Events in Iraq - a major power dominating a much less developed one - seem to fit the popular image of imperialism.
This picture also reflects the form that imperialism took as it emerged in the late 19th century. From then into the first half of the 20th century, imperialism was characterised by military takeover and direct colonial control, the search for profitable investment opportunities and cheap labour, the ripping off of raw materials, and the use of the colonies as markets for the products of the imperial powers.
As capitalism developed, the boundaries of a single nation state had become too small and the search for raw materials and markets extended to encompass the entire world. States expanded their functions to protect and project the interests of the capitalists of their country over others.
The Russian revolutionary Lenin was one of the first to recognise that the rise of the great militarised states and the competition between them to carve up the world lay behind the slaughter of World War I.
He recognised that while economic, military and political domination by a small number of advanced economies over most of the world is the form that imperialism takes, it stems from something else - the rivalry between the powerful states. Sometimes this rivalry consists of economic competition for materials or markets, but ultimately it is backed up by military might.
Explaining in 1935 how the US military had extended US economic control over Central America, Major General Smedley D. Butler described his role like this:
I spent thirty-three years and four months in active service as a member of our country’s most agile military force - the Marine Corps…And during that period I spent most of my time being a high-class muscle man for Big Business, for Wall Street, and for the bankers. In short, I was a racketeer for capital…
Thus I helped make Mexico and especially Tampico safe for American oil interests in 1914. I helped make Haiti and Cuba a decent place for the National City Bank boys to collect revenues in… I helped purify Nicaragua for the international banking house of Brown Brothers in 1909-1912. I brought light to the Dominican Republic for American sugar interests in 1916. I helped make Honduras right for American fruit companies in 1903.
US imperialism’s aims have changed little since then. Today, multinational corporations need the state not only to control and if necessary suppress the workers that they exploit. They also need the military might of the state to protect their interests from rival multinationals and the rival states that protect them.
The USA is the world’s biggest military power. It intends to use its military might to ensure its role as the world superpower for the indefinite future.
As the example of Iraqi oil shows, control of raw materials continues to be a priority for the imperialist powers in the 21st century. But this example also shows how the rivalry between the major powers is the central dynamic of imperialism. Europe and Japan are more dependent on Middle Eastern oil than is the US. A military occupation of Iraq would give the US increased leverage over its main economic competitors.
Why does it matter if we think imperialism is about big powers dominating small ones and ripping off their resources, or if it is about the competition between the big powers themselves?
The first explanation makes sense of the attack on oil-rich Iraq, but how can we explain the US war on Afghanistan in 2001, or the projected attack on the resource-poor state of North Korea?
If we are looking for resource explanations for imperialism, it’s hard to make sense of the US’s war on Vietnam. Vietnam had no resources of value to the US. The millions of deaths did however have a strategic purpose in the imperialist rivalry between the US and the USSR, just as the Korean War of the early 1950s had.
As George W. Bush promises a century of war, he has his eyes on the major European powers, on Japan and on China, rather than on the particular impoverished country on which he may next unleash the US military machine.
Imperialism means the murder of thousands in countries like Iraq, and attacks on living standards and civil liberties in the imperialist powers, including small ones like Australia.
But imperialism is not invincible. At every stage of its bloody history, it has provoked revolt from below. As an international anti-war movement takes to the stage, the chance to once again organise and fight opens up.