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The Two Wings of the Eagle

William K. Tabb teaches economics at Queens College. He is the author of The Amoral Elephant: Globalization and the Struggle for Social Justice in the Twenty-First Century (Monthly Review, 2001), and Unequal Partners: A Primer on Globalization (The New Press, 2002).


Peter Marcuse has written (Monthly Review, July-August 2000) that globalization “is a nonconcept in most usages: a simple catalogue of everything that seems different since, say, 1970, whether advances in information technology, widespread use of air freight, speculation in currencies, increased capital flows across borders, Disneyfication of culture, mass marketing, global warming, genetic engineering, multinational corporate power, new international division of labor, reduced power of nation-states, or post-Fordism.” The problem is more than the careless use of words, the inclusion of everything means the term means little or nothing. Most importantly, “the term fogs any effort to separate cause from effect, to analyze what is being done, by whom, to whom, for what and with what effect.” To answer these questions it is necessary to reframe the discussion. Neither the amorphous globalization discourse of everyday social science nor the previously dominant one of nation-state sovereignty are satisfactory to the task.

Economic thinking is organized around the nation-state, as is political science. The sovereignty of nations is assumed and the task is how to ensure greater cooperation in solving mutual problems. The world has been conceptualized as a system of sovereign states and we speak, for example, of international trade. It is now suggested that as a result of an altogether amorphous globalization process the symmetry between states and markets has broken down. Some assert that the nation as the proper unit of analysis was relevant for only a short historical period, perhaps from the late nineteenth to the late twentieth century. Others conclude that because relationships are increasingly networked they are not hierarchical or territorial. In this view, since individuals and organizations are enmeshed in worldwide webs and exhibit multiple and competing loyalties, the territorial period is over. In our view, the focus on territorial integrity has always been misleading for most of the peoples of the world. Through much of history there have been empires, using the term to denote a system of interaction in which a dominant metropole exerts effective political sovereignty over the internal and external policy of the subordinate periphery.

The intermediate term between an entirely amorphous “globalization” and the more concrete “empire” is “hegemony” and, like empire, hegemony is used in many ways. In mainstream international relations studies it is widely accepted that in the post–Second World War period the United States built what has been called “stakeholder” hegemony. It is argued that by making institutions of international policymaking more accountable and transparent, adhering to the rule of law, and vetting policies with allies, the United States made an ongoing but unequal partnership acceptable to other countries. Allies who cooperate with Washington have influence on the ways in which its power is exercised. This institutional bargain reduces the penchant of the hegemon to unilateralism by binding the hyperpower to a set of rules which it has itself been crucial in creating. It is worthwhile for others to submit to American leadership, in this framework, because American power is constrained. For the United States the benefit is that by acting with restraint and in a reliable manner it gains wider cooperation. It is this accommodation which is widely said to be threatened by the Bush administration’s turn toward unilateralism.

What is actually at issue here is the choice between two U.S. imperial strategies: a hegemony geared primarily to promoting neoliberal globalization on terms particularly favorable to the United States, and an alternative hegemony that steers toward the establishment of a more formal U.S. empire. These two paths represent alternative strategies that an imperial ruling class may choose between, but in many respects they may also be complementary.

The concern with the new unilateral vehemence in U.S. economic and foreign policy on the part of liberal institutionalists comes from their analysis of the value of the postwar stakeholder hegemony model. They argue that by facilitating a more open and liberal world economy American primacy fostered global prosperity. It is frequently said that economic interdependence creates peaceful relations between states. This Clintonian position frequently repeats the tag that no two countries which have a McDonald’s have ever gone to war. Reagan’s invasion of McDonald’s-rich Panama neatly reveals the liberals unspoken assumptions. U.S. military intervention in Latin America is, by definition, not war.

The Bush Doctrine, on the other hand, is seen within a perspective that by creating “peace and democracy” through preemptive war and regime change the United States creates conditions for economic development. Investors are more likely to send cash to places which are pacified with stable democratic governments respectful of property rights. In this framing it is the United States’ active use of its hegemonic capacities that is conducive to expanding world trade and investment. The threat and use of force become policies for purportedly increasing the economic well-being of the poor and oppressed. Such assertiveness can contribute much more than the paltry and often ineffectual policies of, say, the World Bank. Of course it is rarely put quite this boldly, but increasingly the argument is being made. More straightforward commentators strike a note of self-satisfaction and self-interest declaring that: “Empire rewards those who run them with goods, honor, and celebrity status. And for all the disclaimers about the white man’s burden or its contemporary equivalent, few of us who get the chance to share these rewards disdain them” (Charles S. Maier, “An American Empire?”, Harvard Magazine, November–December 2002). The U.S. elite shall do well by doing good.

Shaping and expanding the “zone of democracy” through the use of military power dominates the Bush II presidency. Being seen as a member of “coalitions of the willing” is the key to economic aid and better treatment in trade negotiations. Now it has always been true that staying on the good side of the powerful is important. Nonetheless it appears to many that some line has been crossed—perhaps from hegemony to outright empire. Hegemony refers to a situation in which one state is powerful enough to maintain the essential rules governing interstate relations and is willing to do so. An empire is a form of domination in which one state seizes power and rules over others. Empire subjects peoples to unequal rule. One nation’s government determines who rules another society’s political and economic life. If such a definition is accepted then it is reasonable to speak of the American Empire even if it is an empire different from the British Empire or the Roman Empire (as these two empires were of course quite different from each other).

In fact, the two perspectives overlap. Liberal institutionalists and even some self-styled leftists advocate the reluctant acceptance of responsibility for peoples and lands that must be rescued from the primitive Balkan violence that threatens to engulf them if left on their own. This human rights rationale for intervention was attractive to many liberals for whom discussion of oil and empire is distasteful. For the more honest within this camp the disagreement is tactical, and focuses on whether an empire relying only on force and functioning without international approval can succeed.

To radicals such an understanding is de-socialized and de-historicized to its core. Imperialism is now, as it always has been, a conscious class project of the dominant sectors of the advanced economies using their state’s ability to project force to gain or retain control over important resources and to maintain a world order in which their interests come before all others. This does not mean that it doesn’t help if purveyors of imperialism speak in idealist terms. The imperialists claim, as part of their mission, to be disseminating law and order and to be promoting justice, education, peace, and prosperity. This is as true today as it was a century ago at the height of the white-man’s-burden interventions, invasions, and regime changes. Deception and perhaps self-deception make the project easier, but it must be condemned and resisted no matter how it is packaged.

A number of commentators of varying persuasions have noted that U.S. diplomacy has had two languages: “one line descending from the macho axioms of Theodore Roosevelt, the other from the presbyterian cant of Woodrow Wilson” (Perry Anderson, “Force and Consent,” New Left Review, September–October 2002). It is of course no accident that TR is Mr. Bush’s favorite president. The liberals who invoke human rights are more in the rhetorical frame of Woodrow Wilson’s “Fourteen Points,” but neither Bush nor any other U.S. leader has hesitated to draw some from column A and some from column B or to speak of the U.S. primacy as it does God’s work in the world.

We may want to think of the two wings of the eagle. The one, the Wilsonian, is multilateralist and concerned with constructing global state governance institutions. The other is the unilateralist shock-and-awe approach, which holds that the way to gain respect is to use your big stick. The first tends to be liberal in the terms of U.S. politics and to represent transnational capital and international finance which prefer an open trading system based on the stakeholder hegemony discussed earlier. The second comes from the cowboy capitalism side, the oil industry, the military contractors, and the religious crusaders. The first might have been better represented by a Gore presidency, the latter is happy with a Bush White House. No matter who is in the Oval Office, both wings have their needs met even if the strategic vision is somewhat different. In terms of the exercise of state power any attempt at a firm differentiation of the military, economic, and political would ride roughshod over their interdependence and interaction. Nonetheless the embrace of a religious crusade to remake the world and to force a craven “Old Europe” into a more disciplined understanding of its true place differs from what we could have expected from an Al Gore. These are mainly differences of strategy and posture with which to achieve the agreed upon goal of U.S. dominance and control over other people’s resources, labor power, and markets. The question of whether a guiding multilateral leadership or an assertive unilateralism is the best way to achieve these goals is a dispute within a common class outlook. This is not to say, however, that such differences do not have important consequences—indeed, one strategy or the other may prove more efficacious at a particular point in time.

What we have today is a return to aspirations of old style imperial domination and a claim to authority over others and to solo decision-making privileges that is breathtaking. When Mr. Bush said on September 20, 2001, to a joint session of Congress that “Our war on terror begins with Al Qaeda but does not end there. It will not end until every terrorist group of global reach has been found, stopped and defeated,” he was announcing a permanent war footing over an indefinite time and making clear that this was to be the single-minded focus of his presidency. The warning to the rest of the world was famously made clear in his statement: “Every nation in every region now has a decision to make. Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.” Vice President Cheney said the United States may have to take military action against “forty to fifty countries” and that the war could last half a century or more.

Whether the American Empire is a matter of enlightened self-interest under which free markets and democracy shall flourish, or whether we are seeing a frank avowal of the policies of state power unwilling to be constrained by respect for other countries unless forced to do so, we have a situation which makes many in the world unhappy. “One reads about the world’s desire for American leadership only in the United States,” it has been remarked; “everywhere else one reads about American arrogance and unilateralism” (quoted in Samuel P. Huntington, “The Lonely Superpower”, Foreign Affairs, March–April 1999).

Primacy brings greater freedom of action over a range of activities and earns cooperation on terms favorable to the hegemon. There is nothing uniquely bad about the United States’ quest for primacy, nor is there any uniqueness of national character in the sense that any other major capitalist state formation having such opportunity would not act in a similar manner. The debate, among the elite, is a different one: What is the best manner in which the United States should wield its power? It is a given that “the USA is Number One” and that the U.S. elite, for understandable reasons, prefers having more power rather than less, and they plan to keep it that way. This naturally means that a willful United States can impose devastating costs on any who would cross it. The debate among the elite is tactical: Should the United States, able to act unilaterally, do so? Does it serve U.S. interests to be or appear to be insensitive to others’ concerns? That is, does the United States benefit from the naked show of force and harsh employment of its military capacities, or does the United States do better acting with others multilaterally and through global governance institutions like the United Nations and the World Trade Organization? The shift under the post-September 11 George W. Bush has been a sharp one. In 2000, in his second presidential debate, his position was that the world would be attracted to an America that was strong but humble and would be repulsed if the nation used its power in an arrogant fashion. As his liberal critics now say, his position then was correct. But for those further to the left there is a different question: Should the United States run the world? This is not a debate over strategy, unilateralism or multilateralism, but is a question of how we create a world in which all people’s lives, hopes, prospects are equally valued, and how can we live together in mutual respect so as to replace war and exploitation as the governing mechanisms of the world system.

Those who would raise this set of issues need to realize that the current turn of George W. Bush is based on the same “Washington Consensus” ideology that marked the Clinton regime. “The terrorists attacked the World Trade Center, and we will defeat them by expanding and encouraging world trade,” the president said shortly after September 11, 2001, “seeming to imply,” as the New York Times commented, “that trade somehow was among the concerns of the terrorists who brought down the towers.” Robert Zoellick, the U.S. trade representative opined that opponents of corporate-led globalization might have “intellectual connections with” the terrorists. The president declared: “Open trade is not just an economic opportunity, it is a moral imperative. Trade creates jobs for the unemployed. When we negotiate for open markets, we’re providing new hope for the world’s poor. And when we promote open free trade, we are promoting political freedom.”

Such thinking found its way into the September 2002, National Security Strategy of the United States of America submitted by the White House to the Congress. This document laid out the new preemptive doctrine and promised to maintain military supremacy over all potential rivals indefinitely. But it also tied the Washington Consensus tightly to this Bush Doctrine. The document reads in part: “We will actively work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world.” It lists among its policies lower marginal tax rates and pro-growth legal and regulatory policies which every nation should adopt because: “The concept of ‘free trade’ arose as a moral principle even before it became a pillar of economics. If you can make something that others value, you should be able to sell it to them. If others make something that you value, you should be able to buy it. That is real freedom, the freedom for a person—or a nation—to make a living.” To any honest observer this is not an ideology of freedom or democracy. It is a system of control, an economics of empire.

The problems of underdevelopment are likely to get worse in most less-developed countries in coming decades, in some cases considerably worse. It is problematic whether the Bush gamble at transforming the region through its sponsorship of regime change will make this situation better. In the world today hundreds of millions of people are starving, hundreds of millions of adults are illiterate, and hundreds of millions of children do not attend school. Billions of people have no access to basic sanitation or low-cost medicines. Epidemic disease has returned on a scale unimaginable in the 1960s. Whether under these conditions the further militarization of the world makes sense over an alternative serious development agenda that would cost far less in money terms, to say nothing of lives, needs to be considered by Americans. That is, if we can get them to turn off television news and think about these issues in terms of solidarity with other members of the global human community.

The practical implications of a left alternative are, unsurprisingly, policies which are the exact opposite of the Washington Consensus model. That model favors trade liberalization and export-led growth, financial market liberalization and uncontrolled capital movements, privatization and less social provision of goods and services, lower taxes, fiscal and monetary policy austerity, and what is called labor market deregulation and labor market flexibility. When we criticize the policies that the global state economic governance institutions have imposed, we must not forget that these policies were imposed globally under the rule of the Wilsonian wing of the U.S. ruling class. These policies increase economic insecurity and a sense of powerlessness, which is only accentuated by the Bush administration’s national chauvinism and use of overwhelming violence. To reverse these developments will take a broadly-based coalition of the morally concerned who want this country to be about very different values. But to achieve another world that we believe is possible and necessary requires a deeper critique, class analysis, and the self-organization of a class-conscious movement for radical transformation. Our critique must be of both the Teddy Roosevelt and Wilson (or Bush and Clinton) wings of this bird of prey; it must be an anti-imperialist critique.

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