World imperialism today

27 December 2023
Eleanor Morley

The world is a very volatile place. Two major invasions have occurred out within two years—a reminder of how deadly and destructive global capitalism is.

First was Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Since the tanks rolled across the border in February 2022, almost 10,000 civilians have been killed, according to the United Nations. Include soldiers and the death toll rises to anywhere between 100,000 and 200,000—the most serious military conflict in Europe since World War Two.

Then came Gaza. Civilian casualties quickly outstripped those of Ukraine: at least 20,000 Palestinians have been killed by Israel’s relentless bombardment, although the figure is likely much higher— it’s hard to count bodies trapped below piles of rubble.

Neither of these wars was predicted, which raises the question: Where will be next?

For the last few years, the US security establishment has focused on containing the rise of China and preparing for a potential war with it in the future. The Biden administration pulled out of Afghanistan, imposed sanctions on Chinese tech industries and handed out enormous subsidies to help domestic industries rebuild US war-fighting capabilities.

A key topic of discussion and inquiry for analysts of all political persuasions has been the relative decline of US imperialism. Many argue that its star power peaked in the 1990s after the USSR collapsed and that, while no other country comes close to its political and economic might, US hegemony has been irrevocably weakened.

The invasion of Iraq was a disaster for US power, China has grown in strength, and old foes like Russia and Iran have flexed their muscles in several areas. But the precise international balance of power is difficult to discern.

The US has obvious strengths. No other country has the resources to focus its military on three fronts, as the US is currently doing by providing weapons and intelligence to Ukraine and Israel while building its presence in and near Asia. China—whose geopolitical weight is the product of its astonishing economic rise—now seems to be struggling with its post-pandemic recovery and ailing property sector.

But the general climate of global instability also poses challenges for the US ruling class. Ukraine and Gaza are not conflicts that the US wants. Indeed, one of the main frustrations inside the Pentagon in the last decade is that the War on Terror proved to be a distraction stalling the pivot to Asia. The US is now bearing the burden for two more conflicts that have little to do with addressing its key strategic rival: China. (For example, more than half of all military aid sent to Ukraine since Russia invaded has come from the US, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.)

This dilemma is now playing out inside the US Congress. The extreme right of the Republicans opposed assistance to Ukraine from the beginning of the war. But in recent months, a wider section of the party has also raised hesitations; spending packages for new military assistance have stalled in the Senate and the House.

While the security apparatus is loathe to give a free kick to Russia, it’s possible that, as the war drags on, the desire to cut and run could spread. Ukraine’s spring counteroffensive, designed to claw back lost territory from Russia, largely failed. Instead, both countries are in a quagmire—neither seriously advancing nor losing much ground. US weapons stockpiles are depleting as it ships rockets and missiles to Ukraine. This can’t go on forever, particularly now that the US is underwriting Israel’s war.

After all, the primary concern of the US was never to defend the people of Ukraine—if the US cared about civilian populations, it wouldn’t be assisting the annihilation of Gaza. The motivations are far more cynical: not letting an enemy get runs on the board, strengthening relations with other NATO members and establishing that no serious conflict takes place in this world without a green light from, of the involvement of, its leading superpower.

Palestine also poses problems for the United States. While the war has once again proven the unparalleled strength of the Western alliance, there are obvious drawbacks. The US successfully paraded as the great defender of self-determination and democracy in relation to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But it has decisively lost the moral high ground over Palestine. And it’s not clear how much longer and what the regional implications will be of the US-backed genocide.

It’s also too early to tell what the broader consequences of this war will be for world imperialism and US power. Aside from the drain on US resources that Israel has become, Washington in its positioning against China is courting two important Muslim-majority countries in South-East Asia—Indonesia and Malaysia—the populations and governments of which are, to varying degrees, pro-Palestinian.

The Biden administration has nevertheless advanced US interests in several ways. It pursued the economic war started by Trump but has done so to greater advantage. Targeted prohibitions on US corporate investments in Chinese tech industries seems to be effective. Perhaps most consequential is the ban on Chinese access to the most advanced microchips, which are critical for a range of industries. As a sign of US strength, it has even prevented third countries from exporting to China inputs used in semiconductor manufacturing. This is partly about weakening China as an economic rival but will also hamper its military development.

The Pentagon is jumping on new developments in artificial intelligence. US Deputy Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks announced in August that, in preparing for a possible war with China, the US is developing autonomous weapons systems to further its advantage. “We’ll counter the [People’s Liberation Army’s] mass with mass of our own, but ours will be harder to plan for, harder to hit, harder to beat”, she said.

It’s not only the major powers that are preparing for greater military conflict. All across the world, countries are expanding their military capabilities. Global military spending reached an all-time high of US$2.4 trillion in 2023. States that previously have been reluctant to spend big on their armies, such as Japan and Germany, have flipped in the last two years. So in late 2022, Japan unveiled its biggest military build-up since World War Two, and Germany announced in August that it will soon reach the NATO target of spending 2 percent of GDP on “defence”, a measure on which it has long fallen short.

Then there are nuclear weapons. Despite years of talk about nuclear disarmament, the world is heading in the opposite direction. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, the nine nuclear-armed states are all modernising their stockpiles and the global inventory of warheads has increased. And the US Defence Department recently announced that it is developing a new variant of the B61 nuclear gravity bomb.

There’s another side to all this. The major players are stuck in a bind. The forces of global competition have pushed them towards confrontation, but in the short term this can cause its own problems. Forty years of globalisation have connected the world’s biggest countries by countless economic threads. Unravelling them risks destabilising the entire global economy.

So there are sanctions, chest-beating and intensifying war games in the South China Sea. But Western and Chinese leaders have also made a renewed push for diplomacy—however milquetoast—to try to cool some of the economic tensions. In April, US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan suggested that the US is not “decoupling” from China (severing economic ties between the two), but “derisking” (honing in on a few strategic sectors). Sullivan described this as a “small-yard, high-fence” strategy. Nevertheless, US imports from China fell 25 percent in the first six months of 2023, according to the US Commerce Department.

There’s also an element of the unknown: What will happen if Trump wins the 2024 election? Will another surprise conflict erupt in the coming years? Could a Western or Chinese naval exercise in the South China Sea get out of hand and provoke a confrontation? Prediction is for the most part a fool’s game. But in this climate, so is betting on stability.

Taken together—the increased military spending, the new wars in Europe and the Middle East, the bellicose rhetoric and the economic warfare—all the elements portend a dangerous situation. There are forces pushing the world towards greater conflicts. If there is one take-home message from world imperialism in 2023, it’s that capitalism is incapable of providing any kind of lasting peace.

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