Resistance Radio: Alfred McCoy on Empire, Part One

Featured image: Gwadar, Pakistan, site of a $200 billion Chinese infrastructure investment.

Editor’s note: This is the first part of an edited transcript of Derrick Jensen’s December 10, 2017 Resistance Radio interview with Alfred McCoy. Read the Part Two here. McCoy’s first book, The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (New York, 1972), sparked controversy when the CIA tried to block publication. But after three English editions and translation into nine foreign languages, this study is now regarded as the “classic” work on the global drug traffic. His more recent cover on covert operations, A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror explores the agency’s half-century history of psychological torture. A film based in part on that book, “Taxi to the Darkside,” won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2008.

His most recent book, In the Shadow of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, focuses on the key instruments in its exercise of this hegemony, including geopolitical dominion, control of subordinate states, covert operations, worldwide surveillance, torture, and military technology. The work concludes by analyzing China’s challenge and the complex of forces that will likely lead to an eclipse of U.S. hegemony by 2030.

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Derrick Jensen: In the new book you mention the word “empire” a couple of times.  Can you talk about the fact that the United States has been and is an empire? What is an empire?

Alfred McCoy: First of all, the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson said that basically there have been about 69 or 70 empires in world history over the last 4000 years. It’s essentially a system whereby a dominant power exercises control, whether directly, through what was known as colonization, or indirectly through what is called “informal empire.” Those mechanisms of control include financial; political, sometimes through political manipulations of various sorts; military; and very importantly, cultural. It is the soft power, the salve, if you will, that makes all of the above a little bit more palatable for the peoples that are subordinated.

The United States has not only been an empire, but in the opinion of British imperial historians like John Darwin of Oxford University, it has been the most prosperous and powerful empire in human history. Americans, during the long years of the Cold War, particularly American historians, were a population in denial of this fundamental political reality. To summarize and simplify the politics of that period, basically the Soviet Union used the Marxist-inflected term “imperialist” to denigrate the United States. They aggressively promoted anti-imperialism, they made heroes of people like the liberator of Congo, Patrice Lumumba. In the Soviet propaganda, we were the bad empire, the pernicious, dominant, exploitative empire. For historians in the United States the United States was a world leader, a superpower, a global hegemon. But not an empire, because it contained that pejorative.

Once the Cold War was over, within a decade, when we were mired in the Middle East and Iraq intervention and the ever-more difficult pacification of Afghanistan – when it looked like U.S. global power was being challenged, like our massive military intervention in Iraq was going very badly indeed, when it looked like our power was challenged; right across the political spectrum, from very conservative all the way over to very liberal and radical, everybody started using the term “empire.” Now it was shorn of its pejorative, its propaganda value.

And they were using it to ask the question: “Was the U.S. empire over?” And the answer, generally, under the Obama administration was “No, the United States would be an empire for as long as it wanted to be.” The U.S. was the maker, the shaper of world history. We would decide when we wanted to give up our empire. Nobody could challenge us. Well, that’s changed.

DJ: What has changed?

AM: In a word: China. From the beginning of 2004 to 2012, a period of eight or nine years, in the midst of this revival of this discussion of empire, what historians found, myself included, was that the United States was the most powerful and prosperous empire in human history. But because of that evasion and denial, we weren’t the empire, the Soviet Union was the empire, we were the exceptional nation, we had American exceptionalism. The belief in American exceptionalism and its many manifestations was an article of faith, literally, among American historians during the Cold War. Not only was the United States empire the most powerful in human history, but it was arguably the least studied of them all.

I got together with some colleagues at the University of Wisconsin, and very quickly we created a global network called “Empires in Transition.” We had, at our peak, about 140 historians on four continents. We probed the comparative rise of the U.S. empire to global power. That was our first volume, a real door-stopper. In our second volume, after our conference in Barcelona, Spain, held in collaboration with the Pompeu Fabra University, we did a volume called Endless Empires about the decline of various empires; Spanish, European and American.

Although we could see the signs in 2012 when that book came out, that U.S. global power was fading, there wasn’t at that time a challenger. What’s happened in the last four or five years, particularly events in the South China Sea have made China’s challenge blindingly clear. In my book In the Shadow of the American Century that just came out last month, I drew upon that decade of study by 140 scholars on the comparative history of empires and boiled it all down into terms that ordinary readers could understand. Then explored, in a comparative sense, the rise of the U.S. to global power. What kind of empire were we at our peak, what were the bases of our power, and then how were the bases of our power being challenged by China’s rise? Those are the two problems I explore in the book.

Now China’s challenge is straightforward. It’s a strategy that most Americans don’t understand. Those that claim that the American empire will last forever, the sun will never set on the American empire, to paraphrase. The people who believe that simply don’t understand the nature of the Chinese challenge, how fundamental it is.

The Chinese challenge is twofold. And to appreciate it, we have to go way back to a cold London night in January, 1904. That night, at the Royal Geographical Society on Savile Row in London, the head of the London School of Economics, a guy named Sir Halford Mackinder, stood up and gave a paper boldly titled “The Geographical Pivot of History.” He proposed, by looking at the map, that Europe, Asia and Africa were not three separate continents. In fact, if you looked at them a certain way, as a geographer could and should – and he was a geographer – they were a single continent, a single land mass that he called “the world island.” And he said that the epicenter of world history, of global power, lay at the heartland of the world island: a vast zone stretching for 4000 miles, from the Persian Gulf north and east, all the way to the East Siberian Sea.

Then he said that the human history for the past five centuries had been changed by something very simple. The people of western Europe learned to sail around the world island, from Europe all the way to Asia. And by doing so, they conducted a kind of strategic flanking maneuver over the great nomadic peoples of the heartland of the world island. The Mongols, the Manchus, the Turks, the Arabs; that had pounded at the gates of great empires: China and Europe. And by sailing around the world island, we saw then the rise of a half dozen European maritime empires.

“But now,” said Sir Halfred Mackinder, and he was alluding to an event that everyone in that audience that night in 1904 knew well – “Now the world is changing.” Because, as he was speaking, the Trans-Siberian Railway was being built by the Czarist empire, and it was stretching from Moscow for 5000 miles, all the way to Vladivostok. For the first time, Europe and Asia were actually a single landmass. They were only two continents because of the vast distances in the great empty center of this, places like the Gobi Desert. But now that this was being crossed by a railroad, Sir Halfred Mackinder predicted that there would be more railroads and that the power that learned to tap into the resources of the heartland of the world island would be the source of a new empire.

Mackinder not only made an observation about the past five centuries and a prediction about the future of global power, but in that single lecture he invented, by the application of geography to global power, the science of geopolitics. It’s in that single lecture. Everybody that’s been good at geopolitics ever since has really been basically an intellectual acolyte of Mackinder.

Of course, it took a long time for Mackinder’s prediction to come true because World War II intervened. Hitler tried to penetrate, break through at Stalingrad and capture Lebensraum, in the heartland, because Hitler was tutored by Mackinder’s German acolyte, a guy named Haushofer at Munich University. When Hitler was in prison, after his aborted Beer Hall Putsch, he was tutored by an expert in geopolitics. That’s where Hitler got the idea of Lebensraum. And then the Cold War came and dropped the Iron Curtain right across the would-be world island.

Ten years ago China began realizing Mackinder’s vision. With their $4 trillion in profits from world trade, much of it with the United States, the Chinese spent a trillion dollars, starting roughly in 2007, to lay down an amazing grid – first of all, 9000 miles of high-speed rail all across China. Then transcontinental rail links that stretch from western China all the way to western Europe, right across the world island. More importantly, they laid down a grid of gas and oil pipelines from Siberia in the north to Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan in the center, all the way down to Burma in the south. They are bringing the oil and gas resources of central Asia and the Persian Gulf via that southern pipeline, into China. The net result of this grid is to realize Mackinder’s vision for infrastructure that will tie this vast land mass together, and shift the epicenter of geopolitical power to the nation that dominates the heartland of the world island, in this case China.

China has overlaid that physical infrastructure. Last year they opened the Infrastructure Development Bank with 57 nations, including many of our closest allies. They contributed on opening day $100 billion, which is about half the capital of the World Bank. They have the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and they had a big conference earlier in the year, where President Xi Jinpin announced another trillion dollars to tie together the world island, to continue this massive infrastructure investment.

China is also going to have about $1 trillion of capital invested in Africa by 2025. Already they have three times the trade of the United States with Africa. So they’re really fully realizing Mackinder’s vision of the world island.

That’s part one. Part two is that China is very deftly threatening to undercut the basis of U.S. global power. 70 years ago the United States emerged as the world’s greatest power. In the first decades after World War II, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower laid down the instruments of U.S. global power. But everybody’s forgotten about how they did it. We no longer understand what the pillars of U.S. global power are. That same historian I talked about earlier, John Darwin, wrote a book that surveyed a thousand years of imperial clashes in the Eurasian landmass. He said that the United States after World War II became the most powerful empire in human history, because we were the first empire in history to capture what he called the axial ends of the Eurasian landmass.

By that he meant that in 1949 the United States established the NATO alliance, which gave us a firm control over western Europe, one of the axial ends. Then in 1951, we signed four mutual defense treaties with a string of nations running down the Pacific island chain running down off the Asian landmass; Japan, South Korea, the Philippines and Australia. This gave us the other axial end of control. And then, between these two axial points in western Europe and the Pacific littoral, the United States laid down successive circles of steel. The first was a series of mutual defense treaties: NATO in the west, the Southeast Asia Treaty Organization in the east, and those four mutual defense treaties that I mentioned.

On top of that we had massive fleets. The 6th Fleet, based at Naples in the Mediterranean. The 7th Fleet, based at Subic Bay, Philippines, in the western Pacific on that Pacific littoral chain. After Britain pulled out of the Persian Gulf in the 1970’s, we established the 5th Fleet at Bahrain in the Persian Gulf. Our most recent addition, on top of hundreds of air bases and strategic bombers and fighters and all the rest, our latest circle of steel is: a string of 60 drone bases stretching from Sicily all the way to Guam in the western Pacific the United States has built over the last ten years. That allow us to strike over much of the world island.

Now, the second part of the Chinese strategy is to slice through those circles of steel and break the U.S. geopolitical encirclement of Eurasia. They’ve done it over the last three years by building seven bases in the South China Sea, using dredges to convert atolls to military bases. They’ve now got antiaircraft missiles and jet landing strips on those military bases.

There is also something that Americans haven’t paid too much attention to. The Chinese have actually got even a stronger position in the Arabian Sea, which is geopolitically very important because that’s where the mouth to the Persian Gulf lies. Ten years ago, China invested $200 billion to transform a sleepy fishing village in western Pakistan, at Gwadar, which is just about 300 miles from the mouth of the Persian Gulf; about a day and a half sail, or steam. Then, a little over a year ago, President Xi Jinping went to Pakistan and he announced, with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, that China would invest $46 billion to build a road, rail, and gas oil pipeline corridor stretching from western China down the length of Pakistan all the way to Gwadar.

Then just last year, China opened a big naval base at Djibouti, at the other end of the Arabian Sea. So with their position in the South China Sea, and these two big bases in the Arabian Sea, China is slicing through that geopolitical encirclement. China is also using its trade to drive a wedge between America and its four major Asia-Pacific allies that are the foundation for the Pacific littoral that’s the axial end of U.S. geopolitical power.

So that’s the nature of the Chinese challenge. The American response has been mixed.

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