First Or Last Post?

Immanuel Wallerstein On One More Year

Taking another leaf out of The Currency Lad‘s book, I’ve updated my New Year’s Eve report and will now proceed to a brief post on politics (note – it’s thesis related!). But rather than excoriate Gough Whitlam like C.L., I’d like to bring Troppo readers the latest thoughts of the American sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein.

In discussing Wallerstein’s contention that American hegemony is in secular decline, I’ve previously observed that Wallerstein, whatever one thinks of his theoretical paradigm, is an extremely astute observer of world politics. There is no doubt about one thing. The foreign policy of the US administration will profoundly shape our world in 2005. For those who are disturbed by the current direction of US policy, Wallerstein paradoxically offers some hope.

Continue reading over the fold for Wallerstein’s thoughts (reproduced with permission).

Fernand Braudel Center, Binghamton University

Comment No. 152, January 1, 2005

“Bush and the World: The Second Term”

George W. Bush has been reelected for a second term of four years. It is
rather certain what policy he will pursue on the U.S. domestic scene, since
he has announced it clearly. He will push for further tax cuts. He will seek
to privatize as much of the social security system as he can. He will
appoint only judges who will reflect his conservative values, both on
economic and social matters. He will seek to dismantle as much environmental
legislation as possible. He will seek to strengthen the authority of the
government in all police investigations and prosecutions. In short, he will
pursue a classic rightwing agenda.

What remains much more obscure is what he intends to do in foreign policy,
and this for one very simple reason. On the one hand, during his first term
his administration committed itself strongly to a particular foreign
policy – that of unilateral pre-emptive action whenever and wherever it felt
like. On the other hand, this foreign policy has not been very successful,
not only in the eyes of its critics at home and elsewhere in the world, but
even in the eyes of many of its faithful supporters. There is turmoil in the
ranks of the Bush partisans, which can be observed in the recent flurry of
demands by certain major conservative figures for the resignation of Donald
Rumsfeld combined with the immediate support Rumsfeld received from others,
including the president himself. Rumsfeld simply exemplifies these policies.

What can we expect now? There are actually two questions here. Will the
second Bush administration pursue the identical foreign policy as the first?
And, to the extent that it changes, how will the rest of the world react?

The most immediate question is Iraq. The number one political priority of
the U.S., as we enter 2005, is holding Iraqi elections in the end of
January. But why is this so important? In the first place, it is important
to the U.S. in order to show that these elections can be held at all,
despite the attacks of the insurgents. Secondly, it is important because the
U.S. fears that, if they weren’t held, they would be blamed by the Ayatollah
al-Sistani, who might then shift his position from one of prudent distance
from the U.S. to one of active hostility. Thirdly, it is important because
the U.S. hopes to be able to shift the political/military battle in Iraq
from one in which it is Iraqi insurgents versus the U.S. to one in which it
is Iraqi insurgents versus a legitimate elected Iraqi government. But
fourthly, it is important because it is seen as the essential prerequisite
to a reduction of the number of the U.S. troops in Iraq. Of course, there are others who also anxiously want these elections – the interim Iraqi government and the mainstream Shia parties in particular.

So, elections will almost certainly be held – amidst continuing and probably
escalating violence and amidst a high rate of abstentionism, especially in
Sunni areas. But what will happen then? We shall probably see a new
government with Ayatollah Sayed al-Hakim, the leader of the main Shia party
(SCIRI), as Prime Minister. Depending on how the elections actually go and
the behavior of al-Hakim, this government may or may not start with some
minimal acceptance as a national government. The insurgency will almost
surely continue, however, charging that the new government is a U.S. puppet.
And the new Iraqi government will sooner or later have to choose between
continuing to pursue the overtly pro-American policy of Iyad Allawi and
adopting a nationalist line more consonant with the demands of the Iraqi
people. One does not have to be a Middle East expert to suspect that sooner
or later the new Iraqi government will opt to be more nationalist, in order
first of all to be more legitimate.

The pressure on the U.S. to withdraw its troops will then be coming from
three sides: from the insurgents, from the new Iraqi government, and from
public opinion at home. Within the U.S., all the polls indicate that more
and more people feel that the price the U.S. is paying in soldiers killed
and wounded and in the costs of war are simply too high. The U.S. is at the
beginning of an isolationalist reaction. And since isolationism has always
had a strong hold within the Republican party, we shall begin to see the
president’s own supporters pushing for troop withdrawal.

There is no doubt that there are others within the Bush administration such
as the militarists and the neo-cons – the two are not identical, by any
means – who will fight this tendency bitterly. But this camp is much weaker
than it was in 2003. So we may get a big swing in U.S. foreign policy. What
we will not get is the modulated middle position of “multilateralism” dear
to the heart of Colin Powell and to the first President Bush’s advisors like
Brent Scowcroft, and dear as well to the leaders of the more conservative
wing of the Democratic Party (such as Senators Biden and Lieberman).

What happens vis-a-vis Iraq will presage all the rest of the Bush foreign
policy. It is already the case that Bush has pulled back on North Korea and
Iran to a position of tacit recognition of impotence. The Bush team is
huffing and puffing, but they know there is very little they can do. They
would be happy to see renewed negotiations between Israel and Palestine,
which Blair is trying his best to push, but the U.S. will merely go along
with such developments rather than be their prime promoter. These renewed
negotiations are in any case not likely to go very far. And, in that case,
the laid-back position of the Bush administration will protect it from too
much internal U.S. damage.

Looking around the world, where can Bush act now? In Cuba? He’d like to, no
doubt. But today we have state officials in Alabama (the heart of Bush
country) saying that if they don’t sell chickens to Cuba, Brazil will, and
adding that the government’s restrictions on trade with Cuba are an
unjustified sop to the Cuban exiles in Florida. There is no sign of any
serious support within the U.S. for a Cuban adventure. In Russia? We have
just seen how, even though the Ukrainian elections have caused a very bad
press for Putin in the United States, nonetheless Bush went out of his way
to indicate that the U.S. will continue to work with Putin. In China? The
economic interests of the United States preclude anything hostile, despite
the uneasiness the Bush administration has with China’s increased political
role in Asia. In Europe? Even Rumsfeld’s “new Europe” is beginning slowly to
desert the U.S. In short, Bush does not have many options available to him. And since Bush is a canny and very unprincipled politician, he will not want to play in a game in which the odds are so heavily against him.

And how will the world react to a de facto pulling inward -both militarily
and economically – of the U.S.? One can expect that, after an initial period
of caution, everyone will try to take advantage of this new display of U.S.
geopolitical weakness. The problem is that, once the U.S. presence in the
world is reduced, it is like removing an elephant from the living room. No
one is quite sure how to fill the space. And it is probably the case that no
one has a fully prepared set of policies for such a situation. So there will
be much unsure jostling among all the other geopolitical players. The U.S.
was already a declining hegemonic power when Bush came to power in 2001. In
seeking to restore the U.S. world position in his first four years of power,
Bush actually made the situation much worse for the U.S. The U.S. (and Bush)
will reap the harvest of his folly in the second term.

by Immanuel Wallerstein


  1. Copyright by Immanuel Wallerstein. All rights reserved. Permission is
    granted to download, forward electronically or e-mail to others and to post
    this text on non-commercial community Internet sites, provided the essay
    remains intact and the copyright note is displayed. To translate this text,
    publish it in printed and/or other forms, including commercial Internet
    sites and excerpts, contact the author at;
    fax: 1-607-777-4315.

    These commentaries, published twice monthly, are intended to be reflections
    on the contemporary world scene, as seen from the perspective not of the
    immediate headlines but of the long term.[]

About Mark Bahnisch

Mark Bahnisch is a sociologist and is the founder of this blog. He has an undergraduate degree in history and politics from UQ, and postgraduate qualifications in sociology, industrial relations and political economy from Griffith and QUT. He has recently been awarded his PhD through the Humanities Program at QUT. Mark's full bio is on this page.
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Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2024 years ago

Thanks for this post M.B.—the problem re. ”huffing and puffing” is that it is very difficult to discern the difference between threats and intended action from the Bush administration given its apparent lack of grip on reality. It is a bit like trying to psychologically profile Jack the Ripper and guessing what happens next, and to who.

The linkages being formed by China are of great interest, with its energy imports increasing by approximately 40% in the last year and consequent oil/gas deals with Iran means an automatic security council veto from China on any US action against Iran’s nuclear activities. Ditto Russia with its contracts in building nuclear power stations.

After the ”elephant” is removed ”from the living room” my suggestion is that the vacuum is being filled, partially at least by ”Old Europe.”
The recent deal set up by France, Germany and UK (surprise surprise) on the Iranian temporary halt to Iranian enrichment is but one example. Meantime Russia, the EU and China have in common, a distinct interest in filling the vacuum.

”New Europe’s” exodus from Iraq also illustrates the weakness of the US’s ability to coerce—the hegemony in decline has visible manifestations—Wallerstein is so correct on that point.

If militarily the US is seen to be relatively impotent, the economic corollary has yet to be played out. Enshrining tax cuts, continuing with massive combined twin deficits of a trillion dollars a year leads to the question of a hard or soft landing. Recession or world depression is the outcome variable here.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

“It is a bit like trying to psychologically profile Jack the Ripper and guessing what happens next, and to who.” Lovely!

Re Iran/China, Peter – there was also an argument in the Economist recently that Schroeder’s softly softly attitude towards Putin on the Ukraine was linked to German imports of gas from Russia. The politics of energy cuts more than one way.

Peter Kemp
Peter Kemp
2024 years ago

Thanks M.B. I have a fuzzy idea that Germany gets the bulk of its gas from Russia. Somehow I can’t see Germany reversing its ”Old Europe” credentials even if Herr Stoiber takes the reins of government. Reminiscent in context of the UK tories ?

In general Iranian and Russian oil/gas sees some strange bedfellows these days with the common element being contrary to self imposed US ForPol interests,– as you rightly say, it ”cuts more than one way”

The Wallerstein article will be most useful in my (UNE) INRE S2 effort in ”Contemporary Challenges to Global Security” Thanks again.

Mark Bahnisch
Mark Bahnisch
2024 years ago

No probs, Peter. If you’re interested, Wallerstein’s site (link above under the Fernand Braudel Centre headline) has a range of his writings online and you can subscribe to the fortnightly commentaries the latest of which I’ve reproduced above.

2024 years ago

In short Wallerstein says exactly what everyone predicted pre-Iraq didn’t he?

Interesting that there was no mention of China too.