Business As Usual: Donald Trump and American Empire

This is a guest post by Jeanne Morefield, Professor of Politics at Whitman College and a Professorial Fellow at the Institute for Social Justice, Australian Catholic University. unnamed Her scholarship works primarily at the intersection of political theory, history, and international relations with a particular focus on the political discourses of British and American imperialism. She is the author of Empires Without Imperialism: Anglo-American Decline and the Politics of Deflection(Oxford, 2014) and Covenants Without Swords: Idealist Liberalism and the Spirit of Empire (Princeton, 2005) and has published articles in journals such asPolitical Theory, History of Political Thought, Theory and Event as well as numerous chapters for edited volumes on the history of international and imperial thought. Jeanne is currently Co-President of the Association for Political Theory and is writing a book on the political thought of Edward Said.

Although it seems like an eternity, it was actually just over a month ago that those legions of Republican and Democratic pundits and professors of International Relations associated with the foreign policy establishment – in all the overlapping, echo-chamberish, reinforcing glory that Ben Rhodes termed “The Blob” – were busy issuing dire warnings about a Trump foreign policy. From realists, to liberal internationalists, to neoconservative ranters, a huge swath of foreign policy regulars committed themselves to the idea that Trump demonstrated “a predisposition to strategic recklessness” and that his espoused policies amounted to “a de facto withdrawal from the liberal world order.” Words like “crackpot,” “temperamentally unsuited,” and “the Islamic State’s dream candidate” came pouring out of a seemingly crestless wave of professorial and think-tank generated articles, op-eds, and open letters while journalists took to the Twittersphere to proclaim Trump’s foreign policy vision “dangerous,” “unprecedented,” and “terrifying.”

In Robert Kagan’s words, if elected, Trump’s “ultimately self-destructive tendencies would play out on the biggest stage in the world, with consequences at home and abroad that one can barely begin to imagine.” The mood was perhaps best captured by Jeffrey Isaac in his last ditch attempt before the election to convince the – largely fictional but rhetorically useful – hordes of leftist hold-outs to vote Democratic.  While his concern was domestic, the ultimatum he presented beautifully reflected the broad sentiments of the foreign policy establishment. The choice before us was simple: “Clinton or barbarism.”

Then Trump won, the barbarians entered the gates, and in a matter of days many of these same harbingers-of-doom were confidently assuring us that, while they still had a few doubts, all would be well on the foreign policy front.

Not surprisingly, Western Civilization’s most dogged empire-whisperer Niall Ferguson – crowing with satisfaction at his prescient decision not to couch his pre-election warnings about Trump as support for Clinton – jumped quickly on the Trump-possibility bandwagon.  Not only, he argued, did it appear that Trump’s foreign policy limned more closely to that of Ferguson’s outsized hero (Henry Kissinger), it could potentially shore up liberalism’s core principles by more forcefully opposing the oppression of women, gays, and people of different faiths in the name of Islam.

The similarly empirephilic Max Boot (who, unlike Ferguson, had endorsed Clinton) also moved quickly to normalize the new barbarism.  He first slavishly begged the new President-elect to forgive all and appoint neoconservative “Never Trumpers” like himself to key cabinet positions, and then swooned unctuously over Trump’s “terrific choice” of Gen. James Mattis for Secretary of Defense.


Trump at a military base

Some skeptical realists soon made a similar pivot.  Barely a week after the election, Steven Walt had already transitioned from Trump-critic to Trump-curious, observing sagely in the pages of Foreign Policy that, if he stuck to the principles of Westphalian sovereignty, Trump’s foreign policy “might actually work.” Finally, while still hesitant about a Trump-led, world order where America is not consistently striving to at least appear to be the global defender of human rights and democracy, liberal internationalists also seem to be accommodating themselves just fine to the new political terrain.

In a recent, reassuring piece for Politico, Phillip Gordon observed that “while there is plenty to worry about—and as a liberal, internationalist, former Hillary Clinton adviser far be it from me to downplay the real danger Trump represents—there are reasons to believe some of these concerns are misplaced.”  He then went on to coo soothingly about the selection of Mattis and a reported short list for Secretary of State that included David Patraeus, Mitt Romney, and Bob Corker, noting that such voices would bring a “more traditional understanding of the need for diplomacy, engagement, and consideration of risk” to a Trump presidency.

The fact that so many in the foreign policy establishment (which includes Obama Doctrine critics and supporters) would be so quick to normalize Trump is not terribly surprising.  Most of these pundits and commentators are equally obsessed with the maintenance of the current global order, an order they believe necessary for the stability of financial markets and the smooth functioning of the world’s vastly integrated system of neoliberal trade relationships.

Many of them agree that the United States is the “indispensable nation” upon whose military might the liberal world order depends. They are nearly univocal in their commitment to maintaining America’s considerable military presence in the world made manifest by its 800 bases in over 80 countries – more military bases, according to David Vine, than “any other people, nation, or empire in history.” The world-wide, marshal superiority of the United States is also reflected in its nuclear stockpiles and the presence of personnel in at least 160 countries staffing ports and airfields, missile testing sites, training areas, military schools, barracks, spying and communications posts, CIA paramilitary bases, and drone strike and intelligence facilities.

Foreign policy pundits of various ideological stripes may describe America’s essential role in the world differently: as a liberal beacon of hope since World War Two, as a reluctant hegemon, as a champion of human rights, as a neo-imperial enforcer of the rule of law, or in Kagan’s lofty words, as a state “abnormally unselfish” in its willingness to shoulder the burdens of leadership.  But despite the objections of a few steadfast, balance of power and classical realists, this absolute belief in the necessity of American hegemony persists.[1]

Most foreign policy pundits seem to assume that neither Trump nor the majority of his advisors have any real desire to radically alter that global balance of power if only for selfish reasons.  Thus, while some liberal internationalists have chided the President-elect about his proposed support for torture or his endorsements of a Muslim ban, an alarming number of foreign policy observers appear to be taking President Obama’s “wait and see” approach to heart. As Richard Fontaine recently opined in Foreign Affairs, all of his criticisms regarding NATO, NAFTA, nuclear weapons, Russia, and immigration, notwithstanding, “as his team will discover upon taking office, knocking down the liberal, rules-based international order would only worsen the problems Trump has identified.”


This raises two interesting and related questions.  First, if Trump’s foreign policy could be so easily accommodated to the American led “liberal, rules-based international order” dear to the hearts of many in the foreign policy establishment, then why oppose him so vigorously in the first place?  Second, why would so many people use the language of crisis with such abandon before the election only to drop the urgency that crisis implies almost immediately after Trump’s victory became apparent?

My attempt to answer these questions below should in no way be taken to imply that I don’t think Donald Trump is a genuine fascist and a singular threat to democracy (he is), or that he speaks truth to power about the international order in principled ways (he does not), and that this will guide him toward a better, safer, more just foreign policy (it won’t).  Neither do I mean to imply that, on the level of domestic politics, the kinds of obscene lies he tells, the hyperbolic form of capitalism for which he stands, the environmental degradation his administration plans, and the naked abuse of power he calls forth, are not of a different, more terrifying, order than the political vision of mainstream Democrats.  Rather, these comments are meant to be read as a caution when it comes to analyzing the deflection-seeped utterances of the foreign policy establishment during a Trump Administration.  They are also intended as an impassioned call for a politics that twins opposition to liberal deflection with the anti-fascism that will no doubt absorb us all for the foreseeable future.

With regard to the first question, I suggest that it isn’t so much the substance (or lack thereof) of Trump’s foreign policy proposals that struck many pundits as unacceptable before the election.  As Corey Robin pointed out in July, his more audacious quips about world politics are hardly unusual in the context of twentieth/twenty-first-century American history. Rather, what must have been – and continues to be – so irksome about Trump are his heedless, needling comments, tweets, stumbles, and gaffes that inadvertently pull back the curtain just enough to reveal the instability at the core of the American led global order.


Cecil Rhodes (Punch Cartoon, “The Rhodes Colossus” 1892)

As David Harvey reminds us with regard to the invasion of Iraq, this global order is hardly a stable ideological formation and the territorial/geo-political and capitalist logics of power that animate it are often at odds with each other. In other words, in a world of rising and competing economies and complicated financial and monetary relationships, coupled with ongoing civil wars, the persistence of “rogue states,” the movement of mass numbers of refugees across borders, and a seemingly endless “war on terror,” the pieces of the ideological puzzle that cast American hegemony as necessary to the safety and security of the international system simply don’t fit together with (what Althusser once described as) teeth gritting harmony.

Trump’s apparently innocent and bumbling gaffes expose the cracks, fragilities, and tensions in the system as well as its deeply illiberal, disordered, hierarchical, and fundamentally cruel character.  His upsetting of the NATO applecart, stands as a paradigmatic case in point, as do his even more contradictory comments about Saudi Arabia, his praise for the economic policies of the dictator of Kazakhstan, and the quip about Boeing which some journalists treated as an international incident by virtue of its impact on the stock market. Trump’s perversely mean spirited spewing – his praise for anti-democratic regimes and dictators, his brazen nose thumbing at the military industrial complex – all point to the unsettling reality that the liberal global order that America provides is, at the end of the day, profoundly illiberal and disordered.

For the entirety of its existence, the American led, post-war peace has been grounded on the systematic denial of democratic freedom to millions of people throughout the world, from Syria (the site of the first CIA backed coup in 1949), to the Congo, to Iran, to Vietnam, to Honduras, to Greece, to Chile, to Guatemala, Haiti and beyond.


Bones from mass grave in Guatemala

Trump’s putatively shoot-from-the-hip comments about dictators, NATO, and NAFTA cut too close to the bone, accidentally exposing the naked power relations at the heart of a contemporary world order that is grounded, as James Tully reminds us, in the “complex network of unequal relationships of power between the west and the non-west (or the global north and the global south).”  This network, he goes on to argue, has “sustained and increased the political and military domination, economic exploitation, environmental degradation, and horrific inequalities in living conditions of the majority of the world’s population in the former colonial world that were originally established during the first 500 years of western imperialism prior to decolonization” (Tully, 5).

When we add to this neoliberalism’s particularly rapacious exacerbation of the global resource inequality produced by centuries of imperialism – that is, its creation of a new, transnational class of elite financiers and the redistribution of capital over the last three decades into fewer and fewer hands – the vision of a world protected by the enlightened values of international institutions and benevolent American leadership is significantly attenuated.  Already the thin, nearly translucent, carapace of “western liberal values” seems ready to crack under the weight of its own hypocrisy as Angela Merkel lectures Trump about the “dignity of man” in one moment and European Union creditors deny even a modest Christmas bonus to impoverished Greek pensioners in the next.

No wonder Trump’s tendency to highlight the incoherence, greed, and amorality of the system is proving exasperating for anyone who remains whole heartedly committed to keeping up the fiction that the “liberal, rules based international-order” means anything other than the marriage of naked power with poverty, despair, and violence for a significant portion of the world’s population.


The Vietnam war

Moreover, it makes a considerable amount of sense that liberal internationalists, neoconservatives, and some professed realists (of the Ferguson/Kissinger ilk) alike would remain wary of Trump’s bull-in-the-china-shop approach to communication even as they quickly reorient themselves to the new reality.  Because all of them have something at stake in maintaining the narrative that the Obama Administration has been categorically invested in a new kind of foreign policy that, in Kissinger’s words, “posits that America acted against its basic values in a number of places around the world, thereby maneuvering itself into an intractable positions” thus requiring it to withdraw “from regions where we can only make things worse.”

The general consensus within the foreign policy establishment (perhaps best captured in Jeffrey Goldberg’s extensive interview with Obama for The Atlantic in April of 2016) is that the Obama Doctrine differed meaningfully from past foreign policy approaches because the President was “quite obviously an internationalist” devoted to “strengthening multilateral organizations and international norms” but also moved by a “realist driven restraint.” Where for Kissinger this approach resulted in a “reactive” and “passive” foreign policy, some liberal internationalists (like John Ikenberry) found it too disengaged from America’s leadership role in the world.

But whether or not they agreed with its success, everyone agreed it was somehow different.  Everyone, therefore, participated in actively deflecting the open secret that, for many people, life under the Obama Doctrine was as radically unsafe, violent, and insecure as it had been under any other post-war American president.  Indeed, Obama’s decision to expand Bush’s “War on Terror” to a “global battlefield” meant that anyone suspected of terrorism living anywhere in the world could legitimately become the subjects of “targeted killings” by drones strikes without any legal curtailments.  During Obama’s presidency, such “targeted killings” took place in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, and possibly Mali, resulting in the deaths not only of suspected terrorists but also large numbers of men, women, and children who were understood as combatants simply by virtue of their proximity. According to Amnesty International, the Administration’s drone attacks could amount to war crimes.

A protest against a US military base in Okinawa

A protest against a US military base in Okinawa

Centrist liberals and liberal internationalists had different reasons from neocons and Republican foreign policy experts for participating in the conspiracy of silence about the Obama Administration’s expansion of Bush-era extrajudicial killings.  Liberals desperately wanted the President to be the pragmatic peace maker that the Nobel Prize Committee envisioned before the fact, while conservatives used Obama to castigate the naïvete of liberal internationalist wish fulfilment. Liberals wanted to believe that Obama actually did, as Kissinger argued, reflect on the circumstances that has gotten the United States into situations like Iraq in the first place and respond accordingly, while conservatives wanted to believe that the Administration’s supposed reflection in this regard was actually diminishing America’s standing in the eyes of the world.

“Not since Jimmy Carter lamented American ‘malaise,’” groused Hillel Fradkin and Lewis Libby in 2014, “has a president so readily publicized an image of U.S. hopelessness.” In all of these cases, what no one in the foreign policy establishment wanted to believe was that the American led global order under Obama – with all of its violence, instability, secrecy, hierarchy, contempt for democracy, and overwhelming commitment to preserving financial markets and the global flow of capital – was simply business as usual.

And because no one wanted to believe this, it must have been truly startling when Trump swanned onto the stage and used this open secret to have his cake and eat it too.  Thus, not only did Trump’s apparently witless comments draw attention to the violence and greed of the system; he was able to claim, at the same time, that America had been humiliated by Obama’s insistence on apologizing – which, of course, he never did – for its past wrongs and that his foreign policy would pull us back from this crisis of will and make us great again. In sum, Trump’s strange, idiot-savant form of truth telling through tweet-bombing brought the deeply uncomfortable fact that American foreign policy was imperialist under both Democratic and Republican heads of states to the surface in ways that were embarrassing to everyone but Donald Trump.


Standing Rock

Trump’s capacity to gobsmack the punditocracy by stumbling into the fact of American imperialism every time he opens his mouth about the world, goes a long way toward answering the first question I pose above – if his foreign policy could be so easily accommodated, why oppose it so vigorously in the first place? When the dust settled after November 8th, foreign policy pundits quickly adjusted themselves to the idea that Trump had no fundamental interest in wrecking the current world order and so shifted their rhetorical strategies toward normalization and discursive damage control, offering him friendly advice in light of his “inexperience” while gently rebuking him for his “lack of nuance.”

My second question – why would so many foreign policy pundits fall back on a language of crisis to describe a Trump victory? – is slightly easier to answer if not immediately obvious. On the one hand, the specter of crisis is rhetorically omnipresent and deeply associated with the punditry of our contemporary moment.  Any leftist in this country who has participated in politics since the 1980’s is familiar with the way the idea of crisis (political, economic, social) has been used to discredit radical politics and limit our political horizons.  Democrats and Republicans alike have drawn on the logic of neoliberal austerity to insist that There Is No Alternative to a pared down welfare system, an eviscerated labor movement, an endless loosening of financial regulation, a gutted public sector, and an ever expanding carceral state.

In this sense, we have gotten used to the relentless histrionics of Democratic leaders and party activists who, every four years, wag their collective fingers at anyone considering not voting for their candidate. “If not us,” they demand, “then who?!  The Republicans?  They’ll cut programs even more than we will!  This is a crisis!”  In this world view, mean spirited, pro-capitalist, watered down liberalism is always The Only Alternative to barbarism, always the thin line between order and chaos. Each election cycle, then, we see new, increasingly creative ways to play out the crisis scenario and to making sure that politics is always perched on the precipice and the left is shamed into submission.  And each time the barbarians win (1988, 2000, 2004, 2016) centrist liberals accommodate to the new reality by moving the discourse farther right, right, right, setting the stage for the next electoral crisis.

Sometimes, however, critics of neoliberalism get a bit fixated on the novelty of this narrowing of options, as though the current framing of politics as crisis – always poised at the brink, always sandwiched between terrible options – was born in the instant Margaret Thatcher threw down a copy of Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty on the table at a 1975 meeting and declared, “This is what we believe.”


But the story of crisis language in the twentieth-century is more complicated than that.  When Thomas Wright of the Brookings Institute, pleaded with his readers just before the election to understand that we are “forty-eight hours away from a new world crisis” he did so in order to stress how rare the moment was, how singular the threat, and how urgent the need to defeat Trump. “World crises,” he argued, “are rare. They occur when a fault-line opens up in the international system that generates enormous instability and unleashes powerful opposing forces with no means of reconciling them.”

And yet, while “world crises” in these exact, global terms may be rare, the way Wright uses the idea is not.  Indeed, those of us who study the discursive traditions attached to British and American forms of liberal imperialism over the last one hundred years know that crisis language – the kind that positions the “indispensable” imperial nation as perennially on the brink, always the only thing sewing together the fabric of the universe – has a long and ignoble history.

Claims that liberal values and Western Civilization are in immediate danger of decline are simply how liberals with an interest in rationalizing the continuing hegemonic/imperial power of their states imagine the movement of time.  They are as common as air.  Because at the very heart of the liberal imperial project lies a bundle of deeply unsettling and irreconcilable ideological contradictions that all cluster around one central, gnawing hypocrisy:  how can an immensely powerful, heavily militarized state, that claims to be grounded on the ideals of freedom, democracy, and a respect for sovereign autonomy consistently deny those very ideals to vast swaths or the world’s population and still be liberal?  This is the primal ideological wound that never fully heals, the discursive disconnect that requires constant rhetorical managing primarily by encouraging people to look elsewhere – anywhere – but at the contradiction.  The idea of crisis, therefore, lies at the core of this liberal imperial politics of deflection.  It is a key weapon in the rhetorical arsenal.



For instance, just before World War One and at the height of British imperial power, worried pro-imperial, liberal pundits associated with the Roundtable Society – shortly thereafter to become the Royal Society of International Affairs (Chatham House) whose members would play a not-insignificant role in helping to found the Council on Foreign Relations in America in 1921 – produced countless memoranda, journal articles, and papers fretting over the demise of the liberal world order, the dangerous waves of Indian laborers marauding through the Commonwealth, and the relentless rise of an ever expanding China.

Nearly one hundred years later, liberal internationalist scholar Ikenberry – who uses the word “crisis” in the titles of his published work perhaps more than any other IR scholar writing today – has made strikingly similar observations about the threat posed to the liberal international order by rising powers, particularly China.  The clarifying logic at work for liberal British imperialists then, and contemporary supporters of America’s hegemony now, is always the same: “If not us, then who?  China?  Russia?  Come on, really?  At this moment of crisis, you’re going to choose them?”  In the long twentieth-century of liberal imperialism – British and American – the idea of crisis looms so large that it blocks out the sun.

Again, my point in highlighting the ways members of the foreign policy establishment – Democrats and Republicans, liberal internationalists, realists, and neocons alike – participate in occluding the fact of American empire through their use of crisis language is not meant to suggest that there isn’t something profoundly troubling about the rise of Donald Trump.  Nor am I implying that opposing fascism is not our primary responsibility as citizens and activists in this new era.  Rather, I want to suggest that, in the long and brutal fight against Trumpism that is to come, we resist the temptation to let liberal imperialism off the hook for the sake of concentrating solely on the greater evil.  Because when Democrats and Republicans insist again and again that the United States is a liberal hegemon, or an “indispensable nation,” or a democratic super power, or a reluctant world leader – anything other than an empire – what alternative to empire are we left with?


Edward Said and resistance

And if empire is the only thing we can ever expect, all the way down, then Trump and fascism are always going to be possibilities; they lie there, just below the thin surface of the “liberal, rules based order,” waiting to break through.   We need to ask ourselves how, in this environment bristling with silences, misdirection, and deflection, we can create the space where another world becomes possible.   The success of the Sanders movement in this country suggests that such alternative accounts of political life not only exist but have enormous popular support if only we can wrest them from the liberal crises that perennially narrow the aperture of our political vision.

The struggle now must be to tie a critique of liberal deflection on a domestic level with the fight against empire globally.  That fight requires collective humility and sustained reflection on America’s role in the world.  In other words, it requires forging the kinds of critiques, countermemories, and counternarratives that, in the words of Edward Said, “will not allow conscience to look away or fall asleep.”

[1] For notable (and very different) realist objections to this notion see Mearsheimer on Trump and Reich and Lebow, Goodbye Hegemony! (Princeton, 2014).

7 thoughts on “Business As Usual: Donald Trump and American Empire

  1. Overwritten and more about the author’s verbal dexterity than providing a clear enunciation of the solution to the perceived problem. I assume that solution is that everybody has to agree on a solution.


  2. Nice article. brings some new perspectives on how to view Trump. How his presidency will unfold is pretty unpredictable at this point. If he spits in the face of past administrations too much I think one positive result could be the unification of Congress across party lines. I hope that Congress can overcome party lines enough to provide a rational and effective check/balance to the administration.


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  5. Pingback: Policy Series 2021-46: Lifting the Veil on Racial Capitalism: American Foreign Policy Before and After Trump - H-Diplo | ISSFH-Diplo | ISSF

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