By David Glanz (International Socialist Organisation, September 2003)
IS IT THE WORLDS only super power? The first hyper power? The new Rome? The new empire? In a spiral of verbal inflation, these are among the descriptions of the United States as it cements its position as the arbiter of world affairs. Having outspent and outlasted the Russian empire, the US has brought Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq to heel in a succession of one-sided wars. As George W. Bush and his coterie perfect their imperial swagger, his administration has turned its back on multilateralism in favour of a doctrine of unilateral, pre-emptive retaliation. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, issued by the White House in September last year, puts it succinctly: America will act against & emerging threats before they are fully formed & In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and security is the path of action.
The concept of sovereignty is now conditional on acceptance by the US that a weak country deserves it. If it does not, then it is a candidate for intervention. If it does, its sovereignty is in any case debased as it exists at imperial pleasure. So North Korea, Iran, Syria and Cuba are publicly abused as rogue states, put on notice that they face the possibility of attack. The US has denied military aid to nearly fifty countries which are guilty of recognising the International Criminal Court but have not exempted US citizens from prosecution. It is organising along with ten other countries, including Australia, to interdict ships suspected of carrying materials crucial to North Koreas weapons program. What many would see as piracy on the high seas becomes early self-defence.
Militarily, President Bush has no need to bluster. US military expenditure is now greater than the total spent by the next twenty military powers combined. The cost of occupying Iraq acknowledged by US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as being nearly $US1 billion a week is, in annual terms, ten per cent of Australias gross domestic product. There are more than 400,000 US troops stationed overseas, with bases in about one hundred nations. The collapse of the Soviet Union together with victory in the Afghan war has allowed the Pentagon to put boots on the ground in a range of countries once closed off to it, such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The view from Beijing, for instance let alone Pyongyang is one of increasing encirclement: US troops in Japan and South Korea to the east, in the Philippines to the south, in the central Asian republics to the west.
This, surely, confirms the US as global hegemon. This is the most powerful empire the world has yet known. Yes and yet, and yet. Take the situation in Iraq, where the US won the war but is rapidly losing the peace. American forces were able to rout an under-equipped, under-sized army whose conscript majority were not ideologically committed enough to risk their lives. Cruise missiles, unchallenged aircraft and overwhelming technological and logistical superiority among ground troops are, in the context of conventional warfare, an unstoppable combination. (Hence the Pyongyang Stalinists are gambling on a roll of the nuclear dice.) But that same combination has little potency when the new, post-war enemy can walk up to a US soldier at a Baghdad street soft drink stand and blow his brains out before disappearing into the crowd. Cruise missiles do not get electricity grids up and running; Stealth bombers cannot create law and order; and body-armoured troops and tanks cannot deliver goodwill or trust.
The slide from victory to a situation characterised even by Rumsfeld as one of war, where the US occupying forces are facing co-ordinated guerilla attacks and an increasingly hostile local population, should not have come as a surprise. In Afghanistan, the USs military superiority overwhelmed the Taliban in 2001. Hamid Karzai was installed as president through a US-sponsored process of national consultation (nothing as messy as voting, of course). But Karzais writ runs only in the capital and its environs; his personal sovereignty does not even extend that far, with his bodyguard consisting of US special forces soldiers. According to Mohammad Ashraf, an Afghani with Action Aid, Afghanistan has been promised $US4.8 billion in foreign funding for reconstruction but has received just $US1.9 billion, of which 80 per cent goes directly to the United Nations and non-governmental agencies for their expenses. Meanwhile unexploded cluster bombs create a continuing source of danger. Warlords are once again in control across most of the country. As author Nicholas Nugent notes: Despite being told & that the US could do two things at once, the Afghan government believes that the US in particular has lost interest in Afghanistan in favour of Iraq.
The US might take its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, a strategic crossroads but an economic backwater and geopolitical minnow, but the situation in Iraq cannot be treated so lightly. This is a country of twenty-four million people, used, until 1991, to near-First World living standards, literate and nationalist. It is at the heart of the Middle East and possesses the second largest reservoir of oil in the world. While most Iraqis are pleased to see the back of Saddam Hussein, they are making it increasingly clear that they have no desire to be ruled by a foreign occupier. Medea Benjamin, a co-founder of the US anti-corporate organisation Global Exchange, arrived recently in Iraq. She reported: Our first encounter with US troops came when we crossed the Iraqi border. Two red-faced boys with fuzzy cheeks who couldnt have been over 18 ran up to greet us, happy to find English speakers. The Iraqis waiting in line for their entry stamps looked tired, hungry and exasperated at having their countrys border controlled by 18-year-old foreigners strutting around with guns or sitting atop heavily armored humvees and tanks. The whole scene was unnerving, a flashback to the days of British colonialism. The US cannot afford to walk away from Iraq, but neither is it likely to normalise it soon. Hyper power or no, the US is bogged in Iraq.
Where did this new US unilateralism come from? The common sense is that it is a consequence of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. The pain, the shock and the loss of face the US experienced that day certainly made it a turning point. But in declaring war on terror, the Bush administration was doing with the backing of popular legitimacy what its members had debated for years behind closed doors or in elite circles using the USs military strength to carve out strategic influence, influence which could be measured in economic, diplomatic and geo-political terms. The neo-conservatives, as they are now widely known, declared their hand in June 1997 in a statement issued during the Clinton presidency by the Project for the New American Century. Signatories included George W. Bush confidants Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz, as well as his brother, Jeb.
In part the statement read: The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership. Our aim is to remind Americans of these lessons and to draw their consequences for today. Consequences of this position included significant increases in military spending to that the US could accept responsibility for Americas unique role in preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles.
The neo-cons emphasised two important points. First, that this was not a harkening back to the presidency of the first George Bush, despite the continuity in White House senior personnel between the two Bush administrations. Bush the elder was too conciliatory, too multilateralist he waited until he had built a substantial coalition until he attacked Iraq in 1991 and then ended the war with Hussein still in power. Instead the call was for a return to the Ronald Reagan era, of folksy populism at home mixed with steely determination abroad to defeat the Evil Empire, the former Soviet Union. George W.s assault on Iraq should not be interpreted then as dealing with unfinished family business; the neo-cons are playing for much higher stakes, the reshaping of the world in their image.
Their second caveat about US foreign policy flowed from this approach that it must not allow the promise of short-term commercial benefits threatens to override strategic considerations. This, too, helps us understand the invasion of Iraq. Of course, oil was an important factor in explaining a war over weapons of mass destruction that did not exist, against a dictator who had been a trusted US ally. The US currently imports 53 per cent of its oil; that figure will rise to 65 per cent by 2020. Having control of Iraqs oil in concert with a continuing alliance with Saudi Arabia would put the US in an unassailable position and finally exorcise the ghost of the APEC cartel. If the US-Saudi alliance were to fail, Iraqs oil would provide a crucial buffer. But while access to resources and markets is the bread and butter of inter-state rivalry, it cannot be reduced to that. Britain did not fight Argentina in 1982 to retain the sheep riches of the Falklands; it did so to send a warning to potential rivals that British wealth was out-of-bounds to marauders in any part of the world. Likewise, for Australian capital the economic value of domination of the Solomons is paltry, but if sending troops means investments in Papua New Guinea or Indonesia are safer, or if it ensures the unmolested passage of exports through the waters to our immediate north, then the exercise is justified.
The US, as the only true global power, considers its interests on that scale. Its rivals in Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China need to be kept in line. This cannot be done by brute force there can be no pre-emptive retaliation against nuclear-armed cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Instead, the medium-sized powers need to be made to understand that they have to adapt to US needs. France and Germany were welcome to join the invasion of Iraq, under US supreme control, but the US was powerful enough to go it alone if it needed to. In asserting the hierarchy of power, the US was not simply grabbing for oil (there is none in Bosnia, Serbia or Afghanistan), but sending a signal about the priority it would like accorded to its interests more broadly, whether in determining the outcome of the next round of World Trade Organisation discussions, burying the Kyoto climate change agreement, or facilitating investment by US-based corporations in other economic blocs. As US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick recently stated: Countries that seek free-trade agreements with the United States must pass muster on more than trade and economic criteria in order to be eligible. At a minimum, these countries must cooperate with the United States on its foreign policy and national security goals.
Despite the triumphalism, the neo-cons are acutely aware not just of the USs strength, but how provisional that is. The US is the worlds military behemoth, but the economic base on which that superiority has been constructed has been declining, relative to the USs competitors. In the period immediately after World War II, the US was responsible for fully half of world economic output. It was said that Russian soldiers marched into Berlin wearing American boots. Today that proportion is down to about a third, still huge but not qualitatively greater than the European Union. The gap is likely to continue closing. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2001 France, Germany and Italy all recorded a higher output per hour worked than the US. Furthermore, the Bush administration is taking an enormous gamble by running record government budget deficits $US455 billion this year, more the next. The cost of the war and of tax cuts for the Republicans wealthy voter base is part of the problem; the other is the flabbiness of the US economy since the dot com bust, which revealed that American corporations profit figures were in some cases outright lies. The administration is, in effect, taking part in some good old-fashioned Keynesian pump-priming, but the bill is being picked up by overseas investors. If they cut and run, the US economy would dive.
The EU, either together or as separate nations, has not been able or willing to turn its extra euros into military materiel to match the US, which gives Washington the advantage if it is prepared to take it. As the neo-cons put it in the 1997 statement: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievements of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests? We are in danger of squandering the opportunity and failing the challenge. We are living off the capital both the military investments and the foreign policy achievements built up by past administrations & As a consequence, we are jeopardizing the nations ability to meet present threats and to deal with potentially greater challenges that lie ahead.
So what begins to emerge is a picture of the US as the imperial power, but not an unchallenged or unqualified one. France, Germany and Russia effectively held up the war on Iraq by months. China is rapidly emerging as a regional superpower, with the potential to operate on a global stage if its economic growth rates are maintained over coming decades. The White House cannot get allies like India or Pakistan, let alone France, to commit troops to Iraq to take the burden off its homesick soldiers. It cannot get India or Pakistan to put the nuclear Pandora back in the box. It could not get NATO ally Turkey to permit the passage of troops to open a northern front in Iraq. It cannot break the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by diktat. It cannot simply take out North Korea or Iran at will. George W. Bush has to flatter and fawn on the insignificant prime minister of a medium-ranking regional power in the South Pacific because its participation alongside the US and Britain in Iraq provided a fig leaf of multilateral respectability to an otherwise unilateral invasion. While the talk is of how the US is now prepared, post-Iraq, to throw its weight around on an even larger scale, Bush has tried to keep his distance on intervention in Liberia. Any deployment would be small and temporary, he says. It is not just that sub-Saharan Africa has little strategic importance. It is also that even a hyper power can begin to over-reach itself. Politically, how can the White House justify providing fresh troops for Liberia when it is leaving ever-sulkier soldiers sweating in Iraq, while their wives mount political campaigns to bring their loved ones back home? American opinion polls have shown a sharp turnaround in public support for the Iraq adventure, dropping from 74 to 53 per cent. George W. might be enjoying exercising his expanded powers, but he does not want to go the way of his father.
Concern about the USs new unilateralism is so widespread that have some raised the idea of creating an anti-empire front, an alliance of all or any prepared to stand up to the New American Century. In practice, the idea means relying on old Europe France, Germany, Russia as a counterweight to US hegemony. In the Philippines, during the invasion of Iraq, activists debated whether to march to the French embassy to thank that government for its anti-war stance. In the end they did not, and rightly so. The difference between the US and its European rivals is ultimately one of scale, not of kind. To the extent that they need to, or can get away with it, countries like France behave like smaller versions of the US. The French government has sent troops before now to some of its Francophone former African colonies; it maintains a South Pacific colonial base; and it was happy to put its hand up to join Australia in the Solomons to underline that fact. Germany is constrained militarily by its past, but is still interested in creating a sphere of influence. Its unilateral recognition of Croatian independence helped catalyse the war that broke apart the old Yugoslavia. Russia, of course, is an imperial power of longstanding. Its two re-invasions of Chechnya have been exercises in textbook brutality.
Who then can we look to as a counterweight to the US Empire? Step forward what The New York Times has termed the worlds second superpower the peace movement that blossomed late last year and early this year, putting the worlds largest ever co-ordinated protest on the streets on the weekend of February 14-16. If the anti-war movement can successfully make common cause with those fighting to defend societies, jobs, the environment and services all threatened, too, by the US imperial, free market agenda then we have the makings of a counter-power. This movement will be impressive in old Europe but there is no reason to believe it cannot grow elsewhere, inside the US itself. The most comprehensive poll of public attitudes on foreign policy ever undertaken in the US and Europe, in September last year, showed more similarities than differences in world views on either side of the Atlantic.
The US empire is hugely strong, but far from impervious. As Filipino academic Walden Bello put it recently, speaking in Berlin: We have & entered a historical maelstrom marked by prolonged economic crisis, the spread of global resistance, the reappearance of the balance of power among centre states, and the re-emergence of acute inter-imperialist contradictions. We must have a healthy respect for US power, but neither must we over-estimate it. The signs are there that the US is seriously over-extended and what appear to be manifestations of strength might in fact signal weakness strategically. Empires pass and even the neo-cons know it.
An edited version of this article appeared in the September 2003 issue of Eureka Street magazine.