Friday, October 22, 2004

Childhood's End

The Hoover Digest recently published an essay by Niall Ferguson entitled A World without Power. Mr. Ferguson illustrates how there have been few eras in human history where a power vacuum existed for long before it was filled by rivals. History is mainly about power rivalries. He posits that the wish by some for an apolar world is a fantasy; its realization would be a disaster, heralding in a new Dark Age. Alas, the United States, on the threshold of a new century, must now prepare for the rise of new rivals across the world. Meanwhile, there is internal gravitatation towards post-hegemonic transnational power sharing, presumably with an apolar goal. Many on the extreme left and right do not hold that the United States should practice hegemony; each has their own vision for a world where American power is blocked, controlled, channeled or diffused. Here's a few snippets from Mr. Ferguson's essay:
If the United States retreats from its hegemonic role, who would supplant it? Not Europe, not China, not the Muslim world---and certainly not the United Nations. Unfortunately, the alternative to a single superpower is not a multilateral utopia but the anarchic nightmare of a new Dark Age.

The “unipolarity” identified by some commentators following the Soviet collapse cannot last much longer, for the simple reason that history hates a hyperpower. Sooner or later, challengers will emerge, and back we must go to a multipolar, multipower world... Apolarity could turn out to mean an anarchic new Dark Age---an era of waning empires and religious fanaticism; of endemic plunder and pillage in the world’s forgotten regions; of economic stagnation and civilization’s retreat into a few fortified enclaves.
Interestingly, Mr. Ferguson identifies three global power centers: The United States, the European Union and the People's Republic of China. He does not remotely consider supranational organizations like the United Nations, the Arab League, NATO or any of a host of NGOs anywhere near in the offing for contending world hegemony. The US, EU and PRC each have the potential for real power---large populations, large world-affecting economies and sizeable military investitures---hegemonic prerequisites that preclude other aspirants from global domination.

Mr. Ferguson goes on to say that each of the Big Three hegemonic contenders hold the seeds of their own demise. If these seeds of self-destruction were to be realized, a global power vacuum would ensue.

The United States suffers from triple structural deficits of clay feet: Growing dependence on foreign capital; overwrought troop levels to maintain global military dominance; and an attention deficit brought about by the republic's political traditions that disallows consensus for long-term efforts like nation-building.

An aging demographic proscribes Old Europe to influential decline, hastened by the rise of Islam within its borders. It's neosocialist incarnation is obsessed with the financial security of its aging class, borne on the backs of its languishing, disenfranchised youth. The EU is hardly in the position of projecting its power militarily; so it resorts to soft power, which is aptly named---like soft ground, it is difficult to build anything substantial upon it. Europa is descendent.

China faces a perfect storm in the form of an economic crisis due to the incompatibility between its free market economy and the communist monopoly that promotes corruption and opaque fiscal, monetary and regulatory institutions. Throw in a over a billion people and it's a party. And any twitching of the Chinese economic colossus would send tsunamis of ruin to Europe and America, who are deeply invested and dependent upon a rising, healthy China. Go to Walmart, subtract everything made in China, and our dependency is clear. And that's not the half of it.

Other regions of the world are not viable contenders for hegemony. The Arab world, rich in the finite resource of oil, is too bitterly divided---between Shi'a and Sunni; Secular and theocracy; old and young; nationalist and Arabist---to have more than a chaotic contribution to any kind of multipolar world order. Ferguson points our that Yemen's population will exceed Russia's by 2050, at current fertility rates. That's a crisis in a land with precious few resources outside of diminishing oil deposits. Africa is under the heel of vast poverty, internecine strife and an AIDS pandemic that is robbing the continent of a future. Latin America is better off than Africa, but it too is robbed of global cogency by vast poverty and the familiar power struggles of the left and right, complicated by oil wealth in Venezuela, and regional economies dependent on illegal drugs, dominated by drug lords.

Mr. Ferguson paints a bleak picture of the world if a power vacuum leads to a new Dark Age:
One feature of the [last Dark Age] was that, in the absence of strong secular polities, religious questions often produced serious convulsions. Indeed, religious institutions often set the political agenda. This ascendancy of the clergy helps explain why the period ended with the extraordinary holy wars known as the Crusades.
We can see a breakdown of secular polities already within our own system. Religious institutions vie for power---from the extreme on the right as Christian fundamentalists, to the extreme on the left, which this blogger terms as the 'One World' religion. What used to be a singular belief---that potentially anyone could be an American, if he or she worked hard and innovated---has eroded to identities affixed to various faiths and ethnicities. The red and white stripes of the American flag compete with the multicolored stripes of the Rainbow Coalition.

Mr. Ferguson continues (edited):
The defining characteristic of our age is not a shift of power upward, to supranational institutions, but downward. With the end of states’ monopoly on the means of violence and the collapse of their control over channels of communication, humanity has entered an era characterized as much by disintegration as by integration.

If free flows of information and of means of production empower multinational corporations and nongovernmental organizations (as well as evangelistic religious cults of all denominations), the free flow of destructive technology empowers both criminal organizations and terrorist cells. These groups can operate, it seems, wherever they choose, from Hamburg to Gaza.

By contrast, the writ of the international community is not global at all. It is, in fact, increasingly confined to a few strategic cities such as Kabul and Pristina. In short, it is the nonstate actors who truly wield global power---including both the monks and the Vikings of our time.

The reversal of globalization---which a new Dark Age would produce---would certainly lead to economic stagnation and even depression.
A question worth asking in all of this ferment: What systemic approach is the best suited for preserving world peace and the enhancing the human condition? Mr. Ferguson's essay, to be frank, is a downer. On the one hand, a power vacuum promises utter chaos---social and economic. On the other hand, American unipolar hegemony is unsustainable and impractical; 'One World' UN hegemony is impossible and highly undesirable.

It appears as though history's model of stasis is at an end. Sustaining balances of power is increasingly difficult in a world rife with the pressures of population, competing faiths, dubious economic models and technological wizardry that fluctuates between being the fly and the ointment. The historical forces of our time are the models of the past, loudly converging. It appears as though all the ideas that are on the table have been tried, taking us to this place. We are expected to make a false choice between them. Destiny drives a hard bargain.

Is Karellen's ship approaching? The heart yearns for fiction, and little else.