The Trump presidency unsurprisingly attracts a lot of scrutiny. But this scrutiny also leads people on trail towards other unpalatable truths concerning previous administrations. One such trail has been facilitated by the recently signed arms deal, between the Trump administration and the government of Saudi Arabia, worth just over one hundred billion dollars in arms. This is yet another catalyst, amongst many, which is contributing to the legitimation crises engulfing the American political system as a whole, and not just Trump’s administration. It does not take many searches on Google and YouTube for one to stumble upon similar multibillion-dollar agreements with previous American administrations (Democrat and Republican), as one looks closer at this recent one.
In the same way, it does not take too many more clicks to understand that the Saudi Arabian government, in comparison to other governments in the region defined as evil or bad regimes, is not exactly a bastion of the much lauded Western values of freedom, liberty, democracy and so on; so that, only after having read a few articles online and seen a few YouTube videos, one is confronted by a simple question: what is the fundamental criterion for America’s classification of some governments as good and others as bad, in the Middle East and other parts of the world?
The Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson and before him, President Trump, argued that the moral arguments which have underpinned American foreign policy especially in the theaters of American interventions abroad were actually motivated not by morality but by economic and political interests. In Secretary Tillerson’s account, he argued that it was imperative to separate political and economic interests from American values because, according to him, values are constant and do not change, while interests are contingent on evolving circumstances in the theaters of interventions. He finishes by stating that values “condition” interests – but that they are not the same thing. Before him, much to Senators John McCain and Marco Rubio’s irritation, President Trump had equated American interventionism with Russian interventions.
What is arising, in my view – with the aid of the Internet, are waves of doubt especially among the millennial demographic on both sides of the political spectrum, questioning the long held assumption that it was moral superiority and thus “American exceptionalism” which justified US-interventions in the world, even at very severe costs of human life. This wave of doubt is entering the mainstream discourse, and thus moving inward from its “hippie, far-left peripheries”. This general dispensation of doubt, amplified by the Internet ,with its new self-broadcasting technologies like YouTube, is contributing to the speed of the erosion of trust in American politics. Additionally, as the traditional media platforms, like Television and newspapers like the Washington Post and the New York Times, continue to pushback and insist on narratives they have supported in the past, the crises of legitimation only extends to them as well.
To put it starkly, it is difficult to see how Syria warrants intervention and Saudi Arabia does not, if the motivation of intervention is in fact moral or value-driven. It is equally difficult to see how the new strongman in Egypt, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, can be seen as an ally and Libya’s Gadhafi could not, if the grounds of ousting the latter were repression and state-sponsored violence. Fundamentally, what is the principle that guides the acceptability of some “dictators” and not others? More importantly, how America’s (if Secretary Tillerson’s statement is to be taken seriously) pursuit of its political and economic interests abroad is different from Russia, China, or India’s pursuit of their political and economic interests abroad? Why are their interventions always seen as “inherently” evil, while those of the United States are always inherently good?
This is the crux of the legitimation crises which is roaring in the American public sphere – and it has been brought about by a rather subversive democratizing effect of new Internet based media technologies enabling domestic publics to intersect and overlap with wider publics in other parts of the world. Renewed efforts, therefore, to regulate the Internet even in the name of combating terrorism will be read as attempts at blocking this emancipatory potential afforded by the Internet. And ironically, it will play right into the hands of arguments supporting regulations, which already exist today – such as those supported and implemented by the Communist Party of the People’s Republic of China. Rather than fight these trends, I think it is time for a fundamental shift in how global politics is done.
The age of militarism has run its course; more countries in the world are growing in power, adding to the multi-polarity of the global political economy; and publics have become dialogically interconnected through the vehicle of the Internet. The only way forward is diplomacy, respectful cooperation and deeper transparency. The veil that enabled pre-Internet international relations has been lifted, and the moral economy of the era’s interventionism exposed and eviscerated. It is time to move beyond it.
Mphatso Moses Kaufulu is a political and cultural sociologist from Malawi concerned with questions about social epistemology in Southern Africa. He is a PhD student at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa. He is interested in the idea of culture as “play”, culture as history, and culture as power.