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Friday, June 29, 2018


In 1961, after completing a three year Instructorship in Philosophy and General Education at Harvard, I went to the University of Chicago as an Assistant Professor of Philosophy.  There I met and became friendly with Hans Morgenthau, a very famous senior professor who was one of the leading figures in the so-called realpolitik school of international relations.  The central idea of realpolitik was that nations could be viewed as unitary actors on the world stage motivated not by ideology or historical loyalties but by rational self-interest.  The theory was first developed in order to make sense of the endlessly shifting alliances, over many centuries, of the nations of Central and Western Europe, but in the post-World War Two world it had been broadened to include the entire world.  The major European powers – France, Great Britain, Germany, Russia, Italy – were now allies, now enemies, then again allies.  In the middle of the twentieth century, the United States joined this structure of alliances, forming a working partnership with Russia, France, and Great Britain against Germany and Italy, then crafting an Atlantic Alliance against the Soviet Union that included its former enemies, German and Italy.  Morgenthau taught me to view these changing alliances in a rational, non-ideological fashion, something that was, for a young twenty-seven year old neophyte, an eye-opener.

While I was in Paris, disporting myself in caf├ęs and lecturing on Marx in Ghent to an audience of workers and students, Donald Trump continued his purposeful dismantling of the Atlantic Alliance.  There have been a good many fevered warnings that the world as we know it is coming to an end – which may very well be true – but not as much thoughtful commentary on what new world order may emerge from the wreckage.  The goal of this blog is to make a start at thinking this question through.  I am, of course, no sort of expert at all on international relations, and I sometimes wish Morgenthau were around to offer guidance, but I will do my best, and I welcome comments from those among you better informed than I.

The first thing that will happen is the increased urgency by the European nations to repair the fractures in the European Economic Union, to shore up the euro, perhaps even to woo Great Britain back into the union.  American commentators will focus feverishly on Vladimir Putin’s increasingly successful efforts to destroy the Atlantic Alliance, but despite its enormous nuclear arsenal, Russia is essentially a failed state propped up by its sale of oil.  As renewable energy sources capture a larger and larger share of the world’s needs, Russia will diminish in importance, playing at most a marginal regional role.

The real winner in any fundamental realignment of global powers will be China.  Some background is called for.  Historically, China has been an inward looking nation, focused on strengthening its control of its heartland, and expanding, when able, northward, westward, and southwestward, to dominate Manchuria, Mongolia, Tibet, and Southeast Asia.  As Owen Lattimore shows in his fine old book, The Inner Asian Frontiers of China, this process of centrifugal expansion and centripetal contraction is thousands of years old.  However, for almost a thousand years, China has been connected to a complex trade network linking the entire Eurasian land mass and Africa as well.  [An excellent exposition of this can be found in Janet Abu-Lughod’s work, Before European Hegemony.] 

The network had two principal substructures, in each of which China served as the eastern terminus.  The overland structure, which we know as the Silk Road, was a series of linked trading routes, beginning in China, traveling west past Tibet, circumventing the formidable Taklamakan desert, and ending at the far eastern end of the Mediterranean.  A second water route began at China’s ports on what we call the China Sea, went through the Straits of Malacca, headed west to the seacoast of India, then on to the port cities of East Africa and up the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea, to Genoa and Venice, and thence to the fairs of Flanders and Burgundy, where goods from as far west and north as Northern England were exchanged for the silks and spices [and paper and gunpowder] that had made their way from China.  No trader traveled the entire route [Marco Polo to the contrary notwithstanding], but the trade routes were well established.  Detailed charts of the timing of trade winds enabled Muslim traders to sail east and then west in accordance with the winds, thus avoiding the necessity of laying over for six months until the winds shifted.  This vast complex of trade routes even included sub-Saharan Africa.  Muslim merchants traveled overland south across a less forbidding Sahara to the nations of West Africa [hence the fact that Hausa of Nigeria are Muslim], while trade goods traded overland to the Indian ocean from Central and East Africa linked even that continent to the international economy.  Indeed, it is said that a taste for fine English woolens on the part of West African rulers sparked a small economic boomlet in the north of England, and in the European Middle Ages half of the gold circulating in Western Europe had its origin in the gold mines of West Africa.

Which brings me to Xi Jinping.  The President of China [now effectively for life], building on this ancient pair of trade networks, has launched an enormously ambitious and far-sighted economic initiative, labeled One Belt One Road, and projected to cost roughly four trillion dollars, whose aim is to build roads, rail networks, regional shipping depots, and ports following the ancient water [One Belt] and overland [One Road] pathways and uniting the entire Eurasian landmass in a single unified economic unit with China both the eastern terminus and the dominant partner.  When this project is completed, in twenty-five years or more, it will bind Europe economically to China, thus enabling China to displace the United States as Europe’s principal trading partner and establishing China as a world power, not simply as a regional power.

Xi’s plan was conceived well before Trump was elected, but Trump’s frantic destruction of the Atlantic Alliance can only considerably advance Xi’s global plan.  The United States will of course continue to be a major economic force, given the fact that it has now the largest national economy in the world along with a bloated [and all but useless] military establishment.  However, China’s population is somewhat more than four times that of the United States, and it is inevitable that it will overtake the U.S. economically.

What are we to think of all of this?  Ah well, the spirit of Hans Morgenthau does not tell me, so we must decide for ourselves.


subject said...

From a collection of essays written by a sociologist Wolfgang Streeck named "How will Capitalism End?"

"For the decline of capitalism to continue, that is to say, no revolutionary alternative is required, and certainly no masterplan of a better society displacing capitalism. Contemporary capitalism is vanishing on its own, collapsing from internal contradictions, and not least as a result of having vanquished its enemies - who, as noted, have often rescued capitalism from itself by forcing it to assume a new form. What comes after capitalism in its final crisis, now underway, is, I suggest, not socialism or some other defined social order, but a lasting interregnum - no new world system equilibrium a la Wallerstein, but a prolonged period of social entropy or disorder (and precisely for this reason a period of uncertainy and indeterminacy). It is an interesting problem for sociological theory whether and how a society can turn for a significant length of time into less than a society, a post-social society as it were, or a society lite, until it may or may not recover and again to become a society in the full meaning of the term."

Essentially it will die by bleeding due to a thousand cuts. I have also linked an interview of him conducted by Jacobin:

Anonymous said...

Why do you use square brackets instead of parentheses?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Because I don't have to shift to write them.

s. wallerstein said...

Why do you consider Russia to be a failed state?

It's a huge country with many natural resources besides oil, and when the oil business runs out, I'm sure they'll find something else to sell.

It has a relatively educated population, and I don't see it going the way of Libya or Somalia or other failed states.

Anonymous said...

There are some less than complimentary remarks on Morgenthau--raising criticisms respecting foundations and borrowings I at least had never heard before--in Perry Anderson's recent book, "The H Word." His "American Foreign Policy and its Thinkers" is also interesting.

s. wallerstein said...

Perry Anderson is very interesting, indeed.

I highly recommend his book on Western Marxism.

Hey Man said...

How plausible is it to think that states act in their own rational self-interest? To me it seems that states serve the more parochial interests of the powerful. The current Republican party, which effectively controls the state, is willing to bring great harm to most of its own voters (and of course others) in service to the short-term economic interests of the ultra rich. I would say the same of the Democratic party, although it is less fanatical and destructive in its work. Enrichment of a tiny segment of the population does not seem to be in the self-interest of the state itself, nor its population more generally.

LFC said...

Small correction on the Abu-Lughod title: it's Before European Hegemony. (Sorry I don't have time for a more substantive comment at the moment.)

To Professor Bob said...

Did you read this? Der Abstieg des Westens? Joschka Fischer?