The New Imperialism: Histories, Theories

The following are very condensed, interpretive summaries of the assigned readings for Week #3.

Henry Heller: The Cold War and the New Imperialism

Regarding Henry Heller’s The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005 (Monthly Review Press, 2006), and specifically chapter 8, “Toward Empire,” pages 285-325, a number of overarching trends and developments can be delineated. The root, the basis of them all, appears to be located by the author in the clustered phenomena that are called neo-liberalism. From that basis he takes us to the necessary, strategic geo-politics needed to shore up and defend neo-liberalism, especially from the social and political shocks it causes worldwide thus weakening the power of some states, and to attack resistance to neo-liberalism as reflected in the policies of various strong or re-strengthened states (China, Russia, Brazil, Venezuela, as examples). Part of the defense/offense of neo-liberalism lies in specific policies and various tools, all justified and rationalized by a globally disseminated ideology. So let’s start at the beginning.


Essentially this is rooted in an ideology of free market capitalism, based on assumptions that unregulated capital accumulation will be the surest engine of economic growth, presumed to be a good in and of itself. The aim of capital accumulation is to accumulate more capital (and sometimes so much capital is accumulated that it has nowhere to go, except in speculation, risky investments, and investment in destruction [war] to create opportunities for new growth).

Contrary to popular American parlance, this is not “liberalism” as some sort of lifestyle politics (commonly associated with vegetarianism, wearing sandals, and other petty essentializing attributes) or a position on personal morality (presumably favouring abortion, or frowning upon religious education).

The “freedom” here is the freedom of capital — the freedom of capital to move, and the freedom of peoples to have the full choice of consumer goods. If American political leaders frequently speak of “democracy and freedom” as two separate and disconnected objects, it is because that is what is intended: elected, multiparty governments that are open to influence peddling by lobbies and donors, and freedom in terms of free markets.

Neo-liberalism, as a free market project, is typically represented by a basket of policies:

  • deregulation: lessened state control over financial policy, banking, and currency valuation (hence, a move to floating currencies rather than fixed rates of exchange); in addition, the removal of subsidies for local products, and the end to price controls over staple goods and utilities.
  • divestment: the state withdraws from ownership of the “commanding heights of the economy” and is thus compelled to sell of state-owned enterprises;
  • privatization: while this is closely related to divestment, it includes putting up for sale to foreigners what foreigners previously could not own, such as land and natural resources; and,
  • free trade: opening up the local economy to foreign private investment, and opening up local markets to foreign imports.

Structural adjustment programs are imposed on indebted states through the International Monetary Fund. Countries cannot access more foreign loans until they deal with foreign banks’s central collection agency, the IMF, which will also certify them for future loans if they follow IMF policies. These structural adjustment programs involve the imposition of the policies listed above, and a general lessening of the state’s influence in a given society and economy. Inevitably, public spending on health, education, infrastructure, and job-creation are drastically reduced.

With economies opened to foreign investment, and states with politics open to foreign influence, the leading hegemonic state, the United States, is of assured of opportunities for investment, and can gain control over access to key resources that power the new centres of global manufacturing (i.e., China and India).

Neo-liberalism is commonly associated with globalization, and Heller presents a condensed synthesis in writing:

“The increasingly unrestricted movement of global finance and investment, the more extensive and rapid flow of information and goods, the growing availability of vast pools of cheap and educated labor in China, India, and Eastern Europe, and the deepening of the international division of labor helped to give birth to the new ideology of globalization that crystallized in the 1990s. Reflecting the perspective of the heads of some 37,000 transnational corporations, as well as internationally orientated bankers, wealthy investors, exporters of goods and services, state functionaries, and high flying, well paid media publicists and academics, this ideology based itself on the assumption of a progressively unhindered economic unification of the world. The principles of this neoliberal globalization were the unrestricted movement of money, the downsizing of the state, and the creation of an unobstructed global market for goods and services.” (p. 290)

Neo-liberalism, then, might be seen as the basis for the ideology and strategy that some call “the new imperialism.”


Heller describes the emergence of what is increasingly a unipolar world from the early 1990s onwards, with the U.S. as the dominant military power, a situation of almost unrivaled power that might also lead us to see this new imperialism as not just ideology and strategy, but as a fundamental contemporary reality, something actual. Anyway, this is not exactly Heller’s point in the chapter.

The resolution of the apparent contradiction between unipolarity and multilateralism rests in the U.S. having created and then dominated a number of the multilateral institutions mentioned by Heller, such as the original G7 and NATO. Multilateralism, in Heller’s view, is largely a “fig leaf” for American imperialism. Multilateralism is not flat like a pancake, with a level playing field among all partners, but more in the shape of a cone, with one of the players at the top and acting with or through a base of partners of varying capabilities.

Multilateralism and unipolarity do not contradict each other in this case. The seemingly wide has a narrow point to it. Likewise, the diffusion of the ideology of neoliberalism, by a wide variety of actors, points to a situation of seemingly multiple voices speaking without diversity.

What helps to maintain the ideologies and policies of neo-liberal globalization is of course the existence of a transnational capitalist class, creating what is politically an American-oriented, broad class of people present in almost every state on the planet, and very often in key positions of power locally.


There is growing recognition, not least among those who suffer the worst, that neo-liberal globalization has created immense instability, not least of which is financial instability (money rapidly coming in one day, with skyrocketing inflation as a result, and rapidly fleeing the next), but also social upheaval. (This is ironic too, to the extent that the U.S. speaks of “failed states” as if they were all someone else’s doing, not that the concept has any intellectual merit.)

Heller speaks of 250 NGOs that collaborated to publish a report in 2001 (see Structural Adjustment Participatory Review Initiative), which he tells us,

“concluded that trade and financial liberalization had devastated local industries. Structural reforms in agriculture and mining had undermined small farms, weakened food security, and harmed the environment. Labor market reforms and the undermining of local labor-intensive activity had caused unemployment, lower wages, and a weakening of workers’ rights. Privatization and user fees had reduced access to services such as health and education.” (pp. 296-297)

Multilateralism is one way the leading powers allied to the U.S. can rush into a situation, destabilized by their policies to begin with, to not so much “restore” order as to create a new order. We have seen a number of international protectorates being created, virtual colonies of the United Nations and NATO, under what seems to be perpetual oversight by permanent U.S. military bases or multinational forces with no apparent exit date. Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti are a few of these. The narrative of this kind of multilateralism is what some call humanitarian imperialism.


The more obvious unilateralism of the U.S. under George W. Bush, Heller argues, was a means to assert control over allies and to more forcefully project its power globally. Foreign policy became increasingly militarized, especially as the U.S. began to fear the emergence of powers that might challenge its global hegemony.  Primacy, hegemony, empire and even “imperialism” were now frankly admitted to. (Indeed, we see how some key figures in U.S. politics try to make it unpopular and costly for any American leader not to speak in terms of American “supremacy” and American exceptionalism.) In the historical context presented by Heller, the U.S. invasion of Iraq makes sense:

“This audacious U.S. plan was born out of overwhelming military strength combined with a growing sense of economic vulnerability. On the latter point, American military power and, if possible, control of Middle East oil would enable it to reassert its waning economic primacy while shoring up the dollar. Massive increases in military and reconstruction expenditure in the form of contracts to American companies would help to reawaken the United States economy out of deep recession [emerging during the late years of the Clinton presidency, following several such shocks in the 1980s].” (p. 321)

The concluding statement in Heller’s chapter proves to be a very significant observation that ties into the remaining three chapters considered below. He writes:

“Predatory and militaristic behavior may, in fact, be rooted in factors deeply lodged in an American economy in relative decline, in the predisposition of American politics and society, or, indeed, in the nature of the existing global political economy. If so, the American invasion of Iraq marks the beginning of a new period of unpredictable and destructive international rivalry that harks back to the conflicts of the early twentieth century.” (p. 325)

Chalmers Johnson: The Sorrows of Empire

In chapter 3, “Toward the New Rome” (pp. 67-95) of Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (Henry Holt and Company, 2004), we are presented with a detailed overview of what Heller above called this “predatory and militaristic behavior.” Yet, as Chalmers Johnson notes, “In the American political tradition, ’empire’ has normally been a term of opprobrium” (p. 67) — until recently, that is, where we have gone from empire denial to current empire avowal. Many in the public commentator class, and the army of “policy wonks” in a numerous think tanks, have come forth openly calling for “abandoning even a semblance of constitutional and democratic foreign policy and endorsed imperialism” (p. 67). The main divide, as Johnson sees it, is between those who favour unilateralism in American global domination, and those who call for a more multilateralist, humanitarian imperialism (p. 67). In terms of the former, Johnson names as representative examples Charles Krauthammer, Robert D. Kaplan, Russell Mead, and Max Boot. As an example of humanitarian, or what Johnson later calls liberal imperialism, he names Sebastian Mallaby, though he could have mentioned Michael Ignatieff. Further on, Johnson repeats the basic divide using altered terms: military imperialism (a classic forerunner being Theodore Roosevelt) and idealistic imperialism (Woodrow Wilson). Some, like Max Boot, see another divide among the Wilsonians, between “hard Wilsonianism” that desires the forcible spread of “democracy” around the world, and “soft Wilsonianism” that prefers working through multilateral institutions.

For Chalmers Johnson, regardless of hard or soft distinctions (he finds more in common between them than not), what is most troubling is unilateralism — unilateral military action, regardless of reason, including a claim to have a “responsibility to protect.” Johnson is so fixed on unilateralism that goes as far as saying: “Imperialism means, among other things, unilateralism in the decision making and actions of a nation” (p. 73). Where military action is involved, Johnson outlines the many ways that the U.N., international law, and conventions against war crimes and torture essentially dissolve. Certainly, the non-use of force as an instrument of relations among nations has been demolished.

Another threat of imperialism is registered at home, as Johnson explains. In particular, a rapid swelling in the size of the military over the generations, the total reach of taxation, and the size of government and legal regulation over all areas of citizens’ life has increased with the march of ever expanding American global war. Empire abroad is a threat to democracy and civil liberties at home.

The combination of imperialism and militarism, and the constant expansion into more theatres of war, creates a logic of ceaseless expansion and warfare. Johnson refers to this as a kind of reverse “domino theory”: “an endless progression of places and commitments that must be protected, resulting inevitably in imperial overstretch, bankruptcy, and popular disaffection” (p. 82).

Noam Chomsky: Hegemony or Survival

Noam Chomsky, in chapter 2 (“Imperial Grand Strategy,” 11-49) of his Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (Henry Holt and Company, 2003) takes up many of the same issues as Chalmers Johnson. Chomsky focuses specifically, and at length, on the U.S.’ 2002 National Security Strategy, which you can access here. In particular he focuses on its avowed aims of unrivaled power, and the unilateral projection of power, to maintain the U.S.’ global military supremacy, committing itself to maintaining a unipolar world, and preventing the emergence of competitors. As a result, international laws and treaties proscribing the use of force are dismissed.

Chomsky also notes the strategy’s declaration that the U.S. will undertake preventive wars at will. This is different from preemptive war, as much as the terms may appear synonymous — to preempt is to take measures to defend oneself once it is certain that an attack is being mounted, while prevention goes several layers deeper, preventing a state from ever being in a position to mount a threat, whether real or imagined. Preventive war, strictly speaking, is a war crime according to Chomsky. The invasion of Iraq was also a war crime. This new imperial grand strategy rationalizes arbitrary aggression on the part of the U.S., especially as virtually any country on the planet can be seen as possessing the ability to produce “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD), and whether they “intend” to deploy such capabilities is obviously in the eye of the beholder.

Contempt for international law, and reserving the right to unilaterally use military power, even in the absence of any attack, is justified by the imperial strategists as a means “ensuring uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and strategic resources” (p. 15) — a factor that comes under the spotlight in David Harvey’s chapter (next).

Propaganda, or “public diplomacy,” becomes critical on the home front, to secure mass support for imperial interventions abroad. In the U.S. the result was an overwhelming majority that came to support the war against Iraq, believing that Iraq was instrumental to the attacks of 9/11/2001, that Saddam Hussein was an ally of Al Qaeda, and that Iraq was an immediate threat to the U.S. Even after the invasion, a large minority believed that WMD had been found in Iraq, and that Saddam Hussein had even used them against U.S. forces (pp. 18-19).

The U.S. has increasingly removed itself from the U.N., even in professing the norms of “humanitarian intervention” and the “responsibility to protect.” These justifications were used to bomb Serbia in 1999, without support from the U.N. Security Council. A key, alternate instrument of multilateralism, which the U.S. commands more directly, is NATO. Indeed, it was NATO that was served by using Serbia as its proving ground — Chomsky quotes Tony Blair repetition of the official reasons for the bombing during the war over Kosovo, that a failure to bomb “would have dealt a devastating blow to the credibility of NATO” and “the world would have been less safe as a result of that” (p. 23).

Back home, in an argument similar to Johnson’s, Chomsky highlights the erosion of civil liberties as a result of the so-called “war on terror.” People, including U.S. citizens, can be declared “enemy combatants” and can be imprisoned indefinitely without charge, without a trial, and without access to lawyers or family members. A number of prominent legal scholars have affirmed that key constitutional rights have been undermined. In the meantime, the power of the presidency has grown, and continues to grow as it does during “war time” — which in the U.S. has been a nearly permanent state for over 200 years.

Establishing its monopoly on global violence entitles the U.S., some have held, to use force without needing the consent of international institutions. Its security — even against states that have never attacked the U.S. — is declared paramount and will not be subordinated to multilateral institutions. This was seen especially in the run up to the invasion of Iraq, when the U.S. leadership and many of its chief diplomats essentially found multiple, barely polite ways of telling the U.N. to go **** itself (Secretary of State, Colin Powell: “obviously the [Security] Council can always go off and have other discussions” [p. 32]). The invasion of Iraq was inevitable, Chomsky holds, as absolutely nothing that Iraq did to comply with U.N. Security Council resolutions would have, in the words of numerous officials he quotes, done anything to stop them from ceasing “regime change.”

In particular Chomsky focuses on the resurgence of both Wilsonian idealism, and Wilsonian aggression, in the U.S. leadership’s promotion of American exceptionalism, of America as “historical vanguard” — “the imperative of America’s mission as the vanguard of history, transforming the global order and, in doing so, perpetuating its own dominance,” guided by “the imperative of military supremacy, maintained in perpetuity and protected globally” (p. 43).

David Harvey: The New Imperialism

David Harvey’s The New Imperialism (Oxford University Press, 2003), in chapter 1, “All About Oil,” pages 1-25, takes us back to Heller at the outset, focusing on political economy, and material resources in particular. Global capitalism, as Harvey argues, encompasses the “new imperialism.” Johnson and Chomsky focus more on institutions, ideologies, policies, and rights, whereas Heller and Harvey focus more on economic structures. Even while mentioning many of the same imperial commentators and key developments as the authors above, Harvey focuses squarely on key economic features of this past decade — primarily the rapid economic decline of the U.S., combined with a simultaneous declaration that the U.S. will use its position of “unparalleled strength and influence” to secure international “order,” “openness,” free markets and free trade. This, it seems, is where Harvey believes analysis should be rooted.

Taking us through the multitude of shifting reasons offered by the U.S. for waging war against Iraq, Harvey asks what are the real, unstated reasons. One, was possibly to divert public attention from the growing economic crisis (which has spiked again in the last two years — Harvey was writing before the start of the Iraq war), by creating a revival of nationalism through fear. Chomsky noted in his chapter above that “fear of the public” has been a constant among American political leaders at least since it was admitted in the 1960s. A second reason may have been the desire of the U.S. to increase its power, against that of other states, as an end in itself, to assure its continued central position in world affairs, and especially to keep a unified society back home, rather than one that threatened to degenerate into a multitude of antagonistic, competing private interests. Yet it is really the third reason that Harvey finds the most convincing of all, rooted in this proposition: “whoever controls the Middle East controls the global oil spigot and whoever controls the global oil spigot can control the global economy, at least for the near future” (p. 19). This is not a simple conspiracy theory about wanting to take Iraq’s oil, or just securing contracts for American firms, as important as these may be. It is in fact a much grander proposition — that controlling access controls the current and future pace and shape of global economic growth, one that the U.S. can control militarily especially as it has undergone drastic de-industrialization itself. The Middle East is likely to be the key provider of oil, as stocks worldwide deplete, over the next 50 years. Oil is becoming more scarce, the Middle East will remain a key source, and control over access is both a security issue for the U.S. as it is for the global economy as a whole (p. 24). Indeed, it seems likely that the situation may be more urgent than the U.S. wants the public to know, as reports emerge that oil stocks will be depleted overall much more sooner than expected — read here for more.

About Maximilian C. Forte

I am a professor of anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal, Canada. My areas of research and teaching interest are centered in Political Anthropology, with a focus on imperialism, neoliberalism and globalization, nationalism, democracy, and the international political economy of knowledge production. My long-standing research area involves the ethnohistory of Indigenous Peoples in the Lesser Antilles, and a focus on Indigenous resurgence in Trinidad & Tobago and neighbouring nations of the Caribbean.
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