Globalization at the Barrel of a Gun

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Watch where you're pointing that, buddy!

That phrase, with its powerful imagery, was often tossed at me following the publication of my 2004 book, The Pentagon’s New Map. In it, I argued that globalization’s expansion was, and would continue to be, the primary cause of unrest and conflict in the world, as connectivity – in all its forms – extended itself into the non-integrated regions and triggered rising expectations (as in, “If the Indians and Chinese are getting richer, then why do we continue to submit to this incompetent government that keeps us unduly disconnected from all that opportunity?”).

Now, the way the phrase was used against me was to exaggerate my follow-on argument that America would be sucked into all manner of military interventions over the years as a result of globalization’s continued expansion. By suggesting that advanced economies – and their militaries – were leading the charge of globalization’s advance, then the whole dynamic could be repainted as a redux of 19th-century colonialism (“We will force you to join global capitalism!”).

Of course, George W. Bush’s pre-emptive war concept muddied the waters some, but to me, that was just al-Qaeda using the old trick of involving the outside power to trigger regional developments that it could not pull off on its own, the dream being,”If the Americans come into the Arab World, we’ll get the Islamic revolutions we seek.”

Well, a decade later, al-Qaeda hasn’t scored any victories – even as its fellow travelers, the Taliban of Afghanistan and Pakistan, have most definitely fought the US to a standstill there. But here I would say that it’s been American mistakes and not Taliban or al-Qaeda “genius,” that is most responsible for the standstill.  Obama continues the Bush unilateralism of trying to make a postwar reconstruction work strictly on American terms – meaning none of the neighbors are allowed to step in and run the show. That didn’t work in Iraq, where today Turkey and Iran and even distant China are cleaning up – in more ways than one, and it won’t work in Afghanistan. American cannot integrate a formerly non-integrated state all by its lonesome. That’s just a nutty conception of “victory” that we’ll never achieve.

Beyond those two American-centric interventions, we now have the Arab Spring and its three prominent “victims” to date: Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, with Syria ready to go next. In all four of these situations, because there was no triggering US intervention, the more natural globalization dynamic has occurred, meaning the “gun” has been wielded by unhappy insiders – not allegedly “greedy” outsiders. Globalization provided some crucial tools (all that Web connectivity and social networks) for the revolutionaries, and the West has contented itself with mostly helping/encouraging on the margins, with NATO’s limited intervention being the exception. But even there, because something closer to the Balkans model was followed (a model I spent a lot of time praising in my follow-up book, Blueprint for Action), Qaddafi’s ongoing fall is a victory rightfully claimed by the Libyans themselves – as it should be. In Libya, as opposed to Afghanistan, NATO chose success over credit and control, which is the way it should be

While it is my nature, as well as that of my country, to prefer action over inaction and leadership over following, absent such triggering events as 9/11, the pattern of the Arab Spring is far closer to what we’re going to encounter in the future than Iraq and Afghanistan – meaning more Balkans-like. Our hope with Libya, for example, has to be that, because we didn’t insist on running the whole interventionary show, we won’t feel like we have to run the entire reconstruction show.

And that’s a good thing, because, while we can most certainly topple governments on our own, we can’t nation-build on our own and shouldn’t even try. It is necessarily a group effort with the biggest “winners” naturally being those local regional powers and extra-regional powers that are most in the network-spreading and frontier-integration mode.  Right now that’s a bevy of “rising rest” powers and not the West. We may not like that reality, but globalization’s dynamic of integration is this: the latest in are the next to begin. Globalization is the gift that keeps on giving: Europe gives it to North America (19th C), we give it to East Asia (20th C), and now East Asia gives it to others (21st C),  as all of these regions – and their economies – continue to move up the production/value chains of globalization.

Now, after that long preamble, the point of my post.

The Economist runs a piece last week entitled, “Is the revolution good for business?” The subject at hand is Egypt but the logic can just as easily be applied to Libya. Now, the mag’s initial judgment is fair enough: “Probably, but investors are wary.” But let’s be honest here, The Economist is talking about Western investors. And while Western investors will naturally do better in a more open economy and political system over the long haul, it’s true that, after any such revolution, we’re probably looking at an extended period of hyper-nationalism and all manner of stupid, immature choices by the successor regime as it struggles to find its place in the world while repairing a damaged – and divided – society/economy and meeting unreal public expectations of immediate improvement. So, in the short term, the revolution is likely bad for business.

But just like in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan, we need to understand the broader globalization “realism” here: again, the countries that will benefit most from these revolutions are close-in and globally-networking rising economies – not the fiscally constrained and aging West, for we have neither the bucks nor the bodies for frontier integration schemes at this time. So, just like in Iraq, I’d expect the Turks and Chinese to show up big time, along with big corporations from other emerging markets. They will be willing to run the risks, plus they won’t find the existing situation all that alien, having just gone through such internal nation-building efforts back home (like an America rebuilding post-WWII Japan and Germany less than a generation after doing the same back home during the Great Depression and WWII build-out). Nations like Turkey and China won’t have to deal with the same anti-Western Islamic nationalism that will invariably flare up in these countries post-revolution, but they’ll also be more realistic and sensitive about the pace of political change they’ll advocate – or simply avoid advocating, in the case of the Chinese.

And yes, the West will – yet again – inevitably declare at some point down the road that “we intervened but they won the war!” And the West will be correct – yet again.

And eventually it will, on that basis of repeated experience, sink into our thick skulls that, if the backside play is going to be shared, then we shouldn’t be in such a hurry to dominate the upfront intervention. Of course, that’ll mean a different style of intervention, but that’s what sharing is all about.

Looking at the Arab Spring to date, I think Obama and the United States are playing this process a whole lot smarter than Bush-Cheney did on Iraq and Afghanistan. I think we’re getting closer to understanding that the whole globalization expansion dynamic is demand-driven – as in, by the people themselves inside these non-integrated countries, and isn’t supply-driven – the notion that the West must “conquer” to spread markets.

So yeah, globalization does come at the barrel of a gun. That’s why I called it the Pentagon’s new map. But the key thing to recognize is which way the gun is pointed and who’s holding it.