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August 29, 1990 

Dancing On in the Dark

Losing an empire and not yet finding another role -- as Dean Acheson once characterized Britain -- makes for an understandably fevered crisis in self-esteem for those nations joining the ranks of the formerly omnipotent.

The United States, the inheritor of Britain's imperial mandate, now finds itself in a similar transitional fix, as the current imbroglio in the Middle East plainly reveals. Our intervention there signals conclusive proof that the Soviet bogeyman, whose purported might the CIA recently admitted it had enhanced by a factor of two-thirds for 40 years, no longer provides the all-essential menacing backdrop for ensuring successful U.S.international hegemony.

The Soviets' opting to drop their end of the rope in the bipolar tug-of-war is something a sprinkling of prescient analysts have warned us we would soon regret, and it underscores the principal reasons for the swiftness and massive dimensions of our buildup in Saudi Arabia. At the heart of the matter is the uncertainty surrounding the unavoidably new terms of our relationship with our NATO allies now that the Cold War is in full closure. For, if it's accurate to say that the Soviets have "surrendered," as the Washington policy-priesthood and its in-pocket media valets have giddily chirped at great length, that surrender in actuality has been to Western Europe, and not to us. The magnitude of that fact and its sobering implications can easily be gleaned from the hat-in-hand neon vapor trails Jim Baker has left in two years of transatlantic commuting. Baker's plaintive appeals for special economic consideration from a newly unified Europe in exchange for a continued American military presence has elicited less than racing pulses -- and not a little sniggering -- throughout the Continent's burgeoningly wealthy capitals.

It's hardly been a secret of late that at our highest policy levels a nostalgic yearning for a new opponent has emerged, spurred by the tremulous realization that perhaps only a new fiend on the block, one capable of replacing the bearish Soviet encroacher on our allies' hearths, could realistically save the longstanding U.S. international-guardian role and its attendant power to dictate the terms of commerce within the west-west configuration. It's clear that the loss of such a clearly defined adversary as the Soviets has quickly eroded much of the intra-West economic consensus which was a by-product of that era, causing no end of consternation in Washington. Fortuitously, however, in something of a Reagan-residual script, Saddam Hussein has now come to our rescue. And inconvenient though this encounter may be for an America already gearing up for full-blown recession, it is of absolute necessity for the policy mandarinate in this country still enmeshed in the Cold War strategizing which sustained American affluence for so long.

Bush's whirlwind military buildup in Saudi Arabia should have come as no surprise. Oil, timely enough, has supplanted the SS-20 as the perceived threat which he is proffering to Europe and Japan for their imminent consideration. The possibility of a lack of ready access to that lifeline on the West's customary terms is the unifying principle Washington hopes to utilize in rekindling our ability to array our trade partners behind us in familiar ducks-in-a-row formation.

At stake, of course, is an America whose economic future looks dismal at best, and in Saddam Hussein Bush's agenda for a New Atlanticism has gained an opportune figure with which to continue the Reagan legacy of fingering the "evil other." Reagan had brought that venerable American affinity for looking under the bed for what may lay in wait to heroically rococo heights, but unfortunately his attempt to somehow stanch two decades of American economic decline by rallying the U.S.'s increasingly economically independent friends around the Soviet menace-totem was a failure. Half of Europe never believed in the threat, and now, obviously, the concept of Soviet expansionism is a moot point. The era of the Marshall Plan, as the Reagan-Bush crew gradually learned post-Reykjavik, was over. A fat, sassy, go-it-alone Europe looked toward 1992 and the onset of the most powerful financial amalgam in history.


Bush's precipitous jumping-the-gun on the implementation of the United Nations' sanctions on Iraq is, needless to say, wholly in keeping with the residue of 40 years of Cold War thinking. The stick, as opposed to the distinctions and nuances associated with the carrot, is still the tool America feels most comfortable with, and in the context of this Mideast crisis it confirms the rest of the world's private suspicions that we are unable to fashion a new international role for ourselves beyond the old power politics model. Bush's unilateral ante-upping couldn't be a more reliable indicator of the screeching fear Washington's upper echelons harbor about the U.S.'s plummeting stature, or a better gauge of the degree to which our overkill hysterics are a last-ditch effort to have our traditional protector role continue to contour the world's economic activity to our liking.

Increasingly, America is finding itself shut out of any substantial economic footholds internationally, and we are loath to admit that the economic concessions we derived from four decades of military supremacy are at an end. Our allies no longer require our might to oversee the international trading system, and the rationale for the national security state command-economy colossus we acquired while admittedly lying about the supposed potency and designs of the Soviet variety, has now come under intense scrutiny. Daily, in any number of ways, we are confronted by the niggling reminder that all through those years we were engaged in domestic witch hunts and missile-rattling bellicosity the Germans and the Japanese were squirreling away the major share of the world's capital.

The irony that for almost half a century the now-vanquished Soviets had answered our criticism of them by reminding us that we had two oceans between us and any potential enemies can only be instructive at this late date. Our two-ocean "splendid isolation" now takes on an entirely different cast. Deprived of the Big Enemy, running in place for the past 20 years to keep up with the output of the newly industrialized countries, eclipsed by the streamlined efficiency of the Japanese, West German, and other EC governments' working relationships with their business communities -- we face isolation of another sort. In truth, as the occupants of those esteemed, inside-the-beltway corridors well know, we face something more akin to ouster from a world economic order we can no longer manipulate militarily or compete with industrially.

Our frenetic trade negotiating over the past four years with Japan and the EC has been that of a country living on past glories and knowing it, trying to convince our allies that they still need us. While gratefully acknowledging our leadership role in the victory over Stalinism, the Western Europeans look to victory's fruits in a way that may leave no room for us. The prospect of a vast, freed-up Eastern European/Soviet marketplace for EC companies further exacerbates our fears of an inward-turning Fortress Europe. Even our test-of-wills power play to wedge an opening into Japan's domestic markets in the recently-concluded Structural Impediments Initiative talks -- done largely for the benefit of the EC -- offers no quid-pro-quo guarantees from Europe.

The driving fear in Washington is that an economically debilitated America only secures its accustomed slice of the pie from now on if its once-vaunted leadership can be revitalized to keep the world trading system intact and avert a move toward separate trading blocs. Having cast our lot full-bore with the brave new world of mobile capital, and regarding any notions of even a rudimentary national industrial policy as smacking of Bolshevik autarky, this administration has indeed drawn its line in the sand. If we can finesse the continuation of an open global trading system, its reasoning goes, it will facilitate our being cut in on the windfall spoils of our allies by dint of our reclaimed overseer status. Most prominently entailed in that effort is the high-wire dexterity necessary to assuage Europe's protectionist impulses toward the Japanese export diaspora of the 1990s. It is a dynamic fraught with considerable diciness, given the fact that the U.S. has come to the stark realization that our growing joint-venture relationship with the Japanese -- is crucial to our gaining a competitive niche in Europe. Just as the quest for EC market share demands that we hitch our sidecar to the Japanese juggernaut, it also requires our mollifying Europe's intensifying fears of the oft-predicted U.S./Japanese economic "condominium."

The SII talks provided a revealing glimpse into the U.S.'s ongoing attempts at three-cornered deal-making. The implied message to Japan was that it could best prove to Europe that it was capable of reciprocity by acceding to our current list of demands, while the encouraging word to the EC was delivered via trade negotiator Carla Hills' incessantly repeated statement that "when we open a market, we open it for everyone." Hills' added emphasis accentuates the nature and magnitude of the task the U.S. has ahead of it. Deprived of the pressing need for the military component which had so easily effected unity in the past, our trilateral strategic brokering has been relegated in recent years to the more-equalized arena of the conference room. And as the world has witnessed during that span, much of the U.S.'s negotiating has been harried and accusative, bereft noticeably of the underpinnings of leverage and wealth which were once the hallmarks of the American Century.


Who really needs us anymore, and why? are the questions on the lips of many throughout the world. And as Washington hears those questions -- and as Bush's ominous flailings over the past month evidence -- we can only retort with any degree of confidence with our standard baddest-mofo-in-the-valley posture. In that regard, last December's blitzkrieg in Panama can be viewed as a precursory north-south variant to our current thirst for a Gulf showdown, its long-range objective a hedge against the possibility that the U.S. will acquire no substantial footing in the Europe of the 1990s and that separate trading blocs will in fact emerge. In Noriega -- he of the villainous red jockey shorts -- we were afforded the perfect excuse to establish Panama as the crown jewel in resolidifying the Americas as our personal bloc-fiefdom.

Our present tangle with Hussein, this officially proclaimed reincarnation of the little Austrian corporal, is thus a made-to-order opportunity for Bush to attempt to reassert the larger claims which derive from America's notion of  world entitlement. (Am I alone in recalling that at his press conference the morning after the Panama invasion Bush actually did a little dance? And given the level of U.S. pre-hostilities name-calling toward Iraq, might it now be only fair to note that the Bush footwork was eerily reminiscent of that same little Austrian's Czechoslovakian victory jig?) Coming as this face-off has at the juncture of our allies' new-found independence and the ebbing of our own influence, the internal logic of the U.S. position fairly demands that any U.N. sanctions, however unanimously agreed-to and effectively sustained, would have to have been superseded by our high-visibility presence. The discrediting of Iraq's subsequent offers to talk, and the impending likelihood of war and a resultant lights-out global recession as oil goes to $50 a barrel, should be a sufficient index of how serious an underlying structural problem the U.S. feels it has. Bush's perception-game escalation is a palpable grandstand-play plea for the renewed attention of our allies, a go-for-broke entreaty for the amelioration of our friends' differences under a new U.S. hegemonic umbrella. Oil, of course, serves as the proximate key, and our thwarting of the perceived, geek-of-the-moment threat to it is the means by which our energy-deficient trading partners can be induced to feel that they still owe us some form of special economic consideration. Bush's disproportional power-projection theatrics are a measure of the extent to which he is aware of the dimunition of the U.S.'s global prestige, sadly on the order of a crazed re-wooing of a spouse by a partner who pulls out all the original courtship routines in order to entice the other out of the separate bedroom she has been occupying for some time.

-- Copyright John Hutchison 1990
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