U.S. Empire in Decline
Global Realignment and Sharpening Imperialist Rivalry
Barack Obama launched his run for the White House by proclaiming: “The American moment is not over, but it must be seized anew. To see American power in terminal decline is to ignore America’s great promise and historic purpose in the world” (Foreign Affairs, July-August 2007). This spoke directly to the deep-seated anxiety of the U.S. ruling class that its time atop the global order is fast running out, and offered hope that the descent could be arrested, or at least slowed.
Not too long ago, after the apparently successful conquest of Afghanistan, the mood in the boardrooms and country clubs of the U.S. bourgeoisie was very different. America’s rulers were intoxicated with the notion that their military “hyperpower” could guarantee permanent global supremacy. The cover of the 5 January 2003 New York Times Magazine blared: “American Empire (Get Used to It),” and in the accompanying article, Harvard professor Michael Ignatieff (currently leader of Canada’s Liberal Party) explained:
“Being an imperial power…. means enforcing such order as there is in the world and doing so in the American interest. It means laying down the rules America wants (on everything from markets to weapons of mass destruction) while exempting itself from other rules (the Kyoto Protocol on climate change and the International Criminal Court) that go against its interest.”
According to Ignatieff: “The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science, an empire lite, a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.” In 1948, in a “top secret” memo, George Kennan, chief architect of the “American Century,” offered a more candid assessment of the “free world colossus”:
“Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.”
—Policy Planning Study 23, published in Foreign Relations of the United States , 1948, Volume I (emphasis added)
Today the American Empire is commonly identified more as the perpetrator of “collateral” massacres, targeted assassinations, secret abductions and torture than as an altruistic purveyor of “human rights and democracy.” In Afghanistan, the U.S. military’s record of recklessly killing innocent civilians has turned the population against the presence of foreign troops. In occupied Iraq, popular opposition has destroyed grandiose plans to reverse America’s economic decline through the “pre-emptive” seizure of the petroleum deposits of the Persian Gulf.
At his Senate confirmation hearing in 1953, former GM President Charles Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower’s choice for secretary of defense, said: “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors and vice versa.” At the time, GM was the biggest carmaker in the world, with the most productive workforce and the most advanced technology. U.S. manufacturing accounted for 27 percent of American GDP and 45 percent of global production. Today, GM teeters on the brink of bankruptcy, manufacturing accounts for only 12 percent of American GDP and the U.S. share of global production has fallen to 25 percent.
Prior to its recent implosion, the financial sector had been the most dynamic and profitable element of the American economy, orchestrating corporate takeovers and buyouts (with accompanying layoffs and plant closures), marketing toxic “securities,” and speculating on equity markets and currency fluctuations. The creative “free market” magic that generated a decade of obscene mega-profits for Wall Street’s financial parasites has been exposed as wholesale fraud, acquiesced to, if not actively promoted by, government regulators and securities rating agencies.
The U.S. remains by far the world’s largest economic power, but the semi-automatic (if grudging) fealty of other “advanced capitalist” states can no longer be presumed. Confidence in the dollar as the world’s reserve currency is eroding as major purchasers of Treasury Bills and other U.S. government debt (China, Japan, Russia, Saudi Arabia and various Persian Gulf sheikdoms) worry that one day Washington might opt to inflate its way out of debt, thereby, effectively defaulting.
Willem Buiter, a former leading economist at the Bank of England, is among those predicting a massive flight from the dollar:
“‘The past eight years of imperial overstretch, hubris and domestic and international abuse of power on the part of the Bush administration has left the US materially weakened financially, economically, politically and morally,’ he said. ‘Even the most hard-nosed, Guantanamo Bay-indifferent potential foreign investor in the US must recognise that its financial system has collapsed.’
“He said investors would, rightly, suspect that the US would have to generate major inflation to whittle away its debt and this dollar collapse means that the US has less leeway for major spending plans than politicians realise.”
—Telegraph [London], 6 January
Declining confidence in the dollar as the medium of international financial transactions has increased interest in the euro as an alternative, but instability resulting from the rivalries and tensions among the European Union’s (EU) major players (France, Germany and Britain) has thus far inhibited movement in this direction. A growing chorus of European moneymen is calling for an overhaul of the international “financial architecture” that has afforded American capitalism its privileged position for so long. One proposal being floated is for the creation of a transnational monetary authority to regulate international financial institutions and their transactions. This is a role that, until recently, Wall Street had arrogated to itself:
“Just six months ago, five or six ‘bulge bracket’ investment banks stood astride the globe virtually dictating the terms of engagement of international finance—managing deals, pronouncing companies (or countries) investment-worthy or not, and dispensing advice that companies (and countries) ignored at their peril.
“Now those brash American institutions have been swept away or tamed. And as the global financial order convulses, some Japanese leaders say they believe their country should take a more active role in economic leadership.”
—New York Times, 21 October 2008
While Japanese bankers look for opportunities in the American financial collapse, some of Japan’s leading industrialists see potential advantages in upgrading productive capacity as their international competitors retrench:
“‘We need to take a longer-term view,’ said Nobuyuki Sugano, an executive at Sharp. ‘If other companies slow down spending, we can stay ahead.’
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“While it is too early for numbers to be available, many economists and industry analysts say Japanese companies have so far maintained higher levels of investments in production, research and development than companies in other countries.”
—New York Times, 12 December 2008
Germany’s rulers, proprietors of the world’s third-largest imperialist economy, are acutely aware that the era of un-questioned American hegemony is over:
“The banking crisis is upending American dominance of the financial markets and world politics. The industrial-ized countries are sliding into recession, the era of turbo-capitalism is coming to an end and US military might is ebbing….
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“This is no longer the muscular and arrogant United States the world knows, the superpower that sets the rules for everyone else and that considers its way of thinking and doing business to be the only road to success.
“A new America is on display, a country that no longer trusts its old values and its elites even less: the politicians, who failed to see the problems on the horizon, and the economic leaders, who tried to sell a fictitious world of prosperity to Americans….”
—“America Loses Its Dominant Economic Role,” Spiegel Online, 30 September 2008
Germany, as the economic powerhouse of the EU, expects its influence to rise as American power ebbs.
The U.S. has pinned its hopes on maintaining permanent military supremacy:
“The United States will work to ensure that all major and emerging powers are integrated as constructive actors and stakeholders into the international system. It will also seek to ensure that no foreign power can dictate the terms of regional or global security. It will attempt to dissuade any military competitor from developing disruptive or other capabilities that could enable regional hegemony or hostile action against the United States or other friendly countries, and it will seek to deter aggression or coercion. Should deterrence fail, the United States would deny a hostile power its strategic and operational objectives.”
—U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, February 2006
In a recent document, the U.S. National Intelligence Council anticipates that by 2025: “Although the United States is likely to remain the single most powerful actor, the United States’ relative strength—even in the military realm—will decline and US leverage will become more constrained” (Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World, November 2008). Whereas in its 2004 report U.S. pre-eminence was taken as a given and globalization deemed “largely irreversible,” by 2008 the Council was advising America’s rulers to prepare for life in a “multipolar” world and expressing concern that “descending into a world of resource nationalism increases the risk of great power confrontations.” While reassuring their readers that “leadership matters, no trends are immutable, and that timely and well-informed intervention can decrease the likelihood and severity of negative developments,” the authors of the report warn:
“Historically, emerging multipolar systems have been more unstable than bipolar or unipolar ones. Despite the recent financial volatility—which could end up accelerating many ongoing trends—we do not believe that we are headed toward a complete breakdown of the international system, as occurred in 1914-1918 when an earlier phase of globalization came to a halt. However, the next 20 years of transition to a new system are fraught with risks. Strategic rivalries are most likely to revolve around trade, investments, and technological innovation and acquisition, but we cannot rule out a 19th century-like scenario of arms races, territorial expansion, and military rivalries.”
At this point no conceivable combination of powers can match the U.S. military, but as American economic/technological superiority erodes, Washington will also lose the ability to “dictate the terms of regional or global security.” The economic, military and political alignments at the apex of global capitalism will be reconfigured as the leading imperialist powers jockey for advantage.
France and Germany have periodically toyed with the idea of creating a European military alliance capable of operating independently of NATO, the U.S.-dominated axis of imperialist power created to contain and “roll back” the Soviet degenerated workers’ state. In 2003, when frictions with the U.S. over Iraq were at their height, Paris and Berlin renewed discussion of an autonomous European military center. Washington immediately objected: “The Americans clearly regard the idea of the independent headquarters as one that would lay a legitimized, physical groundwork for a widening split in the alliance” (International Herald Tribune, 27 October 2003).
In December 2008, when half a dozen warships from different European countries participated in “Operation Atalanta,” a joint naval expedition ostensibly aimed at Somali pirates, the website of Foreign Policy commented:
“Generally speaking, France has consistently pursued a more assertive military role for the EU, while Britain has tried to limit EU-sponsored military cooperation. France sees an independent European military capability as an alternative to NATO, and thus a counterweight to U.S. influence. The British place a strong value on their relationship with the United States, and consequently prefer NATO.”
Britain’s value as an enthusiastic junior partner in Washington’s military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan was enhanced by its status as an integral component of the EU. But British capitalism has suffered an economic collapse that closely parallels that of its American mentor. With a manufacturing base significantly eroded after three decades of Thatcherism/Blairism, and a hypertrophied financial sector that made London “the hedge fund capital of the world” (Spiegel Online, 23 February), Britain has fallen from post-industrial economic miracle to “sick man of Europe” in little more than a year.
Iraq & Iran: U.S. Policy Failures
The deteriorating position of the U.S. has introduced an element of uncertainty into the calculations of both allies and opponents. Washington’s “shock and awe” conquest of Iraq was supposed to give the Pentagon “full spectrum dominance” throughout the Middle East, with a chain of powerful military bases capable of guaranteeing the security of “low-intensity democratic” client regimes modeled on the new American oil colony headquartered in Baghdad. Not only would American companies get the lion’s share of Persian Gulf oil profits, but U.S. leverage over its chief rivals would vastly increase, as the EU gets 45 percent of its oil from the Middle East while Japan depends on it for a whopping 90 percent.
The unanticipated effectiveness of Iraqi resistance to the U.S.-led occupation turned the entire calculation upside down. In any military conflict between imperialist invaders and indigenous forces, revolutionaries side with the latter, however unsavory they may be. While giving absolutely no political support to the reactionary mélange of Baathists and Islamic fundamentalists that forms the core of the Iraqi resistance, Marxists favor their military victory in any confrontation with imperialist forces.
After six years of occupation, the U.S. has not secured any significant material, political or military gains. Instead of a “slam dunk,” the struggle for Iraq has turned into an expensive disaster that has drained the mighty American army, killed over 4,000 U.S. soldiers and maimed tens of thousands more. The total financial cost to the U.S. of this criminal enterprise is expected to ultimately top $3 trillion, a figure that does not include “intangibles” like the rise of anti-American attitudes around the globe, or the resurgence of domestic opposition to future military adventures. Of course the chief costs have been borne by the Iraqis, over a million of whom have perished as a result of the U.S.-led invasion and occupation, while millions more have been maimed or forced to flee their homes.
The U.S.-Iraqi Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) negotiated by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and approved by the Shiite-dominated Iraqi parliament in November 2008 signified, according to Juan Cole, a leading American academic on Iraq, that U.S. “hopes for long-term bases have been dashed.” Cole observed:
“Perhaps never before in history has an invader that won a crushing military victory, and that continued to occupy its prize, voluntarily accepted such humiliating terms from the vanquished. It is difficult to discern how Bush’s agreement differs from the ‘surrender’ Democrats were accused of advocating when they put forward a similar timetable for complete withdrawal.”
—The Nation, 12 January
Iran’s theocratic rulers are the most obvious beneficiaries of U.S. failure in Iraq. The overthrow of the Iraqi Baathists removed their most important regional rival and replaced it with a Shiite-dominated government which, ignoring the wishes of its imperial mentors, actively cultivated relations with Tehran. This has greatly complicated U.S. plans for “regime change” in Iran.
The spectacular success of Hezbollah’s Iranian-trained fighters, spearheaded by anti-tank units armed with modern Russian weapons, in turning back Israel’s 2006 invasion of Lebanon had a major impact in the region. Hezbollah was able to consolidate its control of southern Lebanon, thereby effectively negating the 2005 U.S.-engineered “Cedar Revolution” that had forced Iran’s Syrian ally to withdraw its troops. Hamas, which is also supported by Iran, was unable to effectively counter the murderous terror attack Israel launched on Gaza last December that killed hundreds of defenseless civilians, including many children. Yet the Israeli juggernaut failed to break Hamas, and in fact enhanced its reputation among Palestinians as the only organization prepared to resist the Zionist apartheid regime. In the 1970s, Israel had covertly supported Hamas as a conservative counterweight to the secular left-nationalist Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), which today is reviled by most Palestinians as a corrupt and impotent client of the Zionist oppressors.
By supporting Hezbollah and Hamas, and by its defiant response to U.S. and Israeli threats, Tehran has emerged as the leader of “anti-imperialist” resistance in the Muslim world, a development that the Saudi, Egyptian and other pro-American Arab regimes in the region find alarming. Iran’s growing influence extends beyond the Middle East into South-Central Asia:
“It is a key prize (as in the case also of Afghanistan) in the New Great Game for control of all of South-Central Asia, including the Caspian Sea Basin with its enormous fossil fuel reserves. U.S. strategic planners are obsessed with fears of an Asian energy-security grid, in which Russia, China, Iran, and the Central Asian countries (possibly also including Japan) would come together economically and in an energy accord to break the U.S. and Western stranglehold on the world oil and gas market—creating the basis for a general shift of world power to the East.”
—Monthly Review, June 2006
Tehran’s plan to open its public sector to foreign investors, initially praised by the International Monetary Fund, has created problems for the U.S., which prohibits its nationals from acquiring Iranian assets:
“While US companies are notoriously absent from the list of foreign direct investors, Germany, Italy and Japan have significant investment interests in oil and gas, the petrochemical industry, power generation and construction as well as in banking. Together with China and Russia, they are the main beneficiaries of the privatization program.
“One of the main objectives of the proposed economic sanctions under H. RES CON 362 [put forward in the U.S. Congress in May 2008] is to prevent foreign companies (including those from the European Union and Japan), from acquiring a greater stake in the Iranian economy under Tehran’s divestment program.”
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“Tehran’s privatization program does not serve US economic and strategic interests. It tends to favor countries which have longstanding trade and investment relations with the Islamic Republic.
“It favors Chinese, Russian, European and Japanese investors at the expense of the USA.
“It undermines and weakens American hegemony. It goes against Washington’s design to foster a ‘unipolar’ New World Order through both economic and military means.”
—Michel Chossudovsky, Israelenews.com, 7 July 2008
In response to American pressure on European oil majors to renege on energy deals with Tehran, France’s Total announced in July 2008 that it was “freezing” participation in the multi-billion dollar South Pars gas field project (Times [London], 11 July 2008). Russia’s Gazprom stepped into the breach, and a few months later Iran’s oil minister announced plans for a joint Russian-Iranian energy company (Tehran Times, 16 October 2008). Relations between Moscow and Tehran have been improving for some time, as Jalil Roshandel, director of the Security Studies Program at East Carolina University, has noted:
“Russia is building Iran’s nuclear plant at Bushehr and is selling arms, missiles, aircraft and all sorts of technologies and military equipment to Iran. Iran is also seeking full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization; this would enable it to sit at the same table with two veto holders on the UN Security Council, Russia and China, and would in fact place it in a defense pact with Russia.”
—Bitterlemons-international.org, 4 September 2008
Shanghai Cooperation Organization: Struggle for Central Asia
The Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) is a loose regional bloc linking the Chinese deformed workers’ state with capitalist Russia that also includes Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan:
“The overall strategic aim of the alliance for Beijing and Moscow is curbing Washington’s influence in Central Asia in order to establish a joint sphere of influence there. For Beijing, the most important goal is to get a lock on the considerable energy resources of the region, but it also seeks markets for its goods, outlets for investment and collaboration against Islamist movements. Moscow has leagued with Beijing in order to restore some of its influence over its ‘near abroad.’ The regimes of the Central Asian states want support for their survival against opposition movements, economic development assistance and increased trade and investment.”
—Power and Interest News Report, 12 July 2005
In 2005, a U.S. request to join Turkmenistan, Mongolia, Pakistan and India as an observer at SCO meetings was turned down. The SCO took a small but significant step toward consolidating a military alliance with “Peace Mission 2007,” in which some 6,000 Chinese and Russian troops carried out joint exercises along with soldiers from Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan.
The U.S. has meanwhile been cultivating India as a regional ally, endorsing its nuclear weapons program and helping upgrade its ability to carry out long-range military operations:
“‘Ten years from now, India could be a real provider of security to all the ocean islands in the Indian Ocean,’ said Ashley Tellis, an Indian-born scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. —It could become a provider of security in the Persian Gulf in collaboration with the U.S. I would think of the same being true with the Central Asian states.’”
—International Herald Tribune, 22 September 2008
The basis of closer U.S.-Indian cooperation seems to be shared hostility to China, which, after Pakistan, the Indian military views as its most likely potential adversary:
“Beijing has alarmed Indian commanders by courting allies in India’s neighborhood. Indians are particularly upset by what they say are Chinese-built military bases in Gwadar, Pakistan; Chittagong, Bangladesh; and Yangon, Myanmar.
“‘There seems to be an emerging long-term competition between India and China for pre-eminence in the region,’ said Jacqueline Newmyer, president of the Long Term Strategy Group, a research institute in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and a security consultant to the U.S. government. —India is preparing slowly to claim its place as a pre-eminent power, and in the meantime China is working to complicate that for India.’”
India recently completed “a naval base within striking distance of the Straits of Malacca,” which serves as “the conduit for 80 per cent of China’s imported oil” (Telegraph [London], 14 September 2008). While drawing closer to the U.S. in recent years, the Indian bourgeoisie has sought to maintain room for maneuver with its ties to the SCO. India is interested in gaining access to the oil and gas resources of Central Asia, and to this end recently helped construct a military airfield in Tajikistan, close to the Afghan border, to be shared with Tajik and Russian forces.
Afghanistan & Central Asian Energy
Barack Obama’s promise to crush Afghanistan’s insurgent Taliban movement will be difficult to keep. The rising tide of resistance to NATO occupation appears to have achieved critical mass. Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a handpicked puppet installed by the U.S. in 2001, has felt compelled to denounce his masters for the civilian casualties wantonly inflicted by the American military. Doubling or tripling the U.S. “boots on the ground” may prolong the conflict, but it seems unlikely to allow U.S.-led occupation forces to ultimately avert defeat.
The Taliban insurgency, which is rooted in the Pashtun tribes whose traditional lands straddle the Afghan-Pakistani border, is seriously destabilizing Pakistan. In 2008, Pakistani military dictator Pervez Musharraf, Washington’s chief asset in the region, was forced out of office. His successor, Pakistan People’s Party leader Asif Ali Zardari, a reviled crook widely viewed as an American agent, has been unable to maintain the same level of support for NATO’s Afghan war from his country’s military and intelligence establishments. U.S. attempts to compensate by stepping up air and ground interventions in Pakistan have fueled popular outrage across the country and helped spread the influence of Islamist insurgents beyond the Pashtun “tribal areas.” As Pakistan’s economy teeters on the brink of collapse, its government has been forced to beg the imperialists for handouts to maintain access to essential imports. At the same time, military tensions have been rising with India, posing the danger of a showdown between these two nuclear-armed enemies that could result in a disaster of incalculable dimensions.
The U.S. decision to attack Afghanistan in October 2001 was sold to the American public as revenge for the destruction of the New York World Trade Center the previous month. What was not discussed by the popular media was Afghanistan’s strategic value in controlling important transit routes for Central Asian oil and gas. The “Silk Road Strategy Act” introduced in the U.S. Congress in 1999 (but never actually passed) called for “the development of open market economies” and “incentives for international private investment” through the promotion of “strong political, economic, and security ties among countries of the South Caucasus and Central Asia and the West.” The bill’s authors were particularly concerned to “foster stability in this region, which is vulnerable to political and economic pressures from the south [i.e., Iraq and Iran], north [i.e., Russia] and east [i.e., China]” (106th Congress, “Silk Road Strategy Act of 1999”).
In the aftermath of the 2001 terrorist attack on the U.S., the Russian government assented to the establishment of temporary American military bases in the former Soviet republics of Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan to provide logistical support for the invasion of Afghanistan. The Kremlin was not pleased that the U.S. bases remained after the Taliban was overthrown, and began a campaign to curb American influence in the region. In 2005 Uzbekistan demanded that the U.S. close its base, and Kyrgyzstan has recently followed suit. Moscow is prepared to offer limited cooperation with Washington in Afghanistan, Iran and the Middle East to the extent that their interests overlap, but openly advocates the creation of a “multipolar” world order to replace the domination of the U.S. “superpower.”
The November 2008 U.S. National Intelligence Council report anticipates heightened competition from Russia for Central Asia’s energy resources:
“A more proactive and influential foreign policy seems likely, reflecting Moscow’s reemergence as a major player on the world stage; an important partner for Western, Asian, and Middle East capitals; and a leading force in opposition to US global dominance. Controlling key energy nodes and links in the Caucasus and Central Asia—vital to its ambitions as an energy superpower—will be a driving force in reestablishing a sphere of influence in its Near Abroad.”
This document was released three months after the Russian military successfully squashed Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili’s bid to seize the breakaway region of South Ossetia. Saakashvili, who came to power after the 2003 CIA-backed “Rose Revolution” overthrew the insufficiently pliable Eduard Shevardnadze, is widely viewed as a U.S. asset:
“The CIA has in fact been closely involved in Georgia since the Soviet collapse. But under the Bush administration, Georgia has become a fully fledged US satellite. Georgia’s forces are armed and trained by the US and Israel. It has the third-largest military contingent in Iraq—hence the US need to airlift 800 of them back to fight the Russians at the weekend.”
—Guardian, 14 August 2008
After shattering the Georgian army and destroying whatever military equipment they could not cart off, Russian troops eventually withdrew from Georgian territory. Moscow’s massive nuclear arsenal, inherited from the Soviet Union, still gives it rough strategic parity with Washington. This precluded the possibility of any U.S. military intervention to rescue its client. In snuffing Saakashvili’s ill-advised power grab, Moscow signaled the U.S. and EU that it was prepared to assert itself in Russia’s “near abroad.”
Condemnations of Moscow’s Georgian incursion from Paris and Berlin were far milder than those from Washington. In September 2008, French Prime Minister François Fillon and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin announced bilateral energy, automotive and aerospace deals. Brushing aside events in Georgia with the observation that “differences happen,” Fillon stated: “it’s very important to strengthen the partnership between the European Union and Russia, and France and Russia” (Reuters, 20 September 2008). A few months later, Germany and Russia agreed to proceed with “a long-awaited energy deal giving the German firm E.On a stake in a Russian gas field that will supply the Nord Stream undersea pipeline the two countries intend to build” (BBC News, 2 October 2008). The New York Times (2 December 2008) observed:
“Just as the United States is struggling to redefine its relationship with a resurgent and at times antagonistic government in Moscow, Germany is scrambling to protect the close commercial, cultural and diplomatic ties with Russia it has forged since the end of the cold war—and, in some areas, long before.”
Germany and France have shown no enthusiasm for the provocative U.S. proposal to build a “missile shield” in Poland and the Czech Republic. Ostensibly aimed at Iran, the real purpose of such a “shield” would be to negate Russian capacity to retaliate in the event of a NATO first strike.
French and German policies are closely aligned on this and many other issues, but their interests do not always coincide. This was evident in Germany’s cool response to the French-initiated “Union for the Mediterranean,” advertised as a way to strengthen links between Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. In Berlin this “union” is perceived as a thinly-veiled attempt to increase France’s influence in its former colonial holdings.
Among those who attended the founding of the “Union for the Mediterranean” was Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who is eager to broaden his regime’s international connections. Syria, a former French colony currently aligned with Iran, was high on the Bush administration’s hit list following the 2003 invasion of Iraq. In a move that evoked squeals of protest from Israel and the U.S., Assad recently agreed to permit ships from Russia’s Black Sea Fleet to use Syria’s Mediterranean ports in Tartus and Latakia.
Russia has also been active elsewhere in the Mediter-ranean. In 2006 the Kremlin forgave Algeria, a major supplier of natural gas to Europe and an important customer of Russia’s arms makers, more than $4.7 billion in debts that dated back to the Soviet era. When Russian energy giant Gazprom recently offered to purchase all of Libya’s natural gas production, the New York Times (2 November 2008) sourly complained of Moscow’s desire to “corner the European natural gas market.”
Latin America: U.S. Grip Loosens
In August 2008, Vladimir Putin declared: “We should restore our position in Cuba and other countries” (Inter-national Herald Tribune, 4 August 2008). The next month two Russian bombers, “each capable of carrying 12 cruise missiles armed with single 200-kiloton nuclear warheads,” flew to Venezuela for exercises (AFP, 12 October 2008). Russia’s Lukoil and Gazprom recently signed multi-billion dollar deals with Venezuela’s state-owned oil company, while the Bolivarian regime has ordered $4 billion worth of Russian arms. In November 2008, during a visit to Caracas, President Dimitri Medvedev announced that Russia would help Venezuela construct its first nuclear reactor. During Medvedev’s visit, ships from Russia’s North Sea Fleet conducted joint exercises with Venezuela’s navy. The message was clear enough:
“The Russian foray into Latin America has been viewed in many quarters as payback for what the Kremlin sees as an aggressive infringement by the United States on its sphere of influence. Moscow has been angered by American plans to deploy a missile defense system in Eastern Europe as well as by Washington’s support for Kosovo’s independence and for Georgia in the August war, which the Kremlin claimed that the White House helped provoke.”
—New York Times, 22 November 2008
A rising tide of left populism in Latin America, a region the American ruling class views as its own exclusive “sphere of influence,” provides an index of the weakening grip of the U.S. hegemon. Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez, who reimposed state control of much of his country’s oil deposits and has managed to survive several U.S.-backed attempts to remove him, is the foremost representative of the new mood sweeping the region. Following Venezuela’s example, Ecuador and Bolivia, the only other South American countries that export significant amounts of oil and gas, have also undertaken extensive renationalizations of their energy resources.
On 15 September 2008, a meeting of the Union of South American Republics (UNASUR), including representatives from Colombia and Chile, two regimes closely aligned with Washington, unanimously rebuffed U.S.-supported secessionist movements in Bolivia’s oil-rich eastern departments. Seven months earlier, in February 2008, Bolivia had joined Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela in withdrawing from participation in the U.S. “School of the Americas” in Fort Benning, Georgia, where, over the years, more than 60,000 Latin American and Caribbean military cadres have been trained in counterinsurgency, torture, psychological warfare, assassination and related subjects.
In November 2008, a government commission in Ecuador declared that most of the national debt owed to the IMF, international banks and foreign bondholders was illegitimate because it had been run up by a brutal U.S.–supported military dictatorship and much of it had been used for the benefit of American transnationals. The commission also complained that interest rates had been set above prevailing norms, and that repeated restructurings had further inflated the amount owed. In light of all this, the commissioners recommended that the government simply default on almost $4 billion in outstanding foreign-held debt.
While U.S. imperialism no longer exerts the degree of control over events in Latin America that it once did, its residual strength should not be underestimated. Washington still wields enormous influence in the region, with hundreds of billions of dollars of investments and deep connections to the military, police and business elites of virtually every country, with the exception of the Cuban deformed workers’ state.
An Epoch of War and Revolution
One byproduct of the erosion of American domination is the increasing militarization of international relations, as Japan and Germany doff their “peaceful” postures and undertake serious rearmament programs. The same dynamic is evident in second- and third-string imperialist powers like Canada, Denmark and the Netherlands, whose militaries were employed chiefly as UN “peacekeepers.” Today they are anxious to demonstrate their potential value as auxiliaries of the larger predators in order to earn a share of future spoils.
Marxists unconditionally oppose capitalist militarism. Our policy is derived from the heroic German internationalists Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, who were jailed during World War I for openly declaring their opposition to providing even a single person or a single penny for the capitalists’ war machine. When inter-imperialist economic rivalries spill over into military ones, as they did in World Wars I and II, the duty of revolutionaries in every belligerent country is to convince workers that, in Liebknecht’s words, “The Main Enemy Is at Home!”
The rise in militarism, xenophobia and economic nation-alism across the “developed” world has been accompanied by a multi-sided assault on working-class living standards and bourgeois-democratic rights along with terror scares, state-sponsored patriotic mania and anti-immigrant attacks. The masters of the “free world” are consciously seeking to regiment their populations with the introduction of ever-more authoritarian practices. Class-conscious workers must tenaciously oppose all attacks on civil liberties, and fight within the mass organizations of the proletariat to counter austerity, wage cuts and layoffs with an aggressive struggle for decent pensions, healthcare, housing and full employment at good wages. To capitalist claims that society cannot afford such demands, Leon Trotsky advised revolutionaries to counterpose “the socialist program of expropriation, i.e., of political overthrow of the bourgeoisie and liquidation of its economic domination” (Transitional Program).
Some bourgeois analysts are already worrying that a protracted economic downturn may well produce massive social explosions in the heartlands of imperialism. In the 28 October 2008 Financial Times, Martin Wolf fretted that “the vanishing of credit, closure of vast numbers of businesses [and] soaring unemployment” could result in a “catastrophe” that could threaten “the legitimacy of the open market economy itself.” Seventy-five years ago Trotsky made a similar observation:
“The catastrophic commercial, industrial, agrarian and financial crisis, the break in international economic ties, the decline of the productive forces of humanity, the unbearable sharpening of class and international contradictions mark the twilight of capitalism and fully confirm the Leninist characterization of our epoch as one of wars and revolutions.”
—“War and the Fourth International,” June 1934
Capitalism has long since exhausted its historically progressive role. Faced with a global contraction, each national bourgeoisie seeks to save itself by grinding down the living standards of its own working class and by strengthening its position relative to its capitalist rivals. The current global economic crisis highlights the profoundly irrational character of a social system that condemns billions to poverty while threatening humanity with the prospect that capitalist rivalry will, sooner or later, produce a thermonuclear Third World War.
Only the international working class, the natural leader of all those oppressed by capitalism, has both the social power and the objective interest to free humanity from this nightmare through social revolution. But to turn the anger and alienation of the victims of imperialism into hope for the socialist future, mass revolutionary organization is required. The political mobilization of the working class and its allies for the gigantic struggle to overturn global capitalism can only be carried out by forging an international revolutionary party. Such a party must be rooted in the proletariat while aggressively championing the interests of every stratum of the oppressed and exploited. The International Bolshevik Tendency is committed to the political struggle necessary to create such an instrument.