John Rees looks at the fissures in the world system that form the background to renewed drive to intervene in Syria


Are the current plans for intervention in Syria a sign of continued US power or proof that it is losing its power to shape the Middle East? Is the United States a declining superpower? Mired in a global stagnation, challenged by China and Russia, there is some evidence to suggest that the zenith of US power has passed. But are these signs of a long term trend, or merely a conjunctural crisis from which the US can emerge as the still dominant global power? This is a question which cannot be settled without a historical frame of reference.

US power after the Cold War

The US seemed the obvious victor of the Cold War. There is an elementary sense in which this was true. It was not the US Empire which dissolved in revolution. And it was not the US domestic government which collapsed. Neither did the US economy contract by 40 percent in a decade. These things happened to Russia and its East European Empire between 1989 and start of the new millennium.

Yet the ‘remaining global superpower’ that emerged into the post-Cold War world was already facing a power paradox. It is a paradox which is essential to understanding our history since 1989. It is this: the US was in relative decline economically from the high point of its economic strength in the 1940s and 1950s, but it remained militarily more powerful than it has ever been. This contradiction between declining economic power and overwhelming military might has shaped the conflicts of the last two decades, particularly those of the War on Terror.

Let us look at this paradox more closely. The US is still the world’s largest economy by some distance. But in 1945 some 50 percent of world manufacturing was in the US, by 1960 that figure had fallen to 31 percent, and in 2010 it was down to 18 percent. In absolute terms the Chinese and Russian economies are small compared to the US, but they are growing much faster and it is the direction of travel which is as important here (see Figures 1 and 2).

Figure 1

Fig 1

Figure 2

Fig 2

The balance of military power is another matter entirely. The US’s military budget is larger than that of the next ten largest military spenders all combined. It is a military power without serious challengers (see Figure 3).

Figure 3

Fig 3

It is this paradox which has shaped US policy since the Cold War: a predilection for using the military stick to compensate for economic decline. The first Gulf War was fought to re-establish US hegemony in the absolutely vital Middle East, combined with an attempt to get the US’s allies to ‘share the burden’ of the military action (under US leadership) and pay the bill for the war. That pattern was repeated through the Balkan War, the Afghan invasion, the Iraq War and the intervention in Libya.

Defeat in the War on Terror

‘No plan survives contact with the enemy’ was one of Napoleon’s maxims, and so it has proven with US policy. There is a sense in which the early stages of this policy can be said to have worked for the US. The Balkan War broke up Yugoslavia and assisted in NATO’s drive to the east, surrounding Russia with new NATO allies and US bases. The first Gulf War may have left the Saddam Hussein regime in place but it was effectively neutralised. US hegemony in the Middle East reinforced.

The post 9/11 War on Terror accelerated US imperial ambition. But hubris led to nemesis. The Iraq War was ultimately a political and military defeat for the US. The tenacity of the Iraqi resistance, the level of domestic opposition to war, the chaos of the post-war US administration – all this eventually resulted in a humiliating refusal by the Iraqi government to sanction a status of forces agreement in which 50,000 US troops would have remained in Iraq. Economically US companies may have gained from cherry-picking the Iraqi economy, particularly its oil industry. But the overall aim of the Iraq War – a stable pro-Western base of operations in the Middle East – has not been achieved.

The Afghan War has, if anything, been an even greater failure. It strengthened and revived the Taliban rather than defeating them. Now the US is negotiating with the Taliban about becoming part of the post-occupation government. In the meantime Al Qaeda has become an international franchise operating in, among other places, Pakistan, Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Somalia and Mali. Pakistan has been destabilised. It is small compensation for all this to have accomplished the extra-judicial execution of Osama Bin Laden.

The voice of the voiceless: the Arab revolutions

The eruption of the Arab Revolutions into this already complex picture has thrown even more challenges into the face of the imperial powers. The Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions exploded with such force in early 2011 that the great powers were unable to significantly affect their course. The revolutions removed two virulently pro-Western dictators, one of which, Hosni Mubarak, had been a cornerstone of US policy toward Israel and in the wider Middle East.

But the imperial powers have also found an opportunity in the midst of this crisis. In March 2011 there was an imperial turning point in the Arab Revolutions. The Gulf States, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar, emerged as the Western backed centres of counter-revolution the Middle East. They combined forces to crush the Bahraini revolution. This was done with the Gulf States taking the lead and the US and its allies backing them up diplomatically. The same constellation of forces then turned their attention to Libya, this time with NATO taking the military lead, specifically Britain, France and the US. This time the policy was to co-opt the leadership of the revolution with the bribe of military assistance.

It cannot be said that this worked for the Libyans. Their country has been left devastated, an arms bazaar for the whole Middle East and barely maintaining its geographical integrity. Uniquely in the Arab revolutions its first post-conflict government was declared in Paris under the watchful eyes of Hilary Clinton and Nicolas Sarkozy.

But it did work for the great powers. They were back in the game. The long held neo-con aim of creating or subverting democracy movements for the purpose of regime change in countries where the government was not sympathetic to Western interests had now been given new possibilities by the Arab revolutions. This is why there is now a struggle for the heart of the revolutions between the masses that fight for genuine and fundamental social change and those in the West, and their local clients, who wish to make them the playthings of the Western policy.

This conflict is nowhere more evident than in Syria. Here the resilience of the regime and the early militarisation of the struggle have given the West the opportunity to try and bend the revolution to the purpose of replacing the Assad regime with a pro-Western government. But things are not going to plan, as they did in Libya.

The Un-united Nations

There are a number of global flashpoints where inter-state rivalry is evident. The Afghan war has destabilised Pakistan. Georgia saw a stand-off between Russian and US backed forces in 2008, a stand-off which the Russians won. In Africa as a whole US hegemony is battered, though still functioning in North Africa, but economically Chinese investment, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, now outstrips US investment. All this has produced the ‘pivot to the Pacific’, the redeployment of US military forces to confront the rise of China.

But conflicts between the major powers are not limited to the oceans around their respective shores. These conflicts will be fought out far from Beijing, Moscow or Washington.

Syria is in many ways the point where the long term shifts in power and the immediate crisis of imperialism coincide.

Up to and including the Libya intervention all the wars of the post-Cold War world had a similar configuration: they were wars where the major powers agreed, more or less actively, more or less enthusiastically, that they would allow a US led coalition to go to war against a small, militarily weak nation. Even where Russia or others dissented the US was able to proceed without their agreement. This was the pattern in the Balkan War, the first Gulf War, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya.

In Syria, partly because Russia has local interests here that it did not have elsewhere, partly because of growing anti-western sentiment resulting from longer term economic shifts toward China and Russia (see Figure 4), there has been significant and effective divisions among the major powers.

Figure 4

Fig 4

Syria is now not only a civil war but also a proxy war between a client of Russia and China and clients and allies of the West including Turkey, the Gulf States, Jordan and the Western backed militias that these forces are aiding.

It is also self-evidently part of a post Iraq regional conflict. British Foreign Secretary William Hague has talked of a new Middle Eastern Cold War in which the West, Israel and the Gulf States are ranged against Syria, Iran, Hamas and Hezbollah. It is worthy of note that since Hague made this speech the Syrian conflict has divided Hamas and Hezbollah.

Iran has, as an unintended consequence of the US military defeat in Iraq, become a stronger regional power than it was before the War on Terror began. The US and its allies, particularly Israel, have no intention of allowing the situation to continue.

The long term economic shifts in power and the short term problems that US imperialism faces have created greater divisions among the great powers, but we should not think that the point has been reached where the US, the greatest imperial power the world has ever seen, is anywhere near exhausted. Nor should we imagine that it is incapable of acting without UN sanction.

The British Empire and the British economy were in a profound crisis from at least 1918. It took many colonial conflicts and a second world war to dislodge them from imperial pre-eminence.

The US is still the largest economy in the world, it is armed, and it is dangerous. What we face is not a greying superpower slipping gently into that good night. What we face is a wounded beast.

This article was first commissioned by the Post-globalization Initiative in Moscow.

John Rees

John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher), ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German) and The Leveller Revolution. He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.