"The Beat Goes On" was a hit song in 1967. It rose on the charts and fell, as all hit songs do. But there is always some song that is number one. That’s the way it is with powerful rulers. They rise and fall, but there’s always one of them on top. I’d like to see that kind of list become extinct.
Several news items prompt this thought. The main one appeared on August 17, 2007. It was that Hugo Chávez, Venezuela’s President, "has proposed a change to the constitution that would allow unlimited presidential terms in Venezuela. The leader also told the National Assembly that he wanted to end autonomy for the central bank and bring its international reserves under presidential control."
Chávez already rewrote the constitution in 1999. His party already holds all the seats in parliament. Two six-year terms are not enough for him. What is more, he wants the length of a term to become seven years. The main step left after that is president for life. Chávez denies this ambition in these words: "They accuse me of planning to remain in power eternally or to concentrate power. We know that is not the case." He won’t stay in power eternally, that’s for sure. But he obviously has and will continue to concentrate power.
Chávez can lie with a straight face about his power under the phony pretext that he represents the people in their socialist revolution: He is their will. Many of us hear and accept the same lie (justification) from leaders of democracies. In the movie All The King’s Men, Willie Stark (a Huey Long figure) makes a similar remark. Stark, by the way, is German for strong or strongman.
Like Willie Stark who spoke up for the hicks against established interests, Chávez wants the power, in his words, to "complete the death of the old, hegemonic oligarchy and the old, exploitative capitalist system, and complete the birth of the new state." (The term capitalist here does not mean free-market in leftist lingo; it means state capitalism.) He may end the old order, but only by replacing it with a new hegemonic and exploitative order of his own.
Chávez also is projecting power internationally just as Castro did and as the U.S. has. He is muscling in on the politics of a number of other nations. He is using cash to influence elections.
Controlling money is a key element in building up a powerful state, and the central bank is a key element in controlling money. Chávez said: "The international reserves of the republic will be handled by the central bank, under the direction of the president who is the administrator of the public finances." A second element is to consolidate power at the national level. Chávez will extend the centralized national government into the individual states. He will do this by creating federal cities and territories within the Venezuela’s states. The new constitution will give him power to declare "special military regions."
The parallels of these moves to what has occurred in the U.S. are crystal clear, but not to the average American. The U.S. central bank was created almost 100 years ago. Most Americans don’t connect it up to the centralization and expansion of U.S. power. They should. Similarly, the national government in the U.S. has persistently accumulated power compared to the individual states. The U.S. constitution launched that process, the War Between the States preserved it, direct election of Senators furthered it, the income tax cemented it, and constitutional changes and Supreme Court interpretations have made Washington the nation’s dominant power.
We may smirk and be amused at what seem to be the peccadilloes of second-rate foreign nations who don’t know any better and who don’t deserve our attention. We may ignore the comings and goings of foreign affairs, but we are in precisely the same boat as they are. We delude ourselves to think we are different or better. The power goes on here just as it does abroad.
Chávez is losing popularity in Venezuela, but it is doubtful that this will translate into his demise as a political power. The other important facet of a Chávez and a Castro is the historic and continuing U.S. role, through the CIA and overt policies that include "assistance and development" to established governments, in bringing about these political forces. The U.S. Army has well-established and oft-used special operations forces that interfere in many foreign lands. The typical U.S. aim is to maintain the government of a "host nation." As one U.S. Army manual states: "One of the key recurring lessons is that the United States cannot win other countries’ wars for them, but can certainly help legitimate foreign governments overcome attempts to overthrow them. US forces can assist a country confronted by an insurgency by providing a safe and secure environment at the local level and continuously building on the incremental success." Since Chávez has taken power, the U.S. has persistently tried to dislodge him in all sorts of ways. It tried this with Castro. It tried this in Iran and succeeded for a time. It tried this in the Middle East. Can the U.S. complain when the inevitable blowback occurs? Can Americans or U.S. officials claim moral superiority when Chávez interferes in foreign elections? Isn’t this and worse standard operating procedure for the CIA?
Russia’s rearmament is a second item to note. The issue in this case is domestic power linked to the projection of international power. The Christian Science Monitor reports: " A seven-year, $200-billion rearmament plan signed by President Vladimir Putin earlier this year will purchase new generations of missiles, planes, and perhaps aircraft carriers to rebuild Russia’s arsenal."
Russia is rebuilding its status as a global military power. Its immediate focus is the countries that neighbor it that used to be in the Soviet Union. The joint military exercises with China are part of a broader group of six countries in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO). The four others are the Central Asian countries, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan. The Monitor article continues: "The SCO clearly wants the US to leave Central Asia; that’s a basic political demand," says Ivan Safranchuk, Moscow director of the independent World Security Institute. "That’s one reason why the SCO is holding military exercises, to demonstrate its capability to take responsibility for stability in Central Asia after the US leaves." India, Pakistan, Iran, and Mongolia are observer states for the military maneuvers. They are prospective SCO members.
The end of the Cold War and the breakup of the Soviet Union provided a golden opportunity for the U.S., the leading world power at the time, to ratchet down the power game. Instead it sought U.S. hegemony worldwide, including Central Asia and the Middle East. It extended NATO. The power went on and up. Other nations now respond.
Admittedly, we live in a difficult world. We always have a choice between domination and cooperation. Many nations will choose domination no matter what the U.S. does, and it may seem that our only option is our own domination of others. This is not so. World politics looks like a prisoner’s dilemma game, but the states are not isolated in separate cells where they cannot communicate. They also have a vast range of actions by which to signal their intentions and bond their behavior. They can allow monitoring on their soil. They can encourage trade. They can act in small but effective reciprocal ways. They can mutually disarm. The best way out of the dilemma is communication as well as exploration and use of these many alternatives that are incipient cooperation and bring about further cooperation. Everyone can be a winner. We want to get into a virtuous cycle, not more arms races. We want the power to go down, not up. "Trust but verify" is not at all a bad idea. A solid and real domestic defense is a good idea. Catering to the militarists and the military industries within a country is a very bad idea. They must be kept on a very tight leash. Catering to our own insecurities, fears, and utopian hopes is a bad idea. Being a worldwide policeman is a bad idea. Overbuilding our own power is a bad idea. All of these actions provoke the other prisoner to retaliate in kind. The power goes up everywhere, and we all end up worse off.
There is a positive relation between domestic and international power. The correlation is not perfect. There are tyrants domestically who do not try to project power internationally, but usually a tyranny within a country provides enough revenue to its leaders that they take their ambitions to other countries. If some ruler has a great deal of power domestically, he will tend to use it internationally and attempt to increase that power. When the U.S. government was rather small and the country had much more freedom, the U.S. role in foreign affairs was smaller. Now that the U.S. government is much larger with concomitant increases in revenue, the country is much less free and the U.S. role in foreign affairs is much larger. If the power goes on and up domestically, it tends to go on and up internationally.
What Chávez is doing has a lesson for us. What Russia is doing has a lesson for us. We are doing and have done the same things in our own way. We need to turn the power down and off. Tolstoy wrote: "In order to obtain and hold power, a man must love it." Napoleon Bonaparte confirmed this: "I love power," he wrote. Also: "War is the business of barbarians." In our nation, we the people confer or at least accept the power that we collectively create. Again Bonaparte: "The herd seek out the great, not for their sake but for their influence; and the great welcome them out of vanity or need." If enough of us identify with the power of the great ones that we place in office, and those great ones need and love that power, mustn’t we expect barbaric results?
Michael S. Rozeff [send him mail] is a retired Professor of Finance living in East Amherst, New York.