Sunday, November 16, 2008
A set of parallel intuitions developed with the collapse of the USSR and quickly became hegemonic. Even if one didn't accept the more comical variants of the 'end of history' parable, public discussion was governed by three fundamental suppositions: 1) globalisation meant the end of national state economies with extensive regulation and inbuilt welfare safety nets; 2) the end of the USSR meant that state sovereignty was no longer as central to the world system, and new forms of cosmopolitan law were emerging which might override national sovereignty given a failure to respect certain basic norms. Pinochet might be arrested in London, Kissinger might end up on trial in the Netherlands, Milosevic might end his years in jail. UN forces and regional security alliances might mediate in domestic crises, not necessarily with the approval of the state, and always to reinforce a minimal liberalism in the treatment of people. The overthrow of authoritarian regimes in 1989 was seen to propel other, similar revolts in South Africa, Indonesia, South Korea, and eventually Serbia and perhaps the 'colour-coded' revolts of the early 2000s - however different these examples were, they were all seen as part of a democratising process immanent to the new world order; 3) subjacent to both processes was an unprecedented global unipolarity in which America, whose awesome dominion had invaded the previously hostile territory of the Warsaw Pact states, accumulated epithets including Hubert Vedrine's choice phrase: 'hyperpower'. Its resources, its domestic liberalism and rights culture, its pro-capitalism and its freedom to act outside the constraints of a dirty Cold War would - given a globally oriented executive - propel it to take liberal internationalism through its final negation, toward a cosmopolital liberal world order.
Unipolarity has a certain charm as a theory. The US is the world's largest economy, and military power. The second and third largest national economies in the world remain Japan and Germany (the EU is larger than the US, but is hardly a 'national economy'), both of whom developed under US tutelage and both of whom retain American garrisons. The fifth largest economy, the UK, remains committed to a strategic alliance with the US, and subordinates its foreign policy goals to those of Washington. Several regionally important countries around the world are tied to America by defense and economic interests - for example, South Korea on the Pacific side, Poland on the Atlantic side. The apparatus of economic and financial dominance belongs effectively to the United States. These include not just the IMF and WTO, but also organisations like the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development, which is mainly funded by the US and which oversees neoliberal restructuring in 'transitional' countries. The NATO alliance binds 25 European and Asian countries to the US, and comprises 70% of global military spending. Neither of the main emerging competitors, India and China, have the military clout or the economic leverage to match the US. India, the fourth largest economy by purchasing power parity, having embraced Washington-driven neoliberalism in the 1990s, is now party to a nuclear alliance with the US (voted for by both 2008 presidential candidates, incidentally). This deal is supposedly restricted to civilian nuclear fuel, but it is no secret that the Indian state was running out of uranium ore, was anxious to build up its nuclear threat in opposition to Pakistan as quickly as possible, and will use the opportunity to reclassify military sites as civilian ones to refuel, and use its domestic uranium resources for the remaining military sites. This is unmistakeably a military agreement in civilian drag. India's days of non-alignment were, realistically, over long ago, but this arguably sealed the deal: it is now effectively a US sattelite.
One could rattle off factoids and examples in a similar vein for some time, but it would only be more misleading. We can overstate the unity of the Euro-American alliance, only if we forget about South Ossetia. The capacity of American military power to defeat resistance met clear limits in Iraq, despite the obviously disarticulated, fractious nature of the opposition. Latin America, including Brazil - the ninth largest economy by purchasing power parity, and one of the largest emerging markets - is slipping out of the US grasp, partially through popular movements and partially by cutting deals with Russia, China and Iran. The US even embarrassingly lost a key 'lily pad' in Uzbekistan, after it bent over backward to defend its local torturing dictatorship. The trends militating against sustainable American dominance were already becoming visible in the latter half of the 1990s, but it is precisely at this point that a deranged triumphalism was most likely to be vocalised alongside clamorous demands for intervention here and there.
The particularism embedded in universal claims is a distinctive American tradition: an evangelising, universalising Americanism is equally suffused with an American parochialism, a nationalism that embodies a local ruling class interest. In his appearance before the G20 recently, Bush made a last-ditch appeal to respect the terms of free market ideology, placing particular emphasis on free trade. Such an appeal from such a highly protectionist American president would seem rather odd if it wasn't reasonably well understood that the jargon refers particularly to various 'free trade' agreements that are advantageous to the US. It obviously does not refer to an institutionalised framework of free trade in which America and the EU abandon agricultural subsidies in exchange for the concessions extracted from developing countries. Moreover, the president who oversaw a drastic expansion of the state's role in the economy, responsible for the largest nationalisations in history, might have seemed an odd person to be making reassuring noises about the fundamental aptitude of 'free markets', were it not obviously a conventional code for policies that run down the social-democratic content of the state. The evidence is that far from governing a gradual process tending toward the subsumption of national polities into a heavily institutionalised global order, the US continues to pursue the usual hub-and-spoke mechanisms of control, ad hoc bilateral agreements, status of forces agreements, security arrangements etc. Now, this obviously has implications for the seductive vision of a cosmopolitan liberal world order. American interests are often not only at odds with those of its subordinate allies, but so much so that they will actually buck the trend and throw out American-led agreements. Emboldened by anticapitalist movements, this is exactly what many states did at Cancun. Tensions with the EU over tarrifs, subsidies and WTO rulings may seem like small beer, but when substantial strategic differences, compounded by popular movements, lead to major European states (half-heartedly) obstructing an American-led war, it obviously has wider significance. Further, a great deal of US foreign policy can be explained by attempts to outmanoeuvre advanced capitalist rivals - think of the rapid efforts to supplant Germany and France in Yugoslavia, with additional benefits in encircling Russia. The resumption of the nuclear arms race with Russia in the 2000s, the pursuit of the defense shield, the expansion of NATO, and the placement of American bases across Central Asia ultimately led to a conflagration in South Ossetia in which Georgia took its American-trained troops and its American-supplied weaponry and carried out an indiscriminate attack on Tskhinvali which killed Russian peacekeepers. Russia responded with a brutal invasion of Georgia, would-be future NATO member. The US responded with some tough talk and threats, but also watched helplessly as European allies noisily broke ranks. It has been noted, and merits repetition, that if Georgia had been a NATO member at the time of the conflict, then other members of the alliance would have been obliged by its terms to 'defend' Georgia. No road to global peace, this.
So, what if the liberal teleology was wrong? What if the US was not the bearer of the Spirit of History, and what if its various auxiliaries were not governed by an obscure cunning of reason - in which, for example, the ICTY would eventually morph into a judicious and impartial world court? Suppose the US ruling class meant that shit when it told the ICC to go fuck itself and continued to support death squads, dictatorships and anti-democratic movements? Imagine that the presumed symbiosis between 'Western power' and global institutions of political, legal and economic governance did not materialise? What if the liberals' solipsistic conviction that political opposition to neoliberal hegemony was either temporary irrationality or non-existent proved a false consolation? What if the 'Pacific Union' of states bringing Japan, Europe and America together really was just a version of American hegemony, not an 'international community', and certainly not a germinal 'global state'? What if America's habitual disregard for the rules of the institutions that it promulgates, including the WTO and the IMF, proved to be less than accidental? What if the world didn't flatten, the global economy continued to be crisis-prone, and relations between the advanced capitalist states were not so pacific as to rule out inter-imperial rivalry of the pre-1945 variety? And, finally, what if the most likely future vista is one of increasingly autarkic states, more authoritarian government, an escalated arms race, riskier confrontations on the global frontiers, sustained economic turmoil and renewed political polarisation?