From the vaults: Iraq and inter-imperialist rivalry

Posted: August 15, 2015 by Admin in Capitalist ideology, Class Matters, France, Germany, Imperialism and anti-imperialism, Internationalism, Iraq, Middle East, United States - politics

The following first appeared in one of Redline’s print predecessors, revolution magazine, #20, March-May 2003.  Since then the inter-imperialist rivalry has deepened.

by Philip Ferguson

Bush’s war drive against Iraq has brought to the fore conflicts between the leading imperialist powers.

In February, the differences between key European powers – most especially Germany, France and Russia – on the one hand and the US/Britain axis on the other hand became especially pronounced.  For instance, there was a big row over the use of NATO forces to strengthen Turkey’s ‘defences’, with three NATO members – Belgium, France and Germany – blocking this.

France and Germany’s leaders – Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder – have also proposed an ‘alternative’ to a US invasion of Iraq.  The Chirac-Schroeder alternative is for more weapons inspectors and more time, for an increase in the no-fly zones over Iraq, for a UN force to move into the country and for the squeeze to continue through the sanctions regime.

Some ‘peace’ movement leaders and some on the left are hailing this as some kind of ‘antiwar’ position and welcoming the independence of these key European powers from the United States.  Their independence is being contrasted to the ‘servility’ being shown by British Labour prime minister Tony Blair to Washington.  It is also being suggested that the Franco-German position is the result of mass anti-war pressure from below in Europe.

There are a number of problems with such a view of the French-German position.  For a start, it ignores the fact that these European powers share with the United States the fundamental imperialist position that it is their right to dictate what weapons a Third World country should and should not possess and who their government should be.

What is absent is a principled anti-imperialist stance.  It is not the business of France and Germany or the United States or an imperialist institution like the United Nations to dictate anything to any Third World country.  Those of us in the West who oppose a war on Iraq need to argue from a basic, principled position which supports the national sovereignty of Iraq.  There must be no Western solutions and that means we need to oppose all imperialist projects to institute ‘regime change’ in Iraq and to dictate to Iraq what weapons they can and cannot possess.  It is the business of the Iraqi people to make those decisions.

The second point is that Franco-German differences with the US-led axis amount to a squabble among murderous thieves who are all involved in plundering the Third World.  France has had its tentacles in the Middle East for several centuries, plundering the region’s resources and setting up oppressive regimes.  In Lebanon, for instance, the facistic Falange are the creation of the French and uphold the power of a privileged Christian section of the population against the Muslim section of Lebanese and against the dispossessed Palestinians who fled there.  In the 1980s, French troops intervened in Chad.  Today they are in the Ivory Coast, pressing French interests.

What’s driving Bush?

A lot of commentators, especially on the left, argue that Bush is simply a stooge for ‘Big Oil’.  This fits in with the desire of much of the left to develop a moral critique of the worst kind of capitalist politicians rather than a revolutionary critique of capitalism per se.

The reasons for Washington’s militarist stance are more complex than Bush’s personal connections with big oil companies.

One is that successive US government presidents have been unable to solve any of the key problems besetting US society in recent decades – from urban decay to industrial decline to health.  Unable to cohere US society around projects of solving social and economic problems at home, they are forced to shore up their position by sorting out the rest of the world.  US presidents may not be able to see off the malaise of American industry but they can see off petty Third World dictators and win some degree of legitimacy at home by doing so.

Another key factor driving Washington policy is the growth of big power rivalry.  During the Cold War rivalry among the imperialist powers – the norm in the capitalist world – was largely suppressed.  The existence of a non-capitalist bloc, comprising the Soviet Union, China and similar states, meant that the imperiaist powers had to get along with each other and unite behind US leadership against the ‘communists’.  After World War 2, the United States was also by far the most dominant economic and military power in the capitalist world.  The other imperialists had little choice but to tag along behind.

In recent decades things have been slowly changing.  The once all-powerful US economy remains easily the most powerful in the world, but it has lost ground relative to Japan and Germany.*  The Germans and Japanese, logically, want a position in global politics which corresponds to their economic position.

The collapse of the Soviet bloc and the restoration of capitalism there and in China in recent years has brought the Cold War to an end.  Thus the other imperialists no longer need a military alliance with the US to contain or roll back ‘communism’ in Europe and Asia.  To the contrary, they now want to flex their own military muscles.

Europe vs the US

The growing economic integration of Europe, around the German-French alliance, gives these two European powers a substantial degree of economic power.  They are the dominant forces in an overall EU economy which can potentially rival the US economy.

The Franco-German ‘alternative’ to Bush’s war reflects the growing power and confidence of these imperialists in the new global situation created by the end of the Cold War and the end of the total dominance of the US economy.

Germany first began to seriously flex its muscles in the late 1980s and early 1990s as it played a key role in the break-up of Yugoslavia.  The German ruling class encouraged Croatia and Slovenia to separate at a time when the United States and Britain still favoured maintaining a unitary state.  The German initiative forced the US and Britain to play a more active role in carving up Yugoslavia and finding and sponsoring their own clients in the region.

The United States is trying its best to stop Europe developing into a real rival.  Since France and Germany are more dependent on Middle East oil than the US is, they are not likely to favour a key industrial resource being controlled by the United States and a new US client regime in Baghdad.

Saddam’s regime has granted concessions to European oil companies and shifted Iraq’s foreign reserves from dollars into euros.  With a new client regime in Baghdad, Washington would be able to reverse these unwelcome moves and/or put the squeeze on its European rivals.  The European powers would also only be able to trade and invest in the region on US terms.

In addition, Washington has gotten a string of broken-down little pro-US countries in eastern Europe into NATO, gaining influence there at little cost.  This also forces European powers to respond by inviting them to join the EU, which is a lot more costly for Europe as their economies require EU subsidies.  These countries’ backing for Washington’s war plans have led the French government to scold them.  After the mass antiwar rallies around the world on February 15, Chirac suggested the letter supporting the US signed by these countries could jeopardise their chances of being allowed into the EU.  “It is not really responsible behaviour,” he told a news conference.  “It is not well-brought-up behaviour.  They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.”

The US is also trying to get the EU to admit Turkey, a key US ally.  Blair is very much in favour, as he wants an equilibrium between the USA and Europe (especially the Franco-German pole).  Ultimately, however, the growth of European-US rivalry will force Britain to make a definitive choice.

British position

Inter-imperiaist rivalry in the context of a changed world order since 1990 also explains why Blair is so keen to hang onto Washington.  While peace ‘campaigners’ like to portray Blair as Bush’s poodle, the reality is that, from the standpoint of British imperialist interests, Blair’s position makes sense.

Britain is now a second-rate economy.  Its position at the top table globally has, since 1945, dependend on its alliance with the US.  By sticking with the United States, Britain’s importance as a world player is artificially inflated.  Without its US alliance, Britain these days would be just a quaint island off the coast of Europe, with archaic institutions and a lot of buying and selling in the financial district of London.  Its days as the ‘workshop of the world’ – or as any really significant industrial producer – are gone.

As France and Germany have more eocnomic power than Britain, the integration of Britain into the EU tends ot  undermine Blighty’s artificially-inflated global position.  One expression of this is the battering the pound has taken at the hands of the deutschmark in particular.  The far stronger position of the German economy means that in Europe the price of the pound tends to sink closer to its real value, ie to reflect the much weaker position of the British economy.  This in turn means it is less likely that people will want to hold pounds, further undermining the position of sterling and reflecting back on and weakening the British economy.

Militarising international relations

The other factor in Washington policy is that the relative decine of the US economically means that American governments are forced to play the country’s strongest hand more, which is its military hand.  The US ruling class and its government is continually forced to militarise international relations.  It may not be able to whoop the Japanese and Germans in industrial production these days, but it can still make them fall in behind when it goes to war.  Well, it could until recently.

Over the past decades, Washington’s chief imperialist rivals have slowly but surely gained confidence.  They realise that the militarisation of international relations on terms dictated by the United States is, unlike during the Cold War, totally against their interests.  They are developing their own plans.

At present they prefer to use the United Nations, as this gives them the best chance to put the brakes on the US and assert their own interests.  It also enables them to win moral and political leadership of regimes in the rest of the world, especially the Third World, that are sick of being dictated to by Washington.

Right back at ya!

Ironically, this is the same game that Washington itself played in the mid-1900s.  Back then, Washington masqueraded as the friend of the colonised countries as against their colonial oppressors, the old imperial powers of Europe.  Of course, the main reason the US favoured the independence of Asian and African countries was to open up their eocnomies to US investment and trade.  (And there were important exceptions, especially after the Chinese Revolution of 1949; thus the US began backing French ownership of IndoChina and by 1954 were paying most of the costs of the French war to hold onto this colonial possession.)

Today, Germany, France and Japan can play that game right back at the USA.

The response of those of us interested in backing Third World countries against Western domination, and in developing the political consciousness of workers in our own countries, should be clear.  We should reject both sets of imperialists and start arguing in support of the national sovereignty of Third World countries.

Workers in the West have every interest in backing the peoples of the Third World against all Western attempts to control their countries.  We should make common cause with the oppressed of the world against all the imperialists, incuding our own ruling elite.  That way we might end up with freedom and not just an alternative imperialism.

With thanks to Paul Flewers in Britain and Ciaran MacNamee in Ireland for their comments on an earlier draft.

  • Keep in mind that this was written in 2003, before China became the world’s second biggest economy.





Comments are closed.