21.11.2020 – 10.30 – On the birthday of seventy-eight-year-old new president Joe Biden (November 20, 1942), the Limes Club Trieste appropriately held the “USA” conference, aimed at deepening “the empire that does not want to be an empire”, those United States whose political-economic convulsions dominate the front pages of newspapers.
The setting was the now well-known course “A strategy for Trieste”, organised with the support of the Veritas Cultural Centre, aimed at providing those who attend it with a geopolitical toolbox to analyse the great international events with full knowledge of the facts.
The organiser, Simone Benazzo, recalled the 4 theses that the Limes newspaper tries to support in contradiction with the common peoples’ knowledge: the global interconnection (dramatically highlighted by the Coronavirus; nobody can survive in an autarchy), the limits of economicism (not all political reasons are driven by economic reasons), the centrality of the conflict (in contrast to the “end of history”) and the intrinsic weakness of supranational organisations (again underlined by the Coronavirus emergency and the attacks to which a weak organism such as the WHO has been subjected).
The 4 theses in question, “polar star of the course”, find perfect correspondence with the United States, which “are not an ordinary state subject, because they have a worldwide projection”.
In this sense, an author such as Federico Petroni is particularly suitable, because he is a multidisciplinary author who has written on several subjects and themes, from the war of drones to the geopolitics of the Arctic.
The United States as an “invented” nation
Federico Petroni pointed out that the USA well represents “the temporal value of geopolitics, linked to today”, because until a handful of weeks ago, under the presidency of Donald J. Trump, the situation would have been radically different; while instead, with the approach of Joe Biden’s presidency, the scenario has already profoundly changed.
The scenario of the American elections itself presents a picture where the United States is “in a storm”, divided by political polarizations of all kinds.
Trump, in this context, is “an expression of the malaise that lives in the country and shakes it”, which in turn affects the allies, ignored and/or towards whom “the stick instead of the carrot” is used.
The United States, in short, seem to have renounced its role as the ordering factor of the world or, if you like, the international “policeman”.
However, observed Petroni, who adopted a historical perspective to explain this “malaise”, it is necessary to motivate this “renunciation” within the framework of the American nation, which more than many others is “invented”.
All nations, it is now well established, are inventions that more or less effectively hide their artificial origins.
The American case, however, appears peculiar, because it is a nation that continuously reinvents itself, whose invention is part of its own DNA and the secret of its success.
Petroni compared it to an adolescent who goes through several “phases”.
First of all, there is no American people “in the sense of ethnicity”; in the English meaning there is no “American” in an ethnic sense, but only in a country-related one.
In this context, starting from the first religious nuclei that fled to America, the only, real, glue has always been that of being American, of identifying with the nation.
One recognizes oneself in the cultural model, never in ethnicity.
A model in turn based on the idea of freedom; freedom from the despotisms of “old” Europe; and therefore religious freedom and freedom of the individual.
This conception of the nation “without history” reconnects well with the idea of “time zero”, of restarting history from a metaphorical tabula rasa; after eliminating the Native Americans and possible rivals who contradicted this “vision”, obviously.
It is no coincidence that the classic American 1 dollar note is the ambassador of this conception of time and history; in fact, it reads “the New Order of the Ages”.
If the new continent is a “blank page on which to write history”, it follows that the first enemy is nature, with which the American has a conflictual relationship, aimed at domination, subjugation.
It is the first confrontation of the young nation, between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, with nothingness, “the wilderness”, a wild nature to subjugate in order to fulfil its destiny.
In this context, as a nation founded on the freedom and which doesn’t care about the outside world, the United States feels that it has a “redeeming mission” that must not be conducted “by the means of European despotism”.
If anything, it is necessary “to redeem by good example”, to strengthen itself internally “to make this experiment of freedom mature”.
This was not by chance the appeal made by George Washington when he left the White House; and since then, he has led the American people though ups and downs.
During the nineteenth century, the United States did not give up either the colonial race or the war: American growth came about through typically imperial forms, whether in Cuba, South America or even more so in the Philippines.
However, it kept away from the policies of “European” power, now adopted also by other international players.
The paradigm shift after the Second World War
The conclusion of the First World War, which also saw a massive US participation, alongside the French and English allies, against their enemies, reconfirms this mentality expressed at the time by Washington.
The Americans left the continent, disinterested in its quarrels; they rejected European geopolitics with its load of rights and duties.
It was only during the Second World War that the turning point we know today took place: the subjugation of France first and then of the rest of Europe under the Nazi regime convinced the United States to take global responsibility.
In fact, in this regard, according to Petroni, it should be made clear that “the United States has never been an isolationist, this is a myth, in fact, there has never been real isolation”.
Instead, it is a historical-mythological narrative invented during the Second World War to mark the pace with respect to previous decades; but in reality, even during the time considered “isolationist”, between the 1920s and 1930s, the USA was continuously engaged in Asia.
Therefore, from the refusal to “get involved” the United States paradoxically came, in 1945, “to dominate the world”, with the notable exception of the Soviet-led countries.
In reality, American disinterest in the world, and the contempt for European realpolitik, appears to be closely connected to this new world role: through absolute military dominance it is possible to “keep old rivals at bay and contain the growth of potential rivals, from the USSR to communist China”.
“The American nation is not very curious about the world, not very self-referential, careful to preserve its exceptionalism”, argues Petroni, “therefore, its military dominance allows it not to have to worry about the traditional power politics, the European one; it does not have to participate in the world game, because it already dominates it from the essentially military point of view”. This also absolves another American obsession, that is the idea that the exercise of power inevitably corrupts; a puritanical vision that involves an absolute military dominance aimed at “liberating” the exercise of politics, in itself “swamp”, treacherous swamp.
Dyscrasia between nation and empire
The historical painting thus provides the frame, but also the canvas on which to paint the “colours” of the US situation in 2020, amid continual fractures and divisions.
The United States appear as an “empire without empire”; they act and govern like an imperial entity, but reject the idea. But in fact, they are an empire.
This strictly military predominance is expressed by the strategy of controlling the seas, following the example of the British Pax (thalassocracy). The various fleets scattered around the world ensure that rivals in Eurasia, from China to Russia and Iran, never reach a hegemonic position even in their own region. Control then extends to the land component, with over 800 military bases located abroad.
The use of military power for strategic purposes has diplomatic consequences, because as they say, when you have a hammer, all you see is a nail. And in this field any possible arms race of rival states, as well as of the allies themselves, is perceived as a threat, neglecting the anthropological, social, cultural side.
The situation does not change significantly from the military to the economic-financial sphere.
The United States has in fact “the most unbalanced trade balance in the world”, but it is a “condition of their strength” because it transforms them into the “buyer of last resort”.
For many, if not all countries, the United States remains the main market, on which they are therefore dependent; being a (still) flourishing market, a strong importer that “cannot be blackmailed”. Thus, close relations of dependence are established with the “imperial” centre, with America.
If it is true that most of the American debt is in the hands of the Chinese, it is equally true that if China stopped financing American debt, it would have to liquidate its assets and in this way reduce the competitiveness of its exports.
It is no coincidence that China also aims to be an attractive market to which to channel goods and investments; something that already happens with German exports.
The dominance also extends to the digital component: the Internet was born as a military technology, internationalised at the end of the Cold War, when it became a means to “weave the world with an American tool”.
If, on the other hand, one considers the position of the servers and submarine cables, one will realise that from a “physical” point of view, the Internet remains either in US territory or its cables follow the same maritime routes on which its power is based. The thalassocracy is therefore also digital.
The strong position of the United States, which places itself “at the centre of trade”, implies, however, that it buys the goods of others at the expense of its own; and in this field there is a dyscrasia between nation and empire, between population and establishment. The imperial policy “discharges” its costs onto the industrial classes, abandoned in favour of foreign investments.
American products have not been bought for decades because this would prevent an import policy. The nation therefore suffers for the empire, but in turn the empire suffers if the nation is not compact. And this is what has happened in recent years, with the USA presenting itself as a nation struggling with itself.
America has long presented all the signs of the need for a different cultural model; moreover, this is a recurring paradigm shift in the country’s history.
After the civil war of the mid-nineteenth century it was decided to admit a single cultural model, excluding the Southern one; after the Second World War it was decided to reinvent the relationship between state and population. The state, compared to the past, increased its power immeasurably, leading to the rise of a technocracy composed of “competent” people selected “for merit”.
A way, as with military domination, not to enter the “swamp” of politics, relegating it to the “experts”, the “competent”, the “technicians” in fact.
The role of the state, however, has deteriorated in recent decades, ceasing to function efficiently: the bureaucracy has grown to unbearable, elephantine levels; it is enough to consider that the federal government itself does not know how many government agencies are active in the country. In the meantime, the technocracy has become a caste: the universities through which the “levers of power” are accessed are now outside the possibilities of the middle-class and social mobility has long since frozen.
These contradictions, which have now exploded in all their virulence, are expressed in the clash between the federal state and individual federal states in the management of the Covid-19 emergency, as well as in racial issues, which are in fact the expression of deep dissent between the south and the Midwest and the northeast. Usually, the United States found a form of unity through a common enemy and a common war; but nowadays this is very difficult, because the dissent comes from the working class and/or industrial class that would normally have provided troops for the military conflict. This internal malaise translates into a dysfunction of the American empire which, yes, is preparing to besiege China, but the clash will come, in the words of Federico Petroni, “unhinged by this internal storm”.
The “odi et amo” bond with the Port of Trieste
It was 7th November 1797 when the United States of North America opened its consulate in Trieste. The port city, whose tumultuous growth in the years of Maria Theresa and Joseph II of Hapsburg had been compared several times to that of the Wild West, formed a strong bond with a state equally fanatically devoted to the art of commerce. From the Allied occupation, continuing with the American interventions in the Balkan wars, Trieste has always had a strong bond with the United States, for better or for worse.
The subject was addressed by Maddalena Tobia, a student of Sconfinare.net, who preferred to focus her research on the Julian port of call, squeezed between the anvil of China and the hammer of the United States.
The researcher summarised the salient stages of the US-China confrontation, recalling how it was not born under the presidency of Donald J. Trump, but was already present from the beginning of the year 2000, before the war on terrorism “distracted” the American commitment from the anti-Chinese competition.
In this context, the One Belt One Road is configured as an attempt that has shown its first encouraging signs, also on the terrestrial front, to create a global trade unrelated to American power.
The United States moved first with a series of heavy tariffs on Chinese steel and aluminium and then fighting a tariff war that weakened the transpacific route. Italy, despite its formal NATO membership, signed the Memorandum of Understanding (Mou) with China for the Silk Road in March 2019, which explicitly provided for Chinese participation in the Port of Trieste.
In this context, however, I am not aware of any railway in Kosice “in Slovenia”, as the student said during the conference, but rather in Slovakia where a railway connection was planned. Friuli Venezia Giulia, in this area, however, hosts a NATO military base in Aviano; and Trieste itself has a long tradition of relations with the United States.
The Chinese proposal from an economic point of view was more attractive than the Hanseatic one; but the lengthening times and the political uncertainty linked to the anti-Chinese hostility led to the agreement with Germany.
From a national point of view, according to the researcher, Joe Biden’s new presidency could favour cooperation with the “partners” (wrongly called “allies” by the newspapers, a term more suited to a war context), thus increasing the negotiating weight against China.
This cooperation – strictly however, under the aegis of the United States – was not achieved under the presidency of Donald J. Trump.