Immanuel Wallerstein: Don’t Encourage Him By Proving Him Right

I keep waiting for Immanuel Wallerstein to pop up in the debate on the current troubles, but so far I haven’t seen him around. Wallerstein is the man who has claimed for some time that the United States’s global influence and hegemony has been in inevitable decline for thirty years and its leaders are simply deluding themselves that it will be king of the hill for much longer. Since it’s not the most obvious of theses, his papers appear from time to time with seeming bemusement from people

It’s not my main area of interest or study, but Wallerstein’s argument sure seems to have some problems. He overplays past dominance:

The history books record that World War I broke out in 1914 and ended in 1918 and that World War II lasted from 1939 to 1945. However, it makes more sense to consider the two as a single, continuous “30 years’ war” between the United States and Germany, with truces and local conflicts scattered in between. The competition for hegemonic succession took an ideological turn in 1933, when the Nazis came to power in Germany and began their quest to transcend the global system altogether, seeking not hegemony within the current system but rather a form of global empire.

The second part sounds all right; the first part doesn’t. Wallerstein argues that the U.S. was already a major economic power by 1914–fair enough–but it’s hard to see how the U.S.’s claim to global dominance even became an issue before the 20′s and 30′s. Working with the same evidence and a similar conceptual framework, Karl Polanyi still painted the first war as concertedly Eurocentric. At the time, states didn’t have enough truck with the U.S., and vice versa.

Wallerstein also underplays the U.S.’s current influence. When he says:

In the Balkans and the Middle East alike, the United States has failed to exert its hegemonic clout effectively, not for want of will or effort but for want of real power.

he downplays the ability of the U.S. to help put Israeli ultra-nationalists Effi Eitam and Avigdor Lieberman exactly where they want to be, or at least way closer than prudence would dictate.

But I’m not inclined to get in a debate on the matter, other than to say I think he’s offbase. It’s a slightly more conservative argument than Paul Kennedy’s because Wallerstein seems to invoke qualities of national prestige and posture that are not directly related to economic power. But after a few diplomatic disasters in the last year or so, Wallerstein is starting to look pretty good; in fact, I’d say he looks better than Kennedy, because it hasn’t been economics so much as pure posture that has turned everyone against the U.S. (Marshall has been working overtime discussing this, and there’s still so much more to be said.) In the last section of the article, Wallerstein is able to nicely retrofit his theory without much trouble on the “never thought that would happen” neocon dominance. His analysis of U.S. strongarming in the middle of last year looks extremely prescient:

Yet the U.S. response amounts to little more than arrogant arm-twisting. Arrogance has its own negatives. Calling in chips means leaving fewer chips for next time, and surly acquiescence breeds increasing resentment. Over the last 200 years, the United States acquired a considerable amount of ideological credit. But these days, the United States is running through this credit even faster than it ran through its gold surplus in the 1960s.

But Wallerstein’s position is that the strongarming inevitably used up credit and it failed (in Turkey, Angola, Cameroon, Chile, etc.) because the U.S. simply isn’t as powerful as it thinks it is, and other countries disobeyed because they could. I’m inclined to think that the administration just bungled it; those we strongarmed resisted in spite of fairly notable consequences (or, maybe, resisted because the promises of rewards were totally unreliable, in light of how the administration had already repeatedly screwed Mexico). Wallerstein’s argument, as he says, becomes one of bungling just hastening the inevitable, not wrecking a working piece of machinery.

The neocons actually look worse under Wallerstein’s version for overestimating their country’s position, but it takes some of the blame off of them, since it implies that there probably wasn’t much of a way to get multilateral support for an Iraq war in the first place. Wallerstein does not claim this (well, he didn’t in 2002; I wonder what he is saying now), but he does say that there is far less prestige for the U.S. to squander than is commonly thought. But in general, he seems too pessimistic on the amount of presige right now, and I expect he would claim his estimation as one factor in the inept U.N. wrangling of the last six months. (As much as, say, presenting garbage evidence.) I think he attributes too little power, and thus too little responsibility, to the administration. It still looks like a contingent screw-up, not even a vaguely necessary one. In the short-term, his essential pessimism still looks misplaced. But the diplomatic damage that everyone is talking about and the economic damage that everyone will be talking about look to vindicate him, and we can only hope that his theory isn’t at all useful in removing responsibility for decisions that I suspect are far more decisive than Wallerstein thinks.

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