Last December, a super-secret RQ-170 Sentinel, part of a far-reaching program of CIA drone surveillance over Iran, went down (or was shot down, or computer-jacked and hacked down) and was recovered intact by the Iranian military. This week, an Iranian general proudly announced that his country's experts had accessed the plane's computer -- he offered information he claimed proved it -- and were now "reverse-engineering" the drone to create one of their own.
Most or all of his claims have been widely doubted, derided, or simply dismissed in our world, and for all I know his was indeed pure bluster and bluff. But if so, it still managed to catch an urge that lay behind a couple of hundred years of global history: to adapt the most sophisticated aspects of the West to resist the West. That urge has been essential to the way our planet has developed. After all, much of the last two centuries might well be headlined in technological, economic, and even political terms, "The History of Reverse-Engineering."
Starting in the eighteenth century, whether you were in the Ottoman Empire or China, wherever, in fact, cannon-mounted European ships appeared to break down doors and conquer countries or subject them to an alien will, the issue of reverse-engineering was always close at hand. For endless decades, the preeminent question, the crucial thing to debate, was just what could be adapted from the Western arsenal of weapons, politics, technology, and ideas, and how it could be melded with local culture, how it could be given Ottoman, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, or [fill in the blank] "characteristics" and made to check or reverse the course of events. The rise of Japan in the nineteenth century and the more recent spectacular growth of China are, without any doubt, cases of the history of reverse-engineering.
Whatever the successes and failures of that process, the question today -- as the U.S. declines, Europe stagnates, and the explosive BRICS countries head for center stage -- is perhaps this: Can reverse-engineering really take us any farther, or will it in the end simply take us down? Isn't it time for something new in the engineering universe or perhaps for the coming of reverse-reverse-engineering somewhere on this weather-freaky, overtaxed planet of ours?
Who better to offer us a little rundown on that planet, end to end, top to bottom in its moment of global stress than Asia Times' and TomDispatch's own peripatetic author Pepe Escobar? He's seen it all. Now, you will, too. Tom
A History of the World, BRIC by BRIC
Neoliberal Dragons, Eurasian Wet Dreams, and Robocop Fantasies
By Pepe Escobar
Goldman Sachs -- via economist Jim O'Neill -- invented the concept of a rising new bloc on the planet: BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa). Some cynics couldn't help calling it the "Bloody Ridiculous Investment Concept."
Not really. Goldman now expects the BRICS countries to account for almost 40% of global gross domestic product (GDP) by 2050, and to include four of the world's top five economies.
Soon, in fact, that acronym may have to expand to include Turkey, Indonesia, South Korea and, yes, nuclear Iran: BRIIICTSS? Despite its well-known problems as a nation under economic siege, Iran is also motoring along as part of the N-11, yet another distilled concept. (It stands for the next 11 emerging economies.)
The multitrillion-dollar global question remains: Is the emergence of BRICS a signal that we have truly entered a new multipolar world?
Yale's canny historian Paul Kennedy (of "imperial overstretch" fame) is convinced that we either are about to cross or have already crossed a "historical watershed" taking us far beyond the post-Cold War unipolar world of "the sole superpower." There are, argues Kennedy, four main reasons for that: the slow erosion of the U.S. dollar (formerly 85% of global reserves, now less than 60%), the "paralysis of the European project," Asia rising (the end of 500 years of Western hegemony), and the decrepitude of the United Nations.
The Group of Eight (G-8) is already increasingly irrelevant. The G-20, which includes the BRICS, might, however, prove to be the real thing. But there's much to be done to cross that watershed rather than simply be swept over it willy-nilly: the reform of the U.N. Security Council, and above all, the reform of the Bretton Woods system, especially those two crucial institutions, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank.
On the other hand, willy-nilly may prove the way of the world. After all, as emerging superstars, the BRICS have a ton of problems. True, in only the last seven years Brazil has added 40 million people as middle-class consumers; by 2016, it will have invested another $900 billion -- more than a third of its GDP -- in energy and infrastructure; and it's not as exposed as some BRICS members to the imponderables of world trade, since its exports are only 11% of GDP, even less than the U.S.
Still, the key problem remains the same: lack of good management, not to mention a swamp of corruption. Brazil's brazen new monied class is turning out to be no less corrupt than the old, arrogant, comprador elites that used to run the country.
In India, the choice seems to be between manageable and unmanageable chaos. The corruption of the country's political elite would make Shiva proud. Abuse of state power, nepotistic control of contracts related to infrastructure, the looting of mineral resources, real estate property scandals -- they've got it all, even if India is not a Hindu Pakistan. Not yet anyway.