Skip to content

Malign Intervention

An unpopular hegemon retreats

Perhaps what is most different about the United States as a hegemonic power is that most Americans actually believe that it really is different, that we are self-evidently a force for the greater good, not self-interested like every other hegemon in history.

But as I watched the 2016 election campaign unfold from Latin America last year, I found quite a few people with memories of U.S. interventions across the region who wanted Trump to win because they thought he would diminish American power. With that guy in charge, the logic went, the United States would be nudged more quickly out of the position that allowed it to install so many dictatorships decades ago, and rain constant death on the Muslim world more recently. They think U.S. global power has been good for Americans, but mostly bad for other countries.

That position, however, is basically unpronounceable in U.S. discourse. The U.S. Presidential campaign treated the issue of U.S. power as if it were two-sided. In the blue corner, we had the traditional view that the U.S.-led global order is good for America, and good for the world. In the red corner, a plucky challenger put forward the notion that the current system is good for the world, but bad for Americans. We had stupidly done everything for everyone else and given away our lunch, the story went.

But, of course, there are more ways to conceive of the world that overwhelming U.S. military and economic power has created.

The third position is held by those I mentioned in Latin America, and many groups around the world. This includes the committed “anti-imperialist” left, as well as wide range of people believing that the United States has tended to use the largest economy and the most powerful military machine in human history to help itself first, often with consequences for those that get in the way. We aren’t the good guys that sometimes make mistakes. We are often the bad guys.

A fourth position—that globalization as it happened is bad for everyone—is less relevant for geopolitical arguments, as its adherents are more of a small mixed bag, including some environmentalists as well as nationalists, without a major team in power to root for.

All Measures Short of War: The Contest for the 21st Century and the Future of American Power, the new book from Thomas Wright, foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution, offers a serious look at the world from the first perspective, that of Hillary Clinton, against those who would advocate U.S. retreat or accommodation on the world stage. Of course, Wright ignores the elephantine third possibility in the war room, but the work offers an insight into his position, and a useful guide to all the others, by trying to identify the likely pressure points on the international system as it stands.

We aren’t the good guys that sometimes make mistakes. We are often the bad guys.

Wright argues, plausibly, that the world system is actually a set of regional systems. Only two major players—China and Russia—actively want to change much, by taking a bit more control in their regions. Even they show no signs of wanting to change the total system, at least for now. Today, there is nothing like a Soviet Union that exists outside the liberal order and seeks seriously to reconfigure it. And the Middle East is an extremely unstable system, which needs active U.S. guidance to avoid getting even worse, while all the other regions can be set aside for now, according to the book.

Largely by summarizing the output of foreign sections of English-language news outlets from the last few years—think tanks try to influence policy, not thrill readers—Wright outlines how and why China wants to increase its control over the South China Sea, and that Russia seeks a “sphere of influence” near its borders. China absolutely wants to keep globalized capitalism in place (relatively speaking, it has done quite well) and avoid military conflict, but seeks to establish regional influence before the United States notices, and it is too late. Vladimir Putin, Wright says, was so infuriated that Russia was not respected as a serious power even after collaborating with the West for years that he reacted to Secretary Clinton’s perceived intervention in the 2011 elections, and the events in Ukraine, by actively trying to disrupt the order in Europe and mess with the United States, too. But Russia is neither rising nor a super power, and what it wants is increased regional influence and a seat at the global table, not to export Putinism around the globe.

These are the main foreign policy problems Wright outlines, and he presents them as threats that Washington must combat actively— against those arguing for isolationism, which candidate Trump flirted with, and accommodation, which Trump seems to be trying out at times, then changing his mind. And they are threats, according to Wright, because they push back against the U.S.-led order, which is good for us and the rest of the world.

It would be hugely unrealistic to expect this kind of a D.C. book to acknowledge that this is a contested proposition—that is, to take seriously the third position on U.S. empire. That’s not how you get ahead on Capitol Hill. But it’s fascinating to see how this entire possibility is elided. Wright uses a trick to stay firmly in acceptable ideological territory while acknowledging the criticisms of recent behavior that are fundamental to understanding the current global order: ventriloquism. He is willing to use his own voice to affirm what America really stands for, but prefers to put all concrete condemnations of the United States into the mouths of obviously unsavory characters and enemies that want to do us harm.

Early in the book, speaking fluent Washington D.C., he casually states, “Since the Cold War, U.S. Policy has been that all countries should be free to decide their type of government and their foreign relations for themselves, without interference by an outside power.”

As I read this in Indonesia, where U.S.-backed generals oversaw the murder of up to a million leftists and alleged leftist civilians in 1965, then established a Washington-supported dictatorship that lasted until 1998, I laughed so audibly the wealthy Saudis at the table next to me looked up from their lunch.

But then take this passage, on what the United States has actually done in the Middle East recently.

Aggressive foreign intervention has resulted in a brazen destruction of national institutions . . . instead of the triumph of democracy and progress, we got violence, poverty, and social disaster. Nobody cares a bit about human rights, including the right to life. I cannot help asking those who have caused the situation, do you realize what you have done?

Where, as the kids are saying, is the lie? You can hear a version of this argument in elite New York and D.C. spaces, and watch many people nod solemnly in agreement. You can hear it in working-class bars in Republican counties, too. You can hear it from veterans. Do you agree with that statement? Well then ha! Got you! You are siding with an anti-American speech made by Vladimir Putin at the UN in 2015. You were meant to read the whole thing in a thick Russian accent.

Presenting arguments this way makes it very hard to engage with their merits, or to question Wright’s curious claim later that the Middle East may be heading into a period of even worse conflict, and the United States “has an obligation to intercede, arrest the march of history,” as if we weren’t already intimately involved in that march.

Wright does not acknowledge that Obama’s Pentagon was bombing seven countries as his second term ended. The book can be read, actually, as a guide to what Hillary Clinton should be doing that Obama didn’t, though Wright quickly allows in an epilogue—seemingly unplanned—that since Trump won the election, none of his recommendations will be taken seriously by anyone with real power.

But what really will happen if Trump decides to disengage, accommodate, or simply to prove so ineffective that U.S. power is neutered for a while? Wright is right that this depends on how it happens and who is waiting in the wings. Marxists, liberals, and reactionaries alike have too often just assumed that once they get rid of the big thing in their way, the world will just fall into place as they believe it should.

For now, there is no powerful political project that is plausibly aiming to actually change the global system in an intentional fashion.

So far, it appears Trump is trying to accommodate Chinese ambitions, while periodically making unrealistic public demands they Do Something about North Korea. It’s unclear whether or not he has noticed that his friend Rodrigo Duterte, President of the Philippines, has actually pulled the Southeast Asia ASEAN group closer to the Chinese position on the South China Sea, all while he shares jolly phone calls with the new U.S. President. But Russia, despite whatever Putin may or may not have hoped to achieve with a Trump presidency, has become a world-historically toxic issue in Washington, making any accommodating deal there difficult. Whatever Putin might have wanted from Trump, it seems he has given up, and is now set on reacting violently to the way he’s been politicized in Washington. The Middle East is more volatile than ever, now also reeling from increased Saudi assertiveness, probably as a result of the U.S. President lobbing an orb-shaped vote of confidence at their monarchy.

None of these foreign policy issues, of course, deal with the deeper issues of globalization, such as increasing inequality, the financialization of the world economy (which keeps the United States in its privileged position, as Wright recognizes) and migration pressures, all of which are driving politics at the state level, and arguably induced the Americans who lost out from globalization to elect the so-called “blue-collar billionaire” to the White House.

For now, there is no powerful political project that is plausibly aiming to actually change the global system in an intentional fashion. That’s good news for those in camp number one. But for those holding the second, third, or fourth position—be they Chinese, American, Brazilian, or Ukrainian—their challenge is to create one.