July 17, 2020

Richard Beck Quote

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The great historian Ellen Meiksins Wood has described America’s odd investment in what she calls “surplus” imperialism, the belief among America’s foreign policy establishment that it is not enough for America to be the most powerful country in the world — it must be the most powerful country by such a disproportionate margin that the very idea of anyone else overtaking it is unthinkable. In the words of Colin Powell in 1992, the US needs to be powerful enough “to deter any challenger from ever dreaming of challenging us on the world stage” (emphasis added). Or, in the words of George W. Bush’s 2002 National Security Strategy, “strong enough to dissuade potential adversaries from pursuing a military buildup in hopes of surpassing, or equaling, the power of the United States” (again, emphasis added).

This may sound like the mindset of a comic-book villain, but America’s investment in surplus imperialism has a concrete, material basis. Since the end of World War II, the United States has been not only the world’s most powerful capitalist nation but the global custodian of capitalism itself. (That task had previously fallen to the system of European colonialism, which at its height occupied some 80 percent of the world.) In exchange for the privilege of enjoying the highest rates of consumption on earth, the United States also invests more than any other country in the direction, supervision, and maintenance of global capital flows. These investments take many forms, including the spearheading of free-trade agreements, the establishment of financial institutions like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF), support for governments that adhere to the capitalist consensus and the undermining of those that don’t, and the use of military force to pry open markets in cases where diplomacy and economic pressure aren’t enough. The “surplus” aspect of America’s imperialism is crucial, because capitalism requires stability and predictability through time in order to function smoothly. Investments need months, years, or decades to produce their returns, and people are only willing to invest their capital if they feel confident that the future is going to unfold in the way they expect. You don’t start producing almonds until you’re confident that almond milk isn’t just a passing fad, and you don’t move one of your factories to a new country if there’s a chance a leftist government will come to power and expropriate the factory. Financial markets move every day in response to changes in these ephemeral moods, and the financial press has names for them: uncertainty, consumer confidence, business expectations.

Surplus imperialism is an effort to keep uncertainty to a minimum. It’s good to be strong enough to defeat a country that attempts a military land grab against one of its neighbors (as with Saddam Hussein and Kuwait in the Persian Gulf War). But from the perspective of capital markets, it’s much better for the US to be so strong that nobody even thinks about attempting the land grab in the first place. And in a sense, the surplus imperialist mindset isn’t only or even primarily aimed at America’s enemies. Countries like Venezuela and North Korea are already perfectly aware that they have no hope of equaling American power. Rather, the psychological force of surplus imperialism is aimed squarely at America’s friends — countries on the make, like Turkey, India, and Brazil, which are discouraged from getting any big ideas about creative new alliances even as the brute facts of America’s declining power unfold in full view, year after year — and frenemies like Russia and China, regional powers with whom a full-scale military confrontation remains unimaginable, but only so long as Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping agree there’s no upside to imagining it.

American imperialism is not a recent development, and neither are American military interventions in pursuit of imperialist goals. But the kind of surplus imperialism to which the US is now committed, accounting for nearly 40 percent of global military spending on its own, is new. It dates roughly from the end of the cold war, and it has produced a doctrine under which the US can take military action anywhere in the world whenever it wants, with no explanation required. The tradition of “just war,” which previously dominated political rhetoric about military action, was flexible to the point of near incoherence, but at the very least it demanded that war be declared with a specific goal in mind, that it be declared by an appropriate authority, and that the destruction inflicted be proportionate to the aims one hoped to achieve. All of that went out the door with George W. Bush and the global war on terror. The country’s new rationale for military action became a part of American law when Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force in September 2001. As Wood puts it, “military action now requires no specific aim at all.”

- Richard Beck, We Used to Run This Country



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