Analysis Imperialism Politics United States

US Election 2020: The Elephant (and the Donkey) in the Room

By Luis Meiners

We are publishing this article, originally published by Tempest, as a contribution to debates on tactics and strategy of the Left in the face of the US election

Three Tactics of Elision

As the presidential election finally arrives, questions of electoral tactics and strategy have dominated debates within the U.S. Left. A review of recent arguments put forward by socialists calling for a vote for Biden shows that most of them pivot around the exceptional character of this election and focus on the threat of Trump’s authoritarian drive, with marginal references to the issue of U.S. imperialism.

There are three tactics, common in the most circulated of these arguments, used in the approach to whether and how to address the issue of the U.S. role as the dominant imperial and military superpower. Often, U.S. empire and the management of the imperial state are simply left out of the equation altogether. Alternatively, there is merely a passing reference in a classic argument in favor of the lesser evil. The third tactic, addressed at the end of this article, seeks to mitigate Biden’s uncontested “evil” by placing him on the side of democracy against authoritarianism.

For the first and most common approach, the issue of imperialism is not addressed at all. For an example, see Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel’s opinion piece last week in the Washington Post. The Nation itself ran an article signed by dozens of ex-members of the mid-1960s era Students for a Democratic Society that was equally silent. In the same vein, former “New Communist Movement” radical Max Elbaum barely addresses the issue, except to assuage concerns based on an unsupported claim that a “shift” to the Left is underway around questions of foreign policy. And beyond a passing reference to Trump’s nuclear policy, a letter in ZNet signed by “55 radicals” calling to vote for and then fight Biden, contains no assessment of the role of the U.S. empire in the world. Of the current generation of the “new new Left,” a more oblique letter in support of a Biden vote from current leading members of DSA remains equally mute.

The second tactic involves a passing acknowledgement of Biden’s evil, including his complicity as a manager of U.S. empire, and very little reckoning with this question in the balance sheet. In this vein, New Politics editor Dan LaBotz, in explaining why he signed the ZNet letter, acknowledges that Biden is “repugnant” and that the Democratic Party remains an “imperialist party,” but does little to address what it means for the Left, and its anti-imperialist and anti-war prospects, to support this candidate and this party. Stephen Shalom and Barbara Ransby make similar, explicitly lesser-evilist pleas in their respective pieces, but with the same elisions.

Empire on their Minds

The relative absence of this aspect of the discussion on the socialist Left contrasts with the acute awareness within the ruling class of the importance of this issue. A recent example is the New York Times editorial titled “End Our National Crisis”. This establishment mouthpiece makes a clear case for why it considers Trump “a man unworthy of the office he holds”: “Mr. Trump’s ruinous tenure already has gravely damaged the United States at home and around the world … We have critiqued his vandalism of the postwar consensus, a system of alliances and relationships around the globe that cost a great many lives to establish and maintain.”

Biden expressed this same theme in his acceptance speech on the closing night of the Democratic Party convention. In this same vein, more than 70 top National Security officials published a letter in which they expressed their concern about the “nation’s security and standing in the world under the leadership of Donald Trump” and expressed their belief that “Joe Biden has the character, experience, and temperament to lead this nation. We believe he will restore the dignity of the presidency, bring Americans together, reassert America’s role as a global leader, and inspire our nation to live up to its ideals.”This statement has now been signed by another 60 top officials, all of them having served under Republican administrations.

The growing crisis of the neo-liberal world order and the context of escalating inter-imperialist rivalries provide the backdrop to the concerns of the establishment. The question of U.S. imperialism and its strategic orientation should be of at least equal concern for the U.S. Left as it obviously is for the ruling class. In fact, much of the increasing support that Biden has garnered both from Wall Street and the state apparatus is linked precisely to this question. The politics of imperial restoration are at play.

From the Unipolar World to Inter-imperialist Tensions

A quick review of the dynamics of U.S. imperialism over recent decades illustrates the challenges of the current moment. With the end of the Cold War and the collapse of the Soviet Union, the post-World War II world order crumbled. U.S. imperialism sought to reorganize the world system to establish a new basis for its hegemony. This meant both acting as global gendarme and incorporating states into the international framework of institutions and trade agreements that had been built for this purpose. Thus the “Washington consensus” emerged, a strategy to which both capitalist parties of the U.S. were wholly committed.

Events would prove that a unipolar new world order was not so easily established and maintained. The collapse of the post-war world order meant that U.S. imperialism stood alone in leading efforts to police and adjudicate the conflicts and contradictions that emerged. Despite the attempts to rehabilitate a “humanitarian” imperialism in Iraq, starting in 1991, and the Balkans throughout the decade, there was a surge in class struggle with mass movements against neoliberal globalization and the institutions of U.S. hegemony from Seattle to Genoa. And by the end of the 1990s and early 2000s a series of rebellions in Latin America hit several U.S. backed governments, and undermined a decades long imperial project of US hegemony in that region.

Under George W. Bush, U.S. imperialism attempted to consolidate its hegemony by tightening control over the Middle East. The strategy envisioned swift wars and regime change in Afghanistan and Iraq, seizing the post 9/11 opportunity to justify increased militarism. These would in turn serve as a platform for further control over the region and its strategic resources. This offensive in the Middle East led to nearly two decades of seemingly endless wars and a weakening of the U.S. geopolitical position.

But the main change to the global playing field would come from the ascent of China to global and imperial power. In fact, the issue of China featured prominently in the motivations for the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, used by the Bush Administration. As the U.S. faced increased difficulties in the first decade of the millenium, underscored by the 2008 crisis, China advanced and consolidated its international stance, becoming the major trade partner for much of the world and an increasingly important source of direct foreign investment. The “Belt and Road” initiative is the most ambitious example of China’s new role in the world economy.

China’s development into a major capitalist economy and imperialist power is not in itself without contradictions. While its huge trade surplus has allowed it to accumulate massive reserves, it faces structural problems of overaccumulation and overproduction that a depressed pandemic world economy will only accentuate. The underlying contradictions of its economy fuel the need for its expansion overseas. This has set into motion the dynamics of inter-imperialist conflict on a global scale.

Obama’s “pivot to Asia” came as a response to this situation. It involved shifting both diplomatic focus and military resources to the effort of isolating and containing the emerging imperialist rival. However, this change was not successfully accomplished.

Trump’s “Illiberal Hegemony”

Such was the context in which Trump came to power, based in part on open challenges to the bi-partisan consensus about the use of U.S. military power overseas and promising to “drain the swamp.” Throughout his presidency, there have been several moments of open collision with the establishment over foreign policy: the controversies over the withdrawal of troops from Syria, over the relation with NATO, the resignation of James Mattis as secretary of defense, among others. Trump’s unilateralism and undermining of the traditional system of alliances, including withdrawal from multilateral agreements on trade and the environment, have been subject to scrutiny both by Democrats and Republicans. He has also been criticized for his approach on Russia and China. The former led to a Special Counsel investigation on Russian influence over the 2016 election and was one of the arguments put forward by the Democrats during the impeachment attempt that started in 2019.

Trump’s seemingly erratic behaviour has been deemed a threat to U.S. interests. But there is an underlying logic beneath his style that is related to the challenges posed by the crisis of U.S. imperialism and the ascent of China as a major competitor on a global scale. That is why there is both rupture and continuity with previous administrations in terms of foreign policy. Trump has stepped up from containment to more open confrontation when dealing with China, as evidenced by the replacement of the Trans Pacific Partnership with a trade war.

Trump’s attempt to secure U.S. imperialist interests has been described as “illiberal hegemony.” Despite his isolationist rhetoric, Trump has continued to pursue the global interests of U.S. capital, albeit in a way that partially departs from the establishment consensus. To a certain extent, he has presented a cruder version of U.S. imperialism, stripped from ideological decoration.

Trump’s more aggressive and unilateral approach has alienated allies. In so doing, he has effectively weakened the international standing of the U.S. Thus the anxiety of the ruling class and the state apparatus. Their increasing support for Biden shows that there is a growing consensus that a return to a more “multilateral” approach, covered under a democratic banner, is a more effective way of advancing U.S. imperialist interests in the current world situation.

“Rebuilding the Instruments of American Power”

The events described in this brief overview of the past decades were already important enough to motivate the anxiety of the U.S. ruling class, but then came COVID-19. The lack of a coordinated response to the pandemic, the attacks on the World Health Organization (WHO), and state and local governments fighting over critical medical supplies, are testimony to the profound crisis of the U.S.-led world order. The narrative of “the most important election in U.S. history” must be read against the backdrop of this situation in order to fully comprehend its meaning.

Echoing this feeling, Biden promises to restore U.S. leadership in the world. He is fully in tune with the concerns voiced by the National Security apparatus. Against the unilateral “America First” approach, he expresses the need for the U.S. to recover standing with its traditional allies to form a strong base to “get tough” on the new and old rivals on the global stage.

His campaign clearly reflects both the understanding that the U.S. must face a world of increased turmoil and inter-imperialist competition, and the awareness that its relative weakness means it cannot go at it alone. This translates into strengthening the system of alliances that Trump has undermined. In an article published in Foreign Affairs Biden states:

The Biden foreign policy agenda will place the United States back at the head of the table, in a position to work with its allies and partners to mobilize collective action on global threats. The world does not organize itself. For 70 years, the United States, under Democratic and Republican presidents, played a leading role in writing the rules, forging the agreements, and animating the institutions that guide relations among nations and advance collective security and prosperity—until Trump. If we continue his abdication of that responsibility, then one of two things will happen: either someone else will take the United States’ place, but not in a way that advances our interests and values, or no one will, and chaos will ensue.

In the face of increasing competition with China, Biden represents the interests of the U.S. ruling class and its state. In the attempt to do so in a way that rallies support both domestically and abroad, the Democratic Party’s candidate speaks the language of the struggle against authoritarianism. In vocabulary reminiscent of the Cold War and World War II, he speaks of the need to build a coalition in defense of democracy, explaining in Foreign Affairs:

China represents a special challenge … China is playing the long game by extending its global reach, promoting its own political model, and investing in the technologies of the future … The most effective way to meet that challenge is to build a united front of U.S. allies and partners to confront China’s abusive behaviors and human rights violations.

One of the main items in his platform is the call for a “summit for democracy,” seeking to rally key international players under U.S. leadership with the banner of democracy.

Fighting Fire with Fuel

That this agenda, put forward by Biden and the Democratic Party, matches the concerns and rhetoric of the U.S. ruling class and the state apparatus is not surprising. What is surprising is that a section of the Left is framing the election in similar terms. The recurring theme of voting Biden to stop authoritarianism, fascism or a coup, is used both by the establishment and parts of the Left. The extent to which this is a dead end has been addressed in other contributions to this debate.

A recent article by Neal Meyer and Eric Blanc takes the argument a step further by projecting it on a global scale: Socialists in the United States must acknowledge our international responsibilities. As internationalists, we have a duty to contribute to the defeat of a president who has emboldened the far Right all over the world … A devastating defeat for Donald Trump in November will be a significant contribution to changing that international dynamic.

This argument concedes to the idea that voting for Biden will contribute to stopping the far right both within the U.S. and globally. In doing so, it fails to address the underlying social and political processes that have led to increased polarization and that have opened the door to the far right as a stable presence on the international political scene. The conditions that allowed the far right to become emboldened are indissolubly linked to the policies that people like Biden have ushered in over recent decades. At best, a Biden presidency would contribute to reproducing those conditions. Postulating that a dynamic deeply rooted in the crisis of the prevailing model of capital accumulation and its political representation can be changed by voting Trump out is, at best, wishful thinking. Proposing to combat the far right by voting for Biden is like attempting to fight fire with fuel.

There is an additional peril in accepting the idea that voting for Biden can somehow contribute to pushing back the far right internationally. It falls dangerously close to the arguments put forward by the Democratic Party to frame its approach to foreign policy, which, as we have described, pivot around the defense of democracy.

Finally, and relatedly, Blanc and Meyer are equally engaged in wishful thinking if they believe the restoration presidency of Joe Biden is somehow an automatic benefit to the many fronts of anti-imperialist struggle throughout the world. There is a reason why the Generals and the National Security apparatus are rallying around the former three-time Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The Election and Beyond

The current international situation is rooted in a profound crisis of capitalism. The crisis of the neoliberal world order is an expression of this. Over a decade has elapsed since 2008. In it, we have seen increased polarization and radicalization. The pandemic will accelerate these tendencies. Regional wars and increasingly open inter-imperialist rivalries will be a clear feature of the coming period. Rebellions will probably shake even the most stable regions of the world.

The U.S. ruling class is strategizing how to best respond to this, as it faces structural contradictions rooted in the dynamics of both the world economy and its own capitalist accumulation. As Ashley Smith has pointed out:

The United States is trapped in a strategic contradiction. It has suffered relative geopolitical decline within the neoliberal order of free trade globalization. It has also suffered relative economic decline … But U.S. capital remains integrated with the world system and committed to free trade globalization. Thus, the American state can neither continue globalization as usual, nor opt out through protectionism as the Trump administration seems to prefer.

The debates in the U.S. Left with regards to the elections and beyond must address this reality. A declining U.S. imperialism, a rising global competitor like China, and a world in increased turmoil, all point in the direction of an increasingly aggressive stand by the U.S. state. It is not a coincidence that electoral debates about foreign policy have essentially pivoted around who can get tougher on China.

In rejecting Trump’s right-wing project, the Left cannot simply leave out of its analysis what is clearly voiced by the establishment: Biden expresses an entwined political project of bourgeois democracy and imperial restoration. And in doing so, he more effectively represents the interests of the ruling class in the present conjuncture, putting back the “liberal” varnish on imperialist hegemony in order to save it. Internationalism needs to be based on clear anti-imperialist politics, most urgently at the heart of the empire. The socialist Left must acknowledge and argue that, as history has proven time after time, the “lesser evils” have never been a guarantee of a less virulent and dangerous empire.

Courtesy International Socialist League