In politics, a basic rule of incumbency is to ignore the opposition for as long as possible. Responding to a challenger’s criticisms, as practiced pols know, often tends to confer legitimacy and set the stage for a debate on equal terms. The same rule applies at the global level, in conflicts between elites and their local or regional opposition. Once those in power begin to directly address their critics, the stage is set for some form of accommodation, even if the tactics don’t immediately change or the response takes the form of a vicious counter-attack.
In recent years, the incumbent powers in the “new world order” – the US and a shrinking group of dependent allies – have faced a mounting challenge to their leadership. Whether it began with the disruption of the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle just before the last century ended, the Zapatista rebellion’s launch in 1994 – on the very day NAFTA took effect – or the many local uprisings that have bloomed around the world, the point is the same: The corporate-dominated Pax Americana promoted with the end of the Cold War isn’t “the end of history” or of anything else. Superpower rivalry may be over, but this doesn’t mean the US gets an open-ended term as global CEO.
There’s the good news. The better news is that, as of 2001, the contest has entered a new stage. Unable to continue ignoring demands for change, the establishment has been forced to respond. At the recent G8 Summit of industrialized nations in Genoa, for example, leaders professed concern – or at least shed crocodile tears – about poverty, debt, and environmental threats. Even US President-select Bush urged rich nations to give more grants to poorer ones. Simultaneously, Bush and Britain’s Tony Blair, among others, went on the offense. Blair called the protesters “an anarchist traveling circus,” while Bush said their anti-globalization crusade actually hurts the poor. Unfortunately, the clash between protesters and police also escalated to a new level – an attack on the Genoa Indymedia center and the movement’s first direct casualty.
Both responses – the carrot and the stick – indicate growing apprehension in the corridors of power. Well-laid plans could be put in jeopardy. This, in turn, is deepening regional cracks, especially since Bush took office. In the last six months, Europe has broken with the US on missile defense, trade rules, Plan Colombia, and global warming. After shooting down a US spy plane – and getting away with it – China has signed a treaty of friendship with Russia, including agreement on military policies that directly challenge the Bush administration. In the UN, the US has been ejected from the Human Rights Commission. Meanwhile, global trade deals are going nowhere and NATO’s future is up for discussion again.
The world approached a similar turning point more than a decade ago. Despite their wealth and power, the two Superpowers had lost ground. Former client states and allies were renegotiating their relations – or being overthrown. For a moment, it appeared that an era of multipolar politics was about to commence. That vision, which soon gave way to a fin-de-sicle period of US triumphalism, may not have been a delusion after all, just premature.
In any case, the campaign to oust the current “world order” has just gotten started. An open debate between power and diverse popular movements, tied together by a united front against corporate globalization, is moving to center stage. In most media, the coverage is still spotty, biased, and incomplete. But the essence of the argument is getting through. That’s why Bush and friends are going on the attack.
Timing is also a factor. It may seem like the establishment sets its own pace, but that’s not entirely true. Like sharks, capitalists must keep moving and eating to survive. Delays in making deals on trade and investment policy run the risk that the dynamics will change or someone else will make a better offer. Snags also undermine both investor and self-confidence. And confidence is a key to winning almost any contest.
Recent events suggest that the next months are critical. Expect to hear more carrot-stick rhetoric. Also, expect the unexpected in late September when the opposition converges on Washington, DC, for meetings of the IMF and World Bank. History clearly shows that when the powerful feel they’re under an effective attack, they will use virtually any tactic – from disinformation and agents provocateur to repression and premeditated violence – to recapture hearts and minds.
But such tactics are also the last resort of elites that know they are illegitimate, and often presage a break that pulls away the mask, beginning a process of real change. At this point, opposition is no longer sufficient; it must be combined with sensible, persuasive, and equitable alternatives. We’re not quite there yet, but the current whining in high places suggests we’d better stay alert and get busy.