Donald Trump’s consistent use of the term “Chinese Virus” when discussing Covid-19 has raised a few eyebrows. Having been locked down and had the foreseeable future taken away, the world has no choice but to defer to his leadership. But rather than leading the world, he leads a chosen part of it against another part of it in every speech, leaving yet more of a legacy of hate and mistrust, as if the US hasn’t done enough of this.
Other Great Powers have always had the same problems. Anything associated with former colonial masters is either rejected outright, even when it does not have to have that association, or localised to remove those associations.
But this means countries develop by adopting new friends, whoever they may be. Often they are not too discriminating about who those friends are, or what strings are attached to that friendship, as they see it as a “path to independence,” not accepting that it cannot take them there. The former Soviet states provide many examples of this, but so do former colonies of anywhere, who once ran to the Soviet Union to achieve the same ends.
So backed into a corner of its own construction, the US is deciding who else should be allowed into that corner. Kim Jong-un was invited, but seems to have been kept out, for now, by exposing that the only global superpower is indeed a helpless prisoner in its corner
But there are some states who will always be there, no matter what. Is it because they are also mature democracies which respect freedom, human rights and rule of law? If they were, North Korea would hardly have been invited.
Like an addict, the US chooses the friends which justify its crimes. The definition of US values which Washington imposes on the developing world would never be considered acceptable at home. So it seeks friends who play the same game, hoping that will justify this practice – which it would never need to do, if it really believed in the values it claims to have.
Can you imagine a world in which the US was not a friend of Israel? Many other countries, principally its neighbours, have arguments with the Jewish state, both over how it conducts itself and its very existence. But although there is also a US Arab lobby, based on shared oil interests rather than common political cause, the huge influence of the Israeli lobby in the US is recognised and well-documented.
What does Israel actually stand for which other Middle East countries, including democracies such as Lebanon, do not? How is it more consistent with US values to support Israel rather than its neighbours?
The usual answers are bound up with “self-determination” and righting historic wrongs, albeit at the expense of others. Why should the suffering Israelites not have their own homeland? Why should all the crimes committed against them over the centuries not be compensated by support for that homeland? Having done all that, should the US not have a reliable ally in this turbulent region?
These arguments are of course hypocritical, as they do not apply across the board. Ask, for example, the Kurds, the Serbs, the Catalans, the Native Americans themselves. Israel has another attraction, which is all about the US, not Israel itself.
The latest democracy reports by V-Dem and Freedom House, who compete with and do not consult each other, both make sobering reading for Israel watchers V-Dem, run from Sweden, is rather more neutral in its political posturing, whereas Freedom House inclines towards the “socialism for the rich, rugged individualism for the poor” definition of freedom.
Yet both reports explode all the claims the US makes about Israel, and about itself.
If Belgium were compared to Bolivia as a democratic state, it would be greatly offended. Yet in the V-Dem report, Tunisia, not Israel, is called “the only democracy in the Middle East”. Admittedly this stretches the definition of “Middle East” a little. But who want to be outranked for democracy by a country synonymous with instability, corruption and disregard for human rights?
The report paints the following picture:
“Tunisia is the star pupil of democratization of the past ten years. Transitioning to democracy in 2012 after mass protests ousted the dictatorial regime of Ben Ali, its score on the LDI rose steeply from 0.11 in 2008 to 0.68 in 2018. However, the data also suggest that the new government is not fully independent from the military and thus potentially vulnerable to interference. Ahead of the election in 2019, political parties are still relatively weak and young people – the driving force of the revolution – infrequently engage in formal political institutions.”
Tunisians themselves may feel their country is nowhere near the level of a real democracy, but it is largely being allowed to get there. Democracy exists because sooner or later everybody does it, if left alone to do so. Those who don’t want that are tolerating this expression of freedom, and the US is not vocal in its support of Tunisia and what it is trying to do.
Tunisia is 41st on the V-Dem list of liberal democracies, which headed by Norway. Israel is 51st. It is well behind Uruguay and Chile, two countries still struggling to rid themselves of notorious CIA-funded repressive pasts, and just behind Croatia, famous for its discriminatory behaviour towards its Serb population.
The Freedom House report includes Israel as one of 25 established democracies where freedom has declined over the past 14 years. The country gets its worst ever overall score of 76, well behind Mongolia and only 6 points ahead of Hungary, which is categorised as only “partly free”.
What’s wrong with Israel? This long list provides part of the answer. But the US recognises it as a kindred spirit because the US itself was founded by implanted settlers dispossessing and humiliating the native population.
This is what US-Israeli friendship is really about – trying to make two wrongs a right. Other countries have their own sordid histories, but don’t offer the same exculpatory PR opportunity. At a time of global crisis, the US should lead, not try to find excuses for itself.
United by the wrong common language
US relations with most countries wax and wane, depending on the political direction of the wind vein; the other country it always supports unquestioningly is the UK. Few even want to suspect there is an improper reason for this, but this crisis is indicating that such confidence is misplaced.
As the former colonial power, though admittedly long ago, the UK should be seen with much more suspicion by the US. American historiography makes much of the struggle against the British and the principles the American colonies fought for, implying that the UK is not a “land of the free” where “all men are created equal”, so it should be the opposite of what the US wants in a friend.
However the US and UK have long had a “Special Relationship” – the one which prevented the UK joining the EU and its predecessors for twenty years. Why? For the same reason Australia, which used to describe itself as being the “southern outpost of the British race,” also had a “White Australia” immigration policy for many years?
The almost English-speaking White Anglo-Saxon Protestants, WASPs, who founded and have always run the US preserve their privileges by treating the UK as an example, despite deliberately contradicting its political system and developing a very different culture. The British must be racially superior, regardless of their crimes as colonists, or the US would itself be a very different place.
This relationship also suited the British, who could regard Americans as the same as them when it suited them. US success was firstly an extension of UK success, then an acceptable alternative to UK decline. But now the “Special Relationship” is coming home to roost in a big way.
During the Second World War, despite the tensions and differences in practical impact between the two countries, everyone pulled together. For a generation afterwards, rebuilding was held to require consensus.
But for the past forty years both countries have followed a similar trajectory. Regardless of the complexion of government, they have sought to divide people into “good” and “bad” rather than supporter and opponent. The “bad” people – whether they are foreign, Muslim, ideologically unsound or whatever, are responsible for all the ills of their countries, while the “good” are being unfairly disadvantaged by treating those “bad” people the same way as them.
These policies have had one inevitable consequence – creating an ever-deepening sense of injustice amongst those who are disadvantaged to begin with, and would be under any sort of policy through no fault of their own. These are the people openly courted by Trump and Boris Johnson to win power. First it was good versus bad, now it is outsiders versus the whole system, because that system, the creation of good versus bad, has failed to deliver what it promised the good.
Going down this route will only make things worse, as no one will be satisfied and the sense of injustice will only grow. But having started, both countries are running to each other for help because they can’t stop, or their governments would collapse overnight.
The Covid-19 virus was treated by both countries as another dimension of the “liberal elite conspiracy,” something invented to profit the “bad people” who had hurt so many voters. Neither took it seriously, either saying reports were exaggerated or coming up with ridiculous but low cost cures such as Johnson’s “herd immunity.”
When forced to realise the extent of the crisis, they have insisted on pursuing racist policies which help no one. Trump reportedly tried to buy up all the cures for the US before nasty foreigners could get their hands on them, and still insists, by classifying his health emergency response meetings, that the virus is about China rather than health.
Boris Johnson is refusing to postpone or even delay the Brexit trade deal negotiations because getting away from “foreign control” is considered more important. He refused to either join the EU’s ventilator scheme, a decision later blamed on an error the EU has debunked or boost the UK manufacturers who make them, but then gave the manufacturing contract to a Conservative Party donor, one of the “good people” who can make the problem go away at the cost of the “bad people” who die in the meantime.
Johnson also claims to have Covid-19 himself, but gave a post-diagnosis speech at which there was no sign of the uncontrollable cough all sufferers apparently have. It would be entirely in character for this to be another BoJo publicity stunt. Perhaps we will never know, but is this the way to lead his country, or the world, through a crisis to a better future?
Rule by the Mob
The world’s largest economy and only superpower cannot claim to be the land of the dispossessed, particularly when run by a billionaire. But it has always claimed to be a force for good, which all like-minded nations should want to ally with.
The US is not choosing its friends based on how good their values are. It wants ones who will justify its own crimes by being just as bad. When everyone is both a victim and a carrier of a deadly virus, these issues should not matter. But the US is only reinforcing its policy, at the expense of the whole world, because it has left itself with no alternative if it is going to remain the USA.
There have been times when gangsters have effectively run cities or whole countries. Democracy is supposed to protect us from this, because at the end of the day, gangsters will serve the interests of their criminal friends rather than the people. This is why career criminals are classified as maladjusted: they cannot survive in a world where people try and act according to biblical precepts, whether aware of doing so or not.
The BIGGER the problem, the GREATER the need for both leadership, and some semblance of decency, but we have no choice to trust in our leaders in times of crisis. But the bigger they are, the more they are running to their criminal friends instead of stepping up to resolve the crisis, or stepping down to make way for those who can.
This is what a corrupt system throws up, even amongst those who claim to be overthrowing that system. There is an alternative, but it was always going to take a crisis like this to give enough people an incentive to make it real.
Human beings are better than those we have set up as examples. This time we should really mean it when we say “never again.”
Seth Ferris, investigative journalist and political scientist, expert on Middle Eastern affairs, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.