01 January 2011

EU-US military relations and the question of transnational capitalist class

EU-US military relations and the question oftransnational capitalist class

by Iraklis Oikonomou

Published in (2011), Rethinking Marxism, 23: 1, pp. 135-144.

Capitalexists and can only exist as many capitals.

Marx, Grundrisse

Is there a transnational capitalist class?[i] What conclusions can be drawn from the case of transatlantic military relations over the validity of this notion, based on a critique of the transnationalist school as represented by the work of William Robinson (2004)? This short article responds to these questions by arguing that the notion of transnationalism is flawed and fails to grasp the complexities of transatlantic relations. Empirically, it points to attempts by the European Union (EU) to build a European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) and US efforts to shape its orientation, scope and objectives, in order to question Robinson’s conceptualization of US military power as primarily promoting the interests of transnational capital. Additionally, it highlights the prominence of nationally and EU-bounded considerations in the operations of the European military-industrial capital.

Use and abuse ofthe concept of transnational capital

One of the mostadvanced theories of transnational capital and its impact on inter-capitalistrelations is the one put forward by William Robinson (2004). Broadly speaking,he argues that the transition from a world economy to a global economy – i.e.from a territorially-based economy of national markets mediated bynation-states to a de-territorialized economy of global production thatintegrates national production systems – gives rise to a transnationalcapitalist class and a transnational state apparatus. The decisive shift from aworld to a global economy is brought forward by the transnationalization ofproduction, i.e. the dismantling of national production systems and theirintegration into a global production system. This process reaches itshigh-point in the expansion of transnational corporations and the placement oftransnational capital as the ‘dominant, or hegemonic, fraction of capital ona world scale’ (2004, 21; emphasis in original). At this point, it isnecessary to clarify the conceptual difference between “transnationalization”and “internationalization” of capital. The former term denotes the emergence ofa form of capital whose composition is devoid of any territorial or nationalsignification. On the contrary, internationalization denotes anincreasing level of cross-border cooperation between firms that retain theirdistinct corporate identities, or alternatively the merger between corporateentities of different national origins. Internationalization refers to acomposition of capital that is nationally differentiated, whiletransnationalization refers to a composition of capital that is nationallyabstract.

For Robinson, the formation of a transnational capitalist class supposedly leads to the respective formation of a transnational state apparatus. He defines the transnational state as ‘an emerging network that comprises transformed and externally integrated national states, together with the supranational economic and political forums’, which ‘has not yet acquired a centralized institutional form’ (2004, 100; emphasis in original). For him, the transnationalization of the state is interlinked to two simultaneous processes, the internal transformation of the national states and the emergence of supranational, politico-economic organizations.[ii]

The real novelty ofRobinson’s contribution lies in the analysis of the implications of thesetransformations for the status of the US as a hegemonic power and the functionof its military power. He suggests that ‘For evident historical reasons, theU.S. military apparatus is the ministry of war in the cabinet of anincreasingly globally integrated ruling class’ (2004, 140). According to him,it is the transnational capitalist class, rather than any fraction of UScapital that primarily benefits from the actions of the US state. The immensemilitary power of the US security and defense establishment supposedly aims atsecuring the interests of transnational capital, and not at safeguarding theglobal competitive position of a nationally-based American ruling class.Consequently, Robinson rejects any theoretical attempt to point out theelements of inter-imperialist rivalry, or the potential for it in moderncapitalism; the US state does not seek to contain other geo-political andgeo-economic rivals but to protect and expand the interests of thetransnational capitalist class.

Doug Stokes (2005)has elaborated a comprehensive critique of Robinson’s theory. This critique isbased on the acceptance of the term ‘empire’ as an analytical tool, but also onthe claim that this empire is distinctly American, rather thande-territorialized. According to Stokes, the American empire is characterizedby two complementing logics, a ‘national’ and a ‘transnational’ one. The firstlogic seeks to maximize the specific interests of US capitalist forces andstate authority, while the second logic results in a reproduction of a globalpolitico-economic order that satisfies the interests of other national statesand forces. Stokes (2005, 228) concludes that the ‘transnational’ logic is areflection of the highly internationalized status of the US-headquarteredcapital; the logic of transnationalism is not transnational at its heart.Although Stokes subscribes to key elements of Robinson’s argument, such as thecentrality of the transnationalization of capitalism and the rejection of thenotion of inter-imperialist rivalry, his critique is particularly significantbecause it: a) reiterates the connection between the actions of the US stateand the interests of a distinctly US capital; and b) emphasizes the centralityof US politico-military dominance vis-à-vis other potential capitalist rivals(2005, 229-230).

In fact, this papersuggests that the serious limitations of the ‘transnationalist’ school areprimarily reflected on the politico-military dimension of transatlanticrelations, as exemplified in the constant interference of the USpolitico-military establishment in the formation of ESDP, and EU attempts toform a distinct military-industrial identity. The US is not the Ministry of Warof a transnational capitalist class, as Robinson suggests. If it were, then oneof its primary missions would not be to actively prevent the emergence of any othersuch Ministry of War, in the way that it has been doing, ever since the firststeps taken by the EU towards the emergence of ESDP. Furthermore, if nationalmilitary-industrial divisions had disappeared, then the EU would not attempt tobuild its own set of institutions and measures in support of the European armsindustry. The following two sections deal with each argument separately.

A critique of transnationalism such as theone provided by this article might be useful not only for theoretical, but alsofor political purposes. By over-emphasizing the supposed formation of apowerful capitalist class, not bound to any state, transnationalism risksignoring the political implications of the continuation of inter-capitalistcontradictions. One key effect is the distraction of the European public fromthe theorisation of and opposition to what is particularly “European”in EU security and defence policy. If Europe is simply reproducing US policiesin an attempt to service transnational capital, then how can one question EUdecisions that seek to strengthen the EU militarily in an attempt to match UScapabilities? Instead, a more nuanced perspective provides a tool forovercoming the essentially utopian nature of contemporary ultra-imperialisttheory, and for questioning the essence of European integration, as an attemptto both reproduce and compete with the economic and politico-military power ofUS capital. In other words, an alternative historical materialist approach maymore easily mobilise the European peoples against the misleading and seeminglyprogressive call for an autonomous Europe as a counterweight to the US, andmake them instead focus on the solid connection between the current nature anddirection of European integration and the interests of Europeaninternationalised capital.

The struggle over the nature of ESDP

ESDP canbe defined as an expansionist project for the development of the necessaryinstitutional, military, economic and ideological means to facilitate theprojection of EU strategic interests and power to the external periphery ofEuropean capitalism. The prime aim of the project has been to arm the EU withits own, autonomous military capability. The consensus that emerged amongdifferent sections of US foreign policy thinking over ESDP was expressed byMadeleine Albright (1998), then US Secretary of State, who set the tone withher famous ‘3Ds’ article. There, she suggested that the EU should avoiddecoupling its decision-making from NATO, duplicating force planning, commandstructures and procurement mechanisms, and discriminating against non-EUmembers of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). George Robertson(1999), former NATO Secretary-General, added a transatlantic flair oflegitimacy to Albright’s position, with the articulation of his ‘3Is’:improvement in European capabilities, inclusiveness of all allies andindivisibility of trans-Atlantic security.

The issue ofduplication demonstrates in full the dual, Janus-like, face of the US views onESDP. On the one hand, members of the American defense establishment miss noopportunity to remind their EU partners of the need to develop credibleEuropean military forces. On the other, the same policy-makers consistentlywarn the EU of the dangers that the development of separate EU capabilities maygenerate for the Atlantic relationship. There is virtually no document producedby US formal and informal diplomacy over ESDP that does not resemble this –verypredictable- contradiction. Following this pattern, a specialist asserts that‘There is a danger that the European allies will concentrate on institutionsrather than actually building the military capabilities needed to help managecrises’, before turning to the second danger, that ‘In theory, there is apossibility that the European allies could develop separate capabilities thatenabled them to act without drawing on U.S. assets’ (Larabee 2000, 1-2).

US concerns overNATO’s command structures culminated over the establishment of an autonomous EUheadquarters. The question of an autonomous headquarters for EU defenseplanning and operations has been one of the most controversial in thedevelopment of ESDP, due to its implications for EU-NATO relations. In 2003,the governments of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg declared theirdetermination to establish a deployable force headquarters for jointoperations. The official reaction of the Bush administration was fiercelynegative, with the US Ambassador to NATO calling this initiative ‘the greatestthreat to the future of the alliance’ (quoted in Hamilton 2004, 153). This planalso failed to materialize due to the negative reaction of the British andother members of an Atlanticist political establishment within the EU. Instead,on December 2003 the European leaders agreed to establish an EU defenseplanning cell at NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe for the purposeof improving EU operations that involve recourse to NATO assets. In turn, NATOwas invited to establish its own liaison mechanism within the EU Military Staff(EUMS) (European Council 2003). Then, the Headline Goal 2010 identified theneed to establish a civil-military cell within EUMS, which became operationalin 2005 and finally provided the EU with an autonomous strategic planningcapability.

For the US, theprimacy of NATO over other EU-only arrangements remains a key objective andpreference. The 1991 Bartholomew memorandum provides a good overview of thekind of thinking that has prevailed among US policy-makers ever since the endof the Cold War and the resumption of European integration in the early 1990s.Among others and in a careful diplomatic language it stated that ‘In our view, effortsto construct a European pillar by redefining and limiting NATO’s role, byweakening its structure, or by creating a monolithic bloc of certain memberswould be misguided’ (quoted in Salmon and Shepherd 2003, 152). Since thatstatement, the US has vehemently rejected efforts to build a European army withintegrated military command structures, outside the NATO framework. Immediatelyafter the end of the Cold War, the Defense Planning Guidance for the FiscalYear 1994-1999 stated that ‘we must seek to prevent the emergence ofEuropean-only security arrangements which would undermine NATO’ (quoted inPetras and Morley 1995, 17). These objectives have been translated intopractice. As early as 1993, it was concluded that ‘the US has firmly…opposedthe establishment of a separate military entity outside NATO’s commandstructure’ (Ougaard 1993, 197). This pattern is a textbook example of thecontinuity of US policy towards the EU, which Robinson and his argumentationseem to ignore altogether.

True, the institutionalframework developed initially through the Western European Union and nowthrough the EU does not run against the global supremacy of the US (Carchediand Carchedi 1999, 135). However, the obvious inability of the EU to competewith the US militarily should not be taken as a proof of a supposed dissolutionof the distinction between the US and the EU/Member-States defense apparatusesunder the auspices of a globally integrated ruling class. The militarysupremacy of the US relative to the EU serves primarily the interests of the USstate and its driving socio-economic forces. Sometimes, EU member states andcapital headquartered in the EU may benefit from US military power, as was thecase with the NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999. This does not mean thatinter-capitalist rivalry is dead, or that the US military machine serves theinterests of a global ruling class. Rather, it highlights that: a) often, theinterests of the US and of the EU are common; and b) the EU has been unable tomatch US military power. In this respect, the formation of EU Battlegroups is akey development. Although they do not amount to the creation of a formalstanding EU army since forces are drawn from existing national forces,Battlegroups are significant both politically and militarily. GuglielmoCarchedi (2006, 329-330) pointed to four distinctive characteristics of theBattlegroups: they are on a state of permanent alert; their decision-makingstructures are autonomous from NATO; they stand equal to the NATO Reaction Forcesince they can contribute to it and vice-versa; and they do not requireparticipation by all EU member-states. Practically, this means that the EU iscapable of autonomous military operations that do not require the permission ofNATO. Contrary to the appeasing rhetoric of EU policy elites, the Battlegroupsare the de facto seeds of a Europeanarmy, although states retain control over the armed forces they contribute.

Military-industrial trends and the myth of transnationalism

The same pattern oftransatlantic competition is reflected in military-industrial developments inthe EU. Robinson (2004, 138-139) mentions that the arms industry is in theprocess of transnationalization on a global scale. However, contrary to the‘transnationalization’ hypothesis, European arms-industrial interests areclosely dependent upon the policies of their respective home states and,increasingly, of the EU. The competitiveness of the European arms industry hasbeen a permanent concern of EU policy-makers. As early as 1998 and the St. Malodeclaration, it became evident that the survival and expansion of the Europeanmilitary-industrial capital were going to be embedded in the process of EUdefense policy integration. In recent years, the EU has repeatedly sought toimprove military equipment harmonization, enhance the levels of arms industrycollaboration and restructuring, and contribute towards the strengthening of acommon defense technological and industrial base.  In practice, developments such as theestablishment of the European Defense Agency (EDA) and the initiation of theEuropean Security Research Program (ESRP) are signs of an increasinginvolvement of the EU in the competitive survival of the European arms sector.

The EDA wasofficially established on 12 July 2004 by the European Council. Its officiallystated mission is to ‘support the Council and the Member States in their effortto improve the EU’s defence capabilities in the field of crisis management andto sustain the ESDP as it stands now and develops in the future’ (EuropeanCouncil 2004). Thus, according to the official discourse the rationale of theEDA is purely strategic, namely the improvement of EU defense capabilities. Themain fields of the Agency’s work include the development of defense capabilities,the promotion of European armaments cooperation, the creation of aninternationally competitive European Defense Equipment Market, and theenhancement of the effectiveness of European Defense Research and Technology.Three out of the four principal areas of the EDA are of economic rather thanmilitary-strategic nature. In fact, the EDA is increasingly becoming thebulwark of the forces working towards the relative integration of the Europeandefense market and the maintenance of the competitive standing of the Europeanarms industry. Regarding the ESRP, the European Commission has now officiallylaunched an EU-wide program for advanced security research after a short periodof deliberations and institutional developments. A ‘Preparatory Action on theEnhancement of the European industrial potential in the field of securityresearch’ that was initiated in February 2004 was accompanied by theestablishment of a European Security Research Program after 2007. Securityresearch is now an integral part of the 7th Framework Program(European Commission 2005), enjoying broad support among all EU institutions.Its significance, especially for the big arms corporations that have separatebusiness sections for security programs and products, is very high, not onlybecause of the current budget but also because of the future dynamic that thisinitiative may generate.

The question of therelationship between state authority, the EU and the European arms industry islargely a question of the validity or not of the notion of military-industrialcomplex. Robinson uses the very same term ‘US military-industrial complex’ butseems to discard its importance and its peculiar implications for his theory.What concerns him is the utility of the US military-industrial complex for themaintenance of the security of the capitalist system as a whole; thus, the factthat the US military-industrial complex is primarily US escapes hisattention. Similarly, the possibility of having an EU military-industrialcomplex in the making is also ignored, although some concrete evidence hasappeared in the literature (Slijper 2005). Even if the dependence ofpolicy-makers on an EU military industrial complex is not as direct and of thesame magnitude as it is in the US, elements of an EU-wide attempt to supportthe European arms industry in its quest for competitive survival and expansiondo exist, as the nascent launch of the EDA and the ESRP demonstrate.

All arms manufacturers on both sides of theAtlantic maintain a clear national origin, i.e. a geographical area whereusually the bulk of production takes place, the company’s headquarters arelocated and the majority of its controlling owners and managers originate from.Capital as a social relation knows no motherland but is not a nationally abstractforce. It is characterized by territoriality, i.e. it exists within a givennational context, formed by the social relations of production and the linkagesof the capitalist class with the national state apparatus. Overall, under thebanner of transnationalization Robinson overlooks the largely nationally-basedinterests of the arms industry. The internationalization of the arms industry,i.e. the mergerbetween corporate actors of different national origins that leads to thecreation of a new, internationalized form of capital, is not synonymous witha disappearance of national protectionism and support. As with the territoriality of capital,internationalization originates from the sphere of production and is realizedthrough alterations in ownership structures. The use of the term‘transnationalization’ by Robinson conflates production as a material processwith capital as a social relation. The fact that different components of aproduct are produced in different countries does not signify the transnationalizationof capital. Callari (2008) has rightly suggested that a production that isglobal in scale can still generate outcomes that benefit a particular,nationally-defined ruling class, through the prevailing processes of surplusappropriation and distribution. In fact, the composition of capital ultimatelydetermines whether transnationalization occurs. This composition may involvemore than one national affiliation, but is never purely transnational. NicosPoulantzas’ observation remains today as valid as it was in 1978:‘internationalization is brought about under the decisive domination of capitaloriginating from one single country’ (1978, 60). Even the most highlyinternationalized industrial units, such as the European Aeronautic, Defence andSpace Company (EADS), maintain a clearly delineated, multinational – but nottransnational – composition of capital. Excluding EADS, three out of the fourbiggest arms companies in Europe still retain a clear national capitalownership; ‘BAE is primarily British, Thales primarily French, and Finmeccanicaprimarily Italian’ (Vlachos-Dengler 2004).

Several authors have used the term “globalization” to denote the increasing significance of global arms-industrial competition and/or the expansion of cross-border collaboration.[iii] This is misleading, given that competition occurs between companies that are not global in their capital ownership and are not distributed evenly around the world. In addition, hierarchical relations of power between and within regional economic blocs retain their significance and are not eliminated. What Robinson understands as globalization is for most of its part regionalization. These blocs are characterized by hierarchically differentiated power structures and uneven development, as exemplified by the case of the EU (Meiksins Wood 2002, 26). For Kees van der Pijl (2006, 31), “the notion of a universal homogenization suggested by the term ‘globalization’ is wildly premature”. In other words, the connection between national/supranational state authority and military-industrial capital has not disappeared. If it had, big arms-producing states would not employ ‘defense’ attachés in order to promote the exports of their respective firms. The struggle to achieve market intrusion by rival Atlantic capitals also refutes transnationalism. Participation in the vast US market is vital for EU producers, exemplified by the acquisitions of BAE Systems and EADS in the US. In this respect, the description of internationalization as ‘transatlantic integration’ overlooks transatlantic competition, mirrored for example in the Atlantic rift over Boeing and Airbus in the World Trade Organization.[iv]


To sum up, the transnationalist argument is of questionable validity, especially concerning its implications for the understanding of US-EU security and defense relations and the role of US military force globally. The fact that the EU and the US have at times common interests does not mean that they also form a single conceptual and material entity. In fact, informal expansion often involves an acceleration of the rivalry trends, as Petras and Morley (2000) have demonstrated. Moreover, the relative de-territorialization of capitalist production does not automatically imply the emergence of a transnational empire. As Tsoukalas (2004, 179) asserts, ‘even if accumulation tactics are de-localized, power strategies are still organized on the basis of definable inter-imperialist antagonisms’. Rather than reflecting on the existence of a supposedly transnational capitalist class, it might be necessary for historical materialism to emphasize the re-emergence of a complex pattern of inter-imperialist rivalry unfolding under the dominance of the American capital and its geo-political guardian, the US security and defense apparatus – a dominance increasingly challenged by EU politico-military-industrial initiatives.

References and notes only available in print version.