International relations scholar Richard Falk weighs in on the pandemic crisis and the global implications of neoliberalism, ecological illiteracy, and poverty as a global health issue.
In this interview, Daniel Falcone asks Falk to consider the resurgence of autocracies around the world in regards to anti-globalization. In differentiating “entrenched democracies, faux democracies, and monarchies,” Falk articulates the possibilities and worldviews that governments will take into restructuring the global economy.
Additionally, Falk includes a commentary on the built-in readiness of the more evolved European responses to public health needs as well as the dangers that Trump’s economic nationalism poses to Sub-Saharan African development.
Lastly, Falk discusses the prospects of the US as a failed state by referring to the upcoming Trump-Biden showdown that features the same old, familiar political figures that shape a similar “consensus of militarism, neoliberalism, and foreign affairs absolutism,” with hope that the Sanders movement continues.
Daniel Falcone: Carlos Delclós, a sociologist based in Barcelona has highlighted the need for bottom up responses for social solidarity in Spain when compared to the unity declarations put forth by the monarchy. Further, journalist Ben Ehrenreich cites that while there are severe problems with the government, remnants of a democratic spirit and mutual aid keep optimism and hope alive within their system of universalized healthcare. Can you comment on the greater European response to pandemic?
Richard Falk: I am aware of the greater strength and role of cooperative movements in European countries, a residue of the socialist movements of the prior century, that give rise to more spontaneous approaches on local levels to immediate threats to well-being, exhibiting both less trust and less dependence on governmental undertakings.
Furthermore, European health systems are more evolved, fewer people left out, and more sense of public responsibility, although some deficiencies also emerged. Italy and Spain lacked sufficient governmental capabilities to cope humanely with the challenge of a pandemic, although the epicenter was initially in Lombardy, the richest part of the country.
Given the urbanization and social complexity accompanying modernity, the need for intelligent, imaginative, and humane governance is a necessity in times of societal crisis, and its absence magnifies suffering.
Daniel Falcone: The World Bank is reporting that Sub-Saharan Africa is experiencing a drastic economic downturn and the first in more than a couple of decades. Can you explain the unfolding in this region, which is fairly under reported by western democracies?
Richard Falk: Sub-Saharan Africa is still heavily dependent on the exports of resources rather than on the provision of services and high-end manufacturing, and as a result is exceedingly vulnerable to changes in the adverse terms of trade that arise whenever “deglobalization” trends are present. It would seem that the rise of ultra-nationalism, as highlighted by “Trumpist” economic nationalism, have negative impacts on sub-Saharan African development prospects.
Daniel Falcone: Recently, I spoke with John Feffer of Foreign Policy in Focus and he explained how the pandemic has impacted globalization in regards to a “slowbalization.” He has commented on additional dimensions of this elsewhere. Could you elaborate on the anti-globalization and ultra-nationalist worldview wave that autocrats around the world are riding currently? This looks as dangerous as the pandemic.
Richard Falk: There is no little doubt a rise of autocrats, elected and non-elected, in what seemed entrenched democracies (U.S., UK, India, Brazil), in faux democracies (Russia, Hungary, Egypt), and monarchies (Saudi Arabia, UAE, Morocco). This authoritarian surge, which came initially as a surprise to most of us, superseded expectations associated with the end of the Cold War that were triumphantly interpreted as an ideological victory for the West and its values, and especially for the American political economy.
George H.W. Bush, president at the time of the Soviet collapse, proclaimed ‘a new world order’ in which the geopolitical hegemony of the U.S. now was unopposed, and would no longer be challenged in global arenas. This meant that the UN could function as intended on the basis of consensus in a world without ideological rivalry, which allowed the UN to sponsor the Iraq War of 1992 designed to restore Kuwaiti sovereignty by compelling Iraq to abandon conquest and annexation.
Then Bill Clinton came along promoting a foreign policy based on a doctrine of ‘enlargement,’ shorthand for predicting and promoting the spread of democracies. It was accompanied by the optimistic belief that an era of peace and prosperity would follow the further spread of democratically governed states. It was widely believed that democracies do not go to war against one another and capitalism is the best engine of growth the world has ever known. From such perspectives the post-Cold War world was envisioned as becoming increasingly both peaceful and prosperous.
Such a worldview was supportive of regime-changing interventions, especially in the Middle East, to get rid of the more strategically troublesome remnants of autocratic regimes and reflected the prevailing enthusiasm about the growth potential of neoliberal globalization, an approach long championed by the neoconservative movement.
To become operational such a policy outlook needed both the 9/11 attacks to re-securitize American foreign policy and the neoconservative presidency of George W. Bush. The decisive test of this proactive outlook occurred in the Iraq War of 2003. Expressing this jubilant mood, Bush II introduced a government report on national security in 2002 with an assertion of faith in the singularity and superiority of the American form of governance that went largely unchallenged at the time. He contended that market-oriented constitutionalism (as exemplified by the USA) had demonstrated to the world that its form of democracy (elections plus capitalism) was the only legitimate way to organize the political life of a sovereign state in the new century.
So, the haunting question remains, ‘what went wrong’? The most obvious explanation rests on the alienating impacts of neoliberal globalization that seemed to heap its rewards on the very, very rich while leading to stagnation or worse for the multitudes.
This structural explanation of the rise of autocracy is certainly a large part of the story as predatory capitalism in this period gave rise to gross inequality on all levels of social order, symbolized by the 26 richest individuals controlling more than half of the world’s wealth. Another part of this story, less frequently acknowledged, is that the socialist alternative to capitalism was successfully discredited by falsely representing the Soviet political and economic failure as a decisive and sufficient test case of the viability of a socialist alternative.
This ideological supremacy of neoliberal capitalism facilitated two regressive developments: first, leading neoliberal globalization to privilege capital over people, or put differently, to choose economic efficiency over human well-being. Secondly, creating a political consciousness that fed the illusion that there were no tenable alternatives to the existing mode of political economy, completely ignoring the kind of autocratic state capitalism that flourished so remarkably in China in an ideological atmosphere that presented itself as fulfilling the hopes and dreams of socialism, experiencing a remarkable modernizing facelift under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping that had did not rest its claims on the virtues of democracy.
For most of the world, the Chinese phenomenon, while mesmerizing, was seen as not generalizable beyond China, or at least not beyond Asia. In such a setting there was a very unhealthy political situation—the dominant practices and policies of neoliberal globalization were not delivering material benefits to most people living in democratic societies, and the excesses of this stage of capitalism were left unchallenged, and hence unmitigated, by socialist challenges that had since Marx led the most adept masters of capital to seek accommodation with the laboring classes and create an image of an ethical capitalism that was inclusive of the great majority of people in their respective national societies.
With that humanistic imperative of ideological rivalry pushed aside, the path was cleared for the emergence of demagogues, and those who found scapegoats to blame for the widespread distress among the public, especially foreigners. This new kind of political appeal produces a blind kind of trust in the leader, however misleading the diagnosis, and feeds a nationalist frenzy at the very time that the world needs recognition of a cooperative global order to address such challenges as climate change. It is not without irony, that the U.S., which had long lectured the world on the many virtues of democracy, should voluntarily succumb to the autocratic ‘charms’ of Donald Trump.
It is notable to take account of the existence of some dissenters from ‘slowbalization,’ the most prominent is Richard Haass, former government official and currently President of the Council of Foreign Relations. He anticipates a recovery process that involves an ‘acceleration’ of pre-pandemic trends, including a concerted effort to restore the neoliberal world order with especial emphasis on its orientation toward limitless growth based on technological innovation and capital efficiency, but revamped in the precarious context of continuing American decline, which includes an absence of the kind leadership required to address global problems through multilateralism.
In the background of the Haass view of the post-pandemic world is an intensifying geopolitical rivalry producing conflict and increasing dangers of strategic warfare, presumably featuring a standoff between the U.S. and China.
Henry Kissinger, a stalwart of the triumphalist outlook that followed the Soviet collapse, is more hopeful than Haass, projecting the period after the pandemic subsides as a call for the reassertion of robust American leadership on the global policy stage. He believes that the openness of trade and the transnational mobility of people depend on the renewal of confidence in the neoliberal world order that proved so successful after World War II, and was constructed on the basis of Enlightenment values emphasizing the fusion of political stability, confidence in science and technology, and market-driven economic growth
In the background of the restoration of the pre-pandemic ‘normal’ is the ecological illiteracy of supposing that maximizing economic growth via globalization, or otherwise, can proceed without respect for the limits on carrying capacity of the earth. Frank Snowden, the widely respected expert on epidemiology in an illuminating interview (Il Manifesto, Global Edition, April 11, 2020) suggesting that COVID-19 virus and earlier flu epidemics (SARS, MERS, Ebola, avian flu) can all be traced to zoonotic transfers of the virus from animals to humans, expressing spillovers that he argues are bound to occur when animal habitats are encroached upon by spreading urbanization and industrialization.
A more reconstructive post-pandemic approach would strive for ‘a new normal,’ which combined the health imperative of sensible preparedness and universal coverage with an ecological sophistication that sought to mitigate inequalities among peoples and societies by addressing poverty as a health issue, including the recognition that diseases are more lethal in relation to vulnerable peoples, who suffer as victims and victimize others by becoming agents of contagion.
Daniel Falcone: After the dust settles from the pandemic, if it does, can you attempt a forecast of how global powers will align or realign?
‘Dealignment’ is more likely than ‘realignment.’ I am assuming here that either that the nationalist retreat from neoliberal globalization will continue or there will be strong moves, hard to forecast, in the direction of regional and global cooperation in key sectors of policy, with international institutions given important coordinating roles. In either alternative alliance, diplomacy seems not likely to reemerge in any manner comparable to what it was in the prior century. Trump has already significantly weakened the Western alliance structure, and except for the forays of “coercive diplomacy” contra Iran (in concert with Saudi Arabia, Israel), seems to have adopted a unilateralist foreign policy course supplemented by transactional bilateralism in which the interaction seeks win/lose outcomes based on hard power disparities.
Reverting to Haass and Kisssinger, it is worth noting that the pessimistic assessments of Haass are explicitly linked to his anticipation of the post-pandemic world order as resembling what happened in the decades after World War I, that is, the Great Depression, the rise of fascism, and a second world war. Kissinger, although habitually associated with a fatalistic view of the international scene, somehow strikes more hopeful notes by advocating and somewhat anticipating a post-pandemic recovery that resembles the dynamics of world order following World War II with the U.S. playing its former leadership role by recognizing the opportunities and needs for a more cooperative approach to global problems.
Daniel Falcone: Are there any chances for United States reform at a local or even an institutional level that can offset the political capital maintained by autocrats both here and around the world? Are we in fact, a “failed state?”
You raise an interesting question. A response must start with the disappointing observation that the 2020 election is between Trump and Biden, a familiar political figure who shaped his career around the bipartisan Cold War consensus of militarism, neoliberalism, and pro-Israeli absolutism. This orientation is what I have called elsewhere ‘the three pillars of American foreign policy’ that only Sanders dared challenge (and paid the price) as one sees what was done to his frontrunner status by the guardians of the established order. Sanders’ response that he lost the primary campaign, but his movement will go on fighting, is suggestive of the gap between the establishment world of political parties and his movement consisting of various societal domains of people that seems openly hostile to the bipartisan consensus, the deep state, and the special interest lobbies that continue to dominate not only the governing process, but also the electoral process
What is worth noticing is that even Trump despite his bombastic claims during the 2016 presidential campaign has as president paid his dues to the bipartisanship in foreign policy with his enlarged military budget, tax cuts for the richest and rollback of regulatory interferences with predatory capitalism, and the greenest light ever given to Israeli expansionism and one-statism. His only halfhearted departure from bipartisanship has been the downplaying of Euro-American alliance geopolitics.
Possibly, the autocratic edge of American politics would be dulled by a Biden presidency by more moderate judicial appointments and some effort to address gross inequalities, student debt, infrastructure, and an improved health system that encompasses the whole society. Yet, it would seem absurd to expect more from Biden, given that his principal message is ideational, a promise to restore national unity by reaching out so far as to include so-called ‘moderate’ Romney Republicans, who have never struck me as moderate except in comparison to their alt-right Republican leadership of the Trump era.
Biden’s unity message is also code language for restoring the bipartisan consensus in an overt form that would counter some of the ultra-nationalist retreat from globalization. In foreign policy we could expect a shift in tone from ‘America First’ to ‘NATO First’ as a way of differentiating his approach from that of Trump and of reaffirming faith in the Western alliance as once again the centerpiece of American foreign policy. It would be foolhardy to expect Biden after a centrist lifetime political career to pursue a progressive social and ecological agenda, yet without such an agenda we can be thankful to Biden for ending the reign of Trump while renewing our severe worries about the social and ecological shortcomings of the American governance experience given 21st century urgencies.