No unipolarity at Cancun

There has been much loose talk this year about a unipolar world in which the hegemonic USA dominates the globe as none has done since the Roman Empire. That has now been exposed as pure hype by US setbacks at three very different venues: Cancun, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of these, Cancun may look the most minor. Yet it carries a huge message. If the United States, in collaboration with the European Union, cannot manage the outcome of even a ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, can it possibly claim world hegemony? After Cancun, is it not silly to talk of a unipolar world?

For decades, WTO meetings have been clinched in the Green Room, a meeting of the top 30-35 countries. These take clinching decisions after consulting the full membership of 146, and declare that a global consensus has been reached. Asking 146 countries to speak in turn at negotiations will mean being in session 365 days of the year. The Green Room is a practical way of bringing negotiations to an end. But it is also a device for the OECD countries, that dominate the Green Room, to dominate the outcomes.

This was uncontroversial in early rounds of GATT/WTO, when rich countries sought to lower tariffs but waived this discipline for poor countries, mainly as a charitable gesture. They did, however, get a quid pro quo in the form of protectionism for textiles. That apart, developing countries found the Green Room talks irrelevant. Later, in the 1970s, some east and south-east Asian countries emerged as powerful exporters, and reciprocity was demanded of them. These countries agreed, since they saw advantages in reducing their trade barriers.

Most other developing countries were bankrupt, aid-dependent, and unable to withstand OECD pressure. India and Brazil often attempted to forge a Third World front, but this invariably crumbled when the OECD put pressure on the aid-dependent countries. And so the Green Room ensured OECD dominance till the Uruguay Round.

The first rebellion took place at the Seattle meeting in 1999. Sundry NGOs harbour the illusion that their demonstrations wrecked Seattle. More correctly, their demonstrations persuaded President Clinton to take an aggressive line on labour standards. That, in turn, created an unprecedented unity among poor countries. Those outside the Green Room simply refused to accept what was being discussed within. And so Seattle collapsed.

Something similar has happened at Cancun. The Green Room, which included India, looked like achieving a new consensus. But poor African countries walked out of Cancun, ending the proceedings. You can debate whether or not that was a good thing. What is undebatable is that even poor African countries can now walk out on the US and EU, and get away with it. No hegemony here.

Next, consider Iraq. Having conquered it effortlessly, the US is now caught in a quagmire of street violence which its high-tech military capability cannot combat. Sundry militant groups, with no obvious centre of command, routinely disrupt supplies of oil, water and power. If the US cannot establish basic municipal services like water and electricity six months after taking over Iraq, let nobody call it a hegemon or a superpower. It has a lot of military might, yes. But Iraq has proved that military might does not even ensure municipal capability.

Not long ago, critics expected the US to invade one country after another in search of terrorists. But today the US is desperately seeking the help of even developing countries to manage Iraq. If it cannot manage even Iraq on its own, can it be called a hegemon? Indeed, its power is so limited that it cannot even cajole, bribe or force other countries to help out with troops in Iraq.

The news from Afghanistan is not much better. Many districts in the south and east are so badly hit by insurrection and banditry that UN personnel are prohibited from going there. Military might ousted the Taliban easily from the main cities. Yet this does not constitute hegemony. There is no unipolarity even within Afghanistan. The US has arranged for its nominee, Hamid Karzai, to become President. But sundry local warlords still dominate everyday life, and send to Kabul only a fraction of revenues that supposedly belong to the Centre. The warlords control militias estimated at 100,000 to 700,000 whereas Karzai’s national army has barely 7,000. Frenetic American efforts to build up the national army are being sabotaged by warlords within the Cabinet, including the defence minister.

Now, none of this detracts from the fact that the US is by far the world’s greatest military and economic power. In the late 1990s, the US accounted for no less than 40% of incremental world GDP. Today it is undergoing a gradual, jobless recovery from the 2001 recession, yet has the fastest productivity and GDP growth in the North.

But to look only at US military and economic strength is to miss its many other strengths, which work in non-hegemonic directions. It has the greatest number of anti-globalising NGOs, and so heads not only the movement towards globalisation but also the one against it. It has by far the biggest and best funded environmental groups dying to cut multinationals to size. Unlike citizens of the ancient Roman Empire, Americans have a strong isolationist streak dating from their early history, when they sought to steer clear of European wars. The US has always had the biggest anti-war movements in the world, with Vietnam being the very zenith.

Finally, the US has led the world in tax-cutting as a popular imperative, one that hardly any politician dares oppose. Empire building is expensive, in money and men. It needs the willingness to levy high taxes and take heavy military casualties. Now, Americans rather like the idea of an American world order, but are totally unwilling to pay for this in the form of high taxes or casualties. There is an elementary but little-recognised law of economic history: you cannot become a hegemon tax-free. For that reason alone, do not fear American unipolarity.

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