Ukraine, the sanctions war & 21st century imperialism

by · August 12, 2014

We live in dangerous times. The last week has seen Russia impose trade sanctions on Australia, in a quite understandable response to the sabre rattling over Ukraine by our idiot politicians, and in particular, the enthusiasm displayed by Julie Bishop in backing sanctions against Russia. Sanctions and counter sanctions.

The European Union and Russia are at each others’ throats over Ukraine, and whose orbit it will move into economically and politically. The United States grabbed the chance to poke the bear, and joined in the fun. Australia, never one to miss an opportunity to use borrowed authority to play on the world stage, thought this was a great game, and helped lead the charge for sanctions on Russia. And so, predictably, Australia gets caught economically in the Russian response.

Almost exactly a hundred years ago, similar jockeying between great powers led to an escalating war of sanctions and tariffs. The end point was an international system that could no longer adjust to accommodate new players. Russia, the UK and France locked a rapidly industrialising Germany out of virtually all export markets. Eventually, and again predictably, the German rulers decided to try to shoot their way out of the bind.

The result was World War I.

That war, sold as ‘the war to end all wars’, left nine million people dead on the battlefield, and caused at least seven million civilian deaths in the rear. And it turned out to be the dress rehearsal for another, even worse, world war 20 years later. But in this centenary of the start of the ‘Great War’ one has to wonder if we are facing not simply war nostalgia, but the possibility of a re-enactment.

World War I resulted, fundamentally, from trade wars. Various political conflicts between states existed, and helped to trigger and exacerbate flashpoints, but the underlying reason that the nations of Europe marched to war was competition over markets and over colonies — capital accumulation, and competing blocs of national capital, were the underlying drivers. We have not seen a full-blown trade war for a very long time, yet it would appear that Australia is rapidly becoming a participant in one — again. Thank you, Tony DumDum and co.

The second thing to observe is that despite the apparent fixity of colonial preference systems, the whole lash up was inherently unstable. No single great power was able to clearly predominate, and so be in a position to dictate the terms on which it and the others interacted. Britain had played that role for much of the 19th Century, but was already in decline as a global power.

Today the United States, having dominated the Western Bloc through the Cold War, and having been the clear hegemon in the post-Cold War environment, is a declining power. Whereas once it dwarfed its competitors economically, its relative position is still weakening, especially vis-a-vis China, and it is no longer able to project its power in the same way. This can be seen very clearly in the way that the US has backed off in Syria and been more cautious than our moronic government in relation to Ukraine and Russia, but it is also evident in the approach it takes to a range of geopolitical situations where once it would have thrown its weight around, and now fears unserviceable engagements. Still, it retains the largest military in the world, and as we saw with the Bush dynasty, will be tempted to try to offset its declining position with periodic displays of military capacity. Iraq War III seems destined to be another.

An empire in decline is no longer able to sustain as many theatres of serious activity as before. Where once the US could sustain military engagements on several continents simultaneously, it no longer can. It must therefore triage its former sphere of influence, throwing its weight around less, lest its unwillingness to risk serious entanglement be exposed, as it was so spectacularly in Syria.

This means instability. It means that the power structures that have regulated the international system of states are no longer able to function in quite the same way. The US network of client states has always been somewhat fractious, but has remained essentially obedient for fear of becoming the enemy in the manner of Saddam Hussein. The more US power weakens, the more likely that some of those states will slip the leash, becoming a further destabilising element.

Since the traditional structures of imperialism are in a degree of flux, the great powers have no real way of knowing whether, in trespassing into the backyard of another, they will invite a lethal response. This is essentially what has happened in Ukraine. The European Union, chiefly Germany, made the calculation that Russia would tolerate, albeit reluctantly, the incorporation of its nearest Western neighbour into the EU. The Ukrainian rulers, for their part, attempted to play the EU and Russia off against each other for more favourable deals.

But Russia of course, also sitting on a vast military arsenal and witnessing its ‘buffer zone’ being incorporated into an enemy camp, did not act as Berlin expected. It annexed Crimea, and has encouraged partisans in Eastern Ukraine in exactly the same way that the US and Germany had encouraged them in Western Ukraine.

As The Piping Shrike has argued, the response of the Abbott Government to the MH17 crash was a transparent attempt to buoy its failing domestic authority, through the device of reviving Howard-era rhetoric about terrorism and moral imperatives overseas. Yet things have moved on since 9/11, and the combination of lack of an enabling context (the war on terror has become rather passé), together with the government’s already weak authority, meant that Abbott was always unlikely to carry it off.

The result is that we now have a civil war going on in the middle of Europe, with both sides backed by opposing great powers and, thanks to the idiots in Canberra, we now have a trade war with a trade partner worth $900 million a year to the Australian economy to go with it. Russia conducts a huge amount of trade with countries engaged in the sanctions, meaning this has the potential to be profoundly economically dislocating for dozens of economies.

The more that sanctions actually disrupt economic activities, the more it tends to increase political pressures inside those countries to achieve a resolution. But where the vital interests of the great imperialist powers are concerned, and especially in countries like Russia and the United States where the military legacy of past economic strength overhangs the current economic strength of those nations, there is considerable temptation to do so through the naked imposition of force.

The declining authority of the political class also creates more and more temptations to manage their domestic difficulties through foreign adventures. Yet they run great risks each time they attempt to use foreign manoeuvring to restore their own failing authority. As Gramsci put it, ‘the crisis of the ruling class’s hegemony … occurs either because the ruling class has failed in some major political undertaking for which it has requested, or forcibly extracted, the consent of the broad masses (war, for example)’. It is not by accident that World War I ended with revolutionary struggles in almost every belligerent country, and these were nations whose political elites had a great deal more credibility than do those of today.

It’s a powder keg waiting to go off. Miscalculations like that made by the EU on Ukraine, Australia on Russia, and the US on Syria are likely to become more and more common, as the system becomes less predictable. And as the ‘New World Order’ disintegrates by degrees, the stage is set for inter-imperialist rivalry to present us with new world wars, something I suspect most people probably still assume could never happen.

Discussion6 Comments

  1. Owen says:

    Interesting article Marc, but I’m not at all convinced that a world war scenario exists. For that to be the case there would need to a rival power to the US. Not such power exists today. The military and economic power of the US is predominant. China poses no serious threat – it is not even an imperialist power, which by definition makes a direct inter-imperialist conflict impossible.

    Yes, the US has suffered a now decades-long relative decline, but that doesn’t mean it’s no longer the predominant, indispensable power buttressing the entire world imperialist system.

    • Marc Newman says:

      Owen – that was a joke post, right?

      • Owen says:

        Not at all. And you concede as much with this:

        “No single great power was able to clearly predominate, and so be in a position to dictate the terms on which it and the others interacted. Britain had played that role for much of the 19th Century, but was already in decline as a global power.

        “Today the United States, having dominated the Western Bloc through the Cold War, and having been the clear hegemon in the post-Cold War environment, is a declining power. Whereas once it dwarfed its competitors economically, its relative position is still weakening, especially vis-a-vis China, and it is no longer able to project its power in the same way.”

        To say the US is declining is not to say it is no longer the “clear hegemon”.

        • Dr_Tad says:

          I’m confused by your position on China and the US, Owen. As far as I can see there are two period of US hegemony in the global order: The first from the end of WWII to the late 1980s when its bloc was counter-balanced by a militarily-powerful and economically-significant “communist” bloc which was a strong enough force to be the other pole of a deadly yet stable bipolar carve-up of the world.

          With the decline of the communist bloc and the collapse of the Soviet Union we entered a period where the US now reigned pretty unchallenged and was able to penetrate former spheres of communist influence. Yet this was only temporary as the US’ economic position continued to decline and attempts it made to leverage advantage by using its still massive military might turned into something of a fiasco (especially in Iraq). Meanwhile countries like Russia and (more so) China have (re)built military muscle, manoeuvred to expand their spheres of political influence and grown economically so as to sharply shift the balance of forces. Furthermore, the EU has responded to US decline by looking to build its own economic and political fortunes (with varying success) and the direct US role in the Middle East has receded, especially as the Gulf States have become independent centres of accumulation. This latter development has caused Israel to become understandably panicky about its own ability to maintain its position.

          It pretty much takes a conspiracy theorist to imagine the US as a clear global hegemon these days. It couldn’t even marshall the political support it needed to bomb Syria last year. Of course the Left is full of such conspiracy theorists, who need to maintain the illusion of an all-powerful imperialist enemy in Washington (see: Panitch & Gindin for one sophisticated version of this). Closer to the truth is a picture of US decline, its decreasing ability to regulate the chaos of geopolitics, and more caprice and arbitrariness in how it picks its targets as it tries to manage that decline.

          PS To suggest that a country with as big (and booming) an economy like China’s, with a massive military to boot, is not imperialist is to equally suggest that there were no imperialisms in 1914 (except maybe Britain). The issue now is that none of them is clearly dominant, things are fluid and messiness is the order of the day.

  2. Owen says:

    Well, a big economy and a big military does not make an imperialist nation (well, not the Leninist definition anyway).

    Regarding China’s status, I agree with Sam King in the latest MLR. See halfway down the page, ‘The myth of a rising China’.


    Also, I don’t see how it makes me a conspiracy theorist to think that the US is still by far and away the preeminent power in the world imperialist system. Which other country can boast 900 or so military bases, and hundreds of thousands of troops (more than 25% of its military forces) stationed in every nook and cranny of the globe?