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The Failure of the Summit of the Americas: Empire at a Crossroads?


It is in the front page of all major Argentine newspapers: “the Summit split up over FTAA” (Clarín); “The US fails to get support for FTAA” (Pagina/12). By all accounts, the Summit of the Americas ended up in total failure. After several weeks of intense debates before the actual Summit, the negotiators representing the countries of the Americas could not reach an agreement on a final statement. The drafts being debated were revealing of the main issues at stake: the FTAA, of course, but also the way in which the US relates to its neighbors in the region. Thus, for example, when the traditionally patronizing reference to the need to “fight poverty in Latin America and the Caribbean” showed up, the Venezuelan representative insisted on an addition pointing to the need to fight poverty “also in the US”, which was of course unacceptable.

In any case, as negotiators failed, the final document had to be debated at the presidential level during the Summit. As consensus could not be reached by the presidents either, the statement that they issued produced a somewhat awkward solution. They included two paragraphs in the clause on the FTAA, one with a vague reference to “some countries” insisting in giving FTAA another chance, and the other arguing that there are not enough preconditions to discuss FTAA at this point.

Unfortunately, the final round of negotiations among the presidents was not public. Nevertheless, the media managed to get quite vivid descriptions of the events. As the Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez put it before the press, the “five musketeers” -himself, together with presidents Kirchner (Argentina), Lula da Silva (Brazil), Duarte (Paraguay) and Tabaré (Uruguay)- fought “valiantly” (his words) against the Canadian, Panamanian, US, and Mexican representatives, who wanted to get away with a document reaffirming the continent’s commitment to the FTAA project.

As Lula is reported to have said, no debate on FTAA was going to take place if rich countries continued to subsidize their own agricultural products. In trying to force a decision, the pro-FTAA leaders argued that “all the countries of the Americas” with the exception of those five were in favor of such a statement. The countries of Mercosur and their ally Venezuela replied that the final statement was to be agreed only by consensus, and that their countries represent 75% of South America’s GDP anyway. No FTAA was thinkable without them. Apparently George W. Bush left the meeting with a gloomy face and told Kirchner, while saying good bye: “I am surprised; something I had not expected happened here”.

There is no doubt that the vigorous anti-FTAA resistance throughout Latin America played a major role in the failure of the Summit. However, there is no room for excessive celebrations. Even if the FTAA was dead (which is far from clear), projects for a totally free-market Latin America are still progressing in the WTO, and also via the bilateral agreements that the US is signing with one country at a time. And even if this wasn’t the case, it remains unclear if the alternative regional integration being proposed by president Chavez -ALBA, “Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas”- has any chance to become a real project. So far, it remains little more than a vague utopia without political support.

In any case, the weakness of the US leadership, as exposed in the fiasco of the Summit, is quite revealing. It is not just that the US failed to sign the FTAA (which, according to the initial proposal, was meant to be already functioning right now): the Bush administration didn’t even succeed in getting the rest of the presidents to sing a piece of paper with a vague promise to keep on discussing the idea. While this little “rebellion” of the “five musketeers” does not necessarily announce important, deep changes in the region, it is likely that it will bring about a new scenario for the construction of the Empire.

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri have argued that we are witnessing the making of a new (but still capitalist), global form of political order, which they called “Empire”. This new order rests upon, but also transcends, the sovereignty of nation-states, while also relying on new transnational institutions. These institutions maybe the old ones after being transformed according to their new functions -for example the UN- and/or wholly new ones still to be created. The actual structure, power and functions of these institutions, and also of the nation-states in the new era, are still to be defined. As in any rearrangement of social order, the features of the new institutions and laws will crystallize out of the struggle of the social forces involved in that process. By comparison with the Roman Empire and Ancient political philosophy, Hardt & Negri have argued that the definition of the Empire’s new institutions and laws is to be understood as the specific arrangement of the relative forces, rights, and attributions of the Monarch, Aristocracy, and the People.

It seems to be clear that in any capitalist world order, the US state, army and political elite will play the role of the Monarch; their might is such, that no other candidate can compete for that post. What remains to be defined is the distribution of power and functions between this Monarch and its Aristocracy, that is, the elites of other nation-states and economic corporations. There may be different political arrangements for this relationship. While the “Clintonean” model seemed to be based in some form of limited respect for the prerogatives of local elites and multilateral negotiations, the “Bushean” model is one of an “Absolutist Monarchy”, with less attributions and rights for non-American political and economic elites, and largely based on the discretional use of the Monarch’s military force.

The current state of the world is causing severe problems to the “Bushean” way of Empire building. To begin with, an Absolute Monarch who is willing to impose his will by military force needs to win the wars he launches. But the Iraqi periphery is proving more difficult to control than expected. The problems of the “would-be King”, however, are not just of military nature, but also political. While local populations are starting to rebel against capitalist world-order, the local Aristocracies are finding “governance” more and more difficult. This becomes particularly clear in the case of Latin America, where popular revolts have recently overthrown several neoliberal, Washington-oriented leaders. Not by chance, the issue of “governability” and how to ensure it was one of the main themes of debate in the last Summit of the Americas.

The fiasco of the Summit for Bush’s plans, the little “rebellion” of the “five musketeers” and the utter weakness of US diplomacy that all this revealed, may end up bringing about a reversion to a more “Clintonean” approach to Empire building, one in which local Aristocracies have more autonomy, resources and power to manage local discontents, and also one in which local economic elites get a bigger share.

While these tensions in the making of Empire take place, let us hope that the common working men and women of the planet find a way to put an end to capitalism and to get rid of Empire in any shape or form.

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