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Imperial America and War

John Bellamy Foster is an editor, of Monthly Review. He is the author of Marx’s Ecology: Materialism and Natureand The Vulnerable Planet, and co-editor of Hungry for Profit: The Agribusiness Threat to Farmers, Food, and the Environment, and Ecology Against Capitalism all published by Monthly Review Press.
This is a slightly revised version of the introduction to a collection of essays by Harry Magdoff, Imperialism without Colonies (Monthly Review Press, 2003). Footnotes providing full documentation are included in the book.

On November 11, 2000, Richard Haass—a member of the National Security Council and special assistant to the president under the elder Bush, soon to be appointed director of policy planning in the state department of newly elected President George W. Bush—delivered a paper in Atlanta entitled “Imperial America.” For the United States to succeed at its objective of global preeminence, he declared, it would be necessary for Americans to “re-conceive their role from a traditional nation-state to an imperial power.” Haass eschewed the term “imperialist” in describing America’s role, preferring “imperial,” since the former connoted “exploitation, normally for commercial ends,” and “territorial control.” Nevertheless, the intent was perfectly clear:

To advocate an imperial foreign policy is to call for a foreign policy that attempts to organize the world along certain principles affecting relations between states and conditions within them. The U.S. role would resemble 19th century Great Britain….Coercion and the use of force would normally be a last resort; what was written by John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson about Britain a century and a half ago, that “The British policy followed the principle of extending control informally if possible and formally if necessary,” could be applied to the American role at the start of the new century (Richard N. Haass, Paper at the Atlanta Conference, November 11, 2000).

The existence of an American empire is no secret. It is widely, even universally, recognized in most parts of the world, though traditionally denied by the powers that be in the United States. What Haass was calling for, however, was a much more open acknowledgement of this imperial role by Washington, in full view of the American population and the world, in order to further Washington’s imperial ambitions. “The fundamental question that continues to confront American foreign policy,” he explained, “is what to do with a surplus of power and the many and considerable advantages this surplus confers on the United States.” This surplus of power could only be put to use by recognizing that the United States had imperial interests on the scale of Britain in the nineteenth century. The world should therefore be given notice that Washington is prepared to “extend its control,” informally if possible and formally if not, to secure what it considers to be its legitimate interests across the face of the globe. The final section of Haass’ paper carried the heading “Imperialism Begins at Home.” It concluded: “the greater risk facing the United States at this juncture…is that it will squander the opportunity to bring about a world supportive of its core interests by doing too little. Imperial understretch, not overstretch, appears the greater danger of the two.”

There is every reason to believe that the “Imperial America” argument espoused by Haass represents in broad outline the now dominant view of the U.S. ruling class, together with the U.S. state that primarily serves that class. After many years of denying the existence of U.S. empire, received opinion in the United States has now adopted a position that glories in the “American imperium,” with its “imperial military,” and “imperial protectorates.” This shift in external posture first occurred at the end of the 1990s, when it became apparent that not only was the United States the sole remaining superpower following the demise of the Soviet Union, but also that Europe and Japan, due to slowdowns in their rates of economic growth relative to that of the United States, were now less able to rival it economically. Nor did Europe seem to be able to act militarily without the United States even within its own region, in relation to the debacle of the Yugoslavian civil wars.

After Washington launched its global War on Terrorism, following September 11, 2001, the imperial dimensions of U.S. foreign policy were increasingly obvious. U.S. empire is therefore now portrayed by political pundits and the mainstream media as a necessary “burden” falling on the United States as a result of its unparalleled role on the world stage. The United States is said to be at the head of a new kind of empire, divorced from national interest, economic exploitation, racism, or colonialism, and that exists only to promote freedom and human rights. As Michael Ignatieff, Professor of Human Rights Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, proclaimed in the New York Times Magazine (January 5, 2003), “America’s empire is not like empires of times past, built on colonies, conquest and the white man’s burden….The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.”

Such high-sounding words aside, what makes this “21st century imperium” an overriding concern for humanity today is Washington’s increased readiness to use its unrivaled military power to invade and occupy other countries whenever it deems this absolutely necessary to achieve its ends. Yet, as Indian economist Prabhat Patnaik observed more than a decade ago, “No Marxist ever derived the existence of imperialism from the fact of wars; on the contrary the existence of wars was explained in terms of imperialism.” Once the reality of imperialism has been brought back to the forefront of world attention as a result of such wars it is important to search out its underlying causes.

Classic Imperialism

One of the most influential mainstream historical accounts of British imperialism in the nineteenth century was presented in an article entitled “The Imperialism of Free Trade,” written a half-century ago by economic historians John Gallagher and Ronald Robinson. A part of this analysis was utilized by Haass to advance his “Imperial America” argument. The central thesis of Gallagher and Robinson’s article was simple: imperialism is a continuous reality of economic expansion in modern times. Those who associated imperialism primarily with colonies and colonialism, and who therefore took the scramble for Africa and late nineteenth century colonial expansion as the basis for a general model of imperialism, were wrong. British imperialism throughout the nineteenth century remained essentially the same in its inner logic despite the concentration on expanding free trade in one period and on annexing colonies in another. As Gallagher and Robinson elaborated (in the same passage from which Haass quoted):

British policy followed the principle of extending control informally if possible and formally if necessary. To label the one method ‘anti-imperialist’ and the other ‘imperialist,’ is to ignore the fact that whatever the method British interests were steadily safeguarded and extended. The usual summing up of the policy of the free trade empire as ‘trade not rule’ should read ‘trade with informal control if possible; trade with rule when necessary.’…Despite…attempts at ‘imperialism on the cheap,’ the foreign challenge to British paramountcy in tropical Africa [in the late nineteenth century] and the comparative absence there of large-scale, strong, indigenous political organizations which had served informal expansion so well elsewhere, eventually dictated the switch to formal rule.

For those seeking to comprehend British imperialism in the nineteenth century, this argument suggested, it is the “imperialism of free trade” and not colonialism that should be the primary focus. Only when the economic ends of Britain could not be secured by informal control did it resort to formal imperialism or colonization—that is, direct and continuing use of military and political control—to achieve its ends. If it has often been said that “trade followed the flag,” it would be far more correct to say that there was “a general tendency for British trade to follow the invisible flag of informal empire.” The “distinctive feature” of the “British imperialism of free trade in the nineteenth century,” these authors argued, was that its use of its military force and hegemonic power in general were primarily limited to establishing secure conditions for economic dominance and expansion.

The clearest example of such informal imperialism was the British role in South America in the nineteenth century. Britain maintained its control in the region through various commercial treaties and financial relationships backed by British sea power. As British Foreign Minister George Canning put it in 1824: “Spanish America is free; and if we do not mismanage our affairs sadly she is English.” At all times, Gallagher and Robinson state, British influence was exercised so as to convert such “areas into complementary satellite economies, which would provide raw materials and food for Great Britain, and provide widening markets for its manufactures.” When left with no other way of enforcing its dominance, Britain was always ready to resort to active interventions—as it did repeatedly in Latin America in the nineteenth century.

As the distinguished German historian Wolfgang J. Mommsen noted in his Theories of Imperialism, the significance of this concept of informal imperialism was that it tended to bridge the gap between non-Marxist and Marxist approaches, since it stressed the historical continuity of imperialism as a manifestation of economic expansion (not confusing it simply with its more formal political-military occurrences):

By recognizing that there are numerous informal types of imperialist domination which precede or accompany the establishment of formal rule, or even make it unnecessary, Western [non-Marxist] thinking on the subject of imperialism has drawn closer to Marxist theory….Generally speaking, most non-Marxist theoreticians admit nowadays that dependency of an imperialist sort may well result from the most varied kinds of informal influence, especially of an economic nature. Imperialist forces at the colonial periphery were by no means obliged constantly to resort to the actual use of political power: it was generally quite enough to know that the imperialist groups could count on support from the metropolitan power in the event of a crisis. Formal political rule thus appears only as the most specific, but not the normal type of imperialist dependence.

Ironically, Gallagher and Robinson distinguished their approach from the classic accounts of John Hobson (in his 1902 Imperialism: A Study) and Lenin (in his 1916 Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism) by associating both Hobson’s and Lenin’s views with a narrower spectrum of cases involving formal control or colonialism. By identifying the last quarter of the nineteenth century, when colonial annexations were at their height, as a qualitatively new stage of capitalism—the monopoly or imperialist stage—Lenin in particular, these authors argued, had come to associate imperialism with formal rather than informal control.

However, this criticism fell wide of the mark, since Lenin himself had emphasized that imperialism did not necessarily involve formal control, as witnessed especially by British imperialism in Latin America in the nineteenth century. “The division of the world into…colony-owning countries on the one hand and colonies on the other,” he observed, did not exhaust the core-periphery relations between nation states. Indeed Lenin pointed to “a variety of forms of dependent countries; countries, which, officially, are politically independent, but which are, in fact, enmeshed in the net of financial and diplomatic dependence…the semi-colony,” including cases like Argentina, which was so dependent financially on London that it was a virtual colony.

The reality of an informal imperialism of free trade (or imperialism without colonies) was never an enigma to Marxist theory, which viewed imperialism as a historical process associated with capitalist expansion—only secondarily affected by the particular political forms in which it manifested itself. The reason for characterizing the last quarter of the nineteenth century as the imperialist stage in the work of Lenin and most subsequent Marxist theorists, did not have to do mainly with a shift from informal to formal imperialism, or the mere fact of widespread annexations within the periphery, but rather with the evolution of capitalism itself, which had developed into its monopoly stage, creating a qualitatively new type of imperialism. It was this historically specific analysis of imperialism as a manifestation of capitalist development in all of its complexity (economic/political/military—core and periphery) that was to give the Marxist theory of imperialism its importance as a coherent way of understanding the deeper globalizing tendencies of the system.

In this interpretation, there was a sense in which imperialism was inherent in capitalism from the beginning. Many of the features of contemporary imperialism, such as the development of the world market, the division between core and periphery, the competitive hunt for colonies or semi-colonies, the extraction of surplus, the securing of raw materials to bring back to the mother country, etc. are part of capitalism as a global system from the late fifteenth century on. Imperialism, in the widest sense, had its sources in the accumulation dynamic of the system (as basic as the pursuit of profits itself), which encouraged the countries at the center of the capitalist world economy, and particularly the wealthy interests within these countries, to feather their own nests by appropriating surplus and vital resources from the periphery—what Pierre JalE9e called The Pillage of the Third World. By a variety of coercive means, the poorer satellite economies were so structured—beginning in the age of conquest in the late fifteenth and sixteenth centuries—that their systems of production and distribution served not so much their own needs as those of the dominant metropoles. Nevertheless, the recognition of such commonalities in imperialism in the various phases of capitalist development was entirely consistent with the observation that there had been a qualitative change in the nature and significance of imperialism that commenced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century, sufficient to cause Lenin to associate this with a new stage of capitalism.

Marxists have therefore often distinguished between an older imperialism and what was called the “new imperialism” that began in the final decades of the nineteenth century. What distinguished this new imperialism were primarily two things: (1) the breakdown of British hegemony and increased competition for control over global territories between the various advanced capitalist states; and (2) the rise of monopolistic corporations—large, integrated industrial and financial firms—as the dominant economic actors in all of the advanced capitalist states. The new mammoth corporations by their very nature sought to expand beyond national bounds and dominate global production and consumption. As Harry Magdoff observed, “The urge to dominate is integral to business.” Monopolistic firms engaged in this imperial struggle were frequently favored by their own nation states. The Marxist theory of the new imperialism, with its focus on the rise of the giant firms, thus pointed to the changed global economic circumstances that were to emerge along with what later came to be known as multinational or global corporations. All of this became the context in which older phenomena, such as the extraction of surplus, the race for control of raw materials and resources, the creation of economic dependencies in the global periphery and the unending contest among rival capitalist powers, manifested themselves in new and transformed ways.

It was this understanding of imperialism as a historical reality of capitalist development, one that took on new characteristics as the system itself evolved, that most sharply separated the Marxist approach from mainstream interpretations. The latter frequently saw imperialism as a mere policy and associated it primarily with political and military actions on the part of states. In the more widely disseminated mainstream view (from which realist economic historians like Gallagher and Robinson dissented), imperialism was present only in overt instances of political and territorial control ushered in by actual military conquest. In the contrasting Marxist view, imperialism occurred not simply through the policies of states but also through the actions of corporations and the mechanisms of trade, finance and investment. It involved a whole constellation of class relations, including the nurturing of local collaborators or comprador elements in the dependent societies. Any explanation of how modern imperialism worked thus necessitated a description of the entire system of monopoly capitalism. Informal control of countries on the periphery of the capitalist world system by countries at the center of the system was as important, in this view, as formal control. Struggles over hegemony and more generally rivalries among the leading capitalist states were continuous, but took on changing forms depending on the economic, political and military resources at their disposal.

Imperial America in the Post-Cold War World

If the main distinguishing feature of modern imperialism, in the Marxist view, was associated with the rise to dominance of the giant corporations, the ordering of power within the system, as reflected in the relative position of various nation states, nonetheless shifted considerably over time. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century the principal global reality was the decline in British hegemony and the increased rivalry among the advanced capitalist states that followed, leading to the First and Second World Wars. The rise of the Soviet Union in the context of the First World War posed an external challenge to the system eventually leading to a Cold War struggle between the United States, the new hegemonic power of the capitalist world economy following the Second World War, and the Soviet Union. The fall of the latter in 1991 left the United States as the sole superpower. By the end of the 1990s the United States had gained on its main economic rivals as well. The result of all of this by the beginning of the new century, as Henry Kissinger declared in 2001 in Does America Need a Foreign Policy?, was that the United States had achieved “a pre-eminence not enjoyed by even the greatest empires of the past.”

This naturally led to the question: what was the United States to do with its enormous “surplus of power”? Washington’s answer, particularly after 9/11, has been to pursue its imperial ambitions through renewed interventions in the global periphery—on a scale not seen since the Vietnam War. In the waging of its imperial War on Terrorism the U.S. state is at one with the expansionary goals of U.S. business. As Business Week Online, in late January 2003, expressed the economic benefits to be derived from a U.S. invasion of Iraq: “Since the U.S. military would control Iraq’s oil and gas deposits [the second largest known reserves in the world after Saudi Arabia] for some time, U.S. companies could be in line for a lucrative slice of the business. They may snag drilling rights too.” Companies in the oil service industry, which is dominated by the United States, might “feel just as victorious as the U.S. Special Forces.” Indeed, the main object of such military invasions is regime change and the subsequent restructuring of the economy of the “rogue state”—so-called because it stands outside the imperial order defined primarily by the United States—to make it conform to the dominant requirements of the capitalist world economy, which include opening up its resources to more extensive exploitation.

Richard Haass (whose responsibilities in the present administration were extended to include those of U.S. coordinator of policy for the future of Afghanistan) pointed out in his book Intervention, that regime change often can only be accomplished through a full-scale military invasion leaving the conquered nation in ruins and necessitating subsequent “nation-building”:

It is difficult to target specific individuals with military force….U.S. efforts to use force to bring about changes in political leadership failed in the cases of Qaddafi in Libya, Saddam in Iraq, and Aideed in Somalia. Force can create a context in which political change is more likely, but without extraordinary intelligence and more than a little good fortune, force by itself is unlikely to bring about specific political changes. The only way to increase the likelihood of such change is through highly intrusive forms of intervention, such as nation-building, which involves first eliminating all opposition and then engaging in an occupation that allows for substantial engineering of another society.

Such a “nation-building” occupation, Haass stressed, involves “defeating and disarming any local opposition and establishing a political authority that enjoys a monopoly or near-monopoly of control over the legitimate use of force.” (This is Max Weber’s well-known definition of a state—though imposed in this case by an invading force.) It therefore requires, as Haass observed quoting one foreign policy analyst, an occupation of “imperial proportions and possibly of endless duration.”

It is precisely this kind of invasion of “imperial proportions” and uncertain duration that now seems to be the main agenda of Washington’s War on Terrorism. In the occupation and “nation-building” processes following invasions (as in the case of Afghanistan), explicit colonialism, in the most brazen nineteenth century sense, will be avoided. No formal annexation will take place, and at least a pretense of local rule will be established from the beginning, even during direct military occupation. Nevertheless, a central goal will be to achieve some of what colonialism in its classic form previously accomplished. As Magdoff pointed out,

Colonialism, considered as the direct application of military and political force, was essential to reshape the social and economic institutions of many of the dependent countries to the needs of the metropolitan centers. Once this reshaping had been accomplished economic forces—the international price, marketing and financial systems—were by themselves sufficient to perpetuate and indeed intensify the relationship of dominance and exploitation between mother country and colony. In these circumstances, the colony could be granted formal political independence without changing anything essential, and without interfering too seriously with the interests which had originally led to the conquest of the colony.

Something of this sort is occurring in Afghanistan and is now being envisioned for Iraq. Once a country has been completely disarmed and reshaped to fit the needs of the countries at the center of the capitalist world, “nation-building” will be complete and the occupation will presumably come to an end. But in areas that contain vital resources like oil (or that are deemed to be of strategic significance in gaining access to such resources), a shift back from formal to informal imperialism after an invasion may be slow to take place—or will occur only in very limited ways. “Informal control” or the mechanism of global accumulation that systematically favors the core nations, constitutes the normal means through which imperialist exploitation of the periphery operates. But this requires, on occasion, extraordinary means in order to bring recalcitrant state back into conformity with the market and with the international hierarchy of power with the United States at its apex.

At present, U.S. imperialism appears particularly blatant because it is linked directly with war in this way, and points to an endless series of wars in the future to achieve essentially the same ends. However, if we wish to understand the underlying forces at work, we should not let this heightened militarism and aggression distract us from the inner logic of imperialism, most evident in the rising gap in income and wealth between rich and poor countries, and in the net transfers of economic surplus from periphery to center that make this possible. The growing polarization of wealth and poverty between nations (a polarization that exists within nations as well) is the system’s crowning achievement on the world stage. It is also what is ultimately at issue in the struggle against modern imperialism. As Magdoff argues in Imperialism without Colonies, there is an essential oneness to economic, political, and military domination under capitalism. Those seeking to oppose the manifestations of imperialism must recognize that it is impossible to challenge any one of these effectively without calling into question all the others—and hence the entire system.

2003, Volume 55, Issue 01 (May)
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