Wheels on Fire: Global Opinions, Global Empires

by Yule Heibel on April 2, 2003

[nb: all names/ nouns in double quotes are supposed to be links, but I couldn’t put them in live. I therefore included the URLs near the wished-for link in question. Perhaps I’ll have it straightened out for next time.]

My children’s bicycles had been mothballed since our move here last June, but Victoria is year-round bike-riding country, and I finally got around to having them tuned up for spring. Giving the bikes back to them, in the context of a place with great weather in which bike-riding is really fun, changed the family dynamic utterly. This bit of primitive technology called \“bicycle\” gave them incredible independence. Suddenly, they were gone for hours, and I had two choices: let them go or fearfully sit on them. I decided to get extra housekeys cut and gave them each their own, even as I made them carry identification in case they got smooshed by a car. Whereas in previous months, my spouse swore that our kids would not be gallivanting off by themselves — what if they get hurt? what if a fiend grabs them? — the technology made it all nearly moot: just try to stop a kid on a bike.

And neither one of us would have predicted it in advance.

Since February and the regular and massive global anti-war demonstrations, some people have begun to write and speak about world opinion becoming the \“other superpower.\” Locally, CBC Radio interviewed one of the organizers of area peace rallies, and he,too, echoed this appealing idea, even as “Anthony Barnett” on OpenDemocracy simultaneously wrote an article about it. Barnett defined this phenomenon as a recent development, not beholden to traditional hierarchies:

\“World opinion is a product of the end of the cold war. It made its first appearance by bringing about the ending of apartheid in South Africa. A second example of its capacity to shape affairs was the campaign against landmines that so took the rulers of the world by surprise. A third is the demand to write off the debt of the poorest nations, which still continues.

\“Both the struggle against apartheid and the campaign against landmines were quite tightly led – but they then expanded rapidly. World opinion has so far shown an admirable indifference to the sectarianism of those who head its great causes.\”


Imagine if it were true, and imagine what a qualitative difference it could make in our economies and governments. A huge new technology, the global Internet, paradoxically is making possible a completely different economy of scale and quality: individual voices speak out, bringing concerns to the fore that relate concretely to people’s lives, that reintroduce the notion of human scale, and that ask, \“How big? How many? How much?\” And then: \“Why? What for?\”

Did anyone predict this in advance?

Meanwhile, investigative journalism posted on the Web has condensed the wait-time between event and expose. World opinion does not have to grope blindly, and in that sense it is becoming something stronger than just opinion. More and more people can see what is at stake, how it is being done, and who is responsible. And that transparency can give us a bit of hope after so many years of apathy. We can see that it isn’t only \“the system,\” but specific men (and women) in it, and because their behaviour is so grossly reckless and blind, we can feel within ourselves more specifically the alternative we hope for.

Here are some of the articles that I found especially helpful, beginning with an older Atlanta Journal-Constitution article by “Jay Bookman”, which laid out the empire-assuming role at stake in Bush Administration foreign policy.


Bookman’s conclusion is that:

\“ …with the end of the Cold War and the disappearance of the Soviet Union, a global empire was essentially laid at the feet of the United States. To the chagrin of some, we did not seize it at the time, in large part because the American people have never been comfortable with themselves as a New Rome.

\“Now, more than a decade later, the events of Sept. 11 have given those advocates of empire a new opportunity to press their case with a new president. So in debating whether to invade Iraq, we are really debating the role that the United States will play in the years and decades to come.\”

Put this next to “Seymour Hersh”’s latest analysis in The New Yorker:


Hersh castigates Donald Rumsfeld’s approach to waging the war in Iraq, quoting his informants who allege that Rumsfeld thought he could run the US military and the invasion of Iraq along the lines of a corporation, namely, streamlined and according to the numeric logic of the profit model. Old military hands, however, stress that built-in redundancy is what lets a military operation succeed. Hence, the \“shock and awe\” invasion is going awry even as an Arab backlash is inevitable.

Rumsfeld’s wish to run the military like a corporation fits the profile of a general and reactionary trend toward the privatization of political and civic affairs, which goes hand in hand with the corruption that’s spread through politics and the corporate world. Aside from specific questions Rumsfeld & co.’s modus operandi raise about the actions taken by the Bush administration, I hope that it’s also making everyone take a second, hard look at where an epistemology that relentlessly emphasises quantification — numbers and profit — is taking us. Built-in redundancy vs. corporate streamlining: who predicted war and brinkmanship in foreign policy would get worse if the military had less power and the corporate-number-cruncher technology had more?

Some weeks ago, Colin Powell or Donald Rumsfeld held a press briefing about the \“Coalition of the Willing.\” In the snippet I caught on NPR, Rumsfeld (or Powell?) actually spoke of some countries in the coalition that \“wish to remain private,\” that didn’t want to be named openly. Private? Private partners in a war? Aren’t wars supposed to be public? Or has that been streamlined out of the equation?

Consider the above next to an article by “Samuel G. Freedman” in USA Today.


Freedman calls attention to the essentially private nature of this war effort, and concludes with this:

\“While we’ve been mulling the consequences of the United States invading without the United Nations’ sanctions, the other unilateralism we ought to be worrying about is the sort that renders our citizenry irrelevant.\”

We’re seeing how corporations — “Haliburton”, for example —


stand to profit from this privatization, and we’re seeing the effect on the rest of the world. To use another corporate analogy, this is bankrupting the credit accrued by the US after the end of the Cold War.

But maybe this is a really pivotal historical period. In Europe and in “Canada” (see Naomi Klein’s article in title and above), people are talking openly about the decline — and perhaps the fall — of an empire that only a “Neo-Con” could love.


Commentators in “The Guardian” (UK) speak openly about \“the twilight of empires\”:


\“The twilight of empires can last a long time, but judging from his reckless unilateralism and his economic vandalism, George Bush seems to be determined to do his level best to hasten that decline.\”

In last week’s article, Canada’s “Naomi Klein” concluded that America

\“may be able to live without the United Nations, and it could probably make do without France. But the U.S. could no more protect its people economically and physically without the help of Mexico and Canada than it could secede from planet Earth.
\“The implications of that realization will be far-reaching. Because there can be no all-powerful empires without faithful colonies.\”


Meanwhile, my faithful colonies are out on their bikes, practicing emancipation. I wish them well.

{ 1 comment }

werner April 3, 2003 at 8:11 pm

There is in interesting article in The Register how some of the same powers that can create the “New Superpower” can subvert its meaning.

The article points out that once some of the “Technocrati” in the blog world read about the “New Superpower” they only point to Moore’s interpretation. And then Google picks it up. Maybe we have to ask who controls the page rank in Google.

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