Thursday, October 2, 2008

The End of an Era

This day is the day that will go down in history as the day I almost shook hands with United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon outside my office.


But this being my history, and the room being full of about 100 Department of Political Affairs staff, and me being... well, me... I only almost shook his hand.

See, the thing is that I suffer from the disease of always having to act unaffected, I think. While others treated him somewhat like a rock star and asked to have his picture taken with them as he walked around the room and shook people's hands as a way of thanking them for all the hard work during the General Debate last week, I didn't even feel comfortable stepping forward and stretching out my hand. I mean. He's just a normal guy.

Anyway, I just discovered we have cockroaches in our apartment. I saw one in the kitchen. I pretend that they don't come into my room, or if they do, only when I'm away.

And the world economy is crashing. I really do pick strange times to go to New York. The last time, four planes crashed into buildings and in the fields of Pennsylvania and the world hasn't been the same since. This time the financial system is crashing down around us and the US Congress don't seem to think they need to do anything about it.

But if September 11 threw the US into a frenzied spiral of Taliban hunting, WMD seeking, dictator toppling, democracy spreading, war mongering attempts to control the world, the current financial crisis is like a sluggish cold that you've felt coming creeping for weeks, but nevertheless catches you off guard when it finally breaks out. There's just no way to prepare.

I wouldn't be too quick to herald the end of US world dominance, however. Mainly because those who did so before always seemed to have their statements come back and bite them in their butts. After all, the US remained a global power to reckon with even after the Vietnam War, the oil crisis, and the partial collapse of the Bretton Woods global monetary system as the dollar no longer was directly convertible to gold in the 1970s.

But this time, there is something. I'm not going to try to foretell the future, or even assess the magnitude of what is going on. Because you just don't know the significance of something until after it has happened, and you see in which direction the waves ripple out from the center.

But look: the international terrorism threat and whatever else keeps the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan, is eating away at the US, and has it spending billions of dollars on military operations. Military operations that swallow resources like black holes eat energy, without even generating the sought-after outcomes.

Great powers of before used to have to give up their colonial quests when local forces became too burdensome in their fight for freedom.

The global structure is changing. Not only are other huge nations growing stronger economically (and therefore politically) as we speak--China, Brazil, India--and not only is Russia flexing its muscles again in its Georgia gym, but the food and fuel crises are potential restructuring sparks that might set the whole North-South/Developed-Underdeveloped divide on fire and change the world system as we know it. Yes, poor people are hit hard by the rising food prices, but so called developing countries are also food producers. =They will ultimately gain from increased revenues from their food exports, and their fuel generating crops.

Hegemonic powers of old used to tumble as other actors gained speed on them and as the global structure was reorganized.

And then there's the current financial crisis. This crisis is undermining the economic strength of the US (obviously) and will therefore limit its power (at least for the time being). But it might also have much deeper consequences than this. This crisis is a potential crippling blow against the very ideology that has been the organizing principle behind our entire economic system that was more or less put in place by the US about 60 years ago.

If the US House of Representatives will indeed accept the 700 billion bail-out plan, then that means that the US is going directly against its own recommendations to other countries that have faced financial crises of their own. The policy is always: privatize, free the market--it will take care of itself. So what happens if the principal promoter of this ideology suddenly decides to nationalize economic institutions and regulate the market? What can they say against socialism and communism then?

Great powers need three complementing power sources: military, economic and ideological might. If the economy is collapsing, the military will have to cut back. And if these two pillars cave in, the ideology pillar cannot carry the weight on its own.

But. Having said all this, things don't just collapse over night. And the US, as well as capitalism, have a history of bouncing back. Adapting. And there are, we must not forget, countless other actors, state as well as non-state, that have considerable stakes in the current system. The EU, anyone?

But one thing is probably for sure: that things are changing. Even if the power structure should remain largely intact in the foreseeable future on the international scene, things are still changing. And this isn't just a lone intern in the outskirts of Spanish Harlem making things up. It's on the BBC website: there is a sense of an end of an era.

Go look:

One last thing before I sleep: Melvin the Doorman from the Dominican Republic said that there is no need to worry, after all. Not even if people are lining up at the bank to get their savings all the way over in Sweden. Things will pick up pretty quickly again. We're all alright.

With that: good night.

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