Grand strategy and Ukraine
Pre-emptive wars, sanctions and other measures are being used by the US to prevent even the possibility of a real ‘peer rival’ emerging, argues Mike Macnair. This article is based on his talk given to Communist University in August 2022
There has been a very considerable degree of continuity of US geostrategic policy since at least 2000, visible from a series of ‘national security’ documents. True, Republican and Democratic administrations dress the issue up in different ways ideologically, but the spinal core of the arguments of the policies are broadly the same. Why?
Let us start with the Ukraine war. It is completely misleading to imagine that this is an unmotivated attack on Ukraine by Russia. To understand what is going on, we have to look back to 2014. It is perfectly clear that the US deployed organisations of the Ukrainian far right to overthrow what was at that time an elected government which was trying to balance between Russia and the European Union, perhaps leaning towards the Russian side. The Maidan demonstration was of a size which could have been mobilised on the streets of London by the Socialist Workers Party. Yes, it had some left naives of one sort or another engaged in it, but it was overwhelmingly dominated by the right, including the far right.
The new government introduced radical measures against Russian speakers in the Ukrainian parliament and decided to terminate Russia’s lease on the naval base at Sebastopol. That in turn triggered Russian military intervention, ostensibly in support of the Donbas, but fairly clearly with the primary aim of holding on to Sebastopol.
The legal boundaries of Ukraine were those set by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918 - the largest possible, in German interests. They were retained by the Soviet government in order to maximise the number of Russian ethnic nationals within the borders of Ukraine, thereby reducing the likelihood of Ukrainian secession from the USSR. The Crimea was handed over later, in 1954, probably again to maximise the number of Russians in Ukraine.1 But, of course, the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991.
In 2014 the USA was operating behind the scenes of the Euromaidan uprising. This is no novelty. The US has been conducting aggressive military operations without any open declaration of war, through the use of extreme-right irregular forces, since 1975. That was its response to the Portuguese decolonisation of both Mozambique and Angola, where it sponsored irregular forces - the Mozambique Movement of National Resistance and the Angolan Unita - through South Africa as a proxy. Beginning in the later 1970s we saw US sponsorship of the Mujahideen in Afghanistan and in the same period US and Israeli sponsorship of the Phalange and other Christian militias in Lebanon. Then there were the Nicaraguan Contras, backed by the Reagan administration without Congressional authority. This produced a scandal, because it involved the administration arranging complex deals involving the Iranian regime to arm the Contras.
There have been many examples. A relatively recent one involved the US authorising the Gulf states and Saudi Arabia to sponsor Islamist militias in Syria. The US operation with the Right Sector and so on in Ukraine is merely the most recent of this sort of US intervention.
Russia and China
The question which is posed is: why does the US want to ‘poke the Russian bear’? Ukraine is not the only case: the same was true of the 2008 Russia-Georgia war. There were pro-Russian secessionists in the north of Georgia - in Abkhazia and South Ossetia, which were originally autonomous Soviet republics in the USSR, but had become sub-republics of Georgia. The pro-US Georgian regime invaded and the Russians retaliated. In that case the Russians were able to do what they failed at in Ukraine: to drive rapidly on the Georgian capital and force capitulation from the US-sponsored government.
Why is the US doing this? The answer is inter-imperialist rivalry. It is not inter-imperialist rivalry with Russia: the problem with characterising Russia as an imperialist state (as I have written before) is that it is not economically strong enough actually to be able to hold other countries in economic subordination.2 China, however, in spite of defining its regime as ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, has been engaged in a cold transition to capitalism - which is also and inevitably a transition to an imperialist role.
This cold transition is possible partly because the underlying forces of production in China at the time of the revolution (in the sense of roads, bridges, density of population, productivity of agriculture etc) were massively higher than the forces of production in Russia at the time of the revolution. The Russian revolution took over an enormous land area already persistently characterised by scarcity and shortages. The Chinese revolution took over what had been one of the wealthiest parts of the world until the 19th century. The Stalinist regime, together with US sanctions and blockade, limited development. The Nixon turn, followed by Deng Xiaoping’s market turn, let loose capitalist dynamics.
China also had a large expat financial services sector based in Singapore, Hong Kong and elsewhere offshore: Chinese economic growth within the framework of moving towards capitalism, together with the existence of this Chinese financial services sector, means that China can, as Japan did after 1867, move rapidly in the direction of joining the imperialist club. Not yet all the way: China still has a very large state sector of old Stalinist-style industry. But through the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative and related activities, it is engaged in very extensive overseas investment operations. These are very directly in competition with the imperialist interests of the US; and the US is seriously concerned about China as a potential ‘peer rival’.
Russia is not a potential ‘peer rival’ of the US, as things now stand. Putin could perhaps be understood as a 21st century equivalent of Tipu Sultan of Mysore, who allied with the French to build up a modernised army, and inflicted defeats on the East India Company and its Indian clients, but ended in defeat when French support was weakened by the 1789 revolution and the British deployed regular state naval and land forces.3 However, it is the paradox of the current war that Russia is not presently an imperialist country, but, in order to win the war, Russia would need to radically strengthen its productive and financial capabilities; and it could then become an imperialist country, as Germany did after 1870 and Japan after 1894. If so, it would be a subordinate imperialist country as the second rank ally of China, in the same way that Austria-Hungary was a second-rank ally of Germany in the late 19th and early 20th century.
From the US point of view, the problem is how to encircle China. It is a position of the US navy adopted in the late 1940s (and continues to be a view of the US navy in strategic writing published in the early 2000s) that it is an essential security interest of the United States that the US navy should have unfettered access to the coastline of China.
The position of the US is that the South China Sea and the straits between China and Taiwan are ‘global commons’. And the US asserted most recently in Joe Biden’s interim national security strategic guidance of 2021 that “We will continue to defend access to the global commons, including freedom of navigation and overflight rights, under international law.”
So the lawyers for the US presidency make the claim that there is an international law claim to overfly other countries which do not have airspace sovereignty: the US has a right of access to other countries’ airspace, and similarly the US claims to have right of access to sea space more generally.
The practical significance of these exorbitant claims is that the US is engaged in a project of encircling China. Through encirclement, the US can cut off the competition which is posed by ‘Belt and Road’ and China’s other overseas investment operations. This is a project of aggressive encirclement, because it is accompanied by the active promotion through the media - and no doubt also through US covert political operations - of secessionism in Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong.
This policy of aggressive encirclement is in fact a repetition of the policy of the United Kingdom in 1900-14 towards Germany. Down to the 1880s, the UK had pursued a policy of alliance with Germany against France and Russia, both of which were regarded as threatening UK interests in Asia. Industrial development in Germany forced it into competition with the UK in tech exports, and hence in foreign investments. Particular turning points were German naval expansion from the late 1890s and German supply of arms to the Boer republics before the second Boer War of 1899-1902. The UK then started to promote the aggressive encirclement of Germany.
This led to the UK joining the Entente Cordiale in 1904 (the Russian threat to Britain in Asia simultaneously being knocked out by the Russo-Japanese war4) and to the promotion of the Balkan wars in 1912-13, whose object from the Entente point of view was to cut off Germany and Austria-Hungary from expanding south-eastwards, by blocking the possibility of a land connection to the Ottoman empire and attacking the project of the Berlin-Baghdad railway. The Anglo-French policy of aggressive encirclement of Germany resulted in the June 1914 assassination of the Austrian crown prince, Franz Ferdinand, by Bosnian Serb terrorists run out of the Serbian security apparat, which was in turn Entente-backed, trapping Austria-Hungary and Germany in the role of the ‘aggressors’ in August 1914.
In the same way the tactic of the US operation in Ukraine was to present Russia with the devil’s choice of either capitulating to Ukraine’s retaking of the Donbas and the Crimea (and the next step would be a demand to abandon Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and so on) or to take the odium of ‘aggression’. The strategic object is that Russian military defeat should lead to regime change in Moscow, replacing the Putin administration either directly or indirectly5 with a new Yeltsin: that is to say, a new pro-American ‘shock therapy’ advocate, who will then shut down Russian aerospace and arms manufacturing, and probably accept the separation of at least the north Caucasus. This would then give the US direct access though allied states to the Caspian, and thereby the possibility of immediate linkage into the central Asian republics without having to depend on complicated routes and air connections. This then fits in with the promotion of Xinjiang independence, and so on.
The strategic object of the exercise therefore is that Russia should get smaller and should cease to be a competing military and aviation producer: it should be further de-industrialised, in order to create the tighter encirclement of China, which is the main target.
Suppose, for the sake of argument, that the US does succeed in knocking Russia out and fully encircling China, and then that the US succeeds in militarily defeating China, without the wars issuing in a generalised nuclear exchange. The effect of this would be de-industrialisation in China (as has happened to a considerable extent in Russia, parts of eastern Europe and other countries targeted for pro-US regime change) and to restore conditions analogous to the period of ‘warlordism’ in China between the first and second world wars. This is fully predictable, because all of the US interventions for the last 50 years have had this character: what is produced is not any new sort of order, but merely forms of localised warlordism, corruption and endemic civil-war conditions (at best permanent low-grade conflict and political stasis).
Assuming this success, knocking China out of the picture will still not solve the US’s problem. It will next be necessary also to knock France and Germany out of the picture.6 Why is this posed?
Here I come back to the continuity of the arguments of the succession of US ‘national security’ documents of one sort and another since 2000. I begin with the bipartisan - Democrat and Republican – ‘US commission on national security/21st century’ involving among other people Democrat Gary Hart and Republican Newt Gingrich, which reported in April 2000. This affirms: “It is a critical national interest of the United States that no hostile hegemon arise in any of the globe’s major regions, nor a hostile global peer rival or a hostile coalition comparable to a peer rival” (p7). It argues:
The United States should engage China constructively and with a positive attitude, politically and economically. But it must recognise that the potential for competition between the United States and China may increase, as China grows stronger … (p9).
From 2001 comes the Rand Arroyo Center report, The emergence of peer competitors: a framework for analysis. The Rand Corporation is a large think tank organisation which has been doing geostrategic research for the US and game-theoretical analysis since the 1950s: this was the organisation which formulated the trade-offs of nuclear brinkmanship. Rand Arroyo Center is a California branch, funded by the US army, and The emergence of peer competitors reports a piece of US army funded ‘research’ - better, game-theoretical speculation. Rand Arroyo assessed that the US is a hegemon in the world system, and that:
… the hegemon’s problem is how to remain one for as long as possible, at an acceptable cost. A peer does not arise in a vacuum. If the hegemon sees a peer competitor emerging, it will impose additional costs upon the proto-peer to slow its growth and prevent a challenge from emerging. Imposing costs can range anywhere from punitive trade measures to outright sponsorship of internal strife. Such ‘conflict imposition’ is a tool of the hegemon in regulating potential challenges (pxiii).
And later on,
What distinguishes a ‘peer’ from a ‘peer competitor’? The answer lies in the peer’s foreign policy. A peer seeks only modest or no change in the international system (the relative power status of the major states, the rules governing interaction between states, and/or the beneficiaries of those rules). A peer competitor, on the other hand, seeks to change the status quo, both to gain more power for itself and to decrease the relative power of the dominant state (pp9-10).
So a ‘peer competitor’ is not a state which seeks immediately to overthrow the US hegemony: it is a state which wants to improve its own position in the global hierarchy.
The hegemon, the authors say, “has little leeway, since failing to respond to a challenger that openly violates the rules amounts to an admission that it cannot enforce the rules, leading to a loss of relative power between it and the challenger” (p48). And: “No reigning hegemon ever desires a power transition, for it entails the loss of the most privileged status and the decisive voice in establishing the rules. Every hegemon will be reluctant to give up its position” (p55).
In September 2002, the Bush administration published The national security strategy of the United States of America. The document advocates that the US must “expand Nato’s membership to those democratic nations willing and able to share the burden of defending and advancing our common interests …” (p25); and: “Our forces will be strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military build-up in hopes of surpassing, or equalling, the power of the United States” (p30; note: not actual adversaries, but potential adversaries).
In the Obama national security strategy of May 2010 it is stated:
To adversarial governments, we offer a clear choice: abide by international norms, and achieve the political and economic benefits that come with greater integration with the international community; or refuse to accept this pathway, and bear the consequences of that decision, including greater isolation (p11).
The United States remains the only nation able to project and sustain large-scale military operations over extended distances. We maintain superior capabilities to deter and defeat adaptive enemies and to ensure the credibility of security partnerships that are fundamental to regional and global security. In this way, our military continues to underpin our national security and global leadership and, when we use it appropriately, our security and leadership is reinforced (pp17-18).
The Trump administration in December 2017 stated: “An America that successfully competes is the best way to prevent conflict. Just as American weakness invites challenge, American strength and confidence deters war and promotes peace” (p3). And:
Russia aims to weaken US influence in the world and divide us from our allies and partners. Russia views the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato) and European Union (EU) as threats. Russia is investing in new military capabilities … The combination of Russian ambition and growing military capabilities creates an unstable frontier in Eurasia, where the risk of conflict due to Russian miscalculation is growing (pp25-26).
China and Russia began to reassert their influence regionally and globally. Today, they are fielding military capabilities designed to deny America access in times of crisis and to contest our ability to operate freely in critical commercial zones during peacetime. In short, they are contesting our geopolitical advantages and trying to change the international order in their favor (p27).
Here again the assumption is that the US must have the right of access to the whole world. And:
China’s infrastructure investments and trade strategies reinforce its geopolitical aspirations. Its efforts to build and militarize outposts in the South China Sea endanger the free flow of trade, threaten the sovereignty of other nations, and undermine regional stability. China has mounted a rapid military modernization campaign designed to limit US access to the region and provide China a freer hand there (p46).
Finally, the Biden administration’s March 2021 Renewing America’s advantages: interim national security strategic guidance:
China, in particular, has rapidly become more assertive. It is the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system. Russia remains determined to enhance its global influence and play a disruptive role on the world stage. Both Beijing and Moscow have invested heavily in efforts meant to check US strengths and prevent us from defending our interests and allies around the world” (pp7-8).
So one of the objectives then posed is to “Promote a favorable distribution of power to deter and prevent adversaries from directly threatening the United States and our allies, inhibiting access to the global commons, or dominating key regions” (p9).
This is about economics, not just politics; and there is a remarkable continuity between Trumpism and Bidenism:
We will make sure that the rules of the international economy are not tilted against the United States. We will enforce existing trade rules and create new ones that promote fairness … We will work with our allies to reform the World Trade Organization, so that it functions to support both American jobs and the values that we share with millions around the globe … (p15).
And: “… we will ensure that America, not China, sets the international agenda, working alongside others to shape new global norms and agreements that advance our interests and reflect our values.”
US administrations are thus thinking in terms of the rulership of the US over the rest of the world. They are not thinking in terms of a world of states as approximate equals and, when they talk about a law-governed world order, they do not mean one in which the US is subject to the same rules as everyone else. They mean a world order in which the US makes the rules: that the US is the world’s law-maker in the same sense that Charlemagne (king of the Franks 768-800, holy Roman emperor 800-814) or Henry II of England (king from 1154-1189) was a law-maker, making rules that bind everyone else, but not the king (in this case the US).
Above are extracts from these national security documents - I have not extracted the large proportion of verbiage about restoring the American middle class. US policymakers were already concerned about loss of “middle class” (meaning working class), in the late 1990s and the possible impact on technical skills needed for the military (Why did these hopes fail?). Nor have I extracted the passages from the 2000 and 2001 documents which showed that the authors expected that Russia and China would ‘play ball’ with US policy - which, of course, did not happen. Why not? The answer is the same reason in both cases. The US can neither effectively revive US industrial production and “middle class” jobs, nor persuade other industrial countries to accept radical subordination to the US.
I have written about this at very considerable length in the four-part series of supplements in this paper on ‘Imperialism and the state’7 and I am not going to repeat all of that here. The problem is that, although still dominant, the US is in relative decline as an industrial power - and it cannot transition into an ‘Augustan’ world-state, but is driven to discriminate against non-US capitals - but with the paradoxical effect that the same drives produce offshoring of industry.
At base, the problem is that the logic of capital requires the existence of credit money. There is not enough gold and silver in the world to have pure commodity money; and interpersonal credit of the sort which existed in the late medieval and early modern period, whether in the localities or among narrow merchant groups, is not sufficient for the circulation needs of actual capitalist markets. Now in order to have credit money we need routinised state enforcement of debts, so that IOUs - like Bank of England banknotes at their origins - can be used like gold and silver to make payments. This routinised debt enforcement is much the larger part of what the civil court jurisdictions do.
But it is not enough, because it is too easy for the debtor to flee the jurisdiction. In the colonial period of North America this was a persistent problem: debtors flee the jurisdiction into territories which did not yet have courts: the result is instability in colony/state of paper money. Part of the solution to the problem of people fleeing jurisdiction is that the credit-money-guaranteeing state has to be able and willing to discriminate against economic actors outside the jurisdiction - so that Venetian economic actors get advantages which actors from other states (and hence runaway debtors) do not; and this stabilises Venetian money and impersonal credit.
A necessary consequence is that state credit money is ranked by the strength of states. So the pound was the global reserve currency until the British strategic position was destroyed by the fall of France and Norway in 1940. At that point, the British had to agree to hand over global hegemony to the US and from 1945 the dollar became the global reserve currency.
The need to discriminate against non-national capitals continues right down to the present day. In the 2008 crash the British government seized Icelandic assets under anti-terror legislation in order to assist it in bailing out British banks. The US government treated Exxon rather leniently in relation to the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989; but threw the book at BP over the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. Barack Obama denounced BP’s attempt to place part of the blame on US companies Transocean and Halliburton.
Any capitalist state, then, is forced to discriminate against foreign capital simply by virtue of the nature of state credit money. Every capitalist state is mercantilist. 19th century British ‘free trade’ was a mercantilist policy in the interests of the British shipping industry. Late 20th century US ‘free trade’ is a mercantilist policy in the interests of the US financial services sector. (In any case, the US, while advocating free trade for everyone else, remains massively protectionist.)
Equally, how the bourgeoisie as a class routinely rules the state is through the money form of capital. Capital is the circuit, money-commodity-production-commodity-money: it is in the money form that it can rule. It does so partly through free movement of capital - so that, for example, when François Hollande introduced very mild reformist measures in France, there was a flight of capital and he had to capitulate. This is merely a recent example of a commonplace event: the first Harold Wilson government in 1964 led to a run on the pound, leading George Brown to coin the phrase, “gnomes of Zurich”. Capital rules, equally, through bribery, taking various forms: the payment of advertising funds to pro-capitalist media to drown out non-pro-capitalist speech; the direct bribery of public officials, whether illegal or in the form of campaign donations, or of post-retirement jobs and gifts; the free market in legal services, which amounts to the sale and denial of justice in violation of Magna Carta chapter 29. ‘Liberal democracy’ is better named ‘liberal plutocracy’.
But liberal plutocracy inherently entails the dictatorship of what is the reserve currency state, whose currency is ‘real money’. So a ‘liberal democracy’ inherently produces regimes which are subordinate (in the 19th to early 20th century to Britain, in the later 20th and early 21st century to the US). In order to escape from that subordination without overthrowing capitalism globally, states are forced to adopt Bonapartism. This was the role of not only Louis Bonaparte, but the kaiser in the 19th century. It is also the role of Putin, and somewhat differently of Xi, in the 21st.
The US is driven to aggression towards Russia and China because they will not play ball. They refuse to do so because America is driven to discriminate against non-US capitals; therefore, accepting political subordination to the US is a lose-lose option.
The USA talks about promoting a ‘law-governed world order’, in which people compete without aggression, and so on. But it cannot actually offer that, because the ‘law-governed world order’ is a world order of rules made by the US (and from time to time arbitrarily altered by the US in the interests of the US state and US capital). In the 1985 Plaza Accord the Americans simply forced the Japanese to revalue the yen, and as a result threw Japan into the ongoing 40-year stagnation. The right to make the rules in your own state’s interest explicitly became the basis of what makes hegemony worthwhile by the Rand Arroyo 2000 analysis, and is explicitly defended by the Biden administration’s national security policy.
So the US fails to deliver a ‘law-governed world order’ because it is obliged by its nature as a capitalist state to discriminate in favour of US capitals. It presently is unable to make the sort of concessions which would allow a ‘law-governed world order’ of the sort run by the ‘west’ in 1948-71.
Why the US was able to make radical concessions in 1948-71 is the combination of, firstly, the global gains caused by massive destruction of capital and debt defaults, at the expense mainly of the British empire, allowing substantial global growth; and, secondly, Soviet tanks on the Elbe and mass communist parties in many parts of the world, meaning that it was necessary for US capital to agree collectively through its state to make massive concessions to other capitals and to the working class to avoid short-term overthrow. That is, the concessions would not have happened without the strength of the organised working class.
These concessions were taken away in the 1970s, after both the working class and anti-colonial movements got too strong. Hence Nixon’s break from the Bretton Woods agreement and Carter’s turn to ‘rollback’, ‘human rights’ and US sponsorship of terrorism. ‘No return to the 60s and 70s!’ continues to be the watchword of the media, even as both media and national security policies hand-wring about inequality and the loss of ‘middle class jobs’ and skills.
It is the ‘no concessions’ regime which then means that the US is forced, irrespective of what it wants, to create conditions which invite other powers to try and organise themselves against the consequences of US discrimination; and that in turn leads us back to the endeavours to encircle and contain China and the war in Ukraine.
‘Neither 1914 nor 1940’ Weekly Worker March 3 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1385/neither-1914-nor-1940); ‘Assessing Putin’s gamble’, April 21 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1392/assessing-putins-gamble); ‘Imperialist Russia?’ September 8 (weeklyworker.co.uk/worker/1409/imperialist-russia).↩︎
See, for example, PP Barua, ‘Maritime trade, seapower and the Anglo-Mysore wars, 1767-1799’ The Historian Vol 73, pp22-40 (2011).↩︎
‘With British support in arms supplies’: ‘British assistance to the Japanese navy during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5’ (anon) The Great Circle Vol 2, pp44-54 (1980).↩︎
Eg, through a coup which produces a politically unstable regime, leading in turn to a ‘colour revolution’.↩︎
Britain is not a potential peer rival, because it is very extensively deindustrialised, economically dependent on the US as a licensed offshore financial centre, and in any case incapable of developing political independence from the US.↩︎
See the supplements in the Weekly Worker of March 17, March 24, April 7 and April 14 2022.↩︎