The main orientations of the November 2017 report on imperialist tensions provide us with the essential framework to understand current developments:
- the end of the two Cold War blocs did not mean the disappearance of imperialism and militarism. Although the compositions of new blocs and the outbreak of a new Cold War is not on the agenda, conflicts broke out all over the world. The development of decomposition has led to a bloody and chaotic unchaining of imperialism and militarism;
- the explosion of the tendency of each for himself has led to the rise of the imperialist ambitions of second and third level powers, as well as to the growing weakening of the USA’s dominant position in the world;
- The current situation is characterised by imperialist tensions all over the place and by a chaos that is less and less controllable; but above all, by its highly irrational and unpredictable character, linked to the impact of populist pressures, in particular to the fact that the world’s strongest power is led today by a populist president with temperamental reactions.
In the recent period, the weight of populism is becoming more and more tangible, exacerbating the tendency of “each for himself” and the growing unpredictability of imperialist conflicts;
- The questioning of international agreements, of supra-national structures (in particular the EU), of any global approach, makes imperialist relations more chaotic and accentuates the danger of military confrontations between the imperialist sharks (Iran and Middle East, North Korea and Far East).
- The rejection of the traditional globalised political elites in a lot of countries goes together with the reinforcement of an aggressive nationalist rhetoric all over the world (not only in the US with Trump’s “America First” slogan and in Europe but also in Turkey or Russia for instance).
These general characteristics of the period find their concretisation today in a series of particularly significant tendencies.
1) US imperialist policy: from world cop to main propagator of each for himself
The evolution of US imperialist policy over the last thirty years is one of the most significant phenomena of the period of decomposition: after promising a new age of peace and prosperity (Bush Senior) in the aftermath of the implosion of the Soviet bloc, after then struggling against the tendency towards each for himself, it has today become the main propagator of this tendency in the world. The former bloc leader and only remaining major imperialist superpower after the implosion of the Eastern bloc, which for around 25 years has been acting as the world cop, fighting against the spreading of each for himself on the imperialist level, is now rejecting international negotiations and global agreements in favour of a policy of "bilateralism".
A shared principle, aimed at overcoming chaos in international relations, is summarised in the following Latin sentence: "pacta sunt servanda" - treaties, agreements, must be honoured. If someone signs a global agreement - or a multilateral one - he is supposed to respect it, at least ostensibly. But the US under Trump abolished this conception: “I sign a treaty, but I can scrap it tomorrow”. This has already happened with the Trans-Pacific Pact (TPP), the Paris agreement on climate change, the nuclear treaty with Iran, the final agreement on the G7 meeting in Québec. The US today rejects international agreements in favour of a negotiation between states, in which the US bourgeoisie will bluntly impose its interests through economic, political and military blackmail (as we can see today for instance with Canada before and after the G7 with regard to NAFTA or with the threat of retaliation against European companies investing in Iran). This will have tremendous and unpredictable consequences for the development of imperialist tensions and conflicts (but also for the economic situation of the world) in the coming period. We will illustrate this with three “hot spots” in the imperialist confrontations today:
- (1) The Middle East: in denouncing the nuclear deal with Iran, the US is opposing not only China and Russia but also the EU and even Britain. Its seemingly paradoxical alliance with Israel and Saudi Arabia leads to a new configuration of forces in the Middle East (with a growing rapprochement between Turkey, Iran and Russia) and increases the danger of a general destabilisation of the region, of more confrontations between the main sharks, and more extensive bloody wars.
- (2) The relations with Russia: what is the USA’s position towards Putin? For historical reasons (the impact of the Cold War” period and the Russiagate affair that began with the last presidential elections), there are strong forces in the US bourgeoisie pushing for stronger confrontations with Russia, but the Trump administration, despite the imperialist confrontation in the Middle East, still does not seem to rule out an improvement of the cooperation with Russia: for example at the last G7, Trump suggested reintegrating Russia into the Forum of Industrial Countries.
- (3) The Far East: the unpredictability of agreements weighs particularly heavily on the negotiations with North Korea: (a) what are the implications of an agreement between Trump and Kim, if China, Russia, Japan and South Korea are not directly involved in negotiating this agreement? This has already come to the surface when Trump revealed in Singapore to the dismay of his Asian “allies” that he had promised to stop joint military exercises in South Korea (b) if any deal can be put into question at any moment by the US, how far can Kim trust it? (c) will North and South Korea in this context totally rely on their “natural ally” [M1] and are they considering an alternative strategy?
Although this policy implies a tremendous growth of chaos and of each for himself, and also ultimately a further decline of the global positions of the world’s leading power, there is no tangible alternative approach in the US. After one and a half year of Mueller‘s investigation and other kinds of pressures against Trump, it does not look likely that Trump will be pushed out of office, amongst other reasons because there is no alternative force in sight. The quagmire within the US bourgeoisie continues.
2) China: a policy of avoiding too much direct confrontation
The contradiction could not be more striking. At the same time that Trump's US denounces globalisation and falls back on "bilateral" agreements, China announces a huge global project, the “New Silk Road”, that involves around 65 countries over three continents, representing 60% of the world population and about a third of world GDP, with investments over a period of the next 30 years (2050!) of up to 1.2 trillion dollars.
Since the beginning of its re-emergence, which was planned in the most systematic, long-term way, China has been modernising its army, building a “string of pearls”» –beginning with the occupation of Coral Reefs in the South China Sea and the establishment of a chain of military bases in the Indian Ocean. For now however, China is not looking for direct confrontation with the US; on the contrary, it plans to become the most powerful economy in the world by 2050 and aims at developing its links with the rest of the world while trying to avoid direct clashes. China’s policy is a long-term one, contrary to the short-term deals favoured by Trump. It seeks to expand its industrial, technological and, above all, military expertise and power. On this last level, the US still has a considerable lead over China.
At the same moment of the failed G7 summit in Canada (9-10.6.18), China organised, in Quingdao a conference of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation with the assistance of the presidents of Russia (Putin), India (Modi), Iran (Rohani), and the leaders of Belarus, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Kirgizia (20% of world trade, 40% of the world population). China’s current focus is clearly the Silk Road project -the goal is to spread its influence. It is a long-term project and a direct confrontation with the US would counter-act these plans.
In this perspective, China will use its influence to push for a deal leading to the neutralisation of all nuclear weapons in the Korean region (US weapons included), which -provided the US were to accept this –would push back US forces to Japan and reduce the immediate threat to Northern China.
However, China’s ambitions will inevitably lead to a confrontation with the imperialist aims not only of the US but also of other powers, like India or Russia:
- a growing confrontation with India, the other big power in Asia, is inevitable. Both powers have begun a massive strengthening of their armies and are preparing for a sharpening of tensions in the medium term;
- in this perspective Russia is in a difficult situation: both countries are cooperating but in the long run China’s policy can only lead to a confrontation with Russia. Russia has regained power in recent years at the military and imperialist level, but its economic backwardness has not been overcome, on the contrary: in 2017, the Russian GDP (Gross Domestic Product) was only 10% higher than the GDP of the Benelux!
- Finally, it is likely that Trump's economic sanctions and political and military provocations will force China to confront the US more directly in the short term.
3) The rise of strong leaders and bellicose rhetoric
The exacerbation of the tendency of each for himself on the imperialist level and the growing competition between the imperialist sharks give rise to another significant phenomenon of this phase of decomposition: the coming to power of "strong leaders" with a radical language, and an aggressive, nationalist rhetoric.
The coming to power of a "strong leader" and a radical rhetoric about the defence of national identity (often combined with social programmes in favour of families, children, pensioners) is typical of populist regimes (Trump, of course, but also Salvini in Italy, Orbán in Hungary, Kaczynski in Poland, Babiš in the Czech Republic, …) but it is also a more general tendency all over the world, not only in the strongest powers (Putin in Russia) but also in secondary imperialist countries like Turkey (Erdogan), Iran, Saudi-Arabia (with the “soft coup” of crown prince Mohammed Ben Salman). In China, the limitation of the presidency of the state to two five-year periods has been removed from the constitution, so that Xi Jinping is imposing himself as a “leader for life", the new Chinese emperor (being president, head of the party and of the central military commission, which has never happened since Deng Xiaoping). "Democratic" slogans or keeping up democratic appearances (human rights) are no longer the dominant discourse (as the talks between the Donald and Kim have shown), unlike at the time of the fall of the Soviet bloc and at the beginning of the 21st century. They have given way to a combination of very aggressive speeches and pragmatic imperialist deals.
The strongest example is the Korean crisis. Trump and Kim first used both strong military pressure (with even the threat of a nuclear confrontation) and very aggressive language before meeting in Singapore to haggle. Trump offered gigantic economic and political advantages (the Burmese model) with the aim of eventually pulling Kim into the US camp. This is not totally inconceivable as the North Koreans have an ambiguous relationship with and even distrust towards China. However, the reference to Libya by US officials (National Security Adviser John Bolton) – North Korea might have the same fate as Libya, when Gaddafi was urged to abandon his weapons, and then forcefully deposed and killed– makes the North Koreans particularly suspicious of American proposals.
This political strategy is a more general tendency in the current imperialist confrontations, as shown by Trump’s aggressive tweets against Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau, “ a false and weak leader” because he refused to accept higher import taxes brought in by the US. There was also the brutal ultimatum of Saudi Arabia against Qatar, accused of “centrism” towards Iran, or Erdogan’s bellicose statements against the West and NATO about the Kurds. Finally,, we will mention Putin’s very aggressive “State of the Union” speech, which was a presentation of Russia’s most sophisticated weapons systems with the message: “You’d better take us seriously”!
These tendencies strengthen the general characteristics of the period, such as the intensification of militarisation (despite the strong economic burden linked to this) amongst the three biggest imperialist sharks, but also as a global trend and in a context of a changing imperialist landscape in the world and in Europe. In this context of aggressive policies, the danger of limited nuclear strikes is very real, as there are a lot of unpredictable elements in the conflicts around North Korea and Iran.
4) The tendency towards the fragmentation of the EU.
All the trends in Europe during the past period – Brexit, the rise of an important populist party in Germany (AfD), the coming to power of populists in Eastern Europe, where most of the countries are run by populist governments, are being accentuated by two major events:
- the formation of a 100% populist government in Italy (composed of the 5 Stars movement and the Lega), which will lead to a direct confrontation between the “bureaucrats from Brussels” (the EU), the “champions” of globalisation (backed by the Eurogroup) and the financial markets on one side, and on the other side the people’s “populist front”;
- the fall of Rajoy and the PartidoPopular in Spain and the coming to power of a Socialist Party minority government backed by the Catalan and Basque nationalists and Podemos, which will accentuate the centrifugal tensions inside Spain and in Europe.
This will have huge consequences for the cohesion of the EU, the stability of the Euro, and the weight of the European countries on the imperialist scene.
- (a) The EU is unprepared for and largely powerless to oppose Trump's policy of a US embargo on Iran: European multinationals are already complying with US dictates (Total, Lafarge). This is especially true since various European states support Trump's populist approach and his policy in the Middle East (Austria, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania were represented at the inauguration of the US Embassy in Jerusalem, against the official policy of the EU). Concerning the raising of import taxes, it is far from sure that there will be an agreement within the EU to respond systematically to the higher import tariffs imposed by Trump.
- (b) The project of a European military pole remains largely hypothetical in the sense that more and more countries, under the impetus of populist forces in power or putting pressure on the government, do not want to submit to the Franco-German axis. On the other hand, while the EU's political leadership is made up of the Franco-German axis, France has traditionally developed its military technological cooperation with Britain, which is about to leave the EU.
- (c) Tensions around the reception of refugees not only pits the coalition of populist governments in the East against those of Western Europe, but increasingly Western countries against each other, as shown by the strong tensions that have developed between Macron's France and the Italian populist government, while Germany is increasingly divided on the subject (pressure from the CSU).
- (d) the economic and political weight of Italy (the third economy of the EU) is considerable, in no way comparable with the weight of Greece. The Italian populist government intends, among other things, to reduce taxes and to introduce a basic income, which will cost more than one hundred billion euros. At the same time the government’s programme includes asking the European Central Bank to skip 250 billion euros of the Italian debt!
- (e) On the economic but also imperialist level, Greece had already advanced the idea of appealing to China to support its ailing economy. Again, Italy plans to call China or Russia for help to support and finance an economic recovery. Such an orientation could have a major impact at the imperialist level. Italy already opposes the continuation of EU embargo measures against Russia following the annexation of Crimea.
All these orientations strongly accentuate the crisis within the EU and the tendencies towards fragmentation. It will ultimately affect the policy of Germany as the most influential country in the EU, as it is internally divided (weight of AfD and CSU), confronted with political opposition by the populist leaders of Eastern Europe, economic opposition by Mediterranean countries (Italy, Greece, ...), and quarells with Turkey, while at the same time being directly targeted by Trump’s import tariffs. The growing fragmentation of Europe under the blows of populism and the “America First” policy will also present a huge problem for the policy of France, because these trends are in total opposition to Macron’s programme, which is essentially based on the strengthening of Europe and on the full assimilation of globalisation.
ICC, June 2018