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

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

by Iraklis Oikonomou

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

Capital exists 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 of the concept of transnational capital

One of the most advanced theories of transnational capital and its impact on inter-capitalist relations 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 by nation-states to a de-territorialized economy of global production that integrates national production systems – gives rise to a transnational capitalist class and a transnational state apparatus. The decisive shift from a world to a global economy is brought forward by the transnationalization of production, i.e. the dismantling of national production systems and their integration into a global production system. This process reaches its high-point in the expansion of transnational corporations and the placement of transnational capital as the ‘dominant, or hegemonic, fraction of capital on a world scale’ (2004, 21; emphasis in original). At this point, it is necessary to clarify the conceptual difference between “transnationalization” and “internationalization” of capital. The former term denotes the emergence of a form of capital whose composition is devoid of any territorial or national signification. On the contrary, internationalization denotes an increasing level of cross-border cooperation between firms that retain their distinct corporate identities, or alternatively the merger between corporate entities of different national origins. Internationalization refers to a composition of capital that is nationally differentiated, while transnationalization refers to a composition of capital that is nationally abstract.

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 of Robinson’s contribution lies in the analysis of the implications of these transformations for the status of the US as a hegemonic power and the function of its military power. He suggests that ‘For evident historical reasons, the U.S. military apparatus is the ministry of war in the cabinet of an increasingly globally integrated ruling class’ (2004, 140). According to him, it is the transnational capitalist class, rather than any fraction of US capital that primarily benefits from the actions of the US state. The immense military power of the US security and defense establishment supposedly aims at securing the interests of transnational capital, and not at safeguarding the global competitive position of a nationally-based American ruling class. Consequently, Robinson rejects any theoretical attempt to point out the elements of inter-imperialist rivalry, or the potential for it in modern capitalism; the US state does not seek to contain other geo-political and geo-economic rivals but to protect and expand the interests of the transnational capitalist class.

Doug Stokes (2005) has elaborated a comprehensive critique of Robinson’s theory. This critique is based on the acceptance of the term ‘empire’ as an analytical tool, but also on the claim that this empire is distinctly American, rather than de-territorialized. According to Stokes, the American empire is characterized by two complementing logics, a ‘national’ and a ‘transnational’ one. The first logic seeks to maximize the specific interests of US capitalist forces and state authority, while the second logic results in a reproduction of a global politico-economic order that satisfies the interests of other national states and forces. Stokes (2005, 228) concludes that the ‘transnational’ logic is a reflection of the highly internationalized status of the US-headquartered capital; the logic of transnationalism is not transnational at its heart. Although Stokes subscribes to key elements of Robinson’s argument, such as the centrality of the transnationalization of capitalism and the rejection of the notion of inter-imperialist rivalry, his critique is particularly significant because it: a) reiterates the connection between the actions of the US state and the interests of a distinctly US capital; and b) emphasizes the centrality of US politico-military dominance vis-à-vis other potential capitalist rivals (2005, 229-230).

In fact, this paper suggests that the serious limitations of the ‘transnationalist’ school are primarily reflected on the politico-military dimension of transatlantic relations, as exemplified in the constant interference of the US politico-military establishment in the formation of ESDP, and EU attempts to form a distinct military-industrial identity. The US is not the Ministry of War of a transnational capitalist class, as Robinson suggests. If it were, then one of its primary missions would not be to actively prevent the emergence of any other such Ministry of War, in the way that it has been doing, ever since the first steps taken by the EU towards the emergence of ESDP. Furthermore, if national military-industrial divisions had disappeared, then the EU would not attempt to build its own set of institutions and measures in support of the European arms industry. The following two sections deal with each argument separately.

A critique of transnationalism such as the one provided by this article might be useful not only for theoretical, but also for political purposes. By over-emphasizing the supposed formation of a powerful capitalist class, not bound to any state, transnationalism risks ignoring the political implications of the continuation of inter-capitalist contradictions. One key effect is the distraction of the European public from the theorisation of and opposition to what is particularly “European” in EU security and defence policy. If Europe is simply reproducing US policies in an attempt to service transnational capital, then how can one question EU decisions that seek to strengthen the EU militarily in an attempt to match US capabilities? Instead, a more nuanced perspective provides a tool for overcoming the essentially utopian nature of contemporary ultra-imperialist theory, and for questioning the essence of European integration, as an attempt to both reproduce and compete with the economic and politico-military power of US capital. In other words, an alternative historical materialist approach may more easily mobilise the European peoples against the misleading and seemingly progressive call for an autonomous Europe as a counterweight to the US, and make them instead focus on the solid connection between the current nature and direction of European integration and the interests of European internationalised capital.

The struggle over the nature of ESDP

ESDP can be defined as an expansionist project for the development of the necessary institutional, military, economic and ideological means to facilitate the projection of EU strategic interests and power to the external periphery of European capitalism. The prime aim of the project has been to arm the EU with its own, autonomous military capability. The consensus that emerged among different sections of US foreign policy thinking over ESDP was expressed by Madeleine Albright (1998), then US Secretary of State, who set the tone with her famous ‘3Ds’ article. There, she suggested that the EU should avoid decoupling its decision-making from NATO, duplicating force planning, command structures and procurement mechanisms, and discriminating against non-EU members of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). George Robertson (1999), former NATO Secretary-General, added a transatlantic flair of legitimacy to Albright’s position, with the articulation of his ‘3Is’: improvement in European capabilities, inclusiveness of all allies and indivisibility of trans-Atlantic security.

The issue of duplication demonstrates in full the dual, Janus-like, face of the US views on ESDP. On the one hand, members of the American defense establishment miss no opportunity to remind their EU partners of the need to develop credible European military forces. On the other, the same policy-makers consistently warn the EU of the dangers that the development of separate EU capabilities may generate for the Atlantic relationship. There is virtually no document produced by US formal and informal diplomacy over ESDP that does not resemble this –very predictable- contradiction. Following this pattern, a specialist asserts that ‘There is a danger that the European allies will concentrate on institutions rather than actually building the military capabilities needed to help manage crises’, before turning to the second danger, that ‘In theory, there is a possibility that the European allies could develop separate capabilities that enabled them to act without drawing on U.S. assets’ (Larabee 2000, 1-2).

US concerns over NATO’s command structures culminated over the establishment of an autonomous EU headquarters. The question of an autonomous headquarters for EU defense planning and operations has been one of the most controversial in the development of ESDP, due to its implications for EU-NATO relations. In 2003, the governments of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxemburg declared their determination to establish a deployable force headquarters for joint operations. The official reaction of the Bush administration was fiercely negative, with the US Ambassador to NATO calling this initiative ‘the greatest threat to the future of the alliance’ (quoted in Hamilton 2004, 153). This plan also failed to materialize due to the negative reaction of the British and other members of an Atlanticist political establishment within the EU. Instead, on December 2003 the European leaders agreed to establish an EU defense planning cell at NATO Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe for the purpose of improving EU operations that involve recourse to NATO assets. In turn, NATO was invited to establish its own liaison mechanism within the EU Military Staff (EUMS) (European Council 2003). Then, the Headline Goal 2010 identified the need to establish a civil-military cell within EUMS, which became operational in 2005 and finally provided the EU with an autonomous strategic planning capability.

For the US, the primacy of NATO over other EU-only arrangements remains a key objective and preference. The 1991 Bartholomew memorandum provides a good overview of the kind of thinking that has prevailed among US policy-makers ever since the end of 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, efforts to construct a European pillar by redefining and limiting NATO’s role, by weakening its structure, or by creating a monolithic bloc of certain members would be misguided’ (quoted in Salmon and Shepherd 2003, 152). Since that statement, the US has vehemently rejected efforts to build a European army with integrated military command structures, outside the NATO framework. Immediately after the end of the Cold War, the Defense Planning Guidance for the Fiscal Year 1994-1999 stated that ‘we must seek to prevent the emergence of European-only security arrangements which would undermine NATO’ (quoted in Petras and Morley 1995, 17). These objectives have been translated into practice. As early as 1993, it was concluded that ‘the US has firmly…opposed the establishment of a separate military entity outside NATO’s command structure’ (Ougaard 1993, 197). This pattern is a textbook example of the continuity of US policy towards the EU, which Robinson and his argumentation seem to ignore altogether.

True, the institutional framework developed initially through the Western European Union and now through the EU does not run against the global supremacy of the US (Carchedi and Carchedi 1999, 135). However, the obvious inability of the EU to compete with the US militarily should not be taken as a proof of a supposed dissolution of the distinction between the US and the EU/Member-States defense apparatuses under the auspices of a globally integrated ruling class. The military supremacy of the US relative to the EU serves primarily the interests of the US state and its driving socio-economic forces. Sometimes, EU member states and capital headquartered in the EU may benefit from US military power, as was the case with the NATO war against Yugoslavia in 1999. This does not mean that inter-capitalist rivalry is dead, or that the US military machine serves the interests of a global ruling class. Rather, it highlights that: a) often, the interests of the US and of the EU are common; and b) the EU has been unable to match US military power. In this respect, the formation of EU Battlegroups is a key development. Although they do not amount to the creation of a formal standing EU army since forces are drawn from existing national forces, Battlegroups are significant both politically and militarily. Guglielmo Carchedi (2006, 329-330) pointed to four distinctive characteristics of the Battlegroups: they are on a state of permanent alert; their decision-making structures are autonomous from NATO; they stand equal to the NATO Reaction Force since they can contribute to it and vice-versa; and they do not require participation by all EU member-states. Practically, this means that the EU is capable of autonomous military operations that do not require the permission of NATO. Contrary to the appeasing rhetoric of EU policy elites, the Battlegroups are the de facto seeds of a European army, although states retain control over the armed forces they contribute.

Military-industrial trends and the myth of transnationalism

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

The EDA was officially established on 12 July 2004 by the European Council. Its officially stated mission is to ‘support the Council and the Member States in their effort to improve the EU’s defence capabilities in the field of crisis management and to sustain the ESDP as it stands now and develops in the future’ (European Council 2004). Thus, according to the official discourse the rationale of the EDA is purely strategic, namely the improvement of EU defense capabilities. The main fields of the Agency’s work include the development of defense capabilities, the promotion of European armaments cooperation, the creation of an internationally competitive European Defense Equipment Market, and the enhancement of the effectiveness of European Defense Research and Technology. Three out of the four principal areas of the EDA are of economic rather than military-strategic nature. In fact, the EDA is increasingly becoming the bulwark of the forces working towards the relative integration of the European defense market and the maintenance of the competitive standing of the European arms industry. Regarding the ESRP, the European Commission has now officially launched an EU-wide program for advanced security research after a short period of deliberations and institutional developments. A ‘Preparatory Action on the Enhancement of the European industrial potential in the field of security research’ that was initiated in February 2004 was accompanied by the establishment of a European Security Research Program after 2007. Security research 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 separate business sections for security programs and products, is very high, not only because of the current budget but also because of the future dynamic that this initiative may generate.

The question of the relationship between state authority, the EU and the European arms industry is largely a question of the validity or not of the notion of military-industrial complex. Robinson uses the very same term ‘US military-industrial complex’ but seems to discard its importance and its peculiar implications for his theory. What concerns him is the utility of the US military-industrial complex for the maintenance of the security of the capitalist system as a whole; thus, the fact that the US military-industrial complex is primarily US escapes his attention. Similarly, the possibility of having an EU military-industrial complex in the making is also ignored, although some concrete evidence has appeared in the literature (Slijper 2005). Even if the dependence of policy-makers on an EU military industrial complex is not as direct and of the same magnitude as it is in the US, elements of an EU-wide attempt to support the European arms industry in its quest for competitive survival and expansion do exist, as the nascent launch of the EDA and the ESRP demonstrate.

All arms manufacturers on both sides of the Atlantic maintain a clear national origin, i.e. a geographical area where usually the bulk of production takes place, the company’s headquarters are located and the majority of its controlling owners and managers originate from. Capital as a social relation knows no motherland but is not a nationally abstract force. It is characterized by territoriality, i.e. it exists within a given national context, formed by the social relations of production and the linkages of the capitalist class with the national state apparatus. Overall, under the banner of transnationalization Robinson overlooks the largely nationally-based interests of the arms industry. The internationalization of the arms industry, i.e. the merger between corporate actors of different national origins that leads to the creation of a new, internationalized form of capital, is not synonymous with a disappearance of national protectionism and support. As with the territoriality of capital, internationalization originates from the sphere of production and is realized through alterations in ownership structures. The use of the term ‘transnationalization’ by Robinson conflates production as a material process with capital as a social relation. The fact that different components of a product are produced in different countries does not signify the transnationalization of capital. Callari (2008) has rightly suggested that a production that is global in scale can still generate outcomes that benefit a particular, nationally-defined ruling class, through the prevailing processes of surplus appropriation and distribution. In fact, the composition of capital ultimately determines whether transnationalization occurs. This composition may involve more than one national affiliation, but is never purely transnational. Nicos Poulantzas’ observation remains today as valid as it was in 1978: ‘internationalization is brought about under the decisive domination of capital originating from one single country’ (1978, 60). Even the most highly internationalized industrial units, such as the European Aeronautic, Defence and Space Company (EADS), maintain a clearly delineated, multinational – but not transnational – composition of capital. Excluding EADS, three out of the four biggest arms companies in Europe still retain a clear national capital ownership; ‘BAE is primarily British, Thales primarily French, and Finmeccanica primarily 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.

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