Interview of Alfred McCoy ― Resistance Radio

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Hi, I’m Derrick Jensen, and this is Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network. My guest today is Alfred McCoy. After earning a Ph.D in Southeast Asian history at Yale, his writing on the region has focused on two topics: Philippine political history and global opium trafficking. His first book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (New York, 1972), sparked controversy when the CIA tried to block publication. But after three English editions and translation into nine foreign languages, this study is now regarded as the “classic” work on the global drug traffic. His more recent work on covert operations, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror, explores the agency’s half-century history of psychological torture. A film based in part on that book, “Taxi to the Dark Side,” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2008. His latest study on that topic, Torture and Impunity, explores the political and cultural dynamics of America’s post-911 debate over interrogation.

The Philippines remains the major focus of his research. An investigation of President Marcos’ fake medals, published on page 1 of the New York Times just weeks before the country’s presidential elections contributed to the country’s transition from authoritarian rule. Among the many coup attempts that followed, his book Closer Than Brothers documents the corrosive impact of torture on the Philippine military.

Three of his other volumes on Philippine historiography have won the country’s national book award. In 2001, the Association for Asian Studies awarded him the Goodman Prize for a deep and enduring impact on Philippine historical studies. His recent book Policing America’s Empire: The United States, The Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State draws together those two strands of his research; covert operations and modern Philippine history to explore the transformative power of police, information and scandal in shaping both the modern Philippine state and the U.S. internal security apparatus.

In 2011, the Association For Asian Studies awarded Policing America’s Empire the George McT. Kahin Prize, describing the work as “a passionate and elegantly written book that owes its mastery to McCoy’s narrative and analytical gifts, his use of painstaking research and his sure sense of the ominous and global implications of his story.” In 2012, the Yale Graduate School Alumni Association awarded him the Wilbur Cross Medal, which is presented annually to a small number of outstanding alumni to recognize distinguished achievements in scholarship, teaching, academic administration and public services. Simultaneously, the University of Wisconsin Madison gave him the Hilldale Award for the arts and humanities for 2012.

His most recent book, which is the one we’ll be talking about today, In the Shadow of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, focuses on the key instruments in its exercise of this hegemony, including geopolitical domination, control of subordinate states, covert operations, worldwide surveillance, torture, and military technology. The work concludes by analyzing China’s challenge and the complex of forces that will likely lead to an eclipse of U.S. hegemony by 2030.

His teaching interests include modern Philippines social and political history, U.S. foreign policy, colonial empires in Southeast Asia, global drug trafficking and CIA covert operations.

DJ: So the reason I wanted to read all that is, in addition to this most recent book, I just have so much respect for all of your work and I wanted to introduce readers to it and just have the excuse to say that Politics of Heroin was a deeply important book for me to read. So I want to thank you for all your work and thank you for being on the program.

AM: Well thank you, Derrick. Very kind words indeed.

DJ: So in the new book, you talk, and you mention the word “empire” a couple of times through here. I’m almost embarrassed to have to ask this, since we know that the United States has never gone anywhere except with the intention of introducing freedom and democracy. But you talk about an American empire. Can you talk about the fact that the United States has been and is an empire? And what is an empire?

AM: Sure. Well first of all, the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, in one of his books on the subject said that basically there have been about 69 or 70 empires in world history over the last 4000 years. And it’s essentially a system whereby a dominant power exercises control, whether directly, through what was known as colonization, or indirectly through what is called “informal empire.” And those mechanisms of control include financial; political, sometimes through political manipulations of various sorts; military; and very importantly, cultural, the soft power, the salve, if you will, that makes all of the above a little bit more palatable for the peoples that are subordinated.

And the United States has not only been an empire, but in the opinion of British imperial historians like John Darwin of Oxford University, it has been the most prosperous and powerful empire in human history. And Americans, during the long years of the Cold War, particularly American historians, were a population in denial of this fundamental political reality. To summarize and simplify the politics of that period, basically the Soviet Union used the Marxist-inflected term “imperialist” to denigrate the United States. They aggressively promoted anti-imperialism, they made heroes of people like the liberator of Congo, Patrice Lumumba. So in the Soviet propaganda, we were the empire, the bad empire, the pernicious, dominant, exploitative empire. For historians in the United States, you know, the United States was a world leader, a superpower, a global hegemon. But not an empire, because it contained that pejorative.

Once the Cold War was over, and within a decade, when we were mired in the Middle East and Iraq intervention and the ever more difficult pacification of Afghanistan, but particularly Iraq – when it looked like U.S. global power was being challenged, like our massive military intervention was going very badly indeed, when it looked like our power was challenged; right across the political spectrum, from very conservative all the way over to very liberal and radical, everybody started using the term “empire,” now that it was shorn of its pejorative, its propaganda value.

And they were using it, really, to ask the question: “Was the U.S. empire over?” And the answer, generally, under the Obama administration was “No, the United States would be an empire for as long as it wanted to be.” The U.S. was the maker, the shaper of world history. We would decide when we wanted to give up our empire. Nobody could challenge us. Well, that’s changed.

DJ: The obvious question to ask now is “What has changed?”

AM: In a word: China. From the beginning of 2004, to 2012, a period of eight or nine years, in the midst of this revival of this discussion of empire, what historians found, myself included, was that the United States was the most powerful and prosperous empire in human history, but because of that evasion, that denial; we weren’t the empire, the Soviet Union was the empire, we were the exceptional nation, we had American exceptionalism. And the belief in American exceptionalism and its many manifestations was an article of faith, literally, among American historians during the Cold War. Not only was the United States empire the most powerful in human history, but it was arguably the least studied of them all.

And so I got together with some colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, and very quickly we created a network, a global network called “Empires in Transition.” And we had, at our peak, about 140 historians on four continents. And we probed the rise, the comparative rise of the U.S. empire to global power. That was our first volume that we did, a real door-stopper of a volume. And in our second volume, after our conference in Barcelona, Spain, held in collaboration with the university there, Pompeu Fabra University, we did a volume called Endless Empires about the decline of various empires; Spanish, European and American.

Although we could see the signs in 2012 when that book came out, that U.S. global power was fading, there wasn’t at that time a challenger. What’s happened is in the last four or five years, particularly events in the South China Sea; China’s challenge has become blindingly clear. And so in my book In the Shadow of the American Century that just came out last month, what I did was, if you will, drew upon that decade of study by 140 scholars on four continents, on the comparative history of empires, boiled all down into terms that ordinary readers could understand, and then explored, in a comparative sense, the rise of the U.S. to global power. What kind of empire were we at our peak, what were the bases of our power, and then how were the bases of our power being challenged by China’s rise? Those are the two problems I explore in the book.

Now China’s challenge is straightforward. It’s a strategy that most Americans don’t understand. Those that claim that the American empire will last forever, the sun will never set on the American empire, to paraphrase. The people who believe that simply don’t understand the nature of the Chinese challenge, how fundamental it is.

The Chinese challenge is twofold. And to appreciate it, we have to go way back to a cold London night in January, 1904. And there, on that night, at the Royal Geographical Society on Seville Row in London, the head of the London School of Economics, a guy named Sir Halford Mackinder, stood up and gave a paper boldly titled “The Geographical Pivot of History.” And in 1904, Sir Halford Mackinder proposed, by looking at the map, that Europe, Asia and Africa were not three separate continents. They were, in fact, if you looked at them a certain way, as a geographer could, and should – and he was a geographer – that they were a single continent, a single land mass that he called “the world island.” And he said that the epicenter of world history, of global power, lay at the heartland of the world island, a vast zone stretching for 4000 miles, from the Persian Gulf north and east, all the way to the East Siberian Sea.

And then he said further, that the human history for the past five centuries had been changed by something very simple. The people of western Europe learned to sail around the world island, from Europe all the way to Asia. And by doing so, they conducted a kind of strategic flanking maneuver over the great nomadic peoples of the heartland of the world island. The Mongols, the Manchas, the Turks, the Arabs; that had pounded at the gates of great empires. China and Europe. And by sailing around the world island, we saw then the rise of a half dozen European maritime empires.

“But now,” said Sir Halfred Mackinder, and he was alluding to an event that everyone in that audience that night in 1904 knew well – “Now the world is changing.” Because as he was speaking, the Trans-Siberian Railway was being built by the Czarist empire, and it was stretching from Moscow for 5000 miles, all the way to Vladivostok. So for the first time, Europe and Asia were actually a single landmass. They were only two continents because of the vast distances in the great empty center of this, places like the Gobi Desert. But now that this was being crossed by a railroad, Sir Halfred Mackinder predicted that there would be more railroads and that the power that learned to tap into the resources of the heartland of the world island would be the source of a new empire.

Mackinder not only made an observation about the past five centuries and a prediction about the future of global power, but in that single lecture, that night, he invented, by the application of geography to global power, he invented the science, the study of geopolitics. It’s in that single lecture. And everybody that’s been good at geopolitics ever since has really been basically an intellectual acolyte of Mackinder.

Of course, it took a long time for Mackinder’s prediction to come true because World War II intervened. Hitler tried to penetrate, break through at Stalingrad and capture Lebensraum, living room, in the heartland, because Hitler was tutored by Mackinder’s German acolyte, a guy named Haushofer at Munich University. When Hitler was in prison, after his aborted Beer Hall Putsch, he was tutored by a man who was an expert in geopolitics. That’s where Hitler got the idea of Lebensraum. And then the Cold War came, of course, after World War II, and dropped the Iron Curtain right across the would-be world island.

Well, ten years ago, China began realizing Mackinder’s vision. With their $4 trillion in profits from world trade, much of it with the United States, the Chinese spent a trillion dollars, starting roughly in 2007, to lay down an amazing grid – first of all, 9000 miles of high-speed rail all across China. And then, transcontinental rail links that stretch from western China all the way to western Europe, right across the world island. And more importantly, they laid down a grid of gas and oil pipelines from Siberia in the north to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the center, and all the way down to Burma in the south, that are bringing the oil and gas resources of central Asia and the Persian Gulf via that southern pipeline, into China. And the net result of this grid is to realize Mackinder’s vision for infrastructure that will tie this vast land mass together, and shift, just by that simple fact, the epicenter of geopolitical power to the nation, in this case China, that dominates the heartland of the world island.

And China has overlaid that physical infrastructure. Last year they opened the Infrastructure Development Bank with 57 nations, including many of our closest allies. They contributed on opening day last year $100 billion, which is about half the capital of the World Bank. They have the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and they had a big conference earlier in the year, where President Xi Jinpin announced another trillion dollars to tie together the world island, to continue this massive infrastructure investment.

China is also, by 2025, going to have about $1 trillion of capital invested in Africa. Already they have three times the trade of the United States, with Africa. So they’re really fully realizing Mackinder’s vision of the world island.

So that’s part one. Part two is China is very deftly threatening to undercut the basis of U.S. global power. 70 years ago, the United States, after World War II, emerged as the world’s greatest power. In the first decades after World War II, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower laid down the instruments of U.S. global power. But everybody’s forgotten about how they did it. We no longer understand what are the pillars of U.S. global power. That same historian I talked about earlier, John Darwin, wrote a book that surveyed a thousand years of imperial clashes in the Eurasian landmass. And he said in that book that the United States after World War II became the most powerful empire in human history, because we were the first empire in history to capture what he called the axial ends of the Eurasian landmass.

By that he meant, after World War II, in 1949 the United States established the NATO alliance, which gave us, of course, a firm control over western Europe, one of the axial ends. And then in 1951, we signed four mutual defense treaties with a string of nations running down the Pacific island chain running down off the Asian landmass; Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia. And this gave us the other axial end of control. And then, between these two axial points in western Europe and the Pacific littoral, the United States laid down, if you will, successive layers of steel, circles of steel between these axial points. The first was a series of mutual defense treaties: NATO in the west, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in the east, and those four mutual defense treaties that I mentioned.

Then on top of that we had those massive fleets. The 6th Fleet, based at Naples in the Mediterranean. The 7th Fleet, based at Subic Bay, Philippines, in the western Pacific on that Pacific littoral chain. And then after Britain pulled out of the Persian Gulf in the 1970’s, we established the 5th Fleet at Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. And then our most recent addition, on top of hundreds of air bases and strategic bombers and fighters and all the rest, our latest circle of steel between those two axial ends of Eurasia is; over the last ten years the United States has built a string of 60 drone bases stretching from Sicily all the way to Guam in the western Pacific, that allow us basically to strike over much of the world island.

Now China’s second strategy, the second part of the Chinese strategy, is to slice through those circles of steel and break the U.S. geopolitical encirclement of Eurasia, and they’ve done it over the last three years by building seven bases in the South China Sea, using dredges to convert atolls to military bases. They’ve now got antiaircraft missiles and they’ve got jet landing strips on those military bases in the South China Sea.

They’ve also, and this is something that Americans haven’t paid too much attention to; they’ve actually got even a stronger position in the Arabian Sea, which is geopolitically very important because that’s where the mouth to the Persian Gulf lies. Ten years ago, China invested $200 billion to transform a sleepy fishing village in western Pakistan, at Gwadar, which is just about 300 miles from the mouth of the Persian Gulf. About a day and a half sail, or steam. And then, a little over a year ago, President Xi Jinping went to Pakistan and he announced, with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, that China would invest $46 billion to build a road, rail, and gas oil pipeline corridor stretching from western China down the length of Pakistan all the way to Gwadar.

And then just last year, China opened a big naval base at Djibouti, at the other end of the Arabian Sea. So with their position in the South China Sea, and these two big bases in the Arabian Sea, China is slicing through that geopolitical encirclement. And also China, as China always does, is using its trade to drive a wedge between America and its four major Asia-Pacific allies that are the foundation for the Pacific littoral that’s the axial end of U.S. geopolitical power.

So that’s the array and that’s the nature of the Chinese challenge. The American response has been mixed, and we can talk about that if you want to.

DJ: Yes. That would be great. My mind is sort of swimming a bunch of different directions. That’s one direction, and then at some point also – yeah, let’s talk about the American response. The other thing I just want to drop in is the question of some commonalities of the response to empires of the decline of their own power. And so perhaps if you could fit those two together.

AM: Sure. Let’s talk about the decline first and response second, if that’s okay.

DJ: That sounds great.

AM: Okay, first of all the American response. This is where the White House actually matters. You can actually make an argument that the Presidency doesn’t make that much difference in the fabric of American life, but when it comes to foreign policy, and particularly military power, empire; the presidency matters. The man in charge makes a difference. Because you’ve got the economic apparatus, the diplomacy, the military, all of these concerted forces arrayed at the fingertips of a single person.

So, under the Obama administration: Obama was what I call a geopolitical genius. He’s one of three Americans in the past 120 years who actually understood geopolitics and knew how to play it. Obama sensed the nature of the Chinese challenge, and he came up with an explicit strategy to counter it. It was basically a three-fold strategy. First of all, he realized that the logic of the Chinese infrastructure and their bank, their big new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, was basically to make sure that the trade of the Eurasian landmass was heading towards China. Obama countered that very deftly. He negotiated, mostly in the course of his second term in office, two international trade pacts. The Trans-Pacific Partnership, with a dozen nations who together account for about 40% of world trade. He also launched negotiations for another pact called the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, or T-TIP, with the European Union, that controlled about another 20% of trade.

And through these two trade pacts, Obama had the idea of basically draining the world island of that life blood of commerce. China could build its railroads and its pipelines to its heart’s content, but if Obama’s plans had gone through, these preferential trade pacts would have diverted the trade from Asia and the Pacific, and from Europe, across the Atlantic, across the Pacific towards the United States.

The second part of Obama’s strategy was that he felt, because of the energy independence of the United States, through fracking and the Canadian oil boom, that we no longer needed Middle Eastern oil, that we were energy-self-sufficient, and indeed we’re going to start exporting pretty soon. He said basically “We’re gonna pull our surplus forces out of the Middle East where we don’t really have any real interests anymore, and we’re going to shift them to rebuild the U.S. position on the axial end of Eurasia” along that Pacific island chain or littoral, from Japan through South Korea down to the Philippines and Australia.

And so he went to Australia in 2011 and spoke before the Australian Parliament and he announced what was called the Pivot to Asia. He then arranged for a U.S. Marine battalion to be based at Darwin along with some Navy vessels, giving the United States, through the Indonesian archipelago, ready access to the South China Sea. His diplomats negotiated the right of U.S. forces to position equipment and have ready access to five Philippine bases in the South China Sea, renewing that long but now fated strategic alliance. He worked with South Korea to build a new base at Jeju and he renewed the strategic alliance with Japan. He got Japan to back the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal to the hilt. And by the time Obama left office, the Trans-Pacific Partnership was running into trouble, but it still had a chance of passing. The European treaty ran into the populism in Europe, which was rising very strongly. That was going to have a much more problematic passage.

The other part of Obama’s strategy was his major Africa diplomatic initiative. He had a summit meeting for African leaders, about 50 African leaders. He made a major Presidential visit to Africa, which was not the sentimental journey that people imagined, but was serious diplomacy. And he was hoping to use diplomacy to get African nations to redirect their trade and investment toward the United States. So he had a systematic strategy.

Under the Trump administration, President Trump with almost a kind of unerring instinct, a malign design, if you will, almost intuited the pillars of U.S. power and began attacking them systematically in a kind of demolition job. In his first week in office, despite the pleas of Japan’s Prime Minister, by phone call and personal visit to Trump Tower, Trump cancelled the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Prime Minister Abe of Japan said “This is a serious mistake, because China has its own regional cooperation pact with 16 members, that’s going to capture all the trade. So if you don’t have the Trans-Pacific Partnership, China’s going to direct all that trade towards it. You’ll lose out.” Trump didn’t pay any attention, he went ahead with that.

The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership was already fading before Obama left office. The other thing that Trump has done is he’s systematically damaged our relationship with the four – all of the pillars underlying those axial ends of the Eurasian landmass. When he made his visit to NATO in May of this year, he refused to defend the mutual defense clause in NATO. He refused to affirm it. Without that clause, there is no NATO. It was a major blow. And then in the Asia-Pacific, with those four allies – we have the transcript of his first presidential phone call with the Prime Minister of Australia, in which Trump says it’s the worst phone call he’s ever had, slams the phone down. And that accelerated the alienation of the Australian people away from the United States and towards a primary alliance with China.

We have the transcript of his presidential phone call last April with President Duterte of the Philippines. Trump’s calling up about the North Korean missile launches. It’s a very interesting transcript and it has a significance that nobody realized. Trump says “Kim Jong Un’s a real problem” and Duterte says “I’m going to call China” and President Trump says “Look, I got two nuclear subs right in the area. Very powerful subs.” Duterte says “I’m going to call China.”

And Trump says “You know, we got 20 times the bombs of North Korea.” President Duterte says “I’m going to call China.” It’s very clear. The Philippines is gone. The Philippines has moved into China’s orbit. That treaty for access to the five bases in the Philippines is basically a dead piece of paper.

The alienation of Korea – Trump systematically attacked Korean history, Korean politics, so that the current President of South Korea, President Moon Jae-in, ran on a campaign slogan of “Say No to America.” And I think that in the fullness of time, the tensions in the Korean peninsula are going to play out in a way that the U.S. bilateral pacts of both Korea and Japan are going to be very seriously diminished. I don’t know if they’ll become dead letters, but very pretty close to it.

So through his inept leadership on the global stage, Trump is accelerating the decline of the U.S. geopolitical position. He’s undercutting those axial ends of Eurasia that have been the pillars of U.S. geopolitical power for the past 70 years.

What was the second part of your question, Derrick?

DJ: What are some commonalities of the end of empire that we can see manifesting in the U.S.? But I actually have another question too, if you’d rather, which –

AM: Let’s get to that one, because that’s a good question. Commonalities. First of all, empires decline through a complex series of processes. First of all, the numbers. The trade, the military dominance, the technological primacy that a rising empire has at its start, is inevitably eroded over time as other powers, other nations acquire similar skills, or they become more vital and newer economies. So the long-term trends are for any empire, at some point, they start to head downward. But when that happens, when the power is fading, the elites of a society who’ve enjoyed this kind of psychological sense of empowerment and dominion, masters of the globe, the titans astride the planet – when they begin to feel that fading, they get irrational. They then can conduct military operations that are called by historians “micro-militarism.” The prime example is the United Kingdom. In the mid-1950’s, the United Kingdom had full employment, had dug themselves out of the rubble from the bombing of World War II. They had organized a systematic and very disciplined liquidation of their empire. They were giving up, through negotiations, political control over India, Malaya, etc. And they were retaining the substance of their trade and investment as they negotiated their way out of colonial rule. So it looked like Britain, in the mid-1950’s, was on a path of comparative decline, but it was carefully managed, it was a slow decline that was leaving Britain in a pretty good position economically and diplomatically.

And then came Sir Anthony Eden, in the Conservative Party. Somehow, the process of losing empire produced a crisis, a psychological crisis. So when Gamal Nasser of Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, the British Conservative Party collectively reacted in an irrational fury. And they secretly plotted, concealing this operation from the United States, Britain’s prime ally, by the way; they plotted with the French and the Israelis to launch the massive Suez invasion, 300,000 troops, six aircraft carriers, the Israeli Army launching itself across Sinai. They occupied half the canal before the operation began to fall apart diplomatically. The British pound in Britain couldn’t sustain this operation. The British pound, which was the global reserve currency, began to lose value. And the first bailout by the IMF was not done for Mexico or some impoverished third world country. It was done for Britain in the aftermath of Suez. That’s where the bailout came from. Because the world’s global reserve currency was trembling at the brink of collapse.

And suddenly Britain went from the mighty imperial lion to kind of a toothless tiger that would now roll over when America cracked the whip. And that all happened in the space of a month, through this micro-military invasion. Clearly, leaders can accelerate the decline of imperial power. Leaders that are reacting irrationally, that are brash and bold and kind of thunder and trumpet. Y’know, laying claim to power that’s actually slipping away from them. And in so doing, they actually accelerate the loss of power.

Well, if there were ever a Sir Anthony Eden figure to take over the United States government, that would be Donald Trump. And the micro-military disaster can occur; it could occur in the South China Sea, the Korean peninsula, somewhere in the Middle East. It awaits us. In fact, there are those who would argue, I think, 30 years from now, that America’s real micro-military disaster was the Iraq invasion of 2003. And that was the same thing. American conservatives feeling a loss of U.S. global power, decided on a bold military strike. Capture Baghdad; build a massive embassy, the Green Zone; insert the U.S. in the heart of the Middle East; unleash the tides of democracy and capitalism. Break down these kind of socialist autocracies and bring the Middle East firmly into the American camp. Didn’t quite work out. Proved to be closer to Suez than a brilliant imperial coup.

So that pathology of power that’s so rational when the empire’s on the ascent, becomes dangerously irrational when an empire’s in decline.

What’s the other question, Derrick?

DJ: I have two questions. I don’t remember what my other question was earlier. So two questions. One of them is; leaving off the sort of immorality of having an empire in the first place, and acting in the self-interest of the imperial power in decline, how would you see a reasoned and rational response to a decline of empire playing out? What would those at the center of empire do if they were continuing to act in their imperial self-interest and perceiving the decline? How would they age gracefully? Once again, leaving off the entire immorality of having colonies in the first place.

AM: Well, first of all, we’re not talking about colonies anymore.We’re talking about the U.S., what’s known in the rubric as an informal empire, where we don’t actually control the sovereignty of nation-states. Back in the heyday of the British empire, a quarter of the globe, both population and territory, were British colonies, painted red on the map. But another quarter of the globe were part of the British informal empire. From the 1820’s to the 1890’s that included Latin America. At one point it included Egypt, Iran, and China. So there was another quarter of humanity that was in the British informal empire.

The U.S. iteration of empire looks like that British informal empire. The countries of the world, there are 190+ sovereign states, they all have presidents and prime ministers, they have sacrosanct boundaries and national sovereignty. And yet, the United States exercises hegemony over them, leadership and control. The U.S. empire has overtones like the British.

Now, the question is not “whether empire.” It’s what kind of empire are you going to have? You take Professor Niall Ferguson’s point, that there have been 69 major empires over the last 4000 years of human history. The possibility of the next 100 years being without an empire seems pretty remote. And think back to one of the great events that shaped the world we live in, in World War II. That was a clash between the British empire; Churchill was very proud, he didn’t talk about Britain, he talked about the British empire, and then you had the U.S. as an ascendant imperial power; on one side. And there were the Axis powers on the other. Hitler had the largest control over Europe, a continental empire. Even larger, through his allies, than Napoleon. And the Japanese empire, if you count the population, through their conquest of China and Southeast Asia, and their occupation of Korea and Taiwan, had in terms of population the largest empire in human history.

So World War II was a clash of empires. Personally, I think most of us would agree that it’s probably a good idea that the British empire and the American hegemony defeated the Axis empires Japan and Germany. Because they didn’t offer much except exploitation of the subject peoples to benefit the metropol.

The U.S. empire has not only had its dark chapters, as every empire does, but we’ve been a distinctive empire in several ways. One of them has been that at the peak of our power, right after World War II, when the world was in ruins, rival industrial powers were heavily damaged, and we had something like 50% of the world’s industrial production under our control; the United States presided over the construction of a new international order; The United Nations, and then they established the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, which was the predecessor of the World Trade Organization. They created the instruments for the management of the global economy; the IMF and the World Bank.

The United States also believed in the rule of law. And so there was an international court that was linked to the United Nations, and instead of lining up the defeated heads of the Axis empire, the Germans and the Japanese, and just shooting them, or throwing them into some prison island, the United States conducted tribunals at Nuremburg and Tokyo, that established, admittedly somewhat problematically but nonetheless established, certain international rules of law. The Nuremburg Medical Code, for example.

So this was an international order, grounded in the idea of national sovereignty, inviolable national sovereignty. Every nation was sovereign. Second, nations did not conduct their affairs via conflict and war, but by the rule of law, international law. And third, that there were human rights, that it was the object of this international order to realize the human potential, the liberation of every individual. And that, though we all can list, chapter and verse, all the times we failed our own values, nonetheless, those values stand. So it’s important to have a kind of slow, managed transition, so that even as U.S. hegemony, U.S. global power fades, that liberal international order that we built up at the peak of our power, that it survives us.

That’s I think the troubling part of China’s rise. Because China does not stand for those principles.

DJ: So we have about five minutes left. Can you talk, then, about what we can do to maintain these efforts toward human rights in the decline of the U.S. empire?

AM: Sure. I think that one of the most positive signs that we saw was when President Trump imposed his ban on, that initial ban on travel from predominantly Muslim nations, that looked very clearly like a betrayal of the Constitutional protection of religious liberty, and furthermore a betrayal of the part of the – the mission of the U.N. was to deal with refugees. There’s a U.N. High Commission for Refugees. It manages what happens when people leave their state and they’re in the kind of limbo between states. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees moves in and does human rights work, provides food, clothing, shelter, education; and ultimately tries to get other states to take in people that have left their own state. This is a very important part of the maintenance of international order. In many ways, it’s the realization of the belief in human rights. We manifest it, we prove it by the way we treat those that are within the International order, who are stateless.

And President Trump, in countering that, in imposing that Muslim ban, keeping the refugees out, bringing down the number of refugees, was challenging that very important international principle. This triumphant nationalism, where he talks about sovereignty endlessly at the U.N., in which he undercuts this kind of international community of nations, the rule of law, and the commitment to human rights; where sovereignty and boundaries transcends all. So Americans that are fighting that, the hundreds of thousands of people across the country that turned up at airports, the lawyers that came out and sat in the arrivals lounge with their laptops, filing appeals on behalf of people that were in INS holding behind the Customs barrier, all of that. That sort of outpouring, that popular outpouring in the United States, that represented, I think, a very deep commitment from a certain sector, I think a majority of the American people, to these principles and ideals. And I think it’s important to keep up that kind of activity. To defend these principles.

Sometimes our small actions, just fighting for somebody to get a visa, who’s a refugee, seems very small, just one individual or family. But it has profound implications for the principles of the U.S. liberal international order.

And then the resistance against some of the more excessive moves by the Trump administration. People who are fighting the wall, for example, which is a visible symbol of the closed nation-state, nationalism above all else. There are all kinds of manifestations of opposition to Trump that are ongoing. And that’s important, because whether consciously or unconsciously, all of this impacts upon the liberal international order.

DJ: I understand what you’re saying about the importance of resistance to Trump. That makes sense. And as China becomes ascendant, how does this concern over human rights having to do, associated with the United States, how does one, with an ascendant Chinese imperial form, how does one maintain those internationally? Do you see what I’m trying to get at? How does one extend that across the world, then?

AM: Well, in very real terms, there was a lot of popular opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Nobody liked the secret arbitration tribunals that were going to be created by it. The Obama administration argued that in fact labor rights, environmental protections were inbuilt in the treaty far more than any other trade treaty. So there was a heavy debate on that issue. But basically, progressives joined nationalists and conservatives in an attack on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. And at the time, when we were titans standing astride the globe, with our power seemingly unchallenged, I don’t think people realized what was at stake. That 40% of world trade was at stake. And that if we gave it up it would go to China.

So the issue on the left, and even on the right was just “stop the TPP.” People were unaware of the implications of what would happen when you did that. That it would represent a kind of retreat of the United States from international trade. It would weaken our relationships with those 11 other nations, which were critical trade partners and strategic partners for the United States.

So people looked just at the domestic side of the equation, and they didn’t realize the very important international implications. So I would argue that the, on balance, a kind of liberal response, maybe a centrist response to the TPP should not have been “stop it.” It should have been “Reform it, revise it.”

There will be other treaties like that. This is not the – something will come again, it has to. Because another administration is going to realize that China is capturing all this trade through these preferential agreements, and there will be a revival of these negotiations, there just will.

At that point I would say that we should have learned our lesson from the TPP. That popular forces should go in eyes wide open, realizing the tradeoffs. You want to reform it, you want to revise it, you want to get the best deal possible, but if you kill it, China’s going to capture the trade and they are not concerned about the environment. They’re not concerned about the working conditions of workers. There will be no protections in the Chinese trade pacts. So if you’re concerned about the people in the Indonesia, the Philippines, Bangladesh, and in the future, Burma, who are going to be working in those factories, producing those goods for export; better that they’re in an American trade pact with sensitivity to those kinds of environmental and human rights and labor protections, than in a Chinese trade pact where it’s all realpolitik cash and carry, and the Chinese don’t care about those conditions.

The American liberal international order, now that it’s fading and disappearing, I think we’re gonna miss it. I think we’re going to come to appreciate – we know its excesses to a fare thee well. Manipulations of elections, torture. Abortive wars, Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan, the rest. But there’s the other side. The principles we stood for, and the international community we tried to build. We’re gonna miss American hegemony, as it fades away. And I think, for that reason, that we’re going to miss the international rule of law, the environmental protection, the human rights, the community of nations that the U.S. has constructed. For that reason, it’s very important to realize the stakes, and to campaign in a way so that we manage this transition to a more multipolar world carefully and cautiously.

DJ: Well thank you so much for being on the program. And I would like to thank listeners for listening. My guest today has been Alfred McCoy. This is Derrick Jensen for Resistance Radio on the Progressive Radio Network.

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No Responses — Written on December 10th — Filed in Interviews by Derrick Jensen

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