'Each man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world'
-- Arthur Schopenhauer, Essays and Aphorisms

'Artists are tricky fellows sir, forever shaping the world according to some design of their own'
-- Jonathan Strange, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell

Saturday, 19 November 2011

The Chinese are reading Foreign Affairs: we should too.

China has a past. A long one.

It doesn't see it's recent ascent, incorporating renewed diplomatic and economic power, as something novel and welcome. Instead, it sees the West as having deprived it of its vaulted position by taking its own inventions and discoveries and using them for its own gain. It sees is ascent as restoration and deserved.

China looks at its trajectory over the past 5000 years and sees itself as restoring its rightful place at the head of the world order. To stave off confrontation whilst it engages in economic enterprise abroad (developing new market nodes in Africa and South America), it labels its ascent as a peaceful rise. 

Of course, the idea of China as a monolith is a mistake. By China, I mean the ruling politburo and state apparatus, including the rise of the uber-class. The Chinese have certainly understood that resource grab represents the most important engagement in the current landscape. War is draining and diminishes authority in the international sphere. There's a fascinating article by William G. Hyland when he leaves the position of editor at Foreign Affairs in 1992 and he recaps the past 70 years of the journal. 

In 1978 Walter J. Levy wrote that oil-consuming nations needed to develop alternate energy sources, and that the United States needed to discourage often wasteful spending by OPEC members on rapid development and military buildups:

We cannot much longer afford a situation in which the importing countries waste a substantial part of their energy while the producing countries waste a substantial part of their oil revenues. In the past we have too often been stymied in our efforts to cope with these problems by entrenched national or private interests on all sides. If we should ultimately fail, this period in our history could truly be characterized as ‘the years that the locust hath eaten.’

The failure of the United States not only to lead the industrialized nations out of the oil crisis, but even to design an effective national energy policy, was a major factor in the "renewed decline of respect abroad for U.S. policy," Bundy concluded.

There are failures that Hyland highlights. Most importantly and indeed farsightedly given the comfortable position America found itself in, in 1992, Hyland stresses those in the journal who have spoken out about the necessity of economic security, for national security. Hyland references Gaddis:

Another Foreign Affairs author, John Lewis Gaddis, deplored the lack of strategic thinking in U.S. policy, and its harmful effect on containment of the Soviet Union.

We really ought not to go on framing long-term national security policy in response to short-term domestic political expedients, crossing our fingers each time in the hope that the result will relate, in some way, to the external realities we confront, and to our own long-term interests. We ought not to neglect, to the extent that we do, the relationship between national security and the national economy. 

Hence arguably the greatest folly of the War on Terror was not Afghanistan or Iraq or any of the smaller wars that constituted a wide arena of counter-terrorism operations, instead it was to fight foreign militarised wars by increasing debt rather than increasing taxes. This had two incredibly damaging effects.

Firstly, and most importantly, it created no onus on the people to in some way share the burden. Forced to make no financial sacrifice, the people of America did not think of themselves 'at war'. Whilst the military fought abroad in nation-state theatres of Iraq and Afghanistan, America feared only an amorphous, indistinct threat of terrorism. This created a fundamental disconnect between the soldier and the state. As the famous slogan on the white board shows:

If the people had been taxed, this long war would never have stretched as far as it did. Economic investment by the people would warrant results, but not having to pay meant that the military got to prosecute a low-intensity war that went on to become America's longest war (in Afghanistan) and the visceral events of 9.11 meant that there was little oversight in the early years, on how the military spent their money. Now, as emotions have receded, there are the questions, and Martin Dempsey has got a host of them from the leading officials in the past year. 

The second problem is the direct assualt on the American economy caused by leveraging a global war against terrorism. There will never come a day when terrorism humbly boards the USS Missouri and signs terms of surrender.

Terrorism doesn't wear a top hat: Japanese surrender signatories arrive on USS Missouri
G W Bush and the Republicans inherited a budget deficit of US$5 trillion. When he left office it was about US$10 trillion. Fighting the war with debt and developing homeland security which restricted trade and travel, both vital facets of the economy, meant that when Obama took office, implementing the war on terror has contributed to this deterioration in fiscal health. Obama has had little ability to stem the tide. An aging population requires more expensive healthcare (the only industry where technological innovations make applications more expensive) and he inherited two major combat zones abroad. Currently, debt is at about US$14.5 trillion. Increasing at a rate faster under Obama than under Bush.

During this decade of descent, China has ascended to a more central stage economically. Recently, a delegation fighting to save the Euro went, very publicly, cap in hand to China. But the Chinese can sit back: They can literally afford to wait. President Obama has recently appeared to marginalise Europe in his considerations, going to Australia and talking of Pacific partners, forming a new US military presence in the north of the country.

So, the UK desperately needs a period of introspection - finding some way to close the rich-poor divide and homogenizing an increasingly fractious society. In this instance, a Liberal-Conservative alliance is the best possible platform through which to proceed. True, it's not going to be easy, but the possible dangers of leaving unadulterated the ethnic cleavages crystallising and the widening number of those in poverty as inflation, food and energy prices rise mean a decline in real income, are real and serious. 

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