The Revenge of the Political Man

April 21, 2007 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Asia Times on April 21, 2007.

I am a member of a book club in Washington that each month invites authors to discuss their new works on global affairs topics. It is not surprising that in the past two years, most of the books that we have been arguing about dealt with terrorism, Iraq and the Middle East, with each gathering attracting an audience of more than 100 members of our group and igniting lively debate.

But when our most recent invited speaker was the author of a new and provocative book on US trade policy towards China, no more than 10 members showed up, despite the fact that the event took place on a warm spring evening in the US capital, not to mention the free food that was served or even the free parking that was available.

“Now if only this book had been published 10 years ago,” I thought to myself, recalling the roaring globalization years of the presidency of Bill Clinton (or was it Bill Gates?), when the US geo‐​economic policy in East Asia — and not US geostrategic policy in the Middle East — was all the rage in Washington, when the Pacific Rim was “in” and the Persian Gulf was “out”, when “global crises” were associated with financial meltdowns in Southeast Asia and not with suicide bombings in Southwest Asia, when the Top Dog in the US administration was the secretary of the treasury (Robert Rubin) and not the Pentagon chief (Donald Rumsfeld).

A time when Washington’s policy analysts were flaunting their fluency in Chinese and not in Arabic while bragging about their expertise in the workings of the emerging markets instead of in the methods of terrorist groups, and when, indeed, books about China and trade and not about Iran and national security were topping the non‐​fiction sections of the best‐​seller lists of the book reviews of The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Those were the days, my friend. We were all about to be downloaded into The Borderless World (the title of a popular book by business analyst Kenichi Ohmae) in which the archaic nation‐​state had vanished into thin air (as military historian Martin van Creveld predicted in The Rise and Decline of the State), or at least was being transformed into The Rise of the Trading State (as political economist Richard Rosecrance put it.

Joseph Nye’s Soft Power of Microsoft, MTV and CNN were replacing the Hard Power of ICBMs, SLBMs and MIRVs as the main currency of influence in world politics, and the global Tribes, (Jews, Arabs, Hindus, Chinese), as futurist Joel Kotkin proposed in a book by that name, would cease fighting each other over holy temples and olive trees and emerge in our new and brave world as the prime agents of global commerce, competing over market shares and investment flows, as the Oracle from Davos, Tom Friedman and his McDonalds Law (“no two countries that had McDonalds had gone to war with each other”), had forecasted.

Indeed, during the height of the globalization age, many leading Zeitgeist watchers were moving beyond bold economic predictions (no more business cycles; Dow 30,000; we’ll retire in our 20s) and proposed that a new civilization was being born out of the increasing flow of money, products, ideas, and, most important, people, across the borders of decaying nation‐​states.

When a company was owned by Japanese, managed by Americans and operated by Indians, Who is Us? (the title of an article penned by Clinton’s labor secretary Robert Reich) as opposed to “Them”, these pundits were asking (It’s the added value, stupid!).

Others were celebrating the rise of the New Cosmopolitans, or “global hybrids” with “transnational identities,” (terms coined by journalist Pascal Zachary in The Global Me: The New Cosmopolitan Age) with roots in more than one nation and with wings to fly anywhere and any time, who would be the winners in a universe where new determinants for business, political and cultural success would be national diversity and a “mongrel” sense of self. Pass that Cuban‐​Chinese falafel, please.

And then there was the Internet and I was a journalist … oops … sorry … a “Content Provider” (as my business card at that time stipulated) who was confronting a personal professional dilemma. My academic training was in international politics, Soviet‐​American relations and the Middle East, and there I was in 1992 trying to make a post‐​Cold War living, three years after the Berlin Wall had collapsed.

It was a time when the Middle East started to feel like old news, when Desert Storm was gradually turning into a distant memory and peace seemed to be dawning over the Holy Land in the “New” Middle East, where “Friedmanism” (Tom not Milton) was assuring us that, Hey, Man, you know, those young and extra‐​cool Israelis and Palestinians just want to, like, surf the net, watch MTV and make a lot of bucks. Even Yasser Arafat has a website. Don’t you get it? Duh?

So like Friedman, who at that time was remaking himself as a globalization prophet and Asia Watcher, I “got it”. Diversifying my journalistic portfolio I started covering East Asian “stuff” and to write about trade, investment and technology, so when a producer from Canadian television phoned me to ask if “can you do Indonesia”? on one of their news shows, I was glad to oblige: “But, of course. What do you think? That I do Iraq?”

And a few days before leaving for the historic five‐​day 1993 conference Asia‐​Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC)forum in Seattle I had a chance encounter with an old colleague, an unemployed and frustrated “terrorism expert” who was “temping” for an ad agency. “I’m going to the APEC meeting in Washington,” I told him. “I didn’t know that the AIPAC is meeting this month,” he responded, confusing APEC, the fledging Pacific trade group, meeting in the Pacific Northwest state of Washington, with AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, that is, the pro‐​Israeli lobbying organization in Washington.

“You lucky bastard,” he responded, telling me that by the way, he was having trouble getting editors interested in his idea for an article: What was happening to the veterans of the anti‐​Soviet war in Afghanistan?

But I was on my way to Seattle and couldn’t care less about retired mujahideen fighters. During the APEC conference, I was told by US officials that America’s ties with the economies of the Pacific Rim were superseding its ties with those of the Atlantic, and that the future was in Asia where the “dominoes” the Cold War were becoming the economic “dynamos” of the post‐​Cold War era (“emerging markets” would come only later), and who knows, perhaps one day APEC would be considered more significant than NATO.

And by the way, we Americans were really oriented more toward the Pacific (which in the new narrative included Mexico and Chile, members of APEC, as well as the rest of Latin America). I cannot remember how many times I had heard American spin doctors recycle these and other cliches during the 1994 meeting in Seattle: “Have you noticed that most of the new immigrants were Latinos and Asians and that California’s most important trade relationship is with the Pacific?”

And apropos California, the Pacific Northwest and Seattle, no need to dwell too much here about what was going at that time in the Silicon Valley, Intel and Microsoft. When Michael Kinsley, one of the most celebrated pundits in Washington (DC) announced at around that time that he was relocating to the other Seattle (Washington), to “do content” for Bill Gates’ company and launch Microsoft’s news outlet, a “webzine” called “Slate”, one could detect a sense of collective depression among the members of the political and media classes in the nation’s capital: Are we becoming extinct?

Was power shifting from the old Political Man in the Washington‐​Boston corridor to the new Economic Man residing in the booming high‐​tech linking San Francisco, San Jose and Seattle? Will the 21st century belong to the guys in the other coast, doing those things we couldn’t really understand and getting paid a lot for that (that we understood)?

Reflecting that fin‐​de‐​siecle mood in my city on the Potomac, I authored a commentary for one of my media clients titled, “The two Bills [Clinton and Gates] and their Two Washingtons: Who is Winning?” in which I concluded — no surprise here — that Bill Gates and his legions of young, productive, forward‐​looking (fill in the rest) entrepreneurs, geeks and “new media” in the Pacific‐​oriented Seattle, Washington, was leaving behind the old, parasitic and backward looking (fill in the rest) crowds of politicians, lobbyists and “old media” in the more “Atlanticist” Washington, DC. I thought that was a clever piece.

This is the point in a commentary in which you could be humming, John Lennon’s “Imagine there’s no countries, It isn’t hard to do, Nothing to kill or die for, And no religion too, Imagine all the people, Living life in peace …” and I could use these words as a sage way to the obligatory reference to Norman Angell’s 1909 work, The Grand Illusion, in which the British pundit argued that the integration of the economies of European countries in terms of the flows of trade and investment — the globalization‐​like process of the 19th century — had grown to such a degree that war between them was becoming unimaginable, or at least futile.

He was describing another new world in which the old Political Man with his obsession with militarism, alliances and national rivalries should have become obsolete, and which the vision of the new Economic Man, reflecting the belief in commerce as an engine of progress that overcomes any obstacle standing in its way, should have triumphed.

And as you as you consider the failure of the Economic Man to reign supreme, you may want to sing along to the tune of another of Lennon’s hits (“Nowhere Man”), “He’s a real Davos Man, Sitting in his Davos Land, Making all his Davos plans for nobody …” which is another appropriate sage way to “and then came World War I …” or in our case, “and then came September 11 …”

Well, it didn’t happen all at once when the planes struck into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. First, the members of the political class in Washington had never really waved the white flag. Most of them did not move west, and just in case Bill Gates did not get it, Bill Clinton’s lawyers went after Microsoft — proving once again, that “even if you don’t think about politics, politics thinks about you” (Leon Trotsky) — forcing these guys to open a big lobbying office in DC, which has provided new career opportunities for the political professionals.

At the same times, outfits like Clyde Prestowitz Economic Strategy Institute (ESI), advocating mercantilist policies to “manage” the US response to globalization were joined by many economic nationalists, protectionists and the newest boy in town, the China Basher, to secure the interests of the Political Man — the heads of declining manufacturing companies, labor unions representing workers in the textile industry, environmental activists, as well as all those suffering from what former ambassador Charles Freeman described as “enemy deprivation syndrome”, hoping that the Yellow Scare (China), the Green Peril (Islam), or a resurgent Russia would play the role of the new post‐​Cold War threat.

Intellectuals like Samuel Huntington (The Clash of Civilizations) or pseudo‐​intellectuals like Robert Kaplan (The New Anarchy) and the complex network of neo‐​conservative think tanks, magazines and many political front organizations provided the ideological components for policies aimed at strengthening the power of the presidency, embracing mercantilist strategies and expanding the national security state in preparation for the new geostrategic and geo‐​economic wars that would once against attention and resources to Washington, DC, and in its center, the US president and his happy warriors.

But the Clintonites, in the spirit of “making the world safe for our CEOs”, ended up resisting pressures to “punish” China for selling us cheap products and helped bring Beijing into the World Trade Organization. In fact, the WTO and China’s entry into it, together with NAFTA (North American Free Trade Area) and APEC coupled with the efforts to contain the financial crises in Mexico, Asia and Russia and permit Federal Reserve chairman Allan Greenspan to set the pace of US monetary and fiscal policies (resulting in contracting budget and trade deficits and a booming stock market) will probably be recalled as the crowning achievements of the ambitious and relatively successful trade liberalization and pro‐​investment policies of the Clinton presidency.

And with the exception of the intervention in the civil war in the former Yugoslavia, president Clinton and his aides had also opposed the constant bullying by the neo‐​conservatives and their allies in Congress, the Pentagon and media to oust Saddam Hussein, to ally the US with Taiwan, to threaten North Korea with war, to exploit terrorist acts as a way of launching campaigns against evil Middle Easterners and to drum up new and old phobias against Russia.

In a way, the Economic Man of the 1990s has never been vanquished; he has only been tamed. The “irrational exuberance” about the economy, with all those forecasts about the Dow soaring to the stratosphere and the end of the business cycle produced also an irrational intellectual exuberance reflected in the expectations about the collapse of the state and the disappearance of national, ethnic and religious rivalries.

And just as the high‐​tech bubble went bursting, and the stock market became bearish, old and new political animosities started rearing their ugly head: two countries with McDonalds — the United States and Serbia — had gone to war with each other; India embraced the market economy but that did not deter New Delhi from going nuclear (in fact, its economic success may have ignited its nationalist hunger for military triumph); and the Israelis and the Palestinians made it clear that they were willing to continue fighting over holy temples (in Jerusalem) and olive trees (in the West Bank) even as they continued doing “cool stuff” online.

Contrary to “Friedmanism”, striving to trade and invest in the global economy has not deterred one from launching costly military campaigns. The suggestion that those who make money do not make wars proved to be (once again) a “grand illusion”.

Indeed, one of the major failures of the Clintonites was the unwillingness or inability to put in place political or geostrategic foundations so as to ensure the long‐​term endurance of the globalization process. Instead, much of what Clinton and his aides pursued in the arena of foreign policy was reactive and “ad‐​hocish” in nature and based on the assumption that Pax Americana could be maintained with relatively low diplomatic and military costs: sending diplomatic fire brigades to the Middle East to quell fighting between Israelis and Palestinians and pretending to “do something” to revive the “peace process” in the Holy Land; applying a dubious strategy called “dual containment” in order to isolate Iraq and Iran through economic and diplomatic sanctions (and the occasional launching of missiles against Baghdad) while continuing to maintain a US “over‐​the horizon” military presence in the Persian Gulf; antagonizing Russia by expanding NATO to Russia’s borders and insisting that America has the right and the obligation to “export” democracy worldwide.

Instead, Washington could have attempted to work together with the existing powers (EU and Russia) and emerging players (China and India) of the world to create the institutional mechanisms and the policy structure for a multipolar strategy aimed at establishing stability and containing threats like terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in the arc of instability stretching from the Balkans through the Middle East and Central Asia to the borders of China, including a resolution of the Palestinian‐​Israeli conflict.

But that would have necessitated granting more diplomatic influence to the Europeans, making more concessions to the Russians, reaching compromises with the Chinese, irritating the Taiwanese, provoking the Israelis. At the end of the day, the political elites in the capital of the world’s only remaining superpower were not willing to take such steps that would have involved high domestic political costs in terms of opposition from powerful constituencies in Washington and would have also diminished their status as the Masters of the Post Cold‐​War Universe.

From that perspective, both the US failure to achieve an Israeli‐​Palestinian deal at Camp David and the ensuing intifadah II followed by terrorist attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 demonstrated that there was no such thing as a cost‐​free Pax Americana. The chickens came home to roost at the epicenter of the unipolar system, in the Middle East, and made it possible for the ideologues of US global hegemony to set a nationalist and imperialist agenda that was supposed to secure the interests of the Political Man that was now challenged by threatening anti‐​status quo players.

Nationalism and imperialism, two political forces that are so inimical to the values of classical liberalism, the preferred ideology of the Economic Man, seemed now to be the driving forces propelling American foreign policy, helping centralize more power in the hands of the imperial presidency and the national security state — following a path set by the American Civil War, the two World Wars and the Cold War in the last century, and producing countervailing anti‐​American forces around the world, that have served as a self‐​fulfilling prophecy. “Hey, they all out there hate us anyhow; so we need to isolate, punish and bomb these guys, and show them who the real boss here is.”

Ironically, the weird creature that neo‐​conservatism has given birth to — “Democratic imperialism” — the child that Woodrow (“let’s make the world safe for democracy”) Wilson and Queen Victoria never had — the idea that America invades and destroys other countries aka “liberation” in order to “democratize” and “liberalize” them, only helped to release even more destructive and atavistic forces of nationalism, ethnicity and religion in the broader Middle East and threatening a new Thirty‐​Year‐​War, this time between Sunnis and Shi’ites, which kind of makes one nostalgic to the “Old” Middle East.

At the same time, the US drive for hegemony here, there and everywhere, including by choreographing those “Color Revolutions”, also helped boost nationalist fervor in Russia, China and even in America’s “backyard”, in Latin America, where “neo‐​liberalism”, an ideological subset promoted in the Economic Man in the 1990s and which was supposed to bring about a US‐​led hemispheric free‐​trade area, was replaced by a mixture of indigenous Indian particularism, “Fidelism” and Fascism”, fused into “Chavism”.

Another irony has been the fact that two of the policy components of both Republican Reaganism (and for that matter, Clintonism) championed by George W Bush — immigration and free‐​trade — ended up falling victim to the nationalist wolves being reawakened by neo‐​conservatism. After all, it is a mission impossible to try encouraging Americans to welcome immigrants and foreign investment after you helped to release chauvinistic sentiments and xenophobic fears in the post‐​September 11 era.

So the people who brought us the Patriotic Act and the Color‐​coded Threat Level System — Be afraid, very afraid! — should not have been surprised when a huge majority of Americans rejected the plan that made a lot of economic sense — the takeover of shipping operations at six major US seaports by a state‐​owned business in the United Arab Emirates, sending a clear political message to Bush and Dr Reich: There is “Us” and then there is “Them”.

And when you are a White House that continues to perpetuate the political thesis that oil is a “national strategic asset”, which explains in part why we are in the Middle East, do not be shocked if US Congress opposes a bid by Chinese energy company China National Offshore Oil Corporation (CNOOC) to acquire an American energy company Unocal, especially if you are an administration that continues to portray the China a “competitor” as opposed to a “partner”.

Hence, against the horrible mess in Iraq and the Middle East, the expanding trade deficit and growing illegal immigration, it is not surprising and not shocking that public opinion polls are reflecting an angry nationalist “Jacksonian” mood of the American people — more isolationist, more protectionist, more xenophobic. The ambitious trade agenda of the Bush administration, including the Doha Round of trade liberalization lies in ruins with economic liberals hoping that pursuing bilateral free trade agreements will ensure that the commitment for free trade will remain alive in Washington.

But concern over the decline of the US manufacturing sectors and the “outsourcing” of service jobs to China and India coupled with the ballooning deficits — resulting in part of the rise in defense spending — is playing into the hands of those calling for trade wars with the Chinese, who, by the way, are helping the finance the current‐​account deficit of the American nationalist and imperial project.

So, in the first years of the 21st century, one can certainly empathize with the manic‐​depressive mindset of the Economic Man who gets no satisfaction as he (or she) relaxes in the business class, reading The Economist and the Financial Times. The leaders of the “old” industrial sectors, including energy and defense, are back and swinging and scratching the back of the Political Man, whether it is Vice President Dick Cheney in America (Halliburton) President Vladimir Putin in Russia (Gazprom), Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and in the Persian Gulf.

But globalization is certainly not dead when it comes to the amazing economic rise of China and India, and there is some sense that post‐​Google, even the Silicon Valley and Pacific Northwest is coming back to life, although the Slate webzine has relocated from Washington state to Washington, DC, after being acquired by a proud member of the “old” media, The Washington Post.

And there are some signs that the neo‐​conservative agenda is in retreat. Donald Rumsfeld it out from the Pentagon, replaced by the realist and low‐​key Robert Gates, while Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson is trying to play the role of Robert Rubin in the administration.

Rereading today the rosy forecasts from the 1990s about the future of globalization should provide us with some perspective about the scenarios that have been drawn by pundits who envisage the rise of a global American empire in which the United States, exploiting its unequaled military power, will make the world safe for its interests and ideals.

In a way, talk about the American empire in the first decade of the 21st century is probably going to sound a lot like the chatter about globalization we were hearing in the last decade of the 20th century, an intellectual fad produced by pundits searching for catchy phrases and colorful metaphors to explain complex reality and born out of another “irrational exuberance”.

If the 1990s were the “thesis” promoted by the Economic Man, and the first years of this decade were the “anti‐​thesis” advanced by the Political Man, perhaps the next US president will help draw the outlines of a new “synthesis”.

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