In just two days, the world will watch to see the results of a tumultuous and anything but ordinary election year. Since the race for president began, the tendencies toward an organic crisis — set off by a global crisis of the “neoliberal offensive” — have deepened in the U.S. after the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the unprecedented economic downturn, and the movement against police brutality.
Beyond the borders of U.S. imperialism, the growing number of popular uprisings from Nigeria to Belarus has opened up a period of unrelenting instability — particularly for the peripheral countries that have been hit hardest by the pandemic and economic crisis. This delicate and convulsive international situation is complicated by the escalating confrontation between the U.S. and China against a backdrop of declining U.S. hegemony.
These sources of tension have ushered in a period of geopolitical disorder that American imperialism must confront as it attempts to reassert itself. As recent debates have shown, Biden and Trump are two sides of the same imperialist coin. Yet this election remains a crucial one for the embattled U.S. ruling class, which faces a choice between the more moderate and reliable bet on Biden to lead the beleaguered Empire or the unstable and unpredictable Trumpist brand of foreign policy.
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How the Two Candidates of Capital Compare
Trumpism arose from the ashes of the Great Recession as a response to the heightened levels of social and economic polarization generated by the 2008 crisis. In foreign policy, Trump’s brazen attempts to undo the legacy of the multilateral liberal order that dominated U.S. imperialism in the prior period exposed the crisis of bourgeois parties which had not been able to maintain centrist hegemony.
Trump’s “America First” agenda, which challenged the increasing internationalization of production and coordination among the global bourgeoisie, has operated under the limitations of a contentious backdrop for U.S. imperialism, which on the one hand faces reluctance from sectors of capital to overturn the prosperity brought about by greater economic integration but on the other hand faces slow growth and social deterioration.
These contradictory elements might explain Trump’s reactionary and nationalistic discourse. Trump’s “bomb the shit out of ISIS” remarks are inflammatory and dangerous but more importantly, these remarks are within the parameters of U.S. imperialist foreign policy which also produced Bush’s adventurist wars in the Middle East and Obama the “drone king.”
As a legitimator of a xenophobic and racist right-wing base and a more aggresive and unstable manifestation of U.S. imperialism, Trump’s obsession with a unipolar world has not gone unnoticed, however. Trump’s near-total abandonment of multilateralism in pursuit of a clean slate of Obama-style “soft imperialism” has shifted the geopolitical terrain as the U.S. tries to impose its interests abroad and regain its dominance.
Most notably, Trump has embraced a bilateral approach to trade policy in an attempt to try and win concessions for the U.S. from individual countries. The back and forth “trade war” with China, a hallmark of Trumpist bilateralism, is an attempt to appease a base that is deeply skeptical of the project of globalization, and blame countries like China for declining living standards. At the same time, for the United States, the tariffs imposed on China are also a strategic attempt to curb China’s technological advances.
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This escalation in relations continues to be a deep source of tension between the U.S. and China. Unsurprisingly, given the relative rise of China compared to other world powers, its growing influence in places that were once considered the “backyard of the U.S.” and China’s recent economic recovery, Biden has attempted to tack to the right of Trump on pursuing an aggressive line toward the main U.S. adversary.
Closer to home, the implications of Trump-era trade disputes could also be seen in the renegotiation of NAFTA, another political promise to Trump’s base. The successor to NAFTA, the recently signed USMCA, grants greater advantages to U.S. multinationals and solidifies Mexico’s subordination to the U.S. and Trump’s image as a hawkish negotiator.
Beyond bilateralism, Trump also took a unilateral turn at times — further unraveling the geopolitical ties that had been established at the height of U.S. imperialism after the Yalta Conference. The assassination of Iranian general Qasem Soleimani by a U.S. drone strike and the unilateral repudiation of the nuclear treaty with Iran reflect the one-sidedness of Trump’s foreign policy approach. The increased unilateralism under Trump’s term in office, though also a defining feature of the neconservative Bush administration, has further polarized the geopolitical scene.
Though Biden’s objectives differ only slightly from Trump’s, Biden’s strategy toward international issues has been to inject some semblance of stability into the crisis-stricken bipartisan regime. Biden’s “diplomacy first” project to restore “American Exceptionalism” includes pledges to rejoin the World Health Organization, which Trump abandoned, and to convene a “global summit for democracy” within his first year in office. Biden’s appearance as a reliable “commander-in-chief” for the diminished Empire has won him the support of the military establishment over the more volatile Trump.
In return, Biden has vowed to beef up military spending, even after military spending is set to increase by 2 trillion dollars over the next decade under measures passed by the Trump administration. Perhaps Biden is taking notes from his predecessor Obama, who in 2011 approved the highest ever U.S. military budget. Considering the important role the world’s largest military plays in maintaining U.S. imperialism, it’s unlikely the spending would be reduced under a Biden or Trump presidency.
But as the recent political conjuncture has shown, despite the United States’ unsurpassed military power, a strong military alone cannot address the current crisis U.S. imperialism finds itself in. The veneer of “the West” as a community of “liberal values” has received its final blow by Trump who has alienated the powers that made up the “liberal transnational order.” While the friction between the U.S. and China is on full display, the growing estrangement between the U.S. and other imperialist powers like Germany and France has also intensified interimperialist rivalries. In particular, Trump’s threats to reduce military spending for NATO and the announcement of a withdrawal of troops in Germany have driven a rift between the allies.
Despite Biden’s reassurances that he would return the U.S. to its former prestige among its partners, a “return to normal” is anything but guaranteed. The country’s relative decline in regions like the Middle East has presented opportunities for regional powers from Russia and China to Iran and Turkey to attempt to fill the power vacuums left by the United States, as the U.S. experience in Syria and the current war between Armenia and Azerbaijan show.
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In Latin America, another strategic region for U.S. imperialism, the U.S. has also been dealt several setbacks, including the decisive defeat of the right-wing offensive in Bolivia after recent elections and the massive mobilizations against the IMF’s austerity plans in countries like Costa Rica. In Chile, one year after revolts against neoliberalism challenged Piñera and the legacy of the U.S.-backed coup, Chileans overwhelmingly voted to draft a new constitution. This rebuttal of the Right in Latin America, where the right-wing is more closely aligned with U.S. interests, also comes as China extends pandemic aid to countries in the region and has quickly become an important trading partner for multiple Latin American countries since the start of the year. For Trump, who had a more confrontational approach to Latin American affairs, these recent setbacks for U.S. imperialism challenges U.S. ambitions in the region in the coming presidential term.
Even with these uncertainties, perhaps the differences between Trump and Biden can be characterized as a difference in style versus substance. Whether we have Trump or Biden in the White House, we can be certain that the United States will continue its ironclad support for Israel and the violent, apartheid-like regime in Palestine. In Venezuela, the U.S. will continue its chokehold on the country’s resources via sanctions and pursuit of an illegitimate coup. The two parties of imperialism may offer different strategies for addressing the current political conjuncture but both will remain steadfast in attempting to restore the United States’ position in the world, especially as the global crisis intensifies.
The Next Chapter of U.S. Imperialism
In the midst of this precarious situation, the threat of U.S. imperialism looms large for the poor and working class in oppressed countries around the world who are subject to violence and economic subordination. The coming election in the dominant world power could both aggravate the domestic crisis of the bipartisan regime and have strategic implications for countries around the world which are facing their own crises and revolts. Yet, no matter who is elected, this barbaric and irrational system that has given us the pandemic, wars, and economic crises will not end unless the working class uses its strategic position in society to wrest away power from our capitalist oppressors.
The creation of a revolutionary workers’ party to organize and coordinate the preparatory tasks ahead would be a step forward. As capitalism is an international system, however, the working class can only win if these struggles are coordinated internationally.
Here in the United States, the working class has a particularly important role to play in leading the charge against the world’s “police” which imposes its brutal will on members of our class around the world. U.S. imperialism’s historic decline and increased aggressiveness under a Biden or Trump presidency point to the urgency of fighting against imperialist domination with the single fighting fist of the exploited classes.