Can U.S. Hegemony Be Restored?

Scott Cooper

December 6, 2020

Joe Biden wants to return U.S. imperialism to “business as usual” — but conditions have changed.

It was May 25, 2017. Donald Trump had been sworn in four months earlier and was on his first foreign presidential trip. That day, at a formal meeting of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) member countries, he called on them to spend more money on security and refused to endorse Article 5 of the 1949 treaty, which treats an armed attack on any one member as an attack on all and promises a collective response.

Prime Minister Dusko Markovic of Montenegro was also there; his country’s official membership would take effect two weeks later. Montenegro’s very presence riled Russian president Vladimir Putin. As the Wall Street Journal had written three years earlier,

Moscow has criticized previous enlargements that moved NATO’s eastern borders to those of Russia and has tried to force former Soviet republics back into its geopolitical sphere of influence.
After protests urging closer ties between the West and Ukraine led to the ouster of President Viktor Yanukovych in February, Russia annexed Crimea and voiced support for separatists in eastern Ukraine.
This month, a member of Russia’s lower house of parliament, nationalist Mikhail Degtyarev, said Montenegro could become “a legitimate target of Russian missiles” if it joined the alliance.

When it came time for a group photo of the gathered leaders, Trump barreled his way to the front — pushing Markovic aside. It was the “shove seen round the world.” The U.S. president adjusted his jacket, stood with jaw jutted out, and launched years of memes portraying him as the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.

Trump’s behavior that day in Brussels was far crasser than anything ever seen by a U.S. president, but it certainly wasn’t uncharacteristic of U.S. imperialism — which has been pushing other countries around for a very long time.

The incoming Biden administration faces a bigger challenge than undoing Trump’s bullying of allies. It must overcome an international situation that predates Trump and that has been worsening since the global economic crisis that began in 2008. Trump exacerbated things, adding new elements to a crisis he did not fundamentally create. His “norm-busting,” chaos, and unilateralism have wasted four years during which U.S. imperialism could have been taking more deliberate steps to shore up its position.

The Global Situation of U.S. Imperialism

On November 23, four analysts from the right-wing Hoover Institution and the American Enterprise Institute — including General Jim Mattis, who served as Trump’s defense secretary — published a piece in Foreign Affairs on the importance of allies for the United States. Warning that “the world is not getting safer” in “an international environment of increased global disorder,” it states,

Simply strengthening the U.S. military is not enough; nor [is] the even more urgent task of strengthening U.S. diplomacy and other civilian elements of national power. Enhancing national security must start with the fundamental truth that the United States cannot protect itself or its interests without the help of others. International engagement allows the United States to see and act at a distance, as threats are gathering, rather than waiting for them to assume proportions that ultimately make them much costlier and more dangerous to defeat.

That global disorder predates 2017. Since 2008, U.S. imperialism has seen its global domination weakened by shifting alliances and an ascendant China in the global market. Trump made things worse by pushing aside the international institutions that the United States established after World War II and that it has “owned” ever since, making them absent from playing their role keeping other countries tied to a system built to shore up U.S. imperialism’s interests. Add an unfolding global recession and a pandemic that has forced massive shifts in how business gets done across the globe, and the recipe is one for disaster.

China will have to be at the center of Biden’s foreign policy.1For more detailed discussion of the relationship between the United States and China, see the following Left Voice articles from the past year and a half: Juan Cruz Ferre, “The U.S.-China Trade War and the Race for Global Hegemony” (June 12, 2019); Ana Rivera, “Unable to Contain the Internal Crisis, Trump Continues the Push Against China” (May 16, 2020); Claudia Cinatti, “United States – China: Toward a New Cold War?” (May 25, 2020); Esteban Mercatante, “China in the World Disorder” (July 29, 2020); and Claudia Cinatti, “Disputes Between U.S. and China Dominate UN General Assembly” (September 6, 2020). The U.S.-China relationship has grown increasingly confrontational, with tariffs, the trade war, anti-China rhetoric (especially around the causes of Covid-19), jurisdictional disputes in the South China Sea, and so on all raising concerns about the potential for armed conflict. Still, these two countries depend on each other to a great degree, China as the world’s leading exporter and the United States as the global buying leader.

Just before this year’s election, the New York Times published an opinion piece by Paul Krugman, the Nobel Prize–winning economist, celebrating that “a Biden administration will probably do its best to restore America’s traditional role in the world” by following trade rules again, rejoining treaties, and mending fences with allies. Swelling with patriotic pride, Krugman made clear what this is about: “For almost 70 years America played a special role in the world, one that no nation had ever played before. … American dominance represented a new form of superpower hegemony.” He is longing for the stability of the “Thirty Golden Years” of the postwar period, when the U.S. economy was on a near constant upward path, fueled largely by its ability to maneuver around the globe to support capital’s interests.

Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), took up the same issues after Election Day. The CFR has long been the most important foreign policy advisory board for the U.S. Congress and presidential administrations (other than Trump’s). He warned against blaming Trump for every problem:

Many were in play long before Trump and will persist long after he exits the Oval Office: a rising and more assertive China, a Russia willing to use military force and cyber-capabilities to advance its goals, a North Korea with growing nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, an Iran committed to carrying out an imperial strategy in a turbulent Middle East, advancing climate change, weak and ineffective governments in much of the developing world, an ongoing refugee crisis. Simply reversing what Trump did or did not do, however welcome in many instances, would not solve the problem.

Reestablishing ties with allies, refunding or rejoining global institutions and international agreements, and recommitting to Article 5 and U.S. troops stationed in strategic locations around the world will help calm things down — but only enough to make space for tackling the tougher tasks ahead.

To be sure, U.S. allies are tremendously relieved by Biden’s victory. They long ago tired of Trump’s bullying, threats, and unilaterally pulling out troops and canceling agreements from the Obama era. The Economist expects that Biden’s administration will “stop treating the European Union as a ‘foe’ on trade, or its own forces stationed in South Korea as a protection racket. In place of Donald Trump’s wrecking ball, [Biden] will offer an outstretched hand, working co-operatively on global crises, from coronavirus to climate change.”

U.S. Imperialism Back in the Game

Many others are crying out for the United States to reassume its historic role — and giving specific advice, especially in CFR’s magazine, Foreign Affairs. In June, Michèle A. Flournoy — believed to be the leading candidate for defense secretaryin Biden’s cabinet — wrote on the sharpening tensions between the United States and China in an article titled “How to Prevent a War in Asia.”

The resurgence of U.S.-Chinese competition poses a host of challenges for policymakers — related to trade and economics, technology, global influence, and more — but none is more consequential than reducing the risk of war. Unfortunately, thanks to today’s uniquely dangerous mix of growing Chinese assertiveness and military strength and eroding U.S. deterrence, that risk is higher than it has been for decades, and it is growing.

The premise, of course, is that China would start a war. U.S. imperialism always blames its adversaries for escalating tensions, regardless of the truth; during the Cold War, every Soviet arms “escalation” was actually a response to U.S. action. Flournoy’s recommendations focus on “deterrence” and are, essentially, to do nothing different from back then. In spelling out with great specificity the strategic positioning and weaponry needed to recapture U.S. domination in the deterrence game, there can be little question that Flournoy represents Biden’s own thinking.

China, though, is only one piece of a global pie. Steven A. Cook wants a renewed focus on the Middle East, which “still matters to America” despite the “new consensus [that] has formed among U.S. foreign policy elites: it is time for Washington to acknowledge that it no longer has vital interests in the region and vastly reduce its ambitions accordingly, retrench its forces, and perhaps even end the era of ‘endless wars’ by withdrawing from the Middle East altogether.” What “might seem compelling,” though, “is not a sound policy. … Instead of using U.S. power to remake the region … policymakers need to embrace the more realistic and realizable goal of establishing and preserving stability.”

To what end? It is to return the region to the conditions that imperialism sought when it first supported the creation of Israel: not to give Jews a protective “homeland,” but to use Israel as cover for putting an imperialist cop in the region. Imperialism wanted to ensure that the Arab states — and their oil wealth — were controllable, so it created an enemy of the Arab masses that would distract their attention from their own repressive regimes. That has always been the project, even when the United States was supporting a two-state solution to the Palestinian issue.

Then there are relations with Europe. Biden’s “opportunity to repair the damage” caused by Trump, writes Maksym Eristavi, “lies in central and eastern Europe.” He advocates for “playing a constructive role on the continent” with “a foreign policy less focused on great-power rivalries and more focused on democratic values.” But the objective, of course, is to advance U.S. domination by shoring up governments friendly with the “West” and driving out those that are beginning to turn their eyes back to the “East” and Russia. If today the tactic is to support “democracy,” expediency will make it turn tomorrow if conditions change.

Challenges in every region have global implications, as would be revealed in a full discussion of Latin America, Africa, India, North Korea, and the many other parts of the world where U.S. imperialism has serious work to do. But a look at the status of some of the major international institutions must suffice to round out the picture.

International Institutions at a Breaking Point

In Foreign Affairs, Haass spells out a sequence to restore U.S. global hegemony — “first a time for repair, then a time to build.” It begins with getting Covid-19 “contained at home” and then quickly moving back into the international sphere.

The administration can underscore that multilateralism is back by rejoining international agreements and institutions — not as a favor to others but because it is in the U.S. interest. In addition to the WHO, an obvious place to begin would be the Paris climate accord (which Biden is also reportedly planning to rejoin early in his administration). … Similarly, the administration can move quickly to nail down an extension of the soon-to-expire New START arms control accord with Moscow, even as it will take much longer to develop a comprehensive approach to Russia that addresses its interference in U.S. politics, use of force in the Middle East and Europe, and domestic abuses, such as attacks on opposition figures including Alexei Navalny.

This is an agenda for domination, with a trusted adviser back to help reestablish “a disciplined policy process” with “interagency policy reviews” and “discussions with members of Congress from both parties in an effort to find common ground” — all steps toward reestablishing the stability that U.S. imperialism desperately needs.

Several key institutions beyond NATO will need to play a role. They will be counted on as part of the global governance that has allowed U.S. imperialism to maintain world leadership. Foremost are the global economic institutions established in the period after World War II, especially the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) — both founded in 1944. The World Bank provides loans and grants to developing and impoverished countries, and cynically claims poverty reduction as its objective — but not because its capitalist bosses actually care about people. The real objective is to serve capital by engendering greater stability and creating new markets for exploitation. Poor people are not the ideal customers for the goods and services that wealthy countries produce for profit. Making countries “market ready” often requires capital improvements — better roads, airports, and so on.

The IMF, which works hand in glove with the World Bank, was created to reconstruct the postwar international payment system. Today it focuses on monetary and fiscal policy, serving as the main institution through which the world’s powers have intervened in international financial crises. The IMF is famous for the structural-adjustment plans through which imperialism has imposed austerity in the dependent countries as part of forcing them to repay foreign debts typically taken on by U.S. and European client governments that at the same time plunder the wealth and resources of the masses.

These institutions of global economic order were teetering before Trump, thanks largely to capitalism’s inability to resolve all the problems revealed and accentuated by the 2008 global crisis.

Trump was certainly not the first U.S. president to take unilateral steps, but all of his predecessors acted alone in concert with other multilateral actions taking place at the same time. Trump weaponized unilateralism to coerce and punish anyone who stood in the way of what he alone perceived to be U.S. national interests, and this pushed global institutions to the brink of irrelevance. In contrast, Biden is desperate to reestablish the idea of mutual benefit from global economic integration — which has also been torn apart by a global pandemic that has upset the supply chains that crisscross the planet. At the same time, however, Biden will seek to protect the United States’ privileged position.

The United States stepped off the world stage under Trump, creating an opening for other countries. Resuscitating U.S. global influence is critical to undoing the incentive its reduction has given China and others to take on international economic stewardship. The United States needs its military and economic allies back in the fold. U.S. transnational corporations cannot afford the failures of Trump’s unilateralism. Ineffective steel tariffs have only hurt the U.S. industry. His push for an anti-China front against tech giant Huawei initially backfired when British firms kept doing business (a decision ultimately reversed). His abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership — opting instead for highly volatile direct trade negotiations with Japan, South Korea, Canada, and Mexico — has barely offset the losses. And the signing on November 15 of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RECEP) by 15 Asia-Pacific countries — with the United States excluded — gives China a political boost that could become an economic one over time. It is the largest trade agreement ever in terms of the population it covers.

All this hurts U.S. imperialism in the long run.

The last four years have created many opportunities for allies to step into traditional U.S. roles — which strengthens them in interimperialist competition. The European Union (EU) — Germany in particular — has been ignoring the United States, instead offering its own “solutions” to world challenges. This so-called “Brussels effect”2Anu Bradford, The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020). allows the EU to set governance standards for the rest of the world, threatening U.S. domination even more. And while EU dominance is a long shot, having to play catch-up represents a loss for the United States.
The last of these institutions is the World Trade Organization (WTO). Established in 1995, it is the main international forum for setting the rules of international trade through its dispute-resolution mechanism, to which all members agree upon joining. Trump came along and intentionally crippled the WTO’s appeals body, essentially ripping the rule book to shreds, rendering “binding” WTO decisions unenforceable, and raising the threat of the very trade wars it was created to forestall.

Under Obama, the United States pressed more WTO cases than any other country — more than half targeting China. Meanwhile, China was using the WTO rather effectively as it leveraged multinationals’ demand for its cheap labor. While a candidate, Trump denounced China’s trade practices, maintaining that the WTO cannot deal with these problems. In office, he sidestepped the system entirely. One analyst called Trump’s decision to impose tariffs on Chinese steel “the day the WTO died.”

Trump wanted the WTO out of the way so U.S. imperialism could challenge Beijing directly. Biden, at least for now, sees the WTO as having largely served the U.S. interest in stability and keeping Europe following the U.S. lead. That’s why we can expect his administration to work to strengthen and remold, not destroy, these institutions — they give the smaller imperialisms at least the pretense of a level playing field with Washington.

What Can We Expect?

The Biden administration will have to strike a delicate, difficult, and important balance between restoring the global economic order and U.S. domination while managing the uncertainties of the pandemic and the economy going forward — and do so without “going it alone.” As former Brookings Institution fellow Will Moreland made clear in an essay for Vox published a week before the presidential election, it’s time for “America to start using these institutions to punch back” against its enemies.

That’s the underlying reason to expect Biden to reengage. It’s not about cooperation for its own sake. The United States and other Western nations “should not mistakenly believe that unalloyed cooperation in the face of every shared challenge advances their interests,” Moreland wrote. After all, “not only does the United States confront a true peer competitor in China, making allies more necessary than ever, but the key domains of that competition — from trade and investment flows to advanced technologies and communications infrastructure — are already deeply enmeshed in multilateral institutions.”

Of course, during Trump’s years in the White House, harmonious globalization has been challenged everywhere. Nationalist tendencies have grown stronger in the advanced economies — think Brexit, Euroskepticism, and so on. Economic contraction, increased inequality, and an upsurge in class struggle are also features of today’s world situation and are likely to grow stronger as the pandemic is wrestled into submission. Biden confronts the realities of a world not so easily “returned” to its previous status, with the structural problems of U.S. capitalism and China’s rise already changing the rules of the game. He will have to decide the degree to which his administration wants to reassert U.S. power by containing China, perhaps by reverting to the Obama playbook of negotiating exclusionary trade agreements. And he will face pressures from different sectors of U.S. capitalism on protectionism: Should there be more or less?

Nevertheless, that game is afoot. The Biden team is already mapping out a plan for restoring domination, which includes international institutions that serve the interests of capital. No matter what these institutions claim about their interest in peace, poverty reduction, and public health, those things matter only if they help maintain profits and create opportunities for expanding markets and exploitation. Meanwhile, more “democracy” and “diplomacy” across the world will only be, for a Biden-led United States, means to exercise imperialist power. Nothing will stand in the way of economic sanctions, “humanitarian” interventions, or whatever else U.S. imperialism decides it must do.

U.S. hegemony depends on calling the shots. Biden’s first year will not only be about undoing the abject failure of Trump and his minions to control Covid-19 — which itself threatens capitalist stability — but also about doing whatever is necessary to reestablish the old order that was perceived, pre-Trump, as having at least given the U.S. globalized capitalists a better chance of maintaining the world domination they have long enjoyed. But all signs point to there being no going back to a “pre-Trump order.” The changes that challenge U.S. hegemony today go back at least to 2008, nearly a decade before Trump entered the White House. They will not simply be overcome by reestablishing “international decorum.”


1 For more detailed discussion of the relationship between the United States and China, see the following Left Voice articles from the past year and a half: Juan Cruz Ferre, “The U.S.-China Trade War and the Race for Global Hegemony” (June 12, 2019); Ana Rivera, “Unable to Contain the Internal Crisis, Trump Continues the Push Against China” (May 16, 2020); Claudia Cinatti, “United States – China: Toward a New Cold War?” (May 25, 2020); Esteban Mercatante, “China in the World Disorder” (July 29, 2020); and Claudia Cinatti, “Disputes Between U.S. and China Dominate UN General Assembly” (September 6, 2020).
2 Anu Bradford, The Brussels Effect: How the European Union Rules the World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).
Scott is a writer, editor, and longtime socialist activist who lives in the Boston area.