To change how the U.S. government prioritizes spending public funds, progressive organizations stand to benefit by adopting an anti-imperialist approach.
The left’s most ambitious policy priorities aim to address insecurities that are arguably the most urgent and universal that Americans face, but gaining traction for initiatives like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal requires a fundamental rethinking of what meaningful security actually looks like.
Every month more Americans die from a lack of health insurance than did in the attacks of September 11, while climate change poses an existential threat to human civilization. Yet these insecurities don’t fit with establishment thinking. In the dominant narrative a vast spectrum of security is trimmed down through the keyhole of ‘national security,” and it assumes that U.S. militarism is its core. As a result of these assumptions more than one-half of taxpayer discretionary spending is obligated to defense spending.
As Senator Bernie Sanders and Representative Ro Khanna (among others) have pointed out, a systemic reordering of national priorities is needed to address the crises of climate change and a failed healthcare system. From SPRI’s perspective, achieving this ambition is will be most effectively coupled with an anti-imperialist approach. Replacing the conventional security discourse with a narrative that empathizes with how insecurity is most relevantly experienced by the working class requires a confrontation with the reality of US empire.
Defense spending sustains empire. But the adopted form of US militarism is not often described explicitly in this way. That the indefinite projection of force is not commonly referred to directly as empire or imperialism is a testament to how such a global posture is successfully marketed both as a technocratic and moral project.
US military leadership is responsible for the former: the senior officer class characterizes its imperial posture essentially as a big exercise in risk-management: the 2018 National Defense Strategy declares that “The surest way to prevent war is to be prepared to win one.” Leaving this logic unquestioned not only facilitates the normalization of record-setting military budgets, but it also serves to normalize the existing set of imperial practices. Operationally, a central feature of this technocratic empire is a counterterrorism enterprise that is active in 80 countries. Congress provided the legal grounds for this project through a combination of the 2006 authorization that permits the US military to arm and advise non-US forces on a global level, and the 2001 AUMF which is now old enough that troops born after its inception are deployed under its mandate.
Of course, it’s not the military’s job to consider the domestic sacrifices required by a commitment to permanent global force projection. The job to consider the political effects of technocratic empire falls to US civilian leadership—but they’re not doing their job.
Technocratic empire derives its subjective acceptance on the foundation of presumed benevolence. Members of the US political elite enthusiastically cultivate this narrative, thereby limiting possibilities for dissent. Both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have defended the more than 800 US military bases worldwide on moralistic grounds. Equating US national security imperatives with the pursuit of universal human rights in this way effectively de-politicizes empire, further entrenching its location in the technocratic realm. Democrats submit to or believe in this narrow framework of critique. For example, Joe Biden’s problem with the 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation of Iraq was not that it was illegal, but merely because the war was fought in the wrong way. This dynamic exonerates Democrats from their support of destructive foreign policy decisions. As Aziz Rana observes,
This is partly due to the easy amnesia of the complicit: if everyone in the same milieu made the same mistake, your own error cannot be that objectionable. And for Biden and the war’s most vigorous Democratic defenders, the blame can always be laid at Bush’s feet—the war failed because of his incompetence rather than its inherent flaws.
Regarding the levels of defense spending that empire necessitates (at the expense of human security and diplomacy), Democrats have rallied in opposition to Trump’s 2020 budget proposal, but don’t seem willing to confront military spending in any serious way: Matt Taibbi reported that the Democrats plan to propose a $733 billion counteroffer to the Trump Administration’s $750 billion defense budget request. While $17 billion is a significant reduction, Democrats are effectively endorsing an overall military spending increase by roughly the same amount over the previous fiscal year ($716 billion). Additionally, Michele Flournoy, who likely would have been Hillary Clinton’s appointment to Secretary of Defense had the 2016 presidential election gone the other way, wrote in the Washington Post that “Trump is right to spend more on defense” in response to his administration's request for one of the highest military budgets in history for Fiscal Year 2018. She only qualified her support by offering technical deviations to the way that money should be spent within the portfolio.
Common values and the ease of integration
Though it requires a bit more work to integrate an anti-imperialist approach into their efforts, Sunrise Movement and other progressive grassroots organizations needn’t become experts on the intricacies of US foreign policy or the historical legacies of imperialism. Merely by being cognizant of the effect of foreign policy on domestic policy opens up possibilities for new forms of solidarity and mutual empowerment.
For example, an empire-sensitive approach reinforces the link between their movements and organizations working in support of the socially and economically disenfranchised. Empire requires the creation and demonization of some ‘other’ that poses an existential threat to our security. Fetishizing human actors has deleterious effects, even from an operational perspective (since Vietnam, climate change has destroyed more US military aircraft than any armed group, as Alexander McCoy observed. Further, the Department of Defense seeks to reprogram $600 million and ask Congress for supplemental funds for Fiscal Year 2020 to alleviate the $9 billion in damage to their assets caused by hurricane and storm damage). More importantly, however, is that this narrative circles back to the homeland to fuel the same genre of racist violence produced by Trump. As Stephen Wertheim has explained, the US commitment to empire not only sustains bloated military budgets, but also empowers such nativism. Here is an excerpt from his article in The New Republic, which is worth quoting at length:
What’s more, armed primacy may well have allowed Trump to rise in the first place. To justify America’s massive commitment of resources around the world, leaders have routinely claimed that foreigners are going to kill us. Trump took those inflated threats and ran with them, turning fear of deadly foreigners into the basis for his movement. That fear dates back to the second term of George W. Bush, when the xenophobia he directed toward distant “Islamofascism” turned inward. White supremacists rallied against immigrants at the border; nativists spread conspiracy theories that Sharia law was subverting American society. Now Trump has birthered his way to the White House, surrounded by a national security adviser and secretary of state who indulge rank Islamophobia. (John Bolton and Mike Pompeo have ties to Frank Gaffney, the author of such manifestos as “The Muslim Brotherhood in the Obama Administration.”)
To be sure, many advocates of American primacy did not wish for this to happen. But it has happened. We face a world beset by war and awash in nationalism and nativism—our own included. And as other powers rise, the costs of pursuing primacy will rise with them.
What ultimately binds disparate progressive movements together is their commitment to values. For this reason, these groups are already methodologically prepared to integrate an anti-imperialist agenda into their respective missions. Such an approach shares the logic roots of the existing link between organizations advocating for Medicare for All or a Green New Deal and movements devoted to improving the security of marginalized groups. After all, the existing healthcare system in the US disproportionally terrorizes people of lower-income status, and poor communities are the first to experience the adverse effects of climate change. The mindset is already there. Regardless of affiliation, all progressives stand to benefit by encouraging an expansion of this organic style of cooperation.