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Sunday
Mar092008

America's discipline, globalization's survival

Understanding how America wages war in the age of globalization helps us understand why America fights. As historian Shelby Steele observes, it's important to recognize the difference between wars of survival, like World War II, and wars of discipline - every war since. The Bush administration has framed its global war on terror as a war of survival - our dream of civilization against theirs. This is misleading and dangerous because it distorts our implied grand strategy.

Radical Islamic fundamentalism offers no model of economic development or social advance, and such progress matters most in this age. Instead of synthesis with globalization's many challenges and opportunities, it offers retreat and isolation. To its own people it proposes a cultural fire wall and, behind that, religious dictatorship. To the outside world, it offers civilizational apartheid - Islam kept safe from the West's mongrelization of identities.

To America, symbol of everything it cannot allow, radical fundamentalists present no existential threat. Indeed, it is globalization's source code, America, which presents that threat to them: They cannot survive in a world of our integration. Their friction grows in direct relation to the force of globalization's advance; their violence is a function of our success, not failure. Their reservations and ghettos and communes await because these frontiers will be settled.

But settled by whom?

Answering that question is how America anchors its grand strategy amidst globalization's driving forces, because it won't be American soldiers who make this integration happen. Our forces may often bodyguard globalization's advance, but by and large the agents of integration will be Asian, not European or American.

Globalization's emerging pillars are forced by their ambition to climb capitalism's ladder of production far faster than we did, meaning it is they - not we - who need the developing world's resources and markets, the former to fuel their rise and the latter to integrate into the lower end of their production chains.

Globalization integrates trade by disintegrating production. Once you join this merry-go-round, you must draw in others behind you.

America and the West have so climbed globalization's production ladder that we forget what it's like to integrate new frontiers and sell to the bottom of the pyramid - our days of offering installment plans to homesteaders long since passed. In our comfortable existence, we no longer think of defense but of security - more of supply chains than kill chains.

Here is the essential mismatch: While radical Islamic fundamentalism poses no existential threat to us, it can pose one to globalization's rising pillars in the east and south. By creating enough turbulence in the global economy, where complex supply chains - successfully disrupted - offer terrorists rather fantastic returns on investment, violent extremists can realistically hope to trigger globalization's death spiral.

Not without our complicity, of course, but we've been this stupid and self-destructive before - to wit, the economic nationalism of the 1930s that gave us our last world war. But even granting that dire scenario, understand this: We torch globalization tomorrow, and America is still rich, as are Europe and Japan. It's the Chinese and Indians of this world whose economic mainstay is jeopardized. For them, if our global war on terror is badly handled, there may indeed follow wars of survival - but theirs and not ours.

This is where George Bush and Dick Cheney and the neocons have failed us in grand strategy: We arm ourselves and wage warfare as though our survival is at stake. It is not. But in our monomaniacal focus on roaming the planet and killing bad guys at will, oftentimes not bothering to ask the locals for permission, we're scaring off both old allies and potential new ones. Frankly, we don't need the old allies if our discipline is maintained, but we do need the potential new ones - those very same rising pillars for whom this struggle connotes survival.

We need these new allies for their ambition, rising military budgets and bodies because all will be crucial in the many frontier-integrating exercises that lie ahead. You may view this as imposing globalization at the barrel of a gun, but it's certainly better than watching globalization beaten back by machetes or blown sky high by car bombs. Globalization has reduced more poverty in the last 25 years than the world had achieved over the previous five centuries.

That legacy - our legacy - is worth defending because, in the end, it's America's discipline that ensures globalization's survival.

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