Left-leaning journalism in the U.S. has settled into a consistent hostility towards the U.S. president. This blog posting was provoked by a Fresh Air interview of Evan Osnos, who astutely tracks the way that Xi Jinping of China is quietly taking over a geopolitical leadership role from Donald Trump. I don’t disagree with the details—I dislike Trump’s personalization of the office of the president and corresponding damage to the dignity and authority of that office. But I think we need to view the consequences of his actions from a different long-run perspective: the preferences of the American people.
Despite what Trump himself seems to think about the U.S. presidency, it is not all about him. Liberal journalists shudder at the thought that so many Americans voted for him. Not a majority, but close enough to tip the Electoral College in his favor; very much like George W. Bush. I would like us to consider that pro-Trump vote much more seriously, as a vote against empire.
The word ‘empire’ used to freak out Americans. Our attitude about empire was encapsulated in the original Star Wars movies, in which the Imperials were Brits, and they were the bad guys. It aligned with our founding myth of the American Revolution against the British Empire. By myth I don’t mean that it was untrue; I mean that it is a belief that frames our way of seeing ourselves. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about the danger of imperialism to the souls of Americans:
And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.
They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.
Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.
For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.
Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.
After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators—our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change—especially in terms of their need for land and peace.
I highly, highly recommend reading the entire speech that King delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” I believe it cost him his life. I believe it was not a coincidence that he was assassinated exactly one year later to the day. At that time Americans were not ready to see our interventionism as imperialist. In the beginning of the speech—which made me weep as I re-read it—King makes it clear how he came to understand the suffering of Vietnamese in Southeast Asia though the suffering of black Americans in southwest Georgia. It is a political positionality we need to consider very carefully. What might look like support for democracy from the American privileged side, might look like something very different on the un-privileged receiving end of the policies.
Post-colonial theory emerged in 1978, with Edward Said’s publishing of Orientalism. It was a moment of perhaps the lowest Western colonial commitment in more than 500 years. Not only had the U.S. withdrawn from Vietnam, but the recent “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal led to the decolonization of Angola, Mozambique, and East Timor. In hindsight, maybe the theory should have been called something like “colonial critique,” because the “post-” was a little optimistic and premature. However, the theory is a very useful lens for looking at geopolitics in a different, long-run perspective. Unfortunately, most post-colonial theorists have marginalized themselves politically by focusing on highbrow literary criticism. I think they miss Said’s point: when he looked at French Orientalist paintings and literature he was looking at popular culture of the time. To understand the way that Americans see the world, it is useful to look at their reactions to the not-so-highbrow works of Lucasfilm.
Only under George W. Bush did Americans begin to recognize and generally accept that we were being imperialist. This again was reflected in our reinterpretation of our position in relation to Star Wars, with memes in which the Stormtroopers are seen as cops who just had a job to do, and were slaughtered wholesale by rebel terrorists in the destruction of both Death Stars. Adam Driver, the actor currently playing the role of Darth Vader’s grandson, even raised this issue in an interview before the release of the latest Star Wars (Episode 8). We see the most famous of all current stormtroopers take off his helmet, and he is a black man. He is our protagonist. He rejects his forced conscription as a stormtrooper, but his former comrades are not entirely wrong when they call him a traitor. We disagree with the stormtroopers in the current films, but they are humans; we can see ourselves in them at least a little.
But how are Americans really imperialist? Even when we occupy countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans seem to want to ensure the maximum amount of local sovereignty. We even do that to a fault. In Iraq, the Bush team hastily set up a winner-takes-all voting system which essentially handed national domination to Shi’ite Arabs from the southeastern part of that country. We alienated the Sunni minorities: Kurds to the north, who eventually rejected American advice and declared independence in 2017—and Sunni Arabs in the western part of Iraq, who became the sympathetic base to ISIS. L. Paul Bremer’s version of “make Iraq sovereign again as fast as possible” has had some ugly long-term consequences. It was naïve politics, but it revealed the degree to which the U.S. really did not want to call Iraq a U.S. colony, or territory, or protectorate.
So is the U.S. really imperialist?
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argued (in 2000, so before George W. Bush’s presidency) that the U.S. benefited from global political and trade relations in many of the ways that Industrial-Era empires used to, in the ‘classic’ 1870-1945 era of European colonialism. In contrast to the Europeans, the U.S. could allow substantial sovereignty at the local level and still strike free trade deals; it could allow disagreements up to an extent, but contain them through occasional military interventions, as well as mutually-beneficial trade, aid, and military-cooperation projects. So Hardt and Negri didn’t argue that the U.S. was overtly, intentionally imperialist; but that it enjoyed benefits comparable to a global empire nonetheless.
However this ‘global engagement’ policy of the U.S. bothers many American voters, especially since the Cold War is formally over. It is worth remembering that before the Cold War, American conservatives were strongly isolationist. Opposition to immigration produced substantial restrictions on immigration in 1924; the U.S. failed to support the League of Nations; and Republicans were opposed to getting involved in the growing conflicts in Europe and East Asia from 1935 to 1941. This isolationism returned as soon as the Cold War was over. Since 1992, Republicans have been arguing for reduced involvement in international affairs. First, a reduction of contributions to the U.N.; then a withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, just as it was forming in 2001; most recently in withdrawal from UNESCO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and the Paris Climate Accords. U.S. Liberals might not see these as imperialist policies; and I don’t think they were intended to be. But the effect is troubling. At minimum, these commitments were ‘international entanglements’ that many Americans regarded as distracting from a focus on domestic economic policy.
In 2009 I reviewed the campaign debates of George W. Bush and Al Gore from the fall of 2000. In those debates, Gore clearly portrayed himself as the internationalist, and W portrayed himself as domestically focused. Rather than rely on anecdotes and partisan diatribe, let us review the actual source material. Here is an extended quote of George W, on October 11, 2000:
MODERATOR: Should the people of the world look at the United States, Governor, and say, should they fear us, should they welcome our involvement, should they see us as a friend, everybody in the world? How would you project us around the world, as president?
BUSH: Well, I think they ought to look at us as a country that understands freedom where it doesn’t matter who you are or how you’re raised or where you’re from, that you can succeed. I don’t think they’ll look at us with envy. It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And it’s — our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we have to be humble. And yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. So I don’t think they ought to look at us in any way other than what we are. We’re a freedom-loving nation and if we’re an arrogant nation they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation they’ll respect us.
MODERATOR: Sure, absolutely, sure. —Somalia.
BUSH: Started off as a humanitarian mission and it changed into a nation-building mission, and that’s where the mission went wrong. The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it’s in our best interests. But in this case it was a nation-building exercise, and same with Haiti. I wouldn’t have supported either…
I’m worried about over-committing our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. You mentioned Haiti. I wouldn’t have sent troops to Haiti. I didn’t think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation building mission, and it was not very successful. It cost us billions, a couple billions of dollars, and I’m not so sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before.
In retrospect, it is ironic that W committed so many troops to an ill-defined, open-ended “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. That policy decision irritated the American voting public for precisely the reasons that Bush himself explained so clearly as a candidate in 2000. But again, I don’t want to focus on that president for what he did later. I looked at those speeches to see why almost a majority of Americans voted for Bush in 2000 rather than Gore; and why a largely overlapping body of voters elected Barack Obama in 2008.
A major campaign promise of Barack Obama was to get the U.S. out of Iraq. He was one of the few national politicians who had never supported that invasion and occupation, and he objected to its open-ended, vague mission. In other words, Bush and Obama’s campaign arguments overlapped because both candidates wanted to reduce the “foreign entanglements” of the U.S. Furthermore, among presidential candidates in 2007-2008, Obama was the furthest outside of being an embedded politician. In that sense, there is also a strong overlap between the reasons people voted for Obama in 2008 and why so many voted for Trump in 2016. Based on voting behavior, Americans are extremely dissatisfied with U.S. foreign policy, and the culture of “establishment” politics.
Put succinctly: when presented with the opportunity to vote against American empire, Americans will do so emphatically and repeatedly. Despite real and continuing racism in the U.S., Americans will vote for a black man if he makes a persuasive argument that he will reduce foreign entanglements. Americans will also vote for a clearly unqualified and offensive billionaire if he makes convincing arguments against foreign entanglements. In 2016 and 2017, American political analysts focused on the deep political divisions among Americans. I think—a Obama argued in 2007—that this is a distraction. Commentators on the left and right focus too much on the man who was elected, and not enough on explaining American electoral behavior. I think if we pay more attention to the voters, we will find that the key common ingredient is that Americans really, really, really don’t want to be an empire.
Trump said many contradictory things while campaigning, and has not been consistent on his campaign promises. But I got a sense that Hilary Clinton was in trouble in June of 2016 when Trump started talking about reducing American foreign involvements, and Clinton countered by being the internationalist. And as unpredictable as Trump may be, here is one place where he is consistent: he is indeed reducing American foreign entanglements.
Back in the interview which provoked this blog post, Gross and Osnos point out that, as the U.S. withdraws and leaves a vacuum in many international arenas, China is happily and quietly moving in to assume those roles. Using the same post-colonial perspective, it is worth noting that China does not have the same cultural squeamishness about empire that Americans have. The Chinese certainly did not like being colonized by foreigners. They called Europeans barbarians, and call Japanese “sea pirates.” But that is not a categorical opposition to imperialism, and the Chinese are quite proud of their own imperial history. A close read of San Guo YanYi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) gives a good sense of Chinese cultural sensibilities regarding empire. In that story, trouble begins as the Han Empire falls apart, and trouble ends as the Jin Emperor restores order and peace.
San Guo YanYi is one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature, and it is actively endorsed by the current government of the Peoples Republic. The story was filmed in a beautiful, 94-episode television production in 2010. I highly recommend it. But given the themes of the story, and the timing of that production, it is worth pondering whether Chinese political leaders see the present as something akin to the end of that hundred-year episode of political strife portrayed in the story. Both the leaders and the people of China may be very happy for China to return to being the zhong guo—the “central county” on the world stage.
Meanwhile, Americans need to get better clarity about our own internal politics and how we want to position our country in the global political economy of the 21st century. It will help if we recognize the shared, deep-seated American opposition to empire, beyond the caustic partisanship of current public discourse. We also need to get beyond that distraction in order to pay more attention to what is happening outside of the U.S. Unlike Americans, the Chinese political leadership seems like they will be much more comfortable assuming a role of global domination. Since Americans dislike the role so much, we need to get clarity about how we will position ourselves in a world where another country takes over that role. I am not hearing anybody framing geopolitical discourse this way in the U.S. right now, but the time is upon us.