There is no stronger indication of the seriousness of the world situation than the rapid shifts of political perspective and strategy that typify the last four years. The war on terror, drawing strongly on the critique of ‘failed’ states and the denunciation of the ‘Axis of Evil’, the doctrine of pre-emptive strikes, the denunciation of, and undermining of, the United Nations and its protocols, the invasion of Iraq. Even as the invasion was occurring, threats of further invasions were being made. If the latest attempt by the Australian is any guide, the promotion of a piece of writing by Niall Ferguson (‘Looking Back at the Conflict with Tehran ‘, January 17, p. 12) helps to outline the next stage of this neo-conservative agenda.
Ferguson , a Harvard Professor of History and the author of Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire , is preoccupied with the dangers in the Middle East for world peace. His version of events is especially concerned with the rise of the Iranian President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is bitterly anti-Western, an Islamist, determined to pursue the development of nuclear technology and declares the need to obliterate Israel , to remove Israel from the Middle East . It is Ferguson ‘s belief that Iran will pursue the development of nuclear weapons and that this will lead to a nuclear exchange between Iran and Israel within a few years. Now, says Ferguson , is the time to act: right now, in 2006. This prospect of nuclear war can only be avoided by an intervention into Iran by the West.
After all the death, deception and upheaval of the Iraqi expedition, what kind of argument supports this call to arms?
Ferguson situates his concern within the new reality of oil production peaking against expanded world demand. He is well aware of what this means for political tensions over basic materials of economic production. In addition, it is his view that our moment is not unlike that of Chamberlain in the 1930s. We have an anti-Semitic regime in Iran determined to pursue weapons of mass destruction and there is no resolve to stop it. (This inflammatory argument has already been taken up by Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who has declared that the mistake of appeasing Hitler must not be repeated.) China has strengthened its relations with Iran , a hindrance to practical action that joins with a lack of resolve in Washington . Bush — without Blair (who has been deflated politically) and without Sharon — has lost his confidence. But somehow the West must act. While Ferguson does not suggest it, the only obvious ‘hope’ in his account would be for Dick Cheney to seize the reins!
Another way to put what Ferguson is saying is to propose more forthrightly that if the US is to retain its dominance in the Middle East and have some hope of medium-term control of fast-diminishing oil reserves, it must invade Iran pre-emptively. This is not to suggest that his concern about a nuclear exchange is rhetorical. But his deeper preoccupation is what he sees as the consequent unravelling of the West that would follow such an exchange, including the end of the Age of Oil.
The power of Ferguson ‘s account lies in part with the fact that he is not neo-conservative in a narrow party-political sense. Nevertheless his arguments are in key respects inseparable from those of the neo-conservatives. He notably defends the idea of Empire, especially those empires committed to liberty, for it is his view that their expansion can bring light to the world. In this sense he is a representative of that liberal-progressive imagination that is drawn into support of empire. Whatever is to be said about this as a general perspective, he is astonishingly uncritical of the way this term has assumed a repressive connection today. It is his lament that the American Empire is incapable of performing this expansive liberal role because of the human and economic costs involved. In his view only the neo-conservatives have breached these limits upon expansive empire but even they are now showing signs of drawing back. Ultimately, Ferguson is more neo-conservative than the neo-conservatives and lends his energies to their renewal of purpose.
With typical ‘realist’ assumptions he does not tend to reflect upon how the West is fully implicated in the creation of this flashpoint. It is culturally implicated by its developmental assumptions founded on cheap energy together with largely unlimited consumption expectations — both of which are now unreal in the extreme. And it is politically implicated by its bankrolling, if not controlling, the expansionist Israeli State to the point where regional hatreds boil over. All this while turning a blind eye to the Israeli development of nuclear weapons.
Such a self-questioning would have the prospect of a re-orientation that might help de-fuse a deteriorating situation. Ferguson, however, takes the present set of relations and state of affairs for granted and asks: how can the West prevent this particular form of nuclear war while preserving its own ways of living and also promote liberty?
Once again it is the fear of Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) that draws the world towards the Edge, despite the credibility gap that emerged from the Iraq campaign. Not that any real threat of WMD should be treated lightly. The prospect of a nuclear exchange quite reasonably calls out deep fears, but is it just nuclear war that should be feared here?
It is a truism that with Hiroshima the world changed forever. All the reflections upon The Bomb, including the immediate responses of some of the scientists involved, draw this conclusion. Unfortunately, it is a view that has increasingly become a cliche because the meanings of The Bomb have largely been restricted to that technology and its stunning destructive power. Its cultural and social meanings are usually not explored while the main practical response to The Bomb has been simple adaptation, shaped by fear.
The door will only open to the larger meanings of The Bomb if it is recognised that it is a product of a quite unique development in intellectual practices. In this unprecedented transition, our mode of interchange with the natural world and with each other is reconstituted.
For instance, The Bomb was a product of a techno-scientific revolution that issued generally in what we now call the age of information and high-tech. It is one aspect of a general revolution in social affairs that links The Bomb with the cybernetic communications revolution, the silicon chip, the computer and the internet. These are all artifacts of an emergent social order — often called globalisation — that critically depends on abstract social relations, relations that work at a distance and do not depend on the presence of others. And if it is true that the destructive power of The Bomb changes the world forever, the birth of these intellectual practices opens the door to a cultural world that increasingly is not recognisably human.
It is here that Ferguson and others who favour humanitarian interventions are completely off the mark. In this culture, liberty is not the liberty of civil freedoms. This high-tech freedom is something quite different, with an underside of potential violence quite beyond everyday imagination. It is freedom from relations of human presence — from community and kin — and from the tangible world of the hand in production. Both of these have defined all cultures prior to the rise of high-tech. The meanings of Empire and liberty have radically mutated and we live in the midst of an upheaval that may have monstrous outcomes.
For Niall Ferguson, these cultural matters are not addressed. They remain hidden within the term ‘Western Civilisation’. No doubt this civilisation has continuities with the past that he relies on — the liberating role of the British Empire is important for him. But the West today also has quite distinctive qualities that explain the inwardness and selfishness that mystifies Ferguson in the American expression of Empire. This civilisation privileges intellectual practices, especially those that issue in high-tech, and it changes the balance of social relations, devaluing those that depend on direct relations of presence and valuing those that work at a distance — telephone, the media, the internet — thus opening the world to the autonomous individual. Crucially, it compensates for this loss of direct association by an enormous flood of commodities that is a core component of today’s energy and environment crisis. And when it does become expansive, as in the neo-conservative regime, it is typified by a distinctive form of high-tech warfare — war at a distance — that can never be adequate for nation-building. As is well-illustrated by Iraq , rather than re-create the conditions of life, high-tech warfare can only destroy them.
All these matters lie at the heart of the deteriorating world situation, especially that of the Middle East . In Iraq , the United States will not be satisfied unless it is able to impose its view of ‘democracy’, one that notably includes a dominant role for the global market and its distinctive form of freedom. The underside of that market turns it into a Trojan horse for local cultures — an explosive one — that fuels religious feelings throughout the region. The long-standing disaffection of the United States with Iran dates from the 1980s, when Iran turned away from Western ‘modernisation’ under the Shah. Here too, in the view of the United States , there is no room for social development other than that of the American Way .
One does not have to support terror or the Islamists to see that the Middle Eastern conflicts are increasingly cultural, in the sense that they turn upon the radical reconstitution of the received world of experience. Whatever might be said about the role of Empire in the past, Niall Ferguson has not come to terms with how Empire today is not what it was. The Empire represented by the United States promotes cultural expectations that multiply crisis upon crisis, for Western culture today is structurally against humanity. And it increasingly takes a belligerent and authoritarian form.
If the West were to recognise this and find a way to modify its impact and solve some of its own problems, this would be a very real contribution to peace. Strategies are needed that appear to be utterly naive, especially set against the realpolitik of the present. Among other things, these should include the disarming of Western nuclear weapons to encourage a worldwide movement against nuclear ‘solutions’. This could then in all fairness apply to Iran as much as it applies to the US , Israel , the UK or Pakistan .
The dangers of the coming period are manifold, but a response via the enhanced exercise of power will be predictably counterproductive. In this respect Ferguson ‘s position is a terrible danger in its own right. It beckons us towards the Abyss.
John Hinkson is an Arena Publications editor.