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5 Dec, 2021 06:10

On Contact: The new global order

Chris Hedges discusses the decline of the American empire and the new global order with Professor Alfred McCoy, who holds the Harrington Chair in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

McCoy looks at past empires and how they disintegrated in his book ‘To Govern the Globe’. The familiar patterns of decline allow him to speculate about what lies ahead as the global dominance of the United States crumbles under the weight of disastrous military adventurism, the collapse of public institutions, a rapacious and greedy oligarchic elite, and inept political and military leadership. The new world order, McCoy argues, will see China ascendant.

“While Washington was spilling its blood and treasure into desert sands,” writes McCoy, “Beijing had been investing much of its accumulated trade surplus in the integration of the ‘world island’ of Africa, Asia, and Europe into an economic powerhouse.”

The key to Chinese dominance, he argues, is its far-sighted strategic focus on control of the world’s energy and raw materials, increasingly in short supply, and its investment in technologically advanced infrastructure.

“Each transition to a new world order has occurred when a massively destructive cataclysm has coincided with major social change,” he notes, arguing that the climate crisis will be the trigger for a new configuration of world dominance.

McCoy’s new book is ‘To Govern the Globe: World Orders and Catastrophic Change’.

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Chris Hedges: Welcome to On Contact.  Today, we discuss the decline of the American Empire and the new global order.  With Professor Alfred McCoy.

Alfred McCoy: As US global hegemony fades, as US imperial power fades, will the principle five of the US duality survive?  Will this international system grounded in the international rule of law, the respect for human rights and the respect for national sovereignty survive as China becomes the world’s great hegemony?  And I’m rather pessimistic.  China is--and this is very significant.  When you think about this transition, the succession of empires and world orders, it’s been within a kind of continuous European conversation.  China is the first global hegemony to arise who did not participate in that fraught five-century process of creating this world order.  And they were a victim of it, yes.  But they didn’t participate in the debate, and therefore they don’t share these principles, and they have no commitment to them.  And they’re constructing a very different kind of world order.

CH: There are telltale signs of an empire in deep distress, we exhibit all of them.  Professor Alfred McCoy, the chair of the History Department at the University of Wisconsin Madison, looks at past empires and how they disintegrated in his book “To Govern the Globe.”  The familiar patterns of decline allow him to speculate about what lies ahead, as the global dominance of the United States crumbles under the weight of disastrous military adventurism, the collapse of public institutions, a rapacious, greedy oligarchic elite and inept political and military leadership.  The New World Order, McCoy argues, will see China ascended while Washington was spilling its blood and treasure in the desert sands, writes McCoy, Beijing had been investing much of its accumulated trade surplus in the integration of the world island of Africa, Asia, and Europe into an economic powerhouse.  The key to Chinese dominancy argues, is a farsighted strategic focus on the control of the world’s energy and raw materials increasingly in short supply, and its investment in a technologically advanced infrastructure.  Each transition to a new world order has occurred when a massively destructive cataclysm has coincided with major social change, he notes, arguing that the climate crisis will be the trigger for a new configuration of world dominance.  Joining me to discuss his book “To Govern the Globe” is Professor Alfred McCoy, who holds the Harrington Chair in History at the University of Wisconsin Madison.  So at the beginning of the book, on the first page, you lay out what the world and the United States in particular will look like in the year 2050.  And I thought we could begin there and you could describe for us your vision of what’s to come.

AH: Thank you, Chris.  By 2050, the pressing reality, the impending disaster of climate change will be fully upon us.  And as the--as the world’s temperature rises, there are going to be rising seas pounding at the seashores, there’s going to be the spreading aridification as deserts creep into savannas, and savannas turn tinder dry, there are going to be a surge of forest fires and all of this climate change is going to put humanity in motion in a way that has never happened before in the history of the planet.  It’s estimated that there will be between two hundred million and one billion climate change refugees uprooted from their precarious purchase on seashores and desert fringe and fog plain and set in motion in a desperate search for survival.  And now let’s turn to recent history to realize the scale of what this is going to look like and the impact it could have.  Between 2016 and 2018 European Union, United States wheeled from the political pressure of the arrival of refugees from the Middle East and Africa, in the case of Europe and from Central America and Mexico in the case of the United States.  And the--this arrival of refugees resulted in a massive surge of right-wing populism, Britain’s Brexit, right-wing parties rising in Europe, and, of course, the election of Donald Trump, with his catch cry “build the wall.”  And if you add up all those refugees in motion in Europe and the United States, it’s only two million people.  By 2050, we’re going to be looking at a minimal 200 million people, up to one billion people.  And this is going to shatter the world order, as we know it.  This is going to create an enormous crisis for humanity.  And so we’re going to be faced with the choice of pushing ships back into the sea, of slaughtering people at the borders, or doing something very different.  And that something different, I think, is going to involve a fundamental change in the nature of national sovereignty and in the nature of global governance.  In effect, what we’re need--going to need to do is to move away from the kind of amorphous, voluntary international order that we have today, to a--an international order that has--if you will, almost sovereignty in three critical areas, in order to deal with this climate change disaster.  The first would be of course controlling emissions.  If a nation is persisting in fossil fuel emissions, then this global governance would mandate that they have to switch to alternative energy.  Second, that this tide of humanity is bringing people in motion, you know, possibly one-ninth of all humanity at that point, they’re going to be required to be resettled in their tropical fringe into the narrow band of temperate climate that is going to be habitable by humanity.  And third, and finally, there’s going to have to be a massive transfer of resources, the kind that was discussed at the UN conference in Glasgow, in order to provide first of all people with food to survive.  And second of all, climate change and mediation, which is going to be quite expensive for every place on the planet.  And this is going to lead, I think, to a fundamentally different kind of world order, taking shape in the middle decades of this century, in order to deal with not just climate change, but the very serious social and political consequences of climate change.

CH: Well, you argue in the book that it’s not just external disruptions, people attempting to come into Europe or the United States, but internal disruptions as well.

AH: Yeah, the--first of all, when these refugees are arriving in such enormous numbers, okay?  The nature of a nation’s shape based on the idea of a closed community of people of like culture and background is naturally hostile to the arrival of the uninvited, unwelcome arrival of refugees, we’re going to have to change that in a fundamental way so that national sovereignty coexists with providing homes for uprooted humanity.  Otherwise, we’re going to be faced with a situation of chaos.  There is going to be, first of all, water wars, as nations go to war over scarce resources.  I mean, the world could erupt in a--like tempest, not a global war, but of a kind of uncontrolled surge of petty to localized conflicts of the most brutal kind.  And so in order to have some kind of managed orderly transmission, some kind of rational allocation of resources to deal with this global disaster, we’re going to need some kind of supranational governance, whereby nations cede a critical portion of their sovereignty over these three areas, in order to have a managed transition to a much warmer planet with a much narrow band of habitable Earth.

CH: I want to get back to what this means for the American hegemony.  I have read in several of your writings that you target the date 2030 as the death of America’s kind of global control because of the collapse of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.  Can you explain that?

AH: Sure.  When the United States established the current world order at the end of World War II in 1944 and ‘45, they did two things.  First of all, they convened a National--International Conference of 15 sovereign nations at San Francisco that established the United Nations and all the agencies that sprang from it.  Second, at Bretton Woods in New Hampshire, the United States established a global economic system, a managed international economy with two key institutions, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.  And the basis of this international order was that a dollar was formally established as a global reserve currency at a--at a fixed rate of conversion.  And that lasted until 1971, when suddenly, the world economy became too large for a dollar to be automatically exchanged for gold.  And so we switch then to 40 exchange rates.  But ever since then, the dollar has been the world’s global reserve currency.  And what this means as a nation is that we can get Mercedes-Benzes, and cheap shoes and we can get oil and minerals, and we get all these products and we send people pen and paper.  And when we don’t balance our budget, we just simply issue treasury notes.  And so basically, we give the world fancy pieces of paper, and they give us motor vehicles, and commodities, and cheap consumer products.  And if you think about the way our whole economy is organized, there is no place on the planet where it’s better to shop in America.  What do Europeans do when they come to America?  They go shopping, you know, you see them all over midtown Manhattan with their, you know, arms, you know, bundles upon bundles of shopping goods, this is--we’re the shopping capital the world.  What this means is that, for ordinary Americans, we have low wages, very low social support, but gasoline commodities are inexpensive, and are manageable and affordable in low American wages.  So when this changes, this is going to produce a fundamental reordering of the American society.  And we’re going to have to deal with that internally in a major way.  So, in effect, by being the world’s preeminent power, we’ve kind of been given, if you will, the world’s biggest Visa card.  Right?  We’ve been, you know, shopping and living on credit.  Well, that bill is going to come due.  When it’s a basket of currencies, the euro, the yuan, the Chinese yuan, the Japanese yen, and they’re already part of the basket.  And when they replace the dollar, and the dollar recedes to being just another currency, and that is going to change the fabric of life in the United States in the most fundamental way imaginable.

CH: Well, it will change the fabric because the dollar will drop to about a third of its value, it’ll trigger deep depression, and people won’t want to buy treasury bonds, is that correct?

AH: Yup, and that means that when the US government wants to--for example, there is an elaborate social welfare program or give tax relief to the rich has, depending on whether you’re Republican or Democrat, and simply issuing Treasury notes to cover the cost of that deficit, that won’t be possible anymore because those notes, instead of being virtually interest-free, will suddenly carry real costs, and you won’t be able to do it.  But we’re also thankful…

CH: It also will--it also will trigger the immediate contraction of the vast military archipelago that we have around the globe, won’t it?

AH: Well, that’s another thing that we’ve been doing as a result of this dollar, being the world’s global reserve currency, we can get more for less than any other place on the planet.  And that allows us to maintain this network of roughly a thousand military bases, with hundreds of thousands of troops overseas, that will no longer be quite so affordable, that will become prohibitively expensive.  And I think we’re going to see a retreat--a retreat from overseas bases and overseas commitments.  Moreover, as climate change worsens, in the United States, we’ve already seen the mobilization of the National Guard and the US military, repeatedly in places like Houston and Puerto Rico to deal with these disasters.  We’re going to be using those troops, that mobile manpower for domestic disaster rather than global force projection.  And that’s going to really shift, a combination of these forces.  An aging society, a declining dollar, a rising social welfare costs that by 2050 will be roughly 50% of the US federal budget.  All of that is going to produce a retreat from the world to the United States.  And really, if you think about it, when you’re looking at all these pressures, it looks like the US euro will be over by about 2030, by the end of this decade.  There are a number…

CH: When we come back, we’ll continue--we’re going to stop there for a sec.  When we come back, we will continue our conversation about the new global order with history professor Alfred McCoy.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our conversation about the New Global Order with the historian and author, Professor Alfred McCoy.  So I want to get into your book.  Because you highlight certain periods of global dominance, you begin with the Iberian dominance.  And I thought it was fascinating that you talk about a cataclysmic event as precipitating the final denouement of these global orders.  You write, “If we focus on the last five centuries, new world order seem to arise when a maelstrom of death or destruction coincides with some slower yet deeper social transformation to sweep away the old order.  Since the start of the age of exploration in the 15th century, some 90 empires major and minor have come and gone.  In those same 500 years, however, there have been just three world orders all arising in the West, the Iberian age after 1494, the British Imperial era from 1815, and the Washington world system from 1945 to perhaps something like 2030.  Each transition to a new world order has occurred when a massively destructive cataclysm has coincided with major social change.”  And then you write, “The rise of the Iberian age of exploration was preceded by a century of epidemics known as the Black Death.”  And of course, you’re arguing that the current cataclysm is climate change.  But let’s just run through quickly some of the patterns that you write about in your book about those three ages and how they relate to our current situation.

AM: Sure.  First of all, the First Great Cataclysm was the Black Death, which lasted from roughly 1350 to 1420.  And then the first wave of the epidemic had killed 60% population of Europe, 60% of the population of China, and more importantly, it absolutely destroyed the Mongol Empire, people that lived in the steppe lands where the epidemic was particularly pronounced.  What this meant was, for a first time in a thousand years, Europe was no longer faced with the threat of invasions from the East.  It was able to turn westward and introduce the age of exploration.  So a combination of technological innovation and then navigation, and the--this geopolitical shift started the age of exploration, and the Portuguese, and then the Spanish brought the continents into contact for a close contact and continuous contact for the first time in human history.  And this created a world order with two characteristics because every world order has a kind of duality between power and principle.  Now, Spanish conquest of the Americas was bloodstained, a horrific violation of human rights, but with--at the same time Dominican missionaries who witnessed these atrocities firsthand invented the concept of human rights and launched a debate over the nature of human rights.  The Iberian age lasted for about 300 years, and it ended when two things came together.  One, the 20 years of the Napoleonic Wars who ravaged Europe killed six million people.  Simultaneously, Britain was launching the industrial revolution, and that industrial revolution also was able to liquidate one of the greatest human rights violations of the Iberian age, the slave trade.  Because the Iberian age had been--had mobilized two forms of energy, and that’s another thing to realize.  Every world system does not only have the vision of human rights, but also has a distinctive form of energy.  So the Iberian age did two things.  One, it maximized the energy of human muscle power through the slave plantation, or unleash the power of wind through windmills and sailing ships, all right?  Britain then by developing a steam engine and coal fired energy, particularly the mobile engine by the mid of the 19--middle part of the 19th century, they had developed this fossil fuel energy that rendered human muscle power and slavery and wind power largely redundant.  And that then gave way to the British Imperial era, which lasted until the Great Cataclysm the World War II in which over 70 million people died, right?  And out of that the US world era which had a duality of power in principle, one, the UN or--was grounded on the idea of universal human rights, and universal sovereignty, every human being should live in a national community with inviolable sovereignty.  But the United States simultaneously, of course, as every world order does, every imperial power does, it exercise its power to violate its same--those same principles.  We intervene covertly in countless nations, we violated the inviolable sovereignty of those nations, and we transgress the very human rights order that we can mean.  For example, developing new sophisticated techniques of torture and propagating them among our allies.  There were countless human rights violations of the US and Europe.  But, of course, at the same time, the international system took on a life of its own.  And now we’re faced with a very critical question.  As the US global hegemony fades as US imperial power fades, will the principle side of the US duality survive?  Will this international system, grounded in international rule of law, their respect for human rights and the respect for national sovereignty, survive as China becomes the world’s great hegemony?  And I’m rather pessimistic.  China is--and this very significant.  When you think about this transition, the succession of empires and world orders, it’s been within a kind of continuous European conversation.  China is the first global hegemony to arise who did not participate in that fraught five-century process of creating this world order.  I mean, they were a victim of it, yes.  But they didn’t participate in the debate.  And therefore they don’t share these principles and they have no commitment to them.  And they’re constructing a very different kind of world order much more transactional, much--or much less idealistic.  It’s--or it’s kind of already indicated they have very little respect for international rule of law.  So, it’s going to be a very different kind of world order from 2030 to roughly 2040.

CH: And yet you argue this is a weakness of China that world orders need a kind of mythology or soft power, however hypocritical, that ideology may be in order to perpetuate and--themselves and expand.

AM: China spent a billion dollars over the last decade establishing the so-called Confucian Institutes around the world that propagate Chinese language and culture.  If you compare China’s effort, let’s say to the British Institute, Germany’s Goethe-Institut, the Alliance Francaise, even the US effort, it’s ham-fisted in the extreme.  They subordinated to politics for example, if you--if a university that has a Confucian center invites the Dalai Lama or discusses Taiwan, China will immediately begin to pull their international students out of that university.  So they’re very ham-fisted in the way they do it.  And they’re not successful at it.  China has another liability.  And as a communist society, with a centralized power in a command economy, they don’t have the idea of the rule of law of an autonomous judiciary that’s separate and apart from the secular power.  And so that means that as they move into managing this world system, which is a very complex, legalistic system, emerging since the late 19th century, very much an architect of the part of the US architecture of global power.  Very legalistic.  But China simply doesn’t have the culture and the personnel to manage these complex, highly legalistic institutions.  And so that’s going to be another deficiency they face.  So it’s going to be a very transactional, self-maximizing kind of world order, grounded in self-interest, and very little in the way of the principle side.  And that, of course, when the world hits a great crisis around 2050, it means that the existing world order will be utterly inadequate to deal with that global crisis.  And that will create an opening for a very new kind of world order to take shape during the middle decades throughout the century.

CH: You argue that the cataclysm of China--climate change is going to probably make the dominance of China very short lived.

AM: If we sort of take the scientific literature, which has projections about the century [INDISTINCT] clear, and we overlay on top of that political changes, we can, if you will, draw a roadmap to the rest of the 21st century, all right?  It seems that by 2030, US global power comes on end.  China’s economy will be 50% larger than the United States by--US economy by that date.  Their militarily will be correspondingly larger.  If there’s a war that will likely take place, let’s say off the China Coast, there’s a very real chance of China taking in.  Okay.  So by 2030, it’s over for the United States.  Then from 2030 to roughly 2050, maybe a bit beyond, we can see several decades of a Chinese world order, much more, you know, self-interested.  And then around 2050, climate change is going to begin to pound China as well.  There are very clear projections in the scientific literature that says that by 2050, Shanghai, a city of 18 million people, is going to be underwater.  It was dredged from swamp and seashore in the 15th century, and is going to return to the seas from which--from whence it came.  And so that means that this great economic engine of China, its greatest city, is going to essentially be lost, but of equal importance.  The North China Plain, currently home to 400 million people, and one of the great centers of Chinese agriculture industry, and indeed, culture is going to become possibly the least habitable place on the planet.  Beginning and around 2060, 2070, China--North China Plain is going to experience the first five episodes of wet bulb temperature of 35 degrees centigrade.  Now what does that mean?  That means that the balance of heat and humidity comes together, so that a healthy human being, you know, seated, not working, not moving, is dead in six hours, all right?  And then there are going to be hundreds of incidents of extreme heat.  So as China is battered by climate change, one of the core centers of its population becomes less habitable.  There’ll be great population movement in China.  China is going to work with all its resources and its military forces inward, and have to deal with its own climate change.

CH: Okay.  We’re going to--we’re going to have--we’re going to have to stop there, Professor McCoy.  That was historian and author Professor Alfred McCoy on his new book “To Govern the Globe”.

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