No. 1: July-September 2011

Kees van der Pijl

Transatlantic Relations

Academic Foresights

How do you analyze the present state of the transatlantic relations?

The situation of transatlantic relations at this moment is one of deep crisis on several fronts. The single most important determinant is the crumbling of US leadership within the Western bloc. This crisis seemed to have reached a deep point already under G.W. Bush, whose entourage was focused on energy issues and the Middle East, and whose Iraq adventure was overtly resisted by France and Germany. Obama came to power when the financial crisis was at its deepest, and his presidency was universally welcomed as a turn for the better. However, the financial problems and the wars inherited from the Bush-Cheney NeoCon fraction, have limited the ability of the new administration, which is supported by the Atlanticist, anti-Russia/anti-China fraction of Brzezinski, Madeleine Albright c.s. to reorient from Bush unilateralism to Atlantic unity and financial stabilization.

The Anglo-French decision to go after Gadhafi has created a huge dilemma for the US, which has spent almost $4 trillion on the Afghan and Iraq wars so far, and is effectively bankrupt although its defence industries are dependent on continuing armament and conflict. NATO too is in the doldrums with Germany keeping aloof from the Libya adventure altogether. Even the Berlusconi government of Italy openly called for an end to the bombing, which was promptly followed by an indictment of Gadhafi by the International Criminal Court, exactly as happed in 1999 when NATO dissension on the Kosovo war became manifest and Milosevic was indicted by the Yugoslavia Tribunal to cut off any prospect of a negotiated solution.

The dollar is now so fragile that any tinkering is responded too with maximum firepower. Whether Strauss-Kahn was set up in his New York hotel room has not yet been fully cleared up but that US Treasury Secretary Geithner immediately called for his resignation from the IMF just on the basis of an accusation, is a sign that it was at least a good opportunity to get rid of him. Replacing an IMF director who was actively engaged in salvaging Greece's financing and Eurozone membership and who had openly spoken about replacing the dollar with a new Special Drawing Right as the reserve currency, is obviously a direct US interest; DSK's  successor does not remotely have the credentials he had. To what extent the French presidential race plays a role here in my view is secondary.

In your opinion, how will the situation likely evolve over the next five years?

As Woody Allen has said, prediction is difficult especially when it concerns the future. But on the basis of the profile of the forces behind Obama (and the Clintons), and the experience with past Democratic administrations relying on the same bloc of forces (Wall Street investment banks and defence industries setting the agenda for business as a whole), one would expect that the flight forward open to the US is building up a front against China and Russia. If Obama is reelected, this might become the main axis of the development of policy. If not, the attempt to wrest free from the Middle East as a legacy from his first term would already point in the same direction. NATO is certainly on its last legs, and in my view certainly should be wound down and replaced by the ECSC as was proposed already by Gorbachev in the last phase of the USSR.

At the time of the NATO intervention in Yugoslavia under Clinton and Blair, the parallel drawn was with the run-up to the Second World War and Munich, with Milosevic cast as a latter-day Hitler. Today I fear the parallel is rather with the eve of  the First World War, when interimperialist conflicts proliferated to the point of a general conflagration. Israel's calls for an attack on Iran are a permanent potential trigger although after 2007-08, the loss of clout of the NeoCons in Washington (replacement of Rumsfeld by Robert Gates) and the subsequent election of Obama, keeping Gates on, worked to neutralise US support for such an attack. But the overall situation,given the persistent  financial crisis and monetary instability, remains extremely dangerous.

What are the structural long-term perspectives?

The structural long-term perspective is entirely dominated by the crisis of the biosphere: climate change and fresh water shortages, pollution (especially the acidification of the oceans and their contamination with plastic resins) etc., will aggravate the already evident inability of governments the world over to offer their populations a secure existence. The trends identified under 1 and 2 are open-ended and may turn out differently, but this one unfortunately is a given. The capitalist mode of production has engendered a way of life that is the most detrimental to a sustainable economy one can imagine (of course state socialism in its attempt to catch up with this way of life at all costs, superficially looked even worse). In that sense a controlled demise of capitalism and resurgence of state controls and new democratic forms would be a way forward but that is not how social forms go under and new ones are born.

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Kees van der Pijl is professor of International Relations and Global Political Economy in the School of Global Studies, University of Sussex (UK). He is currently finishing a trilogy on 'modes of foreign relations' of which two volumes have been published, Nomads, Empires, States (2007, Deutscher Memorial Prize 2008) and The Foreign Encounter in Myth and Religion (2010). His Making of an Atlantic Ruling Class (originally 1984) will be republished in the autumn of this year.

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