Building a World Empire

01 May 2006
Achin Vanaik

Building a World Empire
Achin Vanaik
The Hindu, 16 January 2002

This article was published in two parts in The Hindu, on 14 and 16 January 2002

The US has killed civilians and soldiers in Afghanistan in their thousands although none were responsible for the September 11 events. It has bombed one of the poorest countries in the world with some of the most indiscriminate weapons short of nuclear arms like daisy cutters and cluster bombs. It has caused hundreds of thousands of people if not over a million to become refugees. It has helped replace one unlamented and ruthless regime with another lamentable and ruthless one. The nature and composition of the interim government has been decided behind the scenes by the US and not by the UN, which has simply been suborned to play whatever role (it may or may not raise some of kind of multinational force) the US assigns to it. Yet there are still so many in India and elsewhere who, even after all reservations, qualifications and fears are expressed, would justify all this by claiming that the US war on Afghanistan was a 'just war'! We need to begin therefore by nailing this deceit.

Washington cited Article 51 of the UN Charter to invoke the right of self-defence to wage its supposedly just war but never followed through on this since that would require Security Council clearance before any military action, regular reporting, etc., which the US government had no time for whatsoever. Even in self-defence, Article 51 does not allow a state to wage war on an individual or group like Bin Laden or Al Qaeda but only on other states whose official forces have attacked across one's borders. The US assault on Afghanistan therefore, had no warrant in international law. But most supporters of the US action took the view that given the scale of the September 11 attacks, Washington was correct in designating them an act of war and therefore in going ahead with its assault on Afghanistan on the grounds that it had itself announced within twenty four hours of that Sept. 11, namely that the US government would make no distinction between the country that harboured the presumed culprits and the culprits themselves.

In the face of the numerous post facto justifications that are now being given, such as the welcome fall of the Taliban, the cornering of Bin Laden and the destruction of the Al Qaeda cells in Afghanistan, it may take time to gather the full measure of what the US has been able to get away with. But the enormous global implications of this remarkable deception will soon enough sink in. It should be noted that the US government never submitted to the international public its full evidence regarding the accused culprits - a cell or cells of the Al Qaeda network. This was for two main reasons. First, to have done so before launching the war would have pushed the public discourse onto the terrain of assessing the quality of evidence so submitted before undertaking military action. To what extent was Bin Laden directly culpable or merely an inspirational figure for the perpetrators? Was the Taliban regime merely harbouring the culprits or was it actually colluding with them in carrying out those assaults? Second, to have gone in this direction, would have set extremely uncomfortable precedents that would have greatly restrained the US government's freedom of action to tackle "global terrorism" in the future, and therefore had to be avoided at all costs.

Herein lies the crucial point that most defenders of the US's 'just war' on Afghanistan have completely missed. The US government did not try to make out a case for why its war on Afghanistan was a just one, according to Article 51, or why it had to wage a war of self-defence against it. That kind of special pleading was left to the sympathetic intelligentsia, from strategic experts to media pundits to make, whether in the US, Western Europe or anywhere else, including India. Within twenty-four hours of September 11, the US government immediately declared a war, not on Afghanistan, but on "global terrorism". Similarly, it invoked not a specific right of self-defence against the culprits of the Sept. 11 attacks and the country that might be harbouring them, but a more general right of self-defence to conduct a much wider "war on global terrorism" for which it immediately declared an "eight to ten year programme". In short, it quickly seized the opportunity provided by those events to justify a war (in self-defence, no less) that would, in principle, brook no restraints of geography, weapons, forms, targets, scale or time other than those decided by the US itself.

It is this general right to wage a war on global terrorism that the US has claimed is a just war. It is because this war is supposed to be just, that the war on Afghanistan becomes automatically a just one for Washington. Thus the US has reserved the right to use all economic, cultural, diplomatic and military mechanisms to conduct this war against whomsoever it deems a danger. Being a war, it does not have to wait for some terrorist action to take place against it before retaliating, but as in all wars, can carry out surprise, pre-emptive, and repeated, attacks against any designated 'enemy'. Being a global war, the US can, in its self-defence, target any entity anywhere - individual, group or country - for assault, especially since no distinction is to be drawn between suspected culprits and countries deemed to harbour them. Being a 'just war', such arrogation of authority and power to itself to do whatever it sees fit should be considered entirely legitimate in the court of world opinion.

What is extraordinary is not that the US, itself responsible for innumerable terrorist crimes the world over (for which it remains unpunished and unrepentant), should seek to selectively define on a global scale who the terrorists are, and what terrorism is. Nor that this rogue state par excellence (which has the worst record of flouting all global norms and laws) should once again defy all international laws in constructing and demanding the right to carry out such a project. But that this planned project has met with so little resistance or criticism from elites and governments that are instead all too desperate to keep on the good side of the US. Those who have fallen over themselves to find rationalizations for why the US was right to do what it did in Afghanistan, have only helped to strengthen the ongoing American drive to establish a global domination, the likes of which have never been seen before.

Once the obfuscation provided by the label "a just war" is removed, then the real character of the US's assault on Afghanistan becomes crystal clear. It has been a response to one kind of terrorism with another kind! This has been the US's 'terrorist war of revenge and imperial expansion'. The US government in its foreign policy behaviour has never given serious weight to public opinion in other countries. This has always been a minor and secondary consideration. But pernicious behaviour abroad by the American state has always co-existed with a vibrant internal democracy. Moulding internal public opinion to go along with, and even better, strongly endorse, foreign policy ambitions has always been a major concern of the US 'security establishment'. The most important long-term political-ideological gain from the September 11 events and their aftermath has been the ability of this establishment to bring about a new domestic legitimization for carrying on its project of steady imperial expansion in the guise of combating global terrorism in the name of self-defence.

One has to admire the speed and skill with which the new code words to rationalize this larger project were put in place - self-defence, global terrorism, just war, international campaign, etc. One would also have to be astonished at how unwilling or unable elites and states elsewhere have been to understand, let alone criticize, the US's larger game plan were it not for the realization that such elites and states are easily blinded from recognizing this reality by virtue of their obsessive narrow preoccupations with the pursuit of 'national interests'. For, if the overpowering impulse of American pursuit of national interest today is world domination, the overpowering impulse of national interest 'guardians' elsewhere is accommodation to American power on the best terms available. We need to grasp fully the scale and depth of this American power today.

In the 120 years preceding the end of the Cold War there was never the kind of domination exercised over the system of nation-states that the US exercises today. From 1870 to the First World War when Britain was the dominant imperial power, there was a growing challenge from the rising powers, US and Germany. Between the two World Wars a declining Britain and France were being challenged by the US, Germany, Japan and the USSR. After 1945, US dominance was being challenged politically-strategically-militarily by the Soviet Union with Germany and Japan gaining ground economically. The end of the Cold War and the collapse of the former USSR catapulted the US to a previously unachieved level of dominance for any single country within the nation-states system. Once the initial period of uncertainty about what to do in the post-Cold War was overcome, and those voices which had argued for establishing new, more cooperative forms of security arrangements with other countries (including former opponents) were stilled, there emerged a consensus within the American security establishment that the US must consolidate and expand the unexpected and sudden hegemony that the end of the Cold War had delivered to it. Differences arise now only with respect to tactics about how this should be pursued, not in respect to the strategic goal or direction itself.

The key to understanding American foreign policy perspectives has always been provided, for the overwhelming part by its hard right thinkers-strategists, not by its liberals whose main function has been to establish the limits of acceptable dissent. Today, what are the areas of American dominance, not merely influence? These are North America, Australasia, Western Europe, the Middle East and East Asia barring China. Thus the crucial Eurasian zone of the globe is flanked at both ends (east and west) by a set of American dominated and controlled alliances, with US strategic dominance at its crucial oil-rich middle as well. Sub-Saharan Africa is geo-strategically irrelevant so humanitarian tragedies (Rwanda) can simply be ignored. But in the Balkans where the stakes after the end of the Cold War were whether NATO would remain the security anchor for Europe, or whether Russia and Germany would now come into their own, humanitarian principles were invoked to justify American military interventions whose deeper purpose was to overcome Russian and German challenges to its wider geo-political ambitions and arrangements. Elsewhere, in this critical Eurasian zone the US has unashamedly protected allied regimes guilty of great terrorist brutalities like Israel, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Indonesia.

Zbigniew Brzezinski with characteristic bluntness has divided today's world of unique American hegemony into "vassals" (all of Western Europe and Japan), "tributaries" (most of the rest), and those who by virtue of capabilities or inclinations must be more carefully watched as potential challengers. These are Russia, China and Iran, but not India whose elite is thoroughly Americanized and where the NRI factor provides additional powerful glue for ensuring that it becomes a strong "tributary" with ambitions, however, to achieving "vassal" status. All four of them (including Russia and China) in any case will, for a long time to come, prioritize their separate individual relations with the US over their respective relations with each other. On the nuclear front, the ABM Treaty has been scuppered, with the US giving six months notice that it is walking out of it. The stakes the US is playing for in pursuing the BMD and associated TMD systems are very high and obvious - dominance of space and the replacement of nuclear parity with unilateral nuclear dominance. The Russians know this but are caught in a bind. They have decided to buy time and get whatever they can through soft-pedalling their opposition to the NMD rather than risk immediately deteriorating relations by criticizing the US strongly. They are clearly hoping that technical difficulties may eventually put paid to the larger ambitions behind the NMD project.

Regarding the international institutions that were set up after the Second World War, never before have they been so completely suborned to American will as from the nineties onwards. From Operation Desert Storm in 1991 followed by sanctions against Iraq where UN 'inspection missions' have been openly subordinated to the CIA to the Balkan wars where NATO was made the UN's 'subcontractor' in carrying out the 'peace mission' to the current farce in Afghanistan where the UN provides the cover for a US-determined interim arrangement, control of the UN has never been stronger. Where the former secretary-general, Boutros-Ghali was, to quote from the White House, "unable to understand the importance of co-operation with the world's first power", and therefore had to be ousted, his successor, Kofi Annan who has repeatedly bent over backwards to align the UN with all crucial American dictates, has won a second term and the Nobel Peace Prize.

The IMF and WB are under American sway as never before. During the Mexican debt crisis in 1995, the US Treasury brazenly violated the charter to command the IMF overnight to bail out American bond-holders without consultation with European and Japanese fund members. In the 1997-8 East Asian crisis, the IMF was again used as an instrument of US unilateralism, most obviously to coerce South Korea. Former chief economist of the World Bank, Joseph Stiglitz unpardonably alienated the US Treasury, and its then head Lawrence Summers, by critiquing neo-liberal economic policies from which the US benefits most and through which it has partially retrieved economic ground lost in previous post-war decades to Japan and Germany. So he had to go. Ratification of the WTO has been made conditional on it being 'fair' to US interests, and the use of Super 301 and Special 301 laws, 'anti-dumping' provisions and countervailing duties have been so blatant that even such a dedicated devotee of rightwing economics as Jagdish Bhagwati has remarked on the US's "aggressive unilateralism".

It is vital to note that in the nineties the bulk of economic changes are not about trade but about expanding property rights of foreign capital holders, to enable them to have the same powers abroad as at home to buy assets, to move capital in and out, to enforce monopoly rents on intellectual property. We must realize that the new American imperialism joins the states and markets of the core countries of the world capitalist economy by offering their elites a share of the global pie thus created, although the share going to a majority of the world's poor countries and peoples is diminishing. China is still excluded from this core, while Russia has only just made its entry into the G8 and has still to prove that it can build a viable modern economy beyond merely living on the export of its huge raw material resources.

The key characteristic of this Pax Americana in contrast to say, Pax Britannica and older imperialisms, is that it operates not against the formal juridical order of nation-states but through it. Acquiescence in American social control the world over is all that is required, not formal or territorial submission. The US is happy to leave the job of controlling and shaping domestic populations to the governments concerned. So the form of government is of little consequence: it can be more or less democratic, whatever the exigencies of American global domination may demand.

Once again, it is the American hard right that has most clearly articulated the current American mission. In one of its house magazines, the National Interest (Spring 2000) two of its prominent spokespersons, William Kristol and Robert Kagan wrote: "Today's international system is not built around balance of power but around American hegemony. The international financial institutions... serve American interests. The international security structures are chiefly a collection of American-led alliances... Since today's relatively benevolent circumstances are the product of our hegemonic influence, any lessening of that influence will allow others to play a larger part in shaping the world to suit their needs... American hegemony, then, must be actively maintained, just as it was actively obtained".

This is not a world destined to improve the lot of the world's poor and exploited, or to enhance the dignity and independence of people, or to enhance a deeper and better democracy worldwide but the very reverse. To be unequivocally and consistently opposed to this American project is now a necessity not an option. The Indian elite, in its large majority, however, will not be part of this struggle.

Copyright 2002 The Hindu