The Great Game

We use four criteria when approaching acquisitions - financial value creation, client and product portfolio synergies, systems integration, and the fourth is "culture". We ask, "will the cultures mesh? Is there a good human fit in the way we do business?" We consider this very seriously because we know that a cultural clash would be devastating for our shared ethos.

Stephen Green, Chairman, HSBC Holdings plc

The multinational enterprise is the ultimate weapon in a globalized world. Not only nation states but also international institutions work in favour of the multinationals. The interests of multinationals are championed by finance ministers and central-bank directors. They in turn are able to put pressure on the IMF (traditionally run by an American), on the World Trade Organization, but also on the World Bank (traditionally headed by a European), to carry out their policies, even when these go against the well-being and prosperity of a particular country or against common-sense economic notions. These supranational or international institutions have to a large extent become the political arms of (Western) multinationals.

Everything is politics, and politics is ultimately all about economics. Thus we are seeing a general shift towards crude economic interests among nation states, as they have become ever more dependent on the natural resources needed to run our modern industrial societies. We are seeing increased competition not only for oil, but for metals such as gold and copper, timber, especially hardwood, and in the near future, water. This already defines a new geography of conflict which will last at least for some time to come (Klare 2001: 213). It illustrates the shift from a logic of geopolitics to that of geoeconomics, and suggests new geographical arenas relevant for the competitive advantage of nations.

Will the world in future always be more about economics than politics? Shall we see a shift back from geoeconomics to geopolitics, to political ideologies or religious crusades? How long will the "American Empire" survive? These questions are open for speculation, since we do not and cannot know anything about the far future. In his latest book Jacques Attali argues that we shall return to an era of politics. He believes that the US will be in clear cut decline by 2035, that the market will win out over democracy in 2050, but that world democracy will regain its position in 2060 in the form of a World State (Attali 2006: 19-23). Joseph Stiglitz (2006) hopes for a turn to the better through globalization, and he argues that this is happening already: for instance, 500 million Chinese are already being lifted out of poverty. Johan Galtung is bolder and sets the end of the American Empireat 2020.

In its extreme form this competitive situation is the quest for world dominance, often referred to as the Great Game, with reference to Britain's aim to control Northern India, and through that the great passage between East and West and Russia and the Indian Ocean. This "game" was long played by city-states and nation states, and only indirectly via private-sector companies. Today the scenario looks like a joint effort facilitated by nation states and multinationals alike, in which the former lay out the tracks and maintain them, and the latter run the trains.

The "game" was fought between the two main ideological blocs during the Cold War, and it is being fought today between the winner of the Cold War and any nation opposing its interests. This is much the same situation as Britain found itself in at the end of the nineteenth century, towards the end of colonialism, which coincided with the decline of the British Empire. Since the Second World War, US domination can be seen as an attempt to fill the gap left by the British Empire. It has been a continuation of the same dominance, merely under a different flag. As such the American Empire has been less successful than the British. For one thing, the USA has not been able to hold any area where it has intervened militarily, despite the fact that it has always aspired to do so. It has not been able to profit from its military operations, but instead and as a direct result the country has amassed a vast debt which it will probably never be able to repay. With the rhetoric of the Bush administrations (father and son), the world even began to feel that America represented a new Roman Empire. It was also an America which most people elsewhere saw as out of touch with the prevailing values of our times.

Now under Obama the objectives and the actions are the same, but accompanied by a less destructive rhetoric. So far this strategy has worked well: the Europeans have become more co-operative, the Arabs feel less threatened, and the Asians more reassured. In reality nothing fundamental has changed. Most Europeans seem convinced that Obama will achieve good things, to the point where he has been awarded the Nobel peace prize in advance, in the hope that he will do good in the future, despite the fact that he has stepped up US war efforts in Afghanistan and Pakistan and spent more money on arms that any other US president since the Second World War. But then it should also be remembered that Obama is a master rhetorician, probably the most skilled the White House has seen in more than a century. The Nobel peace committee has a long history of unfortunate decisions, awarding the prize to various individuals with blood on their hands: Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat, Menachem Begin, Henry Kissinger. According to Tariq Ali, Liu Xiaobo is far from what we should call a peace loving man. He still supports the American war against Vietnam and thinks it was unfortunate that the western powers did not succeed to colonize China. The committee now follows a logic whereby the prize is awarded to people they hope will do good. It is rather like giving a chemist a Nobel prize while he is still an undergraduate, in the expectation that he will come up with great results once he has started work as a researcher. The prize has become a political tool, more than a recognition of actual achievement. What will eventually bring the American Empire down is not its geopolitical adventurism since the Cold War, or the failure of fundamentalist Christian retro-utopian plans for world dominance, but its economic strategies. For one thing, the USA is financing its current wars with Asian IOUs. This would not have been a problem if the country was getting more back in return for its "investments", as a consequence of those wars, than what they cost; but that is not so. The British Empire lasted for more than two hundred years because the British were able to find goods which they could sell, even if that meant selling drugs (opium) produced in India to the Chinese. All the US has managed to get out of its military adventures is more arms orders. The country is slowly being brought down by its own military-industrial complex, a risk which several US presidents warned against. More fundamentally it is being brought down by its own economic policies: by its economic theories, such as the conviction that it does not matter how you acquire your money so long as you carry on consuming. The roots of this policy can be traced back to the development of the US financial industry, founded on a Federal Reserve modelled more as a private company with invested interest in the banking sector than as a State institution run for the benefit of consumers as the Fed and banks operate in close symbiosis. All this has been conceived, constructed, and defended by economic experts from the various leading universities, not out of any ill will, but out of self-interest and ideological conviction. It is a financial system which has been exported to and adopted by all the Western countries in one form or another. It is a financial system which profits from lending people money which they cannot pay back, yet refuses them the right to default. When the banks go bust it is those same people who have to bail them out by paying higher taxes, when they are already in debt. This seems to be the decisive factor which has led to US overstretch, and which now appears to be heralding its decline. Unfortunately it signals economic decline for much of the rest of the Western world too, and will lead indirectly to lower growth in Asia.

Man has always been occupied with the issue of competition; it seems to be part of human nature. We know that it is the nature of all other species as well, something we all have in common. Whether bee, whale, or human, competition is ultimately just the expression of our wish to survive and multiply. In other species this function is pre-programmed: part of their instincts. For us, human beings, it is expressed as individual and social choice, at any rate to some extent - less than we care to admit.

This perspective - Man's free will - has been exaggerated within the social sciences from the first. We act very much in accordance with patterns defined by social, cultural, and genetic factors. Free will should be seen essentially as a goal, and hence as ideology. As propounded in the Western world, in its extreme form, free will is an illusion, and therefore a potentially dangerous notion, for it makes us less capable of understanding ourselves and the society we inhabit. Agreed, it strengthens our self-esteem, makes us believe we are in control, and gives our life the meaning which we yearn for it to have. There is such a thing as free will, but we are more pre-programmed than we would like to think. On the other hand, the notion of limited free will ought not to leave us feeling failures when we understand our limitations. But at the same time free will ought not to make us feel superior to the other animals and to the very Nature of which we are part. It would be better if we learned to think of ourselves as a part of Nature, as just another species with no greater right to survive than other living organisms that are needed to maintain a balance in the ecosystem. This biological perspective or insight has been largely denied to twentieth-century Man, occupied as we have been with our own superior qualities and rights. Unfortunately there are no "great games" that will lead us to grasp this in the era of geoeconomics. For this insight, we need to wait till politics gets the upper hand again. For the moment we are going in the wrong direction, and seem unable to do otherwise.

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