by Zafar Bangash (Main Stories, Crescent International Vol. 39, No. 11, Muharram, 1432)
The global political scene is not only changing, it has changed quite dramatically over the last decade or so. The pompous notion of a unipolar world in which the self-proclaimed “sole superpower” maintains perpetual full-spectrum dominance a la Project for the New American Century (PNAC) is no longer tenable.
The global political scene is not only changing, it has changed quite dramatically over the last decade or so. The pompous notion of a unipolar world in which the self-proclaimed “sole superpower” maintains perpetual full-spectrum dominance a la Project for the New American Century (PNAC) is no longer tenable. Even Thomas Friedman, a tireless drumbeater for American exceptionalism, has conceded that the US has been reduced to “The Frugal Superpower” (New York Times, September 4, 2010). Friedman’s reluctance to admit that the US is no longer a superpower at all reflects the lingering residue of imperial hubris.
Let us compare this state of affairs with that of another has-been superpower. Despite its decline to the status of virtually a third world country, Britain still officially refers to itself as “Great “ Britain. Old habits truly die hard; a tiny minority in British society is doing exceedingly well but for the vast majority life has become a hard slog. In America’s case, Friedman has been proclaiming its greatness from every soapbox, so it is difficult for him to kick the habit so easily but even he does not deny the stark reality facing the US.
“American pacifists need not worry any more about ‘wars of choice’,” wrote Friedman in the Times. He does not formulate US policy but as a consummate Washington insider, he is privy to the thinking of Pentagon warmongers not to mention the fact that he realizes what the ground realities are. Continuing about wars of choice, Friedman wrote: “We’re not doing that again. We can’t afford to invade Grenada today,” referring to the US invasion of the tiny Caribbean island of Grenada in October 1983 when thousands of marines landed to “save” all 110,000 Grenadians sunbathing on the beaches from “a communist takeover”, in the infamous words of then US President Ronald Reagan. The US will not be invading any other country in a hurry either. This is not to suggest it has given up on mischief making.
In his seminal work, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987), historian Paul Kennedy talks about imperial overreach and presents a strong correlation bet-ween economic strength based on productivity, and military power. It may appear obvious in the context of big powers but economic well-being does not automatically translate into military power. Saudi Arabia and Kuwait stand out as ready examples. Despite their enormous wealth, neither country is able to defend itself from even relatively minor neighbours. Kennedy quotes former US President Richard Nixon who in July 1971 identified five centers of power: Western Europe (today’s European Union), Japan, China, the Soviet Union and the US. Nixon said: “These are the five that will determine the economic future and because economic power will be the key to other kinds of power, the future of the world in other ways in the last third of this century [italics in the original].”
Economic strength is of course an important factor in turning a country into a military power and then projecting it. Paupers hardly threaten the world unless it is to get some food but their concerns do not go much further. It is the rich, motivated by greed that want to become richer at the expense of others. Among great powers, rivalry has always been predicated on who can muster more guns, ships and planes to outstrip competitors.
Britain’s role as a great power ended in the mid-20th century; its place was taken up by two new powers: the Soviet Union and the US. Their rivalry was dubbed the “Cold War” because they did not engage in shooting wars against each other; that was reserved for their puppets euphemistically called allies. By the late 1980s, the Soviets had been bankrupted by two related developments: an expensive arms race with the US and their ill-conceived invasion of Afghanistan. Ten years after invading Afghanistan, the Soviets were forced to retreat in disgrace but there was no Soviet Union left to return to.
Since then, the world has undergone numerous changes. Far from learning from the Soviet experience, the Americans assumed their superior weapons had enabled the Afghans to defeat the Red Army. Imperial hubris rather than thoughtful reflection consumed American thinking. They repeated the same mistakes their erstwhile rival, the Soviet Union, had made. As the late Charles De Gaulle once said, Americans are capable of doing the most stupid things imaginable, and even those that are completely unimaginable.
For a decade (1991–2001), the US appeared unmatched. It could arguably be called the American decade. Then they blundered into Afghanistan and soon thereafter into Iraq in fulfillment of the neocons’ death wish for multiple wars waged simultaneously, and for full-spectrum dominance. Nearly a decade later, the US is still stuck in the Hindu Kush mountains, its arrogance proving the biggest obstacle to admitting to its blunder and to quitting to cut its losses.
To return to Nixon’s pronouncement, Western Europe has made major strides economically while skillfully passing its military costs to the US. In recent months, Europe’s economic well-being has also received major blows like the rest of the capitalist West. Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain, appropriately abbreviated to PIGS, are facing economic meltdown and some European states, primarily Germany that ranks first among equals, has had to foot the bill for their bailout. The euro, the European Union’s single currency, is in free fall against the US dollar while the greenback itself is being shunned internationally. It is seen as toxic since America is no longer a productive power.
With the demise of the Soviet Union, the Warsaw Pact, its military alliance with client states, also disintegrated. Thus there are no more Russian or East European tanks poised to roll into Western Europe thereby making NATO, the Western world’s equivalent military alliance, redundant. Led by the US, NATO member-states are trying to invent a new role for it hence the desperate attempt to make it relevant by sending NATO troops into Afghanistan and Iraq and threatening neighboring countries as well. China meanwhile has outpaced Japan and has become an underwriter of the US economy.
The cumulative effect of several factors is what led to the 2008 Great Recession in the US. Some economists, including American ones, insist, the US is gripped by depression. For decades American corporations outsourced work to countries where wages were low — Mexico, India, Indonesia, Thailand, and even China. In WalMart, the American retail giant, one can hardly find a US manufactured product. The outsourcing tsunami destroyed America’s manufacturing base. Plant closures followed with millions losing jobs. The US may have weathered these dislocations but for the two disastrous wars into which the neocons pushed the country. The total direct cost of these wars has topped $2 trillion and with related costs — payments to permanently crippled soldiers and death benefits — these would easily surpass the $4 trillion mark, according to two leading US economists: Joseph Stiglitz and Linda Bilmas. Today, the US external debt stands at $14 trillion. Add to that the internal debt of $38 trillion and Washington is well on its way becoming a bankrupt state.
America’s annual earnings can only cover the cost of medicare, defence and interest on its burgeoning debt that adds $443 billion annually. With unemployment at 9.8% (it rose last month from 9.6% and in some critical age groups, such as the African-American population between the age of 15–24, it is as high as 30%), the housing bubble collapse, the list of homeless increasing daily and 44 million people living below the poverty line, America is fast joining the rank of third world countries. In fact, some parts of the US already look like the third world. One need not go to South Africa to find fast moving highways and exclusive gated communities surrounded by rundown African townships; they exist right in the heart of America in almost all major cities. Detroit may be the most extreme case but third world conditions are just as widespread only a few miles outside the White House and Capitol Hill in Washington, DC.
In the past, America bombed its way out of recessions. That was true of the Second World War, the Vietnam War and in more recent times, the Iraq War of 1991. Yet war is no longer a profitable business for the US. On November 8, 2002, Richard Perle, a leading neocon and chairman of US Defence Policy Group, had presented a rosy picture of the soon to be launched war against Iraq in March 2003. Perle predicted that the war would not cost more than $60 billion and in any case, most of the costs would be offset by Iraq’s oil revenues that Perle admitted the US would grab. Eight years and millions of Iraqi deaths later, the US is bankrupt.
So what went wrong? Professor Stephen Walt, a thoughtful American academic and someone not part of the neocon cabal, had this to say: “A big part of the problem, however, is that the United States has chosen to do a few things that are very difficult, and where failure is to be expected. Like nation-building in Iraq and Afghanistan. Trying to occupy and govern foreign societies that are rife with internal divisions, where there is a well-founded hatred of foreign intruders, wouldn’t be easy for anyone. Indeed, trying to create a political system there based on our historical experience rather than theirs has got to be one of the more ambitious — if not utterly misguided — objectives that Washington could have picked” (The virtues of competence, September 22, 2010).
But even Walt is unable to see through the fog. He goes on: “The solution is not to retreat into isolationism and cede the initiative to others. Rather, the solution is to remind ourselves what American power is good for, and avoid taking on tasks for which it is ill-suited. The United States is very good at deterring large-scale aggression, and thus good at ensuring stability in key regions. [That assumes, of course, that we aren’t using that same power to destabilize certain regions on purpose]. We are sometimes good at brokering peace deals — as in Northern Ireland and the Balkans — when we use our power judiciously and fairly.”
But presumably such power will not be used in Palestine, because the Zionists will brook no interference from the US or anyone else. President Barack Obama has just discovered this. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced on December 10 that the US would no longer be involved in a peace settlement in Palestine, notwithstanding Obama’s bold but quite hypocritical pronouncement in Cairo on June 4, 2009 that he would work for a just and lasting peace in Palestine. He repeated the same mantra from the podium at the United Nations on September 23, 2010. How quickly the Zionists were able to slap him back into reality should be a sober lesson for any American politician trying his hand at peace in the Middle East.
A US-imposed peace in Palestine would actually have been detrimental to the interests of the Palestinians. Peace will be achieved only when there is justice for the Palestinians. For that to happen, a much harder struggle will have to be waged. Given America’s weakened position, the struggle has better chances of success.
The US-led unipolar world is dead. While multiple competing centers of power have emerged, whether any will replace the US has yet to be seen. An important factor in this emerging world order will be the role played by such key Muslim players as Islamic Iran, Turkey, Pakistan and movements like Hizbullah and Hamas.