Illiberal hegemony: The Trump administration strategy for US Imperialism

Donald Trump never expected to win the presidency. As Michael Wolff exposes in Fire and Fury, he hoped to use the campaign to build his personal company’s brand and secure a career in right-wing media. Trump’s inner circle was so shocked by their victory that his wife Melania purportedly broke down in tears not out of joy, but horror at the prospect of moving into the White House and subjecting their pathological family soap opera to even more public scrutiny. Unprepared to rule, Trump scrambled to cobble together a cabinet with an amalgam of establishment Republicans, Wall Street Democrats, and far-right nationalists.

The new administration struggled from day one to produce a coherent foreign policy based on Trump’s slogans “Make America Great Again” and “Putting America First.” Trump’s consigliere Steve Bannon and his co-thinkers called for the United States to withdraw from free trade deals like the North American Free Trade

Agreement (NAFTA) and other neoliberal international institutions like the World Trade Organization (WTO), to renege on commitments to imperial institutions like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), to impose protectionist trade barriers on China, and to pursue “transactional” relationships even with Washington’s allies. But this nationalist faction in the cabinet was disciplined by the “globalist” faction led by mainstream Republicans, bankers like Gary Cohn who voted for Hillary Clinton, former Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson, and the triumvirate of generals John Kelly, H. R. McMaster, and Jim Mattis. This faction advocated a traditional if more muscular version of Republican internationalism.

Initially the foreign policy establishment reacted with horror at the prospect of Trump’s rule. Almost uniformly they denounced him as an isolationist who threatened to abandon Washington’s commitment to, and leadership of, the neoliberal order of free trade globalization. Reassured by Bannon’s firing and the seeming triumph of the globalist faction and the state bureaucracy’s effectiveness in disciplining the administration, many adopted the view of neoconservative Eliot Cohen, who argues that “Trump has ended up being a highly erratic, obnoxious version of the Republican normal.”

This underestimates the administration’s break with previous foreign policy. Trump’s mid-March purge of his cabinet makes this crystal clear; he got rid of the globalists Cohn, Tillerson, and General McMaster, his National Security Advisor. In their place, he has elevated nationalist hawks like Peter Navarro, Mike Pompeo, and John Bolton.

While Trump is an unpredictable and mercurial figure who boldly repeats the last thing his advisors whispered in his ear or that he heard on Fox News, his administration, especially with this new cast of characters, does have a strategy, and it can neither be dismissed as isolationist nor as Republican extremism. It remains very committed to American dominance in the world, but in a far more unilateral fashion than ever before.

As Barry Posen argues,

Trump has taken much of the “liberal” out of “liberal hegemony.” He still seeks to retain the United States superior economic and military capability and role as security arbiter for most regions of the world, but he has chosen to forgo the export of democracy and abstain from many multilateral trade agreements. In other words, Trump has ushered in an entirely new U.S. grand strategy: illiberal hegemony.2

The United States had enjoyed unchallenged supremacy as the only super power after the end of the Cold War in 1989–90. Democratic and Republican administrations alike implemented a strategy of superintending neoliberal globalization—a system of free trade managed through US—and European-dominated institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the WTO, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). Neoliberalism emphasized deregulation, privatization, and withdrawal of the state from many areas of social provision (but not a weakening of state power), along with the use of debt to force these policies on recalcitrant states.

But, as a result of defeats in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Great Recession, Washington has suffered relative geopolitical and economic decline, allowing various states to challenge American dictates throughout the world system. As a result, Washington’s unipolar order has given way to a new asymmetric multipolar world order. Of course, the United States remains the hegemonic state, but it now faces a new international rival in China, as well as a revived Russia intent on reclaiming its lost power, and various regional rivals like Iran.

The Trump administration’s National Security Strategy3 reorients US imperialism away from the so-called War on Terror toward containment of great power adversaries, naming them explicitly as China and Russia, and adopts a confrontational approach to regional rivals like Iran and so-called rogue states like North Korea. It aims to foster American strength by intensifying its xenophobic domestic security apparatus, protecting American industry and high technology, and shifting away from superintending the neoliberal order to adopting a transactional approach to international relationships and protectionist economics.

Theories of imperialism

The classical Marxist theory of imperialism is indispensable for understanding Trump’s strategy and the return of great-power rivalry. Unfortunately, much of the radical Left has rejected this framework. The Left has broadly broken down into two camps. One is represented by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, who argue in their book Empire that neoliberalism and globalization have sidelined states, supplanting them and their rivalries with new transnational structures such as multinational corporations and international financial institutions.4

The other camp is best exemplified by Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin in their book The Making of Global Capitalism. Here they make the opposite argument, contending that state-orchestrated globalization has effectively incorporated all other states into a US-dominated system.5 While both positions start from diametrically opposed claims—one saying that states are no longer at the center of any imperialist project and the other that one state rules them all—they end up with the same conclusion: interimperial rivalry is a thing of the past.

The growing geopolitical conflicts between the United States, China, Russia, and various regional powers fundamentally challenge the arguments of both camps.6 Neither can explain the world today. In an attempt to come to grips with the fact of rivalry, sections of the left have resuscitated a third-world or Stalinist conception of imperialism as merely American domination over lesser states, which they admit are not socialist, but that they nevertheless consider to be counterhegemonic forces standing up to American imperialism.

Writers like Radhika Desai are examples of this tendency. She claims that the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) challenge American imperialism and neoliberalism, providing nation states in the Global South the chance of untrammeled development in the interests of their people. In her praise of the BRICS, she goes so far as to say, “Not since the days of the Non-Aligned Movement and its demand for a New International Economic Order in the 1970s has the world seen such a coordinated challenge to western supremacy in the world economy from developing countries.”7

This position has led some on the left to not only excuse the brutal structures of exploitation and oppression in the BRICS states, but also to ignore the imperialist nature of their foreign policies. Perhaps the worst example of this is the refusal of many leftists to condemn Russia’s intervention in Syria to defend the brutal dictatorship of Bashar al-Assad.8

Patrick Bond and his co-thinkers have refuted Desai’s case in their book, BRICS: An Anticapitalist Critique.9 They convincingly demonstrate that the BRICS push for neoliberal policies at home and internationally. However, Bond and his co-thinkers do not regard any of them, including China, as imperialist powers. Under the influence of Panitch and Gindin and the writings of Brazilian Marxist Ruy Mauro Marini, they instead claim they are loyal lieutenants—in their words, “sub-imperialist powers”—of American imperialism and enforcers of its neoliberal policies.

Bond’s position cannot explain, however, the developing rivalries within the system, most importantly between the United States and China. Beijing is in no way a loyal lieutenant of Washington. As Claudio Katz argues in a sympathetic if critical assessment of Marini’s work, “China acts as an empire in formation.”10 It is aiming to restore its position as a great nation capable of rivaling Washington economically, geopolitically, and militarily. That’s why the American ruling class from Obama to Trump has progressively developed a strategy to contain it.

The classical Marxist theory of imperialism remains the best way to explain the persistence and growth of interimperial rivalry. Lenin and Nikolai Bukharin, along with Leon Trotsky and Rosa Luxemburg, developed the basic outlines of the theory at the beginning of the twentieth century and an array of others have built on it since.

To summarize their case briefly, they argue that capitalism drives the great state powers to compete over the division and redivision of the world system. Bukharin is perhaps the most systematic of the classical Marxists. He shows that capitalism has two tendencies. First, it produces a tendency toward internationalization that drives capitals to seek new investments, markets, resources, and cheap labor throughout the world. Second, it produces a tendency toward the “statification” of national economies. Thus capitals, even multinational ones, turn to their home states and in some cases fuse with them to become state-capitalist firms to project and protect their claims against their competitors and their states.

As a result, capitalism produces both economic interconnection and interstate, interimperial rivalry, a struggle over which is to be the dominant world power. To enforce their position in the world, capitalist states develop massive military arsenals. In some periods, imperial rivalry detonates enormous wars for dominance in the system. Imperialism has produced wars of various sorts—imperial conquest, interimperial combat, and struggle for national liberation. Such conflicts result in either the reinforcement of the existing international hierarchy of states or its recomposition into another one, a new order of imperialism.11

But no order is permanent. Capitalism’s law of uneven and combined development upsets the international economic equilibrium of the system and thereby the relationship between state powers. New centers of capitalist accumulation emerge, and their states challenge old powers and the structure of the world order. The result has been titanic struggles between rival imperial powers like World War I, World War II, and the Cold War.

The relative decline of American imperialism

The United States emerged as the victor of the Cold War after the Russian empire collapsed at the beginning of the 1990s. That brought an end to the bipolar world order that had divided the world’s states mostly into two camps, one dominated by Washington and the other by Moscow. In its place, Washington attempted to establish a unipolar world order, subordinating the world’s states to its dominion and enforcing free trade globalization on the world’s economies.

During this brief and exceptional period in the history of imperialism, most commentators from the right to the left announced that great power rivalries were a thing of the past. Neoconservative Francis Fukuyama went so far as to proclaim that the triumph of American imperialism’s model of bourgeois democracy and free-market capitalism marked “the end of history.”12 Such liberal fantasies were not borne out in the real world.

The long neoliberal boom from 1982 to 2007 fundamentally changed the structure of the world economy, creating new centers of capital accumulation, most importantly in China that transformed itself from an isolated economic backwater into the new workshop of the world. Inevitably, Beijing began to challenge the political and military balance of power in Asia and indeed in the entire system. Aware of the growing threat, the United States hoped to subordinate China through incorporating it into its neoliberal world order.

Things turned out differently: foreign policy disasters, combined with economic crisis, have brought an end to Washington’s unipolar order and opened space for China’s self-assertion as a rising imperial power. First, the US suffered humiliating setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan. The George W. Bush administration had hoped, by exploiting the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers, to lock in American hegemony and prevent the rise of any peer competitor by imposing American dominion over the Middle East and its strategic energy reserves.

Bush knew that whoever controlled that resource could blackmail any power dependent on it, especially China, which receives most of its oil from the region. After invading and occupying Afghanistan, the United States aimed to overthrow and replace Saddam Hussein in Iraq and then conduct similar regime changes in Syria and, most importantly, Iran. Bush’s plans backfired, bogging the United States down in endless counterinsurgency warfare in both Afghanistan and Iraq, and giving Iran space to increasingly flex its muscle in the region. It is hard now to recall the hubris with which the Bush administration, with its emphasis on preemptive strikes and unilateral military action, declared its intention to use the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a stepping-stone toward reshaping the entire Middle East region.

Indeed, Iran was the real victor of Bush’s war in Iraq. All of this led General William Odom to call the Iraq War “the greatest strategic disaster in American history.”13 Instead of consolidating its hold on the world system, the war dramatically weakened its grip, reducing American imperial policy ever since to crisis management.

The Great Recession brought an end to the neoliberal boom, opening a new epoch variously characterized as one of secular stagnation, a global slump, or a long depression. The world economy, even amidst the current synchronized global recovery, remains plagued by underlying problems of overproduction; state, corporate, and private debt; and speculative bubbles. This explains why recoveries everywhere remain at lower growth rates compared to previous expansions after economic contractions.14

The Great Recession hit the United States, the European Union (EU), and their subsidiaries particularly hard. While the American state managed to stave off economic collapse, none of its policies have overcome the problems that led to the crisis in the first place. As a result, while there has been a recovery, it has been until recently an anemic one.

By contrast, China hyperstimulated its economy to fend off a recession and sustain its boom. More recently that seemed to peter out, sending some of its tributaries like Brazil into sharp recessions. China engaged in yet another round of stimulus to reverse its slowdown, restoring growth to its raw-materials suppliers in Africa, Latin America, and Australia. But in doing so, China has exacerbated the problem of overproduction and overcapacity within its own economy and indeed the entire world economy.

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 with its share of global GDP shrinking from 40 percent in 1960 to 22 percent today.15 China by contrast has seen its political, economic, and military power all increase—according to IMF projections, China’s 2016 GDP, at 14.9 percent of the global share, will surpass the United States in ten years.16 But US 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.

Obama and imperialism

Washington has yet to come up with a viable program to resolve this contradiction. The Bush doctrine’s preemptive wars bogged the United States down in the Middle East, giving China space to continue its ascension. Obama came in with the aim of overcoming economic and imperial disasters by continuing the strategy of superintending the neoliberal order and moving in the direction of containing China through his “pivot to Asia.”

Obama tried to rehabilitate Washington’s alliances—so badly damaged by Bush—by mending fences with its historic allies in Europe, trying to reset its relationship with Russia, and continuing at least verbal engagement with China. He hoped to extract the US from Bush’s disastrous occupations and instead conduct the so-called War on Terror through state-sponsored terrorist tactics like special ops and drone strikes, along with the backing of proxy forces in the region to contain the Middle East region’s multiple unfolding crises.

With that accomplished, he intended to conduct his pivot to Asia. The plan was to redeploy 60 percent of the US Navy to the region, implement the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement (TPP) to impose US neoliberal terms against China’s state capitalism, and to solidify American allies in order to form a geopolitical bloc against China’s rise in the region.17

Finally, Obama hoped to restore American domestic economic power in the wake of the Great Recession. He aimed to “onshore” or “reshore” manufacturing with the lure of low American wages, inexpensive real-estate prices, low taxes, and cheap energy reserves available in the wake of the fracking boom he encouraged.

Obama’s reorientation, however, failed. While he reestablished relationships with allies, his reengagement with Russia fell apart over conflicts with US/NATO/EU expansion into the Kremlin’s former empire in Eastern Europe. Furthermore, American interventions in Libya and elsewhere pushed both China and Russia to increasingly oppose his international agenda and begin the process of building alternative geopolitical and economic institutions.

The pivot never materialized. Ongoing crises in the Middle East prevented Obama from redeploying the military to Asia. His TPP went down in flames, never even coming to a vote in Congress. If anything, China grew only more confident and influential as evidenced by its new $1 trillion infrastructure project called One Belt One Road, which is designed to bind together Eurasia on Chinese terms.

Obama did manage to restore American capitalism’s growth. Through a combination of attacks on workers’ wages and benefits, a massive stimulus package, a policy of quantitative easing and the maintenance of historically low interest rates by the Federal Reserve, the availability of cheap energy, and a weakened dollar helped revive the US economy. While these policies began to convince some capitalists to bring back some manufacturing, they failed to resolve the foreign policy conundrums faced by the United States. The Washington consensus of neoliberalism and free trade globalization, which both Democrats and Republicans have lionized for decades, has suffered a legitimacy crisis.

Trump took advantage of this crisis as the nationalist right has done around the world, defeated the living embodiment of neoliberalism, Hillary Clinton, and won the presidency on the promise to restore American dominance. He vowed to pursue an “America First” policy to the great shock of the foreign policy establishment and indeed much of the capitalist class, which had in the main supported Clinton and her defense of the status quo.

But as foreign policy expert Walter Russell Mead noted,

What gives Mr. Trump his opening is something many foreign-policy experts have yet to grasp: that America’s post-Cold War national strategy has run out of gas. First, Mr. Trump knows that the post-Cold War policies can no longer be politically sustained. Second, he knows that China poses a new and dangerous challenge to American interests. Third, he sees that foreign policy must change in response. The old approach—on everything from trade and development, to military deployments and readiness, to religious freedom and women’s issues—must be reassessed in the light of today’s dangerous world.18

Trump’s national security strategy

Thus, from the standpoint of American imperialism, there is a rational kernel in the erratic shell of the Trump administration. While there are elements of continuity with the Obama administration in its National Security Strategy, it is also a marked departure. This departure is not just atmospheric and rhetorical, but real. Trump has broken with key elements of the establishment consensus on superintending the neoliberal order.

He abandoned the TPP, turned his back on the Paris climate accords, is renegotiating NAFTA and other trade agreements, raised tariffs on steel and aluminum, and has repeatedly expressed doubts about key multilateral bodies the United States has traditionally overseen and used to its advantage. At the same time, Trump is no isolationist, and has shown a willingness to use American military power throughout the world from airstrikes in Syria to yet another troop surge in Afghanistan plus increased naval patrols in the South China Sea in pursuit of Washington’s imperial interests.

The National Security Strategy lays out illiberal hegemony’s four key planks. First, the administration wants to bolster American domestic security through an intensification of Obama’s war on immigrants and surveillance of Muslims. Obama had been conducting historically high numbers of deportations while mouthing platitudes about the US being a land of immigrants. Trump has ripped the mask off. He wants to solidify a base for right-wing nationalist policies, use racism and xenophobia to deflect anger onto immigrants, and at the same time provide capital with the skilled labor it needs.

The elements of this program are well known: the border wall, a ban on Muslims, and the expansion of state surveillance and policing to deport immigrants and stop supposed terrorist threats. He also plans to restrict immigration to just the nuclear family, abolish the visa lottery, and replace it with a “merit system” that will admit only workers with skills capital cannot find domestically.

Second, the administration wants to intensify the development and return of American-based manufacturing and technology, not primarily out of concern for creating jobs, but to strengthen US imperialism against its adversaries. In Trump’s view, the United States cannot depend on its principal geopolitical competitor, China, for its manufacturing needs, especially in high tech, which is increasingly of decisive importance for the US military.

In pursuit of this aim, Trump rammed through the biggest corporate tax cuts in history, imposed massive deregulation of the US economy, continued Obama’s policies that triggered the fracking boom (minus any incentives for alternative energy) to turn the US into the world’s biggest energy producer, emphasized the development of American high tech against rising competition from China, and began to impose tariffs against foreign competitors, especially China.

Trump has already raised duties on solar panels, washing machines, steel, and, as the ISR was going to print, was promising similar ones on high tech in defense of American intellectual property rights.19 He also invoked national security to impose tariffs on steel and block Singapore’s Broadcom from buying Qualcomm. He’s even considering restricting visas for students from China, which sends 350,000 students to American universities, by far the most of any nation. With this threat, Trump hopes to bully China, which still depends on American universities for high tech education, into conceding to his demands on other fronts.20

American capitalists could not be happier about Trump’s domestic neoliberalism, particularly his tax cuts and gutting of regulatory policy. They are taking his bait and repatriating their profits and some of their industry. At the same time, capital remains in large part still committed to maintaining free trade globalization and has attacked his turn to protectionism. At the same time, however, there is increasing frustration with China’s control of their activities, its violation of their intellectual property rights, and the growing head to head competition at every level of research, design, and production.21

Thus, while Trump is no doubt outside the prevailing free trade consensus, he is responding to growing concern about China as a competitor. And he is not alone in the world system; other powerful states are also beginning to protect their companies and economies from China. Thus, for example, both the German state and its capitalist class have grown increasingly wary of Chinese investments in the EU and buyouts of its companies.

In reaction, the Financial Times reports that Germany stepped its own protectionist drive “up a gear a year ago when it teamed up with France and Italy on a joint initiative to introduce more rigorous screening of foreign takeovers of EU companies, especially those with suspected state backing. The move could be the first step towards an EU-wide mechanism similar to Washington’s powerful Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States, or Cfius.” China expert, Dirk Schmidt, told the paper, “You increasingly have the feeling that Germany and China are moving from being partners, to rivals, to adversaries.”22

Third, and this is perhaps the administration’s largest departure from the US’s post-Cold War strategy, Trump wants to shift the balance of policy away from the so-called War on Terror toward containing and confronting its great power rival, China, as well as Russia and lesser regional powers like Iran and rogue states like North Korea. This has guided the administration’s actual policy, regardless of Trump’s bizarre “bromantic” affection for his fellow authoritarians, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. Thus, the administration has imposed trade tariffs on China and sanctions on Russia over Crimea and its assassination of an exiled dissident in Britain.

The administration policy is a reaction to the fact, as the Economist put it, that

China and Russia are entering into a renewal of great-power competition with the West. Their ambitions will be even harder to deal with than North Korea’s. Three decades of unprecedented growth have provided China with the wealth to transform its armed forces and given its leaders the sense that their moment has come. Russia, paradoxically, needs to assert itself now because it is in long-term decline. Its leaders have spent heavily to restore Russia’s hard power, and they are willing to take risks to prove they deserve respect and a seat at the table.23

The Trump administration aims to ensure that the US positions itself militarily with the hardware, troops, and high-tech weaponry to defeat both of these challengers and all others. They have already asked for a $716 billion military budget for 2019. The new spending is designed explicitly to prepare the United States to fight wars with China and Russia. Other administrations have done such planning behind the scenes, but it has been a long time since Washington has openly planned for wars with other great powers.

Fourth, Trump promises to adopt an America First posture in everything from trade to geopolitics. Sometimes that means the administration will abandon some multilateral deals like the TPP. In other cases, it will remain in them and pursue its national interests, as opposed to trying to build consensus among powers around common interests.

Continuing relative decline

Trump’s erratic implementation of the strategy of illiberal hegemony has so far been unable to reverse the relative decline of US imperialism, and in many ways has accelerated it. Prior to Trump, even the crudest American administrations used both consent and coercion to win hegemony in the world order. They used a combination of cultural, military, and economic power as well as various multilateral bodies from the WTO to the IMF and NATO to pursue American interests. Trump’s skepticism toward such institutions, his America First stance and his turn to an almost exclusive focus on hard power have alienated allies and enflamed antagonists, further weakening Washington’s ability to shape world events in its interests.

Trump’s sole success has been on the economic front. His tax cuts and deregulation have helped spur the recovery begun under the Obama administration to the fastest pace since the Great Recession, with a projected annual growth of 2.7 percent for 2018. But this remains far behind China’s growth, which even after slowing remains at more than 6.4 percent so far in 2018. Thus, China’s rise relative to the US continues.

On other fronts, Trump has been a disaster for the empire. His irrational hostility toward state bureaucracy, what Steve Bannon termed the “administrative state,” has led him to weaken key institutions of American imperialism and therefore its ability to prosecute its interests. For example, he proposed a 31 percent budget cut to the State Department, gutted the Foreign Service that staffs the embassies around the world, and has left 60 percent of ambassadorships vacant.24

Trump’s rhetoric and skepticism about the neoliberal order and the American state’s historic alliances have alienated a host of US allies from Australia to Britain and Germany. For example, German Chancellor Angela Merkel remarked, “We Europeans must really take our destiny into our own hands,”because “the times in which we can fully count on others are somewhat over.”25

Trump has compromised the US’s soft power, which Obama used to great effect to improve the standing of the US in the eyes of the world. Trump’s bigoted nationalism has undermined the image of the US as a model for the rest of the world, something of course that was always a myth but a useful one for American imperialism. His repeated attacks on Latin American immigrants, demonization of all Muslims, and dismissal of Haiti, El Salvador, and the nations of Africa as “shithole countries” have turned the majority of the world’s people against him. In a survey of some thirty-seven countries, Pew Research found that 74 percent have little or no confidence in Trump.26 They also found that in just one year in office Trump has driven down positive views of the US from 64 percent in 2016 to just 49 percent today.27

Washington’s adversaries have taken advantage of Trump’s policies and rhetoric to bolster their own standing and influence in the world. China’s Xi Jinping has led the charge, promising to end the country’s century of humiliation at the hands of Western imperialism and restore its status as a Great Power. China is not alone in its self-assertion. Russia is doing the same with Putin at the helm, and so are regional powers like Iran, among many others.

But China stands out as Washington’s greatest imperial rival, and it is becoming more assertive about its own role in the world as an alternative model to the US. At last year’s Davos Summit, Beijing’s representative boasted that China was prepared to defend free trade and globalization if Trump abandoned them for protectionism. At Davos this year, while Trump got the headlines, China aggressively worked business deals on the sidelines of the conference. The CEO of the German industrial giant, Siemens, went so far as to declare, “The China One Belt, One Road is going to be the new WTO—like it or not.”28

The struggle for supremacy in Asia

While the contest between the United States and China, as well as with Russia and various regional powers, plays out all over the globe, there are two central battlegrounds where the stakes are the highest—the Asia Pacific region and the Middle East. In both, American policy is in crisis, and Trump has only exacerbated it. These dynamics will only be briefly outlined here.

The Asia Pacific is a key imperial battleground because of the rise of China and the rest of the region, which is now a cornerstone of the world economy. Trump’s abandonment of the TPP has raised doubts throughout the region about his commitment to maintain its historic leadership through multilateral alliances.

As a result, regional powers and weaker states face a dilemma. Most are economically integrated with China, but they are wary of Beijing’s assertion of its power in the region. They remain reliant on Washington’s security umbrella, but they distrust Trump’s America First policies, which often put them at odds with Washington.

They are therefore forced to chart their own course, balancing between the two great power adversaries. Japan has continued to pursue the TPP on its own. It has repeatedly challenged China in various disputes, and there are interests in Japan seeking to repeal constitutional limits on its offensive military capacity. Some in Australia’s foreign-policy establishment are so concerned about China, the country’s largest trading partner, and the lack of American commitment to oversee a collective security umbrella against Beijing, that they advocate a military buildup of their own.

China has taken advantage of the situation to even more aggressively pursue its own regional strategy. Beijing is seeking to lock the region into an alternative trade deal to Japan’s TPP. It has intensified its construction of military bases on artificial islands throughout the South and East China Seas in order to control vital shipping lanes for its international commerce, assert its rights to fisheries, and open the waters up to deep-sea oil and natural gas exploration and extraction. This is a direct challenge to Washington, which has since World War II controlled the seas of the region and indeed the world.

Finally, China is taking advantage of Trump’s retreat from multilateral alliances to try to flip countries he has antagonized, such as the Philippines and Myanmar, back into its orbit by offering to include them in One Belt One Road infrastructure projects.

Trump’s response to these developments has been to impose protectionist tariffs on China to curb its economic power. In place of the TPP, he is pursuing bilateral trade deals with the states in the region. Just like Obama, he is trying to secure military alliances with states in conflict with China like Vietnam. But in the main he has doubled down on hard-power assertion in the region by deploying more naval ships to project American dominance over the Asia Pacific. Trump is also attempting to build a security alliance with India against China in what he calls the Indo-Pacific, a move that threatens to ramp up New Delhi’s conflicts with Beijing.

The most worrisome and terrifying conflict in the region is over North Korea. Trump wants to use the conflict over Pyongyang’s nuclear missile program to put China in its place. The United States is very much the aggressor on the Korean peninsula where it maintains a massive military force in South Korea, conducts regular military exercises with Seoul that target North Korea, and has repeatedly threatened regime change against Pyongyang. Long before Trump, Bush named North Korea a member of the “axis of evil” (along with Iran and Iraq).

Having watched the fate of Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong-un’s dictatorship doubled down on its nuclear missile program with the aim of deterring Washington’s aggression. China, which is the regime’s sole ally, has tried to push for diplomatic talks to resolve the crisis, so it can continue its economic expansion into South Korea, something the US is wary of because it fears losing influence over Seoul.

Successive American administrations have pressured China to adopt punitive sanctions against North Korea to force it to abandon its nuclear program. In reaction, Pyongyang has until recently only escalated its tests. Washington has manipulated the standoff to freeze the situation in place and discipline China at the same time.

Trump is a wild card in this equation. He came into office promising a hard line on North Korea, imposing strict sanctions and threatening the total destruction of the North with “fire and fury.” In response, Seoul’s new president Moon Jae-in has balanced between all sides and finally, in a shocking development, convinced Trump to meet Kim in a summit to start negotiations over some kind of solution.

Whether this will work or even whether the summit will happen is an open question. Many other powers in Asia, especially Japan, which has been the target of Kim’s missile launches, are angered that they were cut out of the process and are pushing Trump to take a harder line in any talks. Current CIA chief Mike Pompeo, if he is confirmed to replace the hapless Rex Tillerson as secretary of state, will push for a hawkish stance in any negotiations and policy.

If the talks fail, Trump could easily return to his earlier provocations that could trigger military conflict on the Korean peninsula. All the states in the region, however, want to avoid war. Regardless, the interimperial rivalry between the United States, China, and other states will only intensify over North Korea and many other geopolitical and economic disputes in the coming years and decades throughout the Asia Pacific.

The Middle East cauldron

The second key theater is the Middle East. It remains of central importance to the world system because of its enormous oil reserves, which still power the bulk of the world’s economies, especially China’s. Even after becoming the largest oil producer in the world, Washington is committed to preserving its hegemony in the region.

After Bush’s disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, Obama tried to salvage the situation by withdrawing forces from both countries. He abandoned regime change for regime preservation in the wake of the Arab Spring revolts, and cut a deal with Iran to curtail its nuclear program in return for loosening sanctions on the country. Obama tried to balance between the region’s main powers, Iran and Saudi Arabia. After the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, he became focused on defeating this threat to regional stability, largely relying on regional proxy armies and militias, backed by US air power along with arms and logistical support. With the weakening of Washington’s position and its preoccupation with ISIS, regional and imperial powers have become increasingly assertive in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia are now locked in an intensifying rivalry played out in countries throughout the region. Turkey has done the same.

Russia and China have also begun playing a bigger role in the region. Russia, in concert with Iran and Hezbollah, intervened in Syria to save Bashar al-Assad and help crush the Syrian revolution. Russia as well as China have also established military and economic relationships with US allies Egypt and Turkey.

The threat to American dominance in the region does not just come from rival states but also from below because, as Gilbert Achcar argues, the region remains trapped in the same protracted revolutionary crisis that originally caused the Arab Spring.29 For now, counterrevolutions have either won or triggered civil wars that have reduced whole countries like Yemen to barbarism.

None of the states, however, have solved the problems that led to the regional revolt in the first places—the absence of democracy, their dependence on declining oil revenues, and neoliberal policy measures that have impoverished their populations. These will continue to provoke new rounds of popular struggle in the coming years and decades. We can see examples of this in recent protests in Iran, Tunisia, and Morocco.

Just like the Obama administration, Trump has been principally focused on defeating ISIS through deploying advisers to various proxies and backing them up with air power in both Iraq and Syria. In fact, the use of drone and air strikes in the region has been expanded considerably under Trump’s watch, causing a doubling in civilian deaths over the previous year. According to the watchdog group Airwars, as many as 6,000 people were killed last year by US-led coalition air strikes.30

With ISIS now largely defeated, however, all the problems facing American imperialism remain. The US is in a diminished position in both Syria and Iraq. Russia, Iran, and Hezbollah saved Assad’s dictatorship, and all of them have forged a complicated alliance. Meanwhile, Washington’s nominal ally Turkey has launched a war in Syria against American-backed Kurdish forces, which the United States is in the process of selling out. In Iraq, Iran has an upper hand over the US, with both backing the Shia fundamentalist regime of Haidar al-Abadi.

To deal with these setbacks, Trump has abandoned Obama’s balance of power between the regional powers to side with Washington’s traditional allies, Saudi Arabia and Israel, in a bloc against Iran and its allies. He has threatened to rip up Obama’s rapprochement with Tehran, nix the deal over its nuclear program, and reimpose sanctions. So far, however, the generals and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, at least until his unceremonious firing, have successfully prevented him from doing so.

Trump has struck new weapons deals with Saudi Arabia and green-lighted its aggressive posture against Iran in its proxy war in Yemen and throughout the Middle East. Similarly, Trump has doubled down on US support for Israel. He has abandoned even the semblance of the US being an “honest broker” between Israel and Palestine, something that was a useful fiction to give cover to the Palestinian Authority while it engaged in fruitless negotiations and received aid to police the Palestinian masses.

Trump announced plans to move the US embassy to Jerusalem—an act that will inflame public opinion throughout the region against Washington—and then cut contributions to the UN and aid to Palestinian refugees. His attempts to ban Arab and Muslim refugees, immigrants, and even tourists will only further alienate the region’s masses.

Trump’s strategy has thus far been unable to restore American domination in the region but has managed to enflame regional conflicts.

Anti-imperialism and international solidarity

The United States remains the dominant power in today’s world; it faces, however, adversaries of all sorts, most importantly China. That will be the central interimperial contest in the coming decades. The Economist, the magazine of the Davos globalists, is so worried about this conflict that it emblazoned a recent cover with the headline, “The Next War: The Growing Threat of Great Power Conflict.”31 Foreign policy wonks like Edward Luttwak32 and the still- living war criminal Henry Kissinger33 contemplate the wisdom of a preventive strike on North Korea. Scientists who manage the so-called Doomsday Clock are so worried about nuclear war that they moved the clock’s hands the closest to midnight since the height of the Cold War in 1953.34

We should be clear, however, that we are not yet on the verge of such wars, even over North Korea, for two key reasons: First, the internationalization of the world economy over the last several decades mitigates the tendency toward war between great powers. China and the United States remain economically tied together in many strategic ways. Second, the spread of nuclear weapons among the world’s imperial and regional powers lessens the tendency toward war. This leads powers to shrink back from total war, which would risk mutual annihilation, including of its ruling classes.

At the same time, no one should forget that the last great wave of internationalization at the beginning of the twentieth century ended in two world wars. We should not forget that the US and Russia nearly launched nukes against one another several times during the Cold War, most dramatically during the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis. So, while global economic integration and mutually assured destruction are mitigating factors, they do not preclude wars between these great rivals. Indeed, the system will in the coming decades increasingly drive their rivalry and that of others in that direction.

Amidst this interimperial competition, all the powers from the US to China and Russia are whipping up great power nationalism. Beijing’s Xi boasts that “the Chinese nation . . . has stood up, grown rich, and become strong—and it now embraces the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation. . . . It will be an era that sees China moving closer to center stage.”35 Putin’s exhortations for Russia to reclaim its position in the world could be summarized as nothing less than his own promise to “Make Russia Great Again.”

In the United States, Trump leads the nationalist charge; but the Democrats are not far behind with their own rants against Russia and China. For example, Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer has actually staked out a position to the right of Trump on China. He attacked Beijing for taking “us to the cleaner when it comes to the economy. China has stolen millions of jobs and trillions of dollars.”36 He went so far as to attack Trump during his state visit for acting “like a lap dog to Xi and China.”37

In this situation, the emerging Left in the United States must avoid two fatal mistakes. First and foremost, it must not adapt to the patriotism that both capitalist parties are churning out. Even when nationalism comes dressed in liberal garb it leads us to pledge allegiance to the American ruling class and its state—the most militarized, most violent state in the world—in lieu of building solidarity with our working-class sisters and brothers throughout the world.38 We must reject such social patriotism and instead stand firmly against US imperialism.

We must also avoid a second and equally deadly mistake of siding, as some on the left do, with American imperialism’s international and regional rivals—oppressive, exploitive regimes whose foreign policies are no more progressive than that of the United States. The Party for Socialism and Liberation, Workers World, and prominent journalists like Patrick Cockburn and Robert Fisk support China, Russia, Syria, or Iran as supposedly anti-imperialist states, and oppose popular uprisings against them. They side with the ruling classes of those states and dismiss struggles from below as “color revolutions” hatched by the US and its allies.

The emerging socialist Left must reject such an approach. The genuine Marxist tradition combines opposition to all forms of imperialism—and as socialists in the US, our chief enemy is US imperialism—with the principle of international solidarity with national liberation struggles like those of the Kurds, Palestinians, and Tibetans, as well as working-class risings like the recent one in Iran, regardless of whether the regimes facing revolt are allied with, or in conflict with, the United States. This is the tradition of socialism from below that is crucial for the development of a new Left throughout the world on sound anti-imperialist and internationalist foundations.

  1. Eliot Cohen, “Trump’s Lucky Year: Why the Chaos Can’t Last,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018, 2.
  2. Barry Posen, “The Rise of Illiberal Hegemony: Trump’s Surprising Grand Strategy,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2018, 20.
  3. National Security Strategy, December 2017,
  4. For a more thorough discussion of Hardt and Negri’s position see Tom Lewis, “The Empire Strikes Out,” International Socialist Review 24, July-August 2002,
  5. For a critique of their argument, see Ashley Smith, “Global Empire or Imperialism,” International Socialist Review 92,
  6. An outlier of this admittedly broad categorization of different positions is the one advocated by William Robinson. In works such as The Theory of Global Capitalism (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2004), he argues that the globalization of the capitalist system has led to the development of an emergent transnational capitalist class. This class, he contends, has taken control of the world’s states and is in the process of creating a transnational state through international political and economic institutions. However distinct this argument, like that of Hardt and Negri, it struggles to explain the obvious and growing imperial rivalry between the US, China, and Russia.
  7. Radhika Desai, “The BRICS are Building a Challenge to Western Supremacy,” The Guardian, April 2, 2013,
  8. For more on this, see Ashley Smith, “Anti-imperialism and the Syrian Revolution,” Socialist Worker, August 25, 2016,
  9. Patrick Bond and Ana Garcia eds., BRICS: An Anti-Capitalist Critique (Chicago: Haymarket Books, 2015).
  10. Claudio Katz, “Imperialism Today: A Critical Assessment of Latin American Dependency Theory,” March 12, 2018,
  11. For a more detailed overview and defense of this classical theory of imperialism, see Phil Gasper’s “Introduction” in Imperialism and War (Chicago: Haymarket, 2017).
  12. Francis Fukuyama, The End of History and the Last Man (New York: Free Press, 1992).
  13. Democracy Now! “Ret. Army General Odom: The U.S. Should ‘Cut and Run’ from Iraq,” October 4, 2005,
  14. For different analyses of the nature of this economic epoch, see David McNally, Global Slump (San Francisco: PM Press, 2010) and Michael Roberts, The Long Depression (Chicago: Haymarket, 2016).
  15. Mike Patton, “U.S. Role in Global Economy Declines by Nearly 50%,” Forbes, February 29, 2016,
  16. Malcolm Scott and Cedric Sam, “Here’s How Fast China’s Economy is Catching up to the US,”, May 12, 2016,
  17. For a more thorough discussion of Obama’s pivot, see Ashley Smith, “US Imperialism’s pivot to Asia,” International Socialist Review 88,
  18. Walter Russell Mead, “Trump Brings Foreign Policy Back to Earth,” Wall Street Journal, November 29, 2017,
  19. David Lawder and Michael Martina, “Trump is Considering Tariffs on $60 Billion of Chinese Tech Imports as Part of Intellectual Property Crack Down,” Business Insider, March 14, 2018,
  20. Josh Mitchell and Melissa Korn, “Targetting China, Trump Threatens Student Visas. That Would Hit a Big US Export,” The Wall Street Journal, March 16, 2018,
  21. Laurie Burkitt, “American Companies Say Doing Business in China is Getting Tougher,” The Wall Street Journal, January 19, 2016,
  22. Chuy Chazan, “Backlash Grows Over Chinese Deals for Germany’s Corporate Jewels,” Financial Times, March 12, 2018,’s-corporate-jewels.Sk-AzkHKG.html.
  23. “The Growing Danger of Great Power Conflict,” Economist, January 25, 2018,
  24. Robbie Gramer, Dan De Luce, and Colum Lynch, “How the Trump Administration Broke the State Department,” Foreign Policy, July 31, 2017,
  25. Rick Allen and Rory Mulholland, “Angela Merkel Says Europe Can No Longer Rely on US or UK—And ‘Must Fight for Its Own Destiny’,” The Telegraph, May 28, 2017,
  26. Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter, Janell Feterolf, “Worldwide Few Confident in Trump or His Policies,” Pew Research Center, June 26, 2017,
  27. Richard Wike, Bruce Stokes, Jacob Poushter, Janell Feterolf, “U.S. Image Suffers as Publics Around the World Question Trump’s Leadership,” Pew Research Center, June 26, 2017,
  28. Keith Bradsher, “At Davos, the Real Star May Have Been China, Not Trump,” The New York Times, January, 28, 2018,
  29. See Gilbert Achcar, The People Want (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013) and Morbid Symptoms (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016).
  30. Margaret Sullivan, “Middle East Civilian Deaths Have Soared under Trump. And the Media Mostly Shrug,” Washington Post, March 18, 2018,
  31. The Economist, “The Next War: The Growing Threat of Great Power Conflict,” January 27, 2018,
  32. Edward Luttwack, “It’s Time to Bomb North Korea,” Foreign Policy, January 18, 2018,
  33. Alastair Tancred, “A Nuclear first Strike is ‘Tempting,’ Says Legendary U.S. Diplomat Henry Kissinger as Kim Jong-un is Pushing Toward War,” The Daily Mail, February 2, 2018,
  34. Laura Koran, “‘Doomsday Clock’ Clicks Closer to Apocalyptic Midnight,” CNN, January 25, 2018,
  35. Tom Phillips, “Xi Jinping Heralds a ‘New Era’ of Chinese Power at Communist Party Congress,” The Guardian, October 18, 2017,
  36. Ted Barrett, “Trump ‘All Talk No Action’ on China,” CNN, April 11, 2017,
  37. Laura Bannon-Lopez, “Chuck Schumer: Trump ‘Acts Like a Lap Dog’ to China,” The Washington Examiner, November 12, 2017,
  38. For an example of Bernie Sanders’s allegiance to American imperialism see Ashley Smith, “Ruling the World for Good?” Socialist Worker, September 28, 2017,

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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