Living With the Hegemon: Extending the Empire to New Frontiers

CounterPunch, July 17, 2012

Extending the Empire to new frontiers

Recent wars from Libya to Afghanistan and Pakistan in a region of vast natural wealth and strategic importance highlight a phenomenon as old as humanity. Iraq and Libya had oil, but their leaders were longtime foes of the United States, now the world’s lone hegemon. Saddam Hussein allied with the Soviet Union before its demise, so did Muammar Gaddafi. They both displayed stubbornness. They were ready to drop the American dollar as the oil currency before bigger players like China and India dared. Saddam and Gaddafi ruled with an iron hand state systems that were brittle. They were too independent for their own good.

Saudi Arabia and tiny Arab emirates such as Bahrain and Qatar, on the other hand, are punching above their weight. Wealthy and dictatorial, their rulers accommodate the hegemon’s interests. These rulers sell their oil and amass petrodollars which they spend in vast quantities on weapons and consumer goods from the industrialized world led by the hegemon. Their relationship is far more agreeable.

The hegemon is thus left with states of two more categories of significant kind. In one category is Iran since the 1979 Revolution, Syria since the 1963 Ba’athist coup, and Sudan. The hegemon intervenes seeking to overthrow uncooperative regimes by diplomatic, economic and military means. In the second category are China, Russia and, to a lesser degree, India, where even the world’s lone hegemon has limits. Beyond these categories are the discarded––completely failed entities like Somalia, Ethiopia, Mali, where utterly poor and miserable people live.

The hegemon and satellites have not a care in the world for the welfare of such people, except sending drones or troops from neighboring client states to kill those described as “terrorists.” What desperate poverty and misery lead to has no space within the realm of this thinking.

Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how a society develops from primitive to higher levels of civilization. Trades and occupations multiply and population grows. The next stage of development, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that results in war, because an enlarged society wants even more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to understanding the causes of war. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims. A relevant section in the Republic reads:

We shall have to enlarge our state again. Our healthy state is no longer big enough; its size must be enlarged to make room for a multitude of occupations none of which is concerned with necessaries. There will be hunters and fishermen, and there will be artists, sculptors, painters and musicians. There will be poets with their following of reciters, actors, chorus-trainers, and producers; there will be manufacturers of domestic equipment of all sorts, especially those concerned with women’s dress and make-up. 

Nearly two and a half millennia after Plato, Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their core argument in the book published in 2001 was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Negri and Hardt, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire now is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication. It has no definitive political center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the “enemy” must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system––a “terrorist” entity to be dealt with by force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as subsequent events testify.

The United States occupied “a privileged position in Empire” depicted by Negri and Hardt. Its privileges did not necessarily arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” They derived from the assertion of  “American exceptionalism.” From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea had become global. The presidency of George W. Bush was a powerful militaristic expression of America’s will.

Like terrorism, the term “empire” is often used disparagingly by those on the left and the right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting models. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.

Different concepts of empire have existed through history. For centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.

The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of ruling an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades later, the West was to hit the most serious crisis since the Great Depression. It was brought about by a combination of impudence after the West’s Cold War triumph, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.

Norwegian scholar Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term “empire.” He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the U.S. empire “provides a complete configuration, articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner.”  The Pentagon planner in question was Lt. Col. Ralph Peters:

The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing. (Fighting for the Future: Will America Triumph? 1999, 141)

The American defense planner’s confession was as revealing as it was terrifying. Economic interest and cultural domination are interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources––energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior drives a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military and other means to territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater the cultural symmetry, the better for the hegemon.

 [END]

On Exceptionalism and Deviance

The Wall Street Journal recently carried a speculative article by Ian Tally suggesting a link between the International Monetary Fund’s bailout loans to the European Union’s worst hit economies and sanctions against Iran. In essence, the article said that the Obama administration would likely support bailout loans to Greece, Italy and Spain in exchange for the EU agreeing to an embargo on Iran’s oil.

The source of the WSJ article was Jacob Kirkegaard of the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington. Kirkegaard speculated that the timing of the European Union’s “newly-proposed ban on Iranian oil imports” was too fortuitous to be purely coincidental. Greece, Spain and Italy are all heavily dependent on Iranian oil and therefore most resistant to an embargo. According to the WSJ, they are no longer resisting a ban. Italy says that it would support the measure “in principle” while Greece and Spain have indicated that they would not veto the idea.

What has changed? First of all, both Italy and Greece have new prime ministers, installed as part of an understanding with external rescuers, notably Germany and the IMF. The new prime ministers are not politicians, but technocrats, who took office within a week of each other in November 2011. Mario Monti of Italy, a former EU commissioner, became the prime minister, as well as the minister for economy and finance, replacing the colorful and highly controversial Silvio Berlusconi. The new prime minister of Greece, Lucas Papademos, was formerly the vice president of the European Central Bank.

These events were the most obvious evidence of an extraordinary shift in power from elected politicians to supranational institutions. There was also a change of government in Spain last November, when the center-right Popular Party came to power, defeating the governing Socialist Party. These changes were a political earthquake in the midst of an economic crisis. It struck in defiance of the popular mood on the streets.

The disconnect between the rulers, including and backed by wealthy corporate interests, and the subjects has consequences for domestic as well as foreign policies of the countries concerned. The mood in the main street everywhere is anti-war. But such sentiment cannot control governments’ propensity to fight foreign wars while corporations are given freedom to operate in an environment with minimal regulation. While the state withdraws from policy making and essential service provision, private corporations are allowed practices which determine employment, wages, and consequently money circulation. The accumulation of wealth by one percent greatly reduces the purchasing power of the 99 percent. High unemployment and depressed economy result in lower interest rates. If banks are threatened with failure, the tax payer is there as the rescuer of last resort.

What does it have to do with sanctions and the current talk of military action against Iran in Western capitals? The economic crisis has made all but the wealthiest countries susceptible to supranational powers. It enables the IMF, and the United States, to exercise control over countries in need, in both domestic and foreign policies.

The Wall Street Journal referred to one issue, that of an embargo on Iranian oil sales. There are other examples where pressure tactics have been used against foreign governments to tow the American line. The increasingly aggressive U.S. campaign against Iran ranges from the European Union to countries in Asia, including India, China, Japan and South Korea to name a few.

The veto powers of China and Russia rule out further sanctions on Iran with the UN Security Council’s approval. So the Obama administration and Congress have adopted the tactic of forcing other countries to obey American law and go along with sanctions imposed by Washington. The temptation to look and act tough from Obama to Republican presidential aspirants, Congressmen and Senators is irresistible as the November 2012 elections approach. American policy of making the world obey U.S. domestic law is blatant and bizarre.

It makes a mockery of other nation-states’ independence and sovereignty and their right to formulate and pursue their own policies. The United Nations is rendered irrelevant while the United States goes Rambo on the international stage. That such behavior is causing widespread alienation among other countries, and ultimately threatens America’s own interests, is a message lost in Washington.

[END]

A New Cold War

There was something odd about the “final pullout” of United States troops from Iraq as the last military convoy crossed the border into Kuwait. Addressing a group of returning soldiers at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, a few days before, President Obama hailed it as an “historic” moment after nine years of conflict, proclaiming it a “success.” He said, “We are leaving a sovereign, stable and self-reliant Iraq.” Obama’s claim is questionable in every respect. Let us not forget he once called it a “dumb war.” In Fallujah, once an insurgent stronghold and a target of major American offensives in 2004, where the anti-American sentiment still runs deep, people burned U.S. flags. In Baghdad, a trader expressed his fear of terrorists coming back.

The American military involvement in Iraq has wound down after nine years. But Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has reaffirmed America’s determination to maintain its military presence in the region. As the West and its regional allies increase the pressure on Syria, close to civil war, and the brinkmanship with Iran continues, Russia announced that it was sending warships to its naval base in Syria, in a demonstration of support for Damascus. Russia and China look determined not to allow NATO to launch a Libya-style intervention in another country under the United Nations Security Council’s mandate. On matters of war and peace, the Security Council has become deadlocked, such is the loss of trust.

What does all this mean? A little more than twenty years after U.S.-Soviet hostilities ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union, we are in the midst of a new cold war. The term is not used widely yet, for many twenty-first century conflicts in South and West Asia, and Africa, are being fought in the name of the “war on terror” or “humanitarian intervention.” However, the true characteristics of these interventions are becoming clear. The current hostilities involving the West and its allies––and the rest––in many of the same arenas where the last cold war was fought amount to a new cold war.

The primary objective of Western powers is two-fold: to secure the energy resources and markets in dollar-rich oil exporting countries, and to see that those owning strategic resources do not become too independent of the West. The challenge to the West this time comes not from one superpower like the defunct USSR. The challenge comes from Russia, China, India, South Africa and Brazil, South America’s economic giant.

The twentieth-century Cold War between the Soviet Union and the West was for the spoils left after the defeat of Germany and Japan in the Second World War. The devastating defeat of the Axis Powers and the emergence of two ideologically opposite superpowers in 1945 meant that the world map was ready to be redrawn.

That the United States and the Soviet Union became locked into hostilities for control of resources after 1945 was no surprise. The surprise was how short-lived the Soviet-U.S. Cold War was, lasting just about four decades. And how rapid was the collapse of the USSR, the other superpower that had fought so gallantly against Hitler’s army and looked invincible merely a decade before its demise in late 1991.

Events since then, particularly in the last decade, illustrate certain characteristics of imperial behavior. Imperial powers do not disarm willingly. Either the presence of rivals is a reason to stay ahead in the race or to catch up. Or the ambition to expand the empire for resources and markets, and grandiose delusions, are powerful incentives to continue militarization. Imperial decline occurs only when forced by events.

During the Cold War in the last century, wealth was concentrated in the capitalist West. The Soviet Union made an historic blunder in investing disproportionately vast resources in the military-industrial complex and weaponization instead of uplifting the people’s living standards and encouraging them to create wealth.

The new century is very different. The United States has the largest and most destructive arsenal in the world. But it is because too much of the dollar money earned by the people goes to America’s military-industrial complex. Of the total military expenditure worldwide, the United States, a country under enormous debt, spends nearly 43 percent on defense. It is six times greater than China and twelve times more than Russia. The cost is gigantic, $698 billion in 2010. Others must pay the price.

In a distorted capitalist system, workers are jobless, or on depressed wages, in increasing numbers. Wealth inequalities, already alarming, continue to widen. Businesses close and unemployment rises. Public services are cut, productivity sinks and, most crucially, access to higher education becomes more and more difficult. It all points to a bleak future.

The new cold war is unlike the twentieth-century U.S.-Soviet hostilities, for there is not one power challenging America’s global supremacy, but many disparate forces. One significant factor responsible for the new cold war is the movement of economic power from the West to countries like China, Russia emerging as an energy giant, and India with its vast young population. Another is that the West finds itself up against ideological challenges from an array of nationalist forces, religious and secular, from Asia to Africa and South America.

One of the main differences between the West and the rest is that while the United States has become prone to waging wars, the others do not display the same readiness to go to war. They are more tactical. The former indicates the thinking in the West that time is limited to reverse the tide, which can only be done by military interventions. The latter is a more artful approach based on the foundations of patience and strategic collaboration. Remember the words of Confucius: “It does not matter how slowly you go as long as you do not stop.”

 [END]

Why, oh why?

Deepak Tripathi cannot understand why China and Russia would support the United States on the issue of sanctions against Iran when Washington’s real agenda is regime change. To see Iran fall into the American sphere in a region where most regimes already are in the American sphere? It would be like chopping the branch one is sitting on.

From Georgia to a New Cold War: A Pawn in Their Game

Deepak Tripathi

The conflict between Russia and the pro-US regime of Georgia has been a decisive turning-point in Russia’s relations with Washington and has taken us to the brink of a new Cold War.  

For the first time in almost twenty years, the West faces a resurgent Russia that has put the trauma of the breakup of the Soviet Union and the resulting chaos behind. Today’s Russia is run by a younger leadership with autocratic efficiency, confident because of its vast energy resources and determined to resist American hegemony, by force if necessary. The crisis in Georgia goes beyond the Caucasus region. Its roots lie in America’s overwhelming ambition to expand and its tendency to make colossal miscalculations under the Bush presidency. More