Rationalising imperial conquest

Published : May 18, 2007 00:00 IST

The book is a devastating critique of the U.S. Empire-building project and its principal rationalisations.

FIVE and a half years after the United States launched its Global War on Terrorism (GWOT) in response to the attacks of September 11, 2001, by invading Afghanistan, the world has become considerably more insecure, and terrorism has become more menacing than ever before. A study for Mother Jones magazine in the U.S. by the Centre on Law and Security at the New York University (NYU) Foundation finds that there has been a 607 per cent increase in the incidence of terrorism between September 2001 and March 2003, and March 2003 and September 2006.

One of the biggest failures of GWOT strategy is none other than Iraq, where over 150,000 U.S. troops are deployed. A country free of religious extremism and terrorism until its invasion four years ago, Iraq now reports the world's largest number of terrorist and violent incidents, week after week. Over 650,000 civilians have perished in Iraq, besides 3,000-plus U.S. troops. The occupation forces there have no grip on the fast-deteriorating situation despite the "surge" in U.S. troops.

Neither Afghanistan nor Iraq has seen any of the promised "stabilisation" or "democratisation". In Afghanistan, there is a strong resurgence of the Taliban amidst rampant warlordism, and a serious danger that President Hamid Karzai's regime may come unhinged altogether. Opium production is booming as never before and now accounts for well over one half of the country's gross domestic product (GDP).

Worse, GWOT has alienated and antagonised large numbers of people in the Islamic world. The U.S. has lost all credibility in their eyes, as well as among growing numbers of people in the West. Discontent in the Islamic world, in particular West Asia, is growing along with the expanding cesspools of unaddressed grievances further feeding violence, counter-violence and terrorism.

The U.S. is now increasingly perceived as a power in search of an Empire, to be built primarily by military means. It presents a new, ugly, aggressive and belligerent face in the post-Cold War era. New apologists have also emerged for the new imperialism of the post-Cold War era. During the Cold War, U.S. hegemonism was based on "saving the world from communism", and presenting a benevolent face to the "free world". Today's Empire needs different, if equally irrational, justifications or rationalisations.

Six of these rationalisations or banners and apologies for Empire are important: (i) the global war on terror; (ii) weapons of mass destruction (WMD) in the `wrong hands'; (iii) failed states; (iv) the necessity and justice of external and forcible humanitarian intervention; (v) regime change in the name of democracy; and (vi) the war on narcotics.

The present book, an initiative of the Transnational Institute, an Amsterdam-based radical fellowship, and authored mainly by its Fellows, is a devastating critique of the U.S. Empire-building project and its principal rationalisations. Its greatest merit is that it centrally confronts the reality of post-Cold War U.S. imperialism and tries to analyse it comprehensively. It persuasively argues that each of the slogans and premises through which U.S. Empire-building is sought to be legitimised is fundamentally flawed.

The book's authors make their case on a broad canvas, which includes a discussion on the purposes of Empire (themselves related to specific regimes of economic power and to furthering inequality-enhancing neoliberal capitalism); the manufacture of intellectual opinion in favour of neoliberal ideas; and the special role played by American exceptionalism in legitimising Empire-building through its assertion that the U.S. is unique as the world's "natural" leader, in that "it is the one country whose pursuit of its national interest is, at one and the same time, the pursuit of a cosmopolitan universal interest".

These essays are followed by six chapter presentations on the six ideological banners. As important as these sections are the Introduction and Conclusion, both by Achin Vanaik, who weaves together the different themes and illuminates numerous connections between them.

To begin with, Walden Bello analyses the economics of Empire by postulating a massive crisis of over-accumulation: overproduction and building up of excess capacities, whose output the economics of the industrial North cannot absorb. He argues that recent attempts by international capital to develop new communications technologies; to colonise public spheres such as health, education, power, water supply and transport; to "financialise" itself; and to tap China's rapid growth to finance a debt-led consumption boom in the U.S. will not adequately remedy the causes of this crisis. Walden Bello presents U.S. post-Cold War belligerence as a consequence of economic weakness, not strength.

Susan George presents a critique of the neoliberal doctrine, rooted in a combination of conservative interpretation of neoclassical economic theory, and libertarian and ultra-individualist legal-political ideas. Susan George convincingly shows that the dominance of neoliberalism owes little to its intrinsic merit; nor was it a "natural" outcome of intellectual debate.

Rather, it followed a systematic and lavishly funded effort to "sell" the ideology through think tanks, select university departments, policy institutes and key individuals in the media. She explores and exposes the institutional framework through which this $1 billion enterprise was conducted.

Mike Marquesee's chapter is a searing critical analysis of American exceptionalism and its historical roots in settler colonialism. This notion sees the U.S. not just as a territorial entity, but as a "great social experiment", which must be propagated if necessary, through colonial wars and the Monroe Doctrine. American exceptionalism sees the U.S. as the ultimate telos and goal of modernity itself.

Marquesee explains how this exceptionalism survives despite the blows delivered by the U.S.' ignominious defeat in the Vietnam war and the visible inferiority of the U.S. model of capitalism in relation to its Western European variants in respect of, say, public services.

The six chapter presentations that follow delve into the rationalising banners, by analysing their provenance and purpose, and their structural weaknesses and deceitful nature. They also suggest some alternative approaches.

Vanaik argues that the one-sided view of terrorism contained in the dominant discourse in the U.S. (which excludes state terrorism altogether), and the militarised solutions offered to it through GWOT, is an excellent "framing device" for the imperial project and "possesses the greatest capacity to mobilise domestic support for the U.S. pursuit of Empire abroad".

Vanaik, however, dissects GWOT's failure. He holds that demonisation of Islam and Muslims is "an inevitable corollary" of GWOT. Vanaik offers the International Criminal Court as an alternative framework within which to prosecute and punish terrorist acts.

Zia Mian takes apart the WMD argument as an excuse for waging war on Iraq. Washington deliberately concocted falsehoods about Saddam Hussein's pursuit of WMD and manipulated the media. The "in the wrong hands" proposition is a means of selectively rewarding friends, allies or client-states, while attacking enemies and "Axis of Evil" states.

Mian documents the U.S.' spectacular hypocrisy in developing new uses for and designs of nuclear weapons and ballistic missile defence systems, while preaching disarmament to others. He also shows how the mystique built around the bomb comes back repeatedly to haunt the U.S. through its spread to other countries. This is the inevitable consequence of the "Empire of Fear".

The U.S. claims that its wars in Central and West Asia were rationally calculated to promote regime change in the interests of "democracy"; or they were humanitarian interventions, necessitated by the failure/paralysis of the multilateral system (the United Nations, in particular). This argument has some resonance outside the U.S., especially given the context of the former Yugoslavia, Somalia and Rwanda although the U.S. and its North Atlantic Treaty Organisaion (NATO) allies failed to act in these very cases.

But as Mariano Aguirre shows, unilateral, offensive, armed intervention mocks at international law and weakens multilateral institutions that ought logically to intervene and honour their obligation to protect threatened civilians.

Aguirre persuasively argues that the Left "should not abandon the moral imperative to protect victims, nor the principles of democracy and international law... We need to recognise that there are massive violations of human rights, that there are dysfunctional states that do not protect their people... Also, that the U.N. system lacks the administrative capacity and flexibility to respond and that power politics limit its capacities, and that, therefore, the international community has a role to play."

Phyllis Bennis writes a blisteringly critical account of how the U.S. first contemptuously bypassed the U.N. Security Council, and then cynically manipulated it to obtain a carte blanche in Afghanistan and Iraq. She criticises the U.S.' mollycoddling of regimes with dubious human rights records (for instance, Uzbekistan, Pakistan and Russia), its setting up of puppet regimes in the occupied countries, and its policies of creating or widening sectarian divides and of promoting the outright loot of Iraq's wealth through corporatisation and privatisation.

Bennis presents a scathing analysis of the effects of U.S. policy in West Asia, including promoting authoritarian allies, legitimising Israel's brutal occupation of Palestine, and the negative examples all this has set for West Asia as a whole.

David Sogge exposes state weaknesses, fragility or "failure" as a dishonourable pretext for Empire-building.

Most characterisations of failing states totally ignore the causes of failure, typically rooted in the structure of the global economy, neoliberal policies imposed by international financial institutions or Western governments, and absence of democracy and accountability. Military interventions rarely offer a solution, nor does the "shell of elections".

Last but not least is a discussion by David Bewley-Taylor and Martin Jelsma of the "war on narcotics" as yet another excuse for Empire. The U.S.'s supply-side approach to the drugs problem emphasises physical interdiction, although this has proved a failure. In practice, as "Plan Colombia" shows, the "war on narcotics" provides a convenient excuse for attacking Left-wing insurgents and maintaining a heavy U.S. military presence in select Third World countries. The authors argue for an alternative "harm reduction" and "decriminalisation" approach to drugs.

Vanaik concludes with a final summing up, which takes a bird's-eye view of the six legitimising themes and their weaknesses, and argues for a comprehensive, critical, Left-wing approach to dissecting Empire.

The book is, then, a broad-horizon yet penetrating critique of the rationalisations for Empire in the post-Soviet era. One wishes it had explored some themes (for instance, the economics of Empire, the relations between the U.S. and its allies, the manufacture of domestic consent in different countries, and alternative international arrangements, and so on) in greater depth.

Above all, one wishes it had devoted some space to a discussion of the growing resistance to Empire through the anti-war and peace movements, themselves linked to the global justice agenda.

Despite these shortcomings, the book remains one of the sharpest critical analyses of contemporary imperialism published recently. It is highly recommended.

Praful Bidwai is a Fellow of the Transnational Institute. He co-authored with Achin Vanaik South Asia on a Short Fuse: Nuclear Politics and the Future of Global Disarmament, Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999.

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