State of empire: How failed foreign policy, new emerging economies, and peoples’ movements are undermining US power

06 February 2014

When the New York Times dubbed the global anti-war protesters of February 15, 2003, “the second super-power,” it challenged the decade-plus view of undisputed U.S. global reach that followed the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. The surging protests that brought 12–14 million people in 665 cities around the world were not enough to stop the U.S.-British wars against Iraq, Afghanistan and beyond. But in the decade since that extraordinary mobilisation, the U.S. empire’s reach is showing the effects of rising people’s movements, increasing multi-polarity in the world of nations and governments, declining influence in all international spheres other than military, stubbornly lasting economic crisis, and an extraordinary loss of legitimacy both at home and abroad.

Shaking the pillars of empire

US empire, particularly since the collapse of the Soviet Union, has rested on several pillars: Military strength, economic influence, political diplomacy and cultural influence.

But the primacy of military power has been at the core of U.S. foreign policy. From the end of the Cold War in 1991 until now, U.S. military spending continued to rise at levels unthinkable in any other country or group of countries. By 2013, with U.S. military spending at $682 billion, it would take the next nine largest spenders around the world collectively to even begin to catch up – and that bunch (China, Russia, Great Britain, Japan, France, Saudi Arabia, India, Germany and Italy in descending order) would still have $61 billion left to go.

This has been backed up with an infrastructure of around 700 military bases in 130 countries, that have enabled the US to intervene and advance what consecutive US leaders have described as “US national interests” in every part of the globe. 

The types of US military intervention have varied but there has not been a year since at least the Second World War that the US has not been involved militarily, directly or by proxy, somewhere in the world. In the aftermath of U.S. defeat in Vietnam in 1975, exhaustion with the U.S. casualties and years of anti-war organizing led to widespread public and military rejection of large-scale troop deployments. The Pentagon, however, continued its Cold War through proxy wars across the Global South – from Central America to Central Asia, from the southern cone of Latin America to southern Africa.

Only in 1990-91, with the Soviet Union’s collapse imminent, did reconsideration of a major ground war with significant deployment of ground and air forces take hold in the United States. Launched against Iraq ostensibly to reverse the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, Operation Desert Storm became, for almost a decade in the U.S., the model of what a “good” war should look like. It resulted in a clear victory, expelling Iraqi troops from Kuwait, and there were hardly any U.S. casualties. In mainstream discourse and planning, Iraqi casualties, whether military or civilian, remained uncounted, unknown, and of no concern – a pattern that would continue more than a decade into the future.

With the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the last of U.S. war queasiness collapsed. Suddenly the massive deployment of U.S. troops in an old-fashioned though updated air- and ground assault and occupation, seemed perfectly acceptable by mainstream media and institutions and indeed by a significant majority of people across the United States. Afghanistan was immediately dubbed the “good war,” its vengeance-based rationale anointed with red-white-and-blue patriotic legitimacy.

Of course it was the Iraq war of regime change and U.S. occupation, not the earlier war in Afghanistan, which was the main strategic goal of the George W. Bush administration and its neo-conservative supporters. Bush, Vice-President Dick Cheney, and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld all were confident the war would be a cakewalk. The reality of course was completely different as resistance to US occupation mounted, and then later morphed into a full-blown sectarian conflict (even as the anti-occupation battles continued). The US tactics of “shock and awe” were superseded by counter-terrorism: night raids, assassinations, and drone attacks became the new normal. The horrific violence that played out in the media tore the legitimacy of US military intervention to shreds in the court of both US and global public opinion – a delegitimation process that extended far beyond Iraq alone.

One of the results was that Barack Obama won the presidency largely on the strength of his commitment to end the Iraq war, what he dubbed the “dumb war”. Nevertheless, his presidency has remained committed to maintaining US military dominance. Afghanistan became the “good war” with Obama approving a major troop escalation of up to 100,000 U.S. and about 40,000 more NATO troops while also expanding counter- terrorism attacks.

Beyond direct military involvement, Obama has continued the military trend set by Bush’s “global war on terror,” in his reliance on special operations, assassinations, missile and drone attacks instead of major ground or even large-scale air or naval deployments. This kind of warfare avoids the problem of U.S. casualties, which sometimes cause collateral damage to the war effort by fueling anti-war sentiment in the United States. It also provides an easy (however illegal under international law) way to sideline the need for United Nations or even “coalition” endorsement.

In 2014, despite the economic crisis and despite the budget cuts imposed in the “cut them all” tax, the Pentagon is still one of the few federal institutions that remains overfunded. Congresspeople know that if they want something done internationally – helping to build a school somewhere in Africa maybe – that there is no use going to the State Department. There is no money. The new Africa Command, or Africom, by contrast has a wide brief that includes everything from supporting girls’ education and HIV-AIDS assistance, to clean water development and infrastructure help across the continent. Oh and yes of course AfriCom can also help train, arm, equip (and perhaps impose a bit of ideological clarity on) nascent national armies across the continent and project military influence at a time that China is expanding its economic presence across the continent and when U.S. oil imports from Africa surpassed those from the Middle East.

The production and sales of arms to the rest of the world – especially to dependent developing countries of the Global South – remains a key component of US power. And the US remains by far the largest seller, giving it a continuing source of pressure over even independence- minded governments. The value of all arms transfer agreements with developing nations more than doubled from $32.7 billion in 2010 to nearly $71.5 billion in 2011. The United States significantly increased its dominance of the market of arms sales to developing nations from 2010’s market share of 43.6% to 78.7% in 2011.

State of Power 2014 cover
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