[OPE-L] Naked Imperialism: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster

From: glevy@PRATT.EDU
Date: Sat Nov 18 2006 - 07:57:16 EST

"Naked Imperialism: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster"
Naked Imperialism: An Interview with John Bellamy Foster

      NAKED IMPERIALISM:The U.S. Pursuit of Global Dominance
      by John Bellamy Foster

John Bellamy Foster's Naked Imperialism: The U.S. Pursuit of Global
Dominance was published by Monthly Review Press in May 2006.  It consists
of essays written between September 2001 and September 2005, addressing
the origins of today's undisguised imperialism, led by the United States.
In addition to a running commentary on the developments over this period,
the book presents a critique of this new phase of imperialism and some of
its most common interpretations.  MRZine recently talked with MR Editor
Foster about the book.

Q: What do you mean by "Naked Imperialism," the title you chose for your

A: There has been a lot of discussion of what is called the "new
imperialism" -- a phrase used to refer to the phase of imperialism since
9/11.  The term Naked Imperialism in the title to my book was designed to
capture what is most obviously new in the current global assault.
Imperialism is inherent to capitalism and only varies in form and
intensity.  What is new in the post-9/11 period is the fact that U.S.
empire and U.S. imperialism is more nakedly promoted than at any time
since the Spanish-American War at the very end of the nineteenth century.
In 2001, only a decade after the demise of the Soviet Union, the United
States, the sole remaining superpower, responded to the terrorist attacks
on its homeland by launching a worldwide imperial expansion.  The vast
U.S. war machine was put into ceaseless motion, ostensibly justified by
the so-called "war on terrorism," but in fact without limits.  U.S. global
empire was presented as the solution to all the world's problems.  U.S.
military expenditures quickly rose to half of all world military spending.
 The "forward deployment" of U.S. military bases was occurring at
strategic points (areas of vital geopolitical interest to the United
States) on every inhabited continent.  The United States was fighting
major wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.  This worldwide expansionist thrust
was bluntly justified by the political, economic, military, media
establishment -- what C. Wright Mills used to call the power elite -- in
terms of U.S. empire.  This was a big change that needed to be explained.

The four most important factors behind this turning point in world history
were the demise of the Soviet Union, the stagnation of the U.S. and world
economy, a perceived decline of U.S. hegemony, and concerns over control
of global resources, particularly oil.  All of them set the stage for the
emergence of a naked imperialism -- one aimed at global dominance.

Q: The antiwar movement's most famous slogan in the war was "No Blood for
Oil," and this view of the U.S. invasion of Iraq has been widely accepted
around the world.  U.S. establishment media have been at pains to deny
that this is so, and even some progressive U.S. commentators have
ridiculed this view as "simplistic" or worse.  This is a question you
address is in Naked Imperialism. "War for oil" seems to have really
touched a nerve, but is this really so central an explanation?  Why do you
think it has been so widely accepted, and so bitterly attacked?

A: It is clear that the geopolitics of oil have changed, and this is a
point made in Naked Imperialism. In the chapter "U.S. Imperial Ambitions
and Iraq" there is a bar graph superimposed on a map of the world showing
very visibly the extent to which the oil reserves of the world are
concentrated in the Middle East.  There is a lot of discussion today about
whether the world has reached or even passed "peak oil" production.  No
one really knows the answer; there are still too many unknowns, though the
peak oil hypothesis is a plausible one.  What we do know for certain is
what the oil industry calls reserve/production ratios (or simply r/p
ratios), which give you the number of years before reserves are likely to
be exhausted for various oil-producing countries in the world, based on
current production levels.  This tells us that with each passing year a
larger percentage of the world reserves will be located in the Middle
East, since the reserves to production ratios there are far higher.  It is
obvious then that control of the Middle East reserves becomes more
critical each year if world oil supplies are to be secured.

The United States has long designated the security of world oil reserves
as a vital strategic interest, which translates ultimately into U.S.
leverage over the production and sale of these reserves, not to mention
the profits to be derived from this.  A whole series of foreign policy
doctrines -- the Eisenhower doctrine of 50 years ago, the Carter doctrine,
the Bush doctrine -- have been principally aimed at the Middle East, and
amount to the extension of the Monroe doctrine (which asserted U.S.
hegemony in the Americas) to the Middle East.  One of the reasons given by
the administration for the Iraq war was to prevent Saddam Hussein from
having a "stranglehold" on world oil.  Perhaps this was the closest to an
honest reason they gave.

Beyond the larger geopolitical issue of securing the Middle East and its
oil for the empire of capital there is the question of who actually
exploits the oil and who profits from it.  U.S. and British corporations
are now positioned to gain control over the production of, and to reap
huge profits from, the Iraqi oil reserves through so-called "production
sharing agreements," which will give them rights to the exploitation and
sale of the bulk of Iraq oil reserves for decades to come -- even allowing
them to book this oil as "assets" in their accounts.  In other words they
will have the material equivalent of the old imperial concessions system
for oil.  This is apparently the main thrust of a new proposed oil law in
Iraq that was written by Washington and London with the help of leading
oil corporations, and that, in accordance with an IMF deadline, is
supposed to be approved by the Iraqi government by the end of this year.

Defenders of U.S. imperialism in Iraq naturally contend that "It is not
all about oil" and try to present the "NO BLOOD FOR OIL" slogan of the
antiwar movement as unpatriotic and the voice of irrationalism.  They act
righteously indignant regarding any suggestion that the United States is
planning to loot Iraq's oil wealth.  But it is impossible to deny that
much of this conflict is about oil directly.  And indirectly all questions
regarding Iraq return in the end to oil, which from a geostrategic
standpoint is what makes Iraq so important.  In a recent poll of Iraqis
less than 2 percent thought that the U.S. invasion of Iraq was to promote
democracy in Iraq.  More than three quarters of Iraqis believed that the
single most important reason for the invasion was control of Iraqi oil.

Q: The first chapter of Naked Imperialism was written shortly after 9/11
when Washington was getting ready to invade Afghanistan.  The argument
there suggested that this would be a war for a wider empire not stopping
in Afghanistan but leading to a "global-imperial projection of U.S.
power."  What led you to such a conclusion so quickly?  Now, after five
years, how would you assess the balance between the view of a single
"U.S.-centric" imperialism and the view that focuses on inter-imperialist
tensions and rivalries?

A: 9/11 was unexpected.  But the response of Washington to it was no
surprise.  Viewed in historical context, it was clear that the demise of
the Soviet Union, which left the United States as the sole military
superpower, coupled with the perceived decline of U.S. economic hegemony,
created strong pressure among the ruling interests to push for an
expansion of U.S. empire.  Military interventionism was underway
throughout the 1990s.  The first chapter of Naked Imperialism lists 15
military interventions that the United States had carried out in the
Middle East/Islamic world alone in the twenty years prior to 9/11.  The
U.S.-led NATO war in Yugoslavia at the end of the 1990s was an indication
of this expansionist tendency -- in this case in Europe itself.  It was in
the context of the struggle over the Balkans that the idea of a "new
imperialism" started to be celebrated by various establishment figures.
It was based on the logic of these developments that István Mészáros
argued in his book Socialism or Barbarism (published by Monthly Review
Press early in 2001) that the U.S. goal of global hegemonic-imperialism
was pointing the world toward what was to be "potentially the most
dangerous phase of imperialism" -- a position analyzed in Chapter 2 of
Naked Imperialism.  There was no doubt therefore about the global-imperial
projection of U.S. power even before 9/11.  And as if to drive the point
home, the Bush team issued numerous statements within days of the
terrorist attacks making it clear that they viewed this as a new world war
-- one without geographical limits and by its nature perpetual.

Five years later nothing has really changed except that the invasion and
occupation of Iraq has proven to be anything but a smooth conquest.  The
Democrats criticized the Bush administration for its unilateralism,
arguing that a stronger coalition among the imperial states should have
been devised so that the United States would not carry the whole burden
and responsibility.  The Democrats have always preferred what Republican
national security analyst Richard Haass, who was the director of policy
planning in Colin Powell's state department under the administration of
George W. Bush, called the "sheriff and posse" approach, visualizing the
United States as the sheriff supported by a posse consisting of the other
imperial powers, primarily European states.  Instead, a go-it-alone "Lone
Ranger" approach was adopted.  This has to do in part with
inter-imperialist rivalry that remains in many ways the hub of the
imperialist wheel.  The perceived decline of U.S. hegemony is reflected in
the fact that its economic power relative to the world as a whole has
diminished somewhat, but this economic power shift has been widely
diffused and no state or unified group of states has yet emerged that is
clearly capable of challenging the United States economically, much less
militarily.  At the same time the fall of the Soviet Union created
militarily a unipolar world.  This meant that Washington was in a position
to use its seemingly unlimited means of destruction to leverage greater
economic and political power in the world as a whole, and also to
strengthen its geostrategic position.  Such a move would promote
capitalism but also U.S. interests with U.S. capital benefiting

One might say that all of this is a product of inter-imperialist rivalry,
but with this difference: that it is acted out largely by the hegemonic
power and aimed at potential future rivals.  The United States is
responding to its diminished economic power by using its enormous military
power to gain a permanent advantage over all prospective challengers to
its rule.  The grand strategists are trying to create a "Pax Americana"
for a new century -- a "new American century."  The global imperial
ambitions of the United States and the sheer magnitude of U.S. power might
lead one to conclude that the reality is simply that of a U.S.-centric
world today and well into the future.  But Washington is all too aware (as
the statements of numerous national security analysts attest) that power
configurations can quickly change, particularly as a result of unequal
economic growth.  It is therefore seeking to seize the day, grabbing
strategic assets and obtaining further advantages over what it regards as
its potential geopolitical rivals (individually and in combination) at
both the global and regional levels -- the European Community, Russia,
China, Japan, the Islamic world.  If history is any guide, such a grab for
power is likely to lead to forces countering it, and generate greater
conflict.  If this is a unipolar world it is one that already exhibits
serious cracks.

Q: The last chapter of Naked Imperialism, originally published in June
2005, is entitled "The Failure of Empire."  You wrote it at a time when
Washington was making a show of having turned sovereignty over to a
transitional Iraqi government and was declaring that the insurgency was
defeated.  It concludes: "Wider speculation at this point would be
foolhardy.  But there is no doubt than in invading Iraq the United States
opened the doors of hell not only for the Iraqis and the Middle East as a
whole but also for its own global imperialist order.  The full
repercussions of the failure of the U.S. empire in Iraq have yet to be
seen and will only become evident in the months and years ahead."  A year
and a half has passed, how much of this prediction do you see fulfilled?
What back then impelled you to a view not usual at that time?

A: The idea that the gates of hell were opening up in Iraq and that the
likelihood was one of civil war was the complete opposite of what the
administration and the press were saying at the time.  Nevertheless, the
argument in Naked Imperialism was less one of prediction than a realistic
consideration of the forces in Iraq and the historical tendencies that
were unfolding.  Behind the public face given to the war, there have
always been the national security analysts who are trying to view it more
realistically, and it is on such assessments that my argument was based.
In particular, I relied on the research of Anthony Cordesman, a leading
national security analyst in the Ford administration and Middle East
expert, who was already pointing out that the occupation was falling
apart, and that the question was how the United States could get its
troops out before the whole situation degenerated into a full-scale civil

When you add to this a thoroughgoing critique of imperialism that suggests
that "staying the course" is more than a mere slogan and that the high
costs to the U.S. soldiers and military, even the likelihood of being
caught up in a long-term civil war, may be considered "worth it" to a
ruling elite playing a high-stakes gamble for control of world oil and
global hegemony -- then the full abyss that the United States has opened
up in Iraq suddenly becomes apparent.  The truth is that there was in Iraq
no political base, acceptable to the United States, on which to build a
new state in Iraq.  The strong organized collaborationist forces upon
which a successful occupation (such as Vichy for one or two years) might
depend were not present: so there was in fact no solution outside a
continuing occupation and perhaps a dismemberment of the entire country.
The Shiites no less than the Sunnis were to be prevented from effectively
controlling their own country, so any so-called "democracy" could only be
a sham.  Washington's goal was eventually to make the occupation less
obvious by gradually reducing U.S. troops and pulling them back into
permanent bases in Iraq.  Even that hasn't been possible.  Incidentally,
what I did not know when I wrote this chapter of Naked Imperialism was
that the United States was already providing support to
paramilitaries/militias in Iraq and was turning to the "Salvadoran Option"
of death squads to fight the insurgency.  This, however, only generated
extreme sectarian strife, evolving into civil war-like conditions.  The
United States has not been able to control any of this.

Hence, the title "The Failure of Empire" was meant to convey the depth of
the U.S. failure, which was likely to become inescapable in the ensuing
months and years as it became apparent that there was no Iraqi state, the
resistance/insurgency could not be defeated, and the U.S. occupation was
pushing the whole country into civil war.  Yet, in one sense the invasion
of Iraq has not (or has not yet) been a complete failure for the U.S.
empire.  True, the country has been effectively destroyed, the population
is either in revolt or in engaging in sectarian killings, death squads are
everywhere, the Iraqi government is a sham,  U.S. soldiers are dying and
Iraqi civilians are being killed in enormous numbers.  But still from the
standpoint of the empire based in Washington it is not a total loss.  The
United States may yet end up controlling Iraq's oil, and Iraq may prove to
have the largest oil reserves (including undiscovered reserves) in the
entire world.  The U.S. now has major military bases in Iraq, bordering
Iran and dominating the Persian Gulf.  But, to be able to gain from these
spoils, the empire will need to remain in Iraq and will have to pay a very
heavy price.  And this will be constant testimony to the brutal nature of
U.S. imperialism.  It could prove in the end that the cost to the empire
is too high and the empire will retreat, but I do not expect it to
relinquish its hold on Iraq any time soon. It will remain for ostensibly
"humanitarian" reasons to counter the barbarism that is now Iraq.

Q: There is an economic argument that underlies your analysis in Naked
Imperialism, made explicit in Chapter 3 "Monopoly Capital and the New Age
of Imperialism."  Not to recapitulate the whole argument, but what do you
see as the key linkages and causal chains between the economic and the
political/military in this current phase of imperialism.

A: This could be a very long answer, so I will try to keep it short.
Since the 1970s the dominant reality of the U.S. and world economy has
been that of stagnation and financial explosion.  Although there continue
to be ups and downs in the business cycle, and although there are
exceptions (most notably China), the general condition of the U.S. economy
and the world economy as a whole has been slow growth and rising
unemployment/underemployment and excess capacity.  Although the economy is
generating an enormous surplus at the top (the more so because of
stagnating wages and redistribution of income and wealth toward the upper
classes), profitable investment opportunities within production have been
limited due to overcapacity in key industries worldwide.  Under these
circumstances there has been a shift toward financial speculation and the
financialization of the global economy, which has helped to keep the
economy going but has not been able to restart the engine of capital
accumulation.  Ultimately, the analysis that best explains these
developments, I argue, is monopoly capital theory coming out of the work
of Michal Kalecki, Josef Steindl, Paul Baran, Paul Sweezy, and Harry
Magdoff.  These theorists were able early on to point to this set of
contradictions, which can be traced initially to the nature of
accumulation under the monopoly stage of capitalism, i.e., a capitalist
system dominated by a relatively small number of giant corporations.

Today I think this analysis needs to be developed further, which I try to
do in the book, to take into account the new globalization -- or what I
would now call the phase of global monopoly-finance capital.  In order to
understand the forces driving today's economic imperialism (commonly known
as neoliberal globalization), as well as its military imperialism, we have
to see them in this larger context of stagnation, financial explosion,
world financial instability, and declining U.S. hegemony.  In a sense the
current imperialist phase is a product of growing instability at the
economic base of the system.

Q: One of the chapters of the book is entitled "U.S. Military Bases and
Empire" and goes over the history of the U.S. empire in terms of the
expansion and contraction of its worldwide bases.  An explanation we have
seen several times for the U.S. war on Iraq is that a primary goal is the
establishment of permanent U.S. military bases.  How would you address

A: With the beginning of the War in Afghanistan and the expansion of U.S.
imperialism in the form of an overt war in this region, formerly part of
the Soviet Union, the whole question of the expanding sphere of U.S.
military bases, already evident in the Balkans, became an issue.  Also in
understanding the extent of the U.S. empire the range of its bases was
clearly the key.  I therefore undertook a study of the history of U.S.
military bases in other countries since the Second World War.  One result
of this was a map, reproduced in the book, showing the 60 countries and
separate territories in which U.S. military bases were located as of
January 2002.

Click on the map for a larger view.

The map was quite influential and was reproduced frequently on the
Internet.  Chalmers Johnson relied on some of this research on bases in
his useful book The Sorrows of Empire.  The base map that I developed
together with my colleagues at Monthly Review was conservative in that it
only included countries with bases that were listed in the Department of
Defense's Base Structure Report (which includes only those with permanent
structures) or newly created bases reported in the press.  Actual
base/troop deployment is more extensive and fluid than that conservative
analysis suggests.  The United States at any one time has troops in more
than 100 countries, often carrying out joint exercises.  Since the map was
devised, the United States has expanded its bases in every continent of
the global South.  One thing this tells us, in addition to the size of the
U.S. empire and its strategic points of concern, is how thinly spread out
U.S. forces are -- so that relatively few are available for a major
war/occupation as in Iraq.

Bases are of course staging grounds for U.S. imperialism and not
themselves the reality of that imperialism.  They allow for what is called
the "forward projection" of U.S. power.  Viewed in this way, it is a
misnomer to think of bases in Iraq or elsewhere as a primary goal.  The
bases in Iraq are important because they allow the U.S. to exert control
over Iraq and the Persian Gulf as a whole.  This is a region considered of
enormous strategic value and it is no secret why: oil.  What is at issue
is the control of oil and the blocking of the emergence of powerful oil
states that could threaten the interests of U.S. capital -- and not the
bases themselves which are mere tools of empire.

Q: In Naked Imperialism  there are frequent references to "barbarism" as
an alternative outcome to the events of these first years of the 21st
Century, yet you do not spell out what you mean.  It's not a pleasant line
of thought, but what is this alternative, as you see it?

A: You are right that the issue of barbarism is frequently referred to in
the book.  One of the chapters in Naked Imperialism is actually entitled
"The Empire of Barbarism."  This reflects the view that capitalism, as
witnessed particularly by its naked imperialism abroad, is increasingly
degenerating into a kind of barbarism, where war, brutality, torture,
misery, superexploitation, all sorts of draconian measures against the
poor, border security, anti-immigration, gated homes, racism, extreme
environmental devastation threatening whole populations and even the
globe, nuclear proliferation (and hence the danger of more terrible wars),
etc. are all on the rise.  In Marxism this has always been seen as a
possibility: that, instead of revolutions taking the world forward, there
will be what Marx once called "the common ruin of the contending classes,"
a decline into barbarism.  Rosa Luxemburg famously raised the question of
"socialism or barbarism," which has been repeated in our own time by
thinkers such as Daniel Singer and István Mészáros.

Of course, given the history of Western capitalism, the notion of
barbarism in modern times carries the implication of fascism.  But there
is more at issue here: the brutality of the imperialist colonization of
the periphery in the early centuries of capitalism, world war, the science
of torture, racism, the devastation of the natural world and all beings
that depend on it.  We are seeing a dangerous resurgence of all of these
tendencies in our time.  In the view presented in Naked Imperialism, this
is a product of the current phase of capitalism, the end of any
possibility for a "rational capitalism."  The only answer is the struggle
for socialism, a society controlled by the associated producers and the
wider sets of needs and values that they represent instead of the
invisible hand (now an iron fist) of capitalism/imperialism.

Q: In your book you frequently argue that the notion of a "Bush cabal" or
a "Bush junta" as an explanation of the war in Iraq is wrong.  Now the
Democrats have majorities in both houses of Congress and are insisting on
a "phased redeployment of the troops."  Any time soon should we expect a
fundamental change in Washington's military posture in Iraq and its
approach to empire in the world at large?

A: It has always amazed me how quick left pundits both in this country and
the world as a whole jumped on to the notion of a Bush cabal, or the
"Bush-Cheney junta" as Gore Vidal put it, as the explanation for the War
on Iraq and the entire War on Terrorism.  In this view. the Republicans
effectively carried out a coup in the 2000 election bringing the
neoconservatives to power, and it is the neoconservatives that are then to
blame for today's naked imperialism.  Not just Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and
Rice, of course, but also including Paul Wolfowitz, Lewis Libby, Richard
Pearle, and various others.  In this view, the opponents of the Bush cabal
within the Republican Party are the "wise men" like James Baker, Robert
Gates, and Brent Scowcroft associated with the administration of W's
father, Bush I.  The Democrats meanwhile are seen as strongly opposing the
neoconservative Bush II cabal.

The fact that neoconservatives have dominated the present administration
is of course true and significant up to a point.  But, as I argue at
length in Naked Imperialism, to suggest that a cabal is somehow behind the
sorrows of empire and that we have only to kick them out of office to
solve the problem is to ignore all the lessons of history.  The present
empire strategy has been in the works for a long time -- since the fall of
the Soviet Union at the outset of the '90s, or even further back -- since
the resurgence of stagnation and the first major signs of declining U.S.
hegemony in the early and mid-'70s.  The war in Yugoslavia took place
under Clinton, who also bombed Iraq on a daily basis, and initiated U.S.
military bases in Central Asia.  The Democrats mostly supported the wars
in Afghanistan and Iraq and their criticisms of the Iraq war have been
more of a tactical rather than a strategic nature.  Thus they fault the
Bush administration for unilateralism as opposed to multilateralism in the
invading force, the disbanding of the Baathist military, too many military
resources directed at Iraq as opposed to Afghanistan, too few U.S. troops
in the initial invading and occupying force, corruption in the handling of
military contracts, too little armor for the troops, etc.  These are not
fundamental attacks on today's naked imperialism.  What this reflects is
the fact that the U.S. ruling class as a whole (to which the Democrats as
well as the Republicans are beholden) has remained strongly behind the
larger war.

What is happening now since the election, with the Democrats controlling
both houses in Congress, Rumsfeld gone, and the Iraq strategy clearly in
shambles, is that James Baker, Robert Gates, and other "wise men" of Bush
I are being brought in to save Bush II.  But we shouldn't have illusions
about a turn toward peace as a result.  Gates, the new Secretary of
Defense, is a former director of the CIA involved in Iran-Contra.
Meanwhile, the Democrats themselves are calling for a "phased
redeployment," which may simply take the form of a redeployment of troops
within the global war -- more to Afghanistan, more to bases in Iraq --
rather than a withdrawal from Iraq or a pulling back from the imperial War
on Terrorism in any way.  Given the changes in Washington, we will soon
get a reasonable test of the cabal thesis, which will doubtless
demonstrate that the grand imperial strategy will continue to be pursued,
however much things may change at a tactical level.  Where the Democrats
are most likely to resist is not in regard to the imperialist strategy but
in relation to the homeland security measures adopted domestically, which
are an internal counterpart of this overall strategy.  But it is unlikely
that the Democrats will, for example, take a strong stand against the
Patriot Act.  Here too they will most likely play a game of changing
things on the margins, while accepting the larger erosion of democracy and
human rights.

In fact the value of Naked Imperialism in comparison with such cabal
theories is that it is rooted in an unrelenting critique of capitalism and
imperialism.  The emphasis then is on the real forces associated with the
imperial juggernaut.  This is not to say that things are inevitably
determined by such powerful structural forces that there is no escape from
these imperial relations, no basis for hope.  But it does tell us that if
there is going to be any fundamental change in the course of history it
will not occur among the elites.  Rather it will have to be carried out
radically from below, and not simply by throwing out a cabal or through
the election of the other wing of the ruling two-party system.  What we
need is change on a much more revolutionary scale, which means that the
people must take history into their own hands once again.

John Bellamy Foster is professor of sociology at the University of Oregon,
author of Marx's Ecology and Ecology Against Capitalism, and editor of
Monthly Review.
URL: <http://mrzine.monthlyreview.org/foster171106.html>

This archive was generated by hypermail 2.1.5 : Thu Nov 30 2006 - 00:00:06 EST