Today’s global financial crisis is an existential one for those thrown out of work, but it is also a moment of truth in other areas. The crisis reveals synergies unrecognized for decades and uncovers fractures that have not healed over a century or two. Three long-term geopolitical realities have become apparent.
First, apocalyptic prophecies are flourishing again. Anticapitalism has the wind in its sails. “There will one day be a day of wrath such as has never been seen: all European industry will be wrecked, all markets will be congested, the bourgeoisie will be utterly bankrupt, and war and depravity will spread everywhere.” This prophecy comes not from a contemporary anticapitalist, such as France’s Olivier Besancenot, but from an 1856 letter from Friedrich Engels to Karl Marx, which concluded: “For my part, I too believe all this will come about in 1857.” So there is nothing new in today’s condemnations of the “rule of the dollar”; religious and revolutionary critics alike have long assailed the golden calf and Babylon, driven the moneylenders from the temple, and condemned what they saw as usury and excessive profit-making. The nineteenth century simply transformed these vituperations, as old as the world itself, into political strategies, which in the twentieth century led a good part of humanity into hell.
Political nihilists, of both the red and black varieties, have always been obsessed with the idea of a clean slate. Consider Trotsky, Lenin, and their successors in the Soviet Union on the one hand, and then listen to Goebbels in Germany a few days before the end, exulting as bombs fell around him: “The last obstacles to the achievement of our revolutionary mission are falling, along with the monuments of civilization. Now that all is in ruins, we are forced to rebuild Europe. In the past, private property has imposed bourgeois restrictions on us.” Such a politics of disaster is akin to bin Laden’s joy as he sat in front of a television watching the fall of the Twin Towers, those symbols of advanced capitalism. The European Union, as well as unions and syndicates of both left and right, may show little enthusiasm for destruction for its own sake, but nuisance strategies are popular elsewhere—and not only with Third World dictators like Mugabe and Chávez. The recent bellicosity of the Medvedev-Putin team (in Georgia, for example) does not augur well for the solidarity of the “great powers.”
Second, China and the United States will only be drawn more tightly together by mutual interests. The partnership oversees current anti-crisis strategies, just as, unawares, it prepared the way for the crisis over the last three decades. When Deng Xiaoping, beginning in 1979, embraced globalization, he launched a de facto alliance that would eventually become more conscious and organized: the United States is the main purchaser of Chinese products, while China has become America’s main creditor. The crisis has only reinforced this connection. Beijing hoards U.S. Treasury bonds, and Washington resists protectionism and allows Chinese capital to establish itself in South America and Africa. Such complicity has caused Hillary Clinton to forget her customary vocabulary of freedom; we hear no more from her about human rights. Chinese society, burdened by a corrupt government unchecked by any counterweight, even the simple power of information, must fend for itself. Barring a revolt of oppressed, unemployed workers in China’s vast interior, this cozy arrangement between the largest developing nation—practically a continent unto itself—and the center of global finance should result in a shared position of dominance after the crisis passes.
Third, the European Union is a wreck. Behind the smiles, it’s every man for himself. The Franco-German alliance strains visibly to sustain its role as the locomotive of European cooperation. A case in point is the recent affair in which the German engineering firm Siemens withdrew from a joint venture with Areva, the French nuclear-energy company, and forged a partnership with Areva’s Russian competitor, Rosatom. Only a few years ago, the French and German governments intervened to patch things up among the managers of EADS, the Airbus concern in which the two nations play leading roles. No such cooperation was forthcoming this time, though a huge, trillion-euro future market was at stake and the new German-Russian consortium would undermine Areva’s premier status as well as the equilibrium of Europe. The Areva affair is just one point in a long trajectory. Another point came back in 2005, when former German chancellor Gerhard Schröder bypassed Ukraine, Poland, and the Baltic States and opted (at great expense) for a direct Russo-German pipeline under the Baltic Sea, and when—shortly after having left the chancellery—he received a Gazprom chairmanship.
Whether the issue at hand is gas, oil, or nuclear power, the European “community” is not up to the challenge. Berlin and Moscow are cementing an alliance; the German preference for Russia is a long-term trend, both in the industrial sector and in public opinion. The projected way out of the crisis is the economic modernization of Greater Russia by Greater Germany. Is this a renewal of nineteenth-century efforts to rationalize the czarist empire under German leadership? More cynically than ever, the Kremlin makes use of and manipulates the Germans’ famous Gründlichkeit—their efficient attention to detail—and their nostalgic and neocolonial aspirations. The crisis may spell the end of past German and French cooperation: the days of Adenauer and de Gaulle, Mitterand and Kohl, are over. Beneath the pleasant demeanor of Angela Merkel lurks a furiously ambivalent Germany. Meanwhile, the European Union is falling apart.