Neo-Imperialism and the 2016 Campaigns (Reply to Marchmaine)

World Around the United States - National Atlas of the United States (1970) Detail

Marchmaine, March 5, 2016 at 12:46 pm:

I won’t argue that President Obama has been better than a hypothetical President Rubio (or more likely President Clinton), but this is really not something that one can use to point out his Foreign Policy bona fides. He wasn’t precisely “rushing” into Syrian war, but he was absolutely rounding up the consensus for putting boots on the ground in Syria.

It is a rare thing, worth studying, that American public opinion was uniquely opposed to this intervention; In fairness to Obama, it was partially stoked by raw Republican contrariness (contrary even to their own plans), but it was also the first sign (for those that wanted to see it) that the Interventionist consensus was no longer being accepted without scrutiny.

Blame Republicans, if you want, for a completely incoherent obstructionist approach to Syria, but a feather in his cap Syria is not.

I agree that that “rare thing” is “worth studying.” The significance of that moment – crystallized in the reversal on “punishing” Assad – should not, in my view, be underestimated.

I wrote about it extensively at the time.1 What emblematically defines that moment is this: It was a fiasco for Obama, but decisively not for a significant faction within Obama’s coalition, or for the theory of the presidency that Obama’s election and re-election represented for them and arguably for the nation. Put differently: The moment was a fiasco for the “imperial presidency,” which is or was a central element of and requirement for the US role in the post-WW2 security system. Obama survived and somewhat recovered – perhaps because he adapted to the moment instead of fighting it – but a neo-isolationist or “realist” president will be a smaller figure than “Leader of the Free World.”

The moment may have effectively decided who Obama would be for world history, though we still cannot know whether he will be recalled as a figure of retrenchment – the legacy consensus stretched near a breaking point, but saved – or as a transitional figure. As to the latter possibility, but keeping in mind that developments of this type might require multiple presidential terms to consolidate, Trump and Trumpism generally represent the first of two main roles or tendencies for a post-imperial United States:

  1. “Jacksonian” nationalism within a chaotically dis-assembling international order – thus also Trump’s renegade pronouncements regarding post-WW2 international law and its precepts.
  2. Neo-isolationism seeking maximal removal from global conflict.

Related to the Republican campaigns: 1 = Donald Trump; 2 = Rand Paul. (Those yearning for movement in the direction of tendency #2 often wishfully mistake #1 for it.) Marco Rubio represents American Imperialism or Neo-Imperialism, (Neo-)Conservative Tendency –  we could number it “0” or “3” depending upon how far we believes things have gone, so whether we see the objective to be closer to “continuity” or closer to “restoration.” Ted Cruz may represent an attempt at new synthesis from the right, and the difficulties of achieving it on the fly (or ever) may have something to do with uncharacteristic stumbles by the smooth-talking conviction politician – calling for “surgical carpet bombing,” being for after he was against surveillance state measures, and so on.

Some may deem these considerations irrelevant to the election, or at best secondary, according to the familiar claim that, absent an ongoing major war or escalated external threat, “foreign policy” moves few voters compared to “the economy.” The argument ignores the extent to which the latter is thoroughly embedded within the former, from immigration to taxes, inequality, and income stagnation. The intention to focus on standard of living or domestic affairs is itself a foreign policy principle, and its maintenance relies on the world’s cooperation or at least its relative stability. At the same time, any consistent, extended maintenance of any stance may not be a potential of American politics at all, now as ever, absent a system-external unifying impetus. (Warfare up to and including major interstate wars has been the historically typical or one might even say natural, arguably necessary, course of politico-military re-alignment and the deconstruction of empires.)

In other words the struggle playing out within the Republican presidential primaries is part of a larger struggle within American politics and globally. In the same connection, but on the Democratic side, to the extent Bernie Sanders registers, he might represent a neo-isolationist tendency by default or aspirationally, while one mode for near-term resolution or attempted deferral of the struggle in its most urgent forms – so, temporization – would be in the election of Hillary Rodham Clinton, on behalf of a still functional Democratic governing coalition united, or provisionally re-united, under liberal internationalism or: Neo-Imperialism, (Neo-)Liberal Tendency. Hillary Clinton’s task would be similar to her husband’s, but possibly much more complex, reflecting the differences between early ’90s triumphalism and 21st Century global disorientation.

Map: Detail from “The World Around the United States (1970)” – USG Publication


  1. For notes on Obama in particular see especially Part 1: Minimum Leader. []

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5 comments on “Neo-Imperialism and the 2016 Campaigns (Reply to Marchmaine)

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    • Thanks for reading ’em. Motivated me to take another look as well. I still stand by the series.

      I have a longish post on the ordinary wisdom regarding US “militarism” and “interventionism” that I’ve been sitting on, and re-working, since December. It extends the discussion of the Iron Law of Irony or the Cunning of History with which the East Ghouta series concludes. In short, I think the world makes the case as it were empirically for an America-centric neo-empire, or global neo-imperialism, which has to be distinguished from the older forms of imperialism, and is not the same as an American-national imperium extended over the brave new world and all the people in’t. The analysis suggests to me that we may remain congenitally incapable of accepting the case except in authentic terror of the alternatives, effectively compelling us or the younger generation to replicate the experience, til kingdom come.

  1. Interesting article by J Goldberg @ The Atlantic covering similar ground. The conclusion:

    Obama has come to a number of dovetailing conclusions about the world, and about America’s role in it. The first is that the Middle East is no longer terribly important to American interests. The second is that even if the Middle East were surpassingly important, there would still be little an American president could do to make it a better place. The third is that the innate American desire to fix the sorts of problems that manifest themselves most drastically in the Middle East inevitably leads to warfare, to the deaths of U.S. soldiers, and to the eventual hemorrhaging of U.S. credibility and power. The fourth is that the world cannot afford to see the diminishment of U.S. power. Just as the leaders of several American allies have found Obama’s leadership inadequate to the tasks before him, he himself has found world leadership wanting: global partners who often lack the vision and the will to spend political capital in pursuit of broad, progressive goals, and adversaries who are not, in his mind, as rational as he is. Obama believes that history has sides, and that America’s adversaries—and some of its putative allies—have situated themselves on the wrong one, a place where tribalism, fundamentalism, sectarianism, and militarism still flourish. What they don’t understand is that history is bending in his direction.

    “The central argument is that by keeping America from immersing itself in the crises of the Middle East, the foreign-policy establishment believes that the president is precipitating our decline,” Ben Rhodes told me. “But the president himself takes the opposite view, which is that overextension in the Middle East will ultimately harm our economy, harm our ability to look for other opportunities and to deal with other challenges, and, most important, endanger the lives of American service members for reasons that are not in the direct American national-security interest.”

    If you are a supporter of the president, his strategy makes eminent sense: Double down in those parts of the world where success is plausible, and limit America’s exposure to the rest. His critics believe, however, that problems like those presented by the Middle East don’t solve themselves—that, without American intervention, they metastasize.

    At the moment, Syria, where history appears to be bending toward greater chaos, poses the most direct challenge to the president’s worldview.

    George W. Bush was also a gambler, not a bluffer. He will be remembered harshly for the things he did in the Middle East. Barack Obama is gambling that he will be judged well for the things he didn’t do.

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TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

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