by Prof. James Petras
May 16, 2016
empires are complex organizations.
organized on a multi-tiered basis, ranging from
relative autonomous national and regional allies to
subservient vassal states, with variations in
In the contemporary period, the idea of empire does
not operate as a stable global structure, though it
may aspire and strive for such.
While the U.S. is
the major imperial power, it does not dominate some
leading global political-economic and military
powers, like Russia and China.
Imperial powers, like the U.S., have
well-established regional satellites but have also suffered setbacks
and retreats from independent local economic and political
Empire is not a fixed structure rigidly embedded in military or
economic institutions. It contains sets of competing forces and
relations, which can change over time and circumstances.
imperial allies and clients do not operate through fixed patterns of
While there is submission to general agreements on
ideology, military doctrine and economic policy identified with
imperial rulers, there are cases of vassal states pursuing their own
links with non-imperial markets, investors and exporters.
If the global world of imperial power is complex and indeterminate
to some degree, so is the internal political, economic,
administrative and military structure of the imperial state. The
imperial political apparatus has become more heavily weighted on the
side of security institutions, than diplomatic and representative
Economic institutions are organized for overseas markets
dominated by multi-national corporations against local markets and
producers. 'Market economy' is a misnomer.
Military-security institutions and budgets utilize most state
functionaries and public resources, subordinating markets and
diplomatic institutions to military priorities.
While imperial state operations function through their military and
civilian administrative apparatus, there are competitive
socio-political-class, ethnic and military configurations to
In analyzing the effective or 'real power' of the principle
institutions of the imperial state, one must distinguish between
goals and results, purpose and actual performance.
commentators make sweeping statements about 'imperial power and
dominance', while in fact, some policies may have ended in costly
losses and retreats due to specific national, local or regional
Hence it is crucial to look closely at the imperial interaction
between its various tiers of allies and adversaries in order to
understand the immediate and long-term structures and direction of
imperial state policy.
This essay will first describe the leader-follower imperial
relationships in four zones:
...and identify the terrain of
struggles and conflict.
This will be followed by an examination of
the contemporary 'map of empire'. We will then contrast the
alignment of forces between Western imperial allies and their
In the final section we will look at the
sources of fragmentation between
the imperial state and
globalization as well as the fissures and fallout between imperial
allies and followers.
Imperial Allies in the West
Western imperialism is a complex pyramidal structure where the
dominant United States interacts through a five-tier system.
is a vertical and horizontal configuration of leader and follower
states that cannot be understood through simplistic 'solar system'
metaphors of 'centers, semi-peripheries and peripheries'.
Western imperial power extends and overlaps from the
first tier to
the second, that is, from the United States to,
The scope and depth of U.S. military,
bureaucratic, political and economic institutions form the framework
within which the followers operate.
The second tier of empire ties the top tier to the bottom tiers by
providing military support and economic linkages, while securing
autonomous levers to enlarge its own geo-political spheres.
The third tier of imperialism in the West comprises,
the Low Countries
geographically and economically within the sphere of Western Europe
and militarily dependent on U.S.-NATO military dominance.
tier is a heterogeneous group, ranging from highly advanced and
sophisticated welfare-states like,
...to relatively backward Baltic dependencies like,
They exercise few independent
power initiatives and depend on protection from the Tier 1 and 2
'Tier four' states include countries like,
are essentially satellite nations, who follow the leader imperial
countries, providing bases, troops and tourist resorts.
they have no independent voice or decision-making presence in
regional or global conflicts. Despite their instability and the
occasional outbursts of radical dissent, the lower tier countries
have yet to break with the higher tiers controlled by the EU and
The fifth tier satellites include recently fabricated mini-states
...which act as
military bases, tourist havens and economic dependencies.
the outcome of the first-tier and second-tier policies of 'regime
change' and state dismemberment through NATO-led wars designed to
destroy any remnant of the multi-ethnic social welfare states and
degrade Russian influence, especially in Yugoslavia.
Mapping the leader-follower structure of the Western empire depends
on the distribution of military resources and their location along
the Russian border.
The U.S.-EU Empire faces the problem of meeting
rising economic demands from the multi-tiered empire, which has
exceeded their capacity. This had led to shifting trade alliances
and independent pressure to 'go beyond' the dictates of the imperial
Leader imperial states have tightened economic and political control
over their followers - especially when the military consequences of
empire have disrupted everyday life, security and the economy.
ongoing example is the flood of millions of desperate refugees
entering Europe, as a result of U.S. imperial war policies in the
Middle East and North Africa.
This mass influx threatens the
political and social stability of Europe. Following the U.S. putsch in
the Ukraine and the inevitable response from Moscow, Washington
ordered an economic blockade of Russia.
The economic consequences of
U.S.-imposed sanctions against the giant Russian market has severely
affected European exports, especially agriculture and heavy industry
and caused instability in the energy market which was dominated by
the now banned Russian petroleum and gas producers.
The U.S. imperial design in East Asia is vastly different in
structure, allies and adversaries from that in the West.
and followers are very heterogeneous in the East. The multi-tier
Empire in Asia is designed to undermine and eventually dominate
North Korea and China.
Since the Second World War, the U.S. has been the center of the
Pacific empire. It also suffered serious military setbacks in Korea
and Indo-China. With the aid of its multi-tiered auxiliaries, the
has recovered its influence in Indo-China and South Korea.
The U.S. position, as the first-tier imperial power, is sustained by
second-tier imperial allies, such as,
These second-tier allies are diverse entities.
For example, the
Indian regime is a reticent latecomer to the U.S. Empire and still
retains a higher degree of autonomy in dealing with China. In
contrast, while Australia and New Zealand retained their dependent
military ties with the U.S., they are increasingly dependent on
Chinese commodity markets and investments.
Japan, a powerful traditional economic ally of the U.S., remains a
weak military satellite of the U.S.-Asian Empire.
Third-tier countries include,
South Korea is the US's most
important military dependency, despite which it has moved steadily
closer to the Chinese market, as has the populous Indonesian
Taiwan, while a military dependency of the U.S., has stronger ethnic
and economic links to China than the U.S..
The Philippines is a backward U.S. military vassal-state and former
colony, which retains its legacy as an imperial enclave against
China. Thailand and Malaysia have remained as third-tier imperial
auxiliaries, subject to occasional nationalist or democratic popular
The fourth-tier countries within U.S. East Asian Empire are the least
reliable because they are relatively 'new associates'.
...have transformed from independent statist
economies to U.S.-Japanese and Chinese-centered markets, financial and
The U.S. Empire has focus on confronting China through its military,
controlling its South China trading routes and trying to form
regional economic trade agreements, which exclude China.
the imperial multi-tiered structure has been mostly limited to
various U.S. military harassment and joint 'war games' exercises with
its clients and 'allies'. This has had minimal economic input from
even their closest allies.
The U.S. Eastern Empire has lost
significant economic counterparts because of its confrontational
approach to China. Its provocative trade-pacts have failed to
undermine China's dynamic economy and trade.
The U.S. Eastern Empire may dominate its multi-tiered allies, vassals
and recent converts through its military. It may succeed in
provoking a serious military confrontation with China. But it has
failed to re-establish a dominant structure within Asia to sustain
U.S. imperial superiority in the event of a war.
China drives the growth and dynamism of Asia and is the vital market
for regional products as well as a crucial supplier of minerals,
precious metals, industrial products, high tech and service activity
throughout the region.
The U.S. has occasionally turned to its 'fifth-tier' allies among
non-state entities in Tibet and Hong Kong and among ethno-Islamist
terrorist-separatist groups in Western China, using 'human rights'
propaganda, but these have had no significant impact in weakening
China or undermining its regional influence.
The Eastern Empire can wield none of the economic leverage in China
that the Western empire has with Russia.
China has established more
effective economic relations in Asia than Russia has with the West.
However, Russia has greater military capability and a more committed
political will to push back Western imperial military threats than
In recent years, Beijing has adopted a policy of
strengthening its high tech military and maritime capabilities.
the wake of the U.S. putsch in the Ukraine and the West's economic
sanctions against Russia, Moscow has been forced to bolster
strategic military-economic ties with China.
exercises between Russia and China , as well as greater trade, pose
formidable counter-weights to the multi-tiered alliances linking the
U.S. and EU to Japan, Australia and South Korea.
In other words, the diverse geographic multi-tiered U.S. imperial
structures in the East do not and cannot, dominate a strategic
top-tiered alliance of Russia and China, despite their lack of other
strong military allies and client states.
If we look beyond European and Asian spheres of Empire to the Middle
East and Latin America, the U.S. imperial presence is subject to
rapidly evolving power relations.
We cannot simply add or subtract
from the U.S. and Russian and Chinese rivalries, because these do not
necessarily add up to a new 'imperial' or 'autonomous' center of
in the Middle East - The Multi-Tiered Empire in Retreat
The U.S. imperial empire in
the Middle East occupies a pivotal point
between West and East; between the top and secondary tiers of
empire; between Islamic and anti-Islamic alliances.
If we extend the 'Middle East' to include South Asia and North
Africa we capture the dimensions of the Western imperial quest for
The imperial empire in the Middle East reflects U.S. and Western
European tiers of power as they interact with local counterparts and
The U.S.-EU top tiers link their goals of encircling and undermining
Russia and regional adversaries, like Iran, with the regional
ambitions of their NATO ally, Turkey.
Imperial powers in the Middle East and North Africa operate through
local allies, auxiliaries and satellites as they compete for
territorial fragments and power bases following the U.S. 'wars for
With the U.S. at the top, the European Union, Israel, Turkey and Saudi
Arabia comprise the second-tier allies.
...which are financial and political dependencies of the
empire, rank as third-tier.
The fourth-tier includes the Gulf
states, the Kurd war lords, Lebanese and Yemeni local puppets of the
Saudi Monarchy and Israel's client Palestinian Bantustan in the West
Saudi and Western-funded regional terrorist groups aspire to
fourth-tier membership following a successful 'regime change' and
territorial fragmentation in Syria.
The terrorist enclaves are located in Syria, Iraq and Libya and play
a 'specific and multi-purpose' role in undermining adversaries in
order to restore imperial dominance.
The Middle East Empire is the least stable region and the most
susceptible to internal rivalries.
Israel exercises a unique and unrivaled voice in securing U.S.
financial and military resources and political support for its
brutal colonial control over Palestine and Syrian territories and
Saudi Arabia finances and arms autonomous
Islamist terrorist groups as part of their policy of advancing the
kingdom's political- territorial designs in,
Turkey has its own
regional ambitions and terrorist mercenaries.
Within this volatile
context, the U.S. Empire finds itself competing with its auxiliaries
for control over the same Middle East clients.
The Middle East Empire is fraught with powerful adversaries at each
point of contention. The huge, independent nation of Iran stands as
a powerful obstacle to the West, Saudis, and Israel and competes for
influence among satellites in the Gulf, Yemen, Iraq, Syria and
Hezbollah, a powerful nationalist group within Lebanon, has
played a crucial role defending Syria against dismemberment and is
linked with Iran against Israeli intervention. Russia has military
and trade relations with Syria and Iran in opposition to the Western
Meanwhile, the U.S. imperial satellite states in,
...are rapidly disintegrating in
the face of gross corruption, Islamist resurgence, policy
incompetence and economic crises.
To speak formally of a 'Western imperial empire' in vast sections of
the Middle East and North Africa is a misnomer for several reasons:
In Afghanistan, the Nationalist-Islamist Taliban and its allies
control most of the country except for a few garrison cities.
Yemen, Libya and Iraq are battleground states, contested terrain
with nothing remotely resembling a functioning imperial domain. Iraq
is under siege from the North by Kurds, the center by ISIS, the
South by nationalist Shi'a militias and mass organizations in
contention with grossly corrupt U.S. imperial-backed puppets in
The U.S.-EU mercenaries in Syria have been defeated by
Syrian-Russian-Hezbollah-Iranian forces aided by independent Kurds.
Israel behaves more like a militarist 'settler' predator usurping
historical Palestine than a reliable imperial collaborator.
So far, the empire project in the Middle East and North Africa has
been the costliest and least successful for Western imperialism.
First and foremost, responsibility for the current Middle East
imperial debacle falls directly on the top tier political and
military leaders who have pursued policies and strategies (regime
change and national dismemberment) incompatible with imperial
precepts that normally guide empires.
The top tier of the U.S. imperial-military elite follows Israeli
military prerogatives, as dictated by the Zionist Power
Configuration (ZPC) embedded within the U.S. state apparatus.
policy has been to destroy Islamic and Arab-nationalist structures
and institutions of power - not conquer and reconfigure them to be
absorbed into Western imperial institutions... as the U.S. was able to
do in Asia and Europe.
This parrots the Israeli-settler policy of
'erasure' and has made the region totally unstable for imperial
The wanton dismemberment of the whole
social-political-security institutional structure of Iraq is a prime
example of the Israeli policy of 'erasure' promoted by U.S. Zionist
advisers on a grand scale. The same advisers remain within the top
tier imperial decision-making apparatus despite 15 years of abject
Western empire's multi-tier structure, from the U.S. and Western
Europe at the top to Kosovo at the bottom, have followed imperial
imperatives. In contrast Israeli imperatives direct U.S. military
power into perpetual war in the Middle East through the influential ZPC.
This divergent path and the inability to change course and rectify
imperial policy has brought disastrous defeats, which have
repercussions throughout the global empire, especially freeing up
competitors and rivals in Asia and Latin America.
Empire in Latin America
The U.S. imperial empire expanded in Central America and the Caribbean
during most of the 19th CENTURY and reigned supreme in the first
half of the 20th century.
The exceptions included the nationalist
revolutions in Haiti in the early 19th century and Paraguay in the
After the U.S. Civil War, the British Empire in
Latin America was replaced by the U.S., which established a dominant
position in the region, except during the successful Mexican
Several major challenges have emerged to U.S. imperial dominations in
the middle of the 20th century.
The centerpiece of anti-imperialism was the Cuban Revolution in
1959, which provided political, ideological and material backing to
a continent-wide challenge.
Earlier a socialist government
emerged in Guyana in 1953 but was overthrown.
In 1965, the Dominican
Revolution challenged a brutal U.S. backed-dictator but was
defeated by a direct U.S. invasion.
In 1970-73 a democratic
socialist government was elected in Chile and overthrown by
a bloody CIA coup.
In 1971 a 'workers and peasants'
coalition backed a nationalist military government in
Bolivia only to be ousted by a U.S.-backed military coup.
In Argentina (Peron), Brazil (Goulart)
and Peru (Alvarez), nationalist-populist governments,
opposed to U.S. imperialism, were elected between the middle
1960's to the mid 1970's. Each were overthrown by
Apart from the Cuban revolution,
the U.S. Empire successfully counter-attacked, relying on
and local business elites to back the military juntas in
repressing anti-imperialist and nationalist political
parties and movements.
The U.S. Empire re-established its
hegemony, based on a multi-tiered military and market
directorate, headed at the top by the U.S.. Argentina, Brazil
and Chile comprised the second-tier, a group of military
dictatorships engaged in large-scale state terror and death
squad assassinations and forcing hundreds of thousands into
exile and prison.
The third-tier was based on U.S.
surrogates, generals and oligarch-families in,
The fourth-tier of satellite regimes
all of the Caribbean, except
Cuba and (briefly) Grenada
The U.S. Empire ruled through predator
allies and satellite oligarchs and successfully imposed a uniform
imperial structure based on neo-liberal policies.
U.S.-centered regional trade, investment
and military pacts ensured its imperial supremacy, through which
they sought to blockade and overthrow the Cuban revolution.
imperialist system reached its high point between the mid-1970's to
the late 1990's - the Golden Age of Plunder.
After the pillage of the 1990's, the
empire faced a massive wave of challenges from popular uprisings,
electoral changes and the collapse of the corrupt auxiliary
The U.S. imperial empire faced powerful challenges from
popular-nationalist regimes from 1999 to 2006 in,
liberal-nationalist governments in,
...posed their own challenges to imperial control.
The U.S. empire was bogged down in multiple imperial wars in,
Middle East (Iraq, Libya, Syria)
(Ukraine, Georgia, Yugoslavia),
...which undermined its capacity to
intervene militarily in Latin America.
Cuba, the hemispheric center of the anti-imperialist politics,
received economic aid from Venezuela and strengthened its
diplomatic, trade and security alliances with the
This provided an impetus to the
formation of independent regional trade organizations, which traded
heavily with U.S. imperial rivals, China, Iran and Russia during the
While the U.S. imperial empire in Latin America was in retreat, it had
not suffered a strategic defeat because it maintained its powerful
business, political and state auxiliary structures, which were ready
to regroup and counter-attack at the 'right moment' - the end of the
'global commodity boom'.
By the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the
counter-attacked, with their political-military clients taking power
in the weakest links,
Since then, neo-liberal extremists,
have been elected to the
presidency in Argentina
a corrupt oligarch-led congress
has impeached the President of Brazil
the ground is being prepared to
seize control in Venezuela
The U.S. Empire re-emerged in Latin
America after a decade-long hiatus with a new or re-invigorated
At the top-tier is the United States, dependent on enforcement of
its control through satellite military and business elites among the
At the third-tier are,
The fourth-tier is dominated by weak
submissive regimes in,
Central America (Panama,
Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador)
the Caribbean (especially Santa
Domingo, Haiti and Jamaica)
The U.S. has re-assembled its imperial
structure in Latin American rapidly, creating an assemblage which is
extremely fragile, incoherent and subject to disintegration.
The new neo-liberal regime in Argentine, the centerpiece of the
empire, immediately faces the triple threat of,
Brazil's new U.S. neo-liberal constellation of characters are all
under indictment for corruption and facing trials, while economic
recession and social polarization is undermining their ability to
consolidate imperial control.
Venezuela's rightwing auxiliaries lack the economic resources to
escape the demise of the oil economy, hyperinflation and the
virulent internecine conflicts within the Right.
The U.S. imperial empire in Latin America could best operate through
links with the Asian-Pacific trade pact. However, even with new
Asian ties the Latin satellites exhibit none of their Asian
Moreover, China's dominant economic role in
both regions has limited U.S. hegemony over the principal props of the
The Myth of a
U.S. Global Empire
The 'narrative' of a U.S. global empire is based on several profound
misconceptions, which have distorted the capacity of the U.S. to
dominate world politics.
The U.S. regional empires operate in
contested universes where powerful counter forces limit imperial
In Europe, Russia is a powerful counterforce, bolstered by its
growing alliances in Asia (China), the Middle East (Iran) and, to a
limited extent, by
the BRIC countries.
Moreover, Washington's multi-tiered allies in Europe have
occasionally followed autonomous policies, which include Germany's
oil-gas independent agreements with Russia, eroding U.S. efforts to
While it may appear that the 'imperial military, banking,
multi-national corporate structure', at a high level of abstraction,
operates within a common imperial enterprise, on issues of everyday
policy-making, budgeting, war policies, trade agreements, diplomacy,
subversion and the capitalist market-place there are multiple
The empire's multi-tiered allies have their own demands as well as
sacrifices imposed on the U.S. imperial center.
Internal members of the imperial structure define competing
priorities via domestic power wielders.
The U.S. Empire has extended its military operations to over 700 bases
across the world but each operation has been subject to restraints
U.S. multi-nationals have multi-billion dollar operations but they are
forced to adjust to the demands of counter-imperial powers (China).
They evade almost a trillion dollars of
U.S. taxes while absorbing
massive assets from the U.S. Treasury in the form of subsidies,
infrastructure and security arrangements.
In sum, while the sun may never set on the empire, the emperors have
lost their sight...