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Reading Putin’s Tea Leaves

11:52 am in Uncategorized by Deena Stryker

Vladimir Putin

Recently a friend emailed me the link to an article by a distinguished American historian, Emanuel Wallerstein, about an interview given by Hamid Karzai to the French paper Le Monde that laid out very clearly Karzai’s position on relations with the U.S. going forward, but which the New York Times only mentioned in passing.  Among other things, it revealed that if Karzai continues to refuse to sign the Status of Forces Agreement to regulate the continued presence of American military after the official pullout, President Obama is considering the possibility that it could just as well be signed by another Afghan official! Evidently, the slide away from legality affects not only drone strikes.

Wallerstein’s comment came to me just as I was beginning a several days long effort to report — in lieu of the New York Times — on Vladimir Putin’s year-end speech to the Russian Duma and guests from business and industry.

Our pundits pour over every Presidential speech like divines reading tea leaves. But although the United States shares the planet with 200 other nations, they studiously ignore the speeches of other leaders, depriving Americans of the ability to evaluate their government’s foreign policy decisions.

Washington does not so much fear voters hearing the other side’s story, as discovering its worldview.  Americans must never know that most foreign leaders truly believe dialogue and negotiation are preferable to confrontation, an attitude that goes back to the early days of socialist thought. Whatever the failings of central planning, the belief that war is bad  is inseparable from the desire to improve the human condition. Our culture has become so twisted that we see every Other as a potential threat, to be punished if he disagrees with us. Recent events in Ukraine illustrate this attitude at its most shocking: American diplomats in the streets of Kiev warning the government that if it does not cave in to protesters’ demands to sign a trade deal with Europe, sanctions would follow!

For a century and a half the Other has been anyone concerned with equity.  Now it is purported to be religious fanaticism, however, Islamists are okay if they are pro-capitalist, as shown in the current embarrassing situation in Syria.  The conflict between the 1% and the 99% is as real today as it was when Marx and Engels wrote Das Capital; however it’s no longer about central planning versus entrepreneurship, rather it is about consumerism and the rape of the planet versus civilization.

After the fall of the Soviet Union, Yeltsin unleashed cowboy capitalism in Russia, but Putin has increasingly realized that this is a terrible system.  While supporting entrepreneurship, he defends the idea that government is the primary purveyor of human solidarity, as clearly reflected in his end of the year speech. You can read it at here.  Here are a few excerpts, starting with two basic ideas:

“Our Constitution brings together two fundamental priorities – the supreme value of rights and freedoms of citizens and a strong state, emphasizing their mutual obligation to respect and protect each other. But life does not stand still, and no constitutional process can ever be regarded as final.”  The necessary dialectic between a strong state and individual freedoms, as well as the common sense notion that constitutions need to evolve with society are diametrically opposed to the American canon in which the constitution is immutable and a strong state is seen as incompatible with individual freedoms.

Recognizing that the Russian economy is inefficient and that some technology is harmful, Putin called for a modern technical and environmental regulatory system, albeit sensitive to economic complexities. Admitting that the Russian slowdown was due less to the global economic crisis than to internal failings such as low labor productivity and corruption, he called for high quality professional education, a flexible labor market, a good investment climate and modern technology, as do routinely the Presidents of European welfare states.  (Today, Angela Merkel was sworn in for a third term and pledged to uphold the welfare state…)

Turning to education, the Russian president stressed the need for increased mobility between the members of the Russian Federation, noting that the government had raised salaries in education and healthcare in order to attract top students, but condemning exorbitant prices for student dorms. Similarly with housing construction, he called on local authorities to make more land available and lessen the time it takes to get a building permit, while warning developers who fail to begin construction on schedule that they would lose the land.

With respect to Russia’s mandatory health insurance, it should fully cover the provision of free medical assistance, but patients should be clear as to what they are entitled to free of charge.  Meanwhile the quality of social services should be improved with more efficient spending.

Putin defined the welfare state as consisting of “the mutual responsibility of the state, the business community, and every Russian citizen,” and called for  greater participation of civil society in local government.

Undoubtedly, some Americans would find this speech disturbing: the government appears to be organizing everything, to the point of putting a time frame on actions to be taken by the Duma and declaring that once a decision is taken, it should be implemented.  (Imagine Obama doing that!)  But in today’s ultra-complicated world, does the ordinary citizen really benefit from an economic and political free-for-all that allows the few to disregard the many?

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Ukraine’s Hissy Fit

8:57 am in Uncategorized by Deena Stryker

 

The country that used to be the breadbasket of Europe is a new bone of contention between the European Union and Russia. Ukraine, the land of the southern Russians (as Yugoslavia was the land of the southern Slavs), sits on Russia’s Western frontier.

According to one RT commentator, the Poles and Lithuanians are pushing Brussels to bring Ukraine into the European fold. Although they have old scores to settle, these pale in comparison to a shared desire to cock a snoot at Russia in retaliation for a historical pattern of domination.

It is difficult for Westerners to understand why any country would want to join a European Union that is currently experiencing so many problems. In fact, this is a totally irrational desire: the Orthodox former Soviet Republics, whether it be Bela Rus, Ukraine or Georgia, are obsessed with not wanting to be identified with historically backward or Communist Russia. Notwithstanding their own backwardness they want to  be considered part of the culturally superior West.  Having lived in Eastern Europe for six years when it was still part of the Soviet Empire, I can testify that it is impossible to overestimate this longing.  When I worked at the Hungarian Radio, lack of recognition that together with Poland and Czechoslovakia it was indeed part of Europe was expressed as: ‘They think we still cook meat under the saddle.’  Of all the countries of the East European block, Hungary most actively strove to play the role of bridge between East and West. Its efforts culminated in the opening of its frontier with Austria starting in May 1989 that allowed thousands of East German tourists to reach the West. A previously unthinkable act, it led to the fall of the Berlin Wall in November and the dissolution of the Soviet block.

But Bela Rus, Ukraine and Georgia have far less of a claim to a European identity than the Eastern European satellite nations. In the Middle Ages, Bela Rus, Ukraine and Russia were all part of the principality of Kiev, or Kievan Rus, which extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. While all three countries claim Kievan Rus as their cultural heritage, today independent Bela Rus and Ukraine constitute a sort of no-man’s land that buffers their vast and powerful neighbor.  As of 2011, Ukraine was the world’s third-largest grain exporter, and according to Wikipedia, it is one of ten most attractive agricultural regions. Although regarded as a developing economy with high potential, indispensable economic and legal reforms would be more brutally implemented under Brussels tutelage than if they happened at Ukraine’s own pace.

And yet, for western Ukrainians, (as opposed to the pro-Russian eastern half), the fact that Brussels cannot afford to bring them up to speed economically is obviously less important than being part of glamorous, sophisticated Europe.  They probably feel that they are well-acquainted with hardship, but the demonstrators in Kiev should ask themselves whether they would they be happy in a European Union that is being forced to walk back its welfare state?

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The Privatization of the World

8:46 am in Uncategorized by Deena Stryker

Each day brings fresh revelations of aberrant human behavior on the part of the 1%, followed by on-line petitions, demonstrations and appeals to intelligence or good conscience. At some point, activists must come to the realization that their actions cannot bring meaningful results because the behaviors they wish to correct are not exceptions but part of an overarching new normal.
NO to DCWD Privatization
Take for example the intensive lobbying on the part of American private prison companies to increase sentences for non-violent crimes.  The privatization of activities that were hitherto the purview of government, or were regulated by government, or were at least required to conform to national or international laws, are part of a massive, coordinated, plan to harness all human activity for the benefit of a few. Governments to whom petitions are addressed provide merely a semblance of control.

The twentieth century saw the birth of fascism, an extreme form of capitalism in which the state is allied with a corporate oligarchy.  Hitler and Mussolini were defeated in World War II, but having discovered the goose that lays the golden egg, i.e., state-sponsored private enterprise, corporations have become so powerful that they no longer need a dictator to protect their activities. What President Eisenhower dubbed the military/industrial complex is now a many-headed hydra. Under the Reagan administration, it added finance, then George Bush continued Richard Nixon’s attack on legality by inventing the ‘unitary executive’; finally, under law professor Barack Obama the Imperial Presidency morphed into 21st century fascism, whose aim far outstrips that of Hitler’s crowd. They merely wanted to ‘rule’ the world: the one percent would privatize all activity in every conceivable area of human endeavor across the entire planet for profit.

The impossibility of achieving this through military means  was clear almost as soon as Saddam Hussein’s statue was toppled, so while coping as best they could with the Pandora’s box of occupation, the Neo-Cons launched the Tea-Party to disrupt government at home, while crafting a diabolical plan to pimp the world using seemingly peaceful means. We’ll probably never know whether the 2008 financial debacle was a conspiracy, but one thing is certain: it created economic mayhem in our closest economic rival, Europe, which also offered its workers benefits that Americans might someday demand for themselves. Forced to implement ever greater austerity measures that have turned the welfare state upside down, stocking popular revolt, governments were finally offered a way out: their signatures on overarching treaties with the United States that would put paid to solidarity. The one intended to harness the Pacific community to America’s aims is called the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the one that will discipline Europe is the Trans-Atlantic Free trade Agreement (TAFTA). Drafted with major inputs from transnational corporations, they spell out the means by which the goals of the international 1% are to be implemented.

As I wrote in ‘The Fatal Loneliness of American  Exceptionalism’, “For centuries, the Atlantic and Pacific oceans kept the United States isolated from the give and take between neighbors on other continents. America remained alone and proud of it, interacting with other nations only to ensure that they served our needs, bought our products and agreed with our definition of freedom.“ Now, as the BRICS countries, led by China and Russia, increasingly threaten America’s lone superpower status,  it has codified these obligations.

Here are some slightly edited excerpts from an October paper on TAFTA by Global Research: http://www.globalresearch.ca/the-us-eu-transatlantic-free-trade-agreement-tafta-big-business-corporate-power-grab/5352885:

“There is growing concern that the negotiations could open Europe’s floodgates to GMOs and shale gas (fracking),  threaten digital and labor rights and empower corporations to legally challenge a wide range of regula-tions which they dislike.

Recognition by the EU and the US of each others’ rules and regulations could reduce regulation to the lowest common denominator. The US wants all so-called barriers to trade, including controversial regulations protecting agriculture, food and data privacy, to be removed. The leaders of the Senate Finance Committee, in a letter to U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, made it clear that any agreement must reduce EU restrictions on genetically modified crops, chlorinated chickens and hormone-treated beef.

The European public does not want these things. Europeans want powerful corporations to be held to account and their practices regulated by elected representatives whom they trust to protect the public good. Under pretext of a legally binding treaty, TAFTA (would allow) corporations to impose unpopular and dangerous policies rejected by the democratic process.

Corporate demands include an ambitious liberalization of agricultural trade barriers with as few exceptions as possible. The lobbying group Food and Drink Europe, representing the largest food companies, Unilever, Kraft, Nestlé, etc. supported by feed and grain giants Cargill, Bunge, ADM, the agribusiness lobby COPA-COGECA, and the biotech industry on both sides of the Atlantic, are pushing for acceptance of low levels of unapproved genetically modified crops.

The report also warns that the agreement could open the floodgates to multi-million Euro lawsuits from corporations who could challenge a country’s laws if they affect their bottom line. Read the rest of this entry →

Sea Changes V, VI, VII and VIII

10:30 am in Uncategorized by Deena Stryker

When Larry King signed on to RT, Vladimir Putin’s international television channel that broadcasts in English, Spanish and Arabic, one could rationalize that the aging TV personality may not have found another opportunity in the US after leaving CNN.

But now Donald Trump goes to Moscow for the Miss Universe pageant and reveals plans to build a Trump Tower there.

And while that was happening, Germany and Brazil, whose leaders were among those spied on by the NSA, submitted a draft resolution to the UN General Assembly calling for internationally recognized rights to privacy.

If anyone is still wondering whether a new international configuration is taking shape  (led by China, Russia, and the other BRICS nations, including Brazil), they need only to consider that during a Florida fund raiser President Obama mused that it might not make sense to maintain the Cuban embargo put in place when he was a toddler.

A few years ago lifting the Cuban embargo might have sufficed to save America’s reputation.  But now, while it will of course benefit the Cubans, it’s too little too late to save the Empire.

The End of Periphery

3:17 pm in Uncategorized by Deena Stryker

I believe it was the prominent Academic, Emmanuel Wallerstein who coined the terms ‘core’ and ‘periphery’ to designate on the one hand Europe and the United States, and the rest of the world on the other.  What we are seeing today is an end to that dichotomy.

The image that comes to mind is that of a sock that had been turned inside out, the better to slide over the foot. The part of the world that until now has been seen as ‘peripheral’ to the part that counts – the core – is increasingly becoming the part that counts, with the core becoming the ‘wrong side’ of the sock.

Just for starters we must consider the BRICS: Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa: a quarter of the world’s land area, more than 40% of the world’s population, in 2010 these five countries accounted for 25% of its gross national income.

So much for hard economic statistics. Just as significant are the political ‘facts on the ground’.  The Arab Spring has been dismissed as irrelevant because it did not magically transform autocracies into liberal democracies. But spring invariable leads to summer, and what we are witnessing is a ‘long, hot summer’ not of sixties Black America but of the 21s century’s honey-colored world, mainly Africa and the Middle East, to be sure, but also important parts of the Far East, the Sub-continent and Latin America. Scarcely any part of the planet is spared.

News misleadingly focuses on daily crises, obscuring the fact that a significant part of the world is in a permanent state of effervescence.  Because religion has recently become a major factor in many conflicts, we assume players are pursuing conflicting goals.  In reality even religious enemies reflect the eternal struggle between haves and have-nots, and virtually everywhere there is growing resistance to the life-styles and choices imposed by the world’s minority.

A core dwindling in power must recognize that reality and focus as never before on ‘the big picture’.  Otherwise we will fail to manage our transition from major player to one among many team players of the international community.

Shades of Peter the Great!

1:39 pm in Uncategorized by Deena Stryker

It’s been almost two months since my last blog, as I’ve been busy with my books, and also seriously inclined to discontinue this effort for lack of feedback. Today’s G20 Summit however is calling so loudly for a comment that I cannot resist.

RT’s claim that President Obama still doesn’t want to talk to President Putin, notwithstanding yesterday’s affirmation via MSNBC that he continues to hope the Russian President will change his mind about Syria, is a piddling piece of disinformation compared to the bigger picture (it’s always the Big Picture that counts) that is taking shape in St. Petersburg.

In this morning’s coverage, RT showed President Obama in worried conversation with the two European heads, Von Rompuy and Barroso. Following the stunning vote by the British Parliament not to participate in the United States’ plan to strike Syria, that picture tells me the European Union, usually a docile if not enthusiastic accomplice, no longer feels it has much to lose by not obeying Washington’s marching orders. Following are a few developments that might be influencing their change of attitude:

The NSA spy scandal is making Europe, lead by Germany, rethink the wisdom of a major trade pact with the United States which, like a counterpart in Asia, would strengthen American power;

The BRIC countries, Russia, China, Brazil, India and South Africa, have announced a meeting on the Summit margins to discuss plans for an alternative to the World Bank;

And then there’s Syria. That county is a lot closer to the European home than Afghanistan or even Iraq. It sits next to the Holy Land, with an important Christian history that started with the crusades, and borders on NATO stalwart Turkey, whose people are adamantly opposed to intervention. All of this may weigh more heavily on the European conscience than the fact that Syria is a Russian ally, considering Europe’s growing dependence on Russian gas. I won’t get into the issue of the Nabucco Pipeline vs North and South Stream projects because it makes my head ache and is probably a hyped-up issue anyway. More important than competing pipeline routes is the fact that in a few short decades, Russia has gone from wanting to be part of the European House, in Gorbachev’s words, to partnering with it in increasingly vital ways.

I find it quite amazing that political observers, at least on this side of the Atlantic, appear to have forgotten that for decades they were warning of an imminent Soviet military takeover of Europe or at least, of a soft takeover they called Finlandization. The new ‘enemy’, Islam, has erased a thirty year obsession from the minds of an entire cohort of intellectuals, without making the slightest room for historical insights. Yet how not to think of Peter the Great, as the world’s presidents gather in the city he built in the early eighteenth century as part of an effort to bring his country into the European modern age?

Although this is a smaller irony, Putin was born in St Petersburg, Dmitry Medvedev studied there and both started their political careers in the city briefly known as Leningrad. If I know anything about the importance of history in Russian education, they cannot fail to have been influenced by the legacy of their country’s great reformer, even if it is the Black Sea city of Sochi that has been front and center as the country prepares to host the 2014 winter Olympics, because more people are moved by sports than by history).

RT’s Rory Suchet pointed out another oddity: the American media has been harping on Russia’s announced Security Council veto of military action against Syria, while remaining silent on China’s equally firm opposition in that body, due of course to Washington’s dependence on Chinese financing of its debt.

While you watch sanitized reports about the G20, reflect on the fact that while Peter the Great’s project suffered a multi-century setback, it is being realized in spades – hopefully not too late for the world to pull back from its multiple brinks, starting with Syria. Read the rest of this entry →

Obama Should Watch RT!

7:40 am in Uncategorized by Deena Stryker

The ‘end user’ of the security state’s intelligence should also get information from Russia Today, Moscow’s English language channel. He might better realize the long-term significance of his decision to order Europe to close its airspace to the plane of a Latin American president. That initiative put the crowning touch on the transformation  of the continent once known as our ‘backyard’ into a world player. The process started fifty years ago, with the Cuban Revolution, and while Washington still clings to its embargo on the island, the rest of the continent appears to have reached a Cuban level of rejection of its American hegemon.

Fifth BRICS Summit, 26 Mar to 27 Mar

Fifth BRICS Summit, 26 Mar to 27 Mar

The largest Latin American country, Brazil, is also one of the BRICS – the group of fastest growing economies. RT revealed today that together with  China and Russia it has been the object of surveillance by the United States. (No doubt India and South Africa will be added to the list, courtesy of Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald.)

The BRICS are only the biggest of a growing list of nations, large and small, that have different political systems but share a couple of basic ideas: war is bad, governments have responsibilities toward the many, and nothing is forever. President Obama should beware of his own administrations’s spin that dismisses the new international alignment.

It suggests that the 20th century is only now coming to an end, the teens ushering in a new era, as they did a century ago, when the Victorian Era didn’t really end until the First World War and the Russian Revolution. Coincidentally, that period marked the beginning of America’s rise as the most powerful nation the world has ever known.  Although we entered its wars late, the American policy of isolation from the affairs of an ever squabbling Europe was gradually transformed into one of domination. After coming to Europe’s rescue for the second time in 1942, from benefactor we became its economic and military tutor, guaranteeing the existence of its post-war liberal half against so-called threats of takeover by the Soviet Union. When unexpectedly, the ‘monolith’ fell apart, we assumed it was our doing and that we could go on to bigger and better triumphs ad infinitum.

Twenty years later, a God-like United States dispenses both life and death electronically. But having failed to take into account the cumulative effect of our ever bolder actions on populations around the globe, as daily reporting by a tough, talented multi-lingual staff gathered by Moscow shows, the world has reached another watershed: the American century is ending.

Ironically, Europe’s status has changed in tandem: when in the fifties Coca-Cola was introduced in France, it was so indignantly rejected by a population raised on wine that the formula had to be changed, giving French Coke a slightly different taste. Today, although French farmers led by Jose Bove represent a significant anti-globalization force, thanks to decades-long initiatives like the Fulbright Program, which brings opinion makers to the United States to experience the superiority of the American Way of Life, the French elite has largely been co-opted.

France has been alternately ruled by an Americanized (but caviar-loving) left and a no less Americanized right that knew it could not attack the welfare state. A similar situation exists throughout Western Europe, while Eastern Europe once liberated from Soviet domination has been more willing to scrap its protections. The 2008 economic probably had as much to do with Washington’s determination to finish off a welfare system that increasingly reveals America’s shame as it did with greedy banksters. But petrified by the growing threat of Islamization, Europe now puts its faith in snooping and the war on terror, just as previously it acquiesced in a growing American military presence, complete with Pershing missiles, to forestall a Soviet onslaught.

The alacrity with which three European countries acceded to Washington’s demand to deny their airspace to President Morales’ plane right after learning they were being extensively spied on by the United States, is related to the start of negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, which they hope will solve their unemployment problems without too many negative side-effects.  Delaying yet again a long-deferred adulthood, Europe has chosen to ignore the fact that in the twenty-first century, a finite planet calls for less trade and more self-reliance - as Bolivia’s president Evo Morales stated.
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