SCMP February 11
The recent annual meeting in New York of the World Economic
Forum provided a curious commentary on how perceptions of the world
differ. Outside the Waldorf Astoria Hotel where the meeting was held
a few thousand demonstrators maintained a chilly vigil protesting various
ills which found a common umbrella in opposition to what was seen as
Inside the Waldorf, itself more a symbol of an earlier
age of US prosperity, there was a apparently deep rift among the globalizers
themselves between current US perceptions about globalization and those
of the rest of the world as represented at the Forum. Do not imagine
the WEF is actually representative of the world. The New York meeting
was conspicuous for the sparse attendance of east and south Asians,
Africans or even Latin Americans. More than ever the WEF appeared to
be an event dominated by Europeans and North Americans.
Yet even within these restricted parameters of perception
there was a deep divide which flows from the dominance of the US in
world affairs. Events since September 11 have underlined the fact that
the post-Cold War world is not the multi-polar world originally envisaged
but what amounts to a uni-polar one. The US is so much more powerful
than any other state or even any group of states with common goals that
in the short run at least it gets its way in most things, with or without
the backing of its traditional allies.
The US tendency towards unilateralism is a natural outcome
of its global dominance. But over the past year it has been given a
huge boost, much to the dismay of most of the rest of the world on a
range of issues from the Kyoto treaty to international courts.
Firstly, it was driven by the assumptions of a conservative
Republican regime with close links to the military-industrial complex
of which President Eisenhower once warned. Since September 11 it has
been driven not just by a desire for retribution against the perpetrators
of that attack but what amounts to a crusade or jihad (to use both words
in a colloquial rather than literal sense) against those it perceives
to be local opponents of its global vision regardless of whether they
threaten US security. This is a world in black and white.
That the WEF shifted its annual meeting from Davos, Switzerland,
to New York post September 11 was itself a testament to the importance
attached by the WEF to sympathising with the city and thus accepting
the US view of itself as a uniquely abused party.
President Bush then set the tone for the meeting in his
State of the Union address by proclaiming the existence of a "axis of
evil" linking Iraq with Iran and North Korea. The fact that Iran lost
a million men defending itself from an Iraq armed by the west is of
course irrelevant to Mr Bush, as is it long opposition to a Taliban
once backed by the US. That most South Koreans, attempting to move towards
an accommodation with the North, would inevitably be appalled by this
language was of no consideration to Mr Bush and his advisers. When queried
on Seoul’s attitude, one administration official who purports to be
an Asian expert could only answer: "Too bad for them"
That most of these perceived enemies turn out to be Muslims
may seem surprising. It may seem bizarre that the US military should
want to return to the scene of its massacres of Muslims in the southern
Philippines one hundred years ago. It seem strange that the US should
want to get into public dispute with Europe over relations with Iran.
It may seem curious that Washington should be the source of a stream
of criticism of its few allies in the Arab world while giving active
support to Israel’s violent occupation of and ethnic cleansing in Palestine.
But such things become more understandable when one runs
up against the arrogance, ignorance and prejudice of much of the New
York based media. This so often sets the agenda for US foreign policy,
over-riding the more measured analysis of US interests, or international
ethics, presented by the State Department.
It becomes understandable when one sees at first hand
how the media and much of academia has been seduced by the "Clash of
Civilizations" theories of Samuel Huntingdon, which effectively demonises
Islam generally rather than just its wilder manifestations. Mr Huntingdon
has helped spread the belief that being a good Muslim and a good American
are incompatible, a dangerous doctrine for US domestic security as well
as its international position.
The campaign in Afghanistan has underlined yet again the
technological superiority of the US military. It may not have needed
the smartest bombs to blow away the Taliban but the fact is that no
military anywhere has the hardware to match the US in quality, let alone
quantity. After initially getting diplomatic backing from NATO, the
US largely ignored its allies, even including Mr Blair whose eloquence
in support of Washington has not been matched by influence with the
The brutal fact is that the US now often feels it does
not need allies. Meanwhile the lesser poles of power, the EU, Russia,
China etc lack enough common ground to unite against US policies. They
all need the US. But being ignored and powerless engenders bitterness.
The US military dominance is not just a consequence of superior technology.
It is a product of massive spending at a time when arms budget in Europe
and Russia have fallen sharply and China’s has been stable as a percentage
of GDP. Yale University Professor Paul Kennedy estimates that US military
spending is now 40% of the global total, almost double the US share
The naval and air capabilities which give it global reach
are particularly overwhelming. But is this good for America? It is not
clear whether a military dominance which allows it to ignore allies
and pursue unilateralism is beneficial for the economic aspects of globalization.
The reach of Microsoft, Citigroup Coca-Cola etc is primarily determined
by demand for their products, the desire of other countries to attract
foreign investment and technology, be it American, Japanese or whatever.
Military might can protect shipping lanes, provide a regional
security umbrella, as in east Asia. But ultimately US influence rests
less on might than on perceptions that it represents modernity, prosperity,
effective systems and human values. The US role of global policeman
is only acceptable to other nations if Washington also recognises their
legitimate national interests. For instance, it is absurd to want to
deny Iran influence in its neighbour, Afghanistan, or Russia in Uzbekistan.
US national interests in defending itself and its global position are
not served by trying to micro-manage messy situations.
Meanwhile the economic benefits that US commercial and
technological acumen brings to the nation at large is being offset by
the enormous cost of the military. The latest increase in budgeted military
spending -- US$48 bn or more than Italy’s total defence budget – pushed
the federal budget back into the red. Nor is it clear that such massive
spending does much to counter assymetric threats from terrorists more
likely plotting in Hamburg than hiding in Philippine jungles.
The military spending boost will also indirectly increase
the foreign trade deficit and add to the US$2.5 trillion that the US
already owes to the rest of the world. This Achilles heal has yet to
be exposed thanks to the dominance of the dollar in international trade
and capital flows. But the current unsympathetic, unilateralist US administration
attitude to the economic problems of countries such as Argentina which
have mostly followed IMF-type economic prescriptions could threaten
the liberal economic agenda throughout South America.
Widespread acceptance of globalization in the economic
sphere has been primarily because of its association with the benign
aspects of western influence. But the establishment of global norms
of conduct for trade, investment etc cannot co-exist for long with arrogant
unilateralism at the political level. Likewise those who have not yet
been convinced of the merits of open economies or representative government
– are unlikely to change if they are lumped into a group of the irredeemably
"evil" and treated as targets for attack rather than for conversion
by dialogue and good example.
A week in New York and Washington has made this writer
aware that the threats to globalization come not so much from the demonstrators
but from the aggressively unilateralist tendencies of the post-September
Bush administration. ends