Fighting for Peace Against an Empire in Decline

By Max Elbaum
Oct 18, 2011
Max with son James at Cape Cod Marathon.

In early October, War Times writer and editor Max Elbaum participated in a panel discussion at a peace conference in Boston, hosted by United for Justice and Peace. Participants gathered to recognize the 10th anniversary of the US invasion of Afghanistan, and rededicate themselves, as conference organizers put it, to  "Ending the Endless Wars and Occupations." Read more about who spoke and what they had to say here.

Max's talk focused on three key trends that he believes are relatively new, and that will shape the world for at least the next decade. Here are the notes from his talk:

It's always difficult to identify the underlying motion & historical trends shaping our political moment. Especially so for activists focused on urgent tasks.  But it is an important component of our efforts to tackle this. We've been fighting the war on terror for a decade; many of us opposing racist imperial wars for decades before that.  Clearly dealing with problems deeply embedded in political and economic structure, not just accidents or the policies of one administration or another. So the change I've been given by conference organizers is to kick off a discussion among us of the processes that are likely to shape world for the next decade and beyond; and draw out some of implications for peace movement.
I will try to do that by hitting a few major themes. First, draw out 3 key trends that are dramatically changing the map of global power and the way millions live. These imply period ahead extremely volatile, conflict-ridden and dangerous, but also full of opportunities for our side. Second, hit on a few of the social and political forces that these trends generate in US politics, what that means for the terrain we'll be fighting on next decade and more. Finally, identify some of factors favoring the side of peace and justice if we can leverage them to maximum advantage.
Point one: Power is slipping away from US and being diffused over rest of the globe.  Not short-term phenomenon. A deep trend of declining US economic and political power; what's more, it's accelerating, moving faster than had been predicted just a few years ago.
  • US still largest economy in world. But GDP down 25% world economy 1990, now down to 20%. It was 50% in 1945.
  • China projected to overtake US in five years; change from projections just a decade ago, when supposed to take place in 2040 or 2050. Accompanied by rise of other BRIC countries - Brazil, Russia, India and global south generally. More and more south-south direct trade and relations, these used to go through the north.
  • Hollowed out economic base US; manufacturing in huge decline, losing lead in key technology like green energy. US Infrastructure collapsing. While other countries build fast rail, US in the last decade lost two major cities, with no serious rebuild. Does anyone in this room think it is an accident that New Orleans & Detroit were centers of African American life and political & cultural power?
  • Economics and politics: Jim O'Neill, chair of asset management at Goldman Sachs, writes: "the world is no longer dependent on leadership US and Europe." Juan Cole: "Just a decade ago the US was castigated by its critics as a hyper-power. Now it is beset by debt, mired in economic doldrums provoked by the corruption of its business classes and on the verge of withdrawing from Iraq and ultimately Afghanistan in defeat."  Cole may be too optimistic about the withdrawal part, but he is certainly right that both of these were and are big defeats for the US.
  • US military power remains unsurpassed, even that usefulness blunted; military adventure started after 9/11 was aimed at turning Middle East into neocolony and ensure another 100 years of US domination. It was supposed to be one regime change after another favoring the US Remember the time when the elite slogan was 'wimps go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran"?It didn't work; in fact, it has in fact shown limits of US military power, over-extended the US politically, militarily & financially and accelerated the US decline.
Point 2: Demographic changes in globe and US.
  • Globe has 7 billion people. 27% are under 15 years of age. Most in global south.
  • About 5 billion are of working age, 3 billion want to be in work force. Problem globally only 1.2 billion actual full-time formal jobs. Means 1.8 billion people without work, subsistence, informal economy, traveling looking for work. At a time when ruling elites policy worldwide is austerity. The connection between this and upheavals in world so obvious it's in mainstream press: Arab spring driven by unemployed/underemployed young people; direct connection this and drug war and violence in Mexico, whose consequences vastly underestimated by US elite and most anglos.
  • Particular point about US: people of color percentage rising, majority people of color country by year 2050 or so.  Unstoppable process driven not just by immigration but also higher birthrates among peoples of color. Direct connection there and the right's desperate sense that they need to "take our country back."
Point 3: At the end of the era cheap fossil fuel energy, and in early stages of human-induced climate change.
  • For hundreds of years world economy powered by cheap oil; the 'low hanging fruit' (cheapest oil to extract) is gone while demand energy is up. Scramble for it by all powers, and the Middle East, which still contains the largest reserves of oil, are thus in everyone's target sights. Amid climate change caused by burning this fuel: changing where there is arable land, where water resources are, what areas habitable. People on the move - again young people as above. Under-commented on dynamics Libya and crisis in Sudan, migration northward, Libya and Europe, people from sub-Saharan Africa turning into desert.
  • Michael Klare writing about all this, era of wars for oil and resource wars.
  • Which is the general conclusion of how these trends add up: periods of imperial decline, other powers on rise, traditionally been full of wars and conflict. Tendencies obviously present today: we're in a volatile period of transition from one global arrangement to whatever comes next, a transition where there is a sharp class of class and national interests. The question is not whether those interests clash, but what form will those clashes take, how violent will it be, who will gain initiative and advantage? All intensified by millions of young unemployed no prospects; and climate change. Headed into very difficult time. Not talking about one year or two; conditions underlie politics next decade and more.
Next topic: How is this translating into large-social forces in US politics?
  • A large body of folks who are freaked out by fact white America not on top; see themselves as victims of growing numbers of uppity dark-skinned people abroad at home. They are readying themselves to resist this by any means necessary. Many forms, tea party to Christian right, to openly racist groups with arms. "Take our country back." These folks are trying not just to reverse the civil rights movement and new deal; they are still fighting the civil war. This conflict has been a central thread of US history and is resurfacing in new forms today.
  • Overlapping above not identical, segment elite believes military force can be utilized to prevent US losses and regain. Unreconstructed Neocons.  Learned nothing from Iraq much less Vietnam, or don't care. US has one ace, military power, they want to use it. Just this week hawk Sen. Lindsay Graham said essentially we should add a war against Pakistan to the list of wars US is already fighting.
  • No surprise these two sections increasingly intertwined with Israeli right wing. Their settler colonialism is also based on a addiction to permanent war and a racist view of others, for them Arabs and Muslims in particular.  Alliance between US/Israeli right, not just factor world politics, US domestic politics. They push a thoroughly racialized 'clash of civilizations' world view, where a white "Judeo-Christian" civilization is battling against dark-skinned Islam. The folks who have been on top in the global power configuration and are occupying Palestinian land see themselves as the victims; and few things are more dangerous than oppressors with huge arsenals of weapons who see themselves as victims.
  • Then a more realist wing of elite. Want to shore up hegemony but grasp limits of US power in changing world. Want to use a different mix of military force and soft power; less unilateral; and concede in some areas if pressured enough. The folks Noam Chomsky says at least dwell in the real world. But military force still in their arsenal, weapons of choice drones and special ops and high tech, not major invasions.
  • Then the millions who are hurt most by empire - immigrant communities, communities of color, working class and the labor movement, large numbers of youth and women overlapping with these other social categories. Oriented toward some kind of change in priorities and US role in world. But these constituencies battered by 30 years of neoliberalism and under fierce attack today as ruling class is pushing social austerity, all-out assault on the public sector, smash the labor movement, restrict voting rights for poor people and people of color and so on. This potentially powerful majority is fragmented, organizations weakened, material resources diminished and fighting capacity and self-confidence has taken a hit since late 60s/early 70s. And not organized into a strong peace-jobs-justice bloc that has durability, muscle and flexibility to deal with complexity of the landscape that includes the both dangers of far right and the war-making and austerity of the more realist sectors of elite oppose the tea party extremists. Base of millions for that kind of bloc, many component parts visible; but it is not yet in being.
 Last Topic: Implications for the peace movement:  
Long difficult fight ahead, go into it with eyes open, buckle up for a bumpy ride. But there are important factors in our favor that give us reasonable prospects of putting dent in warmakers plans and eventually bringing an end to this madness. Obviously from all the above, I think we have to have our eyes open about what we are up against. Still I am hopeful, even optimistic, about our prospects. As Tom Hayden emphasizes, change happens slowly except when it happens fast. I'm of the generation that lived through the change from the 50s to the 60s; saw southern governors at those university steps saying 'segregation today, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever'; and then a few short years later jim crow was history. There are many factors that favor our side and we can see, for instance with the spreading Occupy Wall street motion, that our side is starting to stir.
  • * One, the powers on the rise do not have military industrial complexes as deeply structured into their DNA as US. Not necessarily good guys, and decline of US does not have as flip side advance of a socialist or non-capitalist world rev. process as most of left believed, for good reasons, from 1917 through the 1980s. But still, what don't see is previous times of shift in imperial hegemony, where rising powers sought to challenge the existing hegemon militarily. Other countries know that is fools course; and what's more, seen war doesn't win much for warmakers in modern world, occupation and direct colonialism are, with a few exceptions most notably Palestine – but also Puerto Rico – which are still being bitterly contested, are remnants of the past century.
  • Two, there are growing limits on ability US empire to wage war. Hard to deploy troops. US populace learned something from experience. Wars Iraq and Afghanistan, backdrop Vietnam, tired of these deployments. Even the right wing for instance can't gin up its base for Afghanistan, one reason decided to make support for Israel rather than staying in Afghanistan the key line of attack on Obama regarding foreign policy for 2012. We will be battling many in isolationalist camp most cases; but this fatigue in their base is a hindrance on war makers.
  • And then there is the economy. Empire is broke. Historically that's been one of the key things of empires going down: they go broke and allies desert. Seeing both of those already.
  • Most important, people have stepped on stage of history and majority is for peace. Even if demos from February 2003 are not happening right now, global public is still the second superpower. See that in Arab Spring, the Pink Tide in Latin America, the germinating protests in Europe, and hopefully the motion now starting in the US will gather steam as well. And here in the US, over time, the demographics are on our side; the older whiter base of the right is a shrinking proportion of the populace, the younger and more heavily people of color sectors are growing in size.
  • Of course not simple or automatic to translate these factors and mass upheavals into coherent, durable force for a peace and justice agenda, much less agenda for fundamental social transformation. Can happen, if it is focused and organized. Allow me to end on that note, by tinkering some with words of the person who was, in my view, the outstanding combination of a political leader & a brilliant intellectual US society has produced in the last 60 years, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:
"The moral arc of the universe is indeed long, and the way it bends will depend on us."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Max Elbaum has worked with War Times since its founding. He has been involved in peace and anti-racist movements since joining Students for a Democratic Society (known as SDS) in Madison, Wisconsin in the 1960s. Through the 1970s and 1980s he participated in campaigns defending affirmative action and opposing U.S. military interventions in the Third World while writing extensively for the radical press and taking part in then-widespread efforts to construct a new US revolutionary political party.

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