The Interregnum

Martin Jacques

  • Empire of Capital by Ellen Meiksins Wood
    Verso, 182 pp, £15.00, July 2003, ISBN 1 85984 502 9
  • Empire Lite: Nation-Building in Bosnia, Kosovo and Afghanistan by Michael Ignatieff
    Vintage, 134 pp, £6.99, May 2003, ISBN 0 09 945543 9
  • Global Civil Society? by John Keane
    Cambridge, 220 pp, £40.00, April 2003, ISBN 0 521 81543 6
  • Global Civil Society: An Answer to War by Mary Kaldor
    Polity, 189 pp, £45.00, April 2003, ISBN 0 7456 2757 9

The central dynamic of global politics since 11 September 2001 has been the profound shift in the nature of American foreign policy. After the end of the Second World War, the United States emerged as the dominant world power, and yet, because of the Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union, its hegemony was exercised in an organic alliance, most notably with Western Europe, giving rise to the notion, in its contemporary form, of ‘the West’. Despite its overwhelming dominance, the power, interest and identity of the US were partly subsumed in the idea and reality of the West, and ‘multilateralism’ was a way of describing the symbiotic nature of the alliance. As Mary Kaldor points out, the Cold War gave rise to the politics of the blocs, and the partial eclipse of the nation-state.

After the end of the Cold War, there followed what now seems nothing more than an interregnum before the beginning of another defining epoch, the emergence of the US as the global hyperpower, freed from the Soviet threat, unconstrained by any alliance, able to explore and define its own interests unfettered and uncluttered by other considerations. Yet during this interregnum – the 1990s – it didn’t appear like that. In the first Gulf War, the US was at pains to construct a global alliance, its multilateralist instincts still predominant. The post-Cold War world was a novelty for everyone. This was the era of ‘the end of’. It became fashionable to consign the past to the dustbin of history – ideology, left, right, socialism, capitalism, imperialism (hopelessly old-hat) and the rest – while the future seemed a cornucopia of possibilities. In a world without constraint, finally freed from the force of gravity, anything seemed doable: the 1990s gave birth to the Third Way, technological utopianism, the biggest speculative bubble in history, neutral, interest-free globalisation.

Ellen Meiksins Wood is guilty in her book of glossing over this interregnum and, even more extraordinarily, of paying scant regard to the Cold War: American behaviour and motivation can, for her, be charted as a straight line from the emergence of the US as the world’s dominant power in the 1940s to the Bush Administration of today. In a book firmly rooted in the Marxist tradition, she is guilty of a rather schematic view of history; the details barely detain her. For her, the behaviour of the US during the Cold War, the interregnum and under the Bush Administration is as one. She ignores the way the Soviet threat dominated American foreign policy and shaped its alliances during the Cold War and then, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the delay before American policy re-emerged in a transformed environment. All this is subordinated to ‘the underlying interests of imperial capital’. Yet, whatever its weaknesses, this is a timely book, a reminder that you cannot understand the present unless you understand the past, a powerful antidote to one of the afflictions of the interregnum, the belief that appearance is everything.

Meiksins Wood seeks to explain the nature and causation of empire. By exploring the character of successive empires – Greek, Roman, Chinese, Spanish, Arab Muslim, Venetian, Dutch and British – she demonstrates the novelty of each imperial exercise, and in so doing reminds us both that empire is not coterminous with the classic age of imperialism a century or so ago, and that it doesn’t necessarily involve the permanent acquisition of territory. Ultimately, her object is to understand the novelty and specificity of the new American empire which she sees as essentially – and uniquely – an economic empire. The Bretton Woods agreement, Gatt and the establishment of the IMF and World Bank combined to give it institutional shape and expression.

The classic entity of the new American empire is the sovereign nation-state, rather than the colony. Other commentators on globalisation have argued that the nation-state is in decline; Meiksins Wood argues that on the contrary ‘the world today is more than ever a world of nation-states’: ‘The very essence of globalisation is a global economy administered by a global system of multiple states and local sovereignties, structured in a complex relation of domination and subordination.’

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