Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Eternal return

I admire Robert Kagan's writing. It's clear-eyed, has no truck with moral platitudes and no expectation of 'final solutions' to anything.

End of Dreams, Return of History is a very long essay, but it is essential reading. It begins: "The world has become normal again". What does he mean? Simply, that we are back to the power politics of all of history pre-WW2 because the Cold War illusions of a 'world community' have faded into dust.

It seemed during the Cold War that there were two competing systems of world order: that embodied by the two superpowers nose to nose, but with their hands behind their backs, and that embodied by the United Nations and its assertion that all countries were at least nominally equal. It seemed that if one of those two systems ceased to be, then the other would stand alone as the ruling structure of world power. Indeed in the Nineties, that is what seemed to be coming to pass. Seemed.

Actually, something quite different was happening, something that was only surprising because we had sustained ourselves on pious illusions for three generations. What was happening was the return of political business-as-usual: power politics, competition among nation states each eager to get a bigger slice of an ever-bigger cake. Not an 'international community', but the old shark pool.

Perhaps that UN version of world order is still alive in Europe with its attempt to mould a supra-national identity. But even if it did so, it would then only play the same game as the other competing nationalisms around the world. Europe's desire to become One is merely a sign of weakness; the much-reduced power of its individual states is insufficient to make itself felt on this new playing field. We're back to the old game.

This new playing field is characterised by 3 returns:

- the return to the international competition
- the return of nationalism
- the return of the much younger (two-century-old) struggle between
political liberalism and autocracy.

With this last, Kagan is not just thinking of Islam, which is a special case, but more of Russia and China. Their governments see only chaos and decline in the adoption of liberal democracy. In Western attempts to refine the Westphalian concept of national sovereignty in order to allow for interventions such as that in Kosovo, the autocrats (quite rightly) see a threat to their own existence. Economically, they need the liberal West; politically, the West is an insidious attack on their power. They will seek to do without and will band together; Russia and China, China and Venezuela, Venezuela and Cuba.

Amazingly, you will find in these 13,000 word nary a mention of Left or Right. In this context, those notions are meaningless. The people demonstrating at the APEC conference in Sydney have no national point of reference - the choice they imagine can be made (between international capitalism and international solidarity, whatever that may mean) was made a long time ago, and it went against them. They are pissing against the wind.

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