Elections, Alliances and the American Empire

[This essay by historian GABRIEL KOLKO is excerpted from CounterPunch’s must-have new book, Dime’s Worth of Difference: Beyond the Lesser of Two Evils, now available from CounterPunch/AK Press.]

Alliances have been a major cause of wars throughout modern history, removing inhibitions that might otherwise have caused Germany, France and countless nations to reflect much more cautiously before embarking on death and destruction. The dissolution of all alliances is a crucial precondition of a world without wars.

The United States’ strength, to an important extent, has rested on its ability to convince other nations that it was to their vital interests to see America prevail in its global role. With the loss of that ability there will be a fundamental change in the international system, a change whose implications and consequences may ultimately be as far-reaching as the dissolution of the Soviet bloc. The scope of America’s world role is now far more dangerous and ambitious than when Communism existed, but it was fear of the USSR that alone gave NATO its raison d’etre and provided Washington with the justification for its global pretensions. Enemies have disappeared and new ones–many once former allies and congenial states–have taken their places. The United States, to a degree to which it is itself uncertain of, needs alliances. But even friendly nations are less likely than ever to be bound into complaisant “coalitions of the willing’.

Nothing in President Bush’s extraordinarily vague doctrine, promulgated on September 19, 2002, of fighting “preemptive” wars, unilaterally if necessary, was a fundamentally new departure. Since the 1890s, regardless of whether the Republicans or Democrats were in office, the U.S. has intervened in countless ways–sending in the Marines, installing and bolstering friendly tyrants–in the western hemisphere to determine the political destinies of innumerable southern nations. The Democratic Administration that established the United Nations explicitly regarded the hemisphere as the U.S. sphere of influence, and at the same time created the IMF and World Bank to police the world economy.

Indeed, it was the Democratic Party that created most of the pillars of postwar American foreign policy, from the Truman Doctrine in 1947 and NATO through the institutionalization of the arms race and the core illusion that weapons and firepower are a solution to many of the world’s political problems. So the Democrats share, in the name of a truly “bipartisan” consensus, equal responsibility for both the character and dilemmas of America’s foreign strategy today. President Jimmy Carter initiated the Afghanistan adventure in July 1979, hoping to bog down the Soviets there as the Americans had been in Vietnam. And it was Carter who first encouraged Saddam Hussein to confront Iranian fundamentalism, a policy President Reagan continued.

In his 2003 book The Roaring Nineties Joseph E. Stiglitz, chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers from 1993 to 1997, argues that the Clinton Administration intensified the “hegemonic legacy” in the world economy, and Bush is just following along. The 1990s, Stiglitz writes, was “A decade of unparalleled American influence over the global economy” that Democratic financiers and fiscal conservatives in key posts defined, “in which one economic crisis seemed to follow another.” The U.S. created trade barriers and gave large subsidies to its own agribusiness but countries in financial straits were advised and often compelled to cut spending and “adopt policies that were markedly different from those that we ourselves had adopted.” The scale of domestic and global peculation by the Clinton and Bush administrations can be debated but they were enormous in both cases. In foreign and military affairs, both the Clinton and Bush administrations have suffered from the same procurement fetish, believing that expensive weapons are superior to realistic political strategies. The same illusions produced the Vietnam War–and disaster. Elegant strategies promising technological routes to victory have been with us since the late 1940s, but they are essentially public relations exercises intended to encourage more orders for arms manufacturers, justifications for bigger budgets for the rival military services. During the Clinton years the Pentagon continued to concoct grandiose strategies, demanding–and getting–new weapons to implement them. There are many ways to measure defense expenditures over time but–minor annual fluctuations notwithstanding–the consensus between the two parties on the Pentagon’s budgets has flourished since 1945. In January 2000 Clinton added $115 billion to the Pentagon’s five-year plan, far more than the Republicans were calling for. When Clinton left office the Pentagon had over a half trillion dollars in the major weapons procurement pipeline, not counting the ballistic missile defense systems, a pure boondoggle that cost over $71 billion by 1999. The dilemma, as both CIA and senior Clinton officials correctly warned, was that terrorists were more likely to strike the American homeland than some nation against which the military could retaliate. This fundamental disparity between hardware and reality has always existed and September 11, 2001 showed how vulnerable and weak the U.S. has become, a theme readers can explore in my book, Another Century of War?

The war in Yugoslavia in the spring of 1999 brought to a head the future of NATO and the alliance, and especially Washington’s deepening anxiety regarding Germany’s possible independent role in Europe. Well before Bush took office, the Clinton Administration resolved never again to allow its allies to inhibit or define its strategy. Bush’s policies, notwithstanding the brutal way in which they have been expressed or implemented, follow directly and logically from this crucial decision. NATO members’ refusal to contribute the soldiers and equipment essential to end warlordism and allow fair elections to be held in Afghanistan (it sent five times as many troops to Kosovo in 1999), is the logic of America’s bipartisan disdain for the alliance.

But the world today is increasingly dangerous for the U. S. and communism’s demise has called into fundamental question the core premises of the post-1945 alliance system. More nations have nuclear weapons and means of delivering them; destructive small arms are much more abundant (thanks to swelling American arms exports which grew from 32 percent of the world trade in 1987 to 43 percent in 1997); there are more local and civil wars than ever, especially in regions like Eastern Europe which had not experienced any for nearly a half-century; and there is terrorism–the poor and weak man’s ultimate weapon–on a scale that has never existed. The political, economic, and cultural causes of instability and conflict are growing, and expensive weapons are irrelevant–save to the balance sheets of those who make them.

So long as the future is to a large degree–to paraphrase Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld–“unknowable”, it is not in the national interest of America’s traditional allies to perpetuate the relationships created from 1945 to 1990. Through ineptness and a vague ideology of American power that acknowledges no limits on its global ambitions, the Bush Administration has lunged into unilateralist initiatives and adventurism that discount consultations with its friends, much less the United Nations. The outcome has been serious erosion of the alliance system upon which U.S. foreign policy from 1947 onwards was based. With the proliferation of destructive weaponry and growing political instability, the world is becoming increasingly dangerous–and so is membership in alliances.

If Bush is reelected then the international order may be very different in 2008 than it is today, let alone 1999. Regardless of who is the next president, there is no reason to believe that objective assessments of the costs and consequences of its actions will significantly alter America’s foreign policy priorities over the next four years. If the Democrats win they will attempt, in the name of “progressive internationalism”, to reconstruct the alliance system as it existed before the Yugoslav war of 1999, when the Clinton Administration turned against the veto powers built into NATO’s structure. There is important bipartisan support for resurrecting the Atlanticism that Bush is in the process of smashing, and it was best reflected in the Council on Foreign Relations’ banal March 2004 report on the “transatlantic alliance”, which Henry Kissinger helped direct and which both influential Republicans and Wall Street leaders endorsed. Traditional elites are desperate to see NATO and the Atlantic system restored to their old glory. Their vision, premised on the expansionist assumptions that have guided American foreign policy since 1945, was best articulated the same month in a book, The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership, by Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was Carter’s National Security adviser. Brzezinski rejects the Bush Administration’s counterproductive rhetoric that so alienates former and potential future allies. But he regards American power as central to stability in every part of world and his global vision no less ambitious than the Bush Administration’s. He is for the U.S. maintaining “a comprehensive technological edge over all potential rivals” and calls for the transformation of “America’s prevailing power into a co-optive hegemony–one in which leadership is exercised more through shared conviction with enduring allies than by assertive domination”. Precisely because it is much more salable to past and potential allies, this traditional Democratic vision is far more dangerous than that of the inept, eccentric melange now guiding American foreign policy.

But vice-president Richard Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, and the neoconservatives and eclectic hawks in Bush’s administration are oblivious to the consequences of their recommendations or to the way they shock America’s overseas friends. Many of the President’s key advisers possess aggressive, essentially academic geopolitical visions that assume overwhelming American military and economic power. Eccentric interpretations of Holy Scripture inspire yet others, including Bush himself. Most of these crusaders employ an amorphous nationalist AND MESSIANIC rhetoric that makes it impossible to predict exactly how Bush will mediate between very diverse, often quirky influences, though thus far he has favored advocates of wanton use of American military might throughout the world. No one close to the President acknowledges the limits of its power–limits that are political and, as Korea and Vietnam proved, military too.

Kerry voted for many of Bush’s key foreign and domestic measures and he is, at best, an indifferent candidate. His statements and interviews over the past months dealing with foreign affairs have mostly been both vague and incoherent, though he is explicitly and ardently pro-Israel and explicitly for regime-change in Venezuela. His policies on the Middle East are identical to Bush’s and this alone will prevent the alliance with Europe from being reconstructed. On Iraq, even as violence there escalated and Kerry finally had a crucial issue with which to win the election, his position has been indistinguishable from the President’s. “Until” an Iraqi armed force can replace it, Kerry wrote in the April 13 Washington Post, the American military has to stay in Iraq–“preferably helped by NATO.” “No matter who is elected president in November, we will perservere in that mission” to build a stable, pluralistic Iraq–which, I must add, has never existed and is unlikely to emerge in the foreseeable future. “It is a matter of national honor and trust.” He has promised to leave American troops in Iraq for his entire first term if necessary, but he is vague about their subsequent departure. Not even the scandal over the treatment of Iraqi prisoners evoked Kerry’s criticism despite the fact it has profoundly alienated a politically decisive segment of the American public.

His statements on domestic policy in favor of fiscal restraint and lower deficits, much less tax breaks for large corporations, are utterly lacking in voter appeal. Kerry is packaging himself as an economic conservative who is also strong on defense spending–a Clinton clone–because that is precisely how he feels. His advisers are the same investment bankers who helped Clinton get the nomination in 1992 and then raised the funds to help him get elected and then defined his economic policy. The most important of them is Robert Rubin, who became Treasury secretary, and he and his cronies are running the Kerry campaign and will also dictate his economic agenda should he win. These are the same men whom Stiglitz attacks as advocates of the rich and powerful.

Kerry is, to his core, an ambitious patrician educated in elite schools and anything but a populist. He is neither articulate nor impressive as a candidate or as someone who is able to formulate an alternative to Bush’s foreign and defense policies which themselves still have far more in common with Clinton’s than they have differences. To be critical of Bush is scarcely justification for wishful thinking about Kerry, although every presidential election produces such illusions. Although the foreign and military policy goals of the Democrats and Republicans since 1947 have been essentially consensual, both in terms of objectives and the varied means–from covert to overt warfare–of attaining them, there have been significant differences in the way they were expressed. This was far less the case with Republican presidents and presidential candidates for most of the twentieth century, and men like Taft, Hoover, Eisenhower, or Nixon were very sedate by comparison to Reagan or the present rulers in Washington. But style can be important and inadvertently, the Bush administration’s falsehoods, rudeness, and preemptory demands have begun to destroy an alliance system that for the world’s peace should have been abolished long ago. In this context, it is far more likely that the nations allied with the U. S. in the past will be compelled to stress their own interests and go their own ways. The Democrats are far less likely to continue that exceedingly desirable process, a process ultimately much more condusive to peace in the world. They will perpetuate the same adventurism and opportunism that began generations ago and that Bush has merely built upon, the same dependence on military means to solve political crises, the same interference with every corner of the globe as if America has a divinely ordained mission to muck around with all the world’s problems. The Democrats’ greater finesse in justifying these policies is therefore more dangerous because they will be made to seem more credible and keep alive alliances that only reinforce the U.S.’ refusal to acknowledge the limits of its power. In the longer run, Kerry’s pursuit of these aggressive goals will lead eventually to a renewal of the dissolution of alliances, but in the short-run he will attempt to rebuild them and European leaders will find it considerably more difficult to refuse his demands than if Bush stays in power–and that is to be deplored.

The Stakes For The World

Critics of American foreign policy will not rule Washington after this election regardless of who wins. As dangerous as he is, Bush’s reelection is much more likely to produce the continued destruction of the alliance system that is so crucial to American power in the long run. Facts in no way imply moral judgments if we merely identify them. One does not have to believe that “worse is better” but we have to consider candidly the foreign policy consequences of a renewal of Bush’s mandate, not the least because it is likely.

Bush’s policies have managed to alienate innumerable nations. Even America’s firmest allies–such as Britain, Australia, and Canada–are compelled to ask themselves if issuance of blank checks to Washington is in their national interest or if it undermines the tenure of parties in power. Foreign affairs, as the terrorism in Madrid dramatically showed in March, are too explosively volatile to permit uncritical endorsement of American policies and parties in power can pay dearly, as in Spain, where the people were always overwhelmingly opposed to entering the war and the ruling party snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. More important, in terms of cost and price, are the innumerable victims among the people. The nations that have supported the Iraq war enthusiastically, particularly Britain, Italy, the Netherlands, and Australia, have made their populations especially vulnerable to terrorism. They now have the expensive responsibility of trying to protect them.

The Washington-based Pew Research Center report on public opinion released on March 16, 2004 showed that a large and rapidly increasing majority of the French, Germans, and even British want an independent European foreign policy, reaching 75 percent in France in March 2004 compared to 60 percent two years earlier. The U.S. “favorability rating” plunged to 38 percent in France and Germany. But even in Britain it fell from 75 to 58 percent and the proportion of Britain’s population who supported the decision to go to war in Iraq dropped from 61 percent in May 2003 to 43 percent in March 2004. Blair’s domestic credibility, after the Labour Party placed third in the June 10 local and European elections, is at its nadir. Right after the political debacle in Spain the president of Poland, where a growing majority of the people has always been opposed to sending troops to Iraq or keeping them there, complained that Washington “misled” him on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction and hinted that Poland might withdraw its 2,400 troops from Iraq earlier than previously scheduled. In Italy, by last May 71 percent of the people favored withdrawing the 2,700 Italian troops in Iraq no later than June 30, and leaders of the main opposition have already declared they will withdraw them if they win the spring 2006 elections–a promise they and other antiwar parties in Britain and Spain used in the mid-June European Parliament elections to increase significantly their power. The issue now is whether nations like Poland, Italy, or The Netherlands can afford to isolate themselves from the major European powers and their own public opinion to remain a part of the increasingly quixotic and unilateralist American-led “coalition of the willing”. The political liabilities of remaining staying close to Washington are obvious, the advantages non-existent.

What has happened in Spain is a harbinger of the future, further isolating the American government in its adventures. Four more nations of the 30-some members of the “coalition of the willing” have already withdrawn their troops, and the Ukraine–with its 1,600 soldiers–will soon follow suit. The Bush Administration sought to unite nations behind the Iraq War with a gargantuan lie–that Hussein had “weapons of mass destruction” –and failed spectacularly. Meanwhile, terrorism is more robust than ever and its arguments have far more credibility in the Muslim world. The Iraq War energized Al Qaeda and has tied down America, dividing its alliances as never before. Conflict in Iraq may escalate, as it has since March, creating a protracted armed conflict with Shiites and Sunnis that could last many months, even years. Will the nations that have sent troops there keep them there indefinitely, as Washington is increasingly likely to ask them to do? Can the political leaders afford concession to insatiable American demands?

Elsewhere, Washington opposes the major European nations on Iran, in part because the neoconservatives and realists within its own ranks are deeply divided, and the same is true of its relations with Japan, South Korea, and China on how to deal with North Korea. America’s effort to assert its moral and ideological superiority, crucial elements in its postwar hegemony, is failing–badly.

America’s justification for its attack on Iraq compelled France and Germany to become far more independent on foreign policy, far earlier, than they had intended or were prepared to do. In a way that was inconceivable two years ago NATO’s future role is now being questioned. Europe’s future defense arrangements are today an open question but there will be some sort of European military force independent of NATO and American control. Germany and France strongly oppose the Bush doctrine of preemption. Tony Blair, however much he intends to continue acting as a proxy for the U.S. on military questions, must return Britain to the European project, and his willingness since late 2003 to emphasize his nation’s role in Europe reflects political necessities. To do otherwise is to alienate his increasingly powerful neighbors and risk losing elections.

Even more dangerous, the Bush Administration has managed to turn what was in the mid-1990s a blossoming cordial friendship with the former Soviet Union into an increasingly tense relationship. Despite a 1997 non-binding American pledge not to station substantial numbers of combat troops in the territories of new members, NATO last March incorporated seven East European nations and is now on Russia’s very borders and Washington is in the process of establishing an undetermined but significant number of bases in the Caucasus and Central Asia. Russia has stated repeatedly that U.S. encirclement requires that it remain a military superpower and modernize its delivery systems so that it will be more than a match for the increasingly expensive and ambitious missile defense system and space weapons the Pentagon is now building. It has 5,286 nuclear warheads and 2,922 intercontinental missiles to deliver them. We now see a dangerous and costly renewal of the arms race.

Because it regards America’s ambitions in the former Soviet bloc as provocation, Russia threatened in February of this year to pull out of the crucial Conventional Forces in Europe treaty, which has yet to come into force. “I would like to remind the representatives of [NATO]”, Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov told a security conference in Munich last February, “that with its expansion they are beginning to operate in the zone of vitally important interests of our country.” By dint of its increasingly unilateral rampages, without U.N. authority, where Russia’s veto power on the Security Council is, in Ivanov’s wistful words– one of the “major factors for ensuring global stability”, the U.S. has made international relations “very dangerous.” (See Wade Boese, “Russia, NATO at Loggerheads Over Military Bases,” Arms Control Today, March 2004; Los Angeles Times, March 26, 2004. ) The question Washington’s allies will ask themselves is whether their traditional alliances have far more risks than benefits–and if they are now necessary.

In the case of China, Bush’s key advisers publicly assigned the highest priority to confronting its burgeoning military and geopolitical power the moment they came to office. But China’s military budget is growing rapidly–12 per cent this coming year–and the European Union wants to lift its 15-year old arms embargo and get a share of the enticingly large market. The Bush Administration, of course, is strongly resisting any relaxation of the export ban. Establishing bases on China’s western borders is the logic of its ambitions.

By installing bases in small or weak Eastern European and Central Asian nations the United States is not so much engaged in “power projection” against an amorphously defined terrorism as again confronting Russia and China in an open-ended context. Such confrontations may have profoundly serious and protracted consequences neither America’s allies nor its own people have any inclination to support. Even some Pentagon analysts (see for example, Dr. Stephen J. Blank’s “Toward a New U.S. Strategy in Asia,” U.S. Army Strategic Studies Institute, February 24, 2004) have warned against this strategy because any American attempt to save failed states in the Caucasus or Central Asia, implicit in its new obligations, will risk exhausting what are ultimately its finite military resources. The political crisis now wracking Uzbekistan makes this fear very real.

There is no way to predict what emergencies will arise or what these commitments entail, either for the U. S. or its allies, not the least because–as Iraq proved last year and Vietnam long before it–America’s intelligence on the capabilities and intentions of possible enemies against which it blares its readiness to “preempt” is so utterly faulty. Without accurate information a state can believe and do anything, and this is the predicament the Bush Administration’s allies are in. It is simply not to their national interest, much less to the political interests of those now in power or the security of their people, to pursue foreign policies based on a blind, uncritical acceptance of fictions or flamboyant adventurism premised on false premises and information. Such acceptance is far too open-ended, both in terms of potential time and in the political costs involved. If Bush is reelected, America’s allies and friends will have to confront such stark choices, a process that will redefine and probably shatter existing alliances. Many nations, including the larger, powerful ones, will embark on independent, realistic foreign policies, and the dramatic events in Spain have reinforced this likelihood.

But the United States will be more prudent, and the world will be far safer, only if it is constrained by a lack of allies and isolated. And that is happening.

GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He can be reached at: kolko@counterpunch.org.


GABRIEL KOLKO is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914 and Another Century of War?. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience