The world was divided into two competing imperialist blocs at the end of the Second World War – the capitalist West and the state capitalist Soviet Union along with its satellites and allies.
This division was agreed at a series of summit meetings between the victorious wartime allies – the US, Britain and Russia.
With this redivision, the US’s allies subordinated themselves to US military leadership. Britain and France had to accept the dismantling of trading blocs based on their empires, which had excluded the US as a competitor.
On the other side of the division state capitalism had developed in Russia as the revolution was isolated in the 1920s.
Stalin and the bureaucracy around him destroyed any vestige of working class control and established a new ruling class.
The Soviet Union abandoned internationalism, basing its foreign policy on the security interests of Stalin’s ruling class. It even allied with Hitler until the German dictator reneged on the deal.
When the war ended in 1945 Russia occupied much of Eastern Europe, plundering its resources.
The superpower stand-off that became known as the Cold War was far from cold. Several times the US went to war with small nations who were being supported by Russia – most dramatically in Korea and Vietnam.
The growing importance of oil in the world economy led to increasing superpower attention on the Middle East.
Israel operated as a US client in the region, receiving massive levels of financial and military aid.
As Henry Kissinger, President Richard Nixon’s national security adviser, said of US support for Israel in 1973, “What we wanted was the most massive Arab defeat possible so that it would be clear to the Arabs that they would get nowhere with dependence on the Soviets.”
In the 1950s many newly independent countries, such as India, Egypt and Indonesia, had seen impressive Russian growth rates and saw state controlled industrialisation as a model to follow.
However, Russian growth rates declined through the 1970s and stagnated in the 1980s. It could not afford the renewed arms race begun by US President Ronald Reagan.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991 as it simply could not compete with the West.
Its economic system had been based on national economies with limited exchange with the West. Globally, that had been the norm until the 1950s but from the 1960s Western imperialism increasingly relied on global production to benefit from lower production costs.
One school of Marxist economists reacted to the cynicism of post-war imperialism by arguing that imperialism drained the wealth of poor countries and prevented them from industrialising.
This left the rulers of these countries dependent on advanced capitalist countries until they could break away into national forms of development.
But this theory, known as dependency theory, failed to explain why there had been significant industrial development in “dependant countries” such as Brazil and Argentina.
By the 1980s countries like South Korea, Taiwan and Malaysia had become major industrial producers.
States like Nigeria, South Africa and Brazil began to operate as sub-imperialisms throwing their weight around in their “own” backyards.
Imperialism was never simply about the exploitation of poor countries by the rich. It was about the creation of a hierarchy of economic, financial and military power.
Currently 80 percent of the world’s capital flows are between the US, Japan, Britain and Europe.
There was widespread belief that the motor of international conflict had disappeared when the Stalinist system collapsed.
George Bush senior talked of a “new world order”, while political theorist Francis Fukuyama famously announced the arrival of “the end of history” – in the form of free market capitalism.
Since then the gap between the world’s rich and poor has increased. The US has been involved in major conflicts in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq.
Far from imperialist rivalries ending, the US is more dependent than ever on exerting its military superiority.
Paradoxically, humiliation in Iraq increases the chances of reckless and desperate action, such as an attack on Iran.