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A Steppe Back?: Economic Liberalisation And Poverty Reduction In Mongolia

Paper delivered to the School of Politics and Government, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK, 2000

“… the neo-liberal claim that transition is most successful in situations where state organs wither away is highly problematic. The state, it seems, is required as a fundamental regulatory formation in transition (Pickles and Smith 1998: 15).”

By David South

This paper will explore the profound weaknesses of economic liberalisation as a tool of poverty reduction in the developing world. I have chosen to explore the experience of the Northeast Asian nation of Mongolia; a country sandwiched between Russia and China which has been held up as an example of how economic liberalisation policies and strong personal freedoms can help a country make the transition from a command-based Communist country to free markets and democracy (UNDP Mongolia: The Guide 1997-1999). I argue that the slate of policies that constitute economic liberalisation (or “shock therapy”) in the 1990s – privatisation, price liberalisation and a free-floating currency – are, by themselves, poor mechanisms for the alleviation of poverty; that in fact they increase poverty rates and leave a legacy of weak institutions that are either unwilling to or incabable of helping the poor. The author will also draw on firsthand evidence gained while working in the United Nations mission in Mongolia for two years.

Economic liberalisation policies have been inhibited from alleviating poverty by the cultural legacy of Mongolia’s economic development, which has de-emphasised private property and a money-based economy and placed a high emphasis on wealth being held in herds of animals and goods exchanged by barter.

Mongolia, with its relative isolation and small population of 2.4 million (Human Development Report Mongolia 2000: 55), has been seen as a self-contained petri dish by economic liberalisers hoping to incubate a robust transition to free markets and democracy that can serve as an example to other post-Communist states.

Mongolia’s journey towards neo-liberal ideas is unique. Unlike many other developing nations, Mongolia’s lively democratic movement that emerged at the end of the 1980s actively sought out these policies, and has enjoyed strong and widespread public support for them (though this has ebbed and flowed with the economic fortunes of the country). The 1996 election was fought and won by the Democratic Coalition based on these policies; the Coalition won 50 of the 76 seats in Mongolia’s parliament, and voter turnout was more than 90 per cent (Far Eastern Economic Review 1997: March 27). Thus, this is not a case of international institutions forcing upon a country policies against its wishes: the door was opened and the economic liberalisers were effectively invited in for a big bowl of fermented mare’s milk.

However, it is also a country in which economic liberalisation has failed to deliver anticipated reductions in poverty for the majority of the population, and a strong case exists that it has made things worse.

As the Human Development Report Mongolia 2000 states:

In recent years however, the predominant vision has been neo-liberal. Backed by some international donors, reformers have argued that the best thing the state can do is to largely withdraw from the economy – by rapidly privatising state enterprises, and dismantling as many regulations and controls as possible, and allowing market forces to determine the production and allocation of goods and services. (Human Development Report Mongolia 2000: 13)

Liberalisation policies in Mongolia: A potted history

With the fall of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s, Mongolia woke up to find itself without its financial benefactor for most of the 20th century, Russia, and in the grip of a severe economic decline (Rossabi 2000: 9).

But a new “big brother” was at hand. In 1991, economic liberaliser Jeffrey Sachs arrived in Mongolia (Fortune 1998: December 7). The arrival of Sachs and his ideas were to have a profound impact on the lives of Mongolians. He gathered a group of well-educated Mongolian economists to test economic liberalisation theories.

Smith and Swain neatly summerise the source of economic ideas for the transition states:

The roles played by Francis Fukuyama (1992), formerly of the US State Department, and Jeffrey Sachs (1990), as policy adviser … translated this agenda into the all too familiar programme of so-called ‘shock therapy’. Shock therapy has been based on the view that capitalism could be … imposed by fiat and that the unleashing of the power of capital will inevitably allow the institutions, regulations, habits and practices associated with the ‘normal’ functioning of a capitalist market economy to emerge (Smith and Swain 1998)

The economic liberalisation project in Mongolia can be split into two distinct phases. The first more tentative phase under the Communist government extended from 1990 to 1992 and included privatisation of some state firms, the issuing of stock-market vouchers to most of the population and a failed attempt to enter the foreign currency markets (as a result of which 80 per cent of the country’s reserves were lost). This phase coincided with a new constitution, democratic elections and significant improvements in personal freedoms.

The economic liberalisation project encountered serious difficulties from the start, and when all aid and subsidies from the Soviet Union were removed, the economy collapsed, with inflation spiralling to 320 per cent (Human Development Report Mongolia 2000: 13). Pro-economic liberalisation factions in the Communist government lost influence and the reforms stalled from 1992 until 1996, when they were re-started with a vengeance with the election of the Democratic Coalition. The Coalition was assembled from a hitherto fragmented opposition by the Washington-based International Republican Institute and mimicked the policies of the American Republican Party, including distributing a Newt Gingrich-style “Contract with the Mongolian Voter.”

The second phase of reforms, under Democratic Coalition Prime Minister M. Enkhsaikhan, was launched with the removal of price controls on fuel and electricity, increasing prices by 50 per cent (Rossabi 2000: 11). This phase of economic liberalisation also ran into difficulties, but its most successful policy achievements have been the privatisation of public housing, the removal of trade tariffs and the reining in of inflation.

Poverty and economic liberalisation

Prior to the introduction of economic liberalisation, there was no extreme poverty in Mongolia, though it is difficult to gauge relative poverty since this information was not gathered. Rossabi notes, however, an extensive public welfare system was spread throughout the country:

The Mongol economy required substantial subsidies from the Soviet Union. This command economy produced inefficient industries, few consumer goods, and scant increases in the size of the Mongol herds. The one-party system limited dissent and contributed to human rights abuses. On the other hand, the government provided extensive medical, educational, and welfare benefits to the young, women, the elderly, and indeed much of society. A growth in population, a longer life span, and high rate of literacy were byproducts of such state policies. (Rossabi 2000: 6)

All research data has shown an increase in poverty levels for a large portion of the population after 1990. Estimates vary wildly, but the United Nations Development Programme reports that 38.4 per cent of urban dwellers – and 32.6 per cent of rural residents – were poor in 1998 (Human Development Report Mongolia 2000: 23). School attendance is down, regional disparities have become more extreme, with the capital experiencing a boom fuelled by international aid (this totalled US $180 million in 1998 (Mongolia Update 1999: 27) and an expanding service sector. Provincial towns and smaller communities have seen local state-run businesses collapse, communications weaken, and a leaching of the population, either to the countryside to herd animals or to the capital to seek work.

To cite one graphic anecdotal example of the process, a consulant for the Asian Development Bank told a 1998 donor agencies meeting of the irony of going into former factory towns, and telling the well-educated residents to turn to small crafts and itinerant vegetable growing rather than restarting the existing factory.

Mongolia’s transition: theoretical dilemmas

As Pickles and Smith note in their work of political economy Theorising Transition: the Political Economy of Post-Communist Transformations, it is a profound mistake to ignore the distinctive evolution of each of the former Communist states. Mongolia’s attempts at transition to a market economy have been deeply marked by its cultural legacy, in spite of attempts to transcend this. While Ohmae may assert that “This movement up the ladder of development has nothing to do with culture and everything to do with the region’s ability to put the right policies, institutions, and infrastructure in place at the right time (Ohmae 1994: 21),” culture is crucial. It is simplistic to depend on a “stock set of policies to enable the supposed transition to capitalism at the end of the twentieth century to be achieved (Pickles and Smith 1998: 10).”

As Pickles and Smith add about post-Communist Eastern Europe:

Treating post-communist Eastern Europe as a whole fails to recognise the ever-present diversity of some 27 states and 270 million people. Even at the end of the nineteenth century, such political-economic diversity was central to what was unfolding in the region … The diversity of historical experiences was replicated under state socialism, and while we would not argue for some form of historical determination, the state socialist economy in part relied upon these spatial divisions of labour and forms of social organization and institutionalised practices, albeit that large-scale attempts at forced industrialisation were made to eradicate the legacies of ‘peasant societies’ and uneven capitalist development. (Pickles and Smith 1998: 12)

Historically, Mongolia had never experienced capitalism, even in its most basic and embryonic form. Prior to the 1921 revolution which made Mongolia the world’s second Communist country, the vast majority of its citizens were divided between two occupations: nomadic herding, and the herding of souls as Buddhist monks. There was a small trading community, including a tiny community of Jewish traders – a legacy of the long-gone silk route that once plied its way through the Mongol Empire. But modern, urban, industrial capitalism as was present at this time in Europe was nonexistent in Mongolia. Concepts of capitalism, market economics and private property were introduced anew after 1990.

Urbanisation, modernisation and industrialisation were wholly communist concepts in Mongolia prior to 1990. The traditional nomadic way of life measures wealth in terms of the size of the herd and places a high value on the ability to roam unencumbered by private property divisions and the ability to trade animals for other goods (though these needs are simple since a nomadic herder can only carry around a limited quantity of possessions).

Economic liberalisation policies have, ironically, only exacerbated this trend, driving more of the economy into barter relations and actually pushing a portion of the population out of urban areas and into subsistance herding in order to survive (Partnership for Progress 1998: 2-3).

Mongolia also offers some anomalies to theories of economic and democratic liberalisation. Lewis contends that democracy gives a nation a distinct economic advantage. “Average wealth, the degree of industrialisation and urbanisation and level of education are perceived to be much higher for countries which are democratic, education being of particular importance in this respect (Lewis: 1997).”

Yet as Fortune magazine noted, “No other Asian country enjoys more political freedom today than Mongolia. And no other Asian country has shown greater commitment to open markets. But Mongolia has received little reward for its efforts (Fortune 1998: December 7).”

The role of the state

Broad, Cavanagh and Bello see a strong argument for clear state direction in underdeveloped economies in the beginning stages, before allowing market mechanisms to dominate:

The South Korean economy’s resumption of growth after a brief period of stagnation at the onset of the 1980s and Eastern Europe’s slowdown after rapid growth in the 1960s confirm a more complex truth than the purveyed by free-market ideologues. Communist economies may propel societies through the first stages of development, but further growth into a more sophisticated economy necessitates a greater role for market mechanisms. (Broad/Bello/Cavanagh 2000: 392)

Strong state direction in economic development has been abandoned in Mongolia (it remains to be seen whether the re-election of the former Communist party in the summer of 2000 will alter this), and it can be argued that the over-dependence on market mechanisms has been premature.

In fact, “the neo-liberal claim that transition is most successful in situations where state organs wither away is highly problematic. The state, it seems, is required as a fundamental regulatory formation in transition (Pickles and Smith 1998: 15).”

The absence of this regulation in Mongolia means that where once economic transactions were transparent, they have now gone underground. The example of cashmere exports (one of the country’s major foreign-currency earners) is particularly interesting. In 1998 the Mongolian government, faced with ever-dwindling tax revenues, introduced a tax on cashmere exports, ostensibly to protect the domestic cashmere-manufacturing industry. Whatever the true intention, the result was catastrophic for government revenues. Recorded exports fell by more than 98 per cent, to US $306,000 in 1998 from US $16 million in 1997 (Far Eastern Economic Review: 1999). The trade went underground and a handful of customs officials could not make a dent in a border as vast as Mongolia’s. It is a graphic example of how weak the central government had become, unable to raise revenues when necessary.

Economic liberalisation also tends to pull economic activity into the capital, as has been witnessed across the transition states. Centrifugal forces leave great swathes of poverty in rural areas and drain marginal urban centres of their skilled workers (Pickles and Smith 1998: 17). Mongolia is no exception to this pattern (Rossabi 2000: 10).

Forces outside the market

After investigating the role economic liberalisers in non-communist developing nations, Robert Bates found that market-oriented economists routinely overlook the role politics and political power plays in wealth distribution:

One reason that market-oriented economists tend to deny the centrality of politics to the development process is that they tend to discount problems of distribution. Those who adhere to the efficiency-and-growth position counter that if development produces a maldistribution of income, those who are losers in the short run could become winners in the longer run … From this viewpoint, governments are not just irrelevant to the development process, the actually impede it. (Bates 1988: 239-240)

There is scant contemporary research into the role of clan or family elites in modern Mongolia, but Rossabi, a Mongolia historian, believes they wield significant influence to this day, and have glided from communism to capitalism with ease (Rossabi 2000: 12). He asks, “Has there been sufficient turnover in the political elite, or does it represent the same consitutency as in the past? Has it expanded sufficiently to make itself more broadly representative of the Mongol population, including the herders and the countryside in general?”

In search of a purpose

Mongolia today is undergoing a basic economic dilemma familiar to Ricardo. It is at once transforming political and economic relations while also exploring what advantages it has to offer to the world markets, that old chestnut of absolute and comparative advantage. To date, its absolute advantage has been to be the source of raw materials, the two key foreign currency earners being copper and cashmere wool (Human Development Report Mongolia 2000: 30).

Its large herds of animals (some 34 million) are under-utilised as foreign-currency earners, and for the most part provide food for domestic consumption. One of the main reasons for this has been the rudimentary livestock techniques that exclude these vast meat and dairy resources from foreign markets (while the herds are raised without any use of chemicals, there is no quality control – a service once provided by the state before 1990). The distortions to the economy caused by these policies are highlighted in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP). In 1985, agriculture accounted for 14.3 per cent of GDP, and industry was 31.8 per cent. By 1998, agriculture (now mostly nomadic herding) accounted for 32.8 per cent of GDP and industry shrank to 24.1 per cent (Human Development Report Mongolia 2000: 56). The economy had contracted and was more focused on meeting basic domestic food needs.

Mongolia has a number of strengths it can draw on, however, with its impressive steps at building democracy and personal freedom chief among them. Lewis categorises former communist states into two groups, with group two taking an undemocratic route. Mongolia would rank in group one, since these countries have: “relatively rapidly established a reasonably viable constitutional order and multiparty system, having held free elections, seen unequivocal changes of government and generally established civil liberties (Lewis: 1997).”

The economic model used by the Democratic Coalition was the United States; Mongolia’s new leaders, dismissed other Asian nations – with their stoic, thrifty populations taking direction from the state – as poor examples for Mongolia. Like the US, Mongolia’s nomadic heritage values freedom and individual effort over the state, assert government advisers such as Tserenpuntsag Batbold, an economic adviser to the Mongolian prime minister’s office.

Batbold is sanguine about finding a purpose for the country’s economy: “I’m always thinking about this, but I can’t give you an answer. This is exactly why we have to create a nondistortive economic environment, one which will show us the true comparative advantages of this nation (Asian Wall Street Journal 1997: May 27).”

Yet the process has been a difficult one. At a June 1998 international investors’ conference in Ulaanbaatar, the World Bank variously called Mongolia the “gateway to Russia”, the “gateway to China”, and the “gateway to Central Asia” (UB Post: 1998), giving the impression that both the global institutions and the Mongolian government would try anything in a desperate search for a purpose for the country’s economy. In fact, efforts in the 1990s to attract foreign direct investment (FDI) have not been fruitful. In 1999, FDI stood at US $70 million; it was US $200 million for all of the 1990s (Human Development Report Mongolia 2000). The belief that foreign private companies would pay for the country’s infrastructure improvements has run up against a wall: most foreign companies find it hard to see the benefits in investing in a country that only has a market of 2.4 million people and very high start-up costs.

By 1998, even Sachs was striking a pessimistic note. He told Fortune magazine he disagreed with the pace of reforms and insisted infrastructure improvements – more roads, improved livestock breeding, investment in information technology – were the only things that would improve the country’s economy (Fortune 1998: December 7).

Conclusion

Political power in Mongolia has switched from the hegemonic control of the Communist Party (and its overlords in Moscow) to be dispersed amongst a plethora of actors, including international aid organizations. Economic liberalisation has destroyed the state’s ability to guarantee a minimum standard of living. However, it has also expanded the number of small businesses in the country, and the GNP generated from the private sector has grown from 10 per cent of the total in 1990 to 64 per cent in 1999 (Human Development Report Mongolia 2000: 31). In spite of this, poverty rates remain stubbornly high, undermining assertions that free markets alone will generate wealth for the disadvantaged.

Unfortunately, Mongolia has significantly misdiagnosed the origins of prosperity in its current role model, the United States. Economic liberalisation policies cling to simplistic notions of the evolution of capitalist markets in the US, ignoring the complex relationship between state-funded or regulated infrastructure development and economic growth. Post-communist countries have been ill-advised on what policies will actually reduce poverty rates. These societies do not fit into conventional ideas of underdevelopment; on the whole their populations are highly literate and skilled. While products produced by these countries may not be able to compete head-on with more technologically sophisticated equivalents in Western markets, there is little evidence that wholesale destruction of these industries will spurn economic growth and reduce poverty.

Pax Chaotica: A Re-evaluation of Post-WWII Economic and Political Order

In The Interests Of The Exploited?: The Role Of Development Pressure Groups In The UK

The Sweet Smell Of Failure: The World Bank And The Persistence Of Poverty

ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2017

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Pax Chaotica: A Re-evaluation of Post-WWII Economic and Political Order

Paper delivered to the School of Politics and Government, Birkbeck College, University of London, London, UK, 2000

“The strongest is never strong enough to maintain his mastery at all times unless he transforms his strength into right and obedience into duty…Yielding to force is an act of necessity, not of will; at the very most, it is an act of prudence (Rousseau 1762).” 

By David South

This paper analyses the following proposition: the key post-war institutions were neither an intended, nor an adequate, response to the economic and political challenges of the post-1945 world.

There is ample evidence to show that the plethora of post-war institutions were  intended, and were a deliberate consequence of American policy-makers seeking to control the geo-political fallout of the most catastrophic conflict of human history, World War II.

In many respects institutions such as the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were a sophisticated and modern approach to a new global order minus the old imperial powers. They were an act of significant imagination and inspiration drawn from a long tradition in asserting the rule of law over the rule of anarchy; the rights of the weak over the tyranny of the strong.

However, these institutions have repeatedly failed to meet the economic and political challenges of the past 55 years. The commitment of the United States to these bodies tailed off after World War II, and America displayed a lack of will to mature them beyond a dependence on American initiative and action.

There is substantial evidence to support the argument that the hegemony of Pax Americana over the last half century undermined the evolution of these institutions, sustaining a chaotic world order that has not delivered prolonged peace or prosperity for a large number of the world’s citizens and that these institutions were ill prepared to confront the collapse of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s.

This paper will explore the inadequacies of the global institutions to meet two key aspirations of the post-war world: conflict resolution and avoidance and economic prosperity based on free markets and democratic regimes.

I will argue that, while this period avoided a major conflagration on the scale of the world wars, it was not a period of peace. Regional conflicts, costly both in terms of human life and of finance, plagued every one of the years since World War II. This has been called a period of Pax Americana (Knutsen 1999). I will argue that, rather than a period of global harmony and prosperity anchored by the American hegemon, it has been a period of Pax Chaotica, a “macabre dance of death in which the rulers of the superpowers mobilize their own populations to support harsh and brutal measures directed against victims within what they take to be their respective domains, where they are ‘protecting their legitimate interests,’” as Noam Chomsky describes it (Chomsky 1995: 207). Pax Chaotica is a period in which there is an illusion of stability offered by a hegemon, but in which the hegemon’s military, economic and moral superiority is unable to secure actual peace and prosperity in the world. The hegemon is out of balance, its military and economic superiority in predominance, while its moral superiority and credibility wanes and withers on the vine.

I will analyse how adequate the global institutions were in the context of the concept of hegemony — in particular the hegemony of the United States, which has not relinquished this hegemony to the global institutions it initially set up. I will conclude that the 1990s has been a period of half measures, incremental attempts at bolstering the concept of international security by the community of nations, but that those attempts, as in the case of the Gulf War or in Kosovo, have been still under the direction of the United States.

Making up a master plan: The deliberate development of the institutions

The post-war master plan was comprehensive, and included the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development (World Bank), the International Monetary Fund, the International Trade Organisation (superseded by the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade as the instrument of freer trade) and the United Nations. A clutch of security organisations was also established after the war, including NATO. As Knutsen aptly puts it:

WITH MEMORIES OF THE INTERWAR RECESSION AND THE NEW DEAL FRESHLY IN MIND, ALREADY, IN THE FIRST YEARS OF THE WAR THEY BEGAN TO DESIGN STABILISING POSTWAR INSTITUTIONS OF INTERNATIONAL FINANCE AND TRADE — THE IBRD, THE IMF AND THE ITO. … THEY SOUGHT TO SET UP THE MOST IMPORTANT POSTWAR INSTITUTIONS BEFORE THE CONDITIONS OF PEACE WERE EVEN RAISED. THEY RUSHED THE CONFERENCES ON THE UN, IBRD, IMF AND ITO INTO SESSION BEFORE GERMANY AND JAPAN SURRENDERED. (KNUTSEN 1999: 203)

The founding of the United Nations and the Bretton Woods institutions (the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, later the World Bank) marked a turning point in world history. The United States had been attempting to exert greater control on the global order since the first 14 proposals of President Woodrow Wilson during World War I. As European powers declined at the beginning of the 20thcentury, liberal American policymakers saw an opportunity for the US to assert its hegemony over the world and re-write the rules of economic engagement along American lines. The two world wars only made the US wealthier and wealthier: in World War I, by providing armaments to both sides of the conflict; in World War II by joining with Canada as the armament and resource engine for the allied war effort.

In many ways, the new institutions represented a forward-thinking and idealistic policy compared to a global order marked by imperial rivalries. It captured contemporary ideas on economic theory, projected a universalist Lockean ideal that all men from all nations are equal, and it was injected with the idealism and energy of the world’s largest democracy and the strongest market economy.

Franklin Roosevelt, like Woodrow Wilson, saw America’s engagement in the world  war as a struggle to contain European-style militarism, imperialism and exclusive trade blocs. America’s aim, in both wars, was to preserve the conditions for liberal world order — for a democratic system of politics and an economic system based on free-market principles. Wilson and Roosevelt both sought to liberalize world trade. And they both sought to use America’s leading position in world politics to bring other countries into line with America’s policy. (Knutsen 1999: 193)

These institutions ensured that the US had an influence on every facet of world affairs post World War II. It could merge its political and economic goals and ensure it had a stake in the recovery from the war. This played very well when it came to shoring up domestic support in the United States.

Under a World Bank controlled by Americans, development assistance could be focused precisely where America’s core corporations saw the greatest opportunity. And so long as the recipients of America’s foreign aid used it to buy American exports core corporations could venture into global trade confident of receptive markets. Through such means, the playing field of global commerce was sufficiently tipped in America’s direction so that by the mid-1950s even the National Association of Manufacturers could be persuaded to support tariff reduction. (Reich 1992: 64)

The institutions were philosophically strong, too. Learning from Machiavelli that human relations can be cynical, ruthless and riddled with power agendas, the United Nations offered a peaceful forum to resolve these disputes and a theoretically far more transparent alternative than what had come before. As Weber emphasised, modern states helped to promote capitalist development. With that in mind, the Bretton Woods institutions laid the groundwork for a global financial structure pegged to the US dollar and promoting an American view of free markets.

Hegemony theory and Pax Americana

I argue that these global institutions have shown themselves to be hampered and inadequate when faced with serious political and economic challenges. The root cause is a weakness that is most often cited as their strength: the United States.

Hegemonic stability has been characterised by the emergence of successive dominant liberal powers (Gilpin 1987: 66). What Strange calls “structural power” is essential to the establishment of hegemony over world affairs, since it “confers the power to decide how things shall be done, the power to shape frameworks within which states relate to each other, relate to people, or relate to corporate enterprises (Strange 1998: 25).”

The post-World War II global institutions are an excellent example of the intersection of politics and economy; institutions like the United Nations seek to wield influence in both the political sphere and the economic, most particularly through the Bretton Woods institutions. Hegemonic world order exists, Knutsen suggests, “when the major members of an international system agree on a code of norms, rules and laws which helps govern the behaviour of all. This agreement reflects the rhetorical skills of a particular great power (Knutsen 1999: 49).” This is what happened towards the end of World War II, as the United States wrote the new world order according to its own rules.

As further evidence of US supremacy, the new global rules were constructed so as to force America’s superpower rivals, the USSR and China, to join “its” institutions, not the other way around (though Taiwan stood in for the People’s Republic in the United Nations, against the protests of the USSR, until 1971).

The US became the hegemon because the Soviet Union had very little to offer, either in terms of economic assistance or of political freedoms.

Historians now understand that potential clients encouraged the United States to become a hegemon at the end of World War II: the term “empire by invitation” has come to characterize what happened. The Soviet bid for postwar influence lacked any comparable legitimacy, and so quickly came up against a condition that creates major difficulties for hegemons, which is lack of consent. (Gaddis 1992: 177)

Do as I say, not as I do: The rise and fall of the hegemon’s moral advantage

A large part of the credibility of the US hegemony was bolstered by its moral advantage vis-à-vis other nations. A heady cocktail of democratic freedoms, economic success and military might led many other nations to believe the US and its institutions had got it right where others had failed.

As Strange notes: “President Truman had followed up in his augural address to the Congress with the firm promise of American help to peoples seeking freedom and a better material life. Moral authority based on faith in American intentions powerfully reinforced its other sources of structural power (Strange 1994: 32).”

Supporters of US hegemony, like John G. Ruggie, believe the hegemon must be liberal-minded. Otherwise:

IF THE OTHER STATES BEGIN TO REGARD THE ACTIONS OF THE HEGEMON AS SELF-SERVING AND CONTRARY TO THEIR OWN POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC INTERESTS, THE HEGEMONIC SYSTEM WILL BE GREATLY WEAKENED. IT WILL ALSO DETERIORATE IF THE CITIZENRY OF THE HEGEMONIC POWER BELIEVES THAT OTHER STATES ARE CHEATING, OR IF THE COSTS OF LEADERSHIP BEGIN TO EXCEED THE PERCEIVED BENEFITS. (GILPIN 1987: 73)

The US steadily weakened its credibility and moral advantage in both the areas of conflict resolution and avoidance, and in promoting economic prosperity.

Conflict resolution and avoidance

The US was seen as willing to distort global institutions to fight its ideological — and real — battles with the Soviet Union, and its proxies around the world. The US’s credibility as a promoter of peace and security was severely hampered by the Korean War, the Vietnam War and a dubious record of support for undemocratic regimes and guerrilla movements. These conflicts were intended to “contain” the Soviet Union and the spread of communism and to support regimes that were friendly to free markets. This was played out in a cynical cat-and-mouse game with the Soviet Union, where both sides avoided direct confrontation with each other and used third countries to wage their ideological battles.

Gaddis takes an overly generous view of the Cold War high-wire act, but it is worth being reminded:

BUT THE 1950S AND 1960S DID SEE A REMARKABLE SEQUENCE OF POTENTIALLY DANGEROUS CONFRONTATIONS — DIENBIENPHU, 1954; QUEMOY-MATSA, 1955; HUNGARY-SUEZ, 1956; LEBANON, 1958; BERLIN, 1958-59; THE U2 INCIDENT, 1960; CUBA, 1961; BERLIN, 1961; LAOS, 1961-62; THE CUBAN MISSILE CRISIS, 1962 — EVERYONE OF WHICH WAS RESOLVED WITHOUT MAJOR MILITARY INVOLVEMENT BY EITHER SUPERPOWER. THE SAME COULD NOT BE SAID OF KOREA IN 1950, OR OF VIETNAM AND AFGHANISTAN LATER ON. (GADDIS 1992: 33)

Other than actually being drawn in as a combatant, as in the case of the Korean War, the UN became more of a sideline observer and critic than a robust resolver of conflicts. The UN was critically flawed from the beginning and abrogated its commitment to collective security. It also proved ineffective when confronted with crisis. As Strange points out, one of the biggest weaknesses in the founding of the UN was the Charter. In Article 2, Paragraph 7, all matters of domestic consideration were the business of a state, and in Article 51 states were allowed to form alliances for individual or collective self-defence, “thus reopening the door to a security structure based on alliances and counter-alliance rather than on collective responsibilities for the maintenance of peace between states (Strange 1994: 52).”

The UN was also hampered from developing a collective security maturity by the Security Council. The five permanent members used the veto to control resolutions, with the USSR and the US the most prolific abusers. The US had a total of 69 vetoes from 1945 to 1994; the USSR had 116.

The fall of the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s marked the beginning of a new period of instability in large parts of the world. The spotlight is once again on the UN to become an arbiter of conflict; once again it is most active when it is pushed by the United States to act when the US feels there is an interest to be served. This has been the case in the major UN missions in the 1990s, from the Gulf War (oil reserves), to the former Yugoslavia (European security). The UN proved to be ineffective where there was no naked US interest putting pressure on the organisation to act, as in the case of Rwanda. Strange remarks that this has had a demoralising effect on those who seek a security structure upholding international law and the universal rights of man.

The fear that either the world organization would merely be the tool of one or other great power (as indeed it was the tool of the United States in the early 1950s) or that it would be ineffectual — as both the League and the UN have proved to be in the face of grave threats to international peace and order — have been enough to kill any realistic hopes of managing a transition from the present security structure to a multilateral or confederal one. (Strange 1994:52)

Economic prosperity

The second half of the 20th century has been hailed as a period of unprecedented global prosperity. Global gross national product rose from US $300 billion to US $2 trillion from 1945 to 1970 (Reich 1992: 64), though much of this was concentrated in a handful of countries. The major challenge of the 20th century has been the task of spreading prosperity around the world; to more evenly distribute the gains than can be reaped from advances in science and technology. The collapse of the colonial powers left large numbers of underdeveloped nations grappling with independence.

With the collapse of the Bretton Woods arrangements in the early 1970s, and the emergence of deregulation in financial flows in the world, the US abrogated much of its responsibility for micro-managing global development. The market was now to do all the work, and being the modern age, rapid capital flows were to make the market work efficiently.

Like the experience with conflict resolution and avoidance, the economic project has been mixed. A dependence on the market has not avoided a dependence on the economic fortunes of the global hegemon. As the US ship rises and sinks, so does the rest of the world. The Global economic system, Panic notes:

WAS RUN BY THE DOMINANT ECONOMIC POWER AFTER THE SECOND WORLD WAR: THE UNITED STATES. IN THAT SENSE, ITS FORTUNES, LIKE THOSE OF THE CLASSICAL GOLD STANDARD, WERE DIRECTLY LINKED TO THOSE OF THE RELATIVE ECONOMIC PERFORMANCE AND POLICIES OF THE COUNTRY RESPONSIBLE FOR THE LARGEST SHARE OF WORLD INDUSTRIAL PRODUCTION, TRADE, AND FINANCE AT THE TIME — PRECISELY THE OUTCOME THAT THOSE ATTENDING THE BRETTON WOODS CONFERENCE HAD BEEN ANXIOUS TO AVOID. (PANIC 1995: 46)

By 1994, total world exports were more than 14 times greater than in 1950; output was five times greater than in 1950 (Dicken 1999: 24). But the economic achievements ring hollow if the well-being of the whole planet is taken into consideration. By 1995, 60 percent of the manufacturing in the world occurred in three countries — the United States, Japan and Germany (UNIDO 1996). While manufacturing in developing countries had quadrupled to 20 percent of global output, it was concentrated in a few developing countries with strong ties to the US.

There is a direct connection between US interests and who does well economically. Western Europe was reconstructed rapidly with US money, and Germany became an industrial powerhouse again. The defeated Japan was restored as Asia’s wealthiest nation with American investment and advice. In 1945, 71 percent of world manufacturing was concentrated in four countries. Developed countries were host to 2/3 of foreign direct investment (Dicken 1999: 21). Most FDI is now concentrated in industrial, developed countries.

There is a direct link between the failures of the UN and the global economy. The weakness of the international security arrangements also have an impact on economies. Vast sums of money are re-directed towards weapons purchases and away from human needs. For many smaller economies, this is a punishing drain on national resources and the funds are often borrowed from elsewhere. As Chomsky noted in the 1980s, “The fact is that both of the superpowers — and many lesser powers as well — are ruining their economies and threatening world peace, indeed human survival, by a mindless commitment to military production for themselves and for export (Chomsky 1995: 209).”

There are concrete examples of developing countries that have achieved significant development gains, reaping the gains of peace and freer world trade. A group of 18 developing countries enjoyed growth rates in the 1990s of over five percent (DFID 2000: 66). This is attributed to more open trade policies compared to other developing countries (though many other countries have been equally open to trade, like Mongolia, but have not reaped the same benefits). China has enjoyed unprecedented growth, but it also has increasing rates of unemployment and violent unrest in its western regions. Sub-Saharan Africa’s 600 million population generates exports no greater than Malaysia’s 20 million (DFID 2000: 67).

In regard to the World Trade Organization (WTO), the majority of its 140 members are developing countries. Not a perfect organisation, its agenda is dominated by a few wealthy nations, but the alternative of a world of bilateral trade deals hangs as a spectre if it fails. As the DFID report, Eliminating World Poverty: Making Globalisation Work for the Poor, points out:

DESPITE PROGRESS OVER THE LAST 50 YEARS, DEVELOPED COUNTRIES MAINTAIN SIGNIFICANT TARIFF AND NON-TARIFF BARRIERS AGAINST THE EXPORTS OF DEVELOPING COUNTRIES…TOTAL DEVELOPING COUNTRY GAINS FROM A 50 PER CENT CUT IN TARIFFS, BY BOTH DEVELOPED AND DEVELOPING COUNTRIES, WOULD BE IN THE ORDER OF $150 BILLION — AROUND THREE TIMES AID FLOWS. (DFID 2000: 69)

Conclusion

The postwar world order and the use of global institutions to build it, was a deliberate policy of the United States. It, however, proved only a half measure and the over-dependence on the United States ensured that these institutions were hampered when confronted with economic and political crises. As I have argued, a state of Pax Chaotica was the result.

For Pax Chaotica to end, there needs to be a renewed effort by the United States to shore up global institutions and to develop a concrete plan to ensure that the global institutions become the global hegemon in every sense of the word. There have been incremental moves in this direction, including attempts to pay dues owed by the US to the UN.

There needs to be a complete shift from the realist American interests of Pax Chaotica to the interests of the community of nations. In fact, there is an opportunity for a convergence of core American values — respect for individual liberty, freedom of expression, democracy — with the goals of the global institutions.

As for international institutions, they must show themselves to not only be just, but also to be seen to be just. Institutions can no longer work in the shadows as they have in the past. Well-educated, wealthy protesters in Western countries will no doubt continue to demand transparency.

In The Interests Of The Exploited?: The Role Of Development Pressure Groups In The UK

A Steppe Back?: Economic Liberalisation And Poverty Reduction In Mongolia

The Sweet Smell Of Failure: The World Bank And The Persistence Of Poverty

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ORCID iD: https://orcid.org/0000-0001-5311-1052.

© David South Consulting 2017