Joschka Fischer's latest book is a broad sketch of the state of world politics. Obviously a very large subject! And the satellite's eye view inevitably involved in such an undertaking can induce dizziness at times. But as a former Foreign Minister of Germany and as someone who have been intensely engaged in politics since his youth, Fischer does a respectable job of it, with particular emphasis on the challenges the changes present for European foreign policy.
Fischer sees the rise of China toward being the world's leading power in the world as being the geopolitical consideration already defining the world in the 21st century. He looks at this development through a foreign-policy "realist" lens, viewing China's rise not as a threatening menace to be suppressed or some ideal to be supported but rather as a normal development in the relative power of nations in the world. He sees us as now being in a "global transition phase to a new, Asia-centric world order." (The quotes from the book in this post are my translations from the German original.)
Many Americans are inclined to see US predominance in the world as some kind of inevitable historical development, even divine providence. But that predominance didn't show itself on the world scene until the end of the First World War, and even then proceeded in fits and starts until the end of the Second World War. The "Westphalian" system of nation-states as we know it began with the Peace of Westphalia in 1848. Just two centuries ago, the dominant powers in the world were the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Russian Empire, Prussia, and the Ottoman Empire. All of those had ceased to exist by 1918.
Very mindful of the risks that the relative decline of the US in world power and China's rise to the leading role, his hope is that the process will involve more active, pragmatic cooperation than military hostility. He calls this option "Chimerica." Neither German nor English readers are likely to miss the suggestive ambiguity of that term because of its resemblance to "chimera/Chimäre." Unlike much of the current political conversation in the US, Fischer views Russia realistically as at most a secondary player for the foreseeable future. He sees three major options for Russia, due to its weak economy, retarted innovation, and heavy dependence on fossil fuel production: stay weak and isolated; become a junior partner to China; or, develop a cooperative relationship with Europe.
Fischer has a Malthusian streak that sees world population growth almost as a self-evident evil, to which he apparently sees no real solution in sight. In fact, urbanization and the growing demand by women worldwide for equal rights create a strong tendency toward the stabilization of the world population in the 21st century.
He also seems to have a bit of a techno-utopian perspective, although his general comments on the role of progress in "digitalization" seem pretty sensible.
I'm tempted to say that his observations about the need for greater EU political unity are fairly pedestrian. But they are downright radical-democratic in comparison to the notions of the far-right nationalists and their supporters. And he actually does advocate for an aggressive political strategy by EU advocates to win a solid popular majority in Europe for more substantive political integration: "it seems to me the moment has come to leave behind the bare integration-pragmatism and widen it to a political strategy to win back a wider political integration."
Which is very appealing. But it's how to see how any option, including the two-speed one he advoates, can reasonably move forward without at least simultaneously creating a eurozone that can survive as an "optimal currency area" and reaching a general European strategv for a real (not theatrical only) solution to the longterm immigration situation which no amount of magic conjuring will make go away. Fischer explicitly acknowledges the difficulty and urgency of the latter. National solutions "no longer make sense," he states in saying what should be obvious but the xenophobic parties are trying hard to deny. The euro's problems, though, he mostly skirts around.
Fischer optimistically views China's rise to its current position as the ascendent leading power in the world as having been "exclusively peaceful," though that might be overgenerous, unless we start the time count after China's armed incursions into northern Vietnam in 1979, aka, the Sino-Vietnamese War, the Third Indochina War.
The US, by contrast, achieved its role as world hegemon through two world wars and the Cold War, which included hot wars of various levels of intensity, most notably the Korean War and the US' own Indochina War. But Fischer stresses that US "soft power" also "played a very decisive role in its rise and, above all, for its roll as 'benevolent hegemon' through the decades."
One of the things I appreciate about Fischer's political perspective on the United States is that he stresses the central importance democratic traditions of the US, "the basic values of the American Revolution, [of] democracy, human rights, and the rule of law." But he also notes that the American tradition of "territorial conquest" is not one that should be perpetuated or defended. To me, this is a sensible and obvious perspective, one that has important differences from the Hamilitonian-Whig ideological version of US history that is currently dominant, remarkably not only on the left but if anything particulary on the left.
Fischer even credits the "idealistic committment" that has accompanied the hard-headed pursuit of American national interest in foreign policy. Although foreign policy realists like Fischer are also accutely aware of how easily and frequently the idealistic rhetoric has been used to justify brutal and unjust policies. He had direct experience of that as German Foreign Minister during the Iraq War.
He also makes an important historical observation that the US even prior to its overseas imperialism at the turn of the 20th century was nevertheless oriented to an internationalist outlook. And he attribues that in particular to its culture of immigration, which in the 19th century was primarily European immigration:
[The US] was, in contrast to other nations, almost from the beginning on founded as interally "globalized," despite the breadth and thin settlement of the huge country, through the immigration-related combination of its population from all dominant countries and parts of the world - on a universalism of values, and that had consequences for its popular culture. What made and makes the immigrant population "Americans" were the Constiituion and the value of the USA, all of them immaterial, normative values, and in their innner core an unparalleled freedom for the individual.Fischer's general perpective in this book is describing the longer-term shift in world politics from the US as the so-called unipolar hegemon in the early 1990s to the current period, in which he sees China's process of rising to be the world's dominant power as defining world politics. And with that point, he is stressing how radically the Trump white nationalist view misunderstands so very much of what America's influence in the world has been.
I'm totally sympathetic to Fischer's perspective on that. But in terms of historical perspective, there are some obvious problems left unstated by Fischer's prsentation, which is not primarily focused on illustrating the major conflicts of 19th century US history. The United States was also defined, of course, by the exclusion of the indigenous Indian population and by a very particular treatment of immigrants of African origin. There were good reasons slavery was known as the Peculiar Institution. The Calhounian (not Jacksonian) political tradition from which Donald Trump and Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III draw today is unfortunately also very much a part of the history of the American brand of internationalism.
Fischer understands Trump's America First blustering not as isolationism but as narrow nationalist belligerence. Presumably the book manuscript was finalized in late 2017. But even without the events of this year - US rejection of the Iran nuclear agreement, more intensely expressed hostility to NATO and the EU - Fischer sees Trump as already having made a decisive break with the previous level of commitment to NATO common defense, one that increases the urgency of better European cooperation on military matters and European security. Though he does not understand the latter to be Europe pursuing new and expanded military roles in the Middle East.
He describes the major US soft-power assets this way:
... the attractiveness of the US way of life, the popular culture of Hollywood, pop music, and jazz all the way to Coca-Cola, McDonald's and Starbucks. As well as a policy of open borders, which brought the best and most clever into the country and many more besides. The gigantic land simply needs people. Through immigration developed not only growth, but also a strong dynamic of upward mobility. And obviously there was also the language, an easy-to-learn and globally spoken English, which through the worldwide media dominance of the USA via TV and the Internet became the lingua franca of modern times.(People who didn't grow up as native German speakers might have a somewhat different perspective on how easy English is to learn!)
Fischer doesn't see a comparable soft power potential for China on the historical horizon.
He closes the book with a chapter on the rise of 1930s style authoritarianism in the West today and another on the history of German nationalism and its immensely destructive and self-destructive consequences.
Fischer seems especially comfortable writing on political theory, as in the chapter on contemporary authoritarianism:
The ideological cadavers of National Socialism and fascism - and the previous "conservative revolution" of the 1920s - are being exhumed again and used by rightist intellectuals as the newest theoretical faschion [Dernier cri] of Western democracy and its fundamental values. An anti-democrat and intellectual henchman of the Nazis like Carl Schmitt counts these days as the pillar-saint of this New Right.This Carl Schmitt.