Sequel to globalisation United States: the slide to disorder by Philip S Golub*
The unilateralism of the United States – economic, commercial and military – is at odds with the multilateral reality of today’s world. US politics of military supremacy contradicts its sacred principle of free markets. Will this be a turning point of history, like the one that marked the end of the first phase of capitalist globalisation, which lasted from 1880 to 1914?
LATE 20th-century globalisation, understood as the unification of the world economy under a neoliberal model, appears exhausted. The symptoms are manifold: imperialist wars, rising nationalism, aggravated trade conflicts within and without the capitalist core, global social turbulence. Underlying all these are deep structural imbalances in the world economy and a universal widening of social inequalities within and between nations (1).
These disintegrative trends are weakening, and may end up tearing apart, the schemes of interstate cooperation and the regimes of global governance that underpin the world capitalist order. They highlight the contradiction between the transnational character of capitalist expansion and the segmentation of the modern interstate system along national lines.
That contradiction proved fatal to the first wave of globalisation brought about by western colonial expansion in the late 19th century, when nationalism and militarism combined to wreck the British-centred international economic order and shatter the long post-1815 European peace. The rise of a strong militarised German state, and intensified inter-imperialist rivalries, challenged and ultimately overcame the ability of Britain to hold the centre. Economic liberalism and free trade, the dominant models of the mid-19th century, weakened from the 1880s on, came crashing down when Wilhelmian Germany made a direct bid for European hegemony in 1914. The first phase of western globalisation under British auspices ended in a sea of blood.
In his famous account of the collapse of liberalism, the subsequent rise of fascism and the outbreak of another world war, Karl Polanyi (2) suggested that transnational capitalist cooperation, embodied by pan-European networks of high finance whose functional role was to avert general wars, had ultimately succumbed to national power politics: “Power had precedence over profit. However closely their realms interpenetrated, ultimately it was war that laid down the law to business.” Despite the high degree of European economic integration in the latter part of the 19th century, the webs of capitalist interdependence were swept away in the rising nationalist wave.
That wave, generated by the ravages of the self-adjusting market, culminated in fascism. As a general phenomenon, fascism, which crushed liberalism and socialism, was a deadly pathological “solution to the impasse reached by liberal capitalism . . . a reform of market economy achieved at the price of the extirpation of all democratic institutions”, according to Polanyi (3). Society, he wrote, “took measures to protect itself” from the “self-adjusting market . . . an institution that could not exist for any length of time without annihilating the human and natural substance of society”. It did so by opting for strong militarised states that unified society behind and beneath the state.
Though history is not an eternal return of the same, Polanyi’s hypothesis is a useful frame for reading the impasses of our times. Powerful disintegrative forces have been unleashed, threatening the edifice of the contemporary liberal order. At the level of society, intensified social resistance is reflected in the emergence of a global democratic movement of social transformation – but also in authoritarian rightwing populism. At the level of state power, the most telling reaction, which has accelerated disintegration, has been the spectacular revival of nationalism in China, Russia, Japan, Europe (4) and elsewhere. In the United States, the core state of the global capitalist system, nationalism has taken a particularly exacerbated form: imperialism.
This renationalisation of world politics marks the end of the liberal, post-cold war, interlude. During the late 1980s and the 1990s it was widely assumed that the emergence of a global village (the compression of time and space due to the information revolution), the transnationalisation of capital and the creation of global horizontal production networks were redistributing power from public to private actors, leading to a “withering away of the modern territorial state as the primary locus of world power” (5).
Liberal democratic theorists argued that we had entered a postmodern period in which the nation state was being challenged from below by newly empowered networks of civil society, and from above by autonomous globalised markets. Insofar as the interdependence generated by global markets and transnational actors constrained the belligerent impulses of the modern nation state, this implied that soft power was supplanting hard power as the dominant grammar of world politics. The spectrum of liberal democratic opinion ranged from institutionalists, who advocated and foresaw reinforced interstate cooperation, to commercial pacifists, who envisaged a long democratic peace based on deepening economic interdependence and convergence.
From a social democratic perspective, Jürgen Habermas advanced the argument that “a favourable constellation of forces” was emerging that might finally realise the Aufklärung [Enlightenment] project of a Kantian peace that was based on a “cosmopolitical conception of law” transcending international law (6).
Further to the left, neo-Marxist theorists, analysing the transnationalisation of capital, the reconfiguration of the state and new forms of global governance, questioned whether imperialism was still a useful category of analysis. Drawing on Karl Kautsky’s 1914 thesis on ultra-imperialism, which postulated that inter-imperialist rivalries driven by the monopolistic drives of the nation state and national cartels could be transcended through capitalist cooperation, a number of intellectuals argued in the 1990s that late capitalism had ushered in a post-imperialist age (7). The evidence for this was the formation of a transnational capitalist class with global interests and a common awareness of those interests as transcending territorially bound national agendas (8). Classical imperialism, or the drive for monopoly of competing expansionist nation states, was not sustainable in an interdependent globalised capitalist system governed by supra-state institutions reflecting the common interests of the new class.
At the end of the 1990s Tony Negri and Michael Hardt gave global currency to a slightly modified version of this hypothesis by making the meta-historical claim in Empire (9) that contemporary empire is not “a weak echo of modern imperialisms but a fundamentally new form of rule”. Empire, in their view, had cut its umbilical cord to the nation state and was no longer territorially bound: with no political centre, the new global imperium was the expression of the geometric set of relations of power and domination generated by globalised markets at all levels of social life. In contrast to the vertical and concentrated systems of domination of past European empires, power in the new globalised configuration is diffuse, de-concentrated and horizontal. This, in turn, is leading to new transnational forms of resistance by decentralised networks (which Negri calls “the mulitudes”). Empire so defined becomes a global realm without limits and without name.
In different ways these perspectives all suggested an epochal shift away from the power maximisation strategies of the modern nation-state, to a postmodern, post-national condition of globality. However, just as these concepts were being formulated, corrosive forces were secretly at work on the fragile foundations of the liberal capitalist world order. These are now clearly apparent.
Disruption from the US
The primary disruptive force has come from the US, which, under President George Bush, has been striving for global monopoly. This is ironic – the US was the driver and the main beneficiary of the global free market and capitalist integration in the 1990s. Indeed, globalisation enhanced US autonomy, the “increasing mobility of information, finance and goods and services frees the American government of constraints while putting everyone else under tighter constraints” (10).
However, the recent assertion of a “robust nationalism”, as Samuel Huntington approvingly calls the new US ethos, has fundamentally altered the grammar and trajectory of world politics: liberal globalisation and interdependence have been superseded by naked imperial power politics. Just as the late 19th-century expansion of the free market was centred in London, underpinned by a political order and held together by transnational networks with a vested interest in peace in Europe (11), the pursuit of 20th-century globalisation requires the continued commitment of the US to a system of institutionalised interstate cooperation and liberal regimes of global governance.
Yet unlike Britain, which lost control, the US has chosen to wreck the global system. As Stanley Hoffmann puts it: “The US may want to return to pre-1914 conditions . . . or else, the US, seeing itself as the guardian of world order, would leave restraints on other states standing, and reserve to itself the right to select those restraints of international law and institutions that serve its interests and to reject all the others.” The dramatic implication in both cases is that the US is deconstructing the frameworks of multilateral cooperation that were designed after 1945 to introduce “some order and moderation into the jungle of traditional international conflicts” (12).
This choice reflects the preferences and interests of the national imperialist bloc of forces that crystallised on the right during the late cold war and came to power in 2000. This national bloc, as the Gramscian international relations scholar Stephen Gill suggests, is historically “associated with the security complex, declining protectionist industries, and geopolitical thinkers of the realist per-suasion” (13). It differentiates itself from the more cosmopolitan transnationalised forces within US society, notably “corporate interests which are more global [who] need continued access to the markets and capital of other countries [and whose] identity of interests with the territorial US is less clear cut”. The latter, like their 19th-century counterparts, are capitalists of the high seas (in the words of Fernand Braudel), whose interests, indeed whose existence, depends on webs of transnational cooperation.
While the Clinton administration’s composition and policies reflected, at least in part, the interests of this thin but influential cosmopolitan class, the contemporary right-wing power elite is centred in the military-industrial complex, which is the least autonomous and most nationalist part of the US political economy. The least autonomous because it is fused in the state and the most nationalist because it seeks by nature to maximise national power. These elite formations both call upon broad social bases: as the geographic dispersion of the 2004 elections neatly showed, the social base of the liberal internationalists is concentrated in densely populated, internationalised coastal urban areas, while the primary popular base of nationalism and militarism is found in rural areas, among the white lower, and lower middle, classes in the heartland.
This sociological distinction is reflected in differences of outlook and policy. The Clinton team attempted to shift the institutional balance of government towards the Treasury Department and focused primarily on promoting the comparative advantages of the most internationalised parts of the US economy in the newly globalised market. In stark contrast, the Bush administration has been exclusively committed from the start to enhancing US hard power and mobilising the US armed forces to establish a disciplinary world order under monopolistic control. Condoleezza Rice made clear before the 2000 elections that the bloc of forces behind Bush intended to free itself from “an illusory international community” and overturn the liberal paradigm by shifting US policy from the hesitant internationalism of the 1990s to nationalism, power politics and war (14).
There were three major steps in the formation of the national imperialist bloc. The first was the partially successful effort by radical cold warriors to undermine East-West détente in the mid-1970s (15). This effort was kept in check by the need to maintain cold war international alliances. Any attempt to assert unilateral advantage would have threatened western unity, already shaken by the Vietnam war. The second was the conservative revol-ution and the renewed attempt to assert primacy through military mobilisation, foreign policy and trade unilateralism, under Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. The third was the fusion, during the 1990s, of neo-conservatism and Bible-belt militarism, expressed in the new right’s takeover in Congress in 1994.
US Congress campaign
This led to the campaign by Congress to dismantle the UN and expand US autonomy at the expense of all other states. We should recall that, during the 1990s, Congress, often supported by the Pentagon, refused to pay UN dues, imposed unilateral economic sanctions against 35 UN member states, passed extraterritorial legislation infringing international law, and refused to ratify crucial international conventions and arms control treaties (notably the Ottawa convention banning the production, trade and use of anti-personnel land mines of 1997 and the comprehensive test ban treaty.) Though it ratified the chemical weapons convention in 1997, Congress inserted exemptions that effectively undermined the convention. Then, in early 2001, the Bush administration repudiated the Kyoto protocol, signed by Clinton, rejected a draft UN programme of action to control the trade in small arms and light weapons, blocked efforts to add a verification protocol to the biological weapons convention and simply dumped the ABM treaty.
The campaign culminated in 2003 with the war in Iraq. Today, despite the patent failure of that imperial venture – a “catastrophic success” in Bush’s own words – and an unprecedented crisis of legitimacy, the administration is continuing down the monopolistic path. This is manifest in a number of areas (16), but is most notable in the deepening US quest for absolute and endless military supremacy. The two most salient features of the effort are the administration’s commitment to develop miniaturised nuclear weapons and the soon to be announced Global Strike space strategy, whose objective is to “establish and maintain space superiority” by obtaining the ability “to destroy command centres or missile bases anywhere in the world” from space.
Both efforts are directly continuous with the doctrine of perpetual strategic supremacy outlined in the White House’s National Security Strategy (2002) and Rice’s earlier advocacy of a reconfiguration of the US armed forces to “meet decisively the emergence of any hostile military power . . . and to deal decisively with rogue regimes and the threat of hostile powers”. Both threaten global stability, the first by stimulating nuclear proliferation, and the second by initiating a new arms race in space. In the administration’s apparent calculus, China and Russia, now seen (after a brief cooperative interlude related to the global war on terror) as future regional and global rivals will have to choose either to follow and divert scarce resources from the domestic economy to military expenditures, or consent to potential US strategic supremacy.
Seeking monopoly is of course the polar opposite of interdependence. Since the US is the systemic centre of the global capitalist system, the shift to militarism is having global effects, some obvious, some insidious. The disruptive effects are spilling over into the world economy. Structural imbalances in the international economic system are translating into protectionist outcomes, economic competition taking the classical form of increasingly bitter currency and trade wars between rival countries and blocs.
But monopoly in a plural world is an illusory quest. While the US is the leading state in the international system, it is ensnared in webs of dependence of its own making: US patterns of consumption and living standards, while helping to maintain Asian economic activity, require the absorption of ever larger volumes of world savings, currently 80%. Over time this will prove unsustainable.
The formal and informal transnational webs of capitalist cooperation and the supra-state regulatory institutions of globalised capitalism constructed or reinforced during the 1980s and 1990s are proving unable to hold the system together. Since there is no transnational political authority to halt or reverse the disintegrative trend, we are sliding towards disorder.
* Philip S Golub is a lecturer in international relations at the University of Paris VIII and the Institut d’études politiques, Paris
(1) With the sole exception of east Asia, whose economic rise is due to historic circumstances unrelated to globalisation, the North-South divide has widened. See the UNDP annual report 1999. The differential between richest and poorest countries rose from 30 to 1 in 1960 to 74 to 1 in 1997.
(2) Karl Polany, The Great Transformation, Beacon Press, Boston, 1957.
(3) In The Anatomy of Fascism, Alfred Knopf, New York, 2004, Robert Paxton suggests that fascism was not “anti-modern” but the expression of an “alternate modernity”: “a technically advanced society in which modernity’s strains and visions had been smothered by fascism’s powers of integration and control”.
(4) In the form of large, rightwing xenophobic movements and parties and governments, such as Silvio Berlusconi’s in Italy, which fortunately confirms Marx’s adage that history repeats itself first as tragedy, then as farce.
(5) Giovanni Arrighi, The Long Twentieth Century, Verso, 1994.
(6) Jürgen Habermas, La paix perpétuelle, le bicentenaire d’une idée kantienne, Les editions du Cerf, Paris, 1996.
(7)See Carl Parrini’s article, “The age of ultra-imperialism” in “Imperialism: a useful category of historical analysis?”, Radical History Review no 57, Duke University Press, 1993.
(8) Kees Van Der Pijl, Transnational Classes and International Relations, Routledge, London 1999.
(9) Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire, Exils Editeur, Paris, 2000.
(10) Robert Wade, “The American empire and its limits”, Destin Working Papers, no 02-22, London School of Economics, 2002. Philip S Golub and Noëlle Burgi, “The states we are still in”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, April 2000.
(11) Liberalism and peace were confined to Europe. European expansion in the rest of the world was coercive, achieved through colonial conquest.
(12) Stanley Hoffman, “American goes backward”, New York Review of Books, 12 June 2003.
(13) Stephen Gill, American Hegemony and the Trilateral Commission, Cambridge Studies, CUP, 1990.
(14) Condoleezza Rice, “Promoting the national interest”, Foreign Affairs, vol 79, no 1, January/February 2000.
(15) Philip S Golub, “United States: inventing demons”, Le Monde diplomatique, English language edition, March 2003.
(16) The US appears to be engaged in clandestine operations in Iran and Syria to obtain regime change. See Seymour Hersh, “The coming wars”, New Yorker, 24 January 2005.
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