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Bush’s triumph: three ends and a beginning

Fred Halliday
17 November 2004

The re–election of George W Bush in November 2004 marks the end of three interregna, three periods of transition, in world politics.

First, it ends the period of moral and political scandal, and illegitimacy, arising from the 2000 US election, in which Bush became president despite winning second place in the popular vote. With a clear popular mandate, and a larger majority in Congress, he is now consolidated as a political leader.

Second, it ends the interregnum following 11 September 2001. The results of that event were contradictory. It led to greater world sympathy for the US and some attempt by Washington to build a cooperative international system, but also to the rhetorical excess of the “axis of evil” speech, and a strengthening of United States militarism and American nationalism. These latter trends were reinforced by the small group at the heart of the American state – among whom Dick Cheney and his neo–conservative advisers played a key role.

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Third, it ends the fifteen–year period that has lasted since the fall of the Berlin wall in November 1989 and the terminus of the east–west superpower rivalry that it represented and signalled. But although Bush’s re–election resolves the first two interregna, it poses the third to concerned global citizens as a newly urgent question: what comes after the end of the cold war?

Four ingredients of political apocalypse

The reality behind the first two “closures” is now definitively clear. The long uncertainty about the nature of US politics – embodied in the confused outcome of 2000, at stake even after the polarising discourse and policy of the response to 11 September 2001 – has ended. Washington’s centre of gravity now lies decisively to the right, reflecting socio–economic shifts within the US from east and west coasts towards an invigorated and electorally well–organised midwest and southern core.

The 2004 election made evident the importance of four basic, and historically persistent, social categories: class, race, gender, and religion.

First, the results revealed a significant correlation betwen income levels and voting trends: the one clever thing the latter said was that his followers could be called “the haves and have mores”. The role of class expressed through money warped the policies of both candidates: democratic debate, neutral information, measured assessment of the issues and candidates were drowned in a tidal wave of dollars.

Second, race continued to be vital, especially the core polarity between whites and African–Americans. 90% of the latter voted for Kerry (although Hispanics are dividing more along class lines); the politics of race in the US has in this respect remained almost static for over a century.

Third, gender played a central role in the election, exemplified both by rampant homophobia and the respective alignments of single mothers (Kerry) and “security moms” (Bush). The election dispels any complacent belief that gender can no longer be a formative factor in politics and international relations.

Fourth, religion also helped shape party programmes and election–day turnout. America was long characterised as a modern country that had not experienced feudalism. If the European view that the separation of religion and politics is a precondition for modernity is correct (as it surely is), the 2004 election – as much as the state’s addiction to a reckless use of military force – represents a great historical regression.

The cumulative result of these four influences is a gross distortion of political debate by unelected and monied fanatics. Those promoting this outcome call themselves “moral” – a strange term for the supporters of a president who has licensed the systematic use of torture; spurned international humanitarian law; lied about his reasons for going to war in Iraq; allowed the lifting of even minimal controls on the sale of personal guns; and, most seriously of all, promoted an anti–contraception population policy (both through the United Nations and bilaterally) that will lead to the deaths of millions of people through Aids in the next decades.

The electoral and social impacts of class, race, gender and religion are at least visible; more obscure are the forces that shape politics in Washington, not least foreign policy. What can be said is that the standard analytical contrast between authoritarian regimes (where decisions are taken by a small and secretive minority around the leader) and democratic polities (where the legislature, the constitution, the press and public opinion play a role) seems in the process of being resolved in favour of the former. The authoritarian model in foreign policy applies, one backed by a complacent Congress and a grovelling, irresponsible press.

The non–west strikes back

The third period of transition ended by the election of 2 November 2004 is that opened by the fifteenth anniversary of Berlin wall‘s collapse in 1989. This was the decisive moment leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union and, more generally, of communism’s post–1917 global aspiration to challenge the west.

That challenge was itself a continuation of the revolutionary rejection of the dominant – western, capitalist, imperialist – model of society and politics that had originated in the French revolution of 1789. From 1989 the aspiration, and movement, lost its global appeal – even if Marxist parties survive and continue to struggle in some countries (Nepal, Colombia).

Yet the “collapse of communism” did not, as the hindsight of fifteen years now confirms, lead to the triumph of western liberalism, in either the economic or political sense.

First, within Germany itself the transition has produced a two–level society, just as did the 19th century unifications of the United States(the civil war of 1861–1865) and the Italian Risorgimento (1861). Both of these were, incomplete, bourgeois revolutions. The same is true of Germany today, with living standards in the west at least 30% higher than in the east, despite a massive transfer of funds to the former communist Lander.

Second, in many former communist and especially former Soviet societies the transition has been not to western democracy, but from dictatorship by the party nomenklatura to dictatorship by dynastic nomenklatura, involving robbery of public goods and the consolidation of a society ruled by post–communist oligarchies who pay diplomatic obeisance to Washington while consolidating their own authoritarian rule.

Russia itself has now gone in that direction, with Vladimir Putin’s latest centralising reforms. But the most striking example of the nature of the post–1989 transition, and one where the real verdict on communism is being written, is China. The “collapse of communism” turns out, a decade a half later, to be a European matter. In China, the communist oligarchy is still in power, and the country has now become the second most important and dynamic economy in the world.

Today, exactly a century after the first great defeat of a European power by an Asian state - the Japanese victory over the Russian navy at Tsushima in 1904 - we can see the contours of a new world emerging. For the first time in five centuries the centre of gravity of the world economy, and, some already argue, of world politics and world strategic rivalry, has shifted from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

Also by Fred Halliday on openDemocracy:

  • “Looking back on Saddam Hussein” (January 2004)
  • “Terrorism in historical perspective” (April 2004)
  • “America and Arabia after Saddam” (May 2004)
  • “The crisis of universalism: America and radical Islam after 9/11” (September 2004)

We can, indeed, see two dimensions in which the non–European world is now finally, half a millennium after Christopher Columbus, striking back at western domination. First, in the west/middle east, the military and political offensive of al–Qaida, who on 11 September 2001 carried out the first major assault by a “third–world” political movement on the territory of a western state. Second, in east Asia, the rise of China, with its attendant if quietly stated political and military aspirations.

This second development is, in global and historical terms, more important than the guerrilla actions of al–Qaida and its loosely associated allies. In one sentence: the truly momentous process now underway in the contemporary world is the emergence of east Asia, and it is dominated by a state under the leadership of a Communist party.

The darkest hour...

This is the real verdict on 1989 – one that will, in time, shape the outcome of the two other interregna, those of 2000 and 2001, which have now concluded. The US election said it all: in 2000 Bush made much of his desire to confront China and treat it as a rival; in 2004 he said almost nothing about China, reflecting a new working relation with Peking, leaving it to Kerry to make ineffectual remarks about the dangers of “outsourcing”, i.e. of American jobs losing ground to Asian (mainly Chinese) rivals.

Meanwhile Vladimir Putin, cynically using the Beslan infanticide to pursue his authoritarian agenda, went out of his way prior to 2 November to call for a Bush victory. The outcome of seventy years of communist revolution and challenge to the west is paradoxical indeed: an authoritarian and economically weak Russia bowing to Washington, while a prosperous and strategically–advancing China is treated by Bush as a strategic partner.

The prospect for the next four years must chill the heart of anyone who has a care for the wellbeing of the world, for the environment, for international law, for some improvement in the middle east (despite the “five–point plan” announced during Tony Blair’s post–election visit to Washington). The idea that Bush in his second term will mellow, heal wounds, reach out, change course, is a chimera. The brutally incorrect policy towards terrorism, ignoring political and cultural factors, will continue. Most seriously, there is a very real chance of a military confrontation with Iran, something that will ensure a US defeat in Iraq and ignite Lebanon, where Hizbullah now have hundreds of Iranian missiles, capable of hitting every city in Israel.

How will the relationship between the United States and the rest of the world develop over the next four years? Essential background reading from openDemocracy:

This is not a time for reconciliation with the neo–conservative equipe in Washington, nor should it be a time for despair, resignation, or, as important, a comforting anti–Americanism. Politics – indeed the future of the world – require a continued, cool and resolute engagement in the face of the latest decision of the American electorate, benighted and reckless as it is. This may demand what Anthony Barnett calls an “open politics outside the United States committed to confronting terrorism democratically and able to work in concert with progressive forces in America.”

The American people themselves equally need such an engagement with the rest of the world, not least because (as I wrote in an earlier openDemocracy essay) “they permanently exist in relation to a worldwide movement [of global violence] that has deep roots, to which the US itself contributed during the cold war”, and of which “their country is part...not its singularised and unappointed master

In all of this, some historical perspective may help. In 1972, I was an observer at the Republican party conference in Miami, Florida. The president, Richard Nixon, and his vice–president, Spiro Agnew, spoke; John Wayne (“The Duke”), in his last public address before he succumbed to cancer, gave the keynote address. Clashes flared outside between members of Vietnam Veterans Against the War and the Bay of Pigs Veterans Association.

In the gallery where I sat, hordes of cheerleading “Nixonettes” – crowds of young women clad in tight–fitting outfits decorated with the US flag – endlessly chanted the slogan “four more years!”. Nixon and Agnew were indeed duly elected two months later; but within a year Agnew was indicted for corruption and had to resign. One year on, Nixon himself followed. There is always hope.

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