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Forces and Consequences of the New Strategic Phase

The new strategic phase in the world balance, with its new corresponding political cycles within powers, requires attention to the materialistic, historical and dialectical method of political analysis itself. The changing forces and basic trends need to be identified; we can make conjectures about the developments in single political battles, but the outcome of these battles will always require us to contemplate a plurality of solutions: some more probable. others less. but never Just a mechanical consequence of long-term economic movements.

Many fixed points of the method of political analysis are usual tools in our Marxist elaboration, but this does not mean they must be taken for granted: it is of use to recall them, in relation to the new unknowns of the political battle.

Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

Both aspects of Karl Marx’s famous statement, from the opening words of his Eighteenth Brumaire, must be grasped: undoubtedly there are facts, objective forces and circumstances that limit men’s actions; these include tradition, which weighs like a fact; that is the past in its reflection on social psychologies, However, together with facts, men make their own history; that is the subjective action of individuals and classes. This is the space for what Friedrich Engels called the political accident, not in the sense of a fortuitous combination but the unforeseeable outcome of a single clash, since it is linked to the fibre of its combatants, to their determination and psychological endurance as they meet face to face. It is revealing that Fernand Braudel said he was not Marxist precisely because he disagreed with that dialectical conception of men who make their own history, a notion he admitted not understanding, which evidently did not fit with his strictly conceived geographical determinism.

Engels sets off precisely from The Eighteenth Brumaire with his reflection on historical events as the consequence of a parallelogram of forces, in his September 21st 1890 letter to Joseph Bloch. We make our history ourselves but, in the first place, under very definite premises and conditions, in which the economic ones are ultimately decisive, although politics and tradition are also important. In the second place, however, history is made in such a way that the ultimate result is invariably produced by the clash of many individual wills of which each in turn has been made what it is by a wide variety of living conditions; there are thus innumerable conflicting forces, an infinite number of parallelograms of forces, productive of one result — the historical event which itself may be seen as the product of a power operating unconsciously and involuntarily as a whole. For what each individual wants is obstructed by every other individual and the outcome is something that no one wanted.

If a real law of the unintended resultant is recognisable here, in his January 25th 1894 letter to Borgius, the reflection on the long-term trend of a historical process, in movement through continual oscillations, is Engels’s again:

The further removed is the sphere we happen to be investigating from the economic sphere and the closer to the purely abstract, ideological sphere, […] the more irregular will be the curve it describes. But if you draw the mean axis of the curve, you will find that the longer the period under consideration and the larger the area thus surveyed, the more approximately parallel will this axis be to the axis of economic development.

Lenin, reasoning in 1905 about the prospects of capitalist development and the bourgeois revolution in Russia, deals with the question of the many concrete forms that historical process might have assumed:

A change in the economic and political system in Russia along bourgeois-democratic lines is inevitable and unavoidable. No power on earth can prevent such a change. But the combined actions of the existing forces which are effecting that change may result in one of two things, may bring about one of two forms of that change. Either 1) the result will be a “decisive victory of the revolution over tsarism,” or 2) the forces will be inadequate for a decisive victory and the matter will end in a deal between tsarism and the most “inconsistent” and most “self-seeking” elements of the bourgeoisie. By and large all the infinite variety of detail and combinations, which no one is able to foresee, lead to one or the other.

For Arrigo Cervetto, every concrete process is a multiform combination of factors; a March 1980 report refers precisely to Engels’ letters to Bloch and Borgius and to Lenin’s formula of the two forms of Russian development. The dynamic of a trend takes place through oscillations, counter-trends, pauses and deadlocks, all impossible to foresee. Political analysis must avoid its mechanistic caricature; the alternatives between potential developments need to be set out with variations and deviations highlighted: It is wrong, as often happens, to want to make the oscillation coincide with the strategic explanation. This leads to a mechanistic forced interpretation and, very often, to an incoherent mess. It is better to specify that it is an analysis of a specific oscillation, explaining all of its contradictory aspects [and] possible solutions, in conformity with the presupposed trend.

Engels’ formula of the mean axis constituted by the long-term historical trend, marked in the short term by the irregularities of singular political battles, is the reference Cervetto has in mind when he reasons about the regular novelty of events unfolding in the political struggle between the states. The need for an analysis of international relations in their specific strategic and political field also springs from this: a field undoubtedly linked to the objective processes ultimately determining things, but not a mere mechanical consequence of economic trends. In the long term, the power relations among the states are regulated by profound economic trends, hence the real modifications and about-turns can be measured only in fifty-year periods or even in centuries, but the field of international relations continually sees series of changes and a novelties. A classic example of this relationship, dialectical and unforeseeable beforehand, between long-term economic change and short-term political change is precisely British decline:

The rise or the fall of a capitalist state can be observed in the very long time range of many economic cycles, irrespective of its foreign policy. The latter, instead, must be followed day by day because if, for example, the decay of British imperialism is a process that has been going on for almost a century and that no political act can halt, the foreign policy that the British state will develop, or will be obliged to develop, is a phenomenon to be analysed because it is not yet a given fact and still has to unfold.

The Brexit battle reached an about-turn with the December 12th election which gave Boris Johnson a solid majority in the House of Commons. Is this to be linked to the long-term trend, the mean axis of the century-long historical process, that of the historical decline of British imperialism? And was Britain’s connection with the European Union, which is now heading towards a strategic divide, the importance of which is still to be defined, an intended strategic consequence of the wishes of the fundamental groups and fractions of British imperialism, or was it a deviation, an irregularity, albeit of exceptional duration?

In 1900, at the beginning of the century of imperialism, in Angus Maddison’s estimates at purchasing power parity in terms of 1990 dollars, Britain had 185 billion in gross product, Germany 162, France 117, Russia 154, Italy 60 and the United States 313. In per capita product, the United Kingdom was in the lead with almost 4,500 dollars, the USA had almost 4,100, Germany about 3,000, France 2,900, Italy 1,800 and Russia 1,200. Hence, as regards the size of its economic strength in its homeland, Britain was comparable to its challengers, the United States and Germany; if anything, it was in a higher category if the vastness of its imperial territories and its relative financial hegemony were considered.

The 1914 war sanctions the start of a change in power relations. As early as 1917, a watershed year because of America’s entry into the conflict and the revolution in Russia that broke the pincer-hold of the Entente over Germany, the United States weighed twice as much as Britain, 544 billion to 253. In 1919, this ratio rose to 3:1; London came out of the conflict in debt and the Versailles Peace Conference would have at its heart the conundrum of the recycling between the war reparations imposed on Berlin and the debts London and Paris had incurred in New York. With his essay-denunciation The Economic Consequences of the Peace, John Maynard Keynes took the side of Germany on its knees, demonstrating the resiliency of Anglo-German ties and pleading resistance to the shifting tide in financial hegemony, which was passing to American bankers.

Britain would be definitively downsized by the Second World War, exhausted by the conflict and undermined in its Empire both by the United States and by its own colonies’ new bourgeoisies’ drive towards independence. At Bretton Woods it would be America that imposed the dollar standard, discarding Keynes’s proposals, and leaving its stamp on the institutions of what we define today as the transatlantic liberal order, In 1956 France and Britain would be humiliated at Suez; Paris and Bonn, together with Italy and Benelux, would create the ECM, the European Common Market, the following vear, while while London would turn to its special relationship with Washington. From 1961, Harold McMillan would make a first attempt to re-enter the European Community, rejected in 1963 by Charles de Gaulle’s France. At the end of the Sixties, the imperial epilogue, with Britain’s withdrawal from its military posts East of Suez; then from 1973, for almost half a century, membership of the EEC and the European Union.

With respect to the rhetoric of the open sea, the national-populist myth of Johnson’s new Tories regarding a Great Britain as a global power again, if only freed from its European hindrances, it is crucial to observe that the century-long trend of uneven development in the era of continent-sized powers, has irreversibly changed power relations. In the IMF estimates for 2018, always in purchasing power parity, Britain has a product of about 3,000 billion dollars, the United States about 20,500, the European Union 15,500 and China 25,000. With respect that in 1900 there was an equal proportion, not to mention imperial supremacy, the United Kingdom is one seventh of the USA, one fifth of the EU, and one eighth of China. In relations on the Continent, Germany is one and a half times Britain and, by itself, weighs more than Russia, 4,360 billion to 4,200; France weighs almost as much as the United Kingdom, 2,960 billion, and Italy stands at 2,400.

The connection with the long British decline is registered by the Financial Times, which is to be considered the organic expression of the financial fraction gathered in the City of London. A disconsolate editorial on the eve of the vote denied the daily’s support for the two main parties, both in the grip of populist mythologies looking back on the past: the Tories yearning for a return to the Empire and the Labour supporters to the cycle of state capitalism in the early Seventies.

According to Philip Stephens, Britain has spent much of the past 75 years in a struggle to avoid adjusting its international ambitions to diminished economic circumstance. It is a matter of managing relative decline; others prefer the euphemistic formula punching above our weight. It has taken a series of economic crises to realign grand ambitions with actual capabilities; the shock of Brexit may well force another such reassessment, redefining the proportions of Britain’s strategic ambitions.

After half a century, Johnson will demolish the European pillar of Britain’s foreign policy; he argues it will be replaced with an expansive vision of “Global Britain”, but for the Financial Times this is an empty slogan. In spite of the new ‘Tories’ overwhelming majority in the House of Commons, the facts of geopolitics, i.e. power relations, remain the same. The Pax Americana is coming to an end, with power shifting towards China and the other rising countries, while the US grows ever more reluctant to assume global leadership. The rules-based international system is fragmenting; coming decades will more closely resemble the great power competition of 19th-century Europe transferred a global scale, than the end-of-history liberal order many imagined after 1989.

In Stephen’s opinion, these are all trends that will leave Britain more vulnerable than other states as a middle-ranking nation with widely dispersed global economic and security interests. The UK stopped acting as a global power in the Sixties, when it operated a string of military bases across the Middle East and south-east Asia. After sterling’s devaluation in 1967, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was forced to retreat from the last outposts of empire east of Suez: The withdrawal from Singapore and the Gulf marked Britain’s admission it was a European rather than a global power — a shift cemented by joining the European Community.

Hence, also for the Financial Times, joining the EEC followed in the century-long wake of the long-term trends of British imperialism and was also a realistic compromise on the part of its fundamental groups and fractions. Two considerations should be added. The first is that another century-long trend springs from the basic components of Britain’s foreign policy, having to do with the insular characteristic of its tradition and the dialectic between global expansion and continental ties, from which the ambivalent relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe derives.

When it was a matter of negotiating the European order after the Napoleonic wars, at the Congress of Vienna which would define Europe’s balances for half a century, Britain was torn between the line of Lord Castlereagh, in favour of continental commitment, and George Canning’ isolationist line. That contraposition well represents a regular feature of British politics. Hence one may say that the bundle of forces enclosed in the powers of the United Kingdom has always gathered inside itself those different drives and has measured them out differently from time to time; for Anthony Eden, it was a matter of the three directions of foreign projection – Atlantic, European and Asian – like the three legs of a stool.

In two centuries, this internal dynamic of the British force field – mediation and oscillation between the different guidelines of its international influence – has been transformed and directed in its turn by the change in the force field of the global balance of power: open sea has lost the meaning it could have had at the time of the British Raj and acquired that of London as the international financial market; the United States has transformed itself from challenger to successor in the global hegemony; the continental powers have reached the quasi-federation of the European Union; and China has been emerging as a great power for fifteen years. Meanwhile, subject to the internal oscillation of its pluralist bundle of forces, in all of the decisive strategic battles – one need only think of 1914 and 1939, London ultimately opted for commitment to Europe.

The second observation regards the 1973 choice, with admission to the European Community. Both the formations of Britain’s substantial two-party system, the Labour Party and the Tories, agreed that the British crisis could be resolved only in its relationship with Europe, even though they differed, between themselves and internally, about how close the tie between the Community and then with the Union should be. In the Seventies, the ECM gave Britain the background and the tools for dealing with the restructuring crisis – cf. the Davignon plans for the iron and steel industry – and with it an end to the cycle of state capitalism.

Margaret Thatcher turned towards the liberist cycle, aided and abetted by the revenue from the North Sea oilfield petro-sterlings, but she committed London to the Continent with the implementation of the single market in 1992: precisely the standards, rules and legal framework now called into question by Brexit. The degree of alignment London maintains will be at the heart of the negotiations in 2020, and it is the subject of the Confederation of British Industry and the City’s growing pressure on the Johnson government and the Tory currents.

Tony Blair, continuing the line of liberalisations and with the big bang in the City, was the agent of London’s transformation into a global financial powerhouse: a new balance for the British groups and fractions and a new life for Britain in the cycle of globalisation, in organic relation, however, with the European continental area; London became the de facto off-shore financial market of European imperialism.

After Johnson’s election victory, Gideon Rachman, the Financial Times chief foreign affairs columnist, seems to take dialoguing with the Tory currents upon himself, from which the question about the possible efficacy of a line of liberal nationalism arises, echoing the same reflection made in the USA by The Wall Street Journal.

A few weeks before the vote, however, Rachman claimed the possibility and need for the European Union to be a superpower, one of four or five major global powers capable of shaping the world order. This thesis has the merit of bringing back the formula of Europe as a normative power, on the surface a juridical “Kantian” illusion, to the field of power relations. What makes the difference is the size of the European market, which underlies its powers and its legislation; in Rachman’s opinion, the outbreak of the trade war has demonstrated that small European countries can no longer rely on international rules to protect them; they need the bulk and heft that the EU provides.

We can understand that this is the intrinsic limit for the hard version of Brexit dreamt of by a Great Britain transformed into a global Singapore, because this presumes the stability of open globalised markets at the very moment when such openness is being threatened by the new strategic phase. And in any case, if the multilateral order is renegotiated, as are the openly declared intentions of Berlin, Paris and also Beijing, this will take place on the basis of the continental dimensions of America, Europe and China.

A sign of this is that Walter Russell Mead contests in The Wall Street Journal that the combination of nationalism and liberalism brandished by Johnson is in contradiction with globalisation, but he does this in the name of the Anglo-American Atlantic tradition, suggesting a possible Anglosphere. A purported British freedom in the open sea is not hailed in Brexit, but in Brexit it has rediscovered the America and convergence between Britain, founded on their common roots of national conservatism. In this sense, there is no doubt that the Brexit sharp turn is a greater blow to the European Union, but in a power game that leaves London with little autonomous elbowroom and that widens the strategic gap between the USA and the EU. If this is blatantly asserted in the White House tweets, it does not meet with the consensus of the key Euro-Atlantic circles of American foreign policy, starting from the CFR.

The traces of an American offensive are obvious in the confrontation that has flared up over the Macron doctrine for a certain European sovereignty, which was at the centre of the proceedings in London for NATO’s 70th anniversary. DGAP (Germany’s semi-official Council for Foreign Relations) sources confirm the extent to which the Atlantic connection is rooted in the German political culture, reached with the difficulty or reluctance to use military means directly.

In the Berlin Policy Journal, Jana Puglierin, of the DGAP Centre for European Studies, agrees that it is a question of survival for the EU to develop a joint foreign and security policy, but she argues that the Union, founded on the concept of liberal norms and values, would disown its true nature if it opted for power politics. Daniela Schwarzer, the DGAP director, expresses the doubt of a hidden agenda pursued by Emmanuel Macron vis-à-vis Moscow. Above all, in Le Monde, she observes notable differences between Paris and Berlin, which diverge over their assessment of the transatlantic guarantee, including its significance for Central and Eastern Europe. While the Atlantic Alliance remains a priority for Germany, the French vision seems to go beyond NATO, with the aim of European strategic autonomy. However, this concept is interpreted in a different way in France and Germany, with regard to the change in the role of the United States. Paris gives priority to the capacity to handle crises but does not deal with the matter either through NATO or through the European Union, as, on the contrary, Berlin would prefer. We seem to understand that, at issue, there is German diffidence towards the EII, the European Intervention Initiative, even though Germany has adhered to it.

In Ms Schwarzer’s opinion, moreover, the divergences in priorities are emphasised by the differences in approach: The German government prefers to advance gradually step by step and to concentrate on realisable measures raththan on visionary projects, even if er the Bundestag accuses it of dragging its feet. Macron, on the contrary, seems to believe that shaking things up with a calculated break is the only way to move things forward.

The mention of the debate in the German parliament is a trace that should not be neglected, because it points to Germany’s inner turmoil, complicated by Angela Merkel’s very long political autumn. The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung sums up the question as follows: Macron is right to sound the alarm, but as the president of the French nuclear power he believes that Europeans are already able to defend themselves. Ms Merkel does not believe this. Macron has raised delicate strategic issues, from the relationship with Moscow to nuclear deterrence and to the question of who should be the leading power of a European defence. If comprehensive answers have not arrived from the Germans, it is because disagreement already begins in the coalition in Berlin.

With such tormented premises, it is necessary to evaluate London’s NATO summit “against the light” as it were. At the end of the day, in spite of the premises, the proceedings revealed the substantial durability of the Franco-German axis, and Chancellor Merkel achieved a tactical result there that was perhaps underestimated in Europe, but carefully registered in Chinese comments. Pressure was coming from America against the 5G technologies of the Huawei Group: it wanted the Atlantic Alliance to name China as its new strategic adversary. Until now, the German government has resisted the ban on Huawei and, if anything, has spoken out in favour of Europe’s digital sovereignty, an omnidirectional term that to a certain extent picks up the Macron doctrine. As for the NATO’s political document, it is true that China is mentioned in it for the first time, but in the attenuated and ambivalent terms of a Chinese rise seen in the dialectic of opportunities and challenges; instead, the main enemy is pinpointed in terrorism, as the French would have it.

In three movements, Angela Merkel asserted traditional loyalty to NATO, resisted the attempt to counterpose Europe to China, and thus found herself in harmony with Macron, albeit bringing the French demand for strategic autonomy under the aegis of the Euro-Atlantic alliance. A fourth movement regarded Russia shortly afterwards, with the Paris summit of the so-called Normandy format – France, Germany, Russia and Ukraine – which reopened the negotiations between Moscow and Kiev over the frozen conflict in the Donbass region. From Beijing, the Global Times took note: certainly, there remain many ideological Atlanticists, but pragmatic Atlanticists are increasing all the time; they recognise the security reasons for the alliance between the EU and the USA, but they know that Europe needs to reconsider its own interests.

Finally, there is something unspoken that is hanging over the Franco-German debate and in all the chancelleries, and which also weighed on the Atlantic Alliance summit. To what extent can the American positions be considered definitive? How far will America’s strategic withdrawal and its new unilateralist stance go? Will Washington really maintain such intrusive and hostile positions to the EU, and is it really seeking at the same time a strategic confrontation with China, attempting to drag Europe into it?

Robert Zoellick, with a past spent in Republican administrations and at the World Bank, argues that China should be engaged as a systemic stakeholder, rather than being pushed to a breaking point or to create an alternative order. He states that the presidential administration is divided, between those who want an opening up to China and those who want a decoupling, i.e. its isolation from the Western system of relations. He accuses Donald Trump of dissipating America’s political capital without a strategy, and of having chosen to discredit Europe as a matter of fact, without this being really discussed.

The question is how much operative political weight a line like Zoellick’s can have, or how much it will be able to have in the future. According to Benjamin Haddad, the European director of the Atlantic Council, the American debate about the Macron doctrine needs to be read in that light: it is a matter of knowing whether Trump represents a deep trend, or a mere parenthesis.

The political establishment in Washington sees a discredited Trump, and fears that, in the rest of the world, peremptory conclusions may be drawn from his presidency. However, the hope that the present White House tenant embodies only a temporary historical aberration, writes Haddad for the Institut Montaigne, ignores the continuity between Trump and Obama, and the structural changes in the international order. Many American analysts would like the Europeans to wait calmly for a return to normality in the after-Trump period; however, Macron makes an opposite assessment to that of Washington’s intellectual elite. In his opinion, the world has changed once and for all; Europe must reconcile itself with the logic of power, asserting its autonomy; American and European liberal universalism must agree to reckon with the reality of its failures in the past decades.

We observe that the Zoellick line is comparable to that of the Peterson Institute’s Fred Bergsten, the advocate of a US-Europe-Japan hegemonic coalition that would engage China in a new G2 on a global scale. If the USA does not want a new cold war against China, but to engage China as a competitor and as being jointly responsible for order, and if it needs Europe to do this, then China as a systemic stakeholder goes hand in hand with transatlantic reciprocity, which is the crucial point of the Franco-German divergencies/convergencies. We deduce from this that Ms Merkel has her interlocutors in the Euro-Atlantic establishment in Washington.

As can be seen, the European equation is already complicated in itself, but this adds itself to both the American unknown, with the virtual secession of the East Coast establishment from Trumpism, and the British conundrum, in which Brexit is a strategic bet in the dark. Really too much for political circuses staged amidst tweets, live coverage on Facebook and TV buffoonery.

Lotta Comunista, December 2019