Communist Party of Australia

We acknowledge the Sovereignty of the First Nations’ Peoples.


Journal of the Communist Party of Australia

ISSUE 29May 1992

The Meaning Of A New World Order: A Critique

by James Petras

(This article first appeared in the magazine America on May 11, 1991)

The US war in the Persian Gulf was an attempt to recreate Washington’s role as world policeman, to re-subordinate Europe to US power and to intimidate the third world into submission. It was an attempt to regain the position of global supremacy held by the United States at the end of World War II. In this sense George Bush was executing, in its most extreme form, the political vision of the Reagan period. The massive build-up of military power, the world-wide pressure on clients, allies and neutrals to collaborate, the vast economic expenditures, the unprecedented unleashing of aerial bombardment, all speak to the momentous historical changes that underline this war.

The preparation for the war demonstrated the enormous capacity and resources that Washington has at its disposal. It also reflected a deep-rooted sense of decline and fear of growing challenges to that global supremacy. The war was not about “oil” – and even less about “self-determination” (no country can match the US record of violations of national integrity over the past two decades), but about creating the foundations for launching a new set of political, economic and social relations to sustain the United States as the dominant power in the world. That is the meaning of the Bush and Baker vision of a new world order.

Prior to the Gulf War there were numerous indications the global decline of the United States was accelerating. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union the “ideological victory” over Stalinism also revealed the tremendous incapacity of the United States to provide economic resources to reshape these economies to its needs or even to subsidize new client regimes. Instead, most observers saw Germany as the dominant power in the region. In Western Europe the decline of NATO substantially weakened US leverage over European governments and economic policy. European-centered military and security proposals paralleled tighter economic integration. At the policy level, declining influence became obvious in Washington’s incapacity to impose its liberal agricultural and “services” (banking, finances etc.) agenda during the Uruguay round of the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) meetings. The proximity of 1992’s European union is seen as a strategic threat, closing off markets in Western Europe and challenging the American position elsewhere.

The cumulative gains of Japan and its virtual displacement of the United States as the major investor and trading partner in Asia – the most dynamic growth region in the world – are a clear signal of declining influence. In a world in which global power is increasingly determined by industrial and financial activities and market exchanges based on strong industrial states, Washington strategists must have recognised that the United States will be a sure loser.

The decline of US global power is evident even in Latin America, where haphazard efforts have been made to preserve areas of traditional domination. Bush’s “Enterprise For the Americas” proposal was more rhetoric than substance, more pillage of existing markets and resources than any strategic commitment to large-scale, long-term investments to expand productive capacity. The initial sums promised ($300 million) would cover Latin America’s foreign debt payments for four days. More to the point, the continuing massive outflows of interest payments and profits from Latin America to the United States ($35 billion per year) and the capacity of the United States to reconstruct the economies of small, reconquered nations (Grenada, Panama, Nicaragua) demonstrate the tremendous gap between US power to dominate and US incapacity to rebuild economically viable client states.

This global context of deteriorating power, power lost to capitalist competition and third-world challengers – would, if it continued over time, either force internal structural change in the United States or lead to the regulation of this country to a status of non-hegemony. The impending loss of global supremacy and the incapacity to take economic advantage of the openings in Eastern Europe, Russia, China and the rest of Asia is frustrating to the US policy makers. Blocked by economic weakness from seizing the new openings, Washington's frustration has increased because of the tremendous stockpile of advanced military weaponry at its disposal. The disjuncture between military and economic power in the new post-Cold War configuration has been acutely felt and was instrumental in launching the Gulf War. Of what use were guided missiles and stealth bombers in competing for influence in Western European markets? How were Pentagon budgets to compete with Deutschbank loans for influence in Eastern Europe or the Soviet Union? The contradiction is transparent: In the post Cold-War period (and even before that), the rules of achieving global power have been rooted in competition in the world market, while the United States is still geared toward projections of military power.

The US war in the Gulf was in its deepest sense a means of changing the rules of global power; subordinating economic competitors into bankers of US military conquests; converting economic resources from markets toward war subsidies; loosening European alliances in favour of US centered coalitions; trading third world debt payments for military contingents under US command.

The Gulf War was in its broadest contours an effort to reverse world historical trends that are moving to relegate the United States to the status of a second-class power. It was meant to define a new military centered global order whose markets, income and resources shares are defined not by technological market power, but by political-military dominance. Under these rules Washington’s comparative advantage in military power would ensure US global supremacy, and would undermine the capacity of competitors to mount an effective challenge to its position.

The Bush Administration’s attempt to change the rules defining global power relations and economic conditions – internal and external – under which imperial revivalism takes place, will have a profound effect on US society as well as on future relations with competitors. Launching a major war at a time of declining economic activity and deteriorating urban life means that, unlike previous wars, this one absorbed scarce economic resources and further eroded social conditions. It undermined public services and increased financial instability. The imperialist war could not provide economic pay-offs for labour, tying the working class to the war through higher wages and better jobs. This war exploited labour at home to support wealthy rentier clients in the Gulf. The internal linkages were finalised by appropriating internal resources.

The absence of imperial pay-offs for labour creates a serious political problem: How can the Bush Administration sustain a campaign for global hegemony that cannot rely on economic pay- offs and spin-offs to labour and business to reinforce chauvinist ideological appeals? The answer lies in the militarisation of US culture and society through a mass propaganda blitz. Almost 24 hours a day during the war every major media outlet was engaged in a campaign to capture the hearts and minds of the American people. The war, as presented by the state and the media, was defined strictly according to the military censors, television and radio programs organised to focus on military strategies and rationales presented by military officials and strategists of War News commentators selectively interviewed rank and file soldiers, giving the Pentagon a “back home” face. Bombings were described in terms of objects destroyed, according to technical formulas approved by military officials. The issues and prospects of the war were defined by the military and the chief policy makers Congressional officials competed with the executive branch in embracing the new military metaphysics. Liberal columnists reinforced the same message: The merits of warfare techniques were debated rather than any critical aspects of the rentier classes and global power interests being served.

Nowhere was the massive destruction of Iraq, the terror bombing of the population, the enormous economic and human cost to the American people significantly and publicly debated. More important, the larger political-military issues of global US power that underlay the war were totally obscured by rhetoric about liberating Kuwait, defending democracy, opposing Hussein. Vague references to a “new world order” effectively obscured the role that Washington foresaw for itself as the prime beneficiary and dominant force in this new world order.

The “militarisation” of American society serves to create a culture of citizen obedience to military authority and submissiveness to the imperatives of war. Mass campaigns are encouraged to support the soldiers as a way of blunting criticism of the war makers. This barrage even affected sectors of the anti-war opposition, with early calls to end the war being balanced by “support” of our soldiers. This misplaced accommodation to state rhetoric thus replaces any effort to fight the economic system that fails to provide meaningful, productive work at home and lures young people into the military.

If the Gulf War was primarily about the United States reshaping a new world order anchored in military supremacy over its market-based competitors, it also involved the protection and cultivation of client regimes whose interests are linked to this global project. The Gulf oil monarchies recycle hundreds of billions of dollars of earnings to US banks. Israel provides overt military support to the United States in the Mideast and clandestine arms and intelligence to US client regimes. The US defense of the authoritarian Kuwaiti regime and the autocratic Saudi monarchy is in part political payment for their economic support of US policy in South Asia, South Africa, Central America and elsewhere. More important, these states do not compete with the US economy in global markets. They share the US parasitical relation to the producer countries, north and south, east and west. While the United States extracts loans and debt payments, the sheiks receive ground rents.

Israel is in an analogous position; its economy is heavily based on arms sales, US and, to a lesser degree, European grants and aid (public and private), land appropriated from the Arabs, professionals and skilled labour trained and educated at the expense of Communist societies and Western taxpayers. Like the United States, Israel lives off ideological appeals and military capacities that far outrun its economic-technical production. US military definitions of the new world order resonate with Israeli comparative advantages - particularly as Israel seeks to carve out a role as a regional power. The Israeli military definition of politics has been retracted through its supporters among the leadership of major Jewish organisations in the United States. From the beginning of the Gulf conflict, these organisations seconded and encouraged every major escalation of the war and gave unconditional support to President Bush’s policy. They were practically the only major ethno-religious organisations to adopt such an unequivocal position.

The chauvinist rhetoric pumped out by the mass media and the military rationale elaborated by the press for the educated classes tacitly recognised the growing gap between the classes paying for and fighting the war and the local and overseas promoters and benefactors. The militarisation of cultural life can be temporarily successful only insofar as the reality principle can be avoided. As the costs amount at home and abroad, directly affecting the lives of millions of Americans, and as the unequal benefits and costs become increasingly transparent, a political backlash is likely to occur, pitting pro-war ideologies and the state apparatus against formidable opponents.

The New World Order that President Bush and Secretary of State Baker hope to fashion out of the Gulf War is also based on the notion of subordinating Europe and Japan to US global ends. Throughout the war, the US news media presented Japan and Germany as ungrateful oil importers benefiting from US military activity without contributing their share of money and military forces. The war’s morality aside, neither Germany nor Japan had any great interest in or commitment to a military confrontation in the Gulf. Their market positions ensure their supply of petroleum. Neither country has an interest in diverting economic resources from technological development to a military build-up that has no positive impact on its economic expansion, particularly in international markets. Moreover, a war on behalf of monarchical clients of the United States would hardly enhance their influence.

Even during the war, US supremacy over its allies was more appearance than substance. The economic contributions dribbled in (and in part took the form of credits and loans to bankrupt US Mideast clients), and delivery lagged far behind promises. Washington’s policy of “creating facts” – projecting power and then forcing the Europeans and Japanese to support US positions – has temporarily pre-empted the formation of the common European position, and England has been able to reassert its primary loyalty to the US-led military alliance over and against a common European policy. But this European “retreat” before American primacy has no structural basis: Washington has neither the economic capacity nor the military will to hold Europe and Japan under its tutelage. Even England’ role in the Gulf is less a product of US policy than a function of its own financial interests in the Gulf banks.

If Washington could not fully reassert its primacy in the midst of war, how can it be expected to re-establish a framework for supremacy after the war, when the scramble for contracts, markets and oil will unleash all the expansionist appetites of Japan and Europe? To accomplish dominance, new rules will have to be established to enable the United States to pursue its vision of a new world order. In all likelihood such rules would resemble those of the neo-merchantilist world of the 18th century. The United States would presumably impose economic charges for its military services. The Seventh Fleet might serve as a kind of “toll collector”, charging fees for oil shipments to Europe and Japan. Of course this is a far-fetched idea, but so is the idea of establishing a new world order based on US military supremacy over its powerful economic allies. The alternative is even less plausible: the use of military threats to coerce Germany and Japan into falling in line with the command structure of the United States, an idea hardly likely to carry much weight with the US Treasury, in debt to Japanese banks, and US multinationals dependent on European markets.

The Bush-Baker notion of a new world order based on US military power is really a transplant of the role and practice of “extractive capitalists” in the United States – the oil and raw material investors in the third world. Their view of the world is derived from their experiences in the third world, where they extend their economic interests through Pentagon and CIA influence to establish favourable client regimes that then open up their countries to exploitation. In these extractive contexts, US military power serves to consolidate hegemony over client states.

George Bush is largely a product of two important exponents of “extractive” thinking: Texas oil and the CIA. His effort to expand the practices and relations of extractive capitalism in the third world to a world scale is not only doomed to failure, but reflects the total ineptitude of US strategic thinking today. Germany and Japan are not about to submit to US dictates on trade policy as Mexico has done. Their banks finance us, not vice versa. Nor is the United 52 States likely to find senior military officers in these countries eager to submit to their US counterparts in efforts to undercut national industries.

The unreality of the new world order pursued by President Bush and Secretary Baker bespeaks limited vision – one that looks only at the ideological and military role of power and not the economic, one that looks only at US success in third-world counter-insurgency and ignores US failures in market competition; one that looks backward to a past era of US dominance and ignores the present and future world of relatively equal competitors; one that celebrates ideological victories over communism and ignores the hollowing out of urban capitalism in America. The blind spots are not minor; they are major determinants of global power, or strategic failures.

To pursue a global imperial vision that is so fundamentally flawed is to court disaster. To mount a grand army abroad is to further hollow out the American economy at home. Never has there been such a clear-cut case of a “zero-sum game”. The new imperialism paradoxically exploits its own people in order to expand militarily abroad. The new world order is built on extracting economic surplus at home to strengthen rentier classes abroad; it deepens the social polarisation between wage, salaried and small business classes on the one hand and the overseas extractive capitalists on the other, insofar as it attempts to harness Japan and Germany to its “neo-merchantilist” vision, is certain to deepen political antagonisms and heighten economic competition. In the end, the Bush-Baker notion of a new world order is likely to crumble in the face of the powerful economic currents that will-shape the global economy in the real world and political resistance at home.

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