Monday, May 28, 2007

Book Review: The Sorrows of Empire, by Chalmers Johnson

A few months ago, I reviewed Blowback, Chalmers Johnson's take on American military and economic imperialism. The economist and East Asia expert explained how both trigger consequences that the American people are often required to bear, but because military and covert actions are kept secret or hidden, most citizens haven't the slightest clue why these "terrorists" or "rogue states" are targeting them.

Some might say Johnson's book was uncannily prophetic, since it was written in 2000 and one year later the ultimate form of "blowback", the September 11th attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, occurred. Others--like myself--might have been surprised at the scope and effectiveness of the attack, but few active observers of international politics were surprised that 9/11 happened in the first place.

In Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic, Johnson takes on American imperialism directly. Tracing its history from the Spanish-American War to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, Johnson details the string of bases the US military has erected in something like 3/4 of the nations of the world. He also details the personal arrangements American military officers cultivate with the military elite of other nations. These relationships bypass and undermine the usual channels of civilian diplomacy, as these military relationships are not subject to oversight or control by the elected civilian authorities.

Truth be told, the earlier chapters are not as strong as Blowback's thesis. Johnson's expertise in economics and East Asia were evident in the earlier book, but here he delves into somewhat unfamiliar territory, and thus it comes across more as a popular history than a scholarly analysis. Still, the facts he compiles are shocking.

Much like Gwynne Dyer, Johnson failed to predict just how disastrous the occupation of Iraq would become. In fact, few of the major commentators heard before the war and during the initial invasion, whether supporters of the action or its opponents, were able to predict just how badly the Bush administration would bungle the occupation. In this Johnson is not unique. It seems many commentators and analysts believed the Bush administration could be idealistic, or corrupt, or evil, but no one predicted they could be incompetent. Sadly, the last three years have made that abundantly evident.

Johnson saves the best for last, as it is the book's penultimate chapter that features his strongest argument. "Globalization", that capitalist buzzword of the 1990s, is nothing but Western (ie, American) economic imperialism. This rebirth of eighteenth-century liberalism, often dubbed "neoliberalism", brings with it the racism and exploitation that accompanied classical liberalism in the heydays of the British Empire. Johnson feels that Bill Clinton was a far more successful imperialist than George W. Bush:

In accordance with the logic of Sun Tzu, Bill Clinton was actually a much more effective imperialist than George W. Bush. During the Clinton administration, the United States employed an indirect approach in imposing its will on other nations. The government of George W. Bush, by contrast, dropped all legitimating principles and adopted the view that might makes right. History tells us that an expansive nation must at least attempt to disguise what it is doing if it wants to consolidate its gains. It must pretend that its exploitation of the weak is in their own best interest, or their own fault, or the result of ineluctable processes beyond human control, or a consequence of the spread of civilization, or in accordance with scientific laws--anything but deliberate aggression by a hyperpower.

Clinton camouflagued his policies by carrying them out under the banner of "globalization". This proved quite effective in maneuvering rich but gullible nations to do America's bidding--for example, Argentina--or in destabilizing potential rivals--for example, South Korea and Indonesia in the 1997 economic crisis--or in protecting domestic economic interests--for example, in maintaining the exorbitant prices of American pharmaceutical companies under cover of defending "intellectual property rights". During the 1990s, the rationales of free trade and capitalist economics were used to disguise America's hegemonic power and make it seem benign or, at least, natural and unavoidable. The main agents of this imperialism were Clinton's secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin, and his deputy (today, president of Harvard University). Lawrence Summers. The United States ruled the world but did so in a carefully masked way that produced high degrees of acquiescence among the dominated nations.

George W. Bush, by contrast, turned to a frontal assault based on the use of America's unequaled military power.

Ironically, "in its spurious scientificity, globalism has proved similar to Marxism, whose roots lie in the same intellectual soil," in that the modern globalists are convinced their path is inevitable and irresistible. Clearly this notion of historical determinism mirrors the dialectical process of Marxist thought.

The notion of the American military-industrial complex as a socialist entity is not a new one: see for example William Greider's Fortress America: The American Military and the Consequences of Peace. Greider, Johnson and others have noted that American defence spending shows little regard for market forces or other considerations of a capitalist economy--indeed, periods of economic downturn seem to be accompanied by increases in American defence spending. Generally speaking, the same arms manufacturers are granted defence contracts over and over again, which brings into question how competitive the awarding of contracts is. The US military has many of the earmarks of a planned economy.

Johnson takes this idea to the next level, quoting Peru's ambassador to the World Trade Organization, Oswaldo de Rivero:

The ideological war between capitalism and communism during the second half of the twentieth century was not a conflict between totally different ideologies. It was, rather, a civil war between two extreme viewpoints of the same Western ideology: the search for happiness through the material progress disseminated by the Industrial Revolution...the cost of the Soviet version of development was shortages and lack of freedom; today, that of the neoliberal, capitalist variant is unemployment and social exclusion.

The book's conclusion summarizes four likely negative results to the American Republic from increasing American imperialism, the last (and most dangerous in his eyes) being bankruptcy. Imperialism is an expensive business and American defense spending is more out of control than ever before. Although Johnson suggests that the American people could still use their civil institutions to reclaim their nation from the imperialists, he isn't very hopeful.

I conclude this review with a recent example of blowback from American interventionism: the Fort Dix Six, Kosovars so pleased with American involvement in their war against Serbia, they decided to show their gratitude by attempting to break into a US military base on American soil and kill as many US soldiers as they could.

And this is why those who favour American imperialism, even for beneficial reasons (there is something positive to be said about the type of society American imperialists give lip service to, even if they don't practice it). The globalization project of the imperialists has empowered the dissident and disgruntled around the world. The Romans, British, Russians, Turks--they didn't have to worry about oppressed subject peoples in the colonies causing major damage in the homeland. At least not until their empires were well on their way to complete collapse. Whereas today, the openness of frontiers and borders and the free flow of information, technology and finance (a direct consequence of globalization) has placed immense destructive power into the hands of dissidents--and we've seen they're quite prepared to use it--and given them the ability to project that force directly into the political, military and economic capitals of the American empire. The American people should fear their rising empire as much as those worldwide. For much like the British empire that preceded it, the American empire benefits the wealthy and powerful, but it is the rest of society that suffers the consequences.