What is “New” About the “New Imperialism”?

“Humanitarian Intervention”

Without needing to argue that this is pure novelty, as opposed to the most recent strategy, we find the following in Henry Heller’s The Cold War and the New Imperialism: A Global History, 1945-2005 (Monthly Review Press, 2006):

“Throughout the course of this step-by-step dismemberment of Yugoslavia, the United States had presided, acting in a careful, multilateral fashion under the umbrella of NATO and the United Nations. Its direct military intervention in Kosovo was justified in the name of so-called humanitarian war. The Clinton administration continued and expanded on the multilateral successes of the previous Bush administration. The latter had overseen the collapse of the Soviet Union and the organization of an unprecedented broad political and military coalition against Iraq in the first post-Cold War conflict. The Yugoslav campaigns were conducted in a similar manner under the aegis of an increasingly fashionable humanitarian interventionism [emphasis added]. The new unipolar world dominated by the United States was to be apparently based on international cooperation and humanitarian principles.” (p. 311)

The key elements of this post-Cold War strategy — and the time period of which we are speaking is itself one of the distinctions to be made in terms of a “new” imperialism, new in this sense meaning after the Cold War — are: the invocation of humanitarianism, an expanded role for NATO, and the use of multilateralism as a cover for a unipolar, American global domination. With reference to the latter point, Noam Chomsky in Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance (Henry Holt and Company, 2003) quotes former Reagan State Department official Francis Fukuyama who wrote in 1992: “[the UN is] perfectly serviceable as an instrument of American unilateralism and indeed may be the primary mechanism through which that unilateralism will be exercised in the future” (p. 29).

The formation of UN and/or NATO protectorates is another feature: Kosovo and Haiti are two of the more prominent examples of this strategy.

Francis Fukuyama, in State-Building: Governance and World Order in the 21st Century (Cornell University Press, 2004), remarks that the “humanitarian interventions of the 1990s led to an extension of a de facto imperial power over the ‘failed state’ part of the world” (p. 97). In establishing what are essentially protectorates, Fukuyama — who is not a critic of American supremacy — says: “It is not clear, given the low to nonexistent level of stateness in many failed states, whether there is any real alternative to a quasi-permanent, quasi-colonial relationship between the ‘beneficiary’ country and the international community” (p. 104). He writes of the United Nations Office of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina (OHR) that,

“the OHR used its power to dismiss presidents, prime ministers, judges, mayors, and other elected officials. It could pass legislation and create new institutions without reference to the preferences of the Bosnian people. Much of the administrative capacity of the Bosnian government lay in the hands of international experts rather than indigenous civil servants, to the point that some observers compared it to the British Raj” (p. 103).

Did Fukuyama actually mean “imperial” above? Writing on the situation in East Timor, he reiterates: “This international imperium may be a well-meaning one based on human rights and democracy, but it was an imperium nonetheless and set a precedent for the surrender of sovereignty to governance by international agencies” (p. 98). This imperial effort has been dubbed by the U.S. as “nation-building” (which, more correctly, as Fukuyama himself notes, should be called state-building). In particular, Fukuyama notes that the practice of state-building has largely failed to achieve its aims, anywhere: “Neither the United States nor the international community has made much headway in creating self-sustaining states in any of the countries it has set out to rebuild” (p. 103). He notes further that

“the rhetoric of the international community stresses ‘capacity-building’ while the reality has been rather a kind of ‘capacity sucking out’….The international community, including the vast numbers of NGOs that are an intimate part of it, comes so richly endowed and full of capabilities that it tends to crowd out rather than complement the extremely weak state capacities of the targeted countries.” (p. 103)

There is a sense in Heller’s presentation, and I think it is fruitful one, that the new imperialism is marked by increased resort to military action, expedient justifications and heightened public diplomacy that emphasize humanitarianism, and the economic decline of the superpower. In that sense, the new imperialism is symptomatic of declining hegemony, as a means of stalling or staving off that decline for as long as possible (to adapt some of Wallerstein’s arguments here). More from Heller here:

“This audacious U.S. plan was born out of overwhelming military strength combined with a growing sense of economic vulnerability [emphasis added]. On the latter point, American military power and, if possible, 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.” (Heller, 2006, p. 321)

Eric Hobsbawm in his book On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy (Pantheon Books, 2008), makes an almost identical point: “Military strength underlines the economic vulnerability of a United States whose enormous trade deficit is maintained by Asian investors, whose economic interest in supporting a falling dollar is rapidly diminishing” (pp. 56-57). In U.S. strength, Hobsbawm finds weakness: “Indeed, may not the very rhetoric of aggression justified by implausible ‘threats to America’ indicate a basic sense of insecurity about the global future of the United States?” (p. 57).

The following interview with Immanuel Wallerstein, by Russia Today, highlights some of the vulnerabilities of an American empire in decline:

From Empire Denial to Empire Avowal

On the ideological front, some critical transformations occur in the political discourse of the American hegemon, especially in terms of turning collective backs on a long history of “empire denial” in the U.S. Here, Chalmers Johnson’s The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic (Henry Holt and Company, 2004), is useful in noting the range of prominent voices that demonstrate that the idea of empire is gaining traction. He quotes Andrew Bacevich: “In all of American public life there is [now] hardly a single prominent figure who finds fault with the notion of the United States remaining the world’s sole military superpower until the end of time” (p. 67).

Empire avowal is most evident in the reconstruction of “liberal imperialism,” known also as “humanitarian imperialism,” “post-modern imperialism,” “soft imperialism,” and “Wilsonian imperialism.”

So what does Chalmers Johnson think is the best way to characterize American Empire?

Johnson, in Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Henry Holt and Company, 2000),  first of all focuses on the global spread of U.S. military bases — military uniquity is critical in his analysis, especially as with the end of the Cold War it should have become obvious to everyone, including the mass of the empire-denying American public, that America’s vast network of military bases abroad was being maintained despite the absence of any external military threat like the U.S.S.R. (p. 5). He writes of “America’s informal empire” as one “based on the projection of military power to every corner of the world and on the use of American capital and markets to force global economic integration on our terms, at whatever costs to others [emphasis added]” (p. 7). He then provides us with his theory of empire:

“In speaking of an ‘American empire,’ however, I am not using the concept in these traditional senses [those being Marxist-Leninist ones, and those based on historical analogies with Rome, Britain, etc.]. I am not talking about the United States’ former colony in the Philippines, or about such dependent territories as Puerto Rico, nor when I use the term ‘imperialism’ in this book do I mean the extension of one state’s legal dominion over another; nor do I even want to imply that imperialism must have primarily economic causes. The more modern empires I have in mind normally lie concealed beneath some ideological or juridical concept — commonwealth, alliance, free world, the West, the Communist bloc — that disguises the actual relationship’s among its members.” (p. 19)

Features of the Contemporary Imperialist State

Eric Hobsbawm in his book On Empire: America, War, and Global Supremacy (Pantheon Books, 2008), identifies one of the current transformations of the sovereign state given the ascendancy and global spread of “the prevailing theology of the free market,” as being the privatization of seemingly everything: “states are actually abandoning many of their most traditional direct activities–postal services, police, prisons, even important parts of their armed forces–to profit-making private contractors [emphasis added]. It has been estimated that 100,000 or more such armed ‘private contractors’ are at present active in Iraq (p. 43). Certainly one of the dominant themes of current military interventions by the U.S. is that of war corporatism. This is tied by Hobsbawm into another contemporary feature of politics in the U.S., and that is the (quiet?) unwillingness of the population to serve on war fronts: “I very much doubt whether any state today — not the United States, Russia, or China — could engage in major wars with conscript armies ready to fight and die ‘for their country’ to the bitter end” (p. 44) — which also echoes Andrew Bacevich’s argument that despite the profusion of patriotic jingoism in the U.S., few are actually willing to foot the personal, bloody cost of war. Indeed, in the imperial state fear of the public (see Chomsky, 2003, p. 39) is paramount, and thus we see the vigorous fortification of the national security state: “The extraordinary rise of technological and other means of keeping the citizens under surveillance at all times” (p. 45). Another important feature is the decline in warfare between states (p. 48). Moreover, we also witness with reference to, “noninterference in one another’s’ internal affairs, and…a sharp distinction between war and peace,” that “Neither are any longer valid today” (p. 51). What is not a crucial dimension, contra Johnson above, is an emphasis on military superiority: “Arms have often established empires, but it takes more than arms to maintain them” (p. 53).

Harry Magdoff, in Imperialism Without Colonies (Monthly Review Press, 2003), tells us of the interests of the U.S. Defense Department in securing access to strategic raw materials. He informs us that it “operates with a list of strategic and critical raw materials as a guide to the stockpiling program,” materials that are “critical to the war potential” (especially because they are used for the production of armaments) and where “supply difficulties can be anticipated” (pp. 54-55). For more than half of the items that the Pentagon needs, “80 yo 100 percent of the supply…depends on imports” (p. 55). In addition, “For 52 out of the 62 materials, at least 40% have to be supplied from abroad” (p. 55). Moreover, “three quarters of the imported materials in the stockpile program come from the underdeveloped areas
” (p. 55). As a board reporting to the President stated in the 1950s, “The loss of any of these materials, through aggression, would be the equivalent of a grave military set-back” (p. 55). When it comes to the production of the jet engine, six critical materials are needed (Tungsten, Chromium, Nickel, Columbium, Molybendum, and Cobalt) — and except for Molybendum, the U.S. is dependent on imports for an adequate supply of all of these items, and totally dependent on imports in the cases of columbium, chromium, and cobalt (p. 56).

The New Imperialism is Empire Without Imperialism?

In Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri’s Empire (Harvard University Press, 2000) a series of controversial statements are asserted regarding empire today. What they call empire is “a new global form of sovereignty”, with a “series of national and supranational organisms united under a single logic of rule” (p. xii). They distinguish “empire” in their sense from “imperialism” (p. xii). Moreover, they assert that “The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project [their emphasis]. Imperialism is over [emphasis added]. No nation will be world leader in the way modern European nations were” (pp. xiii-xiv). What is critical about Empire (as they capitalize it) is the lack of boundaries: “Empire’s rule has no limits” (p. xiv). Their Empire is all pervasive, and seeks to rule down to the deepest depths of human nature. Its aim is “peace,” they think: “although the practice of Empire is continually bathed in blood, the concept of Empire is always dedicated to peace–a perpetual and universal peace outside of history” (p. xv). The crisis of the nation-state form is what propels the world toward Empire. The new normative global order, as they see it, rules over all:

“what used to be conflict or competition among several imperialist powers has in important respects been replaced by the idea of a single power that overdetermines them all, structures them in a unitary way. and treats them under one common notion of right that is decidedly postcolonial and postimperialist. This is really the point of departure for our study of Empire [emphasis added]: a new notion of right, or rather, a new inscription of authority and a new design of the production of norms and legal instruments of coercion that guarantee contracts and resolve conflicts [emphasis added.” (p. 9)

Tracing the genealogy of Empire back to Christian Rome, the authors see a “rebirth of the concept of Empire” evidenced by key symptoms (except that this Empire apparently has no Rome):

“One symptom, for example, is the renewed interest in and effectiveness of the concept of bellum justum, or ‘just war’….The traditional concept of just war involves the banalization of war and the celebration of it as an ethical instrument, both of which were ideas that modern political thought and the international community of nation-states had resolutely refused. These two traditional characteristics have reappeared in our postmodern world: on the one hand, war is reduced to the status of police action, and on the other, the new power that can legitimately exercise ethical functions through war is sacralized” (p. 12)

Another key symptom is the development of the “right of intervention” (p. 18). What stands behind this intervention, on humanitarian and moral grounds, is “a permanent state of emergency and exception justified by the appeal to essential values of justice [their emphasis]” (p. 18).

Their is an empire without imperialism,and governenance without government. A new Rome, but without the Rome. One wonders then, to adapt Gertrude Stein’s phrase: “Is there a there there?”


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.
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