In 'Historical Materialism' 11.3--Simon Bromley writes...

Reflections on 'Empire', Imperialism, and United States Hegemony


(((((((I was reading Historical Materialism today and was pleased to find this piece by Simon Bromley. I was planning on putting up an encapsulation of Hardt and Negri's 'Empire' up on the blog (and i still may)...but Bromley does such an excellent job here. It might take me while to get it all up. Since I've now read it, I think it should be asap. Here you go. Enjoy. ps, sorry about the lack of indentions...i will make sure it looks better by the end of it. it's a pretty long piece by blog-length standards. i'm extremely adament abt putting it up, though. l.)))))))

I. 'Empire' and America

Antiono Negri's and Michael Hardt's Empire poses a challenge to thinking about the changing nature of political power in the international capitalist system, the role of sovereign statehood in that order and, particularly, the character of American power. The key theses of Empire are simply stated: first, the global order of capital is regulated by a new logic and structure of rule, a new form of sovereignty; and, second, this logic and structure of rule is glued together by the society of the spectacle, in which power resides ultimately in the multitude.

'Empire establishes no territorial centre of power and does not rely on fixed boundaries or barriers'.^1 While US 'hegemony over the global use of force' stands at the top of the pyramid of the 'global constitution' that governs this order,

the glue that holds together the diverse functions and bodies of the hybrid constitution is what Guy Debord called the spectacle, an integrated and diffuse apparatus of images and ideas that produces and regulates public discourse and opinion.^2

'Empire', then, involves a hierarchy of power within the capitalist world but this is anchored in a 'global constitution', rather than in direct imperial control of some political-territorial units over others. Whereas imperialism was associated with an extension of political control from one territory to another - 'imperialism was really an extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their own boundaries'^3 - Empire is an essentially deterritorialised field of economic and cultural relationships.

This is 'Empire' as seen in the mirror of Rome, and as found in both the pre-Roman culture of ancient Greece and the post-Roman culture of Christian Europe, as a hierarchy of polities that guarantees a universal order based on shared identities, values and interests, in which one power, the hegemonic power, is raised above others, not so much by force as by force of example, or as exemplar. It is the notion of Empire as, in Dominic Lieven's terms, 'first and foremost, a very great power that has left its mark on the international relations of its era'.^4 It is Empire as aform of rule over many territories and peoples that works by incorporation, associeted with an economic and cultural order that proclaims itself the basis of a universal civilisation. The novelty of Hardt's and Negri's characterisation is the insistence that this Empire is now universal and that its power is no longer anchored in a fixed, territorial centre, since power - the glue of the 'global constitution' - is primarily cultural, not political.

Where in the world is America?

There is, then, already a tension in this account, never properly explored let alone resolved, between the recognition that the United States exercises 'hegemony over the global use of force' and the wider idea of a universal empire. The United States certainly claims an exceptional role in world affairs, uniquely defining its national interest as more or less synonymous with that of the international community tout ensemble. Its liberal advocates concur: 'America's national interest...offers the closest match there is to a world interest'.^5 The formation of the United States was a result of the networks of trade, people, conquest, settlement and ideas that circulated in the Atlantic economy, linking north-west Europe, the Americas and Africa, during the seventeeth and eighteenth centuries. After the independence of thirteen colonies from Britain in the American Revolution of 1776, the subsequent development of the United States was, in part, an indirect continuation of that process - both globalising and imperial - of European expansion into the non-European world.
At the same time, however, US expansion was also defined as anti-colonial rather than colonial, republican rather than monarchical, the New World rather than the old European order. Unlike the major European states, the United States became a major power more or less without formal empire. Rather, independence cleared the way for westward expansion and settlement and 'the whole internal history of United States imperialism was one vast process of territorial seizure and occupation'.^6 As John Adams, the second President of the new Republic (1797-1801), had expressed it in 1774, the purpose of American independence was to pursue the formation of an 'independent American empire'.
It is only by presenting this 'internal colonialism' as an expansion into uninhabited or freely alienated lands that the American ideology of 'exceptionalism' could take root. But, among the overwhelmingly European majority of the population, such an idea did strike a deep chord. This ideology of exceptionalism encompasses two sets of ideas: first, that the United States is uniquely fortunate in having escaped the patterns of historical development characteristic of the old world order in Europe and in being able to create anew a society based on security, liberty and justice; and, second, that it is an exemplary power, representing a model that is universally applicable to the rest of mankind. In this way, the United has been able to present its national interest as simulataneously unique and universal, as entirely consistent with a form of cosmopolitan internationalism.
The consolidation of the sovereignty of the Union after the Civil War and the development of the national market, based on federal transfers of land to private ownershipt, laid the basis for the later development of a mass society: the US pioneered the culture of mass consumption as well as the consumption of mass culture, both of which were based in mass production, or what foreigners simply called 'Americanism'. The age of mass destruction followed shortly after, as the United States pioneered the combination of the mass production of high-explosives and massive increases in the mobility of means of their delivery. This is what a 'superpower' originally meant, defined by William Fox as 'great power pluse great mobility of power'.^7
Substantial elements of this model proved to be transferable to other capitalist countries. This meant that the leading economy in the world became a pole of attraction for others, as Perry Anderson, folling Antonio Gramsci, has recently emphasised.^8 It was this generalisation of the US model, its partial replication outside the United States, that gave its unique ideology of exceptionalism - the only national interest that presents itself as a universal, cosmopolitan interest - such a powerful grip.
In a highly prescient analysis of 'Americanism and Fordism' in his Prison Notebooks, Gramsci asked 'whether America, through the implacable weight of its economic production (and therefore indirectly), will compel or is already compelling Europe to overturn its excessively antiquated economic and social basis'.^9 Gramsci's conclusion was that this was indeed the case, but that it represented 'an organic extension and an intensification of European civilization, to say, just as the United States itself was, in part, a product of European capitalist imperialism, of colonial settlement in the Americas, so European capitalism was now being reshaped by the more advanced economic order in America. Gramsci also saw clearly that Americanism was not simply a new mode of mass production and mass consumption but also a new form of social structure and state:

Americanism requires a particular environment, a particular social structure (or at least a determined intention to create it) and a certain type of State. The State is the liberal State, not in the sense of free-trade liberalism or of effective political liberaty, but in the more fundamental sense of free initiative and of economic individualism which, with its own means, on the level of 'civil society', through historical development, itself arrives at a regime of industrial concentration and monopoly.^11

At the time he was writing, Gramsci observed the beginnings of Americanism in Europe - in Berlin and Milan, less so in Paris, he thought - but this was to become a much more important development after the Second World War. Thus was Americanism reproduced outside the territory of the United States.
In an essay seeking to place American history in a wider world context, Charles Bright and Michael Meyer describe the consequences after 1945 as follows:

The postwar American sovereign, built on territories of production, had created vectors along which elements of the U.S. state and American civil society could move off into the world and benifit form the permanent projections of American power overseas...The tools of control - military (the alliance systems and violence), economic (dollar aid and investments), political (the leverage and sanctions of a superpower), and ideological (the image of the United States as leader of the free world) - were tremendously, and the ideological imaginary of the territories of production, with its emphasis on material progress and democracy, proved extraordinarily attractive.^12

Hence, Bright and Meyer's question, 'Where in the World Is America?', has two parts: first, what is the position of the (territorial) United States in the international system, and second, where - and with what effect - is Americanism in the rest of the world? The idea I want to explore by asking these questions is that American power in the round is based on both these Americas. Or rather, that the key to US power is the relation between these two sense of American power.

The American constitutional project (coming up soon ...tobe cont...)

Hardt and Negri generally present the historical development of the United States as one in which 'a new principle of sovereignty is affirmed, different from the European one: liberty is made sovereign and sovereignty is defined as radically democratic within an open and continuous process of expansion'.^13 In relation to this project, Native and African Americans represent externally and internally subordinated peoples. Recognition of this prompts a further thought. 'Perhaps what we have present as exceptions to the development of imperial sovereignty', they write, 'should instead be linked together as a real tendency, an alternative within the history of the U.S. Constitution. In other words, perhaps the root of these imperialist practices should be traced back to the very origins of the country, to black slavery and the genocidal wars against the Native Americans'.^14

This seems to me, in some ways, correct. From the time of the proto-liberal thought of Thomas Hobbes, through to the more expansive notions of rights and self-government in John Locke, to the comments of John Stuart Mill on the rights of intervention of 'civilised' peoples against 'barbarians', liberalism has been entirely consistent as a theory of liberty and empire.^15 Natural law, from a divinely ordained external standard into the idea of subjective natural rights, universal rights that are duplicated in every individual and which no one can rationally deny to another. The natural law was understood as the basis of a universal moral theory.
These individual rights - broadly to seek peace and uphold agreements - can be alienated to a collective body, thereby effecting a transition from the universal order of morality among rights-bearing individuals to the inevitably particular and legal order of a given state. Hobbes remains the commanding theorist of this idiom. The basis of political authority is thereby conceptualised in effectively secular terms, in terms of autonomous individuals, rights-bearing agents, who transfer some of their rights to the state, in order that the latter may protect their remaining freedoms. The legitimacy of the state is thereby rendered congtingent on law conforming to the private morality of rights-bearing, property-owning individuals.
Within Europe, these ideas constituted a powerful liberal attack on the arbitrary power of rulers whose claim to legitimacy was either religious or absolutist. However, societies that did not uphold these rights in this way were, according to these theorists, in a sense pre-political. Considered as individuals, their people were entitled to the same moral considerations as was everyone else, but they had no legal-political status as peoples. Even as JOhn Stuart Mill wrote, in his essay, 'A Few Words on Non-Intervention' (1859), that:

barbarians have no rights as a nation, except a right to such treatment as may, at the earliest possible period, fit them for becoming one. The only moral laws for the relation between a civilized and a barbarous government, are the universal rules of morality between man and man.^16

By the means, liberal thinkers sought to reconcile notions of individual rights, limited government and the rule of law with capitalist colonial expansion and settlement in foreign lands. These ideas represented an important shift in the ruling mores and discources of empire. In contrast to conquest empires of feudal aristocracies based on force and religious conversion, trading empires would be based on wealth and common interests - what the English in the eighteenth century liked to call 'empires of liberty'. This shift was accompanied by the enlightenments's 'powerful celebration of the civilizing and humanizing power of commerce'.^17 'Civilisation', rather than evangelisation, thus became the official discourse of the European empires. And to be civil was to be someone who new correctly how to interpret the natural law - nowadays extended to include the full panoply of free markets, liberal democracy and human rights. Empire, in turn, could increadingly be represented as a comonwealth of 'free' peoples enjoying indicidual liberties under the rule of law.

Hardt and Negri say, 'the contemporary idea of Empire is born through the global expansion of the internal U.S. constitutional project'.^18 I think that there is a large element of truth in this, even if that project had its origins in the prior expansion of seventeenth- and eighteenth century European, and especially Enlgish, society. But this does not mean that the process has no centre. In fact, it has a hierarchy of centres located in an increasingly co-ordinated set of territorial states, that is, compulsory apparatuses of political power, in which the power of the United States plays a complex and ambiguous role, sometimes directing collective forms of empowerment to mutual advantage, sometimes using its coercive power to deter and compel adversaries, and sometimes using both to engineer an imperialist creation of new forms of capitalism.

Today, the borders of capitalist states are, at least in the more open, liberal economies, no longer 'fixed boundaries or barriers' to the flows, but this mobility of capital across borders presupposes the definition, regulation and enforcement of rights of contract and rights to property, and much else besides, within and, crucially, among many territorially ordered centres of power, that is, states. It is the increasingly liberal codification of these rights and contracts within a growing number of capitialist states, and, perhaps even more importantly, the co-ordinated processes of aligning one such jurisdiction with another and others, which makes possible the very global mobility of capital that Hardt and Negri seek to emphasise.

This is, I will argue, a form of liberal imperialism with deep roots, and a more or less continuous presence, in the history of capitalist development since the late seventeenth century; it is motored by the economic dynamics of the restless expansion of capitalism, and by the competitive and co-ordinated states-system, which provides its political armature. What glues this system together is less Guy Debord's spectacle than the common verities of the material order; and, acting on behalf of this, in the last instance (and sometimes it now seems in the first instance), the coercively deployed political power of the United States.

II. Imperialism

Empire, according to Hardt and Negri, is to be contrasted with imperialism, the latter being defined in terms of the ‘extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their own boundaries’, that is, in terms of its political form, rather than in terms of its economic mechanisms. By defining imperialism in political-territorial terms, Hardt and Negri, in effect, concede much of the liberal self-understanding of a world of independent states. Empire represents a global expansion of the US constitutional project, but America is not imperialist.

Of course, capitalist imperialism (often) involved ‘an extension of the sovereignty of the European nation-states beyond their own boundaries’; but, even where it did so, it was also an economic process, which established relations of economic domination – ‘specifically, the formal or informal control over local economic resources in a manner advantageous to the metropolitan power, and at the expense of the local economy’.^19 Indeed, as Ellen Meiksins Wood has pointed out, ‘capitalist imperialism eventually became almost entirely a matter of economic domination, in which market imperatives, manipulated by the dominant capitalist powers, were made to do the work no longer done by imperial states or colonial settlers’.^20 Capitalist imperialism, on this understanding, is a set of coercive power relations established between different parts of the world economy, such that one region benefits at the expense of another. Its central mechanisms are economic and involve the ability of one region to manipulate market imperatives to its advantage. These economic mechanisms – operating by means of control over trade, investment or labour migration – may or may not involve the extension of political-military control by one polity over another.

Radical-liberal and classical-Marxist thinkers shared this essentially economic understanding of imperialism in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, which derived from attempts to understand the character of the European capitalist empires, specifically the character of the relations between the metropolitan centres and colonial peripheries. In this modern usage, the primary reference of ‘imperialism’ was to the ‘political and cultural domination, and the economic exploitation, of the colonial periphery by the metropolitan state and nation’.^21 While liberal and Marxist critics of imperialism were all agreed that relations between the metropoles and the peripheries were exploitative, of equal concern for the classical-Marxist debate was the nature of the competitive relationships between the rival national imperialisms that, in combination and effect, dominated the non-European world until the era of decolonialisation.

This question had not escaped radical-liberal theorists and it was, in fact, Hobson who first drew attention to the distinction, which was to play a key role in subsequent Marxist debates, between what he called ‘Imperialsm’ and ‘Informal Empire’. As Giovanni Arrighi explains, the distinction between Imperialism and Informal Empire was as follows:

At least in principle…two quite distinct types of rivalry were involved. In the case of Imperialism, rivalry affected political relations among states and was expressed in the arms race and the drive to territorial expansion; whereas in the case of Informal Empire, it concerned economic relations among individual of different nationality and was expressed in the international division of labour. Thus Imperialism signified political conflict among nations, Informal Empire economic interdependence between them.^22

This fundamental distinction was to reappear in the form of Bukharin’s and Lenin’s notion of interimperial rivalries, that is, rival national Imperialisms, and Kautsky’s idea of ultra-imperialism, that is, a concert of Informal Empires, the possibility of which was noted by Hobson, who – somewhat confusingly – referred to it as ‘inter-imperialism’. In fact, these opposing characterizations – Lenin on the one side and Kautsy on the other – contained two fundamentally different views of international order in a capitalist world. In an interimperialist world, one imperialism gains at the expense of another, even as both exploit the periphery; in an ultra-imperialist world, each gains by co-operating with the other, even if the sharing of the gains is uneven.

As it developed in classical Marxism, the importance of this debate was that the theory of imperialism aimed to provide an explanation of world politics and not just accounts of metropolitan exploitation of the periphery, for they were as much concerned with the relations between and among the leading capitalist countries as they were with the effect of capitalist expansion, forcible or otherwise, into the periphery. The later attempt to read the character of capitalist development in toto through its effects on peripheral formations was, as Bill Warren, memorably pointed out, an inversion of the central purpose of Marxist thinking.^23

Coercion, co-ordination and power

The central analytical question at stake here is this: What is the relation between the co-ordinated liberal capitalist order, on the one hand, and the hierarchy of power among its constituent states, on the other? Now that the Communist challenge to capitalism has folded and the limits of the social-democratic additions to liberal capitalism have been revealed, the relationship between the collective empowerment of states and capital, which is a product of a co-ordinated liberal international order, and the patterns of economic domination and subordination among states is, arguably, the central question of intercapitalist relations. Is US economic hegemony a wasting asset as the original theorists of hegemonic stability supposed? And, if so, what are the implications of this? Or, can, US military hegemony compensate for, or even restore, its loss of economic dominance?

In order to address these questions, we need to recognize that the uneven distribution of economic and military resources across the world of capitalist states underpins relations of power of two fundamentally different kinds. In the first place, there is what I will call distributive or coercive power. This is the notion of power implicit in realist balance-of-power (and hegemonic stability) thinking and in the Marxist literature on interimperial rivalries and superimperialism. Distributive power is the capacity of one party to get another to comply with its goals, power relations are hierarchical relations of super- and sub-orderination: there is a given distribution of power in which some have more at the expense of others having less, and power operates by imposing costs on others (or by means of a credible threat to do so).

And, secondly, there is what I will call collective power. This is the notion of power implicit in the idea that states have common interests that can be advanced by forms of co-operation. Collective power is a property of a group of co-operating actors, in which the total ability to effect favourable outcomes is increased, over and above that which could be achieved by each acting independently. Collective power works, not by imposing costs on some, but by producing gains for all. This is the notion of power implicit in the idea that hegemony is a pole of attraction, that there are benefits in co-ordinating multiple poles of capitalist power, and that international order is basically ultra-imperialist. (These two forms of power are often difficult to disentangle for two reasons: first and most straightforwardly, the gains from collective empowerment are often distributed unequally based on different bargaining power; and, second, what looks like a voluntary exercise of collective power may, in fact, represent a response to an anterior – and perhaps hidden – exercise of distributive power.)

The distinction between distributive and collective power is not to be confused with that between military and economic means of exercising power. There is, of course, a sense in which military means of exercising power are always distributive for some, since they involve imposing costs on others (or at least a credible threat to do so), but military means can be turned to collective account, at least for some against others. This is precisely how US military power functioned during the Cold War as far as its capitalist allies were concerned. Economic power need not be distributive for any in a wide class of cases.

(coming next....SKIPPING the following, putting last part, then I will fill in the remaining parts afterwards...)

Following sections will be skipped:

The relations between economic and military power

The Cold War and superimperialism

Imperialism after the Cold War

III. The character of US hegemony

Co-ordination in an ultra-imperialist order

Economic multipolarity

Military unipolarity

IV. US power and the liberal-capitalist international order

Breaking with NATO?

V. Expanding the capitalist world: the US-Russia-China triangle

China and Russia

Strategic 'partners' or 'competitors'

VI. Policing the periphery

The ‘war on terrorism’, declared by President George W. Bush in the aftermath of the attacks on America of 11 September 2001, is shorthand for a complex set of problems that defy easy summery. Many analysts took issue with the use of the word ‘war’, because the perpetrators of the acts were not states but part of a transnational network, a cellular structure that crossed a number of territories on a clandestine basis, and because there was no obvious way in which the war aims could be specified and measured. Like many other critics, the military historian, Michael Howard, argued that the attacks should be treated as a criminal matter and that the appropriate response was one of international policing and judicial process. Other commentators saw the actions of al-Qua’ida as an example of an ‘asymmetrical conflict’, that is, a power of the contending forces. President Bush’s response seemed determined, if anything, to increase this asymmetry, thereby prompting fear that it would only serve to generate yet more conflict in the future. What could be gained, these various critics asked, by a military campaign by the most powerful state in the world against one of the very weakest? This was not so much the clash of civilizations predicted by Samuel Huntington as a clash of barbarisms.^51

The immediate background to the rise of al-Qua’ida was the civil war in Afghanistan. The rise to power of the pro-Soviet People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) in 1978 provoked a civil war as significant elements of the Muslim society resisted its secularizing and socialist measures. The decision of the United States to arm the mujahidin was taken, according to President Carter’s National Security Adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, in the summer of 1979 in order to ‘induce a Soviet military intervention’. Brzezinski later said that: ‘The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border [24 December 1979], I wrote to President Carter, saying: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR its Vietnam War”’.^52 Moreover, when the USSR finally withdrew from Afghanistan in 1988, on condition that the West and Pakistan stop supporting the mujahidin, the Reagan Administration illegally continued such support. After years more civil war, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia created and financed the Taliban and supported their conquest of power between 1994-6.

Al-Qua’ida was created during this Western, Saudi and Pakistani backed operation to finance and organize the mujahidin’s resistance to Communism in Afghanistan and to recruit (mainly Arab) Muslims from abroad to fight in that cause. Once the Taliban came to power in Kabul (1996), they formed a close alliance with Osama bin Laden’s al-Qua’ida organization – indeed, in some respects, al-Qua-ida was the military arm of the Taliban.^53 However, while the Saudis had been willing to provide support for the fight against the PDPA, they were not prepared to accede to demands for a strict Islamism of the Saudi state and, in particular, the demand that the ‘infidel’ and ‘crusader’ armies – that is, the United States – withdraw from the Arabian peninsula. This would have amounted to a transfer of control of the Saudi state from the monarchy to Islamist forces. And so, after helping to evict the Soviets from Afghanistan, al-Qua’ida turned their attention to their erstwhile Western backers who were also engaged in the military support of the monarchical regime in Saudi Arabia. The result was explosive, as Fred Halliday explains:

Three elements therefore came together: a reassertion of the most traditional strands in Islamic thinking, a brutalization and militarization of the Islamic groups themselves, and a free-floating transnational army of fighters drawing support from Pakistan, the Arab world, south-east Asia and Chechnya with its base in Afghanistan. In the context of the greater west Asian crisis, and the revolt against the states of the region, as well as their western backers, there now emerged an organized militant challenge.^54

Asymmetric conflict

The term ‘ asymmetric conflict’ originally came to prominence during the Vietnam War to refer to the way in which the militarily weaker party seeks to take the conflict to public opinion in the enemy’s homeland, as an attempt to undermine its will to prosecute the war. It was an adjunct to the theory to the theory of guerilla war, which also relied on an asymmetry: between forces able to move and mix among the rural population and urban-based combatants (local and foreign). As such, it is one very plausible reason why the United States, the dominant military part to that conflict, lost. The most likely rationale of the 11 September attacks is that they too were an attempt to undermine the adversary’s will, only this time the will of the United States to support the monarchy in Saudi Arabia and, perhaps, Israel in its dispute with the Palestinians. Whereas the Vietnamese appealed to international and American public opinion in the name of a universally acknowledged value – that of a national right to self-determination – al’Qua’ida’s strategy was essentially negative, to instill fear, and its positive appeal extended to only a minority of the world’s Muslims. For the Vietnamese, an appeal to norms of justice embodied in international public reason was a weapon of the weak; for al-Qua’ida, terrorism was the weapon.

By its very nature, asymmetric conflict is extremely hard to deter. In particular, violent asymmetric conflict carried out by clandestine adversaries is almost impossible to deter. The operation of the balance of power and the logic of deterrence presuppose conflicts of interest as well as a common recognition of certain shared objectives – namely, survival. The logic of deterrence is, says Thomas Schelling, ‘as inapplicable to a situation of pure and complete antagonism of interest as it is to the case of pure and complete common interest’.^55 Faced with an adversary that has an absolute hostility, that is prepared to risk all, deterrence is largely irrelevant. As Gilbert Achcar has argued, in this situation, ‘the causes of “absolute hostility” must be reduced or eliminated, in such a way that a “common interest” emerges as a possibility’.^56

One way of reducing the hostility of al-Qua’ida would have been to address the issues that provoked its hostility in the first place, broadly US foreign policy in the Middle East and, in particular, its military support to the regime in Saudi Arabia. Another response was to try to eliminate al-Qua’ida. If the asymmetry of US power was producing absolute antagonists that could not be deterred, then why not use that power to destroy the adversary, even before it attacked, and engineer a new situation capable of producing some minimal common interests? This is the doctrine of pre-emption, which said that, rather than wait for a recognized casus belli (as in the case of Afghanistan), the United States would act to remove potential threats before they materialized. In fact, some in Washington came to believe that both the destruction of the enemy and addressing the issues that provoked the hostility could be achieved by the same means.

Since al-Qua’ida was, in effect, the military arm of the Taliban government in Afghanistan, the latter was directly implicated in the attacks of 11 September. The precondition for treating the attacks as a criminal matter – that the stae from which the attackers operated was prepared to uphold international law – arguably did not obtain. In any case, this was no part of Washington’s agenda and, in truth, there was precious little international support for such a strategy. Nor were the war aims of the United States unlimited. They may not have been wholly clear, but destroying al-Qua’ida’s ability to operate inside a state that itself repudiated all international responsibilities was not especially opaque. And, although the war against al-Qua’ida was not fully successful, there is little doubt that its capacity for organized activity was dramatically curtailed by its eviction from Afghanistan; the Taliban government that had existed in symbiosis with al-Qua’ida and allowed its territory to be established in Kabul that had some chance of ending the long-running Afghan presence in resource-rich Central Asia. There are no guarantees that any of this will prove durable, but, from the point of view of the United States, it is hard to see that it is a worse situation than that which existed prior to 11 September 2001. In that sense, those who questioned whether it was a war that could be won were on shaky ground: it was a war and a major battle was won.

Recasting influence in Central Asia

Perhaps because they feared antagonizing the United States after the events of 11 September, or perhaps because they wanted a free hand with their own problems – in Chechnya and with Uighur separatists – Russia and China extended considerable co-operation to the US military operation in Afghanistan. Although pushed by the Central Asian states, especially by Uzbekistan, Russia acceded to a temporary US military presence in the region, allowed the use of its airspace, shared intelligence, and supported the Northern Alliance, while China was active in persuading its ally Pakistan to work with the Americans. As a report written for the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College has pointed out, since recognizing the Central Asian states in 1991:

Expanding U.S. military engagement with Central Asian states has been viewed as a key mechanism to promote their integration into Western political-military institutions, encourage civilian control over militaries, and institutionalize co-operative relations with the United States military, while dissuading other regional powers – especially Russia, China, and Iran – from seeking to dominate the region.^57

After 11 September 2001, however, the balance tilted dramatically in Washington’s favour, as China saw Russia and Pakistan and India all develop closer ties with Washington, and Russia took a conciliatory line (including on the December 2002 decision of the United States to withdraw from the ABM treaty) to an increased US role in return, it would appear, for little beyond a silence over events in Chechnya. In this respect, Russian (and Chinese) opposition to the subsequent war against Iraq marked a limit to how far such acquiescence would go.

The doctrine of pre-emption

In fact, what caused most concern among the United States’s rivals (and many of its allies), in relation to the ‘war on terrorism’, was not the war in Afghanistan, despite the by-passing of NATO, but the subsequent mobilization against Iraq and the new doctrine at work in US foreign policy, that of pre-emption. Moreover, the doctrine appeared to receive a more or less open-ended remit as it was to apply not just to terrorist networks and those who harboured them but also to ‘rogue’ states, that is, states that the United States deemed unfit to possess weapons of mass destruction. In his State of the Union address in January 2002, President Bush pulled these originally distinct ideas – that of ‘international terrorism’ and ‘rogue states’ – together and spoke of an ‘axis of evil’, a symbiotic alliance of transitional networks of terror and states with access to, or aspirations for, weapons of mass destruction.

Many argued that the United States was, in intention and effect, embarking on exactly what the historian Charles Beard had cautioned against when he spoke of a ‘perpetual war for perpetual peace’, a charge resurrected by Gore Vidal.^58 Ellen Meiksins Wood offered a Marxist (or, better, Hobbesian) gloss on this, suggesting that the purpose of such a response was to declare war on all states that dared to challenge the US-dominated international order, a declaration of ‘infinite war’, in which US imperialism would discipline other states in the system: ‘It is this endless possibility of war that imperial capital needs in order to sustain its hegemony over the global system of multiple states’.^59 The ides here seems to be that, as the economic components of US superimperialism, or US hegemony, decline, so the balance of rule shifts in a more coercive direction.

At the centre of this analysis of American policy is the claim that the war against Iraq represented a shift from containment and deterrence to a doctrine of pre-emption, and that pre-emption was aimed at producing a general disciplinary effect over rival powers tempted to challenge the imperial order. Along with the war in Afghanistan, this seemed to open an entirely new chapter in post-war international relations. Such accusations have been a standard criticism of the interventionist strand of liberal imperialism in US foreign policy. The realist thinker Kenneth Waltz, for example, argued that interventionist liberals do not reject the balance of power, ‘they think it can be superseded’, and cautioned that this policy must ‘if implemented, lead to unlimited war for unlimited ends’.^60 ‘The state that would act on the interventionist theory’, Waltz pointed out, ‘must set itself up as both judge and executor in the affairs of nations’.^61

Now, it is certainly true that, after 11 September 2001, the question for the United States was whether continued deterrence of Iraq made better sense than pre-emption. (However, ‘regime change’ in Iraq had been Washington’s policy since 1998.) But it is perhaps not surprising that the United States believed that what was done in Afghanistan could also be done in Iraq, for all the differences between the two cases. Strategically, the only real difference was that the action in Afghanistan could be presented as a defensive response, whereas that in Iraq was clearly pre-emptive. Important though this difference may be, the underlying retionale was, I believe, broadly similar: namely, state- or nation-building.

Between the end of the Gulf War of 1991 and 11 September 2001, US policy towards Iraq had been one of containment and deterrence. This was based on two principles: UN-monitored disarmament and economic sanctions. By the late 1990s, these had stalled and demonstrably failed to achieve their objectives. (The Russians and Serbs, for example, had been active in rebuilding Iraq’s air defences; the French and Russian governments were more concerned with commercial links to Baghdad than completeing the disarmament process and there was growing internation criticism of the disastrous effects of sanctions, as implemented by Saddam Hussein, on the civilian population of Iraq.) In order to see why pre-emption was in some ways an attractive alternative, it is necessary to situate Iraq in relation to the broader role of the United States in the Middle East.

Ever since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, US policy in the Middle East had been based on a series of contradictory commitments that increasingly undermined its ability to play a directive role. Its hegemony has increasingly relied on its military power. Yet, the lesson of the Iranian Revolution was that this was an unsustainable strategy in the long-run. Prior tot he second US-led war against Iraq (March/April 2003), its policy in the Middle East comprised hostile relations with Iran, a failed attempt to disarm Iraq (because of a collapse of support from Russia and France on the Security Council) and support for Saudi Arabia and the smaller Gulf states that was generating considerable opposition among many Arab Muslims (remember that most of the 11 September hijackers came from Saudi Arabia), to say nothing of its support for the hard-line policies of Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians. There was, in short, precious little basis on which the United States could construct even a minimal set of common interests with the region.

A new start in Iraq, however, might provide the beginnings of a strategy for dealing with what Walliday has called the ‘west Asian crisis’, a series of crises affecting the region that encompasses the Arab states of the Middle East, Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The new logic of US policy thus became pre-emption, in order to establish common interests, by means of ‘nation-building’. The United States was extremely reluctant to admit this, and made strenuous efforts to garner multilateral support for it, but its overwhelming military power gave it the confidence to regard pre-emption as favourable to a messy combination of containment and deterrence. Reconstituting states that are able to operate successfully within, rather than against, the prevailing capitalist order or co-ordinated sovereignty was the prize. If Saddam could be removed from Iraq, US troops could be withdrawn from Saudi Arabia, thereby putting pressure on, but also giving space for, the monarchy to address its domestic opposition; Syria and Iran could be pressured into withdrawing support from radical Palestinian factions that undermined the ability of the “moderate” leadership to commit meaningfully to peaceful negotiations with Israel; and a new round of the Palestinian-Israeli ‘peace process’ could begin.

The alternative, as viewed from Washington, was a continuation of hit-and-run guerrilla tactics against terrorist cells as and when they could be found; economically ruinous and otherwise ineffective sanctions, and a policy ofo dual containment—of Iraq and Iran—that had already lost the determined support of key Security Council members and, in the case of Iran, lost the support of the European Union and even the United States’s closest imperial ally, the United Kingdom; continued support by Syria and Iran for radical Palestinian elements and a general disaffection across the Arab, and increasingly the Islamic, world. In this context, Iraq presented a golden opportunity. What made this particular region of crisis a candidate for this approach was, of course, its strategic and resource significance: the oil and gas resources of the Middle East and Central Asia are a vital economic interest for the dominant capitalist powers (and increasingly for China and India too). And what made the new approach something more than a reckless gamble was the overwhelming military preponderance of the United States after the end of the Cold War.

(much more coming soon on this section…to be cont…)