A Different Theory of Everything

Give Thomas Friedman credit. He does tackle big questions. In a column entitled “A theory of everything”, he attempts to explain how it happened that “after 9/11 people wondered, ‘Why do they hate us?’ speaking of the Muslim world. After the Iraq war debate, the question has grown into, ‘Why does everybody else hate us?'” His theory is worth considering. According to Friedman, during the 1990s, the United States became the most powerful country in the world, perhaps in world history.

As a result, it touched the lives of people all over the world, sometimes more deeply than their own governments. Seattle 1999 was the protest of people who wanted some say in how America was doing the touching. However, countries didn’t organize militarily against the US, because the US is a ‘benign hegemon’ and, furthermore, they are all so intertwined with the US economically that they would hurt themselves through direct confrontation. Only rogue states and the likes of Osama Bin Laden would attack the US, mostly to get at the Saudi ruling family. “Hence, 9/11 suddenly, (the benign hegemon) turns into Godzilla, a wounded, angry, raging beast.” The actions of this beast against first Afghanistan and then Iraq awakened the rest of the world to demanding even more strongly a say in the use of US power. “We said, sorry, you don’t pay, you don’t play.” Which is why everyone hates us. In a curious show of humility, Friedman asks his readers for ideas as to how the US can better manage the situation.

Its an impressive effort to try to offer a theory of the last fifteen years or so in a 750 word column. Let us see if we can’t offer a slightly different theory, that may help us to answer Tom’s call for help. To do so, we will have to go back slightly further, to the late seventies. The US was in crisis-Western Europe (at the time, we talked mostly about Germany) and Japan had basically rebuilt themselves and were now competing well against the US economically. Furthermore, revolutions in numerous countries-most dramatically Iran-indicated the US had lost control over the periphery and semi-periphery (to use Immanuel Wallerstein’s terms) of the world economy. Jimmy Carter tried to deal with the crisis first by acting nicer-showing some remorse for Vietnam and talking about human rights-but this only seemed to make matters worse, and by the time he left office, he had turned the US government in a new direction. Carter did two things-appointed Paul Volcker as head of the Federal Reserve, and increased militarism (aiding the Afghan rebels, the Salvadoran death squads, as well as increasing US military spending)-that foreshadowed the Reagan years . The impact of the escalation of militarism is more obvious-the revolutionary wave was halted, and, eventually, the Soviets were not only evicted from Afghanistan, but were pushed into a bankruptcy-inducing arms race. The appointment of Volcker, while less dramatic, may have been more significant. Volcker restricted the money supply, leading to higher interest rates and a strong US dollar, which had crucial ramifications for the US and the world. Basically, it led to the flow of capital into the US, simultaneously a boom for US consumers and investors, and a nightmare for the poorer countries who watched the money flow away. Furthermore, this trend was coordinated with IMF policies which stripped third world states to the bone, and forced open their markets to multinationals. In the course of the eighties, the US discovered the virtues of third world democracy-lawyers and economists replacing military dictators were more than happy to sell off the state industries that were often the military’s economic base. Furthermore, becoming the new political class tended to split the democratic leadership from the radical social movement base that they had aligned with under dictators like Marcos and Pinochet. Everything seemed rosy for the US by 1990.

If US capitalists had been allowed to elect a leader to maintain their power in the world, they couldn’t have done better than Bill Clinton (on the other hand, American left-liberals who were hoping for a renewal of reformist politics were thoroughly disappointed). Clinton had an easy touch with foreign leaders, and was always a hit at the World Economic Forum. He was willing to go against his electoral base to push through acts like NAFTA and the Mexican bailout. But Clinton had seriously difficulties ruling at home-recall that he was the first president impeached in well over a hundred years. Most obviously, this was a cultural battle-basically, if you cared who he was getting blow jobs from, you wanted him out, while if you didn’t, you didn’t. Perhaps-it will take future historians some years to sift through the evidence-it was also a covert economic war, waged by smaller capitalists not thrilled about the multinational direction the US was settling into. In any case, the unruliness of the Republican party, and their unwillingness to cut the center-right Clinton administration any slack, provides an interesting foreshadowing of later developments.

Abroad, Clinton was adept at delaying challenges to US power. In the context of the globalized world, liberals (centered in Europe) intensified a campaign to develop global norms around the environment, human rights, the international criminal court, etc. Whatever the merits of these measures, Clinton knew they wouldn’t fly domestically in the US. The US congress has a long standing hatred for any treaties that smack of constraining the activities of the US. He basically hemmed and hawed, and did manage to take up one of the European liberals pet causes-the expulsion of the Serbs from Kosovo. The use of the US military practically anywhere, once the domestic propaganda machine is set in motion, is not as hard a sell domestically as an internationally negotiated environmental treaty .

A second challenge to US power posed greater difficulties, but Clinton handled the global justice movement reasonably well, too. Protests against global US economic policy had been going on for years, as a result of its impoverishing effects worldwide-IMF riots, Zapatistas, GATT protests in India–but in Seattle, at the meeting of the WTO, the protestors managed to get directly in front of the cameras of the world media, and seriously embarrassed the US government. The notion that neoliberal policies should simply march forward without serious debate was forever shattered. In these trying circumstances, Clinton rushed out to make a few statements that managed to thoroughly confuse some of the American liberals protesting . Clinton had done a good job of managing the challenges the US faced to its leadership, although, clearly, the prospect by the end of the decade of everyone simply falling in line behind the US was nowhere near as great as it seemed in 1990.

This was roughly where things stood when the Republicans stole the presidential election of 2000 through a mixture of racist voter disenfranchisement, orchestrated mob riots to intimidate vote counters, fraud involving military absentee voters, and, finally, the Supreme court’s judicial coup. Bush quickly made it clear that he was not going to replicate the balancing act Clinton had performed. He let the European liberal community know that the US would not be partaking in any treaties around the environment or other issues of concern. By appointing an idiot , Paul O’Neill, in charge of treasury, he affirmed that the US would no longer attempt to lead the world economically through institutions like the IMF. Instead, the US would simply do whatever it wanted, basing foreign economic policy on the short-term political concerns of Bush, and not even bother trying to bail out the capitalists of countries like Argentina.

Several more shocks awaited the US. First, the high-tech bubble finally burst. The inflow of money to the US had mostly been a trick of high interest rates; the fact that there wasn’t as much to the high tech boom as the US claimed had to become clear sooner or later. The fact that US culture engulfed the world during the nineties has nothing much to do with economic strength-after the Italian city states faded economically (by the middle of the sixteenth century) Italian culture became more important in Europe for another hundred years at least . The real growth story of the nineties was China.

But obviously, the key shock to US power was the attacks of September 11. A band of terrorists with a chunk of change (the figure I usually hear is $500,000) that wouldn’t impress Dr. Evil and no conventional weapons to speak of committed a devastating attack on centers (or at least symbols) of American financial and military power, killing thousands. With a shaken public willing to rally behind him, Bush unveiled his positive strategy for the US-having jettisoned diplomatic and economic strategies, Bush would employ military might that would intimidate everyone-‘rogue’ states, terrorists, Europeans, global justice protesters. The hope is to demonstrate to Europe and Japan that the US is vital to take out ‘bad guys’, while at the same time expanding military presence in a region crucial in a dozen respects-geographically, natural resource wise, etc. That military presence can intimidate all sorts of rivals and control the flow of oil, to the detriment of potential European or Russian power. While his approval figures are high, he’d push for a series of tax cuts that will basically bankrupt the US’ ability to fund anything besides its military. Although the capitalists of the WEF -as well as Warren Buffett and Stephen Roach of Morgan Stanley -have made it clear that they think this is insanity, so far they’ve been utterly unable to affect public debate (if that is the right word) in the US.

Meanwhile more troubles lie ahead. Its no secret that the other shoe of the US economy-the dollar-is going to fall in value sooner than later, and although William Safire is sanguine about this prospect , this decline is likely to hit American consumers, addicted to cheap imported goods, hard.

Far from Friedman’s depiction of an incredibly powerful US, we have tried to show that US power is declining. Global public opinion has actually had its center of gravity in Western Europe since it became more prominent in the nineties. A more radical global justice movement has crystallized since Seattle. The weakness of the US economically was brought to public attention-but by no means created-by the bursting of the stock market bubble and the dramatic bankruptcies of Enron, Worldcom, etc. It is in this context that the US has decided, under the leadership of far right fanatics, to try to dispense with diplomacy and economic leadership and exclusively play the military card. This will accelerate its decline-as each military ‘victory’ emboldens all of the US’ opponents to more speedily adapt effective strategies.

I suspect that Thomas Friedman and I have different people in mind when we say ‘everyone’ hates us. Friedman worries about European leaders, and the global neoliberal community. US standing among these elites has indeed fallen precipitously lately. If he wants to restore US prestige (although it will never again be as great as it was), Friedman would be well advised to openly oppose Bush’s policies, rather than trying to add a figleaf of rationality to them. Pretending that the policy of pre-emptive strikes sort of makes sense isn’t fooling anyone. Lashing out at France, rather than paying serious attention to their opinions, won’t help either.

On the other hand, the world opinion I am concerned about is less elite, and I suspect it has changed less dramatically over the last few years. Workers, peasants, indigeneous groups, and all sorts of ‘subalterns’ have known for years that the policies advocated by the US, the IMF/World Bank/WTO, and multinational corporations have been screwing them over. The abandonment of world leadership by the US presents an opportunity to these groups, as well as a threat. The opportunity is to play the two poles of world power against each other, to find more room for policies that can address their urgent needs. The European Union isn’t likely to become a trustworthy ally of these groups, but there is a fragment of the European political class-the groups who attend the WSF-who are considerably more open to listening to what these groups have to say than anyone with much power in the US. Their hand is likely to be strengthened if the split with the US intensifies and Europe seeks allies elsewhere. The danger is that heightened opposition to the US will take the form of crude anti-Americanism, rather than movements aimed at producing more just global policies. It is perhaps in this last respect that we have some room to intervene.

STEVEN SHERMAN is a sociologist whose latest article, “The attacks of September 11 in Three Temporalities“, can be read online. He can be reached at threehegemons@aol.com.