Empire Roundtable

We asked our senior analysts at Foreign Policy In Focus to weigh in on the future course of American foreign policy. This is the question they responded to: “The enormous challenges facing us — economic crisis, climate crisis, nuclear proliferation — require unprecedented global cooperation. Will President Barack Obama draw down the American empire in order to meet these challenges? Or will he do what he can to maintain empire in a different form?”

Sarah Anderson

We may get some early hints when Obama walks up to the podium at the upcoming Summit of the Americas in Trinidad next month. What will he say surrounded by leaders who have chafed at U.S. domination in the realm of economy policy?

There will be Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who led the opposition to U.S. efforts to impose its trade model on the rest of the hemisphere. The Brazilian president blasted the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) as an “annexation” agreement (only to be outdone by Hugo Chavez, who described it as a “cauldron of hell”).

And there will be Cristina Kirchner, whose predecessor husband Nestor famously defied the U.S.-backed International Monetary Fund (IMF), threatening to default on loans rather than accept prescribed austerity measures in the middle of a meltdown.

The leaders of Ecuador and Bolivia, also expected in the Port of Spain, are both currently challenging U.S. investment treaties and pursuing their own alternative trade and investment models.

The Bush administration responded to these countries’ concerns about the market fundamentalist model by treating them like upstarts with attitude problems. Robert Zoellick, then the U.S. trade representative and now World Bank president, dubbed Brazil the leader of the “won’t do” countries. After 11 years of negotiations, Zoellick abandoned the FTAA in 2005 in favor of bilateral deals with countries more eager to embrace U.S. policies (or too weak to stand up to the global superpower). It was the Bush administration’s “coalition of the willing” approach to trade.

Will Obama continue a “you’re either with us or you’re against us” approach to international economic policy? Here are a couple reasons to expect a less imperialist approach.

First, as a senator, Obama was an original co-sponsor of the Jubilee Act, which would cancel the debts owed by impoverished countries to the World Bank and IMF — without the onerous, market-fundamentalist policy conditions these institutions have imposed on developing countries for nearly three decades. By endorsing this bill, Obama signaled some support (even before the global meltdown) for the notion that these financial institutions’ “one-size-fits-all” formula for development should no longer reign supreme.

Second, on the campaign trail, Obama made detailed statements to fair trade activists that showed a measure of openness to some of the concerns raised by Latin American governments. For example, he said he would support the right of developing countries to protect small farmers from agricultural product dumping. He also committed to making some changes in the U.S. model for investment rules in trade agreements. Current rules allow foreign investors to sue for compensation over actions, including public interest regulations, which significantly diminish their profits. As candidate, Obama specifically stated that he would “amend NAFTA to make clear that fair laws and regulations written to protect citizens in any of the three countries cannot be overwritten simply at the request of foreign investors.”

Obama said recently that his plans for renegotiating NAFTA will need to be postponed due to the immediate pressures of the economic crisis. However, his pick for U.S. trade representative, Ron Kirk, has at least indicated that he doesn’t plan on continuing the Bush administration’s relentless expansion of the free-trade agenda. “I do not come to this job with what I have called in some of our meetings ‘deal fever,’” Kirk said in his confirmation hearing.

With the old model of economic globalization widely discredited by the worldwide crisis, the Obama administration would do well to play a supportive observer role in the innovative economic cooperation experiments being pursued in Latin America. Last year, 12 countries launched the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), a supranational body modeled to some extent on the European Union. Some of these countries are already cooperating to develop the Bank of the South, a regional alternative to the World Bank and IMF.

The U.S. government should bring the same spirit of constructive engagement to UNASUR as it brought to the European Union during its early days of formation. European integration has made that region not a threat but a stronger, more stable partner. The Trinidad summit presents an excellent opportunity for Obama to begin a new, post-Monroe Doctrine relationship with Latin America, based on cooperation and solidarity.

E. Ethelbert Miller

I’ve always felt the word “empire” sneaked into our vocabulary after the Star Wars movies, the same way the word “apartheid” became so American after we helped free Nelson Mandela. We need to be careful with how we use words. Throw the word empire around and we might just believe we can control the global markets. Well we can’t. I’m not convinced we dominate the world like we think we do. Maybe if I was living in the mountains of Afghanistan I might fumble around with this word empire. Maybe I could convince a few people that the “empire” can strike back.

I think Obama needs to monitor the influence of America in everything from foreign policy to climate control. If this man’s best quality is that he listens — well, maybe he can help construct new relationships between nations. New dialogue with Syria, Iran, and Cuba, for example, can introduce better global cooperation. No more empires unless we plan to follow the small boats of Somali pirates and warlords. What year is this? 2009, you say? And the president of the United States is a black man? Things must be moving forward and not backwards. I hope so…

Mark Engler

Taking E. Ethelbert Miller’s point about the dangers of overly ominous or static descriptions of U.S. power, I would suggest: Empire is as empire does. If the United States under Obama makes an inward turn, focusing on the domestic implications of the economic crisis, its imperial dimensions may grow hazy in the coming years. Or so we can hope. In parts of the world such as Latin America, relative neglect from the United States might prove plenty positive, as it would allow the dynamic political processes in the region — which Sarah Anderson highlights — to continue unfolding.

In advance of President Obama’s election, I had predicted that his administration would break from the overt aggressiveness of the Bush years and return to Clintonian, soft-power mechanisms of exerting economic control over developing countries. The crisis complicates that, but it remains a viable danger. By all rights, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, as proponents of market fundamentalist policy, should be sunk by the spectacular failures of this approach. Yet, as crisis-stricken countries eye them as rescuers of last resort, they may ironically be revived by the calamities they have helped to create.

Notwithstanding some feeble attempts at reform, the United States remains at the helm of these bodies, and there is little evidence to suggest that either the U.S. Treasury Department or the international financial institutions are capable of nurturing a truly democratic globalization. What do I expect from the Obama administration? Far-sighted, unselfish cooperation to confront the challenges of global poverty (exacerbated by the economic crisis) and climate change would be wonderful. At the moment, I’ll settle for “first, do no harm.”

Stephen Zunes

For a man who was elected in part on the promise to not just end the war in Iraq but to “end the mindset that got us into war in the first place,” it’s profoundly disappointing that a majority of his key appointments — Hillary Clinton, Robert Gates, Dennis Blair, Janet Napolitano, Richard Holbrooke and Jim Jones, among others — have been among those who represent that very mindset.

Indeed, the majority of people appointed to key foreign policy positions, like those in comparable positions in the Bush administration, appear to be more committed to perpetuating and extending U.S. empire than they are to the right of self-determination, human rights, and international law.

Obama’s defenders claim that these appointments are less important in terms of their positions on a particular issue as for their overall competence. Unfortunately, such arguments ignore the reality that anybody who actually believed that invading Iraq was a good idea — as did a majority of Obama’s key national security appointees — is clearly unqualified to hold any post dealing with foreign and military policy.

Those who supported the war are not just guilty of misjudgment, but demonstrated a dismissive attitude toward fundamental principles of international law, as well as disdain for the United Nations Charter and international treaties that prohibit aggressive war. In short, they are imperialists of the worse kind.

Even though many of Obama’s key foreign policy appointments aren’t that different than those of the previous administration, it’s important to remember that Obama will likely be a very different commander-in-chief than George W. Bush.

For one thing, unlike the outgoing president, Obama is relatively non-ideological, very knowledgeable, and highly intelligent. He was quite prescient about the irrationality of invading Iraq, even speaking at an antiwar rally at a time when most Americans supported going to war. Prior to becoming a national figure, he espoused a number of progressive positions on issues ranging from human rights to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Another reason that an Obama administration will not likely pursue imperial ambitions as aggressively as the Bush administration is that his electoral base — energized by popular opposition to the Iraq War — is perhaps the most anti-imperialist in recent history. It’s also the most engaged and organized base the Democratic Party has ever seen. Once the relief of Bush’s departure and the glow of Obama’s inauguration have worn off, the president will have to face the millions of people responsible for his election, who will expect him to keep his word regarding “change you can believe in.”

Indeed, with a few conscientious exceptions, Democratic officials have rarely led in terms of challenging empire. They have backed down from imperialist policies only after being forced to do so by popular mobilizations. From Vietnam to Central America to the nuclear arms race to South Africa to Iraq, Democratic leaders initially allied with the Republicans until they recognized their political futures were at stake unless they listened to the rank-and-file Democrats on whom they were dependent for their re-election. Then, and only then, were they willing to change course.

As a result, what may be most important are not the imperialists that Obama has appointed but the choices we give them.

Adil E. Shamoo

I agree a great deal with Stephen Zunes’s assessment regarding the new administration. And I derive most of my attitude toward this administration on foreign policy from the people appointed to run it. The appointments are in line with standard Democratic Party line on foreign policy. The Democratic Party leadership is derived from the realists’ school of thought, as is the Republican leadership. This means that the moral component in our foreign policy is lacking despite some claims to the contrary. Of course, when the moral component accidentally matches our interest, we use it, and when it doesn’t we discard it.

The U.S. hegemonic policies of shaping the world to our interest will continue, but the rhetoric will be different. I will call this new policy neodemocratic as compared to neoconservative. The new policy will use soft power first, followed by military means to corral other countries to our interest rather than treating them with equal respect.

Some actors on the new policies, to my despair, disdain other cultures and races as lesser gods as evidenced by their policies and not necessarily by their personal behavior. When Obama surrounds himself with these policymakers, he has no choice but to follow most of their advice. I voted for Obama. He has demonstrated a much more respectful attitude toward other nations than a large number of his appointments. I am still hopeful that his attitude and beliefs on social and political issues in foreign policy will prevail.

The biggest test for Obama’s foreign policy will come on three issues: Iraq, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and Afghanistan. In Iraq, the exact number of residual troops isn’t as important as their purpose. Are the residual troops for ensuring through covert intelligence and other means that the Iraqi government is a puppet government like the one in Egypt, or is it to cooperate with and reconstruct Iraq to become a free democracy like the ones in Western Europe?

In the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, will Obama truly press Israel to go forward on the two-state solution and stop the continued building of settlements? Or will he continue the silence of the Bush administration on Israel’s continued negotiation and settlement building and call it just “unhelpful?” Will Obama give the green light, like the Bush administration, to a military onslaught on Palestinians to teach them a lesson? Finally, will Obama follow in Afghanistan a reconstruction strategy rather than purely a military one?

I hope Obama will be able to move in the direction of cooperation and peaceful coexistence in the world. I voted for him for that purpose.

Ian Williams

“Empire” derives from Latin imperium, which means simply “power.” It’s clear that the United States, even if it manages without viceroys and governors and the other accepted paraphernalia of empire, has power by the tankful. It’s equally clear that not only is this administration less inclined to gratuitous use of that power than its predecessors, but that the costs of military adventures and the horrendous cost of free-market dogmatism have set severe limits on what any U.S. administration could do in the way of expanding its power.

That financial dependency has certainly weakened the U.S. reach in East Asia, where the People’s Republic of China effectively holds the U.S. economy by its most sensitive parts. Russia has resentfully declared independence. In its own backyard, much of Latin America has declared independence from the Monroe Doctrine, and even if the Bush administration had wanted to make an issue out of it, it was not in a position to do so. Chavez may be crass and provocative, but Washington was in no position to risk its own oil supply.

That was probably also a factor in the United States pulling the choke lead on Israel’s belligerent plans for Iran, although doubtless augmented by fear of the consequences for U.S. personnel in Iraq and Iran.

I started with modest expectations of an Obama administration, although confident that it had to be an improvement. I have been pleasantly surprised. Quite apart from economic and political constraints, the Obama administration has shown no signs of imperial self-delusion despite the numerous Clinton-regime retreads appointed to office.

There has been steady progress indicating a realistic attitude to the rest of the world. Openings to Syria, Iran, the easing of the embargo on Cuba, the reconsideration of the missile defenses in Eastern Europe, and indeed some indication of a reconsideration of the whole Star Wars program, bespeak not just a pragmatic policy outlook without the theology and ideology of the previous administration, but also a preparedness to withstand the vituperation of those elements to which the Clinton White House so often kowtowed.

While pessimists point at the Clintonistas in the foreign policy team, and the derailing of the Charles Freeman appointment, the nomination of Susan Rice to the UN, the recruitment of Jim Jones, Samantha Power, and George Mitchell all suggest that the tide is flowing in the right direction in the Middle East, which is of course at the core of many of the U.S. problems with international law and order. Freeman’s swiftboating may represent over-reach by the Likud lobby. Their voices were amplified by pro-Israeli Democrat legislators whose support Obama needs on crucial domestic matters.

I suspect that the presence of Lieberman and Netanyahu at the tiller of an Israeli government will provide the occasion for payback. Obama has stated his support for the Saudi peace plan and the Quartet. He may have limited patience for those who proclaim their intention to build settlements athwart his road map. But in this case, such intervention would take a negatively imperial form — a refusal to exercise its power on behalf of an Israeli government opposed to its policies.

On multilateral issues, resumption of funding for the United Nations Population Fund and clear signals to the UN also indicate a change of course. It’s worth remembering that even before the financial crisis, resource constraints forced the second Bush administration to rely far more on the UN than its public rhetoric and demeanor suggested.

Reality had already begun to impinge on foreign policy under Bush. Now we have an administration that recognizes it, and seems to be embracing it openly, which is much more conducive to an effective multilateral policy. But for Obama, part of that reality is domestic politics. That doesn’t mean we should merely genuflect and let him get on with it. During his campaign, he was asked in New Jersey what he would do about the Middle East. Astutely, he quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt, in effect saying he would go as far as he was pushed. Now is the time to do just that on foreign policy issues across the board.

Christine Ahn

Although Obama is without a doubt a steward of capitalism, his election represents a major political shift and has opened up the potential for drawing down the empire.

I’ll second Mark Engler’s forecast that as Obama remains focused on domestic issues, U.S. “imperial dimensions may grow hazy.” But as Engler notes, the very political and economic context that enabled these international financial institutions and their market fundamentalist policies to thrive is in crisis, and this economic crisis, everyone seems to be saying, is unparalleled.

Obama’s decision to side with Tim Geithner and Larry Summers over the more politically savvy David Axelrod indicates that his primary task at hand is to salvage and stabilize the U.S. capitalist system and its core financial institutions. As Linda Burnham, a wise leftist thinker and activist, has written, “capitalists of the world — or at least the U.S. branch – ought to be building altars to the man and lighting candles.” It’s clear that these neoliberals still reign, but the world is a different place, and so they have no choice but to tone down their rhetoric and soften their blows — as seen with the economic stimulus package.

And since the U.S. imperial reach has been so entrenched and pervasive, Obama is working fast to save America’s face with the international community after eight years of Bush, and even though many of his initiatives — like increasing troop levels in Afghanistan — sing the same old conqueror song, Obama at least appears to be making thoughtful calculations instead of ideological ones. The irony is that while Dick Cheney is running his mouth contending that the Obama administration has made the country more vulnerable to a terrorist attack by changing interrogation and detention policies, we all know that what would instantly win back the hearts and respect of much of the world would be to launch a full investigation of the Bush administration’s interrogation policies and practices and give Cheney and John Yoo some time to reconsider — behind bars.

But let’s hand it to Obama for being the one to finally break the political monopoly held by the reactionary right and mobilize millions across a broad democratic coalition of African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, youth, LGBT communities, organized labor and the civil rights, women’s rights and environmental movements. Although he is a centrist, he has progressive instincts. Obama has moved on critical issues facing women in the U.S. and globally. In a matter of weeks, he reversed the Global Gag Rule, signed the Lily Ledbetter equal pay legislation, restored funding for the UN Population Fund, lifted the Bush administration’s ideological restrictions on federal funding of human embryonic stem cell research, and appointed several women to top posts, including Hilda Solis to Labor and Valerie Jarrett to chair the new White House Council on Women and Girls. Empire has many faces, and while we have seen modern day empresses like Margaret Thatcher, men still predominate in the halls of Congress, the White House, and other poles of imperial power — and the presence of more women in the halls of power will undoubtedly help soften the empire’s blows.

Conditions are ripe for the left to push for reforms that draw down empire over the next two decades. We are nowhere where we need to be, but Obama’s election and the economic crash has created an opening that was not there for decades.

But what remains to be seen depends largely on us. The continuation of the American empire in the short term is a given, and progressives should expect its continuation — but we won’t have influence in tempering its vigor without building powerful social and political movements.

As Mike Davis recently told Bill Moyers, Obama “could be Roosevelt. He could be Lincoln. But obviously the real heroes of the New Deal were the millions of rank-and-file Americans who sat down in their auto plants or walked on freezing picket lines in front of their factories. They made the New Deal possible. They provided the impetus to turn Washington to the left. We talk very differently about the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, if it hadn’t been for the incredible insurgency of labor and other ordinary Americans in the 1930s.”

Dan Smith

Obama is incapable of drawing down the American empire even were he inclined to do so. The evidence to support this assertion is fourfold:

  • No other single nation has as yet amassed the imperium (mentioned by Ian Williams) to rival that of the United States. And although the United States cannot credibly claim it alone should set and enforce the parameters of power, the converse remains true: The rest of the globe still depends on the United States to act as primus inter pares (first among equals).
  • Like John McCain and the other presidential hopefuls in the Republican and Democratic primary races, Obama ran against the tattered remnants of the Bush administration’s coercive internationalism (“with us or against us,” as Sarah Anderson noted) that re-divided the globe post-September 11. The difference is that the Cold War blocs were territorial and ideological, whereas with Bush the struggle was messianic — a highly flammable influence in the best of times (which these are not).
  • Bush injected an inordinate degree of “personalization” into international relations. He claimed, for instance, that when he gazed into the eyes of Russian President Vladimir Putin he saw Putin’s soul. This was dangerous, since attacking U.S. policy could be interpreted as attacking the president. And it was unsustainable, given the prospect of regime change (also known as an election) in the United States.
  • Obama may be drawing down U.S. forces in Iraq, but the build-up in Afghanistan is going more rapidly and will increase the number of U.S. troops in the region until early 2011.

Obama’s psychology (at least insofar as can be interpreted from his public biography), a measured if increasingly active agenda in the interregnum between his election and inauguration, and his first two months in office all bespeak no less a competitive streak than that of his predecessor. The difference is that Obama isn’t as exclusionary in his philosophical base or its programmatic consequences.

In November 1942, just when it appeared that the fortunes of war finally had begun to favor the allies, Sir Winston Churchill remarked: “I have not become the King’s First Minister in order to preside over the liquidation of the British Empire.” What Churchill could not fathom was the deep weariness in the British population engendered by the cost of a second major war in less than two generations. (As it happened, Churchill was turned out of office in the first post-war election and was spared the ignominy of being First Minister when India gained independence in 1947 and the British Mandate in Palestine ended in 1948.)

Like Churchill, Obama doesn’t possess the psychology of what might be called the “diminishing empire.”

Sarah Anderson directs the Global Economy Project at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington and is the co-author of Field Guide to the Global Economy (New Press, 2005).
E. Ethelbert Miller is an award-winning poet, the director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University, and the board chairperson of the Institute for Policy Studies.
Mark Engler is the author of How to Rule the World: The Coming Battle Over the Global Economy (Nation Books, 2008).

Stephen Zunes is a a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco.
Adil E. Shamoo is an Iraqi American and a professor at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Ian Williams’s work is available on www.deadlinepundit.blogspot.com.

Christine Ahn works with the Global Fund for Women.
Colonel. Daniel Smith, U.S. Army (Ret.) is a retired U.S. Army colonel, and a senior fellow on military affairs at the Friends Committee on National Legislation.
They are all senior analysts at Foreign Policy In Focus.