The Unipolar Moment and the Obama Era

Noam Chomsky

Text of lecture given at Nezahualcóyotl Hall, National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM),
University City, Federal District, Mexico,
September 21, 2009

In thinking about international affairs, it is useful to keep in mind several principles of considerable generality and import. The first is the maxim of Thucydides: the strong do as they wish, and the weak suffer as they must. It has an important corollary: every powerful state relies on specialists in apologetics, whose task is to show that what the strong do is noble and just, and if the weak suffer it is their fault. In the contemporary West, these specialists are called “intellectuals,” and with only marginal exceptions, they fulfill their assigned task with skill and self-righteousness, however outlandish the claims, a practice that traces back to the origins of recorded history.

A second leading theme was expressed by Adam Smith. He was referring to England, the greatest power of his day, but his observations generalize. Smith observed that “the principal architects” of policy in England are the “merchants and manufacturers,” and they make sure that their own interests are well served by policy, no matter how “grievous” the effect on others, including the people of England, but most severely those who suffer “the savage injustice of the Europeans” elsewhere. Smith was one of those rare figures who departed from the normal practice of depicting England as an angelic power, unique in world history, which was selflessly dedicating itself to the welfare of the barbarians. One telling illustration was John Stuart Mill, one of the most decent and intelligent of Western intellectuals. In a classic essay, he explained in these terms why England had to complete its conquest of India for the purest humanitarian ends. His wrote right at the time of England’s worst atrocities in India, when the true end of the further conquest was to enable England to gain a monopoly of opium and to establish the most extraordinary narcotrafficking enterprise in world history, in order to force China with gunboats and poison to accept British manufactures, which China did not want.

Mill’s oration is the cultural norm. Smith’s maxim is the historical norm.

Today, the principal architects of policy are not “merchants and manufacturers,” but rather financial institutions and multinational corporations. A sophisticated current version of Smith’s maxim is the “investment theory of politics” developed by political economist Thomas Ferguson, which regards elections as occasions when groups of investors join together to control the state, by essentially buying the elections. It is a very good predictor of policy over a long period, as he has shown.

For 2008, then, we should have anticipated that the interests of the financial industries would have priority for the Obama administration; they were his major funders, and much preferred Obama to McCain. And so we find. The main business weekly, Business Week, now exults that the insurance industries have won the struggle for health care and that the financial institutions that created the current crisis are emerging unscathed and even strengthened, after an enormous public bail-out — setting the stage for the next crisis, the editors point out. And as they go on to discuss, other corporations have learned valuable lessons from these triumphs and are now organizing major campaigns to undermine any effort to enact even mild measures on energy and conservation, in full knowledge that success will deny their grandchildren any hope for a decent survival. It is not, of course, that they are bad or ignorant people. Rather, the decisions are institutional imperatives. Those who choose not to follow the rules are excluded, sometimes in quite remarkable ways.

Elections in the US are extravaganzas that are largely run by the huge Public Relations industry, which developed a century ago in the freest countries in the world, England and the US, where popular struggles had gained enough freedom so that the public could not easily be controlled by force. The architects of policy therefore recognized that it would be necessary to control attitudes and opinions. Control of elections is one element of the task. The US is not a “guided democracy” like Iran, where candidates have to be approved by the ruling clerics. In free societies like the US, it is concentrations of private capital that approve candidates, and among those who pass through the filter, outcomes are almost always determined by campaign spending.

Political managers are well aware that on issues, the public often disagrees sharply with the architects of policy. Accordingly, electoral campaigns avoid issues in favor of slogans, oratorical flourishes, personalities, and gossip. Every year, the advertising industry gives an award for the best marketing campaign of the year. In 2008, it was won by Obama, who beat out Apple computers. Executives were euphoric. They exulted openly that this was their greatest success since they began marketing candidates as they do toothpaste and life-style drugs, a technique that took off during the neoliberal period, first with Reagan.

In an economics course, one learns that markets are based on informed consumers making rational choices. But anyone who looks at a TV ad knows that business devotes huge resources to creating uninformed consumers who make irrational choices. The same devices that are used to undermine markets are adapted to undermining democracy, creating an uninformed electorate that will make irrational choices among a narrow set of options compatible with the interests of the two parties, which are best regarded as competing factions of the single business party. In both the business and political worlds, the architects of policy have regularly been hostile to markets and democracy, except for temporary advantage. Of course, rhetoric is different, but the facts are quite clear.

Adam Smith’s maxim has some exceptions, which are instructive. One important contemporary illustration is Washington’s policies towards Cuba since it gained independence 50 years ago. The US is an unusually free society, so we have good access to internal records that reveal the thinking and plans of the architects of policy. Within months after independence, the Eisenhower administration formulated secret plans to overthrow the regime, and initiated programs of terror and economic warfare, which were sharply escalated by Kennedy and continue in various forms until the present day. From the outset, the explicit intent was to punish the people of Cuba sufficiently so that they would overthrow the criminal regime. Its crime was identified as “successful defiance” of US policies dating back to the 1820s, when the Monroe Doctrine declared the US intent to dominate the Western hemisphere, tolerating no interference from abroad or within.

While the bipartisan policies towards Cuba accord with the maxim of Thucydides, they conflict with Adam Smith’s principle, and hence give special insight into policy formation. For decades, the American population has favored normalization of relations with Cuba. Ignoring the will of the population is normal, but more interesting in this case is that powerful sectors of the business world also favor normalization: agribusiness, energy and pharmaceutical corporations, and others who commonly set the basic framework of policy. Their interests in this case are overridden by a principle of international affairs that does not receive proper recognition in the scholarly literature of international relations: what we may call “the Mafia principle.” The Godfather does not tolerate “successful defiance,” even from a small storekeeper who fails to pay protection money. It is too dangerous. It must therefore be stamped out, and brutally, so that others understand that disobedience is not an option. Successful defiance of the Master could be a “virus” that will “spread contagion,” to borrow Kissinger’s term when he was preparing the overthrow of the Allende government. That has been a leading doctrine of foreign policy for the US during the period of its global dominance, and of course has many predecessors. US policy towards Iran since 1979 is another current illustration, which I do not have time to review here.

It took time to realize the objectives laid out in the Monroe Doctrine, and they still face many impediments, but the goal is enduring and unchallenged. It took on even greater significance as the US became the dominant global power after World War II, displacing its British rival. The reasoning has been lucidly explained. For example, when Washington was preparing to overthrow the Allende government, the National Security Council observed that if the US could not control Latin America, it could not expect “to achieve a successful order elsewhere in the world”: that is, to impose its rule effectively over the world. Washington’s “credibility” would be undermined, as Henry Kissinger put it. Others too might turn to “successful defiance” if the Chilean “virus” was not destroyed before it could “spread contagion.” Therefore parliamentary democracy in Chile must go — as happened on the first 9/11, in 1973, which is gone from history in the West, though in terms of consequences for Chile and beyond, it far outweighs the terrible crimes of Sept. 11, 2001.

While these three principles — the maxims of Thucydides and Smith and the Mafia principle — do not account for every foreign policy decision, they do cover quite a wide range, as does the corollary about the role of intellectuals. They are not the end of wisdom, but they are a good beginning.

With just that much background, let us turn to the “unipolar moment,” which has been the topic of a great deal of scholarly and popular discussion since the collapse of the Soviet Union 20 years ago, leaving the US as the sole global superpower instead of merely the primary superpower as before. We learn a lot about the nature of the Cold War, and about events unfolding since, by looking at how Washington reacted to the disappearance of its global enemy, the “monolithic and ruthless conspiracy” to take over the world, as John F. Kennedy described it.

A few weeks after the fall of the Berlin wall, the US invaded Panama. The purpose was to kidnap a minor thug who was brought to Florida and sentenced for crimes that he had committed, for the most part, while on the CIA payroll. He had switched from valued friend to evil demon by attempting some successful defiance, dragging his feet on supporting Reagan’s terrorist wars in Nicaragua. The invasion killed several thousand poor people in Panama, according to Panamanian sources, and reinstated the rule of US-linked bankers and narcotraffickers. It was hardly more than a footnote to history, but it did break the pattern in some respects. One was that a new pretext was needed, and it was quickly supplied: the threat of Hispanic narcotraffickers seeking to destroy the United States. The “drug war” had been declared by Richard Nixon, but took on a new and significant role during the unipolar moment.

The need for a new pretext also guided the official reaction in Washington to the collapse of the superpower enemy. Within months, the Bush senior administration outlined Washington’s new course: in brief, everything will stay much the same, but with new pretexts. We still need a huge military system, but for a new reason: the “technological sophistication” of third world powers. We have to maintain the “defense industrial base” — a euphemism for state-supported high-tech industry. We must maintain intervention forces directed at the Middle East energy-rich regions — where the significant threats to our interests “could not be laid at the Kremlin’s door,” contrary to decades of deceit. All of this was passed over quietly, barely even reported. But for those who hope to understand the world, it is quite instructive.

As a pretext for intervention, the “war on drugs” was useful, but it is much too narrow. A more sweeping pretext was needed. Intellectual elites quickly turned to the task and fulfilled their mission. They declared a “normative revolution” that granted the US the right of “humanitarian intervention” as it chose, for the noblest of reasons, by definition. The traditional victims were unimpressed, to put it mildly. High-level conferences of the global South bitterly condemned what they called “the so-called `right’ of humanitarian intervention.” A refinement was therefore necessary, so the concept of “responsibility to protect” was devised in its place. Those who pay attention to history will not be surprised to discover that the Western powers exercise their “responsibility to protect” in a highly selective manner, in strict adherence to the three maxims. The facts are disturbingly obvious, and require considerable agility on the part of the intellectual classes — another revealing story that I will have to put aside.

Another question that came to the fore as the unipolar moment dawned was the fate of NATO. The traditional justification for NATO was defense against Russian aggression. With the USSR gone, the pretext evaporated. Na•ve souls, who have faith in prevailing doctrine, would have expected NATO to disappear as well. Quite the contrary. NATO was quickly expanded. The details are revealing, both about the Cold War and about what has followed, and more generally, about how state policy is formed and implemented.

As the Soviet Union collapsed, Mikhail Gorbachev made an astonishing concession: he agreed to allow a unified Germany to join a hostile military alliance run by the global superpower, even though Germany alone had almost destroyed Russia twice in the century. There was however a quid pro quo. The Bush administration promised Gorbachev that NATO would not extend to East Germany, certainly not farther East. They also assured Gorbachev “that NATO would be transforming itself into a more political organization.” Gorbachev also proposed a nuclear-free zone from the Arctic to the Black Sea, a step towards a “zone of peace” to remove any threat to Europe, East or West. That proposal was dismissed without consideration.

Clinton came into office shortly after. Washington’s commitments quickly vanished. There is no need to comment on the promise that NATO would become a more political organization. Clinton expanded NATO to the East, and Bush went beyond. Obama apparently intends to carry the expansion forward. On the eve of Obama’s first trip to Russia, his special assistant for National Security and Eurasian affairs informed the press that “We’re not going to reassure or give or trade anything with the Russians regarding NATO expansion or missile defense.” He was referring to US missile defense programs in Eastern Europe and NATO membership for Russia’s neighbors Ukraine and Georgia, both steps understood by Western analysts to be serious threats to Russian security, likely to inflame international tensions.

A few days ago the Obama administration announced a readjustment of its anti-missile systems in Eastern Europe. That led to a great deal of commentary and debate — which, as in the past, skillfully evaded the central issue.

The systems are advertised as defense against an Iranian attack. But that cannot be the motive. The chance of Iran launching a missile attack, nuclear or not, is about at the level of an asteroid hitting the earth — unless, of course, the ruling clerics have a fanatic death wish and want to see Iran instantly incinerated along with them. The purpose of the US interception systems, if they ever work, is to prevent any retaliation to a US or Israeli attack on Iran — that is, to eliminate any Iranian deterrent. Anti-missile systems are a first-strike weapon, and that is understood on all sides. But that seems to be one of those facts best left in the shadows.

Returning to NATO, its declared jurisdiction is by now even more expansive than Russia’s borders. Obama’s National Security Adviser, Marine commandant James Jones, urges that NATO should move to the South as well as the East, so as to reinforce US control over Middle East energy supplies. General Jones also advocates a “NATO response force,” which will give the US-run military alliance “much more flexible capability to do things rapidly at very long distances,” a goal the US is working hard to achieve now in Afghanistan. NATO Secretary-General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer informed a NATO conference that “NATO troops have to guard pipelines that transport oil and gas that is directed for the West,” and more generally to protect sea routes used by tankers and other “crucial infrastructure” of the energy system. That decision spells out more explicitly the post-Cold War policies of reshaping NATO into a US-run global intervention force, with special concern for control over energy. Presumably the task includes protection of the projected $7.6-billion pipeline that would deliver natural gas from Turkmenistan to Pakistan and India, running through Afghan’s Kandahar province, where Canadian troops are deployed. The goal is “to block a competing pipeline that would bring gas to Pakistan and India from Iran” and to “diminish Russia’s dominance of Central Asian energy exports,” the Canadian press reported, realistically outlining some of the contours of the new “Great Game,” in which the US-run international intervention force is to be a major player.

From the earliest post-World War days, it was understood that Western Europe might choose to follow an independent course, perhaps the Gaullist vision of a Europe from the Atlantic to the Urals. In this case the problem is not a “virus” that might “spread contagion,” but a pandemic that might bring down the whole system of global control. NATO was partially intended to counter this serious threat. Current NATO expansion, and the ambitious goals of the new NATO, carry these objectives further.

So matters have proceeded through the unipolar moment, adhering well to the standard principles of international affairs. More specifically, the policies conform closely to doctrines of world order that were formulated by high-level US planners during World War II. From 1939, they recognized that whatever the outcome of the war, the US would become a global power, displacing Britain. Accordingly, they developed plans for the US to exercise control over a substantial portion of the globe. This “Grand Area,” as they called it, was to comprise at least the Western hemisphere, the former British empire, the Far East, and Western Asia’s energy resources. In this Grand Area the US would hold “unquestioned power” with “military and economic supremacy,” and would act to ensure the “limitation of any exercise of sovereignty” by states that might interfere with its global designs. At first planners thought that Germany might prevail in Europe, but as Russia began to grind down the Wehrmacht, the vision became more expansive, and the Grand Area was to incorporate as much of Eurasia as possible, at least Western Europe, the economic heartland of Eurasia.

Detailed and rational plans were developed for global organization, with each region assigned what was called its “function”. The South in general was assigned a service role: to provide resources, cheap labor, markets, investment opportunities and later other services, such as export of pollution and waste. At the time, the US was not much interested in Africa, so it was handed over to Europe to “exploit” for its reconstruction from wartime destruction; one might imagine different relations between Europe and Africa in the light of history, but these were not considered. In contrast, Middle East oil reserves were understood to be “a stupendous source of strategic power” and “one of the greatest material prizes in world history,” the most “strategically important area in the world,” in Eisenhower’s words. Control of Middle East oil would provide the United States with “substantial control of the world,” influential planners recognized.

Those who regard historical continuities as significant might recall that Truman’s planners were echoing the doctrines of Jacksonian Democrats at the time of the annexation of Texas and conquest of half of Mexico a century earlier. These predecessors anticipated that the conquests would provide the US with a virtual monopoly over cotton, the fuel of the early industrial revolution: “That monopoly, now secured, places all other nations at our feet,” President Tyler declared. That way the US might overcome the British deterrent, the great problem of the day, and gain unprecedented international influence.

Similar conceptions guided Washington in its oil politics. Accordingly, Eisenhower’s National Security Council explained, the US must support harsh and brutal regimes and block democracy and development, even though this elicits a “campaign of hatred against us,” as President Eisenhower observed — 50 years before George W. Bush plaintively asked “why do they hate us,” deciding that it must be because they hate our freedom.

With regard to Latin America, post-World War II planners concluded that the primary threat to US interests is posed by “radical and nationalistic regimes [that] appeal to the masses of the population” and seek to satisfy the “popular demand for immediate improvement in the low living standards of the masses” and development for domestic needs. These tendencies conflict with the demand for “a political and economic climate conducive to private investment,” with adequate repatriation of profits and “protection of our raw materials.” A large part of subsequent history flows from these unchallenged conceptions.

In the special case of Mexico, a Latin America Strategy Development Workshop at the Pentagon in 1990 found that US-Mexico relations were “extraordinarily positive,” untroubled by stolen elections, state violence, torture, scandalous treatment of workers and peasants, and other minor details. Participants in the Workshop did, however, see one cloud on the horizon: the threat of “a `democracy opening’ in Mexico,” which, they feared, might bring “into office a government more interested in challenging the U.S. on economic and nationalist grounds.” The cure that was recommended was a US-Mexican treaty that would “lock Mexico in” to the neoliberal reforms of the 1980s, and would “tie the hands of the current and future governments” of Mexico with regard to economic policy. In brief, NAFTA, duly imposed by executive power, in opposition to the public will.

As NAFTA went into effect in 1994, President Clinton also instituted Operation Gatekeeper, which militarized the Mexican border. As he explained, “we will not surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice.” He had nothing to say about the compassion and justice that inspired the establishment of those borders, and did not explain how the High Priest of neoliberal globalization and dealt with the observation of Adam Smith that “free circulation of labor” is a foundation stone of free trade.

The timing of Operation Gatekeeper was surely not accidental. It was anticipated by rational analysts that opening Mexico to a flood of highly-subsidized US agribusiness exports would sooner or later undermine Mexican farming, and that Mexican businesses would not be able to withstand competition from huge state-supported corporations that must be allowed to operate freely in Mexico under the treaty. One likely consequence would be flight to the United States, joined by those fleeing the countries of Central America, ravaged by Reaganite terror. Militarization of the border was a natural remedy.

Popular attitudes towards those fleeing their countries — called “illegal aliens” — are complex. They perform valuable services as super-cheap and easily exploitable labor. In the US, agribusiness, construction, and other industries rely substantially on them, and they contribute to the wealth of the communities where they reside. On the other hand, they awaken traditional anti-immigrant sentiment, a striking and persistent feature of this immigrant society, with a history of shameful treatment of immigrants. In the past few weeks, the Kennedy brothers have been lauded as American heroes. In the late 19th century they would have had to walk past restaurants in Boston with signs saying “No dogs or Irish.” Now Asian entrepreneurs are sparking innovation in the high tech sector. A century ago, racist Asian exclusion acts would have barred them from the country as threats to the purity of American society.

But whatever the history and the economic realities may be, immigrants have been perceived by the poor and working people as a threat to their jobs, livelihood, and life-styles. It is important to bear in mind that the people protesting angrily today have real grievances. They are victims of the financialization of the economy and the neoliberal globalization programs that are designed to transfer production abroad and to set working people in competition with each other worldwide, thus lowering wages and benefits, while protecting educated professionals from market forces, and enriching owners and managers; the Smith maxim again. The effects have been severe since the Reagan years, and often manifest themselves in extremely ugly ways that are featured right now on the front pages. The two political parties are competing to see which can proclaim more fervently its dedication to the sadistic doctrine that “illegal aliens” must be denied health care. Their stand is consistent with the legal principle, established by the Supreme Court, that these creatures are not “persons” under the law, hence are not entitled to the rights granted to persons. And at the very same moment, the Court is considering the question of whether corporations should be permitted to purchase elections openly instead of doing so only in more indirect ways — a complex constitutional matter, because the courts have determined that unlike undocumented immigrants, corporations are real persons under the law, and in fact have rights far beyond those of persons of flesh and blood, including rights granted by the mislabelled “free trade agreements.” These revealing coincidences elicit no comment. The law is indeed a solemn and majestic affair.

The spectrum of planning is narrow, but it does allow some variation. The Bush II administration went far to the extreme of aggressive militarism and arrogant contempt even for allies. It was harshly condemned for these practices, even within the mainstream. Bush’s second term was more moderate. Some of the most extreme figures were expelled — Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Douglas Feith, and others; Cheney could not be removed because he was the administration. Policy began to return more towards the norm. As Obama came into office, Condoleezza Rice predicted that he would follow the policies of Bush’s second term, and that is pretty much what happened, apart from a different rhetorical style, which seems to have charmed much of the world, perhaps out of relief that Bush is gone.

One basic difference between Bush and Obama was expressed very well by a senior adviser of the Kennedy administration at the height of the Cuban missile crisis. Kennedy planners were making decisions that literally threatened Britain with obliteration, but were not informing the British. At that point the advisor defined the “special relationship” with Britain: Britain, he said, is “our lieutenant — the fashionable word is `partner’.” Britain naturally prefers the fashionable word. Bush and his cohorts addressed the world as “our lieutenants.” Thus in announcing the invasion of Iraq, they informed the UN that it could follow US orders, or be “irrelevant.” Such brazen arrogance naturally aroused hostility. Obama adopts a different course. He politely greets the leaders and people of the world as “partners,” and only in private continues to treat them as “lieutenants.” Foreign leaders much prefer this stance, and the public too is sometimes mesmerized by it. But it is wise to attend to deeds, not rhetoric and pleasant demeanor. Deeds commonly tell a different story, in this case too.

The current world system remains unipolar in one dimension: the arena of force. The US spends almost as much as the rest of the world combined on military force, and is far more advanced in the technology of destruction. It is also alone in having hundreds of military bases all over the world, and in occupying two countries in the crucial energy-producing regions. Here it is also establishing huge mega-embassies, each a city-within-a-city, a clear indication of future intentions. In Baghdad, the costs of the mega-embassy are projected to rise from $1.5 billion this year to $1.8 billion annually in the coming years. The costs for their counterparts in Pakistan and Afghanistan are unknown, as is the fate of the enormous military bases that the US has established in Iraq.

The global basing system is now being extended to Latin America. The US has been expelled from its bases in South America, most recently from the Manta base in Ecuador, but has recently arranged to use seven new military bases in Colombia, and it presumably intends to maintain the Palmerola base in Honduras, which played a central role in Reagan’s terrorist wars. The US Fourth Fleet, which was disbanded in 1950, was reactivated in 2008, shortly after Colombia’s invasion of Ecuador. Its responsibility covers the Caribbean, Central and South America, and the surrounding waters. The Navy defines its “various operations” to “include counter-illicit trafficking, Theater Security Cooperation, military-to-military interaction and bilateral and multinational training.” The reactivation of the Fleet understandably elicited protest and concern from the governments of Brazil, Venezuela, and others.

South American concerns have also been aroused by an April 2009 document of the US Air Mobility Command, which proposes that the Palanquero base in Colombia could become a “cooperative security location” from which “mobility operations could be executed.” The report noted that from Palanquero, “Nearly half the continent can be covered by a C-17 (military transport) without refueling.” This could form part of “a global en route strategy,” which “helps achieve the regional engagement strategy and assists with the mobility routing to Africa.” For the present, “the strategy to place [the base] at Palanquero should be sufficient for air mobility reach on the South American continent,” the document concludes, but it goes on to explore options for extending the system to Africa with additional bases, all of which are to form part of the system of global surveillance, control, and intervention.

These plans form part of a more general policy of militarization of Latin America. Training of Latin American officers has sharply increased in the past decade, well beyond Cold War levels. Police are being trained in light infantry tactics. Their mission is to combat “youth gangs” and “radical populism” — the latter a term that should be understood all too well in Latin America.

The pretext is the “war on drugs,” but it is hard to take that seriously, even if we accept the extraordinary assumption that the US has the right to conduct this “war” in foreign lands. The reasons are well known, and were spelled out once again last February by the Latin American Commission on Drugs and Democracy, led by former Latin American presidents Cardoso, Zedillo, and Gavíria. Their report concluded that the drug war had been a complete failure and urged a drastic change of policy, away from forceful measures at home and abroad and towards much less costly and more effective measures.

Studies run by the US government and others have shown that by far the most cost-effective way to control use of drugs is prevention, treatment, and education. They have shown further that the least effective and most costly methods are out-of-country operations, such as fumigation and interdiction. The fact that the least effective and most costly methods are consistently chosen over much superior ones is enough to tell us that the goals of the “war on drugs” are not the announced ones. To determine the actual goals, we can adopt the legal principle that predictable consequences provide evidence of intent. And the consequences are not obscure. The programs underlie counterinsurgency abroad and a form of “limpieza social” at home, dispatching huge numbers of superfluous people, mostly black males, to penitentiaries, a neoliberal phenomenon that has led to by far the highest incarceration rate in the world since the programs took off 30 years ago.

The reasons for Nixon’s large-scale revival of the “war on drugs” were not at all obscure. Nixon and the right, joined by elite sectors quite generally, faced two crucial problems in the early 1970s. One was the rising opposition to the Vietnam war, which was beginning to cross a boundary that must be zealously guarded: some were even charging Washington with crimes, not merely errors committed in an excess of benevolence and naivetŽ, as liberal commentators declared, obeying the well-established corollary to the maxim of Thucydides. A related problem was activism, particularly among young people, which was bringing about an “excess of democracy,” liberal intellectuals warned while calling for restoration of obedience and passivity, and in Nixonian hands, much harsher measures.

The drug war was a perfect remedy. With the enthusiastic participation of the media, a myth was concocted of an “addicted army” that would bring down domestic society as the shattered troops returned home, all part of an insidious Communist plot. “The Communists [in Vietnam] are battling American troops not only with firepower but with drugs,” the respected liberal media leader Walter Cronkite proclaimed, while his colleagues lamented that the “worst horror to have emerged from the war” is the plague of addiction of American troops (Stewart Alsop). Other chimed in as well, with impressive conformity. The plague was a complete myth, as historian Jeremy Kuzmarov has shown — though there was indeed extremely serious alcohol and even worse tobacco addiction. But the myth served its dual purposes admirably. The US became the victim of the Vietnamese, not the perpetrator of crimes against them, and the sacred image of the “city on the hill” was preserved. And the basis was laid for a “law and order” campaign at home to discipline those who were straying beyond the bounds of subordination to power and doctrine. Successes were substantial. Arousing no criticism or comment, President Carter could explain that we owe the Vietnamese no debt, because “the destruction was mutual.” For Reagan the war was a “noble cause,” and the first president Bush was able to go on, with no visible objection, to inform the Vietnamese that we can never forgive their crimes against us, but out of compassion we will agree to let them join the world we rule if they show good faith in dealing with the only moral issue remaining from the noble cause: dedicating themselves to finding the bones of American flyers shot down while bombing Vietnam.

But though the successes have indeed been substantial, they were far from complete. Activism not only continued but expanded, with significant civilizing effects on the general society.

Though the world is unipolar in the military dimension, that has not been true for some time in the economic dimension. By the early 1970s the world was becoming economically “tripolar,” with comparable centers in North America, Europe, and northeast Asia. By now the global economy has become even more diverse, particularly with the rapid growth of Asian economies that defied the rules of the neoliberal “Washington Consensus.” Latin America too is beginning to free itself from this yoke. US efforts to militarize Latin America are a response to these developments, particularly in South America, which for the first time since the European conquests, is beginning to address fundamental problems that have plagued the continent. There are the beginnings of moves towards integration of countries that have mostly been oriented towards the West, not each other, and also to diversify economic and other international relations. Still more significant are the problems of internal integration. There are, at last, some serious efforts to address the Latin American pathology of rule by narrow wealthy sectors in the midst of a sea of misery, with the wealthy free from responsibility except to enrich themselves — quite unlike East Asia. One measure is capital flight. In Latin America it approximates the crushing debt. In East Asia it has been tightly controlled. In South Korea, for example, during the period of its rapid growth capital export could bring the death penalty.

These developments in Latin America, sometimes led by impressive mass popular movements, are of great significance. Not surprisingly, they elicit bitter reactions among traditional elites, backed by the hemispheric superpower. The barriers are formidable, but if they can be overcome, the results may significantly change the course of Latin American history, with no small impact beyond.