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Lance Selfa

From Cold War to Kosovo

(Summer 1999)

From International Socialist Review, Issue 8, Summer 1999.
Downloaded with thanks from the ISR Archive Website.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of the Cold War, the decades-long political and military battle between the U.S., the Soviet Union and their respective allies. For almost 45 years, the U.S. had squandered huge amounts of money – an estimated $8.2 trillion – on building a “national security state.” It had involved itself in dozens of wars and conflicts against the USSR and its proxies around the world. Then, when the main U.S. “enemy” disappeared, politicians began to speak of a “peace dividend.” Bill Clinton, the first post-Cold War president, came into office pledging to slice $100 billion from the military budget.

Ten years later, the U.S. is locked in a major war in Europe and the Pentagon is spending at Cold War levels. Clinton plans to boost military spending from $274 billion in 2000 to $331 billion in 2005 and to invest in a “missile defense” system. In February 1999, Clinton announced what the U.S. plans to do with that military power:

It’s easy ... to say that we really have no interest in who lives in this or that valley in Bosnia, or who owns a strip of brushland in the Horn of Africa, or some pieces of parched earth by the Jordan River. But our true interests lie not in how small or distant these places are, or in whether we have trouble pronouncing their names. The question we must ask is, what are the consequences to our security of letting conflicts fester and spread. We cannot, indeed, we should not, do everything or be everywhere. But where our values and our interests are at stake, and where we can make a difference, we must be prepared to do so. [1]

Military analyst Michael T. Klare wrote, “No American president in recent times has articulated as ambitious a far-reaching policy.” [2]

Why is the U.S. maintaining a Cold War-level superpower military after the Cold War is over? Why is the U.S. military prepared to intervene anywhere in the world? Why hasn’t the “peace dividend” materialized? Why has the U.S. military been engaged in conflict almost continuously since 1991 when the USSR, the main U.S. enemy for half a century, doesn’t exist anymore? The answers to these questions lie in the fundamental continuity of U.S. aims since the U.S. reached superpower status following the Second World War. Since 1945, the international environment has changed. U.S. administrations and their foreign policies have differed. But all administrations have operated from the same imperialist assumptions: the U.S. must retain the world’s most powerful military, and it must promote the interests of U.S.-style capitalism around the world.

The world the war made

As U.S. troops swept across Europe and the Pacific, the U.S. government’s highest officials drew up plans to establish a global U.S. empire after the Second World War. As the only major belligerent that escaped large-scale destruction of its home territory and infrastructure, the U.S. accounted for nearly 60 percent of the total production of the largest seven capitalist countries. The U.S. military literally covered the globe, with troops stationed in 56 countries and more than 400 bases worldwide. [3] For a brief period after the Second World War, the U.S. possessed a monopoly on the most destructive weapon ever produced – the atomic bomb. With its economic and military power at its height, the U.S. aimed to shape the world in its own interests.

As its first task, U.S. imperialism constructed an international economic system designed to promote U.S. dominance in the world market. Official statements from government officials praised “free trade” as a means to break down barriers between nations. But behind the rhetoric lay the reality of U.S. economic dominance. As Roosevelt’s Secretary of State Cordell Hull put it:

Leadership towards a new system of international relationships in trade and other economic affairs will devolve very largely upon the United States because of our great economic strength. We should assume this leadership, and the responsibility that goes with it, primarily for reasons of pure national self-interest. [4]

To stabilize the world financial system after the war, the U.S. pushed for the creation of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). To revive the economies of its European allies (and former enemies, Germany and Japan), it sponsored the creation of the World Bank. “The United States could not passively sanction the employment of capital raised within the United States for ends contrary to our major policies or interests,” said the State Department’s Herbert Feis in 1944. “Capital is a form of power.” The postwar program of Marshall Plan loans and grants to countries made this explicit. “Benefits under [the Marshall Plan] will come to an abrupt end in any country that votes Communism to power,” said General George Marshall, President Truman’s Secretary of State and the aid program’s namesake.

To back up economic clout with military muscle, the U.S. built military alliances spanning the globe. The most important of these alliances, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), founded in 1949, served to involve the U.S. permanently in European affairs. Ostensibly formed to present a common European defense against a Soviet invasion of the West, its real aim was to keep the U.S. in Europe, to keep Russia out, and to keep Germany tied down, to paraphrase Britain’s Lord Ismay. George Kennan, the U.S. State Department’s architect of the “containment” of communism, nevertheless ridiculed NATO as a “military defense against an attack no one is planning.” He added that NATO “added depth and recalcitrance to the division of the continent and virtually forced individual countries to choose sides. [5] But forcing countries to choose sides between the U.S.-led Western bloc and the USSR-led Eastern bloc was what the Cold War was all about.

Containing friend and foe

Postwar institutions such as NATO, the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), the IMF, the World Bank and the rest served more than simply anti-USSR aims. NSC 68, the 1950 State Department paper which outlined the pillars of the strategy of containment of the USSR, advocated U.S. military superiority as “a policy which the United States would probably pursue even if there were no Soviet Union.” Not only was the U.S. geared up to confront the Soviet Union, but it also aimed to ensure that Germany and Japan would not present a military threat to U.S. dominance again. To assure this, the U.S. greatly restricted Germany and Japan from rebuilding their militaries. To discourage the two countries from developing nuclear weapons, the U.S. offered them “protection” under its nuclear umbrella. Finally, the U.S. encouraged the revival of the Japanese and German economies and promoted a global “free trade” regime to preserve the Western alliance under U.S. economic domination.

The U.S. maintained a monopoly on nuclear weapons until 1949, when the USSR exploded an atomic bomb. Russia’s acquisition of nuclear weapons touched off a superpower arms race. By 1980, the superpowers had nearly 20,000 warheads – all of them hundreds of times more powerful than the bombs dropped on Japan in 1945 – pointed at each other’s cities. With both superpowers armed with weapons that could destroy all life on the planet, the Cold War fostered a set of military doctrines that any reasonable person would consider insane. General Tommy Powers, the commander of the U.S. Strategic Air Command, rejected limiting nuclear strikes to military targets. “Restraint? Why are you so concerned with saving their lives? The whole idea is to kill the bastards,” he shouted at one of his critics in 1960. “At the end of the war, if there are two Americans and one Russian, we win.” (To which Powers’ critic responded: “Then you had better make sure that they are a man and a woman.” [6] The policy of “mutually assured destruction” (known by the appropriate acronym “MAD”) guided the use of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. The MAD policy assumed that neither the U.S. nor the USSR would launch a nuclear strike against the other because they knew a retaliatory strike would destroy it as well. Despite this, the U.S. provoked several nuclear confrontations with the Russians. The most serious of these, the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, held the world hostage for nearly two weeks before the Russians agreed to remove nuclear missiles from Cuba.

The nuclear stalemate imposed a certain amount of stability on the bipolar world the Cold War created. Any direct confrontation between the superpowers threatened to spiral toward nuclear annihilation. So the main arena for the “hot wars” flowing out of the U.S.-USSR confrontation was the system’s periphery, the Third World. The Cold War’s unwritten rules allowed the U.S. and the USSR free rein within each’s “backyard.” So, despite issuing tirades against Soviet oppression, the U.S. never seriously considered aiding the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 or the Czechoslovakian Prague Spring in 1968. It acquiesced to the 1981 military coup that smashed Poland’s Solidarity movement. Meanwhile, Western Communist Parties evolved into tame reformist organizations which did more to sabotage movements such as the May 1968 French general strike than to help them. A successful revolution in either half of divided Europe would provide the wrong lessons to the populace living under the tutelage of Washington or Moscow.

To maintain political, military and economic dominance, the U.S. had to be a global superpower willing to intervene anywhere to police its empire. The Truman Doctrine, named for the president who announced it in 1947, asserted the U.S. right “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities,” in Truman’s words. Announced as a justification for aiding the Greek government in its civil war against Communist-led insurgents, it put the U.S. permanently on the side of all forces resisting change throughout the world. The U.S. became the chief underwriter of counter-revolution and backer of right-wing dictators and despots.

Yet if governments showed inclinations to challenge the U.S., Washington had no problem sponsoring “armed minorities” against them. The CIA, another creation of the Cold War founded in 1947, mounted numerous operations against regimes which refused to follow U.S. dictates. It engineered the overthrow of the moderate nationalist Mossadegh regime in Iran in 1953. Although the U.S. accused him of Communist sympathies, Mossadegh’s real “crime” had been to nationalize the oil industry. Likewise, Guatemalan President Jacobo Arbenz invited charges of “communism” – and a 1954 CIA-sponsored military coup – when he nationalized holdings of the United Fruit Company. The coup plunged Guatemala into four decades of genocidal civil war. In the Cold War, the U.S. and USSR had no regard for the desires of the people of any country subject to superpower meddling. “I don’t see why we need to stand by and watch a country go communist due to the irresponsibility of its people,” said Secretary of State Henry Kissinger in 1973, justifying the U.S.-sponsored overthrow of the democratically elected Allende government in Chile. [7]

Intervention to prevent defections from the free enterprise system seemed a crude rationale for policy. So U.S. officials simply harped on “communism.” “The only way we can sell the public on our new policy,” a Truman adviser told the president, “is by emphasizing ... Communism vs. democracy” as the “major theme.” Any dictatorial regime was accepted as part of the “Free World” as long as it traded with the Western bloc, allowed Western investment and supported the West in the Cold War. As a result, the Free World included such exemplars of democracy as the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Shah’s Iran and the medieval dictatorship of Emperor Haile Selassie in Ethiopia. Under the pretext of defending the Free World, U.S. forces intervened dozens of times in countries around the world between 1947 and 1990. The longest and most costly of these took place in Asia, where the U.S. fought full-scale wars in Korea and Vietnam.

From the “domino theory” to the “Vietnam syndrome”

The legacies of poverty and colonialism in Asia made the region ripe for nationalist unrest and superpower meddling. The fall of the corrupt pro-Western Chinese regime to the Chinese Communists in 1949 set off alarm bells in Washington. When North Korea, backed by Russia and China, overran the U.S.-backed puppet state in South Korea in 1950, the U.S. rushed thousands of troops to Korea. Presented as a United Nations (UN) “police action,” the 1950–53 Korean War cost the lives of 33,000 Americans and 2 million Koreans, most of them civilians. Despite the carnage, the Korean War solved nothing. It simply redrew the partition line between the Stalinist state in the North and the pro-Western military regime in the South.

The U.S. intervened in Korea because a shift in the balance of power on the Korean peninsula threatened to disrupt its post-Second World War designs in Asia. Strengthening a non-militarized Japan as a bulwark of capitalist stability in Asia formed the core of this policy. In order to rehabilitate and reintegrate Japan into an American-dominated world, the U.S. had to preserve Japan’s access to markets and trading partners in the region. U.S. Cold Warriors feared the collapse of one pro-Western regime after another – a prospect which they thought could isolate Japan and other U.S. allies and lead to their eventual collapse. U.S. leaders called this scenario the “domino theory.” After the Korea stalemate, the focus of U.S. efforts in Asia shifted to Vietnam:

The U.S. regarded Indochina as a fire wall needed to prevent the more economically vital parts of the region – especially Malaya and Indonesia – from falling under communist control. Washington’s concern was that the economic repercussions of toppling dominoes would have geopolitical consequences: if Japan were cut off from Southeast Asia, the resulting economic hardship might cause domestic instability in Japan and result in Tokyo drifting out of the U.S. orbit. [8]

The Communist-led Vietminh national independence movement drove France, Vietnam’s colonial overlord, out of the country in 1954. Vice President Richard Nixon urged the U.S. to fill the vacuum the French left behind: “If Indochina went Communist, Red pressure would increase on Malaya, Thailand and Indonesia and other Asian nations,” Nixon warned. “The main target of the Communists in Indochina, as it was in Korea, is Japan. Conquest of areas so vital to Japan’s economy would reduce Japan to an economic satellite of the Soviet Union.” [9] The U.S. sent military and economic aid to the corrupt South Vietnamese state, a creation of French colonialism. The U.S. propped up a series of hated South Vietnamese regimes fighting pro-independence forces supplied from “communist” North Vietnam. To stave off collapse of its puppet, the U.S. sent 25,000 troops to Vietnam in 1965. It then escalated the conflict, stationing more than 540,000 U.S. troops in Vietnam by 1969.

Despite a horrifying campaign of mass murder against the Vietnamese – carpet bombing, napalm, chemical warfare, assassination and torture – the U.S. could not crush the movement for national liberation. The Vietnamese struggle, anti_war protest in the U.S. and other countries and resistance to the war among U.S. troops in Vietnam forced Washington to give up. It withdrew troops and let the South Vietnamese state fend for itself. South Vietnam collapsed in the face of a two-month offensive by South Vietnamese guerrillas and North Vietnamese regulars in 1975. At the cost of 2 million Vietnamese lives and 58,000 American lives, U.S. imperialism suffered its greatest defeat.

The Vietnam debacle left the U.S. military in disarray and its political leaders averse to another overseas adventure involving large numbers of U.S. troops. The defeat created the “Vietnam syndrome,” a reluctance of American leaders to dispatch ground troops around the world. This check on U.S. imperialism’s global adventures outraged hawks in the U.S. military establishment. They embarked on a decades-long attempt to rehabilitate U.S. militarism and to overcome the Vietnam syndrome. The fall of U.S.-allied dictators to indigenous revolutions in Iran and Nicaragua in 1979, and the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan in that same year provided American militarists with the pretext to start a “new” Cold War with Russia. Begun under Democrat Jimmy Carter, but carried to extremes under President Ronald Reagan, this second Cold War involved two parts. First, the U.S. spent more than $2 trillion in the largest peacetime military buildup in U.S. history. Second, the U.S. reasserted its power to intervene directly or through proxies to enforce its will.

The U.S. military met with partial success in overcoming the Vietnam syndrome. With the exception of short, sharp invasions against heavily undermatched foes (Grenada in 1983 or Panama in 1989), most U.S. intervention took the form of arming proxies. This strategy advanced U.S. aims in defeating the Sandinista government in Nicaragua and in helping to force the USSR out of Afghanistan. These operations, as well as the 1987–88 U.S. naval intervention on the side of Iraq in the Iran-Iraq war, laid the groundwork for the dispatch of more than 500,000 U.S. troops in the 1991 Gulf War.

End of the Cold War

The Carter-Reagan military buildup helped to break the Russian economy. No longer able to sustain its European empire, Moscow moved to disengage from Eastern Europe. The Russian pullback set off a chain reaction in 1989, sparking political revolutions in one of its satellites after another. Within two years, the entire postwar setup underlying the Cold War in Europe – strong USSR and pro-Moscow satellites and a Germany divided between East and West – collapsed. The Cold War ended, changing the structure of global politics fundamentally. There was no more “evil empire,” as Reagan once described the USSR and its East Bloc satellites, which justified U.S. intervention around the world.

But while the environment for the U.S. has changed, the main goals of U.S. imperialism remain. Foreign policy experts describe the goal of the U.S. as maintaining “preponderance” or “primacy” – making sure that the U.S. remains the main superpower, without any challengers. A 1992 Pentagon paper said the U.S. would “establish and protect a new order” that accounts “sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to keep them from challenging our leadership,” while maintaining military dominance capable of “deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.” When the contents of this document were leaked to the press, it caused an uproar among U.S. allies. The Pentagon repudiated the document, but didn’t reject its central thrust.

Maintaining the post-Cold War status quo (otherwise known as “preserving stability”) and enlarging U.S. political and military influence preoccupies U.S. policy makers today. The U.S. intervenes militarily in hot spots like the Balkans to maintain “stability” throughout the world system. It seeks to extend its political and military influence by enlarging NATO to include former Warsaw Pact nations. To justify maintaining a Cold War military establishment, it invented the “two war” doctrine – the idea that the U.S. military must be prepared to fight two simultaneous Gulf War-like campaigns against “rogue nations” on opposite sides of the world. The U.S. spends on the military about 85 percent of what it spent during the height of the Cold War.

Meanwhile, another central plank of U.S. imperialism’s grand strategy remains maintaining economic stability through free trade and the extension of “market economies” throughout the world. If there has been one consistent element in the Clinton administration’s otherwise incoherent foreign policy, it is this: it truly believes that the stability of the world order depends on fostering trade and economic interdependence between countries. According to A National Security Strategy of Engagement and Enlargement, the administration’s 1996 statement of foreign policy:

Democracies create free markets that offer economic opportunity, make for more reliable trading partners and are far less likely to wage war on each other ... The more that democracy and political and economic liberalization take hold in the world, particularly in countries of strategic importance to us, the safer our nation is likely to be and the more our people are likely to prosper.

For most of the time since the 1991 Gulf War, the U.S. has pretty much had things its own way. Although it was forced to retreat from Somalia in 1992–93, the U.S. set terms for its allies and its adversaries on what seemed to be most of the bigger questions (for example, the Dayton settlement for the Bosnian conflict and the Middle East peace process). It managed to bail out U.S. bankers and the Mexican ruling class in 1994–95 when the peso crash threatened massive instability in the world market. And by 1996–97, the U.S. had even come so far out of the early 1990s slump that it started lecturing other countries about following the “American model” of deregulation, labor flexibility and free market policies. But more recent events have dampened some U.S. triumphalism. The global economic crisis which began in 1997 greatly threatened the U.S.-led economic boom of the 1990s. Iraq’s 1998 expulsion of UN weapons inspectors and evaporating international support for U.S.-backed sanctions unraveled U.S. policy in the Persian Gulf. And the 1999 NATO war in Kosovo has resulted in a series of catastrophes with implications far beyond the Balkans.

The lonely superpower?

In the decade since the Berlin Wall came down, the U.S. has groped for a means to give its military and foreign policies a believable rationale. Without the communist threat to organize U.S. goals, the Bush and Clinton administrations have tried other rationales for U.S. imperialism: to stop drug trafficking, to fight terrorism, to punish “rogue nations” – even to serve humanitarian purposes. But, during the Cold War and after, the main aims of U.S. imperialism have remained the same regardless of the rhetoric used to justify or, more likely, to camouflage them. Preserving U.S. military predominance and expanding U.S. capitalism’s power form the core of U.S. imperialism’s agenda.

For more than 40 years, the Cold War subordinated military rivalries between the chief capitalist powers to the U.S.-USSR superpower conflict. Within the Western bloc, competition between powers took the form of economic competition, with periodic conflicts over trade between the U.S., Europe and Japan. The U.S. and its current allies such as France, Germany and Japan have neither permanently fixed nor identical interests. During the Cold War, they could be welded into a global alliance because of the perception of a common threat from the USSR. Now they have greater freedom to pursue their own interests. As a greater number of U.S. allies have built up their economies as competitors with the U.S., their reasons to follow U.S. dictates in geopolitics have diminished.

The technological and firepower gap between the U.S. military and any potential challenger is so vast that it would require years for any power to come close. But as the U.S. presses its agenda, it’s likely to come into conflict with other major powers who have their own agendas. When the world economic crisis broke over Asia in 1997 and 1998, the U.S. sabotaged a Japanese-led effort to arrange a bailout for Asian countries. The U.S. insisted that only the IMF could organize the bailout, a demand which hinged on far more than technical grounds. “Had Japan stepped in instead of the IMF, it would have signaled an unprecedented step toward autonomy and a dominating role in the region.” [10] The 1999 war with Yugoslavia produced a number of clashes between the U.S. and its NATO allies on issues from the conduct of the war to the conditions for peace. What’s more, the war in Kosovo has brought relations between the U.S., Russia and China to new lows. After Kosovo, the stage is set for greater instability and a greater threat of war in the future.

* * *


1. Clinton quoted in Michael T. Klare, US aims to win on all fronts, Le Monde Diplomatique, May 1999.

2. Michael T. Klare.

3. These figures were quoted in John Rees, The New Imperialism, International Socialism Journal 48: p. 54.

4. Hull quoted in Mark Curtis, The Great Deception (London: Pluto Press, 1998), pp. 9–10.

5. Kennan quoted in Lawrence S. Wittner, Cold War America (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1974), p. 67.

6. Powers quoted in Martin Walker, The Cold War (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1994), pp. 166–167.

7. Kissinger quoted in Tom Lewis, Chile: The State and Revolution, International Socialist Review 6, Spring 1999: p. 27.

8. Christopher Layne, From Preponderance to Offshore Balancing: America’s Future Grand Strategy, in Michael E. Brown, Owen R. Coté, Jr. et al., (eds.), America’s Strategic Choices (Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1997), p. 257.

9. John Foster Dulles and Richard M. Nixon, Taking Up the White Man’s Burden: Two American Views (1954) in Marvin E. Gettleman, Jane Franklin et al., (eds.), Vietnam and America: A Documented History (New York: Grove Press, Inc., 1985), p. 54.

10. Bruce Cumings, End of the Japanese honeymoon, Le Monde Diplomatique online edition, April 1999.

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