International relations is premised on a handful of theoretical frameworks. They explain how nations relate with one another and provide an understanding of human events that take place around the world. The most familiar of these frameworks is the realist paradigm. Realism is easy to grasp – states behave rationally, and are calculative and egoistic. Realism obscures any state behaviour based on morality.
It is time for Malaysia to articulate its own narrative to describe the reality of geopolitics. We should call a spade, a spade. I applaud Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad for his speech at the recent UN general assembly when he called for nations to recognise Palestine and “stop Israel’s blatant atrocities”. Mahathir did not say “aggression” or “hostility”. Contrary to realist euphemisms, Mahathir re-introduced unambiguous truisms on the world stage. Up till then, the US narrative had dominated, especially since the notorious “undemocratic” 2000 election. What we need now is an alternative global dialogue. The views and aspirations of the developing and third world nations should be given a prominent platform.
The current ambivalent narrative is really an apology for an underlying reality. To put it simply, the ongoing discourse detailing global conflicts has been accepted as normal, even sophisticated. The following are common phrases we read on a daily basis explaining regional unrest. “Pushing back against Iran’s regional ambitions” is one example that appeared in a recent Washington Post article. It described America’s “pushing back” strategy, and Iran’s “ambition”. Another is the headline in a leading Asian weekly. It reads “The China Threat Cannot Be Ignored”. This refers, obviously, to the so-called China “threat”.
Mass media and the academia are overflowing with realist overtones in analysing world politics. We can accept, to a certain degree, that the media uses catchy headlines to attract readership. However, these realist concepts (ambition and threat) hide reality. The world of analysis has instead been dominated by US parlance. A more poignant narrative has to be re-introduced which includes the words “imperialist” and “imperialism”.
21st-century international relations is characterised by fear and distrust. This has resulted in a feeling of insecurity between states. China, for example, invokes feelings of trepidation for many countries in the South China Sea region. Its rapidly expanding navy is considered threatening to many regional states. This feeling is exacerbated by China’s bold economic designs such the Belt and Road Initiative.
However, since there is no world government, when one nation accumulates power other countries feel insecure. As a result, they are compelled to do the same. What emerges is a “security dilemma”.
Classic realism accepts this as a fait accompli. There is no issue of whether it is right or wrong. It just is. Describing such a situation as a “dilemma” suggests a mood of predicament and difficulty. Due to this security dilemma, all countries are in a state of political conundrum. The current debate on the international stage suggests constant tension between the powerful and the less powerful, i.e. an asymmetric dilemma. There is tension between equal powers as well, a symmetric dilemma. However, the narrative always avoids what is really at play: abject bullying.
Global geopolitics reflects states’ behaviour based on fear, reputation and national interest. I take issue with the concept “national interest”. Given the current state of international politics, we should be reading more about imperialism as a motivating factor. National interest is the kid gloves that academia and diplomats love to wear. The ongoing Yemen war illustrates my point.
We are made to believe that the humanitarian disaster in Yemen is the result of a Sunni-Shia conflict among Muslims. However, it is more complex than that. It is not just about petty Muslims fighting over sects. Since September 2014, the civil war between the Houthi rebels in the north and the Yemeni government has escalated into a free-for-all onslaught by several players. The Arab coalition, made up of nine countries, the US, UK, France and Iran are involved in a proxy war over Yemen. What began as an internal civil war exploded into a complicated web of international intrigues, lies and imperialist aggression.
The Yemen war is not only based on religious grievances. The narrative has failed to highlight economic and political issues. Realism has sustained the discourse which highlights phrases such as “fighting for freedom”, “liberation of the true Islam” and national interest. Al-Qaeda has taken advantage of the chaos and launched several attacks on Houthi rebels whom they consider infidels. But this situation does not justify billions exchanged in arms sales between US-led bullies and the coalition of Arab states. The US and Arab bombing campaigns in Yemen have created a humanitarian crisis. The United Nations recognises this but till now remains emasculated. Trade sanctions on Iran are another act of imperialist bullying.
US imperialist designs are clear in the events following Donald Trump’s exit in May from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA, or the Iran nuclear deal). This resulted in the re-imposition of sanctions against Iran. It was engineered to cripple its economy. European, Japanese and South Korean companies who are heavily invested in Iran are very dependent on the U.S financial system. So they are in a dilemma over whether to pull their businesses out of Iran or face the wrath of Trump.
Earlier this year, Japan needed to “seek exemption” from the US in order to continue importing oil from Iran. The tables are turned now as a former imperialist power (Japan) has to seek permission from a neo-imperialist superpower (the US). Japan was worried because putting the brakes on all Iranian oil exports would result in a loss of around 165,481 barrels per day.
In August, Iran’s investment contracts with European, Japanese and South Korean banks were suspended. The US had obviously denied Japan’s request. While China and Russia are still committed to their deals with Iran, the rest have halted their interaction. This is classic imperialism at work. Trump pulled out of the Iran nuclear deal, yet the US threatens others who continue to uphold JCPOA. Not only is Iran’s access to foreign financial services and facilities targeted, nations who are committed to business deals with Iran are also punished. Financial strangulation has become the imperialistic arm of US power politics.
In July, Malaysia reaffirmed support for the JCPOA. Predictably, on Sept 14, the US treasury imposed sanctions on a Thai aviation company (My Aviation Company Ltd, Bangkok) which was acting on behalf of Iran’s Mahan Air. The US claims the latter was ferrying troops and supplies into Syria. Mahan Travel and Tourism is based in Malaysia.
In response to Trump’s recent bellowing to the UN Security Council (when he said Iran would “suffer consequences”), Mahathir declared that “smaller nations like Malaysia will suffer”. He said “we have no choice and if you do not obey them, they will take action on your banks and currencies”. It is clear that Malaysia now joins an elite list of nations that are the object of US imperialism.
While I offer no concrete solutions to the growing economic and financial war waged by the US, I suggest we re-evaluate how we look at current affairs. The inter-connectedness of the global financial system is the new imperialistic “soft power” weapon. Trump has proven to be the heavy-handed emperor. He has successfully manipulated credible powers in Europe, the Middle East and Asia, punishing them for remaining in the JCPOA.
Trump is the embodiment of a new archetypical leader popularly referred to as the “strongman”. In reality, the US has reached the pinnacle as an imperial power, par excellence. What Lenin wrote decades ago is now a reality: capitalist competition has transformed into a monopoly; a monopoly of trade, commodities, services and most crucially, ideology.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.