by Ellen Isaacs
Imperialism is the stage of capitalism after colonialism when, the whole world having been divided up, the dominant nations fight each other for control of natural resources, markets and cheap labor. Just as capitalists within national borders must continually maximize their profits or be ousted by competitors, the capitalist class of each imperialist nation is compelled not only to optimize its exploitation of weaker nations, but to limit the access of rival powers to its acquisitions. By the late 1800s all the weaker nations had been brought under the sway of the more powerful ones, and the 1900s ushered in a century of world wars and many local armed conflicts. The primary aim of this article is to describe the declining place of the once dominant United States on the ladder of imperial power, and secondly, to assess how we as internationalist workers should relate to this shift.
The rising imperialist powers of China and Russia, once the beacons of hope for an anti-imperialist world, are now themselves the main capitalist rivals of the US for power and resources. To discuss how and why this unfortunate transition occurred is not our purpose here but we do hope to clarify the futility of siding with or seeing hope in any of these swings in imperial power.
It is imperative to win workers away from the idea that nationalism, loyalty to their own ruling class, whether of an imperialist power or the weakest country, will be to their benefit. The indigenous capitalists of the colonized nations seek only to gain the patronage and riches of their imperial masters and are no allies of their exploited workers. Nor is the struggle against exploitation any more noble in poorer, weaker nations than in global powers, for all workers must partake in the fight to overthrow capitalism. To do this we must also prioritize the fight against racism, which has been used to dehumanize the workers of the nations that have been deliberately underdeveloped by the imperialists and to divide workers within the imperialist nations.
THE BIRTH OF THE AMERICAN IMPERIAL DREAM
The military and economic power of the US peaked in the decades after World War II, and is now on a steady, if lurching, decline. Before we begin to discuss the ongoing downslide of US empire and influence, it is helpful to return to the beginning of the story. The saga of American imperialism and racist exploitation began even before the US became an independent nation, but was still a settler-colonialist enterprise of the British Empire and was bent on controlling/exterminating the native population and expanding westward. As cotton cultivation and industrial production exploded, millions of men and women were kidnapped and imported from Africa to be enslaved. By the mid 1700s, the British, fearing slave rebellions and occupied with conflicts elsewhere, wished to curb westward settler migration and limit the slave trade. As a result, the colonies revolted against these constraints and won independence – all in the name of “freedom” and “equality,” while creating the first apartheid state.
The newly independent United States of America declared its ambition to control the entire continent and had eyes set on trade with the Orient (Asia) across the Pacific. Over the next half century, Louisiana was purchased from France in 1803, the Spanish were driven out of Florida by 1821, and the vast territory that became Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, California, and parts of Colorado and Wyoming was seized by war with Mexico in the 1830s-40s. The Monroe Doctrine of 1823 proclaimed the US domination of all of the Americas, in the effort to oust Spain and Portugal from their Central and South American colonies. Thereafter, the United States conducted military interventions in Panama, Argentina, Chile, Honduras, Nicaragua, Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. Many of these efforts were to protect the United Fruit Company, which had significant financial stakes in the production of bananas, tobacco, sugar cane, and various other products throughout the Caribbean, Central America, and northern South America.
All this preceded what is usually called the beginning of American imperialism, the Spanish American war of 1898. At that time, the US military seized Cuba from Spain, and forcibly took over Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Guam, and the Philippines. As Congressman William Alden Smith said in that year, “The United States is a great manufacturing nation [and] we must find new markets for our energy and enterprise.” In 1904 the US assured its total control of the Panama Canal in perpetuity, which was critically important to global trade and naval power, as it was the only passage in the Western Hemisphere between the Atlantic and Pacific Ocean other than around the southern tip of South America. As the American Empire grew by virtue of cruelty, injustice, exploitation, and genocide its workers and middle class were led to believe that their government was exporting liberty and enlightenment.
The United States was a late entrant into World War I in 1917, a war between the competing empires of England and France against those of Germany and Austria-Hungary. At the end of that war, the US demanded a partial stake in the oil of Iran, as France and England divvied up the Middle East between themselves. Between 1914 and 1918 the US also intervened in Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Haiti, Cuba, and Panama. In 1918, the US joined with at least 15 other nations to invade Russia in an unsuccessful attempt to overthrow the Bolshevik Revolution. During the 1920s, American companies set up shop in various foreign countries based on the available resources needed to produce their wares. American meat packers moved to Argentina; fruit growers established themselves in Costa Rica, Honduras, and Guatemala; sugar plantation owners went to Cuba; rubber plantation owners moved to the Philippines, Sumatra, and Malaya; copper corporations went to Chile; and oil companies went to Mexico and Venezuela.
By the end of World War II, when the former imperial nations of Europe lay in ruins, the US was the dominant global economic and military power, with its ruling class possessing one half of the entire wealth of the world and producing half of its manufactured goods. The America rulers saw themselves as destined to dominate the Grand Area of the Western Hemisphere – the former British Empire and the Far East – for purposes of control of resources, markets, much of cheap labor, and trade and to prevent what it misinterpreted as a similar desire of the USSR for world hegemony. As Assistant Secretary of State Dean Acheson said in 1944, “We cannot have full employment and prosperity …without the foreign markets.” Once the Soviet Union also gained atomic weapons by 1950, this need to dominate was expressed in increasingly strident and militaristic terms (National Security Council document 68).
Control of the world’s economy fell almost entirely into American hands. In 1944, at the Bretton Woods conference in New Hampshire, the US-empowered International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank (WB)were established and put in place a world currency system based on the dollar. The IMF was set up to make loans to countries to keep trade flowing, while the World Bank was to fund infrastructural projects such as dams, roads, and clean water systems. Western Europe was to be dominated by the US; British and French interests were to be pushed out of the Middle East; and control of Latin America would be absolute. George Kennan, a major State Department figure, advised that the US should “cease to talk about vague and unreal objectives such as human rights, the raising of the living standards, and democratization” and must “deal in straight power concepts.”
The Korean war of 1950-3 was the result of the post WWII division of the country into North and South after the defeat of the previous Japanese occupiers. The North was under a communist government and tied to the Soviet Union while the US-allied South was led by former collaborators with the Japanese imperialists who had invaded and murdered countless Koreans. The massive US military involvement began because the US mistakenly saw the North’s entries into the South as a Soviet-sponsored attempt to take over the peninsula and threaten Japan. The US rulers also underestimated the vigor with which the new red government of China would defend its borders and American racism caused a gross minimization of the Asian’s ability to fight. The result was a costly war which ended in an unstable truce which persists to the present.
All such Cold War conflicts became viewed as part of a global struggle against what the US rulers saw as monolithic communism. Aid to the French to maintain their colonies in Indochina and to the Philippine government to fight a peasant insurrection was increased. The success of the Chinese Communist revolution in 1949 led to US bases being established in Japan, Libya, Morocco, and Saudi Arabia and acceleration of the production of nuclear weapons, including the hydrogen bomb. 34% of the 1950 federal budget now went to military expenses.
During the 1950s, control of the world’s oil became the priority of the US rulers, though it had been of major import to many nations ever since oil fields were first discovered in the 1800s in the Caucasian region of what later became the Soviet Union. Indeed, the fight over Middle Eastern oil between Germany and Britain was the spark that ignited World War I, and all militaries have depended on it ever since.
In Iran, the US CIA deposed Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953 when he tried to nationalize oil production and put in his place the brutal and dictatorial pro-Western Shah. Eisenhower prevented Britain, France and Israel from capturing the Suez Canal in 1956, in an effort to build closer ties with Egypt. When this failed, an alliance with Saudi Arabia, which persists to this day, was cemented instead. By threatening overwhelming use of force, the US let the USSR know that it would be the primary power in the Middle East.
From 1954, the CIA orchestrated right wing movements in Latin America to halt the growth of left-leaning movements, such as that led by Arbenz in Guatemala. Unsuccessful in militarily toppling Cuba’s Castro in 1961, Kennedy did manage, through threats of a nuclear attack, to accomplish the removal of Soviet missiles from the island. The US supported a military coup in Brazil and invaded the Dominican Republic in 1964 against a left-wing uprising. In Africa, the US feared independence movements, and when diplomacy and foreign aid failed to win the day, force was used, as in the overthrow of Lumumba in the Congo by CIA led forces. As in the previous century, all of these enterprises were presented as exercises in exporting democracy and promoting international harmony, when the real point was to maintain stability for the local capitalists, whom they could control, and large US enterprises.
VIETNAM – THE FIRST CRACK IN THE FACADE
After World War II and the victory of the communist-led workers’ and peasants’ revolution in China, the US rulers feared the ability of the Chinese to inspire the working class of neighboring countries in Asia, even Japan, to overthrow their own local capitalist exploiters and oppressors. This would remove them from the potential and actual domination and exploitation by American and European imperialists. From the point of view of the US rulers this would be a disaster, one that they termed the “domino theory,” with one domino after another “falling” (out of their reach).
In a concerted effort to prevent this dreaded series of events, the US imperialists began by backing the French occupation of Vietnam – part of so-called French Indochina. By 1954, the US was paying 80% of the French bill, but nonetheless, the French military was defeated in 1954 and forced to withdraw. President Eisenhower ordered the prevention of a scheduled free election in Vietnam, in which it was fully expected that the communist leader Ho Chi Minh would garner some 80% of the vote. The US government instead divided the country in two portions, North and South, and set up a puppet regime in the South.
In 1961, President Kennedy began sending in troops to occupy the South Vietnam. The war continued for twelve more years, ended in a military and political defeat for the US and brought to a close the post-WWII era of unchallenged American military power. The dedication of the North Vietnamese population to what was really left wing nationalism, combined with the widespread anti-war sentiment of both the American public and a large number of US soldiers – who began to turn their guns on their own officers (mutiny) – forced the capitulation of the once unstoppable US military. However, in one sense it was not a defeat. Due to the collapse of communism in China, the unified Vietnamese nation has developed a capitalist economy ever more friendly to the US.
Never again would US imperialism engage in a long-term all out ground war, as waged in Vietnam and Korea. The current US war in Afghanistan, now dragging out for fifteen years, has been a halfhearted attempt to win on the cheap. The “Vietnam syndrome”, the resistance of American civilians and soldiers to the draft and to mass casualties, led to a new era. US capitalists would now try to protect their interests through CIA operatives, air power, special operations troops, and reliance on native combatants.
TWO DECADES OF INTENSE COMPETITION
By the 1970s, the US imperialists were no longer so far ahead of other global powers, but were no less determined to control access to resources, markets, and overworked and underpaid workers. Europe, Japan, and the USSR had largely recovered from the damage of WWII, and the Soviets had a comparable nuclear arsenal. Increased competition for markets from rival capitalists produced the first US trade and balance of payments deficits since 1945. European banks, holding large amounts of excess dollars, demanded payment in gold. President Nixon, afraid of a huge capital drain, responded by going off the gold standard, making the dollar just another commodity on the world market. American capitalists, afraid of their potential losses, initiated an era of deregulation and government subsidies at home, causing massive service cutbacks. However, the US share of world manufacturing and the power of its financial institutions began a fall that would not be reversed. In the past 40 years the dollar has fallen in value by more than 70% against the euro, the former German mark, and the Japanese yen. The US had a modest net export surplus in 1971 before Nixon started the dollar on its downward path. Despite the cheaper dollar, which should have encouraged purchases abroad of US-made products and improved the US balance of trade, today there is a $502 billion annual trade deficit.
As Nixon was looking for a way out of the Vietnam War, he built ties with China, which had become independent of the Soviet Union, and he even visited there in 1972. He also signed the first arms control and trade agreements with the USSR. Despite Nixon’s overtures to the “communist” (no longer revolutionary and now state capitalist) world, in Latin American left wing governments were not to be tolerated. In 1973 the US engineered the overthrow and assassination of the elected socialist president of Chile, Salvador Allende, putting in his place the murderous military junta under Agosto Pinochet.
In other areas, the US was losing its absolute power to control events. In 1973 Israel was attacked by Egypt and Syria, backed by the Soviet Union, in an attempt to win back the territory lost in 1967. Israel was able to win only with a massive US arms airlift, but a price was to be paid. The other Arab countries of OPEC, led by Saudi Arabia, began a reduction in oil output, enforced an embargo on shipments to the friends of Israel, and raised their prices. The US rulers were unable to make them back down, and the rise in prices helped create an inflationary economic crisis, just as the US had become dependent on foreign oil for almost half of its rapidly rising energy consumption
The overthrow of the Shah of Iran and the invasion of Afghanistan by the USSR in 1979 caused a serious blow to US influence in Asia and the Near East, causing President Carter to utter his famous doctrine : ”An attempt by any outside force to gain control of the Persian Gulf region will be regarded as an assault on the vital interests of the USA …and will be repelled by any means necessary.” All imperialists regard control over the rest of the world to be in their “vital interests” – a setup for endless inter-imperialist wars, both widespread and local.
The Soviet Union, by then another center of imperialism, was also funding leftist groups in Somalia, Sudan and Ethiopia. And Cuba, with Soviet support, was aiding leftists in Nicaragua and El Salvador. By this time, “leftist” or “left-leaning” only referred to groups with the goal of some socialist reforms but not of working-class rule. Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Sunnis were funding Islamic fundamentalists in the Middle East and Asia, including some groups, like Al Qaeda and the Taliban, that had been set up by the US rulers to oppose the Russians in Afghanistan. Under President Reagan, elected in 1980, the US again built up its military, directly opposing leftist movements in El Salvador and Nicaragua and intervening in the Lebanese civil war. Other US-sponsored wars to overthrow left-leaning governments took place in Africa, including the Congo, Ghana, Namibia, and Mozambique, as well as in Indonesia, Chile, and tiny Grenada.
Symptomatic of US rulers’ loss of economic dominance, by 1980 the US GDP per person had slipped from first to eleventh place, behind many large and small European countries.
THE SOVIET UNION IMPLODES
The next profound change in international relations came because of internal developments in the USSR, as Gorbachev ascended to power and capitalism was openly embraced, with little remaining attempt to hide it behind the mask of “communism.” Soviet troops were withdrawn from Afghanistan, the Berlin Wall came down, and the Soviet republics became independent of each other. The change however, came from internal weaknesses and conflicts in the Soviet system, not because of any US victory, despite Reagan’s claim of credit. But the US Government, along with the IMF and the World Bank, declared capitalism to be triumphant and encouraged worldwide privatization of state enterprises, fiscal austerity, and decreased trade barriers.
Attempting to reassert US military power, President Bush Sr. invaded Panama in 1989. Next he encouraged Iraq to send its troops into Kuwait to prevent Kuwait’s drainage of an underground oil field that spanned their mutual border, and using this incursion as a pretext, Bush invaded Iraq “to save US allies throughout the region.” The underlying reason for this Gulf War I charade was to assert US control over Iraqi oil, with the world’s second biggest known reserves at that time.
Yugoslavia, previously in the Soviet sphere of influence, underwent a violent breakup into ethnic statelets from 1992-5. This was partly caused by economic hardship brought on by austerity policies and decreased Western aid. The Kosovo region of Serbia was the scene of a second local war in 1999. Ethnic Albanians were being attacked, which gave President Clinton the excuse for another military intervention, this time under the auspices of US-led NATO. While killing thousands of civilians in the name of “humanitarianism,” the war served as an excuse for a $13 billion increase in US military spending, building the largest US army base in the Balkan area and a new NATO policy allowing military action anywhere on the broad periphery of NATO’s realm, such as North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. The US was now not only asserting its might ever closer to Russia’s border, but was setting the stage for its upcoming wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. President Bush Sr’s “New World Order” asserted that the US could use its overwhelming military power to achieve its aims anywhere, an extension of the Monroe and Carter Doctrines.
While claiming that US interventions in Kosovo and elsewhere were for humanitarian reasons, as always, the hypocrisy in this claim is underscored by the absence of US intervention in Rwanda, among many other places, the scene of massive ethnic genocide in 1994, but where no strategic interests were at stake at the time. Whenever the US rulers do see strategic interests, they have their government provide military, economic, and diplomatic support, as with Indonesia’s slaughter of hundreds of thousands of East Timorese in 1975, and with Guatemalan dictator Rios Montt’s slaughter of many tens of thousands of indigenous people in 1999 – only two of countless examples.
Although President Clinton made some cuts in military spending, in 2001 the US still accounted for 37% of all worldwide military expenditures (with only 5% of the world’s population). NATO, supposedly created to fight the USSR, continued to exist and expand eastward. It opened new markets for US weapons and exports. “Free trade,” which greatly advantages the rich, industrialized nations, was one of Clinton’s major priorities. His administration created NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and the WTO (World Trade Organization), as the IMF and WB continued to pressure countries to decrease government services to their working-class populations, divest publicly owned enterprises in favor of private ownership, and emphasize free markets, all for the benefit of imperialist investment profits.
OIL DILEMMAS MOUNT and 9/11 PROVIDES THE EXCUSE FOR WIDER WARS
Even though the US never got the majority of its oil from the Middle East, it had long sought to control the flow of oil to the world as a way to maintain global dominance. In1992 the US led an unsuccessful intervention in Somalia which was, as usual, billed as a humanitarian venture to fight famine, but was in reality a push to gain a foothold in the Horn of Africa. Somalia not only lies next to the strait providing access to the Red Sea, through which millions of gallons of oil pass each day, but was found to contain huge deposits of oil and gas, two thirds of which had been allocated to three American oil firms. Somali resistance to American intervention was unexpectedly intense, and the US was forced to withdraw.
Like the British before it, the US imperialists had tried to keep Iraqi oil off the world market for their own use and profit, and sanctions after the Gulf War of 1991 had accomplished just that. However, by the late nineties, France, Russia, China, and others had made deals to develop Iraqi oil, and Saddam Hussein was threatening to demand payment in euros instead of dollars, which would have destabilized the price of oil to the US. This was on top of an already falling American economic position, the US share of world manufacturing having fallen from 60% in 1950 to 25% in 1999.
Unable to garner public support to wage war for oil, the 9/11 attack in 2001 was a boon to the US ruling class. As discussed in the bipartisan Hart-Rudman Commission Report of 1999, the government expected to be the target of some kind of terrorist action, which they predicted would mobilize patriotism in the manner of Pearl Harbor and overcome the post-Vietnam aversion to foreign wars once and for all.
“[T]he United States should assume that it will be a target of terrorist attacks against its homeland….Americans will likely die on American soil, possibly in large numbers….If the stakes rise in such a fashion, one thing is likely to become vividly clear: The American people will be ready to sacrifice blood and treasure, and come together to do so, if they believe that fundamental interests are imperiled.”
US rulers did not expect that the attack would be so huge, skilled, or successful, but it was valuable for their aims nonetheless. Nor did they predict that it would be planned and executed by the very terrorists, Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda, that the CIA had greatly strengthened to fight the Russians in Afghanistan. Now the Pentagon could invade Afghanistan, the site of important pipelines, and Iraq, even though it had nothing to do with 9/11, to remove the Taliban and Saddam Hussein, and install friendly governments. Thinking that a massive bombing of Baghdad would do the trick and that Iraqis would rise up to welcome the US military, President Bush Jr ludicrously declared victory after the initial assault. Unfortunately for US rulers, more and more Iraqis rebelled against the murderous and incompetent American occupation, and, undeceived by Bush’s “Operation Iraqi Freedom” (which would have been more appropriately named OIL, Oil of Iraq Liberation), public opposition to the war also grew at home. As of 2016, these two wars had cost $4.7 trillion dollars, about 10,000 US military casualties, and well over 500,000 deaths of Iraqis and Afghans, 70% of them civilian.
Once looked upon as a way to gain American dominance over the second biggest oil producer in the world, the Iraq war did not turn out that way. For many years oil production fell precipitously. It is now rebounding, but China is now importing more Iraqi oil than the US. Iraq is now China’s 3rd biggest supplier, after Russia and Saudi Arabia. Even Iran is now importing Iraqi oil (http://wognews.net). Construction of the TAPI (Turkmenistan-Afghanistan-Pakistan-India) natural gas pipeline, that was the real impetus behind Bush’s Afghanistan invasion, was finally begun in 2015 in Turkmenistan. But who will benefit remains in doubt as Afghanistan is still in a state of turmoil seventeen years later, US relations with Pakistan are frayed, and India vacillates in its allegiances between the US and China. As American troops in Afghanistan have been gradually withdrawn, China’s capitalist rulers have increased their manpower and investments there. They are eager for its massive mineral deposits and access to Central Asian markets, all part of their One Belt, One Road expansion policy, designed to connect china to Central Asia, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Europe through enormous infrastructure projects.
Meanwhile, the US rulers imposed sanctions on Iran for the 1979 overthrow of their ally the Shah and for Iran’s support of “terrorists,” – i.e., forces opposing the US and Israel in Lebanon and Syria. In 2006 the UN increased these sanctions due to the growth of Iranian nuclear capabilities, all of which restricted the sale of Iranian oil to Europe. Sanctions against Russia and the US military assassination of Prime Minister Qaddafi and destruction of oil-rich Libya worsened this European oil deficit, and Russia began mainly selling energy resources to China. Pressure on President Obama to ease the European shortages led to the Iran deal, unpopular with many at home and with the allied Israeli and Saudi Arabian rulers.(https://www.counterpunch.org/2017/01/27/trump-and-the-decline-of-american-unipolarity/)
For the last two years the role of the US in the world oil market has drastically changed, with the US now producing enough shale oil to become one of the world’s largest exporters of oil and natural gas. OPEC is no longer the dominant energy producer and has lost its ability to control prices (NYT 1/29/18). However, there is uncertainty over how long shale supremacy will last, with some experts saying productivity has already been maximized. Trump is also trying to massively increase fracking, following in Obama’s footsteps, and offshore oil drilling. Both these trends are sure to accelerate fossil-fuel-caused climate change by decreasing the economic urgency of increasing alternative energy use.
A WIDESPREAD MILITARY WITH LIMITED POWER
As Clinton’s Secretary of State Madeline Albright said, ”What’s the point of having this wonderful military if you don’t use it?” The US military budget for 2017-8 is $824.6 billion, larger than the next nine countries combined and accounting for 54% of discretionary federal spending. And Trump wants to increase it even more. All this for military exercises that are failing to guarantee the influence or economic dominance of the US around the world.
Despite the fact that the US now has over 1000 military installations (https://dra.american.edu/islandora/object/auislandora%3A55685), in over 100 countries, has deployed Special Forces to 149 countries and has over 4000 bases at home, armed might is not increasing American influence around the world. The most devastating looming defeat is in Syria. There the US rulers supported uprisings against President Assad in 2011 because he failed to support their favored Qatar-EU pipeline and instead supported one favored by the Russian oligarchs. For the last several years, Assad, backed by the rulers of Russia and Iran, has come closer to victory, at the expense of nearly half a million Syrian workers’ lives, and Putin has succeeded in maintaining Russia’s only Mediterranean port, on Syria’s coast in Tartus.
Turkey, once a backbone of NATO and crucially located between Russia and Western Europe, is now buying a Russian weapons-missile defense system, allowing Al Qaeda and other US opponents to ship weapons to Syria, and threatening to oust US planes from the military base at Incirlik. Under Trump, the US is now making an increased commitment to The Syrian Democratic Forces, a Kurdish-led group in northern Syria, that Turkey sees as a serious threat and that has already entered Syria to attack (NYT 1/22/18).
US-dominated NATO has also been checkmated in its attempt to encroach upon Russia’s sphere of influence in Ukraine. Although US money and influence manufactured the electoral overthrow of the Russia-friendly regime in 2014 (a common US ploy that exposes the hypocrisy of the charge that the Russian government interfered in the election of Trump), the Russian rulers were able to recapture the eastern region of Crimea militarily. Without it, Russia would have lost access to the Black Sea ports, a vital opening to sea trade, which was what the US government had hoped for. The new US-friendly Ukrainian regime is led by the direct political descendants of the World War II Ukrainian fascists, who were allies of the Nazis and participated in their genocidal murder of Jews and communists.
In Yemen, potentially a rich source of oil and strategically located across from Somalia in the Horn of Africa, the US-allied President was overthrown in 2014. The US and the UK are now supporting Saudi Arabia, which is bombing the country into a state of massive humanitarian disaster in a bid to control this nation on its southern border and prevent its coming under the wing of Iran. Nonetheless, the capital, Sanaa, remains in the hands of the Iran-friendly Shia Houthis, and the south is a stronghold of ISIS Islamic militants.
All Middle Eastern terrorist organizations, as murderous and anti-working class as they are, are responses to the inter-imperialist rivalries that have caused wanton destruction and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of workers. Thus such murderous thugs, with capitalist designs of their own, are able to attract impoverished workers and win them to carry out terrorist atrocities. It is important to recognize the similarity between imperialist war and terrorism. As one wag Imperialist put it, “Terrorism is poor persons’ war, while war is rich persons’ terrorism.”
In 2007, the US military established AFRICOM, to coordinate military efforts in Africa. The first military venture was the disastrous coup in Libya in 2011. The US rulers overthrew and assassinated Qaddafi, as he was threatening to sell oil to China and move away from the dollar, leaving a failed chaotic state in its wake, without any lasting advantage to the West. In order to garner popular support for ventures intended to benefit only the US imperialist rulers, the mostly hidden US wars in Africa are fought in the name of “counter-terrorism.” There are now 46 military installations that conduct 3,500 exercises and military engagements throughout Africa per year, an average of 10 per day. US Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, made an ominous declaration to a Senate committee: these numbers are likely to increase as the US is expanding its military activities in Africa. Mattis’ justification of the operation as defense against terrorism has served as a pretense for the US to intervene in, and exploit, a massive region with great economic potential. (https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/01/11/shadow-armies-the-unseen-but-real-us-war-in-africa/). According to AFRICOM’s 2017 statement, the largest base, in Djibouti, “is essential to U.S. efforts in East Africa and the Arabian Peninsula” and supports “U.S operations in Somalia CT [counterterrorism], Yemen CT, Gulf of Aden (counter-piracy), and a wide range of Security Assistance activities and programs throughout the region.” (http://www.tomdispatch.com/post/176272/tomgram%3A_nick_turse%2C_the_u.s._military_moves_deeper_into_africa/) Of course, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen are important sources of oil, not just terrorists.
A map of U.S. military bases — forward operating sites, cooperative security locations, and contingency locations — across the African continent in 2014 from declassified AFRICOM planning documents (Nick Turse/TomDispatch).
According to the Associated Press, “In the last few years, the U.S. has been ramping up its military operations throughout Latin America in the most expensive initiative there since the Cold War.” US troops have been involved in the attempted coup against Chavez in 2002, the 2009 coup in Honduras, and in Peru, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, and Columbia (http://www.coha.org/u-s-military-presence-in-latin-america-increasing/). Although advertised as counter-terrorism or interference with drug trafficking, all military ventures are located in areas of oil or water reserves or in countries with left-leaning governments.
THE MILITARY COMPETITION
The Chinese rulers’ military budget grew an average of 8.5% a year from 2007-2016 and shows no sign of declining, although it is only one fourth that of the US. China is not only now a major exporter of arms around the world, but is surpassing the US in defense technology, research, and education. China, with four times the US population, has 2.3 million active duty soldiers, compared to 1.4 million in the US. It has a navy and air force that are not only growing but are new and modern and equipped with missiles more advanced than the US’s (http://www.businessinsider.com/chinese-military-compared-to-us-2016-3/#chinas-air-force-8). Last year China completed its first overseas military base, a naval installation in Djibouti, just four miles from the hub of AFRICOM (https://www.military.com/defensetech/2017/03/13/chinas-first-overseas-military-base-nearing-completion). In the realm of cyber warfare, China has made staggering progress in the last two years. Its Strategic Support Force (SSF) is now overtaking the US in hacking, espionage, and the ability to disable the American military machine (https://www.cyberscoop.com/china-ssf-cyber-command-strategic-support-force-pla-nsa-dod/). In a more conventional military vein, China’s rulers are aggressively asserting dominance over the South China Sea, through which more than $5 trillion of trade passes every year and under which lie oil and minerals. The capitalists of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, and Taiwan all have rival claims, but China’s rulers did not flinch as the US sent two carrier groups to the region in 2014. It is important to realize that China’s rulers, for the time being, are gaining power not by militarily invading other countries, but rather by diplomacy and economic investment. The use of their military is for now held in reserve, until needed.
For the last 5 years, Russia’s rulers have also been committed to a huge military buildup, with increases in defense spending planned for each year through 2020. In addition to the 2009 war in Georgia, they have resumed bomber and naval patrols in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Like the US imperialists, those of Russia face the problem of recruiting a large enough army or keeping up with the technological prowess of the Chinese (http://nationalinterest.org/commentary/russias-military-back-9181). The Soviet military is also rushing to build air and radar bases on remote Arctic islands as it pushes ahead with a claim to almost half a million square miles of the Arctic, now estimated to hold about 22 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and gas (https://www.zerohedge.com/news/2017-01-30/russia-launches-biggest-arctic-military-expansion-fall-ussr). The Russian government is also engaging militarily with Africa, as well as economically, with large number of arms exports. Sudan’s President Omar al-Bashir recently visited Putin to request protection from US aggression. Most important for the US imperialists, Putin is supporting Assad in Syria, which appears to be leading towards a victory empowering them and their ally Iran.
The growing military and economic might of Russia and China has led Defense Secretary Mattis to switch the emphasis of the US military from fighting terrorism to preparing for conflict with Russia and/or China (NYT 1/19/18).
THE US IS IN ABSOLUTE and RELATIVE ECONOMIC DECLINE
By 2016, the US share of world production had fallen to 16%, from 22% in 1991 and about 50% after WW2. China surpassed the US in that same year with 18% of world production. The IMF predicts that by 2021, the US will fall to 15% and China rise to 20%. Nonetheless, the US persists on a path of massive military spending, recently increased by President Trump, in a doomed attempt to maintain world hegemony and adding further downward pressure on economic production and government services.
In the 1990’s, the BRICS powers – Brazil, India, South Africa and China – began to assert their own interests and to challenge the US and European capitalists for the right to set trade rules and to claim territorial sovereignty over parts of the world far from their own boundaries. But most importantly, China is in the process of building a whole new monetary system to replace the US and the dollar as the arbiters of the world economy. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, joined by 57 countries, is taking on the US in trade, investment, and industrial development, primarily in Asia, but even in Europe and South America. The Chinese renminbi was actually anointed as a global reserve currency in 2015, putting it in an elite category with the dollar, the euro, the pound and the yen. China’s state-owned development bank has surpassed the World Bank in international lending. (https://www.counterpunch.org/2015/12/07/evolving-geopolitical-economic-framework-us-vs-china/).
At the heart of China’s $8 trillion One Belt, One Road (OBOR) strategy lies the creation of an economic land corridor that includes countries on the original Silk Road through Central Asia, West Asia, the Middle East, and Europe, as well as a maritime road that links China’s port facilities with the African coast, extending up through the Suez Canal into the Mediterranean. The project aims to redirect the country’s domestic overcapacity and capital for regional infrastructure development to improve trade and relations within East Asian, Central Asian, and European countries. China’s ultimate goal is to extend the initiative to Africa and Latin America.
Since 2000, China has emerged as Africa’s largest trading partner and a major source of investment and infrastructure finance as well, building strategic deep-water ports and railway networks. Their investment in such huge infrastructure projects is in exchange for access to raw materials. One example is the $6 billion deal recently negotiated with the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The Chinese government will build new roads, railway lines, hospitals, and schools and in return have access to one of the world’s largest deposits of copper and cobalt for the next 20 years. China’s capitalists control 80% of Sudan’s oil, and have invested billions of dollars in the country’s infrastructure. This led the US imperialists to foster rebellions in the south, resulting in widespread death and famine, but little advantage to themselves.
Another region China is entering is South America, where the US has traditionally held exclusive sway. At one time they supported only the left-leaning governments in Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, and Ecuador, but now that Venezuela is nearly bankrupt and other leftist regimes removed, China is allying with business-friendly governments. There are free trade agreements with Chile, Peru, and Costa Rica, arms sales, satellite tracking stations, and exports of copper, iron, and oil (https://www.economist.com/news/americas/21710307-chinas-president-ventures-donald-trumps-backyard-golden-opportunity
Lest there be any doubt that China’s rulers motives are not imperialist but are to improve the lives of the workers of the world, one need only examine their actions in Myanmar. This huge country contiguous to China is desired as a source of energy and access to the Indian ocean. The giant Shwe oil and gas pipeline and a crude oil pipeline from the Middle East and Africa are open or under construction to bring energy to southwest China. Also planned were large hydroelectric dams in the north and a copper mine, which would have displaced thousands of people but were stopped due to massive protests. (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/daniel-wagner/the-impact-of-energy-of-c_b_7061318.html). Not so fortunate are the Rohingya Mulsim minority on the coast where the Chinese wish to build a port and a huge industrial park. The whipping up of religious prejudice has allowed the cruel expulsion, rape or murder of most of the population in order to make way for these Chinese-funded projects. (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/rohingya-land-grab-military_us_59b96400e4b02da0e13e79f4).
The Russian economy had been doing poorly for the last few years due to sanctions and low oil prices, but rising oil prices and increased consumer demand have led to a predicted 3% growth this year. (NYT, 1/18/18). The Russian government is also counterbalancing the NATO push for influence on its border by making large deals in Eastern Europe, such as a $12.2 billion nuclear reactor in Hungary and heavy investments in Bulgaria. (http://www.newsweek.com/vladimir-putin-russia-white-house-eastern-europe-foreign-policy-bulgaria-509478). Ties with Iran are also increasing. In addition to the alliance with Syria’s President Assad, the Russian government is currently helping build two new nuclear reactors on the Iranian gulf coast and is providing an anti-aircraft system. Thus both the US and Iranian rulers may be losing some of their great influence in the Middle East to Russia’s oligarchs, though the Soviets/Russians had not been active there for 50 years ( https://theconversation.com/russia-and-irans-growing-cooperation-hints-at-a-new-middle-east-75181).
The US, meanwhile, ranks fourth in the world among advanced industrial nations for economic inequality, with 1% of the population having as much wealth as the other 99%. Mass incarceration, rampant racism, the worst health and health care in the industrialized world, and high poverty and low wages led to the election of Trump. When his inept anti-working class administration fails to solve any of these problems (though no capitalist government could), worsening conditions will lead to mass discontent, if not rebellion.
HOW WILL THE LOSS OF AMERICAN DOMINANCE UNFOLD?
There is no shortage of scenarios put forward by a variety of pundits of how the US decline relative to China will go down, and most see the axes of power and wealth crossing by 2030. Historian and journalist Alfred McCoy, in his book In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, sees the strain of ties with military allies such as Turkey, the Philippines, Pakistan, and Arab regimes, and the loss of confidence from Germany and South Korea, as critical, along with the rise of China and the growing educational gap between China and the US. Possible scenarios he discusses include
- Economic pressures forcing the US to pull back from overseas military commitments and causing rising clashes at home;
- Iran and Russia coming to control half of the world’s natural gas and China and others outpacing the US in alternative energies;
- The US navy being unable to control oil in the Persian Gulf after Iran, China, Saudi Arabia, and others form a new Persian Gulf Alliance and oil prices soar;
- China attains victory by disrupting the American military machine with cyberwarfare; or
- Actual large scale military conflict breaks out.
In All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power, by Thomas J. Wright of the Brookings Institution, a more gradual relative decline of US might is seen, with a retreat to becoming a regional power only in the Americas. According to economist Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University, the US will bankrupt itself if it continues over-investment in a bloated military and invites an arms race with China (Boston Globe,10/30/16).
We do not know which, if any, of these scenarios will actually unfold, but we do agree that militarily, economically, and technologically US imperialism is in a declining position versus that of China, faces increased threats from Russia’s imperialists. We can be sure that the US government will continue to use its military might in ongoing smaller wars, already having upped the commitments in Afghanistan, Syria, and Somalia. Furthermore, it is likely to end up sooner or later in major direct conflict with China or Russia, or even possibly with smaller nations such as Iran. A major problem for the US ruling class, and possibly for those of other nations, is that the millions of workers required by the military to carry out these wars may be unwilling to do so. There is also no way to know whether, when pushed to the wall, the US government might resort to nuclear weapons, possibly on a first strike basis. All of this may occur before climate change has destroyed much of the planet.
For the workers of the world there is no side to root for in this battle between capitalist/imperialist empires. The challenge is to build common cause among workers throughout the world, and to fight the ideas that allow workers to be fooled into supporting their local ruling classes. Paramount among these deceptive ideas is racism. In the US, Trump openly calls Africa and Haiti “shitholes” and supports white supremacists, while various East and West European leaders, in imitation of the world’s most vicious and determined racists of the US ruling class, build nationalist anti-immigrant racism. All capitalist nations, big and small, build nationalism to preach loyalty to their own ruling class. Internally, racism of various sorts is used to divide workers and diminish the class war against exploitation, deprivation, and oppression. Only by building a strong multiracial international movement will we be able to win millions and millions to understand that capitalism makes inter-imperialist war – and the deaths of millions and/or destruction of the planet – inevitable.
Our task is to unite in struggle for a worker-run egaliltarian world before that happens. It will probably be the specter of war and economic chaos that builds mass rebellion, and our job is to become ready to lead that movement towards eradicating this capitalist system, once and for all, around the world.