The Last Superpower

The Last Superpower

The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, held in Paris at the end of November, might best be described by reversing Tolstoy’s title. This was Peace and War.


The Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe, held in Paris at the end of November, might best be described by reversing Tolstoy’s title. This was Peace and War. Everything had been carefully staged for a huge peace jamboree attended by thirty-four heads of state or government, their foreign secretaries and a host of civil servants. The agenda for this official ending of the cold war included the signing of a treaty that would drastically reduce conventional weapons in Europe and a solemn declaration that East and West were no longer in conflict.

As forty-five years had passed since the end of World War II, the meeting could not really be called a peace conference. In a sense, it was the opposite–the closure of a long period of peace, the dismantling of the postwar settlement and the funeral of Yalta. Fittingly enough, the loser of the last war was now the prizewinner. Paris witnessed the official re-entry of a reunited Germany as chief actor on the European stage; within days, Chancellor Helmut Kohl was to reap the electoral dividends of this triumph.

It all duly happened as planned. There was even km additional drama in the form of the sudden exit of Maggie Thatcher (Versailles being the perfect setting for the fall of this lady, who came in the end to believe that she personified not only l’état but the whole of British society). And yet, for all this, it was an anticlimax. The Paris jamboree was overshadowed by the Persian Gulf crisis and the end of the cold war by the threat of a hot one. It was obvious from the start that George Bush and James Baker had come to Europe to get the blessing, and the signatures, of the other members of the United Nations Security Council, and this backroom bargaining ended up dominating the proceedings.

The whole exercise was complicated. It was a sort of mésentente cordiale, or rather an ambiguous agreement on the need to condemn Iraqi aggression. There were some differences of emphasis: While the United States insisted on ruling out any concessions, even face-saving ones, the Europeans (with the exception of the vanishing lady) stressed the need for patience in seeking a peaceful solution. But the European reservations were mild. Ever since Mikhail Gorbachev abandoned the role of antagonist to the Americans, no one has taken his place–certainly neither Kohl nor French President François Mitterrand. The pliant Europeans gained no more than a fortnight’s grace, the right to strike being postponed from January 1 to January 15. Washington then had only to exchange its amnesia over Tiananmen Square for China’s promise not to use its Security Council veto and everything was set for the U.N. resolution authorizing the use of “all necessary means” to secure Iraq’s withdrawal from Kuwait.

On reflection, it may be wrong to describe the conference as an anticlimax. There was in fact a deep logical connection between the Paris package and the Middle East crisis. What was foreshadowed by the post-Yalta settlement outlined in the French capital? The collapse of the Warsaw Pact renders the justification of NATO as a “shield against Soviet invasion” ridiculous. Also, the end of the cold war makes the U.S. presence in Europe very precarious. Potentially, it strips the United States–now the only superpower–of its function as military master of the alliance and, therefore, of its advantage over its Western partners (who are, at the same time, its economic rivals). Finally, it raises an even bigger question, one that worries not only the “military-industrial complex.” For nearly half a century the West’s economic progress and its “miracles” have been dependent on a system that rests on military output. But will it now be able to function properly without such wasteful production?

Miraculously, as if in a tale from the Thousand and One Nights, the Iraqi expedition has provided a partial solution to all these problems. It enables U.S. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney to proclaim in Brussels that NATO must confront new dangers, including “the spread of chemical and ballistic arms in the Middle East and possible threats to energy supplies.” It gives the armorers a new lease on life and a renewed feeling of confidence. It provides the United States with an opportunity to gain a firmer foothold in the Middle East and a stronger control over oil prices. And finally, it allows Washington to claim that a military alliance is still badly needed, with special treatment required for its leader. All of this seemed so convenient that when Europe learned of U.S. Ambassador April Glaspie’s message to Baghdad–warning of the dire consequences of an invasion of Saudi Arabia, though not of Kuwait–this was interpreted here less as a misunderstanding than as an invitation. As far as the White House was concerned, the argument ran, if Saddam Hussein didn’t exist, he would have had to be invented.

This judgment of Paris, raising what may have been only blunders on Bush’s part to the status of Machiavellian calculation, may be too pat, too linear, too Cartesian. After all, the economic consequences of the crisis are also alarming for the United States. War could spell political doom for the President and, at the moment, he is meeting more resistance at home from from his allies. Whatever the outcome, however, there is no denying that in this post-Yalta world the United States is jockeying to preserve its leadership role, even to the point of bullying. Its handling of the U.N. illustrates this point.

It is now fashionable to say that the U.N. is at last coming into its own, fulfilling the hopes of its founders. But that is not quite accurate. It is true that when they set up this new organization, the victorious Allies were relying on the five permanent members of the Security Council to police the globe. They relied mainly on the Soviet Union and the United States–the two supergendarmes, soon to become the nuclear superpowers. The assumption was that if the leaders of the two blocs agreed on a solution, they would be able to impose it on the world at large.

But the superpowers disagreed and the mechanism did not function. (The only previous occasion when the U.N. authorized the use of force was during the Korean War, and then only because the Soviet Union had boycotted the Security Council.) Now, the end of the cold war does not mean the reconciliation of the two competing political systems but the bankruptcy of one of them. In other words, what we are being offered to keep order and to preserve the status quo across the globe is one superpoliceman–the U.S. sheriff–assisted by four deputies (with two more, Germany and Japan, bound to be co-opted if the new setup is to work).

Paradoxically, in its struggle to stay on top Washington has less to fear from its Russian rival than from its European partners, and as time runs out, the United States gives every impression of wanting to force the Europeans’ hand. The breakdown in Brussels on December 7 of the so-called Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade negotiations is a good example. Admittedly the Europeans, worried about the reaction of their farmers’ lobby, may have been less than flexible. But the United States gave the clear impression of preferring a break to a compromise.

The gulf crisis has confirmed that Western Europe is still far from speaking with one voice. On the other hand, the next few years will be crucial for European integration. By 1993 the European Economic Community should have its single market. The following year it should start moving toward a joint monetary policy and a common European central bank. Kohl and Mitterrand have just written to their colleagues suggesting in vague terms that the search for a common foreign and defense policy should be speeded up as well.

Each of these transformations can be accomplished in different ways. The elaboration of a joint military policy, for instance, may be carried out either inside or outside the NATO framework, and this choice will in turn have an impact on the foreign policy of the European Community. Similarly, in an increasingly global economy, economic integration can be managed with a greater or lesser degree of conflict between Europe’s multinationals and their U.S. or Japanese Counterparts. The departure of Thatcher seems here to symbolize a trend: the weakening of those politicians who, in Churchill’s famous words, often quoted by de Gaulle, “between Europe and the open sea” would always choose the open sea–that is to say, the American alliance. Even so it remains unclear what role will eventually be played by the German Chancellor–a crucial figure–as the Americans give the impression of trying to forge their supremacy while the iron is hot.

Naturally, we are talking here about the relationship with the more prosperous half of Europe, beginning with the twelve-member Common Market. The odds are that by the year 2000, the other advanced capitalist countries–the Scandinavian trio of Sweden, Norway and Finland, plus Switzerland and Austria–will have left the European Free Trade Association and joined the Twelve. The future of the other half of Europe is much less certain. The loose talk of a European confederation cannot conceal the fundamental difference between the privileged members of the club and the outsiders. As the capitalist invasion of Eastern Europe boosts the army of the unemployed, those in the West who used to preach freedom of movement are now alarmed by the prospect. The specter of mass migration from the East haunts the European commissioners in Brussels; already, the Austrians have sent troops to protect their eastern frontier. The Oder-Neisse line may soon be the new wall, the new frontier between Europe’s haves and its have-nots. After the euphoria of 1989 there is now some awakening.

This is not the only reason for having a bitter taste in one’s mouth. Today, when Western Europe seems to have the chance to follow its own independent path for the first time since the war, it is not independence but imitation that leads the way. What is the use of an “independent” culture that only produces a local version of American soap operas? How valuable is the “freedom” of the press that allows the Murdochs and Maxwells to produce the Daily Drug for mass consumption? More worrying still is the impression that Europe is inheriting more and more American prejudices–that private is perfect and that public, by definition, is suspicious; that charity is good, while social redistribution is harmful. With the deutsche mark supreme, even the Swedish welfare state is apparently to be sacrificed on the altar of financial orthodoxy. We may have a long way to go, but we are clearly moving in the wrong direction.

The complaint here is, quite obviously, not so much about the political setbacks that the left has suffered in Western Europe as about its ideological bankruptcy. It is often said these days that the Western left is paying a price for its failure to dissociate itself from the Soviet model of socialism. But that indictment is both unfair and rather inaccurate. Granted, the discrediting of “socialism” because of the failure of the Eastern European regimes may, through guilt by nominal association, cost the Italian Communists or the German Social Democrats some votes. Yet these losses are marginal, they are likely to be temporary and they are not at all due to any failure to hold Moscow at arm’s length. The Western European left is paying a price for its own sins, for what it did or rather didn’t do, for its incapacity to replace the shattered Soviet model with a radical project of its own.

This impotence has become particularly striking in the past fifteen years or so. When the economic crisis of the mid-1970s put an end to postwar expansion, driving the capitalist establishment to its own perestroika and right-wing offensive, the Western left was trapped in the old consensus politics and lost its bearings. It has never recovered. The left has paid the penalty for its macho misunderstanding of feminism and for the productivist fixation that prevented it from attacking the existing division of labor and rendered it blind to the vital ecological dimension. The trade union movement has been punished for its inability to adapt to the changing structure of the labor force: the destruction of traditional working-class strongholds and the mass inflow of women and immigrant workers.

The left is reaping the harvest of its failure to reinvent socialist democracy, its incapacity to persuade people that the welfare state need not be a distant, inhuman leviathan or that planning, far from being a ukase from above, should be a form of social self-organization. Forgetting the essence of socialism, namely that it is a search for the people’s mastery over their own fate, the left has allowed the term to be identified, in the West as well as the East, with Orwell’s 1984.

“Ex Oriente Lux,” wrote Stalin on the morrow of the October Revolution. It can now be asserted that the light will not come from the East, at least not in the immediate historical period. True, the Polish election, with the meteoric rise of the unknown Stan Tyminski, came as a shock to the international Monetary Fund pundits and their paymasters. The capitalist invasion of Eastern Europe will not be as smooth as they reckoned and the working class will not be docile forever. The reawakening may come sooner than expected. Yet it will take time. Not only Eastern Europe but also the Soviet Union itself will have to go through capitalist purgatory before new movements can be revived there around a new socialist project.

The Western left could speed up this process by its own example. But it can do so only by relying on its own forces, which have been disoriented rather than assisted by the wind blowing from the East. It must also move rapidly, for the disappearance of frontiers in Western Europe will force the labor movement to choose between internationalist solutions and political suicide. Necessity may be the mother of invention. But that is not the same as saying that when a project is historically necessary one is bound to be found. Judging by the utter failure of Mitterrand, Spain’s Felipe Gonzalez or Britain’s Neil Kinnock to provide even the semblance of an alternative during the current Middle East crisis, the left in Europe will require new movements, new ideas and new leaders. Until they emerge, the American sheriff, though clearly of pensionable age, can cling to the conviction that the world is his turf.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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