'Why We Fight': The Nature of Modern Imperialism Aggressive and exclusive military alliances like NATO should be disbanded

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The world of
war is today dominated by a single superpower. In military terms
the United States sits astride the world like a giant Colossus.
As a country with only five per cent of the world’s population it
accounts for almost 50 per cent of global arms spending. Its 11
naval carrier fleets patrol every ocean and its 909 military bases
are scattered strategically across every continent. No other country
has reciprocal bases on US territory – it would be unthinkable and
unconstitutional. It is 20 years since the end of the Cold War and
the United States and its allies face no significant military threat
today. Why then have we not had the hoped-for peace dividend? Why
does the world’s most powerful nation continue to increase its military
budget, now over $1.2 trillion a year in real terms? What threat
is all this supposed to counter?

Britain’s armed
forces are different only in scale. For generations our defence
posture has emphasised the projection of power to other parts of
the world. And today our armed forces have the third highest military
spending in the world (after the United States and China) and the
second highest power projection capability behind the United States.
The Royal Navy is the world’s second largest navy and our large
air force is in the process of procuring hundreds of the most advanced
aircraft in the world. And then there is Trident, Britain’s strategic
nuclear ‘deterrent’ – the ultimate weapon for projecting power across
the world. None of this is designed to match any threat to our nation.
It is designed to meet the ‘expeditionary’ role of our armed forces
in support of the policy of our senior ally, the United States.

This military
overkill cannot be justified by ‘defence’ unless we extend its meaning
to the ‘defence of its interests’ across the world. And this gets
us closer to the real explanation for this military build up. US
and UK companies comprise many of the biggest transnational companies.
Twenty-nine of the top 100 global companies by turnover are US and
seven are UK-based. And the top five global companies are all US
or UK based. Both economies share many of the same strengths and
weaknesses. Both have seen major erosion of their manufacturing
base as compared with economies like Germany and Japan. Both have
become increasingly dependent on banking, privatised utilities and
financial services, hence their vulnerability in the recent banking
collapse. But both retain dominance in certain key areas such as
oil and gas and arms manufacturing. In the case of the UK we can
add mining. Of the top 10 global companies, all but three are in
oil and gas, with British companies Royal Dutch Shell and BP coming
first and fourth on the list. The world’s three biggest mining companies
– Anglo-American, Rio Tinto and BHP Billington – are UK-based.

Today Britain
continues to export capital on a scale unmatched by any other country
apart from the United States. By 2006 British capital assets overseas
were worth the equivalent of 410 per cent of Britain’s GDP. This
is the highest of any major capitalist economy. Much of this investment
is in the United States and Europe, but a significant amount continues
to be invested in extractive industries in Africa, the Middle East,
Asia and Latin America. An even greater amount of money from abroad
(mainly US) is invested in British financial and industrial companies,
many of them now under external ownership. It is this interlocking
of capital between the UK and the much stronger US economy which
helps to bind UK and US foreign policy together. Britain’s oil and
gas giants, its mining companies and its arms manufacturers have
a powerful and ongoing relationship with government and an effective
lobbying influence in the office of successive Prime Ministers.

All of these
strands come together with the drive for ‘energy security’ by the
US and UK governments. It is the desire to protect overseas investments
and control the strategic materials such as oil, gas and minerals
that drive the foreign and defence policy of both countries. Britain
no longer has the global military reach to defend its overseas investments.
Increasingly it depends on the United States for this. The unwritten
agreement is that, in return, the British government supports US
policy around the world. The same is true for Britain’s biggest
arms manufacturer, BAE Systems. It has grown rapidly in recent years
to become the second biggest arms manufacturer in the world, mainly
through the acquisition of other US companies. It now gets more
business from the Pentagon than the MoD. UK support for America’s
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan certainly helps to oil the wheels of
the UK arms business.

That becomes
a greater imperative in a rapidly changing world where US power
is being challenged by banking collapse and growing indebtedness
at home, the rise of the economies of the east, a political challenge
to its hegemony in Latin America, and unwinnable wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq. With the steady increase in demand for oil across the
world, especially from the rapidly growing economy of China, the
emergence of Russia as an oil and gas giant to rival Saudi Arabia,
the creation of an Asian Energy Security Grid placing up to half
the world’s oil and gas reserves outside US control in a network
of pipelines linking Russia, Iran, China and the countries of Central
Asia, that US strategy to control the arterial network of oil is
now in crisis. The Gulf area still accounts for up to 70 per cent
of known oil reserves where the costs of production are lowest.
So it is no surprise that US policy continues to focus on Iran which
has the world’s second largest combined oil and gas reserves.

The US response
has been largely military – the expansion of NATO and the encirclement
of Russia and China in a ring of hostile bases and alliances. And
continuing pressure to isolate and weaken Iran by a campaign of
sanctions orchestrated through the IAEA and the United Nations with
the threat of military action lurking in the background. The danger
is that, even under the presidency of Obama, an economically weakened
United States will tend to use the one massive advantage it has
over its rivals – its global war machine.

Of course the
battle to secure control over strategic materials does not explain
everything that happens in the world today. The wars in Afghanistan
and Iraq are not purely about oil. In the Middle East the
US strategy is about changing the balance of forces against the
Palestinians, establishing US client states in Iraq and Iran and
leaving an expansionist Israel as the only surviving military power
(although even that is ultimately connected with control over Middle
East oil). The wars in central Africa (especially the Democratic
Republic of Congo) are not purely about strategic minerals.
But behind the rival guerrilla groups vying for control of these
assets and the rival African neighbouring states who support them,
stand the mining companies and their nation states.

And what is
not directly connected to the battle for strategic resources is
the wider agenda of free trade, open economies, deregulation and
privatisation which the US and its allies are trying to impose on
every country in the world through the IMF, the World Bank, the
EU and NAFTA. Structural Adjustment Programmes imposed on countries
as the price for ‘forgiving’ or rescheduling debt allow US and UK
transnationals to prize open and penetrate the economies of the
poorest countries with catastrophic consequences for the people.

In short, to
understand the world of war, we need to understand the nature of
modern imperialism, and how nation states act internationally to
help maximise the profits of their biggest companies. Directly and
indirectly these policies generate conflict and war on a daily basis.
Moreover, the problem is compounded by arms manufacturing firms,
generously supported by state funds, who sell lethal weapons around
the world to allow wars to be fought. In 2007 the world’s leading
100 defence manufacturers sold arms worth $347 billion, an increase
of 45 per cent in the past 10 years. Britain’s ‘champion’, BAE Systems,
is currently under investigation for corrupt practices in several
countries and has sold all kinds of weapons across the world, including
to countries like Saudi Arabia and Israel who have a record of human
rights abuses.

As we have
seen, British defence policy is geared to fighting wars overseas
in support of the United States. Our four nuclear submarines and
their payload of 160 warheads, are really an extension of America’s
strategic ‘deterrent’ and could not be used independently. But there
is an alternative. The overwhelming majority of countries, including
some who have the technology and wealth to do differently, do not
have nuclear weapons and do not seek them. They do not invest in
power projection or the expensive platforms or transport systems
which will allow them to fight wars thousands of miles from their
own borders.

If our concern
is really the defence of the nation’s land and coastal waters we
could make deep cuts in our ‘defence’ spending without compromising
our security one iota. Indeed, withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan
and Germany would dramatically reduce the threat of terrorism and
reduce tensions in Europe. It would also save us a lot of money.
So would cancelling the two new aircraft carriers, and the F-35
aircraft which are designed to fly from them, the Type 45 Destroyers
and the Astute-class attack submarines. Our Trident submarine force
is useless, dangerous and expensive and should be scrapped. None
of these are required for real defence. Instead we could invest
in coastal patrol vessels, early warning aircraft and relatively
cheap sophisticated anti-tank, anti-ship and anti-aircraft radar
guided missile launchers. Dispersal of these mobile but effective
weapons would ensure that a heavy toll can be taken of any potential
attacker. A fraction of the money saved could be used to tackle
climate change by harnessing wind, wave and tidal energy and insulating
millions of homes. We could radically cut the size of the navy,
slim down the airforce and army and still have plenty of forces
left over to help in any genuine humanitarian intervention led by
the United Nations.

In today’s
multi-polar and ‘asymmetrical’ world the only threats are from terrorism
and unstable states (none of whom could remotely pose a military
threat to Britain or the United States). Real security comes from
strengthening and democratising the United Nations and developing
collective security arrangements in all parts of the world that
involve all countries in the region. Aggressive and exclusive military
alliances like NATO should be disbanded. Mediation and diplomacy
should be used to settle international disputes. A global ban on
nuclear weapons as proposed by Obama and the UN Security Council
would be an excellent place to start.

This article
originally appeared at Global

24, 2009

Mackinnon is Chair of Scottish
Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament

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