NS Essay - The playground bully

US missiles are the policemen of a global market, just as the Royal Navy was in the 19th century. Ca

An extraordinary experiment has dominated world history since the fall of communism: the construction of a global market unsupported by a global state. Except in France, the political elites of the west insist, with breathtaking insouciance, that this experiment is necessary, inevitable and benign. In truth, it is much more hazardous than they appreciate. Historically, states came before markets. Adam Smith may have been right that a propensity to "truck, barter and exchange" is fundamental to human nature but, as the history of his own country showed, that propensity could not be fully realised until a powerful and impersonal state, with the will and capacity to enforce contracts, keep the peace and dismantle traditional obstacles to the operation of market forces, had come into existence. National markets were created by nation states; the states concerned were then sustained by the wealth that national markets brought in their train.

To be sure, the 19th century saw an experiment in stateless globalisation presaging the one through which we are now living. As far back as 1847, Marx and Engels proclaimed the "universal interdependence of nations" in The Communist Manifesto. They were premature but, by the late 19th century, a global market, more complete than anything seen until our own day, was unmistakably in being. It, too, had developed without the help of a global state.

The surrogate for such a state - the architect and linchpin of the global market - was Great Britain, the world's first global hegemon. The Royal Navy policed the world's sea lanes, opening markets in distant continents and keeping them open. The world's trade was conducted in sterling, and largely carried in British ships. The gold standard, operated by the Bank of England, ensured currency stability across the globe. Britain was overwhelmingly the world's chief creditor nation, earning vast sums from overseas investments and exporting capital on a huge scale. Her formal empire was the biggest in human history. It was buttressed by an informal one: the economic ties that bound Buenos Aires to London were as strong as those that bound Brisbane and Bombay; the British ideal of gentlemanly capitalism flourished as vigorously in Hamburg as in Hudders-field, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, as in Cambridge, England.

But Britain's days as a hegemon were numbered, and the global market she had brought into being came to a bad end. The dynamic continental powers that triumphed in the American civil war and the Franco-Prussian war - the US and imperial Germany - challenged her politically, economically and, in the German case, militarily. By the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, far-sighted intellectuals and politicians, from Alfred Milner and Joseph Chamberlain on the right to Sidney Webb and Ramsay MacDonald on the left, were beginning to suspect that she was no longer strong enough to bear the burdens of hegemony. Their suspicions turned out to be only too well-founded. In the 1920s, British political and economic elites made heroic, self-lacerating efforts to repair the damage that the First World War had inflicted on the global system and to put Britain back on her hegemonic perch. But when the national government was forced off the gold standard in 1931, the game was up. The global system collapsed, with disastrous consequences for the entire world.

Will history repeat itself? Or will we learn from it to shape a more enduring, multilateral, civic version of globalisation, based on law, negotiation and political participation rather than on the power of an inevitably self-interested and temporary hegemon? These questions reverberated through the anguished debates that followed last year's atrocities in America, and will do so again after Bali. They hovered over the Johannesburg Earth Summit, and they haunt the UN Security Council and the feverish diplomatic manoeuvres over arms inspection in Iraq.

At first sight, the omens are not encouraging. So far, the globalisation of our day has been a repeat performance of that of the 19th century, with a hegemonic US playing Britain's old role as linchpin of the global system. True, Britain was never the world's only superpower, as the US now is. She was supreme at sea, but never on land. British governments always had to reckon with the great powers of the European mainland, even in the decades following the defeat of Napoleon I. And 19th-century Britain's prudent, gentlemanly capitalism could hardly have been more different from the profligate and distinctly ungentlemanly capitalism of present-day America.

Yet the similarities between Britain's global role a hundred years ago and America's today are more striking than the differences. Today's global market is an essentially American construct, underpinned by American power and shaped by American interests. American cruise missiles are today's equivalent of the guns of the Royal Navy. The so-called "Washington consensus" constrains lesser nations as tightly as the gold standard used to do.

For most Europeans (though not for Russians exposed to the ravages of kleptocratic mafia capitalism, or for Palestinians exposed to illegal Jewish colonisation on the West Bank) the results have been, on the whole, acceptable. But the past year has called this version of globalisation into question. Enduring hegemony comes with a price tag. The elites that run the hegemonic power need the self-discipline and imagination to subordinate the short-term interests of their own country to the long-term requirements of the global system (knowing that it is in their country's long-term interest to do so). With occasional exceptions, this was spectacularly true of the elites that ran 19th-century Britain; and it was only slightly less true of the elites that shaped American policy during and after the Second World War.

But the United States of Roosevelt, Acheson, Marshall and Truman is now a distant memory. Today's US wants hegemony on the cheap. As the balance of internal power shifts from the Atlantic seaboard to the south and west, the political forces that shape American policy are becoming more parochial, more short-sighted, more impatient with external constraints and more contemptuous of the rest of the world. A raw, provincial brutalism pervades the Bush administration. Bush and his political allies are indifferent to the long-term health of the global system. What matters to them is that narrowly defined American national interests should prevail in the shortest of short terms. If American steel workers want protection, then to hell with free trade. If European leaders demur at America's tenderness to Ariel Sharon, that only proves that Europeans are anti-Semitic wimps.

This is the real meaning of Bush's campaign for "regime change" in Iraq. Saddam Hussein is, by any reckoning, a loathsome figure, but he was equally loathsome when Britain and the US supplied him with arms. Nuclear proliferation in the Middle East is an undoubted danger, but few Americans complained when Israel joined the nuclear club. The truth is that Bush's lust for battle has little to do with the character of Saddam's rule or with nuclear proliferation as such. The point of the exercise is to prove that, despite the humiliation of 11 September and the disappointing longueurs of the war against terrorism, the US is still invincible.

In this, Bush is a mirror image of Osama Bin Laden. Bin Laden wanted to show the world, and the Islamic world in particular, that the US was not invulnerable; that a handful of martyrs could strike at America's heart and that Muslim states therefore had no need to crawl to Washington. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams, and the Afghanistan war did not undo the effect. Now Bush wants a reverse demonstration. He is not deterred by the risks of regime change in Iraq: the implosion of the Iraqi state, with a Kurdish revolt in the north and a Shiite turn to Iran in the south; further damage to America's appalling image in the Muslim world; and the danger of an anti-American backlash in Europe. He is acting on Machiavelli's precept that a wise prince would rather be feared than loved. As Khrushchev once said of West Berlin, Saddam is a bone sticking in America's throat. Toppling him is an end in itself. It will prove that there are no limits to American power; that the US can and will dictate the terms on which globalisation continues. If lesser nations squeal, so be it.

Yet there is a paradox in all this, which may account for the increasingly hysterical quality of Bush's rhetoric. Hegemonial globalisation on the19th-century British and present-day American model is no longer the only kind on offer. Tentatively, and sometimes confusingly, a different approach has started to challenge it; and Bushite brutalism has given the challenge an extra edge of moral passion. This second approach stresses interdependence, dialogue and law, rather than hegemony. One of its most striking examples is the emergence of an embryonic global legal system, manifested most clearly in the Pinochet affair, the trial of Slobodan Milosevic and the establishment of the International Criminal Court in the teeth of American hostility.

Perhaps more significant for the long term are the faint beginnings of a stateless or borderless politics. Increasingly, non-state associations and social movements of all kinds - women's groups, think-tanks, networks of local authorities, anti-capitalist protesters, human rights campaigners, NGOs and, on a different level, multinational corporations, employers' associations and trade unions - seek to structure public debate and to influence public policy on a global as well as a national level. Their activities transcend national boundaries, and elude the essentially national political categories we have inherited from the great thinkers of the past, but they are no less political for that. Meanwhile, notions of global citizenship - usually vaguely defined, often mutually contradictory, but nevertheless strongly held - are steadily gaining currency.

There is still no global polity, still less a global government. The nation state has not suddenly become obsolete. It is still overwhelmingly the most important focus for political allegiance and the chief site of political conflict. Yet we are at least beginning to see the emergence of a global civil society or public space. This space is extraordinarily difficult to map. Its contours and boundaries change all the time. In the language of the American political scientist Joseph Nye, it has more to do with "soft" power than with "hard", and the ebbs and flows of soft power are inherently unpredictable. But it exists and it is growing. Potentially, at least, it offers a civilised, multilateral alternative to the brutal, hegemonial globalisation favoured in present-day Washington.

Which approach will prevail? The only certainty is that the hegemonial approach cannot do so. The rest of the world will not tolerate American hegemony for ever. Its tolerance is already wearing thin, as the German electorate's response to Gerhard Schroder's election campaign showed. If they had a chance to do so, the British and French electorates would almost certainly follow where the Germans have led. China, the world's next superpower, is keeping her own counsel. The same is true of India, the next but one. If they fall into line on Iraq, it will be for reasons of national realpolitik, not out of enthusiasm for the US or its hegemonial role. Russia can probably be bribed to follow the American lead, but the price will be high (about $5bn, according to the latest reports).

America's overwhelming preponderance will come to an end sooner or later, just as Britain's did. But the Bushites' aim is to freeze the global political economy in its present shape, to ensure that the US is for ever invulnerable and invincible and, to that end, to remake the rest of the world in the image of American-style democracy and the American version of capitalism - in short, to turn Francis Fukuyama's preposterous vision of the end of history into a reality. It cannot be done. The American model is specific to the US, the product of a unique (and very short) history to which the rest of the world offers no parallel. The notion that it can be transplanted in the ancient soil of China and India, or even in the somewhat less ancient soil of Europe, betrays a mixture of arrogance and parochialism that would be comic if the likely consequences were not so tragic.

American predominance will sooner or later be challenged by the rising superpowers of east and south Asia, just as Britain's predominance was challenged by Germany and the US a hundred years ago. They may well be joined by a phoenix-like Eurasian successor to impoverished and IMF-battered Russia. Sadly, multilateral globalisation through law and politics may not be the wave of the future. Another possibility is a new version of the shifting balance of power that led to the First World War, the demise of the Victorian global market and the economic disasters of the 1920s and 1930s. That is the real nightmare for our time.

The choice between these futures will not be made in or by Europe, but Europe will have a crucial part to play. It will not be an easy one. Fawning on the Americans, as virtually all postwar British governments have done, does no service to anyone, least of all to the Americans themselves. President Bush has become the playground bully of the west. The only way to stop him is to stand up to him. Blairite sweet talk does more harm than good. Members of the American hard right see it as a sign of weakness and, like all bullies, they despise the weak. De Gaulle's proud intransigence is a better model than Churchill's sentimental Atlanticism for the federalising Europe that is slowly beginning to emerge from the quagmire of confederalism.

Yet simplistic anti-Americanism is equally dangerous. The civic, law-based model of globalisation, which offers the only alternative to the bankrupt hegemonial model, cannot come into being without American participation. This won't happen under Bush, but Bush is not the United States. (Apart from any other considerations, he actually lost the presidential election.) So Europe has a testing hand to play. It needs the courage to tell the Americans when they are wrong, coupled with the imagination to appeal to the best in the American tradition, which has by no means disappeared. Above all, it needs the self-discipline and political creativity to put its own civic house in order.

David Marquand is former principal of Mansfield College, Oxford