Written by Metin Guven
The NATO summit held in Madrid recently (June 2022) was remarkable in many ways. As important as it was to initiate the accession process of Finland and Sweden, but perhaps more importantly, Japan, Australia, New Zealand and South Korea were invited to the summit as Indo-Pacific Partners for the first time. Russia and China, seen as allies against radical Islamist terrorism at the summit 10 years ago, were declared as hostile forces that formed an alliance threatening “Western values”. All these suggest that the war in Ukraine which was provoked by the US as Chomsky stated could be actually part of a broader plan.
US Strategy to Maintain Its Hegemony
The hegemony of the US, which was established after World War II, has been in decline since the 1970s. The oil crisis and the defeat of the Vietnam War were the first signs of this process. The US tried to prevent this decline with neoliberal policies. It seemed successful with the advances of digital technologies in the 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union. However, the 2001 and 2008-09 crises made it clear that the process of collapse of US hegemony has already started. Meanwhile, the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq became futile wars that cost trillions of US dollars. In the 2010s, the war in Syria and the way ISIS got out of control in the process probably even caused panic among the US elites.
We can see this panic in the fact that the Pentagon supported Rojava for the fight against ISIS, while the CIA supported other radical Islamist forces in Syria that are attacking Rojava. The CIA trained and armed many Islamist fighters in this process, and although they presented themselves as moderates while training, they eventually joined radical Islamist groups. As a matter of fact, the contradictory approaches and inability of the US bureaucracy to develop coherent policies eventually resulted in the US withdrawal from the Middle East to a large extent. They probably desired to turn Syria into a swamp where Russia would bog down, but they failed. Thankfully, the shale gas and oil resources in the US have reached a level that will put an end to their dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Thus, the Middle East now trades mostly with China and India, and it is becoming a region that has more connections with China, India and Russia.
It would be more meaningful to look at the USA’s provocation of war in Ukraine within this context. Withdrawing from the Middle East and losing its influence in Latin America and Africa, the USA has to focus on its Asian rival, China, in order to maintain its hegemony. But the Trump-era trade war has failed, exposing the risks of confronting China directly. In this case, it must have seemed the most rational way to attack close allies of China in order to isolate the rival who could not be directly confronted. The collapse of Russia would be a major blow to China, both economically and in terms of being the primary source of weapons technologies.
With this reckoning, neo-Nazis trained in the US and Canada were sent to the field in Ukraine. These forces, which became effective in determining policies and dominate the street so much that they could threaten President Zelensky, were used to provoke Russia. By constantly arming Ukraine, the US seems to be planning to support a war long enough to collapse the Russian economy. In this way, the US wants not to give the European countries the opportunity to question its leadership by highlighting the threat of Russia. As a matter of fact, Europeans participate in sanctions against Russia, along with Japan and South Korea. These developments show that the US can mobilize its allies to maintain its hegemony, which also serves to protect their interests.
Does the US Have a Chance of Success Against China and Russia?
However, the plans of the US were backfired by the BRICS countries. In the United Nations session, while the majority of the world’s states condemned the unjustified and brutal occupation by Russia, other members of the BRICS abstained. Then, while no BRICS country is participating in the sanctions, this became an opportunity for India to buy oil from Russia at a discounted price. While China is buying coal at a discounted price from Russia, Australian coal miners have completely lost hope of restarting purchases that China had already halted. China’s oil imports from Russia increased by 70 percent in June compared to last year. Meanwhile, it is worth noting that payments to Russia are made in Rubles or Yuan.
The non-participation of the Southern states in the US sanctions on Russia seems to affect the US plans. To make matters worse, the search for alternative payment methods, triggered by past sanctions, has accelerated. Instead of US-controlled SWIFT, Russia had already developed its own international payment system. Then, in 2015, China developed its own cross-border payment system called CIPS. In addition, Russia has aligned its system with CIPS, and these have also been made compatible with consumer electronic payment systems (such as Alipay and WeChat in China). Meanwhile, mobile payment methods led by China that allow secure payments with an app on a mobile phone instead of a credit or debit card are becoming more common. I think that Western payment systems such as Visa and Master, which once dominated the electronic payment market, are now very marginal in these countries. In this area, mobile payment systems such as Apple Pay and Google Pay are expected to dominate in the US in the coming years as well.
Returning to international payments, the digital yuan introduced by China is emerging as a growing alternative to the US dollar. While central banks of other states are still in the planning stages, China has taken a long way to roll out a digital currency. Moreover, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) offers China extensive opportunities in this regard. Within the scope of BRI projects, China is expanding the use of the yuan through loans and aid. With the digital yuan lowering the transaction cost, we can expect this to increase even more. All of this, with the spread of the Euro, gradually reduces the use of the US dollar as a reserve currency. The share of the US dollar in reserves held by national central banks has dropped from 71% in 1999 to 59% in 2020, according to an IMF official survey.
Meanwhile, China has attempted to build yuan reserves in cooperation with the Bank for International Settlements. Indonesia, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Singapore and Chile will contribute 15 billion yuan (2.2 billion $) each, and the reserve will provide larger yuan financing to the Central Banks of these countries, when they need.
Therefore, sanctions backfired except in Western countries. Beyond that, rising oil, natural gas and wheat prices further increased the already rising inflation all over the world. It wouldn’t be surprising if a global economic recession eventually starts. Such a recession would likely accelerate China’s rise and it would further decrease the share of the USA and the West in the world economy.
Different Approaches to NATO and BRICS
As in many issues, these developments are interpreted in different ways by the Left. Some see these as conflicts between imperialist powers. At the other extreme are those who view the BRICS states as anti-imperialist and celebrate their increasing power. It is worth noting in advance that both approaches are simplistic and full of contradictions. Contrary to these approaches, the Left needs to understand the transition period we are going through in detail, to make predictions about a very different world that will emerge at the end of this transition, and to develop a new discourse for the coming period accordingly. I will try to briefly look at both common understandings with this perspective.
The debate about whether China or Russia is imperialist is not really meaningful in this respect. The main point to understand is how imperialism is being changed, as in the collapse of previous cycles of capital accumulation. Just as the colonial system developed by the Netherlands was reshaped in a different structure under the leadership of the UK in the 19th century, the USA restructured that system as neocolonialism. Today, however, neocolonialism has also become ineffective. Instead, we experience a process in which imperialism is internalized as all states are adopting developmentalism. In a sense, this process reveals an imperialism in which each state colonizes its own places and also foreign lands as far as it can reach. To give an example from Turkey, the new airport and Canal Istanbul projects in Istanbul are nothing but the central state’s colonization of these regions by destroying forests and agricultural lands, and displacing the people living there. The same thing happens in İkizdere where people struggle against a quarry project or Akbelen where forests are destroyed for coal mining. At the same time, Turkish companies rent agricultural lands in Africa to grow fruit. Also with the occupation of Syria, housing projects aiming a demographic shift are implemented there.
It is possible to give similar examples from many countries. For example, Adani Group from India, which was a colony in the past, owns mines in Indonesia and has recently started operating a coal mine in Australia. Or indigenous Adivasi people are displaced to start coal mines by destroying forest in India. However, based on these facts, it would really be an oversimplification to characterize the current international conflicts as inter-imperialist conflicts. Because, on the one hand, there is the imperialism of Western capitalism, which has introduced the concept of imperialism as we understand it today; and on the other hand, there are developing states that are gradually adopting the new form of this concept. Equating these two, means first of all ignoring 200 years of Western hegemony. More importantly, such an approach may prevent preparation for the multipolar world order that will likely emerge with the collapse of this hegemony.
At this point, it can be said that Russia was one of the Western imperialist powers until the Soviet revolution and acted in accordance with this tradition during the Soviet period. However, this does not change the fact that the West excluded Russia from its system and pushed it among the emerging states. After all, Russia is one of the states that make up BRICS today, and it is committed to the same faith with them. The interests that unite the BRICS nations require attrition and regression of Western dominance.
In these circumstances it should be emphasized that it is meaningless to talk about anti-imperialism in such a world. More precisely, it does not make sense to talk about an anti-imperialism that is not anti-capitalist or does not even criticize developmentalism clearly. This is not a struggle to be waged at the national level, and it is not an issue that may be included in the agenda of any BRICS state. The BRICS states are gradually liquidating the Western domination, thus Western imperialism, but this is a process that transforms imperialism into its new form, not ending it. What is meant by Western imperialism here is not only neocolonialism, but it is better to leave this concept to another article.
Under the leadership of the United States, NATO has attempted to mobilize European states to arm and strengthen ties with its allies in Asia. The recent emphasis on international terrorism has also been replaced by the goal of forming a front against China and Russia. However, in the end, military and technological superiority largely depends on the economic power of those countries. Since the US was aware of this, it began to impose extensive sanctions on Russia. But these sanctions, on the contrary, seem to weaken the US and Europe against China and Russia, because, even if China’s recent growth lost its momentum, it does not seem to slow down much, and there are plans that progress strongly to undermine Western domination, especially to dethrone the US dollar. Other BRICS states, especially India, and many developing countries also support these plans; for example, they agree to pay Russia in rubles or yuan. It also seems that BRICS will expand with these developments. Last month, Iran and Argentina applied to join the BRICS and these applications are being considered.
All these developments indicate that we are approaching the end of the current cycle of capital accumulation led by the US. The end or collapse of this cycle will also mean the end of Western domination, because there is no Western state that will replace the US and lead a new cycle of capital accumulation. On the contrary, there are strong indications that an upcoming multipolar world order will not allow the hegemony of a state. The new form of imperialism is one of the manifestations of this fact.
Under these circumstances, the issue that the Left should discuss is not who is imperialist or anti-imperialist, but whether we are ready to analyze the developments correctly and fight in the upcoming world order that will be shaped in the not too distant future. Are we going to dismiss the conflict between the West and the BRICS states by saying that the imperialists have been fighting each other for five hundred years? Or will we ignore the different kinds of rising authoritarianism with this conflict? Instead of trying to understand the rising and spreading state capitalism and crony capitalism, will we continue to criticize the policies that are left behind and only put them on the target? More importantly, how should we prepare to fight the ecological crisis, which is becoming increasingly crucial with the climate chaos, in a world of rising authoritarian regimes and state capitalism?
 Arif Dirlik, Global Modernity?: Modernity in an Age of Global Capitalism, European Journal of Social Theory 2003; Vol: 6; pp 275-292