US Global Power in the 21st Century: Military or Economic Imperialism?

Despite vast amounts of imperial data to the contrary, the great majority of writers on imperialism continue to describe and analyze US imperialism strictly in economic terms, as an expansion of “capital accumulation”, “accumulation on a world scale”.

In fact the major and minor US imperial wars have more to do with “capital dis-accumulation”, in the sense that trillion dollar flows have gone out from the US, hundreds of billions of dollars in profits from resource sites have been undermined, markets for exports have been severely weakened and exploitable productive labor has been uprooted. At the same time US imperialist state ‘dis-accumulates capital’, multi-national corporations, especially in the extractive sector are expanding, “accumulating capital” throughout Latin America.

This new configuration of power, the conflicting and complementary nature of 21st century US imperialism, requires that we anchor our analysis in the real, existing behavior of imperial state and extractive capitalist policymakers. The basic premise informing this essay is that there are two increasingly divergent forms of imperialism: military driven intervention, occupation and domination; and economic expansion and exploitation of resources, markets and labor by invitation of the ‘host country’.

We will proceed by examining the choices of imperial strategy, in a historical — comparative framework and the alternatives which were selected or rejected. Through an analysis of the practical decisions taken regarding ‘imperial expansion’ we can obtain insights into the real nature of US imperialism. The study of imperial strategic choices, past and present, state and corporate, requires three levels of analysis: global, national and sectoral.

Global Strategies: US Imperial State and the MNC

US imperial state invested trillions of dollars in military expenditures, hundreds of thousands of military personnel into wars in theMiddle East (Iraq, Yemen, and Syria), North and East Africa (Libya, Somalia), South Asia (Afghanistan) and imposed sanctions on Iran costing the US hundreds of billions in “capital dis-accumulation”.

The US corporate elite, driven out of Iraq, Syria, Libya and elsewhere where US military imperialism was engaged, chose to invest in manufacturing in China and extractive sectors throughout Latin America.

In other words the US imperial state strategists either chose to expand in relatively backward areas (Afghanistan, Pakistan, Somalia and Yemen) or imposed under-development by destroying or sanctioning lucrative extractive economies (Iraq, Libya, Iran).

In contrast the MNC chose the most dynamic expanding zones where militarist imperialism was least engaged — China and Latin America. In other words “capital did not follow the flag” — it avoided it.

Moreover, the zones where extractive capital was most successful in terms of access, profits and stability were those where their penetration was based on negotiated contracts between sovereign nations and CEO’s — economic imperialism by invitation.

In contrast in the priority areas of expansion chosen by imperial state strategists, entry and domination was by force, leading to the destruction of the means of production and the loss of access to the principle sites of extractive exploitation. US military driven imperialism undermined energy companies’ agreements in Iraq and Libya. Imperial state sanctions in Iran designed to weaken its nuclear and defense capabilities undercut US corporate extractive, public-private contracts with the Iranian state oil corporations. The drop in production and supply in oil in Iraq, Iran and Libya raised energy prices and had a negative impact on the “accumulation of capital on a world scale”.

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