With every day’s headlines, the failure of the Bush Administration’s unilateralist policies and imperialist adventures becomes clearer. In Iraq the military occupation and efforts at nation-building are such fiascos that even the architects of the war can no longer muster optimism. The fact that Abu Musab al-Zarqawi’s death, which earlier would have been celebrated as a sign of imminent victory, solicited from George W. Bush only a note of caution on the long road ahead is a measure of how deep things have sunk.
Meanwhile in Afghanistan, which until recently had been vaunted as the model of success, the veneer of order and control has completely dissolved. We are now told that there is danger of a resurgence of the Taliban, the government’s handle on social order is tenuous at best and the population is seething with resentment against the US occupying forces. Here, too, the mirage of victory has been revealed as failure.
It is worth taking a moment to step back from the rush of events, though, to reflect on what these failures mean. My view is that they indicate not only the errors of one government’s policies but also the end of imperialism itself and the emergence of a new logic of global power that comes with new dangers and possibilities. In order to understand this “end of imperialism” and what it means for politics, we need to look back a few years and approach the current failures from another perspective.
Not so long ago, in the 1990s, after the collapse of the cold war, the “new world order” posed an intellectual challenge to understand the nature of an emerging form of global power that was not simply a repetition of the old imperialisms. A series of surprisingly powerful social protests took aim at this new global order. The movements gained mass media attention only after the Seattle demonstrations in 1999, but they had grown throughout the decade in other parts of the world, with efforts to grasp this new global enemy in its various guises, including neoliberalism, the WTO, the IMF and NAFTA. It already seemed then, in fact, that the age of imperialism–that is, the imposition of the national sovereignty of a dominant country over foreign territory through colonial administration, military occupation or economic coercion–had finally come to an end. The demise of the logics and structures of imperialism obviously had not given way to a democratic and free global society but rather to a new form of domination that needed to be understood and confronted differently.
Beginning in 2001, however, after the September 11 attacks and especially after the launch of the US “war on terror,” the notion that the era of imperialism had come to an end suddenly seemed entirely implausible. The US government’s new wars, its policy of pre-emptive strikes, its military occupations, its seizure of oilfields and its projects to remake the political map of the Middle East were all immediately recognized as imperialist endeavors. The Bush doctrine of unilateralism was, in fact, nothing but a new name for US imperialism.
It was shocking how quickly many right-wing intellectuals and politicians began to speak positively about imperialism. For some, “imperialist” ceased to be an accusation and became a name they could embrace openly. Many others, who demurred from using the term imperialism, advocated unilateral US military interventions and occupations for “advancing freedom” that were clearly imperialist in substance. Neoconservative intellectuals were the leaders in this return to imperialism, but the White House authors of the Iraq War also conceived the world and the US role in it through the old-fashioned lens of an imperialist imaginary, adopting the traditional weapons and objectives of the imperialist traditions.