May 25, 2018
By Gary Leupp
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced to a Heritage Foundation audience Monday a a set of 12 demands (‘basic requirements”) to induce the U.S. to rejoin a new, improved JCPOA agreement and to avoid being “crushed” by the U.S. A Washington Post op-ed by Jason Reizaian described the speech as “silly,” and it was criticized by most of the media as at least unrealistic.
I’m reminded of the Twenty-One Demands Japan submitted to China on January 8, 1914. Months earlier Japanese forces had attacked the German concession (colony) in Shandong and occupied the territory. (The attack on the Germans was justified by the fact that Germany was a war with Britain, and Japan was a British military ally doing its part in the First World War.)
Tokyo demanded that China acknowledge its acquisition of German rights in Shandong, open up more ports to Japanese all along the coast, transfer control of a mining enterprise, avoid giving more concessions to foreign powers (other than Japan), and generally place Japanese advisors at every level of government. It was so blatantly unreasonable that Britain and the U.S. were shocked and took action to block the most egregious provisions. (The Anglo-Japanese Naval Treaty of 1902 ended in 1921, in part due to mounting British distaste with their ally’s behavior.)
The Japanese imperialist state’s arrogance and cruelty had been made plain to world opinion. Today the U.S. bares its similar qualities not through a diplomatic note but a televised speech in which Iran is told to be afraid, and to obey. It put the rest of the world including key U.S. allies on notice that Washington will use its tools to thwart the trade and investment promised in an agreement it itself helped craft and signed three years ago.
Practically all U.S. allies would like to block these demands that the Trump administration is heaping on Iran. Because they also impose demands on them, to back out on big deals already signed or face secondary sanctions. In 1914 most of the world sympathized with China, the victim. Now most of the world sympathizes with Iran. From at least 2003 and the invasion of Iraq justified on a bogus nuclear threat the U.S. has acquired the reputation of a bully. It already had one, of course; the U.S. war in Vietnam horrified much of the world, as the bombing of Baghdad did in 1999. Even so, global respect for the U.S. was higher while Nixon bombed Hanoi dikes than it is now while Trump merely threatens countries’ annihilation. If there was an upswing for awhile during the Obama era, U.S. prestige and popularity has plummeted under Trump.
Recent polls show more Germans see Putin as more trustworthy than Trump, and Russia more reliable than Washington. The reputation of the U.S. has crumbled while cities crumble under U.S. bombs. Now alongside the U.S.-inflicted tragedies in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya there is the potential for a major regional war, virtually provoked by the U.S., involving allied bullies like Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Would that there might be a global intervention to prevent the U.S. from sabotaging the deal the rest of the world not only supports but sees as a break on the manifested U.S. penchant for war. Let nations say: if you sanction us for following through on legal contracts, we will sanction you back, in the interests of maintaining our own sovereignty. Let them say: You’re not the boss now. EU GDP equals yours. Iran is a huge promising market in which Europeans especially Germans have long been invested. You’re telling us that to prevent Iran getting nuclear weapons (which the IAEA says it’s not and lacks the capacity to do so) we can’t sell civilian passenger airlines to people who badly need new, safe planes? That’s absurd.
Recall that Pompeo has recently visited Pyongyang twice to meet Kim Jung-un. That is Pompeo in his diplomatic mode. In his Heritage Foundation speech he adopts the role of a super-bully, shocking not so much the Iranians (accustomed to U.S. duplicity) as the Europeans. The president of the EU Donald Tusk had asked days before Pompeo’s speech, “Looking at the latest decisions of President Trump, some could even think: ‘With friends like that, who needs enemies?’” European leaders including British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson say they will do all they can to protect their investments.
Their resentment of being denied their rights—by a government led by a boorish, smug, condescending, bullying, demanding, wholly uninformed, malignant dunce–might be a factor itself in the decline of the U.S. empire. Engels wrote in a letter in 1894:
“Men make their history themselves but not as yet with a collective will according to a collective plan or even a definite, delimited given society. Their aspirations clash, and for that very reason all such societies are governed by necessity, the complement and form of appearance of which is accident. The necessity which here asserts itself athwart all accident is again ultimately economic necessity. This is where the so-called great men come in for treatment. That such and such a man and precisely that man arises at a particular time in a particular country is, of course, pure chance. But cut him out and there will be a demand for such a substitute, and this substitute will be found, good or bad, but in the long run he will be found.” …That Napoleon, just that particular Corsican, should have been the military dictator whom the French Republic, exhausted by its own warfare, had rendered necessary, was chance; but that, if a Napoleon had been lacking, another would have filled the place, is proved by the fact that the man was always found as soon as he became necessary: Caesar, Augustus, Cromwell, etc.”
No, the role of personality is not so important in history. Economic necessity is operative now, surely. But are Trump’s arbitrary, inconsistent policies simply or even fundamentally driven by that? Perhaps Wall Street thinks so, until it panics at the threat of a trade war. Is it necessary for trans-Atlantic inter-capitalist competition and contention to strain the Atlantic Alliance? Or provoke conflict with Canada and Mexico without giving thought to how doing so arouses more disdain even among close allies? Trump reportedly went from being anti-NAFTA to pro-NAFTA in one day, confusing the press. He reveals the inconsistency of someone with no coherent ideology, as many have observed. He will pay too much attention to Bolton’s Wormtongue counsel, but then maybe not. With Trump you don’t know.
As a historical force his personality so far has resulted in multiple successful attempts of foreign leaders to flatter him (even the Saudis on his first foreign visit after his election) into agreements and cordial relations. He is understood (obviously) to want and need praise. The South Korean president brilliantly handled him by serving as the intermediary for North Korea in urging a summit with the North Korean leader (to avoid war on their peninsula), praising him for having made this offer happen by his pressure on the DPRK. No doubt both Moon and Xi Jinping have shared notes with Kim Jong-un about how to exploit this clown’s egoism.
His personality has also resulted in a drop in U.S. power to influence global events. Angela Merkel has been insulted by him and apparently detests him; she’s declared that “Europe must take its fate into its own hands.” In part, by partnering more with Russia.
Trump’s vacillations and vague statements, impulsive decisions and explosive threats, concern the whole world.
His personality has long since convinced the majority is this country that he’s what Hillary Clinton in her restrained name-calling called “unfit.” While his supporters hail the economic statistics thinking he is making America great again, he has produced enormous anxiety and depression and especially lacks support from youth. The prestige of the presidency has rarely been lower, even if Trump’s support remains around 40%. (He has what you call a “polarizing personality.”)
It’s hard to understand, given the multiple appointment picks and contradictory, changing policies and lack of clarity in pronouncements, what Trump’s role is in the global class struggle. He seems determined to revive the World War I world, of competing capitalist-imperialist blocs of exploiters commonly oppressing the toiling people, while always whipping up their patriotism and nationalism as preparation for war. He just might not be able to do it.
The references to him as “Leader of the Free World” are surely fake news, not only because there is no real “Free World” but because its supposed other leaders can’t accept his leadership. He’s an exposed Wizard of Oz. I thought this was true of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush too; very ignorant men posturing as astute (although neither very articulate in unscripted comments because neither knew what they were talking about) but Trump is much worse. His passion for confrontation with Iran is not based so much on economic calculation (although he may have solicited or received some outside money from Iran’s staunch enemies) as much as a campaign promise and perhaps the influence of his son-in-law.
Trump actually seems to work against the U.S. economy long-term by inviting not just limited trade wars, which are normal, but inviting such personal contempt and reducing the desire of Europeans and others to even buy U.S. products. (Not that it’s directly relevant, but the 21 Demands generated a massive Chinese boycott on Japanese imports that hurt the Japanese conglomerates for a time.) Personality is important here. But I agree to Engels that had he not been elected it would have been someone else (like Ted Cruz). The economic necessity may be the re-division of the world to satisfy the needs of psychopaths within the .01% of humans who control the rest of us to assert their manhood before perishing with all of us in another dumb-ass war that this time leads to nuclear holocaust.
*Gary Leupp is Professor of History at Tufts University, and holds a secondary appointment in the Department of Religion. He is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa Japan; Male Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900. He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press).