America's global power has no historical precedent, but its room for manoeuvre is limited
Guardian, Thursday February 14, 2002
Those who have argued that America's war on terror would fail to defeat terrorism have, it turns out, been barking up the wrong tree. Ever since President Bush announced his $45bn increase in military spending and gave notice to Iraq, Iran and North Korea that they had "better get their house in order" or face what he called the "justice of this nation", it has become ever clearer that the US is not now primarily engaged in a war against terrorism at all.
Instead, this is a war against regimes the US dislikes: a war for heightened US global hegemony and the "full spectrum dominance" the Pentagon has been working to entrench since the end of the cold war. While US forces have apparently still failed to capture or kill Osama bin Laden, there is barely even a pretence that any of these three states was in some way connected with the attacks on the World Trade Centre. What they do have in common, of course, is that they have all long opposed American power in their regions (for 10, 23 and 52 years respectively) and might one day acquire the kind of weapons the US prefers to reserve for its friends and clients.
With his declaration of war against this absurdly named "axis of evil", Bush has abandoned whatever remaining moral high ground the US held onto in the wake of September 11. He has dispensed with the united front against terror, which had just about survived the onslaught on Afghanistan. And he has made fools of those, particularly in Europe, who had convinced themselves that America's need for international support would coax the US Republican right out of its unilateralist laager. Nothing of the kind has happened. When the German foreign minister Joschka Fischer plaintively insists that "alliance partners are not satellites" and the EU's international affairs commissioner Chris Patten fulminates at Bush's "absolutist and simplistic" stance, they are swatted away. Even Jack Straw, foreign minister of a government that prides itself on its clout in Washington, was slapped down for his hopeful suggestion that talk of an axis of evil was strictly for domestic consumption. Allied governments who question US policy towards Iraq, Israel or national missile defence are increasingly treated as the "vassal states" the French president Jacques Chirac has said they risk becoming. Now Colin Powell, regarded as the last voice of reason in the White House, has warned Europeans to respect the "principled leadership" of the US even if they disagree with it.
By openly arrogating to itself the prerogative of such leadership - and dispensing with any restraint on its actions through the United Nations or other multilateral bodies - the US is effectively challenging what has until now passed for at least formal equality between nations. But it is only reflecting reality. The extent of America's power is unprecedented in human history. The latest increases will take its military spending to 40% of the worldwide total, larger than the arms budgets of the next 19 states put together. No previous military empire - from the Roman to the British - had anything like this preponderance, let alone America's global reach. US officials are generally a good deal more frank about the situation than their supporters abroad. In the early 1990s, the Pentagon described US strategy as "benevolent domination" (though whether those who have recently been on the receiving end of US military power, from the Middle East to Latin America, would see it that way seems doubtful). A report for the US Space Command last year, overseen by US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld, rhapsodised about the "synergy of space superiority with land, sea, and air superiority" that would come with missile defence and other projects to militarise space. This would "protect US interests and investment" in an era when globalisation was likely to produce a further "widening between haves and have-nots". It would give the US an "extraordinary military advantage".
In fact, it would only increase further what became an overwhelming military advantage a decade ago with the collapse of the Soviet Union. But the experience of Bush's war on Afghanistan has rammed home the lessons for the rest of the world. The first is that such a gigantic disproportion of international power is a threat to the principles of self- determination the US claims to stand for on a global scale. A state with less than one 20th of the earth's population is able to dictate to the other 95% and order their affairs in its own interests, both through military and economic pressure. The issue is not one of "anti-Americanism" or wounded national pride (curiously, those politicians around the world who prattle most about patriotism are also usually the most slavish towards US power), but of democracy. This is an international order which, as the September 11 attacks demonstrated, will not be tolerated and will generate conflict.
Many doubt that such conflict can amount to anything more than fleabites on an elephant, which has demonstrated its ability to crush any serious challenger, and have come to believe US global domination is here for good. That ignores the political and economic dimensions (including in the US itself), as well as the problems of fighting asymmetric wars on many fronts. In economic terms, the US has actually been in decline relative to the rest of the world since it accounted for half the world's output after the second world war. In the past few years its share has bounced back to nearly 30% on some measures, partly because of the Soviet implosion and Japanese stagnation, and partly because of America's own long boom. But in the medium term, the strain of military overstretch is likely to make itself felt. More immediately, the US could face regional challenges, perhaps from China or Russia, which it would surely balk at pushing to military conflict. Then there is the likelihood of social eruptions in client states like Saudi Arabia which no amount of military technology will be able to see off. America's greatest defeat was, it should not beforgotten, inflicted by a peasant army in Vietnam. US room for manoeuvre may well prove more limited than might appear.
When it comes to some of America's richer and more powerful allies, the opposite is often the case: they can go their own way and get away with it. The Foreign Office minister Peter Hain argued at the weekend that being a steadfast ally of the US didn't mean being a patsy, pointing as evidence to the fact that Britain was able to maintain diplomatic relations with two out of three of President Bush's axis of evil states.
The test of his claim will come when the US government turns its rhetoric into action and demands British support for a full-scale assault on Iraq (as yesterday's Washington drumbeat suggests could be only months away), or the use of the Fylingdales base in Yorkshire for its missile defence plans. Tony Blair has demonstrated none of the limited independence shown by earlier Labour prime ministers, such as Harold Wilson, and all the signs are that he will once again agree to whatever he is asked to do on Britain's behalf. If he is going to stand up to the global behemoth, he's going to need some serious encouragement - both inside and outside parliament.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002