An undercurrent in the 2016 election was growing opposition to an activist United States economic/political/military role in the world.
An empire in decline
United States global hegemony is coming to an end. The United States was the country that collaborated with the Soviet Union to defeat fascism in Europe and with Great Britain to crush Japanese militarism in Asia in 1945. The Soviet Union, the first Socialist state, suffered 27 million dead in the war to defeat the Nazis. Great Britain, the last great imperial power, was near the end of its global reach because of war and the rise of anti-colonial movements in Asia and Africa.
As the beneficiary of war-driven industrial growth and the development of a military-industrial complex unparalleled in world history, the United States was in a position in 1945 to construct a post-war international political and economic order based on huge banks and corporations. The United States created the international financial and trading system, imposed the dollar as the global currency, built military alliances to challenge the Socialist Bloc, and used its massive military might and capacity for economic penetration to infiltrate, subvert, and dominate most of the economic and political regimes across the globe.
The United States always faced resistance and was by virtue of its economic system and ideology drawn into perpetual wars, leading to trillions of dollars in military spending, the loss of hundreds of thousands of American lives, and the deaths of literally millions of people, mostly people of color, to maintain its empire.
A multipolar world is reemerging with challenges to traditional hegemony.
As was the case with prior empires, the United States empire is coming to an end. A multipolar world is reemerging with challenges to traditional hegemony coming from China, India, Russia, and the larger less-developed countries such as Brazil, Argentina, South Africa, South Korea, and Thailand. By the 1970s, traditional allies in Europe and Japan had become economic competitors of the United States.
The United States throughout this period of change has remained the overwhelming military power, however, spending more on defense than the next seven countries combined. It remains the world’s economic giant even though growth in domestic product between 1980 and 2000 has been a third of its GDP growth from 1960 to 1980. Confronted with economic stagnation and declining profit rates the United States economy began in the 1970s to transition from a vibrant industrial base to financial speculation and the globalization of production.
The latest phase of capitalism, the era of neoliberal globalization, has required massive shifts of surplus value from workers to bankers and the top 200 corporations which by the 1980s controlled about one-third of all production. The instruments of consciousness, a handful of media conglomerates, have consolidated their control of most of what people read, see, hear, and learn about the world.
A policy centerpiece of the new era has been a massive shift of wealth from the many to the few.
A policy centerpiece of the new era, roughly spanning the rise to power of Ronald Reagan to today, including the eight years of the Obama Administration, has been a massive shift of wealth from the many to the few. A series of graphs published by the Economic Policy Institute in December 2016, show that productivity, profits, and economic concentration have risen while real wages have declined, inequality has increased, gaps between the earnings of people of color and women and white men have grown, and persistent poverty has remained for 20 percent of the population. The austerity policies, the centerpiece of neoliberalism, have spread all across the globe. That is what globalization is about.
Paralleling the shifts toward a transnational capitalist system and the concentration of wealth and power on a global level, the decline of U.S power, relative to other nation-states in the twenty-first century, has increased. The wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the spreading violence throughout the Middle East have overwhelmed U.S. efforts to control events. Russia, Iran, China, and even weaker nations in the United Nations Security Council have begun to challenge its power and authority. Mass movements increasingly mobilize against vile regimes supported by the United States virtually everywhere (including within the U.S. as well).
However, most U.S. politicians still articulate the mantra of “the United States as the indispensable nation.” The articulation of American Exceptionalism represents an effort to maintain a global hegemony that no longer exists and a rationale to justify the massive military-industrial complex which fuels much of the United States economy.
Imperial decline and domestic politics
The narrative above is of necessity brief and oversimplified but provides a backdrop for reflecting on the substantial shifts in American politics. The argument here is that foreign policy and international political economy are “the elephants in the room” as we reflect on the outcomes of the 2016 elections. It does not replace other explanations or “causes” of the election but supplements them.
The pursuit of austerity policies has been a central feature of international economics.
First, the pursuit of austerity policies, particularly in other countries (the cornerstone of neoliberal globalization), has been a central feature of international economics since the late 1970s. From the establishment of the debt system in the Global South, to “shock therapy” in countries as varied as Bolivia and the former Socialist Bloc, to European bank demands on Greece, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland, to Reaganomics and the promotion of Clinton’s “market democracies,” and the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the wealth of the world has been shifting from the poor and working classes to the rich.
Second, to promote neoliberal globalization, the United States has constructed by far the world’s largest war machine. With growing opposition to U.S. militarism around the world, policy has shifted in recent years from “boots on the ground,” (although there still are many), to special ops, private contractors, drones, cyberwar, spying, and “quiet coups,” such as in Brazil and Venezuela, to achieve neoliberal advances.
One group of foreign policy insiders, the humanitarian interventionists, has lobbied for varied forms of intervention to promote “human rights, democratization, and markets.” Candidate Hillary Clinton and a host of “deep state” insiders advocated for support of the military coup in Honduras, a NATO coalition effort to topple the regime in Libya, the expansion of troops in Afghanistan, even stronger support of Israel, funding and training anti-government rebels in Syria, and the overthrow of the elected government of Ukraine. As Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton was a major advocate for humanitarian interventionist policies in the Obama administration.
Humanitarian interventionists have joined forces with ‘neoconservatives’ in the new century.
Humanitarian interventionists have joined forces with “neoconservatives” in the new century to advocate policies that, they believe, would reverse the declining relative power of the United States. This coalition of foreign policy influentials has promoted a New Cold War against Russia and an Asian pivot to challenge the emerging multipolar world. The growing turmoil in the Middle East and the new rising powers in Eurasia also provide rationale for qualitative increases in military spending, enormous increases in research and development of new military technologies, and the reintroduction of ideologies that were current during the last century about mortal enemies and the inevitability of war.
The “elephant in the room” that pertained to the 2016 election was growing opposition to an activist United States economic/political/military role in the world. Many center/left Americans, to the extent that they were motivated by international issues, saw the Clinton foreign policy record as emblematic of the long history of United States imperialism. Further, given the fact that U.S. interventionism and support for neoliberalism have generated growing global opposition, many voters feared a possible Clinton presidency would extend foreign policies that have already created chaos and anger, particularly in the Middle East and the Persian Gulf.
Finally, to the extent that economics affected the electoral outcome (and the degree to which this is correct is being hotly debated), the neoliberal global agenda that has been enshrined in United States international economic policy since the 1970s, has had much to do with rising austerity, growing disparities of wealth and power, wage and income stagnation, and declining social safety nets at home as well. The Trans Pacific Partnership was both a possible reality and a metaphor for fifty years of failed international economic policy for American workers.
Since the election, foreign policy has become even more of an “elephant in the room” as millions of Americans struggle with the prospects of a devastatingly inhumane new administration (perhaps one that logically follows from the 50-year trajectory described above).
The post-election narrative: Trump won the election because of the Russians!
The Washington Post late Friday night published an explosive story that, in many ways, is classic American journalism of the worst sort: the key claims are based exclusively on the unverified assertions of anonymous officials, who in turn are disseminating their own claims about what the CIA purportedly believes, all based on evidence that remains completely secret. Glenn Greenwald, “Anonymous Leaks to the WashPost About the CIA’s Russia Beliefs Are No Substitute for Evidence,” The Intercept, 12/10/16.
The “liberal” cable news outlet MSNBC, print media, and social media went ballistic Friday night, December 9, over the release of a story in the “objective” Washington Post that the CIA had found a connection between Russian hackers, WikiLeaks, and the release of damaging stories about presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.
Rachel Maddow was positively breathless as she reported the Post story.
Rachel Maddow was positively breathless as she reported the Post story which in effect explains the Clinton loss as a result of Russian interference. Weaving a yarn of conspiracy, Maddow also implicated the leadership of the Republican Party in Congress for opposing any investigation of the CIA warning before the elections. The Republican leader, Senator Mitch McConnell, questioned the credibility and partisanship of the CIA claims about a Putin/Trump collaboration.
Maddow further linked the CIA claims that Russia used the distribution of hacked messages to embarrass candidate Hillary Clinton to Trump’s alleged close ties to Russia, his investments in the Russian energy industry, and rumors that the next Secretary of State would be an Exxon/Mobil CEO, whose corporation has close ties to Russia. (She correctly pointed out that if Russia had sided with the Clinton candidacy, the Republicans would have been outraged).
Maddow, the Post, and many social media outlets have suggested that all this adds up to a severe constitutional crisis. A foreign nation, Russia, had interfered with free elections in American democracy. She implied that the U.S. would never engage in such conduct overseas nor should it accept outside interference in the electoral process at home.
The story was flawed from so many perspectives it was difficult to disentangle the real threats to American society.
The United States has been interfering in elections at least since the onset of the Cold War.
First, the United States has been interfering in elections all across the globe at least since the onset of the Cold War. The same CIA that is the hero in this story created Christian Democratic parties in Europe shortly after World War Two to challenge the popularity of Communist parties across the continent. It was instrumental in creating and supporting virulently anti-Communist trade unions in Europe and Latin America. And it funded the development of a panoply of anti-Communist scholarly networks inspired by the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Some of the most revered scholars, writers, artists, were knowingly or unknowingly compromised by the CIA political agenda.
In recent times, anti-Communist and erratic Russian President Boris Yeltsin received aid and campaign advice from the Clinton Administration during the Russian leader’s 1996 run for reelection. Yeltsin was being challenged by candidates from Russian nationalist and Communist parties. The victory of either would have slowed or reversed the so-called “shock therapy” conversions from a state-directed to a neoliberal economy introduced by a compliant Yeltsin.
Of course, interference in the politics of other countries has been an unfortunate staple of United States foreign policy throughout the world, particularly in Latin America: Guatemala, the Dominican Republic, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and most recently, Honduras and Venezuela. These patterns of interference have not been merely gossipy stories leaked to the media but the funneling of money, sabotage, training and support of coup plotters, and other direct, physical forms of intervention.
As suggested above, inside the Beltway an influential group of foreign policy elites has been pressuring the Obama Administration to expand efforts to push back Russia, including undermining Vladimir Putin’s rule (Putin is no different a political dictator and supporter of crony capitalism than the earlier U.S. favorite Boris Yeltsin, claimed Stephen Cohen, “CNN Gets Schooled by Stephen Cohen on DNC Hack, Trump-Putin Links, Video,” Russia Insider, August 1, 2016).
The U.S. and its NATO allies have been placing troops and bases in Poland and the Baltic states.
The United States and its NATO allies, violating promises from the 1990s, have been placing troops and bases in Poland and the Baltic states. The United States played a significant role in the campaign that led to the ouster of the elected leader of Ukraine (a plot organized by a neoconservative State Department ally of Hillary Clinton). In short, leading foreign policymakers have been lobbying for a New Cold War. And, the “liberal media” stereotype of an aging, macho, shirtless, dictator provides a superb visual image of the enemy. And to the contrary, candidate Trump hinted at the possibility of reducing tensions between the United States and Russia.
Further, the aforementioned media have assumed but not demonstrated in any way that the alleged Russian hacking and the use of WikiLeaks (an opponent believed inside the Beltway to be almost as nefarious as Putin) to publicize compromising e-mails determined the outcome of the elections. This is in juxtaposition to the electronic libraries of published articles seeking to explain the election outcomes.
Many election analyses have correctly highlighted factors shaping the election, including such variables as class, race, region, anti-immigrant sentiments, voter suppression, and campaign tactics. “Fake News” (as opposed to the usual mainstream media distortions) is the latest variable added to the list of explanations. It is the case that the allegations of Russian hacking uncovered by the CIA months ago and resurfacing now is the Washington Post, MSNBC, USA Today, CNN version of “Fake News.”
In the post-election period serious reflection and debate about who won and lost, why, and what progressives can do to resist and reorganize has been overtaken by an old story about foreign intervention. The old spies who had deviously worked in factories and tried to organize unions, marched with civil rights activists, taught a different history in schools that touched on the massacre of Nation Americans, slavery, the lack of voting rights, and segregation, have been replaced by cyber spies: hackers who sit at computers anywhere around the world bent on destroying American democracy.
And these hackers get their marching orders from whom? The Russians! Foreign policy remains “the elephant in the room.” Progressives need to add it to strategizing about the future.
[Harry Targ teaches United States foreign policy at Purdue University. He is a co-chair of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS). He lives in West Lafayette, Indiana, and blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.]