Trump and the crisis of the neoliberal world order

The neoliberal world order of free-trade globalization that the United States has pioneered since the end of the Cold War is in crisis. The global slump, triggered by the 2007 Great Recession, has intensified competition not only between corporations, but also between the states that represent them and whose disagreements over the terms of trade have paralyzed the World Trade Organization. Similar conflicts between states have disrupted regional free-trade deals and regional blocs. Obama’s Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement failed to come to a vote in Congress, and now Trump has scrapped it. The vote for Brexit in the United Kingdom is a precedent that could lead other states to bolt from the European Union. Rising international tensions, especially between the United States, China, and Russia, fill the daily headlines.

Indeed, the world has entered a new period of imperialism. As discussed in previous articles in this journal, the unipolar world order based on the dominance of the United States, which has been eroding for some time, has been replaced by an asymmetric multipolar

world order. The United States remains the only superpower, and possesses by far the largest military reach, but it faces a global rival in China and a host of lesser rivals like Russia. And the competition between nation-states over the balance of geopolitical and economic power is intensifying.

The multiple crises and conflicts have also confronted all the world’s states with the largest migration crisis in history. Over fifty million migrants and refugees are fleeing economies devastated by neoliberalism, the economic crisis, political instability, and in the case of the Middle East—especially Syria—counterrevolution against the Arab Spring uprisings. The bourgeois establishment and their right-wing challengers have scapegoated these migrants in country after country.

All of this has destabilized bourgeois politics throughout the world, opening the door to both the Left and the Right posing as alternatives to the establishment. In the United States, Donald Trump won the presidency with the promise to “Make America Great Again” by putting “America First.” He threatens to retreat from the post-Cold War grand strategy of the United States overseeing the international free-trade regime, in favor of economic nationalism and what has been described as a “transactional” approach to international politics.

While Trump aims to continue certain neoliberal policies at home (such as deregulation, privatization, and tax cuts for the wealthy), his international policies represent a significant shift away from global “free trade.” He has promised to rip up or renegotiate free-trade deals and impose protectionist tariffs on economic competitors. To enforce this, he wants to rearm the American military to push back against all rivals— China in particular—and conduct what he depicts in racist fashion a civilizational war against Islam in the Middle East. He marries this militaristic nationalism to a bigoted campaign of scapegoating against immigrants, Muslims, Blacks, women, and all other oppressed groups.

Panic in the imperial brain trust

The architects and ideologues of American imperialism recognize that their grand strategy is in crisis, and worry that Trump’s new stand will only magnify it. The Financial Times’ Martin Wolf declares,

We are, in short, at the end of both an economic period—that of western-led globalization—and a geopolitical one—the post-cold war “unipolar moment” of a US-led global order. The question is whether what follows will be an unraveling of the post-second world war era into de-globalization and conflict, as happened in the first half of the 20th century, or a new period in which non-western powers, especially China and India, play a bigger role in sustaining a co-operative global order.1

Obama’s favorite neocon Robert Kagan warns that Washington’s retreat from managing the world system risks “backing into World War III,” the title of the piece in which he writes:

Think of two significant trend lines in the world today. One is the increasing ambition and activism of the two great revisionist powers, Russia and China. The other is the declining confidence, capacity, and will of the democratic world, and especially of the United States, to maintain the dominant position it has held in the international system since 1945. As those two lines move closer, as the declining will and capacity of the United States and its allies to maintain the present world order meet the increasing desire and capacity of the revisionist powers to change it, we will reach the moment at which the existing order collapses and the world descends into a phase of brutal anarchy, as it has three times in the past two centuries. The cost of that descent, in lives and treasure, in lost freedoms and lost hope, will be staggering.2

In somewhat more measured tones, the imperial brain trust of American imperialism, the Council on Foreign Relations, is using their journal, Foreign Affairs, to oppose Trump and defend the existing neoliberal order with minor modifications.3 Stewart Patrick, for example, worries that Trump has laid-out

no broader vision of the Unites States’ traditional role as defender of the free world, much less outline how the country play that part. In foreign policy and economics, he has made clear that the pursuit of narrow national advantage will guide his policies—apparently regardless of the impact on the liberal world order that the United States has championed since 1945. That order was fraying well before November 8. It had been battered from without by challenges from China and Russia and weakened from within by economic malaise in Japan and crises in Europe, including the epochal Brexit vote last year. No one knows what Trump will do as president. But as a candidate, he vowed to shake up world politics by reassessing long-standing U.S. alliances, ripping up existing U.S. trade deals, raising trade barriers against China, disavowing the Paris climate agreement, and repudiating the nuclear accord with Iran. Should he follow through on these provocative plans, Trump will unleash forces beyond his control, sharpening the crisis of the Western-centered order.

The Council’s Gideon Rose fears that Trump is introducing “damaging uncertainty into everything from international commerce to nuclear deterrence. At worst, it could cause other countries to lose faith in the order’s persistence and start to hedge their bets, distancing themselves from the Unites States, making side deals with China and Russia, and adopting beggar-thy-neighbor programs.”4

But the Council and the rest of the foreign policy establishment have little to offer as a solution to the crisis they describe. For example, the Council on Foreign Relations’ president, Richard Haass’s, new book, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order, produces little more than tactical maneuvers designed to incorporate America’s rivals into the existing neoliberal order.5 But it is within that very order that the United States has undergone relative decline against its increasingly assertive rivals, especially China.

Neoliberalism’s solution to the crisis last time

The American ruling class turned to neoliberalism after the failure of Keynesianism—with its emphasis on state intervention and state-led development—to overcome the economic crisis of the 1970s and restore profitability and growth in the system. Neoliberalism was not a conspiracy hatched by the Chicago School of Economics, but a strategy that developed in response to globalization and the end of the long postwar boom.

The US ruling class adopted what later came to be known as neoliberalism in coherent form under the regimes of Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain.6 Neoliberalism had domestic and international dimensions. At home, the mantra was privatization and deregulation. The ruling class got rid of regulations on capital and launched a war against workers. They privatized state-run businesses as well as traditionally state-run institutions like prisons and schools. They busted unions, drove down wages, and cut the welfare state to ribbons.

Abroad, the United States expanded the program of “free trade” they had pursued since the end of World War II. Seeking cheap labor, resources, and markets, Washington used its dominance of international institutions to pry open national economies throughout the world. It aimed first to incorporate its allies, then its antagonists in this neoliberal world order, with the promise that it would work in the interests of “the capitalist class” around the world. As Henry Kissinger once remarked, “What is called globalization is really another name for the dominant role of the United States.”7 These domestic and international policies overcame the crises of the 1970s and ushered in a period of economic expansion (interrupted by a few recessions) that lasted from the early 1980s through to the early 2000s.8

The brief unipolar moment

Unable to keep pace with the West’s economic expansion and the Reagan administration’s massive rearmament program, and beset by its own internal contradictions, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, and the Cold War’s bipolar geopolitical order came to an end. The United States hoped to establish a new unipolar world order in which it would solidify its position as the world’s sole remaining, and unassailable, superpower.

For a period, the United States did indeed superintend a new global structure of world imperialism. It integrated most of the world’s states into the neoliberal order it dubbed the Washington Consensus, using its international financial and trade institutions like the IMF, World Bank, and the World Trade Organization to compel all nations to adopt neoliberal policies that benefited a handful of powerful players. It used international loans and debt restructuring not only to remove trade and investment restrictions, but also to impose privatization and cuts in health, education, and other vital social services in states all over the world. The Pentagon deployed its military might to police and crush any so-called rogue states like Iraq.

Amidst the heady days of this unipolar moment, much of the left abandoned the classical Marxist theory of imperialism developed chiefly by the early twentieth century Russian revolutionaries Vladimir Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin. In brief, Lenin and Bukharin argued that capitalist development transformed economic competition into interstate rivalry and war for the political and economic division and redivision of the world system between the dominant capitalist powers vying for hegemony.9

“The development of world capitalism leads,” wrote Bukharin, “on the one hand, to an internationalization of the economic life and, on the other, to the leveling of economic differences, and to an infinitely greater degree, the same process of economic development intensifies the tendency to ‘nationalize’ capitalist interests, to form narrow ‘national’ groups armed to the teeth and ready to hurl themselves at one another at any moment.”10

Imperialism was a product of the interplay between the creation of a world market and the division of the world between national states, and as such was a product of the system rather than simply a policy of a particular state or party. This was in contrast to the German socialist Karl Kautsky, who argued that imperialism was a policy favored by some sections of the capitalists but which ran against the interests of ruling classes as a whole, which, as a result of the economic integration of the world market, had a greater interest in peaceful competition.

The new period of globalized capitalism produced new theories that rejected Lenin and Bukharin’s approach. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argued in their 2000 book that globalization had replaced imperialism with a new structure of domination they termed empire. Nonstate networks of power, like international financial institutions such as the IMF and the World Bank, were now, in an era where states were increasingly powerless, the dominant world players.11 “The United States does not, and indeed no nation-state can today, form the center of an imperialist project,” they famously wrote in the preface.12 Others took the argument further, maintaining that a system of globalized transnational production and trade was fast displacing states, including Washington, as influential centers of power.13

On the other extreme, Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin argue in their 2012 book The Making of Global Capitalism that the American state organized globalization and integrated all the world’s states as vassals of its informal empire.14 Though diametrically opposed at the start, these arguments ended with the same conclusion—inter-imperial rivalries between the world’s leading states, including the potential for them to spill over into military conflict—are not a necessary outcome of capitalism; and today those rivalries are a thing of the past.

The return of rivalry in an asymmetric world order

Developments in the real world—such as the Bush administration’s 2001 invasion and occupation of Afghanistan, and two years later of Iraq—viscerally disproved these arguments. Indeed, changes in the real world were already undermining the foundations of the postwar world order that Kagan and others are frantically holding up against Trump’s “America First” nationalism.

Washington’s drive to cement its hegemony in a unipolar world order was undermined in several ways. The neoliberal boom from the early 1980s to the 2000s produced new centers of capital accumulation. China is the paradigmatic example. After it abandoned autarkic state capitalism in favor of state-managed production for the world market, it transformed itself from a backwater producer to the new workshop of the world. It vaulted from producing about 1.9 percent15 of global GDP in 1979 to about 15 percent in 2016.16 It is now the second-largest economy in the world and predicted to overtake the United States as the largest economy in the coming years.

But China was not the sole beneficiary of the neoliberal expansion. Brazil and other regional economies also developed. And Russia, after suffering an enormous collapse of its empire and its economic power in the 1990s, managed to rebuild itself as a petro-power with disproportionate geopolitical influence because of its nuclear arsenal. Of course, whole sections of the world system did not develop at all, but instead suffered dispossession and economic catastrophe.

Washington’s attempt to lock in its dominance through its 2003 war and occupation of Iraq backfired. Even before launching the invasion, Bush recognized that the United States needed to do something to contain China and other rising rivals. In a sign of this growing awareness, he and his secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice, rebranded China, which Clinton had called a strategic partner, as a strategic competitor.17

Bush used 9/11 as an opportunity to invade Iraq and overthrow Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq, as part of a plan for serial “regime change” in the region. If it succeeded, the United States hoped it would be able to control rivals, particularly China, which is dependent on the region’s strategic energy reserves. Instead, Washington suffered, in the words of General William Odom, the former head of the National Security Agency, its “greatest strategic disaster in American history.”18

Iran, one of the projected targets for regime change in Bush’s so-called “Axis of Evil,” emerged as a beneficiary of the war. It secured a new ally in the form of the sectarian Shia fundamentalist regime in Iraq. And while the United States was bogged down in Iraq, China became increasingly assertive throughout the world, establishing new political and economic pacts throughout Latin America, the Middle East, and a number of African countries.

Russia also took advantage of American setbacks to reassert its power against EU and NATO expansionism in Eastern Europe. It went to war against US ally Georgia in 2008. In Central Asia, China and Russia came together to form a new alliance, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. They postured against American imperialism in their own imperial interests.

Finally, the Great Recession of 2008 hammered the United States and its allies in the EU particularly hard. By contrast, Beijing’s massive state intervention in the economy sustained its long boom and lifted the growth rates of countries in Latin America, Australia, Asia, and sections of Africa that exported raw materials to China.

This was the high-water mark of the so-called BRICS—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa. The lesser powers in this bloc hitched their star to Chinese imperialism, exporting their commodities to fuel China’s industrial expansion. Together they launched the BRICS bank, officially known as the New Development Bank, and China added another, the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank, as alternatives to the IMF and World Bank. The recent Chinese slowdown and the consequent drop in commodity prices have, however, hammered the economies of many of the BRICS.

These developments cracked the unipolar moment and replaced it with today’s asymmetric world order. The United States remains the world’s sole superpower; but it now faces an international rival in China and in lesser powers like Russia. It must also wrestle with regional powers that pursue their own interests, sometimes in sync with Washington and other times at odds with it.

Obama’s failure to restore dominance

The Obama administration came to power with the hopes of restoring the credibility and standing of American power in the wake of Bush’s disasters in the Middle East. It implemented a combined program of stimulus and austerity to restore growth and profitability. By imposing a two-tier wage structure on the auto industry, it set a precedent for competitive reindustrialization in the United States, and launched the massive fracking expansion to provide cheap domestic energy to US corporations.

Intending to extract the United States from its costly and inconclusive ground wars in the Middle East, Obama turned to air power, shifting the focus of the so-called War on Terror to drone strikes, Special Force operations, and air support for US proxy forces in different countries.

Once disentangled from Bush’s occupations, Obama planned to conduct the ballyhooed “pivot to Asia” to contain China’s ongoing rise, bolster Washington’s political and military alliance with Japan and South Korea, and prevent their economic incorporation into China’s growing sphere of influence. The now dead Trans-Pacific Partnership was meant to ensure American economic hegemony in the region, which would then be backed up militarily with the deployment of 60 percent of the US Navy to the Asia Pacific region.19 Obama also began to push back against Russian opposition to the EU and NATO expansion into Eastern Europe—hence the standoff over Ukraine.

But Obama was unable to fully implement any of this because US forces remained bogged down in the spiraling crisis in the Middle East. Retreating from the Bush administration’s policy of regime change to balancing between the existing states, Obama, while continuing to support historic US allies such as Israel and Saudi Arabia, at the same time struck a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. But this strategy was undermined by the Arab Spring, the regimes’ counterrevolutions, attempts by regional powers to manipulate the rebellion for their own ends, and the rise of ISIS in Syria and Iraq. The United States has been unable to resolve many of these developing crises on its own terms.

Now Russia, after having suffered a long-term decline of its power in the region, has managed to reassert itself through its intervention in Syria in support of Assad’s counterrevolution. It is now a broker in the Syrian “peace process” and a new player in the broader Middle East.

While the United States continued to suffer relative decline, China and Russia became even more assertive. Russia took Crimea, which provoked the United States and Germany to impose sanctions on the Kremlin. China intensified its economic deal making throughout the world, increasing its foreign direct investment from a paltry $17.2 billion in 2005 to $187 billion in 2015.20 At the same time, it engaged in a massive buildup of its navy and air force (though its military is still dwarfed by the US) and constructed new military bases on various islands to control the shipping lanes, fisheries, and potential oil fields in the South China Sea.

Obama did manage to oversee the recovery of the US economy, and China has suffered an economic slowdown. That has dramatically reversed the economic fortunes of the BRICS, in particular Brazil, which has experienced economic collapse and a right-wing governmental coup. The drop in oil prices that accompanied the Chinese slowdown also hammered the OPEC states as well as Russia.

But China’s slowdown has not reversed Beijing’s economic and geopolitical ascension. In fact, China is in the process of rebalancing its economy to replace multinational investment, expand its domestic market, and increase production for export to the rest of the world. The aim is to increase its ability to compete with the United States and the EU at all levels.

Thus, well before Trump’s election, the United States had been mired in foreign policy problems that it seemed incapable of resolving.

Trump’s break with neoliberalism

Trump’s strategy to restore American dominance in the world is economic nationalism. This is the rational kernel within his erratic shell of bizarre tweets and rants. He wants to combine neoliberalism at home with protectionism against foreign competition. It is a position that breaks with the American establishment’s grand strategy of superintending free-trade globalization.

Inside the United States, Trump aims to double down on some aspects of neoliberalism. He plans to cut taxes on the rich, rip up government regulations that “hamper” business interests, expand Obama’s fracking program to provide corporations cheaper energy, and to go after public sector unions. He also wants to invest $1 trillion to modernize the country’s decrepit infrastructure. While his Gestapo assault on immigrants is less popular among the business class, they are salivating over the tax and regulatory cuts. Trump hopes with these economic carrots to lure American manufacturing companies back to the United States.

At the same time, however, Trump wants to upend the neoliberal Washington Consensus. He is threatening to impose tariffs on American corporations that move their production to other countries. He has already nixed the TPP and intends to do the same to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with Europe. He promises to renegotiate NAFTA with Mexico and Canada to secure better terms, and, in response to Chinese and EU protectionism, he threatens to impose a border tax of 45 percent on Chinese and others countries’ exports to the United States. These measures could trigger a trade war.

Demagogic appeals to labor aside, Trump is doing none of this for the benefit of American workers. His program is intended to restore the competitive position of American capital, particularly manufacturing, against its rivals, especially in China but also in Germany.

This economic nationalism is paired with a promise to rearm the American military, which he views as having been weakened by Obama. Thus, Trump has announced plans to increase military spending by $54 billion. He wants to use this 9 percent increase in the military budget to build up the Navy and to modernize and expand the nuclear arsenal, even if that provokes other powers to do the same. As he quipped in December, “Let it be an arms race.”21 Trump’s fire-breathing chief strategist, former Brietbart editor Steve Bannon, went so far as to promise, “We’re going to war in the South China Sea in five to ten years. There’s no doubt about that.”22

Trump also plans to intensify what he sees as a civilizational war with Islam. This will likely involve ripping up the nuclear deal with Iran, intensifying the war on ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and conducting further actions against al Qaeda internationally. It will also likely involve doubling down on Washington’s alliance with Israel. Trump’s appointment as ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is actually to the right of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.23 Trump has already begun escalating the ongoing war on Muslims conducted by the last two administrations, with his executive orders that are in effect an anti-Muslim ban and have increased the profiling, surveillance, and harassment of Muslims throughout the country.

To pay for this military expansion, the Trump administration, in Bannon’s phrase, plans to carry out the “deconstruction of the administrative state.” Thus, the administration has appointed heads of departments, like Ed Pruitt at the Environmental Protection Agency, whose main purpose is to gut them.24 No doubt this will entail massive cuts to social programs like Medicare and Medicaid.

Trump threatens a significant break with some previously hallowed institutions of US foreign policy. He has called NATO outdated. This declaration is really just a bargaining position to get the alliance’s other members to increase their military spending. Thus, both his secretary of state and defense secretary have repeatedly reassured European states that the United States remains committed to NATO. More seriously, he denounced the EU as merely a vehicle for German capital. Thus, he supports various right-wing populist parties in Europe running on a promise to imitate Britain and leave the EU.

Trump’s “transactional” approach comes out most clearly in his stated approach to international alliances and blocs. He promises to evaluate all multilateral alliances and trade blocs from the standpoint of American interests against rivals. He will scrap some, replacing them with bilateral arrangements, and renegotiate others. Much of the establishment has reacted in horror to these threats, denouncing them as a retreat from Washington’s responsibilities to its allies.

In a departure from Obama’s policy toward Russia, Trump intends to create a more transactional relationship with the Kremlin. He does not view Russia as the main threat; he believes that is China. In addition to considering cutting a deal with Russia to drop sanctions over its seizure of Crimea, he wants to collaborate with Putin in a joint war against ISIS in Syria.

Hoping that he can split Russia away from China and neutralize it as a lesser power, Trump then wants to confront China with tariffs and military challenges to its assertion of control of the South China Sea. Incoming Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has already threatened to deny China access to its newly-built island bases in the South China Sea.

Trump’s economic nationalism leads directly to his “fortress America” policies. These policies chiefly target Muslims and immigrants, but they should not be seen in isolation from other domestic policies. With the wave of protests against his attacks that emerged from the moment he stepped into office, Trump and his allies in state governments have introduced bills that impose increasing restrictions on the right to protest and give the police a license for repression with impunity. Thus the corollary of his “America First” imperialism abroad is authoritarianism at home.

Can Trump succeed?

Trump faces a vast array of obstacles that could stop him from implementing his new strategy. To begin with, he is an unpopular president with an approval rating hovering below 40 percent in his first months in office. He and his crony capitalist cabinet will no doubt face many scandals, compromising their ability to push through their agenda.

He may be his own biggest obstacle. His 6 A.M. tweets are signs of someone more concerned with his celebrity status than imperial statecraft. He has already lost his national security adviser, Michael Flynn, due to Flynn’s failure to disclose his communication with Russian diplomats during the campaign, and his Attorney General Jeff Sessions took heat on similar charges, forcing him to recuse himself from any investigations of the Trump campaign with the Kremlin.

There are also real economic challenges to his ability to follow through on his economic program. He simultaneously promises to cut taxes for the wealthy, spend hundreds of millions on domestic infrastructure (not to mention the billions it would cost to build a wall along the US–Mexico border), and cut the deficit. This does not square with economic reality.

On top of all this, multinational capital opposes his protectionism. Of course almost all capital is more overjoyed at his domestic neoliberalism, a fact demonstrated in the enormous stock market expansion, but they see his proposals of tariffs, renegotiation of NAFTA, and scrapping of the TPP and the TTIP as threats to their global production, service, and investment strategies. They consider his house economist, Peter Navarro, to be a crackpot.25

Even his cabinet opposes much of his program. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson testified that he supports the TTP and American obligations to its NATO allies in Europe, including recent deployments of American troops to Poland. And Trump’s Defense Secretary James “Mad Dog” Mattis disagrees with Trump’s proposal to rip up the nuclear treaty with Iran.

Beneath the governmental shell, whole sections of the unelected state bureaucracy—what has been ominously described as the “deep state”—also oppose Trump as a threat to their interests. He has openly attacked the CIA and FBI and threatens enormous cuts to the State Department as well as other key bureaucracies responsible for managing state policy at home and abroad. Many of these bureaucrats have engaged in a campaign of leaks, especially of Trump’s connections with the Russian state.

One of Trump’s key allies, Newt Gingrich, gives a sense of how Trump’s backers are framing the dispute with these institutions. “We’re up against a permanent bureaucratic structure defending itself and quite willing to break the law to do so,” he told the New York Times.26 Thus, the core of the capitalist state is at least attempting to constrain Trump, bring down some of his appointees and may, if they see it as necessary, do the same to Trump himself. At the very least, these extraordinary divisions at the top create a sense of insecurity, and open up space for questioning and struggle from below.

The Democratic Party selectively opposes some of Trump’s program. But, instead of attacking him on his manifold reactionary policies, they have portrayed him as Putin’s “Manchurian Candidate,” posturing as the defenders of US power willing to stand up to Russia. As Glenn Greenwald writes, the Democrats are

not “resisting” Trump from the left or with populist appeals—by, for instance, devoting themselves toprotection ofWall Street and environmental regulations under attack, or supporting the revocation of jobs-killing free trade agreements,ordemandingthat Yemini civilians not be massacred. Instead, they’re attacking him on the grounds of insufficient nationalism, militarism, and aggression: equating a desire to avoid confrontation with Moscow as a form of treason (just like they did when they were the leading Cold Warriors). This iswhy they’re finding such common cause with the nation’s most bloodthirsty militarists—not becauseit’s an alliance of convenience but rather one of shared convictions (indeed, long before Trump, neocons were planning a re-alignment with Democrats under a Clinton presidency).27

Republicans also object to many of Trump’s initiatives. For example, John McCain has attacked his cozy relationship with the Kremlin. And neoliberals in the Republican Party support the TPP and free trade globalization in general. The neocon Max Boot has gone so far as to support the Democrat’s call for a special counsel to investigate Trump’s collusion with Putin. He explains,

There is a good reason why Trump and his partisans are so apoplectic about the prospect of a special counsel, and it is precisely why it is imperative to appoint one: because otherwise we will never know the full story of the Kremlin’s tampering with our elections and of the Kremlin’s connections with the president of the United States. As evidenced by his desperate attempts to change the subject, Trump appears petrified of what such a probe would reveal.28

Even if Trump weathers the storm of this resistance from above and below, his foreign policy could flounder on its own internal conflicts and inconsistencies. To take one example: his policy of collaboration with Russia in Syria could flounder on his simultaneous commitment to scrap the nuclear deal with Iran. Why? Because Iran is a Russian ally in the region. Most disturbingly, if the Trump administration goes into a deeper crisis, it will double down on its bigoted scapegoating of immigrants and Muslims to deflect attention from its failures.

Economic nationalism beyond Trump?

While Trump’s contradictions could stymie his ability to impose his economic nationalist program, that program is not going to disappear any more than the problems it is intended to address. The reality is that the United States faces continued decline in the neoliberal world order. China, even taking into account the many contradictions it faces, continues to benefit from the current setup.

That’s why, in an ironic twist of historic proportions, Chinese premier Xi Jing Ping defended the Washington Consensus in his country’s first address at the World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland. He even went so far as to promise to come to the rescue of free-trade globalization if the Trump administration abandoned it. “No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war,” he declared. “Pursuing protectionism is just like locking one’s self in a dark room. Wind and rain may be kept outside, but so are light and air.”29

One of his underlings, Zhang Jun, remarked, “If anyone were to say China is playing a leadership role in the world I would say it’s not China rushing to the front but rather the front runners have stepped back leaving the place to China. If China is required to play that leadership role then China will assume its responsibilities.”30

China is accelerating the transformation of its economy. It seeks to push out multinationals that have used it as an export-processing platform and replace them with its own state-owned and private corporations, which, like Germany, will export its surplus manufactured goods to the rest of the world market.31 No wonder, then, that a survey conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce found that 80 percent of American multinationals consider China inhospitable for business.32

China is also aggressively trying to supplant the United States as the economic hegemon in Asia. Immediately after Trump nixed the TPP, China appealed to states in the Asia Pacific region to sign on to its alternative trade treaty, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). China is determined to challenge American imperial rule of the Asia Pacific. Though its navy is far smaller than Washington’s, it plans to accelerate efforts to build up its regional naval power against Trump’s threats to block Chinese access to the strategic islands in the South China Sea.

All of this was underway before Trump. That’s why Obama was already inching toward some of Trump’s policies. He initiated the pivot to Asia, deployed the US Navy to the region, and imposed tariffs on Chinese steel and tires. He also complained about NATO countries and others freeloading on American military largesse. He thus encouraged Japan’s rearmament and deployments of its forces abroad. He also began the move to on-shoring manufacturing based on a low-wage America with cheap energy and revitalized infrastructure.

So it’s imaginable that another figure could take up and repackage Trump’s economic nationalism. Regardless of whether this happens or not, it is clear that there is a trajectory deep in the dynamics of the world system toward interimperial rivalry between the United States and its main imperialist challenger, China. Obviously there are countervailing forces that mitigate the tendency toward military conflict between them. The high degree of economic integration makes the ruling classes hesitant to risk war. And, because all the major states are nuclear powers, each is reluctant to risk armed conflicts turning into mutual annihilation.

Anti-imperialism, solidarity, and opposition to bigotry

In this context, the Marxist theory of imperialism—which begins with the inherent contradiction between market globalization and the division of the world into competing national states—is essential not only to understand the world today but also to guide the Left. Much of the left fails to recognize the reality of interimperial conflict. But without such an understanding, the Left will be incapable of finding its way in a welter of confusing international developments.

This incapacity is already evident. Some on the left support rival imperial powers as a counter-weight to American imperialism. Thus whole sections of the left back Russia and Assad in Syria against the United States. They justify this reactionary position with the preposterous claim that Putin’s Russia and Assad’s brutal dictatorship are an anti-imperialist alliance standing up to Washington’s alleged policy of regime change in Syria. In reality, Washington has retreated from outright regime change as its strategy in the Middle East after the failure of its invasion and occupation of Iraq. With regard to Syria, this has meant shifting from supporting an Assad-style regime without Assad, to quietly shelving any plans to go after Assad at all. Assad, moreover, was perfectly willing to collaborate with the United States in the past, and will be perfectly willing to do so again.33

Others on the Left downplay any discussion of imperialism for a narrow focus on domestic reforms. That led many to overlook Bernie Sanders’ pro-imperialist foreign policies. Such social patriotism is dangerous in a period of growing interimperial rivalry and could line up some on the left with American imperialism against rivals either in trade or geopolitical conflicts.34

The emerging new Left must instead base itself on principled opposition to all imperialisms—understanding, of course, that here our chief concern is US imperialism—combined with solidarity with national liberation struggles like that of the Palestinians and revolutionary struggles like that in Syria, regardless of which imperial camp such struggles are in opposition to. This approach will be essential in the coming period that promises to be characterized by explosive struggle from below and intensifying struggle for global supremacy between the United States and China, amidst sundry other interstate conflicts.

This approach will also be necessary for our domestic political struggles. The crises and conflicts in the system will drive increasing numbers of migrants and refugees to the United States and countries throughout the world. It will be essential for the left to stand up against Trump’s attempt to deflect blame for the system’s failure onto migrants, especially Muslims. Only by challenging such bigotry will we be able to unite workers both within and across borders in a common struggle for our collective liberation from a crisis-ridden and failing system.

  1. Martin Wolf, “The Long and Painful Journey to World Disorder,” Financial Times, January 5, 2017,
  2. Robert Kagan, “Backing Into World War III,” Foreign Policy, February 6, 2017,
  3. For background on this key institution of American imperialism see Laurence H. Shoup and William Minter, Imperial Brain Trust: The Council on Foreign Relations and United States Foreign Policy (New York: Authors Choice Press, 2004), and Laurence H. Shoup, Wall Street’s Think Tank: The Council on Foreign Relations and the Empire of Neoliberal Geopolitics (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2015).
  4. Gideon Rose, “Out of Order,” Foreign Affairs (January–February, 2017).
  5. Richard Haass, A World in Disarray: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis of the Old Order (New York: Penguin Press, 2017).
  6. For one of the best accounts of neoliberalism as a response to globalization and a strategy to overcome the crisis of the 1970s, see Neil Davidson, “The Neoliberal Era in Britain: Historical Developments and Current Perspectives,” International Socialism Journal, no. 139 (2013),
  7. Lecture at Trinity College, Dublin, Oct. 12, 1999, cited by Sam Gindin in “Social Justice and Globalization: Are They Compatible?” Monthly Review, June 2002, 11.
  8. For an account of the neoliberal boom and consequent crisis and slump, see David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010).
  9. For a summary of the classical theory of imperialism, see Phil Gasper, “Lenin and Bukharin on Imperialism,” International Socialist Review, no. 100 (May 2009),
  10. Nikolai Bukharin, Imperialism and World Economy, chapter 8, “World Economy and the Nation State,” at
  11. For a summary and critique of Hardt and Negri’s ideas see Tom Lewis, “Empire strikes out,” International Socialist Review, no. 24 (July–August 2002),
  12. Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2000), xiii–xiv.
  13. See, for example, William Robinson, A Theory of Global Capitalism: Production, Class, and the State in a Transitional World (Baltimore MD: Johns Hopkins, 2004).
  14. See Ashley Smith, “Global empire or imperialism?” International Socialist Review, no 92 (Spring 2014),
  15. Justin Yifu Lin, “China and the Global Economy,” Remarks at the Conference “Asia’s Role in the Post-Crisis Global Economy,” November 29, 2011,
  16. Tim Worstall, “China’s Only 15% of the Global Economy But Contributes 25-30% of Global Growth,” Forbes, October 30, 2016,
  17. Susan Rice, “Campaign 2000: Promoting the National Interest,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2000,
  18. Cited in Patrick Cockburn, The Occupation (London: Verso, 2006), 4.
  19. Ashley Smith, “US Imperialism’s Pivot to Asia,” International Socialist Review, no. 88, January 2009,
  20. Roger Yu, “China Eyes Global Economic Leadership as U.S. Turns Inwards,” USA Today, March 1, 2017,
  21. Ed Pilkington and Martin Pengelly, “‘Let it Be an Arms Race’: Donald Trump Appears to Double Down on Nuclear Expansion,” The Guardian, December 24, 2016,
  22. Max Fisher, “Trump’s Military Ambition: Raw Power as a Means and an End,” New York Times, March 3, 2017,
  23. Stephen Zunes, “Trump’s Frightening Picks for U.S. Policy in the Middle East,” The Progressive, December 22, 2016,
  24. Phillip Rucker and Robert Costa, “Bannon Vows Daily Fight for the “Deconstruction of the Administrative State,” Washington Post, February 23, 2017,
  25. John Tammy, “Peter Navarro is Providing Donald Trump with Very Dangerous Economic Advice,” Forbes, September 18, 2016,
  26. Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Rumblings of a ‘Deep State’ Undermining Trump? It Was Once a Foreign Concept,” New York Times, March 6, 2017,
  27. Glenn Greenwald, “Democrats Now Demonize the Same Russia Policies that Obama Long Championed,” The Intercept, March 6, 2017,
  28. Max Boot, “Trump Knows the Feds Are Closing In on Him,” Foreign Policy, March 6, 2017,
  29. Stephen Fidler, Te-Ping Chen, and Lingling Wei, “China’s Xi Jingping Seizes Role as Leader of Globalization,” Wall Street Journal, January 17, 2017,
  30. Reuters, “Diplomat Says China Would Assume World Leadership if Needed,” January 23, 2017,
  31. For China’s shifting economic strategy see Fareed Zakaria, “Trump Could Be the Best Things That’s Happened to China in a Long Time,” Washington Post, January 12, 2017, and Andrew Browne, “As China Pivots, Donald Trump Risks Fighting an Old War,” Wall Street Journal, December 27, 2016,
  32. Huiling Tan, “Businesses Move China Down Priority List: AmCham Survey,” CNBC, January 17, 2017,
  33. For further discussion of this point, see Ashley Smith, “Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution,” Socialist Worker, August 25, 2016,
  34. For more on this, see Brian Bean and Todd Chretien, “Socialists and ‘the Bern,’” Socialist Worker, February 29, 2016,

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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