The spirit of Clinton’s globalization offensive of the 1990s, as of the wave of deregulation and privatization on which it was premised, was famously captured by Francis Fukuyama’s ‘end of History’ thesis. In his vision, the world had reached a point where no credible alternative to the combined operation of liberal democracy and capitalist economy could any longer arise. By implication, any resistance to the pre-eminence of the West in the geopolitical arena lacked historical legitimacy from the start; just as people across the globe would do better to forget about social change. Hence globalization could entail humanitarian intervention without a un mandate, a global mission for nato, and fresh steps to replace social security with ‘workfare’. Under Clinton’s successor, Washington sang from a different hymn sheet: Samuel Huntington’s ‘clash of civilizations’ thesis claimed that geopolitical cleavages far deeper than those of the Cold War were being exposed beneath the rubble of the Soviet collapse. If the West were to retain its global preponderance, it would have to negotiate tectonic shifts drawing on millennia-old ethical and religious sources, and more particularly, meet a ‘Confucian–Islamic’ challenge.
Aspects of this approach, as well as more down-to-earth concerns, guided the Bush Administration’s disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, with the unwavering support of Downing Street. Yet the degree to which the fallout of the Anglo-American crusade has undermined the coherence of us foreign policy is illustrated by the fact that China, a key adversary for Huntington, has not yet been subjected to the full impact of Western pressure. The prc has been allowed to develop its industrial economy to the point where internal contradictions in the areas of labour supply and pollution—rather than in international relations—are forcing a slowdown. For us ideologists, however, as Thomas Friedman put it in a 2006 New York Times article entitled ‘Contending With China’:
The implication, then, is that the United States must somehow extricate itself from the current confrontation with the Islamic world if the historical pre-eminence of the English-speaking West and its hold on the levers of the capitalist world economy are to be maintained.
It is not just policy intellectuals who think like this. At home, the Bush Administration has generated a broad opposition that feeds on more than just aversion to the war in Iraq. There is a widespread feeling, fuelled daily at the country’s gas stations, that the era of us preponderance in the world is drawing to a close and that the American way of life is singularly ill prepared to deal with urgent challenges, not least that of environmental change. This groundswell is energizing the Barack Obama campaign to win the Democratic nomination for 2008. At the time of writing the Clintons still have a few more cards to play, not least the 800 or so delegates that the party machine will allocate on top of those won through the primaries. But there is something out of the ordinary about Obama and it is perhaps no coincidence that he, and not Hillary, has received most donations from prestigious universities (Harvard, California) and future-oriented enterprises like Google, whilst the traditional Wall Street supporters of the Democrats are still spreading their bets.
So far Obama has mainly spoken of ‘hope’ and ‘change’, though he appears to be the candidate best placed to appeal to a sense of social justice and with the greatest potential to mobilize the traditionally non-voting 40–50 per cent of the electorate. His campaign has not yet succeeded in developing a coherent foreign-policy stance that would dovetail into a broader ideological programme. Yet only through such a project can the ruling class aim to absorb the aspirations of American society, connect them to the business strategies and property concerns of the upper layer of society, and translate it all into a strategy that will reinforce us hegemony at home and abroad. Any prospect of hope or change will always be mortgaged to that overriding aim.