Back to "normality"? US foreign policy under Obama

Issue: 136
Posted: 8 October 12

Alexander Anievas, Adam Fabry and Robert Knox

“Change we can believe in”.1 We all remember the hope-laden slogans of the brilliantly executed Obama 2008 presidential campaign. This was much less a promise of change than a return to “normality” after the deviant years of the Bush-Cheney regime. Or so many on the liberal left believed. What a difference three years make. Not since John F Kennedy’s inauguration has a presidency been so symbolically significant and yet so vacuous-if not damaging-in substantive foreign policy terms. With US military power engaged on multiple fronts, Obama’s 2008 campaign mantra has become a painfully ironic reminder of the pitiful state of US politics and democracy. So what has changed in US foreign policy since Obama’s
coming to power?

The truth is not a hell of a lot. Abroad the “war on terror” continues unabated, if under new surreptitious labels. Under Obama, the US military has not only intensified the drone bombings in Afghanistan and Pakistan (Af-Pak) that began under Bush Jr, but has now expanded targeted strikes into Yemen and Somalia. US military forces remain 80,000 strong in Afghanistan, providing support to the crony regime of the Karzai clan, whose rule is not even guaranteed within the heavily fortified Green Zone of Kabul.2 The prison camp in Guantanamo, which Obama promised to close down before 2009, persists under increasingly and dangerously legalistic pretences. The drawdown of US troops from Iraq over 2011 occurred on the schedule set by the Bush Jr presidency, breaking a central promise of the Obama campaign.3 What is more, the Obama administration actually proposed to leave US military bases in Iraq. It was only after negotiations with the Maliki cabinet in which US plans were rejected, and all remaining US forces were forced to withdraw in late December 2011.4

In the Middle East, Obama’s attempts to charm the Muslim world with his hyped-up rhetoric of “a new beginning”, declared in a speech at Cairo University on 4 June 2009, has turned out to be just that: a gimmick. While condemning “rogue states” (such as Iran and Syria), the US continues to provide financial, military and political support to its allies in the region (including such “bastions of liberalism” as Israel and Saudi Arabia). More recently, we have seen the Obama administration attempting to rebuild the previously discredited idea of “humanitarian intervention” in toppling the Gaddafi regime in Libya, in order to steer the revolutionary tide unleashed by the Arab revolutions in the region. And it doesn’t stop here. As recent dispatches from Washington have revealed, the Obama administration is recalibrating its attention towards the Asia-Pacific theatre in a Faustian bid to revitalise the faltering US economy, manage the rise of Chinese power and rebuild US “leadership” internationally.

In the light of these dire developments, readers of this journal might easily feel themselves as being timewarped to the 1990s, when discourses of “liberal interventionism” and “just wars” were common parlance on both sides of the Atlantic. This then begs the question as to how we arrived here. What are the changes and continuities in the Obama administration’s foreign policies? And is there any larger “grand strategy” lurking behind this?

US imperialism in historical perspective

To understand the Obama administration’s foreign policies, we need to first frame them within a broader historical perspective tracing how deeply embedded they are within US strategic thinking of the 20th century. The guiding thread of this thought is usually referred to as “Wilsonianism”.5 This is defined as a combination of putatively universal ideals with US economic self-interest in an uneasy but potent mix of unilateral and multilateral tactics (“multilateralism when possible, unilateralism when needed”) geared towards the construction of a “liberal-capitalist international order”6 under US hegemony. In other words, when possible US policymakers will attempt to work through international organisations (such as the UN or NATO) or robust allied coalitions. However, when such coalitions are not forthcoming, US foreign policymakers (from Clinton to Bush Jr to Obama) are perfectly willing to go it alone (ie unilaterally) as exemplified with the Bush Jr’s administration’s rejection of NATO’s evocation of the collective security principle in response to the 9/11 attacks.7 As Obama made clear in 2007 during the Democratic primary elections: “I will not hesitate to use force, unilaterally if necessary, to protect the American people or our vital interests whenever we are attacked or imminently threatened”.8

Most basically stated, the aim of US foreign policy strategy is to facilitate the ceaseless accumulation of capital buttressed through an “open” world economic system. Though immediately identified with President Woodrow Wilson (1913-21), the central characteristics associated with Wilsonianism as an operational baseline for conducting US foreign relations pre-date its namesake.

A significant point that needs emphasising is that Wilsonianism has always entailed a combination of multilateral and unilateral tactics. In mainstream popular and academic discussions, the tendency is to counterpose multilateralism and unilateralism, the former seen as a defining feature of the liberal democratic cosmopolitan vision of world order.9 In contrast, self-proclaimed realist critics of Wilsonianism identify it with the “idealist” or “utopian” tradition in US foreign policymaking; that is to say, a tradition associated with a naive, legalistic liberalism which eschews power politics in the pursuit of morally virtuous aims.10 Now, if realists have been correct in highlighting some of the deficiencies and contradictions of Wilsonianism as a strategy and ideology of US foreign policymaking, they have been less successful in explaining its origins. As the historian Lloyd C Gardner writes, while radicals “may criticise his [Wilson’s] naive moralism and idealism along with the realists…a full account of the development of that outlook is a much more difficult problem”. According to Gardner, this was an “outlook” which had “developed from a much keener insight into the nature of his [Wilson’s] society (and its needs) than would appear from the realist critique”.11

There is, then, something much more structural to Wilsonianism that escapes realism, which fails to grasp the role of ideology in foreign policymaking. The significance of Wilsonianism to President Obama’s foreign policy agenda is not that it sets him apart from his predecessors but that it demonstrates the clear lines of continuity with them. But fully to understand these continuities demands a Marxist analysis of the dynamic interaction of social forces animating the Wilsonian project with its changing international and world economic environments. In what follows we briefly sketch the originating socio-historical context from which Wilsonianism emerged before moving on to consider its relevance as a project for the continuation of US Empire under the current administration.

The “Open Door” strategy in the era of classical imperialism

The period of “classical imperialism” (1896-1945) was characterised by a fundamental contradiction between the simultaneous internationalisation and statisation of capitalist productive powers whereby the abstract logic of the world market came to increasingly dominate the fates of each and every state. This was driven by intensified geopolitical competition ensuing from the synchronised collective outward thrust of rapidly industrialising and newly emergent capitalist states of the time. With the quantitative multiplication of “autonomous” centres of capital accumulation, politically rooted in
national-state spaces, came the qualitative transformation of the rhythms and dictates of geopolitical rivalry.12 Different states pursued different foreign policy strategies to compete effectively in this changing international milieu. These differences were bound to specific trajectories of capitalist development and processes of class formation related (in time and space) to the overall history of world capitalism. It is with this in mind that one can understand the emerging “Open Door” strategy of US foreign policymaking.

Under the strains of heightened economic competition on the world market typical of the period, a coalescence of US finance-industrial and political interests concluded that the marketing of America’s increasing manufacturing surpluses was necessary both to (1) maintain economic growth and domestic prosperity and (2) circumvent radical sociopolitical and economic reforms at home. In other words, to avoid a substantive redistribution of the relative shares of national income, there had to be an absolute increase in its overall volume. This was only possible if US state managers and segments of the capitalist class could develop foreign outlets for US goods and services which were perceived as having developed in surplus of what could be profitably absorbed by the domestic market.13 Wilsonianism was a response to these dilemmas.

In essence, then, Wilsonianism represented the steady globalisation of the “Open Door” model of “non-territorial” expansionism14 originally formulated by secretary of state John Hay in the McKinley administration’s (1897-1901) attempts to pry open the great Chinese market at the turn of the 20th century. The Open Door stipulated an equality of opportunity for the commerce of all nations. For Wilson and others, it was viewed as both a key means of promoting US interests and creating a so-called world community of power and interests, the two being viewed as mutually complementary. Given the massive economies of scale, enormous domestic market, and advanced mass production techniques characterising the US political economy, state managers and corporate capitalists viewed this global equalisation of trade and investment conditions as necessarily favourable to US-based capitals. This ensured, as President Wilson put it, that “the skill of American workmen would dominate the markets of all the globe”.15 Indeed, “the brilliance of liberal US internationalists in this period, with Woodrow Wilson as their flag-bearer”, Neil Smith writes, “lay in the implicit realisation that the wedding of geography and economics undergirding European capital accumulation was not inevitable; that the coming era could be organised differently; and that economic expansion divorced from territorial aggrandisement dovetailed superbly with US national interests”. In these ways, Smith continues, “US internationalism pioneered a historic unhinging of economic expansion from direct political and military control over the new markets”.16

However, it is necessary to be cautious here. There is a strong sense in which the “non-territoriality” of the US Open Door model of expansionism is misleading. The Wilsonian strategy always entailed the remaking of sovereign territoriality in ways amenable to US capitalism and thus entailing its necessary violation through both formal and informal means. Witness the administration’s record in enforcing the Monroe Doctrine in Central and South America, where Wilson would set out, as he put it, “to teach the South American Republics to elect good men”.17 Wilson ordered more military interventions without declarations of war than any other US president in the 20th century save Clinton (a path that the Obama administration is fast following).18 Yet, at the same time, Wilson is best known in popular and academic debates for his doctrine of self-determination, which envisages the transformation of the empire-state system into a plurality of formally sovereign territorial units.

Following Wilson’s “American exceptionalism” line of reasoning, the US “leads” the world, because it should and must. One can see this quintessentially Wilsonian motif at work in Obama’s pompous declaration of the “end” of military operations in Iraq in December 2011: “Unlike the old empires, we don’t make these sacrifices for territory or for resources-we do it because it’s right. There can be no fuller expression of America’s support for self-determination than our leaving Iraq to its people. That says something about who we are”.19 Reading such remarks justifying US intervention in the country as “doing the right thing” (“just war”), one could easily mistake Obama for his predecessor. The important point here is not simply to register the stark hypocrisy in all of this, but to illustrate the overwhelming continuities in the ideological discourse of US imperialism and the social antagonisms they seek to displace. Here we find a second dimension of territoriality underlying the Wilsonian form of US imperialism.

Much like the Whig history of the origins of capitalism Marx demolished in the chapter on “So-Called Primitive Accumulation” in volume one of Capital, US narratives of “American exceptionalism” delete the long and brutal history of US expansionism: first over the Native Americans on the North American continent, and then throughout the world. Between 1815 and 1870 the US state acquired land (through conquest, fraud or robbery) approximately doubling the country’s original size. As Gareth Stedman Jones notes, “the whole internal history of US imperialism was one vast process of territorial seizure and occupation. The absence of territorialism ‘abroad’ was founded on an unprecedented territorialism ‘at home’”.20 In a similar way, contemporary US policymakers work from a freeze-frame of the contemporary world and America’s role within it abstracted from any historical view.

No matter who occupies the White House, Wilson’s model of keeping the “world safe for democracy” (read: US-style capitalism) has remained something of a constant. While the forms of US foreign policy tactics have varied with the interconnected changes in the world economy, international system and domestic configurations of class forces, the overriding strategic objectives have not.

US foreign policy and world economic crisis

The Obama administration came into power at a moment of profound economic and geopolitical turmoil. The bursting of a speculative bubble in the US housing market-the alleged subprime mortgage crisis-was already unspooling into a global “credit crunch”, which at the time was estimated to cause the global economy losses of at least US$1 trillion.21 Concomitantly, US military power projection abroad was experiencing a relative decline as epitomised by the Russia-Georgia conflict of August 2008. Bogged down in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and freshly reeling from the first jolts of the global financial crisis, the “lame duck” administration of Bush Jr found itself with few cards to play in dealing with the conflict. The episode represented the most concrete strain between Russia and the US since the end of the Cold War. It also brought to the fore simmering tensions within the NATO camp. But despite some sabre-rattling from Washington, little of substance was actually achieved, as key Western European governments (France, Germany and Italy in particular), heavily dependent on Russian energy supplies and quick to avoid any action that might endanger these, diplomatically deferred on the issue. The post Cold War manifestation of the Open Door international order, founded upon the twin pillars of “neoliberalism at home and globalisation abroad” under US economic and political dominance, was showing severe signs of weakening. The task set out by the Obama administration itself, and the hopes of its allies, was that the newly elected “reformist” president in Washington was going to reinvigorate this order.

Faced with the twin challenges of a new great recession and the corresponding geopolitical shifts, the initial response of the Obama administration was to pursue modest fiscal expansionary policies at home, while engaging in a multilateralist charm offensive abroad. In February 2009 Obama signed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), which provided the US economy with a fiscal stimulus of US$787 billion through a combination of tax breaks and government spending on infrastructure, welfare and education programmes.22 This was accompanied by successive programmes of quantitative easing by the US Federal Reserve-effectively meaning the central bank sought to stimulate the economy by printing money and pumping it into the financial system.23 Concomitantly, vice-president Joe Biden travelled to Europe, where he promised to “reset” tarnished US-Russian relations at the Munich Security Conference. At the G20 summit in April, Obama personally negotiated a compromise between France and China, and, at the Summit of the Americas later in the month, promised a “new beginning” with Cuba, a gesture also aimed at the hemisphere’s other “radical-leftist” governments. The Obama charm campaign reached its zenith in June 2009, when the president, in a speech at Cairo University, reached out to the Muslim world, in attempting to mend US-Muslim relations, which had been “severely damaged” under the Bush Jr presidency.

Within the US foreign policy community, as well as the Obama administration itself, this was often referred to as the new administration’s strategy of “multilateral retrenchment”. This was music to the ears of the liberal press, who saw this as a confirmation of Obama’s healing power of transforming America’s image abroad.24 Less diplomatically, we can see this recalibration of US foreign relations as an attempt to reconsolidate and maintain US “hegemony on the cheap”25-a redistribution of imperial burden sharing. Indeed, as Daniel Drezdner notes, this was how allies even interpreted “the Obama administration’s supposed modesty”.26

Yet by the time Obama was due to give his first State of the Union address in 2010, the concrete results of his administration’s efforts of rebuilding American “leadership” were few and far between. Efforts of orchestrating an internationally coordinated response to the global slump had largely failed as demonstrated by the empty resolutions of various G20 summits, the continued stalemate in the Doha trade negotiations, and the currency war with China between 2009 and 2011. Following this series of failures the Obama administration very rapidly shifted its foreign policy tactics.

Tactics of American empire

The particular form that these tactics took bears a great deal of resemblance to those of the Bush-Cheney regime that Obama supposedly had broken with. Nowhere is this more evident than in the continued US intervention in Afghanistan, Pakistan and other states under the aegis of the war on terror. The Obama administration very pointedly disowned the label “global war on terror” in an effort to distance itself from the legacy of George W Bush. Yet at the same time, it massively increased the number of operations conducted in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The most spectacular example of this was, of course, the killing of Osama bin Laden in April 2011. This operation was conducted without the express permission of the Pakistani government and-allegedly-pursuant to a secret agreement with the Musharraf regime.27 However, the most far-reaching policy choice here has been the escalation in drone bombings of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Of particular note have been the innovative operational methods deployed, which include killing secondary “members” of Al Qaeda and then bombing their funerals or rescuers so as to eliminate other, more important, members.

All but the most diehard Obama supporters have struggled with the fact that this policy has encompassed the killing of US citizens, as with Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen. The fact that al-Awlaki’s killing occurred inside of Yemen points to the high level of convergence between the policies of the Obama and Bush administrations. While some case can be made that Afghanistan is a conventional war, and so does not need the justification of a war on terror (which could stretch to the border regions with Pakistan), the same can hardly be said of Yemen. Indeed, the only argument that could be raised here is that of a global war on terrorism, and this is precisely what the Obama administration has done. In a series of speeches by top legal representatives of the US government the political and legal case for these strikes has been made.28 For example, in a speech on 5 March 2012 Attorney General Eric Holder argued that the US deployed military force “in response to the attacks perpetrated-and the continuing threat posed-by Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and associated forces”. 29 As a result:

Our legal authority is not limited to the battlefields in Afghanistan. Indeed, neither Congress nor our federal courts has limited the geographic scope of our ability to use force to the current conflict in Afghanistan. We are at war with a stateless enemy, prone to shifting operations from country to country. Over the last three years alone, Al Qaeda and its associates have directed several attacks-fortunately, unsuccessful-against us from countries other than Afghanistan.30

If all this sounds familiar, it is because it is almost the exact same justification used by the Bush administration in the infamous 2002 National Security Strategy (NSS). The absence of a fundamental break in foreign policy between the Bush Jr administrations and the Obama regime can, on one level, be explained by the noticeable level of personal overlap between the two administrations. Names that come to mind here include ex secretary of defence Robert Gates (2006-11), Timothy Geithner, who after serving as president of the Federal Reserve of New York under Bush Jr became Obama’s secretary of the treasury, and Generals Eikenberry, McChrystal and Petraeus, who all held high-ranking positions under both administrations.31 However, the similarities run deeper than this.

One of the more controversial aspects of the 2002 NSS was in its argument that the US government would “make no distinction between terrorists and those who knowingly harbour or provide aid to them”.32 Yet this argument was again replicated by Holder, who argued force could be deployed within a state without its consent “after a determination that the nation is unable or unwilling to deal effectively with a threat to the United States”.33

Finally, perhaps the most controversial aspect of the 2002 NSS was its doctrine of pre-emptive self-defence, which argued that the threats posed by stateless terrorists with nuclear weapons meant that the US could no longer “solely rely on a reactive posture”.34 Accordingly, so the argument went, the understanding of an “imminent” threat would need to be transformed, meaning the US could intervene (unilaterally) to prevent emerging threats. This justification has been reproduced almost word for word by the Obama administration’s representatives, with John O Brennan bluntly arguing a “more flexible understanding of ‘imminence’ may be appropriate when dealing with terrorist groups”,35 and Holder relying on similar reasoning.36

One difference that might exist on this front has been the Obama administration’s shift away from a military model based on ground troops to one based on unmanned vehicles. Hence there has been the “withdrawal” from Iraq, completed in December 2011, and the planned gradual decrease in troop numbers in Afghanistan. Immediately though it should be remembered that in practice the former was considered a rational relocation of military power to Afghanistan, where the Obama administration asserted the “real” threat was. Furthermore the Obama administration continued the Bush policy of the “troop surge” in Afghanistan, vastly increasing the number of ground troops. Finally, as Andrew Cockburn pointed out in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, the Obama administration’s posture of moving to a leaner military, concentrated around technology, is hardly new; indeed it has distinct echoes of Bush Jr’s rhetoric and the “shock and awe” tactics initially deployed in the invasion of Iraq.37

Defusing the Arab revolutions

Thus with Obama’s policy shift things seem to have remained very much the same. Of course, as noted above, this fundamental unity is not simply with the Bush administration, but is characteristic of the Wilsonian strategy that has characterised the US imperial position. When the Obama administration’s initial attempt to engage in multilateral tactics largely failed, it shifted back to unilateral methods, yet these were naturally shaped by the relative decline in the US’s economic and military position on the global stage as well as domestic exhaustion and opposition to foreign wars.

The return to the war on terror rhetoric has also marked a more explicit revival of the language of American exceptionalism that is central to Wilsonianism, and also lay at the heart of the Bush administration.38 While initially the Obama administration was quite modest on America’s exceptional character,39 leading to outraged sputtering on the part of many conservative commentators,40 the expanded justifications for the war on terror have seen the language of exceptionalism return with a vengeance. Hence discussions of terrorism are framed by discussions of American values and the importance of the rule of law and democracy.41 Nowhere has this strange mix of American exceptionalism and the vacillation between unilateralism and multilateralism been more visible than in the response of the Obama administration to the revolutionary processes in the Middle East and North Africa.

The initial events-particularly in Tunisia and Egypt-caught the Obama administration by surprise. At the beginning of the Egyptian uprising, various members of the Obama administration-including Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden-stressed Mubarak’s historical role as friend of the US.42 As the uprising progressed, this position began to shift somewhat, with increasing emphasis placed on the universality of “American” values of democracy and the rule of law.43 Of course, this fact was contradicted by the cans of tear gas and mortar used to suppress the uprising that had “Made in America” stamped on them. As events moved towards a decisive confrontation-with a geopolitically uncertain outcome-the Obama administration attempted to find a halfway house that would enable support for the uprising, while guaranteeing a regime friendly to its interests. Hence Hillary Clinton argued that the US supported an “orderly transition”,44 a position that was soon rendered inoperative by the demands on the street.

The response to Egypt-which can be seen as a microcosm of the whole Arab revolutionary process-was indicative of the real problems the Obama administration faced geopolitically. The ousting of the various dictators (most of whom were at least favourable to US interests) would have serious geopolitical consequences. This was reinforced by the genuinely popular character of the uprisings against the regimes, which remained largely free of “outside influences”. At the same time the geopolitical climate rendered the US relatively unable to intervene in these revolutionary processes. Despite Obama’s “reconciliation” tour, the thought of the US meddling in Arab affairs was still a problem, there was little ability to craft a “multilateral” response to the uprisings (owing to the relative decline of the US internationally) and the US was too invested in these regimes simply to abandon them. These structural constraints created a vacillating position on the uprisings, whereby the Obama administration was essentially led by the “Arab street”, but tried to dampen its revolutionary potential at every turn.45

However, these tactics proved much more successful in the case of Libya. Here the Obama administration, with a coalition of other imperialist powers, was able to intervene directly in the revolutionary process and allow Libya to remain open to the interests of the US (and its allies). Once again this particular outcome showcases the potent mix of multilateral and unilateral tactics that characterise US foreign policy.

In terms of multilateralism, the US together with France and the UK was able to operate through the Security Council so as to guarantee the result. This was firstly done through the imposition of an arms embargo under Resolution 1970,46 while ostensibly this was to prevent further arms reaching the Gaddafi regime, but it also guaranteed that no support for the Libyan rebels would be forthcoming from Arab revolutionary movements. This created a situation in which the “international community”-led by the US, the UK and France-was the only possible “agent” that could intervene in the process. This was duly realised under Resolution 1973, which authorised a no-fly zone for humanitarian purposes. Russia and China, which have historically vetoed such resolutions-and have been stressing their rivalry with the US-merely abstained from the vote. This is partly explained by the fact that, when the Libyan uprising first began, it was in the interests of all of the advanced capitalist countries that the revolutionary process be brought under control, given the unpredictable geopolitical consequences that could ensue.

Yet this also gives an insight into the ways in which the Obama administration deployed “unilateral” tactics as well. One reason that Russia and China merely abstained from the Security Council vote is that they understood the intervention permitted under Resolution 1973 to be a limited one, focusing purely on humanitarian concerns-with no mandate for regime change or a ground invasion. Evidently the Obama administration thought differently. But aside from the way in which the facts played out on the ground, the Libyan intervention was also very explicitly perceived as a way of re-legitimating US military power. Thus proponents of “humanitarian intervention” inside the White House saw this as a way of “rescuing” that doctrine from its use by the Bush administration.47 This outcome was precisely the one opposed by Russia and China, which is one of the reasons for the continuing Syrian deadlock.

Although the Libyan situation has become largely chaotic, the intervention was relatively successful on the US’s terms. There was little popular opposition to the campaign; indeed, most opposition came from within the military itself, and the way in which the Syrian events have played out shows the way in which the debate has been transformed. Thus, in this instance, the mixture of the exceptionalism of American “humanitarian” values, together with different tactics-the key features of Wilsonianism-does seem to have been relatively successful in securing US interests in the region. It is clear, however, that this has come up against determined opposition from Russia and China, and that the particular multilateral option in Libya may have been a result of the extraordinary conjuncture represented by the insurgent Arab revolutionary process.

Containing China

By the time Obama was taking power in the White House, the credit crunch was spreading to the “real” economy, marked by falling levels of economic output globally. However, the effects of the global slump were uneven: while the US and German economies contracted by 2.4 and 5.0 percent respectively in 2009, China and India were continuing to project robust growth rates of 8.7 and 5.7 percent respectively.48 The relative transfer of economic power and wealth from what some have described as the “liberal-capitalist heartlands”49 of the US and Western Europe to South East Asia has recently spawned something of a “status anxiety” among US foreign policy makers. Indeed, this “global shift” from West to East, potentially rendering the international system constructed after the Second World War “almost unrecognisable by 2025”, was already a major theme of the National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) 2008 “Global Trends 2025: A Transformed World” report. Although, as the study points out, ”’international system’ is a misnomer, as it is likely to be more ramshackle than orderly, its composition hybrid and heterogeneous, as befits a transition that will still be a work in progress in 2025”. At the centre of this global shift is the rapid yet contradiction-ridden rise of states like Brazil, Russia, India and particularly China (the BRICs). As the report states:

In terms of size, speed, and directional flow, the transfer of global wealth and economic power now under way-roughly from West to East-is without precedent in modern history. This shift derives from two sources. First, increases in oil and commodity prices have generated windfall profits for the Gulf States and Russia. Second, lower costs combined with government policies have shifted the locus of manufacturing and some service industries to Asia.

Growth projections for the BRICs indicate they will collectively match the original G7’s share of global GDP by 2040-50. China is poised to have more impact on the world over the next 20 years than any other country. If current trends persist, by 2025 China will have the world’s second largest economy and will be a leading military power.

These projections strike a familiar chord with the claims of those pundits who have recently argued that the ascent of leading emerging market economies heralds the future of global capitalism. Hence, while the NIC report states that “the US is likely to remain the single most powerful actor”, it warns that “the US’s relative strength-even in the military realm-will decline and US leverage will become more constrained”.50

Policymakers in Washington have clearly been taking such claims seriously. Indeed, these arguments can clearly be traced in the foreign policy strategy of the Obama administration. In a recent article in Foreign Policy, Hillary Clinton, writing in a style reminiscent of Woodrow Wilson himself, laid down the future foreign policy priorities for the administration:

Harnessing Asia’s growth and dynamism is central to American economic and strategic interests and a key priority for President Obama. Open markets in Asia provide the United States with unprecedented opportunities for investment, trade, and access to cutting-edge technology. Our economic recovery at home will depend on exports and the ability of American firms to tap into the vast and growing consumer base of Asia. Strategically, maintaining peace and security across the Asia-Pacific is increasingly crucial to global progress, whether through defending freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, countering the proliferation efforts of North Korea, or ensuring transparency in the military activities of the region’s key players.51

Clinton’s words, along with her recent nearly two-week long diplomatic tour of South East Asia and the Middle East (including visits to Japan, Mongolia, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Egypt and Israel) form part of the Obama administration’s self-described “strategic pivot” towards Asia where the Pentagon is now set to send 60 percent of the US fleet by 2020. The new strategy aims, on the one hand, to reassert US hegemony over the oil-rich regions of the Middle East and Central Asia, and on the other, to contain China’s growing economic, political and military influence in the region. This strategy entails a substantial increase of US military presence in the region, which, despite defence secretary Panetta’s claims to the contrary, appears directly aimed at checking China’s rise as a global power.52

Critical in all of this is maintaining an “Open Door” in the South China Sea. A recent report for the Center for a New American Security (CNAS)53 arguing for increased US naval defence spending emphasised that:

The geostrategic significance of the South China Sea is difficult to overstate. The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian Oceans-a mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce, accounting for $1.2 trillion in US trade annually. It is the demographic hub of the 21st century global economy, where 1.5 billion Chinese, nearly 600 million South East Asians and 1.3 billion inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent move vital resources and exchange goods across the region and around the globe. It is an area where more than a half-dozen countries have overlapping territorial claims over a seabed with proven oil reserves of 7 billion barrels as well as an estimated 900 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.54

Further, as Cronin and Kaplan go on to note:

The South China Sea is where a militarily rising China is increasingly challenging American naval pre-eminence-a trend that, if left on its present trajectory, could upset the balance of power that has existed since the end of the Second World War and threaten these sea lines of communication (SLOCs). As the principal guarantor of global freedom of navigation, the United States has a deep and abiding interest in ensuring that SLOCs remain open to all, not only for commerce but also for peaceful military activity, such as humanitarian interventions and coastal defence.55

And although “the recent upsurge in diplomatic theatrics over who owns what in the South China Sea does not appear to be intense enough to heighten the risk of major interstate conflict in the near term”, Cronin and Kaplan maintain that “the South China Sea has also become the epicentre of what appears to be a long-term geopolitical struggle in which classical power politics and nationalism are intensifying alongside the rise of China”.56 This seems about right,57 even though the US-Chinese rivalry goes beyond just the South China Sea.

Indeed, classified diplomatic documents released by Wikileaks further confirm this picture of simmering geopolitical and economic tensions between China and the US. In a 7 February 2010 meeting with representatives of the major international oil corporations in Lagos, a senior US official detailed China’s expanding economic investments and influence on the African continent. The US Assistant Secretary for African Affairs described China as a “very aggressive and pernicious economic competitor with no morals”, which involved itself in Africa for primarily selfish motives including the securing of “votes in the United Nations from African countries”. While denying that Washington viewed China as “a military, security or intelligence threat”, the assistant secretary cautioned:

There are trip wires for the United States when it comes to China. Is China developing a blue water navy? Have they signed military base agreements? Are they training armies? Have they developed intelligence operations? Once these areas start developing then the United States will start worrying. The United States will continue to push democracy and capitalism while Chinese authoritarian capitalism is politically challenging.58

The terms of the US-Chinese rivalry could hardly be more clearly stated. The stakes of the conflict are not only about which power dominates the markets and raw materials of those countries, but also which “variety of capitalism” (authoritarian versus democratic) will act as the model to be emulated. Geopolitical and economic competition thus continues to form two sides of the same coin. Meantime, since at least January 2007 there has emerged a “star wars” arms race between the countries. This was supposedly sparked off when the Chinese government shot down its own weather satellite thus “shocking” Washington by demonstrating its capability to fight a space war.59

During the standoff over the weather satellite incident US officials privately threatened to take military action if Beijing did not desist. As classified documents show, Washington responded in February 2008 when it shot down a malfunctioning US satellite to prove that it too could fight a space war, though US officials denied that this was a military exercise. More recent cables sent from secretary Clinton’s office in January 2010 detail new anti-satellite missile tests conducted by the Chinese military and emphasise that the Obama administration “has retained the Bush-era concerns over space weapon plans”.60 In particular, Mrs Clinton reiterated that the “military option” threatened in the 2008 demarches to China was “still valid and reflects the policy of the United States”. As stipulated in the 2008 demarches:

Unfettered access to space and the capabilities provided by satellites in orbit are vital to United States national and economic security… Any purposeful interference with US space systems will be interpreted by the United States as an infringement of its rights and considered an escalation in a crisis or conflict… The United States reserves the right, consistent with the UN Charter and international law, to defend and protect its space systems with a wide range of options, from diplomatic to military.61

In an election year one can expect jingoistic rhetoric to be pitched a tone higher than usual (recall Obama’s “Sputnik moment” in his State of the Union 2011 speech). Yet clearly something deeper is going on here. But perhaps even more worrying for the immediate future is the state of US-Iranian relations.

Intimidating Iran

If the Obama administration has so far been relatively successful in defusing the revolutionary fervour in the Middle East, it has largely been ineffective when dealing with Iran. The question of how to best deal with Iran represents, as Tariq Ali points out, a lingering conundrum to American elites: on the one hand, the regime in Tehran is publicly posing itself as an anti-imperialist “Islamic Republic” breathing fire against the “Great Satan”, while on the other, it quietly collaborates with it when most needed, whether it came to conspiring with the counter-revolution in Nicaragua, invading Afghanistan or, more recently, in the rebuilding of post-war Iraq.62 However, for Israel the benefits of all this have been few and far between, leading its rulers to take a much more downbeat view of Tehran’s rhetorical posturing, directed with greater ferociousness at it, than at its patrons in Washington. In particular, since the prospect of Iran developing a nuclear programme of its own began to loom on the horizon in the mid-1990s (which, if realised, would effectively bring Israel’s monopoly on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East to an end), Tel Aviv has exploited its assets in Washington, London and elsewhere, in order to galvanise political support for decisive military action against Iranian nuclear facilities. While the Republicans still ruled in the White House, Washington proved more than amenable to the idea, matching Tehran’s rhetorical attacks (for example, by including Iran in the administration’s “axis of evil”) and tightening economic sanctions against the regime.

Obama’s initial response was tacitly to reject the “cowboy diplomacy” of his predecessor, favouring diplomatic dialogue instead, seeking to reach a settlement in the interest of all parties: stripping Iran of nuclear capability in exchange for economic and political embrace from the US and its allies. This message was candidly delivered by Obama’s Nowruz [Iranian New Year] message on 20 March 2009, in which the president ensured “the people and leaders of the Islamic Republic” that his administration was “committed to diplomacy that addresses the full range of issues before us”. Speaking in classical Wilsonian parlance, Obama went on to outline his hopes for a “new day” in US-Iranian relations, based on “renewed exchanges among our people, and greater opportunities for partnership and commerce. It’s a future where the old divisions are overcome, where you and all of your neighbours and the wider world can live in greater security and greater peace”.63 But the timing was unfortunate and the calculations were upset by political ruptures inside Iran following the fraudulent presidential elections in June 2009 and the suppression of popular dissent by militia violence.64 As a result, Obama’s plans for a historic reconciliation between the two states were soon set aside for traditional Realpolitik.

Since then the Obama administration has reverted to the tactics of its predecessor, seeking to lock in China and Russia-the consent of its European allies can be taken for granted-to impose ever stricter economic sanctions on Iran, in the hope that it will strangle the country and thereby either oust the neoconservative Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and his puppet President Ahmadinejad or force them to come to terms. Should these pressures fail, the use of military force by US and/or Israeli fighter jets remains a distinct possibility. As Alex Callinicos notes:

There seems no enthusiasm for an attack on Iran in Washington. Obama, busy realigning US global strategy to meet the geopolitical challenge represented by China, has no desire to step into another Middle Eastern quagmire (and is speeding up withdrawal from Afghanistan, where recent events have underlined how the West’s grip is slipping). But Netanyahu will no doubt seek to exploit the US presidential contest, where the rival Republicans are outdoing themselves in their protestations of loyalty to Israel, to pressure him into supporting an attack on Iran. So there may be another war in the Middle East this year.65

Indeed, while the option of a US-Israel led war against Iran sounds like political lunacy and a human catastrophe in the making, the possibility of war cannot altogether be ruled out. There are three reasons for this. Firstly, the Western powers at large-not only Obama, but also Cameron and Merkel-have made it very clear that they will not tolerate any Iranian nuclear capability, leaving very little room for diplomatic manoeuvring if this should materialise. While the Obama administration still opposes a pre-emptive attack on Iran, secretary of state Hillary Clinton recently warned Tehran during her latest visit to Israel that Washington and Tel Aviv are “on the same page” and that the US is prepared to employ “all elements of American power to prevent Iran developing a nuclear weapon”. 66 However, US support for Israel does, of course, not stop at mere rhetorical assurances, but also includes a deepening of financial and military aid to Tel Aviv. On 27 July 2012 Obama reiterated Washington’s “unshakable commitment to Israel” by signing the US-Israel Enhanced Security Act, which pledges an additional US$70 million in military aid to Israel in order to help it expand its short-range rocket defence system.67 Moreover, the US has recently beefed up its military presence in the Persian Gulf, in order to counter Iran. For example, it has deployed one of the navy’s oldest transport ships, the Ponce, which has been thoroughly redesigned as a mobile forward base capable of carrying out important military operations, such as reconnaissance, sabotage and direct strikes across the region.68 Secondly, Tehran’s threat of retaliation should not be discounted, especially in the light of the Iranian military’s downing of an unarmed US spy plane in late 2011 or its bullish stance during the standoff in the strategically important Strait of Hormuz in early 2012. 69

Finally, there are also Washington’s allies in the Middle East to be considered.70 Here recent reports suggest that Israeli leaders, led by the trigger-happy troika of prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, defence minister Ehud Barak and minister of strategic affairs Moshe Ya’alon, seem to have succumbed to, even welcomed, the prospect of “going it alone” and “demonstrating their resolve” at a time when their security is threatened both from abroad, not only by the prospect of Iran developing nuclear weapons, but also by the convulsions of the Arab revolutions, and from within, by simmering public discontent against social inequality. Tel Aviv’s increasing disposition towards a unilateralist stance vis-à-vis Iran was bluntly described by Ya’alon in a New York Times Magazine interview in early 2012, where he stated:

Our policy is that in one way or another, Iran’s nuclear programme must be stopped… It is a matter of months before the Iranians will be able to attain military nuclear capability. Israel should not have to lead the struggle against Iran. It is up to the international community to confront the regime, but nevertheless Israel has to be ready to defend itself. And we are prepared to defend ourselves…in any way and anywhere that we see fit. 71

The aim of Israeli leaders seems to be clear: stopping Iran’s nuclear project by all means necessary. As a result, Tel Aviv is now engaged in a bloody, covert and ongoing war with Tehran in order to remove “important brains” from the nuclear programme. Since 2010 a number of high-ranking members in the Iranian nuclear project have been killed in attacks, which are widely presumed to have been carried out either directly by Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, or with tacit support from the Israelis (through recruited operatives, such as the Jundallah, a Pakistan-based Sunni group, which is ranked as a terrorist organisation by both Iran and the US).72 While Iran has so far refrained from using military force against these intimidations, the political temperature in the region is likely to remain hot in the autumn.

Conclusion

In rhetorical terms the current administration is much more in sync with President Woodrow Wilson’s model of employing international law in the service of US force than the inconvenient truths of unbridled US unilateralism uttered by the swaggering cowboys of the Bush administration. Yet looking beyond this surface image a different picture emerges. The Obama administration has continued and even expanded many of the Bush Jr administration’s “unilateral” policies, often adopting wholesale the legal arguments of its predecessor. Equally, the Bush Jr administration very frequently had recourse to international institutions-to legitimate its occupations, to coordinate “anti-terrorist” action and so on. On reflection then, there is a fundamental unity between the two administrations. This unity points us to the fact that “official multilateralism is not a Weltanschauung [worldview] but an imperialist strategy-which can coexist with its supposed opposite, unilateralism, without much difficulty”.73 The more principled elements of the liberal left have been quick to cry “Betrayal” over Obama’s similarities with the Bush-Cheney regime. Yet to do so is fundamentally to misunderstand the nature of US foreign policy and the imperatives that drive it. As we argue, US foreign policy has been structured by an essentially “Wilsonian” orientation produced by the insertion of the US in the global social relations of capitalism. Consequently, the only way radically to transform this foreign policy is to transcend capitalism itself. This is the only change we can believe in.


Notes

1: The authors would like to thank the International Socialism editors, and particularly Alex Callinicos, for their comments on an earlier draft of this article.

2: Earlier this year Taliban forces carried out massive coordinated guerrilla attacks across Afghanistan, including an 18-hour siege of the capital, Kabul, and simultaneous attacks in three eastern provinces.

3: As Megan Trudell pointed out in this journal, “During his presidential campaign Obama pledged to withdraw the 142,000 troops from Iraq within 16 months of taking office [ie by May 2010]”-Trudell, 2009. The confetti from Obama’s inaugural speech had barely been cleaned from streets of Washington, when he announced the postponement of US withdrawal to September 2010, and said the “residual” 50,000 troops could continue to engage in combat operations to “protect our ongoing civilian and military efforts”-Obama, 2009a.

4: MacAskill, 2011.

5: See, for example, Ninkovich, 1999.

6: As termed by the historian N Gordon Levin, 1968.

7: This is further illustrated by the close strategic overlaps between the Bush administration and its Washington establishment critics (Republican and Democrat alike) in the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As a study by Vivek Chibber well demonstrates, “On the basic matter of regime change…there was no objection from either wing of the foreign policy establishment. The debate was over how Bush should organise the campaign to depose Hussein, and what the appropriate timing ought to be”-Chibber, 2009, p37.

8: Obama, 2007, p7. It is worth noting that the article, audaciously entitled “Renewing American Leadership”, appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Foreign Affairs (published by the ultra-establishment Council on Foreign Relations), which is the chief organ through which the US foreign policy elite talks to itself.

9: This is perhaps best represented within disciplinary International Relations. See, for example, Ruggie, 1996, and Mandelbaum, 2002.

10: For the classic realist critique of Wilsonianism, see Kennan, 1951, and Morgenthau, 1951.

11: Gardner, 1967, pp205-206.

12: Here we leave aside the much-debated question of the precise theoretical standing of the international system in Marxist theories of imperialism. On this very important issue see the contributions in Anievas, 2010.

13: Best illustrated in the historical works of LaFeber, 1993; 1998; Sklar, 1988; and Parrini, 1969. As President Woodrow Wilson continually reiterated, “Our domestic market no longer suffices. We need foreign markets”-quoted in Wilson and Link, 1966, volume 25, p16.

14: It must not be forgotten that the non-territorial form taken by US expansionism both presupposed a long and violent history of internal colonisation on the North American continent and continuing military interventions in perceived US “spheres of interest”. For these reasons, among others, one must not think of the Open Door as the only purely capitalist model of expansionism as do, for example, Wood, 2003; and Gindin and Panitch, 2004. For a useful corrective see Callinicos, 2009.

15: Wilson, quoted in Kennedy, 1980, p299.

16: Smith, 2003, pp141-142. The British Empire’s “imperialism of free trade” (Gallagher and Robinson, 1953) during the 19th century was, in many ways, the real pioneer. However, the Open Door is not synonymous with Victorian free trade imperialism: the latter denoted low tariffs and the maintenance of special spheres of interests and the former demanded equality of commercial opportunities.

17: Wilson, quoted in Knock, 1992, p27.

18: Hoff, 2008, p36.

19: Obama, 2011.

20: Stedman Jones, 1972, p66.

21: IMF, 2008.

22: By comparison, Chinese leaders announced a fiscal stimulus package of RMB¥4 trillion (US$586 billion) in November 2008. As Jane Hardy and Adrian Budd, 2012, point out in an earlier issue of this journal, this represents “the largest economic stimulus package in history, equivalent to 14 percent of gross domestic product (GDP)”.

23: Since the onset of the crisis the Fed has spent a whopping US$ 1.8 trillion on quantitative easing programmes. The limitations of government responses to the crisis, in the US and elsewhere, have been covered thoroughly by this journal since the onset of the crisis.

24: Neoconservatives in the Murdoch-dominated US press snidely referred to this as the “Obama apology tour”. See, for example, Rove, 2009.

25: The term “hegemony on the cheap” is here taken from Colin Dueck’s 2003/2004 analysis of the Bush Jr administration’s foreign policy.

26: Drezner, 2011.

27: Walsh, 2011.

28: Koh, 2010; Brennan, 2011; and Holder, 2012.

29: Holder, 2012.

30: Holder, 2012.

31: A more detailed study of the continuities in personnel between the Bush Jr and Obama administrations can be found in de Graff and Apeldoorn, 2011.

32: NSS, 2002.

33: Holder, 2012.

34: NSS, 2002.

35: Brennan, 2011.

36: Holder, 2012.

37: Cockburn, 2012.

38: Tariq Ali makes a similar point in his excellent analysis of the Obama presidency at its mid-term, pointing out that “historically, the model for the current variant of imperial presidency is Woodrow Wilson, no less a pious Christian, whose every second word was peace, democracy or self-determination, while his armies invaded Mexico, occupied Haiti and attacked Russia, and his treaties handed one colony after another to his partners in war. Obama is a hand-me-down version of the same, without even Fourteen Points to betray”-Ali, 2010, p73.

39: Obama, 2009b.

40: Krauthammer, 2010.

41: NSS, 2002.

42: Murphy, 2011; Reuters, 2011.

43: BBC News, 2011.

44: Landler, 2011.

45: More recently we have seen Washington working with the Muslim Brotherhood and the Supreme Command of the Armed Forces in Egypt in an attempt to restablise the situation. See, for example, Schmitt and Cooper, 2012, and Charara, 2012.

46: UN Security Council Resolution 1970, 2011, paragraph 9.

47: Calabresi, 2011.

48: IMF, 2010.

49: Van der Pijl, 1998.

50: Quotes above are from NIC, 2008, ppvi; 1.

51: Clinton, 2011.

52: Perlez, 2012.

53: Founded in 2007, CNAS exerts significant influence on the foreign policy thinking of the Obama administration. According to Carlos Lozada of the Washington Post, “In the era of Obama…CNAS may emerge as Washington’s go-to think tank on military affairs”-Lozada, 2009.

54: Cronin and Kaplan, 2012, p5.

55: Cronin and Kaplan, 2012, p7.

56: Cronin and Kaplan, 2012, p9.

57: For the latest incident of escalation in this long-standing dispute see Branigan, 2012.

58: Guardian, 2011.

59: Telegraph, 2011.

60: Telegraph, 2011.

61: Aftenposten, 2011.

62: Ali, 2010, p48.

63: Quoted in Black, 2009.

64: On the Iranian revolt, see Jafari, 2009

65: Callinicos, 2012, pp6-7.

66: BBC News, 2012.

67: Al Jazeera, 2012.

68: Shanker, 2012.

69: The Strait of Hormuz is of major geopolitical significance. Located between the Gulf of Oman in the south east and the Persian Gulf, with Iran controlling the northern coast and the United Arab Emirates and Oman controlling the southern coast of the strait, it is the only sea passage to the open ocean for large areas of the oil-exporting Persian Gulf and is one of the world’s most strategically important “choke points”. Approximately 15 million barrels of oil, one fifth of the world’s total, passes through the strait every day in tankers-US Energy Information Administration, 2011.

70: Here, we focus only on Israel, as it remains the key agent of US imperialism in the region.

71: Cited in Bergman, 2012 (emphasis added by authors).

72: The US has condemned these assassinations, while Israel has officially denied any involvement in them (although memos and field reports from the US intelligence services show that Mossad has run a programme for recruiting Jundallah members). See Bergman, 2012, and Perry, 2012.

73: Miéville, 2008, p83.


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