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by Barry Brooks
21 October 2003 21:02 UTC
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AFTER THE WINNING OF THE WAR - United States: wider still and wider
By Eric Hobsbawm

Le Monde diplomatique - Le Monde diplomatique June 2003



For those with a long memory and an understanding of the ambitions
and history of previous empires - and their inevitable decline -
the present behaviour of the United States is familiar and yet
unprecedented. It may lead to the militarisation of the US, the
destabilisation of the Middle East and the impoverishment, in every
way, of the rest of the world.


The present world situation is quite unprecedented. The great
global empires that have been seen before, such as the Spanish in
the 16th and 17th centuries, and notably the British in the 19th
and 20th centuries, bear little comparison with what we see today
in the United States empire. The present state of globalisation is
unprecedented in its integration, its technology and its politics.

We live in a world so integrated, where ordinary operations are so
geared to each other, that there are immediate global consequences
to any interruption - SARS, for instance, which within days became
a global phenomenon, starting from an unknown source somewhere in
China. The disruption of the world transport system, international
meetings and institutions, global markets, and even whole
economies, happened with a speed unthinkable in any previous

There is the enormous power of a constantly revolutionised
technology in economics and above all in military force. Technology
is more decisive in military affairs than ever before. Political
power on a global scale today requires the mastery of this
technology, combined with an extremely large state. Previously the
question of size was not relevant: the Britain that ran the
greatest empire of its day was, even by the standards of the 18th
and 19th century, only a medium-sized state. In the 17th century,
Holland, a state of the same order of size as Switzerland, could
become a global player. Today it would be inconceivable that any
state, other than a relative giant - however rich and
technologically advanced it was - could become a global power.

There is the complex nature of today's politics. Our era is still
one of nation-states - the only aspect of globalisation in which
globalisation does not work. But it is a peculiar kind of state
wherein almost every one of the ordinary inhabitants plays an
important role. In the past the decision-makers ran states with
little reference to what the bulk of the population thought. And
during the late 19th and early 20th century governments could rely
on a mobilisation of their people which is, in retrospect, now
quite unthinkable. Nevertheless, what the population think, or are
prepared to do, is nowadays more directed for them than before.

A key novelty of the US imperial project is that all other great
powers and empires knew that they were not the only ones, and none
aimed at global domination. None believed themselves invulnerable,
even if they believed themselves to be central to the world - as
China did, or the Roman empire at its peak. Regional domination was
the maximum danger envisaged by the system of international
relations under which the world lived until the end of the cold
war. A global reach, which became possible after 1492, should not
be confused with global domination.

The British empire in the 19th century was the only one that really
was global in a sense that it operated across the entire planet,
and to that extent it is a possible precedent for the American
empire. The Russians in the communist period dreamed of a world
transformed, but they knew well, even at the peak of the power of
the Soviet Union, that world domination was beyond them, and
contrary to cold war rhetoric they never seriously tried such

But the differences between today's US ambitions and those of
Britain of a century and more ago are stark. The US is a physically
vast country with one of the largest populations on the globe,
still (unlike the European Union) growing due to almost unlimited
immigration. There are differences in style. The British empire at
its peak occupied and administered one quarter of the globe's
surface (1). The US has never actually practised colonialism,
except briefly during the international fashion for colonial
imperialism at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the
20th century. The US operated instead with dependent and satellite
states, notably in the Western hemisphere in which it almost had no
competitors. Unlike Britain, it developed a policy of armed
intervention in these in the 20th century.

Because the decisive arm of the world empire was formerly the navy,
the British empire took over strategically important maritime bases
and staging-posts worldwide. This is why, from Gibraltar to St
Helena to the Falklands Islands, the Union Jack flew and still
flies. Outside the Pacific the US only began to need this kind of
base after 1941, but they did it by agreement with what could then
genuinely be called a coalition of the willing. Today the situation
is different. The US has become aware of the need directly to
control a very large number of military bases, as well as
indirectly to continue to control them.

There are important differences in the structure of the domestic
state and its ideology. The British empire had a British, but not a
universal, purpose, although naturally its propagandists also found
more altruistic motives. So the abolition of the slave trade was
used to justify British naval power, as human rights today are
often used to justify US military power. On the other hand the US,
like revolutionary France and revolutionary Russia, is a great
power based on a universalist revolution - and therefore based on
the belief that the rest of the world should follow its example, or
even that it should help liberate the rest of the world. Few things
are more dangerous than empires pursuing their own interest in the
belief that they are doing humanity a favour.

THE basic difference is that the British empire, although global
(in some senses even more global than the US now, as it single-
handedly controlled the oceans to an extent to which no country now
controls the skies), was not aiming at global power or even
military and political land power in regions like Europe and
America. The empire pursued the basic interests of Britain, which
were its economic interests, with as little interference as
possible. It was always aware of the limitations of Britain's size
and resources. After 1918 it was acutely aware of its imperial

But the global empire of Britain, the first industrial nation,
worked with the grain of the globalisation that the development of
the British economy did so much to advance. The British empire was
a system of international trade in which, as industry developed in
Britain, it essentially rested on the export of manufactures to
less developed countries. In return, Britain became the major
market for the world's primary products (2). After it ceased to be
the workshop of the world, it became the centre of the globe's
financial system.

Not so the US economy. That rested on the protection of native
industries, in a potentially gigantic market, against outside
competition, and this remains a powerful element in US politics.
When US industry became globally dominant, free trade suited it as
it had suited the British. But one of the weaknesses of the 21st
century US empire is that in the industrialised world of today the
US economy is no longer as dominant as it was (3). What the US
imports in vast quantities are manufactures from the rest of the
world, and against this the reaction of both business interests and
voters remains protectionist. There is a contradiction between the
ideology of a world dominated by US-controlled free trade, and the
political interests of important elements inside the US who find
themselves weakened by it.

One of the few ways in which this weakness can be overcome is by
the expansion of the arms trade. This is another difference between
the British and US empires. Especially since the second world war,
there has been an extraordinary degree of constant armament in the
US in a time of peace, with no precedent in modern history: it may
be the reason for the dominance of what President Dwight Eisenhower
called the "military industrial complex". For 40 years during the
cold war both sides spoke and acted as though there was a war on,
or about to break out. The British empire reached its zenith in the
course of a century without major international wars, 1815-1914.
Moreover, in spite of the evident disproportion between US and
Soviet power, this impetus to the growth of the US arms industry
has become much stronger, even before the cold war ended, and it
has continued ever since.

The cold war turned the US into the hegemon of the Western world.
However, this was as the head of an alliance. There was no illusion
about relative power. The power was in Washington and not anywhere
else. In a way, Europe then recognised the logic of a US world
empire, whereas today the US government is reacting to the fact
that the US empire and its goals are no longer genuinely accepted.
There is no coalition of the willing: in fact the present US policy
is more unpopular than the policy of any other US government has
ever been, and probably than that of any other great power has ever

The Americans led the Western alliance with a degree of courtesy
traditional in international affairs, if only because the Europeans
should be in the front line in the fight against the Soviet armies:
but the alliance was permanently welded to the US by dependence on
its military technology. The Americans remained consistently
opposed to an independent military potential in Europe. The roots
of the long-standing friction between the Americans and the French
since the days of De Gaulle lie in the French refusal to accept any
alliance between states as eternal, and the insistence on
maintaining an independent potential for producing hi-tech military
equipment. However, the alliance was, for all its strains, a real
coalition of the willing.

Effectively, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the US as the
only superpower, which no other power could or wanted to challenge.
The sudden emergence of an extraordinary, ruthless, antagonistic
flaunting of US power is hard to understand, all the more so since
it fits neither with long-tested imperial policies developed during
the cold war, nor the interests of the US economy. The policies
that have recently prevailed in Washington seem to all outsiders so
mad that it is difficult to understand what is really intended. But
patently a public assertion of global supremacy by military force
is what is in the minds of the people who are at present
dominating, or at least half-dominating, the policy-making in
Washington. Its purpose remains unclear.

Is it likely to be successful? The world is too complicated for any
single state to dominate it. And with the exception of its military
superiority in hi-tech weaponry, the US is relying on diminishing,
or potentially diminishing, assets. Its economy, though large,
forms a diminishing share of the global economy. It is vulnerable
in the short term as well as in the long term. Imagine that
tomorrow the Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries decided
to put all its bills in euros instead of in dollars.

Although the US retains some political advantages, it has thrown
most of them out of the window in the past 18 months. There are the
minor assets of American culture's domination of world culture, and
of the English language. But the major asset for imperial projects
at the moment is military. The US empire is beyond competition on
the military side and it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable
future. That does not mean that it will be absolutely decisive,
just because it is decisive in localised wars. But for practical
purposes there is nobody, not even the Chinese, within reach of the
technology of the Americans. But here there will need to be some
careful consideration on the limits of technological superiority.

Of course the Americans theoretically do not aim to occupy the
whole world. What they aim to do is to go to war, to leave friendly
governments behind them and go home again. This will not work. In
military terms, the Iraq war was very successful. But, because it
was purely military, it neglected the necessities of what to do if
you occupy a country - running it, maintaining it, as the British
did in the classic colonial model of India. The model "democracy"
that the Americans want to offer to the world in Iraq is a non-
model and irrelevant for this purpose. The belief that the US does
not need genuine allies among other states, or genuine popular
support in the countries its military can now conquer (but not
effectively administer) is fantasy.

THE war in Iraq was an example of the frivolity of US decision-
making. Iraq was a country that had been defeated by the Americans
and refused to lie down: a country so weak it could be easily
defeated again. It happened to have assets - oil - but the war was
really an exercise in showing international power. The policy that
the crazies in Washington are talking about, a complete re-
formulation of the entire Middle East, makes no sense. If their aim
is to overthrow the Saudi kingdom, what are they planning in its
place? If they were serious about changing the Middle East we know
the one thing they have to do is to lean on the Israelis. Bush's
father was prepared to do this, but the present incumbent in the
White House is not. Instead his administration has destroyed one of
the two guaranteed secular governments in the Middle East, and
dreams of moving against the other, Syria.

The emptiness of the policy is clear from the way the aims have
been put forward in public relations terms. Phrases like "axis of
evil", or "the road map" are not policy statements, but merely
sound bites that accumulate their own policy potential. The
overwhelming newspeak that has swamped the world in the past 18
months is an indication of the absence of real policy. Bush does
not do policy, but a stage act. Officials such as Richard Perle and
Paul Wolfowitz talk like Rambo in public, as in private. All that
counts is the overwhelming power of the US. In real terms they mean
that the US can invade anybody small enough and where they can win
quickly enough. This is not a policy. Nor will it work. The
consequences of this for the US are going to be very dangerous.
Domestically, the real danger for a country that aims at world
control, essentially by military means, is the danger of
militarisation. The danger of this has been seriously

Internationally, the danger is the destabilising of the world. The
Middle East is just one example of this destabilisation - far more
unstable now than it was 10 years ago, or five years ago. US policy
weakens all the alternative arrangements, formal and informal, for
keeping order. In Europe it has wrecked the North Atlantic Treaty
Organisation - not much of a loss; but trying to turn NATO into a
world military police force for the US is a travesty. It has
deliberately sabotaged the EU, and also systematically aims at
ruining another of the great world achievements since 1945,
prosperous democratic social welfare states. The widely perceived
crisis over the credibility of the United Nations is less of a
drama than it appears since the UN has never been able to do more
than operate marginally because of its total dependence on the
Security Council, and the use of the US veto.

How is the world to confront - contain - the US? Some people,
believing that they have not the power to confront the US, prefer
to join it. More dangerous are those people who hate the ideology
behind the Pentagon, but support the US project on the grounds
that, in the course of its advance, it will eliminate some local
and regional injustices. This may be called an imperialism of human
rights. It has been encouraged by the failure of Europe in the
Balkans in the 1990s. The division of opinion over the Iraq war
showed there to be a minority of influential intellectuals,
including Michael Ignatieff in the US and Bernard Kouchner in
France, who were prepared to back US intervention because they
believe it is necessary to have a force for ordering the world's
ills. There is a genuine case to be made that there are governments
that are so bad that their disappearance will be a net gain for the
world. But this can never justify the danger of creating a world
power that is not interested in a world that it does not
understand, but is capable of intervening decisively with armed
force whenever anybody does anything that Washington does not like.

Against this background we can see the increasing pressure on the
media - because in a world where public opinion is so important, it
is also hugely manipulated (4). Attempts were made in the Gulf war,
1990-91, to avoid the Vietnam situation by not letting the media
near the action. But these did not work because there were media,
for example CNN, actually in Baghdad, reporting things that did not
fit the story Washington wanted told. This time, in the Iraq war,
control again did not work, so the tendency will be to find yet
more effective ways. These may take the form of direct control,
maybe even the last resort of technological control, but the
combination of governments and monopoly proprietors will be used to
even greater effect than with Fox News (5), or Silvio Berlusconi in

How long the present superiority of the Americans lasts is
impossible to say. The only thing of which we are absolutely
certain is that historic ally it will be a temporary phenomenon, as
all these other empires have been. In the course of a lifetime we
have seen the end of all the colonial empires, the end of the so-
called Thousand Year Empire of the Germans, which lasted a mere 12
years, the end of the Soviet Union's dream of world revolution.

There are internal reasons why the US empire may not last, the most
immediate being that most Americans are not interested in
imperialism or in world domination in the sense of running the
world. What they are interested in is what happens to them in the
US. The weakness of the US economy is such that at some stage both
the US government and electors will decide that it is much more
important to concentrate on the economy than to carry on with
foreign military adventures (6). All the more so as these foreign
military interventions will have to be largely paid for by the
Americans themselves, which was not the case in the Gulf war, nor
to a very great extent in the cold war.

Since 1997-98 we have been living in a crisis of the capitalist
world economy. It is not going to collapse, but nevertheless it is
unlikely that the US will carry on with ambitious foreign affairs
when it has serious problems at home. Even by local business
standards Bush does not have an adequate economic policy for the
US. And Bush's existing international policy is not a particularly
rational one for US imperial interests - and certainly not for the
interests of US capitalism. Hence the divisions of opinion within
the US government.

The key issue now is what will the Americans do next, and how will
other countries react? Will some countries, like Britain - the only
genuine member of the ruling coalition - go ahead and back anything
the US plans? Their governments must indicate that there are limits
to what the Americans can do with their power. The most positive
contribution so far has been made by the Turks, simply by saying
there are things they are not prepared to do, even though they know
it would pay. But at the moment the major preoccupation is that of
- if not containing - at any rate educating or re-educating the US.
There was a time when the US empire recognised limitations, or at
least the desirability of behaving as though it had limitations.
This was largely because the US was afraid of somebody else - the
Soviet Union. In the absence of this kind of fear, enlightened
self- interest and education have to take over.

Edited by Victoria Brittain
Here's what Americans should do...

Sustainability vs. The Consumer Economy

With due respect to Keynes and the benefits of demand stimulation, it would 
seem that we should move beyond trying to use all available labor and begin to 
focus on how to employ only the needed labor.  Does anyone believe that growing 
consumption be sustained?  Our present consumer economy uses most labor, but 
its high consumption rates are at odds with resource stewardship. The high 
rates of resource consumption needed by the consumer economy not only hasten 
the trend toward resource scarcity, high consumption rates also increase the 
pollution which lies behind global warming. The consumer economy is not 
sustainable, but it is necessary to prevent automation from causing 
unemployment in a world of wage dependence. 

Any activity involves some resource consumption. We all need to consume food, 
fuel and other perishable goods. The provision of consumption goods is the 
proper goal of any economic system, but the consumption of durable items is not 
a proper goal for a sustainable economy. Only a consumer economy, with the goal 
of increasing consumption by any means, seeks to consume potentially durable 
items prematurely, as if waste could really increase wealth. 

Advocates of the consumer economy must deny the limits to growth, or pretend 
that increased consumption is consistent with resource conservation, or admit 
that they don't care about stewardship. No one wants a destructive economic 
system, yet most people have supported the consumer economy and its use of 
demand stimulation to create jobs. Belief in the existence of an infinite 
supply of cheap resources made the consumer economy seem desirable, but today 
we know that because the consumer economy needs waste to function it will 
hasten resource scarcity, and it will leave us unprepared and living in a world 
of scarcity. Support for the consumer economy is falling for good reason.

Since the media made everyone aware of world oil depletion problems, the 
assumption that we don't need to worry about resource scarcity has been shaken 
out of most people. Now that we are worried about resource scarcity one 
question is "What can we do to prevent resource scarcity?"  Which is part of 
the larger question, "What must we do to have a sustainable society?"  Most 
people desire a sustainable society, we know we need a sustainable society, and 
our engineers already know how to build one. The conflict between increasing 
consumption to make jobs and reducing consumption to conserve can't be solved. 
It will be impossible to build a sustainable economy if we fail to reassess the 
role of human labor in an automated economy. 

Some wealthy people, with the ambition and means to rule, cleverly created the 
consumer economy to provide jobs after world war two, thus delaying the need to 
reassess the role of human labor in an automated economy. Those people can 
create a sustainable economy whenever they become justifiably terrified by the 
consumer economy's inability to reduce consumption rates. Our wealthy rulers 
must create an new economy that will provide people's needs without making too 
much pollution and without running out of resources rapidly if they hope to 
avoid leading us into an age of growing scarcity. They are already so worried 
about resource depletion that they are willing to use aggression to grab all 
the known oil resources, but their fear of war is small compared to their fear 
of reassessing role of human labor in an automated economy. It's interesting 
how people so often are afraid of the wrong things. Finding more oil, and 
grabbing more oil, will only delay the need for economic reform at the high 
cost of increasing world conflict. It would be much better to address the main 
cause of unsustainablity now, rather than seeking more delay and finding 
comfort in denial. That cause is needless wage dependence in an economy that 
already provides unearned income, but only for a tiny minority.    
Barry Brooks

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