Very much in control
The US may be in decline, writes Moshé Machover, but the left is doing little or nothing in the way of strategic thinking
In this article I outline a simple thesis that ought to be obvious, but has sadly been ignored by some parts of the international left.
This is the fact that the United States is the global hegemon; its strategy, aiming to preserve and extend its hegemony, is global and can only be understood as such. Its policies in Latin America, the Middle East, Europe and the Indo-Pacific region must be viewed as connected parts of this global totality.1
The global hegemony of the US is based on two power resources which it possesses exclusively. First, the US wields unequalled economic power. Despite its relative decline, its economy is still the world’s largest. Moreover, the US dollar is the world’s quasi-exclusive means of international payments, and American banks dominate the global financial sector. Thus the US is in an unrivalled position to wage economic warfare. It is the only state that can impose effective economic-financial sanctions on countries or institutions that defy it. It can do so by penalising third parties who try to circumvent its dictate.
Second, the US is militarily supreme. Its military-industrial complex is unequalled; its armed forces and those of its subordinate allies have at their disposal about one thousand bases and military facilities around the globe (not counting those in US territory). Its warships and submarines rule the oceans. No other country wields anything like this machine of violence. This often enables the US to impose its will by merely issuing open or veiled threats.
Occasionally, it does invade a recalcitrant country, just to show that it means business. Admittedly, these invasions do not always end well for the US - Vietnam, Afghanistan and Iraq are instances of US failure - but even in its defeats it sustains far less damage and destruction than it wreaks on its enemies. A country that dares to defy the US militarily can at best win a pyrrhic victory.
Still, the global hegemony of the US is incomplete: there have been and remain around the world some states that try to evade or defy it. And the US is constantly engaged in preserving, shoring up and extending its dominion. In each case, it applies a broadly similar set of strategies, adapted to local conditions. The aggressive operations it uses are: economic warfare; forming intimidating military (‘security’) alliances; making overt or implied military threats; direct or proxy military intervention; assisting regime change. These aggressions are routinely justified as humanitarian operations in defence of human rights.
I will now survey some of the current challenges to US hegemony - in increasing order of importance.
Latin America: Cuba is the most important remaining country on this continent still defying incorporation in the US camp - the so-called ‘international community’, formerly known as the ‘free world’. It has so far survived - at great cost to itself - every one of the aggressive strategies enumerated above. US aggressions against other Latin-American countries are too numerous to mention, and too well-known to need pointing out. However, at present no country in Latin America poses anything like a serious challenge to US quasi-total domination of this continent.
Middle East: Iran, one of the largest and most populous countries in this region, is the third most important state currently defying total political submission to the US. It has been subjected to most of the aggressive US strategies enumerated above. So far it has been spared massive military intervention, but it has been the target of a campaign of warlike operations of bombings, cyber sabotage and assassinations. Much of this campaign is waged by Israel, America’s regional lieutenant.
This ‘campaign between wars’ or ‘war between wars’ is constantly escalating. It may well culminate with the (possibly intended) result of igniting a full-scale war, in which Iran and its local allies will be subjected to physical and cyber destruction. So far, Iran has reacted cautiously to US-Israeli hostilities, but there is always the possibility that it will be provoked to take an accidental or intentional step that can be used as a pretext for an all-out war of regime change. For the Iranian people this will be a plunge from the frying pan of oppressive theocracy to the fire of catastrophe.
Recently the US has been busy setting up a regional military alliance designed to coordinate operations against Iran. This alliance, headed by Israel, has so far enlisted most US clients in the region. A notable exception is Saudi Arabia. The reason for Saudi hesitation may well be its reluctance to acquiesce in Israel’s US-licensed regional hegemony. For obvious reasons, the Saudi autocrats see their kingdom as the rightful local leader.
Europe: The second most important state currently beyond US domination is Russia. US strategy vis-à-vis Russia is, of course, an integral part of its project of total global domination. In this sense, this strategy is not only analogous to, but interconnected with, the strategy vis-à-vis Iran. Disregarding this analogy and interconnection is an elementary political error.
Of course, Russia, unlike Iran, is a declining, no longer great power that has nevertheless retained - for the time being - residues of its former days as a second-rate great power: a nuclear arsenal, its own military industry and large resources of oil, gas, gold and other minerals. Also, the present confrontation between the US camp and Russia is a transformed continuation of the post-World War II cold war.
I have referred to Russia as a former second-rate great power, for it has never been more than that - and the same applied to the Soviet Union. For this reason (if not for any other), it is a serious mistake to refer to the conflict between the US and Russia/USSR as a symmetric inter-imperialist rivalry. There is no symmetry, and there never was. The US bloc is and has been global, reaching far beyond the territory of the world hegemon.
In contrast, although the USSR was denounced by western propaganda as ‘expansionist’, it never tried to dominate countries beyond its immediate neighbours. Its strategy was in this sense defensive-aggressive: the aggression was directed at its ‘near abroad’, aiming to form a protective wall around its own territory. Unlike the US perennial policy of regime changes around the world, during the cold war the USSR did not actively encourage the formation of ‘communist’ regimes beyond its ‘near abroad’. In fact, it positively discouraged ‘communist’ party takeovers in those countries. The cases of Greece (1945-49) and Iraq (1958) are well known. As far as countries beyond its immediate borders, especially in the third world, the Soviet policy was to encourage them to adopt a position of neutrality, rather than a ‘communist’ regime. The case of Cuba is an exception, which the Soviet rulers and their Cuban CP adherents did not initiate or intend.
Nevertheless, Stalinist disingenuous ‘Marxist’ posturing and waving of red flags enabled western propaganda to depict the USSR as aggressor, and to justify US-led expansionism, including the formation of Nato, as ‘defensive’. This was a useful theme of western propaganda, in addition to the selective promotion of human rights by the ‘free world’. The Soviet Union was the totalitarian bogeyman aggressor.
Plus ça change … Today the nostalgia of Russia’s elite for the days when it led a great power - albeit a second-rate one - can be used as proof of its ‘imperialist expansionism’. Its attempt, born of weakness, to salvage the last remaining shreds of its near-abroad protectorates can be depicted as a threat to Poland, Finland, Sweden and the rest of Europe …
In reality, Russia has been provoked into starting an aggressive, ruinous and self-destructive war, which may eventually lead to its downfall - in much the same way that in 1979 the Soviet Union was lured to invade Afghanistan,2 which contributed to its demise. The US may win now (as it won then) by using proxies to do the bloody part of the fighting.
Indo-Pacific region: By far the most important state outside US domination is China: not a failing local power like Iran, nor a declining has-been like Russia, but a rising giant and a potential threat to US hegemony. In the old days of the cold war, when China was a much less important world player, but already dissatisfied with a supporting role beside the Soviet Union, it could be enlisted by the US to help downgrade the USSR’s international position. This was Henry Kissinger’s strategy, showcased in Richard Nixon’s 1972 visit to China.
Since then, power relations have changed dramatically. China is now the leading power competing with the US, and Russia is degraded to a lower position. But both are faced with US ambition of exclusive global domination. Clearly, a de facto Russo-Chinese alliance is in their mutual interest.
The rise of China and the relative decline of the US point to a coming Chinese challenge to US hegemony. No-one can predict the future with certainty, but a US-China confrontation is a probable prospect.3 Indeed, there are clear signs that for US strategic planners China is now a primary concern. With this in view, the US has recently formed and extended a system of military alliances in the Indo-Pacific region, clearly aimed against China. The old Seato (Southeast Asia Treaty Organization) having folded in the 1970s, two new alliances are being fostered. First, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD or ‘the Quad’), a pact between Australia, India, Japan and the US, originally initiated in 2007 by the late Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, was revitalised in 2021. Second, Aukus - a tripartite ‘security’ pact between Australia, the UK and the US - was launched in September 2021.
Beyond these regional preparations, elementary geostrategic logic implies that major moves of the US in other regions must closely conform with contingency planning for a coming mega-conflict in the Indo-Pacific region. This applies, in particular, to moves leading to the present Ukraine war. On the face of it, the successive eastward extensions of Nato, and in particular the recent decision to include Ukraine in the cordon of US bases armed with missiles aimed at Russia, seem like pointless provocations. But it all makes sense as part of strategic preparations for a coming great clash further east.
In that future confrontation, the US would be better off if it does not face on the European front a powerful Chinese ally, but a defeated and degraded Russia, ruled by a compliant Yeltsin-type puppet, or broken up into several fragments. From this perspective, it made sense for the US to draw Russia into a war that may result in its outright defeat or in exhaustion and internal weakening.
Strategists must think in global terms. The Marxist left used to share this mode of thinking with the political-military general staff of our class enemy. But the defeat and fragmentation of the revolutionary left has been accompanied by regress to fragmented thinking. Not all have succumbed,4 but too many have lost the total picture and see only pieces of the jigsaw. This has led them to regard the present war as a local conflict between the Ukrainian victim and the Russian aggressor - and they side with the former. But, seen in the broad global context, this is a war between capitalist powers, one of which uses Ukraine as a proxy. The primary victims are mostly working class Ukrainian civilians and soldiers, as well as working class Russian soldiers. The secondary victims are the global poor.
We must not take sides in this bloody battle between two mafias, but unite to overthrow the global capitalist system that is the cause of such horrors.
This article owes a great deal to Mike Macnair’s articles in the Weekly Worker: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/authors/mike-macnair.↩︎
See Brzezinski interview’: dgibbs.faculty.arizona.edu/brzezinski_interview.↩︎
See D Lazare, ‘On a collision course’ Weekly Worker June 23 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1400/on-a-collision-course.↩︎
For a good example of joined-up thinking, see M Macnair, ‘Recovering global ascendancy’ in Weekly Worker July 21 2022: weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1404/recovering-global-ascendancy. I came across his article, as I was about to complete my present draft.↩︎