Monday, March 10, 2003

The Decline of Globalism

In his press conference last week, President Bush made clear the principle by which he is pursuing military action in Iraq: his sworn duty to protect the Constitution of the United States. When the Founders wrote that clause into the duties of the President, they were of course not referring to the protection of a piece of paper, but to the protection and preservation of a regime that is the political embodiment of the Constitution. President Bush sees terrorism as the primary threat to the United States, and regime-change in Iraq as an essential battle in the war against terror, in other words, as an essential step in fulfilling his duty to protect the United States.

President Bush’s constitutional argument seemed somewhat at odds with his repeated use of "the world" in describing who must stand up against Saddam and terror in general. Unlike the President of the United States, "the world" is not under the compulsion of law and honor to protect any particular regime or its collective self. If the war against terror is going to be fought with determination and vigor, it will happen because one country will take the lead in risking its blood and treasure -- as well as the blood of others -- to protect its interests.

A "community" of nations not bound by common interests is no community; an international order bound only by parliamentarian procedure is no order, at least not an order capable of defending itself against the ambitions of an explicitly bellicose dictator whose Reich presented a clear and present danger. Despite the failure of the League of Nations, The United Nations was formed in the aftermath of the bloodiest conflict in human history in the hopes that the horrors of WWII had finally demonstrated that the nations of the world are in fact bound by a common interest – the preservation of peace.

The bipolar structure of the post-war world preserved the illusion that international conflict could be mediated without a sovereign. The reality is that there were two sovereigns during the Cold War, and both for a time saw their respective interests best fostered in a begrudged coexistence. The sheer power of the two rivals forced other countries into this alignment, and for better or worse a strong international structure remained in place for the duration of the Cold War.

With the end of Soviet communism, and the bipolar world order it had helped to support, came a surge of international economic growth the likes of which the world hadn’t seen since its reemergence from the destruction of WWII. The conventional economic wisdom held that as formerly communist states abandoned their inefficient trade practices and corrupt regulatory regimes, great new global efficiencies would open up, enabling a period of global economic growth that would last for decades. Further efficiencies would be spurred by improvements in telecommunications and information technology. International borders would become less relevant not only economically and culturally as increased trade and communication brought the world closer together, but politically as well – everyone knew that democracies do not enter war against each other. In 1989 a U.S. State Department policy analyst wrote an article in a respected international affairs journal speculating that history was over. Even critics of the thesis took it seriously. In the 1990s people had begun to think that maybe not only the business cycle had been conquered, but that after a few remaining rogue regimes were swept up in the inevitable tide of liberalization, the world might be entering into a period of perpetual peace.

Many conservatives, realists, and other naturally pessimistic types had their doubts, but how many would have thought the prosperity and relative peace of the nineties was as fragile as it now appears to have been?

We may be witnessing the dissolving of what only recently seemed like unbreakable political ties as the U.S. makes its case for war against Saddam Hussein in the United Nations Security Council. France is putting its own ambition for influence in the Middle East above its traditional friendship with the U.S., Germany resists American influence in a desperate attempt to salvage its former role of leader of continental Europe, and Mexico may vote against the U.S. in retaliation for not opening its southern border. And what is perhaps most shocking about this is that it is not happening in the absence of a common threat. There is no question that the West has enemies dedicated to its destruction. These enemies are not powerful in the traditional sense, but no one doubts their maliciousness or ability to inflict grievous harm.

If the Security Council votes down a resolution that gives the U.S. a green light in Iraq, or if such a resolution is vetoed by a Permanent Member (unlikely -- French politicians are not made of such hardy stuff), the irrelevance of that institution would become undeniable. This would mean the end of the world order as it is currently constituted. The community of nations will split into several communities formed on the basis of truly shared interests, rather than a commitment to international parliamentarianism. Large-scale international cooperation will continue -- no one but the terrorists would benefit from international anarchy -- but it will be narrower in scope. International consensus will not be sought, at least not with the kind urgency it typically has been, by individual nations pursuing their interests, and that could make for some uncomfortable tensions in the near future among countries that now think of themselves, if only formally, as allies.

But what of the global economic glue that was to hold the nations of the world together in the common pursuit of prosperity? The main engines of the global economy are the U.S., Europe, and East Asia. Last month the U.S. economy lost approximately 300,000 jobs. The population of the U.S. is about 250 million, and the American labor force is roughly half that, or 125 million. 300,000 jobs represents more than 2/10ths of a percent of U.S. employment. In other words, more than one out of every 500 Americans lost their job -- last month! Things are no better in Asia -- Asia will go as Japan goes, and Japan isn’t going anywhere. As for Europe, Germany and France are the largest economies on the continent. Need we say more about Europe?

With the global economy resting on foundations like these, international cooperation in the pursuit of prosperity does not seem likely in the near term. One could argue that the efficiencies of free trade and global integration will be even more important in leaner times, but these efficiencies inevitably depend on (at least) two things: the availability of capital and markets with an appetite for consumption, and right now one does not have to be a Malthusian pessimist to think that both may be in relatively short supply for at least a while. And that is without taking into consideration the probable economic effects of another catastrophic terrorist attack. One more 9/11 in the United States might well result in borders tight enough to substantially reduce the American trade deficit, at least in absolute terms. That would mean economic pain for countries that export into the U.S. and economic pain within the U.S. as these countries sell U.S. Treasuries to make up for the reduced inflow of U.S. dollars, driving up interest rates and making new investment economically unfeasible.

By questioning the durability of globalism in the post-9/11 world I am not ceding victory to the terrorists. My point is that the fin de siécle world order rested on questionable grounds to begin with, and that the emerging state of international affairs may force a return to a more traditional understanding of what a nation is and how it perceives and pursues its interests in the world at large.

This thesis will be fleshed out and clarified in subsequent related essays that will be posted as time permits.


Post a Comment

<< Home