Turning point for U.S. imperialism
by Ahmed Shakwi
International Socialist Review,
November / December 2002
The most important theme to underline
is that we are facing a period-when we look back in five or ten
years-that we will consider to be a defining period of U.S. imperialism.
It is a turn in international relations that is bigger than the
one we saw with the collapse of the Berlin Wall-the period that
was declared as the "New World Order." This new turn
is the attempt by the U.S. ruling class to redefine its position
in the world not only to take advantage of the collapse of the
USSR-its main competitor since the establishment of the international
system after the end of the Second World War-but an attempt to
redefine the international terms of trade and to perpetuate what
has been called the "unipolar world."
The U.S. is the preeminent military and
economic power in the world, and it wants to ensure that the future,
over the next 40 to 50 years and longer, keeps looking the same
That is the only way to explain why the
Bush administration is leading the American ruling class toward
war against Iraq, a move that, on the surface of it, has enraged
allies from the Europeans to the Japanese, the Chinese to the
Russians, and would enrage the Arab regimes themselves. They want
to exploit the advantages they have today and ride them into the
To understand the nature of this turn,
we first have to examine what has happened to U.S. imperialism
over the last 20 years and why the administration uses terms like
"preemptive strike" and "regime change."
Imperialism describes a world economic,
financial, and military system in which the key great powers compete
to dominate the world and to divide it between themselves. That's
the classical theory of imperialism. Economic competition leads
into military competition. The First World War showed this. The
Second World War was a repetition of the First in a number of
key respects, or really the conclusion of the unsettled items
from the First World War.
From the Second World War onward, there
was a change. Instead of a struggle among several key imperialist
powers- notably the conflict between the European powers and the
rising American and Japanese superpowers-you had the system of
imperialism characterized by the competition that emerged between
the USSR and the West, in particular the United States. In other
words, the Cold War. As a result of many changes-the relative
decline of British imperialism, the division of Germany, the occupation
of Japan-the old multipolar competition was subsumed in the competition
between the U.S. and the USSR.
The main aspects of U.S. Cold War policy
were the defense of the West and the spread of the market system
into areas where it hadn't previously been. That included not
only defense against expansion of the East, but also market penetration
into the former colonies of the West. Thus the U.S. became the
champion of decolonization in the sense of supporting the dissolution
of formal structures of colonial rule, but on the condition of
economic penetration and informal empire. Put simply, get rid
of colonialism in Africa, and open up the local McDonald's chain.
That was the essential thrust of postwar American imperialism.
NATO was formed "to keep Russia out, Germany down, and the
U.S. in" the key region of Europe. That summarizes the postwar
world, albeit very schematically.
Problem number one: This new imperial
order raised the ire of many countries around the world, which
went from being colonial possessions to simply being economic
adjuncts to the United States. That is, nationalist movements
arose that said "we want more," and that challenged
U.S. domination, especially in the context of a divide in the
world between East and West. Many of the newly emerging nationalist
movements said they wanted nothing to do with either power and
ended up being pushed by the U.S. into the hands of the USSR.
Problem number two: The U.S. in the late
1960s and 1970s was an economic power in relative decline to the
rise of Germany and Japan. It became more and more difficult for
the U.S. to maintain its commitments to the defense of the West
and the world. In particular, the U.S. had a difficult time both
economically and militarily with its commitments in Vietnam.
Problem number three: The rise of an enormous
anti-imperialist sentiment as a result of a combination of the
other two factors, which mobilized around the idea that the U.S.
should not be the policeman of the world. Plus, what the U.S.
does is against everything it says. It's anti-democratic, it subverts
governments, it kills innocent peasants, workers, etc. The growth
of a mass anti-imperialist movement produces the first major defeat
for the U.S. in Vietnam in 1975.
This produced a crisis in the way U.S.
imperialism functioned. Instead of direct military intervention,
it had to set up proxy regimes internationally through which it
did its business. In the Middle East, that was the key role that
Israel was meant to play, and the U.S. relied on the triangle
of regional powers-Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Egypt-as its proxies
in the region. This was the Nixon Doctrine.
That strategy comes to an end, not only
with the defeat in Vietnam, but critically with the Iranian Revolution
of 1979, in which one of the key proxy powers built up over 20-odd
years is overthrown, followed by the rise of the Khomeini regime.
Fast-forward 10 years. The whole edifice
on which this policy was built collapses with the attempts by
the Reagan administration to reverse the defeat in Vietnam by
raising the arms race through the roof-which in the end helps
economically bankrupt the USSR and creates a new order.
The main pillars of the Cold War order-the
competition between East and West-are removed, and the United
States emerges as the predominant power. That's the picture in
American imperial policy in the 1990s
combined two aspects: One, to reestablish the right of the U.S.
to militarily intervene directly, not just through proxies. Number
two, economic imperialism had to be advanced, in particular to
bring in those areas of the world that had been previously dominated
by the USSR and to penetrate other areas of the world more deeply-Latin
America, Eastern Europe, Asia. Thus, the main aspects of Clinton's
policy emphasized the economic arms of imperialism along with
"humanitarian" interventions which, in themselves, were
not principally about altering the balance of world power but
were about demonstrating the ability and the right of the U.S.
When we talk about the Vietnam syndrome-the
unwillingness of the U.S. to commit troops overseas-you think
now about a number of interventions designed to overcome it. It
began under Reagan on a small scale-Grenada in 1983, Libya in
1986. Then Panama (1989) and Somalia (1992) under the first Bush.
Then Haiti (1994) and Kosovo (1999) under Clinton. You have the
slow ratcheting up of the right to intervene and really the closing
of the last era. The Gulf War of 1991 fits in this series not
as the true beginning of a new era but as a culmination of the
We are now entering imperialism's emergence
into a new and different era. It has the following characteristics:
First, you are not talking about competition between East and
West, nor even about powers that approximate anything like the
strength of the U.S. This isn't like the picture prior to the
First World War where you have imperialism expressing itself through
the competition among Germany, Japan, and the U.S. And that's
clearly not militarily the case. It may be a situation they think
might emerge 20 or 30 years down the line. That's certainly the
debate in the U.S. on how to relate to China-how to hold China
as a "friend" and get ready to kill them 20 or 30 years
Imperialism today is defining its tasks
around not only "rogue states," that is, states that
do not accept economic or political discipline of the U.S., but
also "non-state" enemies, like terrorism. We've spent
a lot of time saying that top U.S. officials were paranoid, nuts,
all of which makes sense. Having a military machine like the U.S.
has couldn't stop al-Qaeda or September 11, but there is clearly,
from the point of view of imperialism, a sense that "We were
right, there is a threat out there to which we have to respond-including
the use of non-state actors against the US."
The war on terrorism has a logic of its
own. There is a logic the present administration is pursuing that
dovetails with the view of more conservative sections of the ruling
class. Their logic is: "We are now way ahead of any of the
other powers in the world. We have to maintain that superiority."
That is: If anyone appears to be developing a potential threat
we need to knock it out now. It was in the context of discussions
of Asia that U.S. planners said that any emerging threat needs
to be taken out now in order to guarantee U.S. superiority in
the future. And that it is the beginning of a doctrine that any
perceived threat anywhere needs to be taken out. It's considered
a part of a preemptive war in which the goal is the maintenance
of the U.S. as the chief power in the world.
Why Iraq? What's it all about? We need
to look at Iraq in the context of September 11. The administration
and Paul Wolfowitz, one of its ideologues, had Iraq in their sights
well before September 11. We need to understand that it isn't
simply terrorists attacking the U.S., but any state sponsoring
terrorism, or that isn't seen as accepting the discipline of the
U.S., must itself be disciplined. It isn't only that they are
ideologically preoccupied with Iraq. They are, of course. But
the point is that Iraq clearly stands out as one of the states
that stands in the way of the U.S. ability to rule the world.
That's what we're talking about, the drive
by the U.S. to determine the fate of the world in its own interests.
Therefore, the administration has decided that Iraq must be taken
out. Not only for Iraq's sake, but read for Iraq, "Saudi
Arabia"; read for Iraq, "Iran"; read for Iraq,
"China"; read for Iraq, "the first step."
If they don't get Iraq, why should anyone listen to what the U.S.
says? It is one thing to launch a multinational operation into
Kosovo. It is another thing to say, "We intend to set the
agenda for the world, and you are either with us"-and this
is the connection with September 11-"or against us."
With the new doctrine, the question becomes whether the U.S. will
be able to carry this program through, whether or not they are
overstepping their capabilities.
That's also the key to understanding the
debate between the multilateralists and the unilateralists. All
of these people-Scowcroft, Kissinger, all who hung onto the last
breath as unilateralists in Vietnam-these born-again coalition-builders
are now arguing, "Let's not go it alone." But there
is actually now, with the war against terrorism, a new basis for
unilateralism since the U.S. has interests that are not necessarily
shared with Middle East allies, the European powers, or others.
There is a basis on which unilateral interests lead them to pursue
Iraq to the end.
What does it mean in terms of the war?
It means they have an uphill battle to win over the rest of the
world. It doesn't rule out getting the acquiescence from the rest
of the international powers, but there are all kinds of problems.
For example, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroder used opposition
to the war against Iraq as a key to his reelection. There are
all kinds of problems, but it seems clear that they will still
go ahead with the war-that they intend to get all their ducks
in a row.
It's guesswork about the timetable, but
the timetable in terms of getting approval seems to be accelerating.
We will have to do a lot more to explain the apparent contradictions
of American imperialism, which is that they don't seem to give
much thought to what the effects will be on "the street"
in the Middle East. They are playing with notions like "International
stability"-the hallmark of Cold War imperial ideology-"is
secondary to the needs to impose the rights and authority of the
U.S." A recent article in Foreign Affairs arguing against
this conception, nevertheless, notes that the Bush administration
does put forth this new view of unilateralism. We need to understand
this if we are to come to terms with what they are undertaking.
Part of their logic can be attributed
to the fact that they do not face the kind of anti-imperialism
that they faced in the past. When they say "in the street"
they mean inchoate opposition that repression can take care of,
and that's why the right wing is strong here. They don't see the
same kind of political movements that emerged 20 or 30 years ago
that had a nationalist or anti-imperialist direction.
What is the prognosis? We have to understand
that American imperialism feels emboldened, but that even with
a couple of victories under its belt it does not have a free ride.
Even if it is able to get approval for this war, it will unleash
a set of events despite itself, which include a number of new
contradictions. For example, how do you settle the war? Who gets
Iraq? Who gets the second largest reserves of oil in the world?
They are talking about an occupation of years. Now they say they
will cut a deal with France and Russia to get frozen money and
contracts. What about the rest of the world? The rest of Europe?
Japan? That's just one question. What happens when the Middle
East is thrown into turmoil, let alone the development of an anti-imperialist
movement in the heart of the beast?
A couple of things about the character
of the opposition movement we need to build. Anti-imperialism
is no longer a given in the movement. We have to explain why activists
should be anti-imperialist-in some cases with arguments about
the past history of American intervention, but we also need to
develop arguments about the present character of American imperialism.
What is wrong with regime changes? What is wrong with preemptive
strikes? We have to be versatile in being able to argue the case
against the administration. We also have to offer an alternative,
but not only of anti-imperialism. We need to develop socialist
propaganda that ties opposing the war to changing the system that
Ahmed Shawki is the editor of the International
Socialist Review. This article is based on a speech delivered
on September 7, 2002.
Imperialism / Neocolonialism