A full scale air assault against Iraq was finally averted at the eleventh hour when UN secretary general Kofi Annan reached a deal with the the Iraqi leadership over weapons inspection. On the face of it, the motives behind the US aggression against Iraq seemed obscure, but there is the small matter of the Gulf's vast oil reserves. This, at least, gets us near to the heart of the issue - that is, the interrelationship between economic and political power in the contemporary world.
The current cant has it that we live in an age of 'globalisation'. Capital, we are told, has broken loose of all national anchorage, and is able to float freely around the world in search of profit. The nation state has become an anachronism in an era when the important flows of wealth and power are those across, and not within, borders.
One obvious difficulty with this analysis is that it ignores the fact that the capacity of the supposedly obsolete nation state to kill has dramatically increased. The major states have developed conventional weapons systems with appalling destructive power. Two years ago White House adviser Joseph Nye and Admiral William Owens claimed in an article in Foreign Affairs that the US 'dominates important communications and information processing technologies - space-based surveillance, direct broadcasting, high-speed computers - and has an unparalleled ability to integrate complex information systems'.
Nye and Owens argue that this 'information edge' represents an enormous military advantage for the US, giving it 'precision force...a general ability to use deadly force with greater speed, range and precision... Those who contemplate a military clash with the US will have to face the prospect that it will be able to halt or reverse any hostile action, with low risk to US forces.' They conclude, 'The premature end of...the American century has been declared more than once by disciples of decline. In truth, the 21st century, not the 20th, will turn out to be the era of America's greatest preeminence.'
This analysis needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. 'Precision force' can't alter the nature of certain military tasks. Invading and occupying a country will continue to require large numbers of ground troops, many of whom may become casualties. That's one reason why the US-led coalition did not march on Baghdad and topple Saddam after they had crushed his forces in southern Iraq in February 1991. That's also why Nato forces were only deployed in Bosnia after US-backed Croatian forces had crushed the Serbs. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the US is determined to maintain its position as the world's most important power by preserving its military lead over other states.
To understand the role of military power in the world today we have to turn to the Marxist theory of imperialism. This was first properly formulated by VI Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin during the First World War. They were trying to explain the disintegration of the long Victorian peace into the bloodbath of 1914-18. In doing so, they drew on the work of other Marxist theorists such as Rosa Luxemburg and Rudolf Hilferding, as well as on that the radical Liberal economist JA Hobson.
The theory of imperialism is often misrepresented as being chiefly about the dominance of what we now call the Third World by the rich countries. It is, however, a much broader theory which aims to trace the source of the military and political rivalries among states to certain fundamental changes in the structure of capitalism as an economic system. Imperialism is a particular phase in the development of capitalism - what Lenin called 'the highest stage of capitalism'.
Marx argues in Capital that there is a tendency to the concentration and centralisation of capital. Competition among capitalist firms forces them to invest resources in expanding their operations in order to produce more cheaply. The average size of individual capitals thus tends to rise. At the same time, during economic crises the weaker firms go bust and their assets are taken over by their rivals. Over time, individual sectors, indeed entire economies, come to be dominated by a relatively small number of huge firms. This tendency is accompanied by wider changes in the structure of capitalism, which becomes, as Hilferding put it, more nationally 'organised', with increasing collaboration among big capitals. He pointed to the trend in Germany and the US for the emergence of 'finance capital' - the development of close links between industrial firms and the major investment banks. Even more decisive, as Bukharin noted, was the increased tendency for private capital and the nation state to merge, as the state took on the task of supporting, coordinating, regulating, and sometimes even supplanting the giant private firms.
The more the world economy became dominated by what Bukharin called 'state capitalist trusts', the more the form of competition itself changed. In the first place, it became increasingly global, with the big economies struggling for access to markets, investment sites, and raw materials all over the world. The rapid spread of European colonial empires in the second half of the 19th century was a consequence of this struggle. Secondly, competition between capitals now took the form of military-political rivalries among states as well as, or sometimes even instead of, the struggle by private firms for markets.
It was against this background that one must see what the historian Arno Mayer has called 'the Thirty Years War of the general crisis of the 20th century' - the two World Wars of 1914-18 and 1939-45, and the Great Depression of the 1930s that intervened between them. Rival imperialist powers fought, as Lenin put it, to repartition the globe. Their struggles strengthened the tendency towards militarised state capitalism. The need to organise war economies required state direction of national economic resources. The 1930s slump also encouraged the state to step in where the market had manifestly failed.
The price paid by humankind for these inter-imperialist struggles was appalling - at least 55 million killed during the Second World War, including nearly six million Jews murdered by the Nazis, as well as catastrophes such as the famine in British-ruled Bengal in 1942-43, when between 2 and 3 million people died.
The postwar era did not see the end of imperialism. Weakened European powers were forced to abandon their colonies, though this worked to the benefit of US multinationals eager to make the world their oyster. Inter-imperialist conflict continued in the shape of the long Cold War between the two superpower blocs headed by the US and the Soviet Union. Military spending reached unprecedented peacetime levels as the two sides pursued a perpetual arms race which accumulated vast quantities of thermonuclear weapons.
In fact, the struggle was decidedly onesided. Included in the Western bloc were not only the US but also most of the other big economies in the world. Under the nuclear umbrella provided by Washington, Japan and Western Europe were able to concentrate their investments on their civilian industries and therefore dramatically to increase their growth rates and exports. And there was the rub. By the late 1960s US competitiveness had been dramatically undermined by the economic successes of its allies. Growing financial instability - reflected in the decline of the dollar relative to the deutschmark and the yen - helped to usher in a new era of economic crisis.
One main reason why Western ruling classes have found this situation difficult to cope with is the greater global integration of capital. The long postwar era of political cooperation and economic competition within the Western bloc allowed multinational corporations to organise their production processes on a global basis. International trade in manufactured goods came to take up a growing proportion of national income. And financial markets greatly increased their ability to move money rapidly across state borders, compromising the power of national governments to manage their economies. None of this justifies the more simplistic claims associated with the idea of 'globalisation'. Various studies have shown that multinational corporations usually have strong national bases, concentrating production, investments, and sales in their home markets. Every major financial crisis has seen decisive interventions by the major powers - above all the US state - to stabilise markets. The US Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board were major players in the October 1987 stock market crash, the Mexican rescue of 1994-95, and the efforts to contain the East Asian financial collapse since late last year. Nationally organised, state directed capitalism is far from dead.
What is striking, however, is the way in which the US ruling class has sought consistently to use its state - and, above all, its overwhelming military power - to assert their political leadership of western capitalism. This was already evident in the early 1980s, when the Reagan administration sought to escalate what is sometimes called the Second Cold War in order to discourage its European and Japanese allies from pursuing more independent foreign policies and closer economic links with the Eastern bloc. But this trend has become much more pronounced since the collapse of the Soviet Union under the weight of the military expenditure required by the intensified arms race of the 1980s.
The end of the Cold War opened up an era of much more fluid relationships among the major powers. The East European revolutions put an end to the postwar partition of Europe. A reunified Germany asserted itself as a world power by pressing for a strengthened European Union and by sabotaging Washington's efforts to keep Yugoslavia together. The 1980s saw the apparently unstoppable expansion of Japanese exports and foreign investments.
The 1990s have seen a series of initiatives in which Washington has used its politico-military power to push Japanese and European capitalism into line. The 1991 Gulf War was intended to re-establish western control of the Gulf's oil reserves. But it also was a tacit signal to Germany and Japan, neither of which participated in the coalition, that the security of the supplies of imported oil on which their economies depend is provided by US military power. Faced with the disintegration of Yugoslavia, the Clinton administration initially dithered. But it soon decided to leave the EU to make a complete hash of the Bosnian war, meanwhile making massive arms shipments to the Croats and Muslims. A combination of Nato air power and Croat ground offensives then forced the Serbs to accept an American-dictated 'peace' settlement at Dayton.
The expansion of Nato into eastern Europe is another example of the same strategy. Nato expansion serves two purposes. First, it is designed to contain Russia by shifting the US-led alliance to its borders. This is potentially a very dangerous move, since it means a frontier dispute between Poland and a revived Russia could drag the US into a war with what is still the world's second nuclear power. Secondly, the policy is a way of reasserting US political leadership in Europe at a time when it might seem under challenge from Germany and France.
Against this background, the confrontation in the Gulf becomes much easier to understand. As Martin Woollacott pointed out recently in the Guardian, 'The American squeeze is as much on Russia, France, China and the big Arab states as on Iraq itself.'
The position of the US in the Middle East has become significantly weaker politically since 1991. The most important reason for this is the failure of the peace process, and the continued support the Clinton administration gives to an Israeli government which, under Binyamin Netanyahu, flagrantly breaches its commitments under the Oslo accord and continues to build new Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.
There are other factors at work as well. The US-sponsored military pact between Turkey and Israel alarmed all the rulers of the Arab east, and in particular President Hafez al-Assad of Syria. Assad and Saddam represent bitterly hostile rival wings of the Ba'ath Arab nationalist party. Syrian troops fought alongside the Americans in 1991. Yet so worried was Assad by the threat of military encirclement by Turkey and Israel that he is reported to have had a secret meeting with his old enemy Saddam to discuss the pact.
The net effect of these developments has been to create a state of affairs where no Arab regime was prepared to support the US threatened assault on Iraq, and some pro-western leaders were vocally critical of the policy.
Mubarak, like other Arab rulers, feared that, were the west to succeed in toppling Saddam, Iraq might disintegrate. The country, created by British imperialism after the First World War, is an ethnic and religious patchwork of Kurds in the north, Sunni Muslim Arabs in the centre, and Shia Muslim Arabs in the south. The collapse of Iraq, Mubarak warned, 'will lead to continuous violence and continuous wars'. It was such a scenario which led the rulers of Saudi Arabia to press the US to leave Saddam in power at the end of the 1991 Gulf War.
Thus, paradoxically, a military operation designed to re-assert US power has in fact starkly revealed its limits. The 20th century has been a century of imperialism. But it has seen not merely the horrors perpetrated by the great powers but also the defeats they have suffered at the hands of mass resistance. Britain in Ireland, the US in Vietnam, Russia in Afghanistan, all discovered the capacity of nationalist guerrillas enjoying active popular support to humble even the mightiest imperialisms.
Lenin realised during the First World War that nationalist rebellions against imperialism could weaken the capitalist system itself, and thereby help create the conditions for socialist revolution. This truth is still valid as this bloody century draws to a close amid yet more slaughter. Only when we get rid of capitalism, the source of the endless struggle for domination among the great powers, can we hope to see an end to this bloodshed.