Wednesday, December 08, 2004

The realignment? 

I don't particularly like the word "realignment" - it tends to be overused by editors and pundits who are desperately looking for an element of drama and movement to enliven otherwise dull political stories.

It also tends to be overused by the realists school for whom much, if not everything in the international relations revolves around power balancing, i.e. constant realignments to check the hegemon. In politics, real realignment, in the true sense of a radical and enduring change in the configuration of forces, is quite rare; people, movements, nations simply don't change their mind all that often; or at least not as often as pundits and realists would think. The Soviet Union's transition from the self-proclaimed bulwark against the fascism, to Nazi Germany's partner under the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, to fascism's mortal enemy back again comes to mind as a clear enough example, although even in that case the realignment was purely tactical - the essential Soviet ideology and their attitude towards the rest of the world did not change throughout the whole process.

But what we are witnessing now could be the real thing - the first monumental post-Cold War "realignment". For quite some time I have been pondering on a curious configurations that have emerged in the aftermath of September 11 (and I mean configurations both on the nation state level as well within the states). The war on terror/war in Iraq coalition of the willing unites (among others) American neo-conservatives, British Third Way practitioners and Eastern European post-communists. You can call them the radical forces of the world. Lined up against them is another curious coalition that brings together American paleo-conservatives as well as many libertarians, British High Tories, much of the international and institutional left as well as the statist right. You can call them the reactionary forces of the world.

All this brought back memories of reading Virginia Postrel's 1998 book "The Future and its Enemies." Postrel essentially argued that the old labels of "right" and "left" are no longer useful, as the political landscape is increasingly divided between the opposing world-views of "stasis" and "dynamism", each based around attitudes to economic and scientific progress. Thus, Postrel wrote, we shouldn't be surprised to see coalitions of conservatives and radicals arguing against globalisation and liberalisation - or conversely, classical liberals and social democrats supporting free trade.

I wonder whether - to the extent that Postrel's thesis holds true - we are seeing a similar phenomenon on the international scene. The labels of "left" and "right" still hold true to some extent but they don't explain everything (of course, they never did explain everything). Yes - the war on terror and in Iraq can be seen as being driven by the "right-wing" forces (such as the American, Australian and Italian governments), just as the opposition is in the hands of "left-wing" forces (the German government, the United Nations bureaucracy). But that's far from the whole story - Tony Blair is not really a right-winger, while Jacques Chirac supposedly represents the centre-right of the French politics.

No, the configuration that has recently taken shape in international politics on one side unites all those who believe in a positive change to be brought about by the spread of democracy and liberty, while on the other side we see the proponents of the status quo who feel they themselves and/or the international system are threatened by too much unpredictable change. And that in turn has led to civil wars within both the right and the left, splitting political movements that were never monolithic to start with. This story of the recombination of the progressive right and left, and on the other side the conservative right and left, is the very obvious and therefore very under-reported political story of the last three years.

How long will the current configuration last? My guess is that it will for quite some time, partly because the event which brought it together in the first place - the war on terror - will not end any time soon, and partly because the issue of America's role and influence in the world, which ultimately underpins all the major international controversies of the modern world, will not disappear in the near future, either.

I'm sure that some might accuse me of overplaying the idealism card and putting too much store in the power of ideology as the motivating factor in world politics. Having just finished reading George Friedman's "America's Secret War" (highly recommended) and dipping from time to time into the Stratfor analysis, I know that many instead see geo-politics and cold hard Machiavellian realism as the driving forces behind the international events. Thus, Great Britain sides with the United States as a way of balancing the united Europe; Poland and other central and eastern European states do so to balance the continental hegemony of the Paris-Berlin axis; France, Germany, Russia and the United Nations, in turn, work together to balance the United States. From this perspective, events such as the war on terror don't provide the ideological spurs for actions of states and non-state actors but merely excuses and opportunities to engage in certain predetermined courses of action - for example, if there was no war in Iraq, France would find some other issue to battle the United States over in order to try to bring the hyper-power down at list one rung.

Of course, there is much to be said for this sort of analysis, but again, it's not the full picture. The realists have always downplayed the role of abstract ideas in international politics, just as the idealists have underestimated the influence of realpolitik considerations. The current realignment, too, is partly a function of cold strategic calculations, but I have no doubt that it is also to a large degree motivated by beliefs and attitudes that go far beyond the lowest Machiavellian common denominator.

I would at this point use the old cliche "watch this space", but if you do, be prepared to watch it for many years to come.


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