August 10, 2011

What’s a Little Game of Chicken among Roosters?

The current world order cannot long withstand the stresses it is suffering these days. A series of shocks has withered the entire system, which is now breaking at the seams.

The 21st century really began on September 11, 2001. Osama Bin Laden was successful beyond imagining when he brought down the World Trade Center towers. The knee-jerk US invasion of Afghanistan proved to be first step down the spiralling staircase that was the last decade. First Afghanistan, and then Iraq, eroded the legitimacy of Pax Americana from the standpoint of all but the American right. Those wars, and the quiet but absurd ballooning of the US security apparatus, also had the parallel effect of indebting the sole empire and financial backer of world order.

When the markets came crashing in 2008, the US lacked both capital and legitimacy. The world watched in dismay as economies everywhere came tumbling down. The European Union suffered multiple economic crises, and is still dealing with defaults from its member states. China, the spectre in the minds of American hawks, also had to 1.65 trillion to its local governments; money it is unlikely to ever regain. Simultaneously, China has expended billions – if not more – in a blue water fleet. It is churning out diesel submarines, whose primary historical purpose is not defensive, at an alarming rate. It has not one, but three aircraft carriers at various stages of development. It has also developed what it claims is an indigenous “fifth generation” stealth fighter, in a move which probably has more strategic communications relevance than strategic impact. The end result is a renewed arms race in an environment of fiscal scarcity. The world increasingly looks like a textbook example of zero-sum games.

Yet China has everything to lose from going to war (even a limited one) with the US. Its economic growth is currently tied to US markets, and it is nowhere near ready to tango with Uncle Sam. However its population is increasingly nationalist and wants China to take its place on the global pantheon. Chinese ships and aircraft have therefore aggressed foreign patrols near its territory. They have also pushed their contested claims to nearby land and waters, and done so brandishing the quiet menace of their navy, the PLAN.

The current financial crisis, engendered by the US debt ceiling debacle, could not have come at a more critical moment. The fragile economies of the world powers cannot withstand much more. Whatever remains of US legitimacy as guarantor of the Global Commons, and of a reserve currency, teeters on the edge.

In this era of uncertain futures, the US right is resurgent. The Tea Party movement clearly demonstrated its intransigence during the US Congress’ deliberations on the debt ceiling. This new Right must not grab the reins of US foreign policy at a time when the US’ greatest military threat is also the greatest holder of US debt. 2 trillion in national debt is what some would call a motive. What happens if China, which is foolishly bold and aggressive in international waters surrounding it, makes a bluff that the US calls?