US Foreign policy has long been more about the evocative vocabulary used to describe it than the geopolitical reality it is meant to address. The vocabulary politicians and the media use to define foreign policy belongs to a tissue of artificially generated illusions that serve not so much to manufacture consent as to foster a sense of belonging to a world of technology and finance that is no longer beholden to human reality.
Every US government seeks to create the impression that the nation’s foreign policy reflects a reasoned mission. In the past, this has served to motivate the population to reflexively applaud actions — war, invasion, sanctions — that are often directly detrimental to the well-being of Americans themselves.
For 20 Years in Afghanistan, Ignorance Was Bliss
The shock of the US retreat from Afghanistan needs some new vocabulary to make sense of it. Four New York Times journalists have come together as a creative team to make a major contribution to providing the kind of vocabulary that should reassure Americans confused by the mixed signals the Biden administration has been sending after the Afghanistan debacle.
The journalists sum up the entire topic in a single sentence: “The Biden Doctrine sees China as America’s existential competitor, Russia as a disrupter, Iran and North Korea as nuclear proliferators, cyber threats as ever-evolving and terrorism as spreading far beyond Afghanistan.”
Today’s Daily Devil’s Dictionary definition:
A fantasy specific to the minds of paranoiacs, who believe that their own survival depends on the elimination or neutralization of a specific rival or rivals
The first question an impartial observer of contemporary history might want to ask is this: Why are journalists so obsessed with attributing a “doctrine” to every president? Is it a form of nostalgia for that heroic period of US history in which James Monroe imposed an idea that stood as a threat to the rest of the civilized world, claiming Latin America as Washington’s backyard?
The idea of a presidential doctrine appears as the answer to the question of how the current president will deploy the country’s incomparable and ever-expanding military might? The George W. Bush doctrine, though supposedly focused on terrorism, boiled down to the simplistic (and dangerous) idea that if we think any nation is failing to promote US interests, we reserve the right to call it terrorism and then preemptively attack it. In the face of terror, terrorize the entire world with your threats.
The Times team sees China not just as the new focus of the Biden doctrine, but as an “existential” threat. What can that really mean outside of the ravings of a paranoiac? When in the late 1950s Russian Premier Nikita Khrushchev uttered the phrase, “We will bury capitalism,” US media allowed the quote to morph into “we will bury you,” which the public naturally interpreted as an existential threat.
The same media, urged on by the CIA, was already busy deploying everything in its toolbox, including Hollywood movies, to make sure Americans felt permanently threatened by the prospect of nuclear war. The end result was to establish the notion that America’s Cold War adversary was itching to nuke every American. After four years spent supporting the wildest Russiagate fantasies simply to discredit President Donald Trump, The New York Times is at least consistent with itself in launching this new appeal to Cold War tropes to enlighten its readers on the Biden doctrine.
Interestingly, with Trump gone, The Times has now demoted Russia to the status of “disruptor,” though it is unclear what Putin might be seeking to disrupt outside of social media and corporate software. The article does signal Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s warning concerning China and Russia that they were “making the argument in public and in private that the United States is in decline — so it’s better to cast your lot with their authoritarian visions for the world than with our democratic one.” Is that disruption or simply historical commentary?
After disruption, the authors identify the characteristics of other adversaries requiring a response under the Biden doctrine. They single out nuclear proliferation, cyber threats and terrorism, suggesting that the field is wide open to oppose, with diplomacy or force, any nation on the earth that plays any of those games. An obvious exception is Israel, which, like the US, uses proliferation, cyberthreats and state terrorism for what General Milley might call “righteous” purposes.
The Times has once again fulfilled one of its fundamental missions: to use its authority to shape the thought processes of its readers on foreign policy. The methodology consists of proposing the kind of vague generalization about another regime that encapsulates its adversarial relationship with the US and is easy to remember.
The entire process, pursued over time, is designed to provoke standardized emotions that serve to justify the combined interests of the White House, the Pentagon and the industrial-financial complex that The Times editorial board so consistently supports despite occasional exceptions.
“Existential” is not the only term The Times fails to define. In any article on foreign policy, readers will find two complementary terms that remain the bedrock of all discussions of foreign policy: national interest and national security. “The president’s withdrawal from Afghanistan,” the authors explain, “makes clear that he saw risking more American lives there as no longer in America’s national interest.” Why should something that remained “interesting” for 20 years suddenly no longer be of interest?
The article quotes former undersecretary of defense, Michele Flournoy, who insists on distinguishing “between [Biden’s] appetite for nation-building, which is essentially nil, versus his appetite for using force if it’s necessary to defend U.S. national security, which I believe remains quite strong.” The Times clearly agrees with Flournoy and expects its readers to adhere to the modern principle that a concern for national security automatically justifies “using force.”
Flournoy notes that “the president has indicated that he is comfortable with the idea of backing American diplomacy with a muscular military posture.” All this is meant to demonstrate that the retreat from Afghanistan does not mean abandoning a foreign policy designed for the needs of the military-industrial complex.
At a moment of historic change, the public requires guidance. The New York Times team is not alone in seeking to hammer out the vocabulary that will help Americans navigate the headlines recounting US actions abroad. In far less evocative terms, Democrat activist and sometime Congressional candidate Dave Anderson describes the Biden doctrine as “a third way that … carves out an ambitious new center in foreign affairs.” He says it is about the willingness to “affirm our own democratic ideals and collaborate with other established or budding democracies, but we do not want to police the world or engage in nation-building.”
The Bangkok Post frames it in similar terms: “The Biden doctrine is now focusing on strengthening the home base and friends in the Western world which share the same values.” Daniel Johnson, writing for The Article, makes an important point: “The defence of the West or the free world plays no part in this doctrine, except insofar as these concepts serve the geographically and temporally limited interests of the United States.” The key word isn’t democracy, competition, disruption or terrorism but, rather, “interests.”
The intellectual notion of the national interest appeared with the emergence of European nation-states beginning in the 15th century and only came to the fore in the age of mercantilism, when the idea of “interest” revealed its strong connection to banking and underwent a major transformation. In feudal times, political relationships were defined in terms of power, territory, the well-being of populations and, of course, personal honor.
With the rise of the nation-state during a period of religious conflict and colonial conquest, national interest became confused with both ideology (the cause justifying conflict) and economic hegemony (rather than simply the traditional spoils of war).
Ever since at least the 17th century, the undefinable notion of national interest has become the basis of nations’ foreign policy. The language of nationalism remains a magma of undefined terms, programmed emotions and carefully crafted misinformation that not just The New York Times, but all media use to bolster the illusion of their authority.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.