from the book


The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

by Chalmers Johnson

Henry Holt, 2000

It is past time ... 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.

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. To take an example of quite a different kind of debit, consider South Korea, a longtime ally. On Christmas Eve 1997, it declared itself financially bankrupt and put its economy under the guidance of the International Monetary Fund, which is basically an institutional surrogate of the United States government. Most Americans

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 ... 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.

Members of the Defense Science Board 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]."

In a sense, blowback is simply another way of saying that a nation reaps what it sows.

Cable outlining CIA objectives in Chile 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."

America's "dirty hands" make even the most well-intentioned statement about human rights or terrorism seem hypocritical ...

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."

Historian Paul Kennedy in his book - The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, wrote that the U.S.

"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."

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.

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.

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 ...

Terrorism ... 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.

The military [in the United States] has for the first time begun to slip beyond civilian control.

The IMF ... is staffed primarily with holders of Ph.D.s in economics from American universities, who are both illiterate about | and contemptuous of cultures that do not conform to what they call the American way of life." They offer only "one size (or, rather, one capitalism) fits all" remedies for ailing economic institutions. The IMF has applied these over the years to countries in Latin America, Russia, and East Asia without ever achieving a single notable success.

... maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil requires about $50 billion of the annual U.S. defense budget, including maintenance of one or more carrier task forces there, protecting sea lanes, and keeping large air forces in readiness in the area. But the oil we import from the Persian Gulf costs only a fifth that amount, about $11 billion per annum.

Militarily oriented products account for about a quarter of the total U.S. gross domestic product. The government employs some 6,500 people just to coordinate and administer its arms sales program in conjunction with senior officials at American embassies around the world, who spend most of their "diplomatic" careers working as arms salesmen.

By 1995, according to its own Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the United States was the source of 49 percent of global arms exports. It shipped arms of various types to some 140 countries, 90 percent of which were either not democracies or are human rights abusers.

Arms sales are ... a major cause of a developing blowback world whose price we have yet to begin to pay.

In 1999, [Oscar Arias, former president of Costa Rica] observed

"Americans have shown great concern about the reported loss of classified nuclear secrets to the Chinese. But they should be just as outraged that their country gives away many other military secrets voluntarily, in the form of high-tech arms exports. By selling advanced weaponry throughout the world, wealthy military contractors not only weaken national security and squeeze taxpayers at home but also strengthen dictators and worsen human misery abroad."

In the late l990s, the economy of Southern California started to thrive once it finally got beyond its Cold War dependence on aerospace sales. Many of the most outspoken congressional champions of reducing the federal budget are profligate when it comes to funding arms industries in their localities, often with the expectation of what future export sales will do for their constituents.

The American empire has become skilled at developing self-fulfilling - and self-serving - prophecies in order to justify its policies. It expands the NATO alliance eastward in part in order to sell arms to the former Soviet bloc countries, whose armies are being integrated into the NATO command structure, with the certain knowledge that doing so will threaten Russia and elicit a hostile Russian reaction. This Russian reaction then becomes the excuse for the expansion. Similarly, the United States sells advanced weaponry to a country without enemies, like Thailand, which in January 1997 bought $600 million worth of F-18 fighters plus the previously not-for-sale Amraam air-to air missile. (Purchase of the aircraft was put on hold after the economic crisis erupted.) It then contends that more must be invested in arms development at home for a new generation of American fighter planes and missiles, given the necessity of keeping ahead of the rest of the world.

A classic model of the disaster is a U.S. decision to "help" an ally faced with domestic dissidence or even insurrection. First, the "threatened" country is declared part of America's vital interests; next, American military personnel and commercial camp followers are sent in to "assist" the government. The foreignness of this effort as well as its indifference to democracy and local conditions only accelerate the insurrectionary movement. In the end an American protectorate is replaced by a virulently anti-American regime. This scenario played itself out in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iran in our time. Now it appears it might do so in Saudi Arabia.

Since the Gulf War the United States has maintained around thirty-five thousand troops in Saudi Arabia. Devoutly Muslim citizens of that kingdom see their presence as a humiliation to the country and an affront to their religion. Dissident Saudis have launched attacks against Americans and against the Saudi regime itself. After the June 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartments near Dhahran killed nineteen American airmen, the international relations commentator William Pfaff offered the reasonable prediction, "Within 15 years at most, if present American and Saudi Arabian policies are pursued, the Saudi monarchy will be overturned and a radical and anti-American government will way this type of circular reasoning can lead to take power in Riyadh." Yet American foreign policy remains on autopilot, instead of withdrawing from a place where a U.S. presence is only making a dangerous situation worse.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon monopolizes the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy. Increasingly, the United States has only one, commonly inappropriate means of achieving its external objectives-military force. It no longer has a full repertoire of skills, including a seasoned, culturally and linguistically expert diplomatic corps; truly viable international institutions that the American public supports both politically and financially and that can give legitimacy to American efforts abroad; economic policies that effectively leverage the tremendous power of the American market into desired foreign responses; or even an ability to express American values without being charged, accurately, with hopeless hypocrisy. The use of cruise missiles and B-2 bombers to achieve humanitarian objectives is a sign of how unbalanced our foreign policy apparatus has become.

A classic model of the disaster is a U.S. decision to "help" an ally faced with domestic dissidence or even insurrection. First, the "threatened" country is declared part of America's vital interests; next, American military personnel and commercial camp followers are sent in to "assist" the government. The foreignness of this effort as well as its indifference to democracy and local conditions only accelerate the insurrectionary movement. In the end an American protectorate is replaced by a virulently anti-American regime. This scenario played itself out in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Iran in our time. Now it appears it might do so in Saudi Arabia.

Since the Gulf War the United States has maintained around thirty-five thousand troops in Saudi Arabia.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon monopolizes the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy. Increasingly, the United States has only one, commonly inappropriate means of achieving its external objectives-military force.

Military might does not equate with "leadership of the free world." It is also no substitute for an informed public that understands and has approved the policies being carried out in its name. An excessive reliance on a militarized foreign policy and an indifference to the distinction between national interests and national values in deciding where the United States should intervene abroad have actually made the country less secure in ways that will become only more apparent in the years to come.

What would make the United States more secure is not more money spent on JCET teams or espionage satellites to find and retaliate against terrorists. Instead, the United States should bring most of its overseas land-based forces home and reorient its foreign policy to stress leadership through example and diplomacy.

Even though it remains a small, failed Communist regime whose people are starving and have no petroleum, North Korea is a useful whipping boy for any number of interests in Washington. If the military needs a . post-Cold War opponent to justify its existence, North Korea is less risky than China. Politicians seek partisan advantage by claiming that others are "soft" on defending the country from "rogue regimes." And the arms lobby had a direct interest in selling its products to each and every nation in East Asia, regardless of its political orientation.

The collapse of the Soviet Union therefore ended China's main usefulness to the United States as an ally, while enhancing its new status as a possible long-term rival to American hegemony. In the wake of the Cold War, with the Pentagon intent on maintaining near Cold War levels of military spending, enemies on the global horizon were much needed. With the Soviet army increasingly seen as a disintegrating "paper tiger," China's economic emergence as a major power in the Pacific offered one possible fit with the Pentagon's need for a major enemy.

U.S. policy toward China, whatever the disagreements about it' within the government, is driven by a familiar global agenda aimed at preserving and enhancing a Washington-centered world based on our being the "lone superpower." Whether it is called "globalization," the "Washington consensus," "soft power," or the "indispensable nation," it still comes down to an urge to hold on to an American-inspired, -financed, and -led world order.

Since economic reform began in 1978, China's annual average per capita income has risen 6.7 times but still remains unimaginably small: $464 in China's cities and $186.75 in rural areas, according to 1995 official estimates (but perhaps as much as $2,000 per capita in terms of purchasing power, given the low prices of basic human necessities). By contrast, Japan's per capita income in 1993 was $31,450 and that of the United States $24,750. China's labor costs are still just 10 to 15 percent of those in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and South Korea but on a par with those in India.

[America's] laissez-faire economy - with its cutthroat competition, casino stock exchange, massive inequalities of wealth, and a minor, regulatory role for government-as self-evident truths.

... capitalist states enforce an inherently discriminatory division of labor on less developed countries by selling them manufactured goods and buying from them only raw materials, an extremely profitable arrangement for capitalists in advanced countries and one that certainly keeps underdeveloped countries underdeveloped. This is why revolutionary movements in underdeveloped countries want either to overthrow the capitalist order or to industrialize their economies as fast as possible.

Nixon decided to end the Bretton Woods system because the Vietnam War had imposed such excessive expenditures on the United States that it was hemorrhaging money. He concluded that the government could no longer afford to exchange its currency for a fixed value of gold. A more effective answer would have been to end the Vietnam War and balance the federal budget. Instead, what actually occurred was that the dollar and other currencies were allowed to "float"-that is, to be converted into other currencies at whatever rate the market determined.

The historian, business executive, and novelist John Ralston Saul described Nixon's action as "perhaps the single most destructive act of the postwar world. The West was returned to the monetary barbarism and instability of the l9th century."

The IMF is essentially a covert arm of the U.S. Treasury, yet beyond congressional oversight because it is formally an international organization. Its voting rules ensure that it is dominated by the United States and its allies. India and China have fewer votes in the IMF, for example, than the Netherlands. As the prominent Harvard economist Jeffrey Sachs puts its, "Not unlike the days when the British Empire placed senior officials directly into the Egyptian and Ottoman [and also the Chinese] financial ministries, the IMF is insinuated into the inner sanctums of nearly 75 developing country governments around the world - countries with a combined population of some 1.4 billion."

By the time the IMF was finished with Indonesia, over a thousand shopkeepers were dead (most of them Chinese), 20 percent of the population was unemployed, and a hundred million people-half the population-were living on less than one dollar a day. William Pfaff characterized the IMF's actions as "an episode in a reckless attempt to remake the world economy, with destructive cultural and social consequences that could prove as momentous as those of l9th-century colonialism "

Globalization seems to boil down to the spread of poverty to every country except the United States.

November 1998, Tom Plate, a columnist on Pacific Rim affairs for the Los Angeles Times, described the United States

"a muscle-bound crackpot superpower with little more than cruise missiles for brains.''

a 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."

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.

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."

[U.S. government policies have] hollowed out our domestic manufacturing and bred a military establishment that is today close to being beyond civilian control.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The American military at the end of the century is becoming an autonomous system.

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.

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.

The hollowing out of American industry ... 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.

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".

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.

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.

Blowback - The Costs and Consequences of American Empire

U.S. Foreign Policy

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