The Role of Continuous Warfare in the Age of Imperial Decline

Rainer Shea 
The decline of the U.S. empire began much earlier than when Washington’s downward trend in global influence became widely acknowledged. As far back as the middle of the twentieth century, the U.S.-led order that formed after the second world war began to come apart. In 1949, the empire lost China to communism, an event which would ultimately produce the current shift towards a new China-led multipolar order. The additional setbacks that imperialism had to undergo to reach this point began shortly after, with the Indochina wars that Washington would become embroiled in during the mid-twentieth century. Even as the empire garnered great victories during these decades, successfully carrying out numerous anti-communist coups which allowed for unprecedented exportations of capital to the peripheral countries, with each war there would appear more cracks in U.S. hegemony.

The victories that the communists repeatedly won in southeast Asia during this time served to not just diminish capital’s territorial grip within the region, but force capital to contract. Washington’s loss of the war in Vietnam was costly enough to lead to the collapse of the global monetary system established at Bretton Woods, contributing to the economic crisis of the 1970s. Also at that time, Saudi Arabia retaliated against Washington’s support for Israel by imposing an oil embargo.

By 1970, the USA’s global wealth share had declined to one-quarter, a sharp fall from what it had been at the empire’s peak. And these additional crises were enough to leave the empire’s financial grip in a precarious position, prompting capital to take drastic self-preservation measures. Neoliberalism was implemented, compensating for the decline in profits by intensifying the exploitation of the working class. And the petrodollar system was established, saving the dollar’s dominance by switching its tied commodity from gold to oil. The petrodollar also brought U.S.-Saudi relations to new heights, which Washington continues to use to its advantage in its wars throughout southwest Asia.

This new economic arrangement was preceded by the introduction of continuous war, which would eventually come to dominate how the U.S. empire compensates for its own collapse. It was during the aftermath of the conflict in Korea that the empire would take on this practice of making war perpetual in order to preserve its capital.

Even though Washington inflicted immeasurable damage upon socialist Korea during the Korean War, effectively destroying all of its urban areas and wiping out at least a quarter of its population, it didn’t win the conflict. Neither side did. The northern half of the Korean Peninsula remained communist, and the southern half remained under a dictatorship installed by the imperialists. It was the extreme despotism within the southern half, since compounded by the introduction of neoliberalism to the South, that put the entire peninsula at risk of breaking free from imperial control. With such great contradictions, the masses within this neo-colony could easily have taken example from the Koreans on the other side of the divide, and overthrown the capitalist state they lived under.

To prevent the “domino theory” of socialist revolutions from coming true within their crucial strategic outpost, the imperialists refused to let the Korean War end. The fighting stopped, but no formal treaty was ever signed saying that the war was over. This allowed Washington to use the South for constant military buildup against both the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea itself, and implicitly against China. As well as for the South to be tethered to wartime laws that severely restrict free speech, and that have remained in effect even after the dictatorship’s official end. Anyone in the South who expresses positive sentiments about the North is criminalized, due to the North being considered an anti-government organization. This solidifies the repression against communism within the South, which negates the presence of communist organizing on the same level that Indonesia’s ban against communism does.

This has deprived the South’s people of a frame of reference for their living conditions. When the only accounts anyone can hear about the North involve the stories from paid defectors about dictatorship, extreme deprivation, and human rights abuses, there’s no empirical way to prove that Korean socialism has provided a better standard of living than the neoliberal paradigm the South lives under. This elimination of accurate comparison extends to information about the living conditions in China and all the other examples of existing socialism. Because while speaking favorably of these countries isn’t illegal, the stigma of sympathizing with communism applies to them as much as to the DPRK.

With this layer of narrative protection in place, the capital that Washington exported to the South has been able to fortify itself, with the U.S.-backed government transitioning from a neo-colony to an imperialist power. This has added an additional level to the suppression of communism in the South, since tethering the interests of the proletariat in a given country to imperialism weakens the solidarity which that proletariat has with the workers in the exploited countries.

Perpetual war has let the imperialists keep the masses within occupied Korea—and within the rest of the imperialist countries—demobilized, unable to easily access the knowledge that would set them towards revolution. The DPRK’s guiding Marxist-Leninist theory and democratic nature are hidden from view, replaced by a constant stream of war propaganda.

By the time the Cold War began, this dynamic of intellectual isolation within an anti-communist environment had already been engineered throughout the entire imperialist bloc. The Soviet Union’s indispensable role in defeating the Axis powers had been obfuscated, and the myth had been established that Washington’s nuclear attacks against Japan were what had ended the war. With the emergence of what would become the Central Intelligence Agency a few years later, the imperialists created a vast covert propaganda network, designed to demonize communism in tandem with McCarthyism’s suppression of Marxists. As well as with the anti-communist mass killing campaigns that the CIA’s Cold War-era regimes carried out.

When the imperialists exploited the USSR’s revisionism by breaking up the Soviet bloc, this war against communism didn’t get milder, anymore than U.S. militarism did. Washington didn’t get out of Korea, leave NATO, or abolish the CIA. It didn’t change its hostile stance towards Cuba. At the same time that it started the Persian Gulf War, it mobilized its intelligence operatives to bring the Cold War to Yugoslavia, plantingatrocity propaganda to manufacture ethnic tensions so that Europe’s last bastion of socialism could be eliminated. In the leadup to when Afghanistan was invaded, and when the present era of direct combat began, Washington was already intensifying its more subtle types of warfare. The loss of the USSR’s vote on the United Nations Security Council expanded opportunities for the U.S. to impose sanctions on the countries that defied it, using the UN as its proxy for carrying out the economic restrictions. And by the end of the 90s, NATO was able to exploit the conflict it had created within Yugoslavia by bombing the nation.

The humanitarian costs of these maneuvers were rationalized as necessary through a war propaganda tactic that’s since become the empire’s most common one: claiming that the empire’s warfare is itself “humanitarian.” The sanctions on Iraq, which killeda million-and-a-half people, were given a sense of moral mandate by the fact that it was the UN which imposed them. The combination of economic warfare, covert psychological subversion, and bombings of civilian centers within Yugoslavia were rationalized through similar means. U.S. officials and pundits justified both of these assaults by portraying them as the costs of advancing “human rights,” however spurious the atrocity allegations against the targeted regimes were—and however ineffective starvation sanctions were at preventing actual abuses.

The wars that the empire then started partially relied on different propaganda tactics. The invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were ostensibly about keeping the U.S. population safe, as well as about the predictable rationales of “liberating the women” and “toppling a dictator.” As the goalposts were shifted in the supposed missions of these wars, and as the “War on Terror” expanded to numerous other countries, these inconsistent narratives gradually solidified into a more cohesive explanation for why Washington’s wars kept growing without end. This being that the U.S. had a duty to defend “democracy” and “human rights” from a bloc of autocracies. Essentially the same rationale that occupied Koreans are given for why their government is at war with the supposed tyranny in the North, except on a worldwide scale.

The dynamics that the empire cultivated within Korea—partitioning of land, continuous war propaganda, suppression of dissent, militarized borders, military buildup, brutal embargoes—has been expanded, with the same effect of keeping the masses demobilized. Like the occupied Koreans, and every other population that’s lived under neoliberalism, the inhabitants of the imperial center have undergone a dramatic deterioration in their living conditions throughout the last half-century. Yet anti-communism and war hysteria are stronger than ever, at least in terms of their prevalence within the media that the empire’s people are surrounded with. The new cold war has let the U.S. officially legalize covert psychological operations which are directed at its own citizens, get its tech companies to intensify censorship against anti-imperialists, and create a constant barrage of propaganda about “human rights abuses” by Washington’s adversaries.

Under this paradigm, those within the imperialist countries are constantly exposed to the idea that life within the socialist countries—and within all other places which don’t follow Washington’s neoliberal model—is worse than where they live. No matter how widespread hunger, debt, substandard housing, homelessness, lack of access to medical care, police brutality, and other injustices become where they are, they’ll see confirmations that their circumstances are preferable relative to the countries Washington is at odds with. Even though occupied Korea is the only imperialist country that currently suppresses positive information about the anti-imperialist bloc to the extent of automatically arresting dissenters, the sheer prevalence of the propaganda in all of these countries has made this distinction make little difference. Everywhere that the CIA’s war propaganda has a firm grip, the cultural hegemony says that the designated enemies are brutal dictatorships with nothing to learn from.

In accordance with Orientalism, and with the geopolitical motives of the moment, China and the DPRK are presently the main targets for these characterizations. The rise of multipolarity, and the DPRK’s outmaneuvering of Washington’s attempts to stop it from obtaining nuclear defenses, are the developments from the last two decades that have made this propaganda pivot inevitable. And at any moment, the popularized image of China as the world’s evilest regime can be used to extend the accusations of human rights abuses into the latest country that China has been carrying out development projects within. The equivalent narratives apply to Russia and Iran, which like China are portrayed as “imperialist” powers whose international activities must all be put a stop to.

These atrocity allegations are currently being directed at numerous countries in Africa and southeast Asia, the former of which has been largely destabilized and the latter of which is incrementally being brought towards chaos. Everything the imperialists have done to Syria and Libya during the last decade is being expanded, under the same “humanitarian” rhetoric that’s used to justify the hybrid warfare against these countries. The goal is to sabotage China’s rise by engineering a collapse of civilization—and therefore of states which can carve out a new global order—throughout much of the globe.

So far it’s mainly the equatorial countries that are being targeted by the destabilization effort, but this sacrifice zone will expand as imperialism grows more desperate. NATO has brought it to eastern Europe, where Russia and Belarus are being targeted by a U.S.-installed Ukrainian regime. This regime embraces the empire’s policies of endless warfare and anti-communist repression, with these measures being undertaken to culturally cleanse the Ukraine of its Russian roots. It’s an intensified version of what the imperialists cultivated in Korea, where a nation was arbitrarily divided and made to be at war with itself.

This global manufacturing of crises goes along with ever-greater U.S. militarization within the Global South, and within the imperialist countries themselves. But as investment in war grows, the empire’s contradictions multiply both within and without. The endless expansions of U.S. military spending happen alongside a long depression for the country’s lower classes, and inequality that’s exponentially grown during the pandemic. Tens of millions globally have been driven into extreme poverty during the last two years alone, their conditions worsened by the further wage cuts, privatization, and austerity that the empire’s neo-colonial institutions have imposedduring this time. The exploited world is more open than ever to China’s vision for Global South economic independence. And the empire’s internal populace is undergoing revolutionary radicalization insofar as its conditions allow, coming to positively view socialism on a scale far larger than was the case during the previous cold war.

The empire couldn’t have avoided these consequences of neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, and the exacerbations of inequality it’s brought, are the only ways the bourgeoisie has been able to stay in power since capitalism entered its current stage of crisis in the 70s.

The architects of war are aware that these costs have been necessary for the empire’s preservation. Warfare in all of its forms, and the intensification of exploitation within the core as well as the neo-colonies, have been instrumental for keeping capital alive. During the War on Terror and the new cold war, the profitability of conflict has grown unprecedentedly important. The war economy has become more heavily relied upon than at any previous point, and the increasingly hegemonic tech industry has become integral to supplying the tools for the Pentagon’s military buildup. So when Pentagon officials make plans for responding to the empire’s decline, they recommend not to lessen the militarism, austerity, and environmentally destructive policies which are driving down the conditions of the masses, but to invest even more in the war paradigm.

In response to the humanitarian impacts that the climate crisis will have upon the U.S. population in the coming decades, the Pentagon recommends a permanently expanded military presence within the country’s borders. The U.S. Army War College, as well as Pentagon training resources, recommend that this military presence go along with plans for urban warfare to quell unrest. The most comprehensive of these U.S. military reports from the last decade combines the approaches towards importing imperialism’s warfare tactics. It says Washington needs to intensify propaganda and surveillance towards its own citizens, while building upon the warfare tactics that will one day be applied to the U.S. population. These engagements are described as ranging from “gray zone” methods, which fall short of direct violence, to widespread military force under an expanded doctrine for where the U.S. can intervene.

The basis for all of these actions is the idea that anything which theoretically threatens U.S. capital and geopolitical interests is a threat to national security. Advancing profits, winning the minds of the public, and making sure that all potential subversion gets monitored are held up by the Pentagon in just as high regard as subduing Washington’s rivals. Under the definition of “defense” that this view posits, every intrusion that the empire makes into the lives of its people—from mobile device surveillance to online censorship to militarized policing—is crucial society’s protection. From the perspective of anti-communism, even the most subtle facets of social control are seen as indispensable for stopping the spread of Marxism, which is regarded as an insidious force akin to a contagion.

To contain this contagion, the empire must maintain full spectrum dominance in every area, from cultural to economic to geopolitical. And when this dominance goes away, the empire must put maximum effort into regaining it. Given that the conditions have made this goal unattainable, the empire must forever pretend like it’s attainable. It does this by encompassing the public with a worldview which says that the anti-imperialist bloc is blanketly monstrous, and can be related to only through hostility. In the environment that the imperialist countries have cultivated, the prevailing myths are that no preferable alternatives to neoliberalism exist, and that endless conflict is unavoidable.

As long as these myths dominate, the imperialist countries will remain locked in their cycle. The cycle where the power of monopoly capital, propaganda, and repression keep them firmly away from revolution, even as the conditions of their people deteriorate for generations on end. Their liberation can come only after the empire is sufficiently dismantled along its peripheries, weakening capital enough for the masses in the imperialist countries to overthrow their capitalist states and free the remaining neo-colonies. This scenario is what the war effort, and its propaganda, are ultimately centered around stopping the masses from being able to imagine.