The Decline of US Imperialism


In the decades after World War II, US imperialism ruled the roost over much of the planet. After the collapse of Stalinism and the USSR, we were told that we had entered a new era—the “Pax Americana”—in which freedom, peace, and plenty would prevail for the whole of humanity. The reality has been very different. The collapse of the Eastern Bloc was merely a prelude to the greatest impasse in the history of capitalism: an epoch of crisis, wars, revolutions, counterrevolutions, austerity, and instability. Faced with this organic crisis of their system, the only way for the ruling class to reestablish economic equilibrium is by disrupting the social and political equilibrium. They have no idea how to proceed except through cuts, austerity, and repression—all while reaping profits on a previously unimaginable scale.

The social upheaval in Europe and North Africa, the ongoing chaos in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, the instability in Ukraine and Central Europe, growing tensions in the Pacific, civil war raging within the Republican Party, and the enormous discontent with the Democrats are all confirmation of the perspectives developed by the Marxists in the last period. In lieu of a full editorial we produce here excerpts from our 2014 US Perspectives document, approved by the delegates to the WIL National Congress, held in May in Pittsburgh, PA (see a report of the congress elsewhere in this issue). The full document is available here, and includes our analysis on the economy, the labor movement, the situation confronting the youth, US politics, the need for a labor party based on the unions, and the need to build the WIL and fight for the socialist transformation of society.

We encourage all our readers to carefully consider the contents of this document. It provides a political framework for understanding the events unfolding around us, and orients us toward the tasks confronting us in our efforts to build a Marxist leadership that can guide the working class to victory. As Trotsky pointed out, perspectives give us the advantage of foresight over astonishment. Instead of being taken by surprise by events, the task of the Marxists is to work out in advance the most likely developments, and through a series of successive approximations, arrive at an ever-better understanding of reality in order to intervene in, influence, and change it.

Those who must sell their labor power for a wage in order to survive comprise the vast majority in this country—not a wheel turns, not a light shines without the working class! Once this sleeping giant awakens and begins to flex its muscles, the entire world will shake. Why then, don’t the workers recognize their power and move decisively to change society? It is only the crisis of leadership of the working class that makes this contradiction possible. A fighting labor leadership armed with Marxist ideas and methods, fighting for class independence and a socialist program, would transform the situation. Building such a leadership is the task the WIL has set itself, and our perspectives are one of the tools we are using to achieve it. We invite you to join us in this struggle.

US imperialism reached its apex in the years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. With the crisis of 2008, it has entered an era of ignominious, protracted decline. Nevertheless, it remains a formidable force—at least on paper. No country on earth can match it in military spending or sheer projection of force to defend the profits of its ruling class. But to paraphrase Trotsky, it is a colossus with feet of clay. It has dynamite built into its foundations, and that dynamite is the working class. As the old adage goes, “the bigger they are, the harder they fall.”

obamamalikiIts vast military might has always been predicated on its enormous economic power. The relative decline of that power, even vis à vis countries like Canada and Germany—not to mention China—is transforming the geopolitical balance. The economic crisis and the disastrous and humiliating adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have forced it to retrench. Americans are tired of foreign adventures, and the economy simply cannot maintain the constantly increasing spending levels of the past. No longer can the State Department and the Pentagon spend at will and arrogantly bully and bomb the world into submission. Instead of large-scale direct intervention, US imperialism must now resort to diplomatic maneuvers, in an attempt to balance various regional powers and thereby defend its interests.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Middle East. The US stood by helplessly as their key allies Ben Ali and Mubarak were toppled by the masses. The confrontation with Russia over chemical weapons and intervention in Syria was but one example of the diminished ability of the US to impose its will. The ongoing negotiations with Iran are another reflection of the new regional balance of forces. At the same time, smaller regional powers like Saudi Arabia and Qatar are independently pushing their weight around in a way that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago.

As it twists and turns to extricate itself from this volatile part of the world, it must shift its focus to the Pacific. Trotsky summed up this region’s importance to the future of humanity in 1938: “The principal arena of struggle will, of course, not be that Lilliputian bathtub, the Mediterranean, nor even the Atlantic Ocean, but the basin of the Pacific.” (Revolution and War in China.)

The rising tensions among ASEAN nations, Secretary of State John Kerry’s five visits to the region in a single year, the conflict over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and the forthcoming Trans-Pacific Partnership—a kind of ‘NAFTA on steroids’—all underline this perspective. The Pentagon has openly stated that China will without a doubt be the US’s key geopolitical rival in the decades to come, with the prospect of military confrontation in some form or another an all-but-foregone conclusion. Japan is aggressively reasserting itself, and other regional powers such as Indonesia, Australia, South Korea, and the Philippines have growing doubts as to the US’s ability to hold its own against China and defend them.

The confrontation with Russia over Ukraine and the Crimea is the latest example of US imperialism’s limitations, and raises similar questions for European and Caucasian countries that had counted on the US for protection.

Long before beginning its retrenchment from the Middle East, the US military pulled back from its Cold War buildup in Europe. US forces there are 85% smaller than they were in 1989. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US presence in Europe has dropped from 400,000 troops to just 67,000; from 800 aircraft to 172; from 40,000 Navy sailors and Marines to 7,000.

Due to budget cuts, skyrocketing pension costs, and a changing international balance of forces, the Pentagon is being forced to pare down the US military to its lowest level since the buildup for WWII. Instead of having the capability to fight and win two major conventional wars—one each in the Atlantic and Pacific—they must now content themselves with the capacity to fight and win one major war and stalemate a second. With an increased focus on special forces units and high technology weaponry and cyberwarfare, US imperialism can no longer project overwhelming force and occupy countries the way it once did. This marks a dramatic change in the balance of forces since the postwar/post-Soviet period and will have unforeseeable and far-reaching consequences.

After World War II, the US replaced Britain as the “world’s policeman.” This positioned it to reap immense profits and gave it the resources to blunt the class struggle for an entire historical period. But this is now at an end. Although this shaped the worldview of several generations, this is not the norm for capitalism, but an anomaly. We cannot apply historical parallels mechanically, but the story of the rise and fall of British imperialism as the world’s foremost power contains some instructive lessons for its successor.

On the basis of its worldwide empire and powerful manufacturing base, the British ruling class was able for decades to pass on a few crumbs to its working class. It leaned on the top layers, the “aristocracy of labor,” to check the class struggle and keep it within safe channels. However, the long decline of British preeminence, beginning in the late 19th century, coincided with the growing radicalization and unionization of the working class and the eventual creation of the Labour Party.
By the end of World War II, Britain’s fall from grace was all but complete and a Labour government was thrust into power by the masses, pressured from below to implement reforms such as the National Health Service, free education, public housing construction, and more.These reforms were possible under capitalism due to the postwar boom and factors like the Marshall Plan. History never repeats itself in precisely the same way, but the similarities to the situation in the US are evident. The US’s decay and decline is not only up-ending and transforming its relationship to the world, but is already having a dramatic effect on Americans’ consciousness.

Along with the “American Dream,” the idea of “American exceptionalism” has been shattered over the last decade. A Pew Research Poll found that 53% of Americans think US geopolitical power is at a historic low—as compared to 20% who felt that way just 10 years ago in 2004. Furthermore, 55% polled said they think the US should “mind its own business” when it comes to meddling in international affairs—the highest number since this measure began 50 years ago. And although the US is still overwhelmingly the world’s preeminent economic power, a majority of Americans think China has already surpassed it. The long-term ramifications of these shifts in outlook cannot be overstated.

Even the mighty United States cannot escape the vortex of the world economy. With a global economy come global crisis and global class struggle. Seemingly minor economic or political developments in any country can surge out of control, sweeping across the planet like a tsunami. Like wildfires and economic meltdowns, the class struggle and revolutions do not respect borders. This is why, for Marxists, internationalism is not an empty phrase. The struggles of workers everywhere are our struggles. We must follow international events and their reciprocal effects on the US and the world closely.

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