Who Owns the World?

The United States acts as if it owns the world. This might seem counter-intuitive. After all, more and more foreign entities are lapping up bargain properties in our “homeland.” And aside from U.S. military bases — a not inconsiderable amount of territory — the United States is not land-grabbing the way imperial Rome or London did. But since when was ownership all about possessing the deed to the property? Bullies can own the neighborhood, even if they’re only renting a room in one of the houses. It has a lot to do with attitude. And the Bush administration has attitude up the wazoo.

Both sides of the political spectrum agree about world ownership. The left despairs of the U.S. government’s attitude. The radical right believes that the United States should own the world and snarls with perfect DeNiro intonation: “what are you going to do about it, huh?” The “moderate middle” pretends that the United States abides by international law, indeed that we are largely responsible for the dispersion of wealth, political power, and transparency throughout the world. There might have been some excesses during the Bush years, the moderates caution, but the Dems will put everything back to rights, a notoriously dubious proposition.

So, do we or don’t we own the world? Let’s go through these four key elements of ownership and see if they apply to Uncle Sam.

You Break It, You Own It: If a retail outlet filled in for a turn as president of the UN Security Council, imagine the bill that would be sent to the U.S. Treasury: There would the full costs of Iraq. There would be Afghanistan. There would be the economies we broke through odious debt. There would a large chunk of the ice cap. Ah, it’s a long list. But, as always happens, when the bill eventually does come due, those responsible will be beyond the reach of the repo men. And America will rely on the same argument that it now dismisses from the poorest countries in the world: “hey, but we didn’t run up the tab!”

You Have Exclusive Access: Russia occupies Afghanistan and the United States goes ballistic. The same with Vietnam invading Cambodia. And now the Bush administration accuses Iran of sending its troops to Iraq. “I saw recently in the Christian Science Monitor, something like ‘New Study of Foreign Fighters in Iraq,’” Noam Chomsky says in an FPIF interview with Michael Shank. “Who are the foreign fighters in Iraq? Some guy who came in from Saudi Arabia. How about the 160,000 American troops? Well, they’re not foreign fighters in Iraq because we own the world; therefore we can’t be foreign fighters anywhere. Like, if the United States invades Canada, we won’t be foreign. And if anybody resists it, they’re enemy combatants, we send them to Guantanamo.”

You Extract Rent: How is it exactly that the United States, the world’s largest debtor nation, doesn’t have to submit to an IMF stabilization program or answer to the requirements of its mainly Asian creditors? Because the U.S. dollar is used for most of the world’s financial transactions and remains the reserve currency of choice. Wikipedia, however, tells me that there are now more euros in circulation in the world than dollars. That’s perhaps one reason why Brazilian supermodel Gisele Bündchen began to demand payment in euros last year. But as long as the U.S. military throws its weight around and adopts an imperial attitude, America thinks it can postpone the inevitable knock on the door. And in the meantime, Americans will continue to live on the “rental income” that the rest of the world pays us.

You Call the Shots: Let’s see, who would be a good candidate to head up the World Bank? What about Robert McNamara, who basically came out and admitted to being a war criminal in The Fog of War? Or how about Paul Wolfowitz, who we can only hope will one day have to submit to the questions of filmmaker Errol Morris (or better yet, the judges at the Hague)? After the Wolfowitz debacle, you’d think that the world would rise up in revolt and say, “Let’s put the ‘world’ back into the World Bank.” Instead, the United States gets to choose again and selects former deputy U.S. secretary of state Robert Zoellick. He’s not the worst of the Bush team. But if he has a choice between taking a call from Condi or Lula, which do you think he’ll take?

According to these four criteria, the United States certainly acts like it owns the place. We don’t have to send out proconsuls or viceroys to administer our properties around the world to qualify as owners (and sometimes the heads of the various regional U.S. military commands act a lot like proconsuls!). The Bush administration’s attitude toward global power is not all that different from how its operatives worked to consolidate presidential power. As David Addington, Vice President Cheney’s counsel from 2001 to 2005 explains the strategy: “We’re going to push and push and push until some larger force makes us stop.”

We’re seeing signs of this larger force emerge here in the United States. When will it emerge globally?

Emerging Counterforce

Conn Hallinan says now.

“Rather than the ‘American Century’ the Bush administration neo-conservatives predicted, it is increasingly a world where regional alliances and trade associations in Europe and South America have risen to challenge Washington’s once undisputed domination,” the FPIF columnist writes in Challenging a Unipolar World.

Hallinan finds signs all over the world. “When Argentina thumbed its nose at the U.S.-dominated World Bank and International Monetary Fund, it had the powerful Mercosur trade association to back it up,” he argues. “When the United States tried to muscle Europe into ending agricultural subsidies (while keeping its own) the European Union refused to back down. And now India, China, and Russia are drifting toward a partnership – alliance is too strong a word – that could transform global relations and shift the power axis from Washington to New Delhi, Beijing, and Moscow.”

In many ways, democratic movements around the world also serve as a counterforce to U.S. domination. The United States, despite its rhetoric of “democracy promotion,” maintains power and influence in key regions through its alliances with autocratic states, particularly in the Middle East. Pro-democracy movements in these countries challenge U.S. power.

“The United States has done for the cause of democracy what the Soviet Union did for the cause of socialism,” writes FPIF Middle East editor Stephen Zunes in Nonviolent Action and Pro-Democracy Struggles. “Not only has the Bush administration given democracy a bad name in much of the world, but its high-profile and highly suspect ‘democracy promotion’ agenda has provided repressive regimes and their apologists an excuse to label any popular pro-democracy movement that challenges them as foreign agents, even when led by independent grassroots nonviolent activists.”

Zunes defends the work of grassroots U.S. activists who have promoted genuine democracy and nonviolent strategies overseas. FPIF contributor Yossef Ben-Meir makes a similar case for economic development: it should take place at a local level. But here’s his twist. Supporting grassroots economic development actually strengthens national sovereignty.

“Participatory decentralized development helps build national sovereignty by empowering local communities to manage their own development,” Ben-Meir writes in Sovereignty through Decentralization. “The institutions and people of a country identify more closely with the national level when it functions as a contributor to local fulfillment. National sovereignty is thereby reinforced by the integration (practically seen through mutually beneficial partnerships) of institutions that function within that country.”

Of Dams and Super Bowls

Mozambique recently reclaimed a last bit of imperial property from the Portuguese: the Cahora Bassa dam. FPIF contributor Alec Dubro thinks Mozambique got a white elephant.

“The Cahora Bassa does bring in money, but it’s extremely costly environmentally, and it’s uncertain whether the country will actually make money on the operation,” he writes in Mozambique’s Soggy Inheritance. And the dam is proving ineffectual during the recent flooding to hit the country. “As the United Nations World Food Program begins airlifting emergency supplies to flood victims, the Cahora Bassa is providing little in the way of flood control.”

Elsewhere in Africa, Bridgestone Firestone is still running the world’s largest rubber plantation in Liberia with child labor. But the workers are fighting back.

“Former child laborers used on Firestone’s rubber plantation in Liberia have joined together in a 2005 class action lawsuit filed against the company in the U.S. District Court in the Southern district of Indiana, Indianapolis division,” writes FPIF contributor Jamie Menutis in Super Bowl of Shame. “The lawsuit remains in discovery phase. With virtually no coverage in the mainstream press, its progress is being kept largely out of the public eye.”

It’s not like the tire company doesn’t have enough money to pay a living wage. Bridgestone Firestone is paying an estimated $10 million to sponsor the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl.

Which brings us to one last indicator that the United States thinks it owns the world: sports. In the World Cup, soccer teams from around the world compete to take home the trophy. And in the World Series? Only teams from North America. Enough said.