Opinion: Ex-Trump Adviser Bannon Sees Clash of Civilizations, but Offers Wrong Prescription

2017 was preoccupied with Trumpian tweets, but the year really belonged to Steve Bannon, who left Trump’s administration because the U.S. "deep state" felt that he was too much of a loose cannon.

A loose cannon is someone who does not conform to mainstream thinking. Having crafted Trump’s inaugural speech on the American carnage and the need for America first, he basically turned U.S. foreign policy on its head, shifting from one of global leadership to one of safeguarding its tenuous hold as first among equals. As the U.S. withdraws from one international agreement to the next, mentally the rest of the world has shifted to the world minus one. Single-handedly, Steve Bannon is pushing the U.S. into a Christian-Judaic view of world order that becomes the bastion against the coming clash of civilizations.

Bannon’s latest speech to a Japanese audience, in which he tried to nudge Japan to re-arm against what he calls the Chinese Confucian mercantilist authoritarian hegemony, is reflective of this worldview. Interestingly, he credits the Chinese "Belt and Road" initiative as having successfully integrated the Mackinder-Mahan-Spykman theses of how to dominate the world.

Halford Mackinder (1861-1945) was an influential British geographer and historian who argued that “Whoever rules the Heartland (central Asia) commands the World-Island (Euro-Asia); whoever rules the World-Island commands the World.” His American contemporary, Alfred Mahan (1840-1914), was a naval historian who shaped the U.S. strategy to dominate sea power, extending the British maritime empire logic of controlling the sea lanes, chokepoints and canals by policing global trade.

In contrast, Yale professor John Spykman (1893-1943) argued that the Rimland (European coast, Arab-Middle East and Monsoon Asia, including Indian subcontinent) is more important than the “Heartland,” thus: “Who controls the Rimland rules EuroAsia; who rules EuroAsia controls the destinies of the world.”

The reality in the 21st century is no longer how the colonial powers (including America) carved the world into who controls what. The rise of nuclear arms, monetary power, human demographics, climate change and cybersecurity, etc., has changed the simplistic division of the world into hegemonic geography.

By quoting that America spent $5.7 trillion on the Iraq and Afghanistan war since 9/11, with little results and more costs to come, Bannon admitted that the U.S. efforts in the Middle East is a no-win quagmire. America has difficulty fighting asymmetric warfare (ground level guerrilla warfare that the Islamic State group and al-Qaida learned from Vietnam) effectively because it was too rich and humanitarian to afford human casualties.

Indeed, one could argue that the Clinton-Obama pivot to the Pacific is a strategic mistake because however strong the U.S. is militarily, no single country could afford to fight on all three fronts (Atlantic, Middle East and Pacific) at the same time. By shifting the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, the U.S. administration has crossed an important red line in moving away from a “neutral” arbitrator in the Middle East to taking sides in serious ideological and religious divides within the Middle East. But demographically, both Israel and its U.S. and European allies cannot deny the reality that in terms of sheer population, Israel will be marginalized by the end of the 21st century, when its neighbors will have a larger population and access to nuclear and other weapons.

At the end of World War I, Western thinkers tried to think through what caused the ideological struggle that led to massive but senseless carnage. Polish-American philosopher Albert Koryzbski (1879-1950) was a former Polish intelligence officer in the Russian army who became famous for his insight: “The map is not the territory.” What he meant is that our mental maps of reality are very likely to be flawed, because of hidden assumptions that are false. He argued that Aristotelian logic (the dominant mental process of Western civilization) gave rise to blind spots and therefore ideological misunderstanding and conflicts. The fault lay in language because different nations cannot communicate accurately with bad assumptions of each other’s positions that prevented cooperation and led to senseless conflict.

Applying Koryzbski’s approach to Bannon’s worldview, it becomes clearer that the United States is currently deeply split between two views — one isolationist aimed at self-rejuvenation, and the other seeking to maintaining its democratic rule of law liberalism leadership on the rest of the world. The differences in ideological position rest on different assumptions about the rest of the world. Bad assumptions can only be unveiled through scientific evidence-based research.

To make matters worse, because the rest of the world comprises different languages, cultures and religions, it is not surprising that their perspectives and priorities are very different from the big powers. The farmer in sub-Saharan Africa and Middle East who faces continuing drought, failing crops, or corrupt and incompetent governments will think nothing except that northward migration to cooler climates in Europe will solve hunger and survival for his family. Kim Jong Un, living in North Korean isolation, thinks that having nuclear arms and missiles will give him bargaining power better than strengthening his economy would.

In short, neither military nor economic power alone can solve many of the global ills that are interconnected and interdependent with each other, from the smallest to the largest. With greater social media, the world has moved beyond simplistic 20th-century worldviews. As the uni-polar world declines, we need even more multilateral cooperation to solve many of the global issues of climate change, conflicts, disease and systemic failures at many levels.

Simply speaking, we need a global dialogue that was fast becoming differing monologues. Whether you agree with him or not, Bannon has demonstrated remarkable clarity of understanding that China’s rejuvenation as outlined in the 19th Party Congress represents a serious threat to U.S. global leadership. He understood clearly the unsustainability of the old financial capitalism paradigm, in which the elite used the rules at the expense of the masses. But his solution to “deconstruct the administrative state” challenges both the left and right of all Westphalian states, since both sides have bureaucracies that are subject to corruption, capture and ineffective delivery of social goals.

The old rules-based system cannot work properly in a world where the rules are changing profoundly through technology, climate change, demography and concentration of power at corporate levels that are larger and more powerful than nations. If there is no inclusive language and action to ensure that the key mental maps are on the same page, there is serious risk that a Thyucydides trap is looming in the not-too-distant future. Creating the common language and frame for dialogue is an urgent task.

Andrew Sheng is a distinguished fellow at the Asia Global Institute, University of Hong Kong.

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