Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Exchanging one Empire for Another?

Martin Jacques has a good piece in today's Guardian, though I'm a little uneasy with some of it. Jacques takes the recent comments of Republican congressman and chairman of the House international relations committee, Henry Hyde, as his starting point and develops his argument from there. Hyde has apparently just realised that 1). the idea of 'exporting democracy' in the bomb holds of B52s is rather problematic and prone to backfire (no shit, congressman) and 2). the US has, in the 'great game' arena of international relations and geopolitical strategy, 'taken its eye of the ball' with potentially disastrous consequences. Specifically, the US has neglected the major long term threat to its current global hegemony - China. Now it's tied up in Iraq say Hyde and Jacques, the US has spiked its own capacity to act effectively to block China's rise to dominance.

"In becoming so catastrophically engaged in the Middle East, making the region its overwhelming global priority, it downgraded the importance of everywhere else, taking its eye off the ball in a crucial region such as east Asia, which in the long run will be far more important to the US's strategic interests than the Middle East. As such, the Iraqi adventure represented a major misreading of global trends and how they are likely to impact on the US.


The world is in the midst of a monumental process of change that, within the next 10 years or so, could leave the US as only the second largest economy in the world after China and commanding, with the rise of China and India, a steadily contracting share of global output. It will no longer be able to boss the world around in the fashion of the neoconservative dream: its power to do so will be constrained by the power of others, notably China, while it will also find it increasingly difficult to fund the military and diplomatic costs of being the world's sole superpower. If the US is already under financial pressure from its twin deficits and the ballooning costs of Iraq, then imagine the difficulties it will find itself in within two decades in a very different kind of world.


Iraq was supposed to signal the US's new global might: in fact, it may well prove to be a harbinger of its decline. And that decline could be far more precipitous than anyone has previously reckoned. Once the bubble of US power has been pricked, in a global context already tilting in other directions, it could deflate rather more quickly than has been imagined."

I think that Jacques' general argument is right - it's largely compatible, though not entirely, with Arrighi's take on the current state of US hegemony. However, Jacques seems to me to be suggesting that the Iraq adventure was always a distraction from the real business of strategic Imperial policing. I rather think that Arrighi's view on this is superior - that is, that the decision to launch the Iraq campaign was itself, in part, an attempt to head off the threat from East Asia. The US did not 'take its eye off the ball' then - it's just that its strategic gamble did not pay off (or at least, it doesn't seem to have paid off so far). Secondly, I'm rather sceptical of Jacques' claim that the end of US Empire will come very rapidly - I think it's more likely to be a lengthy, drawn out and rather painful affair.

My third reservation is a bit more difficult. I'm slightly reluctant to make the kind of argument that mirrors in some way the crass lines of argument characteristically put forward by the pro-war left. On their sites you'll frequently see commentators denounced for something which has been rather spuriously inferred from their writing. If a commentator suspected of disloyalty to the demands of Truth, Justice and the American Way describes or narrates something inconvenient or unpleasant for the Heroes of Democracy they're often rounded on and accused of necessarily favouring that thing they have described, simply because they have dared to acknowedge that it exists. Perhaps my argument, here, rests on a similar non sequitor (though, of course, mine is at least not deliberate) - but I can't help but get the feeling that Jacques is rather on Hyde's side, here. That is, Jacques appears to think that it is indeed a bad thing, that the US has taken its eyes off the ball and that it would be a good idea if the US got its act together (if now possible) and started to deter/repel the East Asian menace. What would this mean? An attempt to engineer another East Asian financial crisis? The construction of more US bases further to the East? The further ratcheting up of the Taiwan crisis? A war against China?

This is not to say that the probable rise to global superpower status on the part of China is a particularly pleasant prospect. For one thing, historically, the periods in which one Empire starts to decline and another one rises have often been periods of bloodshed. The idea of some kind of face off between two powers armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons, one desperate to shore up its crumbling imperial status (upon which rests its domestic affluence), and the other recklessly driven on by the logic of accumulation, is not a happy one. Furthermore, Chinese Empire is not likely to involve jelly and ice cream all round. There is at least one Chinese student at this university who refers to the 'Beijing Consensus' as a force for liberation. I'm not so sure that a consensus based, in large part, on a sweatshop economy (even brutal bursts of primitive accumulation - note how large numbers of chinese peasants have been driven off their land recently) will involve very much liberation.

On the other hand, of course, one should not succomb to the temptation to rush to the aid of the devil we know. Expect to see the toadies and lackies on the pro-war left transform themselves into anti-Chinese crusaders in the next few years. Expect to see, on the usual suspect blogs, dark murmurings about the 'Yellow Peril'.

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