A anthropologist explains what happened to the American Empire

Summary: Anthropologist Maximilian Forte explains the dynamics of our mad (and unprofitable) empire, why we love it, and its eventual end.

The history of American imperialism. Click to enlarge.

History of American imperialism

What Happened to the American Empire?

By Maximilian C. Forte
From Zero Anthropology, 11 January 2018.
Reposted with his generous permission.

Has anything out of the ordinary happened to the US as an imperialist power since the ascent of Trump to office? While the continuities between Trump and his predecessors are considerable, have there been any significant discontinuities that mark the first year of this presidency? Is there any reason to think that the rise of Trump could still become a historical turning point in the fortunes of the US empire, one that accelerates its continuing decline?

Before proceeding any further I want to assure the reader that none of what follows is meant to validate those who lament Trump because they think he is not imperialist enough, not sufficiently sanguine about maintaining a US-dominated “world order,” because for them these are essentially positive values worth maintaining. It is neither my intention to donate free labour to provide confirmation bias for any activist cause, nor to caress any of the prevailing political sentiments of the moment.

For reasons that differ from the imperial advocates of the legendary “liberal international order,” one can still make the case that Trump — added to an array of other actors and forces, both national and international — is far from an ideal figure for empire, and one can make that case without having to praise the virtues of empire. Similarly, it would be irresponsible to reduce analysis to one single actor, one single ideology, divorced from the web of social and global relations that always move together, even (especially) when at odds, in reshaping if not undermining empire.

Imperialism, by poasterchild
By poasterchild at DeviantArt.

I ask the questions above precisely because they are so counterintuitive, since one can make the case for continuity much more easily and with more evidence. However, the case for continuity has its own problem: stasis, and history always has a way of proving stasis to be illusory and momentary. No empire lasts forever, and the argument for stasis is simply unrealistic. At some point, everyone is going to need to ask: How did things change? When did they change?

The most convincing arguments I have read thus far, see the current decline of US dominance as beginning around the end of the war in Vietnam, with some brief moments of respite, even a rally, along the way. Trump would thus represent a moment along the downward slope. In 2016, Trump was a swan song. Since Trump has decided to redefine himself as globalist, that almost makes the case for decline stronger: if Trump is the best form of containment and diversion that the global order ruled by the transnational capitalist class can offer, it is in serious trouble.

One can make the case that both Trump the candidate (Trump 2016) and Trump the president (Trump 2017+) produced a fertile international environment for fostering ideas and actions in other nations that provoked them into at least thinking about how to enhance their national self-determination and how to increase their distance from US influence. Actions in that regard could further undermine US power, which cannot extend itself unilaterally for long. In other words, from Trump’s White House there have already been a series of statements, policies, and actions that either directly or indirectly, intentionally or not, provoked predictably nationalist responses from numerous nations, going against the globalist program that opposed nationalism. To different degrees this has worked to move those nations (further) away from the US orbit.

The result is that this actually or potentially lessens the centrality of US power in their affairs, and discounts the value of the US as the central arbiter of the globalizing process. In addition, this accelerates the deglobalization process that has been underway since 9/11 at the latest. We can begin with a brief list of some key examples from 2017:

  • Most spectacularly, even if underplayed in the US media, was Turkey (a major NATO member) moving away from the US orbit and realigning itself diplomatically and militarily more with Russia;

  • The Philippines, even without focusing on the very explicit denunciations of US imperialism by President Rodrigo Duterte, bypassed the US in acquiring weapons and openly acknowledged it would move closer to China and Russia;

  • The continuing advance of Russian and Chinese regional integration programs;

  • EU leaders almost regularly criticized the Trump administration: denouncing new US sanctions on Russia, the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the US position against the Iran nuclear agreement;

  • Cuba, forced to realize that good relations with the US are far-fetched, proceeded to instead normalize its continued economic realignment with alternative powers, such as China;

  • Venezuela and Iran, two major powers in their respective regions, faced increased hostility from the US under Trump, thus making the non-military expansion of US influence in their regions less tenable;

  • Related to the last point, the expansion of Iranian influence in Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, and now Iran’s naval vessels are patrolling the Gulf of Mexico in a reciprocal action for the US naval presence in the Persian Gulf;

  • Canada, the US’ number one trading partner of long-standing, faced punitive US tariffs designed to keep Bombardier out of the US market, and faced similar tariffs on softwood lumber and new calls for US penetration of the Canadian dairy market. Canada now encounters the prospect of the demise of NAFTA, which follows the collapse of the TPP. Canada is also tightening its immigration controls, no longer loudly boasting of its welcoming openness to refugees or proudly pointing to its sanctuary cities — now virtually the opposite message has become dominant;

  • The overwhelming majority of nations at the UN voted to condemn the US for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, effectively isolating it in a rare show of unity in the face of ugly US threats and intimidation;

  • Related to the last point, the exclusion of the US as any sort of partner, let alone mediator, in the attempt to develop a peace process between Israel and Palestine;

  • The decline of US diplomacy, not just because of continually mixed messages and chaos within the US Department of State, but because agreements signed with the US have lost value since the US cannot be relied upon to honour its commitments — examples including the Iran nuclear agreement and the Paris climate change accord;

  • Similar to the last point, the almost complete nullification of US “soft power,” “public diplomacy,” and the “humanitarian” commitment to the “responsibility to protect” — all of these terms being absent from Trump’s National Security Strategy.

The Global Multiplication of Trump: “Openness” is a Pathway for Neocolonialism.

The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Spies, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare
Available at Amazon.

US dominance would be fictional if major changes in US politics failed to make an impact around the world. It makes sense that some of the responses to Trump have ended up mirroring Trump’s nationalism and protectionism. Other responses, such as North Korea’s, instead mirror Trump’s militarism and bravado. If in a relationship between two states the more powerful state begins to effectively close itself up by reclaiming maximum privileges for itself in trade, investment, national security, and military action, while the less powerful state remains open and easy to penetrate, then there is a transfer of costs to the open side and thus a loss of capital, and power.

Trump’s “America First” policy and his idea of “winning” leave little to no room for other nation-states to “win” as well — if they did leave any room, it would suggest that there was some residual area of strategic gain that Trump failed to spot and sweep up. This becomes especially clear when it comes to the issue of borders, refugees, and immigration, where the US has essentially transferred some of the costs of its immigration policy to Canada which failed to close itself off in time — indeed, opening itself even further in what was a monumental blunder and failure of leadership in Canada. (Those of us who warned of this from the start, and foresaw that this shift would have to come, were hysterically lambasted for being “alt-right”.)

To the extent that Trump breeds variations of himself across the globe, then we have a situation where national independence is maximized, and US-dominated globalization is in retreat. In addition, the flourishing number of sanctions imposed by the US, wherever there is a sign of even slight resistance to US dominance, effectively achieves the same thing: a cutting off of the US from playing a significant role in another nation’s “development,” thus shutting off or diminishing the possibility of US capital accumulation in that nation. US sanctions can also allow alternative powers to expand their economic influence, not to mention encouraging the expansion of the global black market. The fact that US sanctions routinely fail to achieve their stated aims is itself a proof of the decline of US power. After all, Syria has just won a war against masses of foreign-backed jihadists, while under stiff Western sanctions. Moreover, the repeated insistence on using sanctions, now becoming a reflex action, suggests a dim-witted leadership, a leadership in decline that is beside itself and at a loss for what to do.

Accidentally Anti-Imperialist.

Was it out of generosity for others that Trump stoked nationalist responses to his nationalism? Is he a clever agent of destabilization? I very much doubt that one can make an affirmative case for either. What Trump has done, among other things, is to render the previously dominant narratives of US hegemony less credible, less tenable, and less consistent, while simultaneously making the projection of US power both less sustainable and more abrasive. By then introducing — as privileged values — an affirmation of the nation-state and sovereignty, Trump has bifurcated the dominant US narrative, crashing the elite ideological dominance of globalism, so that the US narrative now contains within itself contradictory logical seeds that can be fertile for the growth of approximations of anti-imperialism within the US. This may explain why Trump can earn so many equivocal reviews even from the leaders of states targeted by the US.

Moreover, by often taking the wrong course of action, and handling it with a mixture of what seems like incompetence, confusion, and vulgar jingoism, Trump has (perhaps unintentionally) achieved similar outcomes to what might be expected of a deliberate anti-imperialist: alienating US allies; heightening resistance from “adversaries”; diminishing US credibility (effectively terminating any of its “soft power”); pinning the US down in too many zones of conflict; advancing economic and financial competition by rival states; engaging a hostile regime-change media at home (which is not to blame him for defending himself); and, fuelling a domestic “culture war” — all of these would be much sought after achievements for any serious anti-imperialist effort that aimed to undermine the US through calculated acts of sabotage.

Others have also noted that Trump, through his international antagonism and abrasive policies and statements, is having the effect of shedding the load carried by the US, with others moving in to pick up the slack, thereby expanding their own patron-client relations as the US network starts to fray. On the other hand, this supposed “offloading,” to the extent that it is only a delegation of authority through a dispersal of power, is not the same thing as an undoing of imperial rule.

In a sign of how far off the cliff the US has fallen, both the Trump presidency and its domestic opposition act almost as if they were mutually conspiring to achieve the same international demise of the US. Therefore we already have one answer to our lead question: whatever is happening to the US empire is by no means Trump’s doing alone.

Imperial Grunts
Available at Amazon.…………….

“De-Imperialization” in the US Context.

One also needs to be realistic instead of waiting for deliverance by angels: in the near term it is as likely for US citizens to elect an avowedly anti-imperialist president, as they would elect a socialist president. The chances of either happening within our lifetimes are close to nil. We would understand that if we spent some time trying to understand the powerful cultural undercurrents that continue to shape US politics and that are even being revitalized.

To put it simply, one could never realistically expect the dominant frame and terms of reference to change so radically as to make “anti-imperialism” an official government policy — that is just asking too much of the vast majority of Americans. One should therefore be willing to work with the cards that history has dealt, with all of its biases and prejudices, and look for momentary breakthroughs or turning points — normative and material precedents that can produce unanticipated outcomes. Within the US, anti-imperialists would need to learn how to speak the basic messages of anti-imperialism, by reworking the dominant discourse and remaining within the US’ historical and cultural contexts, or it will simply be an alien, exotic theory that falls on deaf ears. That right wing anti-empire types have done so well in seizing the terrain is, in part at least, a testament to their ability to understand and work with the basic cultural stuff of American history.

Then there is the question of “collusion,” which is about as well-defined as “meddling” (which is to say: not at all). Allegations that the Trump campaign somehow “colluded” with the Russian government, have four main functions.

  1. To destabilize any effort by Trump to pull the US back from confrontation with Russia, which is seen (rightly or wrongly) as the chief obstacle to US-led neoliberal imperialism;
  2. To delegitimize Trump’s presidency by inventing a fictional crime;
  3. Related to the last point, to undo the results of a democratic election, punish voters, suppress dissent, and make it impossible for anything but a neoliberal imperialist candidate to campaign in the future; and,
  4. To offer face-saving cover for the incompetence of specialist elites who failed to win the 2016 election.

Adding to the fourth point, there are at least three oppositional approaches lined up against Trump. One acknowledges that Trump is the president, but insists that he should not be the president — this embraces neoconservatives, Democrats, and most of the media, who are looking for any angle to eventually impeach Trump or to demoralize his remaining supporters. The second tendency holds that Trump cannot be the president, because he needs to first be schooled/subverted by the likes of Paul Ryan, the vice-president, and the generals and Goldman Sachs executives in the cabinet. The third group comprises those who act as if Trump is not the president — this includes judges and members of Congress who seek to usurp executive authority (a rare reversal), and state governors who reject the constitutionality of White House decisions. It is difficult to find any US president in the last half-century who has faced the world while weakened so much at home, which in turn diminishes the standing of the US presidency abroad.

In some ways, the focus on Trump’s so-called “collusion” with Russia can be “productive”. There is no empire that has been or can be built without countless layers of collusion, collaboration, and cooperation, spread far and wide and as deeply into every society as possible. The US military and foreign policy establishments have turned this fact into canonical knowledge, dressed up as a “science” of “force multipliers”. If Trump did not collude with the Russians, the Clintons certainly did, just as Trump has actively colluded with Saudi Arabia and Israel, just as Saudi Arabia colluded with the Clinton Foundation, and so on.

If Trump had refused all forms of collusion, then his critics would have accused him of being disinterested, disengaged, and an isolationist who failed to work with others. The critique of collusion results in a lose-lose situation for the future of US interventionism. If Americans have suddenly discovered the need for a pristine geopolitical neutrality among US political leaders, then that can only be achieved by cutting off the many force multipliers that are part of the development of a global imperial reach. Without collusion, collaboration, and cooperation, there is no empire. The real danger of a successful “collusion” impeachment of Trump — one that the Democrats have either not factored into their calculations or do not even understand — is that it will create a standard by which future US presidential contenders will be judged, and hobbled. Already there are counter-investigations of the Clintons and Obama, on matters of “collusion” with Russia and Iran respectively. If no secretive collusion of any kind is to be tolerated, at the risk of outright impeachment, then the imperial presidency cannot survive.

One of the fruits of the controversies that have been manufactured with the hope of unseating Trump is that they bring to light a stark reality that has been covered up for many years: Americans across the political spectrum are clearly uncomfortable with the globalization that most of their leaders championed. From imagining Russian meddling, this has moved to efforts to cut off ties with Russia, a major power in the world, to calls from Diane Feinstein to collect information on anyone in the US with ties to Russia and who speaks Russian (i.e. Russian immigrants) — geopolitical conspiracy theory degenerating into base xenophobia, on the part of those who presume to denounce xenophobia and champion openness. On the other side, a renunciation of all forms of illegal immigration, whatever the reason for the influx, along with suspicion of refugees, and distrust of Muslims.

Beyond this group of Americans expressing dread about that group of foreigners — a truly bipartisan stance — the US has quietly led the deglobalization process in recent years, with mounting tariffs, protectionism, and corporate welfare (subsidies) which started years before Trump arrived on the scene. Where such revolt against the impacts of foreign engagement exists, no aspiration to global leadership can survive for long.

Similar to the problem of collaborating with foreign forces, there can be no way to sustain a “deep state,” or a “national security state,” outside of the framework of an imperial state. Wherever such structures exist, they exist either as a means of furthering empire while countering dissent at home, or in other states they develop in a defensive reaction against imperialist threats. Either way, it is imperialism that provides the fertile soil for unaccountable, repressive, secretive, militaristic and authoritarian political systems. If Americans are not willing to forfeit imperialism, they will never give up their deep state — and thus there is no point in complaining about the deep state, in the misleading manner of so many Republicans.

American Empire: The Rise of a Global Power, the Democratic Revolution at Home, 1945-2000
Available at Amazon.

Imperialist Warfare is Class Warfare.

One of the basic lessons that can be gleaned from a study of multiple imperialisms over the past five centuries, is that imperialist warfare is always class warfare. Imperialism is always class warfare at home, and usually it is class warfare abroad as well. Both at home and abroad, it is the so-called “lower” classes, the workers and peasants, who are dispossessed by imperialist extraction. Workers and peasants — sometimes even slaves — make up the bulk of the military forces conscripted by imperialist powers. Workers and peasants at home are the ones whose labour was exploited to fuel imperial dominance.

Abroad, the products of the labour of workers and peasants, and any productive assets they might have controlled, are usually what is targeted by imperialism. Any attempt to distract Americans from these basic, long-term, and inescapable empirical realities of class dominance and class divisions, any submersion of class beneath the weight of minoritarian identity issues, is by default if not by design an ideological program in the service of imperialism. The converse is also true: the rise of class consciousness in the US, or at least greater awareness of the plight of the working class, will erode the political support base for the increasing costs of maintaining empire abroad.

De-Imperialization?

On a separate matter, there is a critically important point to make before proceeding further. It is one that is too often overlooked or taken for granted. The point is this: it’s not the job of the imperialist centre to lead the cause against imperialism. The same applies to what is commonly called “decolonization” in North America — it is not the job of the colonizer to decolonize the colonized; and, since the colonizer was obviously not colonized, the decolonization of the colonizer is itself a very confusing proposition. If the colonizer were to capture the initiative in charting the form and content of decolonization, then this would represent an extension or evolution of colonization.

The only way for colonizers to aid decolonization, is to simply cease colonizing and to stop asserting themselves over others — otherwise decolonization cannot be either reverse colonization or the cultural de-Westernization of the West. However, our focus here is on contemporary imperialism, which is not based on either the creation or possession of colonies. (Oddly enough, while in North America the common bias among academics and activists is that imperialism no longer exists, somehow “decolonization” gets a free pass; numerous academics brand themselves with the junk term, “decolonial”.)

To put it simply: we should expect neither Trump nor any other US president to nullify imperialism. The most we can expect is withdrawal, a loss of faith, a collapse of the material bases of US power, leadership that is lacking, and so forth. We might call this de-imperialization, a term that is largely absent from public discourse conditioned as it has been by imperialist discourse.

American Empire by Andrew Bacevich
By Andrew Bacevich. Available at Amazon.

Trump 2016: The Seeds of Contradiction.

A virtual treasure chest of anti-interventionist stances can be found on a variety of cases, not just in Trump’s older Twitter messages, but in his previous publications, interviews with the media, and especially in speeches and debates during the 2016 electoral campaign. That not just the leading Republican candidate, but the winning presidential candidate, should have stood by such positions is in and of itself a major advance, even an unprecedented advance — at least if you accept that norms matter. What was previously dismissed out of hand by generations of US political leaders, was now given centre stage in US politics. What was previously silenced, or muted, was now spoken out loud. Anti-interventionism seemed to have joined or at least disrupted the mainstream. Precedents matter: the path has now been paved for future presidential candidates to adopt the same positions, without being seen as shockingly heretical as before, thanks to Trump’s groundbreaking campaign.

Some will argue that George W. Bush also argued for non-interventionism, against nation-building and world policing — but neither to the same extent as Trump, and certainly not for a moment did Bush make his case credibly since he was ardently in favour of defending the legacy of his father. Either way, it still makes the case that anti-interventionism is acquiring a prominent place in US politics, even if for now it is mostly as a convenient fiction. It is a fiction however that attracts popular support, a fact that is not lost on the worried elites (who are learning how quickly the fictions they loathe can become reality).

Words matter, but actions matter even more when it comes to de-imperialization. The challenge will persist with future candidates who promise one approach, and then take an opposite path once in office, as Trump has. However, thanks to Trump 2016, Trump 2017 was forced to defend himself, against himself, and he was held to this account by opposition and even friendly media, not to mention some of his political allies and (soon to be purged) White House insiders. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, there was a political cost to not being an anti-interventionist — for the person occupying the Oval Office. Unfortunately, that political cost — while it now exists as such — was a relatively minor cost, easily borne by Trump with an almost glib attitude.

A People's History of American Empire
Available at Amazon.

Trump 2017: Unveiling the Gilded Calf.

An ignorant American savage? A fat functional illiterate in an expensive suit? However one may choose to describe it, the classic character of the “ugly American” showed up to deliver a speech at the UN General Assembly in mid-September, 2017. The veneer had been burnt off: the true face of American aggression and expansionism stood up under the lights, for the world to see it as it is. Try being a non-American “force multiplier” for the US in such a context, where even once friendly allies have become distinctly cool. If Trump had consciously set about to repel imperialism’s force multipliers, he could not have done a better job than he did at the UN that day.

Many would condemn Trump’s speech, but remain silent about another aspect. That aspect is the increasingly indefensible inclination of some who continue to align themselves with such power — this naked representation of what US power has been all along, presented in a more honest form by Trump. Otherwise, aside from the many foreign policy continuities between Trump and his immediate predecessors, even Trump’s UN speech struck Russian ears as a distinctly familiar echo of UN speeches given by Barack Obama and George W. Bush.

Fox propagandist and former spokeswoman for George W. Bush, Dana Perino, praised Trump’s UN speech as “unambiguous”. Instead, more competent analysts saw it as a self-cancelling, self-contradicting speech that, on the one hand, promised an end to the US imposing itself on other nations and praised sovereignty, and on the other hand threatened to completely wipe out North Korea while menacing a series of nations in the global periphery (Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and Cuba). What could explain such a contradiction? Few bothered to ask. Even the usual domestic critics in the media who see/invent “racism” in every trivial action or obscure turn of phrase, suddenly went deaf to this possibility: that Trump respects sovereignty only for those who are qualified to possess it: White Western Christian nations, in loose terms. I suspect that Trump would like to see sovereignty repatriated to the small elite club of neocolonial powers like the ones that founded the UN and produced international law.

This possible interpretation was entirely lost to US “anti-racists” who remain firmly pro-imperialist. They thus missed what is a plausible thesis: Trump evidences the most respect for nations that are linked to the US through cultural parentage — but where cultural affinity is lacking, Trump chooses the American materialist’s preferred substitute for culture: money, and lots of it. Trump thus has great respect for European nations and Israel, but also China, Japan, and Saudi Arabia — that is the map of Trump’s world of sovereign states, and the rest are inhabited by what he would freely call “animals”.

Some will have forgotten the subtext of George H.W. Bush’s speech of September 11, 1990, heralding the arrival of a “new world order”. Reflecting on international support for US leadership in the first war against Iraq, Bush praised the United Nations: “We’re now in sight of a United Nations that performs as envisioned by its founders”. Its founders: that would be the representatives of the 50 nations that met first in San Francisco in 1945–a small club, dominated by European colonial powers, prior to the era of decolonization. The UN now has 193 members. Trump is by no means alone in expressing disdain for Third World sovereignty.

Not only does Trump seem to resent the sovereignty of Third World nations, he especially resents it when they choose socialism. What could one expect any American to understand of those histories of socialism, let alone an American billionaire? Trump declared at the UN, as if witty: “The problem in Venezuela is not that socialism has been poorly implemented, but that socialism has been faithfully implemented”. Ironically, just as he denounced socialism in his UN speech, Trump then turned around and falsely denounced Iran’s leaders for not sharing oil wealth with the people:

“Rather than use its resources to improve Iranian lives, its oil profits go to fund Hezbollah and other terrorists that kill innocent Muslims and attack their peaceful Arab and Israeli neighbors. This wealth, which rightly belongs to Iran’s people, also goes to shore up Bashar al-Assad’s dictatorship, fuel Yemen’s civil war, and undermine peace throughout the entire Middle East”. [emphases added]

And how do US oil and gas giants instead share their wealth with the American people? Not even on this supposedly socialist principle of sharing wealth (Americans think it’s socialism) did Trump’s speech avoid taking a contradictory stance. In fact, after denouncing socialism’s certain failures, Trump’s own speech then spoke of the millions in the US who were cheated by their system: “our great middle class, once the bedrock of American prosperity, was forgotten and left behind”. Here too Trump’s incompetence is refreshing: after hectoring Iran with a holier-than-thou attitude, he then candidly admits to the US’ own many social and economic failures.

The contradictions did not stop there. After promising not to impose US values, Trump dedicated himself to interfering in Venezuela’s domestic politics, making that goal explicit in his speech: “That goal is to help them regain their freedom, recover their country, and restore their democracy” (never mind the democracy deficit in the US). As for North Korea, it was given a clear message that it could not miss: never disarm. After the lessons of Iraq and Libya, two states that caved in and gave up their weapons of mass destruction, only to be annihilated as a reward — and after Iran, which watched Trump stomp on a recently concluded multilateral agreement — the only path North Korea could reasonably take is one that accelerated development of sophisticated nuclear weapons. Trump’s speech was like the man constructed by his critics: weak, incoherent, visionless, disassembled, unreliable, untrustworthy, dishonest, and vain.

Colossus: The Rise and Fall of the American Empire
Available at Amazon.

Their Own Interests First.

One of the favourites among the American Great Myths is the fictional story of the grand altruism of the US toward other nations. To this day, vast numbers of Americans actually believe — like middle-aged children clinging to the Santa Claus story — that their numerous interventions, invasions and occupations abroad, and their limited civilian aid programs, are all done for the benefit of (ungrateful) people overseas. Trump is one of the keenest believers: he thinks that exterminating over a million Iraqis, dispersing more than four million of them as refugees (in a country of only 24 million), and flattening a number of their cities, was all a kindly act of “liberation,” enough to win the US all of Iraq’s oil, as he argued.

Ironically, this myth is the kernel of libertarian anti-imperialism, such as it is: American right wingers who resent “sharing” all the “benefits” delivered by US forces overseas, seen as wasteful government spending that also expands the size of Big Government. Here Trump’s UN speech is again relevant, in shedding the preposterous veneer. Now the US would not only be out for itself (has anything changed?), but the president also had a rationale to promote to those listening: “As president of the United States, I will always put America first, just like you, as the leaders of your countries will always, and should always, put your countries first”.

Always put your countries first.

If each nation is to pursue its own interests, first, then why should they, why would they ever submit themselves to US mandates? In reasserting sovereignty and independence, Trump would also force others to rethink their alliances with the US, even as he strangely continued to call for their “cooperation”. Not only did Trump take liberty in threatening a UN member state with total destruction, he has made it abundantly clear in the past that he can only countenance coming to the defence of others if the US is paid off. None of this welcomes cooperation.

Instead, what we have heard are different responses pushing back against US dominance — however dismal. In academia, there was now talk of boycotting conferences held in the US. I have not heard more of that, however, and I am not surprised that it was a momentary and insincere gesture. It was also a gesture that came too late: such a boycott was long overdue, and should have preceded Trump by decades. If anything, Western academics disgraced themselves with the obvious partisan opportunism, by implying that they were quite content with the system that preceded Trump, when there was not even a whisper of boycotts. Nonetheless, precedents matter: next time “boycott the USA” is voiced, it will sound familiar, not shockingly aberrant.

As for nations such as Cuba and Iran, they can take advantage of their long experience in learning to live without the US, as Trump returns to the worn out regime of sanctions. Cuba, Iran, North Korea, and others have developed myriad ways of adapting to years of sanctions, sanctions which drove former US client states into the arms of alternative/rival networks of trade, finance, and military assistance, whether those of competing states or the global black market. It’s the US which locks itself out of these markets, a fact bemoaned by numerous US corporate giants when it comes to Cuba, for example. In the US there has been a drive, growing stronger over recent years, toward the “normalization” of relations with Cuba, which Trump has aborted. (“Normalization” is a peculiar word by the way: a) the new normal was that Cuba learned to live without the US; and, b) there can be no return to the old normal, where US capitalists owned and controlled the country as a neo-colony.)

Imperial Withdrawal.

In addition to all of the problems discussed above, Trump himself shows no awareness of either the role or the need for “force multipliers”. After forcefully pushing away allies such as Qatar and Turkey, Trump would turn his sights on Pakistan at the start of 2018, while totally alienating the Palestinian leadership. The new year began with an eye-opening tweet from Donald Trump, suggesting he understood little or agreed little with US diplomats and military strategists and their years of work in developing “force multipliers”. Falling back on the old American myth that all US aid is disinterested charity, he wrote:

This was not the usual bluster either, as a National Security Council official said the White House does not plan to send $255 million in aid to Pakistan “at this time,” after already delaying an August 2017 payment. The Pakistani Foreign Ministry responded: “We do not need any financial assistance from the United States. We do not care about it. If America wants to stop it, we will loudly say go ahead” (emphasis added). Pakistan’s ambassador to the UN, amplified this rejection of US pressure:

“We have contributed and sacrificed the most in fighting international terrorism and carried out the largest counter terrorism operation anywhere in the world. We can review our cooperation if it is not appreciated.” {From Reuters.}

The Pakistani Prime Minister’s national security committee also stated:

“Recent statements and articulation by the American leadership were completely incomprehensible as they contradicted facts manifestly, struck with great insensitivity at the trust between two nations built over generations, and negated the decades of sacrifices made by the Pakistani nation”. {From Reuters.}

Meanwhile, China is expanding its influence into Pakistan, by constructing its second foreign military base. Turning his attention to the Palestinians, Trump effectively threatened them with punitive sanctions, even targeting Palestinian refugees, for denouncing the US’ recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel on December 6, 2017. Completely ignoring the US position on North Korea, that the country would have to “earn” its way back to diplomatic talks, South Korea decided to host talks on its own, further underlining the continuing differences between South Korea and the US on defence and trade. Interestingly, South Korean trade with China is increasing by almost the exact same amount as it is decreasing with the US.

Pakistan, the Palestinians, and before them Turkey, all essentially told Trump “we don’t care” and “we don’t need you”. Trump for his part said “we don’t care” when it came to the threat of withdrawing “aid” to US allies who denounced the US for violating international law in recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Suddenly, nobody “cares” any more. That is not how an empire is supposed to work: empires make everyone care, whether they like it or not. Thus a certain degree of dysfunctionality has already set in, best represented by Trump’s malpractice as a leader. Trump believes the US is indispensable, but then sees a world where supposedly everyone is disrespecting and ripping off the US — these two views are incompatible.

Then there are the bridgeheads. In Johan Galtung’s “A Structural Theory of Imperialism” (Journal of Peace Research, 1971), there can be no imperial centre without bridgeheads abroad. In effect, there can be no sustainable imperialism without the support of bridgeheads. For the purposes of the theory, bridgeheads comprise those privileged local intermediaries of imperial power — political elites that rule in favour of the imperial centre; military elites schooled in the imperial centre; academic elites that serve as missionaries for empire; and, local economic elites that facilitate the extraction of capital in the imperial centre’s favour, while keeping a cut for themselves. So critical are these bridgeheads, these “force multipliers” of empire, that without them it would be impossible to sustain an imperial enterprise: “Where there is no bridgehead for the Center nation in the center of the Periphery nation, there cannot be any imperialism by this definition” (Galtung, 1971, p. 85, emphasis added).

So where did the bridgeheads of US power stand in 2016? They were the ones that tried their best to maintain the imperial relationship, since it sustains their own power and privilege. We saw repeated episodes of the bridgeheads ostensibly “talking back” to what they perceived as a dangerously disinterested centre in the form of the Trump 2016 campaign. Thus during 2016, Trump was repeatedly harangued by leaders of the European Union, NATO, and heads of UN agencies, about the value of “globalization” and “American leadership”. Disappointed in Trump on these fronts, the German foreign minister — that’s the German foreign minister — went as far as declaring Trump to be “un-American”.

One could alter Galtung’s statement above: if there is no Centre for the bridgeheads, there can be no imperialism. The apparent reversals by Trump 2017 have done little to assuage the Europeans, especially when they saw “American leadership” taking an exclusivist approach to dominance, particularly in sanctioning Russia along with all European companies doing business with the Russian energy sector. The problem for the EU would not be that Trump was somehow “disinterested” and “disengaged” — quite the opposite.

Either way, we might be seeing the relationship between the US and its European bridgeheads taking too many dents to survive without repair, just a few years after France and Germany strongly sided with Russia in opposing the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. Since Trump came into office, the EU has departed from US policy on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal, Jerusalem, Iran, and Cuba.

With the US seemingly pulling out of favoured arrangements with allies and proxies, we are seeing something that approximates imperial withdrawal. Had this been the period between the late 1940s and 1960s, and had we been discussing the British case, we would be in the process of starting to call this “decolonization”.

The Nowhere Capitalist and the Capital of Nowhere.

Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel produced a huge moment in international politics. In the UN Security Council, all members (except the US) voted to condemn the US decision. Then, in an overwhelming vote, the majority of member states of the UN General Assembly rejected US threats and intimidation, and voted to condemn the US move to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — 128 voting against the US, and only eight siding with the US. Trump recklessly and needlessly turned this into a referendum on his credibility, on the legitimacy of the US’ position, and on the legality of the Israeli occupation — and he was trounced on all fronts.

As the US tries to shame North Korea and others for “ignoring the will of the international community,” it will increasingly find that real estate, known as the moral high ground, was given away for free by the US’ vulgar form of diplomacy. The US ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, gave a speech essentially telling UN members that US “friendship” and “partnership” boils down to: we own you, and you do as we tell you. Turkey, a NATO member, stood so much against the US that it underscored how far Trump had gone to push Turkey out of the US orbit. Trump did succeed in one area though: producing isolation precisely through active engagement, rendering the dominant terms of American commentary worthless (i.e., isolationism vs. internationalism).

Is Anti-Trumpism a Form of Anti-Imperialism?

If Trump is an imperialist, then surely anything that is anti-Trump is anti-imperialist? In actuality, the second part does not follow from the first. Most of the anti-Trump opposition in the US never says anything about imperialism, and seems either totally oblivious and indifferent to US wars abroad, or wants more US violence abroad and sees Trump as an obstacle to their wishes. There is no mistaking the “Never Trump” club, the “Resistance,” or “Antifa” as any friends of either anti-imperialism or the rest of the world.

In fact, given the chance, it is this mix of domineering, interfering, busy-body bullies that are eager to impress themselves on the world as soon as possible. Spanning the spectrum from neoconservatives on the right, to revolutionary internationalists on the left, all united under the banner of NATO, and sharing common ground with the basic principles of liberal imperialism — such opposition still manages to make Trump look appealing by contrast. It is at the very least a reminder of why his electoral victory was significant, and their defeat was as necessary as it was overdue.

However, what is valuable about the anti-Trump opposition, as seen from an anti-imperialist perspective, is what such domestic political conflict can produce even if unintentionally. Any dangerous tool in the hands of fools is equally valuable, in that sense.

Let’s consider two extreme hypothetical cases: in one, the population is totally united behind the leader; in the other case, a civil war breaks out. Which one of these would an imperial president prefer? It’s also true that a civil war is not enough to stop an imperialist power from expanding further — or else the US empire would have ended in the middle of the 19th-century. On the other hand, keep in mind that between 1861 and 1865, there were virtually no US military deployments overseas, and absolutely none in 1861 and 1862, and those that occurred during 1863–1865 were largely defensive or minor actions. Compare that with 1860, the year before the Civil War, when US forces landed in Colombia and Angola, or 1867, after the Civil War, when US marines invaded Nicaragua and occupied two of its most important cities.

Civil wars have a way of disrupting plans for expansion, by redirecting aggression domestically. We do not know what impact another civil war would have on US imperial leadership, or whether there even would be a civil war.

While not likening current instability in the US to a civil war, the accumulation of conflict and the multiplication of lines of conflict hardly produces a populace united behind a leader whose aggression and militarism threatens new wars, but at least has the total assurance of domestic peace. The dominant stream of populism in the US, advocated by Steve Bannon, is also not what it promised: a means of transcending the left-right divide — instead, it has radically sharpened that divide.

Trump 2017’s betrayal of the supporters of Trump 2016, starting with the issue of regime change in Syria, was probably the end of the last chance of the dominant political system to uphold itself by trying a populist alternative. Trump blew it, and now the US is apparently blowing itself away. Furthering this internal collapse and aggravating Trump’s betrayal of those who actively supported him, was the explosive public fight that erupted between Trump and his former campaign manager and White House chief strategist, Steve Bannon. With damaging revelations about incompetence, infighting, and even allegations of treason, politically things appear dismal for both Trump and Bannon. What Trump increasingly risks is finding himself with diminished popular support (already happening), becoming overly reliant on the succour of his enemies (already happening), and thus becoming very vulnerable to impeachment (a possibility).

This absence of domestic peace is the case now when some of the prospective new wars absolutely require national unity, which is what a war with North Korea would demand: it would be utterly devastating to US citizens and US military forces across the Asia-Pacific region, and likely lead to the loss of a few major urban population centres on the US mainland. Incapacitated governance, combined with unsustainable over-reach, increased debt, increased military spending, continued poverty for millions, an obsession with sex scandals, and a threat of self-inflicted apocalypse is not how empires at their high point have ever been described.

Nobody expected the fall of the US empire to be a neat affair. This particular imperial decline promises not to disappoint. Already we have witnessed a new genre born from US artists such as Madonna, Snoop Dogg, Kathy Griffin, and Shakespeare in the Park: assassination porn. Images of a murdered US president have become mainstream. Wait until the president is a Democrat, and specifically a black female Democrat. What this conveys to the rest of the world is that Americans probably hate each other more than non-Americans. Any real or imagined demise of Donald Trump is, at best, the smallest and least important part of the picture of the demise of hegemony, both at home and abroad.

Sources & Further Reading.

See the extensive list of links here.

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About the author

Maximilian Forte

Maximilian C. Forte is a Professor of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University in Montreal. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Slouching Towards Sirte: NATO’s War on Libya and Africa (2012) and Emergency as Security (New Imperialism) (2013). See his publications here; read his bio here.

He writes at the Zero Anthropology website (many of his articles are posted at the FM website). It is one of the of the few with an About page well worth reading — excerpt…

Anthropology after empire is one built in part by an anthropology that is against empire, and it need not continue, defensively, as a discipline laden with all of the orthodoxies from which it suffers today. Indeed, the position taken here is that there can be no real critical anthropology that is not simultaneously critical of (a) the institutionalization and professionalization of this field, and (b) imperialism itself.

Anthropology, as we approach it, is a non-disciplinary way of speaking about the human condition that looks critically at dominant discourses, with a keen emphasis on meanings and relationships, producing a non-state, non-market, non-archival knowledge.

For More Information

Ideas! For ideas about using your Holiday cash, see my recommended books and films at Amazon.

If you liked this post, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. See all posts about imperialism, about the American Empireby Professor Forte, and especially these…

  1. To understand the Imperial Unconscious, Tom provides the Dictionary of American Empire-Speak.
  2. Niall Ferguson, poet-laureate of the American Empire.
  3. Ultimately Primacy Is Its Own Justification (Imperial rule #12).
  4. An anthropologist looks at our New Victorianism: Imperialism, and Identity Politics.

Two books by Maximilian Forte.

Slouching Towards Sirte
Available at Amazon.
Who is an Indian?: Race, Place, and the Politics of Indigeneity in the Americas
Available at Amazon.

One thought on “A anthropologist explains what happened to the American Empire

  1. Hi Mr Kummer,

    Um… Wow! I always enjoy reading Dr Forte, gaining a new perspective, and learning something new, but this is stuff that should be read by anyone who deigns to vote. Alas, I doubt they would be capable of grokking it. I don’t say this out of elitism, but our brains have become so eroded and blinded by partisanship and confirmation bias most people are simply incapable of expending the effort it would take to understand what is actually being said.

    E.g.: DrMF> Those of us who warned of this from the start, and foresaw that this shift would have to come, were hysterically lambasted for being “alt-right”.

    Calling Dr Forte “alt-right” is like calling Richard Spencer an transracial intersersectional transfeminist.

    DrMF> The real danger of a successful “collusion” impeachment of Trump — one that the Democrats have either not factored into their calculations or do not even understand — is that it will create a standard by which future US presidential contenders will be judged, and hobbled.

    Holy cow, I have tried to point this out in so many words to anti-Trumpers who call for impeachment at any and all costs. They simply say “What about Clinton?” as if there is an equivalence. Yes, there was, of course an obstructionist political motivation to it (it would be hard for there not to be). So what? It’s about the normalization of it as a matter of course.

    DrMF> If no secretive collusion of any kind is to be tolerated, at the risk of outright impeachment, then the imperial presidency cannot survive.

    The collusion angle as it relates to the imperial system is not one I had considered, I confess, but it’s very interesting.

    DrMF> If Americans are not willing to forfeit imperialism, they will never give up their deep state — and thus there is no point in complaining about the deep state, in the misleading manner of so many Republicans.

    Is empire a necessary side effect of trade and large scale governmental bureaucracy (deep state)?

    DrMF> any submersion of class beneath the weight of minoritarian identity issues, is by default if not by design an ideological program in the service of imperialism.

    That’s a notion a few “studies” departments might chew on for profit. Of course, you are every sort of *ist by even contemplating whether the proposition has merit.

    DrMF> Precedents matter: the path has now been paved for future presidential candidates to adopt the same positions, without being seen as shockingly heretical as before, thanks to Trump’s groundbreaking campaign.

    Oprah 2020 starring The Rock as Vice President. A car for everyone and mandatory attendance at the virtual book club with Her Supreme Highness.

    I know he was talking about taking positions, but precedents matter on many fronts, and DJT is Precedent-setter in Chief. Just being in office is UUUGGE. I think he would even say, er, tweet so himself.

    DrMF> Where there is no bridgehead for the Center nation in the center of the Periphery nation, there cannot be any imperialism by this definition.

    This is very interesting. It conveys the notion that there could be something organically structural about empire for societies that get beyond a certain size. If there is a relative parity between the societies they coexist in competition. If there is an overwhelming disparity one will either annihilate or displace the others, or establish a dominance hierarchy that works most easily by co-opting a ruling elite in the client states. That this has happened is evident from simple observation, but the hypothesis is that it may be inevitable.

    Regards,

    Bill

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