Sunday, October 31, 2010

Age of Empires (Part 2 of 2): Waning towards a fiscal straitjacket

The first part of this post centred on the notion of America as an empire, and how it differed from the prototypes of empires past. It concluded by mentioning briefly the role of financial statecraft -- the use of policies that influence financial flows to achieve both economic and traditional foreign policy goals. This should be expanded upon.

The United States has been home to the world's most influential and connected investment banks and financial institutions. To this day, these Wall St. firms are a magnet for talent and -- due to New York being the world's financial capital -- sources of access to capital, originators of financial engineering, and catalysts in the art of the deal; the moral hazard inherent in the US bail out of the financial system has done nothing to change this perception. However, these titans are not what they once were. The reality is that US banking will be burdened with toxic loans for years to come (despite the Fed's forthcoming QE2 measures where the central bank will presumably consume more of the wreckage of the sub prime mess) and a more stringent regulatory environment. Moreover, it is tarnished with the resentment from "Main St." as a bastion of fat cats bankers who undeservedly received bail out money in the aftermath of The Great Recession.

This belies the idea that a weakened American financial system is not only bad news for mainstream Americans, who will not have access to credit to spur economic growth via small businesses, but also for military power and the ability for America to exercise foreign policy. In realist theory it is generally accepted that military power is the key requirement; this power is supplemented with wealth from industry and commerce which act as the key pipelines to acquiring the necessary military power. Logically, a weakened commercial sector, and by extension an anemic economic growth environment (which citizens in Western countries should be braced for in the coming decade due to debt ridden personal and government balance sheets), should entail a smaller flow of funds towards military expenditures. A fiscal crunch will come -- it is a matter of when not if and has been postponed thanks to the US dollar status as the reserve currency -- and this must mean eventual American disengagement (at least partially) in terms of its military reach. And this is despite the so-called "war on terror" that is believed to be just in the eyes of the neoconservative establishment, its loyal followers, and a percentage of the US population who live in perpetual fear of the "other".

Having said this, one must neither underestimate nor bet against the neoconservatives getting their way when it comes to America exercising muscular foreign policy; it may happen again after November 2 if the Republicans take control of the House (a probability) and the Senate (a possibility).

Taking the words (from Foreign Affairs, Jul. - Aug. 1996) of the Neocon movement's scion, William Kristol, publisher of The Weekly Standard and the best know of the conservative elites, it is his contention that America's rightful international role is that of a "benevolent global hegemon":
"Having defeated the "evil empire," the United States enjoys strategic and ideological predominance. The first objective of U.S. foreign policy should be to preserve and enhance that predominance by strengthening America's security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests, and standing up for its principles around the world." [1]

He goes on to state that the question of a threat is misconceived:

In a world in which peace and American security depend on American power and the will to use it, the main threat the United States faces now and in the future is its own weakness. American hegemony is the only reliable defense against a breakdown of peace and international order. The appropriate goal of American foreign policy, therefore, is to preserve that hegemony as far into the future as possible. To achieve this goal, the United States needs a neo-Reaganite foreign policy of military supremacy and moral confidence. [2]

Mr. Kristol exercised his substantial powers of persuasion during the eight years of George W. Bush's administration where America exercised deficit spending in order to go on its military excursions into Iraq and Afghanistan and exacerbated the fiscal situation by implementing the panacea of tax cuts on a willing public that had been fed the supply-side pablum of the Laffer curve.

But where does that leave America's foreign policy ambitions in the slow growth world post Great Recession world where confidence is low, middle America resentful, and structural unemployment much higher than reported and job growth lower than expected? They must be curtailed.

No doubt, the United States will remain dominant but its power, due to the realities of fiscal austerity that is being undertaken globally -- in small steps by many nations, in a giant leap by a few -- will wane as all levels of government hurtle head long towards a fiscal strait jacket.

The level of political discourse during the current U.S. mid-term elections has ranged from vacuous to barbaric; the world's most powerful nation remains in denial of the tough decisions it faces from entitlements to taxation to defence spending to health care.

The populist infused, billionaire -- think of the Koch brothers -- funded rhetoric of the grass roots Tea Party movement has done nothing to frame the conversation on a rational plateau. Notwithstanding the Pollyanna notion of tax cuts helping to balance budgets, one must be recognize that military expenditures will be cut and America's military reach will be curtailed lest America become a totalitarian military dictatorship -- a highly unlikely scenario even amongst the greatest pessimists

In the March/April 2008 issue of Foreign Policy, 3,400 active and retired officers at the highest levels of command were surveyed; when asked whether it was reasonable or unreasonable to expect the U.S. military to successfully wage another major war at this time, 80% of the officers said it was unreasonable. [3]

When asked about the U.S. military's preparation in terms of successfully fight a conflict in four hot spots (on a 1-10 scale with 1 being unprepared, 10 fully prepared), the results were: 4.9 for the Taiwan Strait; 4.7 for North Korea; 4.5 for Iran; and 5.1 for Syria. [4]

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), a global think tank, has done outstanding work on the military spending and armaments which has shown that America's expenditures in this regard have increased despite the economic downturn. [5]

Amid the deafening calls for fiscal austerity and the criticism of fiscal stimulus for an indebted nation, there must inevitably be a conversation about defence expenditure?

How long can this -- like America's addiction to foreign capital to fund its current accounts and budget deficits -- continue? Not indefinitely. While the sun did not set on the British Empire, Britain had to live within its means once its imperial ambitions outstripped its economic capacity.

It is vital to put a human cost to the neoconservative policies of benevolent hegemony. Consider the work of Linda J. Bilmes (who co-authored The Three Trillion Dollar War with Joseph Stiglitz) when she provided provided some preliminary figures in an essay that presaged her book:

Veterans who can no longer hold down a job, due to physical or mental injuries, are likely to qualify for Social Security disability compensation (adding another $22 billion to $38 billion to the bill). For others, the injuries they have suffered in Iraq and Afghanistan will eventually swell the rolls of Medicare, as the long-term effects of injuries and chronic illnesses appear.
Staggering though they are, these costs only represent the impact of the war on the U.S. federal budget. The many social and economic costs that the government does not pay, such as the loss to the economy of so many young, productive Americans and the costs paid by the state and local governments, communities, and private medical providers, could add another $415 billion to the total cost to the economy. Americans have so far focused only on the ballooning short-term price of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. but we have not yet counted the cost of caring for veterans, replenishing military equipment, and restoring the armed forces to their pre-war strength. This was will prove one of the costliest in U.S. history -- one whose bill we pass to the generations that follow.


[1] William Kristol and Robert Kagan, "Toward a Neo Reaganite Foreign Policy," Foreign Affairs, Vol. 75, No. 4 (Jul. - Aug., 1996), p. 20 of pp. 18-32.
[2] Ibid, p. 23
[3] The U.S. Military Index, Foreign Policy, Mar. - Apr., 2008, p. 73 of pp. 71-77
[4] Ibid
[6] Linda. J. Bilmes, "Iraq's 100-Year Mortgage," Foreign Policy, Mar. - Apr., 2008, p. 85 of pp. 84-85.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Age of Empires (Part 1 of 2): Can the US afford its imperial reach?

Most assume "no" to be the be the immediate answer but that would fail to explore the complexities of the American situation: in 'what' form is the empire, and 'why' exactly is it not sustainable? This post explores the former question; the next post the latter.
What type of empire?
The question of the United States as an empire is a fact of life to those on the left, contentious to many less interested in state actors, and an epithet to some sympathetic to the concept of benign hegemony. This post will attempt to steer clear of the pejorative; it is not concerned with whether America's reach is a positive force or exploitative --the literature on that is expansive-- but if it will lead to ask the question of whether the US can wield the same level of power in the future. First, let us consider some contrasting views of America as empire.

On the one hand, Joseph Nye --a former US Assistant Secretary of Defense and currently professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government-- who has travelled the lecture and book promotion circuit for the past decade promoting the the merits of "soft power" as a postscript to his noted scholarship on Power and Interdependence would forcefully disagree with the 'America as empire' notion.

On the other hand, Scottish historian and fellow Harvard professor, Niall Ferguson, has unabashedly described America's imperialistic credentials within the pages of Foreign Policy:
"During the course of the 2oth century, the United States occupied Panama for 74 years, the Philippines for 48, Palau for 47, Micronesia and the Marshall Islands for 39, Haiti for 19, and the Dominican Republic for 8. The formal postwar occupations of West Germany and Japan continued for, respectively, 10 and 7 years..."
While I neither dislike Nye's erudition nor lean politically as does Ferguson and do not subscribe to his penchant for historical revisionism --he is a member of Stanford's Hoover Institution, the well funded right wing think tank and advocates the contestable view of Britain's empire as the pioneer of free trade, free capital movements and free labour-- it is arguably Ferguson's articulation of America's reach as an empire which makes sense when framed against its military capability: a nation with more than 800 --by conservative estimates-- military bases globally, the American empire is not and has not been in the mould of traditional imperialism.
You have doubtless read of the the archetypes of empires past --be it the British, the Bolsheviks, the Romans, or the Romanovs; Anatol Lieven, an analyst at the New America Foundation think tank, has likened America to an indirect empire that resembles the Dutch in the East Indies during the 17th-18th centuries.

Since taking the reigns from a wounded Britain after The Great War and fully supplanting it by the time it entered World War 2 as the dominant economic and military force, America has unquestionably been an unprecedented global influence in a bipolar Cold War world and unipolar End of History morphing into Clash of Civilizations world.
The US penchant for self-interest has over-ridden any principled political doctrine at the foreign policy level from its executive branch: think of Woodrow Wilson's putative multi-lateralism that supposedly brought into the fold nation states of all stripes contrasted with his unabashed Dixiecrat racism; consider Henry Kissinger's amoral realism which favoured American support of despotic acolytes in favour of democratically elected regimes which did not fit with US interests--to this day polemicists like Christopher Hitchens characterize Kissinger as a war criminal; or remind yourself of Bill Clinton's naive idealism that bumbled along in permitting the Rwandan genocide (as described in Samantha "Hillary is a monster" Power's A Problem from Hell: America in the Age of Genocide). Every American originated doctrine, from Monrow to Truman to Bush evokes (in some form) Jesus of Nazareth's Sermon on the Mount in positing the idea of American exceptionalism.

Paul Wilkinson, Professor of International Relations at St. Andrews, in describing the US importantly references the United States economic (in addition to its combat) might:
"It also has the largest inventory of nuclear weapons and the most advanced high-tech weaponry in the world. America's superpower status depends on this vital continuation of huge economic strength and incredibly high levels of military expenditure, only made possible by America's unique wealth. [Moreover...] the US has a unique capability for the rapid deployment of its forces deploying both airlift and sea lift assets with remarkable speed."

However, it is through Martijn Koninjs's work on institutions that we can consider how the tentacles of US power are also rooted in the structure of global finance; in the wake of 2008's Financial Crisis, the adage of "Too Big to Fail" spawned books and become part of the vernacular in policy circles. Yet "Too Big to Fail" fails to reflect that it is the interconnectedness of financial institutions and the network effects of negative feedbacks that have resulted in credit, the grease of global commerce, drying up, and the financial system coming to a halt. It is the nature of capital to bypass obstacles and pursue the highest return; and this is done through the financial engineering of American financial institutions hence the proposition of "Too Connected to Fail" remains the greater danger.

Indeed, size is important but understand that while China's state owned banks are now the world's largest, a failure of a Chinese financial institution at this time will have comparatively less effect on most developed nations (save for Australia) than a failure of a significantly smaller American investment bank --such is the nature of America's empire--because when America sneezes, the rest of the world truly does catch a cold.

Notwithstanding the meaningless rhetoric of 'less government' during the current US mid-term elections, it is important to consider the role that the American state played in the expansion of international financial markets and the reliance of American intermediaries as the primary conduit of global capital. The American financial system, has been a key factor in perpetuating American empire: financial statecraft has become an essential pillar of strength. It is wounded, and the fiscal situation makes America more vulnerable: it is down on the matt but is it out for the count?