The Loneliness of the Global Policeman in a Multi-Centric World

A U.S. army soldier stands alone near the town of Qalat, Zabul province, Afghanistan, March 24, 2008. Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Towards the end of September 2014, after declaring war on ISIS, President Obama gave an interview to "60 Minutes" in which he tried to explain the rules of the U.S. engagement: "When trouble comes up anywhere in the world, they don't call Beijing, they don't call Moscow. They call us. That's always the case. America leads. We are the indispensable nation." This holds also for environmental and humanitarian disasters: "When there's a typhoon in the Philippines, take a look at who's helping the Philippines deal with that situation. When there's an earthquake in Haiti, take a look at who's leading the charge helping Haiti rebuild. That's how we roll. That's what makes us Americans."

In mid-October, however, Obama himself reached out directly to Tehran, sending a secret letter to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in which he suggested a broader rapprochement between the U.S. and Iran based on their shared interest in combating Islamic State militants. Not only did Iran reject the offer, but when news of the letter reached the general public, U.S. Republicans denounced it as a ridiculous gesture of self-humiliation that could only strengthen Iran's arrogant view of the U.S. as a superpower in decline. That's how the U.S. rolls effectively: acting alone in a multi-centric world, they more and more often win wars and lose the peace, doing the dirty job for others: for China and Russia, who have their own problems with Islamists, and even for Iran—the final result of the invasion of Iraq was to deliver Iraq to the political control of Iran. (The U.S. got caught in this process already in Afghanistan where their help to the fighters against the Soviet occupation gave birth to the Taliban.)

The ultimate source of these problems is the changed role of the U.S. in the global economy. An economic cycle is coming to an end, a cycle which began in the early 1970s, the time when what Yanis Vakoufakis calls the "Global Minotaur" was born, the monstrous engine that was running the world economy from the early 1980s to 2008. The late 1960s and the early 1970s were not just the times of oil crisis and stagflation; Nixon's decision to abandon the gold standard for the U.S. dollar was the sign of a much more radical shift in the basic functioning of the capitalist system.

By the end of the 1960s, the U.S. economy was no longer able to continue the recycling of its surpluses to Europe and Asia: its surpluses had turned into deficits. In 1971, the U.S. government responded to this decline with an audacious strategic move: instead of tackling the nation's burgeoning deficits, it decided to do the opposite, to boost deficits. And who would pay for them? The rest of the world! How? By means of a permanent transfer of capital that rushed ceaselessly across the two great oceans to finance America's deficits: the U.S. has to suck up 1 billion dollars daily influx from other nations to pay for its consumption and is, as such, the universal Keynesian consumer that keeps the world economy running. This influx relies on a complex economic mechanism: the U.S. is trusted as the safe and stable center, so that all others, from the oil producing Arab countries to Western Europe and Japan, and now even the Chinese, invest their surplus profits in the U.S. Since this trust is primarily ideological and military, not economic, the problem for the U.S. is how to justify its imperial role—it needs a permanent state of war, offering itself as the universal protector of all other normal (not rogue) states.

However, even before it fully established itself, this world-system based on the primacy of the U.S. dollar as the universal currency is breaking down and is being replaced by… what? This is what the ongoing tensions are about. The "American century" is over and we are witnessing the gradual formation of multiple centers of global capitalism: U.S., Europe, China, maybe Latin America, each of them standing for capitalism with a specific twist: U.S. for neo-liberal capitalism; Europe for what remains of the Welfare State; China for the "Asian Values" (authoritarian) capitalism; Latin America for populist capitalism… In this world, the old and new superpowers are testing each other, trying to impose their own version of global rules, experimenting with them through proxies, which, of course, are other small nations and states.

The present situation thus bears an uncanny resemblance to the situation around 1900 when the hegemony of the British empire was questioned by new rising powers, especially Germany, which wanted its piece of the colonial cake, and the Balkans was one of the places of their confrontation. Today, the role of the British empire is played by the U.S., the new rising superpowers are Russia and China, and our Balkans is the Middle East. It is the same old battle for geopolitical influence: it's not just the United States; Moscow also hears calls from Georgia, from Ukraine, maybe it will start hearing voices from the Baltic states…

There is another unexpected parallel with the situation before the outbreak of the WWI: in recent months, the media has continuously warned us about the threat of World War III. Titles like "The Russian Air Force's Super Weapon: Beware the PAK-FA Stealth Fighter" or "Russia Is Ready for Shooting War, Will Likely Win Looming Nuclear Showdown with U.S." abound; at least once a week Putin makes a statement seen as a provocation to the West, and a notable Western statesman or NATO figure warns against Russian imperialist ambitions; Russia expresses concerns about being contained by NATO, while Russia's neighbors fear Russian invasion; etc. The very worried tone of these warnings seems to heighten the tension—exactly as in the decades before 1914. And in both cases, the same superstitious mechanism is at work: as if talking about it will prevent it from happening. We know about the danger, but we don't believe it can really happen—and that's why it can happen.

What further complicates matters is that the competing new and old superpowers are joined by a third factor, the radicalized fundamentalist movements in the Third World which oppose all of them but are prone to making strategic pacts with some of them. No wonder our predicament is getting more and more obscure: who is who in the ongoing conflicts? How to choose between Assad and ISIS in Syria? Between ISIS and Iran? Such obscurity—not to mention the rise of drones and other arms which promise a clean high-tech war without casualties (on our side)—gives a boost to military spending and makes the prospect of war more appealing.

How to stop our slide into this vortex? The first step is to leave behind all the pseudo-rational talk about "strategic risks" and to accept the threat as our fate: if we continue to "roll on" the way we do now, we are doomed, no matter how carefully we proceed. So the solution is not only to be more careful and avoid risky acts, but to fully become aware of the explosive set of interconnections which makes the entire situation dangerous. Once we do this, we should embark on the long and difficult work of changing the coordinates of the entire situation. Nothing less will do.

In a weird coincidence with President Obama's "that's how we roll," when the passengers of the United flight 93 attacked the hijackers on 9/11, the last audible words of Todd Beamer, one of them, were: "Are you guys ready? Let's roll." That's how we all roll, so let's roll, we may say—and bring down not only a plane but our entire planet.