Thursday, October 27, 2011

An "East of Suez" Moment?

Comparisons between the U.S. and the British Empire have long been routine in discussions of America's position, especially during this last decade when overt advocacy of American empire became a commonplace in some quarters. However, the analogy has rarely been a close one, with rather fewer pundits wondering aloud whether the appropriate comparison between the U.S.'s present position is with the Britain of 1815, or 1851, or 1870, or 1890, or 1914, or 1918, or 1945, or 1971 – quite different points along its trajectory as a global hegemon.

With declinism made fashionable again by military quagmire and financial crisis, by economic "recession" and exploding debt (and perhaps, by the election of a Democrat to the White House making attentiveness to American problems more palatable to the political right), it is perhaps inevitable that the parallel implicit in so much of the writing on this theme has shifted from the first of these dates, to the last, Lexington Institute Vice-President Daniel Goure flatly asking "Is Afghanistan Withdrawl America's 'East of Suez' Moment?" - in the sense of Britain's formal conclusion of its earlier, independent role as a military actor in Asia between 1968 and 1971.

Dr. Gore may or may not be right in making the comparison between the position of the Wilson government, and Obama's, but I suspect that the quarter of a century of British history after World War II – its successes and failures, its illusions and delusions – is deserving of rather more attention than Americans have generally devoted to it, and likely to get it in the coming years.

Two New Reviews: Emmanuel Todd's The Final Fall and After the Empire

Monday, October 24, 2011

Keeping the Hype in Check IV: China's Sub Fleet

Five years ago, one forecast had China amassing a submarine force of as many as 180 boats by the mid-2020s – enabling it to outnumber the U.S. Pacific Fleet's submarine force by five to one according to a widely cited estimate published by John Tkacik. Developing such a force in this time frame required China to add six subs a year to their fleet, above replacement level – and virtually the whole current fleet would have to be replaced, given that the bulk of it is comprised by obsolete, aged Romeo, Ming and Han-class boats sure to be past their useful life by then.

In short, China would have had to launch eight boats every year for almost two decades to reach a force size of 180 subs. Such a rate of peacetime production seemed very unlikely to me. On the contrary, China's modernization of its modern forces has tended to produce smaller (though more up-to-date) forces.

A new analysis by David Axe in The Diplomat indicates that this is exactly what has happened. In the 2007-2010 period, China added a mere six subs to its fleet, a small fraction of the frantic rate of production needed to realize the higher estimates. As a result, China has some sixty submarines in 2011, its size remaining well below the aggressive estimates offered by analysts hyping the "China" threat (though modern Song and Kilo-class boats have replaced many of the older vessels in that time). It also seems likely that this force will shrink in the coming years, with Russia less willing to sell additional submarines (projections based on the Chinese Kilo purchase, in fact, seems to have contributed significantly to the overestimates of China's sub force increases).

Moreover, it is worth noting that boat-counting has its limits. There are significant differences between the relative handful of nuclear boats China seems likely to possess, and the diesel boats that seem likely to continue to comprise much of the country's fleet. The most important are submerged range and speed. The Kilo-class sub can sail six thousand miles while snorkeling at a speed of seven knots, while fully submerged, it can only do four hundred miles while crawling along at three knots (in comparison with a nuclear-powered Los Angeles-class submarine, which can sustain twenty knots while submerged, over a range limited only by the endurance of the crew).The upshot is that in today's threat environment, conventional submarines can be very effective in a coastal defense role, but are rather less suited to the kind of long-range operations undertaken by "blue-water" naval powers than the nuclear-powered vessels that make up the whole of the U.S. Navy's force. Additionally, as Axe notes, a straight comparison between the U.S. and China is simplistic given – as so many continually forget – China is itself surrounded by other countries with considerable naval establishments, and submarine forces, of their own, including Russia, Japan, India and South Korea.

The result, as Axe notes, is that "China isn’t building a world-class, globally-deploying submarine force. It’s building a mostly defensive, regional undersea force – and a smaller one than once predicted."

Keeping the Hype in Check III: China as Global Military Power
Keeping the Hype in Check II: The ASBM
Keeping the Hype in Check I: The Chengdu J-20

Sunday, October 23, 2011

"Twenty Years After the Cold War: A Strategic Survey": A Short Version

My article "Twenty Years After the Cold War: A Strategic Survey" appears in the current issue of the U.S. Army War College Quarterly Parameters. Below is a short version.

In looking at the development of the international system during the last two decades, six trends appear paramount:

1. Great power conflict, as it has manifested in arms races, proxy conflicts and armed confrontations, has receded, not only from Europe after the end of the Cold War division, but Asia as well, with improved relations among Russia, China, India and Japan. Indeed, the number of objects which might plausibly produce such situations has tended to shrink, with disputes over the remaining issues growing less intense (as has been the case with the issue of Taiwan since the mid-1990s, let alone the 1950s).

2. The shift from interstate warfare to intrastate warfare as the dominant form of political violence has continued. Even as the outbreak of war has become more frequent, interstate warfare has grown less frequent, increasingly confined to the margins of the international system, and more limited in length, scale and intensity.

3. Neoliberal globalization has only deepened, but has proven problematic, contributing to the stagnation of global economic growth (which may have worsened every decade from the 1970s on), as well as increased financial instability; sharper inequality; and the social and political stresses feeding ethnic and sectarian conflict.

4. Global output, world manufacturing and the balance of trade have shifted toward East Asia, and especially China (more than offsetting the impact of Japan's relative decline on the region's overall position), while the consolidation and extension of the European Union have conduced to the preservation of Europe's economic weight (despite Germany's relative decline). Meanwhile, the U.S.'s changed – likely, weakened – position is understated even by its smaller share of Gross World Product, given its more rapidly shrinking share of world industrial production (perhaps already eclipsed by China), and its trade imbalances.

5. Resource politics have only grown more pressing, rather than being diminished, a problem highlighted by the politics of energy, which have seen energy exporters (like Russia and Venezuela) enhance their wealth and status, while energy importers (like the United States) have seen their trade balances and their economic growth suffer.

6. International cooperation on global issues has proven consistently disappointing, compared with the high hopes seen in the early 1990s regarding a more powerful United Nations, and action on alleviating global poverty and environmental problems (symbolized by the Rio Summit, the Kyoto Protocol and the Millennium Declaration), and nuclear nonproliferation.

The result has been a more complex, diffuse international distribution of economic and political power (even as the U.S. remains in a class of its own militarily, and to a lesser extent, economically), while the international community as a whole faces a host of problems (like climate change) requiring unprecedented levels of cooperation – with the results of the efforts made to date underwhelming. The 2008 financial crisis has exposed key vulnerabilities in every actor – China's unsustainable export-oriented path, and Europe's troubled finances and lack of political cohesion for instance – while offering a reminder that the "declinists" of the '80s and '90s were essentially correct in their reading of the U.S.'s situation. Not only has the country seen the mediocre growth observed since the 1970s continue, but its deindustrialization, balance of payments problems and mounting debt have only worsened, inside a context of greater economic integration and ecological strain, and it all poses bigger problems for the U.S. than "traditional" security considerations. The article goes on to advocate a focus on addressing these problems (the rebuilding of the country's infrastructure and manufacturing and energy bases in recognition of the new realities), while cooperating with other nations in a "broader, sustained effort to redress the imbalances and vulnerabilities of the international economic system."

My New Facebook Page

I'm now on Facebook. While my page is very much a work in progress, you can see it here.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Twenty Years After the Fall

In 1991 Robin Blackburn published the anthology After the Fall: The Failure of Communism and the Future of Socialism (London: Verso, 1991), offering a round-up of responses to the demise of the Soviet/Communist camp and the end of the Cold War from a wide array of prominent leftist thinkers, touching on everything from the role of the peace movement in bringing the Cold War to an end, to the condition of women in the Soviet Union.

Nonetheless, it might fairly be said that the question dominating the book is the one implicit in the subtitle--"the Failure of Communism, and the Future of Socialism." In acknowledging the failings of twentieth century Communist parties in and out of power the authors are unanimous in recognizing the Soviet-style combination of a one-party state with a command economy as a deeply flawed approach, time and again resulting in repressive, stagnant, bureaucratic regimes that never approached Western levels of economic and technological development--with the gap widening after the onset of the "information age." Many of them also agree with the conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union not just failed to cope with computerization and the newer communications technology, but that this was a challenge it was intrinsically incapable of meeting or even surviving, and that the impetus for the overthrow of the system came principally from below.1

However, this should not be confused with a simplistic vindication of the pieties of orthodox economics, let alone of conservative triumphalism more generally. While highly critical of the Soviet system and its imitators, these writers do not equate the Cold War with a meaningful test of "capitalism against socialism," or take the failings of Soviet-style socialism as some proof of the intrinsic irrelevance, futility or evil of the socialist project, or the Marxist critique of capitalism. Nor do they slight the role of Communism in such progress as the twentieth century did see. In "Reflections on the Crisis of Communist Regimes," Ralph Miliband discusses the unpromising circumstances of the establishment of Communist governments, which virtually without exception took place in underdeveloped countries without a substantial history of democracy or even independence, often at a point in which they were badly traumatized by civil and foreign war, and forced to contend with the hostility of the non-Communist world from this position of weakness through their history (Russia, China, Vietnam). Fred Halliday observes in "The Ends of Cold War" that, despite those problems, many Communist states still made significant advances over their earlier material condition, industrializing and modernizing their countries, and elevating the living standards of their populations.

Other contributors to the volume make the case that, in various ways, socialism played a crucial role to progress outside the "Second World." In "Goodbye to All That," Eric Hobsbawm points out the fact that the capitalist states incorporated a great deal of socialism into their systems in the form of Keynesian planning, welfare states and often national ownership of the "commanding heights" of the global economy (especially in their period of greatest success, from the 1940s to the early 1970s), without which they would be far less successful, and far less attractive places to live--while the handful of developing nations which succeeded in catching up to the industrialized world also followed strongly statist courses in doing so (contrary to the mythology propounded by neoliberal "Bad Samaritans," and of course, neoliberal disasters the world over, from Pinochet's Chile to contemporary Iraq). And in "Radical as Reality," Alexander Cockburn celebrates the role of Communism in such progress as the West has achieved in the areas of civil rights and social justice, and globally in the fights against colonialism and apartheid, while the Soviet Union, through its role as competitor and counterweight, made possible for the newly independent nations of the Third World a measure of autonomy they would not otherwise have enjoyed.

Moreover, the authors argue for the continued relevance of socialism given its capacity to address problems with which capitalism is ill-equipped to cope, like the protection of the environment, social inequality and the human values for which the market cares nothing, as Eric Hobsbawm notes in the volume's closing essay, "Up From the Ashes." There is, too, a sense that many of socialism's potentials have never been tapped. Robin Blackburn's excellent long essay "Fin de Seicle: Socialism After the Crash" offers a reminder that the command economy's weaknesses were recognized by prominent Marxists all along, from Karl Kautsky to Leon Trotsky to Che Geuvara, and that many of them wrestled with the problem of developing a "socialized market" combining market mechanisms with economic democratization and social imperatives--an idea Diane Elson and Andre Gorz explore in "The Economics of a Socialized Market," and "The New Agenda," respectively. Giovanni Arrighi's "Marxist Century, American Century" even offers an argument for why the twentieth century did not bear out Marx's predictions--and why the twenty-first century might prove closer to it.2 Edward Thompson's rejoinder to Fred Halliday's "The Ends of Cold War" even envisaged Eastern Europe pioneering a third way between its Stalinist past and the neoliberalism proffered by the West.

In short, the Soviet Union was finished, and with it the one party state-command economy approach to socialism, but according to all these authors, socialism (and Marxism) as such did not die with it. Still, the neoliberal wave continues two decades later. Certainly no advanced industrial country has accepted programs quite as radical as those routinely imposed on developing states, but even there privatization and deregulation (often of reckless kinds) have been the order of the day, organized labor has been weakened (in cases, virtually crippled), wages have been held down (or eroded), welfare states and public services scaled back (albeit, due to a chipping away by conservative reformers rather than shock therapy in these states) and tax systems become more regressive. If anything, the economic crisis that began (or perhaps, simply deepened) in 2008 seems to have perversely accelerated the trend, the political right making most of the gains in its aftermath, despite its policies' precipitating the crisis in the first place. And of course, what goes for the world's economic challenges goes, too, for the ecological ones, as the astonishingly tepid response to the energy-climate crisis makes all too clear.

All this seems unsurprising today, but it did not seem inevitable to the writers represented in this collection. The end of the confrontation between the superpowers also raised a genuine prospect of a peace dividend, and alleviated one of the weapons the right used against liberals and leftists: the claim that they were the agents or dupes of a hostile foreign power intent on world domination. This coincided with a questioning of the Anglo-American version of capitalism that was not be seen again until the 2008 crisis. That the left so thoroughly failed to capitalize on these opportunities, so completely failed to prevent a triumphalist right from defining the popular understanding of the Soviet collapse and the politics of the two decades that followed, has to be regarded by its sympathizers as a profound disappointment.

1. For an alternative view of the role of the IT revolution in the Soviet collapse, see my blog post, "Reconsidering the IT Revolution's Place in History." For an alternative view of the dismantling of the Soviet system more broadly, see David Kotz and Fred Weir, Revolution From Above: The Demise of the Soviet System (New York: Routledge, 1997).
2. Arrighi's key contention is that Marxism envisioned a proletariat which simultaneously grew more immiserated and more powerful. The twentieth century, however, saw a divergence between the most immiserated proletarians (in the peripheral areas of the global economy, where Communist movements did succeed in establishing themselves) and the most powerful (in the industrial core countries), which saw their lot improve and their goals moderate. In particular, following the collapse of world capitalism in the Depression and World War II, American capitalism was capable of expanding, and accommodating working class aspirations, through the development of the multinational corporation as a new operating model. When Europe and Japan recovered to the point that they were able to follow suit, they quickly crowded the market, resulting in a preoccupation with cost-cutting and speculation rather than dynamic expansion (as low post-1973 growth rates show), while the gains of the working class in the advanced industrial countries began to erode (implying an eventual reconvergence with the proletariat of the developing nations)--trends more in line with Marxist analysis.

Two New Reviews: Emmanuel Todd's The Final Fall and After the Empire

Two New Reviews: Emmanuel Todd's The Final Fall and After the Empire

I have recently posted a pair of reviews of books by Emmanuel Todd, 1976's The Final Fall, and 2003's After the Empire. The first book was a prediction about the demise of the Soviet Union and its East European empire; the second, a prediction about the end of American hegemony.

The two analyses are nearly three decades apart in time, but contain a number of interesting parallels, not least economic dysfunction concealed behind brighter-looking statistics, declining tolerance and universalism (and with it, external appeal), increasing militarism, and the breakdown of their influence over their European partners – the bottoming out of which marks the end of each empire.

History proved Todd at least half-right about the Soviet Union. Where the U.S. is now, let alone where it will be in the coming years, remains open to question, but his argument is at the very least food for thought.

Review: The Final Fall: An Essay on the Decomposition of the Soviet Sphere, by Emmanuel Todd.

Translated by John Waggoner. New York: Karz Publishers, 1979, pp. 236.

French social scientist Emmanuel Todd's biggest claim to fame is his prediction of the collapse of the Soviet Union in a book he published in France in 1976, The Final Fall (which was translated into English three years later). He was neither the first, nor the last, to make such a prediction, but his subsequent researches have brought Todd renewed attention, notably his 2003 book After the Empire (also published in English, with a foreword by Michael Lind).

Todd, making oblique use of foreign trade and demographic data (Soviet imports of machinery, motor vehicles and foodstuffs and exports of raw materials, a spike in infant mortality) and anecdotal evidence (regarding such matters as the quality of its industrial output, and the growth of the informal sector) to compensate for Westerners' poor access to the Soviet system, concluded that the Soviet Union had not just become stagnant by the 1970s, but done so at a point at which it was still deeply backward compared with the advanced industrial nations.1 Less developed than quasi-developed, its social structure was not like that of a contemporaneous Western country, let alone a realization of socialist aspirations, but rather a mix of the "Asiatic mode of production" identified with "Oriental despotism," with a Victorian level of inequality and exploitation in the relationship between its ruling apparatchiks and its workers, whose living standard he suggested had not increased appreciably since World War II.2

Accordingly, the Soviet Union was not only falling behind the West (and for that matter, ascendant Third World countries like Brazil), but its own satellites in Eastern Europe. While Todd repeated the old saws about the folly of replacing markets with central planning, and the conflict between the incompatibility of authoritarianism and innovation, he argued that
the Soviet crisis is not the crisis of Communism. It is the crisis of a particular Communist country which had the misfortune of having glutted itself with territory in the past (221).
Whether the issue was the standard of living, or the restrictions on the mobility of citizens or the scope allowed to dissenters, states like East Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary appeared to him more prosperous, and freer, than the Soviet Union. Rather than its weird mix of Oriental despotism and Dickensian Coketown, they reminded him of Western Europe in the 1950s, and Hungary of the France in that period, which gave him the impression that these states were not merely functional, but catching up to the West. (Todd attributed this difference in performance to their smaller sizes "proportionately reduc[ing] the inconveniences of centralized control" (95) compared with the vast Soviet Union, their lighter security spending, and their greater leeway to make pragmatic adaptations and innovations – in part, because of revolts like Hungary's in 1956, and the Soviet Union's declining ability to control their internal policies.)

The result was that the Warsaw Pact offered the bizarre spectacle of a poor, repressed core and a comparatively rich, free periphery, a situation he regarded as ultimately untenable – in part because of its implications for the domestic situation of the Soviet Union itself. Todd posited that a literate population (and literacy was universal in the Soviet Union, as he pointed out) cannot long be managed through totalitarian methods, and that in contrast with the peasants living under many a Third World dictatorship, they were decreasingly passive, and increasingly Western in their outlook and attitudes (as reflected in low birth rates, and the alienation evident in high suicide rates and the worker discontent which were major factors in the economy's low productivity). It appeared to him that their consciousness of the difference between the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe only fed their discontent (through, among other things, the experiences of the Soviets' own occupying forces).

The resulting mess was increasingly held together through a combination of a permanent war economy, and a turn by an elite which no longer believed in its system and ideology (but remained committed to the protection of that system because of the privileges that system afforded it) to nationalism, militarism, anti-Semitism, racism, anti-intellectualism and cultural stupefaction – in short, to fascism – to legitimize the Soviet state and control dissent.3 However, these all fell short of actually resolving the problem, a fact testified to by the Soviets' reliance on wheat imports from the West. Quite the contrary, Todd argued that nothing short of deep, structural reforms to the end of increasing production, raising living standards and liberalizing society could have alleviated these problems.

Any conceivable reform process, however, carried grave dangers for the regime. Decentralization would have meant suffering a greater shift of labor and material from the rest of the economy to the informal sector, inflation, and the elevation of short-term expectations beyond what the Soviet government could hope to deliver on the way to any real, concrete gains, which were themselves no sure thing. Despite these obstacles the Soviets' East European satellites did manage such transitions in his analysis, but the Soviet Union faced a significant challenge that they did not – their country's multitude of repressed nationalisms (and also the developmental disparities between its nationalities, with the non-Russian republics in an intermediate position between Russia and East European states like Hungary), which such a reform process would turn turn into a centrifugal force, breaking up the Soviet sphere. At the same time, continued avoidance of those reforms would make the Soviet Union only more backward and brittle, and the inevitable changes more dangerous when it did decide on them.

In retrospect Todd seems prescient in anticipating that clumsily executed reforms aimed at revitalizing the Soviet economy would open the door to the break-up of the Soviet sphere, with Eastern Europe, and then the non-Russian republics breaking away from Moscow. Additionally, those who tend toward the more extreme views of the Soviet economy's weakness (as now seems to be the conventional wisdom) would also applaud his diagnosis of the country's ills from the limited information available to him.

However, Todd was far off the mark on a great many other points, not least the endurance of Keynesian capitalism (which he regarded as having been the salvation of capitalism, in practical and political terms), missing the fact that in his own period the reversion to a pre-1930s attitude toward labor was already underway. Unsurprisingly, he also failed to foresee that the Third World countries which at the time appeared to be following a dynamic course (like Iran and Brazil) would, excepting a few East Asian states, remain "developing" countries thirty-five years later.

Moreover, few now pay much mind to the distance between the Soviet Union and its satellites in the unraveling of the Soviet sphere, emphasizing instead the gap between Eastern Europe and Western Europe (and generally preferring to regard states like East Germany as Soviet-style messes rather than as the functional, advancing states as which he depicts them). Where the collapse of the Soviet Union is concerned, they generally note the increased military pressure of elevated U.S. defense spending; falling oil prices in the 1980s; the arrival of the age of fourth-generation computing and digital communications, which are frequently held to mark a point beyond which Soviet-style socialism cannot pass; the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan; or simply the personal role of Mikhail Gorbachev.

This differing view of Eastern Europe's Communist-era development may or may not be a mistake that denies Todd the proper credit. However, disagreement is hardly surprising. Over fifteen centuries after the overthrow of Romulus Augustus, we continue to debate the causes of Rome's fall, not least because the debate still has some stakes for us. The comparative roles of the material and the moral in making or breaking a society and polity, the questions of technological and ecological constraints, the ability of cultures to absorb foreign elements or coexist in a larger polity, the likelihood of regressive "dark ages," among other matters prominent in this historiography, are very much relevant to our own concerns. It seems unlikely that it will be much different with the Soviet Union, though to be fair there has been little in the way of real debate and a great deal more of smug gloating over its corpse.

1. In this analysis the informal sector is not a complement to the former, but parasitic on it because of the sources of its inputs (material stolen from state businesses, and the transfer of workers' time and effort from their state jobs to this area), and the limited nature of its outputs (services like plumbing and medicine, handicrafts, and produce grown on private plots – rather than, for instance, significant industrial activity).
2. Todd holds the Soviet Union to be like these societies in its leaders being "inaccessible demi-gods, whose will cannot be questioned" (158), and its possession of a centralized, ubiquitous bureaucracy ruling over a population which is "ignorant of private property" (79) and relatively equal "as far as the more privileged masses are concerned" (158). The analogy extends to those societies having an initial, dynamic phase which lays down the key infrastructure (here, the Stalin era), after which the "bureaucratic machine proves itself stronger than technological progress" (79), stifling development and producing stagnation – a mode of operation which might be viable were the Soviet Union isolated, but not in the competitive, globalized world of the late twentieth century.
3. This was also indicative of a fundamental shift in the attitude of Soviet elites. Todd characterizes the 1917-1962 as a period of "false consciousness," in which, for all their aberrations, atrocities and failures, they believed in their system and its ideology. Near the end of this period Khrushchev, for instance, could attempt to elevate Soviet living standards because "no one yet was resigned to the reality of economic exploitation and class antagonism" (36). By the Brezhnev era (1962–), however, the Soviet leadership was simply resigned to the inequities and limitations of their system, and cynically devoted to protecting their privilege within it. Accordingly, the deluded "false consciousness" of the earlier era gave way to a "bad conscience" in which the "people are feared" (139) by elites who had actually come to see the Marxism for which the Soviet system was supposed to stand as subversive of it (as the country had uncannily come to resemble Marx's description of industrial capitalism in Todd's view), forcing them to neutralize it by converting it into empty rhetoric.
The shift from "false consciousness" to "bad conscience" is also reflected in the Soviet Union's loss of cultural dynamism and external appeal. As Todd puts it, before 1950 the Soviet Union was an ideological threat to the West (especially amid the Great Depression and World War II), which was in turn a military threat to the Soviet Union; while by the 1960s this situation was reversed, with the Soviet Union a military threat to the West which it had come to find ideologically threatening.

Review: After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order, by Emmanuel Todd.

Translated by C. Jon Delogu.
New York: Columbia University Press, 2003, pp. 233.

While some continue to embrace the idea of American empire (like George Friedman in The Next Decade), the more grandiose conceptions, at least, have fallen by the wayside, and the outlook regarding the United States' position has become rather bleaker. It may be that this will pass, but for the time being, at least, Emmanuel Todd would seem to have been ahead of the curve when in 2003 he published After the Empire: The Breakdown of the American Order.

Todd's argument in this book is that the U.S. is not "growing into" the role of imperial power, but losing its imperial position, in large part because of a material decline underappreciated by both domestic and foreign observers. This is not just a question of such widely discussed phenomena as the country's declining share of Gross World Product or industrial production since its post-World War II peak, or even the trade deficits and debt accumulation attested to in official statistics. America's fiscal position is, in his view, founded on an unsustainable form of "foreign tribute"--the influx of foreign capital into the United States that enables the country to live beyond its means (classed as tribute because the nation's trade deficits, low interest rates and inflation rate make it unwarranted) as America's own economy reverts to an older world of "masters and servants," with lawyers, accountants and private security personnel serving the wealthy in the manner of yesteryear's butlers (euphemistically termed "the service economy"). All of this makes the picture less rosy than the numbers attesting to America's economic growth suggest--while there is room for doubt about the numbers themselves, Todd contending that the numbers may just be the product of accounting fraud on a massive scale, as hinted at by scandals like Enron and Arthur Andersen.

This severe and worsening economic frailty is matched by the frailty of the U.S.'s military lead over other nations, above and beyond the extent to which economic weakness must eventually produce military weakness. The country, lacking a "tradition of . . . military might on the ground" (82), and no longer able to control pillars of the world economy like Germany and Japan, obscures the fact through "theatrical micro-militarism" directed against weak Third World nations. This style of militarism is, furthermore, reinforced and shaped by broader tendencies in American culture making it less universalist and more "differentialist."1 Just as American multiculturalism reflects the country's treatment of its ethnic minorities as "unassimilable," the United States behaves toward other countries in parallel ways, the U.S. more provocative toward other major powers (Russia, China), more disdainful of countries it has long regarded as allies (like France and Germany), and prone to treat the Arab countries as foreign counterparts to those unassimilable domestic populations. Along with the prioritization of control of world oil supplies by American strategy, the military weakness of Muslim nations, and a cultural enmity toward Middle Eastern nations (into which a "dogmatic and aggressive" (136) American version of feminism plays), the result is an "obsession" with the Arab-Muslim world far beyond what realpolitik calculations would mandate.

The net result is that the U.S. is now nothing short of threatening to Europe. Its economic behavior disrupts the world economy, directly through its actions and indirectly through its promotion of its social model, which Todd views as undermining Europe's social and political systems. (He flatly criticizes neoliberal globalization as the cause of the world economy's slow growth since the 1970s, as well as stagnating and falling living standards and rising inequality, through its suppression of the demand crucial to economic growth.) Making matters worse, American military actions in the Muslim world also exacerbate tensions between the mainstream of European societies, and their immigrant populations.

This situation confronts Europe with the choice of either being a subordinate element in an American empire that is increasingly inimical to its well-being, or asserting its independence (the choice he favors). Europe's declaration of independence would be strengthened by a partnership with Russia, which he sees as viable given the country's essentially universalist culture, and moreover, the bottoming out of its demographic and economic collapse. The country would also bring to the table its vast energy and other natural resources, as well as its military capability--particularly its strategic nuclear arsenal, the only one in the world comparable to that of the U.S.. (In a reversal of the Cold War situation, Todd views Russian military might as a potential guarantor of European freedom in the face of American challenges.2) Britain's giving up its "special relationship" with the U.S. in favor of a closer relationship with Europe (to which it would bring a G-7 economy, and the only other financial center comparable with Wall Street) would complete the process of consolidation.

The assertion of independence by such a European bloc would, in Todd's view, end American hegemony. Ultimately, the U.S. would be reduced to living within its means, just one pole among many in a multi-polar world. With America no longer sponsoring neoliberal globalization, the way will be cleared for what he views as a necessary turn away from free trade toward neoprotectionism on some basis, to benefit working people and revive the demand essential to restoring economic growth, while international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank change accordingly (the former giving Japan a permanent seat on the Security Council, the latter being relocated to Eurasia).

Todd's viewpoint is an interesting one, given his previous scholarship (notably, his prescient writing on another superpower in decline), and his apparent freedom from the pieties of right and left.3 He also refrains from setting up the U.S. as an antithesis of Europe (other "old democracies" like Britain and France also traveling down the oligarchic path he identifies).

There is, however, no disputing the book's significant failings. Todd's analysis of military affairs (well outside his area of expertise) is brief and shallow. One might argue that geographic factors and economics have conduced to make the U.S. an air and sea power, rather than a land power, and that changes affecting all of the developed countries (aging populations, the decline of civic militarism, etc.) are the reason for the U.S.'s low tolerance of casualties (which in Iraq and Afghanistan proved not to be so low as some held).

There are also some serious flaws in his reading of the international balance of power, and what it may mean. China's profile is surprisingly low in his analysis. Anyone discussing the distribution of industrial power today would have to count it in among Europe and Japan given its share of world production (already much larger than that of Germany or Japan, and perhaps even larger than the U.S.'s)--and indeed, the short shrift he gives it would have been problematic even a decade ago. His discussion of Russia easily seems overoptimistic in light of the country's course under Putin. It is also far from clear that a turn away from neoliberalism in Europe or globally such as he describes are at all plausible, as European elites seem just as enthusiastic about such policies as their American (or Anglo-American) counterparts, and have actually been moving further in this direction since the 2008 economic crisis.

Nonetheless, Todd's use of demographic data, on which he relies heavily (certainly more heavily than in The Final Fall), is frequently innovative and compelling, especially where he uses it to explain global patterns, and the development of Islamic countries, his analysis of which is persuasive.4 His discussion of economic globalization is one of the book's strongest points, and the subject of many of his sharpest observations--like the distinction he draws between "fake" and "real" nonconformists in the economics establishment (with Paul Krugman correctly placed in the former category), and the note he takes of the end of meaningful economic debate in the United States after 1995 (which seems to have gone unnoticed by almost everyone else). His observations about American cultural attitudes are at the very least thought-provoking, and despite some overstatements and questionable inferences, seem to me to contain more truth than one can acknowledge without jeopardizing their respectability. All of this makes Todd's analysis, which may have more immediate relevance now in 2011 than it did at the time of its publication, well worth serious attention.

1. Todd holds that this tendency toward a more differentialist culture is also evident in the country's becoming less democratic and more oligarchic in the manner Michael Lind described in The Next American Nation (which described an American "overclass" in detail).
2. The idea of Europe and the U.S. diverging to such a degree may surprise those accustomed to thinking of Europe and North America as part of a common West. However, Todd points to differences between the U.S. and Europe in attitudes toward religion, violence, the relationship between the citizen and the state, and the use of natural resources, among other things, that he regards as deep enough to be civilizational. (Indeed, on a point like the use of natural resources, he views Europe as closer to other Eurasian and Old World countries than to America, speaking of the Old World's heritage of peasant labor, and the hard lesson it taught that natural resources are finite, and must be carefully conserved--quite contrary to the American experience of the frontier analyzed by observers like Frederick Jackson Turner and Thorstein Veblen.)
3. Todd is critical not just of American feminism and multiculturalism, but also the "revisionist" view of American history that holds U.S. foreign policy to have always been driven by national (e.g. elite) economic interests, predatory, hypocritical and disdainful of international opinion, with its conduct after September 11 just a brasher version of the usual. He does not argue this position in any meaningful way, however, apart from his criticism of what he sees as its exaggerated perception of American power.
4. Islamist terrorism, in Todd's view, is less an indication of some "clash of civilizations" than the disorientation that is a byproduct of the often painful transition to modernity, such as is experienced by every culture, albeit in different ways. As his figures demonstrate, the Islamic world is a participant in the trend toward higher literacy rates and falling fertility rates that make for an active, modern, democratic outlook--and the impracticability of authoritarianism, Islamist or otherwise. The "Arab Spring" would seem to substantiate such a view.

October 2011

An "East of Suez" Moment?
Keeping the Hype in Check IV: China's Sub Fleet
"Twenty Years After the Cold War: A Strategic Survey": A Short Version
My New Facebook Page
Twenty Years After the Fall
Two New Reviews: Emmanuel Todd's The Final Fall and After the Empire

September 2011


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