Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Rise of History

Francis Fukuyama pronounced the death of history toward the end of the 20th century, but since then history is rising. The collapse of the Soviet Union and apparent emergence of the West in triumph sounds strangely hollow after the end of the first decade of the 21st century. The structure that framed the world from 1945 to 1991 was supported by two, huge foundation stones – the US and the USSR. When one of the foundation blocks vanished, rather than an end to history, the resulting cloud of dust obscured the beginnings of the structural changes which are now settling into a new pattern. History strikes back.

This resurrection of a pattern of national interactions, resulting in temporary groups of blocks which nations like the US find difficult to grasp, is beginning to reveal a return to natural historical patterns based on pre-cold war views.

It is very clear that the intellectually challenged in the US have difficulty with their rapidly sinking influence which had dominated the planet since 1945. There are those who have the ability and intellect to deal with the changing environment. But the rise of the genuinely ignorant – the Tancredos, Palins, Becks, Limbaughs and the rest of their ilk – bodes poorly for US foreign policy in the future. Yes, there are the Chuck Hagels of the US – but they have been pushed aside by a great mass of simply stupid, uneducated and hateful people.

Although it is certainly not alone in comprehending the new, current reality of history’s rebirth, the US has difficulty dealing with it. An example of the discomfort for the US is the visit by Foreign Minister Ahmet Davuto─člu of Turkey to China and their deepening relationship. The fact of the matter is that nations are returning to normality by following their national interests and not the direction mapped for them by organizations such as NATO, the long-defunct Warsaw Pact, ASEAN or by former power centers in Moscow or Washington.

Turkey is establishing strong ties with China because it is in its interests now to do so. However, in the world of the neo-cons and Palinites in the US for example, one must pick sides. Black and white. Yes or no. For these people the independent foreign policy of Turkey is a sign of betrayal. Why can’t Ankara just do what they are told like the old days? Because, that’s why it’s called history. It’s gone. Lessons to be learned and mistakes not to be repeated (hopefully). Turkey has excellent relationships with the west. US President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdo─čan were meeting six or seven times a year while the US and Turkish leaders met at most two times a year a decade ago. There is a constant stream of contact with Western Europe. The fact that Turkey also deals with its neighbours, Iran and Syria, and is reaching out to establish more ties with China is, well, normal.

The same can be said for Brazil. Despite the infantile Hugo Chavez who, like North Korean leaders, stamps his feet and repeats a tired litany of cold war, Castro-like platitudes while his country founders economically, it is Brazil that is leading the way in the south. Brazil and Turkey have a growing trade and political relationship outside of anyone’s sphere of influence. Brazill is following a foreign policy that supports its - not North American - interests.  Clearly disturbing to some up north who likely believe that Brazil's national language is Spanish.

Russia, formerly flying high under Putin, is discovering that its military adventurism is not paying many dividends and has, in the case of Georgia, begun to back-fire. Invading a weak neighbour, whatever the provocation, while at the same time promoting ethnic separatism, did not go down well with the international community, particularly its neighbours in Central Asia and Eastern Europe. Like the US, it has found that projection of military strength does not equate to political influence except, perhaps, in the short run. Aggressive use of its energy supplies to influence or force compliance with its foreign policy political agenda has not been well received; despite, for example, German dependence on Russian gas and oil, France and Eastern Europe are looking for ways to blunt overreaching. Poland and the Baltic States look to the US for support through a military footprint, while France is building more nuclear power plants. Medvedev seems to be getting the point and has been far more interested in spreading influence through trade deals rather than threats.  The Putin era is over in Russia.

China, although attempting to represent the new paradigm in foreign policy normality, has some problems of its own. Its recent move to use the cut-off of rare metals as punishment for perceived foreign policy slights by Japan raises concerns among its trading partners. The fears surfacing over its commercial policies are linked to fears over strategic intentions. Unfair trade practices don’t work in the long-term.  Unfortunately, it is unclear who are the rising stars in China and the fingerprints of an aggressively minded military are appearing on many policy papers.

How will the US adapt to the new reality? In the short run, not well I suspect because of a domestic economic climate that has not only exposed the failure of free-wheeling capitalism promoted by previous Republican administrations, but  perhaps more importantly uncovered the hidden racism, religious intolerance and has led to the rise of a brown-shirt movement which constitutes a threat to the republic. But, sooner or later, the US will need to realize that its disproportionate amount of military power does not translate into influence. It cannot continue to equate efforts by others to harmonize relationships with re-alignment. Rather than railing against the normalization of international relationships, the US needs to find a way to capitalize on it – or it will simply lose its perceived “exceptionalism” and influence.

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