Global Policy Forum

The South Strikes Back


By Pepe Escobar *

Asian Times
June 11, 2003

Last week, India, Brazil and South Africa - key regional leaders in South Asia, South America and Africa respectively- created a sort of poor-man's G8, a G3 charged to increase the bargaining power of developing countries vis-a-vis the United States and the European Union. The foreign ministers of India (Yashwant Sinha), Brazil (Celso Amorim) and South Africa (Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) for the moment make references to a G3 only as a joke: the official name of the group is IBSA (the initials in English of the three members).

Sinha has pointed out that "in a more incisive way than before, we must speak as much as we can with only one voice". IBSA's agenda is ambitious, with the heads of state of the three countries scheduled to meet later this year to discuss it in detail. But it is already known that at the United Nations level they are bound to exert pressure for an urgent reform of the Security Council - which should also include developing countries. India and Brazil are already supporting each other's membership bids. This is a G3 that aims to represent the whole developing South. It may soon become a G5 as diplomats confirm that China and Russia are definitely interested.

The evolvement of this tri-nation grouping reflects other realignments on the world stage. At the recent G8 summit in Evian, French President Jacques Chirac invited heads of state of selected developing countries to hear their opinions. The European Union wants to forge itself as an alternative political and social model for the rest of the world. Russia, and especially China, are keen on forming special relationships with regional powers in the South. What are the chances of these overlapping developments finally converging and of the South making itself heard? Jose Luis Fiori is arguably one of Latin America's foremost political scientists. At the center of what is now becoming a global debate, Fiori says, lies the question of national development projects and in how to offer "hope to the damned of the Earth after the failure of the globalitarian Utopia".

There are 193 nation-states in the world today: 125 of them are former colonies that became independent in roughly two waves of modern history: the first around the beginning of the 19th century (most American states), and the second after World War II (most African and Asian states).

Fiori emphasizes how Adam Smith, already in the 18th century, was in favor of colonialism being discarded in favor of the free market. Smith and Lord Shelbourne (who negotiated independence with the Americans) were betting on English economic superiority caused by the industrial revolution: by exporting their commodities, the decolonized economies would inevitably become a politico-economic "periphery" of the richer and more powerful states. "And this would be beneficial to the economic development of all, including the former colonies."

Against this view there were almost all conservative politicians and intellectuals who, in the second half of the 19th century, defended the territorial expansion and the civilizing mission of Europeans across the world. Examples are Benjamin Disraeli and Lord Palmerston as politicians in Britain and Oswald Spengler and Wilhelm Dilthey as intellectuals, as well as Cecil Rhodes, "a real prototype of the English colonialist, and the first to sustain the thesis that the way to universal peace necessarily meant the submission of the rest of the world to Anglo-Saxon laws", says Fiori. Adam Smith's recipes were eventually applied. There was a flurry of trade deals - often imposed by force on countries all over the world and which meant free access for Europe's capital and goods. The former colonies became exporters of commodities essential for European industrialization. Fiori says, "With this new situation, the governments of these countries had to go into debt with English and French banks to cover for the lost revenues in customs fees. That's why, in moments of cyclical retraction of European economies, these peripheral countries invariably faced problems in their balance of payments and were forced to renegotiate their external debt or face default." Fiori stresses that in the case of Latin America, the debt was constantly renegotiated with the creditors, and the burden of the costs was transferred to their national populations. But in the rest of the world, collecting the debt "justified the invasion and political domination of almost all new colonies that sprang up in the 19th century".

Fiori recognizes that during the 20th century the US and the Soviet Union played a crucial role in the decolonization of Africa and Asia. Socialism and "developmentalism" became "the Utopia or the reason for hope for many peoples, and alternative paths towards the same objective: economic development, social mobility and the easing of asymmetries of wealth and power in the global system". But at the end of the 1970s, "American foreign policy seriously started reviewing its financial support for national development projects". It was, says Fiori, "a response to the crisis of American hegemony and to the world economic crisis in the 1970s". But also a reaction to the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries' oil shock of 1973 and to the emergence of the Group of 77, "with its proposal of radical reform and the creation of a new international economic order", approved by a UN special session in 1974 (but never implemented).

The 1980s are widely considered in Latin America as "the lost decade". No wonder, says Fiori, because for all indebted Latin American countries there was only one way out: "Better conditions for debt repayment were offered in exchange for deregulated markets, open economies, non-interventionist states and radical shelving of each and every kind of national development project."

Finally, in the 1990s the whole South was faced with a new configuration. Fiori mentions Robert Cooper's "The Postmodern State and the World Order " as the key paper to put it into context. Cooper - a key adviser to British premier Tony Blair - made the connection between the process of financial globalization, neoliberal economic policies and, in his words, "a new type of imperialism acceptable to the world of human rights and cosmopolitan values". So, according to Cooper's conceptualization, we now live under three forms of imperialism:

1) A "cooperative imperialism" - regulating relations between the Anglo-Saxon world and other developed countries.

2) An "imperialism based on the law of the jungle" - regulating relations between the group of major powers that "became honest" (Cooper's expression) and "pre-modern" or "failed" states. (Afghanistan and Iraq were dealt with militarily, other official and unofficial "axis of evil" members will be dealt with one way or another).

3) The "voluntary imperialism" of the global economy - essentially managed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and (in Cooper's words) "supporting states that open themselves and peacefully accept interference of international organizations and foreign states".

Fiori sums up, "A sort of 'ultra-imperialism' inside the group of major powers; the 'law of the jungle' for 'pre-modern' states, and 'free market' imperialism for the countries which Adam Smith in 1776, in the chapter on colonies included in The Wealth of Nations, called 'our most faithful and thankful allies'." Fiori identifies the same common denominator in all cases, "The veto to each and every autonomous national project capable of threatening the status quo of the imperial system articulated on the basis of post-modern states."

But a key problem is now in the forefront of any debate: since the Seattle protests in 1999 against the World Trade Organization, it's clear that the neo-liberal globalization project has failed, as well as the neo-liberal reforms in scores of countries in the "periphery". There was negligible economic growth in these countries, coupled with an explosion of social inequality, and this all increased the frightening asymmetry in the distribution of wealth and power in the global system. And "in the void created by this immense frustration", as Fiori puts it, comes the June 2002 George W Bush doctrine of preemptive strikes against states and peoples judged to be threatening America's national interest.

Fiori contends that the Bush doctrine is nothing but an add-on to the "humanitarian imperialism" of former president Bill Clinton and Blair. "For a long time the Anglo-American international economic policy has been subjected to the same strategic objective of its military policy: the containment of each and every state bent on altering the status quo and ascending in the international hierarchy."

This looks like a direct message to, first and foremost, China - and it certainly is. Fiori quotes John Mearsheimer's The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Norton, New York, 2001) when the author stresses that a rich and powerful China simply won't accept the current international status quo. Mearsheimer worries that the American establishment is not worried enough by the fact that China will become the hegemon in northeast Asia (it already is, anyway).

Fiori reminds us that China's national project of becoming an economic and military big power is no mystery to anyone. It's also instructive to remember that before its derailment into a succession of regional wars, Iraq in the 1970s was carrying a clearly defined national development project. But Fiori touches the real nerve when he identifies "the badly-disguised nervousness of the American establishment facing ever-more-evident signs that Germany, Russia and Japan start to return to their national development projects as a way of getting out of the swamp they fell into during the 1990s".

Fiori argues that "some still believe that the US may try to repeat the experience of so-called 'development by invitation' in which a country abdicates from its national project and also any hegemonic pretense in exchange for privileged access to the American market". It's unlikely that the newly-formed grouping of India, Brazil and South Africa will fall for this carrot - not to mention Russia and China. It's fair to argue that much more than any hegemonic pretense, each of these actors would rather pursue its own national development project its own way. Their closer integration is not a "no" to the US, like an instrument to force the US to listen. As to privileged access to the American market, Fiori correctly laments this may be the "only Utopia offered to the poor of the world in the beginning of the 21st century". The candidates are many, the slots a few.

About the Author: Jose Saramago, the Portuguese writer and winner of the 1998 Nobel Prize for literature, adds to this perspective when he talks about the pain of living in these times where, from a humanist point of view, nothing is changing for the better, "Hopes vanish, Utopias vanish and humanism, as we know, is a quality of hope." Apart from the merely material Holy Grail of privileged access to the American market, for "the damned of the Earth" there seems to be no other reality left than to try to survive under the shadow of Cooper's "voluntary imperialism".

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FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.