US: The Obvious Emperor


By Francesco Sisci

Asia Times
May 27, 2003

A few days before the first summit of the Group of Eight, after the war in Iraq, in the midst of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) crisis, and while the world economy is sputtering, all eyes are concentrated on the United States, the only remaining superpower on the planet. Significantly, the G8 summit will be held in France, the country that for more than two centuries was perhaps the closest friend of the US but which in the past months has voiced its stern opposition to US policies in the Middle East. This opposition and the strength of the present American Empire are closely linked.

The roots of the present American Empire are linked with France's ambitions in the sense that France's dream of lonely grandeur helped push the US into the arms of the British. This happened a few months ago with the war in Iraq but also back in the 1960s, when Charles de Gaulle partially pulled France out of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).

World War II caused the US to coordinate its policies in Europe closely with its two main allies, the United Kingdom and France. Germany and Italy were defeated and occupied; they were then helped to rebuild their economies to assist in the Cold War effort, but their militaries were in no way independent, being under tight Allied control. The UK was the stronger of the United States' two European partners. England had been the base of operations for the liberation of Europe, while the French army had to be re-established with backing from the US that was far stronger than that needed by the UK - which, unlike France, had not been invaded by Germany.

The US-UK partnership was in no way clear, as in the 1950s London and Paris were in greater agreement. In the late 1940s the US had been quite pressing on the UK to grant freedom to its colonies, while Washington had been more tolerant of the French colonies, strongly supporting the French war in Vietnam, which the US eventually inherited. France seemed to have better relations with Britain than the US had with either of them, so Paris and London launched, against Washington's advice, the operation to reoccupy the Suez Canal in 1956. On the whole the US, despite its overwhelming economic strength, which at the end of World War II was some 50 percent of global gross domestic product (GDP), was not the absolute political center of gravity, and its relationship was possibly better with Paris than with London. Washington was suspicious of London's colonial and imperial past, of which America had been a victim two centuries earlier.

This began to change when de Gaulle pulled France out of the military structure of NATO, saying it would point its nuclear devices, the force de frappe, toward Moscow but also toward Washington. Paris in this way returned to the idea of power politics, a step away from the ideological divide of the Cold War. This change of heart in France drew the United States closer to Britain, which remained its stronger ally in Europe. The two countries also shared a common language and the total fear of Soviet communism.

Furthermore, as the French colonial empire crumbled, the looser network of the British Commonwealth, including Australia and New Zealand, provided a better basis for the new US global responsibilities. The war in Korea in 1950 proved to Washington that it had to counter the Soviet Union everywhere and that it must not repeat the mistake it made in 1949, when it had pulled its troops out of Korea despite growing belligerent rhetoric from Moscow.

In the expansion of its unprecedented global reach the US came to draw more on the experience of the British Empire. London gave Washington almost total access to its intelligence, many British experts migrated to the US, and in many ways Britain became the guide in setting up the new American Empire. This created what is now the intelligence and information integration between the United States and Britain.

Interestingly, the International Herald Tribune, which was a first attempt at global information projection by the United States, was established in Paris, showing the US preference for France. But the successful British attempt to integrate its information network with that of the United States has created the extensive US distribution network of The Economist and the Financial Times. Meanwhile The Times now belongs to the American-Australian News Corp, which also owns Sky-TV, based in London but very successful in the United States, where it rivals the service provided by CNN. Similarly, Reuters is also based in Britain, but its New York office is about as important as its London office. In a way Sky-TV is the next generation of US global projection and, significantly, its European base now is London, not Paris.

On the level of information, and the global influence they can thus exercise, Anglo-American media form a pretty integrated community, with more of a common life, and far more trans-Atlantic exchanges than those across the English Channel. The establishment of English as an international language was pushed by the US but could never have been so successful had not Britain laid the basis for it with its empire, which left hundreds of millions of people who spoke English all over the world. Incidentally, had de Gaulle not pursued his policy of national grandeur, the fortunes of the French people and the French language might well be different.

The culture of the American Empire, although very different from that of the British, also builds on the close contacts with Britain, which can't be overlooked when watching the present American Empire, which is not simply based on the force of its arms.

In fact, its present Iraq intervention is born out two seminal moments, the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War. At the end of World War II the US was tempted to withdraw back within its borders, and might have done so had the Soviet Union not started war in Korea. The proof of this is the US withdrawal of troops from the Korean Peninsula in 1949, when only a few hundred US GIs were left. The need to confront the USSR then pushed the US decisively into an all-out war of containment.

A similar temptation was present in Europe after the end of the Cold War, but because of the war in Yugoslavia and the inability of the European countries to find common ground, the United States was called back. In fact, when Slovenia decided to secede, triggering the much more complicated secession of Croatia, along old historical lines Germany supported the split, while France and Britain supported Serbia. In the early 1990s, the Europeans were unable to decide how to intervene - they feared that intervention on either side might split the European community. They were unable to muster the necessary army or the funding to build one, and did not have the drive to convince their domestic constituencies of the need for intervening in a war in the Balkans, where many pan-European wars had started. Then Europe sent for the US, which went there despite the fact that the Balkans were not a US strategic priority.

While the war in the Balkans dragged on, Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States decided to intervene in the Persian Gulf. Meanwhile, the fate of the Soviet Union saw a deep difference of opinions between Europeans and the US. The former wanted to salvage Mikhail Gorbachev and his empire, as they saw it as part of a complex new European balance of power; the latter wanted to end the Soviet experience and its empire. However, US plans for the former Soviet Union and for Iraq proved not to be definitive. Despite the battering it suffered in the Gulf War, Saddam Hussein's Iraq hung on, posing at least a hypothetical threat to the area, while the dissolution of the USSR was (and still is) very complicated, spawning new threats - Russian mafias on the rampage almost everywhere and a crowd of conflicts in the Caucasus and in Central Asia.

This imposed a continuation of the global US commitment, which, during the presidency of Bill Clinton, espoused a variety of humanitarian causes, such as the intervention in Somalia, which was of little or no strategic importance to the United States. But these causes fed on US public feeling about the necessity of protracted global intervention despite the end of the Cold War.

We shall briefly list some of the many facets of US power.

Military power

The legacy of the Cold War was largely military: the United States was left with overwhelming military power. This strength went on growing, whereas that of its former rival, Russia, was decreasing in importance for lack of funds, and the Europeans, the only ones with in theory the economic muscle and the technology to build a similar war machine, had not the political will to do so. The United States' unmatched military prowess makes many in the world think that US power is based exclusively on that, but this is a gross mistake.

The national missile defense (NMD) system would provide security from a small-scale ballistic-missile attack, for an amount of money that is quite reasonable - US$60 billion, or some 10 percent of the US budget deficit this year. NMD would allegedly be totally effective if a score of missiles were launched, less effective against an attack with hundreds of missiles. But only the Soviet Union could have launched hundreds of missiles against the US, and the Soviet Union is out of the game. Theater missile defense (TMD) will be largely paid for by host countries and thus will bring cash to the United States.

NMD, by providing total potential protection from a nuclear-missile attack, provides an objective guarantee for a US war against any given state. But September 11, 2001, provided the example that many other types of attacks are possible, against which NMD is useless. Besides, even if the "homeland" is safe thanks to NMD, other areas of the US imperial power remain exposed to attack.

The wars in the Balkans, Iraq and Afghanistan proved that the US can deploy its military at many levels aside from its great nuclear capability. It can start and win a war totally from the air, as it did in Kosovo in 1999, or it can win a conventional land war supporting proxies and allies, such as the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan, or (virtually) by itself, as in Iraq. However, the power of the American Empire is made of many instruments, all necessary to its global reach.

Therefore, besides its home turf, the US has to keep intact and possibly growing all these instruments for fear of losing its clout. In a way, as nuclear war is the ultimate weapon that should never be used, full-fledged war is an instrument of power to be used with great parsimony, because it is extremely expensive and can squander global consent. Military muscle is important, but to retain its power it must be used as little as possible.

The power of information

The era of globalization, combining the legacies of World War II and the Cold War, has created many other opportunities to exercise pressure. The present system of rapid global trading, thanks to the exchanges made possible through the Internet and global open stock markets, and rapid personal contacts, thanks to advanced telecommunications and convenient air transport, created new fields of power. Exchanges of money and investment are made possible by the flow of information, which can also be fed by and be ancillaries to an intelligence system. Any country is vulnerable to a "public relations" attack, as global money, now necessary to all, would flee a country under such an attack. For example, if some important papers, on the basis of authoritative intelligence leaks, say Country X has a bad human-rights record, its leaders are corrupt, and its domestic situation is unstable, global investment would leave the country, or would simply not go there. Then trade would trickle away and X would be doomed to a fate of underdevelopment, which would make X easier to subject to further pressures.

Now the US has the most extensive intelligence network, and the most credible.

This is coupled with the most authoritative newspapers, and a political system that is credible and transparent. If, say, the New York Times writes on a US intelligence leak that the president of X has stashed billions in gold ingots, people all over the world would tend to believe it. The US has the capability to obtain such intelligence, and the New York Times has a tradition of accountability that can make people trust that it is not running errands for a state agency. No other country can claim the same combination of assets. Some countries have a credible political system but their intelligence is not as effective, say France or Italy; other countries might have effective intelligence but not credible political systems, say Russia or China. Italy can make a revelation about President X, but who would believe its sources? Worse for China, if it did something like that, because of its poor political system, everybody would believe China was doing so for some selfish murky purpose.

This capability has another element: the power of the international media virtually rests completely in the hands of the Anglo-Americans. From them comes the news that moves capital around the world. Other agencies, say Agence France-Presse, the Spanish EFE, Deutsche Presse Agentur, the Japanese Kyodo, the Arabic al-Jazeera, etc have limited, regional influence. Besides, they hardly move any global investment like Reuters, AP, Dow Jones or Bloomberg, whose terminals sit on the desk of any major executive in the world.

American values

This is the main force of the American Empire. American values tell the story of an ideology in which national interests and global values are carefully enmeshed. The values of universal liberty and democracy are abstract enough to be credible beyond any religious faith. Besides, no other large country like the US hosts all the ethnic peoples and all the beliefs in the world. The US is the world in microcosm and, although dominated by Anglo-Saxon culture, it is so tolerant that it can, for example, use its Japanese community in New York to help it speak to the Japanese of Tokyo. In this way its national interests can be disguised under a veil of universalism.

Only the Soviet Union with its communism could have played the same game, and indeed did so: it used the idea of universal communism to further its national imperial aims. In either case, the US and the USSR, it was not a simple game of cheating. When the USSR conquered a territory, it really tried to establish a communist system which it believed would make that country better off. This reached the point of pumping millions into Eastern European countries, at the cost of keeping Russians poorer than their, say, their Hungarian comrades, as a kind of fee for not letting Eastern European countries develop a capitalist system. The United States, for its part, sincerely believes that a free electoral system is better than a dictatorship, and this is certainly so for intellectuals, although many common people may not be interested.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, no other country has this capability of ideological projection. The Europeans have values very similar to those of the United States but have never been very keen on projecting them, as they believe in and practice some kind of double-standard system: democracy for themselves and colonialism for others. Although during the Cold War the US also often applied double standards, this was never its real dominant thinking and, after the demise of the Soviet Union, democracy has become more of an absolute value.

Only Osama bin Laden and his fellows have similar global ambitions: they want to convert all the Muslims of the world to their form of Wahhabism, and then conquer or convert the rest of the world. But their message has many problems even convincing their fellow Muslims, and breaks no ice at all with followers of other religions. US-style liberty is much more appealing, as anybody can go to the United States and see for themselves the welfare and well-being of the Promised Land. Furthermore, Western Europe and Japan, which have followed in the Americans' footsteps, also enjoy great affluence and personal freedom. The model is far from perfect, as the US managed to export its model to Japan and Europe but not to the Latin American countries in its own neighborhood. But the US attributes the Latin American failures to the deep-rooted problems of those countries, and not to the US model. This answer is not universally accepted, but it is still more acceptable than bin Laden's ferocity.

Furthermore, a century of religious war for or against communism has left the world with an unprecedented need for some global values. This need is reinforced by the daily need to trade and communicate with many different parts of the world. On what values should these exchanges be based? How can we fill the void left by the demise of communism? Religions of any kind can be an answer, and certainly are, for the fundamentalists of any religion, but the US message of liberty goes over the religions and is far less intrusive than other universal ideologies.

This ideology seeps through all kinds of cultural production and its success proves and reinforces the success of the values. The products are film and television, music, video games and of course news coverage. In each of these fields other countries may have sizable local markets, and in some cases US companies will join hands with Japanese (for video games) or European companies (for some films). But no other country has a global reach in all these fields: there is no global Indian film industry, or Chinese music industry, to speak of.

This realm of ideas is not abstract but takes a concrete body in many levers, mainly finance, corporations and international institutions, besides the companies directly manufacturing cultural products.

On a level between pure culture production and commodities there are typical US eateries such as McDonald's, Pizza Hut and Starbucks, or products such as Coca-Cola. They spread an American vision of life, irrespective of culture. Starbucks sells Italian coffee and Pizza Hut sells Italian pizza, and the hot dog is nothing but the German Frankfurter wuerstel. Some American firm may someday start mass-marketing Chinese dumplings. The product per se is irrelevant: what is important is the capability to absorb and standardize models that then are exported everywhere and recognized as American.

Finance and corporations

New York is the center of the global finance. There are other very important cities - Tokyo, London, Hong Kong, Frankfurt - but New York is the most important, and the only one with a very global reach. Here a handful of brokering companies handle most of the capital that changes hands every day in the world and serve the many companies doing business worldwide. Most of the companies dominating the world market and production are American or from countries allied to the United States. The center of finance based in the US and the pervasiveness of US economic value tends to orient companies toward the US, and if they are not American, to push their home base to conciliatory moves toward the US. London and Frankfurt are pretty integrated with New York. Tokyo in the 1980s tried to remain very closed and protective, financing the aggressive expansion of Japanese companies, but this attempt has been defeated and now it is more coordinated with New York.

After the 1980s the yen began going down; the euro has emerged but has no unified political head, and without it the dollar is bound to remain the main token of global exchange. Furthermore, London (which, incidentally, has kept its pound and has not joined the euro) and Frankfurt have become more integrated but are catering for companies that are not exclusively European, as Tokyo was doing up to its crisis with Japanese companies. There is a well-established American-European economic community, firmly grounded on the strong US investments in Germany.

Also through the network of political alliances, the United States leads a loose pack of economies (mainly the US plus Western Europe plus Japan) making up a GDP of some $200 trillion, about 80 percent of the global GDP. This is no orderly phalanx - there is huge competition among the different companies and many countries have had large political friction with the US, as for instance the current case of France. But economically most of the significant companies in each country have a close relationship with the United States. This is a bilateral lever, in the sense that a German company could use its penetration in the US market to pinch the US, but the opposite is truer, as the US is the biggest of the lot and can use client relations with a German company to pinch Germany much harder than Germany might pinch the US.

Then there is technology, where the US is by far more advanced than any other country, and has an integrated industrial system that can cope with any segment of technology. The Europeans, including the Russians, are better at theoretical research but weak at application while, the Japanese are strong with the application but weak with pure research. The United States is the only country potentially to have it all, plus enormous resources to buy any technology or brain who might be hanging around in the world.


To top it all there is diplomacy, which acts on many different levels, and of which diplomatic service is just one instrument. Diplomacy acts through two different channels: traditional political diplomacy comprising bilateral relations, alliances, pacts with individual states, and multilateral institutions such as the United Nations, and economic diplomacy, comprising the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, etc, where the US directly or indirectly plays a leading role, and the G8. All of these are arenas where the US can listen and lead, if necessary.

Besides, the US is home to an enormous number of clubs and associations with exchange programs aimed at bringing people to the United States to be influenced by American values. The Trilateral Commission is just the most famous of these informal institutions. The web of formal and informal ties reaches everywhere, and again no other state has such an extensive and comprehensive network at its disposal, which can wield political and economic influence, make business deals, and exert ideological influence among virtually any decision-makers in the world.

Technological intelligence is thereby coupled with human intelligence, and networks of informants, agents, and retainers in any country provide feedback for Washington and influence in the host country.

In this environment the widespread fashionable opposition to the United States in a way confirms the US legitimacy to carry on with its rule. Everybody opposes its hegemony, but no one really threatens it in a global fashion any longer, and the US tolerance for this opposition proves its benign, tolerant character.

The opposition is after all pretty futile. There is no alternative to US hegemony. No country can replace the United States either globally or locally. In fact the idea of a multipolar world is but a slogan: it is not even clear what should be the poles of the multipolar world, except one - the US. The UN is no longer what it used to be, and it was an important forum only as long as US and USSR would directly meet and talk with one another. Now there is some agreement that the UN can no longer function as it did, but there is no agreement on how it should be reformed. Moreover, the whole idea of veto power was meant to prevent a nuclear war between the US and the USSR, but is somebody going to launch a nuke at the United States if it acts without UN permission?

Imperial crisis

Any real challenge to the United States can come at the moment only from the US itself, from a crisis, economic or political, hitting the country. Short of that, any outside challenger should be able to fill all the slots so far filled by the US, including the claim to be a bastion of liberty. In fact there are many ideas of liberty, and France challenged the US on the Iraq war only on what was supposed to be the best way to uphold democratic and libertarian values in the Middle East.

With all this vast array of levers it might seem strange that US hegemony is not much more extended. In fact, despite the many levers, this array of instruments is not enough to cope fully with the world, which is vast and complicated as never before.

Certainly, as the war in Iraq proved, the US will try to further its grip on the world, but this will also further its risk of overreaching. The US in fact at the moment has a rather weak economy while the present extension of power is very costly. But the economy can recover and costs can be redistributed among allies. What is more complicated is to find a new ideological justification for the present extension and redrawing of the world map. After World War II and the Cold War, the necessity to cope with victory and defeat demanded new borders, but the present war on terrorism is a new concept, hard to define, but terribly real, as proved by the recent bomb attacks in Morocco and Saudi Arabia.

In this war the attack on Afghanistan was a clear step; the attack on Iraq was much less clear and raised a huge controversy, as the US was unable to prove to the world that Iraq was supporting al-Qaeda or had weapons of mass destruction. Right or wrong, the war in Iraq has been won and the peace in Iraq, if it succeeds or fails, will have a huge impact on further US extension in the world. If it fails, the Middle East could become more troublesome than ever and suck the US into a quagmire of Vietnamese proportions. But if the US peace in Iraq succeeds in two or three years, it will become instrumental to the further expansion of US ambitions in the world, with or without the excuse of war on terrorism.


At that point the United States could well start dealing again with what was its main objective before September 11: China. It would do this with all its powerful arsenal, but certainly using little of its military capability, and using a lot of its most powerful weapon, information. And in this field China is basically naked and unarmed. China's response should be simple: arming itself with the weapons of information. In fact it is doing so now but, because of its politics, no matter how many papers or TV channels it sets up, it will have little or no success in the outside world.

A pincer movement is now called for. On the one hand a political liberalization in China would produce more dignity and respect for its media. On the other hand China should consider helping to set up a sympathetic media group in Thailand, the freest country in Asia, with very good ties with China but also with the US and the rest of Asia. This media group would have to build its own credibility, fend off possible future attacks and draw the United States closer to China.

China should avoid at all costs any kind of direct confrontation with the United States, which would have only one result - huge damage for China, which would only be in the interests of China's enemies.

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