Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Some reflections on the present World Scene


11 November 2008

From confrontation to cooperation: a hard road to find and follow

With Barack Obama’s election there is a real chance that the United States will eschew the confrontation of the G.W. Bush years and strive to lead towards an era of international cooperation made possible by the end of the Cold War.

Although, on the great issues, the powers have fundamentally the same interests - resolving the immense worldwide challenges to human society – the potential for conflict in the jockeying for position is very great. World military cooperation is fraught with difficulties. The security of the West can no longer be left to the America. So inaugurating an era of international cooperation will be neither easy nor cheap.

Many politicians and much of the media still resist the reality of the new world scene all countries now face. So some simple points seem worth making: -

A new pragmatism?

With Obama’s claim to be pragmatic there is hope that his administration will displace the two dominant quasi-ideologies of the last decade: laissez-faire capitalism, and the neo-conservative drive for a "unipolar" world - the twin "mind sets" that have played so large a part in the financial and security crises we now face.
Both emerged with the Reagan presidency and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Both are linked as part of a drive to assert American supremacy in the "global village" that emerged in the last decades of the 20th century.

But the American led global financial system has failed, and, post "Iraq", the neo-conservative dream of a "unipolar" world is no longer achievable.

A pragmatic approach, an open mind, is the essential for digging America and much of the world out of the "hole" (Obama’s word) it has dug itself into.

Here international cooperation is key: most countries share an interest in stability in both Iraq and Afghanistan and in an end to international terrorism. Once it is clear that the U.S. has abandoned "unipolarism" there will be scope for international cooperation in ending both wars. That is the pre-requisite.

The financial "meltdown" and "laissez-faire capitalism"

The de-regulation, pushed by the supporters of laissez-faire capitalism in the search for maximising the potential for profitability inherent in financial globalisation, became a quasi-ideological "mind-set" which brushed aside the lessons of the Great Depression and Keynesian economics regarding the trade cycle.

Like the either/or ideologies of Fascism and Communism, its "mind-set" excluded a middle ground – those who criticised were dubbed "socialists", "lefties" or plain "dummies". It was a point of faith that free market economics was self-regulating, faults would correct automatically. A parody of Adam Smith. This ignored the simple point that no game can be played without rules and that there must be a referee to enforce them. Faced with the surge of deregulation from the 1980s many like George Soros pointed out that the "game" of capitalism not only required rules but revised rules and better enforcement given the development of new financial methods such as hedge funds and derivatives. Fortunately, Obama himself has made this point.

To a considerable extent the terms ‘left’ and ‘right’ have already been overtaken. Few now doubt that capitalism is the best way to achieve economic ends, and most now agree that intervention is essential to make and enforce global rules, and to intervene fiscally to smooth recessions.

Directing global resources

But what ends ought the capitalist system be set to achieve? The present financial crisis provides a chance to reflect. So long as the "good times rolled" few wanted to look at the rocks that lay ahead.

 The world not only faces a broken financial system and intractable warfare – it also faces at the same time immense challenges for humanity: climate change; nuclear proliferation; overpopulation; shortages of water, oil, and minerals including uranium and copper; epidemics; genocide; poverty; international terrorism – and more.

Undirected, capitalism will simply go to where the profits lie – irrespective of social and global consequences. Directed, it will produce the sinews of war or the means to go to the moon. But with no decision about the kind of economy, the kind of world, we want, undirected capitalism has resulted in a prodigal age of waste and of unreflecting consumption of non-renewable resources. Yet it is already clear that resources are not adequate for the developing countries to achieve the life-style of the richest. Overpopulation which is responsible for so many of humanity’s problems is all but a taboo subject.

Clearly the era of waste must be ended – to some extent financial rigour will help here. And the prospect of a vast investment - similar to the moon project initiated by President Kennedy – in the search for alternative energy will both stimulate economies and help answer one major problem facing the world.

Capitalism is indeed the tool par excellence for achieving results. But the idea of using capitalism for world ends is a comparatively new concept which requires development and can only be put in effect in an period of international cooperation.

The post "Iraq" world scene and "unipolarism"

"Iraq" and the financial meltdown are, of course linked: going to war on a large tax cut and a minimal war budget, then borrowing to meet the real costs has led to a more than $650 bn deficit to date, a figure similar to the $700bn financial emergency package just voted.

As the invasion of Iraq in 2003 has to such a large extent determined the present world scene so deleterious for western interests, it is fortunate indeed that the next U.S. president is a "Cassandra" - one of those many who (like the writer) warned in vain against the war.

For it is exceedingly difficult for the U.S. and U.K. politicians and the media who supported the war to admit (as Mrs Clinton has done) so basic an error. This widespread 'ostrichery' explains why there is so little understanding of the present world scene and therefore of what the West needs to do to mitigate the damage done during the G.W. Bush years. America has its Cassandra to lead the way forward, but Britain, also scarred by "Iraq" does not. And Europe has no leader yet.

The collapse of the unipolar policy

Far too few appreciate that the invasion of Iraq was intended as the key move to establish a "unipolar" world. Far from being a diversion from the "War on Terror", the aim was to trump al Qaeda in its Arab heartland and, starting with Iraq, create a "New Middle East" a l’Americaine – far more appealing than the puritanical Wahabist Islam offered to the Umma by bin Laden. And beyond this, with bases in Iraq and dominance of the Middle East and its oil, the U.S., with shock and awe, would have demonstrated to the world its ability to go anywhere, pay any price to ensure its interests world wide. The neo-conservatives’ New American Century would have arrived.

But – as we Cassandras warned would happen – this vision fell apart because the US could not "make its own reality" (as one Bush spokesman claimed). So the vision vanished when up against the fissiparous reality of Iraq and the old realities of the real Middle East - such as the running sore of Israel/Palestine, the chief recruiting sergeant for al Qaeda.

So, paradoxically, "Iraq", which was to have ensured that New American Century, has in fact made it impossible. The limits of American financial and military power have been revealed. Instead, again as many warned, America faces not one more "Vietnam", but two more such dilemmas,.whether to stay and how to leave: one is Iraq, the other is Afghanistan. And the other NATO members see themselves being asked to pull America’s chestnuts out of the fire after Bush downgraded Afghanistan to pursue the mirage of Iraq and the "good" war was lost.

As already suggested, only international cooperation offers a solution to these twin "Vietnams". Not only Europe, but China and Russia will need to be brought into a complex equation which includes Iran, Pakistan, Israel, Turkey and the Arab countries. A grouping which recalls the Congress of Vienna which re-shaped Europe after the French Revolutionary Wars.

Europe – the empty chair

In half a century the movement for European unity has failed to establish a unified European foreign policy even for major international concerns. Nascent moves to do so were again set back by the invasion of Iraq which split Europe and NATO. This split, caused by the U.K.’s decision to join the U.S. in attacking Iraq, continues with the UK and some peripheral countries notably in Eastern Europe on one side, and the Franco-German heart of the Union on the other. This split has been exacerbated by the enlargement of the Union to 27 member states. For among new members, so recently beyond the Iron Curtain, fear of Russia overcomes the original members’ desire for reconciliation and cooperation with Russia (essential, as Obama has remarked, for any era of international cooperation). The eventual aim being bringing Russia back into a wider European fold.

Had Europe been united in opposing the Iraq war that common decision could have expanded in other directions, perhaps to form the basis for an influential European voice in the world. The present world crisis offers another opportunity to forge a European foreign policy consensus despite the disagreements about the eventual form of the European Union.

An effort by an Obama administration to recover U.S leadership by leading towards international cooperation will need European support – the support of a Europe with the weight that comes from unity. Given the pervasive belief in American "exceptionalism" as justifying American unilateralism, it will be difficult for the new president to shift the points from the confrontation track to the cooperation track. Europe could do much to encourage and assist this changeover.

Europe cannot afford to continue as an observer, protesting occasionally as it is drawn along by American policies. As the world’s largest and wealthiest trading block, Europe has its own interests which need to be advanced in any move towards international cooperation. And it has the potential to set or help set the international agenda and to push decisively for greater cooperation.

Europe has suffered from gravely mistaken American policies during the G W Bush presidency. Both American presidential democracy and British parliamentary democracy failed at the same time by authorising the Iraq war. A strong European presence could do much in support of those promoting wiser American policies. Not to develop a foreign policy in competition with America as some Europeans demand, but to work together to form common policies while respecting each other’s interests where they diverge.

The dangers of conflict: the obstacles to international cooperation

There was the neo-conservative argument that only "unipolarism" could prevent the"endless wars" the Pentagon foresaw as the "war on terror" ground on while world resources diminished and climate change took its toll. For American supremacy would have decided contentions and prevented armed conflicts. But "unipolarism" is dead and, with it, its uncertain benefits.

With the waning of American power Europe will need to contribute much more to Western security and the "policing" of the world, however much other powers such as Russia and China can be persuaded to join this task. NATO with its origin in the Cold War, its anti-Russian posture, and Western exclusivity, is not the vehicle for promoting far wider peace-preserving cooperation.

The longer term question now is – can cooperation be developed to a point where international measures suffice to prevent armed conflict in an era of enhanced struggle for resources?

To ask the question is to underline the immense challenges that will be faced in an era of cooperation that is nevertheless the last best hope for mankind.
[ends, 1,900 wds

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