US Imperialism after Afghanistan
In the wake of the atrocities of September 11th commentators tell us that we are living in a world that has been utterly changed. A world in which all the restraints on US imperialism have been lifted, and all nations are united the common cause known as the “War on Terror”. The British Prime Minister Tony Blair has described this as nothing less than a “re-ordering” of the world.
Yet, in reality, the cleavage between the post-September 11th world and that which existed before is not so profound. The actions of the US represent an intensification of a long-term imperialist offensive rather than something new. Indeed, in the last decade there has been a series of imperialist wars, starting with Iraq in 1991, Yugoslavia from 1995 to 1999, and now in 2001, the war on Afghanistan.
However, Afghanistan is unlikely to be the end point of this offensive. Emboldened by its relatively easy victory, the US is identifying new targets for attack. The next phase of the “War on Terror” was set out by Bush in his “axis of evil” speech, in which he identified Iraq, Iran, and North Korea as the prime enemies of the US. The fact that none of these sates were connected to the September 11th attacks shows that the “War on Terror” has a much wider agenda.
Extending US power
While Iraq, Iran and North Korea are not
linked in any way, indeed Iraq and Iran are enemies, the one thing that
they have in common is that they are not under US control. While
these sates may be relatively weak, they are examples of defiance to US
power. The US clearly sees the “War on Terror” as a way of shoring
up it’s dominant position and eliminating any sources of opposition.
The scale of US ambitions, and the extent to which it will use force to back them up, has been reflected in the announcement of a huge increase in military spending. It will rise by 15 percent, from $310.5 billion in 2001 to $347.5 billion this year, and onwards and upwards by a further $48 billion in 2003, rising to an extra $120 billion over the next five years. The US military budget will be more than the combined total of the next 15 highest military spending countries. It will constitute 60 percent of the world's total spending on arms. By 2007 the total amount will be 11 percent higher than average US spending during the Cold War years.
The US is also reviewing its use of nuclear
weapons. A recently leaked report revealed that the Pentagon is
developing contingency plans for nuclear attacks on seven different countries.
These include China and Russia, the two powers which have long been targeted
by the US nuclear arsenal; Iraq, Iran and North Korea, the three countries
demonised by Bush as the “axis of evil”, and Libya and Syria. The
report also outlined a broad range of political, strategic and tactical
scenarios under which the US government would use nuclear weapons.
While there is much rhetoric from the Bush administration, and undoubtedly
the increase in military spending is partly a pay off to the defence companies
that support it, the next decade is likely to witness a number of major
US military campaigns. Plans for an attack on Iraq are already in
an advanced stage, and if that is successful, other countries will be
After September 11th and the war in Afghanistan there is a common view that the US is in an unassailable position as the most powerful state in the world. At its most extreme this argument holds that the US is operating a type of global government. Underpinning this argument is the assumption that the process of globalisation is fundamentally altering the nature of politics and the relations between states. That the penetration of capital all over the world, backed up political and military power, is diminishing national sovereignty and compelling states to follow the policies advocated by the US. This is what is described as the “Washington Consensus”.
Of course the concept of consensus within imperialism stands in direct contradiction to Lenin’s view that the driving force of imperialism is competition between capitalist states, the ultimate manifestation of which is military conflict. The advocates of globalisation argue that, in weakening the power of the state, it is reducing the likelihood of conflict. They back this up with the claim that there has never been a war between two countries which have a McDonalds restaurant. In this scenario, the spread of free-markets, trade, investment and consumerism, is creating a more peaceful world.
However, this is not a new argument. In some ways the current debate over globalisation echoes that over imperialism a hundred years ago. The main division in this debate was between Lenin and Karl Kautsky, the leading theoretician of German Marxism. Kautsky argued that capitalism was moving towards the formation of one massive stock company that would mange the world economy. Under this system, which he described as “ultra-imperialism”, the connection between capital and the nation state was being broken down and the likelihood of conflict reduced. Lenin’s counter augment, and his explanation for the outbreak of World War One, was that the nature of capitalist expansion actually made conflict more likely. He saw the interests of each national capitalist class as being bound up with the state. The quest for higher profits and new markets, which in that period was marked by the scramble for colonies, was dependent on state power. As colonial expansion was limited, and as each national capitalist class sought to continue its expansion, a clash between rival capitalist powers was inevitable.
Challenges to US hegemony
If there was a period of US hegemony then it was during the period of the Cold War when the capitalist world was faced by the Soviet Union and when the ruling class of many nations were facing an internal political challenge from Stalinist parties. In this situation the US was the ultimate guarantor of security for all capitalist states. It was the US that built up the economies of western Europe and Japan after the second World War, that provided them with a military shield, and guarded their interests in strategic areas of the world such as the Middle East. The US was able to maintain its dominant position by making other capitalist states, particularly potential rivals, dependent upon its power. However, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, the role of the US as supervisor of world capitalism is being increasingly challenged.
The unanimity over Afghanistan is likely to be temporary. In this case all the imperialist powers, for their own strategic reasons, supported the overthrow of the Taliban and the attack on the Al-Qaeda network. Both Russia and China were in their own campaigns against Muslim opposition groups, and clearly saw the “War on Terror” as an opportunity to advance these. However, since the end of the Afghan war Russia and China have become increasingly critical of US actions, particularly over what they perceive to be military encroachment on their borders.
The European Union
Another manifestation of the challenge to US dominance is the development of the European Union. Since the early 1990’s the EU has been moving progressively towards integration and the development of a distinct European political, military and economic position. The centrepiece of this project has been the launch of the European single currency - the euro. It represents the first significant challenge to US financial power since the 1920’s when the dollar replaced sterling as the main international currency.
The political and military ambitions of the EU are set out in its most recent treaty, the Treaty of Nice. This marked a shift towards expansion, envisaging up to 27 member states, and also towards the enhancement of the power of centralised decision making bodies. The Nice Treaty also lays the basis for a common European security and foreign policy. This is centred around the creation of a European Rapid Reaction Force. Comprising 60,000 troops, this force will have its own separate command structure and be able to operate at distances that could extend into north Africa or to the borders of Russia. Such a force could be the basis of a future European army and provide an alternative to dependence on the US-led NATO. The impetus for an independent military force was the failure of the EU over the Kosovo crisis, when it took US military power in the form of NATO to enforce a solution. By expanding into eastern Europe and creating its own military force, the EU can be in a position to take the lead in tackling problems that arise within what it considers to be its own sphere of influence.
The EU’s ambitions to be a superpower are still at an early stage. The euro is by no means assured of being a success. There are also forces within Europe pulling towards greater regionalisation rather than integration, and those that don’t want to be part of the European project at all. During the Afghanistan crisis there was no single European position and policy was determined at a national level. In the end all the European states went along with the US action, each trying to get as much out of the post-Taliban carve-up of Afghanistan as they could. However, over a possible attack on Iraq, there is more opposition. Rather than overthrow the Sadaam Hussein regime, as the US and Britain are advocating, the majority of European governments have been pursuing a policy of gradually bringing Iraq back into the international fold. They have been positioning themselves to be in an advantageous position when Iraq is once again open for trade and investment. A US-led invasion of Iraq and the installation of a client government would put this policy in jeopardy. On Iraq, and on a range of political and economic issues, there is likely to be increasing tensions between the US and Europe.
Contradictions within the “war on terror”
The “War on Terror” also has its own internal contradictions. It has unleashed forces and established precedents which throw up unexpected problems for the US and creates more instability. The most obvious example of this came in the wake of the Afghanistan war with the confrontation between India and Pakistan. After a gun attack on its parliament by Kashmiri militants, the Indian government accused Pakistan of being behind the attack. Using the same arguments that Bush had made over Afghanistan, it demanded that Pakistan disband the military groups that were based in its territory and hand over suspects or face military action. After weeks of a mounting military build-up on the India/Pakistan border the US intervened to put pressure on both sides to pull back. The right to launch a “War on Terror” was clearly to be reserved to the US. It also needed to protect Pakistan, it’s long term ally in the sub-continent. The regime of Musharraf had been severely weakened by the war in Afghanistan, when it was forced to abandon the Taliban regime, and a war with India would likely have brought about its collapse.
In the Middle East, Ariel Sharon has used
the “War on Terror” to intensify the repression of Palestinians.
He has sought to compare Yasser Arafat with bin-Laden and place actions
of Israel within the bounds of the US campaign to defeat “terrorism”.
However, this has created problems for US policy towards the Middle East.
The Arab masses, who were so muted during the Afghan war, have erupted
in anger over the Israeli onslaught against the Palestinians. Much
of this anger is directed towards the US and the pro-US Arab regimes like
Egypt and Jordan. If the Israeli offensive continues and Arab opinion
is further radicalised there is a danger that these regimes could collapse.
All this makes the declared US policy of deposing the regime in Iraq more
problematic. Also, Sadaam Hussein has used the crisis to boost his
standing in the Arab world by posing as the champion of Palestinian rights.
In this situation, it is unlikely that any Arab sate could publicly back
an invasion of Iraq. A war against Iraq could destabilise the Middle
East even more and increase the pressure on already fragile regimes.
While instability may temporally delay or divert the “War on Terror it is not enough to stop it. The only thing that can achieve this is a powerful opposition movement, both in the countries that are under attack and in the centres of imperialism. These two things are bound-up together, as a set-back for the US abroad will embolden opposition at home, and that opposition will limit the scope of US action abroad. This was what happened during the Vietnam War, particularly in the in the wake of Tet offensive in 1968, and what ultimately forced the US to withdraw. The major problem today is that the level of opposition to the war is weakest in the country, the United Sates, where it needs to be strongest if it is to make a difference. Opposition in other imperialist centres such as western Europe is important, but at the most it can only succeed in preventing these countries collaborating. It is not sufficient in itself to stop the “War on Terror”.
It may not be surprising that the opposition in the US is weak given the atrocities that were carried out on September 11th, and the patriotic fervour that was whipped up in their wake. However, this gung-ho atmosphere is unlikely to persist, and there will be increasing opposition as the links between US military action and September 11th become more and more tenuous. It is also likely that any opposition will be relatively tentative at first and take up issues that are consequences rather than causes of the war, such as job losses, the attack on civil rights or the cuts in social security to pay for defence spending. Yet, such issues should not be dismissed. While the anti-war campaigns in Europe may be bolder, they have failed to go beyond a call to “stop the bombing”. This is one of the reasons they went into decline after the US victory in Afghanistan. When the bombing did stop they had nothing more to say.
For an anti-war campaign to maintain itself and not be dependent upon events, it needs to take up the whole range of issues thrown up by the “War on Terror”. Only by doing this will it adequately be prepared to oppose the next military assault by imperialism, rather than once again going back to square one. Of course the implication of such an approach is that the anti-war movement should be developing alternative solutions to the ones proposed and imposed by imperialism. This would give the opportunity for socialists to argue for the positions that are not only anti-war but anti-imperialist and that identify the working class the as the force on which the movement must be based. This may be denounced as “sectarian” or “programmatic” but it is only by winning the anti-war movement to socialist politics that a serious challenge to the ongoing imperialist offensive can be built.