“When US presidents go off script, it often gives a flavour of Washington’s real intentions.”Steve Howell
When US presidents go off script, it often gives a flavour of Washington’s real intentions. While the White House was quick to insist that Joe Biden wasn’t talking about regime change when he said recently that Putin “cannot remain in power”, it’s hard to imagine what else those words meant.
His predecessor was equally prone to loose talk. In July 2017, at a summit of twelve East European countries bordering the Baltic, Black and Adriatic seas, known as the Three Seas Initiative, Donald Trump couldn’t resist not only a hard sell of US energy – “if one of you needs energy, just give us a call” – but also an unplanned pitch for its weapons.
“All over the world they talk about the greatness of our military equipment,” he said. “Nobody comes close. So, when you buy military equipment, hopefully you’ll be thinking only of the United States.”
Guns and gas might not be the only drivers of US foreign policy, but they’re a pretty good place to start. For almost a decade, the US has been simultaneously running a determined campaign to stop Nord Stream 2, a new gas pipeline connecting Russia and Germany, while sending military advisers and providing arms worth billions of dollars to Ukraine.
If the US had combined this with a concerted diplomatic effort to ease tensions with Russia and secure the implementation of the 2015 Minsk 2 agreement on Ukraine, its denials of any ill-intent might now seem credible.
But there have long been doubts. As Yanis Varoufakis tweeted: “Joe Biden just answered my question.” He continued: “His game plan is not a negotiated peace with Putin but regime change in Moscow. Like previous US attempts at regime-change, this will not go well – especially for the people of Ukraine who must now endure war until Putin falls.”
Biden’s comment carried presidential weight, but an alarming indication of US thinking had come four weeks earlier from Hillary Clinton. Speaking on MSNBC, she said an Afghanistan-style “very motivated, armed and funded insurgency” to drive the Russians out was “the model that people are now looking toward” in Ukraine.
It’s a scenario that hardly looks attractive given how the Mujahideen mutated into the Taliban and the US subsequently waged a 20-year war that trashed Afghanistan and left its people starving. Applied to Ukraine, it could be similarly devastating for the countless millions of innocent people already suffering in this ugly war.
Those anonymous modelers in Washington worry little about such things and must be quite pleased so far with the pay-back on their Ukrainian investment. The immediate prize of the cancellation of Nord Stream 2 was followed swiftly by a deal for the US to take a much bigger share of the European gas market.
The US was already set to overtake Qatar this year as the world’s biggest exporter of Liquefied Natural Gas. The deal with the EU – announced during Biden’s recent visit to Brussels – will secure a long-term market for the vast quantities of shale gas it’s fracking in Texas, Louisiana and the Midwest. No wonder the US fossil fuel giant, ExxonMobil, has seen its share price rise 31% since the start of the year, adding $85billion to its market value.
The second big gain for the US has been to reassert its leadership in Europe after a period in which differences with France and Germany on a range of issues – including Ukraine – had intensified. These manifested themselves in an embarrassingly public way in February 2014 when – amid a deepening crisis in Kiev – president Obama’s assistant secretary of state Victoria Nuland was famously caught on camera saying ‘fuck the EU’ in a conversation about who she wanted in a new Ukrainian government.
Trump deepened the tensions by berating NATO allies for not paying their ‘fair share’ of the alliance’s costs and by pulling out of the Iran nuclear deal and then imposing sanctions that hit European companies.
This meant that Biden, on coming into office, had to mend fences. His change of tack on Iran and more conciliatory tone have improved relations with the EU, which fell quickly into line behind sanctions on Russia. But the tensions are never far from the surface, as shown by the speed with which both French president Emmanuel Macron and German chancellor Olaf Scholz distanced themselves from his rhetoric on Putin.
But, while Biden has strengthened the US position in Europe, the picture is bleak for him in the rest of the world. The White House says “over 30 countries representing well over half the world’s economy have announced sanctions”, but the term ‘well over’ is – to put it mildly – an exaggeration.
The 163 countries that haven’t imposed sanctions are home to a majority of the world’s population and include eight of the 20 biggest economies: China, India, Brazil, Mexico, Iran, Turkey, Indonesia and Russia itself.
Their motives may range widely – from pure self-interest to political opposition to US regime change wars – but the effect is the same: Washington’s hegemony is under threat on a scale that would have been unimaginable only a few years ago.
For some Western commentators, the answer is retribution. The Guardian’s Simon Tisdall says “backsliding, fence-sitting, ostensibly pro-western governments…must be firmly reminded who their real friends are.” But the countries he names – Israel, India, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and UAE – give you an indication of the magnitude of the problem. Each of them has played a key role in sustaining US global dominance in recent decades, yet they are all continuing to trade with Russia.
While people like Clinton might be nostalgic for the Afghanistan ‘model’ of a proxy war against Russia, the world has changed, and that change is being accelerated by their own actions.
The biggest own goal so far has been the alienation of India and its rapprochement with China. India is with Australia, Japan and the US a member of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue – known as the QUAD – which is seen by Washington as key to its strategy for encircling China militarily.
While replacing Putin with a compliant regime in Moscow would complete the loop, it’s a long shot. More immediately, Biden faces the probable loss of China’s southern neighbour from his anti-Beijing axis.
There is, however, another emerging headache for him that could soon prove even more damaging: a severe weakening of the power of the dollar. Times columnist Simon Nixon has described the freezing of the assets of Russia’s Central Bank as “an extraordinary act of economic warfare” that will prompt China to “step up efforts to find an alternative to the dollar.”
The dollar’s dominance relies heavily on its control of SWIFT (the international communications channel for banks) and CHIPS (the Clearing House Interbank Payment System). In 2015, China set up its own version of the latter known as CIPS, the Cross-Border Interbank Payment System.
CIPS has been quietly growing as a means of settling international transactions using the Yuan. HSBC and Standard Chartered are already members. France wants its banks to join, and China has agreed to speed up their applications. For Russia, with seven of its banks now under sanctions, CIPS provides a potential way of conducting trade regardless of sanctions.
The dollar’s privileged position has allowed the US to run huge deficits to finance its vast military machine. Without the dollar being as good as gold, its global supremacy will unravel. Paradoxically, Washington’s success in galvanising Europe against Russia could prove its undoing in the rest of the world.
- Steve Howell is the author of Game Changer, an insider’s perspective on Labour’s 2017 election campaign, and two novels, the latest of which – Collateral Damage – tells the story of a group of 1980s peace activists who are determined to uncover the truth about the death of their friend. For more details: https://www.steve-howell.com/collateral-damage/
 President Biden speaking in Warsaw on 26.3.2022.
 The 12 countries in the Three Seas Initiative are: Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Romania, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.
 President Trump speaking at the Three Seas Summit in Warsaw, 6.7.2017.
 Yanis Varoufakis, who is an economist and former finance minister of Greece, tweeted this comment on 27.3.2022.
 Hillary Clinton speaking on MSNBC, 1.3.2022.
 The White House, briefing room factsheet, 8.3.2022.
 Simon Tisdall, The Guardian, 26.3.2022.
 Simon Nixon, The Times, 17.3.2022.