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Global neo-imperial fantasies come unstuck

By Peter McMahon - posted Tuesday, 1 November 2005

These are bad days for the Bush Neo-con administration. The recent environmental disasters in South-East and Asia and the US, the ongoing impact of global terrorism and the rise and rise of China, signal the imminent demise of their attempt to create a neo-imperial world order. Ultimately, this project was an attempt to return to the golden days of rampant imperialism - the years between 1815 and 1914 - when the industrialised west carved up the world to its own design.

The disaster caused by Cyclone Katrina caused Americans to question Washington’s funding priorities: money for environmental programs was scarce while Iraq was soaking it up. Of course that war was a core element of the neo-imperial plan, intended to position American power in the critical oil-rich region. But it looks increasingly unwinnable, and is as bloody as ever. Meanwhile, Al-Quaida is still operating and the Taliban are still around in Afghanistan.

Furthermore, Americans are wondering why the US is selling its economy to China to help pay for this war, and to optimise Walmart’s profit. They may also start to ask why the US is holding back action on global warming, which is implicated in the increased incidence of devastating weather patterns.


The US is in decline because it was taken over by leaders who wanted to relive the good old days of global empire. Then, of course, it was the British who ruled over an empire on which the sun never set. More important, the whole world felt the power of western money and steam-powered gunboats.

After the Battle of Waterloo, when the last major threat to British-style civilisation was dispatched, a massive project emerged to reconstruct the entire world according to ideas developed by a tiny group of aristocrats and industrialists who had gained power over the British Empire. They wanted a world order (Pax Britannica) policed by unassailable techno-military force, mostly the Royal Navy, in which capital could flow wherever opportunity presented. Their vision was largely realised, with a surge in economic and technological development, but at a social and political cost that would eventually lead to global war.

It took up most of the 20th century to fight the global wars and clean up the mess. By the 1970s a new global economic system was emerging, becoming full-blown globalisation in the 1980s. By the 1990s the Neo-cons thought they could install their own version of global empire, now to be led by the only remaining superpower.

This fantasy, that the world could be rebuilt according to this simplistic logic of free markets backed up by industrial military power, is coming unstuck. The problem is twofold: first, the material world is not subject to such notions as economic efficiency, which are ultimately just ideas. Second, the human experiences on this planet are too diverse to bend to the simple logic of one homogenous society, or perhaps more appositely, one global market.

The earlier British-led global system arose out of the novel possibilities for trade and military power that were generated by industrialisation. This new kind of socio-economic system created unprecedented wealth, albeit distributed very unevenly, within nations and between nations. The promotion of European imperialism both ameliorated social dissent at home and enforced western power abroad. Even the new industrial behemoth, the US, and the latest industrial power, Japan, got caught up in the rush to flex industrial muscle.

The Neo-cons were attempting to turn the clock back to the age of global empire. Their ultra-patriotism, belligerence and support for corporate power were just new versions of the old imperialism. They wished to recreate the days when power was naked and strong, and money flowed unencumbered around the world, seeking quick profit and generating rapid development. Certainly they sounded globalist and focused on high technology, but so did their 19th century predecessors. Now it’s the dollar, the Internet and robot soldiers, whereas in the earlier phase it was sterling, the telegraph and dreadnoughts.


Global imperialism failed before, and when it did the world descended into global war. When the dust settled and the dead were buried there was an attempt to reconstruct a global order through institutions of negotiation, led by the now supreme US. The United Nations was primarily established as place for deciding matters of international relations, while the Bretton Woods financial system was intended to regulate global trade and finance. The UN stumbles on, despite the efforts of the Neo-cons, while Bretton Woods was finished off by the rise of the same financial forces that generated globalisation.

Humanity now faces a period of unparallelled threat. It faces the challenge of climate change, depletion of cheap oil and a series of related environmental and health problems. It also faces permanent terrorist activity and the proliferation of nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction. It is clear that the integrated world desired by the Neo-imperialists, with markets running all everyday activities and global order maintained by an unassailable global police force, cannot exist for long with such threats.

Ultimately, the British-led global system fell apart due to its inability to manage social and economic diversity - the socio-political world was just too complex. The Neo-con attempt is failing because of both social and environmental reasons - the real world is just too complex.

There is talk that the Realists are back in fashion in Washington and the Neo-cons are on the decline. But the Neo-cons were right about one thing - we all live in one global system now, and we need global-scale governance. The question, then, is whether we return to ideas of a global order run by nation states, or move on to a new kind of global governance system.

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About the Author

Dr Peter McMahon has worked in a number of jobs including in politics at local, state and federal level. He has also taught Australian studies, politics and political economy at university level, and until recently he taught sustainable development at Murdoch University. He has been published in various newspapers, journals and magazines in Australia and has written a short history of economic development and sustainability in Western Australia. His book Global Control: Information Technology and Globalisation was published in the UK in 2002. He is now an independent researcher and writer on issues related to global change.

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