Sign Up

Bill Clinton — A Bigger Imperialist Than George W. Bush?

Did President Clinton use globalization to advance U.S. interests?

November 18, 2004

Did President Clinton use globalization to advance U.S. interests?

History tells us that an expansive nation must at least attempt to disguise what it is doing if it wants to consolidate its gains.

It must pretend that its exploitation of the weak is in their own best interest — or their own fault.

Or it argues that it is the result of ineluctable processes beyond human control, a consequence of the spread of civilization, or in accordance with scientific laws — anything but deliberate aggression by a hyperpower.

"Sun Tzu: The Art of War," written in 500 B.C., is one of the oldest treatises on military strategy. It laid a foundation for the kind of shrewd political maneuvering exercised by the Clinton Administration.

Sun Tzu claims, “all warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable. When using our forces, we must seem inactive.”

“When we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are away. When far away, we must make him believe we are near. Hold out baits to entice the enemy. Feign disorder — and crush him."

In accordance with the logic of Sun Tzu, President Clinton camouflaged his policies by carrying them out under the banner of "globalization."

This proved quite effective in maneuvering rich, but gullible nations to do America's bidding — for example, Argentina.

And it was useful in destabilizing potential rivals — for example, South Korea and Indonesia in the 1997 economic crisis.

This strategy also allowed the U.S. government to protect domestic economic interests around the world — say, in maintaining the exorbitant prices of U.S. pharmaceutical companies under cover of defending "intellectual property rights."

In short, during the 1990s, the rationales of free trade and capitalist economics were used to disguise America's hegemonic power and make it seem benign — or, at least, natural and unavoidable.

The main agents of this imperialism were Bill Clinton's Secretary of the Treasury, Robert Rubin (today the Vice Chairman of Citigroup) and his deputy, Lawrence Summers (today president of Harvard University).

The United States ruled the world — but it did so in a carefully masked way that produced high degrees of acquiescence among the dominated nations.

George W. Bush, by contrast, turned to a frontal assault based on the use of America's unequaled military power.

Even before 9/11, the Bush Administration had unveiled its unilateral military approach to the world.

It withdrew from important international treaties, including those seeking to ban antiballistic missile weapons, control the emission of greenhouse gases and the effort to create a court to try perpetrators of the most heinous war crimes.

President Bush also proclaimed openly his adherence to a doctrine of preventive war. The United States said it was a New Rome, beyond good and evil — and unrestrained by the established conventions of the international community.

In its spring 2003 attack on Iraq, the United States affirmed that it no longer needed (or cared about) international legitimacy. It had become a power answerable only to itself — and internal forces of militarism were dictating foreign policy.

These policies produced international isolation and a global loss of confidence in the U.S. foreign policy establishment. Two and a half years into the Bush Administration, most of our allies had left us, our military was overstretched — and no nation on earth doubted the U.S. willingness to employ military power to solve any and all problems.

In contrast, by the end of the Clinton Administration, globalization was under sustained political attack by its victims and their allies.

Many of its once prominent supporters — such as George Soros, the international currency speculator, or Joseph E. Stiglitz, the former chief economist of the World Bank — were intellectually undercutting its major tenets.

When the Clinton Administration left office and the Bush team moved in, globalization was not dead. The world — including the Bush Administration — still pretended that the World Trade Organization mattered, that free trade would end poverty in the Third World and that the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank were functioning as they were supposed to.

Bankers, industrialists and economists still went to their annual conclave in Davos, Switzerland, even though protectionism by rich countries and poverty for most of the people of the world were ascendant.

It was the aftermath of September 11, 2001 that more or less spelled the end of globalization. Whereas the Clinton Administration strongly espoused economic imperialism, the second Bush government was unequivocally committed to military imperialism.

In my view, globalization ended because of the Bush Administration's adoption of unilateral preventative military action that undercut the international rules and norms on which commerce depends.

Increasingly, even people who believed in pro-globalization solutions to international economic and environmental problems threw up their hands in despair.

Perhaps the most deceptive aspect of the Clinton-era style of globalization was its claim to embody fundamental and inevitable technological developments — rather than the conscious policies of Anglo-American political elites trying to advance the interests of their own countries at the expense of others, pure and simple.

In its spurious scientificity, the Clinton Administration's approach to globalization has proved similar to Marxism, whose roots lie in the same intellectual soil.

It is important to understand that this doctrine of globalization is a kind of intellectual sedative that lulls — and distracts — its Third World victims while rich countries cripple them, ensuring they will never be able to challenge the imperial powers.

In conclusion, the globalization of the 1990s was premised on cheating the poor and defenseless — and on destroying the only physical environment we will ever have.

Its replacement by American militarism and imperialism is likely to usher in something much worse for developed, developing and underdeveloped nations alike.

Adapted from “The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the Republic” by Chalmers Johnson. Copyright © 2004 by Chalmers Johnson. Used by permission of Metropolitan Books, an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC.