ODVV.org | Vijay Prashad: “One should be clear that this is not merely US unilateralism, but the attempted unilateralism of the imperialist bloc. This bloc’s instruments are trade and war.”
Unilateralism is often described as a tendency of countries to conduct their foreign affairs individualistically, involving limited coordination with other nations and minimal regard for the preferences and interests of other states, including allies. The term “unilateralism,” which is believed to have emerged in 1926, denotes an approach to foreign policy characterized by the powerful states’ neglecting of international institutions, international norms and legal constraints. Today, most international relations scholars point to the United States when trying to exemplify the unilateral policies of hegemonic powers.
Experts of international politics agree that the United States has been instrumental in framing and shaping the global order following the two World Wars; nonetheless, they share this view that unilateralism has been a key component of US foreign policy since the early 19th and 20th centuries, an example of which is the Monroe Doctrine put forward in 1823 by President James Monroe. The United States has opted to subscribe to what it refers to as “multilateralism à la carte,” or flexible multiallelism, according to which international frameworks, organizations and agreements that limit the US actions are scrapped, and those which limit the actions of other states are supported. Debate on US unilateralism has been revived after the coming to power of President Donald Trump, who advocated new methods to project the US power, and made “America First” his calling card. President Trump redoubled the use of economic sanctions against the US rivals, abrogated a number of international agreements and accords, and unprecedentedly antagonized the US allies and partners.
Vijay Prashad is a widely-published Indian author, historian and journalist. He is the George and Martha Kellner Chair in South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at the Trinity College and the chief editor of LeftWord Books. In an interview with Organization for Defending Victims of Violence, Prof. Prashad responded to some questions about the historical roots and contemporary representations of American unilateralism, the US government’s use of unilateral coercive measures and the role of international organizations in upholding multilateralism. The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
Q: The critics of American unilateralism espouse that this approach is equivalent to isolationism and entails unfavorable consequences for the United States; however, there are scholars who believe it’s a misnomer to describe the US foreign policy as isolationist, and unilateralism has been a dominant factor in the US politics since George Washington. What are your thoughts? Is unilateralism a new phenomenon in the US foreign policy that gained momentum under President Donald Trump or has it been a historically popular modus operandi?
A: The question requires an understanding of the structure of world affairs in the modern period. One cannot simply answer on the surface. To go beneath the surface, one has to look at the formation of the world order in the post-1945 period. Then, the forces of imperialism gradually began to coalesce around the United States — France and Britain eventually acceded to US power after Suez in 1956. The US became the hub of the imperialist bloc, with various powers as its spokes, including the Europeans and the Japanese, organized around various treaty organizations – NATO, CENTO, SEATO. Financial dominance and dominance over trade provided the imperialist bloc with considerable advantages over the formerly colonial and semi-colonial parts of the world. Pressure – such as by coups against Iran in 1953 and Guatemala in 1954 – sent a message to others that raw materials must flow at suppressed prices to the multinational corporations of the imperialist bloc. But two important barriers to complete unipolarity have to be acknowledged: First, the Soviet bloc and then China, which did not adopt the law of value of the imperialist bloc. The “red zone” had its own understanding of social development, and – even when under pressure from imperialism and therefore wasting resources on the military – made important advances for the people who lived in this bloc. Second, the bloc of the Third World, which formed out of the anti-colonial movement, and which – in different countries – had different political orientations depending on the class balance in these countries, was nonetheless averse to a full surrender to imperialism. These two shields – the “red zone” and the Third World – prevented imperialism from fully dominating the planet.
In the 1980s, the Third World debt crisis destroyed the sovereignty of that part of the world, and – for complex reasons – the Communist state system eroded. As these collapsed in the early 1990s, the US attempted to assert itself as the main pole, leading the imperialist bloc. This was the period which it called “globalization”. But, as the US pushed in this direction, a structural problem blocked its assertion. This was “globalization” itself, which saw production processes disarticulate around the planet, and it saw the weakening of production in the West, where labor costs had risen as a result of a strike wave of the 1970s. Vigorous trade policies through the newly created World Trade Organization and a series of brutal wars weakened the ideological hegemony of the imperialist bloc; it maintained its power as a result of the absence of any focused challenge. The succession of “IMF riots” showed that a new contradiction had emerged – there was an objective crisis of capitalism, and there was a subjective crisis of the world socialist movement.
Since the 1990s, therefore, we have been in a period of imperialism’s attempt to consolidate its unipolarity, which has not been successful.
Q: The proponents of unilateralism say multilateralism erodes the nations’ sovereignty by restricting the governments’ freedom of action, and governments should have the jurisdiction to determine what counts as a threat to their national security and how it’s best to respond to those threats. Do you agree with this argument?
A: I am not sure of this argument. Multilateralism is not a thing itself. It is an open concept. To have a more focused idea, it is important to understand the class character of multilateralism. You can have a multilateralism of the bourgeoisie, which is essentially what the imperialist bloc is, and which is indeed what places such as Davos present themselves as. Or you can have a multilateralism of the working-class and the peasantry. So, the point about multilateralism itself eroding sovereignty is not credible. The issue is what kind of multilateralism, and what is its class character. The multilateralism of the Bolivarian project in the Caribbean and South America is totally different than the multilateralism of Davos.
Q: Does the United States’ unilateralism damage other countries’ security and sovereignty? How can the world countries shield themselves against the impacts of unilateral policies by a superpower?
A: One should be clear that this is not merely US unilateralism, but the attempted unilateralism of the imperialist bloc. This bloc’s instruments are trade and war. These certainly erode the ability of the working-class and the peasantry to fashion a world that elaborates on their freedom. Some countries have attempted to push back against these imperialist trade policies, and to create a more socialist agenda — Venezuela and Cuba being the main examples. They have faced hybrid wars, namely sanctions and sabotage, which have indeed weakened them. In the 1980s, both Cuba under Fidel Castro and Burkina Faso under Thomas Sankara argued for an international coalition against the debt crisis; for their countries to unitedly refuse to service the toxic debt. Few countries agreed, largely because they felt suffocated by the new forces of globalization and because their own ruling class did not want to antagonize the imperialist bloc. A similar call needs to be given against hybrid wars. We need a UN resolution against hybrid wars.
Q: It’s believed that it was Ronald Reagan, the 40th President of the United States, who introduced the concepts of “pre-emptive attack” and “regime change” to the US foreign policy agenda. Don’t pre-emptive military strikes and attempts to topple governments across the world pose a threat to global order and the rule of law when they don’t have the backing of the international community and bodies such as the UN Security Council?
A: Actually, the idea of the “pre-emptive” strike goes back a long way. The imperialist bloc used it against Guatemala and Iran in the 1950s. There was no reason to overthrow those governments except that they had taken a position against the multinational corporations. The overthrow of the government of Mosaddegh and Arbenz certainly created instability for the people of Iran and Guatemala. Recall that these coups did not have the backing of the UNSC. But there was no challenge to them. That is important to recall. At that time – in 1953 and 1954 – the Third World bloc was not yet fully established; the Bandung conference took place only in 1955. The Soviets made their objections in the UN, but the Sino-Soviet dispute was already on, and it would severely weaken the “red zone” in its ability to stand fast against these kinds of maneuvers. Recall that the Soviet entry into Hungary in 1956, whatever arguments either way, dented the hands of the Soviets. It will take a great deal of effort to build a proper international bloc that opposes imperialism in our time; the anti-imperialist bloc is both weakened and those who might join it have their own vulnerabilities.
Q: Why do you think President Donald Trump abandoned the international commitments of the United States immediately after assuming power and left international treaties and organizations such as the Paris climate agreement, UNESCO, UN Human Rights Council, INF Treaty, Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action?
A: Trump is part of a tendency in the US that does not believe that the US should have ever been party to any commitments. This is from the fringe John Birch society to the more mainstream Tea Party movement. But this is merely a rhetorical disavowal, an abandonment from treaties and agreements that the US anyway finds onerous. There is no move to abandon NATO, for instance, or the WTO. One should not see this as isolationism. This is obviously an assertion of US power, which remains a very real force through its military and its domination of finance. There is no real reason to believe that abandoning UNESCO is going to threaten world security; UNESCO has never been taken seriously. International peace and security have never been an established fact; their arrival is contested by the imperialist bloc, who would like “peace and security” in their image, not for the peoples of the world.
Q: One of the frequently-used tools of the US diplomacy is economic sanctions, which the United States imposes unilaterally on a variety of countries and entities. There are international relations scholars, including the UN special rapporteur on the negative impact of the unilateral coercive measures Idriss Jazairy who believe economic sanctions violate human rights and are unfair when they are broad-ranging and disproportionate. What do you think?
A: Certainly, unilateral sanctions have a terrible impact on people’s lives. They do impact the human rights of people. There is no doubt about that. The impact of these sanctions needs to be studied and their impact needs to be broadcast. It is important to bear in mind that the imperialist bloc does not care about this impact. You might recall that during the 1990s US-led sanctions against Iraq, the then US ambassador to the UN, Madelaine Albright, said that the death of half a million Iraqi children as a result of the sanctions was “a price worth paying”. So, this needs to be part of the conversation, this disregard for the impact of sanctions.
Q: Does Washington’s unilateralism prompt its major partners to be cynical about their relations with the United States? Do you think President Trump’s pressures on the close US allies such as Canada, Germany and NATO members will result in a significant transformation in the world order?
A: None of the partners of the imperialist bloc want to see NATO broken up. This discussion is drama. It will not lead anywhere. I don’t think that Trump’s odd comments will have any impact in that alliance. It is part of the infrastructure of the imperialist bloc.
Q: And finally, do you see this potential in entities such as the UN General Assembly and the Non-Aligned Movement to challenge the unilateral policies of major powers and play an effective and tangible role in global equations?
A: At this moment, the UNGA and the NAM are weak. They exist certainly, but there is no project that unifies them, and the class character of the ruling blocs in most of the states is not what it once was. There has been a serious deterioration of these bodies not because of themselves, but because many of the members have become subordinate allies of the imperialist bloc. For example, even in the BRICS, three of the states, namely Brazil, India, and South Africa, have right-wing governments that have no fealty in a new dynamic for human society.
The class alignment in our societies has to change. Only when the bloc of the working-class and the peasantry come to power in a majority of our countries will they be able to drive a real alternative through the bodies such as the UNGA and the NAM. Before that happens, we are fighting a rear-guard action against imperialism.