William Pfaff is the author of The Irony of Manifest Destiny, published in June 2010 by Walker and Company (New York) -- his tenth and culminating work on international politics and the American destiny. He describes the neglected sources and unforeseen consequences of the tragedy towards which the nation's current effort to remake the world to fit America's measure is leading. His previous books and his articles in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, and his syndicated newspaper column, featured for a quarter century in the globally read International Herald Tribune, have made him one of America's most respected and internationally influential interpreters of world affairs.   [Read more...]
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Columns : The President's Clausewitz Problem
on 2014/11/26 15:00:00 (755 reads)

Paris, November 26, 2014 – Chuck Hagel’s departure from the Obama Defense Secretary’s post has been attributed to his failure to fit in with the Obama cabinet’s crowd. Among his other reported differences was that he was only a sergeant in Vietnam, twice wounded.

A twice-wounded veteran, I should think, would make him a rare specimen in a Washington packed full of Senators and Congressmen, and State Department and National Security Council staff who assume that they know more about war than Clausewitz, and unwounded but heavily decorated generals eager to get back to showing their stuff, as in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

(As I have noted before, the most celebrated of those, David Petraeus, when he resigned from the army, was entitled to display more than 50 items of military adornment up one side of his chest and down the other, none of them the Purple Heart - for foreign readers, a U.S. military decoration awarded for wounds suffered in combat. One understands why a former sergeant may be thought a social embarrassment, especially if he calls himself “Chuck.”)

Sergeant Hagel’s real problem seems he supported too few wars for President Barack Obama, agreeing with the generals that airplanes alone don’t win wars - and certainly he supported not enough wars to satisfy the Pentagon and some of the aggressively ideological ladies in the State Department and on the White House staff. The president was elected on a platform of ending the war in Iraq, already presumed effectively won, and to expedite victory in the more important war in Afghanistan, where Osama bin Laden made his home.

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Columns : Obama's World Leadership
on 2014/11/19 14:30:00 (1346 reads)

Paris, Oct. 19, 2014 - For a man who had taken a stunning electoral blow two weeks earlier, Barack Obama completed his Asian trip with an air of unperturbed leadership of the world -- whatever the Republicans at home thought about who was in charge of what now will happen in the United States

The nation and its politicians have since the cold war been so confident of American supremacy over the whole of western civilization that not only allies have ceased to count but enemies. Americans are the leaders who make the decisions on how the world should work, even when this clearly is not what experience teaches, as one might think had been learned in recent years in the Middle East and Afghanistan.

The President signed a carbon emissions agreement with China. He went to Myanmar hoping to bestow a gold star for merit on Daw Aung San Suu Kyi but found it necessary to chide the generals in power in the country that they must do better in matters of human rights – at a moment when a scandalous forced expulsion of a Burmese Muslim minority was taking place. Another time for Madam Aung San Suu Kyi.

In Brisbane for the G20 discussions the President oversaw David Cameron of Britain (who has become the new Tony Blair) reiterating the State Department script, and issuing a lordly warning to Vladimir Putin that he must do as he is told concerning Ukraine or there will be still more sanctions.

Stephen Harper, the Canadian Prime Minister, presented to the Russian president, insulted him by saying, “I guess I’ll shake your hand but I have only one thing to say to you. You need to get out of Ukraine.” The other members of what in espionage circles are known as the Five Eyes (not a new band, but the U.S., U.K., Canada, New Zealand and Australia) gave versions of the same speech. Mr. Obama was pleased. Stars for all!

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Columns : Defeating Plutocracy
on 2014/11/12 17:00:00 (1270 reads)

Paris, Nov. 12, 2014 – A week ago this column asserted that the present electoral system in the United States now places the U.S government on sale every two years -- the presidency and congress every four years, and the entire House of Representatives and a third of the Senate, as well as assorted state governors, judges, and other officials, every two years, as in the mid-term election that took place on November 4th.

The argument I made and make is that since national elections now are largely won or lost by the quantity of paid and unregulated television advertisements (or so politicians and professional observers are convinced, a possibly self-fulfilling expectation), those who have the largest amount of money at their disposal win the elections. There are few exceptions.

This is not as things should be, but overall it was the result of the November 4 vote. The success of big money was even greater than widely expected. Hence Americans now live in a plutocracy: the country that claims to lead the world is largely controlled by major American corporations and financial groups, and exceedingly rich individuals.

The question posed is can anything be done to reverse this situation, in which money has steadily accumulated national political power until reaching the seemingly decisive position it possesses today. The international economy’s present tendency, as the French economist Thomas Piketty has recently argued, is to augment the fortunes of the already rich, since the rate of return on investment tends to run ahead of the rate of growth in the overall economy.

The rich are not, as mainstream economists (and Republican Party candidates and supporters) have argued for years, “the creators of jobs.” Industry does not, as assumed for many years, support an enlarging workforce. What it does produce is enlarging return for investors.

In the economy of the past three decades, technology has tended to destroy jobs – that, after all, is one of its principal purposes, cost-reduction. The globalized economy has tended to export those fields of manufacture that still require human employees to poor countries, where wages are low and working conditions poor. As governments of countries thus favored by globalization tend to do what they can to maintain conditions that attract foreign investment, industry moves to where conditions are worse and wages lower : thus the competitive race to the bottom.

There are countertendencies, of course. There are enterprises convinced that a well-paid and skilled labor force is an asset. Public opinion tends to oppose the most sinister consequences of globalized manufacturing and services. But there is as yet no convincing evidence that forces exist in the United States today to reverse the conditions that now prevail. That is a condition in which the economy has awarded one single family – the owners of Walmart stores – 37% of U.S. national wealth, virtually the same amount of wealth possessed collectively by the poorest 40% of the nation’s population. (These figures, which are well known, were cited again by Senator Bernie Sanders [I-Vt.] in a recent interview with Bill Moyers).

In theory, this distribution of wealth affords such a family (let us say the Koch brothers, to take one of the most politically active families), the possibility of wielding as much electoral power -- measured in television political advertising -- in national elections than a major part of the total electorate.

I asked in my last column if there is “no way out” of this situation -- other than by revolutionary change in the way the economy and political system function, a change which is against the material interests of the dominant business, investor, and existing political classes, who may be expected to fight against any such challenge, or effect alteration in the existing government to prevent it, conceivably by force.

Change has, however, happened in the past, against severe resistance -- three times since the Civil War, for example.

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Columns : No Way Out
on 2014/11/5 14:20:00 (2304 reads)

Paris, November 4, 2014 – The dominating significance of the mid-term American legislative elections just finished has been the occasion’s dramatic confirmation of the corruption of the American electoral system. This has two elements, the first being its money corruption, unprecedented in American history, and without parallel in the history of major modern western democracies. How can Americans get out of this terrible situation, which threatens to become the permanent condition of American electoral politics?

The second significance of this election has been the debasement of debate to a level of vulgarity, misinformation and ignorance that while not unprecedented in American political history, certainly attained new depths and extent.

This disastrous state of affairs is the product of two Supreme Court decisions and before that, of the repeal under the Reagan Administration, of the provision in the Federal Communications Act of 1934, stipulating the public service obligations of radio (and subsequently, of television) broadcasters in exchange for the government’s concession to them of free use in their businesses of the public airways.

These rules required broadcasters to provide “public interest” programming, including the coverage of electoral campaigns for public office and the independent examination of public issues. The termination of these requirements made possible the wave of demagogic and partisan right-wing “talk radio” that since has plagued American broadcasting and muddied American electoral politics.

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Columns : The Millennium Threat
on 2014/10/29 16:00:00 (1451 reads)

Paris, October 29, 2014 – The Western nations since the age of exploration and imperialism have accustomed themselves to mastery over emergent, backward or broken nations, or primitive or failed empires.

They exercised over them a rule that ranged from the ruthless and exploitative to the paternalism of the latter-day colonialism of the 1920s to 1950s. They nominated their monarchs, offered them western education and religion, and held out to them unconsidered and unfulfilled promises that someday they would be like their western masters, possessing an imitation of western ways of life and the prospect of distant graduation into their own version of the civilization practiced by the West.

Today the tables have been turned in the relations of imperialist victims and imperial rulers; the nature of the relationship is changing into a new one of terrorization or victimization of the latter by the former.

This is true even for the United States, which traditionally has proudly held itself a liberator of nations, but held a real Empire from 1898/1901 until 1945, including the Philippines, with Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and scattered Pacific territories its ambiguous present-day reminder and remnant. In present-day America the liberation flag can no longer in conscience be flown.

The threat of terror produced by past victims of American Middle Eastern imperialism reacts to the new imperialism of the United States that appeared after it had survived the Cold War in its Russian and Vietnamese phases, and moved into the Arab world.

Now the Islamic Middle East is striking back in a sudden and ruthless way that has alarmed and even panicked many European and North American individuals and politicians.

People once refugees in the West, now are returning to the Islamic scene as candidate-terrorists, ambitious afterwards to return to the countries that had once taken them in -- and then pretty much abandoned them to ghetto life, the governments of these countries not knowing what to do with them that might turn this mass of persecuted peoples into integrated Westerners.

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