The message is that might is right

On page 15 of this edition, John Lloyd further develops an issue that he, alone among contemporary writers, has adequately articulated. In the early 21st century, he argues, the left should strive to create a global capitalism that benefits all nations just as, in the 20th century, it strove to create (with some success until the advent of Thatcherism and Reaganism) a national capitalism that benefited all classes. The position of America, by far the most powerful nation on earth, is crucial. The left, in Mr Lloyd's view, should not indulge in anti-Americanism, but try to seduce the US and its governing elite into support for a kind of international social democratic order, complete with economic, political and legal institutions that can begin to command planet-wide support.

It is hard to quarrel with this aspiration, if only because there are no coherent alternatives. Even a retreat from globalisation, into mainly local production (localisation), would require international bodies to implement and enforce it. And Mr Lloyd's aspiration ought not, in principle, be hard to achieve: what defined America, at least before the 1980s, was not race, nationality, ancestry or ideology but, as Lewis Lapham, one of its leading commentators, puts it, "a shared work of both the moral and political imagination". If global governance seems an impossible dream, who better to provide inspiration than Americans who also, more than two centuries ago, dreamed the impossible and in some measure achieved it?

But there is a flaw. The American dream (as several NS writers have recently pointed out) is not what it was. US actions in Afghanistan, and the apparent support for them from the American people, suggests that the country is not on the side of social democratic angels. In a fort near Mazar-e-Sharif, prisoners were bombed by US aircraft. Later, the survivors, sheltering in a basement, had lighted diesel fuel poured on them by America's Afghan allies. The basement was then attacked with artillery rockets and flooded with freezing cold water. The precise nature of the prisoners' uprising remains unclear - it seems that both US and Northern Alliance incompetence left some of them still armed - but the sequence of events hardly suggests that ethical or humanitarian goals, or even the Geneva Convention, are high on the agenda. In the village of Kama Ado, near a cave complex where Bin Laden and his gang are thought to be hiding, there is reliable evidence that American B-52s unloaded bombs that killed 115 men, women and children. And all the news from Washington suggests that senior members of the Bush administration are preparing for assaults on Iraq and other countries once the Afghan war ends.

These are the actions of a rogue state; more rogue than Saddam Hussein's Iraq, which stepped beyond its borders a decade ago and, since then, has kept its odious self to itself. It may be argued that innocents killed in Kama Ado and not-so-innocents killed near Mazar-e-Sharif are just a tragically necessary response to innocents killed in New York and Washington; it may further be argued that the US cannot just sit back and wait for another 11 September. But this is precisely the reasoning that has led to the present Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio; and since the US has so brazenly adopted it this line, Ariel Sharon has quite comfortably seen off America's short-lived attempts to restrain him.

In the wake of 11 September, some hoped that we would see a change in American policy. Alas, its internationalist vision has been confined to the use of opportunistic bribery (lifting economic sanctions on Pakistan, giving more aid to Uzbekistan). There has been no attempt to win the moral argument; the message is that might is right. In all honesty, that is probably the best short-term fix for terrorism: Afghanistan provides a terrible warning to any government tempted to harbour terrorists . But it doesn't bode well for an ethical or social democratic international order.

Seduce America if we can, but have no illusions. The America of Bush and Cheney is not the America of Kennedy and Johnson, which had a streak of good intentions even as it prosecuted the Vietnam war. Over the past two decades, the US has perverted the international bodies we have into tools for the advancement of American business interests. This administration is dominated by the corporate sector; it believes that politics should be subordinate to economics. US policies on global warming, arms control, the UN, an international criminal court and world trade - to mention just a few - do not suggest a nation committed to building an ethical world order. The Clinton administration was not much better on most of these matters: the ethical dimension seemed to play only when bombs were falling on Kosovo. The centre left should indeed work for international social democracy. Mr Lloyd rightly says that the socialist left has no alternative. But if America won't play ball, does the centre left have one?

Single mum in Bel Air mansion

According to the Daily Mail, "a state of war exists between the two parties". The US and Afghanistan? Israel and Palestine? Er, no: we are talking here about a minor actress and a minor Hollywood mogul - so minor, in his case, that he hasn't actually made a film. [Notes to newly arrived Martians. Names: Liz Hurley, Steve Bing. Dispute: did he get her pregnant?] But this is not trivia. Ms Hurley is a single mother in need of accommodation (preferably, in her case, in a £3.5m Bel Air mansion, but we all have aspirations). Mr Bing is an unemployed single man (or playboy, as the upper classes say) who doesn't want to pay up. Both allegedly sleep around (or have non-exclusive relationships). Does this remind you of anything? And can social workers, the Child Support Agency, Tory MPs, Melanie Phillips and assorted American wonks descend on Mr Bing and Ms Hurley and poke around their lives in a moralistic sort of way - and stop pretending that this sort of thing is a disease of the underclass?

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Special Report - The great Koran con trick