The Civil War in Heaven: the G7, “great power competition” and imperialism

James Bell
Jun 15, 2018 · 29 min read

On 19 January 2018, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis announced that the US’ international strategy is now set to shift its focus. Unveiling the “National Defense Strategy”, Mattis quietly ushered in a new kind of tactics for US imperialism and, with them, a new period of human history. To use his own words: ‘We will continue to prosecute the campaign against terrorists that we are engaged in today, but great power competition, not terrorism, is now the primary focus of US national security.’

Mattis framed this shift in US imperialism’s strategy as one geared toward combating Russian and Chinese influence in the world. From a certain standpoint, one can see a continuity between this development and the direction adopted by the US with the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” in 2011. Equally, the emphasis on Russia would seem to be nothing more than a confirmation of fact. NATO have amassed the largest military force assembled in Europe since the end of the second world war at Russia’s doorstop, with a line stretching through Poland, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia and, more informally, Ukraine.

However, if Russia and China appear to represent “great powers”, we are forced to contend with another realisation — that is, the EU is definitively such a “great power”. Last weekend’s G7 (held between 8 and 9 June) demonstrates this point explosively. A particularly illustrative example can be found in the dispute between US President Donald Trump and French President Emmanuel Macron prior to the meeting’s opening. On arrival, Trump took the opportunity to suggest that the G7 should again become the G8, reinstating Russia after its expulsion in 2014. In response, Macron suggested that the US’ presence at the summit may come under question, stating ‘we don’t mind becoming six’. A fissure is formed, perhaps irrevocably.

I want to suggest that, rather than being a demonstration of Trump’s “idiocy”, the explosive events of the 2018 G7 are, at least in part, the manifestation of a split that has been forming between US and European imperialism for a considerable period of time. In order to do so, it is necessary to investigate the formation of the EU, the exceptional economic circumstances of the post-war period and their dissolution, alongside diplomatic and economic developments between the US and Europe from the Skripal incident to the G7. Whilst nothing that can be said at present can be interpreted as a definite prediction, what this split demonstrates is that “great power competition” denotes a period of conflict in world history in which no-one is able to remain neutral. To use Lenin’ phrasing in his 1916 preface to the French and German editions of Imperialism, the imperialists are again ‘drawing the whole world into their war over the division of their booty’.


If you would like to contribute toward this work, you can do so here. For more frequent updates, make sure to follow me on Twitter.

Context: the European Union, the post war boom and “globalisation”

The first and second world wars were waged in the pursuit of imperialist expansion and to resolve antagonistic relationships of competition that had grown between the world’s largest capitalist countries over the end of 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. In particular, Britain, Germany and the United States were locked into a competition over who would become the world’s leading imperialist power, a role previously held by Britain. The exceptional economic conditions that followed these wars — in which the US assumed supremacy as the world’s most powerful imperialist nation — are known as the post-war boom.

The post-war period offered profitable chances for capital investment precisely because of the wars of 1914 and 1939. The bloodbath that had swept across Europe and Japan offered a considerable opportunity, with huge swathes of capital destroyed and, thus, new fields for investment opened. Immense devaluation of currencies during the war meant that the capital required to invest in these areas was cheap, and the frenetic activity that had characterised the wars had led to the development of new, more productive technologies that could now be implemented. To top this all off, the domination of fascism in Europe and Japan had forced wages down and thoroughly exhausted the workers’ movements of these nations.

As I have said, the US became the world’s dominant imperialist power following the world wars. As such, its influence was crucial to the formation of post-war power relations. It is over the post-war period that US imperialism created for itself greater control over the world markets using a combination of Marshall Aid and capital exports. In doing this, the US created a contradiction. Whilst the US’ investment over this period led to a general increase in the rate of profit (that is, the amount of profit created relative to capital invested) for all those involved, its dominance led to an organisation of capital in which national capitalists essentially shared such increases according to their relative competitive positions in the world market.It should be obvious that this arrangement was unlikely to serve anyone apart from US imperialism in the long-term.

It is in this context that the first moves toward a European Union (EU) were made, initially with the support of US imperialism. The US was supportive of such a union as this would significantly ease its plans to dominate Europe and develop it such a way to accommodate US interests. Its relationship with imperialist Britain was to allow easy access to European diplomatic and economic structures. A series of deals between France and the then German Federal Republic (GFR) in 1950 signified that the largest of the European nations — or at least their remains — also saw the necessity of such an alliance. By 1957, this became a reality with the introduction of a common market and a customs union between Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and the GFR by the Treaty of Rome. This bloc was known as the European Economic Community (EEC).

Although the initial formation of what would become the EU was encouraged by US imperialism and, indeed, facilitated it, this reveals only the shortsightedness of imperialism itself. Writing in 1915, Lenin locates another meaning for the formation of imperialist blocs. Responding to discussions surrounding the demand for a union between European states, he first argues that ‘a United States of Europe, under capitalism, is either impossible or reactionary’, explaining that it would also entail a division of the spoils of the colonies, equivalent to partition. The only circumstance in which such a union would be possible under capitalism, to Lenin, is one in which Europe is on the back-foot and requires a union in order to compete with more powerful imperialist nations. He writes:

Of course, temporary agreements are possible between capitalists and between states. In this sense a United States of Europe is possible as an agreement between the European capitalists … but to what end? Only for the purpose of jointly suppressing socialism in Europe, of jointly protecting colonial booty against Japan and America, who have been badly done out of their share by the present partition of colonies, and the increase of whose might during the last fifty years has been immeasurably more rapid than that of backward and monarchist Europe, now turning senile. Compared with the United States of America, Europe as a whole denotes economic stagnation. On the present economic basis, i.e., under capitalism, a United States of Europe would signify an organisation of reaction to retard America’s more rapid development.

Lenin was prescient. As well as enabling the growth of US capital, the EEC represented what would come to be the US’ largest competitor: the EU. This contradiction was present at its formation — those countries who founded the EEC undoubtedly doing so in order to remain competitive. However, the contradiction has developed more thoroughly throughout the period known as “globalisation”, particularly the period between the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the 2008 economic crash and today.

The exceptional economic circumstances that allowed for the post-war boom and the prosperity resultant from it came to an end between 1973 and 1974. In 1973, imperialist capitalism returned to crisis. This is show clearly by the fact that, in 1974, Britain, the US and Japan all recorded negative GDP growth of -0.2%, -2.1% and -1.8% respectively. This crisis persists to the present day, with productivity in the major imperialist nations (the US, Britain, the EU imperialist bloc) in perpetual decline. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 allowed a reprieve from (or, perhaps more accurately, a blunting of) the more obvious and more brutal austerity that defined the Thatcher and Reagan periods in the major imperialist nations, allowing for the export of capital to increase exponentially and for credit to expand. This expansion of capital is what is often referred to as “globalisation”.

At the time many bourgeois economists used to claim that “globalisation” represented the emergence of ‘one global, borderless, stateless market’. Today, that proposition is clearly absurd. What the process of “globalisation” represented, in reality, was a return to the crisis-ridden conditions of the period preceding the first imperialist world war — that is, a long term structural crisis of imperialist capitalism. In response to declining levels of productivity in their national territory, the imperialists again cast their eyes to ever increasing levels of capital export and the division of the world between competing imperialist powers. The increase of Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) seen following the collapse of the Soviet bloc is illustrative of this fact. In 1995, FDI outflows increased by a massive 38% to $317bn, with a record $100bn going to Third World countries. This investment was concentrated in three competing blocs — the EU, the US and Japan. 76% of the investment in Third World countries between 1993 and 1995 went to only 10 countries.

For Europe, and particularly a re-unified Germany, the significance of this process was enormous. Previously haemorrhaged by the Soviet Union, German capital was now able to expand into Eastern Europe, whilst France further expanded into Southern Europe. It should come as no surprise that, over the same period, the EU began to make moves to consolidate itself as a bloc capable of combating US imperialism. The Treaty of the European Union was signed at Maastricht in December 1991, leading to the creation of a European central bank by July 1998 and a common European currency by January 1999.

Marx says that ‘so long as things go well, competition effects an operating fraternity of the capitalist class’. Since 2008, nobody could claim things have been “going well”. As such, what we have seen in world politics is nothing but the sharpening of the contradictions outlined above, with the EU continuing to solidify itself as a bloc and competing national capitals dividing the world ever more into their spheres of influence. The Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in 2016 signaled that the diplomatic consensus formed over the post-war and “globalisation” periods has broken entirely, with both British and US imperialism turning toward more overtly aggressive engagement with the EU imperialist bloc. As Mattis says, we have entered a period of “great power competition” — that is, world imperialist conflict.

The long road to Hell: from Skripal to sanctions

The Skripal incident, on 4 March, set in motion a sequence of events within which the split between US and EU imperialism has been allowed to flourish and, ultimately, reveal itself. Although an investigation into the incident itself is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth iterating a basic position. This is simple: the British state and media have manufactured in the attempted poisoning a pretense for further aggression against Russia. There is no concrete evidence relating Russia to the attack, but merely accusations and warmongering.

For our present purpose, it is worth noting the Skripal incident as representing the first in a series of increasingly dangerous diplomatic clashes between US and EU imperialism this year. In the immediate aftermath of British Prime Minister Theresa May’s 13 March ultimatum to Russia (“tell us you did it or we’ll assume you did it”), Britain looked to its allies to seize the moment and escalate tensions. Where the US obliged without question, the EU was initially less forthcoming. This was clear at a meeting of the EU on 24 March, with Greece even going so far as to refuse to blame Russia for the incident (something of a faux pas when it comes to such a pretext). Perhaps sensing ambivalence even before the meeting, the US floated sanctions on a joint venture between the EU and Russia — that is, Nord Steam 2 — on 22 March. Although the EU joined the push against Russia — with 18 of 28 EU countries joining the US and Canada in expelling Russian diplomats — the implications of threatening sanctions and the development of Nord Stream 2 are worth dwelling on.

Firstly, it is worth highlighting the importance of Nord Stream 2 within the EU. The pipeline is set to follow the same route as the Nord Stream pipeline, running from Russia through the Baltic sea to Germany (see below). It will provide 55bn cubic metres of gas per annum, doubling the capacity of the first Nord Stream pipeline. German imperialism requires the gas import, as it is faced with considerable problems maintaining its energy infrastructure — a product of both phasing out nuclear power and a predicted decline in imports from Norway and the Netherlands as their reserves dwindle.

Nord Stream 2 route.

It is something of an understatement to call Nord Stream 2 “controversial”. The pipeline gathered significant criticism from within the EU, particularly from Poland. Criticism tends to point toward the fact that, should Nord Stream 2 go ahead, the state-owned Russian company Gazprom, would have a significant monopoly on energy provided to the EU. This is undeniably true: Gazprom is already the EU’s largest gas supplier. Further, Russian gas accounts for a third of the EU’s imports. More extreme criticisms of the project go so far as to accuse Russia of attempting to divide the EU with it (a point Putin has been forced to publicly deny as late as 5 June due to its tenacity and propagandist value). As such, Nord Stream 2 has face consistent delays as a project. A joint venture to get the project underway was blocked by Poland in 2017, forcing the project to seek a new financing structure. The pipeline is now funded by a joint agreement between a subsidiary of Gazprom (Nord Stream 2 AG) at 50% of the funding, and five European companies — Uniper, Wintershall, Engie, OMV and Royal Dutch Shell — making up the remainder at 10% each.

Whilst the US and those Eastern European states that constitute the NATO front against Russia have opposed Nord Stream 2 consistently (see here, here and here for examples), the sanctions threatened in the wake of the Skripal incident highlight the beginning of a turning point in the EU and the US’ political relationship. What is significant here is twofold. The US took the opening offered by the Skripal incident to directly threaten economic force against the EU, where previously its opposition had been limited to words. Equally, it did so at a highly politicised moment in which criticising US policy would appear to be a declaration of military and diplomatic alliance with Russian capitalism. Using pre-existing splits within the EU imperialist bloc to its advantage, US imperialism forced the EU’s larger players and particularly Germany into a response. Irrespective of whether or not it needed to (it didn’t), the US pushed the EU into diplomatic action against Russia — its largest gas supplier and fourth largest trading partner.

In August 2017, long before the US’ intervention following the Skripal incident, the German Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel stated that the EU nation viewed further sanctions on Russia as unacceptable and contradictory to its interests. In the same statement, he said that the US’ policy toward Russia is ‘aggressively binding US economic interests with issues of external policy’, accusing the US of attempting to build itself a monopoly on the EU’s energy supply by pushing ‘Russian gas from the European market’. This has been the essence of the German bourgeoisie’s response to US imperialism’s attacks on Nord Stream 2. Following the expulsion of Russian diplomats across the US, Canda and Europe on 26 March, Germany quickly offered full approval Nord Stream 2 at the end of the month.

What these developments tell us is that German imperialism has grasped the significance of the US’ position on Nord Stream 2. The moves made by the US to quell the pipeline are intended to curtail the EU’s economic independence from US capital and further develop the interests of US imperialism in Europe. The EU, as a bloc intended to defend European imperialism from the dominance of US capital, cannot accept this and certainly would not accept a position in which it is energy dependent on the US. As such, it is stuck attempting to advance its economic relationship with Russia, treading an evermore dangerous tightrope between splits among its member nations and an increasingly aggressive US economic policy.

Further developments surrounding the pipeline seem to confirm this analysis. Since its provocation following the Skripal incident, the US has continued in its pattern of aggression toward the project. On 6 April, the US announced sanctions on ‘seven Russian oligarchs and 12 companies they own or control, 17 senior Russian government officials, and a state-owned Russian weapons trading company and its subsidiary, a Russian bank’ in response to “malign behaviour” from the nation. Significantly, these sanctions impacted on several German companies, including car manufacturer VW, software maker SAP and Deutsche Börse’s securities firm Clearstream. Even more significantly, they further threatened the future of Nord Stream 2, raising questions as to whether German banks would help finance the project.

In addition to using the NATO campaign against Russia to heighten tensions between the EU and the US, Washington has been using the campaign to cultivate for itself an ally within the EU. That ally is Poland. A Polish fissure with the majority of the EU has been on the cards for a substantial period of time, with Polish disagreement over Nord Stream 2 haunting the project from the offset and a disciplinary process over the independence of Poland’s courts underway. Poland, for its part, is actively seeking a diplomatic, economic and military alliance with US imperialism. This is expressed clearly in several recent developments.

Source.

Since the 2014 US and EU backed coup in Ukraine, NATO has significantly expanded its military presence in Poland and the Baltics. By early 2017, this deployment had reached a staggering scale (see left). By far the largest presence is from the US and located in Poland. Although ostensibly deployed in Poland in an effort to wage war on Russia, the US’ presence here indicates a deepening military alliance. This has become even clearer over time. At the beginning of 2018, Warsaw called for further US troops to be stationed within Poland, setting a course for the remainder of the year. Whilst the US requires its position in Poland to execute any strategy against either Russia or the EU, it took this call as both a strategic and financial opportunity. On 28 March, Poland completed the largest arms deal in its history — $4.75bn for a US Patriot missile system. Still not satisfied, Poland called for the US presence on its soil to become a permanent military encampment on 28 May. For this “privilege”, it offered the US $2bn.

Although Poland views these military deployments as a component of the NATO campaign against Russia, they cannot be separated from the growing split between European and US imperialism. The combination of tensions between Poland and other EU member states, and Poland seeking a greater alliance with the US has thrown open significant tactical questions for the nation. Can the Polish bourgeoisie maintain for itself a stake in the EU, acting as a diplomatic envoy for the interests of the US, or is such a strategy a relic of the past as Brexit might suggest? A third option — abandoning the US — seems unlikely, given the weight of the US military presence in Poland. As such, the Polish bourgeoisie are being forced to seriously reconsider their role in the EU. At time of writing, a referendum is already being prepared to begin addressing this question and the Polish Prime Minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, has clearly indicated that he would prefer the first strategy — having Poland operate as ‘a link’ between the US and the EU.

To return, briefly, to Nord Stream 2. Despite the considerable pressure placed upon it by US imperialism — exacerbated by splits within the EU — the project is pushing ahead. The pipeline has acquired all but one of the building permits it requires, with only Denmark remaining in a position to create problems in the legality of its construction. Germany has already started building already. As such, the Russian position that opponents of the project are unable to stop it seems pragmatically accurate. However, this does not signal an end to the dispute surrounding the project. Already another attack on Nord Stream 2 is underway, with Ukraine in the spotlight. On 17 May, the US warned that sanctions still hover over the pipeline’s future.

Both Nord Stream 2 and the US’ relationship with Poland both signify a split between the US and European bourgeoisie, but they are not alone in doing so. A further fracture between the competing blocs can be observed in Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action) and reintroduction of sanctions on Iranian trade on 8 May. Where the dispute over Nord Stream 2 represents a slow build-up of tensions expressed through a veil of sorts (“combating Russian malign activity”), the withdrawal from the nuclear deal represents a shift toward more overt confrontation.

The Iran deal was signed in 2015 by the permanent members of the UN Security Council (Britain, China, France, Russia and the US), Germany and the EU. It was intended to curb Iran’s nuclear programme, offering greater financial investment and a reprieve from sanctions in return for incredibly stringent regulation of any Iranian nuclear development. Since the deal, EU trade with Iran has significantly increased, more than doubling to €21bn by 2017 (see below). As such, Trump’s withdrawal from the deal not only risks an escalation of imperialism’s abject and devastating war for control of Western Asia, it is a challenge to the EU imperialists. In order to understand this, it is necessary to recognise that Trump’s stated reasons for withdrawing from the deal — ‘to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon’ — are a fantasy. The International Atomic Energy Agency had confirmed that Iran is in compliance with the terms of the deal, which prohibit it from developing nuclear arms, a total of ten times as of February 2018.

Source.

It is unclear to what extent the US’ withdrawal from the Iran deal will impact upon the EU. There are many variables and all that one may offer is a sketch. Prior to Trump’s announcement of the US’ withdrawal, the EU drew up some contingencies for such a possibility. The outlook for protecting the EU’s trade and capital in Iran was bleak, with one diplomat stating that ‘whatever the EU does would be rather symbolic’. The crux of this question, however, is not simply a matter of ability. It is a matter of will. Put bluntly, in order to contend the US’ sanctions on Iran, the EU must also contend with its greatest weapon — that is, the dollar.

The power of the dollar and the US’ financial sector is a difficult theoretical question that cannot be fully accounted for in this article. For brevity’s sake, I will offer only an abstract of its present scope. To date, the US is still the world’s leading financial power. It owns just short of half the world market. This is reflected in various statistics. To date, the dollar accounts for 44% of the world’s daily turnover in foreign exchange (around $5tr a day), in comparison to 13% of daily turnover for the euro and 2% for the renminbi. The US is still the world’s leading supplier of both bonds and equities. In 2016, it accounted for 43% of the $90 trillion worth outstanding globally in bonds; in the same period, the US accounted for 39% of the $70 trillion worth of global equity stock outstanding. This communicates its hegemony and dominance.

Dominance, however, does not equate to total control. In order for the US’ sanctions on Iran to work, they must be implemented by the EU. In order to avoid a forced implementation of the US’ sanctions, the EU must avoid using the dollar or the other market mechanisms tied to US imperialism’s political objectives. If it does not seek such alternative methods it will be stopped, as evidenced by France’s largest bank — BNP Paribas — being forced to pay $9bn for violating US trade sanctions on Iran, Cuba and Sudan in 2009.

An awareness of this problem — its practical and political significance — is clearly integrated in the EU’s response to the US’ withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal. At an EU summit on 19 May both France’s Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, and EU council President Donald Tusk clearly expressed their understanding of the political meaning of the US withdrawal. Tusk phrased his concerns in an oblique fashion, stating that ‘ with friends like these, who needs enemies?’ whilst Le Maire spelled out the whole significance of the incident: ‘Do we want to be the vassals of the United States, who obediently doff the hat?’ As I have argued throughout the first part of this article, the EU represents a competitor to US imperialism. As such, it cannot simply ‘doff the hat’ to the US forever. The question is not if the EU will challenge the US, but when. At the opening session of the same EU summit, Tusk seemed to give an indication that the time is now. His remarks are worth quoting at length:

I have no doubt that in the new global game, Europe will either be one of the major players, or a pawn. This is the only real alternative. In order to be the subject and not the object of global politics, Europe must be united economically, politically and also militarily like never before. To put it simply: either we are together, or we will not be at all.

But, frankly speaking, Europe should be grateful by President Trump, because thanks to him we have got rid of old illusions. He has made us realise that if you need a helping hand, you will find one at the end of your arm.

Europe must do everything in its power to protect — in spite of today’s mood — the transatlantic bond. But at the same time we must be prepared for those scenarios where we have to act on our own.

And prepared they are! The practical solutions to the problems posed by the Iran deal and the dominance of the dollar for the European bourgeoisie have already been integrated into the EU’s strategy. On 18 May, the European Commission proposed that EU governments make transfers to the Iranian Central Bank in euros for oil purchases, thus avoiding any consequence from the US’ sanctions. Despite concerns, from Macron, the plan was passed by the Commission. On the same day, the EU also approved measures that forbid member states from complying with the extraterritorial effects of US sanctions and protect them from any consequences within the EU. On 10 May — ostensibly in response to the US’ withdrawal from the Iran deal — the German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Europe can no longer depend upon the US to guarantee its safety, calling even the stability of NATO into question. Europe’s imperialists are returning fire.

There remains a final, short, chapter in the confrontation between the US and the EU ahead of this year’s G7. It is, perhaps, the most severe. On 31 May, the US announced that it would impose tariffs on imports of steel and aluminium from Mexico, Canada and the EU, beginning on 1 June. As such, any steel exported to the US from these nations will be taxed at 25% of its value and any aluminium exported will be taxed at 10%. Within less than an hour, the European Commission published a response, stating that the tariffs were both ‘unacceptable’ and opposed to World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. The President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, openly stated that the EU would ‘defend the Union’s interests’ and respond to the US tariffs ‘within hours’. The next day, the EU filed two documents with the WTO. The first — an eight page document — details retaliatory tariffs on US products. The second details further tariffs to be implemented on US products, should the US continue in its campaign of economic aggression. Grasping the moment, the French President Emmanuel Macron stated that ‘Economic nationalism leads to war.

In the following week matters only worsened. Two appeals for the EU to be exempt from these tariffs by Britain fell on deaf ears. During a phone call with Macron, Trump reiterated his belief that trade between the EU and the US must be rebalanced (in the US’ favour). On 3 June, the US further exacerbated this crisis, with its ambassador to Germany — Richard Grenell — stating that he wants ‘to empower other conservatives throughout Europe, other leaders’ . This is a direct statement that the present German government is not congruent to US interests.

Although it is obvious that this is an antagonistic move, it may not be clear that it is an open declaration of intent. Let me clarify. The tariffs on the EU have been applied on the grounds that the bloc represents a threat to US national security. As such, the US has formally identified the EU as a threat. “Great power competition” has arrived.

The G7: shattering the map

This is the context of this year’s G7 summit: a consistent deepening of antagonisms between the US and the EU, crowned by an emergent trade war. Hopes were that Trump’s attitude toward trade with Europe and Canada could be changed — that he could be persuaded. Those hopes were dashed.

On 8 June — the day before the summit — a recorded conversation between the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, and Conservative Party activists was leaked to BuzzFeed News. Whilst the majority of its content deals with Brexit, those sections which cover international strategy in relation to the G7, Russia and China are of particular importance. In observing these remarks, however, it is important to be aware of the context in which Johnson is speaking in. As he is addressing Party activists, Johnson is necessarily confident and strident. This means that his comments do not necessarily reflect his real opinions. Equally, it is worth remembering that leaks are not always unintentional and it is possible that Johnson was speaking with an even broader public in mind.

That being said, Johnson has shed considerable light upon the viewpoint of the British imperialists. During the conversation he revealed that Prime Minister Theresa May planned to use the G7 summit to propose a new international “rapid response” unit to combat Russia, with a particular focus on cyberattacks and assassinations. This says something of how Britain views Trump’s tariffs and how he might be brought around to a position more beneficial to the EU and, at least temporarily, Britain. Russia is here supposed to be a point of unity between the imperialists. May’s planned use of the subject at the G7 indicates that she believed that it could be used as a talking point to smooth over the conflicts of prior weeks.

That this strategy wasn’t going to work can be observed in Johnson’s remarks on Russia itself, which go a considerable way toward defining Mattis’ meaning in the phrase “great power competition”. Johnson is very clear that Russia does not constitute a world power. Rather, it is a nation in decline, ripe for the plucking. In his own words:

Putin feels a deep sense of shame that he’s leader of a country that has been so greatly reduced in its global importance.

When I was a kid, Russia really mattered. It’s now got an economy about the size of Australia. Yeah, they’ve got a lot of nuclear weapons, but its real importance in the world is greatly [diminished]. Putin’s a revanchist. He wants to cause trouble. He wants to upset people like us.

This tells us two things, both of them incendiary. Firstly, this demonstrates clearly that the NATO campaign against Russia is a predatory one, intent on defending and extending the gains made by US, EU and British imperialism in Eastern Europe following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Secondly, it potentially reveals a lie behind the reasoning for the US’ strategy shift toward “great power competition”. If Russia is not a “great power” — as is suggested by Johnson’s remarks — then it cannot be the real objective of this new strategy. Given the analysis of how the US’ has used Russia to make gains against the EU in the previous section of this article, it is not difficult to see another meaning for Mattis’ inclusion of Russia in his “National Defense Strategy” in January. Whilst it is possible that the US has a different appraisal of Russian capitalism, to my mind it is unlikely that the British — zealots in the NATO campaign — would so severely underestimate their foe.

After divulging on Russia, Johnson took a swing east with some remarkably candid words on China. He views China as a large competitor, who’s weight can be used against it, stating that ‘China is a rival. China is a rival, but China is a rival whose growth and whose incredible developing power can be used to our advantage.’ This identifies China as a competitor — a “great power” — within the world economy, a point further emphasised by a prediction that Chinese technology companies are ‘about to win. They’ve got 5G. They’ve found out a way. Everybody’s going to be getting stuff on their gizmos through the Chinese system and not the American system.’ Whilst an analysis of China’s economic and political development is beyond the scope of this article, it is worth noting that the nation poses a threat to the US’ monopoly on technology. Equally, it worth noting that the EU is clearly aware of this — at least partly explaining the push it has begun to make against US companies with the GDPR rules. The British tactic toward China is implicitly that of capital investment and trade.

Johnson also provides us with some insights into the political style of US President Donald Trump which are worth considering. Turning the conversation toward Brexit, Johnson stated that he is becoming ‘ increasingly admiring of Donald Trump’ and that there is ‘method in his madness’. This is important — it is easy to underestimate Trump. Whilst Johnson recognises the importance of Trump’s political style in that it creates an authentic chaos, he fails to grasp the political objectives this chaos is mobilised to achieve.

Before concluding with an analysis of the G7 summit itself, I wish to offer a short analysis of Trump’s politics which, contrary to popular belief, do in fact exist. There is a consistent political thread that runs throughout Trump’s career, even prior to his candidacy. This is clearly communicated in a 1988 interview with Oprah Winfrey (see below). The essential position that runs throughout all of Trump’s politics is simple: ‘I’d make our allies pay their fair share… It’s not free trade… Why aren’t they paying us 25% of what they earn? It’s a joke.’ In the same interview Trump was asked if he would run for President. He responded by stating ‘if it got so bad, I would never want to rule it out totally’. Cometh the hour, cometh the man!

What Trump is expressing here is an awareness that competition operates upon an international scale and that the US’ imperialist “allies” are, in reality, its competitors. The notion that Trump will ‘make [the US’] allies pay’ is reiterated again and again throughout his career and, notably, even appears within his inauguration speech. This allows us to understand that Trump’s recent political moves over Nord Stream 2, the Iran deal and tariffs are not simply bluster. Although he conceives of it in the simple manner that an individual businessman perceives loans his company has given out during a period of decline, Trump’s primary objective is to ensure that the US maintains its dominance as the world’s most powerful imperialist nation. Consequently, Trump’s objective is — in a sense — Europe. In order to achieve this, he must create pandemonium, essentially destroying every alliance formed during the post war and globalisation periods. The earth must be made new.

It is with this context and this understanding in hand that we arrive at the 2018 G7. At the start of this article, I pointed to Trump’s request to have Russia rejoin the G7 upon his (late) arrival at the summit. In context, the meaning of this is quite a lot more than simply a dismissal of the 2014 Crimea crisis. Having built tensions with Russia to boiling point over the last three months, Trump has pulled the rug from underneath the imperialists. May and Britain’s notion that the campaign against Russia could serve as a point of unity for an imperialist bloc was shattered. By arguing that Russia should be present at the G7, Trump was informing the rest of the summit that he isn’t interested in negotiation on anything. Even those points which seemed to have been agreed upon melted into air. This explains the extremity of Macron’s reaction.

Matters only worsened throughout the summit. After Trump disrupted a meeting on women’s empowerment, the US and the other members of the G7 again clashed on trade. In a repetition of the dispute performed in the previous week, Trump used Friday’s session to set out his position on the US’ new tariffs. He stated that there were two options. On the one hand, the US tariffs can remain and Trump is willing to cut-off US trade with any nation he feels is treating the US unfairly — a point raised specifically in relation to the EU. On the other, the slate can be wiped clean. As Trump said: ‘No tariffs, no barriers. That’s the way it should be. And no subsidies. I even said, “no tariffs”’. This is a gambit. Trump is well aware that both of these options are completely unacceptable to the EU and Canada. The point was to be immovable whilst feigning reason.

This move was accompanied by what one French official described as simply a ‘rant’. After hearing the EU’s statements on the trade dispute — which emphasised the scale of the EU-US trading partnership and the number of jobs at stake — Trump proceeded to round on every member of the G7 individually. He quite literally went around the table listing every “grievance” he believes the US has against these nations. In a signal that the attitude of US imperialism has fundamentally changed, Trump placed the blame for these “grievances” at the feet of previous US administrations, not the other G7 leaders. Things will not be returning to normal.

The following day, Trump left the summit early — avoiding a session on climate change. This was an intentional snub to the summit’s host — Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — who had intended the talks on climate change to be the primary accomplishment of this years sessions. Significantly, the US President flew from the summit in Canada directly to his meeting with Kim Jong-Un in Singapore — signalling that he views the creation of new relations with the DPRK as more significant than maintaining his alliance with the G7 nations. To add more fuel to the fire, Trump again reiterated that he will not move on the US’ tariffs unless all tariffs, trade barriers and subsidies are dropped, alongside repeating his position that Russia should be allowed to attend future G7 summits.

Despite the clear signs that no agreement could have been reached at the G7, the summit’s response to Trump’s interventions was an attempt to paper over divisions. As such, Justin Trudeau announced that the G7 had agreed upon a Communiqué (that is, a joint statement detailing an agreed path forward) toward the close of Saturday’s session. This too was blown out of the water. First, Trump authored two tweets (see below) attacking Trudeau for reiterating that Canada plans to meet the US’ tariffs dollar for dollar. He then instructed US officials not to sign the Comminqué.

Thus was the G7: a tumultuous, theatrical meeting in which nothing was agreed. The summit stands to confirm the analysis offered throughout the rest of this article. Trump is not prepared to move on anything, from trade to Russia’s membership of the G7. He maintains that either the slate must be wiped clean or the US will continue to use its economic weight to attack its “allies”. In consequence, the US and the EU are heading ever closer toward direct confrontation. This is one meaning of Mattis’ term “great power competition”.

There are, of course, others. The US’ confrontations with Canada, China and (to an extent) Russia and Iran all threaten to spiral into global conflagration. Each clash represents but another road toward the capitalist barbarism seen during the first and second world wars. The political order of the post war and globalisation periods is falling apart and the world fading into nightmare. There is serious work to be done outlining the definition of this crisis, understanding the relationships of its major players and their objectives. This article is intended as a step in that direction.

If I may be so bold, there is still another road, quite distinct from that offered to us by the hand of the world’s rulers. That road is the socialist revolution. Imperialist crisis opens this possibility, if only we are organised and clear. The workers and oppressed of the world have no stake in this confrontation between imperialist powers; we have a world to win if we resist it. I truly believe this is possible. As Marx says, ‘[humanity] inevitably sets itself only such tasks as it is able to solve.’

Only one thing is truly certain, and it is simple. History is marching. It will not be kind to those who do not heed its tread.


James Bell is Marxist-Leninist writer, artist and critic. They host the Marxist art podcast AgitProp.

If you would like to contribute toward this work, you can do so here. For more frequent updates, make sure to follow James on Twitter.

James Bell

Written by

Marxist-Leninist writer, poet & critic.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade