Rethinking US Empire and Oil Imperialism Pt. 3


[This is the third article of the series Blood for oil? Global capital, counter-insurgency and the dual logic of American energy security.]

In the second part of this series of articles, I examined and critiqued the instrumentalist thesis on US foreign policy that simply argues that Washington’s interventions are driven by the economic interests of American corporations. I would also argue that the more instrumentally grounded theories of the American state also operationalise an increasingly redundant theory of imperialism which pits rival capitalist classes organised along national lines (and given expression by their respective states).

This ‘inter-imperial rivalry’ thesis (promulgated most famously by Lenin and implicit within the presumptive framework of a number of analysts of international relations including prominent realists)1 either misses out on or plays down the positive-sum co-ordinating role of the American state that I have sketched above. Foster captures this argument well when he argues that ‘intercapitalist rivalry remains the hub of the imperialist wheel ? In the present period of global hegemonic imperialism the United States is geared above all to expanding its imperial power to whatever extent possible and subordinating the rest of the capitalist world to its interests”.2

Foster’s position, like that of other inter-imperial rivalry theorists, remains overly wedded to what Robinson calls ‘nation-statism’ and an impoverished and inadequate theorisation of the American states reproductive role for global capitalism under emergent forms of transnational globalization.3 As Panitch and Gindin have argued clearly, given the largely positive-sum political and economic structures established between leading capitalist states under the aegis of American leadership, combined with the massive levels of foreign direct investment between America, Europe and Japan, theories of inter-imperial rivalry and war between competing capitalist powers serve as an increasingly ineffective road-map in charting the nature of international politics and contemporary forms of capitalist globalisation.4

In relation to US intervention in oil rich regions, this transnational positive-sum logic is most clear. Rather than interpreting US intervention in, for example, Iraq as a case of US imperialism using its military might to exclude oil corporations from competing nations (for example, France or Russia) it is far more accurate to view US intervention as part of the generic role that the US state has long preformed in ‘stabilising’ market orientated political economies throughout the ME for the generic interests of global capitalism as a whole. That is, by underwriting transnationally orientated political economies in the ME the US has (by default) guaranteed security of oil supply to world markets. As such, US intervention has benefited other core capitalist states as much as it has the US through guaranteeing a relatively cheap supply of crucial energy to their respective national economies and through the ordering of states and political economies along lines that are conducive for the liberal international order as a whole (which in turn benefits all core regions).5

In illustrating this point most clearly, although the US enjoys strategic primacy in the ME it only draws ten percent of its total oil supplies from the region with the rest primarily going to Japan, Europe and increasingly China.6 It is thus way off the mark to suggest that US intervention in the region is designed to guarantee oil for the US economy when in fact US power in the region, and the benign oil regime it helps to maintain, works directly in the interests of other core regions within the global political economy. Thus, to interpret US intervention as a form of ‘global hegemonic imperialism’ designed to subordinate ‘the rest of the capitalist world to its interests’ is incorrect as this presumes that other capitalist states somehow do not have an equally important interest in maintaining political economies open to capital penetration and the disciplining of social forces (be they nationalist, Islamist or explicitly anti-capitalist) that may threaten the security of oil supplies to world markets.

William Robinson’s work has done the most to outline this emergent form of a transnational state structure.7 In relation to US oil interventions, Robinson argues that under contemporary forms of globalization the US state no longer acts for US interests but instead seeks to ‘maintain, defend, and advance the emergent hegemony of a global bourgeoisie and its project of constructing a new global capitalist historical bloc’.8 Robinson contends that we are thus witnessing a nascent transnational state structure (TNS).

In relation to the Iraq intervention, and in sharp distinction to Foster’s position, Robinson argues that the Bush Administrations plan was in fact a ‘blueprint for the transnational agenda in the region’ by opening up Iraq as a productive (and oil rich) circuit for global capital investment. As such, the intervention was not a ‘US imperialist plan to gain the upper hand over French, German, and Russian competition’ through monopolizing Iraq’s natural resources including its crucial oil reserves.9

Robinson’s transnational thesis sits well with the argument outlined above except in one crucial aspect: whilst Robinson’s work serves as a useful corrective to instrumentalist accounts of the American state, his work goes too far in the other direction when it attempts to escape the still bounded geo-political logics of the inter-state system. That is, whilst US strategic and political preponderance in oil rich regions does effect a transnational outcome for other core capitalist powers, this preponderance also entrenches US hegemony with US political and military dominance in the Middle East forming a key plank of post-war US hegemony vis-à-vis other leading capitalist states within the global political economy. This is largely because the US derives enormous structural power through it (and its proxies) capacity to play ‘cop on the beat’ in a region where democratic, nationalist or radical Islamist social forces threaten a stability geared towards the generic interests of the West as a whole. Thus, whilst US intervention in the region does benefit a number of capitals there is also a significant and abiding logic of ‘national interest’. Importantly however, this logic of national interest is not reducible to just the interests of major US oil transnationals (as instrumentalist accounts would have it).

As David Harvey has shown, there is a major political and strategic motivation attached to US intervention in so far as US primacy in oil rich regions gives it undeniable structural power over other potential rivals within the capitalist core (and emerging zones such as China).10 Zbigniew Brzezinski, President Carters former National Security Adviser, captured this logic when he argued:

America has major strategic and economic interests in the Middle East that are dictated by the region’s vast energy supplies. Not only does America benefit economically from the relatively low costs of Middle Eastern oil, but America’s security role in the region gives it indirect but politically critical leverage on the European and Asian economies that are also dependent on energy exports from the region. 11

Thus, neither state instrumentalist accounts that posit the purely economic basis of US oil primacy or, on the other hand, theories of the US state acting on behalf of a newly emergent transnational capitalist class fully capture the nature of American oil interventions. Instead, it is perhaps more profitable to view US primacy in oil rich regions as being subject to a dual logic whereby the American state is subject to both a transnational and national interest which guides it interventions and it is through this optic (that of making the world safe for global capital which in turn reinforces primacy) that we should interpret US hegemony and its linkage to strategic preponderance in oil rich regions. 12

In short, the American state derives enormous structural power because it guarantees and underwrites capitalist social relations in oil-rich regions that in turn serves the interests of other core states.

End part three of this series—————————-

1 For example, John Mearsheimer The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003).

2 Foster, John Bellamy. 2003. “The New Age of Imperialism,” Monthly Review, 55:3, p.13.

3 William I. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism : Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

4 Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin, Global Capitalism and American Empire (London: Merlin Press, 2003).

5 Simon Bromley, American Hegemony and World Oil: The Industry, the State System and the World Economy (Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991)

6 Daniel Yergin, ‘Energy Security and Markets’ in Jan H. Kalicki & David L. Goldwyn Energy and Security: Toward A New Foreign Policy Strategy (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 2005), pp.53-54.

7 William I. Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism : Production, Class, and State in a Transnational World (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004).

8 William Robinson, ‘Capitalist Globalization and the Transnationalization of the State’, in Mark Rupert and Hazel Smith, Historical Materialism and Globalization (London: Routledge, 2002), p. 215.

9 William Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class and State in a Transnational World (Maryland: John Hopkins University Press, 2004), p.140.

10 See David Harvey’s The New Imperialism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

11 Zbigniew Brzezinski, ‘Hegemonic Quicksand’, The National Interest, 74, Winter 2003/04, p.8; For an extended discussion see his excellent The Choice: Global Domination or Global Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 2004).

12 For more on this see my ‘The Heart of Empire? Theorising US Empire In An Era Of Transnational Capitalism’, Third World Quarterly. 2005, 26:2, , pp. 217-236.

Leave a comment