This is an episode of Reality Asserts Itself, produced on May 12, 2014. Col. Wilkerson says the United States and China must stop the arms buildup and solve the climate change crisis, or humans may not have a future on this planet.
PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome back to The Real News Network, and welcome back to Reality Asserts Itself. I’m Paul Jay.
We’re continuing our discussion about who makes and what drives U.S. foreign policy. And joining us again in the studio is Larry Wilkerson.
Larry is a retired United States Army officer, a former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell. He teaches now at the College of William & Mary. And he’s an often contributor at The Real News.
Thanks for joining us again.
COL. LAWRENCE WILKERSON, FMR. CHIEF OF STAFF TO COLIN POWELL: Thanks, Paul.
JAY: So there seems to be kind of two parallel processes going on. And I’m talking about–I mean, it relates to U.S. foreign policy almost with all countries, but right now I’m interested and I think everyone’s interested in relations with China, even though the heat is with Russia right now. Certainly President Obama’s Asian pivot in the long-term strategic thinking of the United States is: how do you manage the relationship with China?
And what I mean by two different processes. There’s a tremendous amount of economic integration. China holds more U.S. Treasury bills, I think, than anyone–any single place on earth. They have–
WILKERSON: A little more than Japan.
JAY: –massive amounts of U.S. cash, tremendous integration in terms of the labor, Chinese labor providing commodities for the American market, and so on and so on, a great deal of economic integration, you can say even codependence on each other. On the other hand, over here there’s the Asian pivot on the American side. There’s the strategy–what most people call an encirclement of China.
WILKERSON: Hedging. That’s what we call it.
JAY: Called hedging.
WILKERSON: Hedging strategy. Yes. We want peace, we want peaceful cooperation, we want stability, but we’re hedging our bets.
JAY: Well, hedging on both sides is pretty massive, the buildup of the American military and the buildup of the Chinese military.
WILKERSON: And China’s sort of machinations with Moscow.
JAY: And if this Cold War with the Russians gets even hotter and the sanctions start to really threaten Russia’s ability to export its energy, the obvious thing is we’ll sell it all to China.
WILKERSON: One of the interesting developments in this, Paul, has been India’s posture. India has remained more or less neutral in this business of pontificating about Ukraine, which is probably disturbing to those in Washington who feel like India is the ultimate partner encircling China or hedging our bets.
JAY: Yeah. We’re the ones that gave them a nuclear submarine. How dare they not be on board for this?
But in terms of the danger of war, which process is kind of more dominant? ‘Cause it each has its own logic. You would think the commercial integrations logic would trump that there ever really would be that kind of confrontation. On the other hand, when you have these enormous military buildups, the logic is somehow, someday, something happens.
WILKERSON: I think you’re right, and it’s something to watch very carefully and something to try to form policies to prevent, I think. Hedging strategies can get out of hand on both sides. China’s almost preposterous, grandiose claims in the South China Sea can get out of hand. These sorts of things have their own momentum, and before you know it, you’re staring at something that looks like you can’t get out of it, whether it’s over Taiwan, the most likely fire point, or whether it’s over something else we can’t even see now, like, for example, Filipino occupying a rock in the South China Sea. It’s not a situation that I would say is fraught with danger and potential for danger right now, but it could be easily. It doesn’t have the in-your-face aspect of Ukraine, this sort of great-power standoff, Russia or Moscow and Washington, but it has, I think, a much longer term ability to ruin not only U.S.-China relations, ultimately, but to impact the entire globe.
JAY: And how much is this driven by a real concern that this rivalry with China over–what?–markets, over raw materials, and such and such really requires a military alternative versus how much is this driven by what you were saying in the first segment, oligarchs (on both sides, really, but I would say here it’s more the American side) who just need another place to have a military buildup, because everybody makes a killing out of this?
WILKERSON: Yeah, well, the president of China right now is having a hard time trying to go after some of his oligarchs, who are just too corrupt for his own liking. And this is reaching a point where it may be destabilizing for the Communist Party in and for China ultimately. So I’m watching that very closely.
But at the same time, you have a situation here that’s ripe for a great-state relationship. What do I mean by a great-state relationship? Well, you sort of had that in 1648 with Westphalia, which sort of set the road for monarchs and their peoples to, you know, be sovereign and to exercise some tolerance and so forth, a state system you could argue we’re still operating under. You had the Atlantic Charter, too. The Atlantic Charter was–here’s the greatest empire in the world, receding, to be sure, and the nascent empire meeting and saying, we’re going to get together and have a great-state relationship to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. And it worked. And the world had sort of a Pax Americana for half a century, virtually.
We need some sort of relationship like that between Washington and Beijing today, I think. And I do not mean in any way that we should rule the world together. What I mean is the challenges that we’re going to confront in the 21st century, challenges that could be existential, challenges like climate change, challenges like enough water to drink, enough food to eat, and so forth–I’ve seen some projections that say–by climatologists whose views I respect, that say by the end of this century we could have only arable land and water enough for some half-billion people. What we do with the other 9 billion? Where do we bury them, even? How do we deal with that kind of massive change in human relationships with this planet? So these are huge challenges. So what I’m saying is you need this kind of great-power relationship, this great-state relationship to begin to lead the way for others to follow, others who are already doing a good job of it, like Germany, for example, to meet these challenges which are much bigger than whether or not Taiwan is a part of China or whether or not Ukraine is a part of Russia. These are tactical skirmishes on the fringes of challenges that may have major impact on human life on this planet, and yet we don’t seem to be able to get the leadership to move to face and confront these challenges.
JAY: We were talking earlier before we started the interviews, and the kind of–I guess the question came down to is capitalism as we know it out of these kinds of answers and not capable of producing this kind of leadership. You know, this concentration of power in–I should say the concentration of ownership, and so much in the hands of a section of capital that’s, you know, essentially parasitical, betting on derivatives markets and just gambling, you know, with no interest in really strengthening the real economy of the United States and taking advantage, wherever they can, around the world, the politics that reflects that, I mean, to get to what you’re talking about, that kind of relationship between states that will face up to climate change and, I think, a looming, very deep economic crisis that’s going to hit that’s going to be, you know, 1930s styles or worse–.
WILKERSON: Yes, and set everyone back in terms of their wanting to deal with climate change, because it’s going to be initially resource-intensive, probably.
JAY: So in terms of the discussion, discourse that ordinary people need to start getting their heads around, I mean, does it not–you have to start talking about who owns stuff, who has power in the United States, and what to do about it.
WILKERSON: Adam Smith’s invisible hand in Wealth of Nations is now not an invisible hand. It’s the hand of oligarchs. So if you want a succinct answer, if capitalism is going to help–going to be the economic, philosophical engine of this, meeting these challenges, it’s going to have to return to Adam Smith, but not just in Wealth of Nations, but also in his moral sentiments. You’ve got to have a different version of capitalism. It cannot be predatory capitalism, which both China and the United States are exemplifying massively today, China like the U.S. did in the 1890s, 1880s, 1890s, and the United States in this new form of collateralized debt obligations and all the rest of these financial innovations that do nothing but make the rich richer and the poor poorer. So it’s got to be a different brand of capitalism or it’s got to be a new economic system.
JAY: Yeah. And do we not have to then jettison all the baggage and shadow of the Cold War rhetoric–McCarthyism, House un-American activities committees, all the stuff that has such weight to stop you from discussing a new economic system?
WILKERSON: This is the huge component of a great-state relationship that would have to be–it would have to manifest itself and it would have to do so before you get into the challenges and the way you’re going to meet them. And what do I mean by that? I mean what Malcolm Byrne and John Tirman–at MIT, Malcolm at George Washington–have called empathy: you have to understand the other person’s side. Think of the Ukraine today. Think of Iran today. You have to call crawl into the other person’s shoes and understand their side. And that means you have to recognize their culture. You have to, to certain extent, honor the right they have to have that culture. You have to honor the right they have to design their own political system and so forth, and quit this messianic desire to bring, you know, these people down, those people down ’cause they’re evil and contemptible. You have to eliminate the politics of fear as much as possible. And you have to work together. You have to genuinely work together.
That doesn’t mean–Admiral Locklear said this recently, United States commander in the Pacific, probably the most influential man in terms of immediate U.S.-China policy, U.S.-Asia policy: he said China and the United States have more in common than they do have differences. It’s not a large majority, but it’s a majority. The problem we have, the challenge we have is to deal with the friction created by that minority of issues where we don’t agree. Well, that’s what a great-state pact does. It says, we are going to push those issues aside, work on them if we can in the corridors, and try to fix what we can. But we’ve got to have a relationship that basically begins together (because you can’t do it alone; you can’t; no country can do it alone), meets the challenges that we’re confronting in this century, which are huge.
JAY: But is part of the problem is that the people that are making policy here in the United States, they do put themselves in the other shoes, in this sense? They look at themselves–.
WILKERSON: Well, the John McCains and the Lindsey Grahams, who are Luddites, they do.
JAY: Well, they look at themselves and they said, well, you know, we’re predatory, so they are too, so let’s just do worst-case scenarios dealing with predatory supposed allies that we know eventually–like we did with with the Germans, we may have economic integration, we may trade with them, but we’re also ready to go to war with them because we’re all really predators and that’s what predators do.
WILKERSON: If that’s the case, then let’s just keep being predators and watch the planet cast us off, because the planet is going to cast a soft, or at least a sizable majority of us. There’s no question in my mind about that. The planet will go on as it went on after the dinosaurs, but human life might not. And that’s the nature of the challenge that we confront in this century.
In this century, in my grandchildren’s lifespan, major, major impacts will begin to occur, indeed may already be occurring. Pacific nations, for example, like Palau understand they’re going to be underwater and they have to relocate their whole populations. These kinds of things are going to happen with a frequency and a drama that is going to convince everyone. But is it going to be too late?
JAY: Alright. Thanks for joining us, Larry.
JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network and Reality Asserts Itself.
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“Lawrence B. Wilkerson is a retired United States Army Colonel and former chief of staff to United States Secretary of State Colin Powell.”