Friday, May 30, 2014

The Emerging New World

In the 1990s, an historian turned political scientist named Marc Trachtenberg remarked that we were going to miss the Cold War.  He could not have foreseen the events of the last 25 years in any detail, but boadly speaking, he was right.

The Cold War from 1947 to 1989 was, I would suggest, the climax of the development of western civilization since at least the 18th century.  Spurred by population growth, economic growth, technological progress and the Enlightenment, states had developed unprecedented power.  They clashed during the two world wars, and two offshoots of the Enlightenment emerged victorious.  One was the liberal capitalist vision of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal, the other the totalitarian Communism of Stalin's Russia.  During the years after 1947 most (but not all) of the world adopted some form of one or the other of the two philosophies, one of which, it was believed on both sides, would eventually triumph.  The competition between the two sides was political as well as economic and military, and the US, in particular, gave critical help to the nations of western Europe and the Far East to allow them to progress along lines similar to the United States.

The Cold War included many frightening moments, including 1950,. when the West saw the Korean War as the prelude to an attack upon Western Europe; the Taiwan Straits crises of 1954 and 1958, when the US was prepared to use nuclear weapons to stop a Chinese invasion of Taiwan; the prolonged Berlin crisis of 1958-61; the Cuban missile crisis of 1962; and even, we now know, the Abel-Archer NATO exercise early in the Reagan years, which the Russians interpreted as preparation for war.  But because both Washington and Moscow disposed of enormous resources, and because they both worked to strengthen the states within their spheres of influence, the world was relatively stable, both internationally and within individual states.  The civil wars that took place during the Cold War era were proxy wars in which the two sides drew support from the two superpowers.

When Communism collapsed in 1989, many American policy makers and some intellectuals interpreted this to mean the triumph of liberal capitalist values and expected the world to make steady progress along the lines of American values.  Among the neoconservatives who essentially ran foreign policy during the second Bush Administration, this meant that the the United States could safely dispose of regimes that stood in its way, confident that friendly, liberal allies would replace them. One dissenting view came from Samuel Huntington, whose book, The Clash of Civilizations, predicted a series of conflicts between regions based on different political and cultural values.  He was half right--that is one feature of the world situation that is now emerging, but only one.

Today, as I write, Russia has fomented an uprising in eastern Ukraine which the Ukrainian government does not seem strong enough to put down.  (In an interesting development, a mining magnate has called out his workers against the separatists in one major Ukrainian city, and the separatists have had to back down.)  Vladimir Putin has specifically rejected the American model of "unipolarity" and is trying to expand Russian influence the former USSR, and use his oil and gas resources to build a new Asian bloc, including China, which will reject western attitudes towards intervention in other states.  Europe will have to draw a new boundary between itself and the Russian sphere of influence, giving up the dream that its own sphere would naturally keep extending eastward.  (It is not clear to me whether Eastern Europe, which lags far behind western Europe economically, will live comfortably within the EU.  I hope so.)  In the Far East, China and Vietnam are close to another armed clash (they last fought only 35 years ago) over Chinese pretensions in the South China Sea.  Japanese-Chinese tensions are rising  The Middle East is the scene of a prolonged religious war.  (I intend to comment at greater length some time on this excellent New Yorker article by Dexter Filkins, which shows that we have replaced Saddam Hussein with a pro-Iranian Shi'ite dictatorship, led by former terrorists, which, like Saddam, arrests, detains, tortures and rapes suspicious citizens.)  Nigeria, the largest nation in Africa, is torn by terrorism and religious conflict.  Even the United States itself is really two nations with very different values.  Red and blue states continue to deepen, not moderate, their colors.

And over all this hangs the ever-growing power of capital, of powerful economic institutions led by banks and energy companies, who everywhere now tend to hold sway over their governments.  For the last month I have been discussing the economic effects of this situation, drawing on Thomas Piketty's new book.  And while the western nations, such as the United States, have state organizations that dispose of more money than ever, most of that money now goes towards education, health care, and pensions.  Those are worthy causes, but in a world in which third world populations continue to grow relative to the rest, they do not leave sufficient resources to intervene effectively in any of the conflicts taking place around the world.  The American adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have shown, in my opinion, that even the strongest modern state lacks the manpower and political resources to impose order upon a conflict-ridden third world nation of tens of millions of people.   One reason the American political order is in so much trouble is that we have wasted trillions of dollars on essentially futile enterprises, enterprises which did not increase confidence in the government.

John Kerry spoke at his Yale commencement in 1966 about an excess of interventionism.  The other day he spoke of an excess of isolationism.   It is true that the younger generations (which now means anyone under 53) are not showing their elders' appetite for American world power.  But more important, I think, is our inability to affect the course of events around the world, either militarily, or by offering a compelling political example at home and a vision of international affairs to which everyone can subscribe.  Franklin Roosevelt's genius, as both I in my book and my friend Nigel Hamilton in his complementary volume, The Mantle of Command, was to combine military power with moral purpose.  This we no longer seem to be able to do--largely, in my opinion, because we have lost our broader moral purpose in politics at home.


Jim Rush said...

Good Morning: I really enjoy your post and find it thought-provoking, as always.

I only wish more people would comment more on the workers in eastern Europe and what they have to look forward to as part of the EU. German "austerity" is all. There will be no prosperity as long as this takes place. The pretty word "austerity" is just a fancy phrase for removing more wealth from the working people to give to the wealthy elites.

Maybe the working people in Eastern Ukraine realize this.

ed boyle said...

The greater sense of one country commanding the moral and political heights of the global system is questionable. Considering a millenia old culture in Asia or a centuries old culture in Europe in comparison to a new culture in America based on naive materialistic pursuit of happiness. Consider simply the difference between western monotheism with its linearity and dualistic concept of good vs. evil compared with Asian cyclical developments. Out of the former came democracy, scientific truths and "progress". Asia is simply adapting to this to gain a practical upper hand in a perceived power struggle. Play "Go" as opposed to chess and you will see the difference or participate in Tai Chi, yoga or Buddhism with its emphasis on self realization within body mind system as opposed to strong moralistic Sunday morning services in the West and differences become apparent. Russia and middle East cultures also are worlds apart from a "Western Culture" which was developed from the renaissance times and starting with the French revolution and the British industrial revolution takes its authority from the success of colonialism and scientific rationalism to conquer all other cultures and countries and nature itself. Now that the colonies are rising against western culture and dictates and nature is rebelling against science (antibiotics less effective, pesticides useless, CO2 destroying oceans, water reservoirs depleting, soil eroded, oceans acidifying, massive die off of all animals and c,imate chage threatening us all) the success of the renaissance culture is called into question. Cyclicality of Asian thought with its concept of balance within natural systems and not conquest thereof seems to make long-term sense. Local cultures and traditions should exist for local conditions as in Russia or Saudia Arabia. The same "democracy" cannot be universal just as Eskimo culture in a bleak arctic waste cannot be the same as that in the hothouse of central Africa as American constitutional concepts transposed into UN founding Charter would presume.

America is Rome on steroids of fossil fuel and industrial power. Not much difference in start or end of both cultures. Both began small and religious and both end by self destruction, overshoot. There is no reason that other countries should not push back and that US opinion on Events in Russia, Ukraine or elsewhere should of be of such import. It is frankly speaking somehow absurd that everyday the US govt. should tell Russia to move its troops back from its own borders. Consider if the Russians or Chinese told Americans (who have hundreds of foreign bases) to remove troops from Alaska, Hawaii, Guam, etc. and from the coasts and put them all in Iowa as they were perceived to threaten world peace. Mao said that all power comes from the end of a gun. Moralizing from Washington while holding a nuclear stick and fighter squadrons is no different.

ed boyle said...

(a bit more)
When one sees analysis of WWII as a fight to get to oil fields and have colonies for mercantilistic purposes parallel to those of the West then the values of democracy seem hypocritical. Hunger is first problem of a people. Democracy is far down the list of needs. Russia has last great oil fields. Why does the West want desperately to control Russia and encircle it. A short term analysis of Ukraine situation based on daily news reports from CNN is insufficient in taking the whole situation of power politics log term between anglo-saxons and Europe into account. It distorts only. Global stability accepts new entries of peoples into global power spectrum (NICS, BRICS) and not trying to dominate them by Washington based power. After war on terror USA has switched to encirclement of Russia/China as Washington Axis is challenged. They played by the rules and now as the students have learned the rules of the game too well the teacher (Washington) is afraid of losing control of the game. Britain had this problem with Germany in industrial revolution. The old system is breaking down and what will come next no one knows. Old kingdoms respected on another in peace and in wars fought for theri identities (France against England-100 years war, Turks against western Europe, etc.). USA has not yet lost a big war and become quiet and peaceable and ready to accept the equality of other peoples. This is necessary for world peace as America send troops everywhere (special forces active across the world secretly plus many bases). Perhaps the end of economic and technical change through the decline of fossil fuels will bring about a new system of global thought which rejects expansionist foreign affairs and unitary globalist thought(the world will get bigger and not smaller, population will shrink, life will grow slower once again), perhaps nature will recover from the ravages of our times.

Bruce Wilder said...

"Franklin Roosevelt's genius . . . was to combine military power with moral purpose."

I've read your recent book, though not Hamilton's, but I don't think this is an adequate summary or contrast. A key part of FDR's genius was certainly his ability to marshal competence. The ability to organize competent administration was critical to the success of the American state in coping with the challenges of the Great Depression and WWII. As your book made clear, FDR's WWII grand strategy centered on industrial mobilization, a task that was, in some respects, an extension of the New Deal's deployment of new administrative agencies, and he drew into the task extraordinary and vigorous talents.

The contrast with the George W Bush Administration's conduct of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could not be sharper, than in outlining the rejection of competence. The Iraq Reconstruction, in particular, illustrated the bankruptcy of their neoliberal ideas about how a modern economy works, and their political ideas, applied to pacifying those societies are even less sensible.

The New Deal reorganized an economy that had broken down under the pressures created by the revolutionary technologies of the Second Industrial Revolution -- the automobile and oil, radio and cinema, telephones, electricity and continuous process industrial production systems, an agricultural revolution. And, in WWII, FDR led a second attempt to re-order the international system that had broken down in WWI in line with the ideals of Wilsonian internationalism, itself a culmination of liberal aspirations of the 19th century.

We're in another era of breakdown -- hardly the first since the late 17th century initiated the Enlightenment. (It's no worse than the breakdowns preceding the French Revolution or WWI, I'll venture.) Institutions are in disarray, and the generation in charge has little idea what it is doing -- maybe less idea than some previous generations in similar predicaments. FDR had the great advantage of the thinking and experience of the Progressives with economic institutional reforms and the Wilson Administration in WWI.

Bush and Obama have been like hack Hollywood screenwriters trying to script a series of hit sequels, with no original idea, or even insight into what makes a movie work. Or, in this case, what makes an institution work. I don't count it an individual or personal failure of either man -- it seems to be a shortcoming broadly shared by the boomers.

The failure of the left-wing parties in Europe to find a progressive alternative to the disastrous neoliberal extensions to the European project -- playing out with Euro austerity and the catastrophic wooing of Ukraine -- is more distressing in its way than the spirit that propels Obama to try to preserve a predatory Wall Street. But, the problem of competence remains paramount.

Bruce Wilder said...

I'm not sure that a religious war is what is propelling events in the Middle East, so much as an economic evolution, which puts millions of people in desperate straits within televised sight of a more prosperous world. To me, the events in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and Syria and Bahrain, seemed more about economic privation and the religious revival simply another symptom of, or response to, that same privation. These revolutions, like the convulsions of the French Revolution, seem to me to be driven as much by issues of bread, as of ideology.

It is convenient to some American interests to emphasize the "terrorist threat" and clash of civilizations, and leaders in the Arab world will mouth the words to gain American support, but I remain skeptical of the religious war analysis.

Rupert Chapman said...

Stimulating and thought provoking as per usual! I have only one comment, which is on the Middle East, which is my own specialization. The situation today in the Middle East is precisely the same as it has been for the last 5,000 years. I have, for many years, referred to it as either 'the 5,000 year war', or as 'stable instability'. To explain what I mean, some 5,000 years ago the Stela of the Vultures is the earliest record of a war - between the Sumerians, in what is today southern Iraq, and the Elamites, in what is today southern Iran. In Iraq itself, for the last 5,000 years there has been tension, and frequently open warfare, between the south, Sumer/Babylonia, and the north, Assyria. The mountains of the northeast have always been a separate culture area, as they are with the Kurds (known there since at least the 4th century A.D.) today, at war with the powers in the plains. The second great enemy of the Assyrians, after the Elamites and the Persians, was the kingdom of Urartu in what is now eastern Turkey, later the independent kingdom of Armenia. In the heyday of Sumerian culture, between 3500 and 2000 B.C., the Sumerians had colonies along the Middle Euphrates in what is today Syria. The Syrians and the Mesopotamians traded and intermittently fought wars against each other. Syria itself has been a single culture, east of the mountains which mark the northern extension of the Great Rift Valley along the Mediterranean Coast, but never a unified country until the French created one. War between the Syrian city-states was endemic throughout all periods of antiquity when they were not under the control of some external power. The Mediterranean Coastal Region was always culturally separate from Inland Syria, and always an economic trading culture between the great powers which surrounded it. Further south, what is today Israel and the West Bank was always either at war with Transjordan, or in an uneasy peace, and likewise in relation to Syria and what is now Lebanon, and to Egypt, the nearest great power, and the dominant culture. What keeps all of these relations of conflict and limited co-operation in place is, to me, one of the most interesting unasked, and, therefore, unanswered questions of historical studies.

Zosima said...

“Franklin Roosevelt's genius, as both I in my book and my friend Nigel Hamilton in his complementary volume, The Mantle of Command, was to combine military power with moral purpose. This we no longer seem to be able to do-”

So true. If only we had some catastrophic and catalyzing event––like a new Pearl Harbor.

Bozon said...


Great snapshot.

I still think Huntington is wholly right, not half right, as far as he goes.

One flaw I see in his account, however, is to paint the Muslims as more bloody than other civilizational groups.

Under a long view, I see no warrant for that whatsoever.

all the best

David Kaiser said...

Zosima, we did have that catastrophe on 9/11, but Bush misdirected it, tragically. In any case, as my new book shows, Pearl Harbor was not an isolated event. It confirmed what Roosevelt had been saying: that democracy was locked in a life and death struggle with dictator powers. In the same way, Roosevelt had taken the Depression as evidence that our economy was ruled by destructive values. Obama decided not to do that.

David Kaiser said...

Zosima, we did have that catastrophe on 9/11, but Bush misdirected it, tragically. In any case, as my new book shows, Pearl Harbor was not an isolated event. It confirmed what Roosevelt had been saying: that democracy was locked in a life and death struggle with dictator powers. In the same way, Roosevelt had taken the Depression as evidence that our economy was ruled by destructive values. Obama decided not to do that.

Joseph Young said...


"Destructive Values"

Brilliant phrase professor.

We are destroying our own civilizations through ourselves.

Hence, the dichotomy which emerges between the Far-Right (Death to Reform) and the inevitable rise of a (future) Far-Left (Reform or Death!)

Something simple as Worker Representation in Trade Unions, infrastructure reconstruction, or even just general tariffs, would be enough to save us from the misery we are rapidly approaching.

Zosima said...

David Kaiser said...Zosima, we did have that catastrophe on 9/11, but Bush misdirected it, tragically. In any case, as my new book shows, Pearl Harbor was not an isolated event. It confirmed what Roosevelt had been saying: that democracy was locked in a life and death struggle with dictatorial powers. In the same way, Roosevelt had taken the Depression as evidence that our economy was ruled by destructive values. Obama decided not to do that.

And what if Obama had decided to do that? Forgetting for a moment that Wall St ladled millions into his 2008 campaign. Here’s a description of the Democratic majority Congress that Obama had to work with:

"And the banks -- hard to believe in a time when we're facing a banking crisis that many of the banks created -- are still the most powerful lobby on Capitol Hill. And they frankly own the place." - Sen. Dick Durbin 2009

I’m guessing that description would not apply to the unprecedented Congressional super-majorities that Roosevelt had to work with throughout most of the 1930’s. Yet you seem to be saying that Obama really could have delivered us a New Deal if only he had the will to do so?

pbrower2a1 said...

One way to look at the difference between Barack Obama and FDR is to recall that FDR got elected near the end of the worst economic meltdown that any living American can now know personally. By the end of 1932 the people who had brought the American (and world) economy to ruin had destroyed their own power to buy the political system. Barack Obama was elected about a year into an economic meltdown that would be about half as long as the 1929-1932 meltdown.

Barack Obama had to rescue the financial system to save everything else. Such was part of his mandate. The cost? He would also rescue the means of people who still sought to establish as absolute a plutocracy as is possible in the modern world. By 2010 the people whose great fortunes Barack Obama had rescued financed the Tea Party and other front groups for America's economic elites. Add to that -- the banking system was so shored up that the banks could get away with their old vices without learning anything.

America's economic elites are as cruel, selfish, and corrupt as any that the world has ever known. They (plutocrats and executives) are no gentler toward any people other than themselves than either the aristocrats of Tsarist Russia or the nomenklatura of the Soviet Union. They want 95% of the people living in abject poverty and fear of them. They want the middle class as well as industrial workers ruined economically so that they can be serfs in all but name.

Dubya had the right ideas for those elites, but he was too intellectually hollow to make those destructive, depraved ideas work. Maybe someone else will try again and succeed -- in forcing another 1929-1932-style meltdown.

The four years of economic meltdown forced Americans to return to what made America great -- small businesses with low rates of short-term return (often at most a bare living) that owners couldn't run from, had to build loyal clienteles for, and could never influence political life. Not until the late 1940s and 1950s could they get anyone rich.