War, from preparation for it through to its aftermath, has defined both the essential nature of the major capitalist nations and their relative power since at least 1914. War became the major catalyst of change for revolutionary movements in Russia, China, and Vietnam. While wars also created reactionary and fascistic parties, particularly in the case of Italy and Germany, in the longer run they brought about domestic social changes of far-reaching magnitude. The Bolshevik Revolution was the preeminent example of this ironic symbiosis of war and revolution.
Wars not only created social disorder within nations, producing revolutions on the right and left, they also reduced the ability of capitalist states to compete economically with each other. To a significant degree, the United States’ economic supremacy up to the Vietnam War was based on the economic consequences of the two World Wars for Europe. Europe made war while America produced war goods for them until it was ready to enter into war later on its own terms. After 1964, the pattern was reversed, as the US weakened itself through war while the Europeans and Japanese made consumer goods and prospered.
The policy choices made by the US and most other nations always depended on the health – or lack of it – of the economy. Economic necessities restrict the options policy-makers can consider. What a nation can afford is crucial in determining what it can do in the long run. The nature of a power structure – which individuals and classes have the most influence – in turn shapes the range of policies that decision-makers are likely to select from. The political role of the corporations with the most to gain in a nation has always been greatly disproportionate to their numbers. They have created a larger consensus among those who matter most in politics. They have provided, to a remarkable degree, the personnel and expertise essential for the evaluation and direction of foreign policy. All this may seem perfectly self-evident but it is worth reminding ourselves that – among other things but often principally – foreign policies reflect the nature of interested parties, which may be corporate (a constituency itself often very divided), or ethnic (constituencies no less divided by their conceptions of how best the US should relate to situations), or include other interest groups of every shape and variety.
Historically, the main capitalist nations maintained a consensus against all social revolutions in the Third World. This consensus, however, eroded and fell apart as national trade interests came to into play over rivalries for oil and critical raw materials, and as the desire to integrate ex-colonial nations (as artificial as many were) into spheres of influence became more pressing. As a result, there was an escalating power conflict between Western Europe, the United States, Japan, and, more recently, China. The war in Vietnam made the new assertiveness and real power of other nations possible, as the inflation- and deficit-ridden American economy saw the dollar weakened and the gold standard abandoned under Lyndon Johnson.
All that the US made certain was uncertainty itself, leading to a future marked by frequent crises in financial and foreign policy areas, depending on the interests involved. All of this seems self-evident, but is apparently not so to those who rule nations, largely because the interests at stake are always different and there are simply too many nuances to master.
Radical critics cannot draw up a timetable or predict the exact magnitude of future crises because their analytic perceptions are deficient, having lost their appeal and sounding increasingly hollow. But those who rule our political and economic institutions have the problem of resolving the challenges they inherit, and their past incapacity to do so without creating turmoil for some constituency of American society – generally the poor and underprivileged – bequeaths a dismal future to those who are likely to lose the most.
The problem of running a vast foreign and military policy, not just for the United States but also for other nations, is that all decisions on vital questions are filtered through the prism of ambition. Since men and women who aspire to attain influence and power very often give advice with a view to advancing their own careers, they are generally anything but objective assessors of options. Decisions are made to attain success; choices are rarely made with an eye on the facts. The war in Iraq was an example of this. In April 2008 the National Defense University report on the Iraq War, which called it “a major debacle,” was written by men who had originally fully supported the war in order to advance their careers, realizing later that it was essential to turn against since it was politically expedient to keep Congressional money flowing. Decisions, in short, ought to be arrived at without reference to the demands of the bureaucratic system or the calculations of individuals as to how a given decision will affect their personal future. But the current decision-making system is tainted. Errors may be made innocently, as they frequently are, by misjudging facts or being ignorant of vital information, but the system also has the problem of ambitious people. All rational expectation theories, including the schematic notions of Max Weber and the like in sociology, make very similar errors.
All of Bush’s major policies, especially his wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and the grandiose neoconservative agenda to make the US the dominant world power, failed, leaving a legacy of fear and hatred in the Middle East and much of the rest of the world, while making an enemy of Russia and weakening America’s traditional alliances. These policies also made Bush the most unpopular President in American history. Rather than vindicate the Pentagon’s power and succeed in extirpating terrorist evils, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown yet again that the US cannot impose its will on nations determined to resist it. They have also gravely destabilized the Muslim world, Pakistan, and the entire South Asia region, making nuclear proliferation a greater danger than ever. As with its attempt to destroy the Vietnamese communists, the US attack on Saddam Hussein’s regime again revealed the limits of its power. Worse yet, in the Middle East Bush’s war in Iraq has – as his father feared it would – left Iran as the dominant power in the region and transformed the balance of power in favor of a nation the US chose to make its enemy. Contradictions and disasters are the leitmotif of virtually everything the second George Bush did, but there is also a crucial continuity between his own Administration and that of his father from 1989 through 1992.
Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in August 1991 the US lacked an identifiable enemy. Now that the Cold War adversary was gone, the fear of communism had to be replaced by another mobilizing anxiety. President George H.W. Bush and most of his advisers wished to see the USSR survive in some form. “We have an interest in the stability of the Soviet Union,” Brent Scowcroft, the President’s National Security Adviser, told Bush. “Historical enemies would be less constrained by the bipolar Superpower alignments,” the US Joint Chiefs of Staff stated in 1991. Communism had been dangerous but predictable, and the danger now was “international deregulation.” What was essential was a new doctrine to replace fear of communism, one that would keep Congress and the American public ready to spend inordinate sums to sustain the US military as the strongest on earth.
The first President Bush assigned this definitional problem to his Secretary of Defense, Dick Cheney, who later became Vice-President under his son. Cheney published a grandiose picture of a dominant American military power so great and omnipotent – and expensive – globally that no nation could rival it. The policy was vague as to which nation or enemy it was directed against, but it included the abandonment of the doctrine of nuclear deterrence and a commitment to the use of nuclear weapons against lesser threats: weapons of mass destruction, menaces of an indefinable nature. It was never repudiated, in fact was essentially continued, by the Clinton Administration. It was later to form the basis of the neoconservative vision under the second Bush Administration. Indeed, it has not been repudiated by anyone, whether Republicans or Democrats, even to this day. When parts of Cheney’s vision were published in 1993 the Japanese and the Germans were already deemed to be, once again, potential challengers to American power. After the Gulf War of 1990, Iraq was considered an enemy but also strategically important to the US simply because Saddam Hussein – once a friend the US and recipient of billions of dollars of aid – effectively contained Iranian power. Who was the enemy? If this has remained unclear, it is today US policy that it is prepared to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear threats – abandoning deterrence for something far more amorphous in terms of its practical consequences.
The continuity between of the reigns of the two Presidents Bush is clear enough, as is the fact that the use of nuclear weapons to respond to non-nuclear threats, and the abandonment of deterrence, was also the policy of the Clinton Administration. They in turn were all part of a confrontation with the world that began under President Harry Truman. Cheney was scarcely an accident: he became Vice-President to fulfill a consummately ambitious doctrine committed to dangers, and although the senior Bush later regretted the way the policy was interpreted, he was also the author of what has proved the most grandiose of all efforts: articulating a mobilizing doctrine to replace the fear of communism with an indefinable enemy and threat that will justify the Pentagon’s immense and growing budget.
The United States’ problem is compounded today by the deepening disparity between its military doctrines and reality, and by much else. When we discuss US foreign policy we must differentiate between the ideology and the motives that have guided it in the Western Hemisphere, from as early as 1823 when the Monroe Doctrine excluded the colonial European powers from any further expansion and left the entire region to the US, which even then was eyeing great parts of Mexico and the Spanish empire for itself. (Even today, only 82 per cent of all Americans speak English. Most of the others speak Spanish.) The US interventions that came much later in Europe were ad hoc responses to the crises between European nations that emerged from the breakup of colonialism, or to fears of communism – sometimes real but often fictional and convenient. Many of these responses were unpredictable and involved everything from a need to ensure the “credibility” of military power – as in Vietnam – to sheer ideological fixation and a belief that firepower would solve political challenges quickly, as in the case of the present war in Iraq. Crises in the Western Hemisphere, like those that emerged elsewhere since 1947, may also have involved unpredictability, but the US role in the West has often, perhaps always, possessed a crucial geopolitical dimension that rarely, perhaps never, existed in Asia or the Middle East. Economically and strategically one must always look at crises in the Western Hemisphere through a prism that is much older – and more vital to the United States’ real interests. Less than a fifth of its petroleum today comes from the entire Persian Gulf, where it is fighting what has become a major war. Wars in the Eastern Hemisphere take the US away from its own interest and history.
But the United States seeks and finds other problems. The Korean War first revealed its inability to match a fighting and technological capacity directed against Soviet and centralized or urban targets – for which its atomic bombs and mobile armor were best suited – and the decentralized battlefields which it confronted in Korea and Vietnam, and later confronted in Iraq, to mention only the best known. The Vietnam War was a futile, expensive, and protracted effort to use high mobility and airpower – helicopters and B52s – to fight a jungle-based, highly decentralized guerilla army. There was even then growing doctrinal confusion, compounded by the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and today the US suffers an even more acute doctrinal crisis. Its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been costly beyond imagination, will endure long after those who began them leave Washington, and yet will end in failure. There is a rationale for higher Defense spending because it sustains arms builders who have tremendous power in Washington, but their promises of success have proven a chimera. Indeed, military contractors often simply want to sell arms, not use them. Some of them, indeed, may even be against the wars in which their products are employed.
The disparity between military technology and reality has also affected America’s allies, such as Israel. Today this gap between what its military arm can do and political reality poses an even graver problem for America than did the wars in Korea and Vietnam. The American military cannot organize sufficiently well for its missions because they are potentially limitless – taking in Asia, South and Central America, Eastern Europe and Russia, and the entire world. It was not able to fight successfully in either Korea or Vietnam, and its foreign and military policies are often an adventure. The US never fought a communist nation in Eastern Europe though it prepared to do so. It succeeds, if at all, only in very small nations where its proxies are not venal and corrupt. But communist Cuba has existed since 1959!
The problem for the United States is that communism for practical purposes has virtually ceased to exist – what passes as communism in China, Vietnam, or North Korea is increasingly no more than a pretentious fraud. They are de facto capitalist nations or Confucian tyrannies. The US does not know who its enemies are and has the military muscle, and technology, designed to fight only communism. So long as communism was the enemy a US-led alliance could be bound together by a unifying theme. When fear of communism disappeared, more particular interests took over and nations began finding their own way while distancing themselves from American leadership. History since 1991 has become far more complicated – a fact America’s leaders in Washington realized as soon as the USSR collapsed. The world has become far more unstable and unpredictable and the so-called “globalization” of the world economy has made it more rather than less precarious.
Now nations have power without ideology in the true sense of that term, leaving the US confused as never before. The ideological era is over, for capitalists as well as those descended from the Marxist tradition. “Terrorism” is no less confusing. Is it Islamic jihadist, secular nationalist, or what? US efforts against “terrorism” are often counterproductive, as in Afghanistan and Somalia, leaving its enemies stronger than ever. American foreign policy is in crisis because the world is now in transition, emerging from 70 years of Bolshevism into an amorphous political landscape in which a coherent, identifiable adversary can no longer be found.
Worse yet for the United States, its preoccupation with one nation or region – Vietnam and Iraq are perfect examples – means that it lacks the resources to destroy often far more serious opposition elsewhere. The US adventure in Vietnam meant that Castro’s Cuba had the time and space to consolidate. The Afghan and Iraq wars have likewise allowed a slew of Leftist regimes in South America virtual freedom to consolidate, even though ultimately the Western Hemisphere is far more important to the US, strategically at least, than are the wars it loses elsewhere. In a word, the US squanders its vast but ultimately limited resources capriciously. It cannot manage its power rationally.
Above all, its martial adventures abroad cost far more than the US can now afford. Now is an inauspicious moment to be an imperial power: the prices of the commodities the US imports are rising, its current account deficit is worsening, the value of the dollar is falling, while the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have become the most expensive in American history. The US began to fight in Afghanistan in October 2001, but has failed to capture Osama Bin Laden, perpetrator of the September 11 killing of 3,000 Americans in New York. Meanwhile, the Taliban is becoming stronger and the conflict has spread into northern Pakistan, destabilizing that nation’s politics. Since Pakistan possesses nuclear weapons, Washington feels there is a grave risk that Muslim extremists will acquire such a weapon and then be capable of destroying an American city, or all of Israel.
Everything is going wrong for the United States in terms of its power position globally. Russia – rich from selling gas and oil, while spending on its military less than a fifth of the US expenditure in 2006 – is still the US’s equal in terms of nuclear weapons, and outflanks the US in Central Asia, the Middle East, and much of the Islamic world. It sells sophisticated arms to many nations, has economic agreements with Arab and Muslim countries, and has become a growing obstacle to America’s influence and power. Russia is just as much a danger to the US as when Stalin ruled. Nuclear proliferation is now a grave problem, with an unpredictable but growing number of nations equipped with nuclear bombs and terrorists more and more likely to get hold of them. As for chemical and biological weapons, the US never even caught its anthrax killer soon after the September 11 attack. At the same time, the Bush Administration’s strategy on Iran is being undermined by rising oil and gas prices, which also have the effect of making the successors of the Soviet system even richer. There is a fatal, impossible contradiction between US goals – to eliminate the present Teheran regime and contain Russian power – and rising petroleum prices. American policy on Russia is a shambles.
In crucial ways, the basic approach and limits of US foreign policy are hardly unusual. The US suffers from the kind of problems that have affected many nations over the past centuries. The only difference is that the US had, and to a great degree still has, power even while undergoing a transition away from the omnipotence it enjoyed after 1945. That alone is its distinction. The existing system – whether American or not – has the fundamental problem that it cannot be run according to rational criteria, and like Marxism it has no “laws.” In every nation, in every branch of life – military, political, cultural – there are a sufficient number of adventurers, opportunists, egomaniacs, psychotics, or destructive individuals who create or accept disorder. In the case of the US, James V. Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, jumped out of the window of a naval hospital – to which he was confined for paranoia – in May 1949, allegedly because he believed war with the USSR was imminent. Other types – sheer opportunists such as the neoconservatives crucial in the Bush Administration – wish to accumulate power alone. Ideologies are very often merely a disguise for ambition. This limit, again, exists everywhere, not just the United States, and regardless of whether the party in power calls itself “socialist,” “capitalist,” or whatever.
Cynicism is prevalent, and often the only motive of political behavior. We can see it in Russia or Great Britain today. And this is the case not simply with respect to foreign policy, but in relation to every aspect of existing society.
People, whether theorists, administrators, or whatever, cannot regulate or predict systems run by ambitious individuals, and they frequently cannot regulate systems run by perfectly sincere people either – it is simply far too difficult. There is often an immense disparity between what politicians – whatever they call themselves and no matter which nation they belong to – do and what they say. What they do, not what they say, is crucial, because in countless places they have often betrayed their followers.
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, Another Century of War? and The Age of War: the US Confronts the World and After Socialism. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is World in Crisis, from which this essay has been excerpted.