what do socialists say?

What makes an imperialist war?

By Paul McGarr

"HOW can NATO's war in the Balkans be an imperialist war? After all, there isn't any oil in the area, like there was in the Gulf." This is a question many people ask at the moment. To answer it we have to understand what "imperialism" is.

For a century and more the major powers have carved the world up into rival empires and "spheres of influence". As they have done so they have reduced whole swathes of the globe to poverty and repeatedly plunged us into war. This global system is what socialists mean when talking of "imperialism". Capitalists look to "their" state, and its political and military might, to further their interests, and defend and extend those interests against rivals.

The Great Powers have chased over the world securing raw materials, markets for their goods and trade routes. They have also sought to establish political conditions and regimes best suited to their interests. This economic and political competition of the great powers is the combustible material which provides the fuel for war.

Sometimes the motives of the Great Powers in intervening around the world, or in launching wars, is obviously connected to economic interests. So it did not take a genius to work out the connection between the US led Gulf War in 1990 and the Middle East's vast oil reserves. As a top US government official said at the time, "If Kuwait grew carrots we wouldn't give a damn."

But to see imperialism as simply a direct reflection of obvious economic interests is too crude. Each of the main powers has its economic interests, or those of the firms which look to it, bound up with a vision about how to maintain or extend its "sphere of influence" against rivals. Britain's drive to carve up and control the Middle East originally had nothing to do with oil. Rather, Britain's rulers had their eyes on trade routes to their possessions further east, in India and the Far East.

The greatest imperialist power of the late 20th century is the US. In many areas it has intervened directly to further the economic interests of US big business. One example among many came in 1954 when the US militarily overthrew the government of Guatemala in direct response to requests from the giant United Fruit company.

But the US also acts with a wider strategic vision when intervening or using its military might. It is difficult, for instance, to argue there was any direct economic motive for the Korean War. It was a clash, partly fought by proxy, between the world's two major powers at the time-the US and Russia. Each was trying to ensure its strategic interests in the Far East, and check the influence of the other. There were economic interests at stake-but at one remove.

In the Balkans today the same mix of economic, political and long term strategic interests of the major powers are at stake. A glance at a map shows the clear relation between the Balkans and the region around the Caspian Sea with its huge oil reserves. Pipelines from the Caspian will pass through the Balkans, and the US wants the "right" kind of regimes in the region. But more than that is at stake for US rulers. With the break up of the USSR, the US sees a chance to extend its dominance into areas previously denied to it. It also wants to show that through NATO that it alone can be the world's policeman, imposing its will on "rogue states" through overwhelming military might. That is why it has been insisting that NATO troops must make up any "intervention force" in Kosovo, and that NATO must win the war.

The US also sees the role of NATO in the Balkans as sending a message to the major European powers. Those European powers have their own economic and political interests in the Balkans-some of them in common with the US. But they are also rivals of the US, and are involved in an increasingly sharp series of economic clashes with it. This tension has recently expressed itself in clashes such as the "Banana Wars" and wrangles over GM foods between Europe and the US.

The US hopes to show that only with its leadership and military might can stability in the common interests of the US and the European powers be imposed on the Balkans. And that can be a useful assertion of domination, with potential knock on effects, in the economic rivalry between the European powers and the US. Socialists need to understand imperialism and how it operates in order to cut through all the bogus justifications for war. And that understanding can help sharpen our ability to build a fight to oppose imperialism and the barbarity it brings.