21 March 2011 **** Front Page

The vulnerability of American hegemony

By Tapani Lausti

Peter Gowan, A Calculus of Power: Grand Strategy in the Twentieth Century. Introduction by Tariq Ali. Verso 2010.

After WikiLeaks revelations last fall, senior UN officials were outraged by the fact that American diplomats had been told to gather detailed intelligence on the UN leadership. This included forensic detail about their communications systems, including passwords and personal encryption keys. A lot of people might have been surprised at US mafia-like operations. But get a hold of this: when the international community was putting finishing touches to the outlines of the new world organization in San Francisco in 1945, US was already busy spying on everyone.

The late British scholar Peter Gowan uses information provided by Stephen Schlesinger in his book Act of Creation: "Meanwhile in the Army base in the old Spanish Presidio a few miles away, US military intelligence was systematically intercepting all cable traffic by the delegates to their home countries, whose decoded messages landed on [Secretary of State Edward] Stettinius's breakfast table; while the FBI kept track of their movements in the city — as well as, of course, anti-colonial lobbies and other subversive groups congregating round the conference. Much of what was snooped on remains blacked out in the transcripts even today." (p. 58)

But what even Stettinius didn't know was that the secret material didn't come straight to him but stopped first at someone else's desk. This someone had a closer relation with the FBI; he was Nelson Rockefeller. Stettinius never discovered this link. Other government officials were outraged by Rockefeller's blatant promotion of his extreme right-wing contacts in Latin America. In spite of all the controversy Rockefeller turned out to be a succesful architect of how the US projected itself in the world. Gowan writes: "He was offering a political model of how to organize American global power, in part alternative and in part complementary to the Rooseveltian model of the UN: the outlines of a capitalist world subordinated to the United States through a system of friend-enemy alliances centred on anti-Communism." (p. 63)

All along, the American working class had to be subordinated to corporate interests as well. Raising the living standards of ordinary American people and offering them a decent social system might have undermined a system of privileges for the propertied class. Gowan writes: "For this bloc, if domestic prosperity was to be maintained without sacrifice of economic hierarchy, capital accumulation had to be re-wired on external expansion. War and conquest had to be accepted as the price of social peace at home." (p. 134)

In spite of its role as "the author of history", as Madeleine Albright once put it, and its world hegemony, American society is a fragile system. Its elites are taxed by uncertainty. This theme is explored in Christopher Layne's book The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present, which Gowan reviews. American elites are worried about the fragility of the domestic capitalist regime. This is "allied to the belief that its model must be spread across the rest of the advanced world in order to forestall its overthrow at home." (p. 152) The American model also has the contradiction of pretending to be based on free market whilst in fact it is more or less a mercantilist system. Gowan quotes Philip Augar's study of the Wall Street investment banks, The Greed Merchants, which argues that "they have actually operated in large part as a conscious cartel — the opposite of a free market." (p. 185)

These contradictions have now exploded as the whole Wall Street system has been revealed to be a nationally expensive hoax. This development followed earlier efforts during the 1970s and early 1980s to revive the industrial economy. This was done mainly through a confrontation with labor to reduce its share of national income. However, instead of returning the US industry to world dominance, the whole system collapsed into an incredible tangle of financial operations. The pretense continued that this again had to do with free market principles. In reality there was debt-fed growth aided by a highly destructive financial system.

Before his death in 2009, Gowan gave an extensive interview to Mike Newman and Marko Bojcun. In the interview Gowan defines the United States as a democracy "in which the power and wealth of capital has sway over virtually every field of policy-making. More: there is almost no barrier to individual American capitalists building mafias of influence to block or control policy." (p. 241)

Now when the crisis demands innovation to readjust the relationship between the financial sector and the industrial economy, there are in-built blocks to serious changes. The US governments have routinely recruited to government offices investment bankers from Wall Street, and lawyers from giant New York and Washington law firms. Turning anything around is then practically an institutional impossibility. This is the American way, this is the way the American elites see things, and there is no way around it. Only the rise of popular power can begin to disentangle this monster of concentrated power. There are signs of this now beginning to happen.


Visit the archive: United States, World economy, Noam Chomsky, Phyllis Bennis, Gabriel Kolko, Howard Zinn , Alexander Cockburn


[home] [archive] [focus]