There are more hopes resting on the shoulders of Barak Obama than on the shoulders of any US President since John F Kennedy was elected in 1960.

He is the first black man to become President in country founded on slavery and still scarred by systemic racism.

He opposed the Iraq war and has promised to end the US occupation of Iraq.

But can he deliver?

US foreign policy is not determined by the President alone. The Department of Defence, the Pentagon, the CIA, the National Security Council and myriad corporate interests will all wield power over the Obama White House.

In this episode of Timeline we look at the history of American power and at the choices facing Barak Obama.

The US in the Second World War, 1940-45

It was the Second World War that made the US a global superpower.

The US military effort was decisive in securing Allied military victory. But the economic power of the US also expanded during the war.

In every other combatant country war production ate into civilian industrial production. But not in the US.

In the US military production and the civilian economy both expanded during the war. In 1945 US industrial production was double what it had been in the late 1930s.

At one point during the war the massive US industrial engine was, for instance, launching merchant ships faster than the German U boats in the North Atlantic could sink them.

At the end of the war US manufacturing accounted for half of world manufacturing. In 1953 US manufacturing exports were 5 times greater than Germany and 17 times greater than Japan.

The US dollar was so powerful it became the international means of economic exchange. International institutions were set up under US leadership to implement the US’s economic priorities~the IMF, the World Bank, the Bretton Woods Agreement.

At the end of the war the European economies, in both the defeated and the victorious nations, were wrecked. But the US economy was so strong that it could launch the Marshall Aid programme of economic aid which aimed to put the European economies back on their feet.

And the US was as powerful militarily as it was economically.

The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation, NATO, grouped the countries of Western Europe together in a military pact whose senior officer was always an American. Other pacts~SEATO in South East Asia, CENTO in the Middle East~followed.

In the years since the Second World War the US has used its military might in dozens of interventions in every corner of the globe.(see list graphic).

The Cold War

But there were areas of the globe that the US did not dominate. Russia, Eastern Europe and China were not part of the ‘free market’ West. They were state dominated economies and the strategic rivals of the US.

The Cold War was the expression of this economic and political rivalry. It lasted from the late 1940s to the revolutions in Eastern Europe in 1989.

Every conflict that took place~in Korea, Cuba, Vietnam, Africa or the Middle East~was seen through the lens of the Cold War. The rival systems vied for allies, and for economic and political advantage in every corner of the globe.

And not just on the globe…the space race, an extension of the arms race, took the competition between the US and Russia off the face of the planet and into outer space.

The US faces competition in the long boom, 1950-70

The period from the end of the Second World War to the 1970s was the longest sustained economic expansion in the history of capitalism.

But important changes took place among the major powers during this time.

The US bore the greatest costs of the arms race. Japan, Germany and other European economies spent less on arms and began to rebuild their economic strength. The US built more tanks, but its rivals built more cars.

As the world market recovered from war these rival economies began to grow faster than the US economy.

US manufacturing fell from 50 percent of the world total at the end of the Second World War to 31 percent in 1980 and now stands below 25 percent.

The US is still the world’s biggest economy…but its competitors have grown at its expense.

Vietnam: the turning point in the early 1970s

At the same time as the US was facing increased economic competition it also faced its most serious military defeat in the post war era.

The US had committed greater and greater numbers of troops to the war in Vietnam since they had replaced the French as the dominant imperial power in the area in the early 1960s.

But just as the long post war boom was faltering, it became increasingly clear that the US was going to be defeated in Vietnam.

The Vietnamese resistance enjoyed the support of the population and were not going to stop fighting.

The civil rights movement in the US had developed in to an anti war movement that was destroying domestic support for the war~and it was becoming an international movement destabilising politics in countries allied to the US.

By the time the last US troops left Vietnam in 1972 the US was still a giant, but a humbled giant~weaker than it had been economically, humiliated militarily and weakened ideologically at home and abroad.

Nothing very much improved for the US as the 1970s ended with revolution in Iran. This deprived the US of a key ally in the Middle East, the Shah of Iran, and created an Islamic Republic with which the US has still not come to terms.

1989: the revolutions in Eastern Europe

One thing did finally rescue US standing after Vietnam~the end of the state dominated, so called Communist regimes in Russia and Eastern Europe.

Japan, Germany and other allies might be catching up with the US economically, but its major enemies were not. Russia and the other state dominated economies had originally grown faster than the US after World War Two, even though they were smaller to start with.

But as the world market from which they were excluded grew in the 1950s and 1960s, and as they had to devote larger and larger sums to the arms race, they began to fall behind the US.

By the 1980s they were indebted and stagnating. Unable to compete militarily and economically in the new arms race launched by Ronald Reagan they faced increasingly restive populations and in 1989 the damn finally burst and they were swept away in a series of dramatic revolutions.

It should have been a moment of triumph for the US. But the victory was ambiguous.

US military power is certainly greater than all the military might of the so-called ‘threat states’ (Iran, Syria, N Korea) added together.

Ineed the US is the most powerful military power on earth~its arms expenditure was even greater than that of all the other major nations added together.

The Stealth bomber, to give one example, was the most expensive plane in history~each one is worth three times its own weight in gold.

But the economic power of the US in the world was lower than at any time since World War Two.

This paradox~great military power and declining economic power~is driving US foreign policy more than any other single factor, including the views of the man who sits in the Oval office.

Post Cold War wars

The end of the Cold War should have ushered in a unique period of peace and prosperity. But the imbalance in US power means that the most powerful nation on earth is now predisposed to use its continuing military might to compensate for its declining economic strength.

The US seeks to use its military muscle to achieve what it can no longer afford to buy in the world.

The successive wars that have followed the end of the Cold War are testimony to this fact.

The neo-conservatives who came to dominate the Bush administration-Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfield, Paul Wolfowitz-rose to great influence in the 1990s even before Bush was elected President.

They embodied the new aggressive post Cold War stance of the US state.

In 1991 the first Gulf War began the business of trying to make Iraq into a substitute for the loss of Iran, 12 years earlier, as a stable pro-western, pro-business base for US operations in the Middle East.

But although Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was beaten it did not become the ally the US wanted. Indeed the war actually destabilised relations with Saudi Arabia, another key US ally in the region.

In 1999 the US led NATO alliance went to war in the Balkans. This was NATO’s first ‘out of area’ conflict since World War Two and the first war on European soil since 1945.

It began in the very month that NATO enlarged its membership to include three former East European countries~starting the process of encircling Russia with Western military bases.

In 2001, in the wake of the attack on the World Trade Centre in New York, a US dominated NATO force invaded and still occupies Afghanistan.

In 2003 the US and Britain provided to the only significant numbers of troops for the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

This war policy, signalled by the rise of the neo-conservatives during the eight years of George Bush’s presidency, eventually became known as the ‘War on Terror’.

It has been a failure even for the US foreign policy elite. It has failed to get the US what it wanted in Iraq. And it has weakened the standing of the US internationally.

Barak Obama has been given the task of clearing up the mess that George Bush created.

The Obama strategy

Obama may want to end what are seen as the ‘excesses’ of the Bush era…but he still wants to find a way of maintaining the international power of the US.

He wants to end the costly nuclear arms stand-off with Russia, a relic of the Cold War which no longer serves the military needs of the US in this era of hot wars. This is actually an old policy from the Reagan-Gorbachev era that Obama has revived.

He wants an end to the disaster in Iraq and to draw down the US troop numbers to a still substantial 50,000…low enough he hopes to shift the main fighting and killing onto Iraqi forces and get the US out of the immediate spotlight.

He wants, he says, to talk to Iran not to continue to threaten it with military action.

But, there are some very bit questions about whether even this can succeed.

The most likely area of success is the negotiations aimed at reducing the nuclear weapons stockpiles. Neither Russia nor the US believe that there is going to be an intercontinental nuclear war any time soon and so they are both interested in doing a deal.

After this its more difficult…

The reverse in Iraq has left the US with a huge problem. Because the US has not managed to get a stable base for operations in the Middle East out of the Iraq war the aftermath of the war has left Iran as a much strengthened regional power.

This is unacceptable to the US…but after Iraq they were in no state to initiate a direct attack on Iran.

Plan B was to allow a US proxy in the Middle East to attack what the US sees as an Iranian proxy in the Middle East…the Lebanese resistance movement Hezbollah. In this way the US hoped to weaken Iran. But the Lebanese resistance defeated the Israeli invasion in 2006. This only strengthened Iran, the very opposite of the US’s desire.

Again, in early 2009, Hamas, also seen as an Iranian ally, withstood the Israeli invasion of Gaza.

So one legacy of the Bush Presidency is that the issues of Iran and Palestine are more closely linked than ever. Neither problem is likely to be solved without a solution to the other…and no US President has been able to propose a viable solution to the Palestinian issue.

Barak Obama does not look as if he is going to break with the traditions of the US foreign policy elite over Palestine.

His chief of staff, Rahm Emmanuel, has a served as a member of the Israeli Defence Force. Vice President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Hilary Clinton are both noted for their pro-Israeli stance.

In Afghanistan there is nothing but continuity between the Bush administration and the Obama team. Indeed Obama is increasing the numbers of troops and has been even more hawkish in spreading the conflict over the border and into Pakistan.

Of course the Afghan war is being fought in an area that Russia sees as part of its sphere of influence…at a time when Russian foreign policy toward the US has become more assertive in the wake of the war in Georgia in 2008.

Problems George Bush didn’t face

Barak Obama also faces some problems that George Bush did not have to face. China’s growing economic and military power had only just started to impose itself on the Bush administration’s agenda. But it will become an increasingly important issue during the Obama presidency.

A major power that emerges as an economic and strategic rival to the US will raise the question, as the reassertion of Russian power has begun to do, of whether we will once again see conflicts between great powers.

The post Cold War wars have so far been conflicts between great powers and much smaller states like Afghanistan and Iraq. But with major power rivals to the US emerging the prospect of direct conflict between them cannot be ruled out, a prospect already signalled by the Georgia conflict last year.

And George Bush ended his presidency just as the recession was gripping the world economy.

The economic crisis is likely to heighten international tensions. It has already raised the problem of protectionism as each state rushes to protect its economy at the expense of other states… as when the Irish government announced it would bail out its banks ahead of any similar decision by other nations. International funds poured out of other banks and into the ‘state-backed’ Irish banks as a safe haven. This forced other countries, often against their will, to do the same.

When Iceland’s bankrupted financial houses refused to pay back British depositors the British government used anti-terror legislation to seize their funds.

We can expect more such tensions as the recession and its consequences unfold.

For the US the recession poses an especial problem. The recession began in the US and it is badly effected by the downturn. Moreover, the US-British model of ‘free market’ deregulated capitalism is blamed by many for worsening the crisis.

Whether or not this is true, it further weakens US standing around the globe at a time when this was already undermined by the Iraq war.


Barak Obama has political capital. Primarily the political capital of not being George Bush. And the US foreign policy elite have a Plan B to try and extract themselves from the disasters of the Bush years.

But US foreign policy is not mainly determined by the character of the individual in the White House. John F Kennedy and his successor Lyndon Johnson were the two most liberal presidents of the US post war politics and they initiated the civil rights legislation of the 1960s…but they also presided over the disaster of the Vietnam War.

They, like Obama, were subject to the influence of a wider US governing elite that is not divided by Democrat and Republican party loyalties. This elite has common goals and it is certainly not the case that all the hawks are Republicans and all the doves are Democrats.

The leading figures in the Bush administration were, like their President, closely linked to some of the most powerful corporations in America. Dick Cheney to Haliburton, Condoleezza Rice to Exxon and so on.

But so to are key figures in the Obama government, like Richard Holbrooke, central to US diplomacy since his service in Vietnam, he oversaw NATO enlargement for Bill Clinton, became envoy to the Balkans, is former vice-chairman of Credit Suisse First Boston and managing director of the recession casualty Lehman Brothers.

He is now Obama’s representative in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The shape of US policy is determined by how this elite sees the long term strategic needs of the US. These are, in turn, a result of its relative economic decline since the height of the Cold War. The specific predication for armed conflict is a result of the way in which this economic weakness has combined with a post Cold War world in which the US enjoys an overwhelming superiority in arms.

Barack Obama will play these cards because an intractable, recession-wracked world will not do the US bidding otherwise.

The US elite hope that he will play these cards more carefully than George Bush. This may indeed be a necessity given the failures of the Bush era.

But the forces opposed to the US and the unpredictability of the world in this new era are likely to face Obama with narrower options and thus produce a policy much more consistent with the Bush era than now appears to be the case.

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.

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