Analyzing developments in imperialism since the fall of the Soviet Union, this article develops the thesis of the age of U.S.-led unipolar imperialism and the contradictions in that order. Backing this thesis with an examination of the wars against Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, and Libya, we show how today the era of uncontested U.S. hegemony is fracturing. To do this, we clarify who the real imperialist powers are today. Although originally written in 2015, the events since then have only confirmed this thesis.
The overthrow of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War restructured global imperialism and all of world politics. Without an understanding of the internal logic of imperialism, some hoped that now there would be a “peace dividend,” a period after the Cold War where the United States and its junior partners would have no reason to initiate more wars and invasions. The illusion was that the lone superpower would not be threatened by any potential rival, and therefore peace and calm would rein.
In the quarter-century since the overthrow of the Soviet Union, the United States has in fact been engaged in constant war, and now has a bipartisan military outlook based on “permanent war.” It continues to operate over 900 military bases in more than 100 countries in every region of the world.
The creation of a unipolar world order
In 1992, Paul Wolfowitz, then the U.S. undersecretary of defense policy, supervised the drafting of a strategic document for the post- Cold War world. It was written as a strictly internal document—and thus openly proclaims the need for unquestioned hegemony:
Our first objective is to prevent the re-emergence of a new rival. This is a dominant consideration underlying the new regional defense strategy and requires that we endeavor to prevent any hostile power from dominating a region whose resources would, under consolidated control, be sufficient to generate global power. These regions include Western Europe, East Asia, the territory of the former Soviet Union, and Southwest Asia [also known as the “Middle East”].
There are three additional aspects to this objective: First the U.S. must show the leadership necessary to establish and protect a new order that holds the promise of convincing potential competitors that they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests. Second, in the non-defense areas, we must account sufficiently for the interests of the advanced industrial nations to discourage them from challenging our leadership or seeking to over- turn the established political and economic order. Finally, we must maintain the mechanisms for deterring potential competitors from even aspiring to a larger regional or global role.
Most important, the document stressed, was conveying “the sense that the world order is ultimately backed by the U.S.”
To contain inter-imperialist rivalry and prevent other “advanced industrial nations” from challenging U.S. leadership, it would be necessary to make room for these powers to pursue their interests in “non-defense areas.” In other words: other imperialists must be allowed to get rich within the current world order.
The document explicitly broke with the concept of “containment,” which was essentially the defensive strategy to prevent more of the world from joining the socialist camp. Instead, it advocated that the U.S. should use its unrivaled military to preemptively attack and overthrow “rogue states” that “could seriously unsettle international relations.”
The document stressed that for future military actions, “the United States should be postured to act independently when collective action cannot be orchestrated.” While military coalitions “hold considerable promise for promoting collective action” with individual operations, the document expected these to be mere “ad hoc assemblies.” When the document was subsequently leaked to the press, it caused some controversy around Washington and across the world. It was, needless to say, impolite for Wolfowitz to explicitly call for global domination—including the containment of current U.S. allies. The administration of George H.W. Bush disavowed it and Sen. Edward Kennedy denounced it as “a call for 21st century American imperialism.” Some within the Cold War military establishment considered it reckless and adventurist.
Despite these disavowals, Wolfowitz’s document has generally outlined the U.S. strategic perspective ever since. Unipolar U.S. hegemony was not just an idea, but a concrete reality at the end of the Cold War, and every administration has sought to maintain it in their own way. The Clinton administration unofficially accepted the document’s premises, and under George W. Bush, the document’s authors controlled the administration’s foreign and “defense” policy. The vision laid out in 1992 was enshrined as official policy in Bush’s “National Security Strategy of the United States.”
Tasked with improving the U.S. global image after years of reckless and destructive war, Obama’s foreign policy dialed back the aggressive and unilateral language—stressing instead “engagement” with hostile nations, “multilateralism” and “cooperation” among allies. In practice though, the Obama administration has indeed taken pre-emptive and unilateral action, pursued regime change efforts and made clear that the U.S. military will continue to “underwrite global security.” It may have reached for different tools—punishing financial sanctions, air wars and drone assassinations, instead of massive ground invasions—but its strategic perspective of maintaining U.S. hegemony is the same.
War and the logic of empire
Extremist political groupings were not principally what drove imperialism to war, although such groupings do surge to the foreground whenever they have an opportunity to influence policy. But no mad generals or Dr. Strangelove were responsible for war. The imperialist war drive was, and continues to be, the product of the capitalist class pursuing its interests.
The imperialist economic motivations that Lenin highlighted were never far from the surface in this new round of wars in the unipolar era. This included the expansion of open markets, the control of vital natural resources, and the stability of trade routes and the sub- ordination of nation-states to the imperialist-friendly rules of global finance. Corporate giants wanted dominance in every corner of the world and every obstacle had to be removed.
But U.S. imperialism is not just an expression of the U.S. corporate interests and financial oligarchy. It serves as the managing apparatus of the global system of capitalism and thus has overriding political interests to preserve this world order. These recent wars have also been driven by the internal logic of empire—to demonstrate to both developing countries and Washington’s own imperialist partners that U.S. hegemony would not be questioned in this new unipolar world order.
Of course, few working-class people would accept constant war and a $1 trillion military apparatus if the imperialist rulers openly announced these real aims. They therefore find for every military aggression a pretext that sounds far more noble than global domination and corporate profits—things like “national security,” “humanitarian intervention,” “evil dictators,” “the war on terror,” etc.
Shortly after the end of the Cold War, General Colin Powell, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told a reporter from the Army Times: “I’m running out of demons, I’m running out of villains. I’m down to Castro and Kim Il Sung.” As Powell’s statement implies, having “villains” and “demons” is necessary for U.S. imperialism to justify its expansive military apparatus and adventures. With the help of the ruling-class media, imperialism constantly creates them.
The end of neutrality
The overthrow of the Soviet Union and Eastern European socialist countries created a windfall of profit for Western banks and corporations, as they rushed in to privatize these countries’ previously socialized property. But the existence of socialist states also had created an enormous barrier to capitalist economic expansion in other parts of the world as well and the end of socialism as a global force did not automatically remove all these obstacles in the way of monopoly capitalism.
Not all developing capitalist states were neo-colonies under the thumb of the United States or other imperialist states. The existence of the socialist bloc as a political and economic counterweight to imperialism allowed many capitalist states in the formerly colonized world to pursue nationalist development policies: an independent foreign policy orientation, the nationalization of key industries, and state-supported social safety nets. Many of these states were themselves fiercely anti-communist when it came to repressing their own working class, but internationally were willing to ally with the Soviet Union, and thus were able to carve out a degree of independence from the West.
In the post-Cold War world order, neutrality was no longer tolerable. Many states quickly modified their nationalist orientation and semi-socialist policies to play by the rules of global capitalism, but only complete capitulation was accepted. Any country that contradicted Washington’s plans and erected some barriers to the penetration of imperialist capital could find itself in the crosshairs.
Immediately after the fall of the Soviet Union, the U.S. attacked Iraq, and then, in the Clinton years Somalia, Sudan, Haiti, and Yugoslavia (which had previously been celebrated in the West as the “good socialists” because of their anti-Soviet orientation). After launching a “demonstration” war against Afghanistan in 2001, Bush declared an “axis of evil”—Iraq, Iran and North Korea—a hit list for further regime change efforts. Months later Undersecretary of State John Bolton listed Syria, Libya, and Cuba as additional “rogue states” to be targeted.
While the political style of Bush and Obama [and Trump] could not be more different, this hit list has generally been consistent from one administration to the next. Washington has used a combination of economic warfare, subterfuge, and direct military aggression to pursue regime change.
In addition to these proactive aspects of imperialist foreign policy, there is also a major reactive feature. In the current era, many reactionary political forces around the world understand the logic of empire driving U.S. foreign policymakers and have been able to make use of this to prompt intervention to their own benefit. Right- wing and pro-Western political groupings will launch struggles for power in their own countries, knowing that they could not win on their own. But once the struggle sharpens, catching the attention and support of the imperialist media, as well as related lobbies and economic interests, the Empire must “do something” to continuously demonstrate and reaffirm its hegemony. There is an organic tendency of imperialism to support counterrevolution, even if it was not in their previous plans. For policymakers no longer restrained by the Soviet Union, the potential risks of military intervention often appear quite small.
Several examples—Iraq, Afghanistan, Yugoslavia and Libya—demonstrate the core features of this new era of unipolar imperialism.
Imperialism targets Iraq
The fate of Iraq demonstrates the successive stages of imperial-ism and how the end of the Cold War immediately turned into a war against independent states.
Following WWI, the victorious imperialist powers re-divided the colonies of the world, including the territory formerly under the Ottoman Empire. Iraq passed from Ottoman to British colonialism and then to a form of phony independence with a neocolonial puppet monarchy. The division of Iraq’s oil showed what was really happening. The imperialists reached a deal to divide the oil amongst themselves. The United States, Britain, France, and the Netherlands would each get 23.75 percent, the remaining 5 percent going to oil baron Caloste Gulbenkian. None of the oil went to Iraq.
The Iraqi Revolution of 1958, with communist and nationalist leadership, became “the gravest crisis since the Korean War” according to President Eisenhower. Washington deployed 22,000 Marines and London sent 6,600 paratroopers to the region, but there was no full-scale invasion as the Soviet Union and China made clear that they would support the revolution.
Over the next three decades, the U.S. government applied many tactics to weaken and undermine Iraq as an independent and socialist-oriented country, including giving massive support to right-wing Kurdish elements fighting Baghdad, supporting Iran under the Shah in its border disputes with Iraq, and designating Iraq as a “terrorist state.” The United States supported the more rightist elements within the post-revolution political structure, including Saddam Hussein, against the communist and left-nationalist forces. When Iraq went to war with Iran in 1980, which had just gone through its own nationalist revolution with Islamist clerical leadership, the United States aimed to weaken and destroy both countries. Then secretary of state Henry Kissinger revealed the real U.S. attitude about the war when he said, “I hope they kill each other.” Over 1 million died in the war.
With the Soviet Union on the verge of collapse in 1990, the top priority of U.S. policymakers focused on asserting complete dominance over the Middle East, with its vital energy supplies. This required beating down and ultimately replacing the independent states of the region. Wall Street’s eyes got particularly big when they thought of Iraq’s enormous oil wealth, which remained nationalized and under the direction of Iraq’s bourgeois leadership. That this same Iraqi leadership had functioned as an on-again off-again ally over the previous decades was of no concern.
Iraq had been in a long dispute with Kuwait, a monarchy which had been a British semi-colony until 1961. Iraq was devastated financially by the war with Iran, a war which Kuwait had encouraged and from which it had benefited. In addition, Kuwait continued to tap into Iraq’s oil through lateral drilling, prompting Iraq to move its military into Kuwait and annex it. Before the Iraqi invasion, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq had implied to Saddam Hussein that the United States would not militarily intervene in such a conflict.
But when it happened, it provided a good pretext for the United States and its imperialist allies to attack, claiming to “liberate” Kuwait. Through “Operation Desert Storm” in January and February of 1991, the United States unleashed a massive aerial and later ground assault on Iraq. The complete destruction of Iraq was the real objective. Through a deliberate campaign of targeting Iraq’s infrastructure, the plan was to set the stage for the overthrow of the government. Power supplies, water purification plants, bridges, and other infrastructure were the targets of the relentless U.S. bombing campaign.
Iraq’s government did not collapse. So the imperialists imposed sanctions on Iraq, depriving it of food and medicine, and the ability to rebuild from the devastation it had suffered in the Gulf War. The sanctions imposed a terrible human cost on Iraq, which suffered upwards of a million deaths over 12 years. Still, Iraq did not collapse. The 2003 invasion of Iraq was the continuation of the decades-long imperialist effort to restore Iraq to a loyal puppet state, as it had been prior to 1958. At the time, much was made of the so-called neo-conservative influence in Washington, a group of theorists, generals, and politicians who blatantly advocated for non-stop war to establish U.S. world hegemony. Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were leading figures in this trend.
Putting the Middle East under the thumb of Washington was actually the goal of all political trends in the U.S. ruling class. The only thing that made the neoconservatives distinct was their open embrace of military power as the means to this end, and their lack of caution in how they pronounced their desire to launch successive wars.
Whereas the first U.S. invasion of Iraq in 1990-91 had the public relations pretext of freeing Kuwait from Iraq’s invasion, no plausible pretext could be concocted for the invasion of 2003. The best the Bush administration could come up with was falsely linking Iraq to the Sept. 11 attacks and then warning of “weapons of mass destruction.”
It was absurd that Iraq, suffering under the most complete sanctions in history, after years of weapons inspections, and under daily bombings by U.S. and British fighter jets, had developed weapons of mass destruction that could threaten Washington. But all factions of the U.S. ruling class quickly fell in line. Washington’s politicians, at the service of banks, oil giants, and other corporations, could not help but salivate at the thought of getting their hands on the resources and markets of Iraq.
In 2003 the United States launched “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” It was supposed to be the first phase of redrawing the map of the Middle East. The vision was to turn Iraq into a stable client state to serve as a proxy in regional conflicts and to ensure U.S. oil supremacy with exclusive investment opportunities for Big Oil. A quick military victory would set the stage for follow-up efforts against Syria and Iran. These goals were not accomplished in Iraq.
Instead, the new Iraqi government formed under the occupation was weak, fragmented, and riven with corruption. Owing its existence to the occupation, the Iraqi state had limited legitimacy among the Iraqi people, who had proudly asserted their independence over decades. To the extent the central Iraqi government earned any independent legitimacy, it had to move away from Washington’s dictates.
Today, Iraq is destroyed, scarcely existing as a nation-state. Constant fighting points to secession in both the Kurdish areas and large parts of the country predominantly inhabited by Sunni Arabs. Iraq’s oil is by no means dominated solely by the West, and Iran, a challenger to U.S. domination in the region, is more influential than ever in the Baghdad government.
The occupation of Afghanistan
Sept. 11, 2001, became the precipitating event that allowed U.S. imperialism, now under the sway of neoconservatives, to initiate a new era of widespread military aggression.
Although Afghanistan has large untapped mineral deposits, it was not targeted principally because of its resources. Additionally, thanks to years of U.S.-funded counterrevolutionary civil war, there was no longer a progressive government in Afghanistan. The state was under the control of the ultra-reactionary Taliban and a series of regional warlords—people with whom the United States had a long history of collaboration.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, however, the U.S. military “had to do something”—and Afghanistan was the most convenient target as the country where Osama Bin Laden was said to be based. No Afghan people nor the Afghan government were linked specifically to the hijacking of the planes and planning the attacks. Pursuing Bin Laden himself was not really an important priority for the U.S. military or the neoconservatives, who instead used the language of the “war on terror” to plan their next targets.
The “war on terror” became the operating justification for endless war and the unilateral targeting of any group in any country. The irony is that imperialism’s main “villains and demons” of the moment are Islamic fundamentalist groups, the very forces they have promoted in their endless war against leftist and nationalist forces in the Middle East.
The invasion of Afghanistan was really a stepping stone for what the United States hoped to be a series of invasions aimed at redrawing the map of the Middle East. That redrawing, the United States hoped, would be in accordance with imperialist interests, much like the Sykes-Picot agreement had redrawn the Middle East at the conclusion of WWI.
Because of the tenacity of the Afghan resistance, the occupation there re-emerged later as a key U.S. political and military priority. While economic and geostrategic interests were in play, the real fear was that the U.S. military—as the backbone of U.S. hegemony—would appear to have been defeated. Avoiding this appearance, as in Iraq, was a key factor driving the decisions of the policymakers.
In March 1999, the United States and its European Union junior partners launched a murderous bombing campaign against Yugoslavia. The bombing had no real purpose except for the disintegration and dismantling of the country.
Yugoslavia was not part of the Eastern European socialist bloc that was overthrown in 1989. It had good relations with the West in the Cold War and was even praised by the imperialists as the “good socialists.” But despite a further shift to the right and deep capitalist-style reforms, the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia remained independent. As such, Yugoslavia did not conform to the new world order that the imperialists were imposing, particularly on formerly socialist countries in Eastern Europe.
Led by right-wing political forces funded by U.S. and German imperialism, Croatia, Slovenia, and Macedonia had already broken away from Yugoslavia in 1991. In April 1992, the United States gave official recognition to Bosnia and Herzegovina as an independent state. Of course, independence for the other republics really meant obtaining a neocolonial status—“independence” from Yugoslavia at the expense of subservience to the West.
Yugoslavia was now comprised of only two republics: Serbia and Montenegro. Still, what remained of Yugoslavia was more than imperialism could bear. Under the leadership of a fascist group that called itself the “Kosovo Liberation Army,” a separatist movement formed in Kosovo, an autonomous province of Serbia.
Always welcoming of right-wing separatist movements, U.S. and German imperialists posed an ultimatum to Yugoslavia in Rambouillet, France. Yugoslavia would have to either grant NATO access to all of its territory (not just in Kosovo) or face a bombing. When the Yugoslavs, under the leadership of Slobodan Milosevic, refused to capitulate, the bombing began.
During 78 days of intense bombing, NATO warplanes flew over 35,000 combat missions against 200 cities and towns. The targets included apartment buildings, schools, hospitals, factories, and other workplaces. Bridges, refineries, the power grid, the Chinese Embassy, the Belgrade TV station, and even prisons and grave- yards were hit.
The attack turned more than 1 million people into refugees. Most of them were ethnic Albanians from Kosovo, the very people NATO claimed to be defending. Many refugees never made it to safety—NATO bombed their convoys. At least 5,000 people were murdered, mostly civilians.
The continued campaign to dismantle Yugoslavia eventually succeeded. President Milosevic was overthrown by a NATO-backed coup and was later kidnapped and imprisoned in The Hague, where he died while on trial by the imperialist victors. The new pro-U.S. government dismantled what remained of Yugoslavia’s socialist system.
Kosovo, still occupied by NATO powers, declared its “independence” from Serbia in February 2008. The U.S. military has built Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo, one of its largest military bases. Kosovo has emerged as the world leader in trafficking of humans and drugs. Capitalism has been restored to all parts of former Yugoslavia.
Imperialism targets Libya
In 2011, the imperialists turned their attention to Libya. In Libya the state had implemented some progressive reforms, utilizing the nation’s oil wealth to create something of a “welfare state.” Before 1969, education was inaccessible to large parts of the population. At the time of the NATO bombing, Libya had a 99 percent youth literacy rate. Major spending in health care under Gaddafi resulted in great gains in public health. Between 1980 and 2000, Libya’s life expectancy went up by 20 years. Libyans had a life expectancy of 77 years. Infant mortality rate had fallen to 25 per 1000 births.
Under Gaddafi’s leadership, Libya had a tradition of supporting national liberation movements around the globe, including the Palestinian struggle and even the anti-colonial struggle of the Irish Republican Army. Gaddafi was a staunch material supporter of the struggle against South African apartheid.
Following the overthrow of the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc, like all nationalist states, Libya became isolated internationally, and pursued a rapprochement with imperialism. This was understood as a necessary step for self-preservation, to take the target off of its back and integrate with the global capitalist economy. While dismantling its nuclear weapons program and deepening economic and “counter-terrorism” ties with the West, however, Gaddafi continued to orient Libya and Africa towards regional integration on an independent basis.
While the U.S. had tolerated and worked with Gaddafi under these conditions for years, the opportunity for regime change presented itself in February 2011, when there were considerable protests against the government in a few cities, most notably in Benghazi in eastern Libya. After a brief period of demonstrations in Benghazi and other cities, parts of the military leadership split away from Gaddafi and joined the opposition.
Against the Gaddafi government stood a coalition of pro-Western elites and Islamist groups, as well as a patchwork of localized tribal militias. The Libyan government quickly gained the initiative in the military struggle. On March 17, in a rush to prevent a final defeat of the rebels, the United States and its imperialist partners pushed through Resolution 1973 at the UN Security Council. The resolution authorized imposing a “no fly zone,” supposedly to protect civilians. In practice, NATO used the resolution to implement regime change.
As the rebels proved incapable of making any military gains even with air support, NATO effectively dropped all pretenses and operated exclusively in pursuit of overthrowing Gaddafi’s government. NATO assumed command of all operations and the rebels turned into NATO’s ground force. It is worth noting that France—which had been more aggressively pro-intervention than Washington early on—at this time floated the idea of a negotiated settlement. NATO, directed by the Pentagon, would have none of it. Once the Empire had declared that a government must go, it was unthinkable that they could survive.
After months of sanctions, bombing, and sabotage, NATO finally overthrew the government, and Tripoli fell. On Oct. 18, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Libya and called for Gaddafi to be captured and killed. Two days later, the rebels did just that.
According to the New York Times, “Foreign oil giants, including the American companies Marathon and Hess, certainly want to be in Libya, and the jockeying has already begun for the chance to drill new fields on profitable terms.” Energy services companies Halliburton and Baker Hughes are also taking part in the reconstruction bonanza. Libya had reformed its political and economic orientation drastically to remove itself from the imperialist hit list, and in truth regime change in Libya was not a standing priority of either the Bush or Obama administrations. But the logic of empire emerged again as a dominant factor. Once the struggle itself in Libya presented an opportunity for counterrevolution, with domestic forces offering themselves as more reliable rulers, it unleashed the imperialists’ organic tendency to support counterrevolution. Facing off against a small country that could not strike back, operating in a unipolar world with no one to stop them, U.S. policymakers saw no real costs—and many potential benefits—in carrying out their war.
As in Iraq, however, the U.S. and NATO bombing of Libya did succeed in overthrowing another nationalist and independent state that descended from the anti-colonial revolutions of the Cold War period. But, as in Iraq, it has not succeeded in establishing a stable client state. Libya today is a failed state, with competing militias fighting for control of different parts of the country.
Limits of imperialist power
Developments since the overthrow of the Soviet Union do not just demonstrate the extent of imperialist aggression and war-mongering. They also demonstrate the limits to imperialist power. Despite this ceaseless war-making and plundering, the results of these adventures have fallen far off the U.S. goal of full-spectrum world dominance. Implementing the new world order did not turn out to be the cake walk that they had imagined.
Over 13 years into the occupation of Afghanistan, the imperialists can hardly claim a clear victory in Afghanistan. The fact that they are still occupying the country is a testament to that fact. After an eight-year occupation of Iraq, there is no stable government in Baghdad. And even as its very existence is threatened by the Islamic State, Baghdad is still not taking orders from Washington. And far from having conquered Syria, the imperialists have little chance of overthrowing the Syrian nationalist state and installing a client. For the imperialists, it is safe to say that things are not going as planned.
Emerging capitalist powers
The most notable feature of the past decade in global political economy has been the emergence of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries as major global players, and more generally the emergence of new capitalist powers in regions across the world. These countries are largely integrated into the world imperialist system, but they are not outright neo-colonies. Given their geographic size, populations, natural resources, and considerable industrial development, as well as their own anti-imperialist political traditions, they therefore can function as major independent factors in global politics. The major problem with the “BRICS” terminology is that it suggests these countries have some internal unity amongst themselves, that they represent an actual bloc in the way that the Soviet Union and the socialist bloc once served as an alternative to U.S.-led capitalist hegemony. In fact, there is no economic, political, or ideological basis for such a bloc among the BRICS nations, and it is not useful to speak of them as a unit.
Generally, the emerging states are each aiming to rise within the established rules of global capitalism, while at the same time, pursuing national interest, trying to nudge these rules and institutions bit-by-bit away from U.S. hegemony. But they also compete against one another and form independent relations with the world’s top imperialist powers.
Nor do the BRICS form a special category of states, and could be joined by South Korea, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Mexico, among others.
Who are the real “imperialists” today?
Some within the left call these countries imperialist or sub-imperialist or simply capitalist. Often these debates revolve around a narrow academic conception of imperialism as defined by Lenin’s “five points” in 1916, an attempt to measure if these countries are ruled by monopoly capital and financial oligarchies and the extent to which they export capital, etc. It is better to understand this question in relation to the historical evolution of imperialism and to do what Lenin did: describe the main trends within the current world order as it presently exists.
Lenin’s five-point definition of imperialism referred to the general characteristics of global capitalism in its monopoly stage, in which global expansion had become an absolute requirement for the advanced capitalist countries. It was not written as a checklist to determine if a particular country was imperialist or not. It would have been unnecessary to dwell on this question because there was a clear demarcation between the colonial and semi-colonial nations, where capitalist property relations were not yet dominant, and on the other side, the major capitalist powers. The latter had accumulated the lion’s share of industrial and finance capital, had divided up all territory into spheres of influence, brought in smaller capitalist states into their respective alliances as junior partners, and then launched a massive war against each other.
Today, by contrast, capitalist property relations are dominant worldwide, and generally under the direction of finance capital. Modern imperialism therefore cannot be understood by simply looking at the economic features of an individual country in isolation. We focus instead on a country’s position in the global economic system, and its particular relation to the club of countries that dominate the world order and set its rules.
Despite the propaganda against China, its main strategy in international relations is to use its vast economic potential to overcome—as rapidly as possible—the legacies of imperialism and semi-colonialism and become a medium-developed country. China retains a contradictory character on account of its unique historical development and state formation and should not be understood as just another capitalist, let alone imperialist, state.
In Russia, where capitalism was restored, the government’s nationalist orientation is attempting to reverse the blatant encroachments of U.S. and NATO power on its borders for the last 20 years, and to reverse the enormous capital flight that has ravaged the country and left it reliant on the export of commodities like natural gas and oil.
In short, the same imperialist core still totally dominates the world capitalist economy. For example, 83% of foreign direct investment outflows come from the member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is an increase of 20% from 2010. Inflows into the OECD countries accounted for 56% of world Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) inflows, a drop from 87% in 2000. This clearly shows the importance of the expansion of the world market. As does the fact that 36% of FDI inflows from the OECD countries flow to countries outside the OECD. Looked at as a whole it is clear that the export of capital is still heavily dominated by the core imperialist nations.
Only two countries outside of the OECD have more than three banks in the world’s largest 100 banks by assets. Fifty-eight of the top 100 banks by assets are in the OECD countries. Core imperialist countries absolutely dominate financial services, acting as advisers, partners, and funders in a huge number of large-scale economic undertakings all across the world.
One must add that the U.S. dollar is the world reserve currency, and thus only one country—the United States—has the power to print the money that underwrites the entire global financial system, which is more deeply interconnected than ever.
The U.S. military machine is larger than the next 10 to 12 countries combined, with naval forces superior to all nations combined. It completely dominates the field of defense research and development, could conceivably carry out first-strike nuclear attacks against other nuclear-armed countries, and is the only country capable of projecting its military power worldwide. It continues to serve as the dominant state apparatus for global imperialism, while partnering with other states for regional “security” and keeping law and order in their own countries.
France, Germany, Britain and Japan—countries with a significant history of seeking independent colonial empires, and which continue to serve as global financial centers—have served as the key junior partners to this U.S.-led unipolar imperialism.
Starting with this world situation, it hardly is of any analytical service to deem “imperialist” every country that exports capital, or attempts to expand its access to natural resources (an inevitable feature of any society based on the growth of productive forces and population). To call every country with these features “imperialist” would encompass so many states that it would blur the lines between their relative power. It would make it impossible to understand their position in the world order. From the PSL’s perspective, we use the term “imperialist” to describe those states that are dominating and seeking to dominate that global system—not those who are trying to finally rise within it.
Those who describe the emerging powers in the formerly colonized world as “sub-imperialist” typically do so to suggest that these countries serve to enforce the dictates of the imperialist world order against smaller states, while trying to bring advantages to themselves. But all states that are part of the global capitalist economy are, by very definition, playing a subordinate role and serving as a circuit for the imperialist system, while also seeking to make the most of advantages over their neighbors and competitors. Nearly every state could therefore be described as sub-imperialist or as sub-sub-imperialist (and so on) in relation to another state. Revolutionaries can oppose the bullying and oppression of smaller nations by larger ones without watering down the concept of imperialism.
Given this general situation, it seems best to describe these as capitalist states emerging inside the shell of imperialism. These newly emerging capitalist powers seek to increase their influence within the system and are looking for a bigger political role to match their growing economic clout. This includes a larger influence in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank; permanent seats on the UN Security Council; the greater opening of European agricultural markets among other things. Many of these states are creating blocs to increase their leverage within the global order. At present, their international goals in general are not to replace the United States as global hegemon, nor to acquire colonial territory, nor to build up a second global economy to rival the first. Instead, it is to receive a proportionate position in the leading spheres of the global economy, and join the club of developed nations.
What happened to the simple puppet states?
The spread of capitalism from the core imperialist countries to the “periphery” (Asia, Africa and Latin America) is a prospect Lenin could foresee, but hoped would be preempted by the triumph of world revolution.
Instead, this penetration of monopoly capital into the formerly colonized countries has repeatedly given the system a new lease on life, and alleviated the periodic crises of overproduction and the attendant problems of inter-imperialist war. This was, after all, the deal that the United States offered to its potential rivals: subordination to U.S. rules and power in exchange for access to each other’s markets, and new markets.
The development of capitalism in the formerly colonized countries has generally been imposed with extreme distortions, facilitating those infrastructure projects and industries that could serve the imperialist core, while underdeveloping those industries that could allow the countries to exercise greater independence and compete. In the Marxist movement, the sections of the colonial and neocolonial ruling classes that served this arrangement were called “comprador bourgeoisie” while those that aimed at independent national development were described as “national bourgeoisie.”
The national bourgeoisie had far more room to operate in the political space of the Cold War, but this was closed off afterwards. As we have shown, the U.S. imperialists waged repeated wars on such independent, anti-colonial states of the Cold War period in order to refashion the world under their complete and unrestrained hegemony. The irony is that capitalist development itself, most notably the growth and spread of productive forces worldwide, has also undermined the imperialists’ system of loyal puppet states. A national bourgeoisie has re-emerged in many countries of the Global South, although no longer operating with the language and spirit of Cold War anti-colonialism or the semi-socialist policies of that era.
In some cases, this was the intention of imperialist policymakers. During the Cold War, Western powers facilitated the emergence of a handful of countries to gain some of the benefits of the imperialist club. One was South Korea, which the imperialists needed to develop to counterpose to the socialist Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. While South Korea remains a core U.S. ally, and is still occupied by U.S. forces, U.S. policymakers now worry that the country’s economic relations with China could become dominant should the United States ever remove its troops.
In most cases, the emergence of rising powers in the formerly colonized world has resulted from the rules of neoliberal global capitalism itself. Emerging states have been able to play by the rules set by the imperialist states, and on account of their own resources, labor pool, etc., have to some extent beat them at their own game. The financial oligarchies that worked so hard to open up foreign markets for capital penetration are happy to participate and profit, de-industrializing at home while re-investing abroad.
Rather than just a well-paid satrap, now one can be a major global corporation in an “emerging market” with influence in Washington matching that in the home country. Thus, emerging capitalist classes, as they integrate further into the global economy, do not necessarily need to go to war with the imperialists to secure access to markets and capital. Investment and growth patterns are of course subject to different economic fluctuations and policies, but the long-term consequence is that many emerging countries have increasingly acquired the industrial capital and technological capabilities to likewise become more assertive and independent in international politics. It has opened the possibility for far more South-South economic and political collaboration, which in turn gives local ruling classes a degree of genuine independence in both domestic and foreign policy.
This process is by no means finished—it has barely started— and the concentration of finance capital, firepower, and high-technology in the imperialist core countries, led by the United States, yields to them tremendous power. All countries still have to tread lightly so as not to open themselves up to U.S. sanctions or military attack. But these trends clearly point to future ruptures in the world system.
New contradictions, new wars on the horizon
This is ultimately a primary challenge to imperialism today. On the one hand, imperialism seeks to adapt to and manage the rise of newly powerful nation-states. On the other hand, it seeks to determine the terms by which independence is defined, preserving U.S. military and financial hegemony and waging war on anyone falling outside that consensus. There is a clear and inherent contradiction here.
Offering entrance into a global capitalist order is attractive but hardly seamless. Capitalist development likewise develops each country’s working class and capitalist class, who, as they grow in strength and confidence, can influence policy, destabilize the system, and carry out political struggles that ripple through all international relations. Moreover, as the imperialist policymakers set and change what limits to their own hegemony they will tolerate from emerging powers, it is not inconceivable that present inter-imperialist alliances will fray.
If the German ruling class were to decide that punishing U.S. sanctions against Russia were too much to bear, and that in fact Russia is a more suitable long-term ally than the United States, the whole international order of Europe would be thrown into the air. The fear of such a possibility is why Washington decided not to bring Russia into NATO in the early 1990s when capitalism was restored there and they even had a puppet, Boris Yeltsin, in office. Given Russia’s size, influence, and capabilities, imperialist leaders knew Russia might later grow closer to Germany and NATO would cease to be an instrument of U.S. hegemony.
Likewise, if the Japanese ruling class were to come to the conclusion that the threat of U.S. military attack is not enough to keep China “in its place,” and that the U.S. military will not go to war to protect Japanese interests, Japan could return to a policy of re-armament. The junior partnership that Japan accepted for decades could likewise go out the window, along with the security order of East Asia.
In Africa, growing Chinese bilateral trade relations is a primary concern for French imperialism in particular. France too could take more unilateral action—as it has already in Ivory Coast and Niger—to restore its position as neocolonial overlord.
In short, while the emerging powers themselves do not seek military conflict with imperialism, and in fact their emergence has been of great economic benefit to imperialism, at the same time, their growing assertiveness could destabilize the current world order, and thus re-open the possibility of inter-imperialist conflict and war between current allies. The neoconservatives’ greatest fear—the re-emergence of rival powers—could be realized.
The history of imperialism shows that such large changes in the international order do not occur peacefully; new stages arise as a byproduct of destructive war.
Ultimately this speaks to the deeper significance of Lenin’s general point about the nature of war under imperialism. Whether during its first colonial phase, the Cold War phase, the first post-Cold War phase, or the present, the tendency towards war is inherent in the system. First there were wars to re-divide the world, then to repel imperialism’s only real challenger, then to finish its re-division, and now, as the system adapts and changes, a new era of wars as the unipolar world order is disrupted from within. Imperialism is in a changing and dynamic state attempting to contain the contradictions created by its own expansion.
Revolutionaries follow these developments closely not as champions of this or that capitalist state. Rather, in the current era, all struggles—especially in the heart of the Empire—are ultimately interwoven with the international situation. The contradictions facing the imperialist ruling class reverberate internally, and their losses abroad become openings for victories, and ultimately revolution, at home.
Humanity can only save itself from this criminal, destructive system when the working class and oppressed peoples of the world overthrow imperialism through an organized, persistent struggle. This will be a long road with many dangers and hardships. But it is the only road to freedom for humanity.
This article was originally published in our book, Imperialism in the 21st century: Updating Lenin’s theory a century later.