From: Rakesh Bhandari (rakeshb@STANFORD.EDU)
Date: Tue Jun 10 2003 - 10:33:26 EDT

Le Monde diplomatique
June 2003

United States: wider still and wider

For those with a long memory and an understanding of the
ambitions and history of previous empires - and their
inevitable decline - the present behaviour of the United
States is familiar and yet unprecedented. It may lead to the
militarisation of the US, the destabilisation of the Middle
East and the impoverishment, in every way, of the rest of
the world.


THE present world situation is quite unprecedented.
The great global empires that have been seen before,
such as the Spanish in the 16th and 17th centuries, and
notably the British in the 19th and 20th centuries, bear
little comparison with what we see today in the
United States empire. The present state of globalisation
is unprecedented in its integration, its technology and
its politics.

We live in a world so integrated, where ordinary operations
are so geared to each other, that there are immediate global
consequences to any interruption - Sars, for instance, which
within days became a global phenomenon, starting from an
unknown source somewhere in China. The disruption of the
world transport system, international meetings and
institutions, global markets, and even whole economies,
happened with a speed unthinkable in any previous period.

There is the enormous power of a constantly revolutionised
technology in economics and above all in military force.
Technology is more decisive in military affairs than ever
before. Political power on a global scale today requires the
mastery of this technology, combined with an extremely large
state. Previously the question of size was not relevant: the
Britain that ran the greatest empire of its day was, even by
the standards of the 18th and 19th century, only a
medium-sized state. In the 17th century, Holland, a state of
the same order of size as Switzerland, could become a global
player. Today it would be inconceivable that any state,
other than a relative giant - however rich and
technologically advanced it was - could become a global

There is the complex nature of today's politics. Our era is
still one of nation-states - the only aspect of
globalisation in which globalisation does not work. But it
is a peculiar kind of state wherein almost every one of the
ordinary inhabitants plays an important role. In the past
the decision-makers ran states with little reference to what
the bulk of the population thought. And during the late 19th
and early 20th century governments could rely on a
mobilisation of their people which is, in retrospect, now
quite unthinkable. Nevertheless, what the population think,
or are prepared to do, is nowadays more directed for them
than before.

A key novelty of the US imperial project is that all other
great powers and empires knew that they were not the only
ones, and none aimed at global domination. None believed
themselves invulnerable, even if they believed themselves to
be central to the world - as China did, or the Roman empire
at its peak. Regional domination was the maximum danger
envisaged by the system of international relations under
which the world lived until the end of the cold war. A
global reach, which became possible after 1492, should not
be confused with global domination.

The British empire in the 19th century was the only one that
really was global in a sense that it operated across the
entire planet, and to that extent it is a possible precedent
for the American empire. The Russians in the communist
period dreamed of a world transformed, but they knew well,
even at the peak of the power of the Soviet Union, that
world domination was beyond them, and contrary to cold war
rhetoric they never seriously tried such domination.

But the differences between today's US ambitions and those
of Britain of a century and more ago are stark. The US is a
physically vast country with one of the largest populations
on the globe, still (unlike the European Union) growing due
to almost unlimited immigration. There are differences in
style. The British empire at its peak occupied and
administered one quarter of the globe's surface (1). The US
has never actually practised colonialism, except briefly
during the international fashion for colonial imperialism at
the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th
century. The US operated instead with dependent and
satellite states, notably in the Western hemisphere in which
it almost had no competitors. Unlike Britain, it developed a
policy of armed intervention in these in the 20th century.

Because the decisive arm of the world empire was formerly
the navy, the British empire took over strategically
important maritime bases and staging-posts worldwide. This
is why, from Gibraltar to St Helena to the Falklands
Islands, the Union Jack flew and still flies. Outside the
Pacific the US only began to need this kind of base after
1941, but they did it by agreement with what could then
genuinely be called a coalition of the willing. Today the
situation is different. The US has become aware of the need
directly to control a very large number of military bases,
as well as indirectly to continue to control them.

There are important differences in the structure of the
domestic state and its ideology. The British empire had a
British, but not a universal, purpose, although naturally
its propagandists also found more altruistic motives. So the
abolition of the slave trade was used to justify British
naval power, as human rights today are often used to justify
US military power. On the other hand the US, like
revolutionary France and revolutionary Russia, is a great
power based on a universalist revolution - and therefore
based on the belief that the rest of the world should follow
its example, or even that it should help liberate the rest
of the world. Few things are more dangerous than empires
pursuing their own interest in the belief that they are
doing humanity a favour.

THE basic difference is that the British empire, although
global (in some senses even more global than the US now, as
it single-handedly controlled the oceans to an extent to
which no country now controls the skies), was not aiming at
global power or even military and political land power in
regions like Europe and America. The empire pursued the
basic interests of Britain, which were its economic
interests, with as little interference as possible. It was
always aware of the limitations of Britain's size and
resources. After 1918 it was acutely aware of its imperial

But the global empire of Britain, the first industrial
nation, worked with the grain of the globalisation that the
development of the British economy did so much to advance.
The British empire was a system of international trade in
which, as industry developed in Britain, it essentially
rested on the export of manufactures to less developed
countries. In return, Britain became the major market for
the world's primary products (2). After it ceased to be the
workshop of the world, it became the centre of the globe's
financial system.

Not so the US economy. That rested on the protection of
native industries, in a potentially gigantic market, against
outside competition, and this remains a powerful element in
US politics. When US industry became globally dominant, free
trade suited it as it had suited the British. But one of the
weaknesses of the 21st century US empire is that in the
industrialised world of today the US economy is no longer as
dominant as it was (3). What the US imports in vast
quantities are manufactures from the rest of the world, and
against this the reaction of both business interests and
voters remains protectionist. There is a contradiction
between the ideology of a world dominated by US-controlled
free trade, and the political interests of important
elements inside the US who find themselves weakened by it.

One of the few ways in which this weakness can be overcome
is by the expansion of the arms trade. This is another diffe
rence between the British and US empires. Especially since
the second world war, there has been an extraordinary degree
of constant armament in the US in a time of peace, with no
precedent in modern history: it may be the reason for the
dominance of what President Dwight Eisenhower called the
"military industrial complex". For 40 years during the cold
war both sides spoke and acted as though there was a war on,
or about to break out. The British empire reached its zenith
in the course of a century without major international wars,
1815-1914. Moreover, in spite of the evident disproportion
between US and Soviet power, this impetus to the growth of
the US arms industry has become much stronger, even before
the cold war ended, and it has continued ever since.

The cold war turned the US into the hegemon of the Western
world. However, this was as the head of an alliance. There
was no illusion about relative power. The power was in
Washington and not anywhere else. In a way, Europe then
recognised the logic of a US world empire, whereas today the
US government is reacting to the fact that the US empire and
its goals are no longer genuinely accepted. There is no
coalition of the willing: in fact the present US policy is
more unpopular than the policy of any other US government
has ever been, and probably than that of any other great
power has ever been.

The Americans led the Western alliance with a degree of
courtesy traditional in international affairs, if only
because the Europeans should be in the front line in the
fight against the Soviet armies: but the alliance was
permanently welded to the US by dependence on its military
technology. The Americans remained consistently opposed to
an independent military potential in Europe. The roots of
the long-standing friction between the Americans and the
French since the days of De Gaulle lie in the French refusal
to accept any alliance between states as eternal, and the
insistence on maintaining an independent potential for
producing hi-tech military equipment. However, the alliance
was, for all its strains, a real coalition of the willing.

Effectively, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US as
the only superpower, which no other power could or wanted to
challenge. The sudden emergence of an extraordinary,
ruthless, antagonistic flaunting of US power is hard to
understand, all the more so since it fits neither with
long-tested imperial policies developed during the cold war,
nor the interests of the US economy. The policies that have
recently prevailed in Washington seem to all outsiders so
mad that it is difficult to understand what is really
intended. But patently a public assertion of global
supremacy by military force is what is in the minds of the
people who are at present dominating, or at least
half-dominating, the policy-making in Washington. Its
purpose remains unclear.

Is it likely to be successful? The world is too complicated
for any single state to dominate it. And with the exception
of its military superiority in hi-tech weaponry, the US is
relying on diminishing, or potentially diminishing, assets.
Its economy, though large, forms a diminishing share of the
global economy. It is vulnerable in the short term as well
as in the long term. Imagine that tomorrow the Organisation
of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided to put all its
bills in euros instead of in dollars.

Although the US retains some political advantages, it has
thrown most of them out of the window in the past 18 months.
There are the minor assets of American culture's domination
of world culture, and of the English language. But the major
asset for imperial projects at the moment is military. The
US empire is beyond competition on the military side and it
is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. That does
not mean that it will be absolutely decisive, just because
it is decisive in localised wars. But for practical purposes
there is nobody, not even the Chinese, within reach of the
technology of the Americans. But here there will need to be
some careful consideration on the limits of technological

Of course the Americans theoretically do not aim to occupy
the whole world. What they aim to do is to go to war, to
leave friendly governments behind them and go home again.
This will not work. In military terms, the Iraq war was very
successful. But, because it was purely military, it
neglected the necessities of what to do if you occupy a
country - running it, maintaining it, as the British did in
the classic colonial model of India. The model "democracy"
that the Americans want to offer to the world in Iraq is a
non-model and irrelevant for this purpose. The belief that
the US does not need genuine allies among other states, or
genuine popular support in the countries its military can
now conquer (but not effectively administer) is fantasy.

THE war in Iraq was an example of the frivolity of US
decision-making. Iraq was a country that had been defeated
by the Americans and refused to lie down: a country so weak
it could be easily defeated again. It happened to have
assets - oil - but the war was really an exercise in showing
international power. The policy that the crazies in
Washington are talking about, a complete re-formulation of
the entire Middle East, makes no sense. If their aim is to
overthrow the Saudi kingdom, what are they planning in its
place? If they were serious about changing the Middle East
we know the one thing they have to do is to lean on the
Israelis. Bush's father was prepared to do this, but the
present incumbent in the White House is not. Instead his
administration has destroyed one of the two guaranteed
secular governments in the Middle East, and dreams of moving
against the other, Syria.

The emptiness of the policy is clear from the way the aims
have been put forward in public relations terms. Phrases
like "axis of evil", or "the road map" are not policy
statements, but merely sound bites that accumulate their own
policy potential. The overwhelming newspeak that has swamped
the world in the past 18 months is an indication of the
absence of real policy. Bush does not do policy, but a stage
act. Officials such as Richard Perle and Paul Wolfowitz talk
like Rambo in public, as in private. All that counts is the
overwhelming power of the US. In real terms they mean that
the US can invade anybody small enough and where they can
win quickly enough. This is not a policy. Nor will it work.
The consequences of this for the US are going to be very
dangerous. Domestically, the real danger for a country that
aims at world control, essentially by military means, is the
danger of militarisation. The danger of this has been
seriously underestimated.

Internationally, the danger is the destabilising of the
world. The Middle East is just one example of this
destabilisation - far more unstable now than it was 10 years
ago, or five years ago. US policy weakens all the
alternative arrangements, formal and informal, for keeping
order. In Europe it has wrecked the North Atlantic Treaty
Organisation - not much of a loss; but trying to turn Nato
into a world military police force for the US is a travesty.
It has deliberately sabotaged the EU, and also
systematically aims at ruining another of the great world
achievements since 1945, prosperous democratic social
welfare states. The widely perceived crisis over the
credibility of the United Nations is less of a drama than it
appears since the UN has never been able to do more than
operate marginally because of its total dependence on the
Security Council, and the use of the US veto.

How is the world to confront - contain - the US? Some
people, believing that they have not the power to confront
the US, prefer to join it. More dangerous are those people
who hate the ideology behind the Pentagon, but support the
US project on the grounds that, in the course of its
advance, it will eliminate some local and regional
injustices. This may be called an imperialism of human
rights. It has been encouraged by the failure of Europe in
the Balkans in the 1990s. The division of opinion over the
Iraq war showed there to be a minority of influential
intellectuals, including Michael Ignatieff in the US and
Bernard Kouchner in France, who were prepared to back US
intervention because they believe it is necessary to have a
force for ordering the world's ills. There is a genuine case
to be made that there are governments that are so bad that
their disappearance will be a net gain for the world. But
this can never justify the danger of creating a world power
that is not interested in a world that it does not
understand, but is capable of intervening decisively with
armed force whenever anybody does anything that Washington
does not like.

Against this background we can see the increasing pressure
on the media - because in a world where public opinion is so
important, it is also hugely manipulated (4). Attempts were
made in the Gulf war, 1990-91, to avoid the Vietnam
situation by not letting the media near the action. But
these did not work because there were media, for example
CNN, actually in Baghdad, reporting things that did not fit
the story Washington wanted told. This time, in the Iraq
war, control again did not work, so the tendency will be to
find yet more effective ways. These may take the form of
direct control, maybe even the last resort of technological
control, but the combination of governments and monopoly
proprietors will be used to even greater effect than with
Fox News (5), or Silvio Berlusconi in Italy.

How long the present superiority of the Americans lasts is
impossible to say. The only thing of which we are absolutely
certain is that historic ally it will be a temporary
phenomenon, as all these other empires have been. In the
course of a lifetime we have seen the end of all the
colonial empires, the end of the so-called Thousand Year
Empire of the Germans, which lasted a mere 12 years, the end
of the Soviet Union's dream of world revolution.

There are internal reasons why the US empire may not last,
the most immediate being that most Americans are not
interested in imperialism or in world domination in the
sense of running the world. What they are interested in is
what happens to them in the US. The weakness of the US
economy is such that at some stage both the US government
and electors will decide that it is much more important to
concentrate on the economy than to carry on with foreign
military adventures (6). All the more so as these foreign
military interventions will have to be largely paid for by
the Americans themselves, which was not the case in
the Gulf war, nor to a very great extent in the cold war.

Since 1997-98 we have been living in a crisis of the
capitalist world economy. It is not going to collapse, but
nevertheless it is unlikely that the US will carry on with
ambitious foreign affairs when it has serious problems at
home. Even by local business standards Bush does not have an
adequate economic policy for the US. And Bush's existing
international policy is not a particularly rational one for
US imperial interests - and certainly not for the interests
of US capitalism. Hence the divisions of opinion within the
US government.

The key issue now is what will the Americans do next, and
how will other countries react? Will some countries, like
Britain - the only genuine member of the ruling coalition -
go ahead and back anything the US plans? Their governments
must indicate that there are limits to what the Americans
can do with their power. The most positive contribution so
far has been made by the Turks, simply by saying there are
things they are not prepared to do, even though they know it
would pay. But at the moment the major preoccupation is that
of - if not containing - at any rate educating or
re-educating the US. There was a time when the US empire
recognised limitations, or at least the desirability of
behaving as though it had limitations. This was largely
because the US was afraid of somebody else - the Soviet
Union. In the absence of this kind of fear, enlightened
self-interest and education have to take over.

Edited by Victoria Brittain

________________________________________________* Eric
Hobsbawm is a historian; among his works is Age of Extremes:
The Shorter 20th: 1914-1991 (Michael Joseph, London, 1994,
paperback by Abacus, London, 1995)

(1) The Age of Empire 1875-1914, Weidenfeld and Nicolson,
London, 1987.

(2) Op cit.

(3) Chalmers Johnson, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences
of American Empire, Owl Books, 2001.

(4) "France protests US media plot", International Herald
Tribune, 16 May 2003.

(5) Eric Alterman, "United States: making up the news", Le
Monde diplomatique, English language edition, March 2003.

(6) "US unemployment hits an 8-year high", International
Herald Tribune, 3 May 2003.

Original text in English

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