Historian Alfred W. McCoy’s new book peels back layers of secrecy to tell how the United States used covert intervention, surveillance, torture, trade pacts and military alliances to become a world power. Filmmaker Oliver Stone calls In the Shadows of the American Century “a hard look at the truth of our empire, both its covert activities and the reasons for its impending decline.” Order this informative book today by making a donation to Truthout!
With a sweeping and detailed account of how the US rose out of World War II to become the reigning empire, Alfred W. McCoy connects dots that reveal how the role of covert action and torture enhanced its powers. However, McCoy ponders that these may be the last days of US global hegemony. Truthout asked McCoy to talk more about these issues.
Mark Karlin: How did your growing awareness of CIA involvement in assisting with the drug trade in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War awaken you to US strategies of hegemony?
Alfred W. McCoy: In following the heroin trail from Saigon (where many American soldiers were using the drug) into the mountains of Laos (where the opium was grown and heroin processed), I witnessed the full scale of a “secret war” that involved a CIA army of 30,000 local militia and an Air Force bombing campaign that was the largest air war in military history. By concealing this massive military operation from the American public for over five years, Washington had been able to hide a major war that violated treaty obligations, international law and, above all, the sovereignty of the host nation.
More broadly, Washington had discovered that covert operations resolved the central contradiction of the age: How to exercise global hegemony in a post-colonial world of sovereign states ostensibly immune to such intervention. In effect, covert operations allowed the US to exercise imperial power without looking like an empire.
When do you date the beginning of “the American Century,” and how was it distinguished from the age of the British Empire?
At its peak, circa 1900, Britain managed its global empire with hard and soft power, both the steel of naval guns and the salve of enticing culture. With strong fiscal fundamentals, Great Britain would dominate the world economy through London’s unequaled foreign investments of £3.8 billion and global economic leadership through the gold standard and the pound sterling. Multilingual British diplomats were famously skilled at negotiating force-multiplier alliances with other major powers, while ensuring its commercial access to secondary states like China and Persia that made up its informal empire. Its colonial officers were no less skilled at cultivating local elites … [who] enabled them to rule over a quarter of humanity with a minimum of military force.
Both forms of British diplomacy were eased by the cultural appeal of the English language, highlighted through its literature, the Anglican religion, sports (cricket, rugby, soccer and tennis), and mass media (Reuters news service, newspapers such as The Times, and the later BBC radio). As the steel behind this diplomacy, the British navy of 300 ships controlled maritime chokepoints from Gibraltar through the Suez Canal to the Straits of Malacca. Reflecting British innovation, its industries built the world’s first true battleship, the earliest tanks and a diverse modern arsenal. With a standing army of only 99,000 men, its entire defense budget consumed just 2.5 percent of Britain’s gross domestic product, an extraordinary economy of global force.
At the end of World War II and the real start of the “American Century” of global dominion, the United States invested all its prestige and power in forming nothing less than a new world order through permanent international institutions — the United Nations (1945), the International Monetary Fund (IMF) (1945) and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (1947), predecessor to the World Trade Organization. Continuing its commitment to the international rule of law, Washington helped establish the International Court of Justice at The Hague and would later promote both human rights and women’s rights. Moving beyond London’s ad hoc economic leadership, Washington forged formal international controls at the Bretton Woods conference of 44 allied nations in 1944 to direct and dominate the global economy through the IMF and the World Bank.
It was the Cold War that translated all this influence into architecture for actual world power. Within a decade, Washington had built a potent four-tier apparatus — military, diplomatic, economic and clandestine — for a global dominion of unprecedented wealth and power. At its core was the unmatched military that circled the globe with hundreds of overseas bases, a formidable nuclear arsenal, massive air and naval forces, and client armies.
Complementing all this steel was the salve of an active worldwide diplomacy, manifest in close bilateral ties, multilateral alliances, economic aid and cultural suasion (Hollywood films, Rotary, basketball and baseball). Its hegemony promoted trade and security pacts that allowed its burgeoning multinational corporations to operate profitably.
Adding a distinct dimension to US global power was a clandestine fourth tier that entailed global surveillance by the National Security Agency and covert operations on five continents by the Central Intelligence Agency — manipulating elections, promoting coups and, when needed, mobilizing surrogate armies. Indeed, more than any other attribute, it is this clandestine dimension that distinguishes US global hegemony from earlier empires.
You write of the economic decline of the US as being virtually inevitable. How so?
Indeed, in my book In the Shadows of the American Century, I have collected a few all-important but often-ignored indicators that reveal the full extent of China’s challenge to American power. In April 2015, the Department of Agriculture reported that the US economy would grow by nearly 50 percent over the next 15 years, while China’s would expand by 300 percent and surpass America’s in 2030.
As shown in the race for worldwide patents, American leadership in technological innovation is clearly on the wane. In 2014, China actually took the lead in this critical category with nearly half the world’s total — with an extraordinary 801,000 patents compared to just 285,000 for Americans.
With supercomputing now critical for everything from code breaking to consumer products, in 2010 China’s Defense Ministry beat the Pentagon by launching the world’s fastest supercomputer. By 2016, China had not only the fastest supercomputers, now made with Chinese chips, but it also had the most in the world with 167 compared to 165 for the United States and only 29 for Japan.
Finally, the American education system, that critical source of future scientists and innovators, has been falling behind its competitors. In 2016, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the OECD, tested 15 year olds worldwide, finding China was at the top and American placed 25th in science and 35th in math — pretty abysmal really.
Why in the world should anybody care about a bunch of 15 year olds with backpacks, braces and attitude? Because by 2030 those teenaged test-takers will be the mid-career scientists and engineers determining whose computers survive a cyber attack, whose satellites evade a missile strike and whose economy has the next wonder product.
You argue that the US surveillance state and torture are two strategies used to shore up empire. In what ways are these used to try and strengthen empire?
In its colonial conquest of the Philippines after 1898, the United States used torture (“the water cure”) to extract tactical intelligence and systematic surveillance to control the Filipino political elite through scandalous information about reputed derelictions with sex or money. During World War I, the Army’s “father of military intelligence,” the dour General Ralph Van Deman, drew upon his years of experience pacifying the Philippines to mobilize a legion of 1,700 soldiers and 350,000 citizen-vigilantes for an intense shoe-leather surveillance of suspected enemy spies among German-Americans, including my own grandfather.
During World War II, the FBI took over the army’s domestic surveillance and expanded it into a pervasive apparatus that monitored Congress, the media and universities, collecting scurrilous information to coerce compliance. After 2001, the NSA elaborated that model to the global level, monitoring the personal communications of world leaders while scooping up ordinary communications by the billions. Arguably, the NSA’s surveillance is a cost-effective instrument for the exercise of world power, though Edward Snowden’s revelations about NSA snooping has raised the political cost. And, of course, cyber-espionage is a double-edged sword, as indicated by Russian cyber-manipulations in the 2016 US elections — a clear sign of Washington’s waning global power.
By contrast, torture is unambiguously negative. In desperation over their decline, fading empires — whether Britain, France or the United States — resort to torture to shore up their waning hegemony, only to find, time and again, that the recourse [to these abuses] discredits their global leadership at home and abroad, accelerating the decline.
China plays a significant role in your book as a rival to the US empire. Are we on course for China to supersede the US as the world’s reigning empire by 2030?
Five years ago, the National Intelligence Council, the nation’s supreme analytical body, predicted that, by 2030, China would be the world’s number one economy and there would be an historic shift in geopolitical power from the West, which has been dominant since 1750, to the East, which includes everything from India to Japan. Whether domestic or foreign, military or economic, every serious analysis concurs that China is rising economically and challenging the US militarily.
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“One of our best and most underappreciated historians takes a hard look at the truth of our empire.” — Oliver Stone
But almost all of these analysts overlook China’s grand geopolitical strategy for harnessing the resources of the vast Eurasian landmass to fuel the rise of their new empire. As I explain in my book, Obama, one of those rare leaders with an acute understanding of geopolitics, developed a bold strategy, combining military and trade tactics, to check China — a strategy undone by the Trump White House during its first months in office.
To what degree are covert operations — that is, government or subcontracted activity that is not revealed to the public — used to sustain US empire?
Covert operations were critical to the rise and maintenance of US global hegemony for 40 years after World War II. By this I don’t mean espionage, the silly game of spy vs. spy, but clandestine intervention to change governments overseas by promoting military coups and manipulating the outcomes of critical elections, something the US did quite successfully for decades. Now, as US power wanes, its electoral manipulations and coup attempts have failed from Iran to Venezuela, and America finds its own elections being manipulated, probably quite successfully, by a hostile power, Russia — a clear sign of US decline. A global hegemon manipulates; a declining power is manipulated.
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