RIO DE JANEIRO – In the euphoria that followed the end of the Soviet Empire, it was easy for United States planners to enjoy the benefits of a Russian knockout, the emergence of the US as the sole superpower, torrents of foreign capital flowing in, and the prospect of an everlasting life of leisure without a worry about a mounting trade deficit.

But there were plenty of risks. Nobody could tell whether Russia was dead and buried. Nobody thought that the US might become economically dependent on the rest of the world.

Nobody could imagine that a certain Vladimir Putin would one day go to Berlin and deliver – in German – an extraordinary speech stating that Europe would only consolidate itself as a really independent world power by associating its capacities with a Russia full of human, territorial and natural resources, and full of economic, cultural and defense potential.

Nobody could possibly imagine that from Europe to Latin America, from Asia to Africa, the perception of the US’s relationship to the world would switch from protection to virtual aggression, as perception of Russia’s relationship to the world would switch from aggression to a possibility of protection.

This is not what Washington wanted – but with the new fundamentalist ethic put in place by the Bush Doctrine, the result was pretty much inevitable. To examine what happened, we should go back to Brzezinski’s geopolitical opus, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives. In 1997 he was sure the only threat to the American Empire was Russia. So Russia had to be isolated and defanged. Brzezinski’s advice was for the US to follow a conciliatory foreign policy with everybody except Russia. He perfectly understood that the US grip over Eurasia would depend on the consent of the “protectorates” – Europe and Japan. So the US had to care about the solidification and expansion of the European Union, and should attribute to Japan a global, and not only Asian, role.

Brzezinski also understood that the Franco-German axis was the major strategic player in Europe. So his vision seemed surefire: as long as Europe and Japan were satisfied with US leadership, the American Empire was invulnerable – an empire taking over Eurasia and concentrating the essence of the economic and technological power of the world.

Brzezinski was also clever enough to understand that China had to be appeased. He saw rivalry with China as being far in the future. And he recommended conciliation toward Iran, because its democratic evolution would not lead to confrontation with the US. By following all these precepts, Russia – the only imminent military threat to the US – would be squeezed between Europe and Japan, cut off from China and Iran, and in fact be excluded from any major role in Eurasia.

The problem is, Bush’s Washington did not implement Brzezinski’s vision. The US in fact expanded NATO to eastern Europe, courted Ukraine, and extended its influence in the Caucausus and Central Asia. But then came the war against terrorism. There are now between 10,000 and 12,000 US troops in Afghanistan, 1,500 in Uzbekistan, a few hundred in Kyrgyzstan and a little more than a hundred in Georgia. But this is far from representing a destabilization of Russia.

Bush’s Washington – as any diplomat in Brussels will tell us – engaged in a catalogue of actions humiliating or snubbing the European Union. They despised Japan, provoked China, and put Iran into the Axis of Evil. The result is that different poles in Eurasia are now joining forces against the US. To top it all, Washington hawks guided Bush in supporting Israel against the Palestinians, thus antagonizing the Muslim world.

As we have seen, the US’s military, economic and ideological capacities are limited. The only way for the US to affirm its global role is to confront and attack military midgets. This is not empire but simulation of empire, manifested by maintaining absolutely useless tensions with Cuba, North Korea and Iraq, and the usual provocations of China. Hostility toward Iran is in fact absurd, because any US senator or congressman, with a simple visit to Tehran, might see for himself how the country is yearning and already striving for democracy. If the US was really an empire, it would be striving for Pax Americana – a series of relations of patient condescension toward regimes that will not last very much longer. Kim Jong-il and Saddam Hussein might fall without a shot being fired.

But so much Washington-engendered tension entails no military risk for the US and reinforces the perception that the US is everywhere. The whole process feeds a larger-than-life illusion of an unstable and dangerous planet which needs US protection.

A reconstituted al-Qaeda has already ruined this perception. Al-Qaeda, a deadly mutant virus interlinked with myriad groups, has just rendered the planet really unstable and dangerous – and no one can rely on the US for protection.

The showdown with Iraq, threats against North Korea, provocations against China: this is all theatrical micro-militarism, able to distract the media and cause apprehension all over Eurasia. Meanwhile, the only real military adversary, Russia, is left alone. An increasingly stable Russia and the increasing autonomy of both the European Union and Japan imply only one thing: a deadly blow to US hegemony. Strategic major players Japan, Russia and the EU are drawing together. Eurasia is starting the drive for a balance without the US.

Russia is far from being isolated by the US. Bush plays for the galleries, lip-synching about cooperation with Russia. For Moscow, on the other hand, the name of the game is Europe.

Russia is beginning to wake up to the fact that it can live without the US but it cannot afford to be estranged from Europe. Trade between Russia and the EU is almost eight times bigger than between Russia and the US. Russia is capable of making an offer the EU simply cannot refuse: loads of oil and a counterweight to US military influence. Russia can always slip back into anarchy or Soviet-style autocracy. But make no mistake, Russia is back – much earlier than anybody thought. No wonder UN diplomats are happy. Russia is a very strong nation but it does not harbor hegemonic designs. It’s fundamentally egalitarian. And economically – unlike the US – it does not depend on anybody else’s oil or supply of goods. The US may keep floating the illusion of financial power by means of political and ideological control of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But because of its trade surpluses, Russia does not need either of these institutions, unlike Argentina, Brazil, Turkey or Indonesia. One of the most extraordinary after-effects of September 11 was, in the long run, to drive a wedge between Europe and US. The Axis of Evil hysteria, US support for Ariel Sharon and contempt for Palestinians, all led to a widespread European perception of the US as irresponsible and extremely dangerous.

The US media simply cannot digest the fact that for any European ruling class, each national history in each European country is much richer, more relevant, more complex and more interesting than three-century-old American history. Western Europe now enjoys a standard of living and a quality of life similar and in many regions superior to America’s. No wonder there are widespread doubts over the legitimacy of US leadership.

Cultural differences between the US and Europe are infinite. US society is the recent product of a very successful colonial experience. America had an immensely productive soil, because it was all virgin soil. America did not create riches – rather, the original, natural wealth was exploited by an immigrant population, most of it literate.

A very long, centuries-old peasant history explains why Eurasians as a whole feel the absolute necessity of an ecological balance and a manageable trade balance. For so long, Europeans, Chinese, Indians all had to fight the exhaustion of their soil. In America, people were liberated from the past: they had unlimited access to nature as lush as paradise. The US really changed the definition of economics. All over Eurasia, economics is understood as the optimization of rare resources. In the US it is the exploitation of plentiful resources.

Europe feels threatened by the American social model. European society is far from being as mobile as American society: it is deeply rooted. And unlike the US, Europe has no problems with the outside world. Europe wants and needs peace to increase its already voluminous trade. The US, on the other hand, is now conditioned by two conflicts: one against Russia, the main obstacle to total American hegemony, and the other against the Muslim world, the universe of theatrical militarism.

Europe and Japan are the two key contemporary industrial powers. Russia remains a nuclear-military power. The US cannot control any of these three. So the US chooses to fight non-powers: the Axis of Evil and the Arab world. That’s the ultimate reason for the Iraq obsession. Iraq is at the intersection of this non-power mini-universe.

Europe, Russia and Japan are two-and-a-half times stronger than the US. And US hostility toward the Muslim and especially Arab world is forcing these three powers into a long-term alliance.

So we are not marching toward an American Empire. We are evolving toward an extremely complex system – a balance among clusters of nations, disposed relatively equally. Russia will be one of the poles. Japan will be another. China, after 2020, will be another. And most of all there will be the EU – soon to be a congregation of 25 nations, and expanding.

The core of Europe will remain the Franco-German couple, finally to be enriched by America’s Trojan Horse in the European Union, Britain (otherwise Britain will only survive as one more state of the US).

In South America, the pole will be Brazil – now embarked on finding the Third Way for social development that Tony Blair was not capable of conjuring. No wonder the election of former metalworker Lula as Brazil’s president has generated so much attention in the developing world. Hobsbawm notes that “Lula received more votes than any other democratically-elected president, with the exception of Ronald Reagan in the ’80s, and this is very significant for the world.”

Britain’s Will Hutton, the economist and journalist author of The World I’m In, says Russia, China, Brazil and India are crucial allies of the European Union in the struggle to uphold a multipolar model capable of offering to the world an alternative to the predatory, financial-markets-ruled, unilateralist US model.

A different US administration might be able to realize that no country in the 20th century became more powerful by waging war – or by a major increase in its defense budget. France, Germany, Japan and Russia all lost in this game. The 20th century was the American century because of the US’s reluctance to get involved in military conflicts in the Old World. Today, legions around the world now see the war against terrorism as nothing but a spin-concocted denomination for the maintenance of a US hegemony that may no longer exist.

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