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Fallacious Regionalism

May 26, 2011

Jeffrey Sachs argues that American decline inevitably opens the way for greater regionalism, and that this world of regions will inevitably be a more peaceful one:

In almost every part of the world, long-festering problems can be solved through closer cooperation among neighboring countries. The European Union provides the best model for how neighbors that have long fought each other can come together for mutual benefit. Ironically, today’s decline in American global power may lead to more effective regional cooperation…

The EU has created a zone of peace where once there was relentless war. It has provided the institutional framework for reuniting Western and Eastern Europe. It has fostered regional-scale infrastructure. The single market has been crucial to making Europe one of the most prosperous places on the planet. And the EU has been a global leader on environmental sustainability.

The EU did not create a “zone of peace,” NATO, under the aegis of the United States, did that. The utter failure of the EU to develop a foreign policy, or a common defense policy, is indeed NATO’s fault. Yet NATO’s error built the foundations of European security, for better or for worse. Had European integration truly been responsible for its own defense, security, and stability, we would likely have seen a Europe where the divisions between East and West still festered. Such a European bloc would not likely have suited the interests of the Eastern Europeans, who de Gaulle and other more muscular prophets of European integration were perfectly willing to leave under Moscow’s influence.

Sachs continues to argue that the divisions created by colonialism and sustained by superpower and hegemonic politics will inevitably fade:

In most other regions, ongoing political divisions have their roots in the Cold War or the colonial era. During the Cold War, neighbors often competed with each other by “choosing sides” – allying themselves with either the United States or the Soviet Union.  Pakistan tilted towards the Americans; India towards the Soviets. Countries had little incentive to make peace with their neighbors as long as they enjoyed the financial support of the US or the USSR. On the contrary, continued conflict often led directly to more financial aid.

Colonialism and the Cold War shaped the character of other regions’ tensions, but it is logically fallacious to imply that no tensions would exist without the influence of foreign superpowers. After all, who was responsible for the EU’s old divisions? Europeans themselves. The Cold War was not responsible for dividing European states from each other – they had been plenty divided for hundreds of years, fighting numerous wars. The Cold War was just responsible for a specific division of the European continent. War existed in South Asia before colonialism, and Britain gave India a political unity that never existed historically. As for the Indo-Pakistani conflict? Indians and Pakistanis were perfectly happy to continue that without any Western encouragement.

Indeed, the US and Europe often acted to undermine regional integration, which they believed would limit their roles as power brokers. Thus, when Gamal Abdel Nasser launched a call for Arab unity in the 1950’s, the US and Europe viewed him as a threat.  The US undercut his call for strong Arab cooperation and nationalism, fearing a loss of American influence in the Middle East. As a result, Nasser increasingly aligned Egypt with the Soviet Union, and ultimately failed in the quest to unite Arab interests.

Even if the West had let Nasser pursue a vision of Arab nationalism, there still would have been major shocks to regional integration in the Middle East. Israel certainly would not have let Arab nationalism come to present an effective force, and indeed, the 1967 war dealt a severe blow to the credibility of Arab nationalism generally. Even so, there are many different shades and varieties of Arab nationalism which would have clashed. Nasser’s vision of Arab nationalism would have conflicted with Gaddafi’s, and those two with Ba’athism, and even then there were divisions within each of these larger tents. This is totally leaving aside the resistance the Arab monarchies, non-Sunni Arabs, anti-secularist Muslims, and the non-Arab Middle Eastern powers Iran and Turkey might have put up to such a regional movement.

The notion that the Middle East would spontaneously seek the benefits of regionalism in the wake of US withdrawal begs further analysis. Does anyone seriously think there are not serious divisions between the GCC monarchies and the “Arab Street” it has contributed to suppressing? Or the Kurds who would not want any part in such a pan-Arabist project, or sectarian and religious groups which might feel the watan provides better foundations for their security and flourishing than an Arab empire?

We are, in short, moving to a multi-polar world. The Cold War’s end has not led to greater US dominance, but rather to the dissemination of global power to many regions.  East Asia, South Asia, Latin America, and the Middle East have new geopolitical and economic influence. Each region, increasingly, must find its own path to economic development, energy and food security, and effective infrastructure, and must do so in a world threatened by climate change and resource scarcity.

Each region, therefore, will have to secure its own future. Of course, this should occur in a context of cooperation across regions as well as within them.

The Middle East is in a strong position to help itself. There is a high degree of economic complementarity between Egypt and the oil-rich Gulf States. Egypt can supply technology, manpower, and considerable expertise for the Arab region, while the Gulf provides energy and finance, as well as some specialists. The long-delayed vision of Arab economic unity should be returned to the table.

Sach completely brushes over these striations in the Middle East with his vision of comparative advantage determining political unity. Of course the Gulf and Egypt will just get along! Never mind the reactionary attitude of the monarchies or the myriad political divisions within each Arab state, let alone among them.

There remain significant contests for political leadership and influence in Latin America, such as between the Chavistas and the more moderate leftists and centrists, just as Asia is incredibly politically divided compared to Europe and even the Middle East. ASEAN’s regional integration occurs in the context of overwhelming US military superiority, and if push came to shove, most ASEAN states would balance militarily against China with the US even as they pursue economic integration. Japan, the Koreas, and China would be similarly wary about pursuing integration without having their security needs met, and it is the US which has provided the security which allows countries to rest easy about Chinese economic dominance – they can rely on the superpower over the horizon to prevent war in the region. Whether such activity is in US interest is another matter, but Sach’s fallacious, astrategic vision of European pacification undercuts his arguments for most other regions.

Regional blocs, directly or indirectly, profit from empire. The EU’s relatively non-hierarchical nature owes to the severe preponderance of an extra-regional power, which renders questions about European leadership relatively safe. In most other regions, integration requires the preponderance of a leading state to provide security. To the extent US decline enables it, it will not create a world of trading blocs, but a world of revived hierarchical security regimes insulating their regions from pernicious anarchy.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. south permalink
    May 26, 2011 5:26 pm

    I’m pretty sure we’ve had this conversation many times before, but mostly in the context of me reliving bad debate arguments. Nice to see it here on the blog.

  2. Bob Trombly permalink
    May 31, 2011 10:42 am

    As Allan Bloom once said I’m in favor of a world state it will allow us to explore the phenomenon of civil war more fully…

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