There is a terrible rule of war. Whatever new weapon that you introduce onto the battlefield, your adversary will eventually acquire it as well. Indeed, they will often use an industrial-strength version of that very same weapon against you.
Hiram Maxim invented the modern machine gun – automated and oil-cooled – but the British army dismissed the invention. Not so the Germans, who used it with deadly accuracy against the British in World War I. The French, meanwhile, were the first to use modern chemical warfare in 1915 by deploying tear gas against the Germans with little effect. The Germans quickly improved on the innovation by developing chlorine gas, and later mustard gas, with devastating effect. And, of course, Americans invented nuclear weapons and then spent the next half-century trying to forestall their use by others.
The perfect weapon, however, has no odor and makes no sound. It has no half-life. It doesn’t require huge factories and production lines. There are no truly effective defenses.
The perfect weapon, of course, is ideology. And the United States, in the nuclear age, believed that it had created just such a perfect weapon. Washington would export the American version of liberal democracy and refashion the world in its own image. In so doing, America would make the world safe not so much for democracy, but for Americans.
But a funny thing happened on the way to hegemony. The very ideology that the United States assumed would defeat all comers has in fact been turned against the United States. Liberal democracy contains within it the very seeds of the American empire’s destruction. Call it blowback, TINA-style.
But before tackling the paradox of There Is No Alternative, let’s first look at how liberal democracy was supposed to work.
The first component of America’s ideology of export is the market. According to the late 17th-century theory of le doux commerce, sweet commerce, trade smoothes the rough edges of human interaction. “There was much talk, from the late seventeenth century on, about the douceur of commerce,” writes theorist Albert O. Hirschman. “Sweetness, softness, calm, and gentleness [are] the antonym of violence.” Countries that trade together, in other words, are less likely to attack each other.
In the Cold War era, the United States promoted this approach, for instance, by supporting the creation of the European Union, a collection of previously antagonistic countries that turned toward building a cooperative trade organization. Washington might have “wars” with its allies during this period – with Japan, for instance – but these were only trade wars. As the Cold War faded, the World Trade Organization represented the triumph of sweet commerce as China and Russia entered a new international community dedicated to reducing trade barriers. As Francis Fukuyama argued, the great passions that prompted armed struggle and tremendous acts of heroism had been transmuted into the considerably less martial interests of the marketplace. The existential threat of Soviet communism was no more. Not only was capitalism triumphant but it had established a measure of security for the United States. No one would attack the country of the Treasury bond, Morgan Stanley, Apple Computer, and America’s Got Talent. No one would see red when there was serious green to be had.
The yin to the market’s yang has been, of course, democracy. The corollary to le doux commerce is that cornerstone of modern political theory: democracies don’t go to war with one another. According to this theory, democracies are more likely to compromise with one another; democracies inherently respect other democracies; and democratic leaders fear losing elections if they lose wars. During the Cold War, the United States gathered around itself a league of democracies to counter the influence of communism. And when democracies produced leaders that were skeptical of American intentions – Mossadegh in Iran, Allende in Chile – we didn’t go to war with those countries. We simply engaged in the more cost-effective techniques of subterfuge and subversion to install more malleable leaders.
The Cold War necessitated alliances with some bad apples, Washington realists contended. But the end of the Cold War unleashed a new wave of democracy – in the former Soviet bloc, in South Africa, throughout Latin America, and most recently in the Middle East. The autocratic rogues that Washington once needed –Hussein, Mubarak, Gaddafi – were no more (though a few, like Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan, continue to cling to power). The expanded arsenal of democracy provided another layer of security for the United States. Democrats might get testy with one another, they might bristle at leaders like George W. Bush, but they would never dream of using arms against the United States.
The combination of the market and democracy became the political economy equivalent of peanut butter and jelly: the default combo of simple comfort food for the leaders of the Free World. Margaret Thatcher coined the phrase TINA because she was convinced that the demise of the Soviet Union meant that she and Ronald Reagan had solved all of human history’s thorny questions. Market democracies would prevail forever after. A decade later, here in America, the crowd around George W. Bush modified the TINA principle so that it would be our version of market democracy – without the peculiar deformations of capitalism and electoral politics practiced in quasi-socialist Europe – that would occupy the top spot in political economy’s greatest hits.
In the same way that the dollar’s status as the global currency sustains U.S. economic supremacy, the victory of the U.S. version of market democracy would sustain U.S. geopolitical hegemony.
It hasn’t quite worked out this way, however. The United States currently faces the challenge of the “rise of the rest.” Countries like China have used market forces to challenge the economic advantages of the United States. And the Arab Spring has demonstrated once again that democracy can easily produce nationalist or religiously inspired parties that steer their countries away from U.S. influence.
Let’s begin with China. The once-communist country has ruthlessly used its comparative advantage – cheap labor – to attract an incredible amount of U.S. manufacturing, including the firms that originally relocated across the border in Mexico. The United States could have “broken the rules” and passed laws that would have made outsourcing very difficult. But U.S. corporations were more interested in profit than in helping maintain U.S. geopolitical hegemony. They don’t call them “transnational” for nothing. Washington’s adherence to laissez-faire capitalism has come back to haunt it. Unfettered markets unleash the forces of “creative destruction.” And the United States is currently the epicenter of this tornado, with the 99 percent bearing the brunt of the gale-force winds.
Once China democratizes, so the argument goes, it will gradually come into line with internationally established economic practices. Independent labor unions will drive up wages. The government will respect intellectual property rights. The exchange rate will float into place. This might be true. But by the time these trends materialize, China will have already become the world’s largest economy and the United States will already be shrinking in its rear-view mirror.
The spread of democracy worldwide promises a similar blowback, which is why Washington realists fear the spread of popular uprisings against the remaining authoritarian allies of the United States in Bahrain, Yemen, and elsewhere. U.S. post-Cold War anxiety about the geopolitical implications of democracy began in Algeria where, in local elections in 1990, an Islamic party won 62 percent of the vote. In the national elections the following year, the new party Front Islamique du Salut won more seats than any other. The Algerian government took a dim view of this democratic development, however. With French support, it banned the new party, threw its leaders in jail, and sent thousands of activists to detention camps in the Sahara desert. A civil war ensued that left more than 100,000 dead.
“The overturning of an election followed by gross human rights abuses would ordinarily have elicited a strong condemnation from Washington,” I write in my new book, Crusade 2.0. “Instead, the United States acquiesced to the changes, just as it did a couple years earlier when the Turkish military’s ‘soft coup’ of 1997 removed an Islamist prime minister. To avoid charges of anti-Islamic bias, U.S. officials couched their ‘Islamist exception’ in universalist terms. The U.S. government opposed what it called ‘one person, one vote, one time.’ In common parlance, this translated into a fear that Islamist parties would use democratic means to rise to power and then kick away the democratic ladder beneath them.”
Washington once feared that communists would rise to power through democratic means – in Italy, Congo, Guatemala. After the end of the Cold War, Islamists quickly substituted for communists with the Algerian scenario now being replayed today throughout the Middle East. Islamist parties have won majorities in Tunisia and Egypt, as elections have provided an opportunity for these long-suppressed movements to appeal directly to the people. A similar future beckons for Libya and, possibly, Syria as well.
Elections have invariably produced leaders, whether Islamist or nationalist or socialist, who have questioned their country’s alliance with the United States. The shift may not be immediate. Yukio Hatoyama in Japan, for instance, lasted less than a year before Washington exerted sufficient pressure to quash him. The Justice and Development Party in Turkey was skeptical about the U.S. war in Iraq and has broken relations with Israel, but it remains a NATO member. Lula in Brazil ultimately presided over a generally amicable relationship with Washington. Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood is not going to suddenly reverse all the agreements made under Hosni Mubarak. But in all these countries, the governments have been hedging their bets, cultivating closer ties with China or Russia or Iran. And the United States cannot take for granted any military basing agreement, from Bahrain to Okinawa.
Elections in America’s rivals will not necessarily produce liberals. The recent re-coronation of Vladimir Putin in Russia, even acknowledging the widespread voting regularities, testifies to the popularity of the “iron fist,” particularly outside the Moscow-Petersburg intelligentsia. The prevailing ideology in China, meanwhile, is remarkably similar. The Chinese people, if elections were held today, would not elect prominent dissidents or human rights lawyers. They would likely elect candidates as nationalist or more so than the Communist Party officials currently in charge. “A more democratic China would be less able to restrain public tendencies toward a kind of aggrieved nationalism,” writes Richard Bernstein in The New York Review of Books, “with their components of anti-American and anti-Japanese sentiment.”
The center of economic gravity is shifting toward China. The spread of democracy has complicated America’s alliance structure and created new challenges to U.S. global leadership. The result of all this political and economic blowback will not likely be a war against the United States. China is not marshalling its strength to attack the Pacific Fleet. Iran is not waiting for the day when it can launch a nuclear-tipped missile at Topeka (much less Tel Aviv). Rather, the American empire will suffer a death of a thousand cuts. It will be like the failure of your computer: one virus, then another, then the inevitable slowing of the operating system, a patch that doesn’t work properly, a program that stops responding, and one day it all adds up to the blue screen of death.
The weapons that will destroy the U.S. empire will be weapons of our own fashioning. The Chinese economy only became a threat to the United States when it copied our economic example. The leaders that will create the new international alliances that replace U.S. hegemony will be democratically elected. We will be hoisted by our own TINA. Perhaps only then will the world be able to enter the post-TINA era. Perhaps only then will we find a more nourishing meal than the PB-and-J ideology that has dominated our menu of options since the fall of the Berlin Wall.