By José Luís Fiori:
The Obama family’s weekend trip to Brazil would have passed into history as a touristic event in Rio and an international courtesy if it hadn’t coincided with Japan’s nuclear disaster and the beginning of the aerial bombardment of Libya. Especially because the decision of the United States to attack the North African country was made in Brazilian territory, a little before the festive dinner that the Itamaraty Palace offered the North American delegation. This decision, above all, acted as a reminder for the most hasty, that the USA continues to be the only super power with the “right” to decide — when and where it wants — and with the ability to intervene militarily immediately, in any conflict, around the world. It was a well-timed reminder because it has become common in the press and in academia, from the left and from the right, to speak of the decline of North American power while evidence to the contrary accumulates.
After 1991, and specifically after the end of the USSR, Europe was no longer the international system’s center of gravity; this center went to the other side of the Atlantic. And at the same time, the USA transformed itself into the “head” of a new type of “global power.” An empire that is not colonial, it doesn’t have a formal structure; it has flexible borders which are defined in each case; as a last resort, they are defined by the USA’s naval and financial power. And since the beginning of the 21st century, the USA is confronting the contradictions, problems and trepidations produced by this transition and change of status: from the condition of a “hegemonic power,” restricted to the capitalist world up until the 1980’s, to the condition of “global imperial power.” Now, it is impossible to foresee how this new kind of empire will be administered in the future. Because it continues to be national, and at the same time it will have to live together with close to another 200 states which are, or which consider themselves, sovereign. Furthermore, the expansion of American power is the main cause of the multiplication of its competitors in the struggle for regional hegemony inside of the world system.
What is being watched, in this moment, is a change in the administration of the USA’s global power. This process is in full swing, but it will be long and complicated, involving divisions and struggles inside and outside of the North American establishment’s society. Even so, it is more probable that, at the end of this process, the USA will adopt at every turn a position further away and more arbitrational in relation to its partners of old in all of the world’s geopolitical regions: prompting internal division and regional equilibrium of power, playing its own allies against each other, and only intervening as a last resort, like the Britannic Empire.
This new kind of imperial power of the USA does not exclude the possibility of wars, or of localized military failures like in Iraq and in Afghanistan, or the possibility of financial crisis, like the one in 2008. These financial crisis should not alter the international economic hierarchy as long as the government and the North American capitals can pass on their costs to the system’s other economic powers. And the wars or localized military failures will continue to not be important as long as they don’t threaten the USA’s naval supremacy in all of the world’s oceans and seas and as long as they don’t escalate in the direction of a “hegemonic war” able to achieve North American military supremacy.
Anyway, it is obvious that this new imperial power is not absolute, nor will it be eternal. As it was already said, its continual expansion creates and strengthens competing powers, and it destabilizes and destroys the “equilibriums” and the institutions which were created by the USA itself when prompting the formation of regional “power coalitions” that will end up dismembering its imperial power little by little, as it occurred with the Roman Empire. On the other hand, the new world economic engineering displaced the capitalist center of accumulation and transformed China into an economy with a gravitational power almost equal to that of the United States. This new international geo-economy intensifies the capitalist competition and already began an “imperialist race,” at every turn more intense in Africa and South America, thereby increasing the possibility and number of localized conflicts between the Great Powers. Furthermore, the North American imperial power must confront a chronic loss of legitimacy inside of the USA because the diversity and national, ethnic, and civilizing complexity of its empire is absolutely incompatible with the defense and preservation of any kind of universal value system, contrary to what a good part of the North American society believes.
In any case, the Obama family’s trip to the tropics and the American president’s friendly and pleasant rhetoric demonstrated how “Relations among equals” works in practice when one of them is an empire.
José Luis Fiori, political scientist, is a professor at the Universidade Federal in Rio de Janeiro.