Much of the world’s attention will be trained on the presidential election in the United States today. As can be expected, the presidential candidates, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, have attracted most of the headlines.
The outcome of today’s election may, actually, mean more only to US citizens, or to people elsewhere who would imagine that the country fulfills the Biblical promise of the New Jerusalem.
Of greater concern, at least to those of us who are concerned with structural power in the global political economy, are the ways in which the US has shaped the rules and institutions of exchange, and how Washington’s military machine has shored up its power.
It does not really matter whether Clinton or Trump becomes president; it is inconceivable that the global political economy will be a better place for most people around the world – well, not any time soon, anyway. If you think this claim of US military adventurism is controversial, perhaps the views of liberalism’s favourite columnist, Thomas Friedman of the New York Times, might help.
“The hidden hand of the market cannot flourish without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the US Air Force F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine corps.”
My claims of how the US has shored up the post-war order cannot possibly be that forthright. If Friedman’s claim is unconvincing, here is the view of the Provost, and former dean of the School of International and Public Affairs of Columbia University, John Coatsworth.
“Between 1898 and 1994, the US government managed to secure the overthrow of 41 governments . . . in Latin America, an average of one successful intervention every 28 months for an entire century . . . The fact is that the United States has never faced a significant military threat from Latin America.”
There is a mass literature like that produced by the likes of Coatsworth (hardly radical lefties) about the way the US has gone about the world and overthrown governments, fomented civil wars and had a hand in assassinating political leaders. These stories rarely make it, in full context, into our daily news.
It is, of course, quite exciting to focus on Trump’s patent boorishness, his knuckle-dragging politics and closeted bigotry, or on speculations of Clinton’s secrets and lies. There should be no harm in making the claim that either one of them may be as bad for the world as the other.
Consider the hope and promise (which I did not share) when Barack Obama became president in 2008; over next eight years the US ramped up drone killings and targeted assassinations abroad that would make George W Bush look good.
We should not be afraid to discuss these things in public without, ourselves, slipping into ugly chauvinism, conspiracy theories and jingoism.
As with most of these things, among any of the fundamentalisms, there is always a sanitised, theoretical explanation that helps the worst villains get away with things.
For instance, in theory, the role that the US has played in shaping the rules of the global political economy is considered necessary, and based on three main things – the actual will to do it, the ability to print money for global transactions (and serve as the lender of last resort), and the provision of military power to secure this order. That, anyway, is what the textbooks tell us.
Strategically ignored, of course, is that the US is a law onto itself, least of all because it will not be held accountable to international institutions like, say, the International Criminal Court. In practice, it means that there is no material force in the world that is great enough to stop the US.
It also means that it really does not matter who the next president of the US will be – the US has positioned itself to be beyond whatever laws may govern the world. And for as long as the dollar remains the global currency, and the US has the military power, things will carry on as they have since the end of World War 2. Some people may think this is a good thing, others may think differently.
The long view of history shows that for most of the past 500 years the European world, starting with the Portuguese in the 15th century, has dominated international trade and financial flows (mostly from behind the barrel of a gun) and now that global power is shifting eastward, very many people are unhappy.
If Clinton and Trump do share anything, it would be a Ptolemaic parochial view of their country – the belief that everything in the world is, or should be, about preserving the American way of life.
The reality is that one of them will be appointed commander-in-chief of the world’s largest military machine. This is nought for the comfort of those who do not share their views.