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America's Current Predicament
November 01, 2004
America's recent international posture, although framed by its government interlocutors as a necessary response to the events of September 11, has a much more complex economic and historical basis.
The invasion of Iraq was a consequence of not only of bad intelligence, but also a desire to replicate history, by notching up an easy win as Reagan did in his invasion of Grenada soon after more than 200 marines were killed in Lebanon. But force of events has pulled America deeper in the Iraq quagmire, much like what happened almost forty years earlier in Vietnam, so that it is hostage to the very circumstances it was most trying to avoid.
The error behind Iraq policy was from the eschewing of a realistic treatment of world history in favour of romantic nostalgia for 19th century colonial peace. It led to the notion that if America faces fundamental challenges externally and internally, decisiveness and force beyond the borders would show the way out. The sacrifices required internally for this to happen were ignored in the cause of political expediency.
The first challenge America faces is the loss of pre-eminence of its industry to lower cost centres in Asia where disciplined and educated workers are prepared to work at a fraction of the wages in the West. The second is that while the cult of consumerism as the dynamic within American society provides energy to the economy, it is causing a hollowing of values of hard work, and is responsible for the neglect of science and technology in school and college.
Rising medical costs are making it hard for American companies to compete even with its rivals in the developed world. But there are such entrenched interest groups in the country that neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have addressed them directly in their political campaigns.
The Republican response to these problems is rather simplistic: a barely disguised appeal to religion (even Armageddon and the end of the world) and idealism, as if virtue alone (if the lack of which is assumed to be reason for the danger) would change the force of history; the need to make 'other civilisations' play by Western rules; or even controlling the world's resources through war, if necessary.
On the other hand, the Democrats have wished to perpetuate the dominance of the West using the ITO and other globalisation strategies. Political thinkers acknowledge that it is for the good of the world that the differences between the rich and the poor nations should be reduced. But, domestically, the Democrats have not proposed credible solutions to the problems of vanishing manufacturing jobs and outsourcing.
The philosophical foundations to the Republican approach are provided by people like Samuel Huntington, in whose view, 'The balance of power among civilisations is shifting: the West is declining in relative influence; Asian civilisations are expanding their economic, military, and political strength; Islam is exploding demographically with destabilising consequences for Muslim countries and their neighbors, and non-Western civilizations generally are reaffirming the value of their own cultures.'
He quotes, approvingly, the English novelist Michael Dibdin, who said: 'There can be no true friends without true enemies. Unless we hate what we are not, we cannot love what we are. These are the old truths we are painfully rediscovering after a century and more of sentimental cant. Those who deny them deny their family, their heritage, their culture, their birthright, their very selves!' Huntington insists, 'For peoples seeking identity and reinventing ethnicity, enemies are essential, and the potentially most dangerous enmities occur across the fault lines between the world's major civilizations.'
Huntington's views are in accord with the ideology of the English political philosopher Thomas Hobbes, who said that competing desires lead men in a state without civil government in an endless war. For Hobbes, the way out of this is was an authoritarian version of the social contract. This permanent state of war among men could only be contained by a dominant power 'to keep them all in awe.'
Huntington's more recent Who We Are? is a critique of internationalists and multiculturalists because in his view America is basically a Christian and Anglocentric country and it shouldn't be allowed to change. He warns that the imperiled primacy of English, the dangers of immigration and multiculturalism, and a growing divide between the working class and 'denationalised elites' will lead to internal conflict. On the global stage it pits the Americans and the English against the non-Anglocentric peoples in a clash of cultures.
Indirectly, he urges the export of the Anglocentric values to the rest of the world by a dominant America, providing the philosophical basis to the New Imperialism to keep peace in the world, as the British Empire did in the 19th century.
But Huntington's lessons are based on a selective use of history. The current religious struggle between the West and Islam cannot have any resolution since neither side is prepared to concede. The only resolution can be a transformation of both sides by acceptance of perennial and universal values.
Americans are not sure that if the Democrats can put their finger on what the problems are, they have the solutions. In the age of the Internet, design work or service cannot be prevented from being done at a location where the costs are lower. Manufacturing that has already fled to Asia cannot be brought back unless tariffs are imposed on imports, that will cause a breakdown in international trade. It would lead to sharp rise in prices and a corresponding drop in standard of living with other unintended consequences.
American politicians are aware that the current situation cannot be allowed to go on for too long. Already, there is a trade deficit per year of more than $500 billion and the federal budget deficit is of the same magnitude. But the politicians feel powerless to challenge the various interest groups that want the status quo to continue.
Americans believe that capitalism with its rewards to the daring provides it the energy and drive for breakthroughs in science and engineering. If its research centres can create new technologies, the loss of the old manufacturing and service sectors will not matter. But in the globalised world economy, how will America keep the new innovations from being exploited outside its borders almost right away?