Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmaking of the American Empire

Dilemmas of Domination: The Unmaking of the American Empire

by Walden Bello, Tom Engelhardt

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From the acclaimed globalization critic, a far-reaching analysis of America's military, economic, and political vulnerability

The empire seems unassailable, but the empire is weak-and precisely because of its imperial ambitions. So argues Walden Bello's provocative new book, which systematically dissects the strategic, economic, and political dilemmas

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From the acclaimed globalization critic, a far-reaching analysis of America's military, economic, and political vulnerability

The empire seems unassailable, but the empire is weak-and precisely because of its imperial ambitions. So argues Walden Bello's provocative new book, which systematically dissects the strategic, economic, and political dilemmas confronting America as a consequence of its quest for global domination.

An award-winning development expert, Bello shows how despite the enormity of the U.S. defense budget, American forces are already overextended, a condition bound to intensify as each local "victory" breeds simmering resistance and new confrontation. He points to the empire's looming economic breakdown, the result of its gargantuan military costs, record-breaking deficits, and exploitative trade and investment relations with developing countries. On the political front, he warns of the bitter disillusionment mounting around the world in response to America's failure to champion liberal democracy. Everywhere America goes, crony capitalism, hostile coercion, and gross inequalities in income eat away at expectations of justice and inclusion.

A clear and prophetic examination, Dilemmas of Domination reveals a not-too-distant future in which the empire's hidden weaknesses will yield fatal challenges to American supremacy.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“With unsentimental clarity, Walden Bello speaks the truth about American empire and why it is doomed by its own contradictions.”

— William Greider, author of The Soul of Capitalism

“Walden Bello is the world's best guide to American exploitation of the globe's poor and defenseless – and the false concepts the U.S. government uses to camouflage its actions. He directly challenges the propaganda and the policies of the Washington establishment with an analysis that is both original and persuasive.”

— Chalmers Johnson, author of The Sorrows of Empire and Blowback

Dilemmas of Domination shows again why Walden Bello is recognized as one of the global South's – and the world's – leading analysts of the U.S. drive towards empire. His critique of the Afghan and Iraq wars is both sobering and encouraging, probing the dangers for the world in the Bush administration's militarism while recognizing the potential of the growing global peace movement. Bello’s dissection of the Asian dimension is particularly comprehensive and welcome. And, rooting the U.S. drive towards war in the corporate-driven trajectory of globalization, Bello's economic critique remains among the most prescient. A must read for scholars, activists, and global citizens.”

— Phyllis Bennis, Institute for Policy Studies fellow and author of Before & After: U.S. Foreign Policy and the September 11 Crisis

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Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
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Dilemmas of Domination

The Unmaking of the American Empire

By Walden Bello

Henry Holt and Company

Copyright © 2005 Walden Bello
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5764-3


The Road to Baghdad

It is not simply that current international law and the institutions it has created cannot assure international security, it is that they are a positive barrierto such security because they hamstring the one state with the power and willingness to intervene on behalf of world order.

George W. Bush takes the doctrine of "democratic engagement" of the first Bush administration, and that of "democratic enlargement" of the Clinton administration, one step further. It might be called "democratic transformation." Or it might be called "liberal imperialism." What is wrong with this noble idea?


There may be good and sufficient reasons to abide by the provisions of a treaty, and in most cases one would expect to do so because of the mutuality of benefits that treaties provide, but not because the U.S. is "legally" obligated to do so.


The behavior of the U.S. government in the international arena reflects, of course, the needs of American capitalism. But the underpinnings of American foreign policy are considerably more complex than this statement suggests.

In dealing with other nations, the United States is also impelled by its drive to extend its strategic reach, to project its power. Which global stances it develops depends on many factors, including the nature and intentions of the country's rivals and the character of domestic politics. Moreover, its offensive and defensive policies are affected by the tension between strategic goals and the resources available for achieving them. The projection of power, in short, is always dogged by the specter of overextension.

This chapter and the next one explore the origins and dynamics of the strategy that evolved after George W. Bush's inauguration, on January 20, 2001, and that led to the quagmire in Iraq. Earlier administrations struggled to resolve the same tension between imperial ambition and imperial means. That's where our search to make sense of the present dilemma must begin.


When contrasting the foreign policy of the administration of the younger Bush with that of previous regimes, analysts tend to label the Bush II presidency "unilateralist" and its predecessors "multilateralist." For instance, liberal writers Ivo Daalder and James Lindsay claim that Bush has launched a "revolution" in foreign policy:

In less than three years in office, he has discarded or redefined many of the keyprinciples governing how America engages the world. He has relied on the unilateral exercise of American power rather than on international law and institutions to get his way. He has championed a proactive doctrine of preemption and abandoned the tested strategies of deterrence and containment. He has preferred regime change to direct negotiations with countries and leaders that he loathes. And he has promoted forceful interdiction and missile defenses to counter weapons proliferation, all the while downplaying support for nonproliferation treaties and regimes.

Liberal analysts do not deny that previous administrations tried to achieve hegemonic ends but assert that they did so in collaboration with other powers and in a way that promoted global stability. To quote G. John Ikenberry:

The United States could exercise its power and achieve its national interests, but it did so in a way that helped deepen the fabric of international community. American power did not destabilize the world order; it helped create it. The development of rule-based agreements and political-security partnerships was good for both the United States and for much of the world. By the end of the 1990's, the result was an international political order of unprecedented size and success: a global coalition of democratic states tied together through markets, institutions, and security partnerships.

Comparisons of this sort between Bush and his predecessors have three shortcomings as historical analysis: they downplay the role of unilateralism in the unfolding of U.S. foreign policy in the post–World War II period; they exaggerate the break between Bush and his predecessors, although there are significant differences; and they fail to acknowledge that many of Bush's initiatives found precedents in the actions of earlier presidents, including Bill Clinton.

While multilateralism was prominent in the rhetoric of both Republicans and Democrats in the Cold War period, the practice of multilateralism to achieve U.S. objectives was, in reality, limited. In the construction of the anti-Soviet free world, the United States had only a few partners — mainly Britain, and, to a much lesser extent, France, Germany, and Japan. The commitment to act through the United Nations was always selective — that is, only when the world body could be relied on to serve U.S. security objectives, as in the UN-sanctioned police action in Korea in 1950.

Although multilateralism was more than a fig leaf in Europe, where NATO did in fact serve as a formal decision-making structure for security issues, it was nonexistent in Asia, where the United States refused to be constrained by multilateral treaties and organizations set up to achieve collective security.

In East Asia, the United States has assured maximum liberty of movement for its troops by forestalling the creation of a multilateral organization and by establishing a network of bilateral treaties with weaker countries. Freedom of action and unilateralist decision making were legacies of victory in the Second World War; they were maintained by a trans-Pacific garrison state that spanned seven client governments and allies and island colonies grabbed from Japan. Unilateral action, which reached its apogee with U.S. intervention in Vietnam from 1954 to 1975, has continued to be the main avenue of response in the area. Those who speak of multilateralism point to the United States–Japan partnership, but it is really a dependent relationship built on the occupation and then domination of a defeated enemy.

The fact of the matter is that in Asia, the United States did not need multilateral alliances to exercise its power, while in Europe it did. As Ikenberry himself acknowledges, "In Europe, the United States had an elaborate agenda for uniting the European states, creating an institutional bulwark against communism, and supporting centrist democratic regimes," while in Asia, "unchallenged hegemonic power meant that the United States had fewer incentives ... to secure its dominant position through international institutions that would have circumscribed its independent decisionmaking."

Nor was multilateralism ever a reality in Latin America. There, direct U.S. action was preferred to collective diplomacy to resolve problems, whether in staging the Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961, in removing a populist government in Brazil in 1964, or in supporting a coup against the socialist president Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973 on the grounds that, as Henry Kissinger put it, "I don't see why we should let a country go Marxist because its people are irresponsible."

It is difficult, therefore, to characterize U.S. policy, even before the 1990s, in terms of a black-and-white distinction between multilateralism and unilateralism; unilateralism has always been a central — if not the central — feature of U.S. policy. When we consider the 1990s, the multilateralist-unilateralist distinction becomes even more difficult to maintain. A common view is that the instincts of the Clinton administration were multilateralist but that the White House was hamstrung because the Republican-controlled Senate was simply waiting to pounce on its initiatives. A number of analysts have pointed out that Clinton, in his last days in office, did sign the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, defying the U.S. military and the Republican senators who intended to veto it. "Assertive multilateralism," an observer has argued, was the preferred strategy of the administration when it took power in 1993, but "faced with congressional and public misgivings, Clinton retreated to a pragmatic internationalism, encapsulated in the mantra of 'multilateral when we can, unilateral when we must.'"

There is reason, however, to doubt the accuracy of this portrait. For, in many areas, the Clinton administration was as unilateralist as any of the preceding administrations. This was certainly the case in East Asia. Here the United States, under Clinton, actively opposed moves to multilateralize the existing security system dominated by Washington. The White House, for instance, systematically subverted the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Regional Forum (ARF), which, for all its flaws, was a step in the right direction. When the forum was founded in Bangkok in July 1994, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was one of the few foreign ministers of participating governments absent from the meeting — no doubt a calculated move on the part of the United States to underline the lowly status it accorded the organization. Clinton himself denigrated the ARF and other multilateral security initiatives, saying they "are a way to supplement our alliances and forward military presence, not supplant them."

Why was an administration that was so multilateralist in rhetoric so determined to kill an embryonic multilateral system of collective security in the region? The reason was cogently summed up in a report of the Congressional Research Service:

[A] problem would arise if East Asian governments used the ASEAN Regional Forum and other future regional security consultative organizations in attempts to restrain the United States from acting on certain security issues. The impasse between the United States and the NATO and CSCE countries over policy toward Bosnia-Herzegovina points up the potential for disagreements as Cold War–based mutual security interests decline. Four areas of U.S. security policy in East Asia would appear to be subject to potential differences between the United States and some East Asian governments: U.S. attempts to restrain Chinese missile and arms sales; U.S. policy towards Taiwan, especially if Taiwan-China relations should worsen; U.S. efforts to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons; and U.S. policy towards Japan's future regional and international military roles. The U.S. Government and friendly East Asian governments might agree on some basic objectives on these issues, but they may disagree on the strategies and tactics to employ. Regional security consultative organizations could be focal points for the airing of such differences.

But fear of future disagreement was not the only reason. Even more central was the fact that, as the conservative analyst Robert Tucker put it, "In Asia much more than in Europe we have clients rather than allies."

When it came to dealing with nonallies, unilateralist saber rattling was sometimes the first rather than the last resort. As the simmering Taiwan-China crisis sharpened in response to Chinese military exercises in the Taiwan Straits in March 1996, the Clinton administration's reaction was classically unilateralist: sending two aircraft carrier battle groups to the area to warn China. Similarly, when it had difficulty getting the United Nations to impose sanctions on Korea over the latter's nuclear reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, the then secretary of defense, William Perry, sent word out that "North Korea's nuclear facilities might be bombed" if a negotiated closing of the facilities could not be achieved.

Targeted bombing, not of North Korea, but of the Sudan and Afghanistan in an effort to kill Osama bin Laden and other Al Qaeda leaders, after the bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, in August 1998, was a unilaterialist act through and through, legitimized by a specious appeal to Article 51 of the United Nations Charter, which justifies actions taken in self-defense. The bombing was a serious affront to many members of the international community to whom "the primary responsibility for controlling the actions of a resident [bin Laden] belongs to the local state, precluding direct foreign action even in self-defense until all other steps are exhausted."

But perhaps the most memorable case of unilateralism was the high-altitude bombing conducted against the former Yugoslavia in the spring of 1998, designed to get Serbian police and military forces out of Kosovo, where the population of Albanians was under threat of ethnic cleansing. While the Clinton administration sold the NATO air campaign as necessary to avert genocide, the White House "seemed to disregard the primacy of the Security Council in authorizing the use of force outside of self defense."

It is certainly true that, in the Yugoslavia air strikes as well as the intervention in Haiti early in 1994, Washington cited humanitarianism as a rationale for violating the principles of national sovereignty and collective security. It is also true that, unlike the Bush II administration, the Clinton White House did not undertake military action simply as a cover or an instrument for pursuing strategic interests but appealed to the missionary self-image of American liberalism. Nevertheless, they were unilateralist attacks, and in much of its behavior the Clinton administration sought, when it could, to avoid the constraints of multilateralism.

The multilateral/unilateral distinction, then, provides little help in understanding the uniqueness of the foreign policy of George W. Bush. In this regard, Robert Tucker accurately captures the centrality of unilateralism in foreign policy from Truman to Bush II:

The multilateralism of the Cold War years was more nearly a qualified unilateralism. The point has often been made that the American diplomatic experience has differed from the experience of other states in that the nation has never had to entertain genuinely cooperative action with other nations. In moving from a relative isolation to global engagement, we did not go from unilateralism to multilateralism but from the unilateralism of a position of isolation to the unilateralism of a position of undisputed leadership over a global alliance. This is not to say that the more recent unilateralism was without any of the constraints real multilateralism must imply, only that the constraints imposed by our allies still left us with a very considerable freedom of action.


Rather than employing the not very useful distinction between unilateralist and multilateralist administrations, we might better analyze the continuities and discontinuities in the foreign policies of different administrations by enlisting the concept of grand strategy. A grand strategy is the fundamental strategic approach of a national elite toward the rest of the world. It emerges from a dynamic process that involves, among other things,

• specifying the national interests of the society in the global arena;

• identifying the country's enemies and allies from the perspective of these interests; and

• elaborating a strategy to neutralize enemies and harness allies to achieve the national interests.

The formulation of a grand strategy in the United States is greatly influenced by the interplay between the economic and political drives of an advanced capitalist society and the conflict among classes and interest groups.

The United States has a dynamic, expansive capitalist mode of production. Policy making does not originate in the imperatives of economic expansion alone, however. The strategic imperative — the drive of the U.S. state to extend its reach — is also vital. In some areas and some periods, the strategic imperative can be overriding, as was certainly the case with the U.S. expansion into Asia. From the very beginning of the country's drive across the Pacific in the late nineteenth century, commercial opportunities served as ill-disguised rationales to justify acquisition of bases and to project the military and strategic reach of the United States.

Then there is the ideological imperative. The United States is not a nineteenth-century power operating solely on the basis of great-power realpolitik but a modern imperial democracy. In democracies, ideology is a vital element in winning legitimacy for imperial expansion both from the American people as well as from subject populations. Legitimacy is central to the U.S. imperial project.

The imperial enterprise is inherently fluid, unstable, and volatile. The drives for capitalist expansion, strategic dominance, and ideological enclosure operate with relative autonomy, sometimes in complementary fashion, sometimes in conflict with one another. Thus the imperial undertaking is a negotiated and conflict-ridden process in which various factions of the ruling elite, agencies of the bureaucracy, and contending intellectual forces develop competing strategies to achieve what they all claim to be in the national interest. Yet the conflicts are not simply struggles among different elements of the ruling class. The competing elites mobilize popular coalitions to help impose a grand strategy.


Excerpted from Dilemmas of Domination by Walden Bello. Copyright © 2005 Walden Bello. Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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