The multiple crises of imperialism

Issue: 144

Alex Callinicos

If the United States remains the command centre of global capitalism, a multiplicity of crises has been flashing up on its screens in the past few months. Let’s consider them in ascending order of importance from the perspective of US decision makers. First, there was Israel’s latest war on Gaza—not a crisis for Washington, more the kind of violent outburst through which a kind of equilibrium is re-established, but for growing numbers of people around the world an outrage and a crime. Secondly, there was the war—now halted by an uneasy ceasefire—between the pro-Western government in Kiev and Russian-backed forces in south eastern Ukraine. Thirdly, there is the US bombing campaign to halt the advance of the jihadi group that calls itself the Islamic State, but which we will continue to call ISIS, in Iraq and Syria. And, finally—not yet a crisis, but potentially the most serious conflict—there’s the increasingly intense interstate competition in East Asia in response to China’s growing power.1

One interesting thing about this list is that two of the items—the war in Ukraine and the rise of ISIS—wouldn’t have figured in anyone’s predictions at the beginning of 2014. This is a sign of the volatility of the international situation, which is a consequence of power shifts among the leading capitalist states. But it’s also quite frightening. Christopher Clark in his influential recent book on the outbreak of the First World War argues that, despite the polarisation of Europe into two rival power blocs, in the summer of 1914 “the danger of a conflict between the great alliance blocs seemed to be receding, just as the chain of events that would ultimately drag Europe into war got underway”.2 War can take even the greatest powers by surprise, as we can see now in Barack Obama’s reluctant redeployment of US military power in Iraq.

But for many on the left internationally this reluctance is feigned. For them, the unifying theme in these different crises is the assertion of American power to maintain and even expand Washington’s global domination, in the process pulverising states such as Iraq, Syria and Ukraine. This diagnosis often dovetails into a revival of what was called “campism” during the Cold War—that is, political support for states that, because they resist the US geopolitically, are seen as in some sense progressive.

The Ukraine war has, as Rob Ferguson discusses elsewhere in this issue, been accompanied by an outburst of campism, with the highly respected Russian Marxist Boris Kagarlitsky going so far as to claim about the Russian-backed forces in south eastern Ukraine: “What is happening in Novorossiya is a revolutionary movement, though it’s not yet a revolution in terms of social change”.3 In the Middle East campism takes the form of support for the alliance orchestrated by the Islamic Republican regime in Iran, including notably the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria and Hizbollah, the Shiite Islamist movement that dominates Lebanon. More generally, many on the left look to Russia and China as counterweights to the US.

The problem with this complex of ideas is simultaneously factual, theoretical and political. We’ll return to the politics. Factually: the US has often harboured expansionist designs. This was true in broad terms after the Cold War, when successive administrations sought, by exporting neoliberalism and expanding NATO, to create a global order economically and politically dominated by the US.4 And, more specifically, the administration of George W Bush in the neocons’ heyday after 9/11 sought to seize Iraq in order to entrench US domination of the Middle East, topple hostile regimes in Syria and Iran, and spread bourgeois democracy neoliberal style to the Arab world.5

But the Middle East today is shaped above all by the failure of this vainglorious project and by the Arab revolutions and the reactionary attempts to crush them. The Obama administration is profoundly conscious of this. This doesn’t mean that it won’t inflict more evils on the region, or collude in them (for example through its support for Israel), but, as we will see in more detail below, its current aims are primarily defensive.

Understanding imperialism today

The problem is also theoretical. For much of the left imperialism is equated with US domination. But this is not how it was understood by the classical theorists of imperialism—and not because they were writing a hundred years ago, long before the onset of American hegemony. For them, imperialism had two crucial features. First of all, it involved a system of geopolitical rivalries among the Great Powers. As the Liberal J A Hobson (a major influence on Lenin) put it, “the novelty of recent imperialism regarded as a policy consists chiefly in its adoption by several nations. The notion of a number of competing empires is essentially modern”.6

Secondly, the emergence of these rivalries was a consequence of a specific phase of capitalist development, as Lenin underlines in his pamphlet Imperialism. The concentration and centralisation of capital that Marx identifies in Capital, Volume I as one of the main tendencies arising from the capitalist accumulation process led by the beginning of the 20th century to the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition. Capitals, increasingly large in scale and operating internationally, came to depend on the support of their nation state to defend their interests; equally, to maintain themselves against their rivals, states had to promote the industrial capitalist economies that alone could provide complex modern weapons systems and the infrastructure of war. The growing interdependence of states and capitals gave rise to the intensification of geopolitical rivalries that exploded into world war in August 1914 and that produced a second bout of carnage in 1939-45.7

So from a Marxist perspective, modern imperialism is a system of intercapitalist competition and rivalry. Lenin’s key contribution to the theory was the concept of uneven development. Capitalism doesn’t grow uniformly: some states and regions leap ahead; others lag behind. This unevenness defines the hierarchy of power in the world. But, crucially, the uneven development of capitalism redistributes power among the leading states. This means that the balance of power is constantly shifting, creating the circumstances of new conflicts. The key geopolitical development in the first half of the 20th century was the shift in relative power between Britain, hitherto the dominant capitalist state, and the US and Germany; today another shift in relative power is taking place between the US and China. Changes of this nature, Lenin insisted, make the peaceful transnational integration of capitals that Karl Kautsky called “ultra-imperialism” and Michael Hardt and Toni Negri have more recently named “Empire” impossible: the redistribution of power among states undermines the deals that would be needed to make such integration work.8

Why have so many on the left lost sight of the systemic character of imperialism? It may have to do with two optical illusions. The first has to do with the Cold War. This journal was unusual in regarding the Soviet Union as state capitalist and therefore its long struggle with the US as a form of inter-imperialist rivalry. Those on the left who understood the USSR instead as a socialist society or a degenerated workers’ state or in some vaguer sense “post-capitalist” couldn’t see the Cold War as a conflict between imperialist powers. Isaac Deutscher, for example, developed a highly influential interpretation that portrayed the geopolitical and ideological struggle between Western and Eastern blocs as a “great contest” between “antagonistic social systems”, respectively capitalism and communism, in which the Soviet Union, however imperfectly, represented the revolutionary interest on a world scale.9 This kind of thinking survives in a residual identification of Russia as an “anti-imperialist” power, despite the cynical brutality with which it crushed the Chechen independence movement and the crude fusion of the high command of the state and unrestrained predatory capitalism in Moscow.

The second optical illusion comes from the so-called “unipolar moment” at the end of the Cold War, when the US enjoyed overwhelming military superiority over all other powers combined and, in the late 1990s and mid-2000s, experienced significant economic booms. But even at the time there was a contradiction between the Pentagon’s military supremacy and continuing US relative economic decline, masked by a boom that was already being driven by a financial bubble—initially in the stock market and then in the mid-2000s in housing.10 The bursting of the latter bubble, coinciding with US defeat in Iraq, has made American weakness visible. Not only did the global economic and financial crisis start in the US, but China and other “emerging market” economies recovered much more rapidly. Between 2007 and 2012 the advanced economies grew by 3 percent, the emerging and developing countries by 31 percent, and China by 56 percent.11 It is precisely during the crisis that China has emerged as the second biggest economy in the world as well as lead manufacturer, exporter and consumer of energy.

The divergence in growth rates is making possible a narrowing of the gap in military capabilities between the US and the rest. In 2013 the US defence budget was a vast $600.4 billion, still dwarfing that of the runners up, China ($112.2 billion), Russia ($68.2 billion), Saudi Arabia ($59.6 billion) and Britain ($57 billion). But since the crash defence spending has risen sharply in some leading “emerging market” economies, while it has stagnated or fallen in the West. In 2008-13 real net defence spending rose 43.5 percent in China, 31.2 percent in Russia, 10 percent in Brazil, 6.6 percent in Japan, 0.3 percent in France, 0.1 percent in the US, -4.3 percent in Germany, -9.1 percent in Britain and -21 percent in Italy. Between 2001 and 2013 the official budget of the People’s Liberation Army (which significantly understates Chinese defence spending) rose by 700 percent.12 The International Institute of Strategic Studies estimates that, on present trends, and depending on the growth rates extrapolated and spending definitions, the US and Chinese defence budgets will converge sometime between 2023 and 2028.13

Of course, such extrapolations need to be treated with great care. The annual real rate of growth of Chinese defence spending dropped from 10.4 percent in 2003-7 to 7.6 percent in 2009-13.14 This trend broadly tracks the slowdown in the overall rate of growth of the Chinese economy. Even the lower growth rate has depended on a debt-driven investment boom engineered by the government in response to the Great Recession of 2008-9. But now analysts are predicting China may be facing a “balance sheet recession”, in which heavily indebted companies concentrate on cutting their debts, thereby reducing effective demand and output.15

But whatever the future holds for the Chinese economy, the gap separating it from the American remains, in reality, large. Earlier this year the World Bank announced that Chinese GDP was now higher than that of the US. This estimate relied on the controversial purchasing power parity (PPP) measure of national income, which adjusts for differences in costs between countries. But China has a population of 1,356 million, while that of the US is only 319 million. Even using the PPP measure, which weights the comparison in China’s favour, in 2013 US GDP per capita was $52,000, while China’s was $9,800.16 The American state continues to preside over a far richer economy than China’s. It is, moreover, at the centre of the global financial system, issues the main reserve currency and orchestrates a network of international alliances that bind the advanced capitalist states to its political and military leadership.17

Nevertheless, the global redistribution of economic power is leading to an intensification of geopolitical competition. The second of the crises listed above, Russia’s intervention in Ukraine in defiance of the US, NATO and the European Union, is the most visible example of this development, but from the longer term view what’s happening in East Asia—the fourth of those conflicts—is much more significant. Much attention is focused on the build-up of Chinese naval power in the Western Pacific and a host of territorial disputes in the South and East China seas. The most serious of these pits China and Japan, the second and third biggest economies in the world, against each other over ownership of the uninhabited Diaoyu/Senkaku islands.

Beyond nationalist symbolism and the energy reserves scattered across the area lies the strategic significance of the South China Sea. According to the geostrategist David Kaplan:

The South China Sea functions as the throat of the Western Pacific and Indian oceans—the mass of connective economic tissue where global sea routes coalesce. Here is the heart of Eurasia’s navigable rimland, punctuated by the Malacca, Sunda, Lombok and Makassar straits. More than half of the world’s annual merchant street tonnage passes through these choke points, and a third of all maritime traffic worldwide.18

Economic globalisation, by increasing states’ dependence on transnational flows of goods, has made maintaining access to key sea routes vital. The saying went in the 15th century, when South East Asia was valued by European states as a source of rare and expensive spices: “Whoever is the Lord of Malacca has his hand on the throat of Venice”.19 More recently Hu Jintao, Chinese president 2002-12, has spoken of a “Malacca dilemma”, since so much of China’s exports of manufactured goods and imports of energy and raw materials has to pass through these straits connecting the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. This has encouraged China to invest in alternative land routes to the Indian Ocean through Burma and Pakistan that bypass the straits.20

In the meantime, the sea routes on which China’s position as the world’s biggest industrial and exporting economy depends are protected by the US Navy, which has dominated the Pacific since the defeat of Japan in 1945. This situation is not acceptable to China’s rulers, as is indicated by the expansion of the People’s Liberation Army Navy and heavy investments in weapons systems (for example, a submarine fleet that by 2020 will match that of the US and the DF-21 missile that can hit moving targets at sea such as aircraft carriers) that can deny American warships access to the seas along the Chinese coast. Kaplan quotes Paul Bracken of Yale University to the effect that “China isn’t so much building a conventional navy as an ‘anti-navy navy’ designed to push US sea and air forces away from the East Asian coastline”.21

But what is happening in Asia is a lot more than a binary confrontation between the US and China. States are generally expanding their military spending as they assert their interests against each other. Particularly since the right wing nationalist Shinzo Abe took over as prime minister in 2012, Japan has been positioning itself as the leader of an anti-Chinese coalition. China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines, which all have disputed territorial claims over the energy-rich Spratly islands, have built structures in the islands for use by their navies. Kaplan points out that

it isn’t just China that is improving its military, so are Southeast Asian countries in general. Their defence budgets have increased by about a third in the past decade, even as European defence budgets have declined. Arms imports to Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia have gone up by 84 percent, 146 percent and 722 percent respectively since 2000. The spending is on naval and air platforms, surface warships, submarines with advanced missile systems and long-range fighter jets. Vietnam recently spent $2 billion on six state of the art Kilo-class Russian submarines and $1 billion on Russian fighter jets. Malaysia recently opened a submarine base on the island of Borneo, even as China is developing an underground base for 20 nuclear submarines on Hainan Island on the other side of the South China Sea. While the United States has been distracted by land wars in Greater East Asia, military power has been quietly shifting from Europe to Asia, where authentic civilian-military, post-industrial complexes are being built, with an emphasis on naval forces.22

The old Cold War divisions no longer fit a region where, for example, Vietnam looks to the US to balance against China, and South Korea is attracted towards China as a counterweight to its old colonial power, Japan. Japan itself has been extending feelers towards North Korea, whose rulers sometimes lob test missiles in its direction. As Kaplan puts it, “world-wide multi-polarity is already a feature of diplomacy and economics, but the South China Sea is poised to show us what multi-polarity in a military sense actually looks like”.23

The burdens of global empire

In itself, the entry of East Asia into a period of more intense interstate competition is not a direct threat to US hegemony. On the contrary, greater Chinese assertiveness may have the effect of pushing more Asian states than Vietnam towards the US.24 The deeper problem arises from the very feature that distinguishes the US from all other states—namely, that it is the only genuinely global power, maintaining a dominant position in all the key regions of the world economy (North America, Western Europe, East Asia and the Middle East). Putting it crudely, the more widespread the crises, the harder it is for Washington to devote the attention and resources required to resolve any of them.

This problem was a crucial determinant of the decline of America’s predecessor as the hegemonic capitalist power—Britain—between the late 18th and early 20th centuries. Britain’s ability to manage the European balance of power depended crucially on the combination of its economic strength (as the first industrial capitalist economy and as centre of the international financial and trading system) and of the resources provided by the empire, above all the money and manpower the Raj extracted from India. At the beginning of the 20th century British hegemony came under pressure thanks to the emergence of the US and Germany as industrial and naval competitors. But what, more than anything else, broke the empire’s back was the threat of geopolitical challenges emerging simultaneously in three key regions—continental Europe, the Mediterranean and East Asia. In the late 1930s this threat became reality in the shape of the Axis between Nazi Germany, fascist Italy and Japan. The strategies employed by successive prime ministers—appeasement under Neville Chamberlain and fighting the Axis in alliance with the US under Winston Churchill—both failed to save the British Empire.25

American economic and military power is still far greater than Britain’s ever was. But the US begins to face the same kind of problem, as it has to deal with China’s rise, a reassertive Russia and continuing turmoil in the Middle East. The contours of the problem were already clear when Obama took office.26 His solution was twofold: first, to liquidate Bush’s failed wars in western Asia (pulling US troops out of Iraq in 2011 and, after a futile initial “surge”, from Afghanistan next year), and secondly, to effect the famous “pivot” to Asia, giving priority to the Asia-Pacific region in Washington’s diplomatic efforts and military capabilities (eg 60 percent of the US Navy).27 But beyond this reorientation in geographical priorities, Obama has drawn the lesson from the neocons’ failure that the US should be much more cautious in using military power. This was already evident in his refusal (despite the pressure from then secretary of state, Hillary Clinton) to intervene too much in the Syrian civil war and in the eagerness with which a year ago he seized on Congressional opposition to abandon his threat to mount air strikes to punish the Assad regime for using chemical weapons.

In a speech at West Point Military Academy in May Obama sought to generalise from this experience, developing what was touted as a new strategic doctrine:

Here’s my bottom line: America must always lead on the world stage. If we don’t, no one else will. The military…is and always will be the backbone of that leadership. But US military action cannot be the only—or even primary—component of our leadership in every instance. Just because we have the best hammer does not mean that every problem is a nail.28

Obama reaffirmed George W Bush’s own “doctrine”: “The United States will use military force, unilaterally if necessary, when our core interests demand it.” But he went on to insist that, “for the foreseeable future, the most direct threat to America at home and abroad remains terrorism. But a strategy that involves invading every country that harbours terrorist networks is naïve and unsustainable,” particularly because “today’s principal threat no longer comes from a centralised Al Qaeda leadership. Instead it comes from decentralised Al Qaeda affiliates and extremists, many with agendas focused in countries where they operate”.29

Within a fortnight Obama’s words came back to haunt him: on 10 June Mosul, Iraq’s second city, fell to ISIS. Far from being a fragmented rabble, in Patrick Cockburn’s words:

Al Qaeda-type movements…today rule a vast area in northern and western Iraq and eastern and northern Syria. The area under their sway is several hundred times larger than any territory controlled by Osama bin Laden, the killing of whom in 2011 was supposed to be a major blow to world terrorism. In fact, it is since bin Laden’s death that Al Qaeda affiliates have had their greatest successes.30

But ISIS is far from being the only challenge to Obama’s attempt to avoid new confrontations. Francis Fukuyama criticised him for saying that “the only direct threat we face is terrorism. He said virtually nothing about long-term responses to the two other big challenges to world order: Russia and China…allies the US is sworn to defend are now threatened by industrialised nations with sophisticated militaries”.31 Fukuyama is quite a good barometer of shifts in American ruling class opinion—announcing the End of History and the triumph of liberal capitalism in 1989, calling for war on Iraq in the late 1990s and jumping quickly off the neocon bandwagon when it became clear that the Bush-Blair adventure had failed.32 Now he recognises that the drive to spread neoliberalism globally has not prevented a revival of geopolitical challenges to the US and its allies.

Of these challenges, the Russian is much the less serious. This is partly because, even under Putin, Russia is a shadow of the USSR, despite his determination to maintain economic and political control over the ex-Soviet republics along its eastern and western borders. But it is also because Ukraine matters much less to the US than it does to Russia. The initiative in precipitating the crisis there came from the European Commission, the pro-Western wing of the Ukrainian oligarchy, and some of the EU’s member states in central and eastern Europe, who have scores to settle with Moscow. Susan Watkins nicely captures the reactive opportunism the US has shown:

For Washington, meanwhile, there is simply the imperial automatism of the global hegemon: if there is a power vacuum in a medium-sized country, the State Department’s reflex response is to move in and take charge. In Ukraine, the US has much less to lose than the EU, though also much less to gain than Russia. But once the crisis broke in Kiev, Washington could not resist the opportunity to construct a regime to its liking.33

Like all US administrations, Obama’s has its hawks—most notably Victoria Nuland, Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs and a neocon holdover from the Bush administration. She was taped in February discussing how to get the western Ukrainian nationalist Arseniy Yatsenyuk into government (he was duly appointed prime minister after the overthrow of President Viktor Yanukovych) and dismissing Brussels with the immortal line: “You know, Fuck the EU”.34 But the administration’s dominant strategy has been to strong-arm a reluctant and divided EU to adopt increasingly tough sanctions packages to punish Russia for annexing Crimea and destabilising Ukraine, but also to avoid a wider confrontation. This is a low-cost approach: the US has far more limited economic ties to Russia than the EU, so the more robust sanctions that Washington has imposed don’t hurt much. But a military response (beyond limited steps to bolster up NATO’s eastern periphery) has never been on the agenda. Large-scale conventional operations so close to Russia are probably beyond the Pentagon’s capabilities and might in any case risk a resort to nuclear weapons by Moscow.

Western policy towards Russia’s intervention in Ukraine—enough to wound, but not enough to kill—has played into Putin’s hands. Ukraine’s integration in the Western bloc threatens to bring NATO to Russia’s borders—a bonus to Washington, but a mortal threat to Moscow. Riding a wave of Russian nationalism, Putin quickly seized Crimea, but elsewhere in Ukraine he used more subtle tactics. A fascinating (if somewhat overheated) piece in the Financial Times at the end of August expressed NATO’s frustrations at how Russia was outmanoeuvring it in Ukraine:

In public, NATO chiefs talk of Vladimir Putin’s 20th century mentality… But, in private, they are more candid—and worried—about the 21st century tactics Mr Putin is using. Russia’s actions in Ukraine have exploded the notion that expansive communications technologies and economic interdependence were fostering a kind of grand bargain.

Instead nationalism, genocide, irredentism and military aggression, which were thought to be in decline, are alive and well, finding new and powerful means of being deployed in Ukraine and beyond… NATO refers to this form of conflict as “hybrid war”. The phrase refers to a broad range of hostile actions, of which military force is only a small part, that are invariably executed in concert as part of a flexible strategy with long-term objectives.

Predictably, the most lucid exposition of the concept is Russian. In February 2013, Valery Gerasimov, the newly appointed chief of Russia’s general staff, penned an article in the Russian defence journal VPK.

War and peace, Mr Gerasimov wrote, in remarks that now seem prophetic, are becoming more blurred.

“Methods of conflict,” he wrote, have changed, and now involve “the broad use of political, economic, informational, humanitarian and other non-military measures”. All of this, he said, could be supplemented by firing up the local populace as a fifth column and by “concealed” armed forces.35

So precisely what Putin did not do, despite endless cliché-ridden denunciations by Western leaders and their media echoes, was send the tanks into Ukraine like the Soviet Union in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968. Instead Moscow provided command and control, intelligence, special forces and heavy weapons to the pro-Russian militias in south eastern Ukraine. Only when the Kiev government offensive during the summer threatened to overwhelm its opponents did Russia deploy heavily armed regular troops in mid-August. They sent the government forces fleeing in disarray and gave Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko little alternative except to negotiate the ceasefire Putin quickly offered. Dmitri Trenin, director of the Carnegie Moscow Centre, explained the Russian president’s strategy to the Financial Times:

By stepping up Russia’s involvement in eastern Ukraine in recent weeks and deploying regular Russian troops, Mr Putin had sent a message to Kiev that he would not allow Ukrainian forces to defeat the pro-Russian rebels.

“He put his finger on the scales of the battle, not his entire fist. And that was enough to deny victory to Ukrainian forces,” said Mr Trenin. The Russian president’s main aim, he added, was to position Moscow to have “enough leverage to weigh in very seriously on what happens in Kiev”, and prevent it from joining Western alliances such as NATO.36

So even a weakened Russia has been able to outmanoeuvre NATO in its “near abroad”. China is a much more difficult proposition. This is partly because of the size and dynamism of its economy and the speed with which, as we have seen, it is expanding its military capabilities. But it is also because, like Russia, its focus is primarily regional, and not global. As Geoff Dyer puts it:

China has no intention of challenging the US around the globe over the coming decades. It has no interest in establishing a serious naval presence in the Caribbean, for instance, or posting soldiers in continental Europe. Instead, it is focused on Asia… China does not need to match the US dollar for dollar to achieve its goals: it only needs to spend enough to change the strategic balance in the western Pacific. Chinese strategists talk about “asymmetric” warfare, tactics and tools that can allow a weaker and smaller country to inflict huge damage on a bigger rival. China is not preparing for a war with the US. Indeed, the goal is to achieve Beijing’s political aims without ever firing in anger. Instead, its military build-up is designed to gradually change the calculations of American commanders, to dissuade them from considering military operations anywhere near China’s coast, and to push them slowly farther out into the Pacific.37

Back to the quagmire

As we have already noted, it’s not beyond Washington’s power to respond effectively to this challenge, through a combination of redeploying military capabilities and exploiting fears of Chinese expansionism among Beijing’s neighbours. But this requires a concentration of both attention and resources on East Asia. The advance of ISIS—the third of the crises we listed at the start—is effectively threatening to block this pivot. As we argued in our last issue, the rise of ISIS is essentially a product of two factors. In the first place, the failure of the Anglo-American occupation of Iraq forced the US to transfer control to an increasingly sectarian and authoritarian Shiite regime under Nouri al-Maliki, who so thoroughly alienated the Sunni Arab minority that ISIS was able to seize first Fallujah and then Mosul with comparative ease. Secondly, the sectarian civil war launched by the Assad regime in response to the Syrian Revolution of 2011 gave ISIS the space in which it was able to seize large areas of eastern Syria, from which it was able to launch its attacks into Iraq.38

ISIS is a sectarian Sunni jihadi organisation whose original inspiration springs from Al Qaeda. Indeed it developed from Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia. Amid the chaos wrought by the 2003 invasion this group, led by Abu Musab al Zarqawi until he was killed by the Americans in 2006, specialised in vicious sectarian attacks on the Shia majority in Iraq. This strategy helped to prevent the consolidation of a united resistance movement to the US occupation.39 But ISIS has evolved in ways that are significantly different from Al Qaeda. Jason Burke argues that, at the height of its power, the original Al Qaeda functioned, not as “a coherent hierarchical terrorist group, with a single leader, a broadly uniform ideology and an ability to conceive and execute projects globally”, but more like a venture capitalist company that would commission and finance projects proposed to it by different jihadi groups around the world. Following its expulsion from Afghanistan in 2001, “all that remains is the idea of ‘Al Qaeda’”.40 Al Qaeda’s amorphous nature fitted into fashionable talk about the future of warfare being “asymmetric” conflicts between states and “not-state” actors organised in networks.

But, as its name suggests, ISIS’s ambition is to become a state—indeed it has already proclaimed itself the Caliphate. This reflects its desire to restore the polity of the classical Islamic era as an alternative to the ills of modernity and the domination of the West. This is a literally reactionary ideology, but its utopian vision of a transnational Islamic political community has allowed ISIS to attract followers from many countries. It has also legitimised constructing a new state in the areas ISIS controls in eastern Syria and western Iraq, where it is developing very modern systems of accounting and bureaucratic control. From kidnapping ransoms and protection money ISIS is evolving towards more conventional sources of revenue, demanding $2 a month tax from shop owners and introducing utility charges. The seizure last year of Raqqa gave ISIS control of the eastern Syrian oilfield, and it is tapping the extensive smuggling network stretching across the borderlands of Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Iran to sell an estimated 80,000 barrels a day.41 Many bourgeois thinkers have seen the state itself as a protection racket, in which property owners pay up in exchange for the security of their persons and possessions. ISIS seems to understand this quid pro quo. Early reports that it had robbed the vaults of Mosul’s banks proved false: the banks have stayed open under jihadi rule.

Now Obama has pledged to “degrade and ultimately destroy” this proto-state. His strategy faces two fundamental contradictions. The first is to preserve the shreds of his commitment to end America’s foreign wars. Obama has pledged that the US contribution to defeating ISIS will be confined purely to air power. But ISIS has a highly mobile and effective fighting force that would need to be defeated by ground troops. In fact, Obama has already sent nearly 1,200 US troops to Iraq and announced the dispatch of another 475 on 10 September. Their mission is to “advise” the Iraqi army, but everyone knows that America’s involvement in the ground war in Vietnam started with John F Kennedy sending increasing numbers of “advisers” in the early 1960s.

General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, has on more than one occasion refused to rule out the return of American ground troops to Iraq. On 25 September he told a journalist: “If you’re suggesting that I might, at some point, recommend that we need a large ground force to counter [the Islamic State], the answer to that is also absolutely.” He hastily went on to add: “But it doesn’t have to be Americans.” The “ideal force” would be one “comprised of Iraqis and Kurds and moderate Syrian opposition”.42

This solution to the first contradiction—Obama’s new “coalition of the willing”—leads to a second one. Evidently the ground troops aren’t going to come from Britain or other NATO states busily cutting their defence budgets. So they will have to come from the region itself. But here there is a morass of political difficulties. Gulf-based capital now dominates the Arab East economically, providing crucial backing for the counter-revolutions in Egypt and Syria.43 Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states have played their part in transforming the Syrian Revolution into a sectarian civil war by seizing on the conflict as an opportunity to strengthen Sunni Arab power in the region against their Shia opponents (Assad’s Alawite sectarian base is a Shiite offshoot and his regime is closely allied to Iran). Much of the money and weapons they have poured into the Syrian war has ended up in the hands of jihadi groups such as ISIS or the official Al Qaeda affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra. Moreover, the legitimacy of the Saudi monarchy derives from Wahhabism, the ultra-purist interpretation of Islam from which Al Qaeda and its offshoots also draw inspiration.

So—despite the Gulf states’ involvement in the air campaign against ISIS—they are too deeply implicated with the jihadis to be relied on. Turkey, supposedly the rising regional power, is in a complicated position that makes it also ambivalent about ISIS. The idea that the Iraqi army could fill the gap is laughable. The Iraqi regime became under the occupation what one Iraqi ex-minister called “an institutionalised kleptocracy”.44 Corruption permeates the army: hence it’s no surprise that it abandoned first Fallujah and then Mosul to numerically inferior but highly motivated ISIS fighters, leaving behind for the victors new weapons and vehicles supplied by the US. As for the “moderate” Free Syrian Army, a defector to ISIS claims that “meetings of the FSA military council were invariably attended by representatives of the Saudi, UAE, Jordanian and Qatari intelligence services, as well as intelligence officers from the US, Britain and France”.45 The local committees that emerged from the original rising represent more authentic popular forces, but on the ground the FSA has been sidelined militarily by the jihadis.

That leaves the Assad regime. Its relations with ISIS have been ambiguous. Its forces have tended to avoid fighting the jihadis, concentrating their attacks on the more secular wing of the revolution. Moreover, according to the Financial Times, ISIS “sells oil to the Assad regime, according to several independent sources with close knowledge of the matter. The regime ‘keeps the lights on’ in some ISIS-controlled cities in exchange for barrels, one Western intelligence official says”.46 But the crisis created by the fall of Mosul fitted perfectly Assad’s claims to be in the frontline of the “war on terrorism”. Some prominent US policy intellectuals—for example, Richard Haass, director of policy planning at the State Department under the younger Bush, and Philip Bobbitt, who has Democratic Party connections—now advocate a tactical alliance with Assad against ISIS.47 This has a realist logic, as does the further step of cooperation with Assad’s backers in Tehran. But it would infuriate the Saudis and the other Gulf sheikhdoms, and confirm ISIS’s claim to defend Sunnis against a hostile and oppressive world.

So the US is being dragged back into military involvement in the Middle East, where it faces a set of deeply unpalatable alternatives. In doing so it is trying to prop up a regional status quo that is cracking up under the accumulated internal tensions. That status quo has many victims, most obviously the Palestinians. Israel’s latest assault in Gaza (the first of the conflicts listed at the start of this article) was really simply an episode in the permanent war that the Zionist state must wage in order to perpetuate the dispossession and subjugation of the Palestinians. Although the US maintained its default backing for Israel—resupplying it with the weapons that the Israel Defence Forces (IDF) were using indiscriminately to slaughter civilians, the price of these offensives is rising. The IDF were taken by surprise by Hamas’s military innovations since their last attacks on Gaza—in particular the complex of tunnels under the territory and the combat training and equipment of Hamas fighters—and Israeli casualties were much higher than previously. But, as Israel’s vast military advantage slowly erodes, there is no way out of the structural impasse arising from the dependence of Israeli security on the oppression of the Palestinians.

On a regional scale, the picture is less of deadlock than of fluidity. The same causes behind the rise of ISIS—the catastrophic invasion of Iraq and the Arab revolutions—have destabilised all the Arab regimes. Obama, like his predecessor, is now using American military power to freeze this flux. He is, as we have seen, unlikely to succeed. Along the way, however, this new intervention will no doubt cause much human suffering and political damage, in all probability strengthening rather than weakening ISIS. The successes of the counter-revolutionary forces across the region—and above all in Egypt, the heart of the Arab world—have given the initiative to reaction, whatever shape it takes—the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, ISIS. In the IDF’s bombardment of Gaza, the sectarian massacres in Iraq and Syria, the counter-revolutionary repression in Egypt and the US-orchestrated air campaign we see concrete images of the barbarism that Rosa Luxemburg predicted would engulf humankind in the absence of socialist revolution. Much hangs on a new revolutionary wave.

For revolutionaries, opposing Obama’s bombing campaign—and whatever other military actions follow—should be straightforward. (We should also, of course, oppose NATO expansion in Central and Eastern Europe.) But this opposition needs to be informed by an understanding that the latest US intervention in the Middle East takes place against the background of a renewal of inter-imperialist rivalries on a scale not seen since the end of the Cold War. Anti-imperialism during that era required, not simply opposing our “own” imperialism, but also refusing to prettify the actions of its rival and acknowledging that it too operates according to an imperialist logic. The same stance is required today, with the complication that today we are seeing multi-polar interstate competition. This is clearest in East Asia. On a global scale, the US remains the only world power, but it faces serious regional challenges from Russia and China, and within the Western bloc Germany and Japan are newly assertive.

Grasping this complexity is not an academic exercise. If we assign a “progressive” role to America’s rivals, we lose hold of the thread of class struggle. The main antagonism in the world becomes that between states rather than classes. But, beyond their real conflicts of interest, all the leading capitalist states are united by their common dependence on the exploitation of wage labour. As Lenin and Luxemburg understood so well in 1914, the critique of the imperialist system is an essential political tool in uniting workers against capital.


1: Thanks to Anne Alexander, Joseph Choonara, Phil Marfleet, Judith Orr, John Rose and Camilla Royle for their comments on this article in draft.

2: Clark, 2012, p364.

3: Kagarlitsky, 2014. “Novorossiya”-the name adopted by the pro-Russian rebels for the territories under their control-is a symptom of how much their movement is permeated by imperial ideologies. It was the name given to what is now south eastern Ukraine after it was conquered by Russia under Catherine the Great in the late 18th century. The Tsarist regime settled the area with colonists, many of whom were Ukrainians, thereby unintentionally helping to define the boundaries of modern Ukraine.

4: Gowan, 1999.

5: Callinicos, 2003.

6: Hobson, 1938, p6.

7: The idea that capitalist imperialism is defined by the intersection of economic and geopolitical competition is a refinement of the classical theory simultaneously formulated by David Harvey and myself: Harvey, 2003, and Callinicos, 2003 and 2009.

8: See, on Lenin, ultra-imperialism, and uneven (and combined) development, Callinicos, 2009, pp62-66, 88-93.

9: Deutscher, 1961, pp99-100. Compare Binns, 1983, and Callinicos, 2009, pp165-187.

10: Brenner, 2002.

11: Wolf, 2014, p12.

12: All figures from International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2014.

13: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2013, p255.

14: International Institute for Strategic Studies, 2014, p210.

15: Wildau, 2014.

16: For the pitfalls of PPP measurements of income, see Wade, 2014, pp315-319.

17: Callinicos, 2009, chapter 5.

18: Kaplan, 2014, Kindle location 222. Kim, 2013, offers a Marxist analysis of inter-imperialist rivalries in East Asia. See also Friedberg, 2012, Luttwak, 2012, and Dyer, 2014. Although these and Kaplan’s books are written from the perspective of US imperialism, this does not prevent them offering valuable information and insights.

19: Dyer, 2014a, p26.

20: Kaplan, 2010.

21: Kaplan, 2014, Kindle location 706.

22: Kaplan, 2014, Kindle location 383.

23: Kaplan, 2014, Kindle location 319.

24: This is the burden of Luttwak, 2012.

25: See Darwin, 2009, especially chapters 8 and 11.

26: Callinicos, 2010, chapter 2.

27: For a critique of the latter policy for provoking an aggressive defensive response from Beijing see Ross, 2012.



30: Cockburn, 2014, Kindle location 112.

31: Fukuyama, 2014.

32: Anderson, 2006.

33: Watkins, 2014, p11.

34:, see also Dyer, 2014b.

35: Jones, 2014b.

36: Olearchyk, Farchy and Buckley, 2014. See also Olearchyk and Buckley, 2014.

37: Dyer, 2014b, pp44-45.

38: Callinicos, 2014.

39: Napoleoni, 2005.

40: Burke, 2004, pp231, 232, 290.

41: Jones, 2014a, Daragahi and Solomon, 2014.

42: Rosen, 2014.

43: Hanieh, 2011.

44: Cockburn, 2014, Kindle location 417.

45: Cockburn, 2014, Kindle location 585.

46: Jones, 2014a.

47: Haass, 2014, and Bobbitt, 2014.


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