Teetering on the Brink

It has been seven years since the global financial meltdown of 2008. The Democratic Party, under the leadership of Barack Obama, has won two presidential elections. But under this president’s leadership, the Democrats have been unable to capture the entirety of the US Congress for any longer than the first two years after his initial victory. From both a political and economic point of view, American politics and economics appear to be teetering on the edge of the dysfunctional. The same can be said for foreign policy. NATO seems paralyzed to do anything about the situation in the Ukraine, as the new division of Europe threatens greater and greater instability. In Asia, the historic boxing-in policy toward China is being challenged by Beijing. In the Middle East, America’s traditional Arab allies explore new relationships with both Russia and China, as the distinct appearance of a US tilt toward Iran has left the region nervous about Washington’s security guarantees and ultimate long-term goals.

The five-year Syrian civil war is about to enter its sixth year without any sign of American leadership. Within the vacuum created by the absence of such leadership, a jihadist backlash has taken place which threatens the entire geopolitical landscape. From Baghdad to Beirut and Sanaa, the Obama administration appears to be bereft of any ideas other than to allow Tehran a near free hand on its nuclear infrastructure within a very short, decade-long interim. This ill-formulated interim policy has now placed the entire structure of nuclear non-proliferation in jeopardy. Within a matter of weeks, Congress must decide whether or not to agree to such a policy. If the answer is yes, the train of nuclear expansion within the Middle East will have left the station. For within a very short period of time, other countries in the region will either leave the NPT or decide that they too want the same kind of program that Iran will be allowed to have. The concept of the nuclear threshold state has left the NPT toothless in the face of such a capitulation.

America, under the leadership of the Democratic Party, is hamstrung globally by decades of economic and financial mismanagement which have left the country scrambling to find answers to its colossal mountain of debt. During the course of this president’s two terms, economic growth has been near stagnant. Meanwhile, the national debt has doubled. Income for the masses of people in America’s Main St. economy has declined by nearly four thousand dollars. By any measure of economic well-being, the American people are in economic retreat. Without a robust economy, the US role in the structure of international politics rusts at its very foundation. This hollowing out of the American industrial base has been going on for decades. In such an environment, either new global leadership arises, or a period of anarchy within a sphere of financial and economic stress unravels traditional world leadership patterns. This portends dire consequences within all the world’s regions, leading to potential geopolitical chaos. The Middle East (since December 2010) has been a prime example of this phenomenon.

The institutions of the post-WWII era have succumbed to atrophy within the failure of global capitalism to grow beyond its natural limits. The financial nature of the system has now outstripped its ability to create profits on real production. Global inequality has mushroomed as financial instruments have ballooned. Financial asset bubbles have yet to burst, while real commodities have deflated toward record bottoms. The shakiness of the system is apparent in weakening corporate profits, overvalued stock market prices, emerging market meltdowns, record mergers and acquisitions, the rise of risky junk bonds, central bank money printing, and interest rates at zero percent for years on end. Yet as growth remains stagnant, and the rich become wealthier within the ballooning financial bubbles, is it any wonder that the administration is bereft of ideas? Like a deer caught in the headlights of global capitalism, Barack Obama searches for answers to the global economic mess.

Obama’s crowning geopolitical achievement (according to him) is the Iran nuclear deal. Already a world starved for new markets is lined up to mine the consumer potential of a Persian market that is the size of Thailand, but which sits on a sea of oil and natural gas. However, if Washington doesn’t want to lose its traditional allies within the Middle East to either Russia or China, it better act quickly to curb Iran’s “bad behavior”. That won’t be easy. Kerry and Lavrov (the Russian foreign minister) are expected to meet in Doha, Qatar on August 3rd. The idea that the Sunni Arab states would sit down with Iran (or visa versa) in a conference over the future of a new Syrian government in transition is far-fetched, to say the least. The so-called “moderates” in Iran might have had control of the nuclear file (they got from Obama and Kerry most everything that they desired). But the Syrian file is something completely different. Iran is fixated on a Sunni retrenchment, which has the capacity to overthrow Assad and to crush Hezbollah, eventually undoing in Iraq the gains of the current Shiite power structure.

If anything, Syria will only grow worse with time. Without a large UN-sponsored international component, there is no force on earth that would be able to end the Syrian civil war (that includes Turkey, which is tied down by the Kurds). Other than a direct Iranian involvement or a slow ongoing Sunni war of attrition, Syria’s troubles are apt to drag on for years. However, such a war of attrition could be vastly aided by an Israeli attack on Hezbollah positions in southern Lebanon or on the Golan Heights. Iran is all-in with regard to Syria and Hezbollah. But Saudi Arabia and the Sunni Arab states can never allow the Iranian expansion to Damascus and Beirut to be maintained. Without a strong international component, the balance of power within the Middle East will be decided on the battlefield. Nuclear potential, whether from Iran as an internationally-sanctioned nuclear threshold state or by a Sunni push toward actual weapons procurement, will be decided within the structure of regional power politics. The so-called separation of the Iran nuclear file from the events on the ground within the region is an extreme miscalculation by an inexperienced team within the Obama White House. Within such a regional context, Israel will definitely have something to say about Iran and its annihilationist rhetoric.

As the world teeters on the brink of economic and geopolitical chaos, the Democratic Party in the US crows about its vast “success” in signing the nuclear deal with Iran. But the region of the Middle East is already in turmoil, and the nuclear deal can only exacerbate an already horrific situation. However, without an intensive reconstruction of all the institutions of post-WWII Europe and Asia, the global cooperation necessary to solve the Middle East balance of power crisis will be next to impossible. This can only work to magnify the interim nature (ten years and counting) of the Iran nuclear deal itself. Everything in political economy has a context. The sad truth is that unless the P5+1 can come together on a multiplicity of issues, the Iran nuclear deal will mean that the Non-Proliferation Treaty will most likely unravel.

Ultimately the NPT was flawed from its inception, because it required that the great powers find ways to also disarm. When they didn’t, other states naturally began to insist on their “rights” to nuclear research. It is within this context that the Iran nuclear deal has now brought the world teetering on the brink of a second nuclear age. No amount of political spin can alter the fact that the P5+1 (the UN Security Council plus Germany) has failed. With the world economy in tatters, the world’s environmental systems battered by that same growth model, the geopolitical environment without leadership, and the NPT about to unravel, why in the world would anyone be sanguine about their legacy or the winning of the Nobel Peace Prize? Humanity deserves better. Humanity needs cooperative leadership by the world’s powers. Humanity must rid itself of nuclear weapons and the institution of war. Time is running out!

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).