In one of history’s lucky accidents, the juxtaposition of two extraordinary events has stripped the architecture of American global power bare for all to see. Last November, WikiLeaks splashed snippets from US embassy cables, loaded with scurrilous comments about national leaders from Argentina to Zimbabwe, on the front pages of newspapers worldwide. Then just a few weeks later, the Middle East erupted in pro-democracy protests against the region’s autocratic leaders, many of whom were close US allies whose foibles had been so conveniently detailed in those same diplomatic cables.
Suddenly, it was possible to see the foundations of a US world order that rested significantly on national leaders who serve Washington as loyal “subordinate elites” and who are, in reality, a motley collection of autocrats, aristocrats, and uniformed thugs. Visible as well was the larger logic of otherwise inexplicable US foreign policy choices over the past half-century.
Why would the CIA risk controversy in 1965, at the height of the Cold War, by overthrowing an accepted leader like Sukarno in Indonesia or encouraging the assassination of the Catholic autocrat Ngo Dinh Diem in Saigon in 1963? The answer—and thanks to WikiLeaks and the “Arab spring,” this is now so much clearer—is that both were Washington’s chosen subordinates until each became insubordinate and expendable.
Why, half a century later, would Washington betray its stated democratic principles by backing Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak against millions of demonstrators and then, when he faltered, use its leverage to replace him, at least initially with his intelligence chief Omar Suleiman, a man best known for running Cairo’s torture chambers (and lending them out to Washington)? The answer again: because both were reliable subordinates who had long served Washington’s interests well in this key Arab state.
Across the Greater Middle East from Tunisia and Egypt to Bahrain and Yemen, democratic protests are threatening to sweep away subordinate elites crucial to the wielding of American power. Of course, all modern empires have relied on dependable surrogates to translate their global power into local control—and for most of them, the moment when those elites began to stir, talk back, and set their own agendas was also the moment when it became clear that imperial collapse was in the cards.
If the “velvet revolutions” that swept Eastern Europe in 1989 tolled the death knell for the Soviet empire, then the “jasmine revolutions” now spreading across the Middle East may well mark the beginning of the end for American global power.
Putting the Military in Charge
To understand the importance of local elites, look back to the Cold War’s early days when a desperate White House was searching for something, anything that could halt the seemingly unstoppable spread of what Washington saw as anti-American and pro-communist sentiment. In December 1954, the National Security Council (NSC) met in the White House to stake out a strategy that could tame the powerful nationalist forces of change then sweeping the globe.
Across Asia and Africa, a half-dozen European empires that had guaranteed global order for more than a century were giving way to 100 new nations, many—as Washington saw it—susceptible to “communist subversion.” In Latin America, there were stirrings of leftist opposition to the region’s growing urban poverty and rural landlessness.
After a review of the “threats” facing the US in Latin America, influential Treasury Secretary George Humphrey informed his NSC colleagues that they should “stop talking so much about democracy” and instead “support dictatorships of the right if their policies are pro-American.” At that moment with a flash of strategic insight, Dwight Eisenhower interrupted to observe that Humphrey was, in effect, saying, “They’re OK if they’re our s.o.b.’s.”
It was a moment to remember, for the President of the United States had just articulated with crystalline clarity the system of global dominion that Washington would implement for the next 50 years—setting aside democratic principles for a tough realpolitik policy of backing any reliable leader willing to support the US, thereby building a worldwide network of national (and often nationalist) leaders who would, in a pinch, put Washington’s needs above local ones.
Throughout the Cold War, the US would favor military autocrats in Latin America, aristocrats across the Middle East, and a mixture of democrats and dictators in Asia. In 1958, military coups in Thailand and Iraq suddenly put the spotlight on Third World militaries as forces to be reckoned with. It was then that the Eisenhower administration decided to bring foreign military leaders to the US for further “training” to facilitate “the ‘management’ of the forces of change released by the development” of these emerging nations. Henceforth, Washington would pour military aid into the cultivation of the armed forces of allies and potential allies worldwide, while “training missions” would be used to create crucial ties between the US military and the officer corps in country after country—or where subordinate elites did not seem subordinate enough, help identify alternative leaders.
When civilian presidents proved insubordinate, the Central Intelligence Agency went to work, promoting coups that would install reliable military successors—replacing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadeq, who tried to nationalize his country’s oil, with General Fazlollah Zahedi (and then the young Shah) in 1953; President Sukarno with General Suharto in Indonesia during the next decade; and of course President Salvador Allende with General Augusto Pinochet in Chile in 1973, to name just three such moments.
In the first years of the twenty-first century, Washington’s trust in the militaries of its client states would only grow. The US was, for example, lavishing $1.3 billion in aid on Egypt’s military annually, but investing only $250 million a year in the country’s economic development. As a result, when demonstrations rocked the regime in Cairo last January, as the New York Times reported, “a 30-year investment paid off as American generals… and intelligence officers quietly called… friends they had trained with,” successfully urging the army’s support for a “peaceful transition” to, yes indeed, military rule.
Elsewhere in the Middle East, Washington has, since the 1950s, followed the British imperial preference for Arab aristocrats by cultivating allies that included a shah (Iran), sultans (Abu Dhabi, Oman), emirs (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Dubai), and kings (Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco). Across this vast, volatile region from Morocco to Iran, Washington courted these royalist regimes with military alliances, US weapons systems, CIA support for local security, a safe American haven for their capital, and special favors for their elites, including access to educational institutions in the US or Department of Defense overseas schools for their children.
In 2005, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice summed up this record thusly: “For 60 years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy… in the Middle East, and we achieved neither.”
How It Used to Work
America is by no means the first hegemon to build its global power on the gossamer threads of personal ties to local leaders. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Britain may have ruled the waves (as America would later rule the skies), but when it came to the ground, like empires past it needed local allies who could serve as intermediaries in controlling complex, volatile societies. Otherwise, how in 1900 could a small island nation of just 40 million with an army of only 99,000 men rule a global empire of some 400 million, nearly a quarter of all humanity?
From 1850 to 1950, Britain controlled its formal colonies through an extraordinary array of local allies—from Fiji island chiefs and Malay sultans to Indian maharajas and African emirs. Simultaneously, through subordinate elites Britain reigned over an even larger “informal empire” that encompassed emperors (from Beijing to Istanbul), kings (from Bangkok to Cairo), and presidents (from Buenos Aires to Caracas). At its peak in 1880, Britain’s informal empire in Latin America, the Middle East, and China was larger, in population, than its formal colonial holdings in India and Africa. Its entire global empire, encompassing nearly half of humanity, rested on these slender ties of cooperation to loyal local elites.
Following four centuries of relentless imperial expansion, however, Europe’s five major overseas empires were suddenly erased from the globe in a quarter-century of decolonization. Between 1947 and 1974, the Belgian, British, Dutch, French, and Portuguese empires faded fast from Asia and Africa, giving way to a hundred new nations, more than half of today’s sovereign states. In searching for an explanation for this sudden, sweeping change, most scholars agree with British imperial historian Ronald Robinson who famously argued that “when colonial rulers had run out of indigenous collaborators,” their power began to fade.
During the Cold War that coincided with this era of rapid decolonization, the world’s two superpowers turned to the same methods regularly using their espionage agencies to manipulate the leaders of newly independent states. The Soviet Union’s KGB and its surrogates like the Stasi in East Germany and the Securitate in Romania enforced political conformity among the 14 Soviet satellite states in Eastern Europe and challenged the US for loyal allies across the Third World. Simultaneously, the CIA monitored the loyalties of presidents, autocrats, and dictators on four continents, employing coups, bribery, and covert penetration to control and, when necessary, remove nettlesome leaders.
In an era of nationalist feeling, however, the loyalty of local elites proved a complex matter indeed. Many of them were driven by conflicting loyalties and often deep feelings of nationalism, which meant that they had to be monitored closely. So critical were these subordinate elites, and so troublesome were their insubordinate iterations, that the CIA repeatedly launched risky covert operations to bring them to heel, sparking some of the great crises of the Cold War.
Given the rise of its system of global control in a post-World War II age of independence, Washington had little choice but to work not simply with surrogates or puppets, but with allies who—admittedly from weaker positions—still sought to maximize what they saw as their nations’ interests (as well as their own). Even at the height of American global power in the 1950s, when its dominance was relatively unquestioned, Washington was forced into hard bargaining with the likes of the Philippines’ Raymond Magsaysay, South Korean autocrat Syngman Rhee, and South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem.
In South Korea during the 1960s, for instance, General Park Chung Hee, then president, bartered troop deployments to Vietnam for billions of US development dollars, which helped spark the country’s economic “miracle.” In the process, Washington paid up, but got what it most wanted: 50,000 of those tough Korean troops as guns-for-hire helpers in its unpopular war in Vietnam.
Post-Cold War World
After the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, ending the Cold War, Moscow quickly lost its satellite states from Estonia to Azerbaijan, as once-loyal Soviet surrogates were ousted or leapt off the sinking ship of empire. For Washington, the “victor” and soon to be the “sole superpower” on planet Earth, the same process would begin to happen, but at a far slower pace.
Over the next two decades, globalization fostered a multipolar system of rising powers in Beijing, New Delhi, Moscow, Ankara, and Brasilia, even as a denationalized system of corporate power reduced the dependency of developing economies on any single state, however imperial. With its capacity for controlling elites receding, Washington has faced ideological competition from Islamic fundamentalism, European regulatory regimes, Chinese state capitalism, and a rising tide of economic nationalism in Latin America.
As US power and influence declined, Washington’s attempts to control its subordinate elites began to fail, often spectacularly—including its efforts to topple bête noire Hugo Chavez of Venezuela in a badly bungled 2002 coup, to detach ally Mikheil Saakashvili of Georgia from Russia’s orbit in 2008, and to oust nemesis Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in the 2009 Iranian elections. Where a CIA coup or covert cash once sufficed to defeat an antagonist, the Bush administration needed a massive invasion to topple just one troublesome dictator, Saddam Hussein. Even then, it found its plans for subsequent regime change in Syria and Iran blocked when these states instead aided a devastating insurgency against US forces inside Iraq.
Similarly, despite the infusions of billions of dollars in foreign aid, Washington has found it nearly impossible to control the Afghan president it installed in power, Hamid Karzai, who memorably summed up his fractious relationship with Washington to American envoys this way: “If you’re looking for a stooge and calling a stooge a partner, no. If you’re looking for a partner, yes.”
Then, late in 2010, WikiLeaks began distributing those thousands of US diplomatic cables that offer uncensored insights into Washington’s weakening control over the system of surrogate power that it had built up for 50 years. In reading these documents, Israeli journalist Aluf Benn of Haaretz could see “the fall of the American empire, the decline of a superpower that ruled the world by the dint of its military and economic supremacy.” No longer, he added, are “American ambassadors… received in world capitals as ‘high commissioners’… [instead they are] tired bureaucrats [who] spend their days listening wearily to their hosts’ talking points, never reminding them who is the superpower and who the client state.”
Indeed, what the WikiLeaks documents show is a State Department struggling to manage an unruly global system of increasingly insubordinate elites by any means possible—via intrigue to collect needed information and intelligence, friendly acts meant to coax compliance, threats to coerce cooperation, and billions of dollars in misspent aid to court influence. In early 2009, for instance, the State Department instructed its embassies worldwide to play imperial police by collecting comprehensive data on local leaders, including “email addresses, telephone and fax numbers, fingerprints, facial images, DNA, and iris scans.” Showing its need, like some colonial governor, for incriminating information on the locals, the State Department also pressed its Bahrain embassy for sordid details, damaging in an Islamic society, about the kingdom’s crown princes, asking: “Is there any derogatory information on either prince? Does either prince drink alcohol? Does either one use drugs?”
With the hauteur of latter-day imperial envoys, US diplomats seemed to empower themselves for dominance by dismissing “the Turks neo-Ottoman posturing around the Middle East and Balkans,” or by knowing the weaknesses of their subordinate elites, notably Colonel Muammar Gaddafi’s “voluptuous blonde” nurse, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari’s morbid fear of military coups, or Afghan Vice President Ahmad Zia Massoud’s $52 million in stolen funds.
As its influence declines, however, Washington is finding many of its chosen local allies either increasingly insubordinate or irrelevant, particularly in the strategic Middle East. In mid-2009, for instance, the US ambassador to Tunisia reported that “President Ben Ali… and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people,” relying “on the police for control,” while “corruption in the inner circle is growing” and “the risks to the regime’s long-term stability are increasing.” Even so, the US envoy could only recommend that Washington “dial back the public criticism” and instead rely only on “frequent high-level private candor”—a policy that failed to produce any reforms before demonstrations toppled the regime just 18 months later.
Similarly, in late 2008 the American Embassy in Cairo feared that “Egyptian democracy and human rights efforts… are being suffocated.” However, as the embassy admitted, “we would not like to contemplate complications for US regional interests should the US-Egyptian bond be seriously weakened.” When Mubarak visited Washington a few months later, the Embassy urged the White House “to restore the sense of warmth that has traditionally characterized the US-Egyptian partnership.” And so in June 2009, just 18 months before the Egyptian president’s downfall, President Obama hailed this useful dictator as “a stalwart ally… a force for stability and good in the region.”
As the crisis in Cairo’s Tahrir Square unfolded, respected opposition leader Mohamed ElBaradei complained bitterly that Washington was pushing “the whole Arab world into radicalization with this inept policy of supporting repression.” After 40 years of US dominion, the Middle East was, he said, “a collection of failed states that add nothing to humanity or science” because “people were taught not to think or to act, and were consistently given an inferior education.”
Absent a global war capable of simply sweeping away an empire, the decline of a great power is often a fitful, painful, drawn-out affair. In addition to the two American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan winding down to something not so far short of defeat, the nation’s capital is now writhing in fiscal crisis, the coin of the realm is losing its creditworthiness, and longtime allies are forging economic and even military ties to rival China. To all of this, we must now add the possible loss of loyal surrogates across the Middle East.
For more than 50 years, Washington has been served well by a system of global power based on subordinate elites. That system once facilitated the extension of American influence worldwide with a surprising efficiency and (relatively speaking) an economy of force. Now, however, those loyal allies increasingly look like an empire of failed or insubordinate states. Make no mistake: the degradation of, or ending of, half a century of such ties is likely to leave Washington on the rocks.
Alfred W. McCoy is professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, a TomDispatch regular, and author most recently of the award-winning book, Policing America’s Empire: The United States, the Philippines, and the Rise of the Surveillance State. He has also convened the “Empires in Transition” project, a global working group of 140 historians from universities on four continents. The results of their first meetings were published as Colonial Crucible: Empire in the Making of the Modern American State, and the findings from their latest conference, at Barcelona last June, will appear next year as Endless Empires: Spain’s Retreat, Europe’s Eclipse, and America’s Decline. To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which McCoy discusses why Washington is likely to cling disastrously to empire in the midst of decline, click here, or download it to your iPod here.
Brett Reilly is a graduate student in History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is studying US foreign policy in Asia.