Whither Imperial Power?

By Lynn Koh
Jan 27, 2011

After two full years with Obama in office, a review and prospect of strategies to maintain US hegemony is in order.

When Obama was elected, our collective believed his administration faced two central challenges to the US imperial order. First, dealing with the increasing power of countries such as Iran, Turkey, and the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India, China), particularly within their region of the world. Second, there was the immediate challenge of shaping an international economic order that could resolve the long-standing problems that eventually wracked the foundations of neoliberal capitalism in 2008. Both of these problems were, and are, related.

It's increasingly clear that the impetus to move beyond neoliberalism has evaporated -- on this, see my previous posts. So we'll focus on the question of geopolitics.

Most of our writings before and after the election presumed that Obama would distinguish himself from the neocon strategy of maintaining dominance. Their idea was to use the one sphere in which US dominance continued unquestioned: military force. Our imperial adventures were supposed to redraw the political map, by eliminating regimes hostile to US foreign policy interests and overwhelm whatever regional political leverage rising powers possessed. It was also meant to secure a purchase on key commodities and transportation routes.

Alas, it was not meant to be. But, how has the Obama administration and its section of the ruling class fared in carving out an alternate strategy? This was certainly the motivation behind its campaign promise to engage Iran.

To begin with, Obama has had to contend with greater political alliances and deeper economic integration among the rising powers. China and Iran grew their trade by 35% in 2008 and China offered an additional $8 billion investment in Iran's energy sector in 2009. Iran has also forged deep links with Venezuela. Last October, Venezuela offered $800 million investment in Iran's gas sector; it continues to hold a chair on the IAEA and uses its position their to support Iran. Venezuela also plans to eventually replace the US with China as its primary consumer of petroleum. Turkey under the AKP is attempting to play a greater role in international politics, especially in the so-called Islamic world; commentators have even speculated that Turkey-Iran-Syria will play the key roles in determining the future of West Asia.

However, none of these powers wish to engage the US directly in political confrontation - except perhaps to the extent that the US is linked to Israel in the Israel-Palestine conflict. Turkey is a NATO member and China remains dependent on the US market and economy.

Given this changing landscape, Obama's response is best described as incoherent. On the one hand, Obama has continued to attempt to create US-centered blocs of power. It has pursued a strategic alliance with India, increasing its arms sales and engaging in a diplomatic effort to position US companies as suppliers for India's nuclear and military industry. Overall, the hope is that India will project greater power in Asia and function more or less as a US proxy, counterbalancing whatever strategic competition China's rise will entail. There is also the potential for a right-wing counter-pole in Latin America, made up of Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Honduras.

Still, Obama has retreated on engagement with Iran; while tolerating its increased influence in Iraq its main thrust has been to try to isolate Iran internationally, which has met with very limited success. Russia and China have blocked the harshest measures attached to punitive sanctions.

And, there has been a manifest failure in trying to put the US at the center of efforts to deal with climate change. As wikileaks made clear, at Copenhagen and afterwards it has resorted to trying to extort agreements from the beleaguered countries of the global South.

The ongoing military conflicts threaten to disrupt whatever plans the US government may have. AFghanistan puts the US squarely in the middle of a regional conflict between India -- close to the Northern Alliance and Karzai -- and Pakistan -- which had historical ties with the Taliban. The US approach here has vacillated -- a surge of troops and air raids, followed by promises to maybe/maybe-not exit by 2014. The main effect of the war, besides creating suffering among civilians and veterans alike, has been to destabilize Pakistan. The administration there is increasingly viewed as allied with the US against its own people. This hurts the state interests of just about everybody in the region.

The failure of the US in dealing with the Israel-Palestine conflict, combined with the democratic stirrings in Tunisia, Algeria, Yemen, and Egypt, also present a new set of challenges. For US foreign policy in the region, tilted as it is towards Israel, relies on the support of highly repressive regimes. Democratic governments would have a much harder time justifying a lock-step approach with US foreign interests.

In general, then, just as the military adventurism of W Bush proved fatal to the US's larger geopolitical interests, war and militarism play the same role in Obama's designs to maintain US power. Granted, much of this path is due to a combination of domestic political pressures and strategic calculations -- and this is where the opening lies for a renewed antiwar movement.

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

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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