Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

The empire’s new clothes

As the United States cements its position as the arbiter of world affairs it has variously been described as the world’s only superpower, the new empire, even the new Rome. The US has brought Bosnia, Serbia, Afghanistan and Iraq to heel in a succession of one-sided wars. The US administration has turned its back on multilateralism in favour of a doctrine of unilateral, pre-emptive retaliation. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, issued by the White House in September 2002, puts it succinctly: ‘America will act against … emerging threats before they are fully formed … In the new world we have entered, the only path to peace and ­security is the path of action.’

US military expenditure is now greater than the total spent by the next 20 ­military powers combined. The cost of occupying Iraq—acknowledged by US Defence ­Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as being nearly $US1 billion a week—is, in annual terms, ten per cent of ­Australia’s gross domestic product. There are more than 400,000 US troops stationed ­overseas, with bases in about 100 nations. The collapse of the Soviet Union together with victory in the Afghan war has allowed the Pentagon to put boots on the ground in a range of countries once out of reach: Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Kyrgyzstan. The view from Beijing—let alone Pyongyang—is one of increasing encirclement: US troops in Japan and South Korea to the east, in the Philippines to the south, in the central Asian republics to the west.

The US is arguably the most ­powerful empire the world has yet known, yet in Iraq, the US may have won the war but is rapidly losing the peace. The slide from ‘victory’ to a situation characterised even by Donald Rumsfeld as one of war should not come as a surprise. Following its ­victory in Afghanistan in 2001, the US military installed Hamid Karzai as ­president through a process of national consultation, as distinct from an election. But Karzai’s writ extends only in the ­capital and immediate environs.

Mohammad Ashraf, an Afghani with Action Aid, says that while Afghanistan has been promised $US4.8 billion in ­foreign funding for reconstruction it has received just $US1.9 billion, of which 80 per cent goes directly to the United Nations and non-governmental agencies for their expenses. Meanwhile unexploded cluster bombs remain a threat and warlords are once again in control across the country. As author Nicholas Nugent notes, ‘Despite being told … that the US could “do two things at once”, the Afghan government believes that the US in ­particular has lost interest in Afghanistan in favour of Iraq.’

The US may have taken its eye off the ball in Afghanistan, but the situation in Iraq cannot be regarded so lightly. This is a country of 24 million people, used, until 1991, to near-First World living ­standards, literate and nationalist. Iraq is at the heart of the Middle East and possesses the ­second largest reservoir of oil in the world. While most Iraqis are pleased to see the back of Saddam Hussein, they are making it increasingly clear that they have no desire to be ruled by a foreign occupier. The US cannot afford to walk away from Iraq, but neither is it likely to ‘normalise’ it soon.

The common assertion is that this new US unilateralism is a consequence of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001. But in declaring war on ‘terror’, the Bush administration effected existing aims with the backing of popular consensus. For years, behind closed doors, the argument ran thus: to use the strength of the US military to establish strategic influence, the success of which would be measured in economic, diplomatic and geo-political terms. The so-called neo-conservatives declared their hand in June 1997 in a statement issued by the Project for the New American ­Century. Signatories included George W. Bush, his brother Jeb, and confidants Rumsfeld and Paul Wolfowitz.

In part the statement read:

The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of this century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership. Our aim is to remind Americans of these lessons and to draw their consequences for today.

Consequences of this position included significant increases in military spending so that the US could ‘accept ­responsibility for America’s unique role in ­preserving and extending an international order friendly to our security, our prosperity, and our principles’.

The neo-conservatives emphasised two important points. First, that this was not a return to the presidency of the first George Bush, despite the continuity in senior White House personnel between the two Bush administrations. Bush senior was regarded as too conciliatory, too multilateralist—waiting until he had built a substantial coalition before invading Iraq in 1991 and ending the war with Saddam still in power. The call was for a return to the Ronald Reagan era, of folksy populism at home mixed with steely determination abroad.

Their second caveat about US foreign policy was that strategic considerations must take priority over ‘the promise of short-term commercial benefits’. This, too, helps explain the invasion of Iraq in 2003. The US currently imports 53 per cent of its oil; that figure will rise to 65 per cent by 2020. Having control of Iraq’s oil in concert with a continuing alliance with Saudi Arabia would put the US in an unassailable position and finally exorcise the ghost of the APEC cartel. If the US-Saudi alliance were to fail, Iraq’s oil would provide a crucial buffer. But while access to resources and markets is the bread and butter of inter-state rivalry, it cannot be reduced to this alone. Britain did not fight Argentina in 1982 to retain the sheep riches of the Falklands; it did so to send a warning to potential rivals that British wealth was out-of-bounds to marauders in any part of the world. Likewise, the value of domination of the Solomons is of little value to Australia economically, but if sending troops means investments in Papua New Guinea or Indonesia are safe, or if it ensures safe passage of exports through the waters to our immediate north, then the exercise is justified.

The US, as the only true global power, considers its interests on a similar scale. Its rivals in Europe, Japan and, increasingly, China, need to be kept in line. This cannot be done by brute force. Instead, the medium-sized powers need to be made to understand that they have to adapt to US needs. France and Germany were welcome to join the invasion of Iraq, under US control, but the US was powerful enough to go it alone if necessary. The US was not simply making a play for oil. It was ­alerting the world community to the priority it would like accorded to its interests abroad, whether in determining the outcome of the next round of World Trade Organisation discussions, burying the Kyoto climate change agreement or facilitating investment by US-based corporations overseas. As US Trade Representative Robert ­Zoellick stated, ‘Countries that seek free-trade agreements with the United States must pass muster on more than trade and economic criteria in order to be eligible. At a minimum, these countries must ­co-­operate with the United States on its ­foreign policy and national security goals.’

The neo-conservatives are acutely aware that while the US may be the world’s military behemoth, the economic base on which such superiority rests is in decline, relative to US competitors. In the period immediately after World War II, the US was responsible for fully half of world economic output. Today that proportion is down to about a third, still huge, but not qualitatively greater than the European Union. The gap is likely to continue closing. According to the International Monetary Fund, in 2001 France, Germany and Italy all recorded a higher output per hour worked than the US. Furthermore, the Bush administration is taking an ­enormous gamble by running record government budget deficits—$US455 ­billion this year, and expected to increase in 2004. The cost of the war and of tax cuts for the Republicans’ wealthy voter base is part of the problem; the other is the ­flabbiness of the US economy since the dot com bust. The administration is, in effect, taking part in some good old-fashioned Keynesian pump-priming, but the bill is being picked up by overseas investors. If they cut and run, the US economy will dive.

The EU, either as a bloc or as separate nations, has not been able or willing to turn its extra euros into military material to match the US, which gives ­Washington the advantage. As the neo-conservatives suggest in the 1997 statement, ‘We are living off the capital—both the military investments and the foreign policy achievements—built up by past administrations … As a consequence, we are jeopardizing the nation’s ability to meet present threats and to deal with potentially greater challenges that lie ahead.’
What begins to emerge is a picture of the US as an imperial power, but a power that is not beyond challenge. France, ­Germany and Russia effectively held up the war in Iraq for months. China is ­rapidly emerging as a regional superpower, with the potential to operate on a global stage if its economic growth rates are maintained in coming decades. The White House cannot get ‘allies’ like India or ­Pakistan, let alone France, to commit troops to Iraq to ease the burden of its military ­commitment. India and Pakistan will not be persuaded to mothball their nuclear programs. The US could not get NATO ally ­Turkey to allow the passage of troops into Iraq. Nor can it break the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by diktat.

While the talk is of how the US is now prepared, post-Iraq, to throw its weight around on an even larger scale, Bush has tried to keep his distance on intervention in Liberia. Any deployment would be small and temporary, he says. It’s not just that sub-Saharan Africa has little strategic importance, rather that even a super power can over-stretch its resources. Politically, the White House would be foolish to provide new troops for Liberia while leaving troops to sweat it out in Iraq, in the face of increasing opposition. Opinion polls in the US have shown a sharp turnaround in public ­support for the Iraq adventure, dropping from 74 to 53 per cent. George W. Bush might enjoy the exercise of power, but he does not want to go the way of his father.

Concern about the new unilateralism of the US is so widespread that some have raised the idea of creating an ‘anti-empire front’, an alliance of all or any prepared to stand up to the New American Century.

In practice, the idea means relying on ‘old Europe’—France, Germany, Russia—as a counterweight to US dominance. The ­difference between the US and its ­European rivals is ultimately one of scale, not of kind. To the extent that they can get away with it, countries like France behave like smaller versions of the US. The French government has sent troops before now to some of its former ­African colonies; it maintains a South Pacific colonial base; and it was happy to put its hand up to join Australia in the ­Solomons to underline this fact. Germany is ­constrained militarily by its past, but is still interested in creating a sphere of ­influence. Its unilateral recognition of Croatian independence helped catalyse the war that broke apart the old Yugoslavia. Russia, of course, is an imperial power of longstanding. Its two re-invasions of Chechnya have been ­exercises in textbook brutality.

Who then can we look to as a counterweight to the US empire? Step forward what The New York Times has termed the world’s second superpower—the peace movement that blossomed late last year and early this year, putting the world’s largest ever co-ordinated protest on the streets on the weekend of February 14–16. If the anti-war movement can successfully make common cause with those fighting to defend societies, jobs, the environment and services—all threatened by the US imperial, free market agenda—then we have the makings of a counter-power. This movement will be impressive in ‘old Europe’ but there is no reason to suggest it cannot grow elsewhere, even inside the US itself. The most comprehensive poll of public attitudes on foreign policy ever undertaken in the US and Europe, last September, showed more similarities than differences in world-views on either side of the Atlantic.

The US empire is strong, but far from impervious. As Filipino academic Walden Bello put it recently when speaking in ­Berlin, ‘We have … entered a historical maelstrom marked by prolonged economic crisis, the spread of global resistance, the reappearance of the balance of power among centre states, and the re-emergence of acute inter-imperialist ­contradictions. We must have a healthy respect for US power, but we must not over-estimate it. The signs are there that the US is seriously over-extended and what appear to be manifestations of strength might in fact signal weakness strategically.’ Empires pass, and even the neo-cons know it. 

David Glanz is a Melbourne-based writer.



submit a comment

Similar Articles

Grass roots

  • Lachlan Harris
  • 24 June 2006

Local government meets Indigenous culture.


Family ties

  • Greg Barns
  • 23 June 2006

Commonwealth cousins Australia and Canada  are headed toward distinctly different futures