Commentary No. 110, Apr. 1, 2003
"The End of the Beginning"
At a turning-point in the Second World War, someone asked Winston Churchill whether the battle marked the beginning of the end. And he replied, famously, no, but it might be the end of the beginning. With the Iraq War, the world is marking the end of the beginning of the new world disorder that has replaced the world order dominated by the United States from 1945 to 2001.
In 1945, the United States emerged from the Second World War with so much power in every domain that it quickly established itself as the hegemonic power of the world-system and imposed a series of structures on the world-system to ensure that it functioned according to the wishes of the United States. The key institutions in this construction were the United Nations Security Council, the World Bank and IMF, and the Yalta arrangements with the Soviet Union.
What enabled the United States to put these structures in place were three things: 1) the overwhelming edge in economic efficiency of U.S.-based productive enterprises; 2) the network of alliances - especially NATO and the US-Japan Security Treaty - which guaranteed automatic political support of U.S. positions in the U.N. and elsewhere, reinforced by an ideological rhetoric (the "free world") to which the allies of the U.S. were as committed as it was; and 3) a preponderance in the military sphere based on U.S. control of nuclear weapons, combined with the so-called "balance of terror" with the Soviet Union which ensured that neither side in the so-called Cold War would use these nuclear weapons against the other.
This system worked very well at first. And the U.S. got what it wanted 95% of the time, 95% of the way. The only hitch was the resistance of those Third World countries not included in the benefits. The most notable cases were China and Vietnam. It was China's entry into the Korean War that meant that the U.S. had to satisfy itself with a truce at the line of departure. And Vietnam in the end defeated the United States - a dramatic shock to the U.S. position politically, and economically as well (since it caused the end of the gold standard and fixed rates of exchange).
An even greater blow to U.S. hegemony was the fact that, after twenty years, both western Europe and Japan had made such strides economically that they became roughly the economic equals of the United States, which launched a long and continuing competition for capital accumulation between these three loci of world production and finance. And then came the world revolution of 1968, which fundamentally undermined the U.S. ideological position (as well as the spuriously oppositional Soviet ideological position).
The triple shock - the Vietnam war, the economic rise of western Europe and Japan, and the world revolution of 1968 - ended the period of easy (and automatic) U.S. hegemony in the world-system. U.S. decline began. The United States reacted to this change in the geopolitical situation by an attempt to slow down this decline as much as possible. We entered a new phase of U.S. world policy - that conducted by all U.S. presidents from Nixon to Clinton (including Reagan). The heart of this policy was three objectives: 1) maintaining the allegiance of western Europe and Japan by brandishing the continuing menace of the Soviet Union and offering some say in decision-making (so-called "partnership" via the Trilateral Commission and the G-7); 2) keeping the Third World militarily helpless by trying to stanch so-called "proliferation" of weapons of mass destruction; 3) trying to keep the Soviet Union/Russia and China off-balance by playing one off against the other.
This policy was moderately successful until the collapse of the Soviet Union, which pulled the rug from under the key first objective. It was this new post-1989 situation which permitted Saddam Hussein to risk invading Kuwait, and enabled him to hold the United States to a truce at the line of departure. It is this post-1989 geopolitical situation that permitted the collapse of so many states in the Third World and forced both the United States and western Europe to engage in basically unwinnable attempts to prevent or eliminate fierce civil wars.
There is one other element to put into this analysis, which is the structural crisis of the world capitalist system. I have no space here to argue the case, which is made in detail in my book Utopistics, or Historical Choices of the Twenty-first Century, but I will resume here the conclusion. Because the system we have known for 500 years is no longer able to guarantee long-term prospects of capital accumulation, we have entered a period of world chaos - wild (and largely uncontrollable) swings in the economic, political, and military situations - which are leading to a systemic bifurcation - that is, essentially a world collective choice about the kind of new system the world will construct over the next fifty years. The new system will not be a capitalist system, but it could be one of two kinds: a different system that would be equally or more hierarchical and inegalitarian; or one that will be substantially democratic and egalitarian.
One cannot understand the politics of the U.S. hawks if one does not understand that they are not trying to save capitalism but to replace it with some other, even worse, system. The U.S. hawks believe that the U.S. world policy pursued from Nixon to Clinton is today unviable and can only lead to catastrophe. They are probably right that it is unviable. What they wish to substitute for it in the short run is a policy of premeditated interventionism by the U.S. military, as they are convinced that only the most macho aggressiveness will serve their interests. (I do not say serve U.S. interests, because I do not believe that it does.)
The successful attack by Osama bin Laden on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001, propelled the U.S. hawks into a position where they, for the very first time, controlled the short-term policies of the U.S. government. They immediately pushed the necessity of a war on Iraq, seeing it as the first step in implementing their middle-term program. We have arrived at that point. The war has begun. That is why I call this the end of the beginning.
Where do we go from here? That depends in part on how the Iraq war plays itself out. One week into the war, it is clearly going less well than the hawks had hoped and anticipated. It seems we are likely to be in for a long, bloody, drawn-out war. The U.S. will probably (but not at all certainly) defeat Saddam Hussein. But its problems will only then mount. I detailed my views on these problems in my last commentary (Mar. 15, 2003) entitled "Bush Bets All He Has."
The fact that it goes badly for the U.S. hawks will make them only more desperate. They are likely to try to push harder than ever on their agenda, which seems to have two short-term priorities: combat with potential Third World nuclear powers (North Korea, Iran, and others); and establishing an oppressive police apparatus inside the United States. They will need to win one more election to secure these two objectives. Their economic program seems to be one that will bankrupt the United States. Is this totally unintended? Or do they want to weaken some of the key capitalist strata within the United States, whom they may see as hindering the full implementation of their program?
What is clear at this point is that the world political struggle is sharpening. Those who cling to the U.S. world policy of the 1970-2001 period - the moderate Republicans and the Democratic Establishment within the United States, but also in many ways the western European opponents of the hawks (for example, both the French and the Germans), may find themselves forced to make more painful political choices than any they have had to make up to now. By and large, this group has lacked middle-range clarity in their analysis of the world situation, and they have been hoping against hope that somehow the U.S. hawks will go away. They will not. The hawks can however be defeated.
by Immanuel Wallerstein
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