The strategic nuclear-arms treaty agreed between the United States and Russia on 26 March 2010 entails substantial and welcome cuts in the two countries’ nuclear arsenals, and leaves the way open for further reductions before Barack Obama’s first term in office is tested in the presidential election of November 2012. This bilateral deal is a healthy prelude to the quinquennial review conference of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (NPT) in New York on 3-28 May 2010, of its nature a much broader intergovernmental endeavour (see “The nuclear-weapons moment”, 5 March 2010).
These two arms-related events reflect an important part of the way the present world-system operates: that is, via cooperation, competition and negotiation between states. These forms of interaction appear so powerful and ever-present that they can appear almost to define the political world as it exists and is “managed”. Yet stand back, look more widely and deeply, and other realities - even more fundamental and more potent - can come into view.
A future of growth
The perspective on nuclear-arms diplomacy outlined in the first paragraph exemplifies a worldview that has become the norm among most international-relations specialists; it can be found in relation to many other issues and case-studies. This identifies states and governments as the key global actors, and thus the essential explanatory variable for making sense of the contemporary world. The core argument that tends to follow is that an enormous global reassembly of state-centred wealth and power is occurring: China, India and Brazil are among those countries making a great leap forward while those in the north Atlantic are entering an era of retreat.
In this view, the world’s destiny is being and will be shaped by the interaction of states which depend on continuous economic growth for their survival and ability to secure consent. Globalisation is a fact; transnational corporations may wield great power; citizen groups may occasionally exert influence - but the root of world politics remains a globalised state-system, and this will endure.
Many analysts warm to this theme by examining the changing status of the European Union and the United States within the context of an evolving “multipolar” world. They see the EU as a huge economic entity which has however become unwieldy and over-extended, thus limiting its potential for security cooperation. The resort to Nato as guarantor of security for many European states follows, but the alliance too faces serious problems (not least in Afghanistan). The conclusion is that Europe’s pre-eminence - if not its prosperity - is a thing of the past; the continent is going to be overtaken by players now arriving into the global arena.
The United States, according to the same diagnosis, remains a superpower; but its experience of the 2000s - the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the enormous burden of debt, and the failure to match the dynamism of key Asian economies - presages its eventual decline. The “new American century” may have looked feasible a decade ago, but it cannot be sustained by fighting $3-trillion wars amid the financial sector’s implosion (see “The costs of America’s long war”, 8 March 2007).
The logic of this approach is to foresee in the 2010-40 period the relative decline of the north Atlantic community and the even further rise of Asia (and a few large states elsewhere). This will entail a degree of adjustment by the older powers, but the guarantee of economic growth will assuage the pain. The realities of inter-state domination and ever-further economic expansion, albeit with variable elements, will remain over the next three decades the only game in town.
A world of difference
There is however another way of looking at the world that is both radically different yet equally - and arguably more - grounded in underlying realities and trends. It holds that the implantation of the neo-liberal market model from the late 1970s onwards has nurtured the growth of a trans-global elite of around 1.5 billion people, and that this minority has been able successfully to entrench its wealth and power so as to leave the rest of humanity far behind. Most of this elite is concentrated in the countries of the north Atlantic (living amidst its own impoverished minorities), but with the spread of the economic model has come to include perhaps 300 million people in India and China and 100 million across Latin America (see Losing Control: Global Security in the 21st Century, Pluto Press, 3rd edition, 2010).
This “minority-world” elite has in little more than a generation secured an unparalleled ownership of the fruits of the world’s labour and resources: it commands around 85% of global income and an even greater share of household wealth. At the other end of the scale is a marginalised majority of 5 billion people, at least a billion of whom are malnourished (a figure that has doubled since 1975); around 830 million people live in slums, mostly on the edges of the world’s megacities; and 3 billion survive on the equivalent of less than $2 per day (see Göran Therborn, “The killing-fields of inequality”, 6 April 2009).
It is significant, however, that huge numbers among the excluded “majority-world” are more educated and literate than in the 1970s, and thus far more conscious of their own marginalisation. The “revolution of rising expectations” beloved of market analysts in the 1960s-1970s is being replaced by a “revolution of frustrated expectations”. This liable to erupt break in high urban-crime rates that justify gated communities, but also in radical and insurgent movements such as the Zapatistas in Mexico and the Naxalites in India (see “India’s 21st-century war”, 5 November 2009).
This divided world is now facing the added issue of environmental constraints, especially resource conflict and climate change. These potential “limits to growth” were first discussed in 1972 in the book of that name, whose analysis was at the time widely scorned by economists (amongst others) for its supposed “doomwatch” approach. It is worth noting, then, that the team at MIT (Dennis L Meadows, Donella H Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William W. Behrens III) actually predicted that the major problems would arise from around 2015 onwards; forty-eight years on, Limits to Growth appears uncomfortably close to target (see “Wanted: a new global paradigm”, 8 November 2007)
Those limits will affect everyone but will hit hardest the 75%-80% of the world’s population excluded from the fruits of wealth and enduring endemic human insecurity. The reactions among them will vary from the desperate to the violent; in turn, much security thinking among elites across the world will focus on how to maintain the status quo - and how best to cooperate in doing so (see “After war, security”, 10 December 2009).
A choice of futures
This overall elite response can be characterised as “keeping the lid on things” - or “liddism”. The strategy is both pervasive and accumulative, involving an intense effort to develop new tactics and technologies that can avert problems and suppress them should they arise (see “A tale of two paradigms”, 28 June 2009).
This is currently one of the defence-industry’s biggest growth-areas. A telling example is the “alternative weapons summit” to be held in Washington on 24-26 May 2010. The event, with a price-tag of $1,999 for industry representatives and $999 for military (the latter asked to come in uniform) has much to offer to current or potential “liddites”. Its presentations include:
- Beyond the Bullet: Adapting to 21st Century Warfighting
- After Rubber Bullets & Teargas: What Can Really Work in the Alternative Weapons World
- Chemical Immobilising Agents for Non-Lethal Applications
- Less-Than-Lethal Lessons Learnt in Corrections and Law Enforcement.
Perhaps most revealing of all is Managing Crowds in the Middle East. This session, led by a principal scientist from Applied Research Associates, has crystal-clear intentions:
“While assumptions can be made about the behaviour of Westerners in response to law enforcement actions, we cannot say it is the same for non-Western cultures. Tactics used for crowd control in the U.S. can be interpreted and responded to much differently in diverse cultures.”
The spreading tools of the trade are “non-lethal”, “less-than-lethal” and “I-can’t-believe-it’s-not-lethal” weapons, not least because these help replace the mess of killing with more clinical means of control. The fundamental purpose, however, is the same as in overtly brutal repression: to maintain control, if in a way that is more acceptable to the protected, massaged and (it is hoped) more contented classes (see Global Security and the War on Terror: Elite Power and the Illusion of Control, Routledge, 2007).
The first decade of the 21st century has been dominated by wars that have killed or injured close to half a million people, wars that arose after determined paramilitaries used parcel-knives to exploit the weaknesses of the world’s most advanced state. That incident might in principle have been a lesson in the impossibility of preserving the status quo - and that, as a consequence, “liddism” will not work. That indeed was the conclusion when the first edition of Losing Control was written and published in 2000, not long before 9/11. What has happened since has reinforced the argument. The search for a different, sustainable future is more urgent than ever.
Get our weekly email
CommentsWe encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.