A new world disorder

The Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth

By Michael Mandelbaum

Published by Oxford University Press, 2019, £18-99

Reviewed by Robin Clapp

The last two decades have witnessed an intensification of economic and military rivalries across the globe with US armed forces intervening in the Middle East and Afghanistan. The legitimacy of the established capitalist order is questioned by millions for whom thirty years of rampant neo-liberal globalisation have yielded only the bitter fruits of privatisation, poverty and a continually widening wealth-gap between the oligarchs and the rest that is greater than at any time in human history.

Serious representatives of capitalism question where this rampant inequality may lead, while conceding that the stability of their system is increasingly susceptible to unsustainable mountains of dangerous debt and the potentially catastrophic impacts of climate change. Some openly warn that world capitalism has entered a great stagnation and in some regions is beginning to unravel backwards. The next world recession will exacerbate all the pre-existing political tensions between nation states and imperialist power blocs.

A growing hostility between America and China most clearly underlines the political, economic and military fracture lines apparent in world relations today and as competing imperialist powers jostle to shore up market share and maintain prestige, armed proxy conflicts in the Middle East and elsewhere can in the future develop into more serious open conflagrations.

Rise and Fall of Peace on Earth, a new publication by veteran US foreign-policy expert Michael Mandelbaum, seeks to examine the present state of global geo-political relations. It promises in its portentous title to lay bare the factors that led the imperialist NATO powers, which greeted the fall of the Soviet Union in December 1991 with such bombastic triumphalism after 46 years of cold war, to survey world relations today through such a gloomy lens.

Claiming that “the quarter century of the post-cold war era qualifies as the most peaceful in history”, the author’s simplistic and reductionist premise is that this dawn of ‘democracy’ has now been shattered “because three countries brought security competition back to their regions by adopting foreign policies of aggressive nationalism”.

China, Russia and Iran stand accused in the dock as Mandelbaum levels the charge that these states alone are responsible for the present fragility in inter-imperialist relations. The US by contrast is portrayed as wishing only to export democracy and goodwill across the planet, but intermittently even the author’s rosy picture bumps up against the inconvenient reality that the 1991 war with Iraq and the subsequent military campaigns against the Taliban in Afghanistan and Iraq after 2003, have enormously destabilised the entire Middle East.

The pernicious role of the reactionary Saudi regime in financing forces of right-wing political Islam and fomenting conflicts in Yemen and elsewhere is never mentioned, nor the land-grabbing policies of successive Israeli governments, ultimately protected militarily and economically by the United States.

For Marxists, democracy is not the pure abstract ideal that the author conjures up. It is but one form of government that the bourgeois state assumes, depending upon the economic and political interests of the capitalist class at any given time.

The US is the most powerful imperialist state and as finance capital has extended its tentacles across the world it has become more destructive, intensifying festering social conflicts across every continent. The 2007-2009 economic crash exacerbated these trends. Those political mechanisms like the United Nations established after 1945, that sought to regulate economic stability and underpin shared geo-political goals among the major capitalist nations are revealing their frailty in this era, becoming little more than threadbare remnants of another age.

A glance back through the 1990s undermines the lofty claim that that decade saw the consolidation of peaceful relations between nations. The Balkan wars as former Yugoslavia bloodily broke up, the horrific ethnic carnage in the Congo in Central Africa and continual conflagrations in the Middle East all grotesquely manifested capitalism’s utter inability to secure world peace. Indeed one authoritative estimate says there have only been 26 days of world peace since 1945.

The author’s claim that “the US did not conquer, occupy and/or govern other countries, maintaining overseas military bases with the consent of the countries in which its bases were located” is clearly a deliberate whitewashing of America’s post-1945 imperialist role as the ‘policeman of the world’.

The US fought wars in both Korea (1950-1953) and Vietnam (1955-1973) to combat what the Pentagon saw as the spread of ‘Soviet communism’, while there were innumerable covert incursions into Central and South America, the Middle East and Africa, all designed to destroy national liberation movements, or assassinate elected left politicians deemed to threaten US interests.

Imperialism was wrong-footed by the unexpected and sudden collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and Mandelbaum concedes that in not bringing post-Soviet Russia into an expanded NATO alliance that had embraced the former Soviet Baltic states and other eastern European countries which had previously been tied to the Soviet bloc, the message conveyed by the West was that the US had embarked upon a policy of deliberate hostility towards Moscow and was determined to weaken and humiliate it.

Integrating former Soviet East Germany into a reunited Germany was a huge undertaking, costing over 2 trillion euros, yet capitalism had no plan for how to draw Russia into the world economy. There was to be no new US-led Marshall Aid plan for Russia, a nuclear power that had lost one quarter of its territory after the secessions of the other constituent republics that had made up the Soviet Union. 

In 2007 Russia’s president Putin signalled his country’s new relationship with the US in declaring: “Today we are witnessing an almost uncontained hyper use of force – military force – in international relations, force that is plunging the world into an abyss of permanent conflicts… one state… and of course, first and foremost the US, has overstepped its national borders in every way”.

Mandelbaum believes that Iran is another danger to peace and democracy, by which he really means capitalist stability. Nearly two-thirds of the world’s readily accessible reserves of oil are in the Middle East, mostly around the Persian Gulf. It is clear that at the end of the cold war between the US and the Soviet Union, the Middle East would have been of as little consequence as a strategically important region than sub-Saharan Africa, were it not for these abundant oil reserves.

The Iranian regime has witnessed American aggression in the Middle East since 1991. Relations between the US and Iran have worsened under Trump’s presidency as the US seeks to weaken Tehran’s influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Iraq.

The partial thaw that saw the Obama administration agree a plan with Tehran that would modify Iran’s nuclear ambitions by reducing the number of uranium-enriching centrifuges it would operate, has been suspended by Trump, who now rails against the Mullahs’ malign ‘military expansionism’. Iran’s view is very different. Obtaining nuclear weapons is regarded as a necessary insurance policy against the fate that the US inflicted upon the Taliban, Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi.

The most interesting part of the book and the one that gives the clearest insight into the strategic thinking of the American ruling class is that which deals with China’s threat to US hegemony. After their partial rapprochement in 1972, there was an increasing alignment between the two powers,  with programmes of intelligence-sharing and military cooperation. This was prompted by a mutual distrust of the Soviet military threat.

Six years later, under Deng Xiaoping’s leadership, China embarked upon an extraordinary era of economic growth. It was driven not by a desire to reinstate capitalism but to reform the state system and develop its productive role as an exporting giant. The economy expanded by at least 10% every year up to 2008, with GDP doubling every seven years.

China’s economic progress brought benefits to other countries. Investment in and trade with China increased profits for capitalists while partially raising the living standards of consumers in East Asia and the US. When president Clinton proposed in 1993 denying China access to the US market unless human rights were protected, American business, fearful of retaliation from Beijing that would deny them access to the Chinese market, opposed it. Clinton dropped it.

The US strategy throughout this period was to foster good relations with Beijing, in the expectation that China’s growth would lead to the flowering of a pro-American style democratic state.

That has not happened and the present era has become one of mutual distrust between the two super-powers. Trade tensions rumble on and these in turn reflect a deeper crisis in inter-imperialist relations, made much more acute by the recession in 2008, historically low western growth rates and a perception that the enormous build up of China’s military capability and its massive international investment driven ‘Belt and Road’ policy is weakening the US on all fronts.

Clearly the transition from a fully nationalised, planned economy towards complete capitalist restoration has gone a very long way and can appear complete at first sight. But under Xi Jinping the rule of the Communist Party elite still prevails, with substantial elements of state banks and industries remaining intact. The Belt and Road policy now involves development and investment in 152 countries and arose out of China’s needing to diversify its economy after the global financial crisis. Instead of remaining reliant on a diminishing world export market, China had to make its own markets abroad.

There is however another factor powering this massively ambitious drive into Africa, Asia, Latin America and even areas of western Europe and that is the desire, especially in East Asia, to create a prototype for an emerging geo-political bloc while US capitalism is weakened by military overreach and historically declining growth rates, neither of which Trump’s bombast can arrest.

The economic fallout from 2008 has created the view in Beijing, that notwithstanding the still enormous strength of the US as an economic and military rival, the tectonic plates of international power are shifting, altering the regional and even the global hierarchy in China’s favour.

Globalisation and economic liberalism has been badly tarnished by the fallout from 2008. Trump’s presidency has set off a round of ugly trade disputes that threaten the stability of international relations in a manner not seen since the 1930s.

The growth of China’s naval capability is staggering and while most investment has gone into the building of new commercial ports across Asia and elsewhere, US analysts fear that these can in the future pave the way for the deploying of warships. The conquests of finance capital were and still are ultimately underwritten by prodigious expenditures on weapons of destruction.

China has belligerently laid claim to the South China Sea as a sovereign zone, bringing it into conflict with Japan, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines and Mandelbaum asserts “the net effect of all this is to create at sea the kind of issue over which wars are traditionally fought: territorial disputes”.

Imperialism cannot resolve its own contradictions. Only the working class internationally, whose voice and struggles are completely invisible in this book, can do that by overthrowing capitalism. Mandelbaum seems not to understand, or else prefers to ignore the reality that in every country a bitter class struggle is raging in which lessons are being learned and new parties of the working class will be formed.

An analysis that reduces world relations to good and bad capitalist leaders has little therefore to offer socialists and workers seeking to build the forces to overthrow capitalism and build a socialist world. A much better starting point for understanding the world today is to subscribe to Socialism Today and join the CWI!