The Consequences of Empire

excerpted from the book


The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

by Chalmers Johnson

Henry Holt, 2000


American officials and the media talk a great deal about "rogue states" like Iraq and North Korea, but we must ask ourselves whether the United States has itself become a rogue superpower. In November 1998, Tom Plate, a columnist on Pacific Rim affairs for the Los Angeles Times, described the United States as "a muscle-bound crackpot superpower with little more than cruise missiles for brains.'' That same month a senior State Department specialist on North Korea, when asked by a right-wing journalist what it was like having to deal daily with a totally crazy regime, replied, "Which one." Another former State Department official protested that military might does not equate with "leadership of the free world" and wrote that "Madeleine Albright is the first secretary of state in American history whose diplomatic specialty, if one can call it that, is lecturing other governments, using threatening language and tastelessly bragging of the power and virtue of her country." It is possible to think of other secretaries of state who fit this description, going back to John Foster Dulles, but Albright does not even have the Cold War to justify her jingoism.

We Americans deeply believe that our role in the world is virtuous- that our actions are almost invariably for the good of others as well as ourselves. Even when our country's actions have led to disaster, we assume that the motives behind them were honorable. But the evidence is building up that in the decade following the end of the Cold War, the 5 United States largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation.

The world is not a safer place as a result. Those who support a singular American hegemonic role in world affairs argue, as did Mark Yost, an editor of the Wall Street Journal, "It's all but assured that the number of nuclear powers abroad would increase significantly with the withdrawal or reduction of U.S. forces [in Asia]."3 But in May 1998, with American forces deployed as widely as in the final days of the Cold War, the worst case of nuclear proliferation since the 1960s occurred in South Asia. Both India and Pakistan tested multiple nuclear devices, committing their countries to perfecting nuclear weapons and developing the missiles needed to deliver them-in essence, setting off a full-scale nuclear arms race in South Asia. There can be little question that a serious policy of nuclear disarmament led by the United States would have been far more effective in halting or even reversing the nuclearization of the world than the continuing policy of forward deployment of nuclear-armed troops combined with further research on ever more advanced nuclear weaponry at America's weapons laboratories.

In February 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, defending the use of cruise missiles against Iraq, declared, "If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand ( tall. We see farther into the future." In this book I have tried to lay out J some important aspects of America's role in the world that suggest precisely the opposite. I have also tried to explain how the nature and shape of this role grew out of the structural characteristics of the Cold War itself and the strategies the United States pursued, particularly in East Asia, to achieve what it considered its interests during that period and after. I have argued that the United States created satellites in East Asia for the same reasons that the former Soviet Union created satellites in Eastern Europe. For over forty years, the policies needed to maintain these client states economically, while protecting and controlling them militarily, produced serious unintended consequences, most of which Americans have yet to fully grasp. They hollowed out our domestic manufacturing and bred a military establishment that is today close to being beyond civilian control. Given that the government only attempts to shore up, not change, these anachronistic arrangements, one must ask when, not whether, our accidental empire will start to unravel.

According to a Brookings Institution study, it has cost the United States $5.5 trillion to build and maintain our nuclear arsenal. It is now | common knowledge that comparable costs in the former USSR led to its collapse. In 1988, just before the Berlin Wall fell, that elegant historian of imperial overextension Paul Kennedy detailed the numerous weaknesses of the Soviet economy but nonetheless concluded, "This does not mean that the USSR is close to collapse, any more than it should be viewed as a country of almost supernatural strength. It does mean that it is facing awkward choices." This understandable misassessment by one of the world's authorities on imperial collapse contains an important warning for the United States. Fifteen years ago no one in Russia or elsewhere imagined that the USSR could possibly be in danger of internal disintegration. There are parallels between what happened in the former USSR after the end of the Cold War and the state of the American polity at the end of the century, even acknowledging that economically the Soviet Union had long been a shell held together by a huge underground (and technically illegal) economy, while it displayed to the external world a vast imperial army and nuclear forces.

In March 1985, Mikhail Gorbachev succeeded Konstantin Chernenko as general secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. He was no more opposed to Soviet-style socialism than his counterparts in the United States were opposed to "democracy and free markets." He was, however, keenly aware of the strains that an endless, unwinnable war in Afghanistan and the arms race with the United States were placing on an already shaky economy. A month after he came to power, Gorbachev launched a campaign of economic reform controlled from above that he called perestroika, or "restructuring." Gorbachev's relatively limited goal was to try to accelerate national economic performance by relaxing the Soviet system's centralized planning. He did not fully appreciate that weakening the vertical structure of the Soviet system without first creating horizontal (even if ideologically unacceptable) institutions, such as markets, prices, and private property, would only lead to chaos. Communist colleagues with vested interests in the old system rebelled against even his modest domestic reforms and sabotaged them. In order to counter these attacks, in 1987 Gorbachev introduced something really new-glasnost, or freedom of speech. His intent was still only to achieve a more efficient system of production and improved living standards under the established Soviet political order.

But far more than perestroika, glasnost would prove a critical miscalculation for a leader hoping to reform Soviet-style communism. Glasnost not only opened up the full horrors of the Stalinist past but also revealed the extent to which totalitarian controls had damaged all aspects of life in the USSR. Glasnost-the open discussion of the past-ended up discrediting the very institutions within which the Soviet people had worked since at least 1929, clearing the way for the abandonment of Communist ideology itself, and the subsequent loss of any form of political authority in Russia. A decade later the country was bankrupt, more or less leaderless, and riven with corruption. Russia has also become one of the world's most important breeding grounds for resentment against the Western powers. Even as the United States gloats over its "victory" in the Cold War, future Russian revanchism becomes more and more likely.

The collapse of the USSR was not foreordained. The problems in Russia came to a head when the collective costs of the Cold War finally overwhelmed its productive capacities. Gorbachev's remedies were, however, incommensurate with the problems and led to a loss of political authority, leaving the country with a crippled political system. As time ran out on the Soviet empire, Gorbachev's military restraint in dealing with Eastern Europe was admirable, but the endgame of the Soviet Union remains a cautionary tale for any overextended empire that waits too long to try to halt the drift toward crisis. In contrast to the Soviet Union, China has thus far successfully demonstrated that it is possible to dismantle a Soviet-type economy without destroying its political arrangements.

No matter how humanely (or ineptly) Gorbachev handled the Soviet crisis of the 1980s, it was imperial overstretch that brought the Soviet Union down. Just as during the Cold War there was a symmetry between the USSR and the United States in terms of their respective empires in Eastern Europe and East Asia, so there are at least certain potential symmetries emerging in their post-Cold War fates. The United States believes that it is immune to the Soviet Union's economic problems. That may be true, although America's grossly inflated military establishment and its system of support for arms manufacturers offer parallels to the inefficiencies of the Soviet system. More significantly, unable to agree on a proper course for the country and made complacent by the wealth that flowed its way during the late 1990s, America's leaders have allowed a process to develop that might in certain ways prove analogous to political conditions in post-Cold War Russia.

On December 19, 1998, a Republican Congress voted to impeach a Democratic president-the first time in American history that an elected president had been impeached. It did so for the most partisan and flimsy of reasons: that the president had lied about sexual encounters with a subordinate in his office. In the course of trying to extricate himself from this fratricidal political battle, the president twice resorted to military strikes against other countries, a precedent for which he might well have been justifiably impeached. In August 1998, on the day impeachment evidence against him was being released to the public, Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles fired into a Sudanese pharmaceutical plant and old mujahedeen camps in Afghanistan, allegedly the assets or training bases of an international terrorist ring that had attacked U.S. embassies in East Africa; and on the eve of the House of Representatives' impeachment vote he sent cruise missiles into Iraq, allegedly once again to discipline Saddam Hussein. In neither case did the United States have United Nations or other international authority to act as it did.

The president's acquittal on February 12, 1999, superficially resolved his dispute with Congress. But much like the warfare between Gorbachev and the Communist old guard in the Soviet Union, it had the effect of further weakening the structures of political authority. Congressional willingness to resort to so untested a device as impeachment combined with a president willing to try to divert attention through warlike actions suggests a loss of prudence, even a recklessness, on the part of American elites that could be fatal to the American empire in a time of crisis.

Even though the United States at century's end appears to have the necessary firepower and economic resources to neutralize all challengers, I believe our very hubris ensures our undoing. A classic mistake of empire managers is to come to believe that there is nowhere within their domain-in our case, nowhere on earth-in which their presence is not crucial. Sooner or later, it becomes psychologically impossible not to insist on involvement everywhere, which is, of course, a definition of imperial overextension.

Already, the United States cannot afford its various and ongoing global military deployments and interventions and has begun extracting ever growing amounts of "host-nation support" from its clients, or even direct subsidies from its "allies." Japan, one of many allied nations that helped finance the massive American military effort in the Gulf War, paid up to the tune of $13 billion. (The U.S. government even claimed in the end to have made a profit on the venture.) Japan also pays more generously than any other nation for the American troops on its soil. On the economic front, the arrogance, contempt, and triumphalism with ? which the United States handled the East Asian financial crisis guarantees blowback for decades to come. Capitals like Jakarta and Seoul smolder with the sort of resentment that the Germans had in the 1920s, when inflation and the policies of Britain and France destabilized the Weimar regime.

In the long run, the people of the United States are neither militaristic enough nor rich enough to engage in the perpetual police actions, wars, and bailouts their govemment's hegemonic policies will require. ,) Moreover, in Asia the United States now faces a renascent China, not only the world's oldest continuously existent civilization but the product of the biggest revolution among all historical cases. Today, China is both the world's most populous society and its fastest-growing economy. The United States cannot hope to "contain" China; it can only adjust to it. But our policies of global hegemony leave us unprepared and far too clumsy in even our limited attempts to arrive at such an adjustment. Meanwhile, the Chinese are very much aware of the large American expeditionary force deployed within striking distance of their borders and the naval units permanently off their coastline. It does not take a Thucydides to predict that this developing situation portends conflict.

The indispensable instrument for maintaining the American empire is its huge military establishment. Despite the money lavished on it, the endless praise for it in the media, and the overstretch and blowback it generates, the military always demands more. In the decade following the end of the Cold War, military budgets consistently gave priority to an arms race that had no other participants. For example, the Pentagon's budget for the fiscal year 2000 called for replacing the F-15, "the world's most advanced aircraft," with the F-22, also "the world's most advanced aircraft." The air force wanted 339 F-22s at $188 million each, three times the cost of the airplane it is replacing. The United States already has 1,094 F-15s, against which there is no equal or more capable aircraft on earth. The last Clinton defense budget included funds for yet more nuclear-attack submarines, for which there is no conceivable use or contingency. They merely provide work for local defense contractors and will join the fleet of America's "floating Chernobyls," along with its nuclear-powered aircraft carriers, cruising the seas waiting for an accident to occur.

The American military at the end of the century is becoming an autonomous system. We no longer have a draft army based on the obligation of citizens to serve their nation. When the Vietnam War exposed the inequities of the draft-for example, the ease with which college students could gain deferments-Congress decided to abolish conscription rather than enforce it in an equitable manner. Today, the military is an entirely mercenary force, made up of volunteers paid salaries by the Pentagon. Although the military still tries to invoke the public's support for a force made up of fellow citizens, this force is increasingly separated from civilian interests and devoted to military ones.

Equipped with the most advanced precision-guided munitions, high-performance aircraft, and intercontinental range missiles, the American armed forces can unquestionably deliver death and destruction to any target on earth and expect little in the way of retaliation. Even so, these forces voraciously demand more and newer equipment, while the Pentagon now more or less sets its own agenda. Accustomed to life in a half-century-old, well-established empire, the corporate interests of he armed forces have begun to take precedence over the older idea that the military is only one of several means that a democratic government might employ to implement its policies. As their size and prominence grow over time, the armed forces of an empire tend to displace other instruments of foreign policy implementation. What also grows is militarism, "a vast array of customs, interests, prestige, actions, and thought associated with armies and wars and yet transcending true military purpose"-and certainly a reasonable description of the American military ethos today.

"Blowback" is shorthand for saying that a nation reaps what it sows, even if it does not fully know or understand what it has sown. Given its wealth and power, the United States will be a prime recipient in the foreseeable future of all of the more expectable forms of blowback, particularly terrorist attacks against Americans in and out of the armed forces anywhere on earth, including within the United States. But it is blowback in its larger aspect-the tangible costs of empire-that truly threatens it. Empires are costly operations, and they become more costly by the year. The hollowing out of American industry, for instance, is a form of blowback-an unintended negative consequence of American policy- even though it is seldom recognized as such. The growth of militarism in a once democratic society is another example of blowback. Empire is the problem. Even though the United States has a strong sense of invulnerability and substantial military and economic tools to make such a feeling credible, the fact of its imperial pretensions means that a crisis is inevitable. More imperialist projects simply generate more blowback. If we do not begin to solve problems in more prudent and modest ways, blowback will only become more intense.

David Calleo, a professor of international politics, has observed, "The international system breaks down not only because unbalanced and aggressive new powers seek to dominate their neighbors, but also because declining powers, rather than adjusting and accommodating, try to cement their slipping preeminence into an exploitative hegemony." 1 believe that the United States at the end of the twentieth century fits this description. The signs of such an exploitative hegemony are already with us: increasing estrangement between populations and their governments; a determination of elites to hang on to power despite a loss of moral authority; the appearance of militarism and the separation of the military from the society it is supposed to serve; fierce repression (the huge and still growing American prison population and rising enthusiasm for the death penalty may be symptomatic of this); and an economic crisis that is global in nature. History offers few examples of declining hegemons reversing their decline or giving up power peacefully, although Gorbachev's policies at the end of the Cold War may constitute one. Given that it is close to inconceivable that any American leader could have the authority and vision to act with similar restraint in dealing with our client states (for example, by withdrawing our military from the Korean peninsula), one must conclude that blowback will ultimately produce a crisis that suddenly, wrenchingly impairs or ends America's hegemonic influence. Given the almost sacred position empire bestows on the American military, it seems unlikely that the crisis will occur in that area. Thus, barring an unforeseen reform movement, it seems most probable that economic contradictions will force the unraveling of the American empire.

Marx and Lenin were mistaken about the nature of imperialism. It is not the contradictions of capitalism that lead to imperialism but imperialism that breeds some of the most important contradictions of capitalism. When these contradictions ripen, as they must, they create devastating economic crises.

Once the Cold War had ended and the United States had decided to try to convert its "slipping preeminence into an exploitative hegemony," it set out to compel every significant economy on earth to remodel itself along American lines. This ignorant project has not only failed but has brought discredit to the very idea of free trade and raised serious questions in the minds of economists in East Asia and throughout the Third World about the motives of the United States in the global economy. The world remains poised on the edge of a possible, United States-induced recession, although the United States itself has thus far been the least affected by the economic crisis. Even if a collapse of global demand is avoided, misguided American economic policies have set back thirty years of economic progress in Southeast Asia and laid the foundation for unpredictable forms of economic, political, and military retaliation by the devastated nations.

Ashok Nath, executive director of the Asialink Advertising Corporation and a strong voice in Asian business affairs, asks about the United States' push for globalization: "Is there no way to go but a generic world order in which every country is forced to have the same interpretation of democracy as the U.S." "Will speculators, the non-value-adding but crisis-providing segment of 'modem society,' continue their activities unbridled?" "Is the U.S., boosted by consumer spending but lacking strong savings, the next bubble economy?" Such questions have become ubiquitous in East Asia in the wake of the near economic meltdown. They constitute an anti-globalization time bomb that, if it explodes, could lead to mutually destructive protectionism and a huge contraction of global economic activity.

The world economy needs leadership to re-create something comparable to the Bretton Woods agreement of 1944 to 1971, with fixed exchange rates and controls over the movement of capital. Instead of attempting to homogenize the global economy, we should be championing results-oriented trade of mutual benefit to nations that do not have identical economic systems. Foreign countries with entirely different legal, economic, and political systems do not need the International Monetary Fund to forcibly impose on them what is a dubious form of capitalism even in the United States. The IMF has already shelled out about $200 billion in a futile attempt to repair the damage that the United States' globalization schemes caused, even as its own meddling in these sick economies has often ended up making them sicker.

The need to raise incomes in the developing world in order to maintain adequate levels of global demand must also be recognized. Since this almost surely cannot (and probably should not) be done by attempting to institutionalize some version of labor rights on a global scale, the United States should establish minimum-wage levels for the manufacture of goods that are to be exported to our market. As an illustration of the need, the athletic shoe manufacturer Nike proudly announced that effective April 1, 1999, it was increasing entry-level cash wages for its workers in Indonesia by 6 percent. Unfortunately, Indonesia had an 80 percent inflation rate for the years 1998 and 1999, and the World Bank projected an inflation rate of 20 percent for the year 2000.

In February 1999, at the twenty-ninth annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, U.S. Secretary of the Treasury Robert Rubin defended finance capitalism while acknowledging that the world was in "the most serious financial crisis of the last fifty years.'' Yet he stonewalled pleas for change from world leaders. Later that month, at a meeting of the finance ministers of the G-7 group of advanced industrial democracies in Bonn, Germany, the United States blocked all proposals for reform: it would not countenance capital controls, a "super IMF" that would act as a central bank for all nations, or anything like minimum wage levels in poor countries. The most it would condone was cuts in interest rates by the central banks of various individual nations in order to stimulate economic activity. The United States instead advocated yet more deregulation of trade and investment.

Meanwhile, resentment is growing over American exploitation of the global economic crisis. Big American companies are buying up factories and businesses in East Asia and elsewhere at ludicrously low prices. Procter & Gamble, for instance, has picked up several state-of-the-art Korean factories for next to nothing. Morgan Stanley, Bankers Trust, Salomon Brothers, and CS First Boston expect returns of around 20 percent on their purchases of real estate loans in Tokyo. In Thailand, any number of American investment companies have been buying up service, steel, and energy companies at concessionary prices. In June 1998, a Washington-based merchant bank, the Carlyle Group, sent a group of its executives, led by its adviser, former president George Bush, to Bangkok to "evaluate opportunities." It plans to invest $500 million in Thailand. Asia Properties, a San Diego firm founded in April 1998, was created specifically "to take advantage of the fire-sale real estate prices along Bangkok's main thoroughfares." According to its vice president, "Asia is going through the largest transference of assets in the history of the world.'' Many East Asians call this "vulture capitalism" and suspect that it was the true purpose of the economic advice given to them in the first place.

The Americans buying these foreclosed properties in East Asia may believe they are merely responding to the signals of normal market forces, but they would be fools to believe that the sellers agree with them. Countries like Thailand and Indonesia have long been on the receiving end of U.S. pressures to deregulate and open their countries to international investors. As a result of doing so they now find themselves destitute, selling off what they built with their own labor in the years since the Vietnam War ended. It is only a matter of time until the small nations of East Asia get tired of this American bullying and find a suitable leader to create an anti-American coalition

In the meantime, the hollowing out of American industry continues unabated. In 1998, the primary case was steel, but the machine tools, chemical, semiconductor, and apparel industries were in the same boat. During 1998, cheap Japanese steel exports to the United States surged some sixteen times above their 1997 level. Even the most efficient American steelmakers, like Nucor of Charlotte, North Carolina, were unable to compete with Japanese cut-rate prices. In the first decade after the Cold War, the U.S. steel industry closed down thirty million tons of productive capacity. Over the past three decades, it has cut its workforce by 400,000 people. Today, it employs only 163,000 workers but pays each of them an average salary of $65,000 a year. As a result of this restructuring and major investments in the most advanced technology, the American steel industry is today competitive with anyone in the world, yet it continues to be overwhelmed by global overcapacity.

Perhaps the American policies that are burying American steel made strategic sense during the period from 1950 to 1970, when they also brought real competition to such complacent industries as automobile manufacturing. By December 1998, however, when the Japanese government decided to reinforce protection of its hopelessly inefficient farmers by imposing tariffs of 1,000 percent on imported California rice, American toleration had become purely self-destructive. In 1997, the United States supplied almost half of the 640,000 tons of rice Japan imported, virtually all of it from California's 2,500 rice farms. The new tariff was the Japanese govemment's way of getting around a commitment it made in 1993, in the so-called Uruguay Round of trade negotiations, to import increasing amounts of rice. There is no question that American rice farming is more efficient than Japan's and that American farmers have matched the varieties of rice favored by Japanese consumers. But the Japanese government makes its consumers pay ten times the world's price for their main food staple in order to protect the gerrymandered rural voting base of the Liberal Democratic Party. Japan can get away with such policies because the United States wants to keep it as a secure staging area for the projection of military power in Asia.

What is to be done? Were awareness of an impending crisis of empire to rise among American citizens and their leaders, then it would be fairly obvious what first steps at least should be taken: adjust to and support the emergence of China on the global stage; establish diplomatic relations with North Korea and withdraw ground forces from the Korean peninsula; pay the United States' dues to the United Nations; support global economic diversity rather than globalization; extricate ourselves from our trade-for-military-bases deals with rich East Asian countries, even if they do not want to end them; reemphasize the "defense" in the Department of Defense and make its name fit its mission; unilaterally reduce our stockpile of nuclear warheads to a deterrent level and declare a no first-use policy; sign and ratify the treaty banning land mines; and sign and ratify the treaty establishing an international criminal court.

More generally, the United States should seek to lead through diplomacy and example rather than through military force and economic bullying. Such an agenda is neither unrealistic nor revolutionary. It is appropriate for a post Cold War world and for a United States that puts the welfare of its citizens ahead of the pretensions of its imperialists. Many U.S. Ieaders seem to have convinced themselves that if so much as one overseas American base is closed or one small country is allowed to manage its own economy, the world will collapse. They might better ponder the creativity and growth that would be unleashed if only the United States would relax its suffocating embrace. They should also understand that their efforts to maintain imperial hegemony inevitably generate multiple forms of blowback. Although it is impossible to say when this game will end, there is little doubt about how it will end.

World politics in the twenty-first century will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the twentieth century-that is, from the unintended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post-Cold War world. U.S. administrations did what they thought they had to do in the Cold War years. History will record that in some places they did exemplary things; in other places, particularly in East Asia but also in Central America, they behaved no better than the Communist bureaucrats of their superpower competitor. The United States likes to think of itself as the winner of the Cold War. In all probability, to those looking back a century hence, neither side will appear to have won, particularly if the United States maintains its present imperial course.

Blowback - The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

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