Joe Biden and the declining American empire

The new US president has promised to restore ‘normalcy’ after Donald Trump, but that may just mean more imperialism, corporate war-profiteering and environmental decline.

Joe Biden has a message for the world: “America is back.”  The president-elect promises that the United States will rebuild the international links that were damaged under the chaotic Donald Trump presidency.

Biden’s most vocal supporters believe that he is restoring “normalcy” and “moral authority” to the White House and US foreign policy.  But Biden’s foreign policy agenda is unlikely to just stop at rejoining the World Health Organization and mitigating tensions with Iran. 

Throughout his political career, Biden has been known as a “liberal hawk” who has reliably supported US aggression and political meddling in weaker countries. He endorsed the failed occupation of Afghanistan, the disastrous Iraq invasion of 2003 and Israel’s attacks on Palestine. And, as vice-president under Barack Obama, he was involved in the expansion of covert wars and drone attacks in Libya, Syria and Yemen.

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Yet Biden has publicly said that he wants to “end the forever wars, which have cost the US untold blood and treasure”.  This American-centric myopia omits how the country’s post-9/11 wars, and the proxy forces it funds and supplies with weapons, have caused misery and death for untold millions in the Middle East, Asia and beyond.

The “forever wars” destroyed the entire country of Iraq while also undermining civil liberties and increasing state repression in the US and beyond. Biden’s former boss, Obama, favoured drone warfare and special forces raids as a clinical alternative to invading countries, but these clandestine wars have overwhelmingly targeted unarmed civilians. Drones may seem clinical when you are watching them from the privileged position of the White House Situation Room, but they have caused endless terror for civilians in places like Pakistan. 

Wars that do not deliver peace

The interminable War on Terror has made the world far less safe, creating new conflict zones and chaos in which armed extremist groups flourish. Failed US foreign policy created the conditions for the Islamic State to emerge. That there is now an Islamist uprising in Mozambique indicates how much the forever wars have failed to deliver global peace and order. 

Over the past decade, Africom, the operational branch of the US military focused on the African continent, has drastically expanded its operations to fight groups like Al-Shabaab. Despite this increase, militant Islamist groups have only grown in strength, highlighting how US military might seems incapable of actually dealing with the problems of political violence. 

Biden is already staffing his foreign policy apparatus with pro-war “experts” who have ties to military contractors and defence companies. It’s likely that, in contrast to Trump’s “America First” Twitter meltdowns, Biden will embrace  “liberal interventionism”, in which warfare and aggressive foreign policy are legitimised with reference to upholding international norms and values.

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Biden is being advised to both escalate ongoing conflicts with Russia and China and increase US arms sales to its own allies. Conflict with China and Russia will probably take place in the shadowy realm of economic and cyber warfare, rather than outright, armed  standoffs. But it will likely still cause global political and economic hardships, just as the world is still reeling from the aftermath of a pandemic.

In the wake of his election loss, some Trump supporters have cynically claimed that Biden represents establishment warmongering, while the “maverick” Trump was anti-war, based on statements he made during his 2016 presidential campaign. In practice, Trump dropped these sentiments as soon as he was in power, choosing to intensify previous conflicts while also trying to goad Iran into war over the assassination of Qasem Soleimani.

The hidden fist of the market

This is because war and imperialism are a bipartisan political consensus. Both the Republican and Democratic parties agree that the US has the right to aggressively intervene abroad, while also massively profiting from the sale of arms and weapons systems. This consensus is based on the narrative that America is the world’s “policeman” or “sheepdog” – it may not be perfect, but its military might is necessary to protect global security and stability.

The reality of American power since 1945 and the end of World War II has been far less altruistic. In practice, the US has used its military strength to dominate a global economic order of which it is the supreme beneficiary. Bluntly, the US uses its power to keep markets open for American business interests. 

As one ardent imperialist, writer Thomas Friedman, rhapsodised: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15 [Eagle aircraft]. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps.”

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In particular, this hidden fist defends the fossil fuel and extractive industries, which are some of the biggest drivers of the global climate crisis. These industries benefit from endless warfare while wrecking the natural environment and cooking the planet.

However, the US Biden will be leading is a very different world power from the turn of the century. In the 2000s, war hawks claimed that America was an invulnerable “hyper-power”, while Bush administration officials boasted that “we’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our reality”.

In 2020, by contrast, it is facing a new Great Depression after the pandemic-induced economic crisis. Although the US still has the most technologically advanced military in human history, its high-tech arsenal is unable to resolve the failed occupations and protracted insurgencies it has mired itself in. Simultaneously, the US as a country is experiencing intense social decline, from yawning gulfs of inequality to relentless environmental shocks and collapsing infrastructure. In September this year, as wildfires devoured Oregon, the state struggled to hold back the flames as its heavy firefighting aircraft had been deployed to Afghanistan.

The empire of capital 

This process of decline was not initiated by Trump, although it was undoubtedly accelerated by him. The US empire has not been based on seizing large colonial possessions, as the British or Spanish ones were. Rather, the US has been the hegemon at the centre of contemporary world capitalism, with a network of bases, intercontinental ballistic missiles and spy satellites that keep the rest of the planet in line.

Throughout its history, the US saw colonial violence and organised state terror applied against Native Americans, African slaves and the working class that emerged in 19th-century industrial cities. But despite regularly intervening in the affairs of Central and South America (considered its “hemisphere of influence”), its global projection of power really began as the former European powers lost their wealth and territorial possessions after World War II. 

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Spared the total warfare that destroyed the industrial bases of Europe and Asia, and bolstered by the Keynesian reforms of the New Deal, the US declared itself the new sheriff of the global cold war.

This was based in a bipartisan, anti-communist and anti-Third World nationalist consensus. The US strove to promote itself as a democratic empire, distinct from both the aggressive expansionism of the European colonial powers and the authoritarianism of Stalin. In reality, Cold War realpolitik was about advancing US business interests and maintaining the Global South’s subordinate position in the world economy.

The promotion of “national security” entailed the US overthrowing democratically elected governments and supporting unstable right-wing regimes (for instance, the CIA helped the apartheid government capture Nelson Mandela). In the name of “anti-communism”, the US helped the Indonesian government massacre up to one million of its political opponents, recruited former Nazis to work for it and initiated a brutal, pointless war with the impoverished nation of Vietnam. 

The Cold War created a permanent war economy, centred around the production of expensive nuclear weapons systems. Lucrative weapons contracts benefitted arms dealers, politicians, unions and manufactures, creating what former president Dwight Eisenhower warned was a “military-industrial complex”, which perpetuated endless war for private gain.

In search of social justice

America’s involvement in Vietnam inspired a powerful anti-war movement at home. Along with the civil rights movement, it exposed how the US failed to live up to its stated ideals. The social revolts of the 1960s and 1970s revealed how class and racial oppression domestically were fundamentally intertwined with imperial adventurism abroad. 

A common theme in the anti-war movement was how imperialism and militarism drained resources and the quality of life of ordinary Americans. Even former president Lyndon Johnson was forced to conclude that his escalation of the Vietnam War had undermined his efforts to expand his “great society” social welfare plans.

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These social movements challenged the fundamental structure of American society and suggested an alternative to capitalist imperialism. The rock and soul music of the times expressed dreams and feelings of collective emancipation that resonated with people globally.

However, these progressive forces were curtailed by a new political alliance of market fundamentalists, religious conservatives and white supremacists. The late ’70s and ’80s saw a drastic right-wing shift in US politics, aided by the decline of union power and social activism.

A new, neoliberal consensus saw Democrats, like Biden, abandon New Deal visions of social justice for a conservative centrism. While reversing regulations and taxation on corporations and the super-rich, it also expanded defence budgets, transferred military-grade weapons to US police forces and drove mass incarceration.

Imperial hubris

As the Soviet Union and its satellite states unravelled in the early 1990s, Washington was giddy with dreams of a “Pax Americana”. The demise of Soviet-style socialism was hailed as a victory for a new “Washington Consensus” of unrestrained capitalism. Conflicts with hopelessly outgunned opponents like Panama and Iraq gave the impression that the US was unbeatable.

In the wake of the 9/11 atrocities, when the Al-Qaeda network launched attacks on major American targets, the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration saw an opportunity to remake the world. After the occupation of Afghanistan, they used the false claim that Iraq had an active weapons of mass destruction programme as a pretext to invade the country. 

The US occupation then attempted a full-scale privatisation of the Iraq national economy, handing over its oil wealth and infrastructure to American companies. The result was a social and humanitarian disaster. The application of neoliberal shock therapy to Iraq fuelled a violent insurgency and helped create the conditions for the Islamic State to arise.

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Both US troops and private security forces were implicated in war crimes. The US military used radioactive white phosphorus against civilians in Fallujah in 2004, while Aghan civilians who survived raids by US special forces dubbed them “the American Taliban”.

And while US capital looted the wealth of Iraq, it was also engaged in irresponsible financial practices at home, culminating in the 2007-2008 financial crisis. Despite being voted in on a platform that promised social change, Obama continued business as usual, with corporate bailouts for the super-rich and the expansion of covert wars abroad.

Thanks in no small part to American imperial hubris, the world of 2020 is even less safe than it was in 2001. The war on terror has metastasised into a “global police state” of hardened borders and mass surveillance.  

Splintering hegemony

And the imperial hegemony is itself in a process of declining political and economic power. As sociologist Richard Lachmann argues, the self-destructive greed of elites means that the US is now stuck with wars it cannot win and a declining economic base.

The danger for the world is that this decline maps on to a historically unprecedented era of economic and ecological turmoil. As Lachmann argues, imperial business-as-usual means that “[at] home or abroad, those who profited from the era of American hegemony and from its decline will be able to insulate themselves from the consequences of their power and greed, which will be increasingly manifest in political dysfunction, mass despair, domestic and global strife, and rising sea levels on a planet no longer able to accommodate billions of humans. The views, from their remote hilltops and guarded apartment towers, though not from bunkers, will be marvellous.”

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However, this corporate hegemony is facing new, internal opposition. Although Bernie Sanders’ campaign to secure the presidential nomination was thwarted, progressives and socialists in the Democratic Party are finally challenging the neoliberal, imperialist consensus. Outside of electoral politics, the uprisings after the police murder of George Floyd showed that ordinary Americans are prepared to go to the streets to take on the war machine. 

While Biden may be less personally objectionable than Trump, his background and political inclinations mean that he is likely to favour the same grim project of covert operations, failed coups and arms build-ups. It is imperative that progressives refuse a return to the “normalcy” of the recent past.

The rest of the world doesn’t need America to “be back”. The reality of American power is that it exists to serve a coterie of the rich and powerful. Responding to the terrifying, truly international threats of the 21st century, from global heating to transnational political violence, requires not more drones, bunker busters and failed CIA interventions, but political negotiation and economic redistribution.

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