The Dissolution of America’s ‘World Order’, and its emerging Determinants

Alastair Crooke, Comment, 3 Nov 2017

The ‘World Order’ visibly is dissolving.  Most blame President Trump, and there is no doubt that the US President deliberately acts as the ‘great disrupter’.  But that is exactly what he promised to do: to fracture a global order, in order to pursue a narrower, mercantilist interest for America.  He set out purposefully to curtail the demands of maintaining a US-shaped, globalised order, precisely to attenuate US interests down to a tangible dollar benefit – and to jobs.  

But, is this ‘dissolution’ wholly to be laid at President Trumps’ feet?  Perhaps he is also the reflection of other major solvent dynamics at work in the modern world – and that the focus on Trump’s ‘disruptive' tweets obscures these other powerful forces?

Recall that when the uni-polar, American-shaped, world order, was first mooted in 1996, by Robert Kagan and Bill Kristol, in Towards a neo-Reaganite Foreign Policy, it was defined as being wholly contingent on Russia’s absence from foreign policy – after the collapse of the USSR – for long enough for the unipolar ‘moment’ to be constructed. David Wurmser and Paul Wolfowitz emphasised that the window of opportunity (Russia’s indifference), thus was likely to be temporary, and limited to a few years only.

Well now, Russia is back.  And with President Putin’s intervention in Syria, President Bush’s New Middle East project has been ended. America’s uni-polar ‘moment’ effectively has failed – though its military bases in the Gulf (the pivot of its global projection of power) do remain in place.  Not surprisingly, there is deep anger directed at Mr Putin, from certain quarters.

What Russia’s intervention in Syria has done, however, apart from delivering a blow to the New Middle East project is to create a new contiguity in the region: the border between Iraq and Iran is open; the border between Syria and Iraq is opening; the direct trade route between Iraq and Turkey is opening; and the border between Syria and Lebanon is open.  A political mass of critical import is emerging.  Not only is it a significant mass: it is an energised, and mobilised mass.  In contrast, the Gulf States have been weakened and divided – and the tool of fired-up Wahhabism, discredited.

In this sense, Russia has contributed to the fraying of America’s globalised order, but cannot be held wholly accountable for its frailty.  For the entire rise of the cosmopolitan, urban, globalised project was founded on identity politics (choose from a wide array: your own gender; the ethnicity which suits; the ‘minority’ cause you wish to advance; your own particular ‘spirituality’, or anti-spirituality, etc.).  But always, and everywhere, radical identity politics has been used to fragment national culture. In Russia, the Trotskyite Bolsheviks launched a truly genocidal war against everything ‘Russian’: the idea of Russia, culturally, intellectually and spiritually was anathema. This murderous war on a national ‘vision’ only came to an end when Stalin finally, after 1937, killed the killers.

Everywhere now there is a reaction against the disembedding from national culture because, simply, the far-off, remote processes of power leave people feeling ‘de-sovereigntised’.  There has been a general awakening to the sense that sovereignty rests with thinking sovereign, and acting sovereign, and that thinking and acting can only be seated in national culture: what it means to be American, Russian or Catalan.

What we are experiencing today in the US and Europe, are the efforts to push down these ‘disruptive’ impulses towards cultural re-sovereigntisation, into the depths.  Yet the psychic tensions keep welling up (despite them being thought to have been sealed tight), and, as Shakespeare kept warning, if not arrested in time, can lead to tragedy (or madness).  

And in US foreign policy too, the US aim is less one of balance, but rather to 'push down’ into the depths those which are deemed to be ‘disruptive influences’ - through resort to military threats, and a practice of unpredictability, and a willingness to play ‘chicken’.  Inevitably, this is only adding to the welling of ‘other' forces.

So, what are the new determinants ahead?  Well, firstly how to manage the ‘void’ that has opened between the remoteness of the processes of power, and peoples’ sense of the absence of any ‘near-to’, available sovereignty. A sovereignty that can ameliorate peoples’ lives, in a day-to-day way – especially at a time of the 60-40 economic disparity and distress to which Ray Dalio has pointed (see here and here).

These tensions will continue to manifest in terms of political volatility in Europe and America.  But, this ‘solvent’ dynamic hardly can be attributed to Trump.  He did not author it; rather he reflects it, and aggravates it. 

Nevertheless, Trump’s shift towards a more mercantilist, inward-looking, economic agenda, is his signature insight, and this too, gradually is eroding and fragmenting what might be termed the Plaza Accord era (the agreement between leading Central Banks and Finance ministries to pursue common, consensus monetary policies, led by the US Federal Reserve, and Treasury). With tariff wars now adding to currency wars (viz. the Turkish Lire); sanctions wars and threats of exclusion from the financial system: volatility in the financial system, too is probable, as states put ‘their interests first’ too. What is striking however, is the dichotomy between the unprecedented calm and low volatility pertaining in the US and European markets, and the external perception that the US is deeply polarised; that both monetary and political policy generally has lost its way, and that this, in itself, ultimately might presage an economic, or dollar crisis.

America’s ‘uni-polar moment’ policy failure in the Middle East, however, encompasses a more significant lacuna — one that may well prove to be a key determinant of the future order. The US (and Israel) have been unable to implement or to insist on any buffer between Israel and Iran.  For the first time, Israel now finds itself ‘alone’ in the region, facing a contiguity of energized and mobilised forces.  This is conjuring the demons in Israel (with some feeding the demons). Both sides are warning of conflict, and are building structures of deterrence.  Israeli security and intelligence officials are more cautious, knowing that Israel’s ability to sustain war – absent America’s full-hearted support – is limited to a few days only, but they are existentially uncertain as to whether truly the Israeli leadership has such American support.

How Israel resolves this dilemma; how the US resolves its own dilemma versus North Korea, will do much to shape the concert of emergent geo-political power.  But perhaps the extent to which the US and Europe can succeed in repressing political and geo-financial volatility – pushing it down into the psychic depths, and sealing it there –  may prove to be the ultimate determinant of future US power. Something of a similar challenge faces China too.  

Will it be "longer and lower" for longer everywhere then?  That is the question. Can it all truly be pushed down into the depths?