2006 will provide a few occasions to assess the true extent of American power and the resilience of the international ranking system of power and wealth on which it stands.
What explains the catastrophic strategic miscalculations that led to the debacle in Iraq? All the main trends of the previous decade seemed to point to the dawning of another American Century: ever-widening spheres of geopolitical action, a new wave of technological dynamism powered by financial markets, and the steady advance of the liberal-democratic mission civilisatrice.
Across the political spectrum most observers assumed that, for better or worse, the next chapter of world history would remain legible in terms of the intersection of these three secular developments. Accordingly, “globalisation” was the master category of the first post-cold-war decade. The scrambling of this picture in the aftermath of 9/11 has created an historical context whose elements have yet to settle into an intelligible pattern. What are the starting points of an investigation into the conjuncture that began with 9/11 and is now entering a new and dangerous phase? I would like to propose the following three.
The first thing to register is the opacity surrounding the operations of increasingly imbalanced global financial markets that price the value of assets – and thus the wealth of entire nations — on the basis of ever edgier methodologies of risk assessment. The latter have spread from the world of business and accounting into the control centres of strategy and intelligence.
The second thing to consider is the post-cold-war breakdown of a balance-of- power scheme that previously compelled the United States to measure its capacities and assess geo-political risk in a more transparent, conventional strategic field of relative power positions. Lastly, one must register the impact of what Guy Debord called “the Spectacle” on the contemporary practice of imperial statecraft. The strategic direction of the US state has become increasingly subject to an englobing, plebiscitary logic of incessant televisual staging and spinning.
For Debord, this cretinisation, so advantageous to rulers, owners and rentiers, nonetheless comes at a price for would-be empire builders: “Once the running of the state involves a permanent and massive shortage of historical knowledge, the state can no longer be led strategically.” An observation by US secretary of defence Donald Rumsfeld encapsulates this moment in history: “We lack the metrics to know whether we are winning or losing the war.”