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For a while it looked as if Western Europe’s imperial-colonial era had drawn to a close and as if the imperial benefits and burdens it bequeathed to the U.S. were about to be liquidated, as well. But this turns out to be a gross historical misconstruction.
The West, writ large, has neither relented in its god-given “civilizing mission” nor turned a deaf ear to its deep-set inner calling to “pick up the white man’s burden.” Only a few years ago America’s Neo-conservatives and Christian Rightists trumpeted the “Project for a New American Century” and the universalizing “Freedom Agenda.” They said out loud what so many others continue to think or say sotto voce throughout the Euro-Atlantic world. In fact, this First World has folded its array of national flags into first the NATO flag and then the UN flag. It carries out its perduring imperial mission with the help of the “blue helmets” of the UN; it is abetted and aided by a galaxy of NGOs; and it deploys special international tribunals to try overthrown or defeated civil and military leaders for crimes against humanity and for the cardinal sins of gargantuan corruption.
The West is omnipresent overseas: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan; Egypt, Libya, the Gulf monarchies and emirates; Nigeria, Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Ivory Coast. The principle of intervention trumps that of sovereignty; and the essence of civil war is redefined to be an incumbent government’s enforcement of law and order with loss of life as nothing short of the perpetration of a crime against humanity.
It is, of course, best not to bring to mind who drew the borders of all these potentially de-sovereignized states and who established their regimes and enthroned so many of their dynasties, royal and non-royal. Nor is it seemly to recall the West’s role in the overthrow of Premier Mohammed Mossadegh and the investment of Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi on the Peacock Throne which paved the way for Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Iran; in the campaign against General Abdel Nasser which cleared the ground for Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; in the removal of Premier Salvador Allende in favor of General Augusto Pinochet in Chile; and in the all-out support of President Fulgencio Batista which precipitated Fidel Castro’s triumph in Cuba.
This new-model interventionist thrust of Western statecraft became manifest on the Old Continent between the two World Wars: the intervention in revolutionary Russia’s civil war followed by the cordon sanitaire and quarantine around the Soviet regime which furthered Stalin’s ascendancy; the all-but-innocent forbearance for the Nationalists in the Spanish civil war which quickened Franco’s victory. And then, after 1945, the West’s conservative-tilted interventions in the anti-colonial independence struggles in Indo-China, Algeria, South Africa, Kenya, Dutch East Indies, Belgian Congo, and Portuguese Angola.
To this day empire is lucrative, perhaps not steadily for the exchequer, but year in and year out for discrete interests, some of them vital and powerful. The name of the game is the extraction and exploitation of natural resources, most notably oil, ores, minerals, and metals. This rush for non-renewable resources invites or commands the formation of local elites, essential associates in the imperial enterprise. This collaboration between the imperial agents and indigenous elites, some of them westernized, is the nexus of autocratic rule and twinned corruption, including the “flight” of capital abroad, at the expense of the native population at large. Indeed, it is more than a tad crafty and hypocritical to pass over in silence the senior imperial partners of the Euro-Atlantic world when vilifying and eventually putting on trial or executing outright Saddam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Muammar al-Qaddafi, and–god-forbid or god-willing–Bashar al-Assad, King Abdullah of the House of Saud, King Hamad Isa al-Khalifa of Bahrain, Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen, and tutti quanti.
Ultimately, though, the West still claims the right to mete out a poetic cum victor’s justice. After all, Mubarak did kill some 800 “innocent civilians” at the start of Egypt’s Arab Spring and deposited and invested much of his corrupt fortune in the First World—possibly with Warren Buffet, George Soros, City Bank, Barlcays, BNP Paribas, Deutsche Bank, UniCredit, and UBS. Not only Mubarak and Qaddafi, but several of their fellow regional potentates, committed egregious crimes against humanity compounded by their equally outrageous violations of the West’s, not to say financial capitalism’s otherwise spotless morality. Never mind that while so much of the Arab and non-Arab Muslim world, some of it faith driven, runs amok, the secular Judeo-Christian Western world is killing and displacing not hundreds or a couple of thousand but countless “innocent civilians” in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Libya. Choosing to disremember the gore of its own civil wars the West mocks Montaigne’s postulate that “civil war is a milder evil than foreign war.” Be that as it may, the West encourages and supports the freedom fighters of Third-World revolts far and wide, much as it encouraged and supported those of the erstwhile “color” and “velvet” revolutions, but only on condition that their pro-democracy movements not take a decided socio-economic or proto-religious turn.
Altogether unconscionably Moscow and Beijing challenge, nay oppose, the new-fashioned UN-sanctioned imperial-colonial interventionism. Having lost the Cold War, embraced turbo-capitalism, and resacralized the Orthodox Church, Russia should really know better than to recall the price it paid for having been the prime target and victim of Western containment-cum-intervention fired by a pumped-up fear of epidemic Communism analogous to the West’s current play on the fear and danger of widely expansionist Islamism with its Kremlin in Tehran. By the same token, having unchained the capitalist Prometheus, pirated from the West, it is thankless and shameless on China’s part to hark back to not just the Japanese but above all the American intervention in its internal and regional affairs. And to bolster their respective positions in the world of neo-mercantilist capitalism, Russia brazenly wages the geopolitics of oil and arms sales while China exploits its vast reserve army of surplus labor to supply the Walmarts of the First World with basic consumer goods–at cut-rate prices–without which the West’s bulging ranks of low-paid and unskilled immigrant workers could not hack it. Nor could their employers. To boot, China has the temerity to use its trade surplus and manipulate its currency (the yuan) to challenge the West’s monetary hegemony and strain its public finances, thereby sapping the First World’s will and capacity to continue its imperious interventions in the Third World in its tendentious and swollen “orientalist” spirit.
Meanwhile the Euro-Atlantic world is likely to be shaken disproportionately by the increasingly frequent, severe, protracted, and far-flung gyrations of multinational finance-mercantilist capitalism, especially with a fast-growing and aging world population outrunning critical non-renewable resources and running up against food supplies whose prices are at the mercy of the wildly speculative commodity markets. Whereas in the West the social fallout of this commodity crunch may well take the form of lower-class protest movements, in the Third World, home of so many of The Wretched of the Earth, it is more likely to fuel malnutrition, starvation, and epidemic disease.
Up to the present the urban and rural poor have jointed either the rebels or Tahrir Square in Cairo or the indignacios of the Puerta del Sol in Madrid. At least for the short term, with criticism focused exclusively on the functional rather than substantive rationality and equity of the regnant capitalist economy and society, and given the conspicuous want of a vision and theory of a closely reasoned alternative political economy, the increasingly multi-polar world most likely will be run by the competing rating agencies, not governments, of the G-20. This has the enormous advantage of freeing up presidents, premiers, legislators, and think-tankers to concentrate on developing the military to fight asymmetric wars in which they can kill and defeat an enemy without sacrificing any of their own male and female soldiers. These are in any case being replaced by private-sector condottieri who when not engaged in battle turn into a cross between a peace corps and a salvation army. In any case, the new-model unmanned air and naval warfare is infinitely easier to understand and master by politicians than statistical, mathematical, and model-building economics. Moreover, by fully investing themselves in military affairs they can see to it that the “defense” budget will not only continue to vastly exceed that for social benefits but will also generate employment and profits for the armaments sector of the economy.
In sum, the political leaders of the emergent multipolar world, with the U.S. still in a leading economic and military position, will be able to compete for the Nobel Peace Prize which is as reliable a measure of the exercise of today’s statecraft as the Nobel Prize in Economics is of the utility and application of today’s narrow-gauged “dismal science,” which is dead to the questions, issues, and concerns raised and discussed in the broader field of political economy through the ages.
Even in face of the fast changing international system and Greater Middle East the Euro-Atlantic coalition does not think fit to prevail on Israel to shift from continuing to claim that it is a quintessential and indispensable cultural and military Western outpost in Southwest Asia to seeking an understanding and cooperation with its neighbors on a footing of genuine equality and common interest. The era of hubristic and boundless nation-building has run its course, and the time has come to save Israel from itself.
Arno J. Mayer is emeritus professor of history at Princeton University. He is the author of The Furies: Violence and Terror in the French and Russian Revolutions.and Plowshares Into Swords: From Zionism to Israel (Verso).