Imperialism is meant to serve the needs of a ruling class much more than a nation. It has nothing to do with democracy. Perhaps for that reason it has often been characterized as a parasitic phenomenon—even by critics as astute as John Hobson in his 1902 classic, Imperialism: A Study. And from there it is unfortunately all too easy to slide into the crude notion that imperialist expansion is simply a product of powerful groups of individuals who have hijacked a nation’s foreign policy to serve their own narrow ends.
Numerous critics of the current expansion of the American empire—both on the U.S. left and in Europe—now argue that the United States under the administration of George W. Bush has been taken over by a neoconservative cabal, led by such figures as Paul Wolfowitz (deputy secretary of defense), Lewis Libby (the vice president’s chief of staff), and Richard Perle (of the Defense Policy Board). This cabal is said to have the strong backing of Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld and Vice President Cheney, and, through them, President Bush. The rise to prominence of the neoconservative hegemonists within the administration is thought to have been brought on by the undemocratic 2000 election, in which the Supreme Court appointed Bush as president, and by the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, which suddenly enlarged the national security state. All of this has contributed, we are told, to a unilateralist and belligerent foreign policy at odds with the historic U.S. role in the world. As the Economist magazine raised this question in its April 26, 2003 issue: “So has a cabal taken over the foreign policy of the most powerful country in the world? Is a tiny group of ideologues using undue power to intervene in the internal affairs of other countries, create an empire, trash international law—and damn the consequences?”
The Economist’s own answer was “Not really.” Rightly rejecting the cabal theory, it argued instead that “the neo-cons are part of a broader movement” and that a “near-consensus [among U.S. policy elites] is found around the notion that America should use its power vigorously to reshape the world.” But what is missing from the Economist and from all such mainstream discussions is the recognition that imperialism in this case, as always, is not simply a policy but a systematic reality arising from the very nature of capitalist development. The historical changes in imperialism, associated with the rise of what has been called a “unipolar world,” defy any attempt to reduce current developments to the misguided ambitions of a few powerful individuals. It is therefore necessary to address the historical underpinnings of the new age of U.S. imperialism, including both its deeper causes and the particular actors that are helping to shape its present path.
The Age of Imperialism
The question of whether the United States in engaging in imperialist expansion has allowed itself to become prey to the particular whims of those at society’s political helm is not a new one. Harry Magdoff addressed this thesis on the very first page of his 1969 book, The Age of Imperialism: The Economics of U.S. Foreign Policy—a work that can be said to have reintroduced the systematic study of imperialism in the United States. “Is the [Vietnam] war part of a more general and consistent scheme of United States external policies,” he asked, “or is it an aberration of a particular group of men in power?” The answer of course was that although there were particular individuals in power who were spearheading this process, it reflected deep-seated tendencies within U.S. foreign policy that had roots in capitalism itself. In what was to emerge as the most important account of American imperialism in the 1960s, Magdoff set about uncovering the underlying economic, political, and military forces governing U.S. foreign policy.
The ruling explanation at the time of the Vietnam War was that the United States was engaged in the war in order to “contain” Communism—and hence the war itself had nothing to do with imperialism. But the scale and ferocity of the war seemed to belie any attempt to explain it in terms of mere containment, since neither the Soviet Union nor China had shown any global expansionary tendencies and third world revolutions were quite obviously indigenous affairs.* Magdoff rejected both the dominant tendency in the United States to see U.S. interventions in the third world as a product of the Cold War, and the liberal penchant to see the war as an aberration of a Texan president and the advisers surrounding him. Instead historical analysis was required.
The imperialism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was distinguished mainly by two features: (1) the breakdown in British hegemony, and (2) the growth of monopoly capitalism, or a capitalism dominated by large firms, resulting from the concentration and centralization of production. Beyond these features that distinguished what Lenin referred to as the stage of imperialism (which he said could be described in its “briefest possible definition” as “the monopoly stage of capitalism”), there are a number of other elements that have to be considered. Capitalism is of course a system uniquely determined by a drive to accumulate, which accepts no bounds to its expansion. Capitalism is on the one hand an expanding world economy characterized by a process that we now call globalization, while on the other hand it is divided politically into numerous competing nation-states. Further, the system is polarized at every level into center and periphery. From its beginning in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and even more so in the monopoly stage, capital within each nation-state at the center of the system is driven by a need to control access to raw materials and labor in the periphery. In the monopoly stage of capitalism, moreover, nation-states and their corporations strive to keep as much of the world economy as possible open to their own investments, though not necessarily to those of their competitors. This competition over spheres of accumulation creates a scramble for control of various parts of the periphery, the most famous example of which was the scramble for Africa in the late nineteenth century in which all of the Western European powers of the day took part.
Imperialism, however, continued to evolve beyond this classic phase, which ended with the Second World War and subsequent decolonization movement, and in the 1950s and 1960s a later phase presented its own historically specific characteristics. The most important of these was the United States replacing British hegemony over the capitalist world economy. The other was the existence of the Soviet Union, creating space for revolutionary movements in the third world, and helping to bring the leading capitalist powers into a Cold War military alliance reinforcing U.S. hegemony. The United States utilized its hegemonic position to establish the Bretton Woods institutions—the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank—with the intention of consolidating the economic control exercised by the center states, and the United States in particular, over the periphery and hence the entire world market.
In Magdoff’s conception, the existence of U.S. hegemony did not bring to an end the competition between capitalist states. Hegemony was always understood by realistic analysts as historically transitory, despite the constant references to the “American century.” The uneven development of capitalism meant continual interimperialist rivalry, even if somewhat hidden at times. “Antagonism between unevenly developing industrial centers,” he wrote, “is the hub of the imperialist wheel” (p. 16).
U.S. militarism, which in this analysis went hand in hand with its imperial role, was not simply or even mainly a product of the Cold War competition with the Soviet Union, by which it was conditioned. Militarism had deeper roots in the need of the United States, as the hegemonic power of the capitalist world economy, to keep the doors open for foreign investment by resorting to force, if necessary. At the same time, the United States was employing its power where possible to advance the needs of its own corporations—as for example in Latin America where its dominance was unquestioned by other great powers. Not only did the United States exercise this military role on numerous occasions throughout the periphery in the post–Second World War period, but during that period it was also able to justify this as part of the fight against Communism. Militarism, associated with this role as global hegemon and alliance-leader, came to permeate all aspects of accumulation in the United States, so that the term industrial complex,” introduced by Eisenhower in his departing speech as president, was an understatement. Already in his day there was no major center of accumulation in the United States that was not also a major center of military production. Military production helped prop up the entire economic edifice in the United States, and was a factor holding off economic stagnation.
In mapping contemporary imperialism, Magdoff’s analysis provided evidence demonstrating how directly beneficial imperialism was to capital within the core of the system (showing, for example, that earnings on U.S. foreign investments, as a percentage of all after-tax profits on operations of domestic nonfinancial corporations, had risen from about 10 percent in 1950 to 22 percent in 1964). The siphoning of surplus from the periphery (and misuse of what surplus remained due to distorted peripheral class relations characteristic of imperial dependencies) was a major factor in perpetuating underdevelopment. Unique and less noticed, however, were two other aspects of Magdoff’s assessment: a warning regarding the growing third world debt trap and an in-depth treatment of the expanding global role of banks and finance capital in general. It wasn’t until the early 1980s that an understanding of the third world debt trap really surfaced when Brazil, Mexico, and other so-called “new industrializing economies” were suddenly revealed to be in default. And the full significance of the financialization of the global economy did not really dawn on most observers of imperialism until late in the 1980s.
In this systematic historical approach to the subject of imperialism, as depicted above all by Magdoff, U.S. military interventions in places like Iran, Guatemala, Lebanon, Vietnam, and the Dominican Republic, were not about “protecting U.S. citizens” or fighting the expansion of the Communist bloc. Rather they belonged to the larger phenomenon of imperialism in all of its historical complexity and to the U.S. role as the hegemonic power of the capitalist world. However, this interpretation was directly opposed by liberal critics of the Vietnam War writing at the same time, who sometimes acknowledged that the United States had been engaged in the expansion of its empire, but saw this, in line with the whole history of the United States, as a case of accident rather than design (as defenders of the British Empire had argued before them). American foreign policy they insisted was motivated primarily by idealism rather than material interests. The Vietnam War itself was explained away by many of these same liberal critics as the result of “poor political intelligence” on the part of powerful policy makers, who had taken the nation off course. In 1971, Robert W. Tucker, professor of American foreign policy at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University, wrote The Radical Left and American Foreign Policy in which he argued that the “saving grace” for the United States in Vietnam was the “essentially disinterested character” with which it approached the war (p. 28). Tucker’s perspective was that of a liberal opponent of the war who nonetheless rejected radical interpretations of U.S. militarism and imperialism.
Tucker’s main targets in his book were William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, and Harry Magdoff. Magdoff was attacked specifically for arguing that control of raw materials on a global basis was crucial to U.S. corporations and the U.S. state that served them. Tucker went so far as to claim that the error of Magdoff’s view was shown where the issue of oil arose. If the United States were truly imperialist in its orientation to third world resources, he argued, it would attempt to control Persian Gulf oil. Defying both logic and history, Tucker declared that this was not the case. As he put it:
Given the radical view, one would expect that here [in the Middle East], if anywhere, American policy would faithfully reflect economic interests. The reality, as is well known, is otherwise. Apart from the increasing and successful pressures oil countries have employed to increase their royalty and tax income (pressures which have not provoked any notable countermeasures), the American government has contributed to the steady deterioration of the favorable position American oil companies once enjoyed in the Middle East. A New York Times correspondent, John M. Lee, writes: “The remarkable thing to many observers is that the oil companies and oil considerations have had such little influence in American foreign policy toward Israel” (p. 131).
The case of Persian Gulf oil, then, according to Tucker, disproved Magdoff’s insistence on the importance of controlling raw materials to the operation of U.S. imperialism. The U.S. political commitment to Israel was counter to its economic interests, but had overridden all concerns of U.S. capitalism with respect to Middle East oil. Today it is hardly necessary to emphasize how absurd this contention was. Not only has the United States repeatedly intervened militarily in the Middle East, beginning with Iran in 1953, but it has also continually sought to promote its control over oil and the interests of its oil corporations in the region. Israel, which the U.S. has armed to the teeth and which has been allowed to develop hundreds of nuclear weapons, has long been part of this strategy of controlling the region. From the first, the U.S. role in the Middle East has been openly imperialistic, geared to maintaining control over the region’s oil resources. Only an analysis that reduced economics to commodity prices and royalty income while ignoring the political and military shaping of economic relations—not to mention the flows of both oil and profits—could result in such obvious errors.
The New Age of Imperialism
Nothing in fact so reveals the new age of imperialism as the expansion of the U.S. Empire in the critical oil regions of the Middle East and the Caspian Sea Basin. U.S. power in the Persian Gulf was limited throughout the Cold War years as a result of the Soviet presence. The Iranian Revolution of 1979, to which the United States was seemingly helpless to respond, was the greatest defeat of U.S. imperialism (which had relied on Shah of Iran as a secure base in the region) since the Vietnam War. Indeed, prior to 1989 and the breakup of the Soviet bloc, a major U.S. war in the region would have been almost completely unthinkable. This left U.S. dominance in the region significantly constrained. The 1991 Gulf War, which was carried out by the United States with Soviet acquiescence, thus marked the beginning of a new age of U.S. imperialism and expansion of U.S. global power. It is no mere accident that the weakening of the Soviet Union led almost immediately to a full-scale U.S. military intervention in the region that was the key to controlling world oil, the most critical global resource, and thus crucial to any strategy of global domination.
It is essential to understand that in 1991 when the Gulf War occurred the Soviet Union was greatly weakened and subservient to U.S. policy. But it was not yet dead (that was to occur later on that year) and there was still the possibility, although dim, of a coup or upset and a turnaround in Soviet affairs unfavorable to U.S. interests. At the same time the United States was still in a position where it had lost economic ground to some of its main competitors and hence there was a widespread sense that its economic hegemony had seriously declined, limiting its course of action. Although the administration of George H. W. Bush declared a “New World Order” no one knew what this meant. The collapse of the Soviet bloc had been so sudden that the U.S. ruling class and the foreign policy elites were unsure of how to proceed.
During the first Gulf War the U.S. elites were split. Some believed that the U.S. should go on and invade Iraq, as the Wall Street Journal advised at the time. Others thought that an invasion and occupation of Iraq was not then feasible. Over the course of the next decade the dominant topic of discussion in U.S. foreign policy, as witnessed, for example, by the Council on Foreign Relations publication, Foreign Affairs, was how to exploit the fact that the United States was now the sole superpower. Discussions of unipolarity (a term introduced by the neoconservative pundit Charles Krauthammer in 1991) and unilateralism were soon coupled with open discussions on U.S. primacy, hegemony, empire, and even imperialism. Moreover, as the decade wore on, the arguments in favor of the United States exercising an imperial role became more and more pervasive and concrete. Such issues were discussed from the beginning of the new era not in terms of ends but in terms of efficacy. A particularly noteworthy example of the call for a new imperialism could be found in an influential book, entitled The Imperial Temptation, again by Robert W. Tucker, along with David C. Hendrickson, published by the Council on Foreign Relations in 1992. As Tucker and Hendrickson forthrightly explained,
The United States is today the dominant military power in the world. In the reach and effectiveness of its military forces, America compares favorably with some of the greatest empires known to history. Rome reached barely beyond the compass of the Mediterranean, whereas Napoleon could not break out into the Atlantic and went to defeat in the vast Russian spaces. During the height of the so-called Pax Britannica, when the Royal Navy ruled the seas, Bismarck remarked that if the British army landed on the Prussian coast he would have it arrested by the local police. The United States has an altogether more formidable collection of forces than its predecessors among the world’s great powers. It has global reach. It possesses the most technologically advanced arms, commanded by professionals skilled in the art of war. It can transport powerful continental armies over oceanic distances. Its historic adversaries are in retreat, broken by internal discord.
Under these circumstances, an age-old temptation—the imperial temptation—may prove compelling for the United States….The nation is not likely to be attracted to the visions of empire that animated colonial powers of the past; it may well find attractive, however, a vision that enables the nation to assume an imperial role without fulfilling the classic duties of imperial rule (pp. 14–15).
The “imperial temptation,” these authors made clear, was to be resisted less because of the fact that this would have constituted a renewal of classic imperialism, but because the United States was only willing to go half way, unleashing its military force while neglecting to take on the more burdensome responsibilities of imperial rule associated with nation building.
Proceeding from a nation-building perspective reminiscent of Kennedy-style Cold War liberalism, but also attractive to some neoconservatives, Tucker and Hendrickson presented the case that the United States, having fought the Gulf War, should have immediately proceeded to invade, occupy, and pacify Iraq, removing the Ba’ath Party from power, thus exercising its imperial responsibility. “The overwhelming display of military power,” they wrote, “would have provided the United States with time to form and recognize a provisional Iraqi government consisting of individuals committed to a broadly liberal platform….Though such a government would undoubtedly have been accused of being an American puppet, there are good reasons for thinking that it might have acquired considerable legitimacy. It would have enjoyed access, under UN supervision, to Iraq’s oil revenues, which surely would have won it considerable support from the Iraqi people” (p. 147).
Tucker and Hendrickson—in spite of Tucker’s argument decades earlier against Magdoff, that the failure to seize control of Persian Gulf oil was evidence that the U.S. was not an imperialist power—were under no illusions about why an occupation of Iraq would be in U.S. strategic interest, in one word: “oil.” “There is no other commodity,” they wrote, “that has the crucial significance of oil; there is no parallel to the dependence of developed and developing economies on the energy resources of the Gulf; these resources are concentrated in an area that remains relatively inaccessible and highly unstable, and possession of oil affords an unparalleled financial base whereby an expansionist developing power may hope to realize its aggressive ambitions” (pp. 10–11). The need for the United States to achieve domination over the Middle East was therefore not in doubt. If it resorted to force under these exceptional conditions, it should do so responsibly—by extending its rule as well.
This argument comes out of the liberal rather than conservative (or neoconservative) side of the U.S. foreign policy establishment and ruling class discussions. The debate within the establishment is narrow, with many liberal foreign policy analysts, because of their penchant for nation building, much closer to neoconservatives and more hawkish in this respect than many conservatives. For Tucker and Hendrickson imperialism is a matter of choice made by policy makers; it is a mere “imperial temptation.” It could be resisted, but if it is not, then it is necessary to take on the liberal dream of nation building—to re-engineer societies on liberal principles.
Indeed, a remarkable consensus on underlying assumptions and goals emerged within the U.S. power elite in the 1990s. As Richard N. Haass, a member of the National Security Council in the administration of President George H. W. Bush and the official who drafted the elder Bush’s most important statement on U.S. military posture, observed in the 1994 edition of his book Intervention: “Liberated from the danger that military action will lead to confrontation with a rival superpower, the United States is now more free to intervene.” In accounting for the limitations of U.S. power Haass declared, “the United States can do anything, just not everything” (p. 8). His analysis went on to discuss the possibility of nation-building interventions in Iraq and elsewhere. Another book by Haass, The Reluctant Sheriff, published in 1997, referred to the sheriff and his posse, with the sheriff defined as the United States and the posse as a “coalition of the willing” (p. 93). The sheriff and the posse need not worry too much about the law, he noted, but must nonetheless be wary of crossing over into vigilantism.
More important, was Haass’ argument on hegemony, which pointed directly to the main differences within the establishment on the U.S. assertion of global power. According to Haass, the United States clearly was the “hegemon” in the sense of having global primacy, but permanent hegemony as an object of foreign policy was a dangerous illusion. In March 1992, a draft of the Defense Planning Guidance, also known as the “Pentagon Paper,” was leaked to the press. This secret working document authored by the elder Bush’s Defense Department under the supervision of Paul Wolfowitz (then undersecretary for policy) declared: “Our strategy [after the fall of the Soviet Union] must now refocus on precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor” (New York Times, March 8, 1992). Questioning this in The Reluctant Sheriff, Haass claimed that this strategy was ill conceived for the simple reason that the United States did not have the capacity to prevent new global powers from emerging. Such powers emerge along with the growth of their material resources; great economic powers will inevitably have the capacity to become great powers generally (along a full spectrum), and the extent to which they emerge as full military powers “will depend mostly on their own perception of national interests, threats, political culture, and economic strength” (p. 54). The only rational long-term strategy, since the perpetuation of hegemony or primacy was impossible, was what Madeleine Albright termed “assertive multilateralism” or what Haass himself termed a “sheriff and posse” approachposse consisting mainly of the other major states.
By November 2000, just before he was hired to be head of policy planning in Colin Powell’s State Department in the administration of President George W. Bush, Haass delivered a paper in Atlanta called “Imperial America” on how the United States should fashion an “imperial foreign policy” that makes use of its “surplus of power” to “extend its control” across the face of the globe. While still denying that lasting hegemony was possible, Haass declared that the United States should use the exceptional opportunity that it now enjoyed to reshape the world in order to enhance its global strategic assets. This meant military interventions around the world. “Imperial understretch, not overstretch,” he argued, “appears to be the greater danger of the two.”* By 2002, Haass, speaking for an administration preparing to invade Iraq, was pronouncing that a failed state, unable to control terrorism within its own territory had lost “the normal advantages of sovereignty, including the right to be left alone inside [its] own territory. Other governments, including the U.S., gain the right to intervene. In the case of terrorism this can even lead to a right of preventative, or preemptory, self-defense” (quoted in Michael Hirsh, At War with Ourselves, p. 251).
In September 2000, two months before Haass had presented his “Imperial America” paper, the neo-conservative Project for the New American Century had issued a report entitled Rebuilding America’s Defenses, drawn up at the request of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, George W. Bush’s younger brother Jeb and Lewis Libby. The report declared that “at present the United States faces no global rival. America’s grand strategy should aim to preserve and extend this advantageous position as far into the future as possible.” The main strategic goal of the United States in the twenty-first century was to “preserve Pax Americana.” To achieve this it was necessary to expand the “American security perimeter” by establishing new “overseas bases” and forward operations throughout the world. On the question of the Persian Gulf, Rebuilding America’s Defenses was no less explicit: “The United States has for decades sought to play a more permanent role in Gulf regional security. While the unresolved conflict with Iraq provides the immediate justification, the need for a substantial American force presence in the Gulf transcends the issue of the regime of Saddam Hussein.”
Even before September 11, therefore, the ruling class and its foreign policy elites (including those outside neoconservative circles) had moved towards an explicit policy of expanding the American empire, taking full advantage of what was regarded as the limited window brought on by the demise of the Soviet Union—and before new rivals of scale could arise. The 1990s saw the U.S. economy, despite the slow-down in the secular growth trend, advance more rapidly than that of Europe and Japan. This was particularly the case in the bubble years of the latter half of the 1990s. The Yugoslavian civil wars meanwhile demonstrated that Europe was unable to act militarily without the United States.
Hence, by the end of the 1990s, discussions of U.S. empire and imperialism cropped up not so much on the left as in liberal and neoconservative circles, where imperial ambitions were openly proclaimed.* Following September 2001, the disposition to carry out massive military interventions to promote the expansion of U.S. power, in which the United States would once again put its “boots on the ground,” as neoconservative pundit Max Boot expressed it in his book on The Savage Wars of Peace on early U.S. imperialist wars, became part of the dominant ruling class consensus. The administration’s National Security Strategy statement, transmitted to Congress in September 2002, promoted the principle of preemptive attacks against potential enemies and declared: “The United States must and will maintain the capability to defeat any attempt by an enemy…to impose its will on the United States, our allies, or our friends….Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in the hope of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States.”
In At War with Ourselves: Why America is Squandering its Chance to Build a Better World (2003), Michael Hirsh, senior editor for Newsweek’s Washington bureau, presents the argument of political liberals that while it is proper for the United States as the hegemonic power to intervene where failed states are concerned, and where its vital strategic interests are at stake, this has to be coupled with nation building and a commitment to broader multilateralism. However, in reality this may only be a “unipolarity…well disguised as multipolarity” (p. 245). This is not a debate about whether the United States should extend its empire, but rather whether the imperial temptation will be accompanied by the assertion of imperial responsibility, in the manner raised by Tucker and Hendrickson. Commenting on nation-building interventions, Hirsh declares “There is no ‘czar’ for failed states as there is for homeland security or the war on drugs. Perhaps there should be” (p. 235).
What have been called “nation-building interventions,” originally rejected by the Bush administration, are no longer in question. This can be seen in the Council on Foreign Relations report, Iraq: The Day After, published shortly before the U.S. invasion, and addressing nation building in Iraq. One of the task force members in the development of that report was James F. Dobbins, Director of the Rand Corporation Center for International Security and Defense Policy, who served as the Clinton administration’s special envoy during the interventions in Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia, and Kosovo and also as special envoy for the Bush II administration following the invasion of Afghanistan. Dobbins, an advocate for “nation-building interventions”—the diplomacy of the sword—in both the Clinton and Bush administrations, declared definitively in the Council on Foreign Relations report: “The partisan debate over nation-building is over. Administrations of both parties are clearly prepared to use American military forces to reform rogue states and repair broken societies” (p. 48).
The Cabal Theory and Imperial Realities
All of this relates to the question that Magdoff raised more than a third of a century ago in The Age of Imperialism and that is more than ever with us today. “Is the [Vietnam] war,” he asked, “part of a more general and consistent scheme of United States external policies or is it an aberration of a particular group of men in power?” There is now a general agreement within the establishment itself that objective forces and security requirements are driving U.S. expansionism; that it is in the general interest of the high command of U.S. capitalism to extend its control over the world—as far and for as long as possible. According to the Project for the New American Century report, Rebuilding America’s Defenses, it is necessary to seize the “unipolar moment.”
The wider left’s tendency over the last two years to focus on this new imperialist expansion as a neoconservative project involving a small sector of the ruling class not reaching beyond the right wing of the Republican Party—resting on particular expansive interests in the military and oil sectors—is a dangerous illusion. At present there is no serious split within the U.S. oligarchy or the foreign policy establishment, though these will undoubtedly develop in the future as a result of failures down the road. There is no cabal, but a consensus rooted in ruling class needs and the dynamics of imperialism.
There are, however, divisions between the United States and other leading states—intercapitalist rivalry remains the hub of the imperialist wheel. How could it be otherwise when the United States is trying to establish itself as the surrogate world government in a global imperial order? Although the United States is attempting to reassert its hegemonic position in the world it remains far weaker economically, relative to other leading capitalist states, than it was at the beginning of the post–Second World War period. “In the late 1940s, when the United States produced 50 percent of the world’s gross national product (GNP),” James Dobbins stated in Iraq: The Day After, “it was able to perform those tasks [of military intervention and nation-building] more or less on its own. In the 1990s, in the aftermath of the Cold War, America was able to lead much broader coalitions and thereby share the burden of nation building much more widely. The United States cannot afford and does not need to go it alone in building a free Iraq. It will secure broader participation, however, only if it pays attention to the lessons of the 1990s as well as those of the 1940s” (pp. 48–49). In other words, for a stagnating U.S. economy that, despite its relative economic gains in the late 1990s, is in a much weaker economic position vis-á-vis its main competitors than in the years following the Second World War, outright hegemonism is beyond its means, and it remains dependent on “coalitions of the willing.”
At the same time, it is clear that in the present period of global hegemonic imperialism the United States is geared above all to expanding its imperial power to whatever extent possible and subordinating the rest of the capitalist world to its interests. The Persian Gulf and the Caspian Sea Basin represent not only the bulk of world petroleum reserves, but also a rapidly increasing proportion of total reserves, as high production rates diminish reserves elsewhere. This has provided much of the stimulus for the United States to gain greater control of these resources—at the expense of its present and potential rivals. But U.S. imperial ambitions do not end there, since they are driven by economic ambitions that know no bounds. As Harry Magdoff noted in the closing pages of The Age of Imperialism in 1969, “it is the professed goal” of U.S. multinational corporations “to control as large a share of the world market as they do of the United States market,” and this hunger for foreign markets persists today. Florida-based Wackenhut Corrections Corporation has won prison privatization contracts in Australia, the United Kingdom, South Africa, Canada, New Zealand, and the Netherlands Antilles (“Prison Industry Goes Global,” www.futurenet.org, fall 2000). Promotion of U.S. corporate interests abroad is one of the primary responsibilities of the U.S. state. Consider the cases of Monsanto and genetically modified food, Microsoft and intellectual property, Bechtel and the war on Iraq. It would be impossible to exaggerate how dangerous this dual expansionism of U.S. corporations and the U.S. state is to the world at large. As IstvE1n ME9szE1ros observed in 2001 in Socialism or Barbarism, the U.S. attempt to seize global control, which is inherent in the workings of capitalism and imperialism, is now threatening humanity with the “extreme violent rule of the whole world by one hegemonic imperialist country on a permanent basis…an absurd and unsustainable way of running the world order.”*
This new age of U.S. imperialism will generate its own contradictions, amongst them attempts by other major powers to assert their influence, resorting to similar belligerent means, and all sorts of strategies by weaker states and non-state actors to engage in “asymmetric” forms of warfare. Given the unprecedented destructiveness of contemporary weapons, which are diffused ever more widely, the consequences for the population of the world could well be devastating beyond anything ever before witnessed. Rather than generating a new “Pax Americana” the United States may be paving the way to new global holocausts.
The greatest hope in these dire circumstances lies in a rising tide of revolt from below, both in the United States and globally. The growth of the antiglobalization movement, which dominated the world stage for nearly two years following the events in Seattle in November 1999, was succeeded in February 2003 by the largest global wave of antiwar protests in human history. Never before has the world’s population risen up so quickly and in such massive numbers in the attempt to stop an imperialist war. The new age of imperialism is also a new age of revolt. The Vietnam Syndrome, which has so worried the strategic planners of the imperial order for decades, now seems not only to have left a deep legacy within the United States but also to have been coupled this time around with an Empire Syndrome on a much more global scale—something that no one really expected. This more than anything else makes it clear that the strategy of the American ruling class to expand the American Empire cannot possibly succeed in the long run, and will prove to be its own—we hope not the world’s—undoing.
* This argument was succinctly expressed in Paul Baran and Paul Sweezy’s Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1966), pp. 183–202.
* For a treatment of how U.S. and NATO intervention in the Yugoslavian civil wars came to be seen in terms of a larger imperialist project see Diana Johnstone, Fool’s Crusade: Yugoslavia, NATO and Western Delusions (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2002).