4. America: being old with a vengeance

Tom Nairn
5 February 2003

The series

1. America: Enemy of globalisation In the first part of a major new series Tom Nairn lays out his surprising and important thesis. Globalisation is not Americanisation. Rather, the onrushing process of globalisation will render America just another country. In this context, the looming conflict in Iraq should be seen not as a war of oil, still less as a response to Osama bin Laden. It is a war over globalisation itself - as Washington seeks to militarise the economic domination it enjoyed in the 1990s.

2. Globalisation today: a human experience At the heart of globalisation is the interlocking of shared, universal human experience with national borders and identities.

3. Apocalypse is in the air Globalisation, far from creating a unified world, also produces invigorated collective identities that lead to new forms of violence.

4. America: being old with a vengeance We are living through the after-life of Western Imperialism, argues Tom Nairn in the fourth part of his series.

5. Are there alternatives? Where lies the potential for a better world order beyond the free market model of globalisation? Democratic nationalism.


America is so accustomed to seeing itself as the edge of modernity that it has failed to perceive age coming on. Its revolutionary origins were so influential, that it is now forced to hide its own imperialism from its world-view. The latest form of this is its abuse of the ideal of globalisation.

The globalising process in its intense and uneven form (described in Part 2), was launched by the USA, and, though nominally independent, still carries a ‘made in America’ label. Anyone suggesting that the label has become a fake and is now undeserved – as I do – risks a quick reprimand. The logo should somehow belong to the prime mover, as Enlightenment once did to France, or Catholic Christianity to the King of Spain. Such greater causes present themselves as belonging to God and humanity, true; but the proof had to be humanity’s development into simulacrums of Frenchness or hispanidad.

In a recent New York Times article (5 January 2003) Michael Ignatieff has underscored the contradiction. The American Republic was always wary of empire, and the old world: ‘Yet what word but “empire” describes the awesome thing that America is becoming?’

As I noted earlier, post-1989 globalisation was founded upon the American economy, the force that benefited most from the foundering of communism. But however much it has expanded, that economy remains national (as Bush has demonstrated by the blatant protectionism of the past 18 months). And it belongs not just to a nation state but (as Ignatieff goes on to say): ‘Europeans (in the 1990s) who had once invented the idea of the martial nation state now looked at American patriotism, the last example of the form, and no longer recognised it as anything but flag-waving extremism. The world’s only empire was isolated, not just because it was the biggest power but also because it was the west’s last military nation state.’

However, a profound ambiguity attaches to the main term used here: the ‘nation state’.

Ignatieff wrote a book and TV series entitled Blood and Belonging (1992). These contrasted ethnic with civic nationalism in the 20th century, and argued for a transformation of the former into the latter; that is, for a diverse nationality-politics that acknowledged the need to ‘belong’, yet guided it into civic and constitutional forms which could avoid wars, and make international coexistence tolerable.

Such a change was impossible as long as the cold war lasted. Hence the hope that the global-reach vista made possible after 1989: a post-imperial globe enabling more diverse and democratic forms of development. But, as he points out, this is just what is not taking place; instead, we are living through an after-life of imperialism, in which two of the former ‘martial nation states’, the USA and the UK, re-impose regimes upon the Middle East. The British Empire set up both Iraq and the Saudi Kingdom from the debris of the Ottoman Sultanate after 1918; now its US successor has embarked on farther ‘regime change’, but as part of a far grander struggle against terrorism.

What is so often labelled as the age of the nation state, or of ‘nationalism’, was in truth that of the Atlantic sea-board state-nation. Nationality-politics is ancient. The novel ‘-ism’ took over the political stage only after the 1870s. That is, after France’s defeat by Prussia, and the consolidation of Federal America after its Civil War. It happened via the French: ‘le nationalisme’, forged in reaction to the terrible wounds of the loss of Alsace-Lorraine.

French nationalism was from the outset an instrument for unceasing revenge and re-assertion: internal rejuvenation by ‘pride’, justified through the re-manifestation of destiny. Certainly, modern political culture had worked its way towards this dénouement across preceding generations – notably, in reactions to the French revolution itself, and the 1848 explosion of smaller nationalities in Europe.

But it was the dominant state-nations that rendered it global, through the ‘-ism’. Almost at once, ‘nationalism’ entered every tongue and became everyday discourse. Soon it would be ‘explained’ everywhere by discoveries of blood-diversity, inherited cultures and timeless rights, as ‘ethnic nationalism’.

In retrospect, the epoch from 1870 up to the cold war appears as one of imperial contest, and increasingly total wars to take over the globe. But that’s the point: empire-ism not only preceded nation-ism, it went on shaping it, right up to 1989. By 1900 the globe was already ‘global’ enough for such a culture-climate to be inescapable.

The dominant or metropolitan intelligentsias commanded the smaller culture-arenas, just as their armed states strove to marshal insignificant polities destined to follow, or else be ignored and left behind. There was an ideological pretence that everything imperial must have grown from and rest upon something national. But, in truth, the expansive state-nations had adopted and disseminated ‘nationalism’ as one feature of their own DNA. The world was actually for ‘viable’, necessarily rather large, armoured and warrior-worthy states capable not just of defending their civilisation but of projecting it. Often defence implied counter-attack, which then in any case entailed projection. ‘Nation building’ was one aspect of the latter. After the 1945 defeat of Germany, both the Atlantic and the Soviet-Communist domains sought the diffusion of appropriate tame nationalisms, approximately in their own image.

This era is mockingly echoed in Ignatieff’s title: ‘The Burden’. And the implication is that it isn’t yet over. Bush and Blair are reviving the White Man’s Burden: the former in response to 9/11, the latter as part of a long-running campaign of coat-tail redemption summed up in his ‘special relationship’ with Washington. Imperium-nationalism relies on the drug of exceptionalism; but of course, globalisation should be the death of exceptionalism; that is, an end to Heaven-hallmarked destiny of just one country, the imprimatur of Providence, command-status inscribed by inheritance and executed in Leadership. The response at the moment is: not so quietly into this good night.

Afghanistan was not enough. The ‘last warrior nation state’ needs a more strategic conception, supplied as ideology by the war against terrorism and as practice by the assault on Iraq. This why the US has slithered back into the ideological world Ignatieff outlined in Blood and Belonging; that is, the world of ‘nationalism’ in this still prevalent sense, configured essentially by outgoing hegemony, ‘influence’ and warfare.

There has been much debate about two questions associated with the drive to war. One is why on earth the American government did not, as a preliminary step, secure some solution to the Palestinian conflict? Given the evident centrality of this issue for Middle-East politics, and the relative feasibility of setting up a Palestinian state, would it not have been ‘in everyone’s interest’ to attend to that first?

However, this question omits the surrender factor inseparable from such a course. It would have meant giving in to political globalisation. The two-state formula was a plausible general idea, which might well have added Palestine to the growing world list of national answers – like South Africa, Northern Ireland and East Timor. The latter all owed something to US representations, but in a quite non-imperious sense. In themselves, they stood for diversity, liberation and formal equality. Also, a resolution of the Israel–PLO war would at once have lowered the apocalypse level – the endless envenoming of prejudice and fever-pitch absolutism suffered by both sides, and complained of by so many critics. Unfortunately, recycled and augmented hysteria is exactly what the war against terrorism requires.

The second question is simply, ‘why Iraq?’: a vulgar dictatorship unrelated to the perpetrators of 9/11, already largely disarmed, and of course previously supported by America in cold war times.

One shorthand answer has been found in the Iraqi petroleum reserves – as if the USA did not already control enough of the world’s oil. But from the angle of political globalisation, another suggestion presents itself – it did not matter much which enemy was selected, or where it was, as long as it was presentationally Evil.

Iraq did have one qualifying advantage: it was already ‘on the list’. It was posed as a question of timing as soon as George W. Bush and his advisors sat down after 11 September (they all agreed about seeking out al-Qaida in Afghanistan).

It harked back to the President’s father and the immense success of the previous Gulf War when others had paid to ensure American predominance in Kuwait. That is, it offered a return to the immediately post- cold-war epoch, when Neo-liberalism was at its missionary peak, and all appeared favourable to a one-world market under the American God.

It summoned the dawn, in other words, before so many damnable contradictions, abjections, contra-flows and howls of resentment appeared. Might not a dizzying subjugation of Iraq somehow restore the odour of such times – as well as ‘closing the book’, satisfying the dynasty, and lowering oil prices?

The resolution of the cold war ought to have made such times redundant. As empire retreated, as the impasse of Armageddon disappeared and Social Darwinism found its home in museums, a quite different spirit of the age should have moved in, and taken the place of militaristic statehood and pseudo-ethnicity – the uniformed ‘making of’ Frenchmen, Germans, Americans (and all the rest).

But an international political revolution would have been required for this, in which national democracies could emerge, energised by the opening doors and broader horizons of globalisation. Instead, an economic revolution usurped the great transition, based on a single berserk notion: the idée fixe of marketolatry, of unencumbered exploitation, free trade and fiscal de-regulation.

This was uncomfortably like old-fashioned religion in another way too: in practically Islamicist fashion, it was believed capable of itself structuring and encompassing the new common culture. Democratic nationalism came a long way second – little more in practice, now, than a servant for capitalism’s englobing domain. Marx’s great ‘Sorcerer of modernity’ (1848) had, it seems, finally won out – and instantly metamorphosed into an economic Nostradamus, gabbling stock-exchange forecasts and internet runes, in lieu of the stars.

In the 1960s the Paris students wrote: ‘Run faster! The Old World is at your heels!’ Ignatieff reminded his readers wryly how, in that preceding phase, ‘as Vietnam showed, empire is no match, long term, for nationalism.’ In the short term, alas, unruly dissidence can be contained by fallback upon old reflexes and violence.

I have tried to describe the climate of enlivened violence above, and its possible links to other traits of current globalisation. The worst single aspect of the work-up towards the Middle-East war has been its revival of fears relating to the one thing most obviously thought to have been rendered redundant by 1989 and the big thaw: nuclear weapons. Instead, they too have been recalled into service, and in recent weeks made centre stage. Unable to achieve this via the United Nations weapon inspectors, in December and January Washington found North Korea back in its sights.

In a famous essay on the subject, Donald Mackenzie argued in ‘The Uninvention of Nuclear Weapons’ (American Journal of Sociology, 1995) that nuclear great-power armouries were vanishing so rapidly because cold war mythologies had misrepresented them. ‘Mutually Assured Destruction’ rested on general conviction that superpowers not only possessed the awesome, but could make it work. In reality, thermo-nuclear devices such as hydrogen bombs had, in particular, been so colossally expensive, complex and potentially unreliable that no one knew what might happen in a conflict. Only a few great and ex-great states could afford even experimental explosions, and these demanded accretions of ‘tacit knowledge’ unavailable in war conditions where the Terror was to be unleashed on missiles and planes. It was not surprising that such preparations helped break the back of the Soviet economy, or that both sides seized the chance of phasing them out after 1990.

The same did not apply to simpler, or ‘old-style’ fission devices like the 1945 bombs. Re-baptised as ‘tactical weapons’, these were known to work, and had been reproduced by a number of lesser states over the previous 20 years. Mackenzie made it clear how distant even these were from ideas of backyard or suitcase bombs, usable by terrorists; they still demanded a major socio-industrial effort. However, in the 1990s that prospect appeared remote. Such weapons had been deployed and threatened in Vietnam, and in Britain’s war with Argentina in 1982, but not used; and there seemed small chance of their use in other regional conflicts or nationalist uprisings.

In 2003, no one can be so sanguine. William Arkin has published an article in the Los Angeles Times (26 January) arguing that current US policy is to dismantle the ‘firewall’ between conventional and nuclear attacks, as a prelude to possible use. Paul Rogers discusses the implications in this issue of openDemocracy. Bhargava doesn’t mention it in his account of the Gujarat atrocities; but of course recent India–Pakistan relations have also been envenomed by mounting threats on both sides about using nuclear bombs. And the Bush administration has now mounted a parallel campaign on the theme of North Korea’s supposed nuclear capability, by threatening to suppress its ‘weapons of mass destruction’ alongside those of Saddam Hussein.

Does this mean they would be willing to themselves use nuclear devices? Even ‘in extremis’, if conventional means looked like failing in their object? The former head of the UNO Inspection Team in Iraq, Scott Ritter, certainly saw it as a possibility, back in October 2002. In an interview titled ‘L’apocalypse’ in Le Monde (29 October), he envisaged the stalemate situation in Iraq where, failing a Blitzkrieg success, numbers of US and British troops might be bogged down, in a Middle East aflame with opposition to the assault, and the temptation to use nuclear arms correspondingly increased.

Whether or not such ultimate folly is committed, we have seen how archaic great-state-nations can move only in this direction. What is left of their former hegemony depends upon the maintenance of political backwardness and atrophy – the shards and scrolls of bygone revolutions, 1776, 1789, 1688. It is in this way that early-modern, patched-up, recycled democracy confronts globalisation: with the unshakeable conviction of its own leadership – not democracy or nationality as such, but their traditional (meaning their outdated) forms, as if the Man o’ War and steam propulsion had been decreed as the unalterable measure of technology.

The empire state-nations and their state-nationalism have fallen back upon a conservative apocalypse to restore the Old World, or whatever can be saved of it. No one can undo globalisation; but the prime movers’ conceit makes them unable to do other than struggle to control it by means inherited from a previous age.

What should the alternative be? Most of the world wants neither Shari’a Law nor the Neo-liberal rendition of capitalism, as blessed by America’s founding fathers – but is any alternative yet emerging from the tidal turning of 1989 and after?

1. America: Enemy of globalisation
2. Globalisation today: a human experience
3. Apocalypse is in the air
4. America: being old with a vengeance
5. Are there alternatives?

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