Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Bush fires on all fronts

(October 2001)

From Socialist Review, No.256, October 2001.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive at
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Military and economic power are inseparable for the US ruling class, argues Chris Harman

Shortly before I sat down to write this column, George Bush declared all-out ‘war’ against those he blames for the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon. By the time you read my words, he may well have unleashed the mightiest armed force the world has ever known in a move of terror that can only lead to more acts of counter-terror.

He will certainly be exploiting the carnage to push through the long term strategy favoured by those, notably vice-president Cheney, who were in George Bush Sr’s administration. At the centre of this strategy is a further build-up of US military power, epitomised above all in the NMD ‘Son of Star Wars’ programme. The usual justification of the programme is in terms of dealing with ‘rogue states’, with references to North Korea and Iraq.

In fact by ‘rogue states’, they mean any states which do not recognise without reservation the US’s right to dictate to the rest of the world. And the most important such state is not North Korea or Iraq, but China. As Henry Kissinger, who masterminded the obliteration of Cambodia 30 years ago, points out, the proponents of this strategy ‘see China as a morally flawed, inevitable adversary’. (Financial Times, 20 August 2001)

But surely, many people both on the left and the right argue, doesn’t the US already enjoy global dominance? Hasn’t it been the only superpower, the great ‘hegemon’ since the collapse of the USSR ten years ago? Why should it need more power? The argument involves a radical overestimation of US strength in the present. And it fails to grasp the character of the US ruling class’s long term fears.

The US is by far the world’s biggest – and most dangerous – military power. It is also the world’s biggest single economy, fortified by a decade in which it grew by more than a third while the Russian economy halved in size, Japan stagnated and Germany only grew slowly. But it still does not enjoy the economic dominance of 50 years ago, when it accounted for 40 percent of world output. Japan may be down, but it is certainly not out. And in terms of sheer output, the European Union is breathing down the US’s neck.

Far from being all powerful, the US will probably find it impossible to get Europe and Japan to accept its terms at the next World Trade Organisation conference. Some analysts still believe European resistance to these terms can lead to trade wars over more important commodities than bananas. At the same time, US military might has not been able to dispose of Saddam Hussein – and still has to put up with Castro’s Cuba just 70 miles from the US coast. The hegemon is not that powerful.

But it is the long term that really worries the Bush-Cheney wing of the US ruling class. They remember that it was only ten years ago that Japanese firms dominated strategically important hi-tech industries, and that commentators of all sorts were predicting that the 21st century would be the ‘East Asian century’, with Japanese output overtaking that of the US.

A radical restructuring of US industry on the one hand and the Japanese economic crisis on the other ended that nightmare. But the fear it engendered persists. Under capitalism no one’s lead is guaranteed for ever. The rise of a great power can all too easily be followed by its fall.

The Bush-Cheney wing’s fear is that extrapolation from existing growth rates suggests the Chinese economy will easily be the biggest in the world in two decades time. Output per person would still be much lower in China than in the west, but there are many more people in China. And taxing all those people could provide for a total military expenditure on a par with or even greater than that of the US.

The methodology of the calculation is faulty. You cannot simply extrapolate from existing growth rates, as shown by the way in which similar extrapolations 40 years ago made people believe the US would fall behind Russia, and ten years ago behind Japan. But the basic point, that US supremacy is not guaranteed in the medium term, is certainly correct. Really deep economic crisis, for instance, could weaken the US’s relative economic standing as rapidly as it did first Russia’s and then Japan’s.

Hence the pressure for more arms spending – and the eagerness to embrace the ‘war’ option. Such moves, they believe, will force most other powers to accept their dictates. Paul Rogers of Bradford University explained their logic earlier this year:

‘Many on the Republican right think the only threats to US dominance will come from China if it develops into an economic giant. One way to curb its growth is to force it to commit more money to defence, and the National Missile Defence system is one way of doing this. That may stimulate a dangerous nuclear arms race but, after all, the Soviet giant was successfully “spent into an early grave”, and perhaps the same strategy can be applied to China.’

They reason that it is not only China that would be brought into line by such an approach. So would Europe and Japan. Any increase in international tension, whether through war now or as a result of deploying Son of Star Wars systems, would force Europe and Japan to rely on the US military, as they did during the Gulf War ten years ago. And they would have to pay the price by allowing the US to get its way in global economic negotiations.

But others within the US ruling class have a great fear of their state overplaying its hand. Henry Kissinger, of all people, is pointing to the limitations of American power. He believe the Bush-Cheney strategy ‘would simply cause the rest of the world to gang up on the US’. Such people are not against the US bombing and killing around the world. But they want it done in collaboration with other ruling classes, not in such a way as to antagonise them. Their disagreements are tactical, but they are still disagreements.

Bush and Cheney are taking advantage of the devastation in New York to overwhelm resistance to their line. But they cannot avoid more splits occurring, both between the US and the European powers and within the US ruling class. Their war drive only makes sense because the US ruling class has not yet been able to turn global superiority into global dominance. But, for precisely this reason, it will not be able to prevent doubts arising within its own ranks and opposition emerging among its supposed allies abroad. And this will open up space for the arguments of those of us with a principled opposition to imperialism.

The US is by far the biggest military power

Last updated on 26 December 2009