In a wide-ranging interview on CNN’s “State of the Union” program on Dec. 18, 2016 Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) expressed his concern for the future of international relations. Conflicts in various parts of the world, he stated, are undermining our country’s security, “[W]hat’s happening here, when we see the seizure of [U.S.] ships, when we see the cyber-attacks, when we see the dismemberment of Syria, when we see the tragedies that are taking place there, which are heartbreaking, actually heartbreaking, while we sat by and watched all this happen, this is a sign of a possible unraveling of the world order that was established after World War II, which was made one of the most peaceful periods in the history of the world… We’re starting to see the strains and the unraveling of it…”
Statements by President Trump about the role of NATO, along with reports of angry telephone calls to the leaders of Australia and Mexico, two of our country’s closest allies, reinforce this belief. The fact is, however, long before Trump came on the political scene, the world has already been changing from what Senator McCain and others perceive it to have been.
To which one can say, it’s about time.
For over seventy years, the world has lived through a period of history dominated by one country – the United States – which has used every trick in the book to further the aims of the capitalist system and maintain its position as the dominant world power. The methods used and the reasons given to maintain popular support for this arrangement have over the decades become so ingrained in U.S. society and consciousness that very few people think about it, let alone do anything to change it.
The main features of the post-World War II international order include: 1) a highly militarized economy bolstered by the creation of an enemy that had to be defeated at all costs; 2) the development of the national security state; and 3) the growth within the country of numerous social mechanisms to buttress acceptance of U.S. world hegemony, while at the same time the destruction of any organization or institution that challenged it.
These developments did not happen in a vacuum. At the conclusion of World War II, a conflict that took over fifty million lives, people around the world wanted a strong, long-lasting, and stable peace. Many hoped that the victorious powers, led by the United States and the Soviet Union, would ensure that it happened.
But forces within the capitalist class planned otherwise. Unsure that the economy might re-enter a depression and ever-working to ensure increased profits, they created what we now call the “military-industrial complex.” It brought about an economy that gave millions of workers jobs producing goods that no one, other than the U.S. military would ever use, but which paid good wages. The country prospered.
In order to justify the development of a massive military presence in our society, the government needed an enemy upon whom it could threaten to use the weapons produced. That proved easy to do. Within a year after the cessation of hostilities in 1945 the United States had its target: “Communism” in the guise of the Soviet Union. For nearly the half-century that followed, the American people were made to believe in a “communist threat,” made real through what was called a “world-wide communist conspiracy.”
The results of this ideology were clear. Far from creating what Sen. McCain called “one of the most peaceful periods in the history of the world,” the last seventy years have seen the expansion of the military budget (from $3 billion before World War II to over $600 billion today); the expansion of U.S. military power to nearly one-thousand bases around the world; the creation of several regional military alliances, with the best known being the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and U.S. armed intervention in dozens of countries, most notably Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The place of the armed forces has become so omnipresent in our society that anyone who criticizes any aspect of their existence is seen as “un-American” and “un-patriotic.”
The impact on U.S. society cannot be calculated. In the 1940s and 1950s, powerful people within the US government – Sen. Joseph McCarthy is the best known – launched an anti-communist crusade that ruined countless lives. Groups as diverse as civil rights advocates to labor unions were forced to buckle under to the dominant Cold War mythology. We still feel its effects more than sixty years later.
In 1947, the United States set up the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the opening wedge of what is now known as the “national security state,” and developed many insidious methods to undermine any opposition to U.S. policies in many countries around the world. Over time the number of U.S. “intelligence” agencies has mushroomed to seventeen. Among them, the National Security Agency (NSA), which has carried out massive electronic spying programs that have breached the privacy of millions of U.S. citizens.
Even after the disappearance of the Soviet Union and the overthrow of the socialist order in Eastern Europe, the end of the Cold War did not appreciably change U.S. foreign policy. The last twenty-five years has seen the continuation of massive military budgets, intervention in a number of countries as part of the so-called “War on Terror,” and the growth of repressive legislation designed to limit dissent.
While the wealth of the top 1 percent has grown immensely in recent years, living conditions for millions of U.S. working people have worsened. Wages have remained stagnant, private debt (including student debt) has skyrocketed, millions have lost their homes, and unemployment remains a significant social problem.
Over seven decades, uncounted trillions of dollars have gone to the military and the fighting of war. As a consequence, the money that was wasted on the Pentagon never went to improve the lives of ordinary Americans, nor was it spent to maintain our deteriorating infrastructure.
The time has come to build a just system of international relations. The old order has passed.
We need to recognize that the rise of China, the economic growth of the developing world, the cries of the Palestinian people for their human rights, and the move of a number of nations in Latin America toward a socialist agenda are realities that will not disappear.
The day that the United States moves away from the view in which it believes that it is first among nations to one where we are but one of many nations will be a great day, indeed.