REALPOLITIK: ‘Mandarin for the Warlords’, The Harvard School of Empire Building – By Prof. James Petras

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Harvard professor Joseph Nye, a former senior Pentagon functionary, is one of the longest serving and most influential advisers to US empire building officials. Nye has recently re-affirmed the primacy of the US as a world power in his latest book, Is the American Century Over? And his article, ‘The American Century will survive the Rise of China’ (Financial Times, 3/26/15, p. 7). These publications are in line with his earlier book, Bound to Lead, and his longstanding view that the US is not a declining world power, that it retains ‘supremacy’ even in the face of China’s rise to global power.

Nye’s views of US world supremacy have served to encourage Washington to wage multiple wars ; his view of US economic power has allowed policy-makers to ignore fundamental weaknesses in the US economy and to overestimate US power, based on what he dubs, ‘soft’ and ‘military’ power.

In tackling Professor Nye’s work, we are not dealing with a ‘detached academic in the ivory tower’ – we are taking on a high level political influential, a hardline military hawk, whose views are reflected in the forging of strategic decisions and whose arguments serve to justify major government policies.

First, we will proceed through a critical analysis of his theoretical assumptions, historical arguments and conceptual framework. In the second part of this essay, we will consider the political consequences, which have flowed from his analysis and prescriptions. In the conclusion, we shall propose an alternative, more realistic, analysis of US global power, one more attuned to the real international position of the US in the world today.

Nye’s Analysis is Ossified in His Distorted Time Warp

Nye’s segmentation of power into three spheres – economic, military (hard), and diplomatic/cultural (soft), overlooks the inter-relation between them. What he dubs as ‘soft power’ usually relies on ‘hard power’, either before, during or after the application of ‘soft power’. Moreover, the capacity to influence by ‘soft power’ depends on economic promise or military coercion to enforce ‘persuasion’. Where economic resources or military threats are not present, soft power is ineffective.

Nye’s argument that military power is co-equal with economic power is a very dubious proposition. Over the medium run, economic power buys, expands and increases military power. In other words, economic resources are convertible into military as well as ‘soft power’. It can influence politicians, parties and regimes via trade, investments and credit in many ways which military power cannot. Over time, economic power translates into military power. Nye’s claims of persistent US military superiority in the face of its admitted economic decline is ephemeral or time bound.

Nye’s argument about the continued ascendancy of US global power ‘for the next few decades’ is a dubious, static view – ignoring a long-term, large-scale, historical trajectory. Lifelong shibboleths never die! By all empirical indicators – economic, political and even militarily, the US is a declining power. Moreover, what is important is not where the US is at any given moment but the where it is moving. Its declining shares of Latin American, African and Asian markets clearly points to a downward trajectory.

Power is a relationship. By definition it means a country’s capacity to make other countries or political entities do what they otherwise would not do. To consider the US as the dominant world power, we cannot, as Nye proposes, look at its ‘reputation’ as a world power or cite its ‘military capacity’ or willingness to project military force. We need to look at military and political outcomes in multiple key issue areas in which US policymakers have sought to establish regional or local dominance.

Nye’s discussion fails to look at the negative cumulative effects of US policy failures in multiple regions over time to determine whether the US retains its global supremacy or is a declining power.

To simply preach that ‘the American century is not over’, because some critics in the past mistakenly thought that the USSR in the 1970s or Japan in the 1980’s would displace the US as the global power, is to overlook the foundational weakness and repeated failures of US policymakers to impose or persuade other nations to accept US supremacy over the past decade and a half.

If, as Nye grudgingly concedes, China has replaced the US as the leading economic power in Asia, he does not understand the dynamic components of Chinese economic power, especially its long term, large-scale accumulation of foreign reserves and rapidly growing technical knowhow. Even worse, Nye ignores how the military dimension of world power has actively undermined US economic supremacy.

It is precisely Nye’s belief, along with other Pentagon advisers, that US military supremacy make it a ‘world power’, which has led to catastrophic, prolonged and costly wars. These wars have degraded and undermined US pretensions of ‘world leadership’ or more accurately – imperial supremacy.

While the US has spent trillions of dollars of public money on prolonged and losing wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Somalia, as well as ongoing military interventions in Libya, Syria, Ukraine and Yemen, China and other emerging powers have engaged in large long-term economic expansion, increasing market shares, acquiring productive enterprises and expanding their sources of capital accumulation in dynamic regions.

US repeated projections of military power have not created new sources of wealth. The US capacity and willingness to engage in multiple disastrous wars has led to a greater loss of military influence.

Consequences of High Military Capacity and Declining Economic Performance

The consequence of utilizing its great storehouse of military capacity so disastrously has degraded and weakened the US military as well as its imperial economic reach. Repeated US military defeats, its inability to secure its goals or impose its dominance in Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan has severely weakened the domestic political foundations of global military power, to the point where the US public is adverse to sending large scale US ground troops into combat.

Nye’s inventory of military resources, stockpile of up-to-date bombers, nuclear weapons, fighter planes, military bases, special forces operations, and its vast spy (“intelligence”) apparatus, in other words the US’s supreme military ‘capacity’, has not resulted in the establishment of a prosperous, stable and submissive empire (the goal that Nye euphemistically dubs ‘world supremacy’). US military engagements, both high and low intensity wars, have resulted in costly defeats and retreats as adversaries advance into the vacuum. Superior material capacity has not translated into US dominance because nationalist, anti-imperialist consciousness and movements based on mass armed resistance, have demonstrated superiority in countering foreign (US) invasions, occupations and satellite building.

Nye ignores a decisive ‘military resource’, which the US does not have and its adversaries have in abundance – nationalist consciousness. Here, Nye’s notion of US supremacy in ‘soft power’ has been terribly wrong-headed. According to Nye, the US superiority in the use and control of mass media, films, news and cultural organizations and educational institutions continues and has allowed the US to retain its global supremacy.

No doubt the US global propaganda apparatus and networks are formidable but they have not been successful, not least, as a bulwark of US global supremacy. Once again Nye’s inventory of soft power assets relies exclusively on quantitative, contemporary, material structures and ignores the enormous counter-influence of historical legacies, nationalist, cultural, religious, ethnic, class, race and gender consciousness, which rejects US dominance in all of its forms. US ‘soft power’ has not conquered or gained the allegiance of the people in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria or Yemen. Nor has it convinced the billions of Chinese, Latin American or Islamic peoples to embrace American ‘leadership’.

No doubt ‘soft power’ has worked to a limited extent, especially among sectors of the educated classes and the local political elite, converting them into imperial collaborators. No doubt elements of the educated elite have been co-opted by US funded ‘non-governmental organizations’ that engage in grass roots counter-insurgency as the counterpart to the drone attacks from above. But, once again, Nye relies on quantitative, rather than qualitative, measures of influence. Despite an army of NGOs and the budgeting of billions of dollars, US imperial conquests, coups, occupations, rigged elections, and puppet regimes are highly unpopular. As a result, US troops need to diminish their presence, and its overseas and visiting diplomats require a squadron of security officials and operate out of armed fortresses.

Professor Nye’s treatment of what he calls ‘soft power’ is reduced to an inventory of propaganda resources, developed and/or cultivated by the imperial state (the US) to induce submission to and acceptance of the global supremacy of the US. However vast the spending and however broad the scope of ‘soft power, Nye fails to recognize the ineffectiveness of the US ‘soft power apparatus’ in the face of systemic crimes against humanity, which have profoundly alienated and decisively turned world opinion and specific national publics against the US. Specifically, Washington’s practice of torture (Abu Ghraib), kidnapping (rendition), and prolonged jailing without trial (Guantanamo); its global spy network monitoring hundreds of millions of citizens in the US and among allies and its use of drones killing more non-combatant (innocent) citizens than armed adversaries, have severely weakened, if not undermined, the appeal of US ‘soft powers’. Nye is oblivious to the ways in which US projections of military power have led to the precipitous long-term decline of ‘soft power’, and the way in which that decline has resulted in the greater reliance on military power … in a vicious circle.

Nye ignores the changing composition of the strategic decision makers who decide where and when military power will be exercised. He blandly assumes that policy is directed by and for enhancing US ‘global supremacy’. But as Professors Mearsheimer and Walt, (The Israel Lobby) and Petras, (The Power of Israel in the United States), have demonstrated, powerful, organized lobbies, like AIPAC, and Israel First officials in the Executive branch have taken military decisions to focus on the Middle East at the behest of Israel in order to enhance its power. These decisions have had an enormous cost in terms of loss of human and financial resources and have contributed to the decline of US global supremacy. Nye fails to recognize how the ascendancy of his militarist colleagues in the Pentagon and the Zionists in the Congress and Executive have drastically changed the way in which hard power (military) is exercised

And how it has weakened the composition and use of soft power and provoked greater imbalances between economic and military power.

Nye’s argument is further weakened by his incapacity to ‘problematize’ the changing content of military power, its shift from a tool of economic expansion, directed by US empire-builders, to an end in itself exploiting economic resources to enhance Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. This weakness is exacerbated by his failure to recognize the changing nature of economic power – the shift from manufacturing to finance capital and the negative consequences, which result for the projection of US economic power and dominance.

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