excerpted from the book
The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
by Chalmers Johnson
Henry Holt, 2000
Northern Italian communities had, for years, complained about
low-flying American military aircraft. In February 1998, the inevitable
happened. A Marine Corps EA-6B Prowler with a crew of four, one
of scores of advanced American jet fighters and bombers stationed
at places like Aviano, Cervia, Brindisi, and Sigonella, sliced
through a ski-lift cable near the resort town of Cavalese and
plunged twenty people riding in a single gondola to their deaths
on the snowy slopes several hundred feet below. Although marine
pilots are required to maintain altitude of at least one thousand
feet (two thousand, according to the Italian government), the
plane had cut the cable at a height of 360 feet. It was traveling
at 621 miles per hour when 517 miles per hour was considered the
upper limit. The pilot had been performing low-level acrobatics
while his copilot took pictures on videotape (which he later destroyed).
In response to outrage in Italy and calls for vigorous prosecution
of those responsible, the marine pilots argued that their charts
were inaccurate, that their altimeter had not worked, and that
they had not consulted U.S. Air Force units permanently based
in the area about local hazards. A court-martial held not in Italy
but in Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, exonerated everyone involved,
calling it a "training accident." Soon after, President
Bill Clinton apologized and promised financial compensation to
the victims, but on May 14, 1999, Congress dropped the provision
for aid to the families because of opposition in the House of
Representatives and from the Pentagon.
This was hardly the only such incident in which American service
personnel victimized foreign civilians in the post-Cold War world.
From Germany and Turkey to Okinawa and South Korea, similar incidents
have been common-as has been their usual denouement. The United
States government never holds politicians or higher-ranking military
officers responsible and seldom finds that more should be done
beyond offering pro forma apologies and perhaps financial compensation
of some, often minimal sort.
On rare occasions, as with the Italian cable cutting, when
such a local tragedy rises to the level of global news, what often
seems strangest to Americans is the level of national outrage
elsewhere over what the U.S. media portray as, at worst, an apparently
isolated incident, however tragic to those involved. Certainly,
the one subject beyond discussion at such moments is the fact
that, a decade after the end of the Cold War, hundreds of thousands
of American troops, supplied with the world's most advanced weaponry,
sometimes including nuclear arms, are stationed on over sixty-one
base complexes in nineteen countries worldwide, using the Department
of Defense's narrowest definition of a "major installation";
if one included every kind of installation that houses representatives
of the American military, the number would rise to over eight
hundred. There are, of course, no Italian air bases on American
soil. Such a thought would be ridiculous. Nor, for that matter,
are there German, Indonesian, Russian, Greek, or Japanese troops
stationed on Italian soil. Italy is, moreover, a close ally of
the United States, and no conceivable enemy nation endangers its
All this is almost too obvious to state-and so is almost never
said. It is simply not a matter for discussion, much less of debate
in the land of the last imperial power. Perhaps similar thinking
is second nature to any imperium. Perhaps the Romans did not find
it strange to have their troops in Gaul, nor the British in South
Africa. But what is unspoken is no less real, nor does it lack
consequences just because it is not part of any ongoing domestic
... it is past time for such a discussion to begin, for Americans
to consider why we have created an empire-a word from which we
shy away-and what the consequences of our imperial stance may
be for the rest of the world and for ourselves. Not so long ago,
the way we garrisoned the world could be discussed far more openly
and comfortably because the explanation seemed to lie at hand-in
the very existence of the Soviet Union and of communism. Had the
Italian disaster occurred two decades earlier, it would have seemed
no less a tragedy, but many Americans would have argued that,
given the Cold War, such incidents were an unavoidable cost of
protecting democracies like Italy against the menace of Soviet
totalitarianism. With the disappearance of any military threat
faintly comparable to that posed by the former Soviet Union, such
"costs" have become easily avoidable. American military
forces could have been withdrawn from Italy, as well as from other
foreign bases, long ago. That they were not and that Washington
instead is doing everything in its considerable powers to perpetuate
Cold War structures, even without the Cold War's justification,
places such overseas deployments in a new light. They have become
striking evidence, for those who care to look, of an imperial
project that the Cold War obscured. The byproducts of this project
are likely to build up reservoirs of resentment against all Americans-tourists,
students, and businessmen, as well as members of the armed forces-that
can have lethal results.
For any empire, including an unacknowledged one, there is
a kind of balance sheet that builds up over time. Military crimes,
accidents, and atrocities make up only one category on the debit
side of the balance sheet that the United States has been accumulating,
especially since the Cold War ended.
What we have freed ourselves of, however, is any genuine consciousness
of how we might look to others on this globe. Most Americans are
probably unaware of how Washington exercises its global hegemony,
since so much of this activity takes place either in relative
secrecy or under comforting rubrics. Many may, as a start, find
it hard to believe that our place in the world even adds up to
an empire. But only when we come to see our country as both profiting
from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own
making will it be possible for us to explain many elements of
the world that otherwise perplex us.
The term "blowback," which officials of the Central
Intelligence Agency first invented for their own internal use,
is starting to circulate among students of international relations.
It refers to the unintended consequences of policies that were
kept secret from the American people. What the daily press reports
as the malign acts of "terrorists" or "drug lords"
or "rogue states" or "illegal arms merchants"
often turn out to be blowback from earlier American operations.
One man's terrorist is, of course, another man's freedom fighter,
and what U.S. officials denounce as unprovoked terrorist attacks
on its innocent citizens are often meant as retaliation for previous
American imperial actions. Terrorists attack innocent and undefended
American targets precisely because American soldiers and sailors
firing cruise missiles from ships at sea or sitting in B-52 bombers
at extremely high altitudes or supporting brutal and repressive
regimes from Washington seem invulnerable. As members of the Defense
Science Board wrote in a 1997 report to the undersecretary of
defense for acquisition and technology, "Historical data
show a strong correlation between U.S. involvement in international
situations and an increase in terrorist attacks against the United
States. In addition, the military asymmetry that denies nation
states the ability to engage in overt attacks against the United
States drives the use of transnational actors [that is, terrorists
from one country attacking in another]."
The most direct and obvious form of blowback often occurs
when the victims fight back after a secret American bombing, or
a U.S.-sponsored campaign of state terrorism, or a ClA-engineered
overthrow of a foreign political leader. All around the world
today, it is possible to see the groundwork being laid for future
forms of blowback. For example, is estimated that from the Gulf
War of 1991 through 1998, the U.S.
In pursuing the war in Vietnam in the early 1970s, President Richard
Nixon and his national security adviser Henry Kissinger ordered
more bombs dropped on rural Cambodia than had been dropped on
Japan during all of World War 11, killing at least three-quarters
of a million Cambodian peasants and helping legitimize the murderous
Khmer Rouge movement under Pol Pot. In his subsequent pursuit
of revenge and ideological purity Pol Pot ensured that another
million and a half Cambodians, this time mainly urban dwellers,
Americans generally think of Pol Pot as some kind of unique,
self-generated monster and his "killing fields" as an
inexplicable atavism totally divorced from civilization. But without
the United States government's Vietnam-era savagery, he could
never have come to power in a culture like Cambodia's, just as
Mao's uneducated peasant radicals would never have gained legitimacy
in a normal Chinese context without the disruption and depravity
of the Japanese war. Significantly, in its calls for an international
tribunal to try the remaining leaders of the Khmer Rouge for war
crimes, the United States has demanded that such a court restrict
its efforts to the period from 1975 to 1979-that is, after the
years of carpet bombing were over and before the U.S. government
began to collaborate with the Khmer Rouge against the Vietnamese
Communists, who invaded Cambodia in 1978, drove the Khmer Rouge
from power, and were trying to bring some stability to the country.
Even an empire cannot control the long-term effects of its
policies. That is the essence of blowback. Take the civil war
in Afghanistan in the 1980s, in which Soviet forces directly intervened
on the government side and the CIA armed and supported any and
all groups willing to face the Soviet armies. Over the years the
fighting turned Kabul, once a major center of Islamic culture,
into a facsimile of Hiroshima after the bomb. American policies
helped ensure that the Soviet Union would suffer the same kind
of debilitating defeat in Afghanistan as the United States had
in Vietnam. In fact, the defeat so destabilized the Soviet regime
that at the end of the 1980s it collapsed. But in Afghanistan
the United States also helped bring to power the Taliban, a fundamentalist
Islamic movement whose policies toward women, education, justice,
and economic well-being resemble not so much those of Ayatollah
Khomeini's Iran as those of Pol Pot's Cambodia. A group of these
mujahedeen, who only a few years earlier the United States had
armed with ground-to-air Stinger missiles, grew bitter over American
acts and policies in the Gulf War and vis-a-vis Israel. In 1993,
they bombed the World Trade Center in New York and assassinated
several CIA employees as they waited at a traffic light in Langley,
Virginia. Four years later, on November 12, 1997, after the Virginia
killer had been convicted by an American court, unknown assailants
shot and killed four American accountants, unrelated in any way
to the CIA, in their car in Karachi, Pakistan, in retaliation.
It is likely that U.S. covert policies have helped create
similar conditions in the Congo, Guatemala, and Turkey, and that
we are simply waiting for the blowback to occur. Guatemala is
a particularly striking example of American imperial policies
in its own "backyard." In 1954, the Eisenhower administration
planned and the CIA organized and
funded a military coup that overthrew a Guatemalan president
whose modest land reform policies were considered a threat to
American corporations. Blowback from this led to a Marxist guerrilla
insurgency in the 1980s and so to CIA- and Pentagon-supported
genocide against Mayan peasants. In the spring of 1999, a report
on the Guatemalan civil war from the U.N.-sponsored Commission
for Historical Clarification made clear that "the American
training of the officer corps in counterinsurgency techniques"
was a "key factor" in the "genocide.... Entire
Mayan villages were attacked and burned and their inhabitants
were slaughtered in an effort to deny the guerrillas protection.
According to the commission, between 1981 and 1983 the military
government of Guatemala-financed and supported by the U.S. government-destroyed
some four hundred Mayan villages in a campaign of genocide in
which approximately two hundred thousand peasants were killed.
Jose Pertierra, an attorney representing Jennifer Harbury, an
American lawyer who spent years trying to find out what happened
to her "disappeared" Guatemalan husband and supporter
of the guerrillas, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, writes that the Guatemalan
military officer who arrested, tortured, and murdered Bamaca was
a CIA "asset" and was paid $44,000 for the information
he obtained from him.
Visiting Guatemala in March 1999, soon after the report's
release, President Clinton said, "It is important that I
state clearly that support for military forces and intelligence
units which engaged in violence and widespread repression was
wrong, and the United States must not repeat that mistake....
The United States will no longer take part in campaigns of repression."
But on virtually the day that the president was swearing off "dirty
tricks" in other people's countries, his government was reasserting
its support for Turkey in its war of repression against its Kurdish
The Kurds constitute fifteen million people in a Turkish population
estimated at fifty-eight million. Another five million Kurds live
largely within reach of Turkey's borders in Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
The Turks have discriminated against the Kurds for the past seventy
years and have conducted an intense genocidal campaign against
them since 1992, in the process destroying some three thousand
Kurdish villages and hamlets in the backward southeastern part
of the country. Former American ambassador to Croatia Peter W.
Galbraith comments that "Turkey routinely jails Kurdish politicians
for activities that would be protected speech in democratic countries."
The Europeans have so far barred Turkey from the European Union
because of its treatment of the Kurds. Because of its strategic
location on the border of the former Soviet Union, however, Turkey
was a valued American ally and NATO member during the Cold War,
and the United States maintains the relationship unchanged even
though the USSR has disappeared.
After Israel and Egypt, Turkey is the third-highest recipient
of American military assistance. Between 1991 and 1995, the United
States supplied four-fifths of Turkey's military imports, which
were among the largest in the world. The U.S. government, in turn,
depends on the NATO base at Incirlik, Turkey, to carry out Operation
Provide Comfort, set up after the Gulf War to supply and protect
Iraqi Kurds from repression by Saddam Hussein-at the same time
that the United States acquiesces in Turkish mistreatment of its
far larger Kurdish population. One obvious reason is that communities
like Stratford and Bridgeport, Connecticut, where Black Hawk and
Comanche helicopters are made, depend for their economic health
on continued large-scale arms sales to countries like Turkey.
At the time of the Gulf War, a senior adviser to the Turkish prime
minister said to John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for
human rights, "If you want to stop human rights abuses do
two things-stop IMF credits and cut off aid from the Pentagon.
But don't sell the weapons and give aid and then complain about
the Kurdish issue. Don't tell us about human rights while you're
selling these weapons."
The capture in February 1999 of the Kurdish guerrilla leader
Abdullah Ocalan exposed the nature of American involvement with
Turkey, in this case via a CIA gambit that holds promise as a
rich source of future blowback. The CIA term for this policy is
"disruption," by which it means the harassment of terrorists
around the world. The point is to flush them out of hiding so
that cooperative police forces or secret services can then arrest
and imprison them. According to John Diamond of the Associated
Press, "The CIA keeps its role secret, and the foreign countries
that actually crack down on the suspects carefully hide the U.S.
role, lest they stir up trouble for themselves." There are
no safeguards at all against misidentifying "suspects,"
and "the CIA sends no formal notice to Congress." Disruption
is said to be a preemptive, offensive form of counterterrorism.
Richard Clarke, President Clinton's antiterrorism czar, likes
it because he can avoid "the cumbersome Congressional reporting
requirements that go with ClA-directed covert operations"
and because "human rights organizations would have no way
of identifying a CIA role." The CIA has carried out disruption
operations in at least ten countries since September 1998. In
the case of Ocalan's capture, the United States "provided
Turkey with critical information about Ocalan's whereabouts."
This was the first time some of the details of a "disruption"
campaign were made public.
Because we live in an increasingly interconnected international
system, we are all, in a sense, living in a blowback world. Although
the term originally applied only to the unintended consequences
for Americans of American policies, there is every reason to widen
its meaning. Whether, for example, any unintended consequences
of the American policies that fostered and then heightened the
economic collapse of Indonesia in 1997 ever blow back to the United
States, the unintended consequences for Indonesians have been
staggering levels of suffering, poverty, and loss of hope. Similarly,
the unintended consequences of American-supported coups and bombing
in Cambodia in the early 1970s were unimaginable chaos, disruption,
and death for Cambodians later in the decade.
Our role in the military coup in Chile in 1973, for example,
produced little blowback onto the United States itself but had
lethal consequences for liberals, socialists, and innocent bystanders
in Chile and elsewhere. On the nature of American policies in
Chile, journalist Jon Lee Anderson reports, "The plan, according
to declassified United States government documents, was to make
Chile ungovernable under [elected socialist president Salvador]
Allende, provoke social chaos, and bring about a military coup....
A CIA cable outlined the objectives clearly to the station chief
in Santiago: 'It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be
overthrown by a coup.... We are to continue to generate maximum
pressure toward this end utilizing every appropriate resource.
It is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely
and securely so that United States Government and American hand
be well hidden."
No ordinary citizen of the United States knew anything about
these machinations. The coup d'etat took place on September 11,
1973, resulting in the suicide of Allende and the seizure of power
by General Augusto Pinochet, whose military and civilian supporters
in their seventeen years in power tortured, killed, or "disappeared"
some four thousand people. Pinochet was an active collaborator
in Operation Condor, a joint mission with the Argentine militarists
to murder exiled dissidents in the United States, Spain, Italy,
and elsewhere. This is why, when Pinochet traveled to England
in the autumn of 1998 for medical treatment, Spain tried to extradite
him to stand trial for genocide, torture, and state terrorism
against Spanish citizens. On October 16, 1998, the British police
arrested Pinochet in London and held him pending his possible
Although few Americans were affected by this covert operation,
people around the world now know of the American involvement and
were deeply cynical when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright
opposed Pinochet's extradition, claiming that countries like Chile
undertaking a "transition to democracy" must be allowed
to guarantee immunity from prosecution to past human rights offenders
in order to "move forward." America's "dirty hands"
make even the most well-intentioned statement ~ about human rights
or terrorism seem hypocritical in such circumstances. Even when
blowback mostly strikes other peoples, it has its corrosive effects
on the United States by debasing political discourse and making
citizens feel duped if they should happen to take seriously what
their political leaders say. This is an inevitable consequence
not just of blowback but of empire itself.
What, then, of the very idea of an American empire or, for
that matter, American imperialism? "Hegemony," "empire,"
and "imperialism" have often been used as epithets or
fighting words. They lie at the heart of Marx's and, especially,
Lenin's condemnation of capitalism. During the Cold War, Communists
asserted that imperialism was one of the "contradictions"
of capitalism and hence a root cause of class struggle, revolution,
and war. However, the terms also evoke images of the Roman and
British empires, as well as of the Pax Romana and the Pax Britannica
that were said to have accompanied them. Imperialism is further
associated with the racism and exploitation that accompanied European,
American, and Japanese colonialism in the nineteenth and twentieth
centuries and with the violent reactions to it that dominated
the non-Western world in the wake of the Second World War.
In 1917, the Soviet Union inherited an older czarist empire in
Europe and central Asia, a multinational union of peoples based
on conquest and a particular civilization ... [the] seven "people's
democracies" in Eastern Europe that formed the heart of the
Communist camp until its collapse in 1989: East Germany, Poland,
Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, Albania, and Bulgaria. Its American
equivalent was not NATO ... but the system of satellites the United
States created in East Asia. These included at one time regimes
in Japan, South Korea, Thailand, South Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia,
the . ~ Philippines, and Taiwan.
Over time, and with the development of a nuclear arms race
between the United States and the USSR, the two empires based
on satellite regimes created after World War 11 expanded into
much more extensive alignments based on ideology, economic interactions,
technology transfers, mutual benefit, and military cooperation.
For the Soviet Union this was the world that for a brief moment
during the 1950s stretched from Moscow to Hanoi in the east and
to Havana in the west and that even included, at least formally,
China. For the United States it came to include most of the rest
of the world-places where the United States assumed responsibility
for maintaining some ill-defined "favorable" military
environment (what the Pentagon now likes to call "stability")
and where we insisted on free access for our multinational corporations
and financiers (what our economists now call "globalization").
Unlike in Europe, the main Cold War conflicts in East and Southeast
Asia were not between democracy and totalitarianism but between
European colonialism and national independence movements. The
reluctance of the main European powers to give up their colonies
led to wars of national liberation in Indochina against the French,
in Malaya against the British, and in Indonesia against the Dutch,
in all of which the United States supported the side of imperialism.
The Dutch were finally driven from Indonesia; the British, after
a decade-long war, finally acquiesced in Malaya's independence,
followed by its becoming two independent countries, Malaysia and
Singapore. After the French were defeated militarily in Vietnam,
the United States fought an incredibly bloody and prolonged conflict
before it, too, was forced to abandon its imperial role there.
The United States also supported a long counterinsurgency struggle
in the Philippines against a guerrilla movement that considered
the post-independence Filipino government a creature of the Americans.
Only after our defeat in Vietnam did we begin to adjust to the
idea that East Asia was different from Europe...
South Korea has been occupied by American forces virtually
continuously since the end of World War II. It was the scene of
the most important armed conflict of the early Cold War years,
the place where the United States and China fought each other
to a standstill and froze relations with each other for two decades.
Thanks to the United States and the Soviet Union, which in 1945
divided the country for their own convenience, a half century
later Korea remains the last place on earth whose borders are
determined by where the armies of World War 11 stopped. South
Korea's rise during the 1960s as a "miracle economy"
and its spectacular financial collapse of 1997 were directly related
to its status as a satellite of the United States.
South Korea was the first place in the postwar world where
the Americans set up a dictatorial government. With the exception
of its authoritarian president, Syngman Rhee, it consisted largely
of former Korean collaborators with the Japanese colonialists.
Despite opposition from the Korean people, America's need for
a staunchly anti-Communist regime took precedence, given the occupation
of North Korea by the USSR. In 1960, after Koreans searching for
democracy overthrew Rhee, the U.S. government threw its support
behind Park Chung-hee, the first of three army generals who would
rule from 1961 to 1993. The Americans tolerated a coup d'etat
by General Chun Doo-hwan in 1979 and covertly supported his orders
that led to the killing of several hundred, maybe several thousand,
Korean civilians at Kwangju in 1980 (probably far more people
than the Chinese Communists killed in and around Tlananmen Square
in 1989). In order to keep South Korea firmly under its control,
during the 1980s the Americans sent as successive ambassadors
two senior officials of the Central Intelligence Agency, James
Lilly and Donald Gregg. Nowhere else did the United States so
openly turn over diplomatic relations to representatives of its
main clandestine services organization.
South Korea is today probably closer to a genuine parliamentary
democracy than any country in East Asia, but no thanks to the
American State Department, the Pentagon, or the CIA. It was the
Korean people themselves, particularly the students of the country's
leading universities, who through demonstrations and street confrontations
in 1987 finally brought a measure of democracy to their country.
After the democratically elected government of Kim Young-sam took
office in 1993, President Kim felt sufficiently secure to put
the two surviving dictators, Chun and Roh Tae Woo, on trial. They
were convicted of state terrorism, sedition, and corruption. The
American press gave the trials only the most minimal coverage,
while the U.S. government ignored them as a purely internal Korean
The rule of Syngman Rhee and the U.S.-backed generals was
merely the first instance in East Asia of the American sponsorship
of dictators. The list is long, but it deserves reiteration simply
because many in the United States fail to remember (if they ever
knew) what East Asians cannot help but regard as a major part
of our postwar legacy. U.S.-sponsored Asian dictators include:
* Chiang Kai-shek and his son Chiang Ching-kuo in Taiwan.
(Taiwan started to democratize only in the 1980s after the Carter
administration had broken relations with it.)
* Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines (brought down by Corazon
Aquino and her People Power movement after Presidents Ronald Reagan
and George Bush had hailed him as a democrat).
* Ngo Dinh Diem (assassinated on American orders), General
Nguyen Khanh, General Nguyen Cao Ky, and General Nguyen Van Thieu
* General Lon Nol in Cambodia.
* Marshals Pibul Songgram, Sarit Thanarat, Praphas Charusathien,
and Thanom Kittikachom in Thailand (where they were essentially
caretakers for the huge American air bases at Udom, Takli, Korat,
* General Suharto in Indonesia (brought to power with the
help of the Central Intelligence Agency and overthrown with the
help of the Pentagon's Defense Intelligence Agency).
Several others had careers too brief or obscure to remember
clearly (for example, General Phoumi Nosavan in Laos). These men
belong to the same category of petty tyrants that the former Soviet
Union used to staff its satellites in Eastern Europe from 1948
to l989 ...
During the 1980s, the last decade of the Cold War, the parallelism
between the policies of the United States and the USSR continued
but with a new geographical focus. Both sought to shore up or
establish puppet regimes in territories that were on their borders
or in adjacent regions that had long been claimed as spheres of
influence. The USSR was preoccupied with Afghanistan; the United
States, with Central America. Both superpowers utilized the rhetoric
of the Cold War to justify their aggressive actions against much
smaller states-anti-capitalism for the USSR in Afghanistan, anticommunism
for the United States in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama,
and the island of Grenada- even though capitalism in Afghanistan
and communism in Central America were both essentially absurd
ideas. Propaganda apparatuses in the United States and the USSR
effectively disguised from their own peoples the true roots of
revolt in both regions-a religious revival in Afghanistan, opposition
to oligarchies that had long fronted for American corporations
in Central America.
President Reagan and his CIA director, William Casey, claimed
they were trying to halt the erosion of the "free world"
in the wake of the Vietnam War. Whether this was truly their strategy
or merely political rhetoric has never been clear, but what could
not be clearer was that, in 1981, the United States launched Vietnam-style
operations in Central America and put large sums of money, often
covertly raised, into supporting an insurgency against a Sandinista
government in Nicaragua sympathetic to Castro's Cuba. At the same
time, superpower detente, arms control talks, and Sino-American
rapprochement virtually eliminated any real threat of war between
hostile camps in Europe or East Asia. While the American demonization
of Castro's Cuba ratcheted upward and the government argued vociferously
that Cuban-inspired insurgencies were the hemisphere's greatest
threat, the Cold War was already essentially over. The superpowers
continued it only as propaganda cover for their respective neighborhood
Thirty years ago the international relations theorist Ronald Steel
noted, "Unlike Rome, we have not exploited our empire. On
the contrary, our empire has exploited us, making enormous drains
on our resources and energies." Our economic relations with
our East Asian satellites have, for example, hollowed out our
domestic manufacturing industries and led us into a reliance on
finance capitalism, whose appearance has in the past been a sign
of a hitherto healthy economy entering decline. An analogous situation
literally wrecked the former USSR. While fighting a losing war
in Afghanistan and competing with the United States to develop
ever more advanced "strategic weaponry," it could no
longer withstand pent-up desires in Eastern Europe for independence.
The historian Paul Kennedy has dubbed this condition "imperial
overstretch." In an analysis of the United States in his
book The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, he wrote that it too
cannot avoid confronting the two great tests which challenge the
longevity of every major power that occupies the "number
one" position in world affairs: whether, in the military/strategic
realm, it can preserve a reasonable balance between the nation's
perceived defense requirements and the means it possesses to maintain
these commitments; and whether, as an intimately related point,
it can preserve the technological and economic bases of its power
from relative erosion in the face of the ever-shifting patterns
of global production. This test of American abilities will be
the greater because it, like Imperial Spain around 1600 or the
British Empire around 1900, is the inheritor of a vast array of
strategical commitments which had been made decades earlier, when
the nation's political, economic, and military capacity to influence
world affairs seemed so much more assured.
The American political and intellectual establishments remain
mystified by and hostile to the economic achievements of Asians,
just as the Soviet establishment remained mystified by and hostile
to the economic achievements of Anglo-American and Western European
capitalism. It is time to realize, however, that the real dangers
to America today come ... [from] ... our own ideological rigidity,
our deep-seated belief in our own propaganda. As sociologists
Giovanni Arrighi and Beverly Silver warn, "There are no credible
aggressive new powers that can provoke the breakdown of the U.S.-centered
world system, but the United States has even greater capabilities
than Britain did a century ago to convert its declining hegemony
into an exploitative domination. If the system eventually breaks
down, it will be primarily because of U.S. resistance to adjustment
and accommodation. And conversely, U.S. adjustment and accommodation
to the rising economic power of the East Asian region is an essential
condition for a non-catastrophic transition to a new world order."
The United States today desperately needs a new analysis of
its role in a post-Cold War world and of the sorts of policies
that might prevent another major war, like its last three, in
East Asia. Some of the significant changes to come in East Asia
are already visible: China's increasing attempt to emulate high-growth
economies elsewhere in Asia; the reunification of Korea; Japan's
need to overcome its political paralysis; America's confusion
over how to adjust to a self-confident China and to a more independent
Japan; the growing importance of Southeast Asia as a new economic
center of gravity. American policy making needs to be taken away
from military planners and military-minded civilians, including
those in the White House, who today dominate Washington policy
making toward the area. American ambassadors and diplomats in
Asia should have at least an elementary knowledge of East Asian
history, languages, and aspirations. The United States desperately
needs options for dealing with crises other than relying on the
carrier task force, cruise missiles, and the unfettered flow of
capital, just as it needs to overcome the complacency and arrogance
that characterize American official attitudes toward Asia today.
Terrorism(by definition)strikes at the innocent in order to
draw attention to the sins of the invulnerable. The innocent of
the twenty-first century are going to harvest unexpected blowback
disasters from the imperialist escapades of recent decades. Although
most Americans may be largely ignorant of what was, and still
is, being done in their names, all are likely to pay a steep price-individually
and collectively-for their nation's continued efforts to dominate
the global scene. Before the damage of heedless triumphalist acts
and the triumphalist rhetoric and propaganda that goes with them
becomes irreversible, it is important to open a new discussion
of our global role during and after the Cold War...
- The Costs and Consequences of American Empire