Immanuel Wallerstein
BIOGRAPHY | BIOGRAPHY FR | No way back | The U.S. Has Lost the Iraq War (august 15, 2024)|


Born 1930, Immanuel Wallerstein has since 1976 been Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the State University of New York (SUNY) in Binghamton. He is the founder and director of the Fernand Braudel Center for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems, and Civilizations in Binghamton. He also is the former President of the International Sociological Association.

He has published countless books and articles in three domains of world-systems analysis : the historical development of the modern world-system, the contemporary crisis of the capitalist world-economy and the structures of knowledge. His so called "World-Systems Theory" is a poltico-economic and comparative macro-theory of social development, in particular capitalism.

His main writings include The Modern World-System, Utopistics, or Historical Choices for the Twenty-first Century, Unthinking Social Science: The Limits of Nineteenth-Century Paradigms.

He describes his own intellectual position as a long quest for an adequate explanation of contemporary reality,  both political and intellectual, as for him it can not be one without being the same time the other :

I have argued that world-systems analysis is not a theory but a protest against neglected issues and deceptive epistemologies. It is a call for intellectual change, indeed for "unthinking" the premises of nineteenth-century social science, as I say in the title of one of my books. It is an intellectual task that is and has to be a political task as well, because - I insist - the search for the true and the search for the good is but a single quest. If we are to move forward to a world that is substantively rational, in Max Weber's usage of this term, we cannot neglect either the intellectual or the political challenge.”

("The Development of an Intellectual Position", by Immanuel Wallerstein, Introductory essay to "The Essential Wallerstein", New Press, 2024)

Immanuel Wallerstein a été président de l'Association internationale de sociologie (AIS) en 1995, directeur d'études associé à l'École des Hautes études en sciences sociales de Paris, professeur invité de sociologie à l'Université du Québec à Montréal.

Senior Research Scholar à l’Université Yale, dirige le Centre Femand-Braudel pour l’étude des économies, des systèmes historiques et des civilisations à l’université de Binghamton (New York). Il est également chercheur rattaché à la Maison des Sciences de l’Homme à Paris, et il a présidé l’Association internationale de sociologie. Il est l’auteur d’Après le libéralisme. Essai sur un système-monde à réinventer (Ed. de l’Aube, coll. Monde en cours, 1999), L’Utopistique. Ou les choix politiques du XXIe siècle (Ed. de l’Aube, coll. Monde en cours, 2024), et Decline of American Power. Immanuel Wallerstein prolonge les travaux de Fernand Braudel sur « l’économie-monde », analysant la constitution du capitalisme dans la longue durée. Le dialogue entre les deux auteurs se manifeste aussi dans le parallélisme de leur production. A la somme de Braudel Civilisation matérielle, économie et capitalisme (A. Colin, Paris, tome 1, 1967, tomes 2 et 3, 1979), fait écho l’ouvrage en deux tomes de I. Wallerstein Le système du monde du XVe siècle à nos jours (tome 1 Capitalisme et économie monde 1450-1640 Flammarion, 1980, tome 2 Le mercantilisme et la consolidation de l’économie-monde européenne Flammarion, 1985). Le petit ouvrage Capitalisme historique (la Découverte, 1985 pour l’édition française, la première édition datant de 1983) peut constituer une première approche de l’œuvre de I. Wallerstein.

No way back

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  • Fredrick Bowie talks to Immanuel Wallerstein, the distinguished historian who believes the invasion of Iraq marks the end of an era in US foreign policy

    Immanuel Wallerstein is director of the Fernand Braudel Centre for the Study of Economies, Historical Systems and Civilizations at Binghamton University, and Senior Research Scholar at Yale University. Most recently, he is the author of The Decline of American Power (2003) and Alternatives (forthcoming).

    You are not able to attend the BRussells Tribunal hearings, but you agreed to submit written testimony. Can you summarise briefly the main points you wanted to make?

    My main argument is that neo-conservative foreign policy represents a break with a long-standing tradition in US foreign policy. When I say this, I'm basing myself exclusively on what is a matter of public record: I have no inside information. But the neo-cons as a group have made their position very clear in a series of public documents going right back to the early 1990s.

    They have been openly promulgating the necessity of not being restrained by the United Nations, the necessity of using unilateral force "if necessary" -- meaning, if other people don't agree to go along with them! -- and the necessity of overthrowing Saddam Hussein. They have been saying all of this for more than 10 years, without any reference to Al-Qa'eda or to terrorism in general. And all the documents they have published place enormous emphasis on the importance of using military force in order to reassert US credibility as a political and military force in the world. In the view of the neo-cons, the last 30 years of American foreign policy have been a failure, precisely because the US has made insufficient use of unilateral force.

    For them, that is the reason why US power has been in decline. So they blamed that decline on US policy-makers, and made it quite clear what they would do about it. They came into office with the intention of executing this programme. 9/11 was a pure excuse. It was convenient, and it helped them considerably with US public opinion. But from their point of view, it was purely an excuse to engage in a series of actions which are illegal under international law.

    Is there any evidence to support either their analysis or their diagnosis?

    My own thesis is that the US has been a slowly declining force for 30 years. So I find the evidence that the neo-cons assert for that perfectly reasonable. The question is: why is the US slowly declining? One can either give a long-term structural explanation, as I do, or one can blame it all on poor leadership, which is basically what they do. So therefore they can argue that this decline can be reversed, and the way to reverse it is the use of intimidating unilateral military force.

    How would you define the previous tradition of US foreign policy?

    In a recent article in The Nation, I called the previous foreign policy a "soft multilateralism". It was soft, in that nobody really meant to rule out the use of unilateral force; but they saw it as a last resort. For the neo-cons, on the other hand, it's not a last resort, but the first resort! They were very upset with the fact that they went to the UN at all. That was just a concession they had to make to certain elements of the old regime, such as Bush's father.

    The old "soft multilateralism" gave the US a certain tenuous hold over Western Europe, and indeed over the rest of the world. Under that policy, the rest of the world didn't want to pull too far away from the US. Now that hold has been broken, and I don't think it will be possible to go back to the old diplomatic approach of sweet-talking their allies, and intimidating other people quietly or not so quietly. Of course, there are now a lot of people, both within the administration and in the Democratic Party, who wish they could go back, and who are talking about going back to the old ways. But I don't think it will work.

    The day the US army marched into Baghdad, the neo-cons were on top of the world. They were ready to march into Syria and Iran the day after, and anywhere else that they felt like. I don't think anyone in the Bush administration is ready to do that now. Certainly the commanders of the US armed forces are not ready to do that. Some of us had predicted this debacle. But in any case, the issue for the BRussells Tribunal is not whether we were right and they were wrong, but whether the invasion was a legitimate thing to do. And in terms of international law, it was clearly a totally illegitimate action.

    You have written that we are moving into a more chaotic and more violent world, but also one in which there may be more opportunities for people to change the course of history.

    I stand by that from a longer-term point of view. We're in a period of transition, which is chaotic. Since everything's up for grabs, that opens up many opportunities for political action that can actually have some consequences.

    Is the Iraqi resistance one of those consequential reactions?

    No. I think that the Iraqi resistance at the moment is basically a nationalist rejection of invasion. There was an ordinary Iraqi quoted in The New York Times this morning saying, "We thank the US for getting rid of Saddam, but that's all, and now they should get out." I think that's a very widespread sentiment in Iraq. Anything the US does now to try and stay there will be counterproductive. I believe we've missed our opportunity to win over support in Iraq, and it won't come back. If I was president of the US I would be figuring out how to get out the most rapidly possible, with the least damage. But that's not easy at this point.

    For an outside power, the only useful and honourable thing to do at this point is just withdraw?

    We made a mess of the situation. I don't know that things will be in any sense internally peaceful in Iraq if we withdraw, but I don't see any usefulness for external powers in this situation. And if there is any usefulness, it should be an Iraqi government calling on the UN, not the US, to help them in some limited way, and for a limited time.

    The problem for the US is that it has got to learn to live in a world which it doesn't control any more. That's the geopolitical reality: we are moving very rapidly into a multi-polar world. This is an uncomfortable situation for a powerful country like the US, but we have to learn to live with it. If we try and fight it, we'll lose.

    Do you think the neo-cons are conscious that the world has changed in that way? Was that part of their motivation in going for Iraq, beyond oil?

    I never thought that oil was an important issue. The US is doing pretty well for oil without going into Iraq: it controls a large part of the world's supply, and it pretty much controls the price of it too. If it was just for oil, it wasn't worth it.

    There were three reasons for going into Iraq. The first was to intimidate Western Europe; and that has surely failed. The second was to intimidate the so-called "rogue states": Iran, North Korea, and anybody else who was dreaming of nuclear proliferation. And that has failed too. As a result of the invasion of Iraq, nuclear proliferation is moving ahead faster than ever. Now the US is even having to talk to the Brazilians about not restarting their nuclear programme!

    As I've said before, nuclear proliferation is inevitable. It's not necessarily bad, but it is inevitable: trying to stop it is like trying to turn back the ocean. And instead, the US has speeded it up, not slowed it down.

    The third objective was to obtain long-term US military bases in Iraq, and I doubt that that will succeed, either.

    What do you think that the effect of this debacle is on the Arab world, and on Israel and Palestine in particular?

    For the Arab world, this is one more reason to be upset with the United States. And for Israel, the effect is very negative. The neo-cons obviously wanted to strengthen Israel, and certainly Sharon believed that is what would happen, but I think they've only weakened Israel still further. They've made it clear that one can organise resistance even against the United States army.

    The BRussels Tribunal is part of a movement to try and stop this occupation, yet it has no official status, no legal power. What do you think that citizens' movements like this can achieve? Aren't they just an irrelevancy?

    The Brussels Tribunal is just one of the many non-state activities and non-electoral activities going on today. The World Social Forum is another example, along with all the regional and national forums that have emerged from it. I think that all these activities are very efficacious in transforming the actual political tone of decision-making.

    The most important thing to begin with is to try and achieve some sort of intellectual clarity about what's possible and what's not possible. You cannot go back now to the old policies, which assumed a kind of slow evolution. You've got to think in terms of much more radical breaks with the accepted legitimacy within the Western world. That's true vis-a-vis relations with the South in general, and vis-a-vis world geopolitics. I think we've got to begin to accept the reality of a lot of political autonomy all over the place, and stop fighting it. And I think that citizens can push in that direction. They've got to offer alternatives. We've got to think in terms of the kind of alternatives we want to see over the next 10 or 20 years, and begin to press for them. I think one can do that through a multiplicity of structures. That's what I call the spirit of Porto Allegre.

    So these centres of autonomy that are developing within the Western states can work with those that are emerging in the rest of the world?

    Yes. For instance, I believe that Iran should be able to make its own geopolitical decisions. And so I protest against the European powers telling Iran that it has to cease obtaining nuclear weapons. Why should it? I mean, Pakistan has the bomb, India has it, China has it. Russia has it, and Israel has it. And Iran is surrounded by all these countries. If you were an Iranian, wouldn't you want to have the bomb too?

    And we as citizens can say that kind of thing to our governments.