From Wartime Alliance to Deadly Global Conflict
I do not believe history repeats itself but I find myself looking back to the past for lessons which might be relevant today. For example, during World War II an “unnatural alliance” between the United States (the new imperial hegemon), Great Britain (the old one), and the former Soviet Union (the revolutionary challenger to capitalist hegemony) formed to defeat fascism in Europe. It was in the interests of all three nations to do so.
As the war was ending the leaders of the “big three” nations--President Roosevelt, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin--met at Yalta in the Crimea to plan for a post-war world order. They made agreements on Eastern European borders, facilitating elections in Poland, administering a defeated Germany, defeating Japan in the Asian war, and planning for the first meeting of the United Nations. The three leaders returned to their respective countries declaring that a peaceful post-war world order would be established. “The spirit of Yalta” brought hope to millions of North Americans and Europeans, West and East.
In April, President Roosevelt died and a new more bellicose administration had come to power in Washington. Within three months the United States had successfully tested its new atomic bomb and dropped two of them on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. By the fall, 1945 US and Soviet disputes over treaties ending the status of war with former fascist regimes in Eastern Europe began to destroy the comity that had been built over the course of the war and codified at Yalta. In 1946 crises occurred between East and West over Iran and Greece. It is clear in retrospect that ever since its ascendency to power the new Truman administration had been working to achieve global hegemony in the post-war period, using its military and economic superiority as tools.
In the spring of 1947, the US decided to replace the British in Greece as the latter worked to crush a leftwing insurgency in that country’s civil war. President Truman was warned by the Republican Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that he, Truman, better “scare hell out of the American people.” This was so because most Americans favored peace over more conflict in world affairs and many still perceived the former wartime ally, the Soviet Union, positively.
The announcement of the new global threat and the need to mobilize resources over the next several years to “defend” against the demonic Soviet Union led to the recommendations for action in the famous Truman Doctrine speech to Congress in March, 1947. These put the US on a war path that would cost more than 10 million lives, international and American, and at least $5 trillion by the twenty-first century.
So the decisions made between 1945 and 1947 presaged a dramatic shift in United States foreign policy that had enormous consequences for both its own citizens and the world. Decision-makers in the Truman administration who favored maintaining some semblance of cooperation with the former Soviet Union lost their influence. Even some of Truman’s hardline advisors like George Kennan felt the evolving policies went too far in terms of bellicosity.
From Global Conflict Management to Renewed Global Military Madness
Fast-forward some 65 years. President Obama, from 2008 to 2013, continued the Bush war in Afghanistan, ordered drone attacks on alleged terrorist targets in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and authorized covert support for destabilization of populist regimes in Latin America. In contrast, at the same time, he has tried to create a more “realist” panoply of policies based on diplomacy and modest recognition that there were limits to US power. During the President’s second term, the United States partnered with Russia to curb Syria’s brutal war on its citizens and Russia, Iran, and the United States began to make progress in arms negotiations.
But then, with the aid of undercover US operatives, rebels overthrew a Ukraine government in February 2014 that had close ties with Russia. The US and the new Ukraine government launched a diplomatic and military assault on pro-Russian Ukraine separatists and the government in Kiev began to maneuver itself toward joining NATO and the European Union.
And in June the Obama administration announced a new threat, not only to a particular geographic setting, the Persian Gulf, but to the civilized world. The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) was pronounced the new global monster (as was the Soviet Union in 1947). Beginning in August, 2014, the United States and selective allies initiated what became large scale bombing of ISIS targets in Iraq and, by September, in Syria. Massive air assaults and declarations of success have been coupled with announcements of the need for more bombing and more allies to engage in this common struggle. Since the bombing began influential foreign policy elites in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have spoken of the need ultimately to send troops to the Persian Gulf to defeat ISIS.
In short, in just a matter of three months the United States, much of Europe, and Arab states have embarked on a seemingly insane escalation of war, enthusiastically endorsed by most of the media and foreign policy pundits. Whether it is Ukraine or the Persian Gulf, the emergence of crisis and war has intruded itself on an unsuspecting world the way the Cold War transformed the spirit of Yalta to possible hot war in just two short years. This time, the rush to war has occurred in just a matter of months.
Comparing the Pursuit of Global Hegemony: 1945-47 with 2014
The starkness of the shift in United States foreign policy and the unidimensional zealousness of media support for wars on Russia and ISIS have shifted political discourse away from domestic police violence, climate change, growing economic inequality, the toxic nature of gridlock in Washington politics, and sequester-based requirements to reduce military spending. All this has occurred in the domestic political context of off-year elections in the United States.
The transformation of United States foreign policy in 2014 is as dramatic as that of 1945-47 with as potentially dire consequences as the first period. But there are differences between 2014 and 1945-47.
First, the United States is not the emerging global hegemon today but rather a declining world power economically and militarily. To use an old analogy, a wounded and threatened animal is more violence prone and dangerous than a healthy and secure one.
Second, there emerged in the 21st century three vigorous counter-hegemonic tendencies in world affairs that the United States and some of its major allies oppose. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) are increasingly demanding a transformation of major global institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, and the United Nations system to better reflect the population size, wealth, and geography of the international system. In other words they reject the hegemonic economic and political order established at the end of World War II.
In addition, some nations, such as those in Latin America, are beginning to create counter-institutions, including a bank for the countries of the Global South. Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, Uruguay, and to some degree Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, Nicaragua, and, of course, Cuba are creating a Western Hemisphere international economic order that would be a major threat to the 150 year US domination of the region.
Perhaps the greatest perceived threat to an international order based on US global hegemony is the spread of grassroots mobilizations all across the world. Arab Spring in 2011 was followed by austerity protests in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, student mobilizations in Chile and Canada, pro-labor and anti-austerity movements in the United States, including the Occupy movement, and the spreading Moral Mondays campaigns in the US South. All these campaigns are inspired by older anti-globalization activism, including the Zapatistas in Chiapas, the World Social Forum, and endless campaigns against the IMF, the World Bank, for global climate change, the liberation of women and indigenous people. While the slogan, “the people united will never be defeated,” may be too optimistic in the short-run, it does represent a source of fear for global finance capital and its leaders in the United States, Europe, and among various Arab autocracies.
Third, additional anti-hegemonic movements or campaigns include brutal terrorists, various forms of fundamentalists, who will stop at nothing to combat what they see as the enemy. With growing worldwide poverty, social marginalization, and powerlessness, millions of dispossessed people are drawn to reactionary, militaristic forces which have no positive vision except offering the promise of defeating the enemies who bomb them with impunity.
Where Does the Peace Movement Go?
The task of the peace movement broadly defined is as complex as that confronting its ancestors at the dawn of the Cold War. Using the old labor slogan the peace movement needs to educate, agitate, and organize.
Educational campaigns require developing and communicating forthright analyses of the global political economy today. They should analyze the declining power of the traditional global hegemons, the rise of global resistance, and incorporate theorizing that includes the salience of non-state actors, from grassroots activists to terrorist extremists. Such an educational campaign should fuse issues of economics, politics, the environment, global inequality, domestic and foreign policies, and class, race, and gender on a global scale. Education requires historical understanding, sensitivity to cultural variations, and needs to challenge mass media stereotypes that distort reality.
Agitation should include mobilizing campaigns at home and across the globe around opposition to military spending, drone warfare, nuclear weapons, terrorism and anti-terrorism campaigns, and the oligopolistic global mass media that is a tool of those forces that seek to maintain global hegemony.
Organization should include finding ways to develop cross-national solidarity which makes connections between grassroots campaigns in one geographic space with those elsewhere. Virtually no issue--such as the environment, healthcare, labor and women’s rights, or police brutality—is unique to one country or city or town. The new technology makes the compression of time and space more feasible than in any prior period of history.
The qualitative shift in United States foreign policy from 1945 to 1947 made nuclear war more possible. The Cold War led to an atmosphere whereby escalation to nuclear holocaust was always a justifiable fear. While nuclear war did not happen, the Cold War adversaries fought their battles in countries of the Global South such as Korea, Vietnam, South Africa, and Cuba.
Today’s shifting United States foreign policy could bring global war, irreversible environmental devastation, starvation and disease, and terrorism on a scale new to human history. The global peace movement has an arduous but necessary job to reverse these possibilities.