The drive to global war

Naked Imperialism – the US pursuit of global dominance
John Bellamy Foster, Monthly Review Press 2006, 192pp. $15.95

John Bellamy Foster’s Naked Imperialism is a collection of editorials on US imperialism, published in Monthly Review between November 2001 and January 2005. At a time when the US military is hopelessly bogged down in Iraq, and an apparently indefinite supply of British troops is being demanded to control an uncontrollable situation in Afghanistan, this book is a timely reminder of how imperialism has arrived at the present point.

Foster argues that we are now witnessing a phase of imperialism which, whilst not new in its fundamental aspects, is distinct from the whole period since the second world war in the naked brazenness with which it embraces its imperial ambitions. In the earlier sections of the book Foster addresses the view put forward by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their book Empire in 2000, and which was a dominant view within the anti-capitalist movement of the late 1990s. This argues that the world has now progressed to a post-imperialist, ‘globalised’ period in which national states and ruling classes are increasingly irrelevant. Foster’s debunking of this view is brought to a conclusion by his discussion of the events following the attacks on New York and Washington on 11 September 2001.

By 2002 the open celebration of an imperial role for the US, previously limited to the ‘neo-conservative right’, had become part of the mainstream within the US, and Peter Rosen, head of the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University, could write in the Harvard Review (May-June 2002): ‘Our goal [that of the US military] is not combating a rival, but maintaining our imperial position, and maintaining imperial order’. Foster deals in detail with the ideological constructions set up to justify the increasingly blatant imperialism of the US, and explains how this is merely a new form of the idea of the ‘white man’s burden’ presented by Rudyard Kipling in 1899 in relation to the US annexation of the Philippines. Such arguments depict the driving force of imperialism as a recurring ‘idealistic impulse’ on the part of imperialist countries to spread first ‘civilisation’ and today ‘human rights and democracy’. This is done in order to obscure the real basis of imperialism which lies in economic exploitation and the internal dynamics of capitalism.

Foster draws on Lenin to counter the denials of economic exploitation which prevail in bourgeois discussions of imperialism. In a period when the nakedness of imperialism is forcing the imperialist ruling classes to acknowledge its existence, it is vital to reassert Lenin’s contribution in establishing the connection between imperialism and monopoly capitalism, and this Foster does. Lenin went beyond an analysis focusing on unequal distribution of income or the profit-seeking motives of particular corporations, to address the underlying fusion of financial and industrial capital, and the complex development of capitalism into its monopoly stage, with competition amongst giant corporations driving inter-imperialist rivalries and consequent wars. Foster draws out from these contributions important lessons for those engaged in the struggle against capitalism today, many of whom mistake the surface phenomena and instruments of imperialism – such as the ‘unethical’ practices of particular multinationals, or structures such as the WTO or the World Bank – as the roots of the problem itself. What is lacking from Foster’s discussion is a fuller development of the analysis of the capitalist crisis. Foster’s predecessor at Monthly Review, Paul Sweezy, rejected the Marxist analysis of the falling rate of profit as being no longer relevant to capitalism in its monopoly phase, and replaced this with a neo-Keynesian analysis of crisis based on a ‘potential surplus’ of capital. Foster touches on this point only briefly in Naked Imperialism, and further development will be necessary in order to take accurate account of the unstable and dynamic nature of capitalism in determining the global strategies of the imperialist ruling classes.

The greatest strength of Naked Imperialism lies in the detailed and concrete way with which it establishes the relationship between imperialist economic interests and the use of military force. By tracing the historical development of US military presence overseas, Foster exposes the economic necessity which lies at the root of military interventions, rather than the idealistic motivations of particular members of the ruling class. Foster makes the point that political, economic and financial power requires the periodic exercise of military power, and that in the absence of direct political control of oppressed nations in the form of colonialism, military bases take on an even greater importance. Foster challenges the idea that the current military offensive by the US is the result of the takeover of the administration by a ‘neo-conservative cabal’ of ideologues. He makes plain that it is rather the growing rivalries between the US and other imperialist countries which lie behind the drive to global war. From the end of the second world war until the early 1970s, Japan and Europe gradually moved to rival the US economically, and in 1971 the dollar was delinked from gold, putting the US ruling class under increasing pressure, and prompting fears that the US might be superseded as the dominant imperialist power, just as it had surpassed British imperialism over the course of the two world wars.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the related setbacks of movements for national liberation and socialism around the world in the early 1990s, a section of the US ruling class saw the opportunity to use its massive military dominance to establish unchallenged global domination, as a way out of its present crisis and economic weakness versus its imperialist rivals. It used the 1991 invasion of Iraq to substantially increase its military presence in the Middle East, most notably in Saudi Arabia, followed by the invasion of Yugoslavia in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001 and again Iraq in 2003, along with military intervention in Latin America as part of ‘Plan Colombia’, each of which has left a lasting US military presence. By March 2002 the US had established military bases and ‘forward operating locations’ in more than 60 countries and separate territories. Despite reductions in the number of troops permanently stationed abroad, these have been replaced by shorter, more frequent tours of duty, so that already by 1999 an Army War College study found that on average military personnel were stationed abroad for 135 days a year for the army, 170 for the navy, and 176 for the air force. These figures can only have increased since then, with the establishment of new bases in countries including Ecuador, Curaçao, El Salvador, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Iraq.

Writing in the US and therefore having as his foremost concern the building of an anti-imperialist movement within that country, Foster could be read by a British audience as at times underplaying the significance of European imperialism, and his work may well be used selectively to advance such an ‘ultra-imperialist’ argument. A full reading however makes clear the fact that not only does the threat from imperialist rivals lie behind the US war drive, but that it is the very attempt by the US to establish for itself an absolute global hegemony which is causing this rivalry to intensify: ‘intercapitalist rivalry remains the hub of the imperialist wheel. How could it be otherwise when the United States is trying to establish itself as the surrogate world government in a global imperial order?’ This indicates the limitations of imperialism, as the ‘band of warring brothers’ come into increasing conflict not only with those they seek to oppress and exploit, but also with one another. Such problems faced by the imperialist ruling classes are at the same time opportunities for those opposed to imperialism to advance.
Thomas Vincent
FRFI 192 August / September 2006


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