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Is John Pilger’s negative view of US leadership justified?

By Chris Lewis - posted Tuesday, 25 August 2009

In a recent opinion piece “Exceptionalism: America’s right to rule and order the world” (On Line Opinion, August 10, 2009), John Pilger criticises the United States’ leadership. For Pilger, US claims to be the Land of Liberty are contradicted by slavery, the “theft of Texas from Mexico”, and “the bloody subjugation of central America, Cuba and the Philippines”. Pilger notes that since 1945 the US “has overthrown 50 governments, including democracies, crushed some 30 liberation movements and supported tyrannies from Egypt to Guatemala”.

But Pilger’s belief that the US was determined to carve-up world markets through its domination of various international institutions (such as the IMF and World Bank) does not recognise US efforts to encourage a fairer economic environment.

Of course, the US has promoted its national interest. As stated by the US Secretary of State John Foster Dulles in Foreign Affairs (October 1945), “the strong must help the weak … but such help … should be left to the initiative of the strong powers”.


And no nation was prepared to provide a blank cheque to various international institutions implemented after World War II. Though the World Bank was initially capitalised with $US7.6 billion and the IMF with $US7.3 billion, Congress was reluctant to give more resources. The US as the major contributor was determined to exercise decisive control over how the money would be spent. With voting power determined by the size of contributions and the World Bank relying on money from private financial institutions, this inevitably meant that developing countries were charged commercial rates of interest.

Further, while the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) promoted the reduction of trade barriers in relation to industrial goods, agricultural liberalisation has hardly been accepted by the US, EU or Japan. The recent failure of the Doha round of WTO negotiations again illustrated the self-interest of the powerful developed nations with the World Bank estimating that about two thirds of the benefits (worth several hundred billion dollars) would have gone to developing countries.

But the IMF, World Bank and other institutions have provided financial assistance and medium-term lending to countries experiencing balance of payments or development difficulties, while the GATT encouraged economic and trade opportunities.

US leadership since 1945 has helped to boost the economic fortunes of many nations. Notwithstanding the current economic mess caused by unsustainable levels of debt, many developing nations have been aided by world merchandise exports increasing from 8 to 19 per cent of world GDP from 1950 to 2002.

Of course, huge differences remain between nations in terms of quality of life and resources, but the gap in life expectancy between developed and developing countries has narrowed from about 30 years in 1950, to about 10 years. Whereas world life expectancy was about 30 years in 1900, it was 62 by 1985 (64 in 2005).

And what sort of self-interested hegemon (the US) encourages a world order which allows past ideological enemies to improve their economic might. It was the US which gave Most Favoured Nation status to both Japan and China. Though Japan’s case was aided by Cold War realities, the US supported Japan’s membership of the GATT from 1955, whereas the UK, France, Australia and others invoked Article 35 to make the GATT’s non-discrimination component inapplicable to Japan until the mid-1960s. The US also promoted Most Favored Nation status for China from 1979 which paved the way for the latter’s accession to the WTO in December 2000.


In 2008, Japan and China represented 17.8 per cent of GDP in purchasing power parity terms (6.3 and 11.5 percent respectively) after improving from 7.5 per cent in 1950 (3 and 4.5 per cent respectively.). In contrast, the US share has declined from 27.3 to 20.6 per cent between 1950 and 2008.

US efforts to encourage a fairer world is lost on Pilger who prefers to stake his intellectual claim by highlighting what has gone wrong under Western leadership. As evident in Pilger’s article, disdain is also expressed towards the efforts of Britain and France to promote civilisation.

For Pilger, US policy outcomes are merely a battle between good (ordinary people) and the bad (government leaders). Pilger suggests that credible polls indicate that a majority of Americans want higher taxes to guarantee health care for everyone, complete nuclear disarmament, and the end of colonial wars. In contrast, Obama is just another US politician who has sent drones to kill some 700 civilians since January 2009, maintains America’s support of armaments and war (which consumes 42 cents in every tax dollar today), and supports protection with its agricultural sector receiving $157 billion a year in government subsidies.

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About the Author

Chris Lewis, who completed a First Class Honours degree and PhD (Commonwealth scholarship) at Monash University, has an interest in all economic, social and environmental issues, but believes that the struggle for the ‘right’ policy mix remains an elusive goal in such a complex and competitive world.

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