The US election is seen as a battle for America's soul. But history suggests very little changes between US presidents. Foreign policy rarely aligns with campaign promises, and America's positioning on the stage of world affairs has barely shifted despite wildly different leaders in the White House. It's time to recognise power does not reside in the White House, argues Marcus Papadopoulos.
In 2008, as a writer and reporter at Tribune magazine, I contended that there would be no change whatsoever to American foreign policy in the event of Barack Obama becoming the American president. This was despite Obama’s election pledge to not involve America in the affairs of other countries. I meant that the institutions in Washington would preserve and augment America’s mastery of the international arena by pursuing a doctrine of ‘humanitarian intervention’, a cloak for American expansionism. Obama’s catastrophic interventions in Libya, Syria and Ukraine vindicated my pessimistic prediction.
On television and radio in 2016, I averred that there would be no alteration to the objectives and methods of the United States’ foreign policy should Donald Trump win the American presidency. This was despite the clear, anti-interventionist platform on which Trump ran his election campaign. Over the last four years Trump has ordered a direct military intervention in Syria on two occasions and has increased in the flow of American weaponry into Saudi Arabia to strengthen its position in its war against the people of Yemen. Further, his administration has attempted to instigate a coup in Venezuela, has waged an economic war against Iran and has assassinated Tehran’s most distinguished army commander. All of this serves to confirm what I asserted four years ago.
Now, in 2020, there is the same inexplicable forecast emanating from neo-liberal and so-called-left-wing commentators; that Joe Biden would usher in a “new and more principled American foreign policy”. One’s mind boggles at that notion. Only a commentator who was unaware of the history of US foreign policy over the last decades, of the Pax Americana, and of realpolitik in general would say this to be true.
In panel discussions and within the UK Parliamentary Press Gallery and Lobby, I have long been considered a pessimist vis-à-vis the ‘impact’ of American presidential elections on US foreign policy. My response is that I am a realist about the structures of power in the US. To be completely candid, America will remain the same old America, irrespective of who sits in the White House.
Contrary to what the US Constitution states, an American president does not wield enormous powers in practice. It has been said that David Rockefeller perceived the post of American president as a “demotion”. In truth, America is run by a permanent and, in many respects, unseen body of institutions which have no party affiliation. The Republican and Democratic parties are but a sideshow, tasked with maintaining the façade that the US is a functioning democracy.
Actual power in America, including that which determines US foreign policy, rests in the hands of historically powerful business, banking and investment oligarchies; financial elites such as Wall Street; the special services, including the Central Intelligence Agency and the National Security Agency; the military-industrial complex, including Lockheed Martin; oil and gas companies, such as ExxonMobil; giant pharmaceutical companies, such as Johnson & Johnson and Pfizer; and the information technology sector, specifically Silicon Valley and megaliths like the Microsoft Corporation.
A recent example of this power is this: During his election campaign Trump pledged to improve relations with Russia. Under his presidency NATO has increased its presence on the Russian border - both in soldiery and weaponry - and American troops have been deployed from Germany to Poland. These moves have served to worsen US-Russia relations in direct opposition to Trump’s original intentions. Trump’s actions, vis-à-vis Russia, have been partly due to pressure coming from a growing narrative of Russian threat. That narrative was pushed hard by the American special services until Trump had no choice but to respond.
The pressure emanating from that consciously created narrative has helped to force the US president into compliance with the vested interests of the institutions, companies and agencies who are in charge of America. The permanent, unseen government of the US has no wish to share power in the world with Russia or, indeed, any other country which falls outside of Washington’s orbit.
Trump’s dealings with Venezuela are a second example. Here, again, Mr Trump’s actions encapsulate how an American president is not in control of US foreign policy. In 2019 the Venezuelan government repelled a coup backed by an American security company. The Venezuelan authorities blamed the attempt on the US government. The US government denied involvement. However, echoing US actions in the Middle East, the background to these events is that oil and gas companies, including ExxonMobil, are striving to take control of Venezuela’s large reserves of energy. The same group is also striving to take possession of Iran’s lucrative oil and gas sector. This is one of the power groups in America which forced Mr Trump to go against his 2016 election pledge.
The role of Think Tanks in Washington is also highly relevant. American presidents, past and present, have been closely associated with think tanks and ‘philanthropic’ foundations. These groups actively help to steer American foreign policy, almost universally with the aim of safeguarding and strengthening American global hegemony at any cost, including the prosecution of wars and the imposition of economic sanctions. The Council on Foreign Relations, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation are some of the organisations with huge scope to sway American foreign policy. Once inside the White House, an American president is immediately surrounded by those who form the permanent and unseen government in the US. For the most part, he willingly permits himself to be dictated to by them, knowing that he is, in large measure, their creation and that his future prosperity depends on him implementing everything which he is instructed to do.
That an American president does not determine and formulate American foreign policy is painstakingly evident by the fact that there is never any change in the way the US conducts itself in the international arena. This is true regardless of who is sitting in the White House and regardless of which party is in power. Bill Clinton, during his election campaign in 1992, spoke of ensuring a world free of conflicts. Under Mr Clinton, the former Yugoslavia was bombed into submission, cementing Washington’s predominance in Europe. We have already know the fate of Obama and Trump’s anti-interventionist pledges. Every American president has engaged the US in wars, sanctions or coups against foreign governments. This is a result of his wilful fulfilment of the instructions issued to him by the real institutions of in power in the US.
An American president is merely a figurehead. No matter who wins the election on Tuesday 3rd November, be it Trump or Biden, American foreign policy will continue unabated in its current form.
The last time I supported an American presidential candidate was in 1988, when I embraced Michael Dukakis. My excuse for having naively supported a candidate at an American election was that I was only 10 years of age. This begs the question: What is the excuse of commentators today who believe that elections for the White House can make a difference to US foreign policy?