My class on the European Union is reading the book Europe at Bay: In the Shadow of US Hegemony by Alan Cafruny and J. Magnus Ryner. The book presents a powerful argument that Europe is destined to play second fiddle to the US because of how the neo-liberal economic order supports an American “minimal hegemony.” It’s a complex argument so I won’t go through the details.
Essentially, despite globalization US hegemony assures that neo-liberalism (an emphasis on trade, free markets, and limited regulation) will continue within a context where sovereignty remains a strong defining principle of the international system. The reason for this is the strength of the US financial system and credit markets, which have found a way to turn debt into capital and allow the US to run high current accounts deficits and trade deficits without having to pay a large economic cost. Those costs are borne by the rest of the world. Moreover, this arrangement assures that Europe will continue to have to cut labor costs, thereby putting continuing strain on social welfare programs and the “European model” of the social welfare state.
What strikes me is how their analysis, which sees very clearly everything from the mortgage backed securities problem to the shockingly high trade and current accounts deficit, misses the fact that this would lead to the financial meltdown we are now witnessing. Rather than a global recession, and possibly a kind of recession, they assume that the US can continue this hegemony and shift costs to Europe and Asia. That no longer seems to be the case. So what went wrong?
I believe that the US committed its most egregious and costly error when it responded to 9-11 with a policy that tried to find a military solution to a problem that was not fundamentally military in nature. Terrorism is a security threat, it is not a military threat. Afghanistan’s Taliban hosted al qaeda, but was not itself a military threat to the US. Iraq was even less a threat. Yet, rather than try to handle these problems through complex intergovernmental cooperative efforts, all of which would have been emotionally unsatisfying for a public demanding for revenge and for the President to “keep us safe,” the US tried to take on the problem by going to war. It failed miserably.
Note first of all the situation on our battlegrounds. In Afghanistan the situation is worse than ever since 2001, with many NATO countries both talking seriously about cutting their involvement and the possibility (likelihood) of NATO’s defeat. If the US does not want defeat to be its legacy for the Afghan war, it will need a massive influx of power — but there is no public will for that influx, and it might not work anyway. In Iraq everyone is happy because violence is down and it looks like we may be pulling our troops out soon. In fact, the Iraqi government may push us out sooner than even Barack Obama wants to leave. Yet the reason is not because Iraq is a stable functioning democracy. Quite the contrary. It is defacto three different states, which a huge chunk of the population forced to live under Islamic extremist law, harming especially women. The central government and majority Shi’ite regions are heavily influenced and infilitrated by Iran. In many these this is far more dangerous to US security than Saddam staying in power would have been. Saddam was never likely to share WMD (which he was nowhere close to getting) with Islamic extremists. Now Iran is one step closer to being able to do so, and being able to more effectively threaten Israel.
So Iran seems the real winner in Iraq, al qaeda is still active and strengthening, and the Taliban is emerging as a strong force again in war torn Afghanistan. None of those wars helped stop terrorism. We don’t know how much of a terror threat we face — a strike tomorrow and suddenly the feeling of safety we’ve developed could be gone in a minute — but any improvement in our situation is mostly from homeland security and counter-terrorism efforts, not the wars. There has also been a multilateral effort to gather information on and share information about terror networks. This has completely revamped the counter-terrorist effort and improved it dramatically. There are still major holes and glitches, if you listen to the experts, and one wonders how much safer we might be if more money had been spent on actual security than military adventures that have yielded no benefit.
We have paid for these errors in two major ways. First, the US has lost in real and material terms. The cost of the two wars made it harder for the US to maintain its economy. Moreover, fear that the economy had to keep growing after 9-11 or else it would benefit Bin Laden, led the Federal Reserve Board to feed rather than block the growing property bubble, thereby setting up a crisis that need not have happened, at least not so intensely. Second, the desire of the rest of the world to support the US and willingly share the costs of America’s imbalances dissipated. The world was willing to do so because they believed the US was the essential economic power, and as much as they would have preferred giving more regulatory power to multilateral institutions like the WTO, the US wouldn’t allow it. With a mix of both anger at the US over Iraq and the growing fear that the costs being ‘shared’ by Europe and Asia would be higher than ever, states and international corporations became less willing to simply accept US hegemony.
The first sign was the declining dollar. The dollar had remained strong despite high trade deficits, but after 2003 it was falling fast. There were ups and downs, but mostly downs. The second was the credit crisis, including early signals that banks were in trouble (though early on it wasn’t clear how much trouble). The US ability to maintain hegemony had at its core US dominance of financial markets. The US turned its debt, both public and private, into foreign capital available on credit markets. As soon as this was brought into question, the entire American dominated system was too. And though it’s in its early stages, don’t be surprised to see a much different system, with the US far less able to lead or control it, in place when all is said and done.
Would this have happened after 9-11? Ultimately the US ‘minimal hegemony’ was probably unsustainable, though Cafruny and Ryner’s argument that it could persist can’t be dismissed. But without the deficits, wasted money on war spending, and loss of international will and support for the US, it certainly could have lasted well into the next decade. And if managed well, it might have morphed into a system less friendly to the US in a gradual manner. Whether 9-11 and the US response caused this crisis or simply hastened its arrival, it seems clear to me that Osama Bin Laden got what he wanted on 9-11. The US responded in a way that has undercut our economic power and standing on the world stage, and which has precipitated a crisis in the industrialized West which could be extremely painful and de-stabilizing.
And, of course, it isn’t that Bin Laden’s actions caused this. It was instead our response to those actions. But that’s the point of terrorism. Nobody could seriously think al qaeda or Islamic extremism could bring down the West. But in the emotional fearful days after 9-11 people acted like it could, and that the only way to stop it was to defeat it in military terms. This led us to respond in a way that has ultimately proven self-defeating. And terrorism as a strategy is designed to do just that — get a government or a people to do things to weaken themselves.
So whether by design or luck, Bin Laden’s attack on 9-11-01 is looking like a very successful effort to start an unraveling of American power. Americans are resilient, however, and our political system functions. We have chosen a new direction, one that hopefully will correct the disastrous mistakes of the past decade. Nothing against President Bush — I understand why he reacted as he did, and his policies have changed since 2005 when it became clear the first path failed. Right now, though, we need — and hopefully are about to get — a real change in foreign policy direction.