Political Myth, Conspiracy and Foreign Policy
by Mark English
Apparently a number of highly-placed representatives of the intelligence community were recently taken in by a fanciful report concerning Donald Trump’s sexual activities during a visit to Moscow.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov branded the former MI6 officer who authored the report in question a “swindler” who trades in “absurdities.”
The Russian President also weighed in, suggesting that Mr Trump would not have fallen for a honey trap if one had been laid.
He arrived here and immediately ran off to meet Moscow prostitutes? This is an adult and, moreover, a man who for many years has organized beauty contests. He socialized with the most beautiful women in the world. I can hardly imagine he rushed to the hotel to meet our girls of lower social responsibility – even though they are the best in the world, of course. 
Ever the patriot. In some ways, President Putin is just as much a media personality as his American counterpart. But his background couldn’t be more different from Trump’s. He is – and has always been – a tough and wily political operator. It will be interesting to see how their relationship develops.
Now that Mr. Trump has assumed the role of President, things are slowly starting to take shape on the foreign policy front, and I thought it might be worthwhile to review some of the general issues which seem to be at stake.
In previous articles I have been very critical of the neoconservative policies that have held sway in Washington for decades, but which have arguably mutated and become more dangerous over the last twenty years or so. 
My concerns related particularly to the curiously anachronistic – and totally counterproductive – neoconservative obsession with Russia and Eastern Europe. After the Cold War ended, there was an opportunity to build a positive relationship with Russia, but this was squandered as successive American administrations, in blatant contravention of assurances previously given to Mikhail Gorbachev, supported the eastward expansion of NATO. At this juncture, what we need is arms reduction talks not more saber-rattling.
Likewise, neoconservatives have been very hawkish about Chinese activities in the South China Sea. Even some of Trump’s people have been making noises about this, and Trump himself was threatening just prior to his inauguration to look again at the One China policy. I hope (and believe) that this was a negotiating tactic. Soon after these comments were made, there were reports of the Chinese leadership making conciliatory statements and even announcing reforms to further open up the Chinese market. 
It’s impossible to guess at this stage just how the new administration’s relations with China will develop. Any perceived bullying by the Americans – especially on sensitive territorial issues – runs the risk of stoking popular nationalism. So far the Chinese leadership seems intent on keeping anti-American sentiment at bay. But, as Jessica Chen Weiss has pointed out, it’s actually very costly for the Chinese leadership to keep grassroots nationalism in check.  If the Trump administration starts seriously to question the One China policy, for example, “Xi Jinping may unleash popular nationalism to show resolve over Taiwan and rally the public.” American military actions in the South China Sea could also spark a nationalist reaction.
The worst possible scenarios for the world would involve serious military conflict between the US and Russia or between the US and China. Such outcomes are more likely to be avoided, in my opinion, if reasonable concessions are made to the valid security concerns of both of these countries.
It remains to be seen to what extent (if at all) the neoconservative foreign policy establishment will be replaced and to what extent actual policies and strategies will change. Obviously concessions will have to be made to neoconservative elements in Congress and elsewhere. The grilling given to Trump’s nominee for Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee clearly demonstrated this.
The foreign policy orientation known as “Realism” has to a large extent been marginalized in recent decades in policy debate in the United States. In both political and academic circles various forms of interventionism have prevailed, and the mainstream media have generally endorsed this orientation and failed to adequately represent alternative approaches.
Neoconservatism has dominated, but various other forms of interventionism (especially those emphasizing the humanitarian dimension) also have played a role. Looking back at the disastrous results of various military interventions that were justified to the public in terms of humanitarian imperatives (the case of Libya is a clear and notorious example), one could be forgiven for suspecting that neoconservatives were deliberately exploiting the humanitarian aspect for political purposes.
Neoconservatism is strongly associated with the idea of American exceptionalism; the notion that among the nations, America has a special moral standing and associated rights and responsibilities. Its interventions abroad are justified not just in terms of national self-interest but in terms of promoting universal values. This idea may once have had some merit – may still have some merit – but it’s not working. A possibly benign myth has mutated into an extremely dangerous one.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov recently articulated a classically realist position when he criticized the outgoing U.S. administration for having pursued a “messianic” policy of trying to force Western values on the rest of the world and blamed it for instability in the Middle East and other regions.
He said Russia hopes Mr. Trump’s team “will not engage in moralizing and will try to understand the interests of their partners just as they clearly uphold their own interests.” 
Most kinds of political myth involve identifying – and demonizing – an enemy. For Cold Warriors the enemy was clear: international Communism, especially as exemplified by the USSR. With the collapse of Communism, with the old enemy gone, neoconservatives found themselves in a challenging situation. But they managed to find new reasons to demonize both Russia and China. They may not have been Communist countries anymore, but their political systems and policy orientations still failed to fit the required liberal or neoliberal template.
It’s unsurprising – if unfortunate – that some of the more vocal (and populist) critics of Neoconservatism are also in the business of identifying and demonizing a convenient enemy. In their case it is a hidden power, which they see as operating a kind of shadow government (or deep state), comprising elements of the military-industrial, intelligence and financial establishments in association with the mainstream media. All too often, implicit or explicit anti-Semitism is involved.
For example, 9/11 and many other terrorist attacks are claimed by some to have been false flag operations facilitated by elements of the (Israeli and US) intelligence community in conjunction with a cabal of rich and powerful Jews and their gentile accomplices. This is crazy stuff. Needless to say, such conspiracy theories represent the antithesis of the sort of realist approach I am advocating.
It is also suggested (perhaps more reasonably?) that John F. Kennedy and other prominent figures were murdered because they threatened the interests of the national security establishment.
The concept of the conspiracy theory was introduced into popular discourse only after the Kennedy assassination. On one level it is a valid and useful concept characterizing a kind of aberrant thinking to which our minds (some more than others) are naturally susceptible and which is associated with the well-known tendency to over-project agency. On another level it can be (and often has been) used as a rhetorical ploy to ridicule certain ideas.
One measure for identifying classic conspiracy theories – those that have few or no connections with reality – is the extent to which they assume the existence of an extensive, single (and so potentially identifiable), closely-coordinated and effective cabal of conspirators. This just is not how the world works, and such theories – to the extent that they are not complete and utter fantasy – represent attempts to simplify what is a much more complex and messy reality. As Jacob Rothschild once famously said to someone who was publicly accusing his family of having orchestrated wars and revolutions, “Don’t exaggerate!”
The anti-Semitic element is probably the most unfortunate aspect of many of these wild theories, and its continuing prevalence suggests that nothing has been learned from recent – and less recent – European history.
But, since conspiracy theories are based on the notion of a hidden power, and since the myth of the scheming and almost supernaturally-powerful Jew has such deep roots in Western literature and civilization, it’s no surprise that such theories often draw on such myths. Conspiracy theories and anti-Semitism have a natural affinity.
To make matters worse, Western anti-Semitic myths and stereotypes have gradually infiltrated Islamic cultures. ‘Modernizing’ elements within Islam during the late-19th and early-20th centuries (notably the Muslim Brotherhood) drew on Western and Christian sources to produce a more lurid and extreme form of anti-Semitism than had previously been current in the Islamic world.
The founding of a Jewish state closely allied with the United States coupled with the rise of fundamentalist forms of Islam, Judaism and Christianity have complicated the picture and inevitably have a bearing on US foreign policy and how it is perceived. Pragmatic and symbolic considerations are intertwined. Perceptions carry their own reality.
But when the players are states with sophisticated military forces and nuclear arsenals it’s absolutely vital not to let rhetoric and political myth drive the decision-making process. A good measure of realism is needed here; specifically, an approach that recognizes the power of myth and ideology but which tries to conduct foreign policy largely on the basis of rational and pragmatic considerations.
- See link at 1 above.