Interview with political scientist Prof. Paul Atwood


Paul-AtwoodKourosh Ziabari – Is military prowess and political dominance everlasting and eternal? The answer is certainly a big “no”, regardless of which power we are talking about. A brief study of the geopolitical developments of the past few centuries indicate that even the largest and most prosperous nations failed to survive in the face of social and cultural waves that have swept away their military and political dominance and hegemony. Missiles, nuclear bombs and numerous colonies couldn’t save the deceased empires of our time, and they cannot do so in the future, as well.

But what happens to our world if today’s number one superpower which has an almost unchallenged and matchless economic, political and military supremacy fades and grows faint? Is it possible at all that we find the United States a failed and miserable empire? Is it really plausible that the United States lose all of the wealth and affluence it has gained since its inception almost three centuries ago? These are the questions which Iran Review has been asking prominent political scientists across the world in the framework of “U.S. decline” interviews. The purpose of these interviews is to investigate and study the future of the U.S. Empire through exploring the viewpoints and opinions of political scientists and academicians.

Our newest interviewee is Prof. Paul Atwood who is one of the founders of the William Joiner Center for the Study of War and Social Consequences, University of Massachusetts, Boston. He served in the U.S. Marine Corps, and became active in antiwar efforts and veterans issues after discharge. In addition to work in the center he is on the faculty of the American Studies Department at the University of Massachusetts/Boston.

He has edited the Joiner Center publication Agent Orange: Medical, Scientific, Legal, Political and Psychological Issues. Most recently he has published War and Empire: The American Way of Life (London, UK, Pluto Press, 2010) and co-edited Sticks and Stones: Living with Uncertain Wars (University of Massachusetts Press, 2006. He has published numerous articles on the consequences of warfare, for example in Barry Levy and Victor Sidel, eds. Public Health and War, New York, (Oxford University Press, 1996) and articles on the Vietnam War in Microsoft Encarta Encyclopedia (1998).

The following is the text of Iran Review’s interview with Prof. Paul Atwood to whom we have discussed issues such as the prospects of capitalism and liberalism, the compasses of the U.S. Empire, the survival of imperialism, the American lifestyle and cultural life, among other issues.

Q: As you know, the unipolar, hegemonic system of global governance led by the United State constitutes the basis and structure of current international order. In this regard, some people believe that the signs of the decline of the United States and a consequent transformation in the international order have begun to emerge. A change based on the founding of a power balance against the United States has begun to emerge in the global equations of political power. What’s your analysis of this change and the challenges it poses to U.S. hegemony?

A: By the 1930s re-emergent fascist Germany and militarized Japan threatened the integrity of the world system that Britain, France, Holland, Portugal and Spain had created since the 16thand  17th Centuries, and which the U.S. was poised to coopt, given the weakened position of the European imperial powers caused by near defeat in World War I. If in the 1940s the U.S. did not intervene against Germany and Japan, American capital penetration of virtually all of Eurasia – The USSR was also largely sealed – would have been effectively stifled leaving the U.S. in a state of permanent depression, thereby threatening domestic social peace and stability. Thus, political and financial elites manipulated the U.S. into the second round of global war on their timetable and with the least loss of life, confident that all enemies and allies alike would be spent, leaving the U.S. in the position of unparalleled global ascendancy, encompassing incomparable military dominance, as well as supreme financial sovereignty, owing to the Bank of International Settlements, and not least because the dollar reigned supreme.

Just prior to American entry into World War II Henry Luce, a principal advocate for American hegemony, argued that the “American century” was about to begin. More recently arch-imperialists known in the U.S. as neo-conservatives have postulated the 21st Century as the “new American century,” while the “neo-liberal” Secretary of State Clinton has asserted a “Pacific century” for the U.S. This is the characteristic arrogance of power. The U.S. now faces challenges that call into doubt its continued dominance. The “uni-polar moment” envisioned by the neo-cons has proven to be the fantasy it always was and is. The brandishment of firepower carried out most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and now Africa has forced a coalescence of opposition exemplified just recently on January 9 by yet closer cooperation between China and Russia. Just as other emergent nations challenged British hegemony in 1914 and 1939, so new coalitions have materialized today. The so-called “pivot to the east” is seen by Chinese and Russians for what it is-an effort by Washington to encircle them militarily and stifle their own (imperial) objectives.

I am old enough to remember then Vice President Richard Nixon hectoring the Soviets about the superiority of capitalism. Now that both former communist giants, and India and the Asian “tigers”, have embraced state capitalism, they have paradoxically rolled back American economic supremacy to some extent and now threaten American global aims far more than when they pretended to socialism. This competition could spill out of control and promote feedback loops that may accelerate economic depression and hence, more global hostility. Instead of stepping back and seeking the sort of international cooperation that might avoid the worst outcomes all are fostering weapons systems and driving the antagonism. So it is not only the United States that is putting its future at grave risk.

Q: With your explanations, one can realize that the unchallenged hegemony and dominance of the United States has been historically threatened, particularly following the World War II. Well, it seems that the United States is voluntarily retreating from its position as a global hegemon, as a result of a remarkable increase in the costs of the unipolar and hegemonic order and the considerable decrease in its utilities. What’s your viewpoint in this regard?

A: The retreat from direct “boots on the ground” intervention in key areas of the world is really a recognition on the part of realist members of the American elite who now wield power that the wars of aggression waged by the Bush administration’s extremists are not feasible because of the financial drain and “blowback” in the form of opposition from the potent bloc of China and Russia, and the stimulation of Islamic resistance the world over. They also comprehend that the neo-conservative gambit to wrest control of Iraq’s oil and Afghanistan’s strategic position astride central Asian energy fields has been defeated, as much by challenges from other competing powers as by indigenous opposition. The U.S. simply does not have the muscle to block either of the former communist giants from access to the same resources as evidenced, for example, by the fact that China has signed contracts with the U.S’s client regime in Afghanistan for access to what appears to be the greater share of rare earth minerals. Neo-conservatives brayed that the invasion of Iraq would promote democracy throughout the Arab and Muslim world and the supreme irony is that it has but in forms opposite to their delusions and jihadist movements proliferate daily, according to the rule of “blowback,” multiplying exponentially across the Muslim world.

At this point the U.S. is waging unprecedented high tech drone warfare in both Pakistan and Afghanistan (and Yemen and Somalia, and undoubtedly now Mali) seemingly to keep the Taliban and other jihadists at bay with the irrational hope that client regimes can still be salvaged in key resource areas. Russia and China have been largely silent about this but have been clear about warnings not to attack Iran or Syria. Obviously an assault on Iran would cripple the global economy. At this writing the U.S.’s new “AfriCom” is jumping into the Maghreb and Sahel. China’s inroads and massive investments in key resource areas of Africa are thus threatened. It is not mere coincidence that Mali is a major gold source and nearby Niger a repository of uranium, not to mention Nigeria’s oil and other energy resources in the Gulf of Guinea. Since oil is still denominated in dollars the hegemony of the U.S. currency is dependent upon U.S. control of much of the world’s energy as well as gold reserves. Couple all this with Washington’s “pivot to Asia” and China’s determination to control energy reserves around islands also claimed by Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines, and an ominous situation is developing.

The growing rivalry to access the globe’s primary resources is quickly draining them or raising their costs vastly and contributing to ever accelerating ecological and environmental devastation. While Big Finance profits by speculation and stock manipulation, and energy companies benefit from rising prices, the manufacturing and service sectors of capitalism, especially small businesses suffer from lack of credit. The consequences to social stability everywhere will be severe. My fear is that as such stability as exists unravels the first response will be what it has always been – to reach for the nearest weapons. This is an end game.

Q: Right. Then you think that the U.S. wars and military expeditions should be interpreted in the light of its greed for the precious natural resources of the countries which are targeted and also an unquenchable thirst for money and economic profit. Let’s get to the next question. The global capitalistic economy is collapsing and its consequences for the uni-polar and hegemonic order are beginning to appear gradually. What do you think about the impact of the downfall of global economic recession and its effects on the compasses of the U.S. power?

A: Washington’s very intervention throughout the Muslim world, mendaciously in the name of countering “terrorism,” is calling forth the extreme response U.S. policymakers claim to oppose.

By all appearances such “permanent war for permanent peace” seems calculated. The major reason for economic decline is the falling rate of profit owing to the entrance of so many other players in the deadly game of capitalist competition. Major banks and state monopolies and oligopolies over energy are profitable while many productive ones are declining, thus leading to lower standards of living everywhere for most. If the U.S cannot wrest control of the global resources necessary to keep the American capitalist engine running smoothly by standard capitalist means , and if the general rate of profit keeps falling owing to increasing competition from rapidly developing nations, then armed force is seen as the answer at least to securing control over resources in key areas. But, as noted, this has failed in Iraq and Afghanistan. I believe that the American elite understands that catastrophic decline is on the horizon, and are taking measures now to reduce the standard of living of the middle classes – they have never cared about the poor – in order to maintain military investments and expenditures. Despite blather about cutting taxes, they are actually rising for the middle classes, thereby cutting into consumption but leaving plenty for a high tech air and sea force. Pentagon projections for the future diminish the importance of marine and army units in favor of “Air Sea Battle” with high investments in the latest air force planes and navy vessels, all equipped with deadly armaments.

That the latter is directed at the Western Pacific is not lost on China. Throughout history economic competition in the face of decline has led great powers to reach for the nearest weapons. We saw the results in two earlier global conflagrations. Today’s weapons of mass destruction make the possibility that elites would risk a Third World War an absurdity and calamity of staggering consequence.

Q: I think you have elaborated on the political mechanisms of maintaining and preserving the capitalist economy in a clear-cut and precise manner. My next question is about the international resistance against the U.S. hegemony. Based on the emergence and intensification of global resistance against capitalism and liberalism, especially resistance on the microphysical level of global power against the lifestyle of imperialist system, the political power and influence of the United States has been diminishing in the recent years. What’s your take on that?

A: I don’t see resistance against Capitalism, merely resistance to its richest and most powerful protagonist. Lesser powers that used to profess some form of socialist answers to mass poverty and unemployment now practice state capitalism and are equally corrupt and its elites and middling populations are committed to the same wasteful way of life. Clearly the liberalism that emerged from Britain and the United States has been proven morally hypocritical and bankrupt. Taking only one of its so-called principles, the claim that all peoples and nations have the “right” to national self-determination would be laughable were the actual consequences of empire not so appalling. On the one hand people around the globe perceive this hypocrisy, yet wish to have the lifestyle that American media projects. The reality is that though the U.S. has about 4% of the planet’s population it consumes about 30% of its primary resources. China is on track to exceed that consumption and both nations (and others) are fostering catastrophic environmental degradation while snatching the greater share of natural wealth from the wretched of the earth.It has been estimated that for all humans to “enjoy” the bloated lifestyle of Americans at least seven planet Earths would be required.

At the outset of American entry into WWII, President Franklin Roosevelt articulated the “four freedoms” that should be the birthright of every human, among which are freedom from want and fear. Ostensibly the United Nations was established to promote this vision, as well as to make another global war impossible. As the world’s most powerful nation and as primary financier of the infant UN, the U.S. had, and has, a special responsibility to champion these noble and necessary aspirations. Yet before the ashes of the war had cooled the U.S. began to overthrow governments, even elected ones, and assembling the deadliest war machine ever conceived. It is certainly possible to imagine a world in which all peoples can enjoy freedom from want and fear but for that a rational global plan would have to be devised among nations that now see each other as competitors. In the midst of the strife and envy still engendered by global capitalism nationalism should be perceived as atavistic today but it is an expedient tool employed easily by elites whose only real loyalty is to the dollar to keep entire populations in fear and thrall.

Q: Your allusion to the hypocrisy of the capitalist systems, I think, was the most important part of your message here. Well, you know that the resistance and opposition of the United States’ domestic forces against the interventions of the U.S. government in the other countries and the imperialistic traits of the U.S. political system have been contributing to the weakening of the global position of the United States. Would you please share your perspective on that with us?

A: I passionately wish that there existed a domestic opposition devoted to and capable of derailing the behemoth of our nation’s imperialism. This is not to depreciate the moral and principled efforts of many who are trying to do just that. The extremely effective and sophisticated propaganda machine wielded by the corporate media, in partnership with a government controlled by corporations, has convinced the majority of Americans that American deployments abroad are only necessary to deter and defeat terrorism.” That the very policies pursued by the U.S. to promote corporate takeovers of resources in other peoples’ lands are creating the enemies we fear is simply not allowed into the public discussion.

Too many Americans have been propagandized to accept as their birthright the consumption of junk products manufactured from natural resources that could and should be measured carefully used more rationally. Yet, on a deep psychological level Americans sense that our supremely wasteful and bloated way of life is completely dependent upon untrammeled consumption and access to planetary resources and fear the consequences should the flow cease. True, many Americans are in profound debt owing to the “structural adjustments” to the American lifestyle that have brought foreclosures, bankruptcies, loss of retirement income, and mass unemployment, all carried out by elites of both the left and right over the last 30 years who could care less about the human cost. But too many people are trying to hang on to a lifestyle dictated by indoctrination. In short, many have been led to fear that the weakening position of the U.S.will cost them even more. The media “masters of deceit”do not allow discussion of the very real and increasingly possible dire consequences of the American military juggernaut’s deployment to the far corners of the earth. While there are important social movements, these have not been able to mobilize the numbers required to demand change and while important  web-based media dedicated to a rational alternative exist the fact remains that pornography, gambling and sports sites have the largest viewership. All of these, of course, are variations on the ancient theme of “bread and circuses.”

Q: And my final question; aside from these propositions which we’ve mentioned as the factors contributing to the decline of the U.S. socioeconomic and political power and the downfall of the imperialism, can you think of other possibilities which may in one way or another further and accelerate the demise of the U.S. Empire?

A: The American empire, like all others, will eventually collapse of its own sheer weight, inconsistencies and costs but there is little guarantee the end result will offer us anything better, absent some dramatic elevation in global human consciousness. As I’ve argued, with the collapse of “socialism”, rampant predatory capitalism is the worldwide order of the day. A mainstay of capitalist ideology is “growth”, and the attendant proposition that this constitutes “progress.”  When 300 million Chinese and as many Indians desire the equivalent of the “American standard of living,” and their governments wish to provide it, we have what will eventually prove to be the race to catastrophe. But who are we Americans to condemn them since we set the preposterous standard?

Americans seem to have convinced the world that if we have a cell phone we should covet our neighbors’ iPhone or if we have a mere 19” television we really need a 60” one. The hollow absurdity of such “reasoning,” and the tragedy, is that there is plenty to go around to ensure that the global population can have perfectly adequate food, clean water, shelter, and meaningful work. Yes, that would require a rejection of the claim that competition, fed by selfishness, leads to the best distribution of resources, and an embrace of a global order of cooperation instead of the pretense of it with which we now dupe ourselves. Instead, the system that most embrace is altering planetary climate that has only begun to cause privation, and acidifying the oceans, the very womb of all life on Earth. The dizzying race for ever more energy results in ever more extreme measures to obtain it such as “fracking” which is poisoning ground waters, the most vital resource of all. What more need be said? Modern genetic science has proved that every human being on earth today is descended from the same original mother. That same science has opened the possibilities of curing wretched diseases that have plagued humanity for millennia. What we imperatively need, before it is too late, is a cure for war and militarism.

This interview was originally published on Iran Review website.