To live outside the law you must be honest: Reflections on how to be a good multi-polarista.

In this post I offer some thoughts on the challenges and dilemmas  public intellectuals and activists face in trying to be good Multi-Polaristas. This post is intended more in the way of personal reflections, rather than as rigorous analysis.

Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, we have been living in a uni-polar world order. Yet there are clear signs that this uni-polar order is coming to an end. Many people have done, and are doing, excellent analyses of this trend. For example, Radkhika Desai and Michael Hudson have done a great job of breaking down one important feature of this trend: the end of dollar hegemony. The transition to a multi-polar now threatens or promises (depending on one’s perspective) to bring an end to the New World Order pronounced by US President George Bush Sr. at the onset of the first Gulf War.

The dawning of this US led uni-polar world in 1991 was in part an historical curiosity, owed to the collapse of the Soviet Union. A significant portion of the cognoscenti in the late 1970’s argued that with the US defeat in Vietnam and the end of the Bretton Woods Gold- US Dollar peg, that the era of unrivalled US leadership of the “free world” was at an end. The New World Order of that era was supposed to be marked by Tri-later and the sharing of power between the U.S., Western Europe and Japan. This order in turn would be countered by the Soviet Union and its allies. The “Third World” was the arena of challenges, rivalries and possibilities. In turn, the US would have to recognize limits to its power as it learned to deal with the challenges of a complex world. Both George Bush Sr.’s use of the phrase “New World Order” as well as the earlier Tri-lateral version, catalyzed conspiracy theorists and conspiracy theories. The reality however was that as always, theories grounded in geo-political analysis provided better explanation. The 1970’s prediction of a decline in US unilateral leadership over the Western system was based on sound theory and evidence. However, the dissolution of the Soviet Union upended good theory.  And hence,  the era of an unchallenged US led, liberal international order was born, and has survived for a little over thirty years.

If we date the era of the rise of US hegemony (or if one prefers, “leadership”) over what was termed the “West” (or  even more pretentiously, the “free world”) to the end of WWII, US hegemony when compared to that of the historical experiences of Spain, Portugal, Holland and Britain  had a pretty good run. This time around however, barring a decisive Russian defeat in Ukraine, the dissolution of the Russian federation and political upheaval in China, US hegemony is now at an end. We are back to the type of world order of the late 19th century with multiple powers and shifting alliances. The conventional wisdom is that Russia and China will constitute one power bloc, the US, Britain the EU and Japan another, with India and possibly Brazil as leaders of the global south. The return to a Balance of Power, rather than a uni-polar system does not mean the US will be weak, insignificant or lacking in influence. However, unless the US wishes to exhaust its resources in a series of unwinnable wars with the other great powers-which is sadly, not an entirely unlikely scenario-it will have to recognize limits to its power and rely more on genuine persuasion rather than sanctimonious preaching, sanctions and force to to get its way. How the US, or any other power should act to be a good multi-polarista seems clear. The more difficult question however how public intellectuals and activists who believe that the turn to multi-polarity might actually be a good thing be true multi-polaristas rather than shills or apologists for one side or the other?

Firstly, let us begin with Liberalism and Liberal values. If I judge by my students’ essays, the hegemony of Liberalism, at least in the sense of a political belief in Democracy and Human Rights is safe (for the record, I have tried to bring my students to the light of Critical Theory and Realism, though more in the English School sense than the structural sense). Liberalism is of course a hydra-headed beast, and as Karl Polanyi pointed out decades ago, is both a utopian ideology and in practice, inconsistent with its premises. As a normative theory regarding the importance of Democracy and Human Rights, there is much to commend in the Liberal tradition, and on those issues, I am all in. In its Economics, it is lacking in both a normative and positive sense. As a Positive theory of International Relations, it leaves much to be desired. As a hegemonic ideology that shapes actions, it is a chimera. Like Britain and Holland before it, the US has at least sometimes been on the side of the better aspects of liberalism such as Democracy and Human Rights. But the US commitment to Liberalism, like that of Holland and Britain before it, has always been both selective and self serving. And since the 1970’s the US has pushed Neo-Liberalism rather than embedded Liberalism. Even prior to the ascendancy of neo-liberalism over international institutions, the U.S. emphasized the economic aspects over the political aspects in those cases where Democracy threatened the smooth, global accumulation of capital. In addition, the US has practiced mercantilism and eschewed economic liberalism when the chips were down. A defense of the better, or at least potentially better aspects of a liberal international society does not imply obeisance to the US. This dilemma is similar to that faced during the Cold War.

Those of us on the democratic left (by which I mean the non-Stalinist, non-Maoist left) who came of age during the Cold War (or who have studied the Cold War in International Relations and History classes) no doubt recall three defining features of that era.

  1. There was always the unpalatable, one might say impossible choice, of choosing between US Imperialism and the totalitarian Bureaucratic Collectivism of the Soviet Union and China;
  2. The ways in which criticism of US Imperialism was instantly attacked as echoing the “Soviet line”, or vice versa;
  3. The continuous fear of nuclear annihilation.

For those of us whose anti-imperialist commitments came to be tempered by Realism (again, in my case more of the English School variety) and who saw politics as the art of the possible , the challenge was to find a way to work productively for a better US foreign policy and a genuine international society. To that end, the ethical choices were always difficult. The Sandinistas were far from principled Democratic Socialists but the US sponsorship of Argentina’s Generals, the Contras and death squads was intolerable. Solidarity and Polish workers were as worthy of support as Brazilian workers. The era of Brezhnev provided no inspiration- but Brezhnev was no Stalin. To add one’s voice to the chorus of what was nearly always exaggerated anti-Soviet rhetoric incurred the risk of being used to further the expansion of the military-industrial complex, nuclear buildup and US adventurism around the planet.  To fail to support Polish workers and be an apologist for Jaruzelski was to be hypocritical in the extreme.  Too condone the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan meant enabling the destruction of a country. To support the Mujahadin (or the Taliban) or Iran’s mullahs was to support the most bizarrely reactionary of political-religious cults-and still is. The democratic left were the people who were pro nuance, who  saw the world in the multiple shades of grey, who counseled the search for peaceful and diplomatic solutions and a re-allocation of resources away from the military industrial complex to the domestic economy. We were equally skeptical of the CIA and the KGB. Yet the effort to recognize the shortcomings of both power blocs confronted two dilemmas. We were the ones who counseled the recognition of limits for US foreign policy. But the dilemma than, as now, was how to speak, when to speak, and what to speak about.

The problem, then as now, is the issue of impact. Pronouncements in papers and articles, or in later days on blogs, might influence public opinion, but in the end had little effect on policy. If public intellectuals of the stature of Hans Morgenthau and George Kennan could not convince the US of the folly of Vietnam, we academics toiling on the margins of primarily teaching institutions have little hope of impact. Mass demonstrations also had little actual impact. And there was the issue of who one is trying to impact: editorializing or demonstrating against the actions of your country’s rival power bloc is easy and runs the risk of one’s voice being co-opted. And then there was the heritage of McCarthyism in which any and all effort at critical discussion of US policy resulted in accusations of naivete at best and treason at worst. If there was any comfort in all this it was that the criticism for the most part almost always came from the right and continued to do so up through 2016. We were the ones who read and learned about the Soviet Union from the likes of Stephen Cohen. Today’s ostensibly progressive talk show hosts on MSNBC studiously ignored him and add their voices to those of the Neo-Cons they once criticized.

The Cold War may be over, but the same dilemmas in a different form have now re-emerged. No matter how one tries, there is no progressive gloss to be put on Russia. Nor is there one to be put on China.  But to say that these countries do not represent any beacon of left-liberal goals, does not mean that the ideological cant that portrays them as Stalinism reborn can or should substitute for actual analysis. While the old ideological lines were clear, the new ones are vague, shifting and often contradictory. Despite their flaws, Brazil and India perhaps present our best hopes for genuine non-alignment and democracy, which is not I stress, an endorsement of Modi or Hindutva. If Russia has  become a conservative power, that does not mean that the left should now throw in with a new Cold War and the new McCarthyism. Nor does the resurrection of the old isolationist right and sympathy for Russian conservativism in some circles mean that critics of US foreign policy on the left are now part of a mythical red-brown alliance-anymore than critics of U ventures during the Cold War made us Soviet dupes. Since the election of Trump however, it has become de riguer in some circles to equate all efforts to put the Ukraine conflict into perspective with an alleged Russian disinformation conspiracy. The existence of this alleged disinformation conspiracy is now used to  justify creating a regime of censorship. These accusations at times come from the old usual, Neo-Con suspects, which is to be expected. But these same accusations are now as equally likely to emanate from the center and the left of the Democratic Party.  I have previously addressed the ways that the pro-Fukuyama crowd has echoed Cold War rhetoric on this blog, but the following provide some additional examples (see Letter to the Western Left in Dissent by Taras Bilous and the Anti Imperialism of Idiots characterization by Leila al Shami, a British-Syrian activist). Yet even as the old, isolationist and anti-war right resurfaces in the US, it would be a mistake to believe that the Republican Party has embraced calls for a more realistic foreign policy as it’s candidates remain as dedicated as ever to US hegemony and militarism.

I fear that I must conclude this entry with a less than complete and no doubt, unsatisfactory admonition that to live outside the law, we must be honest. I trust good multi-polaristas, you will all agree.

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