It pays to think in terms of foreign relations, rather than merely foreign policy. No incoming US president starts with a blank slate. They assume a managerial role within a system of global power relations that long predates their presidency. Imperialism, like capitalism, is a structure, not a policy choice.
In a US election campaign, it is therefore insufficient to focus on the individual candidates and their policy preferences. The real question is how each candidate will operate within those wider systemic parameters. In an imperial context, the differences in managerial styles from president to president can be narrow, but they are still consequential. Billions live and die in those differences, so it is important to take them seriously.
Washington runs a different form of empire to the European powers that preceded it, with practices of conquest and colonisation mostly giving way to less direct methods of power projection. The US maintains an overwhelming military capacity, dwarfing all rivals combined, and further multiplied by a worldwide network of bases and alliances. In the Global South, relations of dependency are entrenched through arms sales and the training of internal security forces. The imperial nature of Washington’s power lies as much in its domination of global structures of violence as it does in the undertaking of active military interventions.
The economic dimension of US imperialism is as important as the military one. Washington’s dominant position in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) is complemented by New York’s power as a leading financial centre, and the dollar’s status as the world’s reserve currency. Notwithstanding China’s rise and Europe’s collective strength, the leading banks and corporations directing worldwide capital flows remain overwhelmingly American. The US and its close allies continue to shape the rules and dominate the structures of global capitalism. They do so in their interests, and largely at the expense of the global majority, especially in the South.
Ideology is the third dimension of this power structure, crucial for securing the buy-in and commitment of the political-managerial class that runs the system, and for winning sufficient wider public consent to keep the show on the road. The ideology has two overlapping features. First, Washington is cast as leading a ‘rules based international order’ that has underwritten an age of security and prosperity since 1945. Second, a West defined by its enlightened values is juxtaposed with various threatening ‘others’, in an unsubtle update of the explicitly racist ideology that justified previous iterations of Western imperialism. Media, think tanks and the educational system produce and reproduce these frames relentlessly until thinking within them becomes second nature.
These are the structural conditions that the various modern US presidents have operated within. Bill Clinton exploited the opportunity presented by the collapse of the USSR to significantly expand US economic and military power, operating through multilateral structures such as NATO and the Bretton Woods institutions to secure the buy-in of key allied states. George W. Bush saw those multilateral structures as a constraint rather than a multiplier of Washington’s strength, pursuing an aggressive military strategy that was designed to enhance US global power but wound up only illustrating its limits. Barack Obama responded to the defeats of the Bush era with a return to multilateralism and a recalibration of Washington’s use of force.
Against this historical background, Donald Trump’s presidency is better understood as a malfunction than an aberration. Trump’s support for dictators, resorts to military force, and quest for economic advantage are familiar ground for US imperialism, hardly personal foibles. His chauvinism and racism are defining features of US power covering centuries of slavery, genocide, apartheid, and racialised violence at home and abroad.
What is distinct about the Trump presidency is the extent to which the extreme pathologies of the individual shape his political actions, and the extent to which those actions are destructive to the interests of US power itself. As America’s unrestrained id, Trump has stripped away the liberal fictions that have been so important to Washington’s influence, doing profound damage to the ideological pillar of the imperial system.
The US did not achieve global hegemony in the modern era through force alone. It did so through persuading the other leading Western states, as well as key allied regimes in the South, that bandwagoning with it was in their own interests. Another four years of a Trump White House degenerating into both fascism and chaos will force many to reassess that calculation.
What Joe Biden offers, by contrast, is a reversion to the status quo in the style of a Clinton or an Obama. Allied elites will breathe a sigh of relief at the return of predictable decision-making, multilateral diplomacy, and above all the civilised veneer that allows the system from which they all benefit to maintain and reproduce itself. For those of us on the left, the choice between a descent into chaotic fascism and a return to the style of governance that produced the Iraq war and the climate emergency is somewhat less palatable. But there are still distinctions to be drawn, and opportunities to be grasped.
In foreign relations, the differences between Trump and Biden are far from negligible. Biden would likely pull the plug on Saudi Arabia’s war on Yemen, scene of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, a move that would save many thousands of lives at a stroke. He would sign the US back up to the Iran nuclear deal which Trump pulled out of in 2018, immediately cooling tensions that nearly broke out into a devastating regional war last summer.
Biden’s line toward Moscow would undoubtedly be tougher, and any hostility between the world’s nuclear superpowers is of course inherently dangerous. But he would also sign the US back up to the process of managing those hostilities through arms control treaties that the Trump administration recklessly turned its back on.
So even within the parameters of ongoing imperialism, and the violence and exploitation that will continue irrespective of the election result, the choice between a Biden and a Trump presidency is a real and urgent one. And this is before we come to the issue of climate change, by far the greatest threat to human life and security. Here, the US left has won considerable concessions from the Biden camp, leveraging Bernie Sanders’ show of strength in the last two presidential primary races to push the candidate into a much-improved policy position going into November’s election.
Unlike Trump, Biden has to balance the demands of corporate donors and the wider system with those of progressive movements representing a major voter constituency that is pulling him in the opposite direction. Irrespective of his own ideological inclinations, Biden is being forced to reckon with a resurgent American left which speaks for a range of voters whose support he cannot do without. That left has worked very intelligently to maximise their leverage, employing an insider-outsider strategy that alternates between strong criticism of the Democratic party establishment and a degree of policy collaboration when the opportunity presents itself.
In the US as in the UK, there is no substitute for socialists leading the electoral struggle against the right, winning state power, and pushing through the transformative policy agenda required to tackle the multi-dimensional crises we are now facing. Our ability to play that role will be in abeyance for the next few years, but that does not mean that we have no role to play, even within the existing system. What is required is an understanding of how the system works, a sense of where the openings and weaknesses are, and the resolve to grasp whatever opportunities arise to push for the changes we need.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.