Twenty-First-Century Geopolitics: Fluidity Everywhere

Commentary Number 467, February 15, 2018

The most fluid arena in the modern world-system, which is in structural crisis, is arguably the geopolitical arena. No country comes even near to dominating this arena. The last hegemonic power, the United States, has long acted like a helpless giant. It is able to destroy but not to control the situation. It still proclaims rules that others are expected to follow, but it can be and is ignored.

There is now a long list of countries that act as they deem fit despite pressures from other countries to perform in specified ways. A look around the globe will readily confirm the inability of the United States to get its way.

The two countries other than the United States that have the strongest military power are Russia and China. Once, they had to move carefully to avoid the reprimand of the United States. The cold-war rhetoric described two competing geopolitical camps. Reality was different. The rhetoric simply masked the relative effectiveness of U.S. hegemony.

Now it is virtually the other way around. The United States has to move carefully vis-à-vis Russia and China to avoid losing all ability to obtain their co-operation on the geopolitical priorities of the United States.

Look next at the so-called strongest allies of the United States. We can quibble about which one is the “closest” ally, or had been for a long while. Take your pick between Great Britain and Israel or even, some would say, Saudi Arabia. Or make a list of erstwhile reliable partners of the United States, such as Japan and South Korea, Canada, Brazil, and Germany. Call them “number two’s.”

Now look at the behavior of all these countries in the last twenty years. I say “twenty” because the new reality predates the regime of Donald Trump, although he has undoubtedly worsened the ability of the United States to get its way.

Take the situation on the Korean peninsula. The United States wants North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons. This is a regularly repeated objective of the United States. This was true when Bush and Obama were president. It has continued to be true with Trump. The difference is the mode of seeking to achieve this objective. Previously, U.S. actions utilized a degree of diplomacy in addition to sanctions. This reflected the understanding that too many U.S. public threats were self-defeating. Trump believes the opposite. He sees the public threats as the basic weapon in his armory.

However, Trump has different days. On day one he menaces North Korea with devastation. But on day two he makes his primary target Japan and South Korea. Trump says they are providing insufficient financial support for the costs deriving from a continuing armed U.S. presence there. So, in the to and fro between the two U.S. positions, neither Japan nor South Korea have the sense that they are sure to be protected.

Japan and South Korea have dealt with their fears and uncertainty in opposite ways. The current Japanese regime seeks to secure U.S. guarantees by offering total public support of the (shifting) U.S. tactics. It hopes thereby to please the United States sufficiently that Japan will receive the guarantees it wants to have.

The current South Korean regime is using a quite different tactic. It is pursuing very openly closer diplomatic relations with North Korea, very much against U.S. wishes. It hopes thereby to please the North Korean regime sufficiently that North Korea will respond by agreeing not to escalate the conflict.

Whether either of these tactical approaches will stabilize the U.S. position is totally unsure. What is sure is that the United States is not in command. Both Japan and South Korea are quietly pursuing nuclear armaments to strengthen their position since they cannot know what the next day will bring on the U.S. front. The fluidity of the U.S. position weakens further U.S. power because of the reactions it generates.

Or take the even more knotty situation in the so-called Islamic world going from the Maghreb to Indonesia, and particularly in Syria. Each major power in the region (or dealing with the region) has a different prime “enemy” (or enemies). For Saudi Arabia and Israel, it is at the moment Iran. For Iran it is the United States. For Egypt it is the Muslim Brotherhood. For Turkey it is the Kurds. For the Iraqi regime, it is the Sunnis. For Italy, it is Al Qaeda, which is making it impossible to control the flow of migrants. And so on.

How about for the United States? Who knows? That is the nub of fear for everyone else. The United States seems at the moment to have two quite different priorities. On day one, it is North Korean acquiescence with U.S. imperatives. On day two it is ending U.S. involvement in the East Asian region, or at least reducing its financial outlays. As a result, it is increasingly ignored.

We could draw similar pictures for other regions or sub-regions of the world. The key lesson to draw is that the decline of the United States has not been followed by another hegemon. It has simply folded into the overall chaotic zigzagging, the fluidity of which we spoke.

This of course is the great danger. Nuclear accidents, or mistakes, or folly suddenly become what is on top of everyone’s mind, and especially that of the world’s armed forces. How to deal with this danger is the most meaningful short-term geopolitical debate.

Who is President Macron of France?

Commentary No. 466, February 1, 2018

(updated on February 10, 2018)

Politicians everywhere have hidden parts of their political and personal itinerary. Sometimes the exposing of such “secrets” causes disillusionment and/or reduced support of voters who had supported this person. What varies is the extent to which the politicians can keep such secrets obscure.

The recently elected president of France, Emmanuel Macron, has managed maintaining the obscurity better than most. It is therefore useful to try to answer the question of who he (really) is. For one thing, there is a lot of disagreement about the answer. This difference is not only one between supporters and antagonists but also within each of the two.
What do we know about his background? He studied at two of France’s elite institutions – Sciences Po and the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA) – where he performed brilliantly.

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A Discreet Capitalist Collapse?’ The Onset of Pre-Panics

Commentary No. 465, January 15, 2018

The New York Times has been suggesting that major bondholders – both national and private banks – are discreetly reducing their bond holdings, out of a fear of nominal inflation. How discreet can it be if it is discussed in The New York Times?

Everyone is hoping that no one panics and sells too rapidly. And if someone does that they do it one mega-instant after my discreet withdrawals. Of course, no one wants to withdraw too soon – and not too late. So, when one arrives at a pre-panic moment, no one can be sure, which more or less guarantees the sudden collapse of the bond market.

We know we’re in a pre-panic moment when we are discussing it. But why now and not before? Because so much paper money has been earned in runaway market profits based on no real increase in surplus-value that the market has caught up with the bond market, and therefore one discreetly withdraws from the bond market.

In addition, the paid workers seek higher wages, everywhere. So many workers have been forced out of the labor market that there is now a labor-available shortage. And this makes bonds still a safe haven. Confusion, confusion!

Everyone becomes more protective – of self, of country. And it is self-reinforcing. Even countries using strong anti-protectionist rhetoric like Canada practice it nonetheless or suffer internal political loss.

All this is what happens in a structural crisis of the world-system, in which wild swings of everything is the reality. Pre-panics are one of these wild swings.


Note: A correction was made on January 20, 2018.

Trump, Thump, Trump, Thump, Trump

Commentary No. 464, January 1, 2018

I was going to write either about the elections in Catalonia, or about debates in Australia on what they should do as a result of U.S.‑Chinese rivalries in southeast Asia. I consider both topics of compelling importance for the immediate future of our capitalist world‑system. But what everyone wants to discuss, it seems, is Mr. Trump ‑ what will he say next, and does it matter?

The question people are asking, friends and foes, is “Can he last?” I didn’t used to think so, but now I do, and here’s why. What is it we know about the present situation? Trump is vastly unpopular and his poll ratings, already extremely low, may well go even lower soon.

Trump claims that the low poll ratings are fake news. And he even seems to believe this himself. Trump acts to satisfy his ego. He measures his success by his ability to stay in office now, win re‑election in 2020, and stay in office until 2024.

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Trump Loses in Alabama: How Important?

Commentary No. 463, December 15, 2017

By now, the whole world knows that in one of the most conservative states in the United States, a Democrat, Doug Jones, defeated Judge Roy Moore, the Republican candidate, in a special election for a vacant seat.

In the analyses almost everyone is making of the election result, it is being called “stunning,” “a surprise,” and “a miracle,” among a long list of similar summary judgments.

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Left Social Movements: What Electoral Tactics?

Commentary No. 462, December 1, 2017

The central difficulty for left social movements is determining electoral tactics that will enable them to win both in the short run and in the middle run. On the surface, it seems that winning in the short run conflicts with winning in the middle run.

In the short run, the primary objective of a left movement must be to defend the urgent needs for survival of all the so-called 99% of the population, but especially those of the poorest strata. In order to do this, they have to control state institutions at all levels. This means participating in elections.

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The U.S. Elections 2017: The Unexpected Democratic Sweep

Commentary No. 461, November 15, 2017

Elections in the United States have one feature that almost no other country shares. They largely occur on mandatory fixed dates. Presidential elections are every four years. Senatorial elections are staggered. One-third of them occur every two years. Both of these elections occur in years ending in an even numeral. Gubernatorial elections tend to occur in the same even years. Local elections are more varied but very many also occur in the even years.

As a result, the so-called off-year elections (that is, years ending in an odd numeral) tend to be considered less important by the national parties. And voters participate at a far lower rate than in the even-year elections

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What about China?

Commentary No. 460, November 1, 2017

Very often, when I write about the structural crisis of the modern world-system, and therefore of capitalism as an historical system, I receive objections saying that I have neglected the strength of Chinese economic growth and its ability to serve as an economic replacement for the clearly waning strength of the United States plus western Europe, the so-called North.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument, but one that misses the fundamental difficulties of the existing historical system. In addition, it paints a far rosier picture of China’s realities than is justified by a closer look. Let me address this question then in two parts – one, the historical development of the world-system as a whole, and two, the empirical situation of China at the present time.

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