witness against the beast


Power, Profit & Prestige: A History of American Imperial Expansion by Philip S Golub (Pluto, 2010)

As the great French historian Fernand Braudel once observed, the past inescapably “contaminates” the present.

This idea of the present contaminated by the crimes of the past certainly applies to the continuities in the foreign policy record of the United States over the centuries, according to Professor Philip S Golub, a Paris-based international relations and economics specialist, who is the author of this highly informative, concisely argued and remarkably well researched study of the country’s imperial ambitions.

International relations-based critiques of US imperialism have become a veritable industry in the post-September 11 world, particularly following the invasion of Iraq, but far too many of these often hastily produced volumes adopt a somewhat superficial polemical approach and thus ultimately fail to address the fundamental issues that are at stake; they tend to find the monopoly-seeking behaviour of the US at the start of the 21st century deeply puzzling and leave its actions largely unexplained.

By contrast, Golub’s book stands out for its detailed historical research, its wealth of references and its insistence on always making the connections between the economic, political, financial, and foreign policy interests.

In Golub’s perspective, the United States or “America” as he prefers to describe it, no doubt to the annoyance of our Latin American friends, is just one of many big empire-building countries with a ruling elite whose lust for domination is similar in its ruthlessness to those of European imperialists and of empires from time immemorial for that matter.

Just as a rose is a rose, an empire is an empire, it is as simple as that, Golub believes, citing the classical historian M I Finley’s telling remark: “Calling an empire a ‘hegemony’ does not change its nature or objectives in the slightest.”

By marshalling a wealth of quotations from past and present US leaders and key strategists, Golub, who is also a contributing editor to Le Monde Diplomatique, establishes beyond doubt the continuities in US ideology and ambitions and convincingly makes the case that it has always been a power with strong imperial designs.

He quotes the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Henry Cabot Lodge, who in 1895 stated his country’s intentions in no uncertain terms: “The US has a record of conquest, colonisation and territorial expansion unequalled by any people in the 19th century…we are not to be curbed now.” A similar arrogance is evident in former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s curt dismissal of international law in 2000 as mere “illusory norms of international behaviour” to which the US would not adhere.

If the US is “exceptional” in any way, as its defenders often assert, it is only in the sheer scale of its global reach, Golub maintains, showing how it has exercised its powers to subjugate all rivals, especially since the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

But a key element of Golub’s thesis is that US imperial domination of the world may now be coming to an end in the wake of the recent global financial crisis, which considerably weakened its economic and financial might, while simultaneously its failure to have its own way in the Middle East has tarnished its military prestige overseas. In addition, the quiet but steady rise of China poses a serious challenge in the future. Golub observes that President Obama may initiate a radical change of direction in US foreign policy, but ultimately he seems unconvinced of this. 

Power, Profit & Prestige is very ambitious in scope and it is extremely tightly written; in just over 220 pages it manages to comment on developments over the centuries taking in the genocidal elimination of the American Indians as a founding nation-building crime, followed by the ruthless exercise of power against the Philippines at the end of the 19th century, examining the key economic importance of the slave plantations to both Britain and the US, taking in the Cold War and concluding with George Bush’s war against terrorism and the recent global economic downturn. Some 60 of its 220 pages are taken up with notes and references which conveniently enable the reader to follow up the arguments.

If the left is ever to slay the beast of imperialism then we need to equip ourselves with the knowledge to comprehend its inner workings and mentality. Golub’s book is a manual for understanding the nature of this particular nasty beast and as such it cannot be too highly recommended.

David Morgan


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July 2010

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