Walden Bello: 'World needs a vacation from US'

Issue 

Speaking at the inaugural Ted Wheelwright Memorial Lecture for the Sydney University Department of Political Economy on September 1, Filipino anti-globalisation activist and academic Walden Bello, founding director of Focus on the Global South, contrasted the recent Beijing Olympics with the US Democrats national convention.

He said that "despite the glitter of both", the one reflected that China had "had a few bad centuries but was back on its feet" while the other reflected that the US was in a "10-year downward spin that would only get worse under continued Republican rule".

Imperial overreach

He pointed to the recent war between Georgia and Russia, and the inability of the US to save its Georgian ally's ill-fated military adventure, as an example of the limits of US power.

"What you have now is an over-extension of American power that has backfired", he argued.

Having failed to learn the lesson of its defeat in Vietnam, that it takes "more than heavy firepower to control a country", the US had exposed its weakness in its wars against Iraq and Afghanistan.

The lesson US President George Bush wanted the Third World to learn from these wars was "never to defy US power", Bello explained. Instead, "the lesson learned was that you can fight the US to a standstill".

Bello said that the US imperial overreach had also occurred in its attempts to use global financial institutions, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization (WTO), to impose its agenda. The 1997 Asian economic crisis was caused by IMF and Washington demands for the free flow of Western capital into Third World countries, making them vulnerable to speculation.

Having created the economic crisis, the US — through the IMF — tried to capitalise on it by forcing further economic restructuring in the affected countries for the benefit of Western corporations.

However, this also backfired. The IMF suffered a crisis of credibility and, under pressure from civil society movements, Asian governments became wary of its diktats. Bello cited the example of Thailand, which, in 2003, paid off its debts to the IMF and announced that it would be seeking no new loans from it.

The IMF, deriving its income from its exploitative lending, has suffered a budgetary crisis due to its rejection by many Third World countries, particularly in Latin America.

Likewise, the WTO is suffering a crisis of legitimacy, with the Doha round of negotiations collapsing three times as Third World countries refused to make more concessions.

Bello stressed the importance of struggles by civil society in pressuring these governments to stand up to the West in such negotiations. He cited the aborting of negotiations for a bilateral free trade agreement with Thailand— after 10,000 peasants stormed the negotiating venue.

While the crisis of US imperial power was most obvious in the Middle East, Latin America and Central Asia, South East Asia is more outside US influence than at any time in the past quarter century, Bello argued, the continued presence of US troops in the Philippines and renewed military ties with Indonesia notwithstanding.

One reason was the growing economic strength of China, which Bello described as the "economic locomotive that pulled the Asia-Pacific economies out of the recession" of 1997.

China

"China was one of the main beneficiaries of the Bush administration's adventuring", he said. As an example of how it could be a balance to US power, he pointed to China's role, in 1995, in thwarting US plans to make the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) into a free trade zone and extension of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

He quipped that while APEC conferences continue to happen each year, the only thing to come out of them is the photo-op where the national heads of state don "local" costumes.

Bello said that while the "developmentalist elites" who ruled the more powerful Third World countries such as China, Brazil and India were not above "using small countries", they were not imperialist in the way that Western powers were.

Not only did China's economic relationship with smaller countries not contain the structural inequalities that exist between the Western powers and the Third World, but China did not project military power beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

Likewise, he said he saw no evidence of Russia having an expansionist military policy, pointing out that its recent war with Georgia was a defensive reaction to the West's attempts encircle it and to expand NATO into the former Soviet republics.

He suggested that civil society should pressure China to "not follow Europe and the US in terms of relations with smaller countries and move away from fossil-fuel oriented development", adding that "China is more susceptible to civil society pressure than the US".

Before his speech, Bello emphasised to Green Left Weekly the urgency of tackling climate change. "We are in a situation where the science is grim", he said.

"The Bush administration is trying to project the illusion that a voluntary [emissions reduction] of 50% by 2050 is a step forward."

He said that while both Democratic presidential candidate Barrack Obama and Republican candidate John McCain were more likely to bring the US into a mandatory emissions reduction regime, only civil society pressure had the hope of forcing the changes needed.

These included an immediate, mandatory 80-90% reduction by the "Annexe 1" countries (the carbon-guzzling West). He said that "emissions trading schemes should be exposed" as a false solution whereby "polluters will continue to pollute".

Redistributing wealth and power

He called for immediate technology transfer from the West to the Third World, to allow development based on clean technology — stressing the need to "reject intellectual property rights".

He also called for more funds from the rich countries to those on the front-line: "Those who've contributed least to the problem are suffering the most."

He emphasised that these funds should not be distributed through the World Bank, which was trying to regain legitimacy by portraying itself as a "climate bank" while continuing to push fossil-fuel-driven development.

While creating the kind of worldwide mobilisations that could force governments to address climate change was a massive task, Bello pointed out that the anti-war movement "showed that global movements can be created".

Confronting global poverty and climate change means confronting US power. Bello said that the US elections reveal both the weakness of the US as a result of Bush's adventurism and the lack of alternatives within the system.

"I don't think the world needs US leadership", he said. "They should be more humble."

He said that regardless of whether it took a liberal or neocon form, the US "missionary" project to "remake the world in the US image is very dangerous".

Whether the US achieves its goals "is where we, as civil society come in", Bello said, suggesting that, by making intervention costly for the US, civil society could encourage a "new US isolationism".

He told GLW that developments in Latin America, where anti-neoliberal movements have come to power, was "a good example and inspiration for peoples movements in Asia". He added that while such movements had not achieved governmental power in Asia they had, at times, been succesful in pressuring governments to stand up to the West.

The struggle is, he stressed, global. "The world needs a vaction from the messianism of the US … A few decades of a self-absorbed US would be very good for the world."