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Imperialist powers: friends or rivals?

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Against the background of uncertain prospects for the world economy, Clinton and the US ruling class must overcome their divisions. They must decide whether to attempt to hold onto their present global dominance or to concentrate their attention either on Europe or the Pacific rim, with the less ambitious aim of being the strongest of all the regional powers in the new millennium. Pretensions to world hegemony come up against the stark reality of the need to cut the budget deficit. The line of impoverished nation states holding out “begging bowls” gets longer and longer.

The destabilisation caused by the “new world order” means ever more calls for the world cop to intervene; in Yugoslavia, in Somalia, in Haiti. The Clinton administration wants to target state expenditure on domestic economic priorities. Faced with all these demands something has to go. Whilst Clinton has announced huge cuts in the military budget he has taken over from the Bush administration the commitments and ideology of enforcing the orderliness of the New World Order. There clearly remain massive contradictions still to be resolved within US foreign policy.

Since the collapse of the USSR, the ruling class of the United States has been engaged in a protracted debate over a new grand strategy to replace the one that brought it victory in the Cold War. The Clinton administration has taken over George Bush’s slogan of a “New World Order” and given it a more precise content as set out in the Pentagon’s Defence Planning Guidelines 1994-99. This document envisages the extension of US hegemony through the international organs of the “world community”—the UN and various regional alliances dominated by the USA and regional hegemonic powers, friendly to the US.

An enhanced role is outlined for the UN Security Council providing it continues to approve nearly all US objectives. It recognises that with the collapse of the USSR the world is now “unipolar”, with the USA as the world “hegemon”. US strategy should therefore aim at preserving this preponderance, at defending this unipolarity. The Guidelines recommend a three pronged strategy to do this. Firstly, to maintain US alliances with Germany and Japan so as to prevent any new multipolar rivalries developing. Secondly, to actively discourage the rise of new ”hegemons”. Thirdly, to preserve a US dominated, but open, world trading system under US controlled institutions (GATT, the IMF and the World Bank).

To achieve the first two objectives, Germany and Japan must be persuaded to continue to accept US security guarantees and military leadership and dissuaded from acquiring an independent strategic capability. The Pentagon Guidelines is frank about its objective: “we must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role”. It stresses the need for American imperialism to dominate the areas of the globe which are rich in economic resources. It stridently asserts that Washington must be the final arbiter of what the interests of its European and East Asian “allies” really are, especially when they clash with those of the US or one another. It will be the world judge and jury as well as the world policeman:

“The US will retain the pre-eminent responsibility for addressing selectively those wrongs which threaten not only our interests but those of our allies.”

Developments over the last year have, however, demonstrated the obstacles to this strategy. Events in the former Yugoslavia and the Russian elections of December 1993, as well as a new interventionist policy by the Russian Federation in the “near abroad”, underline the fact that the period of total subservience of the Kremlin to the plans of US imperialism is drawing to a close. Indeed, friction between them could well increase if the USA seriously attempts to obstruct this renewed assertiveness and deny Russia a sphere of influence among the new states of the former USSR.

The offer of the “Partnership for Peace” as an alternative to NATO membership was a poor substitute. Clearly it cannot for long bind Russia to the foreign policy objectives of the US and the EU. But the long drawn out restoration process, with its outcome still uncertain, as well as the political somersaults this may bring, all make NATO membership quite impossible. Yeltsin or his successor‘s continued submissiveness in the Security Council cannot be counted on. These developments only underline the unsuitability of these institutions of the Cold War for establishing a new world order. The frictions and clashes that they provoke will contribute to, and indeed magnify, the developing disorder.

The shape and line up of the alliances of the decades ahead are difficult to predict: several factors, as well as the class struggle itself, will determine them. The outcome of the present debate in the US ruling class as to whether they should orientate primarily to Asia or to Europe will be crucial. An orientation to Asia, including China, would deprioritise the economic interests of the USA in Russia and Eastern Europe. At present this view seems to be the dominant one. However, a collapse of China and other South East Asian countries into chaos and explosive class struggles could reverse this orientation.

At present US capital still heads the list of foreign direct investment in the Visegrad countries (Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic) and its massive investments in Western Europe (which are still bigger than total US investment in Asia) still determine a strong political interest in the ‘frontier states’ around the EU. Finally, we must not forget that the enormous remaining stockpile of nuclear weapons in Russia (and Ukraine) dictates a “natural” interest in maintaining political stability in Russia. These factors will probably lead the US into accepting a Russian “sphere of influence” in the “near abroad”.

German imperialism has strong economic and political interests in the Visegrad countries and in the Balkans. Its continued military weakness forces it, for the time being, to conciliate Russia and thus support the US policy of political appeasement. However, economic, geo-strategic and historical reasons make this region of much greater interest to German imperialism than East Asia.

Japanese imperialism is obviously much more orientated to China and to South East Asia. It has some interest in Siberia but the slowing of the restoration process in Russia and the huge investments necessary to profitably exploit its natural resources provide little motivation for a strong orientation in this direction. Political and social explosions in Asia would certainly alter Japanese forms of intervention but would probably not change their strategic interest in the region. History has demonstrated that Japanese imperialism is able to build a sphere of influence in Asia but also the danger that this will provoke massive popular hostility to it.

Another central issue for framing a new strategy is which power or regional block the US should now regard as its most dangerous rival. It has had sharp disputes with both the EU and Japan over “free trade”. The US has substantial economic and military footholds in both the East Asian and the European proto-blocs, sufficient to disrupt them from within were they to undertake policies hostile to US interests. The real question is whether the US can continue to devote enough resources to maintain this influence in both, and whether it can do so without seriously alienating the regionally hegemonic imperialist powers within them—Germany and Japan.

The latest GATT agreements permanently entrench the glaring commercial disadvantages of the “third world” and confirm the perspective of major battles to come between the giant industrialised economies. The founding of NAFTA, the renaming of the European Community as the European Union and the GATT agreement came hard upon one another. When the three blocs are compared with one another the much greater dynamism of the Far Eastern bloc is manifest. Its surge forward has led to balance of trade surpluses with both the EU and North America. But Japan, the dominant power in the region, is much more dependent on trade between the three blocs than is the USA or the EU. Since the consolidation of the Asian bloc is lagging far behind its rivals, Japan is particularly vulnerable to protectionist measures taken by NAFTA or the EU. The bulk of trade in goods and services in the world economy takes place within the NAFTA and EU blocs. The amount of world trade between the three blocs is smaller than one might expect. For these purely economic reasons NAFTA and the EU are less concerned than Japan about renewed protectionist measures.

Even within each of the three blocs tension exists between the respective “partners”. For example, the effect of deficit spending in Belgium, Greece and Italy is to retard progress towards further integration within the EU. The same can be said about the effect of Canada’s deficit on NAFTA’s further evolution. Meanwhile, among the looser coaltion of East Asian trading partners South Korea has no special adherence to a Japanese led bloc.

The tendency towards future trade wars leads to severe frictions, especially in Japan, and forms the background for dramatic conflicts within the ranks of its bourgeoisie over which strategic course to follow. Should they appease Washington, break down the economic barriers which protect the domestic market, and expand the economy on the basis of the domestic market? Should they ”call the bluff” of the Americans and risk aggravating inter-imperialist conflicts? These debates lie at the root of the political chaos in Japan and the last two changes of government.

Under US military tutelage, Japan has been able to concentrate all its post-war efforts on economic competition, the penetration and domination of world markets, including those of the USA and the EU. The former woke up to this “threat” in the 1980s. The growth rate of US trade and investment across the Pacific outstrips that across the Atlantic; the great opportunities for new markets, vital raw materials and cheap labour over the coming decades will be found in this region. To retain a dominant edge the US must confront Japan. Today, nearly 40% of capital invested in the USA comes from Japan, while 20% of capital in Japan comes from the USA. The Clinton administration’s new domestic policies centre on forging a new relationship between government and capital so as to copy, compete with and arrest the challenge of Japan.

In return there are signs that Japanese politicians are no longer willing to play the role as “America’s underlings” for much longer. The US has always treated the Japanese more imperiously than the Europeans. They were never offered any sort of joint command or alliance similar to NATO during the Cold War, despite the fact that they paid 72% of the costs of maintaining the 30,000 US troops in Japan. These were openly described as the “cork in the bottle” of Japanese militarism. Japanese-US military integration ensures that the Japanese Self-Defence Force (JSDF) is prevented from acting on its own. Japan has been shaken down for large contributions to finance US crusades like Desert Storm ($15 bn). Japanese academic journals frequently carry articles complaining about the bullying and arrogant tone of US representatives, whilst in the popular press open mockery of US economic weakness has become commonplace. But if Japan is to extend its economic erosion of US dominance in high technology, ward off the low-cost challenge to its established markets by the newly industrialising countries (NICs) and attain a political status commensurate with its economic might, then major changes will be necessary.

To begin with Japan must restructure its relationship with the East Asian NICs by opening its own domestic markets to these states and increasing its productive investment in the NICs. This in turn demands a thorough political restructuring which has only just begun. The old Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), with its clientilist system and enormous political corruption, must be completely reformed so that the political executive can establish a degree of autonomy from the main corporations and the interlocking state bureaucracy. To carry out such a transformation of Japan’s political and economic structures the bourgeoisie needs to create a new and coherent party for itself—in short, a new conservative party. This is most likely to take the form of a fusion of the right wing Shinseito/Komeito forces with a split from the LDP. In addition, the Japanese multinationals must free themselves from close regulation by Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) bureaucrats.

The growing demands of the major multinationals for “deregulation”, similar to that achieved by their rivals in Western Europe and North America, means the ability to accumulate as freely as possible. However, such a change in strategy will also mean the abandonment of protection for Japanese farmers and putting the hitherto socially docile Japanese labour aristocracy on rations. Such attacks on the class alliances which formed an important base for post-war Japanese stability, if pressed home, could see a significant re-emergence of the class struggle and with it possibilities for intervention by revolutionary communists.

If Japan proves capable of re-structuring itself, both economically and politically, to play the leading role in the new East Asian bloc without immediately alienating the other regional powers, then by the early years of the twenty first century it will undoubtedly shed its status as a US client, withdraw from the Japan-US Security Treaty, and recover the freedom for the JSDF to act independently, or possibly as the leading force in an East Asian Security Alliance. A degree of ideological conflict is likely in the 1990s over what the Japanese see as the dogmatic neo-liberalism which the US imposes through the G7 agreements, the World Bank, the IMF and GATT. Japan is also likely to press for a UN Security Council Seat, especially if the “world body“ becomes ever more interventionist.

There is a real possibility that the later 1990s will see the re-emergence of a struggle between Europe and North America . The tensions between Europe and the USA can already be seen in Clinton’s impatience with the French and British over Yugoslavia and with the French over the Uruguay GATT round. The dilemma over what to do with NATO—the centre piece of the Atlantic alliance—suggests a further medium term conflict. Europe’s frontiers of crisis have shifted from the old “iron curtain” to an arc running east of Germany to the Balkans and Turkey, on to the Caucasus and former Soviet Central Asia. It has another security zone running along northern Africa and through the Middle East to the Gulf and beyond. All commentators fear a spillover of economic destabilisation and waves of economic and political refugees from these regions. Internal and local wars could spread into regional conflicts between states which can draw in EU and NATO member states, such as Greece and Turkey, against each other.

NATO, as an alliance of twelve powerful imperialist states and their privileged semi-colonial satellites, remains for now firmly under US command. As an alliance of the US and Canada with western and south-eastern European powers it was designed to contain the “Soviet menace”. It possesses the only permanent and effective integrated military command structure in the region. Yet it has many problems when it comes to acting “out of theatre”, even though its traditional theatre is no longer the focus of global military tensions. These are now located in the regions outlined above and even beyond them. During the Gulf War there was much talk of converting NATO into the world policeman, capable of mobilising the main imperialist armed forces. But in the end it was necessary to use the UN, though under total US command, as the only acceptable framework for such policing both in the Gulf and in Somalia. As a nakedly Western imperialist alliance NATO has fatal weaknesses for operating in the Third World.

The key question concerning NATO is whether it should be extended eastwards, and if so how far? The area within which NATO is supposed to impose order is no longer immediately adjacent to its member states. Some defence experts wish to extend it eastwards, without including Russia and the former Yugoslavia. They wish to integrate only the Visegrad Countries into NATO. The recently deceased secretary-general of NATO, Manfred Wörner, was an enthusiast for such an eastward expansion. According to such strategists, NATO must guarantee all existing frontiers with the threat of force, thus preventing another Yugoslavia and cauterising the wounds of resurgent nationalism. But powerful forces also warn against extending NATO’s strategic doctrine—“an attack on one is an attack on all”—to these states since it might embroil the established imperialist powers in the national conflicts of Central and Eastern Europe

What role would NATO play in the political unification process of EU imperialism? The European Union has proven, in the words of Belgian Foreign Minister Mark Eyskens, “an economic giant, a political dwarf and a military mouse”. The EU leaders still tremble at the scarcely veiled threat of US withdrawal from Europe—that is, the effective collapse of NATO—because there is as yet no politico-military hegemon in Europe. The economic giant, Germany, is a military-strategic dwarf, with no nuclear weapons and no constitutional capacity for out-of-theatre operations. The Western European Union, the military arm of the EU, remains atrophied from total lack of use.

But in the long term the leaders of unification—France and Germany—must break the USA’s military grip on Europe. The enthusiastic proponents of turning Europe into a united federal imperialist superstate, such as Jacques Delors, want to unify Europe militarily and see the USA as a rival not a leader. This reflects long-term French ambivalence towards the Atlantic alliance, as shown by its effective withdrawal from NATO in 1965. The US-dominated NATO high command remains an obstruction to the long-term project of the creation of an independent European military force.

Indecision over military alliances cannot be allowed to spill over into indecisiveness in the face of US and Japanese economic competition. This will force the Germans and the French to press on towards monetary union and, indeed, to political federalism. Economies of scale and capital concentration on a pan-European scale are necessary to compete in global markets and even within the single European market itself. But the Europeans are torn by a series of real contradictions. Implementing Maastricht involves serious fiscal and monetary discipline, with all their medium term dampening effects on economic growth as the recession ends. Low growth will intensify competition. Yet standing up to this competition will be hard since wage costs are higher than in the United States or Japan, despite the high levels of unemployment in Europe.

The next years will see a renewed assault on manning levels in the major European industries and a frontal attack on wage levels, particularly on the centralised collective bargaining systems, in order to reduce costs. An element of this will involve the ending of the standard working week, as was seen at the Volkswagen plant in Germany. This will reduce wage costs and intensify the pace of work. To do this both the French and the German bosses will have to inflict defeats on their own proletariats as great, if not greater, than those by achieved Thatcher and Reagan during the 1980s. To carry through these attacks they will need an equally resolute political leadership.

The German workers’ movement is still organisationally strong and intact despite the fact that it suffered a political defeat with the overthrow of the workers’ state in East Germany. In this sense the German workers’ movement certainly retains the potential strength to ward off the attacks of the class enemy. But these attacks will certainly come.

The German bourgeoisie has yet to begin the task of dismantling the structures and social gains which were pillars of the forty years of post war stability in West Germany. They are now obstacles to any fundamental restructuring; co-determination, the huge industrial unions, regular national negotiating rounds on wages and working conditions, all must be demolished.

Meanwhile, the French proletariat, despite a much weaker level of organisation, has a tradition of spontaneous militancy second to none. The Berlusconi government in Italy must likewise undertake a policy of confrontation with the post-war gains of its proletariat. We can predict a severe intensification of class battles in the mid 1990s.

Should the European bourgeoisies shy away from these battles due to a failure of political will, or a lack of the political instruments to carry them through, they will then be forced to resort to renewed protectionism in order to prevent the complete domination of Europe by the Japanese and US multinationals.

If the creation of a unified “European” imperialist federal superstate were aborted the effect would be grinding economic crisis, social breakdown, intensified class struggle, and the continued growth of reactionary nationalist, racist and fascist movements in Europe. The most likely outcome is not a “European Superstate” but a smaller bloc around Germany.

Britain will continue to obstruct this unification process, as long as there is a Tory government. Britain’s banking and financial services sector and its continued heavy investments in the USA and Canada, in East Asia and in the semi-colonial states of its former empire, dictate this.

Also, as events in Bosnia have made abundantly clear, Britain is not eager to become a hired gun for German imperialism within a European replacement for NATO.

It will seek to obstruct a deepened union, not least by its strategy of trying to bring in as many new members as possible from northern and central Europe (Sweden, Norway, Finland, Switzerland, Austria and possibly Poland, the Czech Republic, and Hungary).

This could indeed lead to a two track system or to an inner core from which Britain will be excluded.

One symptom of stagnation and decline in the imperialist heartlands can be seen in their governments near total agreement that existing levels of social spending and welfare provision can no longer be maintained, let alone be extended. Granted under the pressure of working class and liberal movements during the twentieth century, these provisions contributed directly to a healthy and educated working class, which in turn was a prerequisite for achieving and reproducing high productivity levels in industry and commerce. In addition they acted to provide a social support, the labour aristocracy and reformism, for maintaining imperialist domination over the semi-colonies. But these very successes—lowering the death rate, the shrinkage of the productive core of the working class, the expanding costs of support for the ever greater numbers of unemployed, the heavy burden of employers’ contributions to health care——have resulted in a massive structural crisis of welfare provision in a period of diminishing profits and stagnating growth rates.

This crisis will have be addressed, in a militant fashion, by the entire imperialist bourgeoisie. Simply eroding the real value of existing benefits by means of inflation is no longer sufficient. Universal entitlement to benefits and services will be frontally attacked; at best they will be replaced by discretionary programmes, at worst they will not be replaced at all. A growing minority of the working class will be placed on meagre rations, forced to survive on its own ingenuity and recourse to illegality. Repression will increasingly substitute for welfare as a method of dealing with social disadvantage and urban decay.

The USA shows the rest of the imperialist countries a vision of their own future. There tens of millions —mainly black and hispanic—are excluded from elementary welfare provision. The problem of single mothers is “addressed” by jailing absent fathers. Inner city schools and colleges are arenas for gang warfare. For millions health care is denied or reduced to the most basic emergency provision. More and more the state abdicates all responsibility for the welfare of its citizens. Throughout Europe attacks are underway or are being prepared. Retired workers are being shamelessly defrauded of their pension rights in Germany, France and Italy. Single parents are being targeted in Britain. The provision of free, good quality state education is being undermined in most countries. This is only the first line of attack.

In Japan, the working class already receives less by way of state funded welfare provision than in Europe; they have traditionally been forced to set aside a considerable part of their wages for pensions and insurance. The system has relied on low unemployment rates and high levels of job security to relieve the demand for better welfare programmes. But Japanese capitalism can no longer guarantee its core labour aristocracy this degree of security. There are already about one million workers on the companies’ books who are not employed. Companies will increasingly “let their workers go”. Hidden unemployment will become more open. Parts of the new layers of the working class in some sectors of the economy may be able to sustain their position. But in general these layers will come under attack. Likewise a high proportion of the labour aristocracy will be severely attacked and their situation will come to resemble that of ordinary workers.

Capitalism continues to draw increasing numbers of women into the workforce. This is part of a broader change in its structure, with an increasing proportion made up of temporary, part time and “peripheral” workers of both sexes, who have less legal protection and job security. Despite the greater number of women workers, capitalism has continued to prove itself incapable of providing the social provisions needed to relieve women of their domestic burdens; shopping, cooking and cleaning for their husbands, childcare, care for the elderly. Indeed, capitalism’s current and growing attack on the “social wage” and the welfare state leads to an increase in the burden on the shoulders of women within the family. One consequence of this is that women make up a majority of this “flexible” workforce because working hours can be fitted around domestic labour.

However, none of this can overcome the contradictions for capitalist society produced by women’s double burden of social and domestic labour. In a number of imperialist countries we see various expressions of the crisis of the family, of the welfare state and the oppression of women. These developments produce the objective conditions for working class women’s resistance to the dual attack they face and thus the conditions for the growth of a working class women’s movement. The petit bourgeois women’s movement proved incapable of leading resistance. It collapsed into various reformist projects, and its middle class leadership was satisfied by the gains made for themselves. In a new upsurge of struggle by working class women we would expect a renewal of feminist ideas and influence although in new forms. While feminist forces may become involved in the fight against women’s oppression (e.g. abortion rights, defence of benefits, domestic violence), a resurgent feminism would also be an obstacle to revolutionaries winning the leadership of the movement against women’s oppression.

Education is another sector where a crisis is brewing. Throughout Europe, governments are massively increasing the number of students whilst the funding for further and higher education lags far behind. This far-reaching change has two main motivations. Firstly there are the major transformations in the economy; the transfer of important sectors of industry out of the imperialist states themselves and the increased computerisation of production and distribution. This requires part of the workforce to become more technically qualified. Secondly the existence of permanent mass unemployment, with no prospect of a return to the low levels of the 1950s and 1960s, means that the longer youth can be kept out of the job market but suitably occupied, the easier it will be to avoid social unrest. Yet funding such an expansion of further and higher education, in conditions of declining state revenues, is becoming difficult. The deterioration of student living standards; the replacement of grants—where they exist—by loans, the introduction of private funding and declining teaching standards, will have an impact on most European countries in the next few years.

Student unrest, firstly in response to these attacks, will affect a broader social spectrum than in the past. Students now include increasing numbers drawn from the working class. This new development, together with the fact that the governments will also be attacking the wages and conditions of school and college staff, will lay the objective basis for developing a joint student-worker fightback against attacks on education.

A major feature of most European countries is the growth of racism and fascism, feeding on the prolonged economic crisis and the development of mass unemployment. In France, Belgium and Germany, fascists have been able to construct mass “respectable” racist organisations with the aim of building mass fascist parties. In Italy, and to a lesser extent, Britain, openly fascist organisations have been able to mobilise and gain support. Throughout the continent, physical attacks on the black and immigrant communities and legal restrictions on nationality, asylum and immigration have become the norm as state racism has increased.

The reformist leaderships of the labour movement, hampered by their congenital nationalism and by their record, both in government and in opposition, of implementing or supporting racist immigration policies, have proved time and again unable and unwilling to mobilise workers and youth against the evils of racism and the mortal danger of fascism. With the likelihood that mass unemployment will continue into the recovery cycle and with the growth of a “fortress Europe” mentality, fostered by both national governments and EU institutions, racism and fascism will become an ever stronger threat to workers, immigrants and youth. However, the radicalisation of European youth in the struggle against racism and fascism, holds the potential to smash this threat.

Throughout Europe political stability has been weakened by the combined effects of economic crisis, the pressure to compete with the USA and Japan and the collapse of Stalinism. In Italy, with its systematic corruption, the collapse of Stalinism undermined the very foundations of the First Republic. In Spain, corruption plus the resistance of the workers and youth has shaken the “socialist” government. In France, despite an enormous parliamentary majority, Balladur’s government has been obliged to back down in the face of mass street demonstrations, notably on issues relating to youth. In Germany, the price of reunification continues to restrict the ability of Kohl’s government to manoeuvre.

In Britain, the Tory government is the most unpopular since the Second World War. Moreover, all these governments reach the end of their period in office over the next two or three years. These impending elections, continuing economic problems and a workers’ movement suffering an acute leadership crisis since the downfall of Stalinism, all mean that the European bourgeoisie is unsure of its immediate future or what policy it should adopt. For this reason its political parties can experience paralysis by internal quarrels (France, Britain) or sudden collapse (Italy) leading to the phenomenon of turning to “a man from nowhere” such as Berlusconi. This fragility of the bourgeois political order reinforces the weak, transitory, and unstable character of the current period. It encourages the development of important struggles by workers and youth which have already taken place in France, Spain and Belgium.