THE GLOBAL GAMBLE: WASHINGTON’S FAUSTIAN BID FOR WORLD DOMINANCE by Peter Gowan. Pub: Verso Books, London/New York, 1999. Pbk: 320. £13.00 / $ 20.00.
The use of labels as a shorthand for expressing complex ideas is routine in all forms of communication. Sometimes, however, such labels can become cliches, unthinkingly used as easy substitutes for the ideas they are supposed to represent and so obfuscating them instead of expressing them. ‘New world order,’ ‘Western imperialism,’ ‘US hegemony’ and ‘globalization’ are modern terms that may have fallen victim to this tendency. Their use has become so commonplace that people no longer need to think what they mean; instead it is taken for granted that their meaning is understood, both by those that use them and by those they are addressing.
This book by Peter Gowan, senior lecturer in European studies at the University of North London, is a detailed study of what these words and phrases really represent, in the real world, in both economic and political terms. Gowan argues that the collapse of the communist bloc “presented policy makers in Washington with a temptation reminiscent of Faust’s, opening up vistas of hitherto unimaginable global power; but the cold breath of Mephistopheles is already blowing across devastated communities from southeast Asia to the Balkan peninsula in the wake of America’s bid for world power”.
During the 1990s, Gowan reminds us, “American government and political elites have attempted to ‘go global’: in other words to entrench the United States as the power that will control the major economic and political outcomes across the globe in the twenty-first century.” In order to do this, the US has sought to use and manipulate the international system of ‘sovereign states.’
Gowan suggests that during the 1990s, the Clinton administration developed two key ways of “altering the internal and external environments of states” in order to “induce them to continue to accept US political and economic dominance.” In internal terms, he tells us, “the transformation of the domestic environments of states goes under the name of neo-liberalism; this involves a shift in the internal social relationships within states in favour of creditor and rentier interests.”
Gowan goes on the say that: “the transformation of the external environment of states goes under the name of globalization.” This involves “the opening of a state’s political economy to the entry of products, companies, financial flows and financial operators from the core countries, making state policy dependent upon developments and decisions taken in Washington, New York and other main capitalist centres.”
How the US has done this, how its policies over the last half-century have made it possible, and the implications of its strategy, are the topic of this book. The first part of the book is primarily concerned with economic power. In it, Gowan argues that the process of globalization, usually understood to be driven by technological or economic forces rather than political ones, “has been driven most crucially by the enormous political power placed in the hands of the American state and US business through the particular type of international monetary system and associated international financial regime that was constructed — largely by the US government — in the ashes of the Bretton Woods system.”
This conception of globalization is some considerable distance from the view of globalization as a deep and largely autonomous process favoured by most Western commentators. Gowan recognises this and reflects it in his characterisation of the international economic order as a ‘regime,’ although he is quick to distance his usage of this terms from its standard usage in academic International Relations.
His object is to trace the evolution of the international financial order from “its origins in the 1970s through the international economic and politics of the 1980s and 1990s up to the Asian crisis and the panic of 1998.” This is not new; but Gowan’s objective is to highlight its political dimension. “The international monetary regime has operated both as an international ‘economic regime’ and as a potential instrument of economic statecraft and power politics. The name given to it here is the ‘Dollar-Wall Street Regime’ (DWSR).” It is the workings of this regime that Gowan is primarily interested in.
During the first part of the book, Gowan examines the origins of the DWSR in the new mechanisms for international economic relations established by the Nixon regime, which were designed to give power to the US government and the Anglo-American financial markets and operators. He particularly highlights the close links between this regime and political forces in the US, pointing out that these stand in sharp contrast to the normal portrayal of state power as somehow inimical to the power of the market. He also looks at the ways in which US administrations have sought to use the DWSR, and how other powers, particularly European states, Japan, the former Soviet Union and “the countries of the South” have responded. Particularly interestingly, he also looks at the impact of the regime on domestic economic and political systems in the US.
Many of the ideas that Gowan develops in this examination he then tests in a discussion of the East Asian crisis in 1997-98, particularly its origins in South Korea. Gowan argues that the conventional view of this crisis is mistaken in that it holds the central players to have been market forces. Gowan argues that the critical role was played by the US treasury, whose intervention resulted — unintentionally — in the crisis spreading first from South Korea to Indonesia and then into a global financial crisis.
Much of Gowan’s argument appears self-evident to informed readers. Yet it appears little in mainstream literature on the subject. Gowan says: “One of the most extraordinary features of the whole story is the way in which these great levers of American power have been simply ignored in most of the literatures on globalization, on international relations and on general developments on the international political economy.”
Gowan’s unavoidable implication is that the neglect of this crucial area on the part of most of his fellow academics in these fields is wilful. Unfortunately, the neglect has come not only from academics, but also from political analysts and activists, even those claiming to represent the left in European politics (there is no left in the US). Gowan concludes this section with a discussion of the possibility of a social democratic alternative to the capitalist-driven political order. Unfortunately, the record that he himself exposes indicates that there is little chance of meaningful dissidence being able to operate in the political systems of the West.
The second part of Gowan’s book is concerned with the US’s political role in international affairs, and particularly the responses of liberalism and neo-liberalism to the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, the Gulf War, and other such issues. This section consists largely of essays previously published in journals.
It is Gowan’s economic analysis, however, that is perhaps essential reading for Muslims who believe that Muslim countries such as Islamic Iran have no choice but to operate within the established global economic order, or even that they may be able to prosper though it. Isolationism is unrealistic, of course, but our barge-poles must be as long as possible.