SocialismToday           Socialist Party magazine

A new imperial moment?

‘A new imperial moment has arrived’, argues a US foreign policy strategist. But Bush’s imperium will be even more chaotic, writes LYNN WALSH, than the ill-fated New World Order proclaimed by Bush I in 1991.

THE PRESIDENT’s National Security Strategy of the United States, released on 20 September, sets out the Bush II military-strategic doctrine. Bush toned down the original draft, "because he thought there were sections where we sounded overbearing or arrogant". (International Herald Tribune, 21 September) Yet in the starkest terms, the statement spells out a commitment to maintain US military superiority ‘beyond challenge’, in nuclear and conventional capacity, across the globe and in space, and even against as yet unrecognised future threats.

No challenge to US hegemony will be tolerated. This statement threatens that the US will act against any power (such as China) or rogue state to pre-empt any military-strategic challenge. If it chooses, the US will launch pre-emptive military strikes, including the use of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons (according to a new policy set out in the Nuclear Posture Review, analysed in Socialism Today 64). The Bush regime has used the profound reaction of outrage and horror at the 11 September attacks to implement this strategic policy; but all its elements were formulated long ago by the neo-conservative right-wingers who form the core of his leadership.

This is the US as supreme arbiter, the world’s gendarme. The social-economic basis of the New World Order, the statement bluntly asserts, will be ‘free-market democracy’ run according to rules made in Washington and Wall Street, the twin centres of power and greed. Historically, US capitalism has played an increasingly imperialist role since its emergence as a major power at the end of the 19th century. Usually, however, US actions are expressed in more diplomatic language, evoking high ideals of Democracy (against Communism), Peace and the Comity of Nations. Bush’s security statement effectively proclaims a new phase of the ‘Pax Americana’, under which – beginning with Iraq – the US will enforce order through ‘savage wars of peace’, the term used by Rudyard Kipling (The White Man’s Burden) to describe the methods used by the imperialist powers to extend their empires at the end of the 19th century.

The Bush II doctrine

THE NATIONAL SECURITY Statement (NSS) identifies the main enemies of the US, outlines its military-strategic strategy, and (rather sketchily) refers to plans to strengthen the US’s military-intelligence war machine. The two main categories of enemies are rogue states and their terrorist clients and potentially hostile powers. The NSS refers (without examining the causes) to the emergence of a small number of rogue states in the 1990s, naming Iraq and North Korea and referring to ‘others’. There is an ‘overlap’ between the sponsors of terror and those that pursue weapons of mass destruction (WMD), which compels the US to action. Rogue states see WMDs as the best means of overcoming the conventional superiority of the US, of blackmailing the superpower. Faced with the threat of ‘catastrophic technologies’, the old policy of deterrence or reactive response, is no longer effective. The US will take action before they become a threat. The NSS repeatedly asserts the right of the US to act pre-emptively. "We will disrupt and destroy terrorist organisations by direct and continuous action using all the elements of national and international power. Our immediate focus will be those terrorist organisations of global reach and any terrorist or state sponsor of terrorism which attempts to gain or use weapons of mass destruction (WMD) or their precursors". The US will deny terrorists "further sponsorship, support, and sanctuary… by convincing or compelling states to accept their sovereign responsibility". While repeatedly referring to "working with allies", "honouring international responsibilities", etc, the NSS bluntly states: "While the US will constantly strive to enlist the support of the international community, we will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right of self-defence by acting pre-emptively".

Referring to other areas of US foreign policy, the NSS makes it clear that the US will continue to intervene in Latin America, Asia, and Africa – through an active strategy of ‘assisting’ friendly governments. What of the Israeli state, which continues to violate a whole catalogue of UN resolutions and possesses weapons of mass destruction? The US "continues to challenge Israeli leaders to take concrete steps to support the emergence of a viable, credible Palestinian state". "Palestinians deserve a government that serves their interests" (no doubt subject to US approval) and the US promises to work with "a reformed Palestinian government" (to be approved by the US). Israeli settlement activity in the Occupied Territories must stop, says the NSS. But the US calls on Israel forces to withdraw to "positions they held prior to September 28, 2000", in other words, retaining the great majority of settlements and the Israeli state’s military stranglehold over the West Bank and Gaza. What is left unsaid by the NSS is the commitment of Bush, Rumsfeld and especially Wolfowitz to smash the Iraqi regime before attempting to sponsor a new Israel-Palestine ‘settlement’ on terms favourable to the Israeli state.

Referring to "other main centres of global power", the NSS welcomes the ‘internal transition’ of "several potential great powers", most importantly Russia, China and India – that is ‘transition’ to capitalism or in the case of India to neo-liberal policies.

The Bush leadership, however, is "attentive to the possible renewal of old patterns of great power competition". Russia’s top leaders "have a realistic assessment of their country’s current weakness", and ultimately fell into line with the US on Kosovo and "Strategic (Nuclear Arms) Reductions". At the same time, the NSS criticises Russia’s "uneven commitment to the basic values of free-market democracy" (addiction to gangster capitalism initiated by the US-sponsored free-market ‘big bang’ under Yeltsin) and its "dubious record in combating the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction" (selling nuclear power technology to Iran).

The US, says the NSS, "welcomes the emergence of a strong, peaceful China". Early on, however, there is an overt warning to the Chinese leaders. Clearly referring to China, the NSS warns "we will strongly resist aggression from other great powers – even as we welcome their peaceful pursuit of prosperity, trade and cultural advancement". Moreover, "in pursuing advanced military capabilities that can threaten its neighbours in the Asia-Pacific region, China is following an outdated path" – which will clearly be resisted by the US.

Regarding Europe, the NSS says that the US welcomes European "efforts to forge a greater foreign policy and defence identity with the EU", but warns that "these developments [should] work with Nato". The real thrust, however, is that the European powers must spend more on their military forces, and other former Stalinist states in Eastern Europe must be brought into Nato. "Nato must build a capability to field, at short notice, highly mobile, specially trained forces whenever they are needed to respond to a threat against any member of the alliance". Alliance members must be ready to go into action within "coalitions under Nato’s own mandate, as well as contributing to mission-based coalitions". Translated, this means alliance members should be ready to operate under US-dominated Nato command, otherwise those willing to go into action can join a US-determined, mission-based operation.

The concluding section of NSS, on "transforming America’s national security institutions" (the military machine, the intelligence apparatus, and ‘homeland defence’) is sketchy to say the least. Recent reports, however, make clear the massive scale of the arms build-up now underway in the US. (See Michael Klare, Endless Military Superiority, The Nation, 15 July 2002) Bush is now implementing plans formulated long ago by the neo-conservative hawks around Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Perle, but only partially implemented before 11 September. When Rumsfeld first took over the Pentagon after Bush’s election, his plans for a radical overall of military strategy, based on developing a wider range of military capabilities, met with entrenched opposition from the military tops, the Pentagon bureaucracy, and the big arms corporations. Only recently did Rumsfeld succeed in cancelling the ‘Challenger’ field artillery system, one of the legacies of the cold war era. Now Rumsfeld’s position is much easier. With $45bn dollars added to the 2003 military budget and a $100bn increase in military spending over the next six years, the Pentagon can expand the nuclear arsenal, heavy-duty military hardware (tanks, heavy artillery, intercontinental missiles, fighter aircraft, etc), as well as developing a worldwide capacity for rapid intervention and more flexible weapons systems. More surveillance equipment for an expanded intelligence apparatus, together with homeland defence, will provide a bonanza for military contractors. For this year alone, the federal government has allocated $30bn to enhance homeland security.

As the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) makes clear, the US will retain 2,200 strategic nuclear warheads, maintaining 1,200 ‘retired’ warheads as reserve weapons. Rumsfeld enthusiastically supports the development of the missile defence system and research on space-based weapons, and the active development of ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons to be used as an integrated part of the US’s war-fighting arsenal.

Rumsfeld’s immediate priority, however, is to develop strengthened rapid intervention forces capable of operating across the globe. Referring to Afghanistan, the NSS says "we must prepare for much more such deployments by developing assets such as advanced remote sensing, long-range precision strike capabilities, and transform manoeuvre and expeditionary forces. Its broad portfolio of military capabilities must also include the ability to defend the homeland, conduct information operations, ensure US access to distant theatres, and protect critical US infrastructure and assets in outer space".

These overarching military-strategic plans expose the hollowness of the NSS’s opening statement: "We do not use our strength to press for unilateral advantage". The US National Security Strategy, says the NSS, is based on "a distinctly American internationalism". Decoded, this means: the US decides, the rest of the world follows – or else.

Empire rehabilitated

IN HIS GRADUATION day speech at West Point military academy (1 June 2002) Bush reiterated his commitment to US "military strengths beyond challenge". But America, he asserted, "has no empire to extend or utopia to establish. We wish for others only what we wish for ourselves – safety from violence, the rewards of liberty, and the hope for a better life". Despite this disavowal, however, Bush proceeded to expound the doctrine of a new US empire. The US would not only confront "evil and lawless regimes" but would put an end to "destructive national rivalries". Competition between great nations is inevitable, but the US "intends to keep military strength beyond challenge, thereby making the destabilising arms races of other eras pointless, and limiting rivalries to trade and other pursuits of peace". In other words, the US will play the role of the international military policeman.

The US has no utopia to establish. Yet "the 20th century ended with a single surviving model of human progress", obviously the US capitalist model. "America cannot impose this vision", said Bush, "yet we can support and reward governments that make the right choices for their own people". In the light of the history of US military interventions and economic coercion, this sounds more like a threat than a promise.

Among the ‘right choices’, according to the National Security Strategy, is a recognition that "market economies, not command-and-control economies… are the best way to promote prosperity and reduce poverty". The statement explicitly links the global spread of the US neo-liberal model to the security of US imperialism. "We want our allies [including Europe and Japan] to have strong economies for their own sake, for the sake of the global economy, and for the sake of global security". The US will use its ‘economic engagement’ (strategic power and economic clout) "to underscore the benefits of policies that generate higher productivity and sustained economic growth, including: pro-growth legal and regulatory policies to encourage business investment, innovation, and entrepreneurial activity; tax policies – particularly lower marginal tax rates – that improve incentives for work and investment… strong financial systems that allow capital to be put to its most efficient use; sound fiscal policies to support business activity…" This is the manifesto of the US multinational corporations. The US ‘will actively work’ to bring "free markets and free trade to every corner of the world" under the US-dominated regime of Wall Street, the IMF and the WTO.

The NSS makes only passing references to the deep social-economic crisis underlying current world conflicts, referring at one point to "a world where some live in comfort and plenty, while half of the human race lives on less than $2 a day". The US solution, encapsulated in one of the NSS’s sub-headings, is to ‘Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth through Free Markets and Free Trade’.

"We are in a conflict between good and evil", said Bush to applause from the graduating West Point officers. "By confronting evil and lawless regimes, we do not create a problem, we reveal a problem. And we will lead the world in opposing it". There can be no compromise with the forces of evil (as ‘revealed’ by the US government) and why should the forces of good be restrained? Against the evil fundamentalism of Islamic terrorism, is counterpoised the righteous fundamentalism of US imperialism.

In his ‘Axis of Evil’ (State of the Union address, 29 January) and West Point speeches, Bush was in simple terms spelling out the military-strategic doctrine elaborated over the last decade by the neo-conservative right. In both the serious journals of the foreign policy establishment and propaganda sheets (like the Murdoch-financed Weekly Standard), they have been exultant over the triumph of their new military supremacism. Bush had "boldly flouted the foreign policy establishment’s conventional wisdom", charting "an expansive new American foreign policy, a paradigm shift equal to the inauguration of anti-communist containment half a century ago". (Robert Kagan and William Crystal, Weekly Standard, 11 February) They welcome the extension of the war on terrorism from a "police action to round up perpetrators of the 11 September attack" into "a campaign to uproot dangerous tyrannies and encourage democracy". They rejoice in the new unilateralist assertion of power. "The Bush doctrine could help undo dictatorships not only in Iraq, Iran and North Korea, but also, for example, in China and Saudi Arabia". (Kagan and Crystal, Weekly Standard, 4 March)

Another neo-conservative, Max Boot, features editor of the Wall Street Journal, put ‘the case for American empire’ in the Weekly Standard (15 October 2001): "The September 11 attack was the result of insufficient American involvement and ambition; the solution is to be more expansive in our goals and more assertive in their implementation". The US was ‘scandalously irresolute’ after suffering casualties in Somalia (1992), Kenya and Tanzania (1998), the USS Cole (2000), etc. He refers approvingly to punitive expeditions mounted by British imperialism in the 19th century, for instance in the Sudan in 1898 and Afghanistan in 1842 when British forces burned down Kabul’s great bazaar to leave "some lasting mark of the just retribution of an outraged nation [British imperialism]". According to Boot, Afghanistan and other troubled lands today "cry out for the sort of enlightened foreign administration once provided by self-confident Englishmen in jodhpurs and pith helmets". He raises the idea of "a formal system of United Nations mandates modelled on the mandatory territory sanctioned by the League of Nations in the 1920s", in order to build working state administrations. Unilateral US rule, in other words, effective annexation by the US, may no longer be an option today, Boot concedes. "But the United States can certainly lead an international occupation force under UN auspices, with the cooperation of some Muslim nations".

The world should accept, wrote Robert Kagan in the journal Foreign Policy (Summer 1998), that the US is "the drive wheel of the international economic, security and political systems…" and the truth is that "the benevolent hegemony exercised by the US is good for the vast portion of the world’s population. It is certainly a better international arrangement than all realistic alternatives". And if there is to be a sole superpower, "the world is better off if that power is the United States".

Multilateralism, argues Kagan, does not work. US efforts to get rid of Saddam Hussein, were undermined by the secondary powers and Russia, who were pursuing short-term economic gain and enhanced prestige. "They took a slice out of American hegemony". They did not have the means to solve the Iraq problem, only the means to prevent the US from solving it. "Multilateralism must be preceded by unilateralism", argues Kagan: "In the tougher situations, the most effective multilateral response comes when the strongest power decides to act, with or without the others, and then asks its partners whether they will join". Elsewhere, Kagan accuses the European powers of free-riding under the umbrella of the US hegemony. (Policy Review, June 2002)

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the US was free to intervene wherever it chose. Under Bush I the US invaded Panama in 1989, led the Gulf war in 1991, and intervened in Somalia in 1992; under Clinton, the US intervened in Haiti, Bosnia and Kosovo. Clinton’s secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, insisted that the US was the world’s ‘indispensable nation’ – provoking complaints against the ‘hectoring hegemon’, with the French foreign minister Védrine describing the US as a ‘hyper-puissance’ and subsequently criticising Bush’s ‘simplistic’ foreign policy. The European powers’ multilateralism, says Kagan is the tactic of the weak: "They hope to constrain American power without wielding power themselves". European integration and cooperation, however, was premised on the US military umbrella during the post-war period. The Europeans should accept the vital necessity of having a US hegemon. Bluntly, while the US ‘makes the dinner’ the European powers ‘get to do the washing up’ (peacekeeping duties in the Balkans, Afghanistan, etc).

‘The Case for American Empire’ is taken up by Sebastian Mallaby in Foreign Affairs (March/April 2002), the leading journal of the Washington foreign policy establishment. When regional power vacuums created by turmoil in ‘failed states’ threatened great powers in the past, "they had a ready solution: imperialism. But since world war two, that option has been ruled out… This anti-imperialist restraint is becoming harder to sustain, however, as the disorder in poor countries grows more threatening". Civil wars have grown nastier and longer, exacerbating a cycle of poverty, instability and violence. Foreign aid, Mallaby argues, has not been effective, more and more of it squandered in corruption. Oil revenues have been used to finance elite luxury and armaments. To change this, ‘outsiders’ (the Western powers) "must begin by building the institutions that make development possible. They must engage… in the maligned business of nation building".

Despite the apparent US aversion to ‘nation building’, even the Bush regime has not completely pulled out of Bosnia or Kosovo. "The logic of neo-imperialism is too compelling for the Bush administration to resist. The chaos in the world is too threatening to ignore, and existing methods for dealing with that chaos have been tried and found wanting". The US, argues Mallaby, must face up to reality: "A new imperial moment has arrived, and by virtue of its power America is bound to play the leading role".

A purely unilateral imperialism, however, is unlikely to work, Mallaby accepts. Foreign ‘nation builders’ need international legitimacy. With its gridlocked one-country-one-vote system, and the veto powers of the permanent members of the Security Council, the UN is unworkable as a nation-building agency. Mallaby proposes a new international body on the lines of the World Bank and the IMF. "It would assemble nation-building muscle and expertise and could be deployed wherever its American-led board decided, thus replacing the ad hoc begging and arm-twisting characteristic of current peacekeeping efforts. Its creation would not amount to an imperial revival. But it would fill the security void that empires left".

A ‘new imperial moment’ but not ‘an imperial revival’? Mallaby’s proposal sounds like a new call, echoing Kipling’s appeal to the US in 1899, for the superpower to shoulder the ‘White Man’s Burden’ and take on the task of ‘civilising’ and policing the ‘lesser breeds without the Law’. Iraq may be the test case.

Can the US prevail?

BEYOND DISPUTE, the USA is the world’s paramount military power. But will it succeed in establishing a stable hegemony? Can the US defeat any forces, military or political, which move against it? In reality, the use of force (or the threat of force) as the first and last resort of its international policy betrays the desperation of US imperialism and points to the underlying weakness of US and world capitalism. Far from soaring to new heights, the US imperial eagle will crash land in the coming period.

Neo-conservative calls for an American empire surpassing Rome are abstract fantasies divorced from history and current realities. Most of today’s ‘failed states’ were trouble spots within the 19th colonial orbits of Britain, France, Belgium and the US. The League of Nation mandates and other forms of protectorate completely failed to resolve the problems, simply storing up future crises. The colonial powers were forced by mass national movements to withdraw from their colonies or informal protectorates, conceding political independence. How could the US, or a new US-dominated multi-national agency, reimpose control? National and class consciousness is far more developed today, and there is a deep anti-imperialist consciousness everywhere the US has intervened in the past.

The trigger happy resort to force will provoke even more armed conflicts. If the US asserts the right to launch pre-emptive strikes, other regimes will follow suit. On the basis of Bush II’s military-strategic doctrine, the American hegemon will become a generator of global tension, conflict and war. Bush’s imperium will be even more chaotic than the ill-fated New World Order proclaimed by Bush I in 1991.

Unilateral action by the US will cause increased rivalry between the capitalist powers and turmoil in world relations. US hegemony amongst the capitalist powers in the cold war period rested on a stable, structured alliance between the major capitalist powers in opposition to the Stalinist states. The disintegration of the cold war structure of alliances is one of the major factors behind current international tensions.

Bush and the neo-conservatives fail to understand that military capacity is only one component of power. In the past, the US relied on various forms of ‘soft power’ which secured political and social support. The idea of American society, of democracy, prosperity, and opportunities for all (despite the realities of US society), reinforced US imperialism’s ideological influence throughout the world. This has been undermined by the effects of neo-liberal policies imposed by the US and repeated US military interventions in neo-colonial countries.

Most importantly, imperial power ultimately rests on economic strength. In the post-war period the US’s role as a superpower rested on historically unprecedented growth and productivity of the US economy. Now the US appears to be moving from a period of slow growth to a period of stagnation. The financial bubble and living standards depended on the flow of capital from around the world, leaving the US with a net foreign debt of $2.5 trillion. Economically US capitalism depends on its creditors.

The collapse of its superpower rival, the Soviet Union (a non-capitalist planned economy ruled by a totalitarian bureaucracy) allowed the US to rampage on the world arena after 1989. At the same time, the demise of Stalinism led to the fragmentation and disorientation of the workers’ movement internationally, politically disarming resistance to imperialism. This is already changing. The strengthening of mass working-class movements will bring the re-emergence of socialist consciousness – this will be the challenge to US power and bring the imperial eagle down.


Home About Us | Back Issues | Reviews | Links | Contact Us | Subscribe | Search | Top of page