Imperialist Conflicts: "Every Man for Himself" and the Crisis of American Leadership

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Since the events in South Lebanon last spring, inter-imperialist tensions have gone on accumulating in the Middle East. Thus, once again, the bourgeoisie's speechifying about the advent of a new "era of peace" in this region, one of the main imperialist powder-kegs on the planet, has been given the lie. This zone, which for forty years was a major stake in the conflict between the two blocs, is now at the centre of the bitter struggle between the great imperialist powers that used to make up the western bloc. Behind this hotting up of imperialist tensions, there is a major challenge being mounted to the world's leading power in what has been one of its principal hunting grounds, and this challenge has even involved its closest allies and lieutenants.

The world's leading power challenged in its Middle East hunting ground

The macho policies carried out by the USA over the last few years to reinforce its domination over the whole Middle East and to keep its rivals at bay have been seriously encumbered by the arrival of Netanyahu to power in Israel; all the more so because Washington had made no secret of its solid support for the Labour candidate, Shimon Peres (Clinton had involved himself personally in these elections, to a far greater degree than any previous US president). The consequences of this electoral balls-up have quickly made themselves felt. Unlike Peres who has a firm grip over the Labour party, Netanyahu can quite clearly not exert the same kind of control over his own party, Likud. This was shown by the shambles over the formation of his government, but also by the fact that D Levy, who was responsible for foreign affairs, has been put in quarantine. Netanyahu is subject to the pressure of the most hard-line and an archaic fraction of Likud, whose leading light is A Sharon. He's the one who has violently denounced American interference in the Israeli elections, which according to him 6reduces Israel to the status of a banana republic. He thus expressed the will of certain sectors of the Israeli bourgeoisie to gain a greater autonomy from its grand American sponsor. Today these fractions are putting into question the whole of the "peace process" imposed by the USA with the accord of Rabin and Peres, whether towards the Palestinians (new colonisation projects frozen by the Labour government are again underway) or towards Syria and the question of the Golan. These fractions have done everything they can to hold up the long-planned meeting between Arafat and Netanyahu; and when it did finally take place, they made sure that it would be void of any content. This policy can only make big trouble for the USA's liege-man Arafat, who will not be able to keep control of his troops without markedly sharpening his tone (this has in fact already started) and moving towards a new state of belligerence with Israel. Similarly, all the efforts deployed by the USA, alternating the carrot and the stick, aimed at bringing Syria actively into the "peace process" are now being undermined by Israeli intransigence, when formerly they seemed to be bearing fruit.
Likud's arrival in power has also had consequences for the USA's other great ally in the region, the main beneficiary of American aid in the Middle East, Egypt. And what's more this has come at a time when Egypt, a key state in the "Arab world", has been the object of various seductive approaches by the USA's European rivals[1]. Since the Israeli invasion of South Lebanon, Egypt has tended to distance itself more and more from American policies and has been strengthening its links with France and Germany while more and more violently denouncing the new Israeli policies, even though it actually has a peace accord with Israel.

But without doubt one of the most spectacular symptoms of the new imperialist reality emerging in the region is the evolution of the policies of the Saudi state (which served as the main base for the US army during the Gulf war) towards its American tutor. Whoever was actually behind it, the terrorist attack on US troops in Dahran was a direct strike at the American military presence and already expressed a clear weakening of the USA's grip over what has been one of its Middle East strongholds. But if we add to that the particularly warm greeting given the visit of Chirac, head of a country which is spearheading the challenge to US leadership, we can get some idea of the deterioration of American positions in what was up till very recently a state totally submissive to Washington's diktats. It is evident that the domination of "Uncle Sam" is less and less tolerable to certain fractions of the Saudi ruling class, who are trying to squirm away from the US by moving towards certain European countries. The fact that prince Abdallah, the heir to the throne, is at the head of these fractions shows the strength of the anti-American tendency which is emerging.

The fact that once docile allies like Israel and Saudi Arabia can show such a reticence to obey the commands of Uncle Sam, that they are not hesitating to tighten their links with the main challengers to the American "order" such as France, Britain and Germany[2] clearly signifies that we are seeing an important modification in the imperialist balance of forces in an area which not long ago was the USA's exclusive hunting ground. In 1995, while the Americans were faced with a difficult situation in ex-Yugoslavia, they still reigned as absolute masters in the Middle East. After the Gulf war, they had managed to boot the European powers right out of the region. France had seen its presence in Lebanon reduced to zero, and at the same time it had lost its influence in Iraq. Britain had been given no reward for its loyalty and very active participation in the Gulf war; Washington merely tossed it a few crumbs in the reconstruction of Kuwait. During the Israel-Palestinian peace talks, Europe had a miserable walk-on part while the USA was conductor of the orchestra. This situation more or less lasted until the Clinton show at the Sharm EI Sheikh summit. But since then, Europe has made a new thrust into the region, at first discretely but then more openly and powerfully, taking advantage of the fiasco of the Israeli operation in South Lebanon, skilfully exploiting the difficulties this posed to the USA.

The latter has found it harder and harder not only to put pressure on traditional mavericks like Syria but also on some of its most solid allies, as the example of Saudi Arabia shows. The fact that this is happening in the Middle East, which is so key to the upkeep of American global leadership, is in itself a clear symptom of the serious difficulties confronting the US superpower. The fact that Europe has managed to re-insert itself into the Middle East arena, to defy the US in one of the regions of the world which it controlled the most tightly, undoubtedly expresses a weakening of the world's leading power.

US leadership runs into trouble on the world arena

The reverse suffered in the Middle East by the US world cop is all the more significant in that it has taken place only a few months after the victorious US counter-offensive in ex-Yugoslavia. This offensive had as its principal aim that of disciplining America's European ex -allies who had gone over to open rebellion. In no. 85 of this Review, while we stressed the set -back this meant for tile Franco-British tandem in particular, we also noted the limits of the USA's success by showing that if the European bourgeoisies had been forced to retreat in ex-Yugoslavia, they would look for another terrain on which to reply to American imperialism. This prognosis has been clearly verified by recent developments in the Middle East. While the US maintains an overall control of the situation in ex-Yugoslavia - which doesn't mean no longer has to deal with the underhand manoeuvres of the European powers there - we can see that in the Middle East, which the US used to run without any real challenge, its domination is more and more being put into question.

But the world's leading power is not only confronted with this challenge to its leadership in the Middle East, and its difficulties aren't limited to this part of the world. We could say that in the terrible free for all between the great powers - which is the main expression of the moribund nature of the system - the US is faced with more and more open challenges to its leadership all over the planet.

In North Africa, the USA's efforts to chase out, or at least seriously reduce the influence of French imperialism have met with considerable difficulties and at the moment is more or less a failure. In Algeria, the Islamic movement which has been used by the USA to destabilise the existing regime and its backer, French imperialism, is in open crisis. The recent actions by the CIA should be seen more as the despairing acts of a movement that are cracking up than tile expression of a real force. The fact that the main source of supplies to the Islamic fractions, Saudi Arabia, is more and more reluctant to go on financing them is weakening the USA's capacity to keep up the pressure. While the situation in Algeria is far from stable, the fraction which holds power with the support of the army and of France has clearly strengthened its positions with the re-election of the sinister Zaroual. At the same time, France has managed to restore its links with Tunisia and Morocco, which in recent years had become increasingly open to the siren-songs of the USA.

In black Africa, after the success it enjoyed in Rwanda when it kicked out the clique linked to France, the USA now faces a much more difficult situation. While French imperialism has reinforced its credibility through its muscular intervention in the Central African Republic, American imperialism has suffered a setback in Liberia where it has had to abandon its protégés. The USA tried to regain the initiative in Burundi by repeating what it did in Rwanda, but here again it has been met by a vigorous riposte from France. The latter, with Belgian support, has fomented the Bouyaya coup d'état, which has pulled the carpet from under tile feet of the "African Intervention Force" which the US was trying to set up under its own control. We should underline that these successes for French imperialism - which not long ago was pinned up against the wall by American pressure - are to a large extent due to Its tight collaboration with that other former colonial power in Africa,· Great Britain. The Americans have not only lost the latter's support but now find it standing against them.

Turning to another important stake in the battle between America and the big European powers, Turkey, here again we see difficulties for the US. Turkey is a vital strategic crossroads between Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East. It is tile historical ally of Germany but it has strong links with the US, notably through its army which was largely formed by the Americans during the period of the western bloc. For Washington, pulling Turkey into its orbit and taking it away from Bonn would thus be a particularly important victory. While the recent military alliance drawn up between Turkey and Israel might seem to correspond to American interests, the main orientations of the new government - which is a coalition between the Islamists and the former prime minister T Ciller - definitively involve Turkey distancing itself from tile US. Not only is Turkey continuing to support the Chechen rebellion against America's ally Russia - which means that it is playing Germany's game[3] - it has also stuck two fingers up at Washington by signing important agreements with two states which are particular bugbears of the USA, Iran and Iraq.

In Asia, US leadership is also being contested. China doesn't miss any opportunity to strike out for its own imperialist interests even if they are antagonistic to those of the USA, while Japan has also shown a will to win greater autonomy from Washington. New demonstrations against US military bases take place at regular intervals and the Japanese government has declared that it wants closer political ties with Europe. Even a country like Thailand which was once a veritable bastion of American imperialism is also taking its distance by stopping support for the Khmer Rouge, who were the USA's mercenaries, thus assisting France's efforts to recover its influence in Cambodia.

Also highly significant are the incursions being made by the Europeans and Japanese into what was once America's backyard, South America. Even if these incursions don't fundamentally threaten US interests in this region and can't be put at the same level at the often successful destabilising manoeuvres being undertaken elsewhere, it is significant that this formerly inviolable US sanctuary is now being coveted by its imperialist rivals. This marks a historic break with the absolute domination that the US has exerted over Latin America since the announcement of the "Monroe doctrine". Although the NAFT A accords, beyond their economic aspects, above all had the function of pulling the whole continent solidly behind the USA, countries like Mexico, Peru or Colombia, to which must be added Canada, have not hesitated to contest certain US decisions which went against their interests. Recently Mexico managed to pull nearly all the South American states into a crusade against the Helms- Burton law promulgated by the USA to reinforce the economic embargo on Cuba and to punish any attempts to get round this embargo.

Europe and Japan rushed to take advantage of the tensions stirred up by the harsh penalties imposed on several Latin American countries for flouting this law. The warm welcome reserved for the Colombian president Samper when he visited Europe, at a time when the US is trying hard to get rid of him, was a new illustration of where things stand. The French paper Le Monde wrote on 4.9.96: Whereas up till now, the USA has studiously ignored the Group of Rio (an association regrouping nearly all the South American countries), the presence in Cochabamba (the place where this group meets) of M Albright, tile US ambassador to the UN, has been widely noted. According to certain observers, it's the political dialogue taking place between the Group of Rio and the European Union and Japan which explains the USA's change of attitude.

The disappearance of imperialist blocs and the triumph of "every man for himself"

How are we to explain this weakening of the US superpower and the challenge to its global leadership, even though it remains the greatest economic power on the planet, and above all has an absolute military superiority over all Its European rivals? Unlike the USSR, the USA did not collapse with the disappearance of the blocs which had ruled over the planet since Yalta. But this new situation nevertheless profoundly affected the only remaining superpower. We gave the reasons for this in the resolution on the international situation from the 12th Congress of Revolution Internationale, published in International Review no 86: "This threat (...) springs essentially from the fact that today there no longer exists the essential precondition for any real solidity and stability in alliances between bourgeois states in the imperialist arena: the existence of a common enemy threatening their security. The powers of the ex-western bloc may be forced, at one time or another, to submit to Washington's diktats, but it is out of the question for them to remain faithful on a durable basis. On the contrary, they will seize any opportunity to sabotage the orientations and dispositions imposed by the USA".

All the blows struck against US leadership in the past few months have to be seen in this context: the absence of any common enemy means that American displays of force become less and less effective. Thus, Desert Storm, despite the very considerable political, diplomatic and military means deployed by the US to impose its "New World Order" did not even hold back its "allies" strivings towards independence for one year. The outbreak of the war in Yugoslavia in the summer of 92 meant, in effect, the failure of this "US world order". Even the USA's success in ex -Yugoslavia at the end of 95 was not able to prevent die rebellion that took place in the spring of 96! To a certain extent, the more the US resorts to displays of strength, die more it reinforces die determination of its rivals to step up their challenge and the more it draws others into their wake, including some of the USA's once most docile clients. Thus, when Clinton tried to pull Europe into a crusade against Iran in the name of anti-terrorism, France, Britain and Germany gave him the cold shoulder. Similarly, the attempt to punish states trading with Cuba, Iran or Libya has only served to provoke a wall of shields against the USA, as we have seen in die case of Latin America. This aggressive attitude has also had its effects on a country as important as Italy which is in the balance between the USA and Europe. The sanctions imposed by Washington on some big Italian enterprises for their dealings with Libya have merely strengthened the pro-European forces in Italy.

This situation expresses the impasse facing the world's leading power:

- either it does nothing, renounces the use of force (which is its only way of exerting pressure today), which would give a free hand to its rivals;

- or it asserts its superiority through an aggressive policy (which it is tending to do more and more), and this quickly rebounds against it, further isolating it and stirring up the anti-American reactions which are spreading all over the world. However, in conformity with the utter irrationality of inter -imperialist relations in the period of capitalism's decadence, a characteristic which has been exacerbated in the current phase of accelerating decomposition, the USA can only make use of force to try to preserve its status on the imperialist arena. We are thus seeing it resort more and more to the methods of trade war, which are not simply the expression of the ferocious economic competition which is tearing through a capitalist world deep in the pits of the crisis but are also a weapon for the defence of imperialist prerogatives against all those who challenge US leadership. But faced with a challenge on such a scale trade war is not enough and the USA is increasingly forced to let die guns speak, as we saw recently with its intervention in Iraq.

By launching 44 cruise missiles against Iraq, in reply to the incursions into Kurdistan by Saddam Hussein's army, the USA has shown its determination to defend its positions in the Middle East, and more generally to remind everyone that it intends to maintain its role as world leader. But the limits of this new demonstration of force appeared straight away:

- at the level of the means deployed, which were a pale replica of Desert Storm;

- but also via the fact that tins new "punishment" which the USA was attempting to inflict on Iraq had very little support in the region. The Turkish government refused to allow the Americans to use the forces based on its territory, while Saudi Arabia didn't allow US planes to take off from its territory to go and bomb Iraq; it even called on Washington to stop the operation. The majority of Arab countries openly criticised this military intervention. Moscow and Peking clearly condemned the American initiative, while France, followed by Spain and Italy, overtly disapproved of it. All this shows how far we have come from tile unanimity the US was able to impose during die Gulf war. Such a situation reveals lie degree to which US leadership was been weakened since then. The US bourgeoisie would have liked no doubt to have made a much more striking show of force, and not only in Iraq but also, for example, against the regime in Iran. But given the lack of support, including in the region itself, they were forced to let the guns speak at a much lower level.

However, while this operation in Iraq had a limited impact, we should not underestimate the benefits it has brought to the US. Apart from being a low-cost demonstration of their absolute superiority at the military level, notably in the Middle East, they have above all succeeded in sowing divisions among their main European rivals. The latter have often been able to mount a united front against Clinton and his diktats about Iran, Libya or Cuba. The fact that Britain has rallied loyally to the intervention in Iraq, to the point where Major has "saluted the courage of the USA", that Germany seems to share this position while France, supported by Rome and Madrid, has been questioning the whole reason for these bombings, is evidence of a spanner thrown in the works of the European union! The fact that Bonn and Paris are yet again not on the same wave-length is not new. The divergences between the two sides of the Rhine have been accumulating since 1995. The same cannot be said about the wedge placed between French and British imperialism on this occasion. Since the war in ex-Yugoslavia, France and Britain have continually strengthened their cooperation (recently they signed a very important military agreement, to which Germany was associated, involving the joint construction of cruise missiles), and their "friendship", to the point where British planes took part in the last 14 July parade in Paris. Through this project London was clearly expressing its will to break with a long tradition of military cooperation with and dependence on Washington. Does the support given by London to the US intervention in Iraq signify that "perfidious Albion" is finally bowing to the sustained pressure the US has been bringing to bear on it, with the aim of pulling it back under its control? Is Britain about to become the faithful lieutenant of the USA once again? No, because this support is not an act of allegiance to the American Big Boss but the defence of the particular interests of British imperialism in the Middle East, particularly in Iraq. This country was once a British colony but under the reign of Saddam Hussein London has lost all influence. France, on the other hand, had gained a solid footing there; following the Gulf war it lost many of its positions but had been about to recover some of them thanks to the weakening of US hegemony over the Middle East. In these conditions Britain's only hope of regaining any influence in this region lies in the overthrow of tile Butcher of Baghdad. This is also the reason why London has always taken the same hard line as Washington over the UN resolutions about Iraq, whereas Paris has always pleaded for the US-imposed embargo on Iraq to be lightened.

While "every man for himself" is a general tendency which undermines American leadership, it also manifests itself amongst the USA's rivals and makes all imperialist alliances highly fragile; even when they have a relative solidity, like the one between London and Paris, they are much more variable than the ones which prevailed during the period when the existence of a common enemy made it possible for blocs to exist. And while the USA is the main victim of this new historical situation engendered by the decomposition of the system, it can only try to exploit the reigning tendency towards "every man for himself for its own ends. The Americans already did this in ex-Yugoslavia when they didn't hesitate to make a tactical alliance with their most dangerous rival, Germany, and they are now trying the same manoeuvre vis-a-vis the Anglo-French tandem. Despite its limitations, the blow struck against Anglo-French unity represents an undeniable success for Clinton, and the American political class had no hesitation in giving its unanimous support to the Iraqi operation.

However, this American success will have very limited effects and will not put an end to the development of "every man for himself", which is profoundly undermining the hegemony of the world's first power; nor will it free the USA from its current impasse. In some ways, even if the USA, thanks to its economic and financial power, has a strength which the leader of the eastern bloc never had, it is possible to draw a parallel between the current situation of the USA and that of the USSR in the days of the eastern bloc. At root, it too can only resort to brute force to preserve its domination, and this always expresses a historic weakness. This exacerbation of "every man for himself" and the impasse facing the world cop actually express the historic impasse of the capitalist mode of production. In this context, imperialist tensions between the great powers can only move towards a crescendo, bringing death and destruction to more and more regions of the planet and aggravating the frightful chaos which is already the lot of entire continents. There is only one force that can stand against this sinister extension of barbarism, by developing its struggles and calling the whole world capitalist system into question: the proletariat.

RN, 9.9.96


[1] Relations between France and Egypt are particularly warm and Germany's Kohl was received there with much ceremony. As for the Secretary General of the UN, Boutros-Ghali, who the Americans want to replace at all costs. Throughout the war in ex- Yugoslavia he continuously blocked American action and defended a pro-French orientation.

[2] The fact that a meeting between emissaries of the Israeli and Egyptian governments took place in Paris is no accident; it sanctions the reintroduction of France into the Middle East, but also the will of the Israelis to address a message to the USA: if the Americans put too much pressure on the new government, Israel will not hesitate to look for support from among its European rivals.

[3] While Germany is compelled to be prudent about the danger of exacerbating the incredible chaos in Russia, the fact that Poland and ex-Czechoslovakia are more "stable" means that there is a kind of buffer zone between themselves and this danger. This gives it more leeway to pursue its historic goal of gaining access to the Middle East With the help of Iran and Turkey. It also allows it to put pressure on Russia with the aim of weakening its ties with the USA. Thus oh-so-democratic Germany is feeding on the chaos in Russia in order to defend its imperialist interests.


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