Chris Harman

Thinking it through

Hegemony and harmony?

(April 2002)

From Socialist Review, No.262, April 2002.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Marxists’ Internet Archive.

Despite its military dominance the US still has reason to fear its rivals

Is there only one imperialism left? That is the question many people are asking as the US prepares to launch another war against Iraq.

It’s fashionable to speak of a ‘unipolar’ world, in which the US is the ‘great hegemon’, its ‘empire’ unchallenged like that of Rome 2,000 years ago. In reality things are not that simple. The multiple war criminal Henry Kissinger certainly has his doubts. He wrote after the Gulf War and the collapse of the USSR:

‘The end of the Cold War has created what some observers have called a “unipolar” or “one superpower” world. But the US is actually in no better position to dictate the global agenda unilaterally than it was at the beginning of the Cold War.

‘America is more preponderant than it was ten years ago, yet ironically power has become more diffuse. Thus America’s ability to employ it to shape the rest of the world has actually decreased.’

He warned of a number of ‘challenges’ to the US.

‘Russia’, he wrote, ‘sits astride ...the geopolitical heartland’ of Eurasia.

‘In the years ahead Europe will not feel the need for American protection and will pursue its economic self-interest much more aggressively.’

‘China is on the road to superpower status. At a growth rate of 8 percent ... China’s GNP will approach that of the US’s by the end of the second decade of the 21st century.’

‘Japanese long term planners will not indefinitely take the absolute identity of American and Japanese interests for granted ... Japan’s arms budget has been creeping up until it is the third largest in the world.’

His conclusion was, ‘America will need partners to preserve equilibrium in several regions of the world.’

Kissinger’s old rival in terms of imperialist strategy is Zbigniew Brzezinski. Writing last year, after the US victory in the Balkans, he was less worried about other powers challenging US hegemony. But he too was insistent that the US could not simply ignore them.

China ‘is already a major regional player, not yet strong enough to contest America’s global primacy but capable of imposing unacceptable costs in the event of a local conflict in the Far East’.

US spending may be 50 percent higher than that of the European Union countries, but the economies are of more or less the same size. So a truly united Europe (still a distant prospect) ‘would entail a basic shift in the distribution of global power’, with an ‘enormous ... impact ... on America’s own position in the world’.

He favours the US thrusting into the vast area of Eurasia that lies between the eastern border of the European Union, the southern border of Russia and the western borders of China. But he still insists on the need for ‘strategic dialogue’ with the other powers, not simply dictation.

Translated into the language of Marxism, both Kissinger and Brzezinski are saying there is one great imperialism, and lots of lesser ones capable of causing it trouble if it does not tread carefully. People like Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz who run US policy today claim the US can afford to ride roughshod over objections from the ‘regional’ powers. Hence the push to attack in Iraq; the go-ahead for war in Colombia; the attempt to ‘destabilise’ Chavez in Venezuela; the steel tariffs against the EU; the new line of bases through central Asia and in the Philippines, taking over bits of the Russian sphere of influence and creeping in on China; and the attempt, through Star Wars, to cancel Russian and Chinese nuclear capacity and strategic influence.

Yet their very eagerness for immediate action is a symptom of the underlying weaknesses of US imperialism noted by Kissinger. They would not be so keen on immediate action if they felt absolutely confident about long term US supremacy. They want to move now for fear they will never get the same chance again.

The present generation of US leaders began their careers at a time when US power suffered a series of traumatic setbacks – the defeat in Vietnam, the loss of Iran, Nicaragua, and Portugal’s colonies in Africa, the guerrilla wars in the US’s own backyard in central America, and the threat to US economic dominance by the rise of Japan. In the last 20 years it has overcome these setbacks – using the arms race to bankrupt the USSR, drowning the Central American revolutionary movements in blood, blasting Iraq for ignoring US dictates, and restructuring so as to out-compete Japan.

But the memory of those years is still there, and with it the recurrent nightmares – that China could become a second superpower, that Egypt or Saudi Arabia could become a second Iran, that somewhere like Colombia could become a second Vietnam. It is this which explains their desperation to strike quickly and hard at any target at hand. But they cannot overcome ingrained weaknesses simply by pretending they do not exist. On the ground in Afghanistan they still depend on the Northern Alliance – and favours from the Russians. In Colombia it is the local armed forces who are fighting the Farc – and, according to early reports, not doing fantastically well. War against Iraq will be difficult without help from at least one of the great ‘regional’ powers (Europe, Russia, China or Japan) in pulling the Middle East states into line.

And the regional powers do not simply dance to the US tune. They may not challenge the US frontally – indeed, they may not often want to, since, as it’s the most powerful state militarily, the US is best placed to pursue their common interests.

But they do make oil deals with Iran or Iraq, trade with Cuba, threaten retaliatory action against US tariffs, back their own clients in Africa in wars against US clients. There is the public hesitancy of France, Germany, Russia and China over the US’s drive for a new Gulf war. They do not want the US to have a free hand to push its interests at the expense of their own. They don’t mind the world’s biggest thief posing at its policeman. But they don’t want it robbing their own properties.

The European imperialisms are certainly not preferable. They can be just as barbaric as the US – witness the behaviour of French imperialism in Africa – and they will use their power alongside the US every time it suits their interests. But the divisions do indicate weaknesses in the imperialist camp we should not overlook.

Despite its bravado, the US ruling class does not really know what it is doing as it attempts to cement its global hegemony. It’s too soon to talk of ‘hegemon’ or ‘empire’.

Regional powers do not simply dance to the US tune

Last updated on 27 December 2009