The weakening of a superpower

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An axis of military chaos is engulfing a swathe of the planet, stretching from Nigeria, through Mali, Sudan, Libya to Iraq, Syria, and reaching up to Ukraine. Ancient cities such as Aleppo left in ruins, increasing military tensions on the borders of Europe as Ukrainian and Russian nationalists slaughter each other, millions uprooted by wars in Syria and Iraqi, hundreds of men, women and children killed in Gaza as Israeli and Palestinian imperialist gangsters fight it out, hundreds of schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram. Humanity is naturally profoundly fearful for the future faced with this descent into hell.

Humanity should weep to see this, and greatly fear what it foretells. But to paraphrase the great philosopher Spinoza weeping is not enough; it is necessary to understand.

This growing nightmare is getting out of control but it is not impossible to understand. The cause of this upsurge in barbarism is the same one that resulted in the First World War: imperialism. That is, the life and death struggle by each national capital for a greater share of the world market.

In the nineteenth century the emerging capitalist nations could gobble up the rest of the planet. Millions died in the process. The major powers armed themselves to the teeth from the end of the century as each advance by one threatened the interests of the others. This culminated in World War I when Germany was forced to strike out to counter its strangulation by the other main powers. Millions upon millions of proletarians were slaughtered on the industrialised killing fields of France, Belgium, Turkey, Russia. This was the barbaric price humanity paid for capitalism’s continued existence. A tribute that increased the longer capitalism continued.

The Second World War turned much of the Eurasian land mass into one vast battlefield where there was no or little difference between military and civilians. In this war the ‘other side’ was the entire population of the enemy countries; thus destruction of the men women and children became the ‘legitimate’ aim of the war. It was now total war for the total destruction of the enemy. World War I had slaughtered millions of men, World War II annihilated tens of millions of men, women and children. This barbarism did not end with the war. Europe and the US may have had ‘peace’ but the rest of humanity suffered endless war as the two imperialist blocs reduced one country after another to ruin. North Vietnam had more tonnage of explosive dropped on it than the US used in the whole of World War Two. If this was not enough imperialism held out the prospect of the total annihilation of humanity in a third world war.

The US faced with the end of the ‘old order’ of imperialism

The end of the old imperialist blocs was hailed as the end of the threat of nuclear destruction and the opening of a New World Order. However, the last quarter century has witnessed an accelerating process of the decay of the US’s superpower status. It could not have been otherwise. Freed from the threat of destruction by the other bloc, every capitalist nation has been compelled to place its national imperialist interest first. Initially the US could use its might to get its rivals to tow its line, as seen in the “international coalition” during the first Gulf War, but by the 2003 war in Iraq it was faced with open hostility from many of its former allies like Germany and France.

As its power has weakened so its rivals have become emboldened. Russian imperialism’s recent push into Ukraine would not have happened if it had feared the response of the US. The Russian bourgeoisie, confronted with the US and Europe’s efforts to pull Ukraine away from its sphere of influence, had no choice but to act. But the Russian land-grab in Crimea and part of Eastern Ukraine was encouraged by the US withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. Russia has also used its support for the Assad regime to put pressure on the US. Its military, intelligence and diplomatic resources have propped up the regime. At the same time it blunted the USA’s efforts to step up its military campaign against the regime by agreeing to get rid of its chemical weapons.

At the global level the US has also been confronted by the rise of Chinese imperialism which is challenging its domination of the Far East, the Indian Ocean and even into Africa[1]. This growing imperialist power is also backing the USA’s main rivals in the Middle East: Syria and Iran. This has led to the US pivoting its imperialist policy towards the Far East. China is no military rival to the US, but it can certainly use the USA’s weakness to its own ends.

The weakening of US imperialism is being paid for in blood and suffering of millions around the world. Africa is another example. Only two years ago the US boasted about the ‘freeing’ of Libya from the terror of Gaddafi: this July the US ambassador, as well as the British, had to flee from Tripoli as this country went into free fall as rival militia, army units, and gangs fought for control of all the major cities in the country. The USA’s ‘freeing’ of Libya has certainly freed up the supply of looted arms from the collapsed Libyan army’s weapons dumps. These weapons have flowed across North Africa in order to feed numerous wars and armies, for example the upsurge of the jihadists in Mali last year was stimulated by the flow of arms and Islamist fighters from Libya.

In the Sudan, the US-backed break away South Sudan had no sooner declared itself as a new state, with great fanfare in the Western media, than it began to be  torn apart by a bloody war between parts of the bourgeois faction that had been supported by the US. This collapse of the USA’s effort to undermine the Sudanese government can only have stimulated the ambitions of Khartoum and its Chinese backers.

If the US cannot even stop some puppet government dependent upon it from falling apart, why would other countries and factions in the region have any confidence in the US?

In 1914 it was the weaker imperialism’s desperate effort to try and break the strangle-hold of its main rivals that struck the match of the conflagration, and the same scenario was repeated in 1939. Today it is the actions, or the inability to act, of the world’s main imperialist power that is stoking up barbarism. The American military is by far the biggest, most sophisticated and powerful in the world, dwarfing its rivals, but each time the US has used its military power it brings about more instability and barbarity.  This is evident in Pakistan where the increasing use of drones, cruise missiles and secret special forces operations to assassinate the “enemies of the US” (including 4 US civilians), and the consequent slaughter of civilians, is further shaking the foundations of a state like Pakistan which is already failing, whilst at the same time supplying ever more recruits into armed groups who claim to be fighting the US.

And the evolution of the “Islamic State” is the clearest proof that the USA’s efforts to manipulate different factions of the bourgeoisie are producing the disastrous phenomenon of ‘blow back’. Like al Qaeda before it, set up to oppose the Russians in Afghanistan but then becoming an avowed enemy of the USA, Isis or Islamic State was initially fed by the US and regional allies like Qatar as a force capable of confronting the ruthless Assad regime in Syria, but this ‘pawn’ has now become such a danger to the stability of the region that the US is now sending out feelers not only to Iran but also to Assad to see whether they can come to an agreement about fighting this new threat! This about-face speaks volumes about the increasing incoherence of US foreign policy, a reflection of its underlying weakness.

The USA will not be able to respond to this situation by retreating into a new isolationism. It will be forced, as the Obama administration is now being forced in Iraq and Syria, to launch itself into new military adventures. This is a spiral of barbarism which can only be halted by the elimination of its source: capitalism in its epoch of imperialist decline.

Phil 28/8/14

[1]. For a more detailed analysis the imperialist situation in the Far East, read the special issue of the International Review dedicated to this question:




US Imperialism