Editor’s note: Read part two here.
Scholars and intellectuals have been writing about the hollowing out and the porosity of the state for many years. Hedley Bull’s “new medievalism” in The Anarchic Society dates back to 1977. Saskia Sassen updated and extended a similar argument in her 2006 book Territory, Authority, Rights: From Medieval to Global Assemblages, and plenty of similar commentary dotted the academic landscape between 1977 and 2006. Since then, the frequency and diversity of the arguments have increased. Despite a tendency to exaggerate or wrongly weigh causal factors, the relevant literature has on the whole become more sophisticated.
But American politicians and policymakers, working in the policy machine room of arguably the most anti-intellectual great power in modern history, either do not pay attention to scholars, scoff at anything they say that seems inconvenient, or, most often, simply don’t know they exist. This is not an entirely unjustifiable set of attitudes, because academics often say unmoored and ideologically twisted things about politics and public affairs in general; but sometimes, when an entire chorus of scholars starting from different ideological orientations discerns a direction, it is probably a good idea to at least give it some thought.
If we boil down the factors behind this discerned direction, we see plenty of reasons adduced for the growing weakness of state authority. One concerns the fact that nationalism itself fell out of favor given its bloody 20th-century track record—although it may well be making a comeback for all but Western elites as the downsides of globalization gore various interests and thus dent a wider consciousness. The basic argument here is that the emotional bonds between society and state, such as they ever were, have varyingly weakened, reducing the state’s moral status and hence its implicit authority and consequent ability to mobilize consent—which is what legitimate states do.1 That vacuity of emotional attachment to the larger collectivity, in turn, also helps to explain the rise of identity politics in the United States and in other Western polities.
Another factor in the mix concerns the tendency of modern states to aggrandize, which is to say politicize and centralize, ever more social functions via administrative fiat, but to perform those functions poorly since public bureaucracies tend to be expensive, impersonal, and slow to adapt to new circumstances. This can make states seem not only emotionally “cold” to their publics but unpopular and less than fully democratic as well. Populist criticism of the European Union falls squarely into this latter category, for though it claims to be not a conventional state but to hover beneficently above them, in truth it functions in many respects as just a larger administrative state, but shorn of any patriotic, emotional affinity to buffer the annoyances always caused by administrative systems. There are examples of administrative fatigue for Americans to view closer to home, as well. In other words, states can get bigger without getting stronger, and the distinction is a critical one.
The main arguments, however, concern new technologies. States wield effective authority to the extent that the political function is more or less isomorphic with the scope of economic and cultural transactions. When the state is too “small” for the cultural and especially the economic dynamism of the society, there are only three possible solutions: contiguous land empire (very popular historically), maritime empire, and regimes of free trade that, for reasons that need not detain us here, tend not to last long and have disruptive internal effects. If none of those remedies is available, the state will wither not necessarily from revolution or resistance but from inanition as interested actors of various descriptions find workarounds to its dilapidated functions.
The classical imperial options are mostly unavailable today—Russian borderland grabs and Chinese island building are not preludes to major new imperial constructions anymore than the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq was a prelude to a classical imperial project in the Middle East—even as technology facilitates the movement of economic and cultural transactions far beyond the reach of any national state. This does not mean that states are no longer important; it means in some respects that the effectiveness of “stateness” is more important than ever, but also harder to come by. And it makes the wide disparities between state competencies more salient.
On another level, the massive phenomenon of disintermediation made possible by new and still developing information technology also undermines the state because a lot of what states do, as already noted, is administrative-legal in nature. Just as Uber and AirBnB make problems for established commercial concerns, and just as internet travel sites have long since made flesh-and-blood travel agents virtually obsolete, so it makes problems for states and their brittle legal regimes. For example, neither the Federal government, nor the State of New York, nor the City of New York can seem to stop fantasy sports gambling because entrepreneurs use offshore servers to run their rackets, and the jurisdictional problems have so far proved paralytic.
There is also a technological aspect to longstanding efforts at tax dodging by corporations and wealthy individuals via offshore shell corporations and deceits such as transfer pricing. This makes it harder than ever for states to collect taxes, thus either shifting the tax burden downward on those less well positioned to bear it, or vitiating the services themselves. Information technology has made this shell game easier to manage for the evaders, whose relative capacities and speed has so far greatly outdistanced plodding government efforts to chase it.
Similarly, technologies have enabled self-anointed transparency saints to make it ever harder for governments to keep national security information secure, as the Wikileaks and Snowden affairs have made clear. Aside from ways in which technology makes states less efficient from within, technology can also weaken states from the other end of the telescope, so to speak, by empowering non-state actors such as terrorists and criminal syndicates with formidable means of coercion and intimidation.2
The upshot is that if states cannot seriously influence, let alone control, information and revenue flows, trade and cultural transactions, and the means of coercion, they will weaken. If they weaken, then both loyalties based on interests and emotional attachments as well will incline eventually to migrate to some array of alternatives that can get a grip on those levers of social power. This is happening, of course, before our eyes in many parts of the world.3 Extra-legal gangs in Brazilian favelas and their counterparts from Central America to the Sahel are tech-savvy to the max. So are ISIS members and Russian mafia thugs. They are using the implements of advanced-state societies to undermine the authority of states in general, and no one seems to know how (or be willing) to stop them. Some states, Russia in particular but also China with its cyberhacking efforts, are adapting substate techniques to state policies to create hybrid forms of influence.
The sources of the perception being what they may, it’s news of a sort when veteran U.S. foreign policy observers call attention to the fact of growing state weakness. It means that a new permutation of social reality is starting to make an impression, however weakly and gradually, on the political class. Here is what William S. Lind wrote recently in The American Conservative:
…the most important, most powerful development now reshaping world affairs [is] the decline of the state. The state is losing both the monopoly on war it established with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648 and its claim to its population’s primary loyalty. All over the world, people are transferring their loyalty away from the state to religions, races and ethnic groups, ideologies, “causes” such as environmentalism and animal rights, gangs, and so on. These were most people’s primary loyalties before the rise of the state, and a growing number of young men are eager to fight for them once again.4
Lind starts from a peculiar premise—that the United States “seek[s] world hegemony”—and follows his observation about the decline of the state with a dubious conclusion: “The decline of the state makes war between states obsolete.” It certainly does not. But then he gets back on logical track: War’s “most likely outcome is the disintegration of the losing state into stateless disorder, providing a new Petri dish for Fourth Generation elements and leaving the ‘winning’ state in a worse situation than it faced before the war.” That seems a good description of the consequences of American action in Iraq and Libya, but it does not follow that the absence of using U.S. military force obviates the problem [read: Syria].
As to the hoary 19th century, mainly-British, doctrine of free trade, which since the early 1990s has included the free flow of capital as well as goods and services, this was reborn as a postwar American policy principle that was designed to lift all boats, the idea being that doing so would support the march of liberal political systems worldwide as well as make Americans richer. This was an odd way for a supposed empire to think and behave, for it bore no resemblance to neo-mercantilist notions of “imperial preference” or any such thing.5 And it worked fine for a long while; but it no longer does—like the too mindless and promiscuous use of U.S. military power, “free trade”—especially as applied to capital flows—constitutes a risk management tool that can now have broadly counterproductive consequences.
Capital does not obey Ricardo’s law of comparative advantage, and its freeing up in the early 1990s in the Clinton Administration created a cascade of havoc—in Mexico, Russia, Asia, and beyond. (Related deregulatory excesses brought the havoc home in 2007-8.) More important, the freeing of capital movement fairly rapidly deranged the labor profile in the United States, along with our balance of payments situation, by undercutting the manufacturing sector; and the weakness of manufacturing in turn further weakened the power of trade unions to keep wages up, a phenomenon that reverberated into the non-union sectors of the middle-class and lower middle-class labor markets.6 If money could move much more freely, rapidly, and securely, and if financial interests became more important politically than manufacturing ones, then investment would tend to flow to produce old goods in new places rather than new goods in old places.7 This of course was nothing new either: Capitalists have always chased cheap labor around the globe to the extent possible.8 What changed was the extent possible: It grew radically.
American corporations and especially banks and investment firms did very well from this arrangement, and prices fell for many goods in the United States. One net result of all this has been China’s “rise,” and another has been the sharply greater impact of financial lobbying in American politics. Together these have exacerbated income inequality in the United States, though there are several reasons for this beyond the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs and the devilments practiced by large banks and hedge funds. And despite the inequality data being often misunderstood, the perception of inequality as a sign of a “fixed,” plutocratically ravaged economic system has started to matter in American politics as it has not done since Mark Twain’s time.9
Over time, the asymmetrical job-related character of international investment flows has helped polarize American politics as driven by interests.10 The anti-free trade populism of the 2016 campaign season, which bridges the conventional distance between Left and Right, and which is justifiably aimed at Democratic as well as Republican elements of the political class, is clear evidence that at a time of rancid identity politics, angry déclassé white males still have political clout. And it is a clout that, as it wavers between assertive bellicose nationalism and head-in-the-sand isolationism, will not support anytime soon a mature internationalist U.S. foreign policy. This is the foreign policy equivalent of Daniel Bell’s cultural contradictions of capitalism, but in this case we are talking about the political economy contradictions of international capitalism.
William Lind isn’t the only commentator who argues that global hegemony—military and economic—has been the American strategy since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Andrew Bacevich’s recent book essentially claims the same thing, arguing that the U.S. military has been trying to conquer the greater Middle East to that end. In making his argument he conflates the Gulf War of 1991 and the Balkan interventions of the 1990s with the post-911 wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as if they all issued from some master plan or directive.11
This contention, whether in the form Lind gives it, or in the form Bacevich gives it, or in the form Vladimir Putin and dependencia atavists in South America give it, looks to be sheer nonsense from inside the supposed American hegemonic beast. In all the years I have worked in and around the U.S. government, I have never heard a single high or even mid-level U.S. official, in public or private, express anything remotely like a will to global hegemony.
What (nearly) everyone believes the United States is doing is providing common global security goods for the system of peace and prosperity that has existed since the end of World War II. This is essentially a positive-sum system of U.S. design and, most assume, it requires ongoing disinterested U.S. leadership to maintain, since no other captain-of-the-port is available to take on the job. As Michael Mandelbaum put it some years ago, the United States functions as a kind of untitled global government, and while many resent that role, many would also come to miss it were it to go away.12
Now, while that is how it looks to most of us, it is understandable that others, projecting pre- or non-Enlightenment zero-sum frames of reference onto the United States, take a different view. This is because they know that if they possessed U.S. power that is what they would do with it. And it is true that we have had our moments since 911 that seem to confirm their interpretation. That was particularly the case during the flourishing of George W. Bush’s “forward strategy for freedom,” when it looked like hegemony and “empire,” as Karl Rove once foolishly put it to Ron Suskind, were what we were about.13 Alas, this particular episode was both new and old; as Lord Vansittart once put it, “Our age has never been safe from inspired ignorance.”14 But the idea that under Barack Obama the United States is still a would-be advancing world hegemon really beggars belief. Obama has been a retrenchment President, in Stephen Sestanovich’s apt Maximalist language, who could only be mistaken for the leader of a hegemonic pretender by those suffering from some sort of ideological derangement.
What may be at the bottom of this misperception is the fact that in the spectrum of state power that exists in the world today, the United States, by virtue of its size, military power, economy, and lingering reputation, seems to many to be far and away the most effective state left standing. Russia is smaller and both deindustrialized and deinstitutionalized compared to the Soviet Union. China is still a poor country overall and a sharply divided one regionally, and it is also a de facto empire with significant internal security concerns. The other so-called BRICs—Brazil and India—do not look like challengers even on their better days, which are lately quite few. The European Union seems unable to shake serial crises that raise serious questions about its staying power, and Japan remains in a permanent economic slump, its negative demographic momentum troubling its future. So the United States, despite the mediocre quality of its state apparatus, seems relatively untouchable. The real disposable power of the American state, both at home and abroad, is waning by most measures, but its perceived power relative to those in steeper decline seems to be increasing anyway.
Like irony? Then you’ll love the fourth and final part of this essay, coming soon to a computer near you.
1Just to clarify, patriotism within modern nations has generally been a function of emotional ties to some mix of kinship groups and localities; there has not much positive affinity for states as such. During times of crisis, such as war or protracted security anxiety, states are often able to borrow the social capital pooled within society, and at such times the state’s capacity to mobilize consent for changes within a polity tend to grow. In this regard see H.W. Brands’s counterintuitive but ultimately persuasive argument in The Strange Death of American Liberalism (Yale University Press, 2001).
2See Nils Gilman, “The Twin Insurgency,” The American Interest (July/August 2014).
3A popular example is Moises Naím, The End of Power (Random House, 2013).
4Lind, “Memo to the Chairman,” The American Conservative, April 27, 2016.
5For a discussion in historical context of the ways in which the United States both is and is not an empire, see James Kurth, “The Adolescent Empire,” The National Interest (Summer 1997).
6The basic data is plain enough. In 1999 the Clinton Administration accorded most-favored nation trading status to China and in 2000 made it permanent. Thanks to U.S. support, China entered the World Trading Organization in 2001. In 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, about 17.1 million Americans worked in manufacturing jobs, and the U.S. trade deficit with China stood at about $83 billion. By July 2011 just 11.7 million Americans worked in manufacturing jobs—a 31.6% drop in only a decade—and the deficit stood at more than $273 in constant dollars.
7See James Kurth, “The Foreign Policies of Plutocracies,” The American Interest (November/December 2011).
8Note Eric Wolf, Europe and the People without History, 2nd edition (University of California Press, 2010).
9The best explanation, and corrective, to the misreading of the inequality data is Tyler Cowen, “The Inequality that Matters,” The American Interest (January/February 2011).
10It’s not the absolute amount of money that matters here, for investment flows into the United States as well as out of it. It’s the sort of economic activity supported by the investments that matters, and by and large incoming investment to the United States does not support large numbers of middle-class-enabling jobs.
11Bacevich, America’s War for the Greater Middle East (Random House, 2016).
12Mandelbaum, The Case for Goliath (PublicAffairs, 2005).
13Ron Suskind, “Faith, Certainty, and the Presidency of George W. Bush,” New York Times Magazine, October 17, 2004.
14Robert S. Vansittart, The Mist Procession (Hutchinson of London, 1958), p. 67.