American foreign policy as modern imperialism: From armed humanitarianism to pre-emptive war

American foreign policy as modern imperialism:

From armed humanitarianism to pre-emptive war


By Spyros Sakellaropoulos and Panagiotis Sotiris




In this article we use elements of a Marxist Theory of imperialism to explain current US foreign policy as a hegemonic imperialist project. We argue against the American decline thesis and we insist that after the collapse of the Soviet bloc the US managed to retain its hegemonic position in the imperialist chain. This was based on an imperialist strategy that combined full implementation of neoliberal policies and capitalist restructuring of production with increased emphasis on military interventionism, first in the form of “humanitarian” interventions and now as a pre-emptive “war on terror”. Despite the many contradictions facing the US, especially after the invasion of Iraq, American hegemony remains unchallenged, especially since no other capitalist state is willing to openly contest American supremacy.





During the past decade there has been an extensive debate on US foreign policy. The partial abandonment of the globalization and global civil society rhetoric of the Clinton era and the greater emphasis on American values and interests has been described as marking a major policy shift towards a more self-seeking American policy. This view was reinforced by the way the US government decided to invade Iraq without a formal UN authorization and despite strong objections even from G8 countries. Are we faced with an extreme case of American arrogance and abandonment from their part of their responsibility towards the world? Contrary to this prevailing notion, we will argue that the policy of the Bush Administrations has been at the same time an attempt to safeguard the interests of American capital and an effort towards formulating a hegemonic project for all the major capitalist states, a set of policies that offer possible solutions for their contradictions as well.

But in order to do this, we take a position contrary to current theoretical “common sense”. We try to avoid taking globalization for granted, both in its analytical sense but also in the normative overtones in much of the global civil society literature. Instead, we insist on the theoretical possibilities offered by Marxist theories of imperialism for the explanation and the interpretation of the international system.

On the basis of such a theoretical position in favor of a Marxist theory of imperialism we try to present current American policy as an attempt for a hegemonic imperialist policy and not as a case of hegemonic decline. We try to define the prerequisites for such a hegemonic project and finally, we turn our attention to the contradictions and challenges facing US imperialism today.



1. Methodological Introduction: Marxism versus traditional international relations theory



1.1 The limits of traditional international relations theory and the importance of a Marxist conception of political power


Traditional international relations theory concerns itself with rather simplistic notions of state tactics and strategies based on narrow definitions of national interest or with equally narrow mechanics of force. On the one hand, we have the narrow empiricism and methodological individualism of the Realist School[1] that considers states and their balance-of-force relations as the main forces shaping the international system, ignoring non-state relations and antagonisms. The main problem of Realism is that it tends to treat states as rational and self-conscious actors, leaving no theoretical space for any attempt to use class analysis as an explanation for the behavior of states. On the other hand, we have the varieties of idealism, or more generally speaking normative conceptions of international relations, with their belief that norms can be more powerful than power relations, e.g. in current theories of a possible cosmopolitan democracy arising out of the combination of globalization and global civil society institutions, theories that tend to underestimate the force of political and social conflicts and the role of capitalist states as political factors.

What is missing is a more thorough theoretical definition of the very terms and notions that most mainstream varieties of international relations use. It is in this sense that we insist on the analytical superiority of a Marxist theory of Imperialism.

Marxism entails a definition of power that goes beyond the tautologies used in traditional political science, in which political power is just taken as given. Marxism, instead, offers a definition of power as the “capacity of a social class to realize its specific objective interests” (Poulantzas 1978: 104). This priority of exploitation over domination offers an explanation of power as class power, ability of social groups to control the extraction and distribution of surplus labour because of their specific objective structural class position. It offers a possible explanation of the class character of power relations and struggles and therefore also of state apparatuses. The key point, in our opinion, is to stress at the same time the analytic priority of exploitation over repression and domination, and the importance of the fact that the object of political practice is the condensation of all the contradictions of the various levels of a social formation (Poulantzas 1978: 41). This notion of the political escapes the shortcomings of mainstream political science’s notion of political power as administrative command and insists on the class character of political power.

In light of the above we cannot take states as the primary forces in shaping the international plane, but instead we must look at the different class alliances and power blocs and how these affect the formation of objective capitalist class interest. It is this class interest that is then expressed as political strategy, state policy and consequently international policy. The importance of Marxism is that it brings forward how states’ behaviour in the international plane is itself conditioned by the articulation of class contradictions and political strategies and the emergence of hegemonic power blocs. It offers the possibility to treat interstate relations as class based relations, as relations (and conflicts) between different power blocs. Marxism stresses the importance of particular historical modes of production for interstate relations. Contrary to the ahistorical stance of traditional International Relations theory, Marxist theory provides a theoretical framework that helps understand how the emergence of the capitalist mode of production changes the very notion of international relations[2]. Marxism offers a more comprehensive account of social and political power and antagonism that goes beyond the mechanics of power versus normative considerations dichotomy that marks mainstream International Relations theory. Marxism is not only a social theory or explanation of power as a crucial stake in international relations and a theory of possible changes in international relations due to changes in social relations. It is also a way to explain the interplay of political and ideological relations that induces the emergence of normative considerations.

Marxism offers the possibility of a theory not only of interstate conflict but also of interstate hierarchy. As Cox notes, “by its focus on imperialism, historical materialism adds a vertical dimension of power to the horizontal dimension of rivalry among the most powerful states” (Cox 1985: 215). Therefore, in our point of view, the best way of theorizing the international system is to insist in the notion of imperialism and the imperialist chain. This is the form of capitalism we have known until now, not as a conglomeration of states, but as a multilevel (economical, political and military) articulation of national social formations, with relations of uneven development and uneven interdependence. This articulation is contradictory, because the competition of private capitals, national capitals, states (as collective capitalists), as well as blocs of states conditions it. These blocs are alliances formed under the direction of a hegemonic power that has the economic power as well as the military force to secure the specific interests of these formations. In the contemporary world the US emerged as the hegemonic power, because of the victorious outcome of the antagonistic conflict with the Soviet Bloc, the strength of the American economy –despite being challenged by Japan or Germany–, either owing to their greater productivity gains or to the importance of American finance and financial institutions, and the inability of any other state to politically or militarily challenge US supremacy.

Finally, Marxism has the theoretical advantage of not taking the state as granted, an assumption shared both by realism, that takes states in general as the starting point and more cosmopolitan views, that think of the nation-state as a superseded historical social form. On the contrary Marxism offers a truly historical perspective that can account for the transformations induced on the state by the internationalisation of capital. This is the importance of the notion of internationalisation of the State (Poulantzas 1975, Cox 1985).



1.2. The importance of hegemony


The notion of hegemony, as it was introduced in the Marxist literature by Antonio Gramsci (1971), presents political power and class domination as a dialectic of coercion and consent and offers a wider sense of class antagonisms and political struggles that goes beyond both realist cynicism and idealistic legalism. Hegemony, in this view, comprises political and military repression, ideological misrecognition and material concessions[3], and offers a better description both of social antagonism and of the hierarchies arising in the international plane[4].

If the notion of the imperialist chain, as it was introduced under the influence of Lenin, is accurate as a description of the contradictory, hierarchical and interdependent character and the uneven development of an international system based upon the enlarged reproduction of capitalist social relations in nation-states[5], the notion of hegemony can help explain the mechanisms of leadership in the imperialist chain. The leading social formation is not just the more powerful economically or politico-militarily; above all it must be able to offer plausible strategies for the collective capital interest of the whole imperialist chain. Hegemony can account for the dialectic between antagonism and hierarchy much better than traditional power-politics approaches that can account only for conjectural balance of force hierarchies, but not for cases of strategic political and ‘moral’ leadership.

This notion of hegemony in the imperialist chain should not be seen as some sort of altruistic attitude. Rather, it refers to those historically specific conjectures that fulfilling the prerequisites for the long-term interest of the ruling bloc of the leading imperialist formation also induces the safeguarding of certain aspects of the class interests of the ruling classes in the other formations in the imperialist chain. Naturally, there is also plenty room for antagonisms, even for crises of hegemony. American foreign policy after 1945 aimed not only at guarantying American supremacy but also at offering elements of a collective strategy for the whole imperialist chain (rapid industrialization, ‘fordist’ accumulation strategies, mass consumerism and individualism, a combination between anti-communism and technocratic ideology).



2. American hegemony



2.1 American Supremacy: hegemony or struggle away from decline?


On the basis of the above theoretical position, we will now try to assess current US foreign policy, its character as an imperialist strategy, and whether it can still described as a hegemonic project.

No one can deny that the US has been successful in maintaining political and military superiority during the past decades, especially after the fall of the Soviet Bloc. But the question remains open: Is this supremacy a sign of true leadership and hegemony, or is it a violent or even ruthless effort to compensate for an inevitable hegemonic decline, political, economic and moral? That is why we must take a closer look at the American position and functioning in the international system.



2.2. American leadership and the inadequacy of the American decline thesis


Our principal position, regarding the form and function of the imperialist chain today, is that after the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the so-called real existing socialism, the leading position of the US, has been reinforced, contrary to theories of US hegemonic decline[6].

First of all, we have the improvement of the American economy. In 1997 the German and the Japanese economies combined reached only 56% of the American economy, while the Japanese German, British and French economies combined reached 87% of the American economy (Barrow 2005: 17). The average rate of growth in GDP from 1983 to 2001 reached 3.4% for the US 2.5% for Japan and 2.7% for the UK (Panitch/ Gindin 2003-28-29). This economic position is the result of US ruling class’s attack on labour rights and wages. During the 1990s the ratio between the richest and the poorer quintet of the American population was 13.8. At the same time in France it was 4.7, in Italy 5.6, in Canada 5.2, in Japan 3.4 and in the UK 6.5 (World Bank 2001; Supplemental).

The second aspect of American hegemony was the victorious outcome of the conflict against the Soviet block and the current incapacity of any other State to politically and militarily challenge the US. In the fiscal year 2004 the US military budget was at $453.7 billion, exceeding the combined expenditures of the next thirty largest military spenders in the world. But these figures should not be considered enormous because the war expenses of 2004 for Iraq and Afghanistan represent less than 1% of the American GDP and the entire defence budget is less than 5% of the GDP, which is less than during the cold war era (Biddle 2005: 17).



2.3. The ‘benevolent hegemon’ thesis


American neo-conservative thinkers have the virtue of not retorting to cosmopolitan rhetoric, when talking about America’s foreign policy. They insist that there is no alternative to American leadership. There are a lot of states that have benefited from the world order created by the American power, and if the US failed, the rest of the world would be in a much worse situation (Kagan 1998). Especially after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, many scholars argued for the necessity of a benevolent hegemony, which will have as its first objective the preservation and the enhancement of the American predominance by strengthening its security, supporting its friends, advancing its interests and standing up for its principles around the world (Kristol / Kagan 1996). Proponents of the ‘benevolent hegemony” thesis discredit European criticisms of American policy, because Europeans are free to live in peace because there are Americans who safeguard this peace (Kagan 2002). For this benevolent hegemony to be consolidated, American supremacy is necessary, together with the order it secures. It concerns a strategic choice, not a choice for the instance when the American interests will be threatened; a choice for the maintenance of the American military pre-eminence, the securing of the American predominance and the preservation of the American peace (PNAC 2000: 75-76). This presents the principal aims of the American strategy proper, as an aggressive effort to safeguard capitalist social relations of production on a global scale, to make sure that all the institutional arrangements necessary for the internationalization of capital are in place all over the world and that there are no obstacles to capital accumulation. This strategy is at same time an attempt to help American firms and investments overseas, but also to promote what one could describe as the global collective capitalist interest. So we can say that the American strategy is to keep a hegemonic position in the imperialist chain as the most powerful capitalist state and the only state capable of safeguarding the long term interest of all the major capitalist states and in this way to make sure that there will be no contestation of US predominance in any way. It is on the basis of this effort to represent the global collective capitalist interest, and not sheer arrogance, that the National Security Strategy is very clear that the US will not hesitate to attack anyone (and, as a consequence, even a present ally) who will pose its dominant position under question.

All these attest to the precipitation of the US to prevent the emergence of challengers in global or regional level by promoting international law, market economy and liberal democracy (Posen / Ross 1996-97: 34). From now on the US must act as the sole superpower by promoting its military dominance, including unilateral military action and pre-emptive use of force (Hoffmann 2003).



2.5. Steps towards maintaining hegemony


However, there have been prerequisites for the reproduction of this sort of imperialist hegemony:

First of all there was the need to implement a neoliberal economic agenda, both in the international economy, but also in domestic economies. This meant, at first, the unleashing of the ‘destructive’ tendencies associated with the capitalist crisis of over-accumulation, such as the one that swept through all major capitalist economies in the 1970s: closure of plants and companies that were not profitable enough, massive lay-offs and a reinstatement of workplace despotism, aided by the sudden rise in unemployment. This facilitated strategies of capitalist restructuring of production, what is usually described as post-fordist or flexible production. In the broader sense, we can say that entering in a new phase of capitalist accumulation, which is characterized by a combination of restructuring of capitalist production, neoliberal deregulation and intense internationalization of capital. These have provided the material basis of modern imperialism. If we consider this new phase of capitalist accumulation as an effort by the forces of capital, in a global scale, not only to counter the tendencies to over-accumulation but more generally to alter the class balance of forces in favor of capital, then we can understand the current imperialist aggression as part of a greater social and historical tendency.

 The role of international economic organizations such as the IMF and the World Bank was crucial, because they enforced neoliberal reforms and the lowering of trade and investment barriers. Equally important were the outcome of the GATT negotiations and the implementation of the WTO structure. This form of global political economy and the considerable influence exercised by the US on these international institutions created a friendly environment for US companies to maintain and expand their international activities and also secured the support of business interests (and their political representatives) in other countries. At the same time, this strategy aimed at making sure that the dollar remained the global money; that American and American-controlled financial institutions were the primary medium for international money flows; that the US would keep the seignorage advantage it had since the Bretton-Woods agreements (Gowan 1999). Ideologically this was justified by the ‘globalization’ rhetoric that became dominant in the 1990s.[7] The United States’ open endorsement of aggressive capitalist policies, restructuring of capitalist production, attacks on welfare state, defense of property rights (especially intellectual property rights), free trade and generally all forms of reinstatement of capital’s power over labor on global scale was an essential part of its hegemonic role. It was not just a domestic policy. It was more a strategic choice of class interests and a social basis for an expansive internationalization of capital, the very basis of modern imperialism (Wood 2003). And although the growth of the financial sector has been described as a sign of the structurally weak and crisis-prone character of modern capitalism in general and the American economy in particular (Brenner 2002), we think that such a view underestimates the disciplinary character of international financial deregulation and the way it induces neoliberal policies and capitalist restructuring and enhances the hegemonic role of the US (Rude 2004). It was not only about the lowering of trade barriers or financial liberalization. It has more to do with the removal of most forms of protection that had aimed at safeguarding less productive capitals and traditional petty bourgeois strata against international competition and at guarantying forms of class compromise. It was not only an open-market policy serving US capitals; it also offered other capitalist social formations a way out of capitalist crisis and the use of international competition as pressure for capitalist restructuring. And this can explain why non-hegemonic formations might accept a global economic and financial architecture that actually puts greater stress on their domestic economies. We can say that at this articulation of internationalization of capital and capitalist restructuring there has been some sort of an objective dialectic of hegemony at work. It was on the basis of this whole strategy to enhance the internationalization of capital that it became a strategic consideration to incorporate all ex-socialist countries into the economic, political, and ideological practises of the imperialist chain by means of their adoption of free market policies, dismantling of all forms of social protection, abolishing all barriers to foreign investment and their full compliance with the current American strategy (Gowan 1990; Gowan 1995).

Neoliberalism was not only an economic consideration. It was also an ideological agenda. The US, along with conservative governments in the UK, managed to redefine the outlines of ruling bourgeois ideology (Harvey 2005). The rejection of Keynesian ‘statism’, the attack on redistributive measures, the emphasis on entrepreneurial practices, the new cynical individualism, all these important transformations, evident in all major capitalist societies in the 1980s and 1990s, marked the reemergence of the US as a leading ideological force, after the ideological crisis of ‘Americanism’ in the 1960s and 1970s.

This effort to impose by any means possible the opening of markets and the implementation of policies and regimes of accumulation that would facilitate foreign investment and the internationalization of capital is also an important aspect of current imperial strategies. The occupation of Iraq was not only about strategic or geopolitical considerations. It was also an attempt to impose manu militari a gigantic programme of privatization of infrastructures and of free-market reforms, the most far-fetched attempt up to now to military export free market, especially if we take into consideration the fact that in the oil producing Middle East the prevailing economic model was a combination of Public employment, state-run industries, subsidized public services, and restrictions on foreign capital (Lafer 2004: 324).

Then, there was the strategic importance of the stable flow of oil for as long as is remains a major form of energy. In this sense the control of oil flows and oil deposits is an important consideration for US foreign policy. For different reasons, the US cannot depend exclusively on traditional sources of supply, like Venezuela and Saudi Arabia, to provide this additional oil (Callinicos 2002). Finally, we must bear in mind that oil is important also for US’s possible competitors (especially countries such as China who rely on great supplies of fossil fuels to cater for their expanding manufacture), therefore control of international oil flows offers the US a strategic advantage against them.

On the political level, the US had to make sure that after the end of the Cold war no other collective security system would be implanted that would have undermined American supremacy. This meant undermining all projects either for non-NATO collective security arrangements (such as the OSCE) or for full-scale European political union. They also engaged in a deliberate attempt to make NATO the sole international organization of collective security through its expansion to the east of Europe (Σωτήρης 1999: 80; Huntington 2000: 6-7). Military handling of the crisis in Yugoslavia, up to the point to aggressive war in 1999 was instrumental in this effort (Gowan 2000; Gowan 2002). It also meant making sure that Russia is unable to question American supremacy, either through facilitating a process of managed destabilization in many areas of Russian influence (Chechnya being the most obvious example) or through the so-called ‘velvet revolutions’ in countries important in the Russian periphery (Georgia, Ukraine and Kirgisia), that aim at bringing anti-Russian and pro-Western governments, and are in many aspects organized and financed by US or US backed agencies (Genté / Rouy 2005). But this firm stance against potential challengers was also turned against countries that are or can be important regional forces, such as Iran, Syria and Iraq, up to the point of pre-emptive aggression against them. This has been especially the aim of the neoconservative fraction of the US establishment, because in its worldview the US cannot afford balance-of-force compromises, but instead must achieve some sort of global dominance. But even in the 1990’s, despite the ‘multilateralism’ rhetoric, American military supremacy and the ability to handle militarily potential regional conflicts was the objective of US administrations (Bacevich 2002).

In order for this hegemony to be maintained, the US reformulated their defence dogma, assumed for themselves the role of the protector of ‘free market’ (meaning capitalist social relations) and ‘freedom’ (meaning business-friendly political institutions) worldwide, maintained and expanded their extensive network of military bases and posts. This also led to an increasing tendency to intervene in local crises that were estimated as important. So, the US have undertaken the mission of safeguarding the long-term interests of the capitalist world, that is, safeguarding the capitalist relations of production and exchange within the whole world (Wood 2000: 190).



3. Military interventionism as imperialist strategy


3.1. The new right to intervene


If one compares what was going on during the Cold War period with the contemporary situation one can observe that very important changes have taken place. Until the end of the 1980s one of the most fundamental elements of the foreign policy of the nation-states was non-intervention in the internal affairs of the other nation-states (Krassner 1995: 228), at least not in an explicit and open way. Even when it was clear that the US was intervening (mainly covertly) to overthrow governments or regimes on the basis of their domestic policy (as it was the case with the CIA backed coup in Chile), the justification had more to do with geopolitical considerations (in the case of Chile the notion of Latin America as America’s back yard). Although the US’s strategic interest in guarantying capitalist relations of production, as a material basis for the internationalisation of capital and modern imperialism, was more than obvious, at the same time, and despite the increased potential for intervention reflected in the UN Charter, it was still considered a breach of international legality to intervene directly in a sovereign state on the basis of its social and political regime alone.

After the end of the Cold War many forms of international intervention within dominant states are considered legitimate, using as an ideological excuse the need to protect human rights – a fact that constitutes a direct violation of the UN Charter (Μπελαντής 2000: 311). A new consensus arises, according to which human rights supersede national sovereignty (Weiss / Chopra 1995: 102). As for justification, liberal thinkers have stressed the emergence of an international community of citizenries (and not just states) and the normative dimension of democracy, which in turn means that non-democracies do not have the same right to an inviolable sovereignty (Jackson 1995). This has been described as a “new interventionism” (Glennon 1999).

Armed humanitarianism is based on two specific presuppositions: The first one makes the international respect of sovereignty dependent upon the respect of human rights, conceived as moral principles. The State that abuses human rights loses the constitutive aspect of its sovereignty, its ethical and political legitimization. Therefore it does not have the right to invoke the principle of non-intervention, because it has failed to prove its capacity to be sovereign. The citizens of its state are tied with the international community, demanding its protection without the meditation of the 'violating' state. The second presupposition is the recognition of an armed international guarantor of human rights. This guarantor is an internationally legalized agent or a de facto guarantor, legalized by its aim (Μπιτσάκης- Μπελαντής 2005: 194-195). In fact, through these processes, the military and ideological presuppositions for undermining national sovereignty are created, not for all states, of course, but for these states that are selected as targets by the West.

But we think that this reference to human rights cannot be taken for granted. Rather, it must be treated as a case of ideological discourse. In our opinion this redefinition of sovereignty has more to do with guarantying capitalist relations of production, property rights, political stability, market-friendly policies, especially in social formations that were judged unstable during the transition to market economy. In this sense, evoking human rights is a form of justification for interventions that are aiming at safeguarding western interests and establishing political and economic institutions that will enhance capitalist profitability and consequently foreign investment. From this point of view it is very important that a different definition of sovereignty is emerging, which makes it dependent upon certain concrete conditions. Richard Hass has been more than explicit on this changing definition of conditional sovereignty: “sovereignty is increasingly judged as conditional, linked to how a government treats its own citizens” (Haass 1999).

In this way we pass from the priority of non-intervention to military violence, to military exportation of western democracy and free market, and from the principle of respect of existing borders, to the consensus for military intervention wherever it is judged as necessary[8]. Of course, this importance of the relation of the State to its citizens concerns only the weak states, which can be accused at any time for any abuse of human rights. In contrast no one can imagine that Morocco could demand the intervention of the international community against the abuse of the human rights inside the United States (Μπελαντής 2000: 353).

What should be stressed is that the targets for such western military intervention are not selected by chance. We have well-weighted decisions of intervention in social formations where there is some sort of instability which could be harmful for the interests of the imperialist states. There are indeed a lot of examples where human rights have been violated without calls for western military intervention, simply because in these cases no strategic imperialist interests were at stake. So, it is clear that the principal problem is not that of the human right to a dignified life (Μπελαντής 2000: 347), but the ‘‘human right’’ of the capitalist exploitation in the terms imposed by the capitalist-imperialist states themselves.

What should also be stressed is that imperialist “humanitarian” intervention usually aggravates conflicts, making the possibility for a peaceful solution of them more difficult (Chomsky 2000: 103), because all sides of the conflict seek to escalate, so that they can be in a more favourable position at the moment of the external intervention.

From this point of view the pretexts under which these interventions take place are different than the those of the early 1990s. At first (Iraq 1991) the demand for international peace was projected. Then, the necessity to protect human rights became dominant (Panama, Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo) (Μπελαντής 2002: 186). Since the 9/11 attack an amalgam of different ideological justifications emerged, such as the protection of a people’s right of a people against its tyrannical leadership, the need to fight terrorism, as well as the maintenance of international security (Afghanistan, Iraq). It was against this background that an important change in American strategy occurred with the open endorsement of pre-emptive strikes against potential enemies in the 2002 revision of the National Security Strategy. Instead of a traditional defensive or remedial definition of legitimate warfare, we have an attempt to justify aggressive military expeditions, and this explains certain demonstrations of contempt against even the UN. In this light, the fact that the second war against Iraq took place without the consent of any international organization, not even NATO, should not seem so impressive. The right of intervention against rogue states was considered legitimized.

Finally, we must stress that not only the moral or ideological foundation of intervention has evolved, but also the scope of the interventions themselves. The very notion of ‘failed states’ (Cooper 2002) and the emergence of the notion of ‘nation-building’ suggests not just peace restoration activities or attempts at conflict resolution but a much more thorough effort to transform social and political relations and to impose western style democracy and free-market institutions to the counties that are the target of intervention, irrespective of the actual will of the populations. The hostile feelings by ordinary ‘liberated’ Iraqis against the invaders and the ‘democratic’ institutions they imposed stress the aggressive, imperialist character of these interventions. It is also worth noting that these attempts at coercive reconstruction of democratic institutions usually end up at new forms of protectorates, where democratic forms are either nothing more but a façade and real power rests with the representatives of the “international community”, or are in fact restricted to the point of non-existence.



3.2 Legitimization through human rights as an ideological strategy


But there is also another important aspect in the way human rights have emerged as an important factor in international relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that Cold War security provisions and anti-communism could no longer be used to justify military interventions. This created an ideological vacuum that had to be fulfilled. Appealing only to traditional notions of security and national (that is imperialist) interest could not fill this vacuum and had the risk of appearing as a return to great-power cynicism. One should not forget that Cold War ideology, despite all its balance-of-force rhetoric, was based on a supposed systemic confrontation and was using anti-communism and anti-totalitarianism as a justification beyond simple national interest. Human rights can be considered to offer a moral ground and an appeal to universal values.

It is also worth noting that the ideological role played by this appeal to human rights does not limit itself to an ethical justification. We are dealing a wider set of ideological transformations affecting capitalist societies during the last decades. First, we have the fact that the dominant discourse on human rights regards them as the rights of individuals. But this leaves out collective rights and collective struggles for them. From this point of view we are dealing with the reproduction of the very core of neoliberal capitalist ideology: classes and social groups have no rights, only the individual right to be subjected to capitalist exploitation. Secondly, the fact that human rights are indispensable for the very definition of legitimate statehood implies that capitalist social relations and liberal democracy represent the only possible historical horizon for every society.

Finally, we must stress that we do not view the appeal to human rights incompatible or antagonistic to the appeal to national security; rather we consider them complementary. Security considerations, such as international terrorism and ‘rogue states’, can go hand in hand with human rights considerations, the emphasis depending upon the circumstances and the audience. This appeal to moral values is also a way to compensate for the non-correspondence between International Law and modern forms imperialist domination (Μπιτσάκης / Μπελαντής 2005: 195). That is why we do not think that there is a gap dividing the 1990s stress on human rights and the current anti-terrorist rhetoric. Appeals to human rights –and ‘western values’–form a large part of the vocabulary of the Bush administrations. And indeed one might say since human rights and humanitarian considerations were more than instrumental in justifying the aggressive military interventions of the 1990s (especially the brutal aggression against Yugoslavia), they paved the way for current imperialist bellicosity.



3.3. Terrorism as the pretext for permanent military mobilization and an attack on civil liberties


After the collapse of the Soviet Union the US was in need of enemies that would make its leadership indispensable. In this light the American emphasis on the war on terror – actually shared by both the Clinton and the Bush administrations – is not just some sort of ideological justification. It is also an effort to find these real threats, an effort that in the way displays all these signs of imperial arrogance and authoritarianism that actually make ‘terrorism’ a possible reply to American military interventionism. More important is the relationship between terrorism and ‘rogue’ or ‘failed’ states. Terrorism as such, even in its more impressive manifestations such as the 9/11 attacks, can justify international police operations, but not the kind of politico-military mobilization that makes necessary American leadership. It is exactly the connection between international terrorism and the politics of rogue states, or ‘terrorism-sponsoring nations’ that makes terrorism appear as a global threat and as a geopolitical challenge.

We are also witnessing a change in the nature of war. Although the US and its allies have been trying to present modern warfare as a more humane form of warfare, with ‘surgical precision strikes’ and respect for civilians, in reality we have seen a new form of total warfare: The very notion of terrorism and “terrorism harbouring nations” is lifting the distinction between military personnel and civilians leading to attacks against civilian targets (including the destruction of infrastructures, of health systems, of communication networks, of the environment, of industries, of energy resources), and to the diffusion of terror and psychological violence. At the same time these practices restore the concept of collective responsibility, according to which a population is responsible for the decisions of its leadership and, as a consequence, its punishment is justifiable (Μπελαντής 2002: 187).

But there is also another useful aspect to terrorism as a global threat. In a way parallel to Cold War anti-communism, it links international dangers and domestic threats. It is very important to note that the emphasis on terrorism as a threat has led to an increase in all forms of attacks against civil and democratic liberties, in the form of special legislation, the suspension of habeas corpus rights for terrorist suspects and all forms of surveillance (Cole 2002; Cassel 2003; Greer 2004). It is also important to note that this curtailing of civil liberties also affects ‘liberated’ (that is occupied) countries. The regime imposed to Iraq by the invading forces is based on the concept of reconstruction (and ‘nation-building’), where a new framework of prohibitions and restrictions is formed under the control and surveillance of the invaders. This can help us realize that questioning of the limits of sovereignty does not lead to the substitution of national democratic legality by a supranational democratic legality but to the suppression of any genuine democratic legitimization (Μπιτσάκης- Μπελαντής 2005: 202).

This authoritarian turn aims not only at preventing terrorist activity. Rather it is part of a broader disciplinary effort that aims at facilitating compliance with social norms especially in the workplace. From this point of view military interventionism abroad and domestic authoritarian measures have a common ground. In our opinion this is another demonstration that current imperialist attitudes and practices are not only about international relations. They are part of broader historical tendency: Along with the capitalist restructuring of production, neoliberal deregulation and the internationalization of capital, also came a much more aggressive form of authoritarian statism, an attempt to make the state apparatuses and the political system impenetrable from popular demands and struggles, a disciplinary reinstatement of social norms that went hand-in-hand with the roll back of labour rights inside and outside the workplace. That is why we can insist that counter-terrorist measures have in the long run a broader target; not just “asymmetric threats”, but also mass social and political movements that defy capitalist policies. Therefore we must also stress that there is also an ideological dimension in the “war against terror” and military interventions abroad. They are attempts at an ideological projection of capitalist-imperialist omnipotence, aimed not only against Afghan ‘warlords’ or Iraqi ‘insurgents’, but also against the working classes in metropolitan capitalist social formations



4. Hegemony and Contradictions



4.1 Hegemonic aspects of current American strategy


Hegemony is not necessary a goal by itself. One can say that it can be an unintended product of domestic or ‘national interest’ considerations or it can be the product of conscious political design. The fact remains that for American supremacy to work it needs to offer some sort of consideration for the collective capitalist interest of the other capitalist social formations. This is not necessary to take the form of direct economic aid or intervention (in the form of the Marshall Plan, to take an obvious example). It can also work through political and ideological paradigms. The Reagan era’s promotion of neoliberal economics and ideology, itself a domestic effort to counter productive decline in the US and change the balance of class forces, also functioned as a new hegemonic political and ideological paradigm with global repercussions, helping to launch a neoliberal and neoconservative counter-revolution in many countries.

This definition of hegemony also helps better understand the contradictions of US foreign policy. They cannot be described as simple problems of domination, in the form of insubordination of the other capitalist countries. These contradictions arise whenever the power blocks in the other capitalist countries think that the US is not offering a collective solution for the collective capitalist interest, for example in the form of their fear that American aggression may have short- or long-term destabilizing results.

But this works also the other way around: It shows that it is rather simplistic to describe the post 9/11 American policy as just a unilateralist policy for world domination for the sake of American capitalism alone. It has also been a certain effort for a new hegemonic project, which would combine the Clinton’s vision of globalization as the spread of free markets and western style democracy all over the globe with greater emphasis on disciplinary practices both economic / financial and political as a way to counter rising labour and social unrest after 1995 and to cope with the possibility of a major depression. And contrary to an also simplistic image of “Europe” as the expression of a different global strategy, one should see that right from the beginning the new American strategy had great appeal. The so called “New Europe” of neoliberal economics, extremely low wages, flat taxes, “zero tolerance” policing, anti-immigrant measures, harsh anti-terrorist laws and neo-Atlantic foreign policy saw in G. W. Bush’s declarations a much better way to crack down on popular demands and rising social militancy and to boost economic competitiveness than vague social democratic notions of sharing the benefits of New Economy and globalization.

In view of the above, current American foreign policy can be described as hegemonic in two ways: First, it offers a possible arrangement of international affairs and problems based on the use of force, the military exportation of market economy and western “democratic” institutions, and the crackdown on any movement that challenges the internationalization of capital and international ‘police’ interventions on a global scale. Secondly, it offers also a domestic hegemonic project that comprises even greater market and trade liberalization with authoritarian statism, police repression and social conservatism. In a way these two aspects coincide: Aggressive military interventionism serves not only as a foreign policy tools, but also as a powerful ideological representation of capital’s power –the US Marine as an allegory for the aggression of global capital.

In light of the above the interpretation of American foreign policy that we propose is to be distinguished from two other possible interpretations. First we do not think that the main purpose of American foreign policy is military conquest of ever broader geographical regions, and the US is not returning to the logic of 19th century territorial imperialism. Such an interpretation is refuted both by history – two world wars were not mainly about territorial gains– and by recent experience: the US does not seek to annex Iraq or Afghanistan. The main purpose of US foreign policy is to be able through successful military operations to retain a hegemonic position and safeguard the reproduction of capitalist relations. Secondly we do not think that the United States today comprises the military arm of the supra-national bourgeoisie that has been brought into existence by the globalization process. This interpretation simply fails to see that expanded reproduction of the capitalist mode of production still requires the nation-state.  The development of capitalism is an uneven process, subject to various determinations and different forms and rhythms in the class struggle. This leads to a fragmentation into different loci of reproduction of capitalist relations into different national territories (Sakellaropoulos / Sotiris 2006; Sakellaropoulos 2007). If there is no transnational bourgeoisie, then we must say that US foreign policy still aims primarily to safeguard the dominant position of American capital. It is in the process of maintaining such dominance that the US must also take into consideration the collective interest of other bourgeoisies and the need to safeguard the expanded reproduction of capitalist accumulation on a global scale. Lowering labour costs, labour flexibility, privatization and the creation of new outlets for capitalist investment, lowering of barriers to exports and capital movement, unimpeded access to energy sources, aggression against possible rivals, all these are specific class strategies of US capital, which at the same time create an international framework for the reproduction of capital around the globe.



4.2 Contradictions of Hegemony


There are also contradictions in this attempt by the US to retain their hegemonic role.

First, there have been various signs of contradictions in the US economy. Although it avoided a major recession and maintained higher productivity levels than Europe and Japan (Glyn 2005: 6), there have been contradictions in the US leading role in the world economy. Despite the 1990s’ boom, the current decade has shown that there are still deep-seated over-accumulation tendencies in the American economy (Brenner 2002). China has emerged as a major manufacturing centre, using it huge labour reserve army (Glynn 2005: 13-18). The most important contradiction is that the United States has used its hegemonic position as a way to pump income from the rest of the world (Duménil / Lévy 2004). This necessarily leads to concerns about the leading role of the US financial system in global finance, especially since the European Union has not abandoned the target of making the euro some form of global money. The US economy is also faced with the social consequences of the neoliberal agenda, especially in what concerns the erosion of public services something exemplified by the inability to successfully cope with the hurricane Katrina (Davis 2005). There also signs not only of greater social polarization within American society (Ehrenreich 2001; Yates 2004), but also of greater social unrest, as it was demonstrated by the recent huge demonstrations of immigrant workers (Koronado / Knopp 2006).

Secondly, the American effort to maintain supremacy by aggressively escalating crises to the point of military intervention, something exemplified in the case of the war against Iraq, seems as demanding too great a toll from its allies, especially since this particular form of imperialist aggression is increasingly unpopular. The fact that the war against Iraq was not officially sanctioned by any international organization, not even NATO, exposed significant rifts in what had until then been the unimpeded hegemony of the United States. France, Germany and other countries opposed the opening of a new military front. They discerned an attempt by the US to buttress its hegemony through management of a destabilizing process created by the American policy itself. Although efforts have been made to bridge this gap, one might expect such rifts to re-emerge.

Thirdly, the occupation of Iraq has not up to date had the originally projected results. On the contrary, the US, instead of leading the transition to a peaceful, free and democratic Iraq, is faced with a growing resistance movement (Cockburn 2005) that effectively undermines any chance of a quick end of the Allied Occupation, has resorted to an old colonial ‘divide-and-rule’ attitude, and is faced with bloody sectarian conflicts (Ali 2006). In a way this is the result of a strategic miscalculation, since the American strategy was based on the assumption that military action and occupation would only be temporary means to an endogenous process that would lead to a ‘free and democratic Iraq’, something that would have lifted the whole burden of the Occupation from the Americans and would have permitted the US to target other ‘rogue nations’. This belief in the universal appeal of western democracy and free market was an important part of the neoconservative ideology dominant in the US administration, and at the same time the possibility of quick endogenous processes of ‘regime changes’ was essential for the success of all plans for pre-emptive military aggression against potential threats. It turned out that social and political relations in Iraqi society were very different and there was strong resentment against the occupation, resulting in the US having to engage themselves with the business of administrating and policing an occupied insurgent country.

Fourthly, there have been social and political movements that challenge aspects of American policy that have won elections and state power, especially in Latin America. In this light we should stress the importance of the movement around Venezuela’s president Hugo Chavez and the rising popularity of the so-called “Bolivarian Revolution”, and the importance of some of Evo Morale’s decisions, especially the decision to nationalize Bolivia’s natural resources. We must also stress the attempt by the Venezuelan Government to propose ALBA (Alternativa Bolivariana para América Latina y El Caribe) as an alternative to US plans for trade liberalization and neoliberal economic integration.

Fifthly, the American adoption of a ‘managed destabilization’ tactic, however necessary it might have been for reinforcing the assumption of the indispensable American force, it seems, at least sometimes, as creating more problems than the ones it solves. The same goes for the sustained American support for Israel, despite the fact that it is obvious that current Israeli policy is an obstacle to any viable peace process in the Middle East and more generally to any possibility to come in better terms with Arab societies.

Sixthly, there is the problem of the plans for some sort of military aggression against Iran. On the one hand, US strategic considerations are quite obvious: Iran, as a regional power defying aspects of American foreign policy, is an obstacle to the current American “grand strategy”. On the other hand, any military aggression against Iran will certainly aggravate the over-stretching of US military forces, is not certain to undermine the popularity of the regime and lead to a ‘regime change’, will strengthen anti-war and anti-imperialist feelings all over the world and alienate public opinion, especially in the Arab and Islamic world, and offers the combined risk of Middle East destabilization and an uncontrollable rise in oil prices.



4.3 Hegemony and its challenges


It is true that all these continuous exhibitions of aggressive attitude on behalf of the US reminds of imperial arrogance or even hubris, but it is also true that there is no other possible contender for leadership of the capitalist world, and no foreseeable way to see the implementation of some sort of collective capitalist leadership.

Our position is that the US will retain some sort of hegemonic role, even if this means an accumulation of social, political and economic contradictions and it has to make more concessions to its allies. It still has the ability not only to maintain military supremacy, but also to put pressure into its allies (and competitors in the imperialist chain) to follow its main strategic choices (see for example the fact that most European governments accept the core of the American rationale for the aggression against Iran). And although we can always think of China (possibly in some sort of cooperation with Russia) as a future rival, this does not imply an immediate threat.

For the time being the true challenges to the American hegemony are social rather than ‘geopolitical’, have less to do with the policies of rivals, but mainly with those social movements that openly challenge their aggressive economic and political policies. It is true that these challenges also are uneven in their development and combine resistance in occupied societies, popular movements that aim at a different social development, various forms of social unrest, militancy and radicalism in advanced capitalist countries. And if the resistance in Iraq marks the active contradiction of the imperial blueprint for American Supremacy, and the defiance by social formations in Latin America the greater difficulties that lie ahead, massive anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist struggles in the advanced capitalist formations offer the possibility of ruptures within the structure of American hegemony, since they can force major capitalist countries to distance themselves from American policy, can make the forces of resistance stronger and can force the US establishment to change its strategy.



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[1] On Realism (and neo-realism) as a theoretical tradition in international relations see Carr 1939, Wight 1994, Waltz 1979, Frankel (ed.) 1996. For a criticism of traditional international relations theory see Rosenberg 1994.

[2] On the importance of historical materialism for the theorization of international relations see Halliday 1994, Rosenberg 1994, and Cox 1985.

[3] For the importance of Gramsci’s notion of hegemony see Macciocchi 1974 and Buci-Glucksmann 1980. Lenin also uses the notion of hegemony, but in a more ‘geopolitical’ sense. See for example his following comment: “an essential feature of imperialism is the rivalry between several Great Powers in the striving for hegemony, i.e., for the conquest of territory, not so much directly for themselves as to weaken the adversary and undermine his hegemony” (Lenin 1970: 109).

[4] It was Robert W. Cox that emphasized the importance of hegemony in international relations theory (Cox 1985; 1987).

[5] On the importance of the notion of the imperialist chain see Poulantzas 1974: 20-23 and Althusser 1965: 92-96.

[6] For a recent and very eloquent defence of the American Hegemonic Decline Thesis see Arrighi 2005. For criticism of Arrighi’s position see Panitch and Gindin 2005. For an emphasis on the US capitalism’s hegemonic position see Duménil / Lévy 2004.

[7] On globalization as an ideological notion see Rosenberg 2000 and Σακελλαρόπουλος 2004.

[8] Wolf, in an article with the eloquent title The need for a new Imperialism, goes even further claiming that the intervention of the IMF and the World Bank can not substitute what is really missing into the "failed states" (e.g. Afghanistan, Yugoslavia) namely a powerful and respectable state apparatus. In the cases where there is no such apparatus, and especially its most important sector, the repressive apparatus, then, these apparatuses will come from abroad (Wolf 2001).