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Global Civil Society Meets Amidst Crisis of Empire

January 2004

For the thousands of representatives of global civil society who will be gathering in Mumbai for the World Social Forum on January 16-22, Washington is the world’s number one problem. Yet what a difference a year makes! The US they confront today is not quite the same cocksure superpower of yesterday.

When George W. Bush landed on the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln off the California coast on May 1st last year to mark the end of the war in Iraq, Washington seemed to be at the zenith of its power, with many commentators calling it, with a mixture of awe and disgust, the “New Rome.” The carrier landing, as Canadian scholar Anthony Wallace points out, was a celebration of power-a spectacle that was masterfully choreographed along the lines of the American sci-fi thriller Independence Day and Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will.

In the opening scene of Triumph, Adolf Hitler is pictured approaching from the air the Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg in 1934. President Bush began his big spectacle on board the Abraham Lincoln by touching down on the vessel’s deck in a S-3B Viking jet. Emblazoned on the windshield of the aircraft were the words “Commander in Chief.” The US president then emerged in full fighter garb, invoking the imagery of the dramatic concluding scenes in Independence Day. In those scenes, an American president leads a global coalition from the cockpit of a small jet fighter. The aim of this US-led operation is to defend the planet from the attack of outer-space aliens.

But fortune is fickle, particularly in wartime.

Less than six months later, in mid-September, the US, along with the European Union, lost the “Battle of Cancun,” as the fifth Ministerial Meeting of the World Trade Organization collapsed in that Mexican tourist town. A key architect of the successful effort to thwart Washington and Brussels’ plan to impose their agenda on the developing world was the newly formed Group of 20, led by Brazil, India, South Africa, and China.

That the G20 dared to challenge Washington was not unrelated to the fact that by September, the legitimacy of the invasion was in tatters owing to the collapse of the weapons-of- mass-destruction rationale for waging the war; Bush’s loyal ally, Tony Blair, was fighting for his political life; and US forces in Iraq were being subjected to something akin to the ancient torture known as “Death by a Thousand Cuts.”

Power is partly a function of perception, and the inflation of US power right after the Iraq invasion was followed by an even more rapid deflation in the next few months. With its image transformed into that of a flailing Gulliver lashing out ineffectively at unseen Lilliputians in Baghdad and other cities in central Iraq, other candidates for “regime change” such as Pyongyang, Damascus, and Teheran saw Washington’s missives as increasingly hollow. Washington was not unaware of the rapid erosion, in the eyes of the world, of its capacity to coerce: by late October, in fact, George W. Bush was talking, Bill Clinton-like, about giving a “security pledge” to North Korea, the aggressive isolation of which had been one of the hallmarks of this first year in office.

Unable to call for a higher troop commitment without triggering the perception of being trapped in a war without a foreseeable ending, Washington was desperate. By the time of the Cancun ministerial, the message coming out of Washington was: “We want to get out of Iraq, but not with our tail between our legs. We need UN cover, some semblance of a multinational security force to leave behind, and some semblance of a functioning government.”

US authorities hailed the passing on October 17 of a watered-down UN Security Council resolution authorizing a multinational force under US leadership, but most observers saw few non-US occupation troops and little non-US funding for reconstruction resulting from its vague provisions. To many governments, it was reminiscent of “peace with honor,” Richard Nixon’s exit strategy from Vietnam, and few were willing to become ensnared in a lost cause. When Washington announced an accelerated withdrawal plan a few weeks later in response to increasingly effective guerrilla attacks, the impression stuck that, indeed, the Bush administration was after a Vietnam-style exit.

By the third week of October, 104 US occupation soldiers had been killed since Bush’s May 1st declaration ending the war-with the average death rate hitting one a day in the first three weeks of the month. In November, also known as Washington’s cruelest month, some 74 US combatants were killed in action, over 30 of them in three helicopters brought down by Iraqi fire. By the end of 2003, some 325 US troops had been killed in combat since the invasion of Iraq in March, 210 of them since Bush’s Nuremberg-style descent from the skies.

The capture of Saddam Hussein in mid-December simply served to confirm that Saddam was not in control of what was clearly a people’s resistance since guerrilla attacks continued unabated. And as 2004 commences, the question is no longer whether the Iraqi resistance would stage their equivalent of a Tet Offensive but when.

The Iraq quagmire and the collapse of the Cancun ministerial of the WTO were just two manifestations of that fatal disease of empires: over-extension. There were other critical indicators, among them:- the failure to consolidate a dependent regime in Afghanistan where the writ of the Karzai government only extends to the outskirts of Kabul;- the utter failure to stabilize the Palestine situation, with Washington increasingly held hostage by the Sharon government’s lack of any interest in serious negotiations to bring about a viable Palestinian state;- the paradoxical boost given to Islamic extremism not only in its Middle Eastern birthplace but in South Asia and Southeast Asia by US-led invasions-that of Iraq and Afghanistan-that had been justified to snuff out terrorism;- the unraveling of the Atlantic Alliance that won the Cold War;- the emergence in Washington’s own backyard of anti-US, anti-free-market regimes exemplified by those led by Luis Inacio da Silva in Brazil and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela while the US was focused on the Middle East – the rise of a massive transborder civil society movement that has led the increasingly successful drive to delegitimize the US presence in Iraq and contributed decisively to the collapse of the WTO ministerials in Seattle and Cancun.

Against such challenges to its hegemony, the US’s absolute superiority in nuclear and conventional warfare capability counts for little, in much the same way that a sledgehammer is useless in swatting flies. To intervene, invade, and enforce an occupation, ground forces will continue to be the decisive element, but there is no way the US public, most of whom no longer see the Iraq invasion as worth its price in US casualties, will tolerate a significant expansion in ground troop commitments beyond the 168,000 serving in Iraq and the Gulf states and some 47,000 deployed to Afghanistan, South Korea, the Philippines, and the Balkans.

One option is to return to the gunboat diplomacy of the Clinton era, to what Boston University’s Andrew Bacevich describes as the calibrated application of airpower without ground force commitments “to punish, draw lines, signal, and negotiate.” The Bush people, however, rail against such an option, and for good reason: whether it was Bill Clinton’s fusillade of cruise missiles against Osama bin Laden’s reported hideouts in Afghanistan and Sudan or President Lyndon Baines Johnson’s Operation Rolling Thunder against North Vietnam in 1964, air strikes are very limited in their impact against a determined foe. But then neither does the ground troop option fare any better, leading to the question: is the US in a no-win situation?

The problem is that the Bush people have unlearned a vital lesson of imperial management: that, as Bacevich puts it, “Governing any empire is a political, economic, and military undertaking; but it is a moral one as well.” If the Roman Empire lasted 700 years, says UCLA’s Michael Mann, it is because the Romans figured out that the solution to the problem of overextension was not the deployment of more and more legions but the extension of citizenship first to local elites, then to all freemen.

For much of the post-World War II period, in fact, the dominant bipartisan faction of the US political elite exhibited the Roman realization that a “moral vision” was central to imperial management. That was a world forged mainly by alliance-building, undergirded by multilateral mechanisms such as the United Nations, World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund, and resting on the belief that, as Frances Fitzgerald put it, “electoral democracy combined with private ownership and civil liberties, was what the United States had to offer the Third World.”

National Security Memorandum 68, the defining document of the Cold War, was not simply a national security strategy; it was an ideological vision that spoke of a “long twilight struggle” against communism for the loyalties of the peoples and countries throughout the world. This cannot be said of the current administration’s National Security Strategy document which speaks in narrow terms of the American mission mainly as one of defending the American way of life from its enemies abroad and arrogates the right to strike against even potential threats in pursuit of American interests. Even when the reigning neoconservatives speak about extending democracy to the Middle East, they cannot dispel the impression that they see democracy in the light of realpolitik–as a mechanism to destroy Arab unity in order to assure the existence of Israel and guarantee US access to oil.

Can a more sophisticated administration undo the damage to US imperial management wrought by the Bush presidency by bringing back mutilateralism and a “moral” dimension to empire? Perhaps, but even this approach may be anachronistic. For history does not stand still. It will be difficult for a reinvigorated US-led coalition politics to douse the wildfire of Islamic fundamentalist reaction that will eventually bring down or seriously erode the staying power of US allies like the Saudi and Gulf elites. Going back to the Cold War era promise of extending democracy is unlikely to work with disenchanted people who have seen US-supported elite-controlled democracies in places like Pakistan and the Philippines become obstacles to economic and social equality. To revert to the Clinton era of promising prosperity via accelerated globalization won’t work either since the overwhelming evidence is that, as even the World Bank admits, poverty and inequality increased globally in the 1990s — the decade of accelerated globalization.

As for economic multilateralism, financier George Soros’ appeal for a reform of the IMF, World Bank, and WTO to promote a more equitable form of globalization may seem sound, but it is unlikely to draw the support of the dominant US business interests which, after all, torpedoed the WTO talks with their aggressive protectionist posture on agriculture, intellectual property rights, and steel tariffs, and their gangbuster attitudes towards other economies in the areas of investment rights, capital mobility, and the export of genetically modified products. Armed with the ideological smokescreen of free trade, the US corporate establishment is, in fact, likely to become even more protectionist and mercantilist in the era of global stagnation, deflation, and diminishing profits that the world has entered.

And the future? Militarily, there is no doubt that Washington will retain absolute superiority in gross indices of military might such as nuclear warheads, conventional weaponry, and aircraft carriers, but the ability to transform military power into effective intervention will decline as the “Iraq syndrome” takes hold.

The break-up of the Atlantic Alliance is irreversible, with the conflict over Iraq merely accelerating the disruptive dynamics of differences building since the 1990s in practically all dimensions of international relations. Europe will most likely move towards creating a European Defense Force independent of NATO, though it will not challenge US strategic superiority. Politically, however, Europe will increasingly slip out of the US orbit and present an alternative pole–pursuing regional self-interest via a liberal, diplomacy-oriented, and multilateral approach.

In terms of economic strength, the US will remain the dominant power over the next two decades, but it is likely to slip as the source of its hegemony–the global framework for transnational capitalist cooperation to which the WTO is central–is eroded. Bilateral or regional trade arrangements are likely to proliferate, but the most dynamic ones may not be those integrating weak economies with one superpower like the US or EU but regional economic arrangements among developing countries-or, in the parlance of development economics, “South-South cooperation.” Formations, such as Mercosur in Latin America, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), and the G20, will increasingly reflect the key lessons that developing countries have learned over the last 25 years of destabilizing globalization: that trade policy must be subordinated to development, that technology must be liberated from stringent intellectual property rules, that capital controls are necessary, that development demands not less but more state intervention. And, above all, that the weak must hang together, or they will hang separately.

Among the developing countries, China is, of course, in a category by itself. Indeed, China is one of the winners of the Bush era. It has managed to be on the side of everybody on key economic and political conflicts and thus on the side of nobody but China. As the US has become ensnared in wars without end, China has deftly maneuvered to stay free of entangling commitments to pursue rapid economic growth, technological deepening, and political stability. Democratization, of course, remains an urgent need, but the unraveling of China owing to its slow progress–which many China watchers love to predict to sell their books–is not likely to happen.

The other big winner of the last few years is what the New York Times called the world’s “second superpower “after the US. This is global civil society, a force whose most dynamic expression is the World Social Forum that is meeting in Mumbai. This rapidly expanding trans-border network that spans the South and the North is the main force for peace, democracy, fair trade, justice, human rights, and sustainable development. Governments as disparate as Beijing and Washington deride its claims. Corporations hate it. And multilateral agencies find themselves compelled to adopt its language of “rights.” But its increasing ability to delegitimize power and cut into corporate bottom lines is a fact of international relations that they will have to live with.

A decreased US capacity to control global events, the rise of regional economic blocks as the multilateral system declines, rising assertiveness among developing countries, and the emergence of global civil society as an increasingly powerful check on states and corporations-these trends are likely to accelerate in the next few years.

History is cunning and mischievous, often playing an outrageous game of bringing about precisely the opposite than what its actors intend. “Full spectrum dominance” by the United States in the 21st century has been the avowed objective of the neoconservatives that came to power with George Bush. Paradoxically, pursuit of this objective by the current administration has accelerated the erosion of US hegemony-a process that might have been slowed down by a more skilled imperial elite.

The crowds in Mumbai will undoubtedly continue to regard the US as a mortal threat to global peace and justice, but they will also be cheered by the increasing difficulties of an arrogant empire that fails to see that decline is inevitable and that the challenge is not to resist the process but to manage it deftly.

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