Rerun: The New Imperialism or the Iron Heel By William Bowles

16 March 2003 — Investigating Imperialism

Welcome to the World of Double Standards

“The challenge to the post-modern world is to get used to the idea of double standards. Among ourselves, we operate on the basis of laws and open cooperative security. But when dealing with more old-fashioned kinds of states outside the post-modern continent of Europe, we need to revert to the rougher methods of an earlier era – force, pre-emptive attack, deception, whatever is necessary to deal with those who still live in the nineteenth century world of every state for itself.

Among ourselves, we keep the law but when we are operating in the jungle, we must also use the laws of the jungle…. What is needed then is a new kind of imperialism, one acceptable to a world of human rights and cosmopolitan values. We can already discern its outline: an imperialism which, like all imperialism, aims to bring order and organisation but which rests today on the voluntary principle.”

This quote is taken from an article by Robert Cooper, a senior British foreign office official. The full article, ‘The New Liberal Imperialism’ (,11581,680095,00.html) is almost a ‘bible’ for the invasion of Iraq and it’s one of many documents that form part of an array of weapons that the so-called neo-conservatives – from Bush to Blair – use as a justification for re-conquering the world in this post-Soviet era.

Cooper’s rationale, the ‘double standard’ approach to the new international order also underpins Blair’s USUK alliance and helps explain just why, the UK is so out of step with the rest of Europe over the issue of how to deal with Iraq or any of the other ‘rogue’ states. It doesn’t explain however, why Blair thinks Britain has more to gain by going with the ‘New American Century’ after making such a deal over being ‘at the heart of Europe’. But more of this later…

But then hasn’t it always been this way? A world of double standards, where the rich and powerful dictate the agenda to the powerless. And why in this ‘new world order’, the rich can’t understand why a man like Saddam can become a hero (of sorts anyway). To paraphrase, in the land of the powerless, a man with a little power goes a long way. Yet of course, in spite of the pundits (no shortage of them), it isn’t the ‘end of history’, far from it. If the powerful think that just because the only real opposition to the US hegemon blew it in 1990, it meant that the struggle was over, they were/are in for a rude awakening.

An era where there is little or no vital opposition to US plans for global domination except for the extreme bin Laden type of messianism marks a sort of hiatus for the progressive movement. It’s also the writing on the wall for the rest of us. Of course one could simply throw one’s hands up in resignation when faced with 8,000 ‘precision-guided weapons’ and head for the hills. Not an option the average Iraqi has of course. And is it an option for us in the West? Do we think that we can remain either indifferent or insulated from the ‘New American Century’?

The Iron Heel
Many years ago I came across a book in a second hand bookstore in, I think New York City by Jack London called the ‘Iron Heel’ (get it free @ written in 1908. The book describes a world not unlike our own today. A world where a powerful country stamps on the emancipatory urge for, I think it was for 400 hundred years. This quote from the forward, I think says it all:

“Black as Feudalism was, yet the coming of it was inevitable. What else than Feudalism could have followed upon the breakdown of that great centralized governmental machine known as the Roman Empire? Not so, however, with the Iron Heel. In the orderly procedure of social evolution there was no place for it. It was not necessary, and it was not inevitable. It must always remain the great curiosity of history–a whim, a fantasy, an apparition, a thing unexpected and undreamed; and it should serve as a warning to those rash political theorists of to-day who speak with certitude of social processes.

“Capitalism was adjudged by the sociologists of the time to be the culmination of bourgeois rule, the ripened fruit of the bourgeois revolution. And we of to-day can but applaud that judgment. Following upon Capitalism, it was held, even by such intellectual and antagonistic giants as Herbert Spencer, that Socialism would come. Out of the decay of self-seeking capitalism, it was held, would arise that flower of the ages, the Brotherhood of Man. Instead of which, appalling alike to us who look back and to those that lived at the time, capitalism, rotten-ripe, sent forth that monstrous offshoot, the Oligarchy.

“Too late did the socialist movement of the early twentieth century divine the coming of the Oligarchy. Even as it was divined, the Oligarchy was there–a fact established in blood, a stupendous and awful reality. Nor even then, as the Everhard Manuscript well shows, was any permanence attributed to the Iron Heel. Its overthrow was a matter of a few short years, was the judgment of the revolutionists. It is true, they realized that the Peasant Revolt was unplanned, and that the First Revolt was premature; but they little realized that the Second Revolt, planned and mature, was doomed to equal futility and more terrible punishment.”

The ‘Iron Heel’ almost presciently describes the abyss upon which we stand right now. So is the ‘new imperialism’ of Kagan, Cooper, Perle, Wolfowitz et al, our ‘Iron Heel’? At first sight it would appear so. After all, USUK holds all the cards. They dominate the world militarily, economically and control the doors to our eyes and ears. A bunch of backward peasants in a part of the world that for decades has been divided by its own wealth is not exactly the setting for a showdown. But then neither was backward Russia, also wall to wall with peasants, exactly the right place either. Sometimes you just can’t choose these things, you have take them as you find them. The big question is, do the educated classes as they like to think of themselves really understand this world that they’ve pinned so much on (re)conquering? With glib analysis they describe the events unfolding 24/7, their Powerpoints working overtime as they chart the progress of the most powerful military force in history as it stops and worries about a beat up Toyota as it approaches a checkpoint. Will it or won’t it? Blow up that is.

Let’s not kid ourselves, the new Imperialism is no different from the old. In fact as I watch the news and see some British Tommy trudging through the dust, an image of a Redcoat appears before me as he trudges through the Kyber Pass, musket on shoulder looking this way and that, wondering where the next blow will come from.

In this context, the current fashion for ‘rehabilitating’ the British Empire of old, ‘It wasn’t all that bad. We did after all, educate them and bring order to their wretched lives’, or something along these lines, must take on a certain sentimental resonance in some quarters. And of course, it is no accident that the same academics who write of the ‘New Imperialism’ are out of the same mold as those who would rehabilitate the Empire.

Yet of course, we in the ‘developed’ world have a big responsibility even though, as during the Vietnam war, the peasants bore the brunt of the struggle, are we going to stand by and let the people of Iraq and Iran do the fighting for us and, under the most disadvantageous circumstances? We have no allies but ourselves it seems.

The New American Century

“As the 20th century draws to a close, the United States stands as the world’s most preeminent power. Having led the West to victory in the Cold War, America faces an opportunity and a challenge: Does the United States have the vision to build upon the achievement of past decades? Does the United States have the resolve to shape a new century favorable to American principles and interests?”

This is the preamble to the other ‘bible’ of the Bush administration, ‘Rebuilding America’s Defenses: Strategy, Forces and Resources for a New Century”. It continues,

“”[What we require is] a military that is strong and ready to meet both present and future challenges; a foreign policy that boldly and purposefully promotes American principles abroad; and national leadership that accepts the United States’ global responsibilities. “Of course, the United States must be prudent in how it exercises its power. But we cannot safely avoid the responsibilities of global leadership of the costs that are associated with its exercise. America has a vital role in maintaining peace and security in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. If we shirk our responsibilities, we invite challenges to our fundamental interests. The history of the 20th century should have taught us that it is important to shape circumstances before crises emerge, and to meet threats before they become dire. The history of the past century should have taught us to embrace the cause of American leadership.”

Robert Kagan who is one of the directors of the Project for the New American Century is also author of another influential writing on the ‘New Imperialism’, ‘Power and Weakness’, which also draws heavily on Cooper’s writing. Kagan’s piece contains the catchy phrase, ‘America is from Mars, Europe is from Venus’, which in Kagan’s opinion sums up the difference between Europe of the ‘old century’ (the 18th?) and the America of the ‘new’. Catchy stuff from these ‘new imperialists’ but perhaps his metaphor reveals more than he cares to admit as Mars is the god of war or, driven by his ego, did he simply forget.

These voices articulate the fears of an Imperialism faced with the reality of a world torn apart by the demise of the Soviet Union following the fifty scant years of détente after WWII, which although a world of nightmare Mutually Assured Destruction, also assured some measure of stability. The stability has gone and the Capitalist world, led by America is in real trouble, economically. The promises of a world without the ‘Soviet Empire’ vanished in a (rather large) puff of smoke on September 11. There are those, even on the left who are horrified by the death of three thousand people in the twin towers, as if it was some kind of pinnacle of terror. Yet of course, the number of dead is but a blip on the butchery of the Vietnam War(2-plus million Vietnamese dead, 57,000 American dead). Perhaps more importantly is the sheer effrontary of the act, like they came and shat in the living room of capital! And perhaps too, it brought home to US capital that no matter how many weapons they had, they were as vulnerable as those poor bastards eking out a living in the Terminal World, out there beyond the world of CNN or Walt Disney.

The USUK thesis, that through the sheer brute force of its technology, it can turn back the clock and, in a weird Alice and Wonderland world, counter the ‘post-modern’ world of the EU using Cooper’s strategy of ‘double standards’ and all that it implies, marks a ‘fork in the road’ for the planet, and not merely for the western world. For unlike previous eras we have truly pushed things one step too far. The biosphere itself hangs by a thread. And without trying to sound too apocalyptic, one gets the feeling that the powerful rather than let go, would drag us all down, not because they are petty (if we can’t have it, neither can anyone else) but because they are arrogant, smug and self assured about their power. In this, they have much in common with their Victorian roots, who also felt that science and technology could ‘subdue’ nature (and by implication, man) using the sheer force of the intellect. I have this enduring picture from my years spent living in America, of self-assured comfort, insulated from reality by a quilt of consumer products, through which one has to tunnel in order to emerge into the cold light of the real world. And who wants to get out of bed on a cold morning?

So will this ‘Iron Heel’ triumph? In spite of the odds, I am rather optimistic about things. Why you may ask? One of the interesting aspects of the current struggle over the resources of our rather battered planet is the historically unprecedented revulsion that the invasion of Iraq has unleashed. Never before in history have so many people voiced their opposition to a war. I think without exaggeration we can say that 97% of the population of the planet are opposed to this adventure. The issue of course is more than one of simply marching or signing petitions, though of course, it is heartening to see almost 2 million people marching through the streets of London. Without doubt the biggest demonstration against the state’s policies this country has ever seen in its history(though whether it compares with the Chartist Uprising is questionable). More importantly, I think is the cross section of people who marched. So does this mark a turning point in history?

The failure of the socialist projects of the 20th century have no doubt put a damper on our emancipatory urges, yet the underlying contradictions of capital are even more apparent now than at any point since the 1930s.

‘Pre-emptive War’
“The doctrine of preventive war was announced explicitly in the National Security Strategy last September. It sent shudders around the world, including through the U.S. establishment, where, I might say, opposition to the war is unusually high. The Security Strategy said, in effect, that the U.S. will rule the world by force, which is the dimension – the only dimension – in which it is supreme. Furthermore, it will do so for the indefinite future, because if any potential challenge arises to U.S. domination, the U.S. will destroy it before it becomes a challenge.

“This is the first exercise of that doctrine. If it succeeds on these terms, as it presumably will, because the target is so defenceless, then international lawyers and Western intellectuals and others will begin to talk about a new norm in international affairs. It is important to establish such a norm if you expect to rule the world by force for the foreseeable future.

“This is not without precedent, but it is extremely unusual. I shall mention one precedent, just to show how narrow the spectrum is. In 1963, Dean Acheson, who was a much respected elder statesman and senior Adviser of the Kennedy Administration, gave an important talk to the American Society of International Law, in which he justified the U. S. attacks against Cuba. The attack by the Kennedy Administration on Cuba was large-scale international terrorism and economic warfare. The timing was interesting – it was right after the Missile Crisis, when the world was very close to a terminal nuclear war. In his speech, Acheson said that no “legal issue” arises when the United States responds to a challenge to its “power, position, or prestige”, or words approximating that.””

This extract from Noam Chomsky’s piece in Z-Mag ( illustrates just how little things have actually changed. Even the rationale is the same, with the US touting its need to defend its ‘power, position, or prestige’ as a reason for invading a sovereign state. And, it was the defiance of a small country daring to stand up to the big bully that was not to be tolerated. And the list of small countries being bullied by the US is long. Grenada, Nicaragua, Panama, Haiti, all dared to stand up and challenge the power of US Imperialism with disastrous results for the people of these poor countries. For regardless of the excuses (International Communism, the lives of American citizens, cocaine trafficking or whatever), the message is clear; the hegemony of US power is not to be questioned. Challenge us and you risk our wrath.

Too much of a good thing?
“America’s switch from production to finance as a means of global domination, and the government’s resulting economic mismanagement, has made it more susceptible to disruption and economic collapse. Corporations are now encountering massive public resistance as they seek to expand their opportunities through dispossession. The only peaceful solution is a new New Deal, but that option is blocked by the political class in the US: the only new spending it will permit is military spending. So all that remains is war and imperial control.

“Attacking Iraq offers the US three additional means of offloading capital while maintaining its global dominance. The first is the creation of new geographical space for economic expansion. The second…is military spending (a process some people call “military Keynesianism”). The third is the ability to control the economies of other nations by controlling the supply of oil. This, as global oil reserves diminish, will become an ever more powerful lever. Happily, just as legitimation is required, scores of former democrats in both the US and Britain have suddenly decided that empire isn’t such a dirty word after all, and that the barbarian hordes of other nations really could do with some civilisation at the hands of a benign superpower.”

As the extract from George Monbiot’s article in the Guardian (,3604,897766,00.html for the full text) makes clear, the imperative is, as it’s always been, economic. It reinforces the point that the removal of Hussein is merely a pretext for maintaining an insane and irrational system and, in the context of oil, creates a bridgehead for US capital to launch further takeovers in the Middle and Far East. As I pointed out in an earlier piece (, the (over-valued) dollar as the de facto global currency via its proxy, the petro-dollar is at the heart of US dominance of the global economy.

Blair – Bush’s fifth Column?
On the face of it, the USUK alliance makes no sense. It risks splitting the EU and furthermore, it imperils UK capital in the fight for markets. I suppose one could argue that it’s simply the result of Blair’s craven arse-licking but this is not exactly a scientific approach. Yet, as with all people wielding immense power, especially politicians, one mustn’t underestimate the role of the ego in determining policy. Could it be Blair’s megalomania or simply a gross miscalculation of the English political class?

Let’s look at it from a credit-debit point of view. The diminishing importance of the European powers in the march of western capitalism especially in the post-Soviet era, as our ‘friend’ Cooper has pointed out, has meant that war (or preparing for one) is no longer a driving force in the European economies. He prefers to think of it as a ‘post-modern’ thing but I think the reason is very different. Firstly, the sheer consumptive power of US capitalism (6% of the world’s population, consumes 30% of the world’s energy) makes it especially dependent on oil. Second, US military spending ($450 billion annually) is around 50% of what the entire planet spends on arms. The neo-cons argue that it’s still only around 3% of US GDP (too low as far they’re concerned) but this hides the reality that the millions of people who are directly and indirectly part of the military economy spend billions in the civilian economy. Hence the real figure is at least double or more likely triple if you add in all the goods and services that are not included under the heading of military.

War then, is not an essential component of the EU’s economy and it’s corresponding economic and diplomatic power is diminished. But one could argue that as a result it has been enhanced, especially in the developing world. But it can also be argued that the UK is only peripherally part of the EU. Indeed, ever since the UK joined the EU, the UK has been very much the reluctant bride, driven originally more by Cold War imperatives than anything else. Our long-standing alliance with the US, which goes back to the 19th century, plays a major role in the relationship. Hence the USUK alliance is from the UK side in part driven by ideology and secondly as a ‘bridge’ between the US and the EU.

Some have argued that the Blair doctrine has sought to ‘temper’ US ambitions but if this is so, he has failed and failed in a particularly spectacular way. For having sided with the US, the UK has, in one fell swoop destroyed whatever credibility it held with the countries of the Middle East and increasingly with many other countries in the world. The long-term implications of this have yet to be determined. Much will hinge on the success or otherwise of US plans but even here, if and when the USUK succeeds in annexing Iraq, it has already gained the undying hatred of virtually all Arab countries in the region. If it fails, then US plans for global dominance will be called into question even by its allies.

Either way, the Blair doctrine is fraught with difficulties. If for example, as seems most likely the invasion and annexation of Iraqis a ‘jumping off’ point for the invasion of Iran and other points East, Blair’s government which has been courting Tehran of late, is going to be caught between a rock and hard place. How will it justify being part of a ‘coalition of willing’? In other words, what pretext can it use next time? Will it attempt once again to play the part of ‘good guy’ in a ‘good guy-bad guy’ routine?

The question of its relationship with the EU is more complex but no less loaded with contradictions. On the one hand, the UK has to maintain a working relationship with its EU partners, not the least because of its role as a bridge between the EU and the US and also because it has legal obligations. But at the heart of the UK’s contradictory relationship with the EU is the fact that it has tied its itself to the US’ coattails and unless the major players of the EU, France and Germany can be persuaded that it’s also in their interests to ally themselves with the USUK alliance, which given their populations overwhelming opposition to the invasion, seems unlikely, Britain’s relationship with the EU is doomed. For as long as the UK is seen as a ‘point man’ for the Bush government, its role in European affairs will be suspect. And, as the major EU powers have neither the economic means to arm themselves as a means of challenging US ambitions, there is no reason why they should also go along with the UK.

So where does the current situation lead us? Will the EU follow the urging of the Cooper-inspired Blair thesis of defending its economic power through military means? A most unlikely scenario. In all likelihood, the EU will continue to defend its economic advantage through unequal trade deals with the developing world. Its population have no stomach for imperialist adventures aka Iraq. Increasingly, the gap between the US and the rest of the world will widen, leading to increasing desperation on the part of the US, resulting in more military adventures of the Iraqi kind as it is only in military power that the US can claim any kind of advantage and herein lies the danger.

The writing is on the wall for the planet. Either the civilized world gets its act together and curbs the US hegemon or, barbarism will descend on us, in the form of the Iron Heel.

4 thoughts on “Rerun: The New Imperialism or the Iron Heel By William Bowles

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