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  • Fish!

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    When in 2014 the United States and the European Union slapped sanctions on Russian officials and business entities as punishment for what they called the “annexation” of Crimea and military intervention in the Donbas region of Ukraine, when Russia responded with its embargo on food products from those countries and rolled out a generalized policy of “import substitution” to sharply curtail dependency of the domestic economy on external factors of international relations, there were many observers both within Russia and in the West who predicted the failure of the Russian government’s efforts.  The dire predictions were based on a complete misreading of the mood and general political situation in Russia: the American legislators who initiated the sanctions believed that the punishment directed at the Kremlin entourage and big business would alienate the oligarchs from Vladimir Putin and lead to regime change, or at a minimum, to change in Russia’s foreign policy to suit better the wishes of Washington.

    We now know that the stated ambition of the sanctions on Russia never worked. Reunification with Crimea and the Western sanctions aroused swelling national pride and patriotic feelings in the broad public. The Kremlin doubled down and has stayed the course on Crimea, on Donbas and more recently in Syria where its military support for the regime of Bashar Assad has gone directly against US and Western policies of backing the insurgents. But what about import substitution?

    Within months of the Kremlin’s announcement of this policy, commentators were publishing statistics showing that import substitution was negligible. Ignoring the reality that re-creation of industrial sectors usually takes years, on the basis of first findings they predicted that import substitution would never amount to anything. They pointed to the unbalanced structure of the Russian economy, with massive resources invested in the highly profitable energy industry providing “rents” to the ruling elites. Moreover, the investor unfriendly country ratings bode ill for attracting foreign or even local capital to restructuring.

    Those remarks were largely correct, but they missed other highly relevant problems facing the plans for import substitution resulting from new business ventures and capital investment.  The bigger issues were around money, namely the cost of money and its scarcity.  In 2014, Russia was still experiencing high inflation and the attempts of the Bank of Russia to contain it by tight money.  The costs of borrowing for small businesses in particular were usurious. Indeed, the disparity with the West on both counts was a direct continuation of what had been going on since the 1990s. Lack of working capital on competitive conditions was the main contributor to the flooding of the Russian market with imports and the collapse of local industry. 

    In its implementation of the import substitution policy, the Russian Government identified priority sectors and provided various kinds of federal assistance that included credit subsidies.  It also has taken steps to maintain the ruble at a low exchange rate to protect against imports whatever happens to the sanctions and embargo.

    Agriculture is one sector where the payback can be very quick if one chooses carefully the given application, as for example wheat over livestock, poultry over pork.  And when the oxygen of subsidized credit was applied, the results were stunning.  In 2017, despite capricious, if not malicious weather conditions in the spring and early summer, Russia is expecting its largest ever grain harvest, possibly reaching 130 million metric tons, and the country retakes its position as the world’s top wheat exporter and leading exporter of other grains and of beet sugar.

    What is happening in other sectors of the economy which the Government prioritized for import substitution will be obvious only in the years to come, precisely because of the greater capital and knowhow requirements and slower payback. But given the way agriculture has responded to stimuli from the federal government, it is reasonable to expect similar success stories in manufacturing and service industries like banking, insurance, and computer programming over time.

    The rising tide raises all ships, and the success of parts of agriculture have attracted big business interest not only to industrial-scale farming of grain crops but also to many other sides of food supply and processing. Such investments are being made not only by start-up small and medium sized businesses but also by the oligarchs, for whom this is a point of pride and a direct response to the wave of patriotism that has swept the country. Thus, as The Financial Times recently reported oligarch Viktor Vekselberg has been pouring vast capital via his Renova holding company into the construction of greenhouses for vegetable crops that are in great demand among Russia’s urban populations. Payback on these investments is measured in years, not months and demonstrates great confidence of Russian competitiveness against ground crops from Turkey, from Central Asia and from hothouse crops from Western Europe whenever the sanctions are lifted.

    The result of these various undertakings is that Russian Federation Minister of Agriculture, Alexander Tkachev himself a farmer with large-scale interests in the sector, can report regularly on the dramatic progress being made in all areas of agricultural self-sufficiency, meaning import substitution. Indeed, in many product groupings quite apart from grains, Russia is becoming an exporter for the first time since before WWI.

    In this essay, I would like to focus on one area of food production and processing that is especially surprising given the national traditions:  fish. Russia, like Serbia, has long followed the folk saying that the best fish is a pig. This prejudice was long justified by the quality of fish products that were available in the market as from Soviet times. The improvement in assortment and appeal of these products dates from the middle of the first decade of the new millennium.

    To be sure, what is happening in aquaculture did get coverage in The Financial Times article mentioned above, which gave statistics for the Murmansk-based LLC Russkoye More, an ambitious firm that is rapidly expanding to occupy the leading position as supplier of farmed salmon in what is a major import substitution project. The Russian market for fresh salmon, like the European Union market, was until two years ago entirely dominated by the Scandinavians, now on the embargo list.

    Whereas The Financial Times addresses the changes in the fish sector at the corporate and macroeconomic level, here we will talk about the microeconomic level, where people live and demand meets supply. What follows comes from my visits to supermarkets, to independent fish vendors, to covered street markets in cities and in the countryside up to 80 km from St Petersburg.  It is one thing to speak about supply at source, and another to speak about supply as it reaches consumers. The distribution and logistical chain is all the more important in products as perishable as fresh fish. Moreover, this informal sampling will look not only at fresh fish but also frozen and tinned fish to get a more comprehensive overview of the situation.

    In past surveys of the changing Russian shopping basket, I pointed to some specific fish varieties that are locally grown in the Russian Northwest region. These include the sig, a fresh water member of the salmon family native to Lake Ladoga, Europe’s largest body of fresh water that is 50 km east of Petersburg, and also the minnow-sized koryushka, another native of Ladoga that each spring travels down the Neva River to the lightly saline Gulf of Finland to lay its eggs and is caught on the way in vast quantities to the great pleasure of Petersburgers.

    However, the bigger picture is that as the largest country on earth, representing more than 10% of the world’s land surface, Russia has tremendous fresh water resources in terms of lakes and rivers that still abound in fish enjoying local reputation and retail distribution. This is particularly true of the Siberian rivers; smoked delicacy fish from there are sold at high prices across the Russian Federation.  In addition, of course, Russian fishing fleets based in Murmansk, to the north and in Vladivostok to the east have been and remain large suppliers of ocean fish.

    What has changed is the scale of production and distribution of fresh salt water or lake and river, wild and farmed fish.  Whereas in the past, the fish section in Russian supermarkets meant shelves of tinned sardines or catfish in tomato sauce, today every respectable market offers fresh fish, in filets or whole, presented on beds of ice and in better or worse condition depending on the store management.

    Specialized fish stores have sprung up even in the hinterland here in the Northwest, receiving daily shipments of farmed salmon, wild gorbusha and hefty flounders, among other varieties. By local standards, these fish are all substantially more expensive sources of protein than domestic chickens or pork chops. But they obviously do find their consumers and they are priced 30% or more below West European store prices for similar fish.

    Speaking of ocean fish meant until very recently fish brought to market frozen.  The Soviet Union developed a large fleet of trawlers and fish processing ships that brought frozen product to port, much of it going into export.  The fish were usually low grade, bony, good only for stews and soups.  Intrinsically higher grade fish like cod appeared for sale in shops in bulk in contorted stages of rigor mortis, not very appealing to the faint of heart.

    Now, in the past couple of years, the frozen foods bins of super markets are stocked with fish steaks packaged in clear plastic that are as attractive and as high quality as anything sold in Western Europe. These cod steaks, wild salmon (gorbusha) steaks have been flash frozen and are offered in half-kilogram portions. The labeling stresses that no preservatives have been used, that the products are natural and healthful, with detailed nutritional information provided.

     

    In the days of the Soviet Union, the Russian fishing industry produced some world-beating tinned products including red and black caviar and Chatka brand king crab meat. These exclusive and very pricey products are exported, where they enjoy demand and are available domestically in specialty shops. However, most tinned fish traditionally fell into the category of low-grade fish in tomato sauce or very poor grade vegetable oil.  Over the past several years, that has changed beyond recognition. Tinned fish of world-class quality is making its appearance on store shelves.  For example, a week ago I discovered a new arrival: “premium” class chunk tuna in olive oil packaged in 200 gram glass jars. The producer is the Far East fishing fleet, and the fish name is given in Japanese as well as Russian.  The product is similar in design and presentation to premium tuna on sale in Belgium at twice the price.

    And finally another fish product category is worth mentioning:  the salted, smoked or otherwise processed and unit-packed fish sold in the chilled products sections of supermarkets. This has expanded in product range and quality so as to be beyond recognition when compared with similar offerings just a few years ago.  Many different suppliers vie in the category of cold or hot smoked, salted salmon shrink wrapped in units of 200 grams plus or minus.  Herrings filets in oil or in sauces are now very attractive and of generally high quality. Anchovies and other small fish filets have proliferated. And hitherto unknown product categories such as “seafood cocktails” consisting of baby octopus and squid, pink shrimp and mussels in brine are offered in small plastic pots; quality is in no way inferior to what you would find in an up-market supermarket in Western Europe.  All such alien, “indescribably awful” (гадости) foods in the judgment of your average Soviet consumer, are today welcomed as the basis for salads, as stuffing for avocados, themselves a relatively new food item to the Russian shopper.  Travel abroad, and 10 million Russians do travel abroad each year, has turned them into quite sophisticated shoppers and diners. And what they have come to love they now can largely find in their supermarkets supplied by domestic producers, including all varieties of fish specialties.

    The point is, that from nowhere, the Russian fishing industry has made enormous strides and, unlike the cheese industry, is fully replacing imports with equal or better quality contents and lower prices.

    This is the consequence of change in demand as well as change in supply.  Demand has changed because before 2014 Russians still distrusted their compatriots and believed that everything made in their country was rubbish.  Come the Crimea annexation, come the war in Donbass and the upsurge of patriotism prodded folks to try their own.  What Russia has now is a virtuous cycle:  more positive expectancy, more positive supply.

     

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

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    Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His last book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming collection of essays Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in October 2017.

  • Time to Impeach Trump

     

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

    My political positions have very frequently been countercurrent.   When the Liberals were calling for Trump’s head, when Senator Charles Schumer and Representative Nancy Pelosi in Congress were preaching all-out obstructionism against the newly inaugurated President to thwart his policies, I was urging Progressives to lay down their pitchforks and try to deal constructively with the new administration for the good of the nation.

    Now, in the past several weeks, in a belated show of bipartisanship, Democratic Party leaders have finally found a negotiating partner in Donald Trump, starting with relief to the “Dreamers” in the sphere of immigration policy and extending to the bill raising the national debt ceiling.  More deals are said to be underway. In theory, that is all to the good.

    However, in the meantime this President demonstrated fulsomely in his speech to the General Assembly of the United Nations, that it is high time for him to go.   And that is not because of his widely discussed volatility, impulsiveness and narcissism.  It is because of his irremediable stupidity, primitivism and thuggery that are leading this country on a path to commit unspeakable horrors abroad.

    To be sure, Trump’s shocking debut at the UN comes as the culmination of a lengthy decline in civilized behavior by our national leaders over the past two decades.

    The swagger and bloated self-importance of George Bush did not itself come of a day.  At the start of his presidency, after 9/11 but before the fateful invasion of Iraq, Bush would make one or another outrageous, lying statement about international affairs, such as the “weapons of mass destruction” he alleged were retained by Saddam Hussein. Then he would pause and look into the camera with hesitation, as if wondering whether his whoppers would be swallowed by the public. Satisfied that he had gotten away with it, he resumed his rant.  That hint of self-doubt or fear of discovery disappeared with the years even as adversity on the battlefield and in the economy that his misguided, if not criminal acts gave rise to progressed apace. Bush limped along to the end of his second term none the wiser.

    Our intellectual president Barack Obama, with his term on the Harvard Law Review as seeming proof of mental and cultural distinction, never did learn to behave in a statesmanlike manner.  From start to finish, he conducted himself with scandalous insouciance. His well-meaning arm over the shoulder of Queen Elizabeth, which the Brits saw through as disrespect for court decorum, his chewing gum while  standing before the public eye were noted by our commentators indulgently. They never noted, however, when he slipped beyond faux pas to openly insulting behavior towards leaders of the world’s great powers, when he issued slurs which in other people’s mouths would be denounced as a form of racism.

    One such case occurred when Obama stood by the side of Chinese President Xi in the White House Rose Garden for a press briefing, and said that he would be watching closely to see that the Chinese implemented the actions that had been agreed upon.  Then there was his likening Putin to a misbehaving schoolboy, skulking at the back of the classroom. Or his description of the whole country, Russia, as a fading regional power that produced nothing that anyone wanted. This was gratuitously insulting, degrading and finally very primitive behavior for the leader of the world’s mightiest country. And the content of his remarks was based on verifiable untruths, if only he had taken care to do fact check.

    However, all of these inexcusable verbal misdeeds of the recent past are nothing compared to what Donald Trump delivered on Tuesday during the 42-minute speech marking his debut at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

    Trump’s vicious remarks directed at Iran and Venezuela may have been in line with the “Axis of Evil” speeches of George W. Bush.  But his threat to “totally destroy” North Korea, a country of 22 million, if it so much as “threatened” the United States and its allies went beyond incivility.

    The name Adolph Hitler has come up repeatedly in American political discourse over many decades in a search for a likeness going beyond the pale. It was applied famously by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Russian President Vladimir Putin when she sought to vilify the Russian leader as had never been done before even in the worst days of the original Cold War with the Soviet Union.

    By his threats to annihilate a nation issued from the tribune of the world’s greatest forum for peace-making, Trump cast himself as a modern day Hitler.

    Those of us who once backed Donald Trump on the basis of his promised normalization of relations with the world’s other nuclear superpower were initially confused and disappointed when he surrounded himself with Neocons, Liberal Interventionists and other advisers and implementers who proceeded to speak and act in ways that directly contradicted Trump’s promised changes to US foreign policy.

    But now there is no room for confusion or indulgence.  We cannot point a finger at his defense secretary, “Mad Dog” Mattis, or at his Neocon ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, or at any of the generals propping him up from the right and the left.  This time it is the boss himself who spoke outrageously, who delivered what some media outlets properly called a “tirade” and others, more timidly spoke of as “bellicose.”  

    What marked this speech from the long series of uncontrolled, self-indulgent tweets on foreign and domestic affairs from this President, was that it was precisely a scripted speech in which every word had obviously been weighed beforehand for its likely interpretation and public impact.  And it was the speech of a thug, of a dictator whose place in the world’s gallery of aggressors and war-makers is safely reserved.

    On the day of the speech, major U.S. media contented themselves with quoting Donald’s more remarkable statements, starting with his threat to North Korea.  On day two, the editorial boards reached their conclusions on how to handle it and the remarks became more interesting and revealing. The New York Times, for example, allowed itself to point to the contradiction between Trump’s celebration of sovereign nation states, with their own traditions and patriotism and his call for regime change with respect to the three states singled out as “rogues” threatening the world order

    Indeed, the sovereignty for some and not others approach on which the entire speech was built is a fault line of illogic in Trump’s thinking, if we divert ourselves with a rational analysis of what was an irrational speech.  The same fundamental contradiction was inherent in all of US foreign policy these past twenty-five years,  that of some farm animals being more equal than other farm animals, to put it in terms of George Orwell.  However, until now it was masked by the stress on universal values as the guide to foreign policy and as the justification for punishing evil-doers.  When that fig leaf is stripped away, when foreign policy is said to be built on principles of Realism and national interest, then the whole logic of might makes right, and US assertion of its right to be the world’s judge and jury is plain for all to see.

    After he is removed from office on whatever grounds will do the trick, including phony charges of collusion with the Kremlin to win the presidential race, I wish Donald Trump a comfortable retirement to a bar stool at one of the lounges of Trump Tower, which is where he and his bombastic remarks truly belong.

     

     

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

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     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in October 2017.

  • Does the United States Have a Future as a Great Power?

     

     

    by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.

     

    Twenty years ago posing this question would have seemed absurd. The United States was fully self-confident about its position as the sole surviving superpower in the world which faced virtually no obstacles or objections to its performance of “public goods” that brought order to the world either through the liberal international institutions that it helped to create after WWII and dominated, or unilaterally when necessary through “coalitions of the willing” aimed at bringing down one or another disruptive malefactor on a regional stage. From all sides abroad it heard only “amen” to its claims of exceptionalism and farther-seeing vision that came from its standing taller, as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright put it.

     

    Fourteen years ago, when America prepared for its ill-conceived invasion of Iraq and encountered loud resistance from France and Germany, backed up by Russia, it became possible to wonder whether U.S. global hegemony could last.  The disaster that the Iraqi adventure quickly became within a year of George W. Bush declaring “mission accomplished” rolled on and progressively diminished the enthusiasm of allies and others hitherto in the U.S. bandwagon for each new project to re-engineer troublesome nations, to overthrow autocrats and usher in an age of liberal democracy across the globe.

    Still, the doubts were discussed sotto voce. Governments tended to conform to what the Russians colorfully call “giving someone the finger in your pocket.”  Observers spoke their piece privately against the violations of international law and simple decency that the United States was perpetrating, against the swathe of chaos that followed American intervention across the Greater Middle East.  But such persons were on the fringes of political life and drew little attention.

    What has happened in the past couple of years is that doubts about the competence of the United States to lead the world have been compounded by doubts about the ability of the United States to govern itself. The dysfunctionality of the federal government has come out of the closet as an issue and is talked about fairly regularly even by commentators and publications that are quintessentially representative of the establishment.

    In this connection, it is remarkable to note that the September-October issue of Foreign Affairs magazine carries an essay entitled “Kleptocracy in America” by Sarah Chayes. This takes us entirely away from the personality peculiarities of the 45th President into the broader and more important realm of the systemic flaws of governance, namely the extraordinary political power wielded by the very wealthy and the self-serving policies that they succeed in enacting, all at the expense of the general public that has stagnated economically for decades now, setting the stage for the voter revolt that brought Trump to power.

    And in an op-ed essay in the The Washington Post on September 1st that is remarkable precisely for its identification of the failing political culture in Washington, Senator John McCain says the following:

    “Congress will return from recess next week facing continued gridlock as we lurch from one self-created crisis to another. We are proving inadequate not only to our most difficult problems but also to routine duties. Our national political campaigns never stop. We seem convinced that majorities exist to impose their will with few concessions and that minorities exist to prevent the party in power from doing anything important.”

    McCain himself was till now a major contributor to the poisonous political climate in Washington, to partisanship that tramples patriotism under foot. One thinks of his unprecedented attack on fellow Republican Senator Rand Paul several months ago whom he accused of “working for Putin” because the good Senator refused to vote for the accession of Montenegro to NATO.

    Gridlock in the federal government is nothing new. In the past decade, work of the federal government came to a standstill when Congress and the President could not agree the conditions under which the federal debt ceiling would be raised.  Such an eventuality was just narrowly averted in the past day.

    Public exposure and ridicule of a sitting president for personal failings, such as the case of Bill Clinton’s sexual transgressions, have been exploited for political gain by his opponents whatever the cost to national prestige. We have lived through that crisis of the political elites and the republic survived

    What is new and must be called out is the loss of civility in public discourse at all levels, from the President, from the Congress and down to the average citizen.  The widely decried personal attacks that otherwise would be called defamation during the 2016 presidential electoral campaign were symptomatic of this all-encompassing phenomenon.  It signifies a dramatic decline in American political culture that the whole world sees and is beginning to act upon in self-defense.

    In what follows, I will speak to each of these levels in the calamitous loss of dignity and reason in the establishment as it bears on the unsustainability of American soft power abroad, which in turn preconditions hard power.

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    Let us start with President Donald Trump, who is attacked in the news daily by the liberal media that represents the lion’s share of all television programming and print publications, media that vehemently opposes Trump’s domestic and foreign policy positions. In their determination to ensure either his impeachment or effectively to strip him of powers, they speak of Trump the way cheaply printed caricatures for the masses lampooned Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette before the French Revolution.

    The President is publicly described by his compatriots as an imbecile, a rabid racist, a misogynist, a volatile and impulsive narcissist whose finger on the nuclear button gives us all goose pimples:  this cannot be ignored by the wider world outside US borders and it is not ignored.

    To be sure, Donald Trump has brought a good deal of this ignominy on himself by his intemperate comments on daily events, particularly at home but also abroad, where silence or a nod to conventional verities would be the better part of valor. He keeps his own counsel on foreign affairs and erroneously believes that his instincts are superior to the advice of experts. In his kitchen cabinet, there are no experts.  In the official cabinet, he has for his own reasons assembled a group consisting of Neoconservatives and Liberal Interventionists, who made it easy for him to get confirmation in the Senate but who are all pulling in the direction opposite to the America First concepts of nonintervention in the affairs of other states that he set out in his electoral campaign.

    Trump changes direction daily, even on matters as critical as the likely U.S. response to the ongoing crisis on the Korean peninsula.  The tactic of unpredictability was an approach he said in the campaign he would use against enemies, in particular against terrorist groups, not to tip them off about U.S. intentions in advance and weaken the effect of eventual U.S. military strikes. But it makes no sense when applied to all other current business, which requires a firm hand on the tiller and sense of continuity and predictability, not constant disruption.

    The net result of Donald Trump’s first six months in office has been to undo the bonds of mutual confidence with our allies and friends, and to put on guard our competitors that America’s role in the world is up for grabs.

    Foreign policy has opened up as a topic for discussion here in Europe ever since Donald scattered the chickens by his loose talk about NATO and America's commitment or non-commitment to the Article 5 provision of all for one and one for all. This has given impetus to the long-spluttering plans to create a European Union army as an alternative to NATO, and as a rallying point for federalists in what will be a two-speed Europe.

    During the two terms of Obama, meddling in the internal politics of China and Russia, repeated hectoring over their alleged human rights and rule of law violations, but still more importantly the wrong-headed policy of simultaneous containment of these two giants through construction of military alliances and bases at their borders put in motion a strategic partnership between them that was once improbable but is now flourishing. The Russia-China axis is underpinned by vast joint investments and promises to remake the global power balance in the decades to come.

    Now, with Trump, the damage to American power in the Pacific region is spreading. His ripping up free trade accords and his incautious rhetoric regarding possible military strikes against North Korea have pushed both Japan and South Korea to explore actively and urgently how Russia can be befriended, at a minimum, for the sake of greater leverage against the big ally in North America. This has been demonstrated with perfect clarity by the meetings of Vladimir Putin with Japanese premier Shinzo Abe and Korean president Moon Jae-in at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok over the past couple of days.

    Russia’s evolving political entente with both South Korea and Japan is providing support for the launch of ambitious foreign investment projects in its Far East as announced at the Forum. These include one which has the potential to re-shape the imagination of regional populations for a generation to come: revival of plans to build a 50 billion dollar rail-auto bridge linking Hokkaido with the Russian island of Sakhalin, thus uniting Japan with the continent and facilitating freight shipments across Russia to Europe. For its part, Korea announced infrastructure investments for the Northern sea route linking their country with European markets through sea lanes kept open by Russian icebreakers.  Like the Chinese One Belt One Road, these plans all dramatically reduce the importance to world trade of the long-standing US policed sea lanes off Southeast Asia up to and through the Suez Canal.

    Of course, the low point in America’s image in the world today under Trump is not entirely new. By the end of his two terms in office, George W. Bush had driven American prestige to what were then all time lows even among Europeans.  There was a brief resurgence of American popularity at the start of Barack Obama’s tenure in office. But that was quickly dissipated by his failure to deliver on the pledges of his campaign and inaugural address, as Guantanamo remained open, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan continued and as drone strikes proliferated.

    But Donald Trump has shaken up the world order by repeatedly questioning the public goods that the country claimed to be delivering these past decades, opening a void without projecting a new vision of global governance. In the meantime, the unique value of America’s public goods is being eroded as alternative suppliers step forward.

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    It is commonplace today within the United States to put all blame for the shocking decline in political culture at the door of President Trump with his boorish language and behavior.  However, as we noted from the outset in citing Senator John McCain’s recent op-ed, Congress has contributed mightily to the erosion of civic values by its vicious and counterproductive partisanship.

    And yet a still greater threat to our democracy and to the sustainability of our great power status has come from the inverse phenomenon, namely the truly bipartisan management of foreign policy in Congress.  The Republican and Democratic party leaderships have maintained strict discipline in promotion of what are Neoconservative and Liberal Interventionist positions on every issue placed before Congress. Committees on security and foreign affairs invite to testify before them only those experts who can be counted upon to support the official Washington narrative. Debate on the floor of the houses is nonexistent.  And the votes are so lopsided as to be shocking, none more so that the votes in August on the “Countering America’s Adversaries through Sanctions Act.”  This measure removed sanctions on Iran, North Korea and Russia from the category of Executive Order and mandated them by federal law.  In the Senate it passed 98 to 2. In the House, the vote was 419 for, 3 against.  Such results remind us of the rubber stamp legislature of the USSR, the Supreme Soviet, in its heyday.

    That particular vote was still more scandalous for its being drafted and passed without any consultation with US allies and friends, though its intent is to control their commercial and credit policies with respect to the target countries under sanction.  For Europeans, in particular, this puts in question their ability to pursue what they see as great economic benefits from trade and investment with Russia and Iran. In this sense, Congress demonstrated that it is pursuing a still more radical program of America First than the President. In-your-face unilateralism such as this works directly to the detriment of the country’s standing in global forums.

     

     

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    It would be comforting if the problems of our political culture began and ended with the elites operating in Washington, D.C.  However, that is patently not the case.  The problem exists across the country in the form of stultifying conformism, or groupthink that is destroying the open marketplace for ideas essential for any vital democracy.

    Some of us have called this the new McCarthyism, because the most salient aspect of groupthink is the ongoing hysteria over alleged Russian meddling in U.S. domestic politics. The denunciations of “stooges of Putin” and the blacklisting from both mass and professional media of those known to deliver unconventional, heterodox views on Russia and other issues of international affairs is reminiscent of what went on during the witch hunt for Communists in government, in the media during the early 1950s. 

    However, no one is being hounded from office today. There are no show trials, as yet, for treasonous collusion with Russia.  So, it would be safer to speak of an atmosphere of intimidation that stifles free debate on the key security issues facing the American public.  Absence of debate equates to a dumbing-down of our political elites as intellectual skills atrophy and results in poor formulation of policy. The whole necessarily undermines our soft power and standing in the world.

    Groupthink in America today did not come from nowhere. Debilitating conformism was always part of our DNA, as is the case in a great many countries, though its emergence has been episodic and in varying degrees of severity.  The present acute manifestation in the United States goes back to the mass paranoia which followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks when the  George W. Bush administration introduced the Patriot Act, gutting our civil rights in exchange for the promise of security.

    Though the revelations of Edward Snowden have shown the full extent and potency of the  instruments of surveillance over the general population that were introduced by the Bush administration after 9/11, there was enough of state control exposed in the Patriotic Act text to silence anyone with doubts about US government policies at home and abroad.  When the harsh personalities of the Bush immediate entourage were replaced by the liberal talking officials of Barack Obama, people breathed easier, but the instruments of surveillance remained in place, as did the Neocon middle and senior officials in the State Department, in the Pentagon, in the intelligence agencies.  Thus, for a whole generation the Washington narrative remained unchanged, giving encouragement in communities across the land to Neocon-minded administrators and professorate of our universities, publishers and owners of our mainstream newspapers and other arbiters of public taste.  That is quite sufficient to explain the current atmosphere of intimidation and groupthink.

     

     

     

    It is improbable that any Humpty-Dumpty successor to Donald Trump can put the pieces back together again and restore American dominance to where it was at the close of Bill Clinton's first term as president. Given American hubris, will our political class accept an equal seat at the global board of governors or just walk away from the table?

    © Gilbert Doctorow, 2017

     

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     Gilbert Doctorow is an independent political analyst based in Brussels. His latest book Does Russia Have a Future? was published in August 2015. His forthcoming book Does the United States Have a Future? will be published in October 2017.