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Disarmament Diplomacy

Issue No. 88, Summer 2008


Economic Insecurity: Threat or Opportunity?

Rebecca Johnson

It would be ironic if the historical legacy of President George W. Bush were to be the eclipse of US hegemony. The United States was riding high, 'master of the universe' in 1989-91, when the Soviet Union collapsed due to its military over-stretch, economic mismanagement, and ideological and social contradictions. Are we now hearing the other shoe drop? If so, what are the security consequences?

The Soviet political system had been stretched to breaking point by domestic repression, the nuclear arms race and a massive but unproductive military budget, while at the same time it was exposed as an international and military loser by its failures in Afghanistan. A weakened economy was made worse by corrupt officials more interested in following a mechanistic blueprint or feathering their own nests than building a productive infrastructure responsive to the people's needs. In many ways the recent economic melt-down in the United States echoes the period just before the Soviet disintegration ended the cold war.

Like its former rival, the United States let its military-industrial profiteers rule for far too long. If the Pentagon's contractors wanted it, the Pentagon got it. Instead of any kind of peace dividend at the end of the cold war, NATO was extended, providing new markets for US military technology, weapons and out-dated ideologies that continued to treat Russia as an adversary, to the detriment of Europe's long term security interests. The tragedies of September 11, 2001 became an irresistible justification for any amount of expenditure on surveillance and military equipment. As long as Americans were kept afraid of their own shadows the friends of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rove could spend, spend, spend, without demonstrating necessity, competence or accountability. Greedy bankers and clever stock market gamblers thought they were on to a good thing when they bought and sold imaginary assets to make billions of paper profits that they converted into personal wealth. To do so, they exploited others' faith, ignorance and desperation. Congressional Representatives may have balked at taking $700 billion of US taxpayers' money to bail-out the casino bankers, yet for years Congress has nodded through obese defence budgets, bankrolling the war in Iraq and mortgaging America's future to the tune of trillions of dollars.

Ill-conceived and mismanaged from the very beginning, the Iraq war was Haliburton's version of the sub-prime loans, giving huge bonus pay-outs every day to a privileged few. By cruel irony, some of the many families now facing foreclosure on their homes are also paying the price for Bush's wars when their children come home maimed - or don't come home at all. The billions spent monthly on the wrong kind of 'global war on terror', including Iraq, are beggaring the US exchequer just as surely as the Afghan war and long years of military overstretch beggared the Soviet economy in the 1980s.

From 1945 onwards, the United States and Soviet Union were locked in a symbiotic relationship that turned both of them into 'superpowers'. Nuclear weapons and all the secrets, myths and rituals that surrounded the making and deploying of these powerful products of human ingenuity were at the core of their bonded identities, exemplified by the nuclear arms race, rival military build-ups, bilateral arms control and competing ideologies and markets. Russia is now emerging from its post cold war slump, but it will be disastrous if instead of learning the past's lessons Putin's acolytes flex their military muscles, modernize the Russian nuclear arsenal and make the same mistakes all over again.

It's an arch saying that when America sneezes, the world catches cold. With America now sneezing convulsively, the rest of the world fears crippling bouts of economic and political flu. If these financial crises are not handled sensibly, we could end up with real insecurity all round. Chancers might think they can bait or poke the wounded mammoth. Just as triumphalism was the wrong reaction in 1990, we must be wary of those who would take advantage of America's woes. Economic failures don't have to lead to fascism and war, but they might.

Will a less powerful United States be better or worse for international security? Recent years have shown how dangerous US exceptionalism can be for the rest of the world. But a weakened America with its economy distorted by dependence on oil and military contracts may end up in a more desperate place. The challenge - not just for the next US president - but for the American people and the world's governments and civil societies will be to grow differently out of the current economic mess and learn how to live within our means, environmentally as well as fiscally.

This economic fiasco could be the catastrophe that many fear, or it could lead to the making of a more responsible, just and equitable world. It used to be said: "whoever you vote for the government always wins". Prove that wrong. Voting is important, but we ourselves have to make the changes the world needs. It's time to rein in the profligate makers and guzzlers of arms and oil and stop gambling our future away. No extinction without representation.

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