The American Empire has no compelling ideology anymore. Yes, all empires need an ideology to function. Why? Because for empires to function, everyone-everywhere must dance to the same beat. Imagine UPS with their people in Alaska sorting a package differently to Florida?! Imagine Exxon, where the people marketing gasoline in Indonesia use a completely different logo to say Brazil?! Empires need guidelines and mission statements. Teams have distinct cultures, and operating systems. Otherwise there is no ‘raison d’etre’! No reason to be! Empires need purpose. And if their purpose adds value to their ‘clients’, they grow, prosper and become self-sustaining. Otherwise they die.
The British Empire
Britain functioned as an empire, because it sent its ‘own’ minions out to the furthest parts of the planet. They were all loyal to the queen and the British way of doing things – i.e. Britain’s Ideology. Local governors in the colonies were all from Britain. They instilled the same system of education, law, economics everywhere they went. You see evidence of it even today in West Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America. They instilled the British system in their colonies (“civilized the natives”) in exchange for raping the colonies of their natural resources for the benefit of Britain. It worked for a while.
But then, once the ‘natives were civilized’ the Brits stopped adding further value to their colonies. The ‘locals’ resented British rule, snobbery and exploitation. They saw no further justification to trade British rule for resource theft. They expelled the Brits, and asserted their own authority, values, control on resources and indigenous culture where they lived. After an initial phase of British rule, and fascination with British culture (ideology), the locals stopped drinking the British cool aid. And when I say, locals, you know I am also referring to North America! When Britain lost its ‘intellectual’ battle, it didn’t really matter how large Britain’s armies were, Britain could not retake its colonies. The empire fell apart.
The Persian Empire
As far back as 2500 years ago, the Persian Empire had established its ideology too. Cyrus’s declaration of human rights stands on display at the U.N. He sent stone inscriptions to all his ‘satrapies’ – telling them it was okay to be different and have different customs and faiths – as long as they paid taxes and provided men for war! He offered freedom to enslaved locals who had suffered under previous despots. This earned him loyalty.
His governors all followed the Zoroastrian faith and were intensely loyal to him. They ruled with a soft hand. They ruled with clear operating principles and ‘ideology’ founded in their faith! In the end, it splintered when competing ideologies invaded the Persian Empire. Initially it was Alexander the Great with his Greek armies who fought for revenge; and then later it was the Islamic invasion who crusaded for their own faith and forced Iranians to convert from Zoroastrianism to Islam with a sword at their necks. Every empire’s army had a greater reason to fight…. beyond their paychecks!
The American Empire
It’s much easier to ‘rule’ if everyone buys into an ideology! A mission! A purpose! And the larger the entity i.e. an Empire, the more important it is for there to be an effective, and consistent purpose. The masses need to be onboard for it to essentially operate on its own (without the firm hand of central governments – their agents and armies).
During the cold war, America’s ideology was compelling. Whether or not the U.S. itself was a real exponent of freedom and democracy, one thing was for sure, the “Western” way of operating (i.e. free markets – if not free elections) always led to greater and broader prosperity. Free enterprise was a superior system to communism. It was very simple. It was self-evident. It was thus very compelling.
In fact, many allies were willing to forgo political freedoms and democracy in favor of free enterprise and capitalism. Chile was an authoritarian state under the U.S. sponsored Military ruler, but it had a system of free enterprise! Even though many locals resented their military ruler, the country prospered economically. This contrasted with say Cuba, where they also had an authoritarian government, but lacked prosperity due to communism. The modern example is China where over 1 Billion people have willingly traded economic prosperity for political oppression.
There is now, no real debate about the virtues of free enterprise versus central state controlled communist economics. That argument is dead. America won.
But today, free enterprise is no longer a “western” phenomenon. Old communist foes such as China and Russia are now bastions of free enterprise – even though to some extent there is government interference in commerce in those countries still.
The Bush Doctrine
After the cold war, the U.S. retained 800 military bases in 70 countries. Although Russia and China had been transformed, America’s great military-Industrial Complex needed new enemies to justify its existence. It had to, however, discover a new evil, and a new purpose for existence.
Today, there are 24 bases around Iran, with 65000 US servicemen stationed in the region – in Afghanistan, Iraq, Qatar … Why?
Well soon after the Communists were defeated, and after the turn of the century, the west (under G.W. Bush’s leadership) employed a new ideology. Even before 9/11/01, in June 2001, he informed the Congress that the ‘‘Department of Defense has become the most powerful force for freedom the world has ever seen.’’ This was the so called “Bush Doctrine”! But then, 9/11 provided the perfect opportunity.
In numerous speeches and statements since September 2001, President Bush vowed to wage an exhaustive, final war to advance the cause of a better world. ‘‘Our responsibility to history is clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.’’ In the president’s opinion, the United States represented universal principles of “freedom”.
The new ideology of the American empire as espoused by Bush, constituted an entire world view. It included perspectives on human nature, society, and politics, and it set forth distinctive conceptions of its central ideas, notably what it calls ‘‘democracy,’’ ‘‘freedom,’’ ‘‘equality,’’ and ‘‘capitalism.’’ It regarded America as founded on universal principles and assigned to the United States the role of supervising the remaking of the world. It demanded among other things, ‘‘moral clarity’’ in dealing with regimes that stand in the way of America’s universal purpose. Bush saw himself as a champion of ‘‘virtue.’’ In one form or another, this ideology has been present for a long time as part of the very fabric of America, enshrined in the declaration of independence.
There were clearly similarities between the advocates of the Bush Doctrine of American empire and the ideologues who inspired and led the French Revolution of 1789. The Jacobins, too, claimed to represent universal principles, which they summed up in the slogan ‘‘liberte´, ´egalite´, et fraternite´.’’ The dominant Jacobins also wanted greater economic freedom. They thought of themselves as fighting on the side of good against evil and called themselves ‘‘the virtuous.’’ They wanted a world much different from the one they had inherited. The notion that America’s military might is the greatest force for freedom in human history recalls Rousseau’s famous statement that those who are not on the side of political right may have to be ‘‘forced to be free.’’
The new Jacobins took full advantage of the nation’s outrage over 9/11 to advance their already fully formed drive for empire. They helped rekindle America’s long-standing propensity for global involvement.
Reflexes developed by American politicians and commentators during the Cold War boosted an imperialistic impulse. Many cold warriors, lacking the old enemy of communism, saw the new goal of a better world for mankind as another justification for continued extensive use of American power. Rightly or wrongly, the US pushed for Democracy and free election in Iraq and Afghanistan – having toppled ‘Evil’ in the form of Saddam Hussein and the Taliban!
And even after Bush, the underlying ‘purpose’ of empire did not fundamentally shift under Obama. The Arab spring continued under Obama, and democracy further blossomed around the world and in many Arab states. It wasn’t until Obama’s second term that the U.S. inexplicably migrated from the Bush Doctrine of promoting freedom to sponsor a military dictator in Egypt, and for the U.S. start funding and arming Islamic extremists to undermine the regime in Syria. Granted, Assad is no angel. But ISIS is clearly much worse. The promotion of freedom took a back seat to other priorities.
But Now Under Trump, the US Stands for Nothing
If all was lost in Obama’s second term, the emergence of Trump confirmed that the U.S. wasn’t really committed to the Bush doctrine, after all. Most of the world, it seems, has adopted free enterprise as an operating system, but the promotion of “Freedom” is no longer a central ideology for the West. Under Trump, it is now okay for the U.S. to embrace despots like bone chopping Saudi Princes. And, it is now okay for the U.S. to embrace criminals in the Knesset. It is now okay for the U.S. to negotiate again with the Taliban – for the sake of stability in Afghanistan.
There is no more ‘bullshit’ about promoting freedom. The central guiding principle now is self-interest. And in pursuing its own (and its allies’) self- interest, the U.S. has suddenly looked evil in the eyes of the rest of the world. The U.S. no longer seeks to add value to other nations. There is no support for international law. Trump has revealed that It’s the law of the jungle on planet earth. Everyone for themselves. The US has adopted (a short-sighted) naked self-interest. Damn international treaties. Damn global institutions.
To make matters worse, U.S. has adopted economic war as its core weapon against its perceived enemies. Most recently, U.S. sanctions against Iran and Venezuela have made it difficult for them to obtain medical supplies, sanitation equipment, and other goods necessary to slow the COVID19 virus’ spread. The sanctions do not directly target medical supplies, but they reduce their ability to pay for them.
Abetting the world’s worst pandemic is not just morally depraved, it is also illegal under international law. Broad sanctions have also historically proved to be ineffective. For example, sanctions have failed for almost 60 years to lead to the ouster of the Cuban government, or anything close to a serious destabilization of it.
Even sanctions lifted long ago contribute to the pandemic death toll in places like Haiti. In 2001, the U.S. government illegally instructed the Inter-American Development Bank to withhold hundreds of millions of dollars already approved for water and sanitation projects because it disliked the voters’ choice of leaders. Although the sanctions were lifted when the elected president was removed in 2004, some of the planned projects were never built. The lack of safe water rendered Haiti particularly vulnerable to the cholera epidemic introduced by U.N. troops in 2010.
US actions have contributed to many unnecessary deaths in Iran, Haiti and Venezuela. The US has gone rogue.
Country after country, ally after ally, it seems, is asking the U.S. to leave.
In January this year, the Philippines’ Duterte government announced the agreement permitting U.S. troops to train in the Philippines is done. “It’s about time we rely on ourselves. We will strengthen our own defenses and not rely on any other country,” Duterte’s representative quoted him saying.
Also, in January, after the US killed Iranian and Iraqi military leaders, Iraq’s parliament voted to expel American troops from the country, it was an apparent bid by the government to extract the country from an escalating US-Iran proxy war.
Last June, in Japan, 65,000 Okinawans protested in the streets against the U.S. presence there.
The Trump administration has been openly vocal about US overseas bases simply not paying enough dividends when it comes to our core national interests. Trump has openly asked host countries to pay for “US protection”! U.S. no longer imports oil. And further, sees the European Union, China, Japan, even South Korea as economic adversaries. The policy discussions are never about what the US can do for other states, or how the US can add value to is base ‘partners’ or how security in a region is advanced by US presence. Everything is viewed from a narrow prism of immediate self-interest.
Listening to the Trump administration talking heads, they are systematically debunking historic justifications such as for example, the bases in Europe protect European allies from Russia; or that bases in the Middle East ensure the free flow of oil and contain Iranian influence; and bases in Asia defend our Asian allies from a rising China and an unstable North Korea. Many in the administration argue that modern military technology has significantly reduced the problems of travel times over long distances. According to a recent, “lighter ground forces can deploy by air from the United States almost as quickly as they can from within a region.” Long-range bombers can fly missions up to 9,000 miles, and after that they can be refueled in the air, reducing the need to have forces stationed abroad.
There is no US ‘ideology’. There is no ‘grand purpose’!
There is no purpose beyond narrow US self-interest. We were in Iraq to promote “freedom”. We were stationed in Europe to “stop Russian communism’s totalitarian expansionism”. Now we will only stay if we see a direct economic advantage in doing so.
Without a greater purpose (beyond economic interests), you start defining everything in very narrow self-interest terms – and then in turn everyone will start doing so. We are turning every ally into a prostitute, who caters to us because we are the highest bidder today. If they cater to the highest bidder then it could very well be the Chinese, Russians or anyone else (besides the US) tomorrow.
For example, if China becomes a larger export market for Japanese goods than the U.S.; the Japanese government will end up listening to the people of Okinawa and ouster the U.S. This concept implies that the Japanese are in bed with the U.S. now, not to push back against Communist expansion, but because they have vital trade relations with the U.S. Nothing more, nothing less. Shared values, common principles fly out the door for pure economic interests.
Contrast this to Iranian Regional Hegemony
Whether or not Iran’s theocracy has any real religious credentials; they have seized on religion as a political force both domestically and with its neighbors. While US presence in the region is slowly, but surely, decreasing. Iran’s IRGC (Islamic Republic Guard Forces) have systematically engaged with other Shia in the region to create a broad based, multi-national, interwoven and unified military force that has not been seen (regionally) since the days of Lawrence of Arabia.
During WW1, Colonel Lawrence unified many seemingly disjointed, Bedouin tribes across the whole region against the common enemy of Ottoman occupation. Today, Iran is doing much the same, uniting ‘oppressed’ Shia in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria …as well as groups from Afghanistan and Pakistan into one united “Crusade” against the U.S. and its allies. The Mullahs in Tehran are employing ‘religious ideology’ to ouster the U.S. from the region and to put pressure on U.S. allies. They have established a Shia Crescent from Tehran to Baghdad, Damascus to Beirut. The Iranians have been incredibly effective.
And they know that the U.S. has no vital economic interest in the region. Its only because Trump is being asked by Israel and Saudi’s to stick around that the U.S. is even there now. If it comes down to ‘self-interest’; the US has none in Iraq or Afghanistan. We need bases to keep the peace – nothing else.
The truth is, the US has lost the battle in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iranians came in, offered prosperity and security to their ‘Shia’ brethren while the U.S. essentially invaded, destroyed and then abandoned Iraq. Iran on the other hand used its ‘religious’ ideology to develop common purpose with their Shia ‘brethren’ in Iran, and at that same time used this ideology to benefit Iraq economically by sending 20 million pilgrims a year to Iraq. A brilliant strategic move.
At the same time, given, evidence that the US and its allies’ support for ISIS, Iraqi’s today are not sure where exactly they stand with the U.S. They believe, the US under Trump would put in a henchman like Saddam Hussein in power again, if given an opportunity. “Look at Egypt” – they say. The Bush Doctrine of freedom, rings hollow in Baghdad.
Without an Ideology
Without an overarching ‘ideology’, US actions can only be explained through the narrow prism of economic self-interest. The problem with this line of thinking is, that it completely ignores some fundamental concepts about governance. The reason why, in the 21st Century, there isn’t the law of the jungle in most countries (and there are police and governments) is because there is a public interest in having governance. Otherwise, the strong will bully the weak. There will be no public safety. Also, otherwise, there will be no public health i.e. rampant disease. Otherwise there are no vital public services. People, nations, communities have broader interests than simply economic interests.
The Trump administration doesn’t really understand the concept of the ‘Invisible Hand’ introduced by Smith – referring to the idea that when parties act or interact, making decisions based on self-interest, society at large actually gains unintended benefits as a result. This concept depends very much on how you define self-interest. There is self-interest in providing basic health care to everyone because if you don’t you risk public health crisis that can affect everyone. There is self-interest in providing some basic social security to those in need, because, if you don’t people will break into your home in order to be able to eat. Defining “Self-interest” in terms of the cash balance in your bank account is very stupid.
If the U.S. doesn’t provide some overarching global security, then who will? Who will stop rogue states like say North Korea from creating substantial instability and ruining global markets? It is after all U.S. self interest in ensuring global security that is the ultimate justification for its bases overseas i.e. empire! It is American involvement, leadership (and financing) of global institutions that ultimately guarantees their effectiveness at times of crisis (Tsunamis, Pandemics, Climate Change etc.). If the U.S. relies heavily on imported goods from China, or Europe then, it must also provide security for those goods to be shipped safely to the U.S. The U.S. is the world’s largest importer of goods – it therefore has a larger obligation to ensure global security.
We are not in Okinawa to thwart China or communism; we are there because we depend on imported goods from Japan.
This means, that the U.S. itself can not go rogue. This also means U.S. should not align itself with rogue states or rogue leaders. But the Trump administration has become a rogue administration and it has rogue allies like the Saudi Arabia’s Prince Salman and Israel’s Netenyahu. It has no principles, no morals and adheres to no greater ideals besides narrowly defined domestic economic self-interest to guide its actions. The U.S. empire is dead – because it has developed no new grand purpose. It views its allies as prostitutes – only.
The Trump administration is a perfect reason for the rest of the world to now support the emergence of a new form of global governance. We need a new global ‘purpose’ to replace the U.S. empire – with or without the Trump administration on board. The U.N. must be completely reformed and revitalized now. If the U.S. will not engage and support global institutions, then global institutions must find new ways to carry out their critical missions.
Note that the U.S. too has suffered because of the Trump administrations narrow definition of self-interest. It was after all, Trump’s suspicions of global institution (like the “WHO” that in December sent a broad announcement about COVID19) that led to a late response in the U.S. to the pandemic. The pandemic is a perfect example of how global institutions failed the world, but also of how lack of confidence in global governance by the U.S.; and the lack of leadership by the U.S. in global institutions; led to failure on a mass scale impacting the U.S.
We need a new global vision for this new century. The U.S. will not lead humanity forward with its current mind-set and leadership. The U.S. doesn’t need an ideology anymore to justify its empire, because frankly it really doesn’t have an empire anymore! True empires exist only inside the heads of people in the colonies. Yes, we have physical bases, but we have lost our intellectual space or support around the world. Trump has squandered all the good will the U.S. once enjoyed. Think about Britain in 1776 – and you will now appreciate where the U.S. sits with its bases around the world.
Trump, like America, has become all about himself or itself. You can’t sustain empires this way.