President Barack Obama is having a bad time. The health reforms he so confidently promised have been bogged down in Congress for months; his Defense Secretary, Robert Gates, said the other day that the pledge to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp by January 2010 would take longer to fulfill; Obama’s top general, Stanley McChrystal, appeared to break military discipline by openly demanding forty thousand extra US troop for the Afghan War, warning his commander-in-chief that otherwise the mission would fail; the award of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama brought more scorn and disbelief than congratulations and encouragement; it generated an odd unity of purpose between the Left and the Right, his erstwhile supporters and bitter adversaries out to destroy his young presidency; and two decades after the United States defeated its superpower adversary, a resurgent Russia made plain that sanctions against Iran over its suspicious-looking nuclear program were not acceptable to Moscow.
History is full of contradictions between what American presidents offered and could deliver. Upon the ratification of the United States Constitution in 1789, President George Washington spoke of ‘the eternal rules of order and right’ and ‘the preservation of sacred fire of liberty’ in his inauguration address. In fact, American Indians and black slaves were to endure white oppression for a further two hundred years. Two and a half centuries ago, history recorded that Abraham Lincoln abolished slavery in 1865. In truth, re-enslavement occurred quickly under different laws and slavery was to persist for another century.
In the early twenty-first century, many humans continue to live in extreme poverty and squalor in America and around the world, for which forces of globalization and free trade are responsible. Workers on meager wages and in unsafe conditions produce goods for the United States and other western societies. In contravention of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these men, women and children are modern-day slaves.
There are many examples that illustrate the limits of power of the mightiest. John Tirman in his book 100 Ways America is Screwing Up the World says, “When Harry Truman and Joseph Stalin kicked off the Cold War, they probably did not realize what a long game it would be.” More than four decades and many ruinous conflicts later, the Soviet empire collapsed. American triumphalism did not last long either. By the end of the presidency of George W Bush, the most bellicose of the neoconservative generation had acknowledged the limits of American power and the talk of America’s ‘exceptionalism’ had become muted. The sense of vulnerability dwarfed claims of America’s status as the global hyperpower, with much of the insecurity emanating from the ruins of conflicts during and after the Cold War. It was a hollow victory.
John F Kennedy, in his inaugural address in 1961, pledged to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Yet the Central Intelligence Agency was in close liaison with the South Vietnamese generals who staged a coup in November 1963 and executed the nationalist president, Ngo Dinh Diem, three weeks before President Kennedy was himself assassinated.
Over the next twelve years, the military rulers of South Vietnam ran a brutal, corrupt and incompetent regime. America bombed areas bordering the South, then throughout Cambodia, between 1969 and 1973. King Sihanouk of Cambodia was deposed in a pro-US coup by General Lon Nol, whose brutal regime fell to communists in 1975. America, a nuclear superpower, with the capacity to obliterate its adversaries in Indo-China withdrew its forces from the region, wounded. The region fell under communist rule.
Jimmy Carter ordered the CIA to channel secret American aid to the Mujahideen in Afghanistan to fight the pro-Soviet Marxist regime. America’s covert intervention in the Afghan War thus began well before the Soviet military invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. The evidence gradually came to light several years after the Soviet Union had retreated from Afghanistan following a decade of brutal occupation and the Soviet state’s own demise. America’s proxy force of the Mujahideen left a trail of brutality of its own. It had been kept wrapped in CIA-inspired official misinformation campaign as long as the Soviet occupation army was there.
The cover was blown no sooner than the Soviets had gone home and the Afghan battlefield was engulfed in a new round of civil war. It gave birth to an even more extreme form of political Islam represented by the Taliban and al Qaeda, a phenomenon that directly led to the 9/11 attacks on the United States. Afghanistan showed how a historic conquest turned into a catastrophe.
In the case of Afghanistan after 9/11, the Taliban were removed from power barely five weeks after the US-led coalition went to war in October 2001. The achievement of the narrow aim to oust the Taliban from the Afghan capital so quickly led to claims of a perfect war. Writing in Foreign Affairs, Michael O’Hanlon described Operation Enduring Freedom as “a masterpiece of military creativity and finesse.” It was assumed that al Qaeda had been deprived of its sanctuary, meeting sites, weapons production and storage facilities. The regret was that the Taliban and al Qaeda leaders got away. The folly of this Pentagon-nurtured view of Afghanistan, and later Iraq, came to haunt in subsequent years.
On being an empire
Humans by nature are expansionist. They want more. Plato’s Republic, written around 380 BC, has a dialogue between Socrates and Glaucon about civilized society. They discuss how societies develop from primitive to higher levels of civilization; trades and occupations multiply and populations grow. The next stage of the dialectic, according to Socrates, is an increase in wealth that results in war, because an enlarged society wants more for consumption. Plato’s explanation is fundamental to the understanding of the causes of war even today. This is how empires rise, military and economic power being essential to further their aims.
Nearly two and a half millenniums later, Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri offered a Marxist vision of the twenty-first century in their book Empire. Their central argument in the book, first published in 2001, was that globalization did not mean erosion of sovereignty, but rather a set of new power relationships in the form of national and supranational institutions like the United Nations, the European Union and the World Trade Organization. According to Hardt and Negri, unlike European imperialism based on the notions of national sovereignty and territorial cohesion, empire is a concept in the garb of globalization of production, trade and communication, with no definitive political center and no territorial limits. The concept is all pervading, so the ‘enemy’ must now be someone who poses a threat to the entire system – a terrorist to be repressed by police force. Written in the mid-1990s, Empire got it right, as events a few years later would show.
The United States occupied a privileged position in Empire depicted by Hardt and Negri. However, America’s privileges did not arise from its “similarities to the old European imperialist powers.” Its privileges derived from its differences, otherwise described as American exceptionalism. From the early days of its formal constitution, the founders of the United States had believed that they were creating “a new Empire with open, expanding frontiers,” where power would be distributed in networks. More than two centuries later, the idea emerged on a global scale. The presidency of George W Bush was a powerful militaristic, if crude and disastrous, attempt to impose America’s will on the rest of the world.
Like terrorism, the term ‘empire’ is often used disparagingly by those on the Left and the Right. The emergence of the United States and the Soviet Union as the two greatest powers after the Second World War offered contrasting examples. Advocates of each accused the other of being an empire, meaning a large population comprising many nationalities in distant territories living under subjugation or exploitation.
In fact, different concepts of empire have existed throughout history. For many centuries, the term referred to states that considered themselves successors to the Roman Empire, but later it came to be applied to non-European monarchies such as the Empire of China or the Mughal Empire. Most empires in history came into being as a result of a militarily strong state taking control of weaker ones. The result in each case was an enlarged, more powerful political union, before its eventual decline.
The dissolution of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and early 1990s was a blow against the idea of maintaining an empire by brute force. Suddenly, the floodgates opened for rapid globalization and expansion of the markets to places that had previously been in the Soviet domain. Capitalism could reach where it had not been before, from newly independent countries in eastern Europe to Soviet-style economies in Asia and Africa. Two decades on, the West was to hit the most serious crisis of its own since the Great Depression, due to a combination of impudence after its victory in the Cold War, false sense of moral superiority and belief in its power to destroy and recreate nations at will.
The Norwegian scholar, Johan Galtung, regarded as the father of conflict and peace studies, said in 2004 something that is a fitting definition of the term Empire. He described it as “a system of unequal exchanges between the center and the periphery.” An empire “legitimizes relationships between exploiters and exploited economically, killers and victims militarily, dominators and dominated politically and alienators and alienated culturally.” Galtung observed that the American empire “provides a complete configuration, articulated in a statement by a Pentagon planner.”
“The de facto role of the United States Armed Forces will be to keep the world safe for our economy and open to our cultural assault. To those ends, we will do a fair amount of killing.”
This confession is as revealing as it is extraordinary. Economic interests and cultural domination are closely interwoven in imperial thinking, driven by its simplistic logic. Imperial powers are expansionist by nature, always inclined to enlarge territories they control. What lies behind their ambition is access to more and more resources – energy, minerals, raw materials and markets to trade. Imperial behavior dictates a great power to expand its domain of direct control or influence by military or other means to new territories that have resources and a certain cultural symmetry with the center. The greater this symmetry, the better.
Culture and consumption
To appreciate the relationship between economic interests and cultural symmetry, culture has to be understood as a broad concept. E B Taylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, customs and many other capabilities and habits acquired by … [members] of society.” Culture is the way of life which people follow in society without consciously thinking about how it came into being. Robert Murphy describes culture as “a set of mechanisms for survival, but it also provides us with a definition of reality.” It determines how people live, the tools they use for work, entertainment and luxuries of life. Culture is a function of homes people live in, appliances, tools and technologies they use and ambitions.
It is, therefore, possible to conclude that culture is about consumption in economic terms. Culture defines patterns of production and trade, demand and supply, as well as social design. In Moscow, the old Ladas and Wolgas of yesteryear began to be replaced by Audi, Mercedes and BMW cars in the late twentieth century. The number of McDonalds restaurants in Russia rose after the launch of the first restaurant in the capital in 1990. In Russia, China and India, luxury goods from cars to small electronic goods and jeans are fast becoming objects of passionate desire for the growing middle classes, despite grinding poverty affecting vast numbers of citizens. Following the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, sales of American brands in Kabul and Baghdad increased. These trends form an essential part of the theme that defines societal transformation and, at the same time, represents a powerful cause for opposition.
The hegemon flaunts its power, but also reveals its limitations. It invades and occupies distant lands, but cannot end opposition from determined resistors. Economic interests of the hegemon and the way of life it advocates are fundamentally interlinked. The hegemon claims superiority of its own culture and civilization at the expense of the adversary’s. Its own economic success depends on the exploitation of natural and human assets of others. The hegemon allows political and economic freedoms and protections enshrined for the privileged at home. Indeed, the hegemon will frequently buy influence by enlisting rulers in foreign lands. Rewards for compliance are high, but human labor and life are cheap in Third World autocracies.
The costs of all this accumulate until their sum total surpasses the advantages. Military adventures require vast amounts of money. As well as hemorrhaging the economy, they drain the Empire’s collective morale as the human cost in terms of war deaths and injuries rise. Foreign military expeditions tend to attain a certain momentum. But a regal power is unlikely to pause to reflect on an important lesson of history – that adventure leads to exhaustion. Only when the weight of liabilities – economic, political and moral – moves the citizenry to abandon the cause does it mean that the day of debacle may be near.
The above essay was published by the History News Network, George Mason University, Virginia, on November 2, 2009.