up shop there; but it is finally just PR, not something that alters the rules of the game in any substantive way. Playing the U.S. includes, for example, promising to open up the Chinese market to American companies...but then it turns out that there is a forest of red tape designed to slow the process down. In 2006, for example, foreign banks in China were restricted to narrow activities such as processing foreign currency loans and deposits. Fingleton points out that since the U.S. has always been convinced that the triumph of free-market ideology is just around the corner, it has, for decades, been a chump for a one-way free trade policy with the Confucian world. While China’s trade surplus with the U.S. was 10.4 billion dollars in 1990, fifteen years later it was up to 202 billion–the largest trade imbalance between any two nations in history. According to Le Monde diplomatique (November 2008), China holds 922 billion dollars’ worth of U.S. Treasury bills, and is sitting on the world’s largest dollar reserves–almost two trillion.

There are a few economists who, like Fingleton, see all this as deliberately planned. In the past decade China invested more than one trillion dollars in U.S. government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt, which served to lower interest rates and fuel the consumption binge in the United States. But clearly, borrowing from abroad for a consumption orgy at home is a formula for economic disaster; only a nation fogged over by The American Way of Life could fail to see that. Writing in the International Herald Tribune (27-28 December 2008), Mark Landler points out that the U.S. continues to be addicted to foreign creditors. Huge amounts of money will be needed to fund President Obama’s stimulus package, and the country will need China to keep buying that debt, thereby perpetuating the American habit of dependency and egregious consumption. The U.S. is so heavily indebted to China, says Fingleton, that the situation already looks like the relationship between a colony and an imperial capital. The political fallout from such an arrangement should be obvious: analysts at the U.S. Naval War College calculate that China will be equal to the United States as a military power in the Asia-Pacific region by the year 2020.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” wrote the Chinese military commander Sun Tzu, in the 6th century B.C. Around the same time, the Athenian statesman Solon was urging his audiences to “know thyself.” If America had managed to do the latter, it might not have become a sad illustration of the former.

*“Rope-a-Dope” is a term coined by the American boxer, Muhammad Ali, to describe a fighting style he used in matches against Joe Frazier and George Foreman (in the latter fight, in 1974, Ali regained the World Heavyweight Championship). It consists of assuming a protected stance and then lying against the ropes of the ring, allowing your opponent to exhaust himself attacking you; after which you move in for the kill. In general, the term is used to describe situations in which you put yourself in what appears to be a losing position, only to turn the tables later on. Barack Obama’s defeat of John McCain is widely regarded as an example of this strategy.

**However, Fingleton also believes that MacArthur was aware of the charade, but went along with it because he aspired to be the Republican candidate for president in the 1948 election. If true, this would lend a somewhat different interpretation to the events of postwar Japan, although the results would be the same.

©Morris Berman, 2009