Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Who Owns the World? The United States acts as if it does...

The United States acts as if it owns the world. This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, more and more foreign entities are lapping up bargain properties in our "homeland." And aside from U.S. military bases -- a not inconsiderable amount of territory --- the United States is not land-grabbing the way imperial Rome or London did. But since when was ownership all about possessing the deed to the property? Bullies can own the neighborhood, even if they're only renting a room in one of the houses. It has a lot to do with attitude. And the Bush administration has attitude up the wazoo.

Both sides of the political spectrum agree about world ownership. The left despairs of the U.S. government's attitude. The radical right believes that the United States should own the world and snarls with perfect DeNiro intonation: "what are you going to do about it, huh?" The "moderate middle" pretends that the United States abides by international law, indeed that we are largely responsible for the dispersion of wealth, political power, and transparency throughout the world. There might have been some excesses during the Bush years, the moderates caution, but the Dems will put everything back to rights, a notoriously dubious proposition.

So, do we or don't we own the world? Let's go through these four key elements of ownership and see if they apply to Uncle Sam.

You Break It, You Own It: If a retail outlet filled in for a turn as president of the UN Security Council, imagine the bill that would be sent to the U.S. Treasury: There would the full costs of Iraq. There would be Afghanistan. There would be the economies we broke through odious debt. There would a large chunk of the ice cap. Ah, it's a long list. But, as always happens, when the bill eventually does come due, those responsible will be beyond the reach of the repo men. And America will rely on the same argument that it now dismisses from the poorest countries in the world: "hey, but we didn't run up the tab!"

You Have Exclusive Access: Russia occupies Afghanistan and the United States goes ballistic. The same with Vietnam invading Cambodia. And now the Bush administration accuses Iran of sending its troops to Iraq. "I saw recently in the Christian Science Monitor, something like 'New Study of Foreign Fighters in Iraq,'" Noam Chomsky says in an FPIF interview with Michael Shank. "Who are the foreign fighters in Iraq? Some guy who came in from Saudi Arabia. How about the 160,000 American troops? Well, they're not foreign fighters in Iraq because we own the world; therefore we can't be foreign fighters anywhere. Like, if the United States invades Canada, we won't be foreign. And if anybody resists it, they're enemy combatants, we send them to Guantanamo."

You Extract Rent: How is it exactly that the United States, the world's largest debtor nation, doesn't have to submit to an IMF stabilization program or answer to the requirements of its mainly Asian creditors? Because the U.S. dollar is used for most of the world's financial transactions and remains the reserve currency of choice. Wikipedia, however, tells me that there are now more euros in circulation in the world than dollars. That's perhaps one reason why Brazilian supermodel Gisele B√ľndchen began to demand payment in euros last year. But as long as the U.S. military throws its weight around and adopts an imperial attitude, America thinks it can postpone the inevitable knock on the door. And in the meantime, Americans will continue to live on the "rental income" that the rest of the world pays us.

You Call the Shots: Let's see, who would be a good candidate to head up the World Bank? What about Robert McNamara, who basically came out and admitted to being a war criminal in The Fog of War? Or how about Paul Wolfowitz, who we can only hope will one day have to submit to the questions of filmmaker Errol Morris (or better yet, the judges at the Hague)? After the Wolfowitz debacle, you'd think that the world would rise up in revolt and say, "Let's put the 'world' back into the World Bank." Instead, the United States gets to choose again and selects former deputy U.S. secretary of state Robert Zoellick. He's not the worst of the Bush team. But if he has a choice between taking a call from Condi or Lula, which do you think he'll take?

According to these four criteria, the United States certainly acts like it owns the place. We don't have to send out proconsuls or viceroys to administer our properties around the world to qualify as owners (and sometimes the heads of the various regional U.S. military commands act a lot like proconsuls!). The Bush administration's attitude toward global power is not all that different from how its operatives worked to consolidate presidential power. As David Addington, Vice President Cheney's counsel from 2001 to 2005 explains the strategy: "We're going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop."

We're seeing signs of this larger force emerge here in the United States. When will it emerge globally?