What's Left

May 14, 2003

Even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged

By Stephen Gowans

George W. Bush's September 20, 2002 National Security Strategy begins with a bold declaration: There is, it says, "a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy and free enterprise." Declaring free enterprise to be a summum bonum is a rather odd way to set out on the task of putting forward a plan to safeguard the security of a nation, if "nation" is taken to comprise the 300 million or so people who claim US citizenship. For whatever has free enterprise -- or Bush's commitment, set out in the same document, to "actively work to bring...free markets and free trade to every corner of the world" -- to do with safeguarding the personal safety of ordinary Americans?

The answer, according to Bush, is that poor countries are hospitable hosts for terrorist networks. "Poverty does not make people into terrorists," he says, but "poverty...can make weak states vulnerable to terrorist networks." And since "[f]ree trade and free markets have proven their ability to lift whole societies out of poverty," solving the problem of terrorism means imposing the single sustainable model of free trade and free markets on countries whose poverty is the fertile soil in which terrorist networks are able to put down roots, or so the argument goes.

To say there are a few problems with Bush's formulation is to understate the obvious. For one, it's not clear how much more free trade and free enterprise a desperately poor country like Haiti can withstand, before the word "desperation" becomes too mild a description of the straitened circumstances under which the island's residents subsist. And Central America has a long history of free trade and free markets (imposed by US gunboat diplomacy), and nothing to show for it, but misery, poverty and unrelenting strife. But American corporations, among them United Fruit, have profited handsomely from a model of free trade and free markets that--while not lifting Central Americans out of poverty--has certainly kept the profit margins of US firms with stakes in the region agreeably large.

As for there being a single, sustainable model based on free markets, Cuban-style socialism, a counter-model, has enjoyed sustained success in delivering startling social gains to Cubans, achievements that not only put pre-Castro, US-dominated Cuba to shame, but raise troubling questions about the US. How is it, for example, that a Third World country, whose per capita GDP is a fraction of that of the United States, can offer universal healthcare for free, while 40 million Americans have no health insurance and another 40 million are inadequately insured? How is it that a poor Caribbean country can lead the world in the number of doctors and teachers per capita, have the world's lowest teacher to pupil ratio, offer education through university for free, and top the hemisphere with the lowest child mortality rate, while access to education in the US is grossly unequal and in some parts of the country child mortality reaches Third World levels?  Even more troubling for defenders of the "there's nothing better than the American system" school of thought, is how Cuba has, under the most inauspicious of circumstances, managed to deliver benefits that, were they proposed for Americans, would be immediately dismissed as too expensive. The tiny country has been blockaded, menaced by economic warfare, and subject for more than 40 years to Washington's unrelenting efforts to smash a society that stands as a challenge to the claim that there's one sustainable model, and yet, in matters of social well-being, economic security and equality, it outperforms its vastly richer northern neighbor.

The Bush document is chock-a-block of references to visiting the virtues of this single model of free trade and free markets on other countries. "We will promote...economic freedom beyond America's shores," it promises,  presumably, whether the intended recipients approve or not. But however much the Bush administration is smitten by free trade and free markets (code for markets open to US firms on terms agreeable to US investors), it might be asked why it is necessary to impose this model on others? Markets open to US firms have proved infinitely more beneficial to US firms than to the majority of the domestic populations involved, which is not to say there aren't comprador sections of foreign populations that have also profited, but on the whole, the pursuit of free markets and free trade has had nothing to do with lifting others out of poverty, and has had everything to do with expanding markets and preventing the US economy from slipping into permanent recession. There is little to recommend this model to foreign populations, or the majority of Americans, for that matter, whose interests, if they are served by the model at all, are served only incidentally.

In this, Bush's emphasis on opening markets abroad and imposing free trade (a moral principle, Bush calls it, though not one to be observed when it comes "at the expense of American workers," which is kind of like saying marital fidelity is a moral principle, though not one to be observed at the expense of giving up an opportunity to bang the office flirt in a night of gloriously unbridled sex), is simply a continuation of a long-standing US foreign policy reaching back over a century, if not longer. It is a foreign policy that puts US corporate control over foreign markets, labor and resources at its center, supported by robust military intervention as a major means of achieving the central goal.

"I firmly believe," remarked Connecticut's Senator Orville Platt in 1894, "that when any territory outside the present territorial limits of the United States becomes necessary for our defense or essential for our commercial development, we ought to lose no time in acquiring it." [1] Platt's importunities were largely superfluous. The United States would have lost no time anyway in acquiring what has come to be known as "America's vital interests," be it tin and tungsten in Indochina or oil in the Middle East. Capitalism, like a shark, must keep moving, and American capitalism has been very successful in moving across the face of the globe.

Thirteen years later, Woodrow Wilson, soon to become president, would utter the shark-keeper's credo. "Since trade ignores national boundaries," he said, "and the manufacturer insists on having the world as a market, the flag of his nation must follow him, and the doors of the nations which are closed against him must be battered down. Concessions obtained by financiers must be safeguarded by ministers of state, even if the sovereignty of unwilling nations be outraged in the process. Colonies must be obtained or planted in order that no useful corner of the world may be overlooked or left unused." [2]

Wilson, like most presidents, was a Marxist of sorts. Compare his remarks to this, from the Communist Manifesto: "The need of a constantly expanding market for [their] products chases the [manufacturer] over the whole surface of the globe. [They] must nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere." [3] The difference, of course, was that Wilson was a willing servant, and beneficiary of, the capitalist exploitation Marx and Engels deplored. But they were all pretty well agreed on the imperative that drove capitalists to batter down the doors of nations closed against them. And much of the battering, in the American case, was being done by the United States military.

Major General Smedley Butler, a 33-year veteran of the US Marine Corps., would have perceived nothing unusual in George Bush's seeking to protect the security of a nation by committing to "bring...free markets and free trade to every corner of the world." That's because Butler came to perceive his role in the country' military establishment, which nominally exists to protect the security of Americans from attack, as one of securing access to foreign markets and resources on behalf of US firms, a necessary part of the imperative that drove capitalists to "nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, establish connections everywhere," even if it meant outraging the sovereignty of unwilling nations. It was perfectly true that the US military protected Americans, if by Americans you meant "some Americans" and you were speaking of their business opportunities and investments overseas.

"I spent most of my time [in the Marines] as a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street and the bankers," [4] Butler recalled. "In short, I was a racketeer, a gangster for capitalism." [5]

"I helped make Mexico...safe for American oil interests," he explained. "I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank." And he added that he "helped in the raping of half a dozen central American republics for the benefit of Wall Street." [6]

Call it rape, or call it enforcing stability and security. It's all the same. Clinton's Defense Secretary William Cohen preferred the higher-sounding "stability." "Business follows the flag," he explained, when asked why 100,000 US troops were stationed in Europe, 40,000 were in South Korea, and tens of thousands were in the Persian Gulf region.  "Where there is stability and security, there is likely to be investment." [7]

But then Cohen was simply echoing Ronald Reagan's Secretary of State, and former Supreme Commander of NATO's forces in Europe, Alexander Haig. "A lot of people forget [the presence of US troops in Europe] is also the bona fide of our economic success," Haig explained. "[I]t keeps European markets open to us. If those troops weren't there, those markets would probably be more difficult to access." [8]

And Haig was simply echoing another former General, Dwight Eisenhower. "A serious and explicit purpose of our foreign policy [is] the encouragement of a hospitable climate for [private] investment in foreign nations." [9]

But encouraging hospitable climates for US investment in foreign nations, often using the kind of Mafia-style arm-twisting techniques of the high-class muscle men of the US military, lacks the moral allure that brings people to their feet in wild frenzies of patriotic fervor, of the kind that might lead the Jay Garners of a nation to ejaculate, "We ought to look in a mirror and get proud and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say: 'Damn, we're Americans!'"

And so it is that the process of US firms nestling everywhere, settling everywhere, and establishing connections everywhere, even where it has meant outraging the sovereignty of unwilling nations, has been cloaked in do-gooder morality. This has been true of all conquests. We didn't come for the gold, or the riches, or the oil, we came to spread Christianity, to bestow civilization on savages, to bring democracy and human rights to those who have suffered under tyranny, to root out terrorism, to bring relief from poverty, and to stop ethnic cleansing. We didn't station 100,000 troops in Europe to protect the access of US firms to European markets. We stationed 100,000 US troops in Europe to protect Western Europeans from Soviet aggression. And when the Warsaw Pact disbanded, 100,000 US troops remained, and a new cloak, just as high-faulting as the last, was donned.

"Oil," the infamous Henry Kissinger once remarked, "is much too important a commodity to be left in the hands of the Arabs." [10]  And so the sovereignty of Iraq has been outraged. There will be more nations whose sovereignty is outraged, so that US firms can nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, and establish lucrative connections everywhere. And there will be more fairy tales about liberating others from tyranny and rooting out terrorism and chasing away despots and dictators to make the world a freer and safer place. And it will continue unless the imperative that impels firms to scramble across the globe, seeking new markets, new resources, and new opportunties--using high-class muscle men to batter down the closed doors of unwilling nations--is overturned. Presidents like Bush come and go, all as much driven by coercive forces external to them, as the next. The faces change, but the policy--evidenced by the continuities among Wilson, Eisenhower and Bush, with ramifications leading to Haig and Cohen and Platt--remain the same. Always that single imperative remains at the center: expand, grow, nestle everywhere, settle everywhere, the sovereignty of unwilling nations be damned. Their resources are too important to be left in their hands.

Change the faces, without changing the imperative that shapes the policy, and nothing changes, but the surface appearance. The sovereignty of Cuba may be outraged, and Syria, and Iran, and soon, this century will shape up to be like every other century -- one of war. And why? Because we believed the lies crafted by people whose job it is to manage impressions, lies that say that the United States, with hundreds of thousands of troops stationed in scores of countries across the globe is not an expansionist empire; lies that say that America's serial aggressions are motivated by humanitarian concerns, not by an economic imperative that impels Washington to batter down doors closed to capital accumulation; lies that say that voting for Democrats, or for good and decent people, can make a difference, without first transforming the external coercive forces that push the country in the same direction, no matter who is at the helm.

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Two new articles by writers worth reading:

Gregory Elich's "Can you spot the war crime?" .

David McGowan's funny "Dave goes Polynesian" . Not for the humorless.
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1. David Healy, U.S. Expansionism: The Imperialist Urge in the 1890's, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin, 1970, p. 173, cited in Joel Andreas, Addicted to War, AK Press, 2002.

2. Micheal Parenti, Against Empire, City Light Books, San Francisco, 1995, p.40.

3. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, "The Communist Manifesto," in Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, Eds., "The Socialist Register, 1998," Monthly Review Press, 1998, p. 243.

4. Major General Smedley Butler, "War is a Racket," http://www.ratical.org/ratville/CAH/warisaracket.html#c1

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. "Cohen: No 'Superpower Fatigue' Secretary Says U.S. Military Presence Promotes Stability," Military.com, May 24, 2000, cited in Joel Andreas, Addicted to War, AK Press, 2002.

8. UPI, January 7, 2002.

9. New York Times, February 3, 1953, cited in Michael Parenti, The Terrorism Trap, City Light Books, San Francisco 2002, p.88.

10. Hans von Sponeck and Denis Halliday, "The Hostage Nation," The Guardian, Nov. 29, 2001, cited in . Joel Andreas, Addicted to War, AK Press, 2002.

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