It was almost half-a-century ago. They called it “the rumble in the jungle.” The 32-year-old former champion Muhammad Ali was attempting to wrest the heavyweight title from the formidable champion George Foreman. The fight itself, hosted in Zaire, was surrounded in controversy – the prize money, for example passing through Libya. But it was the tactics employed by Ali which were to go down in boxing legend.
Foreman was famous for his punching power, having won the world title after punching former champion Joe Frazier to the canvas six times before the fight was stopped, and later breaking the Jaw of contender Ken Norton, prior to accepting the fight with Ali. To avoid getting on the wrong end of one of those Foreman punches, Ali adopted a stance which was described as being like someone leaning out of a window to look up at the roof – leaning back over the ropes with his head out of range and his torso covered by his arms, Ali left Foreman punching air. And by the eighth round, Foreman had thrown so many missed punches that he was worn out, allowing Ali to quickly overwhelm the champion with a series of accurate punches of his own – knocking Foreman to the canvas and winning the title back.
Foreman was to complain afterward that the ropes had been loosened. Maybe they had. But that shouldn’t detract from a fighting strategy which dates back for millennia – of allowing a stronger opponent to expend his energy before going on the offensive and winning the battle. The Allied battles in Egypt and Normandy, and the Soviet battles around Moscow and Stalingrad during the Second World War employed the rope-a-dope approach – letting the enemy forces exhaust themselves against prepared defences before unleashing devastating force to drive the enemy back. The North Koreans were obliged to do something similar after the US landings at Inchon in September 1950 – falling back to the Chinese border, they left the US forces with increasingly strained supply lines until, joined by massed Chinese forces, they were able to drive the US forces back to their start lines… where they have watched each other with suspicion ever since.
The Korean War marked the beginning of another form of conflict on the economic front. Of course, strategists had understood the importance of economic warfare over centuries – in pre-industrial warfare, scorching the land to deprive invaders of food and shelter was a common tactic. And interdiction of trade followed immediately after the development of ocean traversing sailing ships. By the time industrial societies began to engage in “total war” – mobilising the entire imperial economy – the blockade and the submarine had emerged as the preferred weapons for disrupting imports. But 1950 saw the first of the western empire’s economic sanctions – forbidding trade with North Korea. And then, eight years later, sanctions were applied in the absence of war for the first time against Cuba.
Sanctions have been applied ever since. But their impact has been mixed. Certainly, small states with undeveloped economies and few alternative trade partners have been forced to bend to western wishes – Nicaragua in the 1980s springs to mind. But sanctions against oil states such as Venezuela and Iran have proved far less effective. And on the other side of the equation – as Immanual Wallerstein pointed out – America’s moment in the sun came in the autumn of 1945, not 1991 as its neocon rulers like to believe. And as the US and its western vassals’ economic power has waned, so too has its ability to wage economic warfare.
A big error – from a western standpoint – was no doubt bringing China into the global trade system in the idealistic belief that this would force China to liberalise. A secondary error was standing back from Russia in 1991, when it seemed that the country was on the verge of disintegration – the assumption being that western corporations would soon be exploiting all of that fossil fuel and mineral wealth. But the greatest mistake of all was to drive China and a recovering Russia into a de facto alliance which, over time, has emerged as the growing BRICS bloc which now attracts the 75 percent of world states which do not bend the knee to the western empire.
One of the big successes of this non-western bloc has been to exempt themselves from the self-destructive “net zero” programs being pursued across the west… with the UK leading the charge. While the UK believes itself to be a pillar of virtue by sacrificing its economic base in order to lead the world toward the green nirvana, in reality the rest of the non-western world are laughing at us. China – the world’s second largest economy and its biggest emitter of greenhouse gases – for example, initially set a much longer timespan for reaching net zero emissions, before abandoning it entirely, on the spurious argument that since western states like the UK had been burning fossil fuels for longer (which isn’t strictly true – Han China used coal in metal smelting before the English) China – and developing states in general – should be allowed more time to develop their economies before cutting emissions. So when, you might ask, will cumulative Chinese carbon dioxide emissions overtake the cumulative British emissions since the dawn of the Industrial revolution… 2030? 2040? 2050? Actually, Chinese cumulative carbon emissions overtook those of the UK two decades ago:
While environmental activists fall back on the moral justification that in per-capita terms, China’s emissions are still behind the UK, this is entirely irrelevant to the Earth’s atmosphere – it is the absolute concentration of greenhouse gases which matter. A more rational concern would be with the proportion of China’s emissions generated in the production of goods consumed in the UK and the other western states… but then, UK activists are unlikely to want to give up their mobile phones, flatscreen TVs and all the other Chinese-made goodies which make life a little more bearable. Nevertheless, in the gathering global economic slowdown, we may be obliged to forego a lot of the trappings of western lifestyles.
Which brings us to the likely fallout from the west’s proxy war in Ukraine – which, you may remember, was supposed to have been won 18 months ago. Militarily – and following the optimistic motorised drive toward Kiev, designed to bring the Ukraine government to the negotiating table (despite the claims of western establishment media, the assault deployed far too few troops to possibly take a city the size of Kiev) – the Russians have been playing rope-a-dope, with the US and UK governments leading the race… all be it via the sacrifice of hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians. Despite hugely expensive Ukrainian “counter-offensives, the reality remains that the Russian armies have been parked along the southern Dnieper between the Black Sea and Zaporozhe and east to Donetsk, Bakhmut and Kramatorsk, while the west expends billions of dollars of western weapons and ammunition, and Ukraine expends its population and its future.
Less obviously perhaps, it was the western empire’s almost casual engagement in economic warfare via the biggest sanctions package ever imposed – including seizing Russian central bank assets and disconnecting Russia from the international banking system. The aim was clear, while a Ukraine military, bristling with hi-tech western weaponry defeated what was believed to be a hollow conscripted Russian army on the battlefield, the weight of western economic might would crash the Russian economy – after which the people would rise up and overthrow Putin, and Russia’s oil and mineral wealth would once again be in the hands of the western corporations. It would all be over by the summer, we were told. It didn’t quite work out that way though. As Lee Jones, Professor of Political Economy and International Relations, writing for UnHerd cautioned:
“The fundamental problem is that sanctions are based on a dubious understanding of human behaviour. They are a quintessentially liberal instrument, resting on the assumption that every man has his price: if I impose economic costs on you, you will revise the cost-benefit analysis of your course of action, and change your behaviour accordingly.
“In the real world, however, many regimes and their supporters are willing to endure colossal economic costs to pursue their political and security goals. Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party regime preferred to see Iraq’s economy and society destroyed rather than relinquish power. Fidel Castro’s regime withstood a punishing US embargo for decades. Iran has suffered serious economic harm under Western sanctions without relinquishing its nuclear programme…
“Classically, comprehensive embargoes seemed to be guided by a ‘naïve theory’ of sanctions, whereby economic suffering is expected to compel the population to rise up against their wicked leaders. But this rarely, if ever, happens. If anything, economic immiseration tends to fragment and weaken the population, who become absorbed by the struggle to subsist and more reliant on government help — as seen in Iraq.”
There was no reason to suppose that sanctions – even if the Russians hadn’t been preparing for them ever since Victoria Nuland engineered the 2014 coup – would force Putin’s hand. Moreover, the wave of Russophobic western media reporting starting even before the invasion of Ukraine has had the opposite effect, causing most Russians to rally behind the Putin government, with the main opposition now coming from a Russian Communist Party which wants the Russian military to be far more aggressive and the Russian state even more authoritarian. The situation is, however, worse on two counts. First, Russia joined a club of previously sanctioned states like China and Iran, which have every reason to desire the economic enfeeblement of the west. Worse still, former US allies like Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – whose oil now flows primarily to China – have also maintained trade with Russia and China, while being lukewarm at best in their dealings with the west. Second, and far more damaging in the longer-term, western sanctions have backfired. Instead of causing the Russian economy to fail, it is the European (including the UK) economies which are falling apart now that the cheap energy and resources which had underpinned them have gone away. Across Europe, heavy industry, including essential steelworks and metal smelters have been closing because of the unaffordable cost of energy. The same goes for Germany’s wind turbine factories, which have also closed because of high energy prices. Even Europe’s food supply is threatened as domestic hydroponic tomato, pepper, and cucumber farming – which is dependent upon cheap gas for heating, fertiliser, and carbon dioxide – has closed during winter to cut losses.
That is the point of the comparison with that 1974 fight between George Foreman and Muhammad Ali. Just like Foreman, the western states – and the US neocons in particular – have overestimated their economic and military strength, treating both as if they were as (relatively) strong today as they had been at the 1945 high point. Indeed, Ukraine aside – where (barring a NATO-initiated nuclear exchange) the Russians are likely to eventually impose a peace (possibly with Poland regaining territory it ceded to Ukraine in 1945) – the main threat to the west at this point is economic. Simply because the west is less prepared – practically, politically, or psychologically – to cope with a now inevitable economic crash.
Consider, for example, that whoever wins the US election next November, half of the US population will refuse to accept the result. The UK is more nuanced, because most voters will be opting for what they consider to be the lesser evil, while a larger than normal proportion will simply stay at home. In both cases, this would be difficult enough in the relative – albeit anaemic – economic calm of the pre-lockdown years. But with the economy, public services, and government credibility fast sliding around the U-bend, it is a recipe for turmoil that BRICS strongmen like Xi, Putin, and Modi are unlikely to face… and like Ali following the Foreman fight, they might also have another few years after the west hits the canvas before economic time and old age catches up with them too.
As you made it to the end…
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