by Jerome a Paris
Thu Aug 21st, 2008 at 09:55:53 AM EST
In a hard-hitting Op-Ed in this morning's Financial Times, Singapore's Kishore Mahbubani writes that The West is strategically wrong on Georgia
... most of the world is bemused by western moralising on Georgia. America would not tolerate Russia intruding into its geopolitical sphere in Latin America. Hence Latin Americans see American double standards clearly. So do all the Muslim commentaries that note that the US invaded Iraq illegally, too. Neither India nor China is moved to protest against Russia. It shows how isolated is the western view on Georgia: that the world should support the underdog, Georgia, against Russia. In reality, most support Russia against the bullying west. The gap between the western narrative and the rest of the world could not be greater.
He extends that diagnosis to our overall approach to the world (as quoted below the fold) and makes a convincing case that the West has an incoherent strategy towards the rest of the world. I would like to suggest, however, that the current 'strategy' has a narrow rationality intimately linked to our current dysfunctional politics.
Western thinkers must decide where the real long-term challenge is. If it is the Islamic world, the US should stop intruding into Russia’s geopolitical space and work out a long-term engagement with China. If it is China, the US must win over Russia and the Islamic world and resolve the Israel-Palestine issue. This will enable Islamic governments to work more closely with the west in the battle against al-Qaeda.
The biggest paradox facing the west is that it is at last possible to create a safer world order. The number of countries wanting to become “responsible stakeholders” has never been higher. Most, including China and India, want to work with the US and the west. But the absence of a long-term coherent western strategy towards the world and the inability to make geopolitical compromises are the biggest obstacles to a stable world order. Western leaders say the world is becoming a more dangerous place, yet few admit that their flawed thinking is bringing this about.
Mahbubani's main theme is that of the emergence of competing powers outside the West (in particular in Asia) that cannot be simply dominated by the West as they used to be. While he suggests that there is actually room for a lot of cooperation between new and existing powers, he acknowledges that the situation creates rivalries and that those might be seen - and deserve to be treated - as strategic enmities. His point is then to note that, in that perspective, it is stupid, and counterproductive, to treal all other powers as hostile and dangerous at the same time. His realpolitik suggestion is therefore simple: pick an enemy, and stick to it, and try to bring others on your side. Try to neutralise them or, at the very least, not to antagonize them.
The West, led by Bush & Cheney's White House, but idiotically, complacently, undoubtedly supported by European leaders, has indeed taken a belligerant approach to the world, treating all as enemies or potential dangers. Iraq and Afghanistan have been invaded, Islam as a whole is crusade-worthy, Russia is being encircled and demonised, and China is still seen as a threat both in the short term (for jobs) and in the long term (for political and economic influence around the world). When facts on the gorund prevent actual action, bluster and aggressive rhetoric fills the columns of a manifestly compliant and/or uncritical media (this FT Op-Ed and a few others notwithstanding).
Is it simply hubris? Or is something else at play?
One thing that our long list of enemies have in common is energy. They are either significant providers of energy for us (a good chunk of the Islamic world, Russia, Venezuela) or rival importers of the stuff (China). A sane strategy, rather than focusing on countries or geopolitical groupings, would simply look at energy policies. Given that we have a US administration largely coming from the energy sector, we are faced, once again, by the same quandary - manifest incompetence, or something else at play?
Now, a simple "something" would simply be to say that they don't come form the energy world, but from the oil world, and from the perspective of oil companies, things are going well, thank you. But this is not really the case. Despite their huge profits, oil companies are actually dying animals, without a clear future. Their production has been going down over the past several years, their reserve base is shrinking, and their prospects are rather dismal. Oh sure, they will make a bundle from their remaining assets as prices keep on increasing, but they are increasingly irrelevant on the global stage - they are not needed for most of the world's production to happen, and their political influence, other than in their increasingly dysfunctional home polities/markets, is becoming rather feeble. Sure, some will say that their "home polities" (the US and the UK) are all that matter, but I don't think they need a bellicose foreign policy to dominate that - well paid lobbyists will do just fine.
No, the harsh secret is that this energy-savvy administration is persuaded - and, to be honest, I see very little to convince me that they are wrong - that a sane energy policy is a political loser, and thus that they must continue with the increasingly chaotic international policies of the past to ensure that plentiful spice keeps on flowing. That policy has, for them, the additional advantage of helping on the domestic political front by creating plentiful external enemies that just beg for a party STRONG ON NATIONAL SECURITY, and by indulging the pro-military exceptionalism inherent in a large chunk of the US population - but I don't think that's the main goal.
No, the fact is, it's easier to convince voters to support a "war on terror" than it is to tell them that we need to start using energy differently because energy is not, in fact, cheap as it has long appeared to be in purely monetary terms.
Call our politicians cowards, call them pragmatists, but that's the reality. We won't have an energy policy until we are forced by reality to have one, and by then it will be a lot more painful to deal with that reality, but at least we'll have plenty of enemies to deflect the blame.
The other thing that comes on top of that to promote aggressive internationalist policies is the "winner-take-all" nature of our current ideological paradigm. The Thatcher-Reagan revolution - all the neo-gangs thatt have come to the fore - has not just promoted greed and profit creed, they have explicitly called for the destruction of all social links ("society doesn't exist," Thatcher said famously) and for a morality that specifically states that we have what we deserve and we deserve what we have. There is an unsaid addendum: as long as you don't get caught (and everything will be done to weaken the organs that could catch you), anything goes and you can keep what you grabbed, plundered or swindled. Success is defined by how much you can accumulate, and, with increasing few restrictions along the way, that has meant an increasingly brutal arms race at the top, with everybody else as collateral damage of the plunder.
That logic also applies to countries - see how we love our rankings, whether of companies, medals, GDP or billionaires, and "we" have to win that race too. "We" is really our elites, but too many of the rest of us are too easily suckered into these jingoistic games. And what "we" want is total dominance across all measurable fields. Thus China needs to be cut down to size. Same with Russia or, occasionally, when their more favorable numbers get too obvious, Germany or Europe.
It is of course ironic that it is the plunderers' policies to outsource activity to pollution-welcoming and labor rights- indifferent China et al. that has made them into the economic powerhouses they are now, their policies to replace wage-driven consumption at home by the debt-driven kind (stagnant wages make for bigger profits) that have given huge financial clout to Asian and other countries and simultaneously destroyed our banks, as they sink under the weight or increasingly bad debt. But hey, we lived above our means, and "we" made gigantic profits, and headline growth, along the way.
After all, all "we" care about is to win in the billionaires' rankings, and if it takes bluster, arrogance and hubris on the world stage to hide that reality from the rest of us, that's what will happen.
In short, we have no strategy about china, Islam, energy or anything else,, but "we" have found a great way to get rich and keep friendlies in power.