Captain America

Superbly written and argued, Tom Stevenson’s Someone Else’s Empire reads like a primer on American imperial hegemony and its deadly consequences.

Published : May 02, 2024 11:00 IST - 8 MINS READ

A mural drawn by the “Grafitiyul” graffiti art group depicts US President Joe Biden as the Marvel comics character “Captain America” in a street in Tel Aviv on April 15, 2024.

A mural drawn by the “Grafitiyul” graffiti art group depicts US President Joe Biden as the Marvel comics character “Captain America” in a street in Tel Aviv on April 15, 2024. | Photo Credit: JACK GUEZ/AFP

“The report of my death was an exaggeration” was Mark Twain’s tongue-in-cheek response to a mix-up involving an ailing cousin with the same surname. Instances of premature obituary writing, while rare in the case of individuals, tend to surface quite regularly in the field of punditry, particularly among specialists on global trends and international affairs. Back in 1992, the philosopher and political scientist Francis Fukuyama squeezed an entire book out of his assertion that, with the collapse of communism and the triumph of liberal democracy, “history” as an evolutionary process had come to an end.

Someone Else’s Empire: British Illusions and American Hegemony
By Tom Stevenson
Verso Books
Pages: 272
Price: £20

In his new book, Tom Stevenson, a British freelance journalist whose work has carried him to some of the world’s most war-blasted zones, explores a more recent instance of a death notice that may prove premature. While acknowledging the emergence of multipolar trends within the world economy, Stevenson is sceptical of claims that US imperial hegemony is already in terminal retreat. On the contrary, he argues, the American empire currently exhibits few signs of slackening its grip: “The US still has military superiority over all other states, control of the world’s oceans via critical sea lanes, garrisons on every continent, a network of alliances that covers much of the industrial world, the ability to render individuals to secret prisons from Cuba to Morocco, Poland and Thailand, preponderant influence over the global financial system, about 30 per cent of the world’s wealth, and a continental economy not dependent on world trade. To call this an empire is if anything to understate its range.”

Somewhat at odds with its title, which signals a specific focus on the relationship between the US and its staunchest ally, this book is all about American power: its architecture, reach, changing mechanisms, adaptability, and vaulting ambition, running to the use of orbital warfare to expand its planetary hegemony in cosmic directions. Rather than manifesting signs of morbidity, Stevenson argues, the system by which US imperialism exerts pre-eminence over the world remains noteworthy for its resilience and stability, as evidenced recently by its successful navigation of the turbulent Trump presidency.

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Such stability has been achieved in part through judicious adaptation, including the transformation over time of the mechanisms of US power. Stevenson identifies three major shifts: the growing use of local proxies for the placing of army boots on the ground; an increasing emphasis on US air power, bolstered by drone technology and the possibilities opened up by the global surveillance system; and a trend towards the deployment of special operations forces over conventional troops. The book’s chapters, some of them originally written as essays for London Review of Books (to which Stevenson is a contributing editor), take up different aspects of this process of systemic adaptation, not least the repercussions for those in the crosshairs of Washington’s unending appetite for domination.

Cover of Someone Else’s Empire: British Illusions and American Hegemony.

Cover of Someone Else’s Empire: British Illusions and American Hegemony. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

The book has a three-part structure. In part one, Stevenson addresses the issue of the British state’s abiding loyalty (some might say grovelling subservience) to the empire that so thoroughly and conclusively displaced it. This provides an opportunity to revisit the post-Second World War emergence of US supremacy as well as post-imperial Britain’s efforts to reinvent itself as a first-order global player.

The doomed nature of the latter project was soon evident to US strategic thinkers: as early as 1962, Dean Acheson, a key architect of the Cold War while serving as President Harry Truman’s Secretary of State in the late 1940s, was speaking openly of how Britain, having lost an empire, had “not yet found a role… a separate power role.” Yet delusions persisted; shored up by the notion of having a “special relationship” with American power, successive British governments have adhered to the country’s role as a surrogacy, its subordination camouflaged by euphemisms such as “partnership” and nourished by belief in Britain’s “civilising” impact: its putative ability to assume the role of “Greeks” to the boorish and brutal transatlantic “Romans”.

Britain’s surrogate role

As Stevenson documents, Britain’s surrogate role has come at a price, particularly for those at the sharp end of national economic decline. After 14 years of austerity, with every marker of the country’s status as an advanced economy and society edging closer to collapse, it is incongruous to find the British state currently in the midst of a lavish military spending spree involving multibillion-pound aircraft carriers, F-35 fighter jets, and the “modernisation” of the nation’s nuclear weapons capability. That this the price tag attached to being a subordinate partner who is privy to a “seat at the table” is readily acknowledged by “British defence intellectuals”: Stevenson’s term for the intimately linked fraternity of specialists engaged in analysing and shaping British foreign policy, unfailingly within strictly defined boundaries. The chapter of the book devoted to a forensic and unsparing examination of this tribe is to be particularly recommended.

In part two of the book, attention shifts to the mechanisms of US power and their modification in line with changing circumstances. Stevenson begins with the weapons available to Washington by virtue of its control of the international financial system, noting the way in which economic sanctions, often presented as an alternative to war, tend to run in tandem with military action. He then turns to an exploration of American sea power: the empire’s comprehensive dominion over the world’s oceans and shipping lanes. In a chapter rich in historical detail, he notes the parallels between the claims made by imperial Britain, the former ruler of the waves, and those made by US strategists about the empire’s role in upholding ‘freedom at sea’. For a state exercising full spectrum power, it can be useful to have a prospective rival—in the current case China—floating into view.

Much show can be made of dispatching aircraft carriers and attendant military hardware to the Indo-Pacific, while embroiling partners in hawkish new alliances (AUKUS, the “trilateral security partnership” set up in 2021, has now added Australia to the Anglo-US mix). But while elaborate displays of marine and air supremacy, including US-directed naval exercises incorporating armadas of allied ships and aircraft, reinforce the idea that China now poses a growing existential threat to global harmony. Stevenson remains sceptical: “What is now at stake between the US and China is not global pre-eminence but the shackles the US has constructed around China: the ‘defense perimeter’ around the East and South China Seas, at some points just a few kilometres from the Chinese coast. That explains the focus on Taiwan, to which America sends more than just octogenarian politicians.”

The Combined Air Operations Centre of NATO at the world’s largest air force base at Al Udeid, in Qatar.

The Combined Air Operations Centre of NATO at the world’s largest air force base at Al Udeid, in Qatar. | Photo Credit: WikiCommons

Turning to the growing role played by proxies in US military operations overseas, the author casts doubt on the notion that this trend reflects some degree of hegemonic decline. Given the “disastrous domestic political consequences” of full-scale intervention, whether in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, he argues that the American empire has in fact much to gain from outsourcing elements of its global policing. Technological developments, too, have proved a useful adjunct: if armed drones amount to little more than new forms of fighter plane, their imbrication within systems of mass electronic surveillance has significantly expanded US military capabilities, especially when it comes to targeted assassinations.

Rhetoric of benign hegemony

The final section focuses on the Persian Gulf and North Africa, the part of the world where, in the author’s words, “the rhetoric of benign (US) hegemony runs up against the parlous state in which most of humanity actually exists”. In an opening chapter that punches a hole through certain prevailing myths about the purposes of US power in West Asia, Stevenson emphasises the strategic advantage that accrues to any imperial power—current or former—from the control of Persian Gulf oil and natural gas. America’s military throttlehold on this region, involving tens of thousands of US troops, the world’s largest air force base (at al-Udeid in Qatar), a permanent dock in Bahrain for the Fifth Fleet, and multiple military bases across Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Iraq, is about exerting leverage over the rest of the world’s access to a lynchpin resource.

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On the back of its control of the hydrocarbon stopcock in West Asia, the US has developed what Stevenson describes as “the most profitable protection racket in modern history”. Operated via a highly conservative regional order involving “alliances with successive military dictatorships in Egypt and an ethno-nationalist Israel”, this hyper-militarised scam ensures that “Japan, South Korea, India and even China must deal with the US in the knowledge that it could, if it wished, cut them off from their main source of energy. It is difficult to overstate the role of the Gulf in the way the world is currently run”.

In the normal run of things, it is easy to overlook the extent to which American power continues to bear down on us all. As Stevenson puts it, “the reach of the contemporary US is so great that it tends to blend into the background of daily events”. But then something happens: an event that wrenches a crucial issue from obscurity, that propels reality to the forefront of our consciousness. Although published before the Hamas-led prison breakout from Gaza last October and Israel’s US-facilitated genocidal response, Stevenson’s book, superbly written and persuasively argued, now reads like a primer on how American power actually operates, and with what deadly consequences. As such, it strengthens our ability to act on Rosa Luxemburg’s maxim: that “the most revolutionary thing one can do is always to proclaim loudly what is happening.”

Susan Ram has spent much of her life viewing the world from different geographical locations. Born in London, she studied politics and international relations before setting off for South Asia: first to Nepal, and then to India, where fieldwork in Tamil Nadu developed into 20 years of residence.

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