Part 3 of 5 of the COVID-19 Series
by Maximilian C Forte
https://zeroanthropology.net (April 28 2020)
Indispensable. Here was the so-called “indispensable nation”, the self-appointed saviour of the world, with generations of its leaders and thinkers thinking, speaking, and writing as if God had appointed “America” to lead the world. A world without America, we were told by Americans, would be so much worse than a world where we finally got to make decisions affecting our own lives. One of the crucial dimensions of the pandemic is the degree to which it has produced a momentous global turning point in geopolitical terms.
For several weeks now, we have had precisely a world without America in the most magnificently graphic and clear senses. No nation praised the US for its indispensable support during a time of crisis. No nation thanked the US for its indispensable leadership during a global pandemic. No nation publicly pointed to the US as the indispensable example of how to deal with the virus. Instead, we have had numerous cases of the US hijacking supplies of vital medical goods destined for other countries, after they had been purchased by other countries. The US sought to ban exports of its production of N95 masks, even as it continued to receive assistance from abroad. Allies, friends, adversaries, rivals, enemies – it didn’t matter, they were all treated like adversarial others. In a crisis, the US apparently acts like a giant George Costanza: shoving and knocking down everyone as he bolts for the emergency exit.
It is not like the US had much to show either, for all of its grand acts of greed and theft. The sight of rows of coffins lowered into a public mass grave, as we just saw in New York, was one that was both extreme and rare. Even Americans felt that they lived in a world without America.
Joseph Nye, the author of US ideas of “soft power”, warned that some American cultural products could, in fact, do a great deal of harm to the goals of US foreign policy, and could provoke a sense of “revulsion”. Among those American cultural products, we have to include Trump and his blusterous, rambling press conferences. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in a candid moment of sober reflection, admitted that Americans have an exaggerated sense of their self-importance, and of the degree to which the rest of the world desired to follow the US. This crisis has taught the rest of the world that not only is there no benefit to following the US, but the relationship can also even be harmful to “allies”. As for “adversaries”, they are treated as non-humans, deserving of not even the slightest of small mercies.
COVID-19’s Oil Embargo on the US
Faced with economic pain, closures, and emergency, Americans have now experienced what it is like to live under economic sanctions (right down to artificial toilet paper shortages – you now know how such shortages can be manufactured). The US was happy to crush the oil-producing economies of target states such as Iran and Venezuela. This served to increase oil prices internationally, which benefited high-cost shale oil and shale gas producers in the US. Now that oil prices have been crushed worldwide, and prices have fallen to levels below the cost of production for many companies in the US, Americans know now what it is to be an oil producer – like Venezuela – that can produce no more oil, also like Venezuela.
Oil has been at the forefront of Trump’s mind. In the midst of a global pandemic, one of his top priorities was getting OPEC and Russia to agree to a cut in production in order to raise prices, in order to sustain US oil producers. However, the price of oil can climb only so high in the absence of demand, an absence caused by an economic shutdown and a drastic reduction in travel (more than 90% of all air passenger traffic, and the desertion of what were once busy highways and packed streets in metropolises). In fact, oil prices went into negative territory, even after the OPEC deal to cut production – we have reached the limits of storage. To further increase demand for oil, Trump has to, therefore, rush to reopen the US economy. It is striking to find hidden within this pandemic, yet another type of war for oil.
The Naked Malice of the “Liberator”
There are two ways to project power in a crisis in order to advance dominance, one with both short- and long-term gains, and another with neither and that immediately backfires on itself. China has chosen the first option, investing considerably in its soft power, and sending very high-profile aid and supplies to some of the worst-affected nations (where were the Americans in Italy, where the US even has military bases?). The US chose the second option, using the crisis as an opportunity to kick those who are already down, and to kick them harder: Iran, Venezuela, Cuba, and North Korea. By targeting weakened countries such as Iran during a pandemic, Trump’s policy ensured that the world would continue to have incubators of the coronavirus. Not even a pandemic caused Trump’s team to take a break from dictating their leadership choices to other countries.
That US foreign policy had reverted to a callous and cruel display of power stands as one of Trump’s signature achievements: putting an honest face on the true nature of US imperialism, which for too long has been allowed to lie to the world, and to Americans, about being a benign force for “good” in the world. Few would miss the obvious: during one of the worst times, the US behaved in a contemptible manner, showing malice toward those afflicted by the pandemic and who faced the crisis in a weakened state thanks to prior US intervention. In the midst of a global pandemic, high on Trump’s agenda was further punishing Iran, further isolating North Korea, and bold new moves for regime change in Venezuela, including deploying warships to the waters off Venezuela. (The crew of the USS Kidd, deployed to the Caribbean, subsequently suffered a serious outbreak of the virus on board – the first day it was reported, already 18 crew members were infected; that increased to 33 by the next day, and the ship was ordered back to port.)
The US has acted precisely like the imperial power in decline which it denies being (it denies being imperial, it denies being in decline, and pretty soon it will deny denial). The US leadership acted in a fashion that, at one and the same time, has been angry, ignorant, paranoid, threatening, greedy, arrogant, dismissive, boastful, mocking – but especially noisy. The US’ top political leadership has marked itself globally as being particularly repulsive throughout this entire pandemic. This situation is mirrored by what many Americans are feeling at home when they view Trump’s “press briefings”, which are little more than extremely crude propaganda peppered with unwarranted insults and obnoxious displays of narcissism.
“American exceptionalism” has suffered a strong blow during this crisis. The country that defies comparison, that holds itself as special and high above all others, is the one faring the worst during the crisis. With a quarter of China’s population, the US has had 11 times as many deaths and 11 times as many cases as China which was at the very centre of the outbreak. The stark difference between China’s obviously superior response while the US has been falling down on itself, could not be more miserable or staggering. Incompetence plus division have reached such an extreme, that Trump now refuses to perform even the basic duty of keeping the public informed (update: after cancelling press conferences, he has resumed them). The US has become the number one country in terms of the number of cases of infection and the number of deaths – only in this sad regard has the US been a “world leader”. (For more on the subject of “American exceptionalism”, see our review from last year.) However, if “American exceptionalism” is a dogma built on top of a mountain of petrified BS, then it may remain at its summit even as it did after previous lethal quagmires, including those of its own making.
On the other hand, I am not a believer in “forever” when it comes to earthly matters that are a part of history – at some point, some crisis is going to be the final crisis. For many Americans themselves, “the coronavirus has shaken the conceit of ‘American Exceptionalism’ “.
Where the US has not been a leader is in finding a solution to the pandemic. It has not been a leader in foreign aid. The US has been virtually absent on the world stage except for when it reasserted itself as a malignant force of destruction. American exceptionalism was defied when the entire world could look at partisan political divisions overtaking public health responses in the US, not to mention Trump’s utterly ridiculous performances during press conferences which resulted in complete humiliation, especially given his recurring tendency to recklessly give dangerous advice. Scenes of mass graves being dug in New York, in the heart of US global dominance, drove another nail into the coffin of American exceptionalism. If America stood out as singular in this period, it was due to the sheer load of pathos.
The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned
Where the US has excelled perhaps is in the meretricious display of “American innocence”, protesting China as the birthplace of the coronavirus, and using such complaints to hide the incompetence of the US political leadership. Blaming China has become imperative for American leaders. China may have been the birthplace of the virus, but that fact neither dictates nor determines how the virus played out in the US. To this day, besides complaining about China (after Trump effusively and repeatedly praised China’s handling of the crisis), Trump’s chief complaint is that he inherited a “broken system” for handling a pandemic crisis, from the Obama administration. Trump lamented that his administration inherited “empty cupboards”. Even if true, Trump is speaking as if he were stuck in a never-ending Inauguration Day. He is instead well into the fourth year of his four-year term. If anything, Trump is indirectly admitting his own guilt, his negligence, and incompetence, by constantly projecting onto Obama. On the first day after his inauguration, Trump’s complaints would have made sense – but by day two, the question would have been what he planned to do about the so-called prior neglect, and by day three he would be forced to answer why he had done nothing yet. Yet here we are, nearly at the end of four years.
“American innocence” is a predictable US foreign policy response. If one studies the patterns of US foreign policy rhetoric over the decades, one can detect the existence of a standard toolkit of rhetorical devices and political positions, discussed in previous articles on this site:
Bio-Warfare Tests: Americans Testing on Americans
Interestingly, one of the surest ways of learning much of which the US is guilty of doing is by listening to what the US accuses others of doing. This is the US which used parts of its own population who, unaware of anything, were subjected to chemical and biological tests conducted by the US government as it developed its biological weapons program. Part of the tests were conducted as part of the Pentagon’s Project 112 test program. Starting in 1949, the US Army conducted open-air tests of simulated biological organisms over populated areas of the US, even when published medical research proved that the organisms could sicken or kill healthy persons. In 1950, during Operation Sea Spray, San Francisco was secretly sprayed by the US Navy with Serratia marcescens and Bacillus globigii bacteria in a germ warfare test, which led to an outbreak of pneumonia in a hospital, killing at least one person. Nearly every single San Francisco resident inhaled particles from the bacterial fog. Similar tests were conducted across the US, targeting train passengers and Greyhound bus terminals. The effects in San Francisco evolved, multiplied, and endured to recent years, resulting in contamination of the flu vaccine in 2004. Contrary to claims by the US military, Serratia marcescens is known to be a harmful pathogen. It is now “one of the top 10 causes of all hospital-acquired respiratory, neonatal and surgical infections”. In 1951 another test was conducted in Virginia, where the US Army intentionally exposed a disproportionate number of African Americans to a potentially fatal fungus. In 1966 the US Army conducted a secret germ warfare test in the New York City subway system. Hantaviruses afflicting the American Southwest have also been tied to US military research. This is not to mention all we have learned from declassified documents over the years about US chemical and biological warfare, and plans for such warfare, in Cuba, Vietnam, and China itself during the Korean War. At home though, the US Army is known to have conducted at least 239 secret, open-air germ warfare tests on the US’ own people. Such tests were a deliberate violation of the basic principles of the Nuremberg code.
Using a Pandemic as Leverage against China
Behind the predictable cries of “American innocence” there is not just the usual deflection, misdirection, and projection; there is also an attempt to extract capital – capital in various forms, whether actual financial capital, or political capital. Trump’s strategy has been transparently clear here: he has created a system whereby losses and failures are transferred to others, while he garners credit and gain. The creation of an asymmetric structure is what enables capital to be drained away from one side, and transferred to another.
The attempt to tarnish and punish China is therefore imagined by some adventurous, angry American writers as an opportunity to extract massive amounts of capital. By harming China’s international trade position, and/or by seeking “reparations” (now sought by those who typically resist calls for reparations for African Americans), either way the ideal is a flow of capital from China and straight to the US. Thus a line is drawn: from pandemic to plunder. Far from fretting about a virus, what really preoccupied US military strategists during the pandemic was the danger of China’s model – and apparently, the duty of the US to correct China for the Chinese. Like American exceptionalism, megalomania is an enduring American tradition.
That China was the locus of the emergence of the virus, though we still do not know exactly how it happened, has led to many accusations on the part of Americans who sense a new opportunity to damage China and/or globalization. The relationship with China should “never go back to normal”, some demanded; “time to put China on lockdown”, others exclaimed. Yet the great American capital migration to China happened despite the fact that the last two global pandemics came from the same part of the world: from Singapore and Hong Kong in 1957 (killing two million people worldwide, and 70,000 in the US), and from Hong Kong in 1968 (killing one million around the world, and 34,000 in the US). In neither case was there any move to withdraw capital investments from Hong Kong, nor any calls for “no return to normal after this”. Both the 1957 and 1968 pandemics were deadlier than COVID-19 has been, to date. Facts do not matter either way, when we are dealing with both American and British “innocence”.
Sensing how a non-deliberate and accidental birth of the virus on its territory could be used to damage China’s geopolitical and economic fortunes, some Chinese government figures responded by going too far, because they were provoked by the US. By the second week of March, an allegation was openly floated by Chinese ambassadors around the world. Zhao Lijian, a newly appointed spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, made the claim that the virus – which was first registered in the city of Wuhan in December 2019 – could have been introduced there by the US military team during the Military World Games in November of 2019. The reason why this claim resonates with some, rather than the “wet market theory”, is that the Chinese dietary practices alleged to be at fault in some theories are dietary practices that are thousands of years old – but there have not been thousands of such pandemics. The US is now pushing the theory that there was an accidental release from a virology lab based in Wuhan. For now, we simply do not know the origins or cause of the virus. Meanwhile the editorial board at the South China Morning Post argues that China will be central to global economic recovery, precisely because of its current centrality in global supply chains. Politically, this is possibly the worst argument to be making in the current context.
It also does not help to clear the waters that many prominent American “opinion shapers” have dedicated themselves to the cause of extracting a cost from China over the virus. The intent is to prevent China from eclipsing the US in the global geopolitical arena, while enriching the US. Chinese responses are dismissed as propaganda, although in some cases it seems that China may have tried to cover up early release of information about the virus, and altered the facts of the nature and impact of the virus, while allowing international travel out of Wuhan to continue. Yet many of those claiming that China was guilty of spreading propaganda, are the chiefs responsible for spreading US propaganda, and hardly credible sources themselves. For some this is a golden opportunity to dent China’s rise to the top of the globalization process. Thus we see the design of a fantasy cartography at the National Interest showing just how delusional and fevered the imperial imagination has become in times of COVID. Just as feverish are the wet dreams some American writers are having as they can almost taste huge flows of capital that will be gained by “punitively” ripping off China illegally.
“Thank You, Brother Xi”: Why is China Still Winning?
The important question is this: If China truly is “winning” the “propaganda war”, as some claim, then why would it be winning? China would win such a propaganda war with the US at least in part because of the wide swath of broken and dead bodies spread around the world by US actions over decades. If any reparations are to be paid, then we can start with the US paying its fair share. The US remains imperialist, and therefore without credibility. Arguments for “decoupling”, sovereignty, putting national interests first, strategic reconsolidation – are all arguments that can just as well be used against the US. If the fall of China meant the renewed power of the US, then nothing of value would have been achieved. The US is selective about praising Chinese whistleblowers when it is at the same time prosecuting, shaming, and torturing them (Julian Assange, Chelsea Manning), or intimidating if not outright bombarding the press. The US has a grotesque record of propaganda and illegal warfare. It is in the weakest possible position to lecture anyone or moralize about anything.
In other words, whatever China might “lose” as a result of the pandemic, that does not automatically translate into gain for the US. It is possible for both China to lose some ground, and for the US to gain nothing at all (if not also losing).
If China were to be held accountable to its obligations under international law, as some American commentators are urging, and if China was urged to respect any possible decisions that could go against it in any cases brought before the International Court of Justice (ICJ), then what would be the precedent? Indeed it is the US which set the precedent for China to follow – by completely dismissing and ignoring any such claims or obligations. The US has an abundant track record of flouting international law, and demands for payment of reparations as in the case on the mining of Nicaragua’s harbours which was at the centre of a case the US lost at the ICJ. The US has also committed numerous war crimes and crimes against humanity, worldwide, for decades, without an iota of justice ever being served. Why would China allow itself to be held to a different standard, the kind of standard for which the US has only shown contempt? It is another puffed-up and pompous expression of American exceptionalism that imagines China being brought to heel in an international court, while the US struts its ugly stuff unscathed. In other words, it is laughable, and claims that China should pay reparations are easily dismissed.
China’s international profile may be damaged in some respects, and in some quarters, but it has won support through some large-scale aid programs, including in regions which the US claims as its “backyard” but which show few or no signs of American largesse on the same scale as China’s. Where I am based when I am in Trinidad, in Arima, China is currently completing a large public hospital. In Jamaica, China is also building a huge public hospital for free. Elsewhere in the Caribbean, Latin America, and Africa, China has provided much-needed support to public health systems, when the US provided little or nothing. These facts are not soon to be forgotten, especially when they take on such highly visible, monumental proportions.
American Allies without America
Importantly, even “close US allies”, such as the leaders of the G7 group of nations, refused to sign onto a statement drafted by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo which was critical of China. They specifically refused to call the virus the “Wuhan virus”, or to blame China, Russia, and Iran for supposed “disinformation”. Italy received no US assistance at a time when it was receiving assistance from China, Russia, and even Cuba. Even in the EU, nations such as Serbia have been effusive in their gratitude to China, while understandably omitting any mention of the US. China has also sent medical assistance teams to Cambodia, Iran, Iraq, Laos, Pakistan, and Venezuela – while the US has sent none. During his daily rounds of insulting and abusing journalists, Trump routinely repeats the claim that “many nations” have called him, or that he has spoken with “many foreign leaders” about offering assistance – without ever offering specifics, or even naming a single nation or leader.
(However, it has to be said that under the dominant political leadership, Canada remained the faithful US sucker state, a virtual dependency. In spite of insults, threats, and outright sabotage during a pandemic, Canada failed to hold back thousands of Canadian medical personnel from travelling across the border to serve American patients. So much for the “good neighbour” showing its gratitude to Canada, when in the days after 9/11 hundreds of American air passengers were hosted in the homes of numerous families in Newfoundland. It has been a humiliating experience to watch the pathetic Liberal “response” to the US. The only positive outcome was that Canada joined the line of countries that turned to China for help in securing protective gear, making it obvious what it thought of the value of the US as a “partner” during a crisis.)
Not only has the world been “without America” for the duration of this pandemic thus far, it ought to be grateful for being as far as possible from the US. The complete dispensability of “US leadership” during a time of global crisis is perhaps one of the most monumental outcomes. The US mattered little even to allies – in fact, the very concept of “alliance” was challenged by the US’ greedy grab for all available sources of personal protective equipment on the world stage. Allies found their shipments redirected to the US, suffering what seemed like acts of piracy, while companies were told to stop fulfilling orders for masks exported to Canada. Some US allies kept the flight routes for international deliveries of medical supplies secret so the US would not intercept them. The US tried to freeze out Canada, even as nearly 2,000 Canadian doctors and nurses crossed each week between Windsor and Detroit, to serve and assist US patients. As one of the hardest hit places in the US, Detroit certainly benefited from Canadian healthcare workers, even as Canada was being denied medical supplies for which it had paid. In the midst of a global pandemic, the US stopped all of its funding of the WHO – thereby marginalizing the US itself in terms of global public health solutions. The worry that is shared by American imperialists about what a “world without America” might look like, is one that no longer needs to be discussed in hypothetical terms. The world has moved on without the US, as it, of course, would and should.
The Invisible Enemy Wins: US Forces and Military Allies Scatter
“The greatest military in the history of the world”, as Trump likes to boast, has been a minor player throughout this pandemic, even falling victim itself. How the US will continue to justify vast military expenditures, even as it stood naked without masks or gowns in front of an oncoming pandemic, is something we await.
The US Secretary of Defense worried aloud that the spread of the coronavirus could affect US military readiness, and reduce the US to focusing on domestic operations. In fact, his worries would be borne out – according to the Los Angeles Times on March 28:
The Pentagon already has canceled or reduced several large-scale training exercises, halted the movement of troops overseas and domestically, confined the aircraft carrier Theodore Roosevelt to port in Guam after an outbreak aboard the warship, and shuttered many of its recruiting offices around the country.
Joint US military exercises with South Korea were affected, as US troops were confined to their bases due to the pandemic. One of the largest US military exercises in Europe since the (first) Cold War, was significantly reduced. More than 40 ships of the US Navy have suffered COVID-19 outbreaks. The US military issued a global “stop movement” order to all of its forces, to reduce international travel. In which other ways the virus is damaging US military power we do not know, since that information is being deliberately withheld.
US-led operations in some countries have also been affected. Canada withdrew its military trainers from Iraq, which followed the US itself withdrawing some forces from Iraq. France and the UK also withdrew troops from Iraq, due to the coronavirus. The Canadian military also withdrew troops from Ukraine. Spending money to send them back in the future, in the context of a deep economic crisis and other, more pressing priorities, seems unrealistic.
Nato, for its part, has been entirely marginal, if not completely irrelevant during the course of this pandemic. Desperate for relevance and visibility, Nato even tried to claim credit for China delivering medical aid to the Czech Republic. China played a bigger role in Europe than Nato itself, and perhaps even more than the EU in some respects.
Militarism and militarization, both of which soared to suffocating proportions since 9/11, will necessarily be pushed back thanks to COVID-19. The Canadian military has already begun to rethink the meaning of “national security” in light of the pandemic. Priorities are being reordered. Canadian forces are likely to become more focused on domestic needs than supporting the extraneous adventures of the American-led wars of choice that result in permanent occupations. The US demands that Nato members increase their already increased military spending – can all be flushed into oblivion. Health budgets will take first priority with the public.
There has also been an interesting alteration in emphasis in Canada where militarization is concerned: in some respects it has been inverted. Rather than the militarization of civilian life, now we see a greater degree of “civilianization” of the military, with soldiers ordered into nursing homes to do cleaning and disinfection. The military’s utility is being justified in terms of what it can do for citizens in dire need. The military has for many years claimed to engage in “humanitarian” aid and development, and has previously assisted in domestic natural disasters. What seems different this time is how the military was plainly ordered about, without any fanfare, without the previous glow of media praise – the military of course complied, because otherwise, it risked being forgotten altogether.
A World Without America, Without China
However, none of this is intended as a sales-pitch for Chinese leadership. It is neither normal nor “natural” for the world to have a “leader” – which in practice actually means a global dictator. Neither a unipolar, bipolar, nor a multipolar world is necessary to the human condition. The false dilemma of “who will lead?” asked by those in the motherland of current hegemony, is one based on aggressive imposition and artificial demand.
The fact of the matter is that China has been one of the main pillars of neoliberal globalization, and has been one of the primary support bases of global neoliberalism ever since the advent of Deng Xiaoping. China has attracted global industrial production through the super-exploitation of its workforce, artificially depressing its wages in order to out-compete all other producers. An involuntary worker subsidy is at the base of China’s power, that is, forced extraction of capital from Chinese workers that then resulted in millions around the world losing jobs with hard-won benefits. There is no forgiving or forgetting this.
To proclaim that “the world” is now looking to China for the future, for a model on how to respond to a pandemic (the irony of it all), strikes me as rather desperate. It sounds like a world populated by empty people, or by little newborn birds fresh out of their eggshells, anxiously waiting for mommy to fill their little beaks.
The New Old World of regained local and national sovereignty, and of heightened cooperation among regions, spells an end to globalization. However, what that means is not just a limitation on what China might have hoped to gain, but also a dead-end for the US which until recently was the commanding force of globalization (in spite of Trump’s revisionism, rooted in his deep historical ignorance). Both China and the US have been equally sickening during this crisis, in different ways.
Please, no more masters.
Part 4 of this series involves some personal reflections on the nature of this crisis, and on nature itself, and how a malformed nature-culture dichotomy might be responsible for some really dangerous decisions.