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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

Anti-Imperialism is Both Morally Correct and Absolutely Necessary for the Left

Foreign policy matters. When progressives neglect to take an anti-imperialist stance, it allows cynical charlatans like Donald Trump to outflank them and score easy political points.

The United States is a declining empire. Yet its military footprint remains one of appalling scope and magnitude. Foreign Policy reports that “the United States has more overseas… bases than every other country combined.” And that outsized presence comes with immense environmental consequences. The Department of Defense is the “world’s single largest greenhouse gas emitter.” As Mickey Butts wrote in this magazine in 2022, “The military generates toxic waste in abundance and in an infinite variety: munitions, explosives, jet fuels, pesticides, depleted uranium, lead, and countless other hazardous chemicals.” He concluded: “War not only wastes lives. It also lays waste to the earth.”

American foreign policy has consistently unleashed death and destruction across the globe and affected the lives of millions. This commitment to empire and war-making has largely been bipartisan. Most Senate Democrats and all but one Republican voted for the invasion of Iraq. The War in Afghanistan enjoyed even stronger approval. Barack Obama dramatically expanded the drone war started by George W. Bush. Members of both major parties are also enacting deadly economic warfare through sanctions to devastate countries like Syria and Iran. And continued military aid to Israel and Saudi Arabia—as they massacre Palestinians and Yemenis, respectively—enjoys bipartisan support. The United States’ record shows that it is a leading threat to world peace. 

But the American public is ready for policy change. In recent years, fewer Americans say they want the U.S. to take a “leading or major” role in world affairs. Recent polling shows Democratic voters are increasingly more sympathetic to Palestinians than Israelis in that conflict. And an AP-NORC poll from earlier this year shows that public support for U.S. assistance to Ukraine is lessening

Besides public polling, there is a strong moral imperative for our leaders to take a different approach to foreign policy—to move away from violence and war and a world order in which the U.S. dominates. The problem is that, because there are so few principled anti-war lawmakers in office, it’s easy for people in power or adjacent to power to claim that mantle and receive praise for it. It’s also one reason why some 2024 presidential candidates might appeal to voters. Marianne Williamson offers the “politics of love.” Cornel West is running a campaign for “truth and justice” to “end the wars.” And Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has long claimed to be anti-war.1

It remains to be seen what kind of leader any of these challengers would be. GOP candidate Donald Trump, however, is hardly such an unknown. His record shows that not only is he not an anti-imperialist, but he represents a particularly crude, raw, throwback form of imperialism. His foreign policy does not come cloaked in rhetoric about liberating foreigners by bringing them freedom and democracy. He does not even espouse a civilizing mission. In this sense, he’s possibly just as dangerous as far-right Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who espouses a disturbing “might makes right” foreign policy. What this all means is that we need to get our facts straight on foreign policy to see who really stands against empire and what a principled anti-imperalist politics might look like on the left.

Trump is no Anti-Imperialist

There have been a number of deceptive arguments made to advance the idea that Trump’s foreign policy is somehow anti-imperialist or preferable to the bipartisan status quo. It’s no surprise that many of these claims come from Trump himself. He portrays himself as being bravely opposed to a warmongering political establishment. In an odd video message from February of this year, he decried “Washington [officials] who only know how to get us into conflicts.” Here’s more of what he said:

World War III has never been closer than it is right now. We need to clean house of all of the warmongers … and the deep state, the Pentagon, the State Department, and the national security industrial complex. … We’re teetering on the brink of World War III, and a lot of people don’t see it, but I see it. … [W]e need to get rid of the corrupt globalist establishment that has botched every major foreign policy decision for decades. … I am the president who delivers peace, and it’s peace through strength. … We could end the Ukraine conflict in 24 hours with the right leadership.

Of course, Trump always runs to the left when it suits him, so we need not be too impressed by this rhetoric. But let’s take a look at what others are saying about his foreign policy. Christian Parenti, son of famed anti-imperialist Michael Parenti, and other contrarians such as Glenn Greenwald, for example, have taken advantage of dismal bipartisan U.S. foreign policy to praise Trump as being “against empire” and war. Senator J.D. Vance and journalist Sohrab Ahmari—founder of Compact magazine—have made similar arguments. In an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal, Vance lauded Trump for supposedly starting “no wars despite enormous pressure.” Ahmari proclaimed Trump to be “the one figure who in my lifetime has meaningfully rolled back the self-righteous imperium.” Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene has also praised the former president’s fictitious opposition to “never-ending wars.” She even claimed it was a major reason why she “supported President Trump.”

As explained by Black studies scholar Charisse Burden-Stelly, imperialism is characterized by an “externalized relationship of domination and exploitation” on some people for the purpose of “enriching”—often via theft of resources, labor, or land—some center of power. Imperialism is “always rooted in war.” With this definition in mind, we can evaluate Trump’s record.

First, it’s worth taking a closer look at Christian Parenti’s arguments. On multiple occasions this year, Christian has argued that Donald Trump is “against empire.” It started with a piece he wrote for The Grayzone, a blog that has published anti-public health propaganda. Parenti mused that intelligence agents suppressed the Hunter Biden laptop story—“thereby putting their thumbs on the scale during the 2020 election”—as retaliation against Trump for undermining U.S. imperialism. These security officials allegedly hated Trump for authoring “the most momentous rollback of American military … power since … World War II.”

Parenti concedes that Trump’s supposed anti-imperialism lacked coherence. For example, the former president ostensibly “hated NATO but… loved Israel.” And he “increased pressure in Cuba” while doing “the opposite in North Korea.” But Parenti’s conciliatory framing actually obscures more than it reveals. It is a gross oversimplification to say Trump “hated NATO.” Yes, he railed against its members for supposedly not financially contributing enough to the defense pact. But Trump also ordered an immense buildup of NATO troops on Russia’s border. This was undoubtedly a catalyst for the current Russo-Ukrainian conflict.

Similarly, Trump hardly decreased pressure in North Korea. Some may believe that the 2018 North Korea-United States summit was a step toward peace. But it was little more than a glorified photo op which ended with a vague joint statement and no perceptible change in bilateral relations. Remember that Trump threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea during a United Nations speech in 2017. He also regularly spoke openly about waging nuclear war against them. These fighting words triggered an understandable verbal backlash from North Korea, such as when their foreign ministry labeled Trump a  “dotard.” A second summit in 2019 ended early due to disagreements between the two leaders.

What about the troop withdrawals that happened under Trump’s rule? In the Grayzone piece, Parenti lauds the former president for “winding down America’s ‘forever wars’ by simply packing up and leaving.” But there are a couple of problems with this. First, Trump ended exactly zero wars. Second, Trump’s troop withdrawals were largely of troops he himself had deployed. Moreover, oftentimes, Trump added more soldiers than he removed. As diplomat Brett McGurk noted in 2019, Trump “can’t tell his political rallies that he’s getting troops out of endless wars when he’s sending 14 times the amount back into the region.” Rather than “packing up and leaving,” then, Trump increased America’s military footprint. It’s also no surprise that the Afghanistan WarAmerica’s longest and, according to one 2013 poll, most unpopular—only ended after Trump begrudgingly left office.

Despite these facts, after publishing his piece in The Grayzone, Parenti continued to defend Trump’s foreign policy. In April, following Trump’s arrest for corrupt business dealings, Parenti wrote a piece for Compact magazine. It argued that the indictment happened because Trump challenged “U.S. imperium” as president. But this is false for at least two reasons. First, the charges against Trump are, of course, unrelated to foreign policy. They instead have to do with falsifying business records in his attempts to pay a mistress hush money. More importantly, Trump expanded military spending, proposing the “largest [budgets] since World War II (even adjusted for inflation)”. And the line items embedded within these proposals were nothing short of terrifying. As Slate reported, Trump sought “more nuclear weapons,” “exotic flavors of warfare” such as hypersonic weapons, and a larger “global military presence.”

At times, Trump even directly opposed the more non-interventionist elements of his own party. During 2019, a measure to end American support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen got through both houses of Congress. The bill was bipartisan, gaining the votes of seven Republican senators and 16 representatives along the way. But Trump vetoed it. His public reasoning? The bill would supposedly weaken his war-making powers too much.

When Trump wasn’t abetting Saudi war crimes, he was busy committing them himself. Trump increased drone strikes relative to Obama by over 400 percent. Civilian casualties unsurprisingly skyrocketed, and the administration stopped counting those outside of conventional warzones. (To Trump, the lives of Black and brown people abroad are not even worthy of a footnote.) Parenti minimizes the harm here. In his Compact article, he euphemistically writes that Trump “ordered a few missile and drone strikes here and there.” 

Then there was the assassination of Iranian general Qassem Soleimani, which was “unlawful” according to Agnes Callamard, the U.N. special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions.

Trump sees developing nations as objects to plunder and their people as mere obstacles to that plunder. Kill them—often by indiscriminately airstriking civilian areas. Destroy their homes—through unprecedented support for Israeli expansion, which always seems to entail leveling Palestinian domiciles. Trump even fantasized to crowds about torture, vowing to “bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Whatever it takes to secure imperial interests.

Trump’s biggest ‘critique’ of American wars in the Middle East is that we didn’t steal (enough of) their petroleum. At an Iowa campaign rally in 2015, Trump vowed to take Iraq and Syria’s oil. This became a consistent theme of his foreign policy rhetoric. He repeated the sentiment while campaigning and acted upon it after taking office. In 2019, Trump admitted to leaving troops in Syria to commandeer the country’s fossil fuels.

Trump’s oil obsession also includes the Persian Gulf. During a 2017 meeting, he complained that the United States was not receiving free petroleum for its troop presence there. This outburst led him to infamously ask “Where is the fucking oil?” Ironically, Parenti includes this quote in both of his aforementioned pro-Trump pieces.

As the record shows, Donald Trump is no anti-imperialist. If people naively buy Trump’s empty posturing that he is against empire, it could be a real boon to Trump’s 2024 candidacy. 

Democrats have supported many of the disastrous and horribly immoral military actions that make Trump and his Republican Party so odious. But there are a number of Democrats who have emerged as principled opponents of American empire. Ilhan Omar grilled Elliott Abrams on his involvement in war crimes in Central America when Trump’s administration appointed him envoy to Venezuela. That exchange made the differences between progressive and conservative foreign policies clear as can be. 

Similarly, as Trump blessed Israel’s illegal annexation of Syria’s Golan Heights, Rashida Tlaib steadfastly opposed him. She bravely denounced Israeli apartheid and settler colonialism while vigorously denouncing American support of it. Tlaib also partnered with Bernie Sanders to call for the conditioning of U.S. aid to Israel on commonsense human rights demands.

Again, the contrast in visions could not have been clearer. The real pro-peace, anti-imperialist advocates are on the left. And they represent the ethical conscience of an empire whose reckless actions abroad have exacted untold suffering on innocents.

There is a strong moral imperative to move U.S. foreign policy away from the violence of imperialism. Adherence to an anti-imperialist vision should therefore be a litmus test for any candidate for office coming from the left. Using the framework of “restraint” outlined by historian Michael Brenes, as explained in Jacobin, we can envision a leftist foreign policy that is characterized by the following pillars (in no particular order):

  1. “International collaboration to reprioritize national security threats (around issues such as climate change, migration and refugee policy, poverty, and global health)”
  2. “Deter imperial adventures by great powers”
  3. “Demilitarize the landscape of foreign policy”

President Biden, the incumbent Democratic president, is a notorious war hawk whose administration has flouted the most basic tenets of progressive internationalism. He clearly falls well short on all three counts of our litmus test. His record on international collaboration to confront security threats has been woeful. Biden’s administration, for example, has refused to adequately address the greatest public health crisis of our time, the COVID pandemic. At a 2021 TRIPS Council meeting, the U.S. “declined to take robust action to approve an intellectual property waiver” for coronavirus vaccines, without which countries in the Global South cannot access affordable versions of these pharmaceuticals.

His climate record has been similarly abysmal. On the domestic front, Biden has expanded oil drilling and auctioned an Italy-sized swath of the Gulf of Mexico for extractive projects. Internationally, the president has hardly collaborated with foreign nations to combat ecological breakdown—what he admits is “literally an existential threat.” Overall, the administration managed to secure just $1 billion of climate finance for developing nations in 2022. And it had committed to allocating over 11 times that, which—according to climate experts—is also “inadequate.”

Compare that to the nearly $70 billion the U.S. sent for defense purposes to Ukraine. And this shows that Biden has also failed on the second point of deterring “imperial adventures by great powers.” After ratcheting tensions with Russia by imposing sanctions early in his term, Biden is now, as Noam Chomsky puts it, “fighting to the last Ukrainian.” His aggressive posture, which eschews diplomacy, will only prolong this tragic conflict and provoke Russia into further violence.

Third and lastly, Biden has not “demilitarized the landscape of foreign policy.” He has increased military spending and has continued military funding to Israel, which receives by far the largest amount of American foreign military funding of any nation. Nearly all of this assistance goes to the Israeli military, which regularly commits atrocities across the Middle East.

Foreign policy has also been weak point for officeholders otherwise toward the left on the political spectrum. For example, despite saying he supports progressive policies at home such as universal healthcare and marijuana legalization, Senator John Fetterman favors more unconditional military assistance to apartheid Israel. Even Bernie Sanders, who is overwhelmingly responsible for popularizing social democracy in America, has a checkered foreign policy record. In 2001, he voted to give the Bush administration unprecedented discretion to execute the so-called War on Terror. Five years earlier, Sanders supported waging economic warfare on Libya and Iran, and later voted to extend those sanctions.

Heading into the 2024 election, Biden’s foreign policy record will likely face critique once again, as it did in 2020. Much of the criticism is bound to be either disingenuous, totally off base, or a mix of both. This only further underscores the need for leftist candidates to adopt and promote a comprehensive, progressive vision of international justice. That means connecting the values that undergird their domestic positions—economic, racial, and environmental justice, for instance—to a global critique of imperialist capitalism. 

Foreign policy matters. Democratic and progressive candidates should not neglect it. Doing so is not only immoral but also allows cynical charlatans like Donald Trump to outflank them and score easy political points.

  1. Williamson and Kennedy Jr. are challenging Biden as Democrats. Williamson has said that she desires a “negotiated settlement” to the Russo-Ukrainian conflict and wants to create a Department of Peace. She also seems to favor multipolarity over American unilateralism, which is significant as the United States becomes less influential.

    West, a socialist activist and intellectual, is seeking the Green Party nomination. His record on foreign policy is consistent and promising. West is a staunch internationalist and anti-war advocate who has supported demilitarization and anti-colonial efforts across the globe. West has been outspoken about the Palestinian struggle and has supported the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions Movement, positions that he believes cost him tenure at Harvard.

    As written in Current Affairs recently, Kennedy had been polling unusually well among Democrats. Interestingly, Democratic support for Kennedy may be beginning to sour, and he is making headway among Republicans.

    Although Kennedy, a long-time environmental litigator, has spent decades as a professional liar and antivaccine propagandist who spreads medical disinformation, he has also taken the time to write in criticism of American meddling in the affairs of countries from Chile to Iran to Syria. He opposed torture during the Bush years. His 2024 campaign website notes his intent to “start the process of unwinding empire,” “bring the troops home,” and “stop racking up unpayable debt to fight one war after another.” 

    Admittedly, this sounds pretty good. But Kennedy has already stumbled over some bad takes. After applauding guitarist Roger Waters’ opposition to COVID restrictions, Kennedy quickly distanced himself from the musician. Why? Because Waters has criticized Israeli occupation and repeatedly labeled it an apartheid state. Kennedy has now made multiple public statements affirming his support for Israel and “its right to exist.” 

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