Regionalism as a Strategic Trend
17 May 2012
“Bigger issue now is, what does the US do with its western flank in an era most believe to be defined by the rise of Asia?”
Since my post about the European economy suggested a kind of European regionalism, I immediately began to think of the regionalism that I had described in a global context, i.e., I began to think in terms of global regionalism, and I realized that this would be a fruitful geopolitical perspective.
It is of the essence of geopolitics and geostrategy to think of social, economic, political, diplomatic, and military milieux in terms of their geographical distribution. That these generic strategic trends in human history are not equally distributed, and that the physical topography of the globe has a direct impact upon their distribution, shapes the world in which we live — the possibilities, the opportunities and the constraints.
A region is geographically defined, but not defined by nation-states. This distinction is important, because in the contemporary international system, the power is vested in nation-states. However, it must be observed that it has been primarily economic, military, and diplomatic power that have been vested in nation-states. Social, religious, and intellectual power have been attracted to the locus of economic, military, and diplomatic power of the nation-state, but the non-state structure of social, religious, and intellectual power has never been entirely eclipsed by the nation-state.
In the Islamic world, for example, the idea of the Ummah — the global Muslim community — is an important idea, and not a mere abstraction. The Ummah defines a region that is not a nation-state, just as do Catholicism, capitalism, and petrochemical producers.
In the past, all regionalism was bioregionalism. A people’s way of life followed from the biome and the particular ecosystem in which they lived. Prior to the industrial revolution, the food that you ate, the clothes that you wore, the buildings in which you lived and worked, and the work that you did was all a function of your ecological situation. Since much of the language that one uses on a daily basis is derived from one’s food, clothing, shelter, and work, and the concepts embodied in language express these ideas, the greater part of our intellectual life also reflected bioregionalism. (This has been a theme I have urged since I started writing this blog.)
With the Industrial Revolution this strong sense of regionalism was compromised once it become routine to import foodstuffs, clothing, building materials, and even forms of work that had not previously existed, or existed in the form that they came to have under industrialization. However, new and abstract forms of region began to supplement the declining strong forms of regionalism that once so completely defined life. Thus industrialization has changed regionalism, but has not eliminated regionalism. This is significant.
In the early part of the twentieth century many of the most advanced thinkers of the time seized upon internationalism as the direction in which the world was headed — what I would call the dominant strategic trend. A part of this intellectual fashion for internationalism was due to Marxism, which was always international in conception and ambition — communism was frequently called “international communism” in order to focus attention on it as a global movement, the communist anthem was called the “Internationale,” and the gatherings of the International Workingmen’s Association (IWA) were called “Internationals” — but not all of this fashion for internationalism can be attributed to communism.
Many major thinkers who were in no sense Marxists consistently thought and expressed themselves in internationalist terms. Bertrand Russell is a good example of this. For Russell and many others, the obvious telos and rationalization of the de facto global political order could be nothing other than internationalism. This may sound a bit odd to my readers in the US, as internationalism never had much of a following in the US, where popular sentiment has often demonized the United Nations and other internationalist movements and organizations. And yet we did experience the international style in modern architecture, and a variety of related international movements made themselves felt in the US no less than in Europe.
But internationalism faltered under repeated blows to the international system throughout the second half of the twentieth century, not least the Cold War that divided the international system into two systems, at war with each other, and contesting their mutual periphery.
The global village that was once imagined as the consequence of universal telecommunications technology and a rapid global transportation network has not come to pass, any more than the “melting pot” model of diversity, which latter has since been replaced by the “tossed salad” model. Instead, the global village has become a place of its own, the region of cyberspace, which touches upon physical space at millions of points of contact, even while remaining distinct. We could map cyberspace onto physical space, or physical space onto cyberspace, but in each case the map is not the territory and the two spaces cannot be shown to be identical.
Internationalism, then, did not happen, or, at very least, did not happen as it was expected to happen. Instead, the growing complexity of the world facilitated the emergence of ever more forms of regionalism. Some have read in these tea leaves the perennial nature of the nation-state, but this is a delusion arising from limited imagination. The ultimate dissolution of the nation-state will come about not as a result of internationalism, but rather from a flourishing regionalism that subdivides nation-states like the inheritance of traditional estates when not checked by a custom of primogeniture. But this will not happen for a long time yet. Other trends must play themselves out for hundreds of years yet before the nation-state is a mere historical curiosity.
The structural forces in the world, then, that create and sustain regionalism are themselves important strategic trends that must be recognized. But that is not all. Above and beyond particular regionalisms there is regionalism itself as a force in world history. And we must even go beyond the understanding of regionalism as a strategic trend of the global system that facilitates other strategic trends. This is not at all wrong, but it is too limited. We must learn to understand regionalism on its own account, both driving other developments even as it in turn is driven by anterior developments.
Let us consider, very briefly, some of the major strategic trends of our time, and we will see that they are strongly regional trends:
● The Decline of Europe By “the decline of Europe” I do not mean the relative decline of European economic importance due to the increasing economic activity of other regions of the world, but the decline of the European idea as a force in world affairs. Europe has not only retreated from the apotheosis of its 19th century colonialism, it has turned against itself and its traditions and has adopted an attitude of atonement, frequently expressed in the form of foreign aid. Part of this attitude of atonement is also expressed by the liberal immigration quotas that has led to the rise of Eurabia. Europe is facilitating the disappearance of its own unique tradition.
● The Rise of Asia As with the decline of Europe, so too with the rise of Asia: this is partly about improving economic performance and industrialization, but it is just as much about the confidence of Asian peoples to assert themselves in the world as the Europeans once asserted themselves, and to do so they have borrowed heavily from the intellectual resources of the European tradition even while distancing themselves from that tradition. Colonialism and neo-colonialism are condemned, while quasi-colonial activity (like China’s growing role in Africa) is called anything but colonialism. More importantly, this is done with a clear conscience, as was also the case during Europe’s period of colonial expansion.
● The Stability of US Power Despite a great deal of declensionist talk that I have discussed in other posts (especially my recent From American Exceptionalism to American Declensionism), the American economy will remain the largest in the world for some time, and even after China’s economy becomes the largest in the world in terms of absolute numbers, the US economy will have the greatest productivity of any economy on the planet for an even longer period of time. The springs of ambition and invention have by no means peaked in the US, and we can expect the American people to continue to assert themselves aggressively in world affairs has has been the case since the end of the Second World War.
These three strategic trends together necessarily mean another strategic trend:
● The Shift from an Atlantic center to a Pacific center I have discussed the decline of Atlanticism and the possibility of a Pacific-centered world order in other posts. With the stability of US power as the fulcrum, the center of world affairs will slowly shift from the Atlantic, dominated by a declining Europe, to the Pacific, dominated by the rising Asia. I emphasize here that this shift will be slow and gradual.
The shift from an Atlantic-centered world to a Pacific-centered world will be a consequence of the decline of Europe and the rise of Asia, and thus this shift will not be consolidated until these developments are mature. In other words, the 21st century will not be the Pacific Century, but rather the century of the fluid periphery (see below), one of the developments of which will mean the shift to a Pacific-centered world order. It will be the 22nd century that will be the Pacific Century. So you see that when I say that this shift will be slow and gradual, I am talking on the order of centuries, not years or decades.
The shifting world center from the Atlantic to the Pacific is but one aspect another another major strategic trend that will be expressed in many different forms, and this is:
● The Fluidity of the Periphery The fluidity of the periphery will be expressed in a variety of distinct movements and changes, but the very fact that the periphery of the mature and established de facto global political order will be fluid is significant. In the past, the periphery was not fluid, but static. Nothing happened in the periphery, which was one reason that Ovid so lamented his exile to Tomis (now Constanţa, Romania) on the Black Sea. The periphery was once the edge of civilization, dominated by stalled technologies. In the future, more things will happen, and more history will be played out, on the periphery than in the center. The fluidity of the periphery will involve, but will not be limited to, the following:
* Atlantic to Pacific Shift The fluidity of the periphery will include the above-mentioned strategic shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, but this shift will occur on such a time scale that it would be unnoticeable to most living through the shift except that we will know to watch for it. This will be a macro-temporal revolution in world history, and as such almost invisible to the micro-temporality of individual consciousness.
* Globalization Globalization in turn can be understood by many different labels — it is what I have called the extension of the industrial revolution to those parts of the world that have not yet industrialized; this global economic growth has been called “re-balancing” by Thomas P.M. Barnett; at the same time “re-balancing” might also be called a leveling of the global economic playing field, and this has also been called the global rise of the middle class. More tendentiously, I might call this strategic trend The End of Poverty, for when the gains of global industrialization are consolidated over the next two hundred years, one of the profound developments will be the end of the kind of poverty (made visible by the contrast between rich and power, and made more visible yet by the telecommunications technology that emerged from industrialization) that had typified the human condition since the dawn of agriculture and urbanism.
* Divisions internal to the Periphery Uneven development will more and more mark the fluid periphery, as some nation-states in Latin America and Africa develop rapidly, joining the global economy and catapulting their populations on a new trajectory of development, while other nation-states in Latin America and Africa cannot break out of the failure cycle, continuing to stumble and stagnate while neighboring nation-states pull far ahead of them. These divisions within the periphery will foster instability and tensions, as populations inevitably seek to better their lot by moving from failed and failing states into neighboring successful states.
* Global Divisions The consolidation of the democratization of the Western hemisphere will continue to contrast with non-democratic, non-representative, autocratic regimes throughout the fluid periphery and indeed throughout the Eurasian landmass. While there will be democratic regimes in the Western hemisphere that perpetuate the failure cycle, the slower pace of life that results will constitute a de facto social consensus for a society not to live in the fast lane. By contrast, outside the Western hemisphere, the failure cycle will be exacerbated by non-representative regimes that impose failure upon a restive population. These global divisions will be expressed as geostrategic tensions, which will in turn be expressed as flows between the divisions, and these flows — of populations, of resources, of smuggled contraband, of technology, etc. — will flow through the periphery, further destabilizing regions already destabilized by divisions internal to the periphery.
There are limits to the fluidity of the periphery. Fluidity is constrained by regional stability. Now by “regional stability” I do not mean a part of the world that is political stable (which is how the term is usually used in contemporary discourse) but rather that regional strategic trends that are geographically defined by not embodied in formal institutions. Actually, a distinction could be made between formal and informal regions, but I haven’t thought this through yet, so I will leave this potential distinction to another time. I hope that the reader will see, without further elaboration, that the same structural forces in the global system that create regions are powers that limit the latitude of other regions, sometimes simply by their existence, and other times by actively working against the strategic trend expressed by another region.
So that is my sketch of regionalism and how it will play out at least over the next two hundred years. I hope that even if the reader disagrees with the details of the picture that I have sketched, that you will at least see the power of differently-defined regionalisms in the global system, that this regionalism is a force to be reckoned with, and that regionalism may possibly become the dominant strategic trend, or a dominant strategic trend, over the long-term future.
There is much more to be said regarding regions, and I hope to think more on the matter, now that I have proposed it to myself in this explicit form, but for the time being I will close with the observation that regions are likely to play a larger role in history than either internationalism or nation-states.
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