Friday, April 24, 2009

Allied turf wars

Is Obama's new age of multilateralism all it's cracked up to be? Okay, let me put this another way. Imagine you're an Anglo-American liberal. Now, there's no need to put on a self-righteous rictus smirk, or start reading the New Republic: I am not asking you to method act, just use your imagination. You've just watched for eight years as America has betrayed its ideals, its democratic mission, the humane and inclusive world posture that won it so many starry-eyed admirers during the 1990s. Yes, you understand that in the messy world of global power politics one sometimes has to gravely compromise one's own principles. But to be so open about it, to be so brazenly cynical in choosing to launch a major war and occupation with poor excuses and worse planning... After all, you might think, there was a principled case for war if only Bush had coopted a few Democrats and been more strategically multilateral. The Clinton administration had used the Bush troika - WMD proliferation, human rights abuses, and terrorism - as the basis for belligerence throughout the 1990s. There was no reason for Bush to parody this fine legacy with his grotesque grandstanding and overtly partisan domestic position. And throughout this gloomy midnight of Pax Americana, you watched years of massive strategic advantage being frittered away, as the containment of Russia finally broke down, the NATO alliance was fractured, allies were angered by protectionism and unilateralism, enemies were strengthened by the same, and populations in formerly friendly societies chose regimes hostile to the US. Worst of all has been the contribution this folly has made to rising anti-Americanism of which you yourself have falsely been accused.

But now it is different. Barack Obama, who speaks softly but carries a big stick, is the new "leader of the Free World" (astonishing to think that people still use this expression). He is wildly popular in naturally sympathetic European states, and the Euro clerisy are balls deep in his hopeful audacity. As a result, he will have the clout necessary to restore the shattered NATO alliance and solve the problem of overstretch. Obama has spoken of restoring relations with Russia. He has scolded Iran for its nuclear heresies, but also offered to chat, the better to weaken and isolate its fanatical and hate-ridden leadership. As a necessary evil, he has exchanged pleasantries with that poisonous caudillo Hugo Chavez, who will soon fall to a colour-coded 'revolution', you hope. He has taken a sensible approach to Iraq, with a prudent application of the 'Pottery Barn rule' - no precipitous withdrawal, no dissing the surge, and no defunding. He has cautiously sought to roll back the unpleasantness of officially sanctioned torture (Bush scandalously neglected to fully outsource the practise). He has pledged to revive multilateralism and build a strong deterrent force in Afghanistan, and if his preference for 'security' over 'democratisation' saddens you, then you are equally saddened that Afghanistan is not yet ready for the liberal institutions that Bush so hubristically sought to impose. But this only strengthens the case for defeating the enemy. By appointing Clinton era officials, he has offered a reasonable chance of reviving that golden age. And perhaps Obama might better Clinton on Africa. With some intelligent planning, the crackdowns on Somali piracy - an early Obama success, drafting the EU into shouldering more of the imperial burden - can become the basis for a series of actions to stabilise that unfortunate continent, with the pacification of Sudan its crowning achievement. And even France has normalised its relations with the US by electing a neoconservative leadership that has already rejoined NATO. At any rate, you are optimistic for the first time in this young millenium.

Still, you can't help but find something disturbing in all this. If the new president, surely at the height of his appeal, can't get more than 5,000 extra non-combatant troops out of NATO, or reform the alliance to more adequately meet its interests, what has become of his dynamic multilateralism so soon? A boost in NATO commitments was supposed to give Obama room to cut taxes domestically and stimulate the economy. And if the potent POTUS can't get the EU to even agree measures to accept prisoners from the closing Guantanamo, does this point to European moral shortcomings or to US diplomatic shortcomings? Or to something worse? If European states can't see their way to defending the energy frontiers of what Brzezinski called the 'global Balkans', how can they be expected to commit to interventions where their commercial interests are less obvious? Moreover, the Obama administration seems to be remarkably slow at getting the right personnel, with no assistant secretary of state for African affairs appointed five months after his election - is this administration really going to lead an international (ie, Euro-American) coalition to save Darfur? Perhaps it is at this point that you wonder if the whole idea of a renaissance in American foreign affairs is a mirage. The political-economic basis for Clintonite multilateralism is gone, after all. Washington's unipolar dominance is disappearing, its hegemony over potential rivals ending, its mode of dominance through what Peter Gowan calls the 'Dollar-Wall Street-Regime' possibly coming to an end. Now you find Italy and France siding with Russia, while Germany - which, while its banks have suffered terribly from the crisis, is not a heavily leveraged society compared to its Anglo-Saxon competitors - bucks the financial 'bail out' plan. What if Bush was right? What if the neoconservative prospectus as of 2001 was not an extremist, adventurist programme but a realistic engagement with a world in which America's ability to control affairs was undergoing long-term decline? What if, while mobilising antique doctrines of empire, it was in practise an emergency management programme for a society that only survived the 2000-1 recession on the basis of a temporary housing bubble, with poor subsequent growth rates? Suppose the protectionism of the last administration was a sensible response to competition that America could no longer withstand. Even Clinton's handling of WTO disputes was thoroughly protectionist, or does no one remember the "banana wars"? And, after all, Obama isn't exactly abjuring protectionist measures, what with his proposed Patriot Employer Act. What if, moreover, the Bush government could do little else but pursue a 'unilateralist' course given the extreme measures forced upon it by the circumstances of obvious decline? The PNACers would probably have had little influence were it not clear that the US was losing some of its dominance, and was destined to lose its financial 'leadership' (to use one of your favourite euphemisms). What if Obama is obliged to do the same, only more forcefully? What if, unable to draw allies alongside him, he has to expand his Afpak war into other zones of Central Asia? Would Bush's rough-riding henchmen have acted any differently? What if, objectively, your stance for the last eight or so years has been objectively anti-American?