In recent days both President Biden and Secretary of State Blinken have said an extraordinary thing. They have both publicly repudiated the practice, generally accepted by Democrats and Republicans alike, that it is not only appropriate but obligatory for the United States to interfere, militarily if that is required, in the affairs of other countries to impose on them political structures or behaviors suitable to American interests. Such aggressive militarism had been implied by former Secretary of State Madelaine Albright’s infamous remark that the US is the “indispensable nation”, and by George Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld’s “war on terror.” It is also implied by the wildly bloated military budget and the continued existence of somewhere between 600 and 800 US military installations around the world.
I would like to take Biden and Blinken at their word. If they are serious in abandoning the inclination toward nation-building by the US, then they have taken a serious and necessary step in the direction of a defensible US foreign policy. But while it may be a necessary step, it is not even close to sufficient.
Part of the problem is that as far as I am aware, all discussions of foreign policy by government figures tend to assume that there exist only two possibilities:
- imposing US will on other countries when it appears necessary, or
The more neoconservative among the American rulers and media elite reject Biden’s abandonment of nation-building because they think that to do so is equivalent to withdrawing from the world, to isolationism.
We have seen this false dichotomy at work in recent criticisms of the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Liz Cheney, who shares her father’s neoconservative militarism, said, as I recall, that this disastrous withdrawal indicates why American reluctance to be involved forcefully abroad is mistaken, and that we should not flinch from imposing “freedom and democracy” wherever we can. We also see this false dichotomy in many of the recent criticisms of the government’s handling of the final military withdrawal. Some praise the decision to leave but are critical of the process, but many others suggest that the difficulties of withdrawal are evidence that we should have continued the mission there. When America does not assert itself, the argument goes, then there is nothing but trouble. We are, on this view, indispensable.
The more neoconservative among the American rulers and media elite reject Biden’s abandonment of nation-building because they think that to do so is equivalent to withdrawing from the world, to isolationism. But of course this inference is not right, in that for Biden et al. to abandon nation-building is not equivalent to abandoning the imperialist commitment to dominate nations around the globe.
Even if we reject nation-building as a foreign policy strategy and military function, we are left with many other ways to dominate others and potential justifications for doing so. Washington remains committed to “hunting down” terrorists, to use its preferred belligerent language, and it is still committed, presumably, to so-called humanitarian interventions abroad.
Among the tools it continues to have at its disposal in the ongoing effort to impose America’s will on others are drones and sanctions, Washington’s currently preferred go-to weapons for military and foreign policy. We should not overlook such organs of government as the CIA, USAID, and NED, which as far as I know have not repudiated their predilection for assassinations, kidnappings, election interference, black sites, arming and funding opposition forces and figures, ubiquitous surveillance of nearly everyone, and several other activities of dubious moral status.
Then there are those hundreds of military installations abroad, which no one with influence is calling to abandon. They will, presumably, be used for something, and it will not be good. We should also keep in mind that though US troops have been withdrawn from Afghanistan, they remain mired in fighting posture in Iraq, Syria, and several other countries in Africa and elsewhere, often contrary to the will of the countries they are in.
American rulers and much of the media pretend that the only two options for foreign policy are nation-building militarism or isolationism. Meanwhile, in their behavior they proceed as if the only two options are militaristic or less bombastic imperialism. The Liz Cheneys of the country, and more than a few decision makers at CNN, Fox News, The Times, etc., prefer the former, while the current administration seems to be opting for the latter. No one, though, will talk about a third and far more defensible possibility.
Isolationism, whatever that is supposed to mean in a deeply integrated world, is neither tenable nor desirable. Militaristic imperialism of the neoconservative variety is morally unjustifiable, illegal, and generally disastrous. Imperialism without military invasions, which is to say the Biden preference for imposing American will with drones, sanctions, covert operations, surveillance, humanitarian intervention, etc., is also unacceptable. The US is no more justified in behaving in these ways than is any other nation. We would never accept Russia or China or Iran doing these things, and we should not accept it if they were to do so. But for the very same reasons, we should not do these things ourselves.
This all raises an interesting question, which is whether there is a form of US foreign policy available to us that does not lean toward any of the unacceptable alternatives of isolationism or either form of imperialism. The answer is that there is such an alternative, at least in principle. It is possible to behave not as a self-appointed “leader” of the world, but as an active partner with other nations, among equals, in an ongoing effort to solve our common problems and pursue common interests when they arise. To do so would not be to abandon US interests or values, nor would it be to capitulate to any indefensible or illegitimate use of power by others. It would be, rather, to use our extraordinary wealth and power in collaboration with others to improve their conditions and ours, instead of imposing ourselves, manipulating them, and generally breaking things.
This alternative, it seems, has occurred to relatively few people in power, in the media, or in positions of influence. One notable exception is the Quincy Institute, whose website I would recommend visiting. Why, we may wonder, is a non-imperialist foreign policy so difficult even to imagine? The answer, I am afraid, is that given other features of American reality, it is difficult to imagine because it is probably impossible to execute.
As reluctant as most Americans are to acknowledge the point, the US is in fact an imperialist nation in the literal sense of maintaining an empire. And the reasons we look to sustain the empire are the same as the reasons probably all previous empires existed: to ensure a steady flow of or control over resources, to protect markets and trade, and to help to generate maximum profit.
We dress it all up with arguments about fighting terror, or drugs, or communists, or jihadists, or bad guys of various and shifting descriptions, as those before us claimed to be spreading Christianity or civilization, but the core reasons were and continue to be economic and material.
So, kudos to Biden and Co. for abandoning nation-building, but we should not expect too much from them. Even though we can imagine and describe a legitimate foreign policy, we are not likely to get it. There would have to be a fundamental shift in the commitments and behavior of those who control private capital, and those in government who maintain the legal structures that support it, and I do not see any of that happening anytime soon. Buckle-up.