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January 2003 • Vol 3, No. 1 •


The New Imperialism,
‘Imperial America’

Political statement issued by Socialist Democracy (Ireland) at year’s end, 2002.

Among ruling class circles in the U.S. there is now open acceptance that theirs is an imperial state. The whole tenor of the debate over what foreign policy the U.S. should pursue is framed in terms of how the U.S. should maintain its dominant position in the world in the 21st century. Richard Hass, the current director of Policy Planning in the State Department, wrote an essay in November 2000 advocating that the U.S. adopt an “imperial” foreign policy. He defined this as “a foreign policy that attempts to organize the world along certain principles affecting relations between states and conditions within them.” This would not be achieved through colonies but thorough what he termed “informal control” which could be backed up by military force if necessary. Global mechanisms such as international financial markets, the WTO, the IMF, would work to ensure the dominance of U.S. interests, with the military iron fist backing up the invisible hand of the market.

The fact that an influential figure such as Hass wrote this before September 11 shows that the position of the U.S. has not been determined by the attacks in New York and Washington. In reality there is a great deal of continuity in recent U.S. foreign policy. The difference is the degree of frankness with which the brute realities of world domination are now discussed. The most comprehensive statement of U.S. plans came in September 2002 when the Bush administration published its “National Security Strategy of the United States of America.” This document asserted the guiding policy of the U.S. was the right to use military force anywhere in the world, at anytime it chooses, against any country it believes to be, or it believes may at some point become, a threat to American interests. The immediate target of these threats are the so-called “failed states” of the Third world such as Iraq, but larger competitors of the U.S., which the document refers to, in the old style imperialist jargon, as “Great Powers” are not beyond the sights of the Bush administration.

There is also a strong ideological element in this strategy with the document claiming that American values “are right and true for every person, and every society . . .” And what are these values? None other than a collection of the banal mantras of U.S. capitalism such as “respect for private property” and “legal and regulatory policies to encourage business investment, innovation, and entrepreneurial activity;”tax policies—particularly lower marginal tax rates —that improve incentives for world investment;” and “strong financial systems that allow capital to be put to its most efficient use.” Anything that challenges these “values,” such as increasing public spending on health and education, protecting workers rights, controls on capital, or taxation of the rich would clearly be viewed as a threat and subject to pre-emptive action by the US. This strategy, which styles itsself as a “distinctly American internationalism,” is nothing more than a blueprint for complete U.S. domination. It is the intensification of the same neo-liberal agenda that has been pushed everywhere over the last twenty years—a militarized globalization.

Imperialist rivalries

The dynamic behind imperialism is the competition and rivalry between imperialist states. Despite the idea of a “Pax Americana,” the reality is that there can be no peace under this system. For one imperialist state can only expand its power at the expense of another. While the U.S. may currently be the dominant power in the world, its position is not beyond challenge. Its determination to maintain its dominance and the ambitions of other imperialist states are inevitably in conflict.

This rivalry has been shown up over Iraq. States like China, Russia, and France clearly have different interests in the Persian Gulf and have been trying to limit U.S. action. This has mainly been carried out through the UN Security Council where they have tried to bind the U.S. into a collective position. There is no principle behind these maneuvers other than the determination to have their interests taken into account. Their huge financial commitments under the current Iraqi regime could be lost through unilateral action by the US. They therefore want a say in any post-war settlement and a share of the spoils. These states fear that U.S. control over the Gulf’s energy reserves, on which Europe and Asia are so dependent, could have serious implications for their future economic development.

One of the most outspoken opponents of a new Gulf War has been Germany. Indeed, it was Chancellor Schroeder’s opposition to war that secured victory in that country’s recent general election. Although he was tapping into a popular anti-war sentiment, his government’s position was based on Germany’s own imperialist interests. These have been coming to the fore more and more since unification as Germany seeks to build up its capacity to act on the world stage. This has seen the German military in action beyond its own borders in Kosovo and Afghanistan. Schroeder has boasted that his government has “done away with taboos about the military,” and today Germany has more soldiers serving abroad than any other country apart from the U.S.

Germany and France are central to constructing the EU as a potential rival bloc to the U.S. The French Foreign Minister has called for a “strong Europe” and recent developments in the EU, such as the introduction of the single currency, the development of a joint foreign policy, the creation of an independent European army, and its expansion into Eastern Europe, point to it becoming a more powerful structure.

In many ways the aggressive foreign policy that the U.S. has embarked upon is a reflection of its decline. Its boom economy of the 1990s was completely reliant on the influx of $1 billion dollars of foreign investment every day, turning in the space of a decade from a creditor nation to the largest debtor in the world. It is facing challenges from powers with imperialist ambitions such as Western Europe that are no longer willing to accept the supervisory role it played during the Cold War. The fact that the U.S. is in conflict with former allies such as Al-Qaeda and Iraq, and that allies such as Saudi Arabia can no longer be relied upon, is further evidence of its decline. Increasingly the U.S. has to resort to force to impose its will. This is the one area that it still enjoys a clear advantage over its rivals.

Class War at home

The external relations of a state are always a continuation of its domestic ones. It is therefore no coincidence that an increasingly aggressive foreign policy has been accompanied by aggressive domestic policy. In the wake of September 11, and in pursuit of the “War on Terror,” there has been a wholesale assault on civil rights. This has been most stark in the U.S. where the constitution has been cast aside and the powers of the state to control the lives of its citizens massively expanded. Non-citizens, such as immigrants and refugees, have virtually no rights at all.

Governments around the world have also used the “international crisis” to go on the offensive against labor. They demand that workers make sacrifices for the war effort. They demand that workers pay the price for the economic downturn by accepting austerity measures. When there has been resistance to these policies, governments have not hesitated in using the issue of “national security” to try and break it. This is what happened when the west coast dockers went out on strike in the U.S. In the face of the strike the Bush administration invoked anti-trade union laws to force them back to work. It is also happening in Britain with the fire-fighters strike. Ministers are talking openly about banning the strike, and have accused the strikers of “aiding terrorism”. In the case of the fire fighters the link to Iraq is a very direct one, with the military being used to undermine the strike while also preparing for an invasion. The description of the British government “fighting a war on two fronts” may be a cliché but it is essentially correct.

For all the imperialist states, and those who collaborate with them, the war abroad and the war at home are indivisible. Indeed, the more ruthlessly and successfully they pursue the imperialist war the more they will attack their own working class. It is therefore an illusion to believe that the “War on Terror” has no implications for the working class or that the labor movement can avoid the issue. Also, there are no compromises on offer from capitalism. You must either support the imperialist offensive and accept its consequences or oppose it. As George Bush says—“You are either for us or against us.”

The future: ‘Socialism or Barbarism’

As the dynamic behind the “War on Terror” is inter-imperialist rivalry we should expect more wars. The depth of the divisions between imperialist states has been clearly revealed by the U.S. war drive over Iraq. These conflicts within global capitalism can only become more intense. While they have not reached the point of military conflict, this cannot be ruled out in the longer term. The current U.S.-led onslaught against weak third world dictatorships may only be the opening skirmishes of a more generalized inter-imperialist conflict. We know from the experience of the 20th century that capitalism can descend into the worst barbarism of world war. As the dynamics that led to those wars are still inherent within contemporary capitalism, it would be foolish to dismiss the possibility of a similar conflagration in this new century. Once more humanity may be faced with the choice of “Socialism or Barbarism.” Our task is to ensure that we are in a position to make that choice.





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