“Forget these frivolous demands which strike a terror to my fading soul”. So Mephistopheles beseeches Marlowe’s Dr Faustus. With American politicians not so much debating whether or not to sell America’s soul, but for what price, the most profound of strategic questions is now apparent. For how long does the West support a system of globalisation that is clearly no longer working in its favour?
The United States has a national debt of $14.3 trillion. 9.2% of the workforce is unemployed and for every dollar the US Government spends 43 cents is borrowed. Much of southern and eastern Europe is mired in debt with states being propped up either by a small group of western European taxpayers or selling their indebted souls to China for who knows what future strategic price.
The West fought a long and just struggle to defeat the extreme statism of Soviet communism. Now the West must face up to one of the uncomfortable consequences of its victory; extreme free marketism allied to sovereign capital is rapidly destroying Western influence. The system is in crisis and the West is trapped in a rapid spiral of self-induced decline.
For too long Western leaders have stuck to the mantra that globalisation is westernisation. This is now patently wrong. Globalisation has no inherent values and eschews structure. There is patently no inherent link to the open, liberal model of government and governance the West espouses. No, globalisation simply enables those with the most (and most liquid) financial clout to access and influence societies. In that sense extreme globalisation works much likes a computer virus.
Furthermore, globalisation might indeed work as once envisaged as a vehicle for the promotion of wealth and freedom if all the key actor played by the same rules on a level playing field. That is clearly not the case. Asian powers such as China are manipulating the naïve openness of many Western states by demanding access to markets that they deny others. By such an approach China is constructing a huge network of sovereign influence over Western states. Put simply, the trade imbalance between China and the West is leading to a power imbalance that unless addressed soon will permanently eclipse the West.
Unfortunately, it is a mark of the shallowness of political leaders on both sides of the Atlantic that they cannot see beyond their immediate and respective debt crises to the bottom-line strategic reality. The real question is thus not how much is owed, but rather to whom and at what price? The current debt crisis is the symptom not the cause.
To some extent America‘s debt is a deterrent to China as an American default would be devastating for those holding the dollar, even though such a move would effectively destroy the Bretton Woods system of global financial governance. Europe has no such Armageddon option.
But perhaps the most pernicious aspect of this disaster is the steps taken by Western political leaders to mask their own incompetence. The consequences of extreme globalisation are explained away either by pretending to deal with the symptoms (they are not), either by ignoring the problem all together, or by pretending it is a good thing. In fact, Western governments lost in the vacuum between ideology and impotence have effectively lost control over all borders – informational, financial, economic and even physical. They simply cannot bring themselves to admit that extreme openness is as dangerous as extreme protectionism or statism. As such they have lost any sense of the balance in and of government needed to manage international relations in all is forms.
History is full of many lessons but one of the most consistent is that when governments give up their power and responsibilities the results are as dangerous as when governments attempt to control everything.
Since the end of the Cold War there has been a collective dereliction of duty by Western leaders – American and European alike. They have collectively failed to see either the implications or dangers of extreme globalisation. They have collectively demonstrated mind-boggling complacency about the implications of extreme globalisation. Prevailed upon by too many narrow vested business interests they have collectively failed to realise that they have lost control of globalisation and in so doing we the people are now vulnerable to the savagely acquisitorial – both states and businesses.
Balance is the key. Western governments must move collectively to re-assess globalisation and begin to re-assert control over money, markets and mayhem. Indeed, globalisation in its purest form is mayhem and anarchy. The whole point of government is to prevent such. Otherwise, life will indeed become as Hobbes would have it “nasty, brutish and short”. If that means some form of macro-protectionism whilst new rules are established then so be it. But to continue with the current system of wilful vulnerability would be to damn the West to destruction and far more quickly than feared.
Western politicians are fiddling whilst the West fails. At least something unites American and European politicians. A plague on both their houses.
Professor Julian Lindley-French, a member of the Atlantic Council Strategic Advisor’s Group, is Special Professor of Strategic Studies, University of Leiden, Netherlands and Associate Fellow of the Royal Institute of International Affairs, London. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.