A strategy to finish the new American century

A US in relative decline is striving to retain global hegemony, writes Nick Rogers. The latest threats against Iran emphasise once again the fragility of the current imperialist order and the urgency of communist organisation to oppose it

That should be the response of communists to the cycle of geo-political crisis and war which international capitalism continues to condemn humanity to in the early years of the 21st century?

Our first task is to understand the nature of our epoch - never forgetting, of course, that the point is to change it. The central feature of the current period at the level of international political relations is the attempt by the ruling class of the United States to preserve that nation's imperial hegemony. At the close of World War II no-one could question the economic supremacy of the US. It emerged from the global conflagration with an economy responsible for half of global production (just like Britain in the middle of the 19th century).

Today the US still produces over 20% of what the world makes (with just four percent or so of the world's population). But that leaves something like 80% of global production in the hands of other powers. The European Union, for instance, in total produces roughly the same quantity of goods as the United States. What is more, with a trade deficit of $764 billion, the economic stability of the US is entirely dependent on a massive and continual inflow of dollars to compensate for the imbalance between imports and exports. One consequence: the foreign exchange reserves of China, which maintains a large trade surplus with the US, at the end of last year reached $1,000 billion - 70% of which was supposedly in dollar-denominated assets.

The rulers of the US have a range of instruments at their disposal for exerting imperial reach. One goes by the name of dollar seigniorage. In 1971 Richard Nixon was forced to break the link with gold and thereafter the US central bank allowed the dollar to float freely against other currencies. However, given the dollar's continued role as effectively the global monetary standard, this produced all manner of consequences. For example, the removal of capital controls in the 1970s and 80s led to a vast increase in the flows around the globe of speculative 'hot' money. This international financial regime gives the US treasury considerable power to bolster and defend the US economy and also destabilise other economies (or at least threaten to). Any devaluation of the dollar, for example, is going to leave China's foreign exchange reserves highly exposed.

Nor is the US reticent in applying very direct economic measures against its enemies. The trade embargo on Cuba is a case in point. Recently even the European subsidiaries of US hotel chains have refused bookings to Cuban delegations in response to a tightening of measures by the US government. Last year the freezing of accounts in a Macao bank linked to the North Korean government precipitated the nuclear standoff on the Korean peninsula. The US claimed the funds were the proceeds of a North Korean state-sponsored operation to counterfeit US dollars. The recent agreement by the North Koreans to seal their nuclear facilities may come to be counted as a success of US hardball diplomacy.

Today the US is applying the same tactics to Iran. Sanctions have been imposed against Iran's largest commercial bank, Bank Saderat, and against the state-controlled Bank Sepah. US citizens and companies have been barred from dealing with them. Assets within the reach of US authorities have been frozen. European governments (the EU is Iran's largest trading partner) are coming under pressure to take similar steps.

But, of course, what ultimately makes possible the exercise of US financial, economic and diplomatic power are the military forces that the rulers of the US can dispatch across the planet. The US may produce only one-fifth of the world's goods, but it matches virtually dollar for dollar what every other nation in the world put together spends on military personnel and equipment. And US military expenditure is set to be larger yet. In George Bush's latest budget presented to the US congress, the Pentagon is bidding for an 11.3% increase to $624.6 billion for 2008 (20% of the total budget). As points of reference Russian military expenditure in the current year is $31 billion and China is estimated to be spending $87 billion on arms.

Current levels of expenditure buy the US 1.5 million active soldiers, sailors and airforce personnel, 7,600 tanks, 3,800 aircraft, 106 combat ships and 550 intercontinental ballistic missiles.

Under the Clinton administration (which cashed in the 'peace dividend' that resulted from the end of the cold war) the neo-conservatives unblinkingly saw a strengthened military as the key to defending the US imperialism's leading role on the world stage.

In a 1997 statement, the neocon think-tank, the Project for a New American Century, said: "We seem to have forgotten the essential elements of the Reagan administration's success: a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposely promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the Unites States' global responsibilities."

Once George Bush and Dick Cheney were at the helm, the neocons seized their opportunity. Rebuilding America's defenses, the September 2000 defence blueprint of the PNAC, set out an audacious perspective: "Today the [US military's] task is to secure and expand the 'zones of democratic peace'; to deter the rise of a new great power competitor; to defend key regions of Europe, east Asia and the Middle East; and to preserve American pre-eminence through the coming transformation of war made possible by new technologies."

Almost four years into the occupation of Iraq the neocon vision threatens to turn sour. The PNAC website appears not to have been updated for at least a year. In 2006 key neocons Richard Perle and Kenneth Adelman in an article in Vanity Fair magazine attacked the way the occupation of Iraq had panned out. Francis Fukuyama, who 15 years ago announced the "end of history", has just published a book, After the neocons, marking his final break with his old friends. And in the mid-term congressional elections the Democrats seized control of both houses - very largely on the basis of widespread US public opposition to the war.

Yet the differences within the US political elite about the balance to be struck between multilateral negotiation and the exercise of unilateral power are more about the nuances of tactics than strategic direction. Hillary Clinton, the front-runner for the Democratic presidential candidacy, voted for the invasion of Iraq. Although attempting to distance herself from the chaos that is overwhelming the US occupation forces, Clinton is careful to maintain a stance in support of a strong US military posture.

And, as Martin Schreader explained in last week's Weekly Worker, Barack Obama, the favourite of the Democrat's 'liberal' wing, calls only for the most cautious 'drawing down' of US forces in Iraq ('Black face for the White House?', February 15). Even then he supports the redeployment of those forces to Afghanistan and urges a refocusing on the threats from Iran, Russia and China. Not very different at all from the priorities of the neocons.

After all, what purpose did the toppling of Saddam Hussein serve? It was first and foremost an exercise in demonstrating US military capability. A warning to recalcitrant regimes as to the fate awaiting them if they attempted to thwart the will of the US.

Second, the invasion of Iraq was central to the vision of expanding US power and influence in the Middle East - a region crucial to modern geopolitics because of its oil reserves, the largest in the world. The US needs to guarantee its own oil supplies. After September 11 2001, with Saudi citizens comprising the bulk of the hijackers, US strategists realised that even Saudi Arabia was not necessarily a dependable ally. A direct US intervention in the region was called for.

Even more important perhaps, the Middle East is the principal source of oil for many of the key players in Europe and Asia. For anyone thinking strategically about US interests in the decades ahead, controlling the flow of oil reaching today's allies might just make a contribution to keeping them as tomorrow's allies. And for China, with which the possibility of rivalry spilling into armed conflict over, say, Taiwan is far from fantasy, the power of the US to restrict China's ability to fuel its military machine might hand Washington a crucial advantage.

Third, Saddam Hussein was in the process of denominating oil sales in dollars. Iran, by the way, has set up a subsidiary exchange to do the same. This is a trend the US cannot tolerate. Once the dollar loses its status as the world's reserve currency, all the military expenditure in the world will not stop US economic hegemony slipping like sand through the fingers of its rulers.

As events transpired, most of these strategic objectives are far from being achieved. Iraq has exposed the hubris of US imperial pretensions and the limits of formal military power. Madeleine Albright, Bill Clinton's secretary of state, argued recently that in consequence a multi-polar world was already here.

However, the Bush administration has a few rolls of the dice left. And not just the current 'troop surge' in Baghdad. US intervention in Africa is increasing. A new Pentagon command covering the continent has been established in Djibouti. The US has backed Ethiopia's invasion of Somalia to remove from power islamist militants, who were achieving some success in suppressing the Somali warlords. US aircraft have assisted with bombing raids.

An even more striking demonstration of US military prowess might be just months away. US preparations for an air strike against Iran's nuclear facilities (and its military and civilian infrastructure) are at an advanced stage. Two aircraft carriers are being maintained on a rota basis in the Gulf. B52 bombers sit on the runways of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean awaiting the green light.

Looking ahead, potential conflict points loom. A US missile defence system is being constructed in Europe. Negotiations are in train with Poland and the Czech Republic to host interceptors on their territory. Russian president Vladimir Putin has expressed outrage. His concerns have been brushed aside. But a Russia that supplies much of western Europe's gas needs is already demonstrating a growing self-confidence.

And future conflicts may be played out in space. China's destruction of one of its own orbiting weather satellites through a rocket strike reveals how wars to come may be fought. A few weeks later China began the launch of its own satellite navigation system - joining Europe's Galileo and the US's GPS, and illustrating how vital the arena of outer space is becoming.

So how should communists respond? It goes without saying that we oppose all imperialist ventures, and we have a particular responsibility to organise against those of our own ruling class. In Britain that means calling for immediate withdrawal from Iraq and Afghanistan. It means opposing any aggression against Iran. We must seize every opportunity to break the identification of the working class with any kind of national interest.

But a number of conclusions certainly do not follow. We do not support any and every regime (almost all of whom in the modern world are bourgeois) that finds itself confronting US and/or British imperialism. Nor do we automatically support any movement or social alliance that labels itself anti-imperialist. We are not advocates of a multi-polar world in the sense of lending our support to the rising challenges of a Russia or a China, or of calling on the EU to pursue a more robust imperialist strategy independent of the US.

Our strategy is not aimed at winning over today's ruling classes or building new alliances between existing states (such as the one Hugo Chávez is attempting to put together). Our concern is to build the working class as an independent political force.

Of course, that does not mean abandoning the fight around key political issues. To ignore questions of national rights or the imbalance of global power within current international institutions would be to practise a form of economism. So in Iraq the working class can only become hegemonic if it takes the lead in opposing the US-UK occupation, as well as standing firm against the internal forces of reaction. Likewise in Iran. Opposition to the regime of the ayatollahs and demands for democracy and secularism must be allied to opposition to imperialist machinations.

Communists seek to organise on the widest possible terrain objective circumstances permit. Thus, while the CPGB's central objective is the building of a mass Communist Party in Britain, this must be seen as part of the task of building communist and socialist unity internationally. As part and parcel of this we envisage continental parties. In Europe that means a Communist Party of the EU. Similarly, in South America and Africa unity on a continental basis is the only strategy that gives our class the possibility of extending the world revolution to North America and beginning the real history of humanity