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FLASHBACK: America’s imperial longings (July 2001)

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PostPosted: Sun Jul 19, 2009 8:43 pm    Post subject: FLASHBACK: America’s imperial longings (July 2001) Reply with quote


Cold war government with no war to fight

America’s imperial longings

by Philip S Golub, Le Monde Diplomatique, July 2001

(translated by Barbara Wilson)

US President George W Bush made his first official visit abroad this summer. Europe was his chosen destination, but he decided not to stop in London, Paris or Berlin. The transatlantic climate has been chilly in recent months, with differences on the death penalty and the environment (especially the Kyoto protocol) and muted disagreement on the revival of a strategic defence initiative that threatens the treaties on disarmament signed with Moscow. The Republicans’ loss of their majority in the Senate could diminish their control over foreign policy. But one aspect of Washington’s programme will remain intact: while public spending is about to feel the effects of slowing growth and tax cuts, the defence budget is set to rise.

"We remain uniquely positioned at the centre," said United States senator Jesse Helms in 1996, "and that is where we must stay ... by being the standard-bearer of moral, political and military might and right, an example to which all others aspire" (1). A few years later neo-conservative Charles Krauthammer wrote in no less triumphalist terms: "America bestrides the world like a colossus. ... Not since Rome destroyed Carthage has a great power risen to the heights we have. … The unipolar moment will surely last for at least a generation" (2). Looking even further ahead, another neo-conservative author asserted: "France had the 17th century, Britain the 19th, and America the 20th. It will also have the 21st" (3).

These paeans in praise of power are a measure of the imperial euphoria that has possessed the American right since the end of the cold war, and of how far we have come since the 1980s when writers like Paul Kennedy thought they could detect structural signs of American imperial decline.

But far from running out of steam, the US, since 1991, has been in a singular position, unparalleled in modern times. Unlike the British empire, challenged by the rise of Germany at the end of the 19th century, the US has no strategic adversary capable of upsetting the global balance of power in the foreseeable future. Moreover, its chief economic competitors, Europe and Japan, are strategic allies. Unlike other nation-states, it has seen its sovereignty and autonomy expand and it sets the normative rules and constraints of the international system (4).

Maintaining this favourable status quo has been the prime objective of US foreign policy since 1991. But the means used to that end take different forms, depending on the degree of cooperation or coercion involved. While the Clinton administration used economic diplomacy and - up to a point - multilateral cooperation to further US interests, the new administration appears tempted to favour force and unilateral action to extend the frontiers of American hegemony.

George W Bush and his team have been in power for barely six months but already they have significantly hardened bilateral relations with China, called the 1972 anti-ballistic treaty (ABM) into question with their decision to press ahead with national missile defence (NMD), announced their intention to militarise space, rejected the Kyoto protocol on greenhouse gas emissions, sabotaged efforts by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development to control offshore tax havens, and made it clear that, in the dispute with the European Union over Foreign Sales Corporations (FSC), they will unilaterally challenge any decision of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) dispute settlement body imposing sanctions on the US (5). Moreover, the Bush administration is now attempting to close down the International Criminal Court to which President Clinton finally acceded (6).

Day by day the list of "incendiary acts" of this kind lengthens, in the words of Stanley Hoffman of Harvard. They betray a new nationalism that advocates unilateral action and refuses to allow US sovereignty to be confined in the least degree by the constraints of multilateral treaties and international law. The new assistant secretary of state, John Bolton, one of the more radical ideologues in the administration, is reported to have said a few months ago that "there is no such thing as international law".

We have to go back in time to understand this drift to unilateralism. To simplify, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the US had three main strategic options. The first was to foster cooperative multilateral frameworks for the management of a newly pacified world system. The second was to revert to traditional balance of power politics and act, like Great Britain in the 19th century, as "holder of the balance" globally and regionally. The third, favoured by Helms and his friends, was to consolidate unipolarity by pursuing a strategy of primacy. The first two options admit of various combinations - witness the mix of cooperation and conflict in the management of bilateral relations with China since 1989. But, because it is driven by an inexorable logic of power and constraint, the third is of an altogether different character.

The strategy of primacy was first formulated in 1992 in a confidential Pentagon document, Defense Policy Guidance 1992-1994, by Paul Wolfowitz and I.Lewis Libby, now respectively deputy secretary of defence and national security adviser to vice-president Dick Cheney. They recommended preventing any "hostile power from dominating regions" whose resources would allow it to attain great power status, discouraging attempts by the advanced industrial nations to challenge US leadership or upset the established political and economic order, and precluding the emergence of any potential future global competitor (7). These immodest recommendations were made at the height of the "unipolar moment", shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the war with Iraq.

For the Pentagon, the Gulf war was a godsend. It remobilised the US armed forces, provided a rationale for keeping the defence budget at cold war levels, and lent new legitimacy to the archipelago of US military bases girdling the world. As the Soviet "strategic threat" faded into insignificance, rogue states conveniently emerged that could threaten the new world order. In February 1991 Cheney, then secretary of defence, said of the Gulf war: "It presages very much the type of conflict we are most likely to confront again in this new era. … In addition to Southwest Asia, we have important interests in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, and Central and Latin America. … We must configure our policies and our forces to effectively deter, or quickly defeat, such future regional threats"[8].

In short, the war saved the Pentagon and military-industrial complex from having to demobilise, as the demise of the Soviet Union should have warranted. Moreover, as Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson pointed out at the time, "by demonstrating that military power remains as significant as ever in relations of states ... the Gulf crisis was widely seen in the US as dealing a serious, even fatal, blow to the vision of an emerging multipolar world". Germany and Japan, held up as challengers of US economic dominance, proved to be barely autonomous, "as dependent as ever on American military power" (9).

Mothballing primacy

The strategy of primacy was mothballed during the Clinton years. He preferred to protect and promote national interests through US-dominated multilateral institutions and a liberal internationalist policy centred on globalisation, a policy that was quite successful to judge by the results.

As historian Ronald Steel pointed out, all US presidents since 1945, from Harry Truman to George Bush senior, had been "war presidents". Bill Clinton was the first US chief executive to have the chance to follow a different course. Under his presidency the centre of power shifted somewhat, in fact, from the national security apparatus towards the Treasury and the new White House Economic Security Council. Senior Wall Street figures such as Robert Rubin were given a big hand in the conduct of world affairs, orchestrating globalisation and managing crises in the international financial system. Prior to his inauguration in 1992, Clinton had announced at a conference in Little Rock, Arkansas, that economic liberalisation and trade would henceforth be the preferred instruments of US diplomacy. This decision was subsequently concretised with the ratification of the North American Free Trade Accord (Nafta) in 1993, the ratification of the WTO agreement in 1994, the aggressive drive for financial liberalisation in East Asia and the policy of engagement vis-à-vis China and Russia.

The shift from a military to a predominantly economic global strategy made sense. Forty years of bipolar confrontation had justified a permanent military mobilisation and the end of that era logically opened the way for a change in priorities. Forms of state intervention were to change in response to the opening up of China, the meteoric rise of the emerging economies in East Asia and the capitalist transition in Central and Eastern Europe. The national security state was, in a sense, to give way to the state as agent of globalisation.

In setting these new priorities, Clinton "questioned the raison d’être of the Pentagon and a national security structure designed for superpower rivalry," to quote Steve Clemons, executive director of the Japan Policy Research Institute. Indeed, Clinton initially favoured a substantial drawdown of forces, and hence "started out on the worst of terms with his generals". Through his secretary of defence, Les Aspin, he had announced his intention of revoking two pillars of his predecessors’ defence policy, namely Colin Powell’s "base force" doctrine, i.e. the capability to wage two major regional wars simultaneously, and Ronald Reagan’s anti-ballistic missile development programme (Strategic Defence Initiative). In 1993 Aspin announced "the end of the Star Wars era".

But these plans came to nothing. In the face of fierce resistance from the military industrial complex, which never acknowledged the authority of a president who had opposed the Vietnam war during his student days in England, Clinton backed down very early on. Political weakness and personal failings combined to bring about his defeat in the decisive first skirmishes with the Pentagon. His proposal to allow gays to serve in the armed forces was quickly buried and the "base force" doctrine survived intact. Ironically, the Republicans, who invented it, are now calling the doctrine into question. "Thereafter", explains Lawrence Korb of the Council on Foreign Relations, "Clinton decided to keep the Pentagon happy".

The 1994 defence budget remained steady at $280bn, or 88% of the average for 1975-1989 during the cold war. Under pressure from both chambers of Congress, dominated by the Republicans after 1994, Clinton even increased Pentagon funding in 1998 by $112bn over six years.

Little by little, Clinton thus gave the Pentagon almost everything it wanted. This did not stop Republican think tanks and congressmen sounding off against his security and defence policy. They engaged in a bitter and hypocritical campaign, accusing Clinton of threatening America’s national security.

For instance, Condoleezza Rice, now national security adviser to Bush, had the effrontery to say that Clinton had turned the US armed forces into social workers and reduced them to a state of impotence comparable to their calamitous condition in 1940 (10). In this light, it is retrospectively disturbing that a middle level civilian employee of the Pentagon, Linda Tripp, played a significant role in the Lewinsky affair, described by Hillary Clinton as "a vast right-wing conspiracy".

Return of the national security state

Clinton would not or could not bring the Pentagon to heel, but with the advent of Bush we are witnessing the return in force of the national security state. The key posts in the present administration, unlike the previous one, are held by military men and civilian and military strategists. Cheney, Powell, Donald Rumsfeld, Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Armitage, J Kelley, I Lewis Libby and John Negroponte (11), among others, all held senior security posts in defence or intelligence during the cold war and/or the transition from Soviet rule and the war with Iraq.

John Negroponte, for example, was a key figure in the "secret" war waged against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua. Kelley was in the navy, Armitage was at defence as were Powell, Wolfowitz and Libby. Rumsfeld, for his part, presided over the beginning of the "second cold war" (1975-89), had the word "detente" dropped from the official vocabulary, and spent the 1980s and 1990s promoting Star Wars and denouncing Democratic party policy.

In short, this is a cold war government with no cold war to fight. Its acts and its composition reflect a particular vision and a specific choice, the vision of a world system governed by power politics and the choice to pursue objectives of wealth and power determined by a very narrow definition of what constitutes the national interest.

As with Iraq in the early 1990s, so now the hypothetical Chinese threat serves as a justification for a high tech military mobilisation which should bring the Pentagon’s annual budget up to $320bn, more than the combined military budgets of all America’s potential adversaries, at a time when all the other US budgets, especially the social budgets, are withering away.

Even supposing it wanted to, China is in no position to upset the balance in East Asia, still less in the wider world. Of course, that does not mean that aggressive Chinese nationalism might not exercise a destabilising influence in Asia in the future. But by describing China as a "strategic adversary" during the election campaign and as a "strategic competitor" once he was safely installed in the White House, Bush is busy bringing about the state of affairs he claims to describe.

On 1 May 2001 the president announced his decision to speed up development of a national missile defence system. On 8 May secretary of defence Rumsfeld announced - without giving specific figures - a considerable increase in defence spending for the US Space Command. Space, he said, would now have pride of place in US strategic planning.

This initiative should be seen against the backdrop of the conclusions drawn by the commission he chaired prior to joining the Bush cabinet. Published on 11 January, the Rumsfeld report warned of the "increasing vulnerability of the United States" to a "Pearl Harbour" in space, and suggested that the president should "have an option to deploy weapons in space to deter threats to, and if necessary defend against, attacks on US interests".

Pearl Harbour? Increasing vulnerability? Rumsfeld and Rice are turning reality on its head. Who are the adversaries capable of mounting a challenge against the US in space or in the deep seas, another of the Pentagon’s current obsessions? Russia, which has been reduced to recruiting wealthy American tourists to fund its space programme? China, which needs 20 years of peace to stabilise the fragile domestic, economic and social situation within the country? Europe? Who then? Disingenuously, the Rumsfeld commission identifies the threat as coming increasingly from "people like Usama bin Laden [who] may be able to acquire capabilities on satellites". Understandably, the secretary of defence did not see fit to trot out this lamentable explanation on 8 May. Indeed he offered no reason at all, because there isn’t one.

Beyond serving the needs of the military industrial complex, it would appear that the administration’s aim is mobilise the US’ scientific and technological capabilities. Andrew Marshall, the utopian octogenarian who theorised the "revolution in military affairs" (RMA) and is now responsible for defining the Pentagon’s new military strategy, is known to dream aloud of next-generation stratospheric aircraft, giant submarines operating in the deep seas, space-based lasers, remote unmanned strike technologies and so on. The administration’s hi-tech defence program is clearly very good news for Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and Boeing, among others. But, as Seymour Melman, one of the earliest and most consistent critics of the military industrial complex, rightly says, "world hegemony is the strategic aim of Pentagon spending. It is an arithmetic of the expansion of power."

It remains to be seen, however, how much genuine room for manoeuvre there is in years to come for an administration whose arrogance is in inverse proportion to its electoral legitimacy. At the end of May the Republicans lost control of the Senate and they may well find themselves in a minority in the House of Representatives after the 2002 mid-term elections. Assuming the Democrats show a will to resist, that would spell the end for Bush’s programme of remilitarisation.

In the meantime the rest of the world will have to live with the new American nationalism. To judge by the first reactions in Europe and Asia, the Pentagon’s strategy of primacy is not going down very well. The Bush administration does not seem to grasp that strategies of domination based on force inevitably generate counter-forces. Thus the quest for exclusive primacy may, paradoxically, hasten the way towards a multipolar world.



(1) Jesse Helms, "Entering the Pacific Century", Heritage Foundation, Washington DC, 1996.

(2) "The Second American Century", Time Magazine, New York, 27 December 1999. See also Charles Krauthammer, "The Unipolar Moment",Foreign Affairs, vol 70 no 1, New York, 1990-1991.

(3) Mortimer Zuckerman, "A Second American Century", Foreign Affairs, May-June 1998.

(4) See Noëlle Burgi and Philip Golub, "The states we are still in", Le Monde diplomatique English edition, April 2000.

(5) The special trade representative, Robert Zoellnick, warned the EU on 15 May that imposing sanctions on the US in the foreign sales corporations case would have the effect of "nuking bilateral trade relations".

(6) The House of Representatives passed a bill on 8 May, protecting US citizens from prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

(7) See Paul-Marie de la Gorce, "Washington et la maîtrise du monde", Le Monde diplomatique, April 1992.

[8] Statement to the Senate Defence Committee, 21 February 1991.

(9) Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson, "The Imperial Temptation", Council on Foreign Relations Press, New York 1992, pp.9 and 10.

(10) Condoleezza Rice, "Promoting the National Interest", Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000.

(11) Respectively vice-president, secretary of state, secretary of defence, deputy secretary of defence, deputy secretary of state responsible for Southeast Asia and the Pacific, security adviser to Dick Cheney, and US ambassador designate to the UN.

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PostPosted: Thu Feb 11, 2010 11:21 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Council on Foreign Relations Latest:-
Quadrennial Defense Review (Skip to 5:00 Min) Moving US tentacles to the India Ocean.


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