We've corporatized the planet: The unseemly secret about America's foreign policy

In Ukraine, however, these efforts seem to have failed. Here's why that's a good thing

Published October 7, 2014 11:00PM (EDT)

Secretary of State John Kerry                  (Reuters/Lefteris Pitarakis)
Secretary of State John Kerry (Reuters/Lefteris Pitarakis)

We do not read much about Ukraine lately, do we? With unseemly speed, among the most important developments of the last few years has fallen out of the paper. There is a reason for this: Washington has sustained another, in this case very major, defeat. The policy failed. And we Americans cannot talk about defeat and failure if they are our own.

The moment of truth was the cease-fire accord the Kiev government, Moscow and the two republics declared in eastern Ukraine signed in Minsk on September 5. With that document, Vladimir Putin succeeded in putting a stop to the preposterous charade wherein Ukraine was supposed to swerve smoothly into the Euro-American camp, so rolling out the neoliberal agenda like linoleum straight up to Russia’s borders.

Nice try, Victoria Nuland and all other “new world order” idolators. Actually, it was a very horrific try, costing several thousand lives and wrecking cities and vast parts of eastern Ukraine’s productive infrastructure. All this for the sake of deregulated capital and “free markets.” Is there a widow in Donetsk who will one day explain, “Son, your father died because the Americans put people in charge who wanted corporations such as Chevron to profit from our resources while pushing our family into poverty?”

The Minsk protocol provides for a sanitized corridor nearly 20 miles wide between Kiev-controlled territory and the eastern sections of the country, where Russian is the first language and the seductions of free-market capitalism have not gone over so well. This is near-term common sense.

Further out, the eastern Donbass is to get some degree of autonomy greater than the insincere offer Kiev has made to date. And the eastern region will hold its own elections, these now brought forward over Kiev’s objections to November 2.

We witness the federalization of Ukraine, in a word—the sensible way forward from the first, a perfectly good expression of the nation’s divisions, except that Russian leader Vladimir Putin advocated a federal Ukraine, so it could not be right.

From all one can make out, Putin shaped this deal in back-channel collaboration with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor. This is significant, in my view, and I will return to the point further on.

It is difficult to call this outcome, assuming it stays on track, a success for the neoconservatives at the State Department, or the phony foundations State sponsors to advance the corporatization of the planet in the name of democracy. Too many casualties, too much wreckage, the new government in Kiev is already revealed as another crew of corrupt incompetents, and all that got done was the stimulation of animosities that ought to have been discouraged.

And since we can talk about neither success nor defeat nor failure, we talk about nothing.

I am quite pleased to see my country once again defeated, and pleased all over again to say so. Defeat and failure are precisely what we Americans need most in our conduct abroad and need most urgently to talk about.

The thought will be bitter to many, unthinkable to others. Still others will assert that the columnist is “anti-American”—the oldest chestnut around, a profoundly anti-American thought—or a shill for Putin. This stuff bores me nearly to tears at this point. When will the 1950s end, I often wonder.

I have written in this space before about the way optimism is sometimes buried in apparent pessimism. American foreign policy now is such a case and Ukraine Exhibit A.

The argument is simply stated: This country, my country, can do better than it does. We are a better people than all our coups and anti-democratic subversions tell the world we are. This phrase I have mentioned a couple of times, author yet to be identified: “Wherever in the world you find a mess, be certain the Americans have been there.” It is true, a source of shame and anger considering all the lost opportunity, but it does not have to be.

The above paragraph seems angelic, surely. Let me try it another way for all the realpolitik people: If we fail to do better, and soon, we are going to fare very badly in the new century.

The best way to justify a taste for conversations about defeat and failure is to note at the start the very intimate relationship between these two and change. What is this relationship? This is our question.

As many readers recognize, American policy abroad since 1945 is one long, looped story of doing the same thing again and again and coming up with the same result. This result may be undesirable to a lot of us but not to all of us. Our foreign policy cliques remain fixated on the extension and preservation of American power and prerogative. Little has changed in this respect since the Spanish-American War in 1898.

That is the object. And to preserve this objective it is essential to avoid any talk of defeat. We have one policy failure after another in front of us—it is an especially weedy garden at the moment—but an assessment of mistakes never issues from Washington. Tactics change, and most of the hubbub goes to them. Strategy never changes, and few even question it.

You know the point of this observation, surely: If we can begin talking about defeat, failure, messes, stupidities, inhumanity, and loss, we can begin talking about change—and then, astonishing as the thought is, change policy and altogether the way we address the world.

There, in a sentence, is my optimism hiding in the pessimism. One loves to see American foreign policy failures—apart from all the unnecessary suffering, of course—because one dislikes the policy and thinks vastly better can be achieved once policy direction changes.

I explored this thought in my last book. Another is much worth mentioning now. Some readers will know "The Culture of Defeat," Wolfgang Schivelbusch’s 2001 book (and his best, in my view). I urge the book on readers not yet acquainted.

Schivelbusch argues that a defeated nation is forced to reassess its worldview in that events have proven it wrong. In consequence, the vanquished revalue their values, re-imagine themselves, renovate their place among others. Then they re-emerge, a new people with new goals. Schivelbusch is German. Post-1945 Germany is not among his examples, but is there a better one to make the point? (Transparency: Schivelbusch is a friend.)

What becomes of victors, then? Events have proven them superior, of course. All they need do is keep on just as they have it. No need for self-examination, or to inquire into their place in the world, or to ask whether there is a better way at anything. The victors naturally assume they got it right—and so set out on the congested road to atrophy.

It should be easy enough to see how the thesis is germane to the American predicament. But we have to ask, What exactly is it that has been defeated in the American case? Policy is never more than a reflection of belief and what is taken to be knowledge. What are the beliefs and what the assumed knowledge, then?

I identify two defeats in this regard.

First is the ideological clothing long used to dress up America’s interventionist behavior abroad. This is the exceptionalist narrative, in short. Assistant Secretary Nuland may have stood next to a Chevron plaque when, in a speech recorded in a much noted YouTube clip, she described the $5 billion Washington and numerous corporations have spent in Ukraine since its independence in 1991. But the conceit was that all has been done to light the torch for democracy and freedom.

This reasoning (if that is the word) was long ago defeated, as even Washington’s closest allies understand, but no one in Washington will yet talk about this defeat. Ninety-seven years after Wilson’s famous speech, making the world safe for democracy remains the pretense. The result is inevitable failure, as Ukraine tells us.

Second is the neoliberal order and Washington’s ability to assert it. The Washington Consensus of the post-Berlin Wall years was never a consensus outside the Beltway and died a death long ago. But anywhere they can, the ideological children of the Chicago School persist, insisting it is just the thing for everybody. Again, no capacity to recognize the error and learn from it.

Ukraine is interesting in this respect: Those in the east who opposed Kiev’s westward tilt did so for many reasons—historical, cultural, political, familial—but among these was a recognition that exchanging a long-established, altogether organic relationship with Russia for life under an International Monetary Fund austerity plan was a bad, bad deal.

The German connection is important here. I and others have long argued that the rise of middle-income nations—India, China, Russia, Iran and many others—will produce a non-Western alternative to Atlantic primacy. It does not take genius to see this: It takes an open mind, open eyes, a plane ticket and long walks at the other end of the flight. The evidence of things to come is everywhere.

The Christian Democratic Merkel is an odd messenger in this, but Germany may come to have a foot in this camp. The collaboration with Putin suggests it persuasively: In my read, Merkel was instrumental in getting Kiev to swallow its ridiculous pretenses and, more implicitly, in overriding Washington. Germany’s muted but unmistakable resistance to Washington’s aggressive sanctions campaign against Russia makes the point more broadly.

These are defeats, the kind I favor without hesitation.

America’s day can come again, providing Americans choose the option by renovating or replacing the political system so that it reflects the popular will. But America’s day will have to go first, and this it is essential to accept.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

MORE FROM Patrick L. Smith

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Barack Obama Foreign Policy John Kerry State Department Ukraine Victoria Nuland Vladimir Putin