I have previously laid out why I think the capitalist world-system is in a structural crisis, and why this leads to a worldwide political struggle over which of two alternative outcomes will prevail: one that results in a non-capitalist system that retains all the worst features of capitalism (hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization); or one that lays the basis for a system that is based on relative democratization and relative egalitarianism, a kind of system that has never yet existed.
There are however three imponderables in the process of systemic transition. These are three phenomena whose roots are in the historical developments of the modern world-system, and which could “explode” in some sense in the next twenty to forty years in an extremely destructive manner, with very uncertain consequences for the worldwide political struggle.
These three imponderables are climate change, pandemics, and nuclear warfare. They are not imponderable in the dangers they pose for all of humanity. They are imponderables in terms of the timing of any disasters. Our knowledge about each of these is extensive but there are enough uncertainties and differences of views among those who have studied seriously these issues that I do not believe we can be sure what exactly will happen. Let us discuss each in turn.
Climate change seems an unquestionable reality, except for those who reject this reality for political or ideological reasons. Furthermore, everything that has been causing climate change is actually accelerating rather than slowing down. The political differences between wealthier and less wealthy states as to what should be done about climate change make an accord that would mitigate the risks appear unattainable.
However, the earth’s ecological complexity is so great, and these changes so extensive, that we do not know what kinds of readjustments will occur. It seems clear that water levels will rise, are already rising, and this threatens the drowning of vast land areas. It also seems clear that the average temperatures in various parts of the world will change, are already changing. But this can also result in shifting the location of agricultural production and energy sources to different zones in ways that might in some sense “compensate” for the acute damage to other zones.
The same thing seems to be true of pandemics. The enormous “advances” of world medicine in the last hundred or so years that have seemed to bring so many diseases under control have simultaneously created a situation in which humanity’s ancient enemy, the germ, has found new ways to be resistant and to create new kinds of maladies that our medical forces find extremely difficult to combat.
On the other hand, we seem to be beginning to learn that germs can sometimes be humanity’s best friend. Once again, our knowledge seemed great but, when all is said and done, turns out to be pitifully small. In this race against time, how fast will we learn? And how much must we unlearn, in order to survive?
Finally, there is nuclear war. I have argued that there will be significant nuclear proliferation in the decade or so to come. I do not see this as a danger in terms of interstate warfare. Indeed it is almost the contrary. Nuclear weapons are essentially defensive weapons and therefore reduce, not increase, the likelihood of interstate wars.
However, there are several imponderables. The motivations of non-state actors are not necessarily the same. And there are some no doubt who would like to get their hands on such weapons (as well as on chemical and biological weapons) and use them. In addition, the limited ability of many states to protect such weapons from seizure or purchase may facilitate their acquisition by non-state actors. Finally, the actual use of such weapons is necessarily in the hands of some individuals. And the possibility of a “rogue” state agent, a Dr. Strangelove of fiction, is never to be ruled out.
It is perfectly possible that the world weathers the global transition to a new world-system or systems without any of these catastrophes occurring. But it is also possible that it doesn’t. And, if it does weather the transition, it is also possible that the new world-system will take the kinds of measures that will reduce (even eliminate) the likelihood of any of them coming to fruition.
Obviously, we cannot simply sit back and see what happens. We need to pursue whatever measures we can in the immediate present to minimize the possibility of the “explosion” of any of these three imponderables. However, as long as we find ourselves in the modern world-system, what we can accomplish politically is limited. That is why I call them imponderables. We cannot be sure what will actually happen and what effect it will have on the transition.
Let me make myself clear. None of these dangerous occurrences would end the process of structural transition. But it could affect seriously the balance of political forces in the struggle. It seems already clear that one major way in which many people react to these dangers is to pull inward in a heavily protectionist and xenophobic way, thereby strengthening the hand of those who are seeking to create an oppressive system (even if it be a non-capitalist one). We see this tendency already almost everywhere. It means that those who seek a system that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian have to become clearer about what is happening and work harder at developing political strategies that will counter this trend.
Making predictions in the short run (the coming year or two) is a fool’s game. There are too many unpredictable twists and turns in the real political/economic/cultural world. But we can attempt to make plausible statements for the middle run (a decade or more) based on a workable theoretical framework combined with a solid empirical analysis of trends and constraints.
What do we know about the world-system in which we are living? First of all, we know that it is a capitalist world-economy, whose basic principle is the ceaseless accumulation of capital. Secondly, we know that it is an historical system, which like all systems (from the universe as a whole to the tiniest nano-systems) has a life. It comes into existence, it lives its “normal” life according to rules and structures it creates, and then at some point the system moves too far from equilibrium and enters into a structural crisis. Thirdly, we know that our present world-system has been a polarizing system, in which there has been a steadily increasing gap among states and within states.
We are in such a structural crisis right now, and have been for some forty years. We shall continue to be in it for another twenty to forty years. This is quite an average length of time for a structural crisis of a historical social system. What happens in a structural crisis is that the system bifurcates, which means essentially that there emerge two alternative ways of ending the structural crisis by “choosing” collectively one of the alternatives.
The principal characteristic of a structural crisis is a series of chaotic and wild fluctuations of everything – the markets, the geopolitical alliances, the stability of state boundaries, employment, debts, taxes. Uncertainty, even in the short run, becomes chronic. And uncertainty tends to freeze economic decision-making, which of course makes things worse.
Here are some of the things we can expect in the middle run. Most states are facing, and are going to continue to face, a squeeze between reduced income and increased expenditures. What most states have been doing is to reduce expenditures in two ways. One has been to cut into (even eliminate) a great many of the safety nets that have been constructed in the past to help ordinary people deal with the multiple contingencies they face. But there is a second way as well. Most states are cutting the money transfers to subordinate state entities – federated structures, if the state is a federation, and local governments. What this does is simply to transfer the need to increase taxes to these subordinate units. If they find this impossible, they can go bankrupt, which eliminates other parts of the safety nets (notably pensions).
This has an immediate impact on the states. On the one hand, it weakens them, as more and more units seek to secede if they think it economically advantageous. But on the other hand, the states are more important than ever, as the populations seek refuge in state protectionist policies (keep my jobs, not yours). State boundaries have always been changing. But they promise to change even more frequently now. At the same time, new regional structures linking together existing states (or their subunits) – such as the European Union (EU) and the new South American structure (UNASUR) – will continue to flourish and play an increasing geopolitical role.
The juggling between the multiple loci of geopolitical power will become ever more unstable in a situation in which none of these loci will be in a position to dictate the interstate rules. The United States is an erstwhile hegemonic power with feet of clay, but one still powerful enough to wreak damage by missteps. China seems to have the strongest emerging economic position, but it is less strong than it itself and others think. The degree to which western Europe and Russia will draw closer is still an open question, and is very much on the agenda of both sides. How India will play its cards is very much undecided by India. What this means for civil wars like that in Syria at the moment is that outside interveners cancel each other out and internal conflicts become ever more organized around fratricidal identity groups.
I shall reiterate my long-argued position. At the end of a decade, we shall see some major realignments. One is the creation of a confederal structure linking Japan, (a reunited) China, and (a reunited) Korea. The second is a geopolitical alliance between this confederal structure and the United States. A third is a de facto alliance between the EU and Russia. A fourth is nuclear proliferation on a significant scale. A fifth is generalized protectionism. The sixth is generalized world deflation, which can take one of two forms – either a nominal reduction in prices, or runaway inflations that have the same consequence.
Obviously, these are not happy outcomes for most people. World unemployment will rise, not fall. And ordinary people will feel the pinch very severely. They have already shown that they are ready to fight back in multiple forms, and this popular resistance will grow. We shall find ourselves in the midst of a vast political battle to determine the world’s future.
Those who have wealth and privilege today will not sit idly by. However, it will become increasingly clear to them that they cannot secure their future through the existing capitalist system. They will seek to implement a system based not on a central role of the market but rather on a combination of brute force and deception. The key objective is to ensure that the new system would guarantee the continuation of three key features of the present system – hierarchy, exploitation, and polarization.
On the other side will be popular forces across the world who will seek to create a new kind of historical system, one that has never yet existed, one that is based on relative democracy and relative equality. What this means in terms of the institutions the world would create is almost impossible to foresee. We shall learn in the building of this system in the decades to come.
Who will win out in this battle? No-one can predict. It will be the result of an infinity of nano-actions by an infinity of nano-actors at an infinity of nano-moments. At some point, the tension between the two alternative solutions will tilt definitively in favor of one or the other. This is what gives us hope. What each of us does at each moment about each immediate issue matters. Some people call it the “butterfly effect.” The fluttering of a butterfly’s wings affects the climate at the other end of the world. In that sense, we are all little butterflies today.
Everywhere, austerity is the demand of the day. To be sure, there are seeming exceptions for the moment in a few countries – China, Brazil, the Gulf states, and possibly a few others. But these are exceptions to a demand that pervades the world-system today. In part, this demand is absolutely phony. In part, it reflects a real economic problem. What are the issues?
On the one hand, the incredible wastefulness of a capitalist system has indeed led to a situation in which the world-system is threatened by its real inability to continue to consume globally at the level at which the world has been doing it, especially since the absolute level of consumption is constantly increasing. We are indeed exhausting basic elements for human survival, given the consumerism that has been the basis of our productive and speculative activities.
On the other hand, we know that global consumption has been highly unequal, both among countries and within countries. Furthermore, the gap between the current beneficiaries and the current losers has been persistently growing. These divergences constitute the fundamental polarization of our world-system, not only economically, but politically and culturally.
This is no longer much of a secret to the world’s populations. Climate change and its consequences, food and water shortages and their consequences are visible to more and more people, many of whom are beginning to call for a shift in civilizational values – away from consumerism.
The political consequences are indeed quite worrisome to some of the biggest capitalist producers, who are realizing that they no longer have a tenable political position, and therefore they face the inevitable shutdown of their ability to command resources and wealth. The current demand for austerity is a sort of last-ditch effort to hold back the tide of the structural crisis of the world-system.
The austerity that is being practiced is an austerity imposed on the economically weaker parts of the world populations. Governments are seeking to save themselves from the prospect of bankruptcies and to shield mega-corporations (especially but not only mega-banks) from paying the price (lost revenue) of their egregious follies and self-inflicted wounds. The way they are trying to do this is essentially by cutting back (if not eliminating altogether) the safety nets that were historically erected to save individuals from the consequences of unemployment, serious illness, housing foreclosures, and all the other concrete problems that people and their families regularly face.
Those who seek short-term advantage continue to play the stock market in constant and fast trading. But this is a game that is dependent in the middle run upon the ability to find purchasers for the products on sale. And effective demand is steadily disappearing, both precisely because of these cutbacks in safety nets and because of the massive fear that there are still more cutbacks coming.
The proponents of austerity have been regularly assuring us that we are turning the corner or will soon do so, and that a revived general prosperity will return. However, we have not in fact been turning this mythical corner, and the promises of revival are becoming ever more modest and projected to take ever longer.
There are also those who think that a social-democratic solution is available. Instead of austerity, we should augment government spending and tax the wealthier segments of the population. Even if this were politically realizable, would it do the trick? The proponents of austerity have one plausible argument. There aren’t enough world resources to sustain the level of consumption everyone wants as more and more individuals demand politically to be among the higher consumers.
This is where the exceptions to which I referred come in. They are at the moment expanding the numbers of high consumers, not merely shifting the geographic location of high consumers. The countries that have been “exceptions” are thereby increasing the economic dilemmas, not resolving them. There are only two ways out of the real dilemma involved in this structural crisis. One is to establish a non-capitalist authoritarian world-system which will use force and deception rather than the “market” to permit and augment the inegalitarian world distribution of basic consumption. The other is to change our civilizational values.
In order to realize a relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian historical system in which to live, we do not need “growth” but what is being called in Latin America buen vivir. What this means is engaging in continued rational discussion about how the whole world can allocate the world’s resources such that we all not only have what we really need to survive but also preserve the possibility for future generations to do the same.
For some parts of the world’s populations, it means their children will “consume” less; for others, they will “consume” more. But in such a system, we can all have the “safety net” of a life guaranteed by the social solidarity that such a system makes possible.
The next twenty to forty years will see an enormous political battle, not about the survival of capitalism (which has exhausted its possibilities as a system) but about what kind of system we shall collectively “choose” to replace it – an authoritarian model that imposes continued (and expanded) polarization or one that is relatively democratic and relatively egalitarian.
The whole world watched the latest violent conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Everyone held their breath to watch Pres. Morsi of Egypt broker the truce, which for the moment is lasting. And everyone except the Israelis praised Morsi for achieving this truce, which seemed difficult.
But what does this mean? To answer that, we have to ask ourselves what each of the four principal players hoped to win. The four players that mattered were Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu of Israel, Pres. Obama, Pres. Morsi, and the Hamas leadership. Each wanted different things.
Let’s start with Netanyahu. He’s facing an election, and he wants to win big. For the moment, he can’t bomb Iran, but he wanted attention to return to Iran and away from Palestine. So he played the usual internal nationalist card – down with terrorist Hamas. And the United States better back us up 100%, or we might bomb Iran right now.
He ran into an unexpected problem. Hamas turned out to be a bit stronger militarily than in the past. They could actually send rockets with bombs to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Yes, these rockets were defended, successfully, by the new Iron Dome that the United States had furnished the Israelis. But it was a military warning about the future. In addition, Israel, not Hamas, was being blamed throughout the world (but most importantly in western Europe) for having started this latest confrontation. It was bad press, and promised to get worse. So Netanyahu in effect backed down and agreed to a truce, which contained things (at least on paper) that Israel had never before been willing to say.
What about Obama? This skirmish was the last thing he needed. He’s in the middle of a major political battle in the United States, and is itchy about any further military commitments abroad. But of course he had to back Israel in the Security Council. So, what did he try to do? Very simple – he tried to stay relevant. He sent Sec. Clinton to Israel to hold hands publicly with Netanyahu. She went to Ramallah to tell Pres. Abbas of the Palestinian Authority that the United States was still for a two-state solution. The problem was that Abbas and the Palestinian Authority were non-players in this skirmish. And of course, she couldn’t go to Gaza to broker a truce because the United States officially considers Hamas a terrorist organization. So, Obama and Clinton managed to show to the world that not only wasn’t the United States indispensable but it wasn’t even relevant.
On to Egypt, where the action was. Morsi wanted to do two things. First, he wanted to show that Egypt was the indispensable nation, at least in the Middle East. And secondly, he wanted to move the locus of world attention from Iran and Syria to Palestine. He was entirely successful in the first objective, and largely successful in the second. Among other things, notice how quiet Saudi Arabia was during this affair. They too were beginning to look less relevant.
The western world is now thinking that Morsi threw away his victory by the internal decrees he announced a few days after the truce. True, he is now facing the united opposition of half the country. But who are the half of Egypt that are demonstrating against him? They are a motley alliance of young people who are the heirs of the 1968 revolts against authority, the traditional market-oriented liberals, the Nasserite nationalists, the political left, and the groups that are remnants of the Mubarak regime.
Note that all of these groups in one way or another are committed to values that are found in the western world. Against them, Morsi speaks for an indigenous Arabo-Islamic set of values, which the Muslim Brotherhood has always stood for. Morsi is replicating internally what he did internationally. Egypt, not the United States, is to be the broker. And within Egypt, it will be sharia (even if it is sharia-lite) that will prevail. It’s a position that has wide appeal.
As for Hamas, they are celebrating. Israel had to come to terms with them. They have marginalized Abbas. The United States will have to begin to negotiate with them as well. They can only be optimistic about their future.
Obama won the U.S. elections with a significant margin both in the popular vote and in the Electoral College. The Democrats won every closely contested seat for the Senate except one. This relieved the Democrats, who had been worried, and astonished the Republicans, who had felt certain of victory. Now the whole world wants to know what this means for the immediate future of the United States and the world. The answer is not simple.
Let me start with foreign policy. The U.S. government still wishes to pursue an imperial policy throughout the world. The problem it faces is very simple. Its ability to do this has drastically declined, but the elites (including Obama) don’t wish to acknowledge this. They still speak of the United States as the “indispensable” nation and the “greatest country” ever known. This is a contradiction that they don’t know how to handle. As for the ordinary U.S. citizen, an exit poll that asked what motivated the votes of those polled found that only 4% said foreign policy. Nonetheless, most ordinary citizens still believe the mantra that the United States is the world’s golden example.
We can therefore expect that Obama will continue to do what he has been doing: talking tough, but acting in fact prudently vis-à-vis Iran, Syria, Israel, Egypt, Pakistan, China, Mexico, and indeed most countries. This of course exasperates most other countries and all sorts of political actors across the world. Whether he can continue to walk this narrow tightrope without falling off is not at all assured, especially since the United States can no longer really control what most other actors will do.
Obama is almost as helpless regarding the economy – the U.S. economy and the world-economy. I doubt that he can seriously reduce U.S. unemployment, and in 2014 and 2016, this will help the Republicans rebound. The crucial issue at the moment is the so-called (and misnamed) fiscal cliff. The real issue here is who is going to bear the largest burden of U.S. economic decline.
On these issues, Obama was elected on populist promises but actually is pursuing a right-of-center position. He is offering the Republicans a deal: higher taxes for the wealthy along with significant cuts in health and maybe pension expenditures for the majority of the population. This is the U.S. version of austerity.
This is a bad deal for the vast majority of Americans, but Obama will pursue it vigorously. The deal may nonetheless fall through, if the Republican right wing stupidly refuses to go along with it. The business elites of the United States are putting pressure on the Republicans to accept the deal. The trade-unions and the liberals (inside and outside the Democratic Party) are pushing against the deal. But thus far, the liberal anti-deal push has been far weaker than the business elite pro-deal push. This is essentially a class struggle of a very traditional kind, and the 99% do not always win these struggles.
On so-called social issues, which were a true divider between the Republicans and Democrats in this election, the U.S. voting population defeated the troglodytes hands down. Gay marriage won on the ballot in four states, and the shift in public opinion indicates this trend will continue.
Even more important was the absolutely lopsided vote for Obama and the Democrats by African-Americans and by Latinos. It seems that the ferocious attempts by Republican governors to impede voting by these groups stirred a backlash, in which even more of them voted than previously. For Latinos, the key issue was immigration reform. And major figures in the Republican party (including Jeb Bush, himself a potential future presidential candidate) are now saying that, unless the Republicans cooperate with immigration reform, they can never hope to win national (and many state) elections. My guess is that some legislation will in fact now pass Congress.
Obama has been a big disappointment to that large group of his supporters who are motivated by environmental and ecological concerns. He has talked a good line but has done rather little. One reason is that another group of supporters – the trade-unions – have been arguing in the other direction because of the risk to jobs. Obama has waffled, and he will probably continue to waffle. This is marginally better than Romney, who would have shut down the agencies that still try to protect the environment.
Obama’s record has been bad on civil liberties issues, indeed in some ways worse than that of George W. Bush. He has moved aggressively against whistle-blowers. He has not shut down Guantanamo and he has actively supported the Patriot Act. He has used drones to assassinate presumed enemies of the United States. In these actions, he has been supported by most members of Congress and the courts in general. There is no reason to assume he will change his behavior in this regard.
One major reason evoked every four years to support the Democratic candidate for president has been appointments to the Supreme Court. It is true that, had Romney been elected and one non-conservative judge died or resigned, the Court would have been moved far to the right for a generation.
What will happen now that Obama has been re-elected? There are four justices over 70 years of age. There is no mandatory retirement age. None of the four seems about to resign, not even Justice Ginsburg who has been ill. The opportunity for Obama to make a difference depends however on whether Justice Kennedy will resign or die and whether Justice Scalia will die (he certainly won’t resign). This is entirely unpredictable. But if this happened, Obama’s re-election will indeed have made a difference.
Finally, what is the future of U.S. politics? This is the most uncertain element of all. The Republican Party seems to be starting an internal civil war between the tea party conservatives and everyone else. Everyone else notes that the Republicans blew their chances to win the Senate because of losses in the primaries of “sure winners” to quite extremist tea party-endorsed candidates. Only 11% of votes for Romney came from non-Whites. And percentages of Latino voters are rising even in presently sure Republican states like Texas and Georgia. But if the Republicans do begin to talk a more centrist line, will they lose a significant part of their base, who will abstain from voting?
The Democrats have a similar problem, although not as serious. Their votes came from a “rainbow coalition” – women (especially single mothers and working women), African-Americans, Latinos, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, trade-unionists, young people, poor people, and well-educated people. Their demands are at odds with the preferences of those who control the party, including Obama. This time, the base stayed loyal. Even those who supported third-party candidates seemed to do this only in states where the Democrats couldn’t lose. There was no swing state in which third-party candidates seemed to tilt the election.
Will the liberals within the party move now to third parties? It seems unlikely at the moment, but it is not impossible. It depends in part on how dramatic a fall the United States takes in the coming four years. It depends on how far Obama will cede on “populist” issues.
The bottom line is that Obama’s re-election has made some difference, but far less than he claimed or that the Republicans feared. Once again, I remind everyone that we are living in a chaotic world in transition, in which wild shifts of all kinds are part of our current reality, including in political allegiances.
Up to very recently, very, very few persons, outside of its immediate neighbors and its former colonial power (France) had even heard of Mali, much less knew anything about its history and its politics. Today, northern Mali has been taken over militarily by “Salafist” groups sharing the outlook of al-Qaeda and practicing the harshest version of sharia – with lapidation and amputation as punishments.
This takeover has been condemned by a unanimous vote of the U.N. Security Council, which deemed it “a threat to international peace and security.” The resolution cited “the rapidly deteriorating humanitarian situation” and “the increasing entrenchment of terrorist elements” and the potential “consequences for the countries of the Sahel and beyond.” The U.N. declared it was ready to consider the constitution of an “international military force [to recover] the occupied regions in the north of Mali.”
The resolution was unanimous but toothless. In fact, Mali today represents the clearest possible case of geopolitical paralysis. All the major and minor powers in the region and beyond the region are genuinely concerned, and yet no one seems willing or able to do anything for fear that doing anything would result in what is being called the “Afghanistanization” of Mali. Furthermore, there are at least a dozen different actors involved, and almost all of them are deeply divided among themselves.
How did this all start? The country called Mali (what was called the French Sudan during colonial rule beginning in 1892) has been an independent state since 1960. It initially had a secular single-party government, which was socialist and nationalist. It was overturned by a military coup in 1968. The coup leaders in turn created another one-party regime, but one that was more market-oriented. It was in turn overthrown by another military coup in 1991, which adopted a constitution that permitted multiple parties. One party nonetheless dominated the political situation again. But because of the multi-party electoral processes, the Malian regime was now hailed in the West as “democratic” and exemplary.
Throughout this time, the politicians and senior civil servants in the successive governments all mainly came from the ethnic groups in the southern 40% of the country. The more sparsely settled northern 60% was peopled by Tuareg groups who were marginalized and resented it. They periodically rebelled and talked of wanting an independent state.
Many Tuareg fled to Libya (and Algeria) whose southern regions were also peopled by Tuareg. Some Tuareg found employment in the Libyan military. The confusion following the fall of Muammar Qaddafi allowed Tuareg soldiers to obtain weapons and return to Mali to take up the struggle for Azawad, the name they gave to an independent Tuareg state. They were organized as the Mouvement National pour la Libération de l’Azawad (MNLA).
On March 22, a group of junior officers led by Amadou Haya Sanogo announced a third post-independence coup. They specifically alleged that the major reason for the coup was the inefficacity of the Malian army to deal with the secessionist pretentions of the MNLA. France, the United States, and most other West African states, declared strong opposition to the coup and demanded the restoration of the ousted government.
An uneasy compromise was achieved between the Sanogo forces and the previous regime, in which a new president was installed ad interim. He chose a prime minister with family links to the leader of the 1968 coup. To this day, it is not sure who controls what in southern Mali. But the army is ill-trained and incapable of engaging in serious military action in the north of the country.
Meanwhile in the north, the relatively secularist Moslems involved in the MNLA sought alliances with more fundamentalist groups. Almost immediately, the latter ousted the MNLA and took over control of all the major cities in northern Mali. However, these more fundamentalist elements were in fact three different groups: the Ansar Eddine who were local Tuareg; Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM), composed mostly of non-Malians; and the Mouvement pour le Tawhid et du Jihad en Afrique de l’Ouest (MUJAO), a breakaway from AQIM. MUJAO had broken with AQIM because it deemed AQIM too exclusively interested in North Africa, and it wanted to spread its doctrine to West African countries. These groups control different areas and it is unclear how united they are, either tactically or in objectives.
The next series of actors are the neighbors, all of whom are unhappy that the “Salafist” groups have taken effective control of such a large region, groups that are quite open about their desire to spread their doctrines to these neighbors. The neighbors however are equally divided about what to do. One group is the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), which consists of 15 states – all the former colonies of Great Britain, France, and Portugal plus Liberia – with the sole exception of Mauritania.
ECOWAS has wanted to help resolve the differences in the Malian government. They have suggested that they might be willing to send in some troops to regain control of northern Mali. The problem is twofold. The groups contesting in southern Mali are afraid of a semi-permanent intervention of ECOWAS, especially the Sanogo faction. And the only country that really has troops to offer is Nigeria, which is very reluctant to envisage this possibility because they need these troops to deal with their internal “Salafist” problem, the Boko Harem.
Mauritania, which has been more successful than other West African governments in containing “Salafist” groups, is very fearful of a spread of these forces into Mauritania, especially should they agree to fight them militarily in Mali. Libya, aside from the fact that it faces enormous internal turmoil among its many armed groups, is especially afraid that the Tuareg populations in southern Libya would join in an expanded Azawad.
Both France and the United States feel it is urgent to oust the “Salafists” from northern Mali. But the United States, overextended militarily as it is, does not want to send in any troops. France, or rather President Hollande, is taking the most forceful stand. They seem to be ready to send in troops. But France is the former colonial power, and French troops in Mali could arouse a very strong nationalist response.
So what France and the United States are trying to do is to convince Algeria, which borders Mali on the north, and has a powerful army, to be the lead force in a military operation. The Algerians are hyper-dubious about the idea. For one thing, southern Algeria is Tuareg country. For another thing, the Algerian government feels it has contained the “Salafist” danger so far and is deeply afraid that a military intervention in Mali would undo this containment.
So, everyone wants the “Salafist” groups to go away somehow, provided that someone else does the dirty work. And large groups in all these countries are opposed to any action whatsoever on the grounds that it would “Afghanistanize” the situation. That is, they fear that military action against the “Salafists” would strengthen, not weaken, them by attracting an influx of al-Qaeda-oriented individuals and groups to northern Mali. Afghanistan has become the symbol of what not to do. But doing nothing is otherwise called geopolitical paralysis.
The bottom line is that Mali is suffering from the chaotic geopolitical scene. What seems most probable is that there will be no military intervention. Whether the local populations in northern Mali, accustomed to a very tolerant “Sufi” version of Islam and most unhappy now, will rise up against the “Salafists” remains to be seen.
As the U.S. elections approach, U.S. foreign policy is gingerly becoming one of the issues. It is no secret that over the past half-century, there has been a certain long-term consistency to U.S. foreign policy. The sharpest internal differences took place when George W. Bush became president and launched a supermacho, deliberately unilateral attempt to restore U.S. dominance in the world by the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
Bush and the neo-cons hoped to intimidate everyone around the world by using U.S. military strength to change regimes that were deemed unfriendly by the U.S. government. As seems clear today, the neo-con policy failed in its own objective. Instead of intimidating everyone, the policy transformed a slow decline in U.S. power into a precipitate decline. In 2008, Obama ran on a platform of reversing this policy, and in 2012 he is claiming that he has fulfilled this promise and therefore undid the damage the neo-cons caused.
But did he undo the damage? Could he have undone the damage? I doubt it. But my intent here is not to discuss how successful U.S. foreign policy is or is not at this moment. Rather I wish to discuss what the American people think about it.
The most important element in current U.S. public opinion on U.S. foreign policy is uncertainty and lack of clarity. Recent polls show that for the first time a majority of Americans think that the military interventions Bush undertook in the Middle East were an error. What these people seem to see is that there was a large expenditure of U.S. lives and money for results that seem to them to be negative.
They perceive the Iraqi government to be closer in sentiment and policy to the Iranian government than to the United States. They perceive the Afghan government to be on very shaky grounds – with an army infiltrated by enough Taliban sympathizers that they can shoot U.S. soldiers with whom they are working. They want U.S. troops to leave by 2014 as promised. But they do not believe that, once these troops leave, there will be a stable government in power, one that is somewhat friendly to the United States.
It is significant that, in the U.S. debate between the two vice-presidential candidates, Democrat Joe Biden asserted with vigor that U.S. troops would not be sent into Iran. And Republican Paul Ryan said that no-one on his side was thinking about sending in troops. They both may or may not have been telling the truth about their positions. The thing to notice is that they both seemed to think that any threat on their part to send in ground troops would hurt the chances of their party with the voters.
So then what? That is precisely the question. The very same people who say that the U.S. interventions were an error are in no way ready to accept yet the idea that the United States should not continue to maintain, even expand, the scope of U.S. military forces. The U.S. Congress continues to vote budgets for the Pentagon that are larger than the Pentagon itself requests. In part this is the result of legislators wishing to retain jobs in districts in which there are jobs linked to the armed forces. But it is also because the myth of U.S. superstrength is still a very strong emotional commitment on virtually everyone’s part.
Is there a creeping isolationism in prospect? Up to a point, no doubt. There are indeed voters on the further left and the further right who are beginning to assert more boldly the necessity and the desirability of reducing U.S. military engagement in the rest of the world. But I believe for the moment this is not, or not yet, a strong force.
Rather, what we may expect is a slow and quiet, but nonetheless very important, revision of how Americans feel about particular sets of allies. The turn away from Europe, however Europe is defined, has been going on for a long time. Europe is regarded as somehow “ungrateful” for all that the United States did for them in the last seventy years, militarily and economically. To many U.S. citizens, Europe seems too unwilling to support U.S. policies. U.S. troops are currently being withdrawn from Germany and elsewhere.
Of course, Europe is a big category. Does the ordinary American have different views about eastern Europe (the ex-Soviet satellites)? Or about Great Britain, with which the United States is supposed to have a “special relationship”? The “special relationship” is more the mantra of the British than of the Americans. The United States rewards Great Britain when it toes the line, and not when it deviates from the line. And the ordinary American seems hardly aware of this geopolitical commitment.
Eastern Europe is different. There have been real pressures from both sides to maintain a close relationship. On the U.S. side, there has been the government’s interest in using the eastern European link as a way to counter western European tendencies to act independently. And there have been pressures from the descendants of immigrants from these countries to expand the links. But eastern Europe is beginning to feel that the U.S. military commitment is thinning and therefore unreliable. It is also beginning to feel that economic links with western Europe, Germany in particular, are more crucial for them.
Antagonism to Mexico because of undocumented migrants has come to play an important role in U.S. politics and has been undermining the theoretically close economic links with Mexico. As for the rest of Latin America, the growth of its independent geopolitical stance has been a source of frustration to the U.S. government and a source of impatience to the U.S. public.
In Asia, so-called China-bashing is an increasingly popular game, despite all the efforts of U.S. governments (both Democratic and Republican) to hold it in check. Chinese firms are barred from some kinds of investment in the United States that even Great Britain welcomes.
And finally, there is the Middle East, a central area of U.S. concern. Currently, the focus is on Iran. As in Latin America, the government seems frustrated by its limited options. It has been pressed constantly by Israel to do more, although no one is quite sure what “more” means.
Support for Israel in every possible way has been a centerpiece of U.S. foreign policy since at least 1967, if not longer. Few dare to challenge it. But the “few” are beginning to get more open support from military figures, who suggest that Israel’s politics are dangerous in terms of U.S. military interests.
Will the pervasive support of Israel continue unabated in the coming decade or two? I doubt it. Israel may be the last of U.S. emotional commitments to fade. But fade it almost surely will.
By 2020 probably, and certainly by 2030, U.S. foreign policy will have begun to digest the reality that the United States is not the all-powerful single superpower, but simply one of quite a few loci of geopolitical power. The change in outlook will have been pushed by the evolving views of ordinary Americans, who continue to be more concerned with their own economic welfare than with problems beyond their borders. As the “American dream” attracts fewer and fewer non-Americans, it turns inward in the United States.
Korea has returned to the world stage as a crucial geopolitical nexus in the coming decade. It will affect in important ways the future of China, Japan, the United States, and perhaps Russia as well. Yet, paradoxically, its future depends primarily on itself.
Korea is one of that rare breed – a country with a very long history as a political and cultural entity, with varying degrees of unity as a single kingdom. In modern times, it was an independent state until Japan first made it a protectorate in 1905 and then annexed it in 1910. Japan’s defeat in the Second World War ended her rule in Korea. In the very last days of the war, American and Russian troops entered Korea, meeting at the 38th Parallel. Two states came into existence, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, or North Korea) and the Republic of Korea (ROK, or South Korea).
In 1950, the two Koreas came to be at war with each other. How this started remains a subject of fierce controversy to this day. The United States, profiting from the absence of the Soviet Union from the Security Council, was able to mobilize the United Nations to come to the military aid of South Korea. There were troops from 16 countries under the U.N. umbrella, although U.S. troops constituted over 80% of the total. Soon thereafter, Chinese troops entered North Korea to support the DPRK against the U.S./U.N. troops. The Korean War thus became also, and most importantly, a Chinese-American war.
By 1953, the war was at a stalemate, and the opposing sides signed an armistice at a line that was almost the same as the 38th Parallel. In short, the war was a draw. Technically, the war has never ended. There is no peace treaty, but there also is no war, although there remains great hostility and there are skirmishes from time to time. In 1957, the United States renounced a clause of the armistice agreement and introduced nuclear weapons into South Korea, over the protest of the North Koreans.
In 2003, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and sought bilateral talks with the United States on a treaty of non-aggression. The U.S. refused bilateral talks but proposed six-party talks that would include also South Korea, Japan, China, and Russia. In 2006, North Korea announced a nuclear test, and in 2009 announced that it had produced a nuclear weapon. These days, some South Korean intellectuals designate the situation with an invented term. They say the Korean Peninsula is in a state of “peacelessness.”
The U.S. goal of getting North Korea to repudiate nuclear weapons has not been achieved. On the other hand, North Korea has been suffering for quite some time from an acute food shortage, in part explained by the regime’s insistence on giving primacy to their military expenditures.
Korean nationalism is extremely strong, and both the North and the South claim to look forward to reunification. But on what terms? The level of mutual suspicion is high. And South Korea’s attitude towards this prospect is one that deeply divides South Koreans.
In 1961, Park Chung-hee led a military coup d’état and ruled as a dictator until 1979 when he was assassinated. Park believed that reunification was only possible and desirable if it involved the overthrow of the North Korean regime. In 1980, students led an uprising critical of the United States and calling for democratization of the regime. It was brutally suppressed.
After this, conservative forces dominated South Korean politics until a left-of-center party led by long-time dissident Kim Dae-jung won the election in 1997. He inaugurated the so-called Sunshine Policy. The name refers to an Aesopian fable, showing that it is easier to get someone to remove his coat if the sun shines than if the wind blows. The policy centered upon seeking concrete forms of cooperation with North Korea and repudiating any attempt to absorb the DPRK. He won the Nobel prize for peace in 2000 for this policy, which was continued by his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, president from 2003-2008.
In 2008, the conservatives won back the presidency, in part because the opening to the DPRK hadn’t proved too successful and in part because of scandals affecting the Roh government. The new president, Lee Myung-bak, vociferously repudiated the Sunshine Policy, and asserted a hostile policy stronger even than that of the United States.
It seems clear today that neither China nor the United States nor Japan nor even Russia is really in favor of Korean reunification. All of them prefer the status quo. And yet, at this very time, the forces favoring reunification over the next decade seem suddenly stronger.
There are two factors in this new situation. One is the forthcoming election in South Korea. The conservatives have put forward the daughter of Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye, who has insisted on a total justification of her father’s regime.
The left-of-center forces are currently split between two candidates. Moon Jae-in is the candidate of the left-of-center party and stands for renewing the opening to the DPRK. There is also an independent candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, who presents himself as the anti-politician candidate, appealing to those who are unhappy with both parties. However, his actual program is virtually identical with that of Moon Jae-in.
The polls show that if the two left-of-center candidates remain in the race, the conservative candidate will surely win. The polls also show however that if one of the two withdraws in favor of the other, the left-of-center forces will probably win. The likelihood of a withdrawal is high. The big question is who will withdraw in favor of whom.
If the left-of-center forces win, what will be the response in North Korea? No one knows. But everyone has noticed that the initial moves of the new leader, Kim Jong-un, seem to be rather different from the policy of his father, Kim Jong-il. He seems to be more concerned with providing more real income for the ordinary North Korean, and more open to changes. He may welcome some sunshine from the south.
If then the left-of-center wins in the South and the new leader in the North is in fact more open to sunshine, the world might see over the next decade a sort of loose confederation of north and south – ignoring the real fears of China and the United States.
A reunited Korea will have a major impact on the geopolitics of Northeast Asia, and indeed on world geopolitics. It will possibly mediate between China and Japan and enable a tristate common structure to come into existence. It may result in South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan all becoming nuclear powers.
Furthermore, a unified Korea will link up with the repositioning of Egypt and the ever stronger geopolitical position of Brazil to entrench the redistribution of geopolitical power worldwide. And, let me repeat, this is in the hands of the Koreans themselves.
On the eleventh anniversary of what has come to be known as 9/11, al-Qaeda remains a subject still repeatedly discussed, both in the United States (and the pan-European world in general) and in the Middle East. The main emphasis in the United States is usually how its power is being effectively contained by military action of many kinds, and therefore it is a declining menace. The main emphasis in the Middle East seems to be the opposite, that it has survived everything that has been done to decapitate it and that it continues to represent an important menace to all the other political forces in the region.
Everything about its history and its relations to governments and movements has been controversial. There is little agreement even on the facts concerning the most important events. Let us start with 9/11 itself. First of all, we have to distinguish three moments in time: the six months or so before 9/11; the day itself; and the year or so following 9/11.
The latest plausible narrative concerning the six months or so before 9/11 seems to indicate that the CIA and other intelligence agencies in the United States were warning the president and his security advisors that al-Qaeda was preparing some lethal attack.
They were ignored. Why? It seems that the neo-cons in the U.S. administration – who were a considerable cabal, including Vice-President Dick Cheney and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld – denied its plausibility on the grounds that al-Qaeda was not competent to represent a major threat. The neo-cons said that the intelligence agencies were incorrectly giving credence to what was mere bluster, whose objective was to divert attention from the real threat to the United States, which were Saddam Hussein and his alleged weapons of mass destruction.
There are a certain number of left critics who suggest that such a debate within the U.S. administration never took place. Their explanation is that 9/11 was really planned by the U.S. government itself as a way of mobilizing public opinion for a war in Iraq. This is of course a conspiracy theory. I have nothing per se against conspiracy theories. There are constant real conspiracies all the time.
But I have never found this one the least bit plausible. The argument is based on the inherent improbability that an organization like al-Qaeda could amass the technical skills and tactical planning necessary to arrange the attacks and explosions. This is of course the same argument about al-Qaeda that the neo-cons gave in the other narrative.
Frankly, I think, and have always thought, that this argument is profoundly racist. It implies that those “fanatical fellows in the Third World” can’t be that clever. Well they can, and I believe were. In any case, al-Qaeda has been boasting about it ever since. And there is no government today, either in the pan-European world or the Middle East, which is ready to gamble on the supposed technical incompetence of al-Qaeda.
The next point in time is the day itself. Here I am much more inclined to credit the conspiracy theory. There is too much that is dubious about the U.S. government’s response to the attacks. Airplanes to counter the attacks were launched much too late. President George W. Bush seems to have been kept out of the information loop for too long, making Cheney de facto the decision-maker. Rumsfeld seems to have prepared almost instantly a procedure to link Saddam Hussein, most implausibly, to the attacks.
In short, the neo-cons were taking advantage of the attacks for their long-desired and long-planned war on Iraq. In the year following 9/11, they carried the day in the U.S. administration and effectively throttled all dissenting voices. They got their wars, first in Afghanistan and then in Iraq. The whole world, including the United States, is still suffering today the consequences of these unjustified and unjustifiable wars.
What then happened to al-Qaeda? It seems that, in the beginning, al-Qaeda was a small structure, tightly controlled by Osama bin Laden. First, the attacks of 9/11 and then the U.S.-launched wars greatly increased its prestige in the Muslim world and attracted persons to join the structure. It also attracted other organizations to pledge allegiance to al-Qaeda and re-label themselves, without however really submitting to some central discipline.
The United States and its allies did indeed begin to kill off many leading cadres of al-Qaeda, including eventually Osama himself. But al-Qaeda has shown itself thus far to be a hydra-headed monster, constantly renewing the fallen cadres. And it also seems that the central forces of al-Qaeda were never able to constitute a world network, as opposed to being a symbol of deep resentment and an aspiration for a reconstituted caliphate.
The so-called Arab spring has created a new opening for al-Qaeda. It has weakened the legitimacy of every ruler of an Arab state without exception. The question becomes what political forces will then come to power. This has led to prolonged struggles within each of these states, some of which are more bloody than others.
The strongest opposition to al-Qaeda today is not the United States but other political forces within these states. We are only at the beginning phase of these political struggles. The attack of Salafist forces on the U.S. Embassy in Benghazi, leading to the death of the U.S. ambassador, may only be the beginning of this resurgence. It is far too early to say that al-Qaeda is no longer relevant.
If we analyze the geopolitics of the Middle East, what should be the principal focus? There is little agreement on an answer, and yet it is the key question. The Israeli government has been sedulously and constantly trying to make the focus be Iran. This has been considered by most observers as an effort to divert attention from Israel’s unwillingness to pursue serious negotiations with the Palestinians.
In any case, this Israeli effort has failed, spectacularly. Netanyahu has been unable to get the U.S. government to commit to supporting an Israeli raid on Iran. And Iran’s ability to gather most of the non-Western world – including Pakistan, India, China, Palestine, and U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon – to the meeting of the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) in Tehran underlines the political impossibility of the Israeli wish to concentrate attention on Iran.
For the past year, the center of attention has become Syria, not Iran, even if there is a link between the two. It has been primarily Saudi Arabia and Qatar that have struggled, with considerable success, to make Syria the focus of attention. Some observers feel this has been an effort to divert attention from Saudi Arabia’s internal problems and anti-Shi’a oppression in the Gulf states, especially Bahrain.
This Syria-focus however is about to come to an end, for two reasons. In the first place, the Syrian government and its principal opposition, the Free Syrian Army, are more or less deadlocked in their military combat. It does not seem that either side can totally destroy the other. This means that what can now be called a civil war is destined to continue for an indefinitely long time.
What could of course bring the fighting to a rapid end is serious outside military intervention. But neither the United States, western Europe, Turkey, Saudi Arabia nor anyone else is ready to send troops to Syria. They are only ready to threaten to do so. That is not enough to end the fighting in Syria.
But secondly, there is the now spectacular re-entry onto the geopolitical scene of Egypt. It now has a government dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood. The president, Mohamed Morsi, seems to have a quite different agenda than his predecessors. And Morsi has turned out to be a far more astute political maneuverer than most people initially credited him. Le Monde noted this in an editorial entitled: “The astute and surprising M. Morsi.”
Morsi has flown to Tehran for the NAM meeting, stopping in Beijing en route. In doing this, he deferred until September the invitation that Obama made him to visit officially the United States, which was aimed at pre-empting the trip he is actually taking. Morsi claims that the objective of his visits is to help resolve the Syrian issue.
If Syria is what is on his mind, he has a curious way of showing it. He started with an imaginative proposal – that Egypt join forces with Turkey, Saudi Arabia, and Iran to form a group intent on resolving politically the issues dividing the two groups in Syria. This is indeed imaginative. But surely Morsi knows that, for the moment at least, it is certain to be rejected by Saudi Arabia, and possibly Turkey as well.
So why did he bother making the proposal? First of all, of course, he is seeking to place both Egypt and the Muslim Brotherhood in the position of the most powerful broker in Middle Eastern politics. Nothing, of course, would please the Saudis less. Not only would Egyptian centrality oust them from this role, but the Saudis and the Muslim Brotherhood have had a very long hostile relationship.
Secondly, having offered the proposal as a “solution” to the Syrian issue, he is demonstrating that, for the moment, there is no solution to the Syrian question. That prepares the ground for the big shift – from Syria to Palestine.
We should remember two things about Egypt’s relation to Israel/Palestine. One is that Hamas was founded by Muslim Brotherhood members. The links are real, even if Hamas seeks to play an independent role in the region.
But secondly, and even more important, Egypt’s treaty with Israel is very, very unpopular in Egypt. Morsi is not out to break the treaty. He feels, probably correctly, that he is not strong enough internally and internationally to do that. Nor does he necessarily see great advantage to Egypt in doing that.
But he is certainly interested in revising its terms in important ways. In particular, he wants to change the rules about how Egypt relates to the struggle in Palestine. The Egyptians will continue to try to mediate the differences between the Palestine Authority and Hamas. And they will certainly try to create a more open border with Gaza. They may then directly offer themselves to the Israelis as the honest brokers, a role the United States has claimed as its exclusive property for some time now.
It seems at least a good guess that, by 2013, Egypt will have muted the worldwide discussion about Syria and achieved its replacement with a worldwide discussion about Palestine. The Israelis will be deeply unhappy. The Saudis will find themselves sidelined and therefore they will need to assert much more vigorously their own pro-Palestine credentials. And the United States – whether its next president is named Romney or Obama – will find itself in a position with relatively little influence on what happens, either in Israel/Palestine, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, or Iran.