7 January 2013 — Iran Review
Iran Review Exclusive Interview with Deepa Kumar
By: Kourosh Ziabari
It’s an undeniable yet bitter reality that the United States is not a popular power. We are not talking about the American nation, because interaction and exchanges between the nations is something which takes place smoothly, regardless of political equations; however, even those nations who admire the American people for different reasons cannot hide their consternation and dismay at the imperial and colonial policies of the U.S. government.
The United States has established a military base whenever it set foot into a new country. According to former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, Ron Paul, the United States has military personnel in some 130 countries and statistics show that it has bases in more than 30 countries, from Singapore, South Korea and Japan, to Italy, France, Britain and Spain.
However, the story of the decline of the U.S. Empire has long been narrated, and it’s widely believed that the United States, despite its matchless military power and economic resources, cannot remain the world’s number one superpower. In order to investigate the decline of the U.S. Empire, we have been interviewing world’s renowned political scientists, and today, we have talked to Deepa Kumar, Associate Professor of Media Studies and Middle Eastern Studies at the Rutgers University in New Jersey.
Deepa Kumar is an Indian-American university professor and author with a special interest in anti-war movement, anti-Islamophobia advocacy, U.S. imperialism, neo-liberalism, class and media studies. Her recent book “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire” has been praised by a number of academicians and prominent authors.
What follows is the text of Iran Review’s interview with Prof. Deepa Kumar to whom we have talked about the economic, political and social indications of the decline of the U.S. Empire and its underlying reasons.
Q: As you know, the unipolar, hegemonic system of global governance led by the United State constitutes the basis and structure of current international order. However, it seems that a change based on the founding of a power balance against the United States has begun to emerge in the global equations of political power. What’s your analysis of this change and the challenges it poses to U.S. hegemony?
A: There has been a shift from the unipolar world, or to be more precise the “unipolar moment” of the post-Cold War era, to an increasingly multipolar world. So let us begin by talking about the unipolar moment. This moment materialized after the end of the Cold War when the bipolar world order (U.S. vs. the Soviet Union) gave way to visions of U.S. domination in a unipolar world. The neoconservative wing of the foreign policy establishment was particularly blunt in terms of how it viewed the U.S.’s global role in the post-Cold War world. Charles Krauthammer in a 1990 piece titled “The Unipolar Moment” published in the preeminent foreign policy journal Foreign Affairs argued that the end of the Cold War had created a “single pole of world power.” This single superpower, the United States, could therefore intervene anywhere it wanted around the world and set the terms of world politics. In order to realize this vision, Krauthammer argued that it was necessary to marginalize the arguments of the realists and the isolationists in the policy establishment, who in Krauthammer’s view did not realize how important it was for one hegemonic power to rule in order for there to be global stability.
In other words, the principle of acting unilaterally in the world and using armed force wherever needed is a neocon vision. This vision was not accepted by other sections of the foreign policy establishment. In particular, a document prepared by Paul Wolfowitz for the Pentagon, which outlined what would later become the “Bush doctrine” (George W. Bush) was roundly denounced in the early 1990s. The Wolfowitz Defense Planning Guidance document stated that the United States’ first objective should be to “prevent the re-emergence of a new rival.” It went on to assert that it must “establish and protect a new order” and that potential competitors should be convinced that “they need not aspire to a greater role or pursue a more aggressive posture to protect their legitimate interests.” In short, a pax Americana should be established on the military, political, and economic fronts. Even advanced industrialized nations would be discouraged from seeking to “overturn the [United States’] established political and economic order.” It followed from this that the United States would act alone if it needed to, in a unilateral manner, with no questions asked. This, the report stated, would guarantee world stability in a way that neither the United Nations nor any other multilateral coalitions could.
At the time, these ideas were critiqued harshly by the then realist-led policy establishment; the report was a political embarrassment for the elder Bush. Sen. Joe Biden, who went on to become vice-President of United States, called it a prescription for “literally a Pax Americana,” an American empire. Sen. Alan Cranston (D-Calif.) likewise ridiculed the document and its authors for wanting the U.S. to be “the one, the only main honcho on the world block, the global Big Enchilada.”
The backlash was so strong that Wolfowitz believed his political career to be over. The document was revised, and a softer version replaced the original. It was not yet the neocons’ time—the 1990s were to be the era of “humanitarian imperialism,” led by Clinton and the liberal imperialists. The hallmark of liberal imperialism is multilateralism, that is, cooperation and multinational alliance building. However, let us be clear, both camps of the foreign policy establishment believe in U.S. domination on the world stage.
Q: Right. So, let me pose the question. It seems that the United States is voluntarily retreating from its position as a global hegemon, which is because of the remarkable increase in the costs of maintaining a unipolar and hegemonic order and a considerable decrease in its utilities. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?
A: The switch from unilateralism to multilateralism does not, in my view, constitute a retreat from the position of global hegemon. As I argue in my book “Islamophobia and the Politics of Empire,” the key difference between the two main camps in the foreign policy establishment (neocons and realists) is one of rhetoric and strategy not one of goals. Both camps are committed to U.S. hegemony on the world stage, it is in how this goal is to be accomplished that the differences arise.
The neocon vision for the Middle East was in tatters by Bush’s second term. The war on Iraq did not go the way the neocons wanted it to. Instead of greeting U.S. forces as liberators, the Iraqi people resisted and rejected U.S. hegemony. The plan to carry out regime change in Iran and Syria was halted; if anything, Iran was strengthened by the United States’ actions. Not only was the neocon vision of a new Middle East in jeopardy, but the U.S. had alienated its former allies in Europe and strengthened China as well as Russia and Venezuela. This prompted an about-face in the Bush administration’s policies, which moved toward the use of more multilateral tactics. Additionally, the administration moved away from “hard” power such as the use of coercion and bribery and toward winning “hearts and minds,” as represented in the counterinsurgency strategy championed by its military commander in Afghanistan, General David Petraeus.
Obama inherited this set of conditions and his policy marked a shift to the realist tradition of great power geopolitics. As he himself put it, “The truth is that my foreign policy is actually a return to the traditional bipartisan realistic policy of George Bush’s father, of John F. Kennedy, and in some ways of Ronald Reagan.” Thus, instead of breaking from the imperial consensus or the policies of Bush’s second term, Obama adopted them. Since taking office he has deployed thirty thousand more troops to Afghanistan, expanded the war into Pakistan (via the “Af-Pak” strategy), tried to bully Iraq into granting an extension of the U.S. occupation (which failed), carried out drone attacks and “black ops” in Yemen and Somalia, and participated in the NATO war on a former ally in Libya, Muammar Gaddafi. This should not come as a surprise, since his inaugural staff included Bush personnel like defense secretary Bob Gates and General David Petraeus, as well as Democratic Party hawks like Hillary Clinton and Joseph Biden. Obama’s strategy consisted of a return to multilateralism, using multilateral institutions to incorporate and subordinate international and regional rivals. This may appear on the surface like a retreat from its position of global hegemon, but is in fact simply another means for establishing global dominance.
In his 2010 National Security Strategy document, Obama argued that the United States should focus its “engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests such as combating violent extremism; stopping the spread of nuclear weapons and securing nuclear materials; achieving balanced and sustainable economic growth; and forging cooperative solutions to the threat of climate change, conflict, and pandemic disease.” If we look at the italicized parts of this quote it appears that the U.S. is stepping back, but in fact it is only stepping back rhetorically. Also it must be noted that despite this multilateral strategy, the Obama administration has still resorted to unilateral actions when needed— the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, for example—and has also carried out bilateral agreements. Obama’s vision is to secure, through this strategy of engagement, a world order under the United States’ management and in its interests.
Q: So you believe that the United States has showed some retreatment, but not in action; rather, in tactics and methods. My next question is about the dominant economic regime of the United States. The global capitalistic economy is collapsing and its consequences for the unipolar and hegemonic order are beginning to appear gradually. What do you think about the repercussions of the global economic recession and its effects on the compasses of the U.S. power?
A: People have been predicting the demise of the U.S. Empire for a while now, even before the current economic crisis. Some have argued that the debt that the U.S. government holds will lead to the undoing of the empire. I don’t believe that there is such a clear one-to-one correspondence between economic strength and political strength. An economic recession doesn’t necessarily translate into diminished political or military power. As long as China and the rest of the world are willing to lend money to the U.S., the U.S. has little impetus to shift its politics of domination. This is not to blame other countries but simply to suggest that imperial politics today is based not on economic surpluses and the U.S. being an engine of world economic growth (like in the post-World War 2 era) but on a different kind of model. Take for instance the U.S. relationship with China; China is both a rival and an ally. The U.S. has to contend with China’s drive to control and tap into oil and energy resources from Afghanistan to Africa. At the same time, China holds of 1.2 trillion of U.S. debt and is dependent on the U.S. market.
All in all, the global economic crisis combined with an increasingly multipolar world order is ushering in a new period of conflict between powers. We will have to see how this plays out.
Q: Based on the emergence and intensification of global resistance against capitalism and liberalism, especially resistance on the microphysical level of global power against the lifestyle of imperialist system, the political power and influence of the United States has been diminishing in the recent years. What’s your take on that?
A: The same conditions that are creating a more multipolar world are also provoking struggle from below against the inequality and misery imposed by the neoliberal Washington Consensus. These struggles have produced the reform socialist governments in Latin America, the wave of strikes and demonstrations in Europe, and most importantly the Arab uprisings. The U.S. has, and will continue, to try to co-opt these movements. The most recent examples are Libya and Syria. Obama’s grand strategy of engagement is designed to both co-opt its international and regional rivals into the neoliberal capitalist order but also quell any threat from below. Far from delivering peace and justice, Obama’s strategy has led him to oversee several wars, launch new ones, escalate CIA black ops, and organize a counterrevolution against the Arab Spring to preserve U.S. control over the Middle East. Yet, this strategy is not working as effectively as U.S. wants it to. Thus, in September 2012 a wave of demonstrations arose in over 2 dozen Muslim majority countries outside institutions of U.S. power. While some viewed these demonstrations as limited to an offensive anti-Muslim film produced in the U.S., I have argued elsewhere that they are the product of a growing anti-imperialist sentiment around the world.
Q: Right. And the final question. The resistance and opposition of the United States’ domestic forces against the interventions of the U.S. government in the other countries and the imperialistic traits of the U.S. political system have been contributing to the weakening of the global position of the United States. Would you please share your perspective on that with us?
A: Sadly, there is no significant anti-war movement in the U.S. today. I wish I could agree that anti-war and anti-imperialist movements here in the U.S. have precipitated a weakening of U.S. power on the world stage, but that would simply not be accurate. What you have seen instead is a kind of broad-based war fatigue that has been captured in various polls; that is, the failed wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has driven public opinion against these interventions. The anti-war movement has played a part in galvanizing these sentiments, but has not been a significant political force.
The ruling elite have also concluded that conventional wars with massive ground troops are not the way to go. The Obama administration has learned that interventions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan are the wrong ways to project U.S. power. In his preface to the 2012 Defense Planning guidance document, Obama states that we will remember “the lessons of history and avoid repeating the mistakes of the past when our military was left ill prepared for the future.” The document continues, “U.S. forces will no longer be sized to conduct large-scale, prolonged stability operations.” Instead, the political class seems to have drawn the lesson that the way to achieve its objectives is through missions like the NATO intervention into Libya, which involved air power and relied on local allies on the ground. In sum, the new phase of Obama’s imperial posture involves reestablishing U.S. hegemony in Asia (preventing the rise of China) and in the Middle East (containing Iran) through multilateral alliances and the use of air strikes, drone attacks, and counterterrorism and special operations forces as well as cyber warfare. The challenge for the left in the U.S., in the “belly of the beast,” is to recognize these forms of aggression as being detrimental to human beings around the world and to build a movement of international solidarity that unequivocally opposes U.S. imperialism.