In recent months the United States has suffered a minor setback in its project to rule the world through military conquest. Minor setbacks, however, are often much more important — for imperial powers — than their actual scale warrants. This is because imperial powers depend on the illusion of their omnipotence and invincibility in order to bully or bribe their allies into line; once that illusion is weakened, allies become less enthusiastic and potential enemies become emboldened.
The issue is the U.S. failure to launch a NATO war against Syria, and its failure to drive the Russians out of the Crimea. The latter is closely related to the former, since the U.S. propagandises, and by now probably believes, that Syria would flop like a wet rag if the evil Russians were not holding it up. These are, by any standard, trivial defeats. Syria survives, but it is in ruins thanks to the U.S.-driven civil war. Russia remains in the Crimea, but the Ukraine is well on the way to being a U.S. puppet, far more than it was after the “Orange Revolution” coup which the Americans organised in 2004. (What use the Ukraine is for the U.S. would be another matter; the U.S. seems to collect failed states the way a fetishist collects soiled underwear.)
In order to assess the significance of this one needs to compare the globe now with the globe twenty years ago. In the first years of the Clinton administration, the United States was probably more politically powerful than it had ever been in history. It dominated the world militarily and ideologically. Russia, its former enemy, was rushing over a cliff of failed statehood under the orders of U.S. neoliberal technocrats. China was weak, insignificant and subservient. India was heading towards a kind of pro-U.S. fascism like a gigantic Argentina. Europe, the smaller Asian states and Latin America were all firmly under the neoliberal yoke; Africa was ruined. There were no challenges, and seemingly no problems.
It was obviously something which could not last. Theoretically, the Clinton administration wished to control the world through diplomacy and economic power. Actually, however, it launched the most destructive war of the late twentieth century — the war in the DRC, which ensured that Central Africa would never rise again and that African people would begin to realise that the new colonialism was worse than the old — and also launched the first First World colonial war of the new post-Soviet era, that against Yugoslavia.
The aftermath of this process, quite wrongly blamed on the Bush administration which simply followed Clinton’s lead, remains with us today. The successive implementations of this policy by the Bush and Obama administrations have ensured it would — the invasions of Afghanistan, Iraq, Haiti, Somalia, Ivory Coast, Libya, Mali and the Central African Republic. Many of these were conducted by American puppet states, but America stood behind them. And there were also the destabilisations and coups aimed at installing more puppet states — Venezuela, Ukraine, Georgia, Lebanon, Madagascar, Iran, Honduras, Sudan, Paraguay, Egypt, Syria. When you think of it, this is a remarkable list, more spectacular in some ways than the similar list which could have been drawn up in the 1950s and 1960s, because in those days the public was only dimly aware of what was going on, both at home and in the target countries. Nowadays pretty much everybody knows, but the rent-a-mobs turn out in the streets anyway and the NATO press dutifully prints the press-releases of intelligence agencies and the military under the by-lines of rent-a-journalists.
However, all this is making people rather nervous. The Russians could not intervene effectually when the Americans threw out a Russian ally in Georgia and brought in an extremist anti-Russian stooge. However, they did quietly beef up their “peacekeeping” forces in the breakaway provinces of that country, and when the Tbilisi gangsters launched their mad invasion of those provinces the Russians gave them a very bloody nose indeed which made both America and the junta quite unpopular in Georgia. The Russians noted, from this, that any American intervention in a neighbouring state would be likely to lead to conflict, and made their plans accordingly. Therefore, when the Americans intervened again in the Ukraine to turn a stupid populist protest against a corrupt government into a fascist coup, the Russians were again ready. They seized the Crimea — believing, rightly, that the act would play well in Sevastopol and Moscow, but also believing that if they hadn’t done that, NATO would have thrown their fleet and air force out of the Crimea.
There’s nothing unusual about this; it’s power-politics, even though there is more merit in what the Russians did than in what the Americans did. What is unusual, however, is the American response. Instead of marching off to Kiyiv to get whatever they can out of their seizure of the bulk of the Ukraine, the Americans have been whooping for conflict with Russia, fabricating preposterous claims about the Russians mobilising troops against the Ukraine (they aren’t) and destabilising the Ukraine (it would be hard to top the destabilisation created by the Kiyiv government) and menacing the world and, basically, cranking out the same staggering bullshit which the Americans used to legitimate their invasion of Iraq. The Russians, almost certainly, are thinking “Well, we are dealing with psychopaths, and it’s a good thing we have our unsinkable aircraft-carrier in case we need to launch a bombardment of the psychopaths’ agents in the Ukraine”.
It has basically come down to the position that the Americans are no longer satisfied with making a small advance here or there. They want everything, all the time, and they cannot tolerate any opposition or any obstacles. President Obama and his Western European stooges talks about Russia in precisely the way that Clinton talked about Serbia before the bombardment. The trouble with this is that Russia is not Serbia; Russia is an extremely powerful country with a massive nuclear missile force and a large army, and also a respectable-sized economy. It is also a country in a loose economic alliance with China and India and Brazil, with a close military alliance with China and a series of contracts to modernise the Indian military, and enjoying friendly relations with all of its neighbours except the Ukraine and also with Iran. So, casually messing with such a state as if it were a small friendless dictatorship like North Korea is not sensible policy.
Particularly not sensible because most of those states have ambiguous attitudes towards the United States at best. The United States not so long ago responded to China’s seizure of some uninhabited islands in the South China Sea by overflying the islands with warplanes and delivering tough but empty talk to most of China’s neighbours, most of whom were listening, at most, with half an ear, and some of whom were probably not listening at all because they remember being invaded or destabilised by the U.S.. China, therefore, is nervous and watchful for any further insults — making this a bad time to try to pick a fight with Russia. But both Russia and China are very worried, too, about America’s behaviour in Libya and Syria, and China is probably troubled about the West’s behaviour in Africa. Their perception is increasingly that the U.S. in some way is meddling in their affairs, and they don’t like it; at the moment it is only peripheral for China, but the Russian example suggests to Beijing that at some stage, when the U.S. advance reaches a point intolerable for China, they will face the same sort of treatment.
The world, therefore, is becoming a dangerous place. Latin America does not, for the most part, like the foreign or economic policies of the U.S. Africa is unhappy at being treated as a punch-bag. Therefore, the only really reliable allies of the U.S. now are their satellites in Western Europe and Asia (and the former British Dominions with the exception of South Africa), and their puppets in Eastern Europe, Western Asia and parts of Africa. The latter aren’t good for much except bases. The satellite states are perfectly willing to launch military or economic attacks so long as the enemy can’t fight back — meaning that they are not going to be much help against a strong and determined adversary like Russia or China.
Meanwhile the United States is growing relatively weaker in both military and economic terms by the year, and it is expending its treasure and sometimes its blood in fruitless ways which damage its own interests. The situation is rather like the later Roman Empire, with provinces revolting and the Germanic and Parthian and Scythian hordes itching to attack the periphery while politicians at the centre fight each other and plan impossible aggressions. The big difference is that the Roman Empire, for all its unattractiveness, had a lot going for it in terms of communications, stability and harmony, whereas the American Empire as currently constructed is a ruling-class looting spree with almost nothing positive to justify its existence. The Chinese and Russian states are little more appealing, of course; the only positive thing to say about them is that they are not actively trying to undermine the potential success of smaller nations, and therefore smaller nations can potentially shelter under their problematic umbrellas.
So the danger of a serious world war fought for perceptions of national survival is growing greater. This is more or less what Gwynne Dyer predicted in 2004, although back then he imagined that Europe would either retain its independence or join up with Russia. Since Europe has become a satellite of the United States — an expanded version of Britain’s status at the time when Dyer was writing — this makes things more menacing, because Europe united with America against Russia has immediate potential for conflict; meanwhile, Russia and China are far closer together than Dyer imagined could happen.
Amid all this, we appear to be stumbling toward another economic crisis, into which weak countries like Ukraine will plunge even closer towards fascism, while Europe and the United States will have no alternative but to intensify their plundering of the world, while China, Russia and perhaps India will find themselves in competition for the spoils. This suggests a scary combination of both 1914 and 1939 — with thermonukes in the hands of maniacs and, constantly in the background, the whip of global climate change and food shortages egging everybody on to increasing acts of futile bravado and desperation.