US: Power-crazed Unilateralists

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 US-led "globalization".

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 US.

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 of GDP.

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


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