In his 2002 book, Globalization and Its Discontents, Joseph Stiglitz goes over how he believes Russia’s transition from “communism” to a “market economy” failed after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Despite his mistake in stating that Russia was somehow “Marxist” in nature beforehand, it does explain how, with US assistance, the country continued to freefall to levels below what they were under the Soviet regime. The minute point I want to dissect from this, however, is his faith in then President of the United States, Bill Clinton, to have taken stronger action if he “had been confronted with the arguments”.
I doubt it.
Stiglitz, correctly in my view, says,
“The West’s long-term interests would have been far better served had we stayed out of close involvement with particular leaders, and provided broad-based support to democratic processes.”
Globalization and Its Discontents, 2017. p.g. 262
Leaders like Boris Yeltsin and Vladimir Putin, who at the time the US was more than happy to “work with”, which is ironic given the aftermath of the 2016 election with Mrs Clinton. If nothing else, I admire Stiglitz’s seemingly genuine concern for the betterment of humanity and his innocent faith in the “goodness” of his nation and global institutions. But while he criticises the “West” and those within the IMF and US Treasury, he does not appear to understand that what he is critiquing aren’t bugs, but features within the global systems of power.
The West’s long-term interests would be served well by countless variations, from tiny to massive, in foreign and economic policies. Korea would likely be a united nation if not for the US’ invasion. Latin America and South East Asia would have avoided numerous tragedies, from the violent overthrow of Allende in Chile (interestingly, Stiglitz denounced Pinochet’s government but loved his economic “successes”) to the IMF’s disastrous handling of the East Asia Crisis. The Middle East – well, one hardly needs to describe the devastation the US and its allies have wrought there.
In any case you pick around the world and throughout modern history, US involvement in it almost always falls on the side of short-term gain with no comprehension of the “long-term interests”. This includes the Democrats, like Bill Clinton, who Stiglitz believes would have done the opposite, if only they’d known the stakes…
There are three issues I take with this:
- I don’t buy the narrative that Clinton was unaware of what was taking place in Russia.
Russia has been a bogeyman for the US and capitalism since the Bolsheviks took power in 1917, a role that took a giant red form after World War 2 ended. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, I can’t imagine the President would suddenly decide not to keep up to date on information regarding the status of Russia, particularly when the US Treasury and the International Monetary Fund (basically an arm of US foreign policy) were so heavily involved in trying to “reshape” the region.
In this scenario, Clinton knew of the deeply rooted corruption taking place and was more than happy to allow things to take their course, i.e. the transition of power from the State apparatus to the same people under a private oligarchy instead, while the poor spiralled into worse poverty. The voices of the poor were left unheeded, and Stiglitz was simply incorrect in his assessment of the President’s character.
- If Clinton really was unaware of the truth and was to later find out, I don’t believe he would have intervened.
At least, not strongly in the way Stiglitz imagines. Clinton’s record very clearly shows he has no regard for the poor or otherwise disadvantaged. NAFTA was a corporate utopia that caused massive problems within the US and Mexico (I am unsure of how Canada was affected or involved). The Palestinians were certainly shafted in his “peace deal” involving them and Israel, which is still touted as some big success torn apart by Palestinians. His bombing of a pharmaceutical plant in Sudan based on faulty (plain wrong) intelligence resulted in quite a bit of havoc long-term.
When it comes to Russia, if Clinton was unaware of the poor’s plight, I seriously doubt he would have altered much beyond what little necessary to assuage public opinion at home. Which brings us to…
- In Stiglitz’s telling of the story, the implication here is that not only Treasury and the IMF acted against what Clinton would have preferred and kept him in the dark, but that the media – who very well knew the truth – were also deeply complicit in denying the President and the US population access to it.
Stiglitz appears to believe that the President is very often left out of the loop on such affairs – a telling statement on its own – but also makes a backhanded accusation against the media, perhaps without realising it. Treasury went over Clinton’s head, and Stiglitz suggests if the US public had perhaps been more aware of the situation – and opposed to it, like they were with the Vietnam War – then Clinton may have investigated further himself.
Just like the Vietnam War, however, the idea that the President was unaware is absurd. But if we take this idea at face value, then not only was Clinton removed from the decision making process by Treasury, but was intentionally kept in the dark partially by the lack of public awareness due to the media. If the media was silent or supportive of changes taking place in Russia, the public would not have known too much about it. As a result, Clinton did not see the need to look into it.
Once the corruption became too obvious to keep hidden, the media did eventually give it attention – far too late to take any real action against it. So not only did the media omit the events from American audiences, but also from a clueless President by extension. That is arguably an even worse situation than if Clinton did know the truth – at least then people can draw a clear conclusion about the antagonistic role the US plays in global affairs and can work to change it. Here, however, the powerful players are entirely unaccountable as Treasury, the IMF, and the media are beyond democratic control or scrutiny.
I believe Clinton was aware, and that the media’s obfuscation of Russia’s corrupt failure to enter a “market economy” as espoused by the likes of Stiglitz was to ensure public opinion was either positive or non-existent. But this small exercise does highlight the power of “public” global institutions and the media, a matter that has become quite alarming with the advent of Donald Trump and the deluge of misinformation online. That it is so easily conceivable that the President could be so easily kept from such important information and decisions, one can only wonder what is being kept from us all today.
What we do know is damning enough already. And it will only get worse.
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