Published on Wednesday, December 18, 2002 by the Guardian/UK
Folly of Our Masters of the Universe
Global elites must realize that US imperialism isn't in their interest
by Michael Hardt
Some of the worst tragedies of human history occur when elites are incapable of acting in their own interest. The waning years of ancient Rome, for example, were full of misguided political and military adventures that brought death and destruction to the elites, their allies and their enemies alike. Unfortunately we are again facing such a situation.
It seems inevitable that the United States will soon conduct a full-scale war in Iraq. The US is also engaged in a war on terrorism that may extend to all regions of the globe. And, most importantly, the US has embarked on a foreign policy of "security" that dictates that it not merely react to threats but anticipate them with pre-emptive strikes.
These military adventures are one sign that the US is fast becoming an imperialist power along the old European model, but on a global scale. It is imposing itself as the active and determining center of the full range of world affairs, military, political, and economic. All exchanges and decisions are being forced, in effect, to pass through the US.
The ultimate hubris of the US political leaders is their belief that they can not only force regime change and name new leaders for various countries, but also actually shape the global environment - an audacious extension of the old imperialist ideology of mission civilisatrice . Regime change in Iraq is only the first step in an ambitious project to reconstruct the political order of the entire Middle East. And their designs of power extend well beyond that.
Many political and economic elites around the world, however, do not favor the creation of a new US imperialism. One common view is that European political leaders generally oppose US unilateralism because it excludes them and prefer instead multilateral political and military solutions. What are most significant, however, are not the conflicting interests that separate US elites from others, but rather their common interests.
The common interests of the global elites are most visible in the economic sphere. Business leaders around the globe recognize that imperialism is bad for business because it sets up barriers that hinder global flows. The potential profits of capitalist globalization, which whet the appetites of business elites everywhere only a few years ago, depend on open systems of production and exchange. This is equally true for the captains of capital in the US. Even for the US industrialists drunk on oil, their real interests lie in the potential profits of capitalist globalization
Their common interests are equally visible from the perspective of security. It is foolish to believe that the removal of a few malefactors, such as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, will provide security. Not even the US leaders have the illusion that this war will bring peace. They see it rather as a long-lasting and perhaps interminable war driven by continually emerging threats. US military actions will, in fact, most likely only feed the antagonisms created by the inequalities of wealth and power around the world, increasing exponentially the insecurity of global elites. This is doubly true for US elites since unilateral military actions paint a bull's-eye on the US for anyone seeking to attack the center of global domination.
However, there is an alternative to US imperialism: global power can be organized in a decentered form, which Toni Negri and I call "empire". This is not merely a multilateral coalition of leading nation states. Think of it as multilateralism squared. Empire is a network composed of different kinds of powers, including the dominant nation states, supranational organizations, such as the United Nations and the IMF, multinational corporations, NGOs, the media, and others. There are hierarchies among the powers that constitute empire but despite their differences they function together in the network.
This decentered network power of empire corresponds to the interests of global elites because it both facilitates the potential profits of capitalist globalization and displaces or defuses potential security threats. Once empire is firmly established as the prevailing form of global rule, those who oppose the domination of global elites in the name of equality, freedom, and democracy will certainly find ways to struggle against it. But that does not mean that we prefer imperialism today.
We can be confident that in the long run their real interests will lead global elites to support empire and refuse any project of US imperialism. In the coming months, and perhaps years, we may face a tragedy that we read about in the darkest periods of human history, when elites are incapable of acting in their own interest.
Michael Hardt is professor of literature at Duke University, North Carolina,
and co-author with Antonio Negri of Empire
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002