Postmodern Imperialism – Geopolitics and the Great Games, Eric Walberg. 300 pages. Clarity Press, Atlanta. Reviewed by Jonathan Reynolds
I. Let the Games Begin…Again…and Again
The great disaffected masses tell us that history is on the march and, as usual, guns and butter are the simpler issues. In America, support dwindles for a war that has lasted a decade. Drone missiles, each costing $100,000, kill “terrorists” in gutturally named, chicken-scratch places bewilderingly far from America’s hometowns, whose simple citizens ask where their taxes go. Costs of the Afghanistan war this year are the highest ever, $119.4 billion and counting. Polls show historically deep disaffection with The System. The mask of America-First patriotism is falling, revealing an intoxicated self-grandiosity and will to power by renascent Bush-era neocons and cynical manipulations by the CEO caste and other one-percenters for more and more wealth, and whose sense of entitlement the victims of class warfare, lumpen proles and petit bourgeoisie alike, seem unable to stomach any longer. Approval of the Republican led-by-gridlock Congress hovers around fifteen percent. Ever-larger protests in other cities in America and internationally have extended those on Wall Street – protests even a year ago one would never have predicted – and “class warfare – rich against poor” appears on the protestors’ signs.
The disaffected might also ask why the US, as Eric Walberg notes in his extraordinary new book, has 730 American military bases in fifty countries around the globe, and why the US share of the world’s military expenditures is 42.8% while, by comparison, China’s is 7.3% and Russia’s 3.6%. The unavoidable irony is that the Pax Americana seems to be requiring endless war with no particular rationale behind it – and truly astonishing numbers of dollars are spent on behalf of war rather than at home. What may be fatally undermining credibility in America’s “transcendent values” has been the sense that as the facts filter down to the masses, the Empire’s new clothes appear to be the same as that of past empires. All empires have births and deaths – the US Empire will be no different. Internal contradictions of the US efforts to control the globe seem now to be sending things spiraling out of control.
On one home front, think of the Gilded Age of Rockefeller, Carnegie, and J. P. Morgan. This is not the first time America-First ideology has been suspected to be cover for autocrats and plutocrats doing what they have always done. What makes the revelation different this time is the simultaneous sense that the US imperium apparently has seen and had its day. I say this anticipating the response: Yes, of course, that seems to be happening, but, no, it is too incredible to really happen.
Missing in the vague anomie is detailed fact, gathered and employed effectively to see the whole. Armed with such a guidebook, the Wall Street protestors and all the rest of America’s great discontented would truly understand why the 99-percenters, I suggest, may likely feel the need to join the hundreds of diehards in Zucotti Park, and then extend the protest, unbelievable as it truly sounds, by revolutionary action into an American Spring.
Some years ago I overheard a blue-collar fellow – a retired Detroit fire fighter – explaining to his wife why the rich are rich: they are simply “smarter” than the rest of us. But the “exceptionalism” of America – where the smart people are free to get as rich as nanosecond insider trading, offshore deals, and tax lawyers let them – has collided with paradigm-destroying contradictions. The thesis appears to be running headlong into its antithesis. The new synthesis may well be coming at the world with the force of a huge, land-bound, Red Spot-sized storm. If sloganeering from Republicans still had any force to warn us about the imperiled “free market”, “free enterprise”, and – interchangeably – “‘freedom” – about how “the Greatest Nation on Earth/in History” is being destroyed by taxes, “socialism”, and “Big Government” – egged on by the shrieks and poison chatter of Fox News, some might still buy into the fear-mongering. A few tidy, frightened retirees sunning themselves in the Western states and devotees of NASCAR and the NRA from the old Confederate South might get apoplectic. Which, in some way, perhaps, is why the rest of us disbelieve any significant change is coming or can happen. But this may be because we don’t see the Big Picture.
Although, shunning advocacy, he is careful never to veer far from the neutral tones of reportage, the thesis of Walberg’s astonishing, fine-grained x-ray of the zeit is that the greatest source of problems in modern, and postmodern, times around the world is American imperialism. Such a thesis, of course, is not new among the radical left, nor among the political “Islamists”. Presented with a full account of the lies, clichés, and stereotyped credence of the US’s path to empire and how it maintains it with, by now, constant war, needle-sensitive rightwing Republicans and, take note, here, Jewish Americans, defensive, seething, and alarmed. It is likely they will then, unfortunately, too quickly look for reasons to label Walberg an anti-Semite with a hard-left agenda to cover up his supposed anti-Semitism. Lip-syncing (parentheticals added): (that infernally silly) Ayn Rand and (that feudalistic philosophical eminence) Leo Strauss – both had it right: there are Superior Ones (SOs) and there are Inferior Ones (IOs) and, for the sake of the continuing evolution of mankind, the SOs must inherit the earth. Get the money. And the girls. And the million dollar cryonic canopic jars. Richard Dawkins almost had it right; what he got wrong is that a few of the replicators – human beings as host for the genes – are taking charge, forcefully, violently, of who gets to pass them theirs on.
Not persuaded that Social Darwinism is necessary for the future of the species, a large majority of Americans – fed up or simply horrified with Bush, the fifty-three percent who voted for the African-American and “Socialist” Obama, as well as those who didn’t but are also the victims of the 2008 economic crash – now are beginning to realize that phantasmal, neocon realpolitik not only is entirely cynical but grandiose, also, its spokesmen misleading even themselves. Furthermore, the true-believers whom the Powers-That-Be have rallied reliably in the past have become suspicious that the single overriding purpose of calls to their patriotism always is to enrich the Big Boys, the Players: CEO’s at multinationals like Halliburton and General Electric, and at the mammoth, near-monopoly amalgam banking corporations, Chase, Citi, Wells Fargo and Bank of America. Add Wall Street hedge fund renaissance men and finance capital wonderboys like Lloyd Blankfein. Not only liberals and progressives but Tea Partiers view with helpless disgust the death-dances of the Neros on Wall Street, enriched to the point of requiring, one imagines, Roman-style emetics to clean the palate for more, more, more. The Detroit fireman might wonder how strange it is that such supposedly superior representatives of the species can be stupid about the terrible spectacle they make.
As events continue to move ever faster, Americans waking up to reality has the feel of desperate conviction. But the conviction has lacked both proof and necessary connect-the-dots fleshing out. Painstakingly researched, always on point, Walberg’s tightly packed historical analysis of world geopolitics since the Industrial Revolution, with its emphasis on the latter phases of US imperialism, reads like a ne plus ultra primer of real realpolitik. A Cambridge-educated Canadian who has spent many years in Russia and the Middle East and currently writes for the Egyptian weekly, Al Ahram, Walberg marshals dense but pertinent facts, building on a growing literature of reportage and analysis from journalists who want to cover this really big story and from historians and analysts who see as their task a radical critique of both the pragmatics and the huge, fateful vainglory of US imperialism.
But Walberg goes much further than these other writers by telling the full story in 300 well-ordered pages – at times, the book reads like a high-end un-put-downable thriller. One even thinks of le Carré but with fascinating factual detail replacing writerly nuance. Resorting, at times, to chess terminology, he tracks the 150-year story of the intricate moves and countermoves on what Zbigniew Brzezinski has called the “‘Grand Chessboard”. “Zbig”, the first chairman of the infamous Trilateral Commission we remember as Jimmy Carter’s Polish-accented national security advisor; he wrote with confidence about the assured future of America as the Power well into the 21st century. He and the neocons who followed him, even more forgetful of how history repeats itself, not merely toe the line but up the ante of the Big Power geopolitical games that have been played for a century-and-a-half, and, because of capitalist/consumerist-impacted climate change, are sending the planet to catastrophe. The current “Empire-and-a-Half” of the United States and its increasingly independently acting client and vassal, Israel – despite its tiny territory a regional hegemon bent on being a world player – is nearing collapse quicker than the rich can count their money. Only the final chapter of the American imperial story has yet to be written: how will it finally collapse, and who, and/or what, will replace the “Empire-and-a-Half”? China? A somehow more peaceful pact between China, Russia, India, and/or some other players?
II. Creative Great Game Theory and Practice
The “great game” referred to the geopolitical strategy of England versus Russia to control Afghanistan as the gateway to its colonial prize jewel, India. A significant length of the ancient Silk Road snakes through this notoriously shadowy but key geostrategic country which has been embroiled repeatedly since then in blood and intrigue. Today, it is the blackened griddle on which cooks America’s longest-lasting war. Described by earlier writers, Walberg abbreviates this “great game” to “GGI”, lingering on it only briefly as the early imperial period when, in addition to India and the Suez, England ran the puppet show in which Afghanistan, Iran, and the remains of the Ottoman Caliphate jerked on the strings as “nominally independent political formations”; Kipling’s “‘white man’s burden” lay over colonial lands “on which the sun never sets” – as far from the imperial isle as wealth extraction required.
Walberg has not invented the terminology of the “Great Game” but he has convincingly demonstrated the utility of distinguishing three phases of the Game. GGI refers to the 19th century-through World War I period during which “competing empires” jockeyed for geopolitical and economic power. GGI and GGII overlap – from 1917-45, which saw GGI through its end game, and when GGII was germinating. GGII lasted from the end of World War I through the disintegration of the Soviet Union by 1991. In GGII the US and Europe – by then the US’s “junior partner” – competed against communism. Other writers call this period “super-imperialist” because of “the unique role of the US dollar” as world reserve currency, and which, tied with Reagan’s greatly ramped up spending in the arms race, succeeded in bankrupting the Soviet Union. Throughout the games, beginning with the British Empire, then with its much bigger son and heir, the US, in charge, the West has made violent sorties for imperial power and plays for control of the world over and over again that have followed, more or less, the same script. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. The current game, GGIII, which we are in, now, began with the Soviet Union’s house-of-cards collapse in 1991, and has swapped “Communism” with “Islamo-terror” as the opponent. Except for fitful bursts of violent objection, US imperialism has dominated the world completely.
Using Immanuel Wallerstein’s world systems theory, Walberg’s analysis of the functional structure of imperialism emphasizes “center” and “periphery”, the former extracting raw resources from the latter as key component in the ceaseless expansion that capitalism requires, always turning the distant assets into great pools of wealth liquidity. His distinction between “modern”, “failed”, and “postmodern” states enables him creatively to tease out his analysis. By providing close detail about the US’s post-World War II gamesmanship, he reveals a myriad of two- and -three-faced betrayals, “black ops”, sundry anagrammatic false treaties and front organizations, fifth column charters and charades, and collaborations with worldwide organized crime.