When in graduate school I was exposed to the writings of dependency and post-colonial theorists, people like Samir Amin, Barrington Moore, Immanuel Wallerstein, Andre Gunder Frank, Cardoso and Faletto, and a host ofÂ other neo-Gramscians and Euro Marxists. Following Lenin’s theory of imperialism, these various schools of thought all concurred that there was a structural basis for US imperialism, and that this in turn led to what Dwight Eisenhower (of all people) called a “military-industrial complex” that continually pushed for war in order to develop, test and apply new technologies in pursuit ofÂ profit, with follow-on benefits eventually accrued by the civilian market as well. None of these theorists believed in the rhetoric of freedom and democracy promotion that the US used, and uses, to justify its military activities abroad.Â
For Marxists, US imperialism is not about liberation but about exploitation of other people’s natural and human resources for US gain. It is about oil in Iraq and natural gas and mineral rights in Afghanistan and other parts of Central Asia, coupled with the geo-strategic imperative to keep rival powers from encroaching on US economic interests in these areas. It is why the US declared the Monroe Doctrine that until recently made Latin America its exclusive sphere of interest (a status quo now under seige from Chinese investment), and it is why the US continues to spend more money on defense than the next eight countries combined (including Russia, China, the UK, France and Germany). Most importantly, in this view, the structural imperative is why the US is a war-mongering nation that uses–and in fact needs–wars to propel its economy and maintain its preeminence in the global arena.
Being US-born but raised in Latin America, I had, and have, mixed emotions about this perspective. On the one hand I see the validity of the argument, which is elegant in its simplicity of explanantion but also reductionist to a fault. On the other hand I find it hard to believe that a majority of Americans would accept the premise that the US is an imperialist war-mongeringÂ nation driven by corporate interest, and that if they were presented with evidence to that effect a majority would vote to end the cycle of war-for-profit that Eisenhower warned about.
The inability of most Americans to see US military activities in the structuralist light may be a tribute to the myth-making propoganda of the US educational and media systems, but the truth is that they simply see what the US does abroad as part of its natural responsibilities as the world’s (yet) superpower and policeman. In other words, if no other country is going to step in and put out fires, then it is up to the US to do so. That is what the US public believes, although it has been shown time and again that they have little patience for staying in protracted conflicts that do not appear to directly impinge on core national values or security.
Over the past few months, as I have contemplated and written about Afghanistan, I have found myself returning to this theme: is the US a war-mongering country? In recent correspondence withÂ journalist Jon Stephenson, whose work as one of the few serious independent NZ-based journalists I admire, he brought up the subject of wars of necessity and discretionary wars. The former are fought in pursuit of core national interests; the latter are fought for reasons of political, diplomatic or economic want, not need.
This does not mean that the latter are always illegitimate. As I mentioned in the earlier post about the “Responsibility to Protect,” sometimes more than national interest has to be considered in committing troops to conflict. But the overall picture should be clear. Some wars are justifiable due to imposed necessity; other wars are not.
This is where the US begins to show its colors. It appears that it has conflated the two types of war, under the banner of promoting “freedom” and “democracy” abroad, in order to satisfy its broad structural needs and the specific demands of the perpetual motion machine known as the military-industrial complex exemplified by the likes of Raytheon, Lockheed, Martin Marietta, Haliberton, McDonald Douglas and other conglomerates.
But even as I pondered the implications of this theoretical overlap between the two types of war in the US mindset, I found myself (perhaps due to some lingering loyalty to my place of brith) still unable to accept the fact that the US is indeed a war-mongering imperialist power. I decided to research the history of US military adventures abroad so as to get a better idea of their scope over time. I was pretty sure that in one way or another the US has been in a state of semi-constant conflict since 1989. I do know that it is the only country on earth that has an array of military bases spanning the world, to include every continent including Antartica, remote island chains and atolls, and non-publicised detachments engaged in covert action. I know that the US has five aircraft carrier battle groups (which include submarines, destoyers, frigates and tenders as well as the air wings on the carrier), of which three are deployed at any one time, and that no other country has a single one such battle group. The point should be clear–the US position in world affairs does in fact ride on the back of an immense military machine (as opposed to moral authority or diplomatic leadership).
My research was an eye-opener. Ahough I am not a fan of Wikipedia being used as a scholarly source (and in fact mark down students who use it as such), I have decided that in this case it summarises the issue pretty concisely. Could it be that the Marxists are right? If so, is this status quo unbreakable in a world in which rising powers may see reason to challenge the US position in global society? What are the implications of these potential challenges given the historical record?
On the other hand, is it plausible that this history of intervention is strictly driven by economic interest and military-corporate collusion? Is it not possible that altruistic motives are sometimes at play when the US uses force abroad? After all, many if not most of the cited interventions involved evacuations of civilians from conflict zones and involvement inÂ foreign conflicts for apparent humanitarian reasons devoid of economic interest.
I wonder what the US public would make of this history if they knew enough about it, and how future justifications for war would square with this track record? Could it be possible that the Obama administration will return to the distinction between wars of necessity and wars of discretion as a benchmark for foreign military intervention, thereby breaking with the military-industrial complex and its need for perpetual war?
Readers are invited to draw their own conclusions.