February 4, 2020, was a depressing date for non-American observers of American politics. While President Donald Trump eloquently trumpeted the virtues of American exceptionalism and American empire in his State of the Union address, backed by Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s warm applause for Venezuelan pretender Juan Guaidó, the face of the Monroe Doctrine, the first serious chapter in the Democratic Party’s alleged quest to retake the White House descended into chaos, apparently because of a malfunctioning app.
For two millennia, the world has been dominated by European empires, first based in Greece or Rome and mostly confined to Europe itself and their near abroad in West Asia and North Africa, but later expanded across the globe by Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, and most notably Britain. As a result of the most recent and most devastating (so far) clash of those empires and a new non-European contender (Japan), the imperial crown passed to a former British colony, the United States of America, in the late 1940s. It has been there ever since.
There is no point denying (though many do anyway) that the USA is not merely a country but the seat of an empire, the largest and most powerful in human history. Everyone, including its would-be challengers in Beijing, pays liege to America, primarily because of its absolute control of the global financial system. Every other aspect of American exceptionalism, including its vast military might, takes a back seat to that vise grip on the global economic system.
There could be a debate on whether imperialism is good or bad, and for whom – sovereign nations, individuals, the planet itself. But the reality is that the debate is one-sided. Those who support it point to such things as the “Western-led world order” and “rule of law,” while those who claim to oppose it fail to acknowledge its all-pervasiveness, or even deny its existence.
“Resistance” to US hegemony through such things as INSTEX, or tut-tutting about the Trump administration’s pull-out from the Paris Agreement or the Iran nuclear deal on the INF, is lame lip service, and everyone knows it. Even George Orwell in his most creative moments could not have envisaged the three main European countries wagging their fingers at Iran for ramping up uranium enrichment after those three signatories’ utter failure to disavow the sanctions the US crippled Iran with in direct contravention of the JCPOA.
But the disingenuousness goes deeper than that. Self-professed anti-imperialists, like neoconservative regime-change advocates, fail to think through to what should be an obvious question: Change to what?
The “international community” declared with one shrill voice that the “brutal regime” of Bashar al-Assad had to be changed, in a country that, like Libya and Iraq and Afghanistan before it, had no tradition of European-style democracy; and so, completely predictably, jihadist factions with long résumés of terror and sectarian bigotry and violence jumped into the mayhem, eagerly soaking up funding and weaponry poured into that beleaguered country (once one of the most progressive in the Middle East, albeit measured against a very low bar) by the US and its despotic allies in Arabia.
In the same way, those wringing their hands over US hegemony fail to recognize that imperialism is not an optional extra, it has been the very core of human civilization for millennia. You can’t just erase it, and if you do manage to abandon it temporarily, the result is chaos and war and misery, such as what tore at the heart of Europe for centuries after the fall of Rome. Chaos that, in a very real sense, was not brought to an end until 1945, when the Americans and Russians divided the world between them. Then, nearly half a century later, the Americans “won the Cold War” and took it all.
And so we ask again: Change to what? If not America’s hegemony, whose? For a brief time, some pinned their hopes to the European Union, whose most important members were certainly less warlike and more supportive of the humanist values now known as “progressivism” than the Americans. But the EU quickly sold its soul to neoliberal economics, while demonstrating many of the same dark hallmarks of all empires past and present, such as racist tribalism.
And then rose China. A succession of ingenious leaders beginning with Deng Xiaoping developed and nurtured a hybrid system of authoritarian dictatorship, tightly controlled economy, and manipulated capitalism to make China a formidable world power. At first it confined its imperial ambitions within its own borders, fortifying popular support for the ruling elite by lifting millions out of poverty and building glittering metropolises bristling with high technology.
Then, in the footsteps of Genghis Khan, the Chinese went abroad with their New Silk Road program, drawing nation after nation into an empire built not through military conquest but through investment in infrastructure especially welcomed by countries impoverished by colonial greed and, later, neoliberal exploitation – countries unfazed by Western tut-tutting over Belt and Road “debt traps,” as if they were not already familiar with the strictures forced on them by the International Monetary Fund.
And so we ask a third time: Is Chinese hegemony superior to America’s?
Sift through American jingoism and environmental wreckage and strutting hypocrisy and stifling ignorance of history and science, and you will see fundamental values of great worth. Villainy may abound in its halls of governance and corporate power, but the common decency of the great majority of its citizenry protects the values that made America truly great, the true hallmarks of its exceptionalism.
To them, “freedom” is not the meaningless buzzword employed by politicians who slander “socialist tyrannies” so as to rob developing countries of their resources, but a powerful tool to right wrongs and to nurture creativity that, in many ways, has redefined civilization itself. That kind of freedom is absent in China, and would in all likelihood be similarly quashed in a Chinese empire.
State of the Empire
And so we are all, and always will be, subjects of empire, and there is a good argument for preserving the current “liberal world order,” for all its flaws. But all empires rot from the head down.
One of the first words in Emperor Trump’s February 4 State of the Union speech was “incredible,” no doubt meant by his speechwriters to connote the word’s modernized, weakened definition as “extraordinary” but which quickly conveyed its original meaning of “incapable of being believed.”
We heard that the US economy, one in which hundreds of thousands are homeless, where tens of thousands die annually because they can’t afford health care that would be provided free just north of the border in Canada or anywhere in Europe and even much of Asia, where child poverty is rampant, where the best and brightest bear student-debt burdens they may never be free from, where single mothers work multiple jobs to be able to feed their kids, where millions languish in prisons for non-violent crimes, where the wealth gap denies the “American dream” to an exponentially growing segment of the population, and where the national debt will still be in the stratosphere when rising sea levels have inundated the great coastal cities, is “booming.”
And the spin – to be polite and avoid the unparliamentary term “bald-faced lies” – just escalated from there. And where was the so-called opposition, the only viable option for regime change in Washington?
It was in Iowa, showcasing its inability to run a primary caucus, let alone a country. Let alone an empire. Meanwhile the Senate, to no one’s surprise, shot down the Democrats’ inept attempt to impeach Trump through the “high crime and misdemeanor” of attempting to bully one of the few European countries even more corrupt than the US itself into investigating one of the few American families nearly as corrupt as the Trumps themselves, namely the Bidens.
And to no one’s surprise, Trump immediately capitalized on all of this virtually to ensure a comfortable re-election come November, not by way of a landslide of actual votes, but by virtue – as was the case in 2016 – of a public too jaded to bother to go to the polls and choose between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.