Global Policy Forum

The Grand Strategy of the American Empire


By Alex Callinicos

Abbreviated by Mike Tait

Socialist Review
Autumn, 2003

Even before the September 11 attacks, the Bush administration was set to become one of the most conservative and unilateral on record, but after the terrorist attacks the regime really came into its own. The first anniversary was marked by the publication of the National Security Strategy, which aims for world domination through military superiority. The bluntness of the Bush strategy has come as a rude shock to those, notably Tony Blair, who argued that economic globalisation would give birth to an enlightened "international community." That Blair has now been forced to piously defend the realpolitik of US national interest is faintly comic. But the real question is, what is at stake in the US war drive? What is the grand strategy of the US?

The Marxist theory of imperialism sees diplomatic and military conflicts as another form of the competition that drives capitalism. Best put by Nikolai Bukharin during the First World War, the theory of imperialism explains the way that during the 19th century geopolitical rivalries between states increasingly fused with economic competition between capitalists. On the one hand, the industrialisation of war meant that states needed capitalist industry, on the other, the concentration and internationalisation of capital caused economic rivalries to spill over national borders and become geopolitical contests. This fusion led to the terrible era of inter-imperialist war between 1914 and 1945.

People often make the mistake of thinking that Marxism explains imperialism by reducing it to the claim that states act exclusively from economic motives. In the case of Afghanistan, some have argued that the US was only interested in securing access to Caspian Sea oil. In reality, Afghanistan was attacked primarily for political reasons – it was an aggressive reassertion of US hegemony after September 11. It would be wrong to ignore the economic motive in all cases though: assured access to oil is a central preoccupation of US planning.

US strategy after the Cold War

The Bush team reflects the self-confidence of Cold War Warriors who believed they had defeated the Soviet Union. Its collapse in 1989 opened new regions to US business and left the US as the unquestioned superpower. But the Stalinist system had actually stabilised international politics by imposing the discipline of a bipolar world. Its disintegration has resulted in geopolitical instability rather than a new period of peace, or a new American Century.

The US is now challenged by former allies Germany and Japan, who were politically subordinate to the US during the Cold War but developed into economic rivals. Without the need for unity in the face of the Stalinist threat, Germany has become more and more politically independent, encouraging the break-up of Yugoslavia in 1991-1992 and refusing political support for a US attack on Iraq. Japanese penetration of the US economy and investments in US industry are also seen as a threat.

Outside the Western bloc, the US faces Russia and China. Although Russia is impoverished and chaotic, its nuclear weaponry and sheer size and resources mean it is still a great power. More threatening is China, whose accession to laissez-faire capitalism might provide ideological comfort to the US ruling class, but the military potential that accompanied the resulting growth can cause only concern. China's population would also allow it to build a powerful army, which, given its location in a politically volatile region, would get plenty of exercise.

The approach of previous US governments has been to try and extend US leadership of the Western bloc to include other powers. The Clinton administration (1993-2001) succeeded in maintaining a reorganised US hegemony over Eurasia, helped by a boom in the US economy and reinforced by the selective use of force in the Balkans – underlining the dependence of Europe on US military muscle. The Balkan war was also a chance to assert the right of the "international community" to override national sovereignty. The expansion of NATO extended US leadership in Europe eastward, legitimised the penetration of Central Asia, and encircled an increasingly unstable Russia.

US coalition building was a multilateral strategy, but coalitions were promoted to maintain US hegemony, not as an alternative. Even then, the US was not immune to arrogance. As Madeleine Albright put it, "…we are America. We stand tall. We see further into the future." As early as 1999, Samuel Huntington, loyal servant of the US state, warned: "While the United States regularly denounces various countries as "rogue states," in the eyes of many countries it is becoming the rogue superpower."

From coalitions to "pre-emptive retaliation"

If the US was a rogue superpower in the Clinton era, the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks sent it on a rampage. When NATO invoked its never-before-used mutual defence clause, Bush pocketed the declaration, but ignored NATO. US power had been violated – US power had to be seen taking revenge. But it quickly became clear that the Bush administration is using the "war on terrorism" to justify a much more aggressive geopolitical strategy. The first step came with the January 2002 declaration that Iran, Iraq, and North Korea were an "axis of evil" – that they were states that sponsored terrorism. Under-Secretary of State John Bolton expanded this list to include Syria, Libya, and Cuba. But the full strategy became clear only in June 2002, when Bush unveiled his "Doctrine": theories of deterrence and containment were outdated – security required pre-emptive attack. Iraq is the test case for this doctrine.

To understand this doctrine, it's important to understand that the current George II's presidency is not a continuation of George Bush I – it is a conscious attempt to rerun the Reagan era. Bush models himself on the folksy "great communicator," who railed against the "Evil Empire" and did not shrink from using guerrilla war and terrorism against regimes from Nicaragua to Afghanistan. George I, by contrast, carefully built a UN-backed coalition for the last Gulf war. Cheney, then Defence Secretary, now Vice-President, was relatively isolated in the last Bush administration. This time, Cheney, Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, and his deputy Paul Wolfowitz form the core of the administration, with backing from Bolton, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice, and Richard Perle, chairman of the Defence Policy Board. State Secretary Colin Powell is the one who is now isolated.

The outlook of the Republican right is a combination of pessimism and optimism. The pessimism comes from the belief that the world has become more dangerous, not less, and that US supremacy in the long term is far from assured. The optimism comes in part from the outcome of the Cold War. According to the Republican right, Reagan's confrontation of the "evil empire" led directly to its fall. This confidence is reinforced by US military success in the post-Cold War era in Iraq in 1991, Yugoslavia in 1999 and Afghanistan in 2001. This faith in US military prowess makes the Bush team impatient with international institutions; as Bolton said, "There is no such thing as the United Nations. There is an international community that can be led by the only real power left in the world, and that is the United States, when it suits our interests and when we can get others to go along." The Bush administration is also more open in its disdain for other capitalist powers in Europe and Asia, clashing over the Kyoto Protocol, trade tariffs, and the International Criminal Court.

The European preference for multilateralism has been explained by conservative analyst Robert Kagan as a result of their relative lack of power. US military strength during the Cold War protected Europe from the harsh realities of power politics, and allowed European supra-national institutions to evolve. Even if Europe has evolved beyond the horrors of nationalism and war, the rest of the world has not; and Europe continues to depend on the brute power of the US for protection.

Their world-historical perspective leads the Bush team to conclude that a window of opportunity has opened in which they can use the US's present military superiority to improve the long term position of US capitalism. September 11 was the occasion for this aggressive foreign policy, but terrorists are not the target. The National Security Strategy warns of the renewal of Great Power rivalry, and specifically warns China that pursuing military power is an "outdated path." Unless, of course, you're Uncle Sam. In this context, it is little wonder that Russia and China see the proposed National Missile Defense system as an attempt to make the US invulnerable to nuclear attack – and thus make nuclear missiles usable. The development of mini-nukes is another attempt to make the use of these weapons acceptable. The war on terror has also gained a string of Central Asian bases for the US – in the former USSR, right next door to China.

Making the world safe for capitalism

But the grand strategy is not only geopolitical – it is also aimed at imposing Anglo-American style capitalism on the world. In the National Security Strategy Bush claims: "The great struggles of the 20th century between liberty and totalitarianism ended with a decisive victory for the forces of freedom – and a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise." Bush goes on to promise "to create a balance of power that favours human freedom: conditions in which all nations and societies can choose for themselves the rewards and challenges of political and economic liberty." In other words, all nations are free to choose the single model of national success – US style laissez-faire capitalism.

But this economic model is far from neutral; the structure of the world economy since the 1970s has been heavily slanted in favour of the US so that normal market forces reinforce US predominance. Left-liberal economist Robert Wade lists the features that assure US economic supremacy: free capital mobility; free trade (except where it threatens domestic industry); international investment that outlaws favouring national companies; the dollar as the main reserve currency; no constraint on the ability to create dollars (such as a gold link), which allows the US to finance unlimited trade deficits; international lending denominated in US dollars; and the international organisations that monitor the world economy, while they look like international co-operatives, are in fact dependent on US funding.

But it is important not to overstate US dominance. To a certain extent the neoliberal policies provided by US-dominated institutions that run the world economy – the US Treasury-IMF-Wall Street complex – also benefit European and Japanese capitalism. Nor has the productivity of the US "New Economy" taken it "beyond history" as Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan claimed. With the collapse of the 1990s boom it is clear that US productivity was not decisively better than that of its rivals. Indeed, according to the IMF, in 2001 not only Germany and France, but also Italy, had higher output per hour than the US.

The huge US military lead over other powers should not conceal the fact that the economic contest is far more even. This means that current US supremacy is based on fragile and transitory foundations. The current administration is seizing advantage of this lucky conjuncture to try and cement US dominance – but it's a gamble, not a certainty.

Regime change and the politics of oil

But confronting the US's real rivals is not Bush's priority. An invasion of Iraq has two aims: to provide a warning to other states, including potential competitors; and to launch an ambitious program for reordering the entire Middle East. "What people are not grasping here is that after Iraq they have got a long list of countries to blow up," defence consultant John Pike says of Richard Perle and his ilk. "Iraq is not the final chapter, it's the opening chapter." Saudi Arabia, a key US ally, increasingly finds itself alongside traditional US enemy Iran. In July 2002, RAND consultant Laurent Murawiec told the Pentagon's Defence Policy Board that Saudi Arabia was "the kernel of evil," and should be dismembered.

The large number of Saudi nationals involved in the September 11 attacks plays a part in this shift, and though the Bush administration itself skimmed over bin Laden's origins in the Saudi ruling class, others on the Republican right have not been as tactful. Another reason is sharply increased support amongst US conservatives for the state of Israel, which sees Arab states as a threat. Their response to the inability of Israel to placate or destroy Palestinian resistance is to forcibly reshape the Arab world. They hope to spread liberal democracy throughout the Middle East by overthrowing Saddam Hussein, much as the end of the Soviet Union extended the boundaries of liberal capitalism.

The subplot to these triumphalist fantasies is of course oil. Cheney's 2001 National Energy Plan (drafted with Enron's help) warned that in 20 years, US oil imports will have increased from 10 million barrels per day to 17 million barrels per day. The report warned that more sources would be needed and that market forces could not be relied on to ensure US access to this oil – in other words, if you can't pay for it, take it. The need for diversified sources could explain planned increases in Russian oil imports, military bases in the Caspian Sea region, support for the failed right-wing coup in Venezuela, and increased military aid for Colombia. But it also underlines the strategic importance of the oil-rich Middle East. It is almost certain that a US-dominated Iraq would either leave OPEC, or get exemptions from quota restrictions in order to rebuild the country. Either way, global oil prices would be driven down. In the long term, US control of the world's second largest oil reserves would also increase US leverage over Germany and Japan – another example of how economic and geopolitical considerations are inextricably interwoven.

The debate within the ruling class

The Bush doctrine and plans to invade Iraq have provoked intense debate at the top of the US ruling class. Bush II has been criticised by Clinton era officials as well as by senior officials from his father's administration. Even Nixon's former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger criticised the pre-emptive attack doctrine, presumably because it was publicly stated, and not just done. But behind the criticisms is an appreciation of the importance of alliances for the US. In the case of the Middle East Arab alliances are indispensable. Although Israel's isolation in the region and massive US-supplied armoury make it a reliable counterweight to any indigenous regime, over-reliance on Israel would result in massive popular hostility.

For all its military and economic muscle, the geographical position of the US places it offshore to the Eurasian land mass where the bulk of the world's population and wealth is concentrated. To project military power, the US needs allies and clients willing to provide it with bases in Europe and Asia. The Bush team are impatient with delays and believe they have a unique opportunity to see off potential rivals but even with more coercion and less cooperation, they cannot escape the limits of US power.


It would be wrong to say the Bush plans are irrational. They are based on an accurate reading of the long term economic and geopolitical threats facing US capitalism, and involve exploiting September 11 to shift the global balance of power in its favour. But the risks in the coming war with Iraq are very high, for both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. What's more, the ecological and human cost of the Bush plans sum up the reasons millions of people have been drawn to the anti-war movement – to fight the imperialistic expansion of the capitalist system that threatens to destroy the planet.

But the war drive has split the US ruling class and isolated the US from other leading powers, reversing the situation that prevailed after September 11. Even in the US, Bush's unilateralism has very little support. Within the left two mistaken reactions have been evoked by these divisions. On the one hand, Walden Bello has welcomed the split between the US and Europe as opening an opportunity for "a Europe-Africa-Latin America-Asia alliance against US hegemony." But if the EU were to challenge US primacy there would be no real improvement in the present situation. Indeed, increased military spending would only make the world more unjust and dangerous. On the other hand, Perry Anderson of the New Left Review has dismissed the divisions amongst Western ruling classes over this war as irrelevant. He has questioned why this war has provoked so much public outrage, stressing the continuity between the military interventions based on human rights and the "international community"; and the war currently being planned.

But political movements aren't simply governed by the laws of logic. The fact that these wars have attracted more opposition than the Balkan wars reflects a change in the wider political climate. What's more, the experience of a succession of wars fought for US interests in the name of human rights has ideologically toughened the core of the anti-war movement, and within the movement there now exists an anti-imperialist current that has grown as a result of the anti-capitalist resistance of the last four years. The political climate today, certainly in Britain, is one where, simultaneously, opposition to war is very broad, but it is the anti-imperialist wing within the movement that is making the running. The potential exists for building the greatest international anti-war movement since the Vietnam War – at stake is not just the Bush administration, but the imperialist system itself, with its roots in exploitation and competition.

More General Analysis on Empire
More General Analysis on US Military Expansion and Intervention
More Information on Oil in Iraq
More Information on the Iraq Crisis

FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.


FAIR USE NOTICE: This page contains copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. Global Policy Forum distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond fair use, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.