Chalmers Johnson
Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire
Re: the February 1998 “accident” in which twenty people were killed as an American military aircraft, flying illegally low and illegally fast, sliced through a ski-lift cable, causing their gondola to plummet several hundred feet onto the slopes below

American military forces could have been withdrawn from Italy, as well as from other foreign bases, long ago. That they were not and that Washington instead is doing everything in its considerable powers to perpetuate Cold War structures, even without the Cold War’s justification, places such overseas deployments in a new light. They have become striking evidence, for those who care to look, of an imperial project that the Cold War obscured. The by-products of this project are likely to build up reservoirs of resentment against all Americans—tourists, students, and businessmen, as well as members of the armed forces—that can have lethal results.

As the global crisis deepened, the thing our government most seemed to fear was that contracts to buy our weapons might not now be honored.

Many may, as a start, find it hard to believe that our place in the world even adds up to an empire. But only when we come to see our country as both profiting from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making will it be possible for us to explain many elements of the world that otherwise perplex us.

George Washington’s Farewell Address now reads more like a diagnosis than a warning: he counseled Americans to “avoid the necessity of those overgrown military establishments, which under any form of government are inauspicious to liberty, and which are to be regarded as particularly hostile to Republican Liberty.”

The IMF, it must be noted, is staffed primarily with holders of Ph.D.s in economics from American universities, who are both illiterate about and contemptuous of cultures that do not conform to what they call the “American way of life.” They offer only “one size (or, rather, one capitalism) fits all” remedies for ailing economic institutions. The IMF has applied these over the years to countries in Latin America, Russia, and East Asia without ever achieving a single notable success.

According to 1995 figures released by the U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency (whose very name is an Orwellian misnomer and which, in 1998, was absorbed by the State Department), the world spent $864 billion on military forces. Of this amount, the United States accounted for $278 billion, or 32 percent, some 3.7 times more than second-ranked country, Russia... The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) reports that in 1997 the U.S. share of global deliveries of major conventional weapons, worth about $740 billion, had grown to 43 percent whereas Russia’s share was 14 percent.

In 1997, SIPRI found that the world spend $58 billion on military R&D, of which the United States spend $37 billion.

By 1995, according to its own Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, the United States was the source of 49 percent of global arms exports. It shipped arms of various types to 140 countries, 90 percent of which either were not democracies or were human rights abusers.

Together with NATO, Japan, South Korea, and Israel, the United States accounts for 80 percent of the world’s total military spending. In 1995, the United States alone outspent Russia, China, Iraq, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Cuba combined by a ratio of two to one; with its allies, it outstripped all potential adversaries by a ratio of four to one. If the comparison is restricted to only those countries considered regional threats by the Pentagon—the “rogue states” of Iraq, Syria, Iran, North Korea, Libya, and Cuba—the United States outspent them twenty-two to one.

Militarily oriented products account for about a quarter of the U.S. gross domestic product. The government employs some 6,500 people just to coordinate and administer its arms sales program in conjunction with senior officials at American embassies around the world, who spend most of their “diplomatic” careers working as arms salesmen.

...maintaining access to Persian Gulf oil requires about $50 billion of the annual U.S. defense budget, including maintenance of one or more carrier task forces there, protecting sea lanes, and keeping large air forces in readiness in the area. But the oil we import from the Persian Gulf costs only a fifth of that amount, about $11 billion per annum. Middle Eastern oil accounts for 10 percent of U.S. consumption, 25 percent of Europe’s, and half that of Japan... It is not that Europe and Japan are incapable of securing their own oil supplies through commercial treaties, diplomacy, or military activity, but that America’s global hegemony makes it unnecessary for them to do so.

Theorists from Adam Smith to John Hobson observed that capitalists do not really like being capitalists. They would much rather be monopolists, rentiers, inside traders, or usurers or in some other way achieve an unfair advantage that might allow them to profit more easily from the mental and physical work of others. Smith and Hobson both believed that finance capitalism produced the pathologies of the global economy they called mercantilism and imperialism: that is, true economic exploitation of others rather than mutually beneficial exchanges among economic actors.

The historian, business executive, and novelist John Ralston Saul described Nixon’s action [ending the Bretton Woods agreement] as “perhaps the single most destructive act of the postwar world. The West was returned to the monetary barbarism and instability of the 19th century.”

We Americans deeply believe that our role in the world is virtuous—that our actions are almost invariably for the good of others as well as ourselves. Even when our country’s actions have led to disaster, we assume that the motives behind them were honorable. But the evidence is building up that in the decade following the end of the Cold War, the United States largely abandoned a reliance on diplomacy, economic aid, international law, and multilateral institutions in carrying out its foreign policies and resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation.

Ideology—that is, the doctrines, opinions, or way of thinking of an individual, a class, a nation, or an empire—is as tricky a substance to use in international conflicts as poison gas. It, too, has a tendency to blow back onto the party releasing it.

Unfortunately, Americans still remain confused by the idea that the foundations of power no longer lie in military but in economic and industrial strength. They tolerate, even applaud, irrationally bloated defense budgets while doing little to rebuild and defend the industrial foundations of their own nation.

When Deng Xiaoping, on his first visit to the United States after we recognized the Beijing government, was asked about the freedom of Chinese to emigrate, he smiled broadly and replied, “How many do you want?”

After the June 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers apartments near Dhahran [Saudi Arabia] killed nineteen American airmen, the international relations commentator William Pfaff offered the reasonable prediction, “Within 15 years at most, if present American and Saudi Arabian policies are pursued, the Saudi monarchy will be overturned and a radical and anti-American government will take power in Riyadh.” Yet American foreign policy remains on autopilot, instead of withdrawing from a place where a U.S. presence is only making a dangerous situation worse.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon monopolizes the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy. Increasingly, the United States has only one, commonly inappropriate means of achieving its external objectives—military force. It no longer has a full repertoire of skills, including a seasoned, culturally and linguistically expert diplomatic corps; truly viable international institutions that the American public supports both politically and financially and that can give legitimacy to American efforts abroad; economic policies that effectively leverage the tremendous power of the American market into desired foreign responses; or even an ability to express American values without being charged, accurately, with hopeless hypocrisy. The use of cruise missiles and B-2 bombers to achieve humanitarian objectives is a sign of how unbalanced our foreign policy apparatus has become.

Military might does not equate with “leadership of the free world.” It is also no substitute for an informed public that understands and has approved the policies being carried out in its name. An excessive reliance on a militarized foreign policy and an indifference to the distinction between national interests and national values in deciding where the United States should intervene abroad have actually made the country less secure in ways that will become only more apparent in the years to come.

What would make the United States more secure is not more money spent on JCET teams or espionage satellites to find and retaliate against terrorists. Instead, the United States should bring most of its overseas land-based forces home and reorient its foreign policy to stress leadership through example and diplomacy.

Without question the most powerful human rights tool the United States could wield would be to deny access to the American market to products from multinational companies that have abandoned American workers to seek out low-wage foreign workers lacking in economic or political rights of any sort, not to speak of human rights. The economics profession may attack such policies as “protectionism,” but the time is long past when the United States should allow corporations to use the bottom line, “globalization,” or the pressures of competition—“Adam Smith made me do it”—as excuses for their indifference to basic human rights at home and abroad. Failure to consider this dimension of the rights question leaves the United States open to a charge of hypocrisy.

Needless to say, Soviet citizens never understood Marxism-Leninism as an ideology until after it had collapsed, just as Americans like to think (or pretend) that their economics is a branch of science, not a fighting doctrine to defend and advance their interests against those of others. They may consider most economists to be untrustworthy witch doctors, but they regard the tenets of a laissez-faire economy—with its cutthroat competition, casino stock exchange, massive inequalities of wealth, and a minor, regulatory role for government—as self-evident truths.

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