“America is back”, Joe Biden has declared. And the ideological construct known as “America” is certainly back at the forefront of mainstream political discourse. This is America – i.e. US state power – as the good guys on the world stage: the enlightened leaders of humanity, beating back the barbarians and extremists, working to solve the big problems on everyone’s behalf, and guided at all times by the “American values” of liberty and democracy.
These ideological parameters have long been impervious to any amount of contradictory information, be it hundreds of thousands of casualties in acts of aggression from Indochina to Latin America to the Middle East, or a consistent record of material support for many of the world’s worst dictators and mass murderers. To the extent that such matters are even acknowledged, let alone discussed, they are explained away as aberrations or failed attempts to do good. Ideology is a powerful thing.
As a result, much analysis of US foreign policy adopts Washington’s perspective, and treats the world (especially the barbarous South) as a threat to “America”, or a problem for it to solve. A less dogmatic approach might be to remove our analytical minds from “America”, and instead to think about the problems and threats that the most powerful state in human history inevitably poses to humanity at large.
Understanding the US as a capitalist and imperialist power is a good place to start when it comes to identifying the relevant political-economic structures at work. But the persistence of these structures over time does not mean that US foreign policy is identical from one president to the next – only that there is a predictable amount of consistency. Beyond this, the precise degree and nature of the challenge posed by Washington to much of the world still shifts in meaningful ways, depending on whether the Democrats or Republicans hold executive power.
These two factions of the US governing class emerge from differing economic, ideological and socio-political bases. While both are strongly connected to big capital, especially finance, the Republicans are traditionally more entwined with the oil and gas industry while the Democrats are closer to new technology interests. Ideologically, the Democrats’ approach to the exertion of imperial power is more measured and calculating than the crude and self-defeating Republican mindset.
And while the socio-political basis of Republicanism is increasingly nativist and fascistic, the Democratic party relies on a voter coalition with a significant socialist presence. Thanks to the popularity of his policy agenda, Bernie Sanders currently enjoys better approval ratings than Biden. In order to sustain the levels of support required to remain in office, the party leadership is now forced to accommodate to some degree the activist movements Sanders represents.
These are the underlying roots of the various changes that have taken place in Washington as a result of Biden’s election victory. From the point of view of those of us concerned about the threat US power poses to the world, these changes can be characterised as simultaneously meaningful and insufficient, and firmly within the broad parameters of capitalism and imperialism. So what does that mean in practice?
The two biggest threats to humanity – those which threaten our very existence – are global warming and the looming potential for accidental nuclear war. On both fronts, US power is deeply culpable. US carbon emissions are a major contributor to the climate crisis, whether measured nationally or per capita (and neither approach captures the extent to which global economic activity is shaped by US interests). The US is also a leading stockpiler of nuclear warheads and driver of the global arms race. In either instance, even small policy shifts matter enormously.
On global warming, Biden returned the US to the Paris Climate Accord immediately after taking office, and has proposed major spending on infrastructure in a way that adopts many principles of the Green New Deal. These are plainly significant steps away from the vandalism of Donald Trump, and will have positive consequences around the world. But while these moves have been welcomed by people like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, these left figures have also been clear that Biden’s proposals remain inadequate to the urgent task at hand.
On nuclear policy, Biden’s agreement of an extension of the New Start non-proliferation treaty with Russia was a hugely important moment, given the treaty was in danger of lapsing under a second Trump term. Tensions between Washington and Moscow are as high as they have been since the peaks of the Cold War, with the accompanying risk that a crisis or confrontation could trigger a nuclear exchange through miscalculation. But while these tensions may now be better managed, there is no sign of a willingness to push for substantive multilateral disarmament.
In Yemen, scene of the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, largely created by US allies with US help, there is a similarly mixed picture. Biden has signalled to Saudi Arabia that US military support will be significantly scaled back, and this has prompted a new round of diplomacy between Saudi Arabia and Iran (backers of the Saudis’ antagonists in the conflict). Any de-escalation of the Riyadh-Tehran rivalry holds the potential to vastly improve human security in both Yemen and the wider Middle East. If it happens, Biden’s withdrawal of Trump’s blank cheque for the Saudis will have been a major causal factor.
However, Biden’s White House has been far from candid about what support it is still providing to the Saudis in Yemen. And Riyadh’s use of starvation as a military tactic continues – a war crime in which the US is directly complicit.
This inhumanity extends to US sanctions on Iran, imposed by Trump and maintained by Biden, which have collapsed the Islamic Republic’s economy and hit the population hard in the middle of a pandemic. Biden’s attempt to restore the nuclear deal brokered by Barack Obama and torn up by Trump is an important step which will significantly reduce the danger of a regional war. But to use the health and well-being of the Iranian public for bargaining leverage over Tehran is a truly reprehensible approach.
The final withdrawal from Afghanistan after two decades of military failure is another significant move. At the start of the ‘War on Terror’ there was a widespread belief in Washington that the world could be remade through the direct application of US military might. The shattering of these dangerous illusions will make the world a safer place overall, although the US military retains deadly alternatives to placing its own boots on the ground.
The violence inherent to imperial power will continue, albeit increasingly meted out by proxies rather than directly. Biden has signed off on major arms deals to the UAE and Egypt, despite the former’s record of aggression and indiscriminate killing in Libya and Yemen, and the latter’s record of mass murder at home. Elsewhere, the Biden administration’s rejection of International Criminal Court jurisdiction over Israel and the Palestinian territories maintains the traditional position of de facto support for apartheid and all the violence that goes with it.
Finally, Biden’s framing of much of his foreign and domestic policy as part of an epochal confrontation with China is an ominously dangerous development – especially given his proposed increase in military spending over levels seen under Trump. A Cold War over the Pacific would carry enormous risks, and undermine the cooperation that is urgently needed in the face of climate change.
Many of the positive changes we have seen out of Washington since Biden’s inauguration are a reflection of the growing power of the left in American politics. The continuation of significantly damaging policies abroad are a reflection both of the inherent nature of the system and of the US left’s relative weakness on foreign policy compared to domestic economics. Progress has been made – but there’s a huge amount still to be done.
David Wearing is an academic specialist in UK foreign policy and a columnist for Novara Media.