Saturday, September 09, 2006

On the Fifth Anniversary of 9/11: The American Empire is in Crisis

On that Tuesday morning, five years ago when hijacked aircraft slammed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington DC, it was immediately proclaimed that this was “the day that changed the world.”

Five years after that terrible day, it is evident what has really changed the world was not the terror attacks themselves, but the doctrine adopted by the Bush administration to prosecute the so-called War on Terror. Half a decade and two wars after September 11, what comes into view is a multi-facetted crisis of the American Empire, a crisis rooted in fierce ideological debates and in hard material realities.

After September 11, it became plain even to those who had been dazzled by the prospect of the perpetual domination of markets, during the short-lived era of the “borderless world” and the “end of history”, that neither the state nor borders were withering away. First to feel the change---the canary in the mine shaft---was the utopian and youthful anti-globalization movement. Paradoxically, it was snuffed out when utopian liberal capitalism receded before the looming presence of the surveillance state and a world of perpetual war.

Utopianism was succeeded by the thinking of hard-headed realists who became the champions of the American Empire in a time of testing. An important intellectual in this group was Michael Ignatieff, a Canadian who was Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice and director of the Carr Centre of Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. In late 2005, Ignatieff gave up this post and returned to Canada where he won a seat in Parliament in the 2006 federal general election. Several months after the defeat of the Liberal government in that election, he launched his campaign for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

In his analysis of the structure of global power, Ignatieff recognized the existence of an American Empire:

“It is an empire lite,” he wrote “hegemony without colonies, a global sphere of influence without the burden of direct administration and the risks of daily policing. It is an imperialism led by a people who remember that their country secured its independence by revolt against an empire, and who have often thought of their country as the friend of anti-imperial struggles everywhere. It is an empire, in other words, without consciousness of itself as such. But that does not make it any less of an empire, that is, an attempt to permanently order the world of states and markets according to its national interests.”

“We are no longer in the era of the United Fruit Company, when American corporations needed the Marines to secure their investments overseas. The 21st century imperium is a new invention in the annals of political science….a global hegemony whose grace notes are free markets, human rights and democracy, enforced by the most awesome military power the world has ever known.”

Ignatieff’s thesis was that the world was beset by the problems of failed states, the wreckage of the process of de-colonization of earlier empires in the 1950s and 1960s. Failed states, he argued, are preyed upon by barbarians, analogous to the barbarians who tore at the perimeters of the Roman Empire. As a consequence of modern technology, the barbarians are able to strike out at the imperial heartland as they did in the terror attacks of September 11, 2001. Faced with the barbarians, the imperial centre has no choice but to hit back, using force where necessary, not only to protect itself against attacks, but also to occupy failed states so that they can be led back to health. This process he called nation-building. Thus, for Ignatieff, imperialism, for a time at least, was essential.

“Those who want America to remain a republic rather than become an empire imagine rightly,” Ignatieff wrote in the months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, “but they have not factored in what tyranny or chaos can do to vital American interests. The case for empire is that it has become, in a place like Iraq, the last hope for democracy and stability alike.”

His work had the feel of the European imperialism of the belle époque about it. His was a “civilizing mission” and one could picture him at the Congress of Berlin in 1885, planning the division of the world with Otto von Bismarck and the other statesmen of the day. Ignatieff was very much a liberal imperialist, a believer in the idea that imperial America, for its own selfish reasons to be sure, could help lead peoples out of oppression and chaos. The addition of such thinkers to the ranks of those who supported the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq has widened the political spectrum of those willing to lend their endorsement to the imperial wars of George W. Bush.

As time passed, however, and the missions, particularly the one in Iraq, bogged down into a morass in which a sustained insurgency and growing conflict within Iraqi society, made U.S. success appear highly unlikely, some staunchly conservative personalities proclaimed that they were no longer on board. Prominent conservatives abandoned both their support for the Bush administration and even more significantly, their adherence to neo-conservatism itself.

In the early months of 2006, Francis Fukuyama, author of the utopian conservative testament, The End of History and the Last Man, published a manifesto in which he announced that he was no longer a neo-conservative. As he rehearsed in the preface of his new book, America at the Crossroads: Democracy, Power, and the Neoconservative Legacy, he had “long regarded” himself “as a neo-conservative”, believing he shared “a common worldview with many other neo-conservatives---including friends and acquaintances who served in the administration of George W. Bush.” He had worked on two occasions for Paul Wolfowitz. Earlier he had been a student of Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind, himself a student of Leo Strauss, the intellectual godfather of neo-conservatism. Fukuyama had also attended graduate school with William Kristol and had frequently contributed to The National Interest and The Public Interest, two periodicals founded by William’s father, Irving Kristol. He had written as well for Commentary Magazine, the flagship neo-conservative periodical, founded by Norman Podhoretz. Listing his relationships makes it clear that Fukuyama had been a neo-conservative with a rare pedigree.

In his analysis, Fukuyama eviscerated the tenets of the neo-conservative American foreign policy pursued by the administration of George W. Bush. He harshly critiqued the National Security Strategy issued by the White House in September 2002, arguing that in making the case for pre-emptive war in the new age of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction, the administration had fatally blurred the distinction between pre-emptive war and preventive war. While he was prepared to contemplate pre-emptive war on those rare occasions when the United States was clearly threatened with an imminent attack, he had an altogether different view of preventive wars, in which the U.S. invaded a country to halt its capacity to mount a threat at some point in the future.

“The problem with the NSS doctrine,” according to Fukuyama “was that in order to justify stretching the definition of preemption to include preventive war against nonimminent threats, the administration needed to be right about the dangers facing the United States. As it turned out, it overestimated the threat from Iraq specifically, and from nuclear terrorism more generally….”

“The actual experience of the Iraq war ought to demonstrate that the distinction between preemptive and preventive war remains a significant one. We have not abruptly moved into a world in which rogue states routinely pass WMD to terrorists; such a world may yet emerge, but acting as if it were here now forces us into some extremely costly choices. Even under post-September 11 conditions, preventive war remains far more difficult to justify prudentially and morally than preventive war and ought properly to be used in a far more restricted number of cases.”

The White House endorsement of the concept of preventive war, in Fukuyama’s view, struck at the heart of the integrity of state sovereignty, the system that has been in place, at least in theory, since the Treaty of Westphalia brought the Thirty Years War to a conclusion in 1648. It was the overt challenge to the concept of state sovereignty that deeply alienated European allies, Fukuyama concluded.

From the standpoint of the Europeans and many others, the American insistence on the right to launch pre-emptive and preventive rested on the notion of “American exceptionalism”, Fukuyama wrote. “Many countries face terrorist threats,” he pointed out “and might be inclined to deal with them through preemptive intervention or the overturning of regimes deemed to harbour terrorists. Russia, China, and India all fall into this category, yet if any of them announced a general strategy of preemptive/preventive war as a means of dealing with terrorism, the United States would doubtless be the first country to object. The fact that the United States granted itself a right that it would deny other countries is based, in the NSS, on an implicit judgment that the United States is different from other countries and can be trusted to use its military power justly and wisely in ways that other powers could not.”

Fukuyama’s break with the neo-conservatives did not mean that he had ceased to support the basic fact of the American Empire. What he was calling into question was the extreme lengths to which neo-conservatives were prepared to go to shore up the perimeters of the empire in dangerous and strategically crucial regions of the world, in particular the Middle East. Fukuyama’s problem with the behaviour of his erstwhile collaborators was strategic not principled. From the standpoint of the well being of the United States in the world, he was arguing, it was highly unwise to use arguments that could only be justified on the ground that the United States was an unusually moral power, with a unique role to play in safeguarding the healthy functioning of the global system. The degree of unilateralism revealed in the NSS statement and in the Iraq War had driven too many states and their peoples into taking hostile attitudes toward the United States. This was dangerous, in Fukuyama’s view, and a strategy could be found that would safeguard American interests in the world, without engendering such vast antagonism. The argument was about how to run the empire, not whether there ought to be one.

In addition to provoking sharp debates among the supporters of the American Empire such as Ignatieff and Fukuyama, what the terror attacks of September 11 did was to bring on a time of difficult adjustment more quickly than it would otherwise have come. Three decisions taken by the Bush administration plunged the American Empire into crisis. The first decision was the enormous tax cut, whose major beneficiaries were the affluent and the rich. The second and third decisions were the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, both of which were central to the huge increase in American military spending that accompanied them. The policies of the Bush administration embroiled the United States in an interlocking, dual crisis that was geo-political and economic in scope. The geo-political crisis turned on whether the United States could continue to maintain its supremacy in the neighbourhood of the Persian Gulf. The invasion of Iraq was a highly risky attempt to tighten the American grip on the petroleum rich lands around the Gulf. If successful, the Bush administration would be rewarded with solid strategic gains, and along the way, with the enrichment of key corporate backers of the Bush White House.

In a sanitized Iraq, remade in the socio-economic image of the United States, the U.S. would establish permanent military bases and would push rival contenders for Iraqi oil such as France and Russia aside in favour of Anglo-American oil interests. From Iraq, the Americans could keep a wary eye on Saudi Arabia, the country with the greatest oil reserves in the region and a country in which jihadist Islamic ideology had gained a strong position, thereby posing a constant threat to the Saudi regime. Not unimportant in the scheme of things were the venal interests of corporations such as Halliburton, with which Bush loyalists, most notably Vice President Dick Cheney had intimate ties.

These bounties were there for the plucking, provided of course, things went well for the “coalition of the willing” in Iraq. As it happened, things went disastrously, so much so that a regional gambit ended up bringing on a crisis for the American Empire that was global in scope. The initial defeat of Saddam Hussein’s armed forces came quickly with Baghdad falling into American hands following a lightning drive of the U.S. military northwards. George W. Bush danced his jig of victory on the deck of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Then the real fighting began. Month after month, the insurgency against the occupation gained strength in Iraq. As the Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite political leaders who were prepared to work with the Americans and their allies frequently quarreled with each other, those who had chosen the road of armed resistance broadened their alliance and grew ever more effective.

An early casualty of the prolonged fighting was the kind of U.S. military that had been so painstakingly reconstructed in the decades following the Vietnam debacle. It was a volunteer force, equipped with dazzling technology, both in its armaments and logistics, and the doctrine of the force was that it could fight and win two major wars simultaneously in different parts of the world. What the morass in Iraq revealed, however, was that the volunteer force was too thin on the ground to prevail in a lengthy occupation without the call up of a large number of reserve units. The stresses of mobilizing reservists who had never expected to serve in a shooting war and of keeping units in Iraq for long periods contributed to flagging morale, and sagging support for the war in the United States. In the early months of 2006, retired American generals and military critics were not only calling for the resignation of U.S. Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, they were demanding a rethink of American military doctrine. What had appeared to be the most solid of the pillars on which the American Empire stood---its military---had shown itself to be much weaker than anyone had thought.

Because empires rely on the impression that they are invulnerable, any sign of weakness in the ability of an empire to cope with armed resistance is enormously damaging to the empire far beyond the region immediately affected. One consequence of the Iraq shambles for the U.S. has been to embolden potential foes of the United States in other parts of the Middle East and elsewhere in the world. The Islamic Republic of Iran, for instance, much troubled with its own domestic concerns, learned the lesson from Iraq that the United States would have a much more difficult time invading Iran than anyone had previously calculated. The result was that the Teheran regime felt it could take substantial risks in pushing ahead its program of uranium enrichment. For the Bush administration, facing declining support at home and growing doubts about its ability to cope abroad, Iran’s challenge meant that Washington would have to consider another risky military adventure---the bombing of Iran’s nuclear facilities. Empires cannot allow themselves to look weak and when they do they sometimes take risks that can make them look even weaker.

Absent the Iraq debacle, the Bush administration could have afforded to deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge through the mobilization of the other major powers and by bringing various kinds of economic and political pressures to bear on Teheran. After Iraq, the issue became a naked test of American power. And the whole world, not least the American people, was watching.

The Iraq miscalculation prompted many governments in different regions of the world to take actions that could be regarded as “soft” rejections of American power. In Latin America, the consequence was to reinforce the tendency of the region’s left of centre governments to shift away from support for the American-backed Free Trade Area of the Americas. In Western Europe, the tendency among political elites in virtually all countries was to see American global policy as reckless and to seek ways to counterbalance the initiatives of the Bush administration. In Asia, the momentum of many countries drawing closer to China, for commercial reasons, was accelerated.

America’s growing problems in the Middle East were directly related to the emergence of a crisis with respect to the economic position of the United States in the world. In the early months of 2006, a number of key economic indicators of American economic performance had become warning signs that a basic realignment could be in the offing. The American current account, perennially in deficit, was plumbing new lows. As the most basic indicator of the American commercial relationship with the rest of the world, the U.S. current account revealed that both in terms of trade in goods and in terms of capital flows, the United States was in a sharply negative position. Americans were importing far more goods than they were exporting, to the tune of about 500 billion dollars a year, with China replacing Japan as the country with the largest trade surplus with the United States. On the other side of the current account ledger, the story was one of growing American indebtedness to the rest of the world. Far from being the net creditor country that the U.S. had been before 1986, the United States was now, by a long margin, the world’s leading debtor nation, in debt to the tune of roughly two trillion dollars to the rest of the world.

The plunge of the United States into the position of serious net debtor was a sign of the weakening position of the U.S. as the overseer of the global economic system. The other major area of malaise in the U.S. economic performance was the deficit of the federal government and American military spending which was running at about 500 billion dollars a year. Economic forecasts and the plans of the Bush administration made it clear that the U.S. was likely to run a very sizeable deficit over the medium term future.

With the price of crude oil nudging seventy dollars a barrel in the spring of 2006, and threatening to go sharply higher as a consequence of the American showdown with Iran, the U.S. dollar was falling dramatically against other major currencies. Not only was the high price of petroleum threatening to push the world into recession, the U.S. dollar’s position as the global reserve currency was becoming ever more precarious. The Euro has been in the wings for years as a potential alternative reserve currency and even though the economic performance of the leading Euro countries have been sluggish, the countries of the Euro zone have a rock solid current account performance. For countries highly dependent on selling raw materials, particularly crude oil and natural gas, the temptation to dominate their sales in Euros rather than in depreciating dollars has been growing ever stronger. If the U.S. dollar was to lose its position as global reserve currency, either partially or generally, it would hit the American economy with price shocks in the broad area of primary products, most importantly petroleum. In addition, the freedom of the U.S. to run a continuous current account deficit would be sharply curtailed if the Euro were to seriously challenge the dollar as a reserve currency. This is because major central banks and corporations would be bound to shift their holdings to a considerable extent from dollars to Euros, a development that would accelerate the downward pressure on the American dollar and would force a sharp hike in U.S. interest rates to prevent a flight of foreign capital from U.S. securities.

While other major countries would have a strong interest in managing such a transition from dollar to Euro as responsibly as possible, the risk of a severe crisis could not be ruled out. Not since the end of the First World War has the world seen a transition of the kind that could be in the offing. Moreover, the world economy is enormously more global in its functioning than it was eight or nine decades ago, with capital and currency transfers from market to market dwarfing those made in the days when the pound was floundering and the dollar was taking its place.

Rethinking the American Middle Eastern position is bound to be accompanied by efforts to make the American Empire sustainable economically. This raises the thorny and inter-related questions of the size of the U.S. defence budget and the problem of the American government’s burgeoning debt.

Cutting the defence budget of the United States cannot easily be done as long as the Americans occupy Afghanistan and Iraq. Over the longer term, cutting defence spending is an option that segments of the American political leadership are likely to consider, but not until the current hot phase of operations in the Middle East has been concluded. Whatever the United States does about the defence budget, the overall budget deficit is a broader problem which cannot indefinitely be allowed to remain unresolved. Previous empires, the Roman and the French, foundered on an inability to finance their operations. While Bill Clinton managed during the 1990s, through the imposition of a tax increase, to pull Washington’s finances into the black, it will be exceedingly difficult for the United States to summon the political will to repeat that exercise. Failure to deal with the government deficit can only mean more borrowing by the United States, much of it from foreigners. That borrowing will add to the problems of the American dollar and to the growing indebtedness of the United States to foreigners.

Everywhere one looks, the United States faces a series of interrelated problems. While the American Empire is by no means in imminent peril of collapse, it could be forced to pull back from some of its more exposed positions in world trouble spots, in particular the Middle East. In the process, it is likely that the United States will have to consider moving over to a more multilateral strategy, bringing other major powers into its confidence, so that the burdens of empire can be shared with the Western Europeans, the Japanese and others. Accepting the restraints that would accompany multilateralism would be no easy thing for the American leadership, certainly the neo-conservative leadership that has been at the helm under George W. Bush. For the neo-conservatives, sharing power with the Europeans and the Japanese has been anathema, a sure way to blunt the effectiveness of American power in sensitive regions of the world.

The challenges that now confront the American Empire are similar to the problems faced by previous empires---problems of imperial overstretch and of the challenge of fashioning legitimacy for their rule. What makes it especially difficult for the American political leadership to cope with these challenges is the extent to which the norms of American political culture confuse the issues and make it difficult to confront them directly. Only the occasional ideological outrider such as the maverick neo-conservative Charles Krauthammer has the temerity to say that the U.S. should stop shying away from the word empire, and then adds for good measure that “we could use a colonial office in the state department.” It is no easy thing to plan for the long-term viability of an empire in a political culture in which the very existence of the empire needs to be constantly denied, at least in public discourse.


Anonymous said...

Brilliant essay. You have summed it all up absolutely. It will be a great challenge for the Democrats to bring balance back to their country if ever given the chance. The mess is so massive and the continued lack of investment in infrastructure both human capital and physical will take 50 years to rebuild. The empire status is over as far as I can see. The extreme right wing experiment has run it's course and it is a failure....rotten economy, massive debt and without investment in their society they have little to rebuild from. Clearly a balanced approach is the road to sustainability. Nothing is free....taxes are a necessary evil to build and sustain a nation. The Americans have borrowed heavily from their future for their low taxes and at some point will have to pony up and pay what it costs to run a nation. They have left a debt burden to future generations that is irresponsible and has let the entire world down. Along with empire status comes responsibility and here they have failed the world. They have created a more unstable middle east and are placing the world economy in peril by the stupidity and ignorant hubris of their republican politicians for too long.

Roustem said...

Read this, you sucker!