An essay by Huck Gutman published in Kolkata Statesman on October 9, 2002, on the Common Dreams News Center, October 9, 2002, and in the Karachi Dawn on October 21. Available on the web at Pre-emption or Dawn: The Doctrine of Pre-emption .
"America’s New Policy of Preemption,
and the World Economy"
October 9, 2002, 2002
A 31-page document, “The National Security Strategy for the United States”, recently submitted by President George W Bush to the Congress, has received much attention. In that document, the Bush administration asserts that “to counter a sufficient threat to our national security…to forestall or prevent such hostile acts by our adversaries, the United States will, if necessary, act pre-emptively”.
America’s assertion that it can and will use military action pre-emptively has been discussed – though not as widely as it should have been – in the USA; it has been criticized in nations all over the globe. The central concern of discussion and criticism has been on the unvarnished declaration that the USA is willing and ready to use its position as the lone superpower in the world to intervene – or invade – militarily whenever it believes its national security is threatened.
The Bush doctrine not only accepts pre-emptive military action, it raises it to the level of national policy. Multilateral support is no longer necessary: America will act whenever it decides it is in its interest to do so. The precedent this sets is, of course, a deeply unnerving prospect for future world affairs. If the USA can send its military into any nation which it perceives as a threat, then Russian use similar justification to send troops into Georgia in pursuit of Chechen rebels. China can invade Taiwan to assert its sovereignty over “Chinese” territory. Pakistan or India can cross the Line of Control and annex all of Kashmir in the name of “national security”.
The reasoning behind pre-emption, which ignores national sovereignty, international law, and multinational negotiation, is at its base an assertion of American imperium. The Bush doctrine envisions a world in which an American President can send troops where he wishes, when he wishes, for whatever purpose he wishes, as long as he maintains that American security would be imperiled by inaction.
None of this is news to most people concerned with international affairs. But what has remained unexplored are the economic reverberations of the Bush doctrine. A careful reading of the National Security Strategy document reveals an economic dimension that is deeply unsettling. But so shocking was the general purport of the document – unilateral, pre-emptive military action – that remarkably few people have read the remainder of the document with care.
The first sentence of the document insists, with certainty, that there is “a single sustainable model for national success: freedom, democracy, and free enterprise”.
Freedom and democracy are widely embraced as essential constituents of a fully mature state. But free enterprise? Much of the world’s population would not calmly accept that free enterprise is the only route by which one can build and sustain a nation. Socialism, Communism, managed economies; collectives, cooperatives, social investment, socially determined and imposed limitations on “free” enterprise: all of these have credence as sensible alternatives to the unfettered free market and unregulated free trade.
One should not quickly pass over this remarkable opening sentence. In it, the American President’s assertion that a country cannot succeed without free enterprise stands revealed as a cornerstone of his thinking. Free enterprise is so deeply entrenched in his thinking that he insists that the future foreign and military strategy of the USA will be based on the need to coerce – or if necessary bludgeon – nations into compliance with America’s positions on free enterprise and free trade.
The new policy is not, if one looks at it closely, merely intended to make America safe from terrorists; it is a policy which seeks to make capitalism safe from citizen opposition or government intervention. A century ago an American President, Woodrow Wilson, declared he wanted to “make the world safe for democracy”. Mr Bush wants to make the world safe for multinational corporations – and wealthy individuals.
In the aftermath of 11 September, Mr Bush proclaims in the security strategy document, that “the United States will work to bring the hope of democracy, development, free markets, and free trade to every corner of the world”. This, he declares, will be a “distinctly American internationalism that reflects the union of our values and our national interests”. He conveniently ignores the fact that, in the economic realm, even within America there is vigorous discussion and dissension about just what “our” values, and “our” national interests, are.
Al Gore, one recalls, received more votes in the last presidential election than Mr Bush. Or, to take another example, poll after poll reveals that few in the USA share Mr Bush’s conviction that lowering taxes on the wealthy is a national interest. (Indeed, lowering taxes on the wealthy all over the world is a cornerstone of the new American security policy – but more on that, later.) In his new model for American international relations, Mr Bush states that one of the “non-negotiable demands of human dignity” is a “respect for private property”. So much for socialism, or even the concept of government taxation of individual wealth.
Buried deep in the document, in a section given a title better suited to a religious tract or trade magazine for CEOs, “Ignite a New Era of Global Economic Growth through Free Markets and Free Trade”, are seven aims which America will use its might to enforce. Several of these goals are so reasonable they would elicit worldwide assent, goals such as ensuring the rule of law, investing in health and education, and ending corruption.
Others are not so benign, nor the subject of any sort of international consensus. These goals seem to aim at making the world safe for multinational corporations. The document speaks of assuring that legal and regulatory policies encourage “business investment and entrepreneurial activity” and requiring that national fiscal policies “support business activity”.
More ominous among the goals is the insistence on free trade, an insistence that, in the context of the document, suggests that any nation that wishes to set rules or boundaries on its penetration by international trade and international capital is a threat to American national security.
Every nation must remain open to the needs of international capital – and specifically, American investment. The complex matrix of the Bush policy depends in the final – or even the not-so-final – instance on American pre-emptive military action. Should a nation oppose free trade, either by protection of its own industries and markets, or by placing limits on investment from abroad, American might may be brought to bear against that nation. Not just financial muscle, but military muscle as well.
But most egregious of the economic conditions that Mr Bush propounds as the basis of American security is his insistence on “tax policies — particularly lower marginal tax rates — that improve incentives for work and investment”. The language he uses resounds powerfully to the wealthy of the world, while sounding like economic jargon to the majority of humankind. Mr Bush’s policy is clear to those in the know, and hidden from most others.
What does an American foreign policy that insists on “lower marginal tax rates” mean? The answer is breathtaking. Mr Bush is announcing, to the US Congress and to governments around the world that it is henceforward necessary to the national security of the USA for every nation to reduce taxes on wealthy citizens, domestic corporations, and multinational corporations and banks.
“Lower marginal tax rates” is the code by which people of influence tell each other that they are opposed to progressive taxation. It signals an implacable opposition to any policy which would ask that wealthy individuals pay a greater percentage of their income in taxes than low-earning workers’ pay. The code also asserts that corporations should pay taxes at a rate no higher than the most indigent worker in society. “Lower marginal tax rates” means that progressive taxation should be diminished or abolished.
Thus, the “respect for private property” which Mr Bush presents as a keystone of America’s international agenda does not mean, as might at first appear, a respect for families of modern means who own their own flat, or a commitment to small-scale farmers to continue to own their own land. What Mr Bush is propounding is that those who amass a great deal of property – the wealthy and the powerful – should be able to keep their property.
It appears that when a government decides to redistribute even a modest portion of its society’s wealth from the rich to the poor, by means of tax policy, its actions are inimical to US security.
One of the fundamental purposes of government is to help distribute the resources of a society so that all citizens can have food, housing, health care, access to education. Taxation is a government’s primary means for distributing – and redistributing – these resources. In fact, taxation is the only way, short of property seizure, to redistribute wealth and income. Such taxation and the social redistribution it enables or precludes is the concern of each autonomous government and its citizens – not of the USA.
The Bush administration’s representation that American security requires the use of military force and economic coercion to assure that countries do not tax corporations and their wealthy citizens more than minimal amounts, that nations do not redistribute wealth or income through the tax system, is outrageous.
“This administration’s goal is to help unleash the productive potential of individuals in all nations. Sustained growth and poverty reduction is impossible without the right national policies,” states the document, with no reluctance to spell our what those right national policies are. “Governments must…follow responsible economic policies and enable entrepreneurship. Free markets and free trade are key priorities of our national security strategy.”
While addressing the very real problem of terrorism, the new American foreign policy goes far beyond that issue. It proposes nothing less than that compliance with conservative, market-oriented economic values and programs is necessary for national security.
It implies that American troops and military material will enforce each nation’s compliance with the agenda of the multinational corporations: free trade, free movement of capital, defense of private property and its inalienable rights, and ever lower taxes on the wealthy and powerful.
Huck Gutman, who teaches at the University
of Vermont, was a Fulbright Visiting Professor at Calcutta University.