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Totem and Taboo | The Nation

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Totem and Taboo

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If the emerging American empire was not based on the formal acquisition of territory, a territorial concept was inherent in the construction of economic and political control. This was the continuation and expansion of the prewar pattern. Following World War I the United States--unlike its French, British and Japanese allies--claimed no spoils from those it had defeated. Instead it focused on economic expansion (and continued suzerainty over Latin America). Its goal then, and now, was a global Open Door for American trade and investment.

About the Author

Ronald Steel
Ronald Steel, the author of Temptations of a Superpower and other books on US politics and diplomacy, teaches...

Following World War II the conflict over the political and economic orientation of Eastern Europe brought about the confrontation known as the cold war. This challenge offered the opportunity for the United States to reorganize the world according to American interests, principles and values. The project, nourished on a series of real and imagined "crises," was an immensely successful and usually stable one that served the interests of both the United States and the Soviet Union. It guaranteed the global interests of the former and the security needs of the latter. This is in large part why the armed confrontation lasted so long.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, hastened but not caused by the reforms of Mikhail Gorbachev, was brought about not by revolution or military defeat, but by the inability of a sclerotic Soviet bureaucracy and economic system to maintain the military balance of the cold war or to provide a decent standard of living for its people. Within the American government this collapse was not viewed as a completely happy development. It undercut much of the justification for the global military, bureaucratic and industrial structures that had been put into place during long decades of alarm and confrontation. Americans began to look for a "peace dividend."

A focus on neglected domestic needs was not to happen, because American foreign policy was not about the Soviet Union. It was, and is, about advancing the economic and political interests of the dominant groups within the United States. Where this project meets resistance, there is no peace, and there can be no peace dividend. This was true throughout the cold war in conflicts like those in Korea, Vietnam and in myriad interventions, coups and proxy wars like those in Guatemala, Iran, Angola, El Salvador, Chile, Brazil, Nicaragua, Afghanistan, Angola, Lebanon and Panama, and continuing through the 1990s in Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and Iraq. It is also why there was no significant reduction of the military budget--or of American military forces in bases around the globe. The disappearance of the long-term serious rival made no significant difference in the American project for a world conducive to US economic and political goals. But it did restrict the agenda.

The attacks of September 11 brought an end to what we called, for lack of a better term, the post-cold war world. They shattered the sense of invulnerability that Americans had taken for granted. They triggered an intense national anxiety that gave the government a free hand to combat this new threat, along with an open spigot to the Treasury. The "war on terror" became the ideological replacement for the cold war. It too is global in scope, involves enemies hidden among us who challenge our beliefs and values and will use any weapons against us and our allies. It is a war that is said to require a "full spectrum" response, anywhere and everywhere. All this is evident in sweeping new programs of domestic surveillance, rearmament, foreign base expansion and military operations launched by the Bush government. This has provoked not only an immense outcry at home and abroad but a remarkable profusion of books analyzing what virtually no one any longer hesitates to describe as America's imperial adventure.

These books are of two kinds. First there are those that benignly view George W. Bush's initiatives as a radical departure from an American foreign policy based on multilateralism, alliances and consensus. Then there are those that see it as a manifestation of the policies of expansion and unilateralism that are inherent in a longstanding imperial project. The former approach is evidenced in a series of lamentations from within what could be called the foreign policy "community" of journalists, scholars, think-tank analysts and former government officials who are distressed by the Bush Administration's crude style and its egregious alienation of old allies. Although many are liberals, some are conservatives, in the old bipartisan sense of the term. Their complaints show a serious degree of rumbling within the American establishment.

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