Washington's New Interventionism: U.S. Hegemony and Inter-Imperialist Rivalries

By Gibbs, David N. | Monthly Review, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Washington's New Interventionism: U.S. Hegemony and Inter-Imperialist Rivalries


Gibbs, David N., Monthly Review


Think hard about it. I'm running out of demons. I'm running out of villains. General Colin Powell

The 1999 NATO war against Serbia poses an intellectual challenge for the anti-interventionist left. On the one hand, critics doubt that humanitarian concerns regarding the fate of Kosovar Albanians could have motivated the United States to initiate this war. On the other hand, if humanitarian factors cannot explain U.S. conduct, then what does? This essay will attempt to answer this question, and will provide an analytical framework in which recent interventionist actions, including the war over Kosovo, can be understood. The basic argument is that the United States has grown accustomed to its position as the world's dominant power and has sought to preserve this status, which provides major political and economic benefits for the United States. Concomitantly, the United States has sought to contain rival capitalist states that threaten U.S. predominance. During the Cold War, the threat of Communism served to legitimate U.S. hegemony over other capitalist states; with the end of the Cold War, the United State s has sought to use humanitarian intervention as one of the principal means to reassert its hegemony, to provide a context in which the most striking advantage of the United States--its overwhelming military superiority--can be emphasized.

A major assumption underpinning this argument is that the post-Cold War era has triggered increased tensions among the capitalist democracies, which in turn require these "humanitarian" military assertions to reaffirm the dominant position of the United States.

Some readers may find this argument odd, since it is widely assumed that the western allies have always welcomed U.S. leadership. In his book, American Empire, Geir Lundestad referred to U.S. hegemony over Europe during the Cold War as a case of "empire by invitation," the result of cooperative, mutually beneficial activity between Americans and Europeans. [2] This image of a "benign" American hegemony has more recently been popularized by Irving Kristol, who wrote in 1997: "One of these days, the American people are going to awaken to the fact that we have become an imperial nation...It happened because the world wanted it to happen [emphasis added]...no European nation can have--or really wants to have--its own foreign policy." [3] The problem with such views is that they gloss over two important facts: First, they ignore the ambivalence with which U.S. allies have always viewed their subordinate position. Second, U.S. hegemony has been maintained partly through forceful behavior, which has undercut efforts by U.S. allies to establish independent foreign policies. These challenges to U.S. hegemony were present even during the Gold War, but with the end of the Cold War, they have increased considerably. There has been a concomitant rise in U.S. efforts to resist these challenges.

U.S. foreign policy thus entailed a measure of "double containment"--to contain Communism and the capitalist allies of the United States in Europe simultaneously. With the demise of the Soviet Bloc, after 1989, the containment of allies has remained a central U.S. objective. Overwhelmingly, the United States has sought to reassert its power through a revitalization of the Cold War institutional structures, above all, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, widely regarded as the most successful alliance in history. Humanitarian intervention has emerged as NATO's principal mission--and principal justification--in the post-Cold War world.

A Predatory Hegemon?

The theme of rivalry among the advanced industrial states may seem especially anomalous given the long period of amity among these states, which prevailed during the period of the Cold War. The common ideological enemy of Communism served to unite the capitalist powers for this time. It is important to recognize, however, that the period 1945-89 was in some sense a historical aberration. …

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