Deterring the Empire

While the Bush administration focused its diplomatic might on the Middle East, the more important developments for the future of the American empire were taking place in Europe.

First, Germany, France, Belgium and Luxemburg got together and agreed to cooperate more fully in military matters. Then Greece, as the current EU president, called on member nations to come together to hold joint military preparations. And just this week, even close ally and Iraq war supporter Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi made a surprising argument for the admission of Turkey and Russia to the Union: "Europe will only be able to look at the United States not as a subordinate if it becomes a great Europe, not only great in the economic sense but also important in the sense of military authoritativeness," he said.

Washington is not amused. As Elaine Sciolino wrote in the New York Times, "(T)heir timing could not have been worse." While the Bush administration complains often and bitterly about Europe's low levels of defense spending, it wants them to stick to the script: provide the 21st Century equivalent of the British Empire's Indian sepoy troops, cough up colonial levies to support U.S. military initiatives, and police fallen cities after the Marines have stormed through.

Unhappily for the neoimperialists, the Europeans have other ideas. Last month's meeting was only the first tentative step toward creating a military counterbalance to the overweening power of the United States. But as Washington's apoplectic reaction revealed, any hint of independent military might, no matter how small, is galling, especially if, as now, there is a Gallic component to it.

Both the Russians and the French have sound reasons for pursuing a diplomatic strategy quite different from that of Britain, which has hitched its fortunes to American coat-tails since World War II.

Russia is faced with domestic dissatisfaction over the failure to emulate the United States. On the domestic front, the much-touted liberal economic policies have not brought the promised magical transformation. In the international arena, Washington seized on Gorbachev's hand of friendship as a sign of surrender and the demise of Russia's superpower status. Putin's fortunes are tied to restoring Russia's injured national pride.

Similarly, France has never reconciled itself to a dependent role in its relationship with the United States. Be it through the auspices of the EU, the UN or NATO, the French want recognition. However, American diplomacy being what it is, Washington has never bothered to stroke their national ego. But their strategy is based on more than just wounded pride. France, Russia and China agree on the need to counter the U.S. push to create a unipolar world -- and they possess the economic and military means to offer the required resistance.

Back in 1956, when France and Britain allied with Israel to attack the Suez Canal, Washington threatened to devalue their currency by selling pounds and francs. Today there are no francs, only Euros. With a massive trade deficit, the declining dollar is in no condition to start a pissing match with the rampant Euro -- especially when skyrocketing defense spending and tax cuts are adding to an already massive budget deficit. Empires are not built upon smart missiles alone; they need economic power to maintain long-term military supremacy.

Indeed, while the diversion of huge amounts of American wealth into armaments may have a Keynesian stimulant effect on an economy in the short to medium term, in the long run it can only weaken American economic development. After all, they can't export the most expensive stuff on any large scale without weakening their competitive military advantage. Keynes said, "In the long run, we are all dead." But that is no reason to hasten the process.

The U.S. can pretty much outshoot anyone on the planet in a conventional war, where its enemies helpfully marshal themselves in neat formations ready to be Tomahawked and Daisycut. But in the short run, there is an unintended strategic consequence of American technological superiority.

To illustrate: In one of the Indiana Jones movies, faced with a spectacular display of martial arts prowess on the part of a predatory swordsman, Harrison Ford pulls a pistol and shoots his superior opponent. Nuclear weapons are the equivalent of that leveling pistol in the face of unmatchable conventional military power. It's a strategy the U.S. has used to its advantage in the past; during the first days of the Cold War, NATO military doctrine countered what was then assumed to be Soviet conventional superiority by escalating the production of nuclear weapon as a deterrent against a conventional arms attack.

The lesson remains the same today. Russia and China have always recognized the utility of an advanced nuclear arsenal. The latest entrant, North Korea is using relatively cheap and nasty nukes to escape the fate of Iraq. Unlike Britain, France has both nuclear weapons and the independent means of delivery as well. This is why the neocons in the Pentagon have revived Star Wars, for their imperial dreams crash without a missile defense. But their efforts so far have been as fundamentally faith-based as much of the rest of their policies.

So, contrary to Elaine Sciolino's view, now is actually quite a good time to begin the work of creating a counterbalance to American ignorance and arrogance. As is usual in his dealings with the Americans, Tony Blair has missed the point. To be a genuine friend of the United States, you have to have the strength to gain its respect.

Even if most nations have acquiesced to the invasion and occupation of Iraq, many of them are deeply concerned about the flagrant breach of the UN Charter. The Franco-German plan to "bridge the gap" with the United States is likely to find a sympathetic ear in many quarters in Europe. The democratic states of the European Union are best positioned to kickstart the effort.

For a start, they are also the main economic rivals of the United States. With the Bush administration copping the same unilateralist attitude toward international trade, these nations can't afford not to resist. And if Tony Blair continues to play the Americans' Trojan horse in European politics, he will only increase the pressure on the other Europeans to form some sort of unholy alliance with China and Russia.

That some such non-American, if not anti-American, alliance will emerge is almost inevitable. It's the nature of power. Surely even the neoconservatives can see that if American power is -- as they claim -- at its zenith, then it is inevitably all downhill from here.

Ian Williams writes on the United Nations for Alternet. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy in Focus, The Nation, and Salon.

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