Assessing the impacts of America’s growing isolation
The present generation of young people as well as the generations to come will face some really hard, demanding problems that have never arisen in the 200,000 years of human history. Although looking at the turmoil and chaos in the world today, particularly the growing climatic changes, the rise of ISIS, Russia-US tensions, rifts in the Far East between China and Japan and the US-led interminable border wars on Syria, Iraq and many other states, it’s hard to see our actions meaning anything, we have no option but to struggle hard to save the human species from a pretty grim fate.
When the world was flabbergasted with the unexpected result of the 2016 American presidential election, some very important events were taking place in Marrakech, Morocco. There was a conference there of 200 countries, the so-called COP 22, held in the Moroccan capital from 7-18 November 2016. COP 22 was an event that was a lot more important than the ones that captured the attention of the world in such an astonishing fashion. The goal at this conference was to implement the rather vague promises and commitments of the preceding international conference on global warming, COP 21 in Paris in December 2015. Although the participants acknowledged that the climate is warming at an alarming and unprecedented rate and that they have an urgent duty to respond, yet they failed to produce anything solid except calling for “further climate action and support” and reiterating their “resolve to inspire solidarity, hope and opportunity for current and future generations.”
Paris conference, in fact, had the goal of establishing verifiable commitments to do something about the worst problem that humans have ever faced—the likely destruction of the possibility for organized human life. They couldn’t do that. They only reached a non-verifiable commitment—promises, not fixed by treaty and a real commitment. And, the reason was that the Republican Congress in the US would not accept binding commitments. So, they were left with something much weaker and looser.
The Marrakech conference intended to carry this forward by putting teeth in that loose, vague agreement. It opened on November 7th, normal way. November 8th, the World Meteorological Organization presented an assessment of the current state of what’s called the Anthropocene, the new geological epoch that is marked by radical human modification, destruction of the environment that sustains life. November 9th, the conference basically ceased. The question that was left was whether it would be possible to carry forward this global effort to deal with the highly critical problem of environmental catastrophe, if the United States—the leader of the free world—would pull out completely, as appeared to be the case because it is the stated goal of Donald Trump, who regards climate change as a hoax and whose policy, if he pursues it, is to maximize the use of fossil fuels, end environmental regulations, dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency and, in other words, accelerate the race to destruction. That was essentially the end of the Marrakech conference. It terminated without any issue. So that might signal the end of the world, even if not quite in the intended sense.
And, in fact, what happened in Marrakech was quite an astounding spectacle. The hope of the world for saving us from this impending disaster was not the United States; it was China. That’s where hopes were placed. At the same time, the leader of the free world, the richest, most powerful country in history, was acting in such a way as to doom the hopes to total disaster. It’s no less astounding that it received almost no comment.
The effects are quite real. COP 21, the Paris negotiations, could not reach a verifiable treaty because of the refusal of the Republican Congress to accept binding commitments. The follow-up conference, COP 22, ended without any issue. We will soon see, in the not very distant future, even more dangerous, horrifying consequences of this failure.
Take the country of Bangladesh, for instance. Within a few years, tens of millions of people will be fleeing from the low-lying coastal plains simply because of the rise of sea level with the melting of the huge Antarctic glaciers much more quickly than was anticipated and the severe weather associated with global warming. That’s a refugee crisis of a kind and will seem like a footnote to a tragedy. Bangladesh’s leading climate scientist, Atiq Rahman, has reacted by saying, “These migrants should have the right to move to the countries from which all these greenhouse gases are coming. Millions should be able to go to the United States.” And, indeed, to other rich countries that have grown wealthy while bringing about this new geological epoch, which may well be the final one for the species called homo sapiens.
The catastrophic consequences can only increase. Just keeping to South Asia, temperatures, which are already intolerable for the poor, are going to continue to rise as the Himalayan glaciers melt. They will also destroy the water supply for South Asia. In India already, 300 million people are reported to lack water to drink. And it will continue both for India and Pakistan. At this point, the two major threats to survival begin to converge. One is environmental catastrophe. The other is nuclear war—another threat that is increasing right before our eyes. India and Pakistan are nuclear states having stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Any kind of war between them would immediately turn into a nuclear war—that might happen very easily over struggles over diminishing water supplies. A nuclear war would not only devastate the region, but might actually be terminal for the species, if, indeed, it leads to nuclear winter and global famine, as many scientists predict. Meanwhile, the United States is leading the way to disaster, while the world looks to China for leadership. It’s an incredible, astounding picture, but indeed only one piece of a much larger picture.
The isolation of the United States at Marrakech is symptomatic of broader developments that we should think about pretty carefully. They’re of considerable significance. America’s isolation in the world is increasing in remarkable ways. Maybe the most striking is right in what used to be called “our little region over here” by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War under President Roosevelt. If anybody gets out of line, we punish them harshly; otherwise, they do what we say. That’s very far from true now. In the recent past, Latin America, for the first time in 500 years, has freed itself from Western imperialism. The International Monetary Fund, which is basically an agency of the US Treasury, has been kicked out of South America entirely. There are no US military bases left. The international and hemispheric organizations are beginning to exclude the United States—and Canada as well. In 2015, there was a summit where the US might have been excluded completely from the hemisphere over the issue of Cuba. That’s surely the reason why Obama made the gestures toward normalization; that were at least some step forward.
On a much more far-reaching scale, something similar is happening in Asia. One of Obama’s major policies was the so-called pivot to Asia which was actually a measure to confront China. One component of the pivot was the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) which brought together almost the entire Asia-Pacific region, with the sole exclusion of China. Even this deal seems to be on its way to collapse. But, at the same time, there’s another international trade agreement that is expanding and growing, that is China’s—what they call—Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which is now drawing in US allies from Peru to Australia to Japan. The US will probably choose to stay out of it just as it has stayed away from China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), a kind of counterpart to the World Bank. Although the US has opposed the AIIB for many years, practically all US allies, including the Great Britain, are becoming a part of this. At the same time, China is expanding to the West with the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) and the China-based Silk Roads. The whole system, which will extend all the way from China to Europe, is an integrated system of energy-resource-sharing and so on. It includes Siberia, with its rich resources; it includes India and Pakistan; Iran will soon join, it appears, and probably Turkey will too. The United States has asked for observer status, but the request has been rejected. And, one of the major commitments of the SCO, a bloc of the whole of the Central Asian states, is that there can be no US military bases in this entire region.
Another step toward isolation may soon take place if President Trump carries through his campaign promise of terminating the nuclear deal with Iran. Other countries who are parties to the deal might well continue, ignoring US sanctions. That will extend US isolation, even from Europe. And, in fact, Europe might move, under these circumstances, toward backing off from the confrontation with Russia. Actually, Brexit may assist with this, because Britain was the voice—the harshest voice—of the United States in Nato. Now it’s out and this gives Europe some opportunities.
All these are significant developments as they are related to the widely discussed matter of decline of American power. There are some conventional measures which, however, are misleading and it’s something to seriously think about. By conventional measures, in 1945, the United States had reached the peak of global dominance. It had perhaps 50 percent of total world’s wealth. Other industrial countries were devastated or destroyed by the war but the US economy had gained enormously. Other industrial countries reconstructed. By around 1970, the world was described as tripolar: three major economic centers—a German-based Europe, a US-based North America and the Northeast Asian area, at that time Japan-based, now China had moved in as a partner. By that time, the US share in global wealth was about 25 percent. And today it’s far below that.
Nonetheless, all of this is highly misleading because it fails to take into account a crucial factor—the question of ownership of the world economy. A look at the corporate sector, the multinational corporations around the world, would reveal that US corporations are well in the lead in ownership of the global economy. And overall, their ownership is close to 50 percent of the total. Of course, that’s not for the benefit of ordinary citizens; it is for those who own and manage these private, quasi-totalitarian systems. At the military dimension, of course, the US is supreme with no country even close to it. But it is possible that Europe might take a more independent role. It might move toward something like Gorbachev’s vision. That might lead to a relaxation of the rising and very dangerous tensions at the Russian border, which would be a very welcome development.
The threats and dangers are very real. But, at the same time, opportunities are also aplenty. They are literal threats to survival: nuclear war, environmental catastrophe. They’re very urgent concerns and they became more urgent on November 8th, for the reasons not secret to anyone now. They have to be faced directly, if the human experiment is not to prove to be a disastrous failure.