Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic candidate for governor in Georgia and likely in a bid to become Joe Biden’s running mate, published a piece in the most recent issue of Foreign Affairs calling for the restoration of America’s leading role in the world through the shoring up of competent democratic governance at home and abroad.
To the extent it prioritized putting one’s own house in order over doubling down on belligerent crusades thousands of miles away, it marked a welcome contribution. But as is customary for the genre, the silences proved telling. For Abrams, as for most other politicians fond of praising the so-called U.S.-led liberal international order, the ways in which bipartisan iterations of U.S. leadership and primacy — two euphemisms for American empire — encourage authoritarianism and turmoil around the globe are rendered invisible. A brief survey of some of the latest developments in Latin America and the Greater Middle East, however, makes clear the grave costs of ignoring this illiberal and undemocratic underbelly of Pax Americana.
Consider the current situation in Bolivia, where the government of Jeanine Añez continues to rule by brutal fiat while doing everything it can to forestall free and fair elections. This follows a coup-like right-wing takeover late last year, a coup that enjoyed the backing of the U.S.-sponsored Organization of American States (OAS) under the false pretense of preventing electoral fraud on the part of the former socialist president Evo Morales.
This familiar sequence of events proceeds from decades of actions in Bolivia and elsewhere, not only by the OAS, but by related organs like the U.S. Agency for International Development, the National Endowment for Democracy, and the International Republican Institute. Although institutions like these purport to defend liberal democratic norms above all else, they have been happy to sacrifice such norms when it has come to attempting to oust leftist governments or installing and protecting those regimes more in line with the interests of regional and global capital.
And this pattern has held for most U.S. politicians across the spectrum. When The New York Times editorial board endorsed the Bolivian coup on November 11, for example, they were echoing what most Republicans and Democrats were already saying.
Despite expressions of “alarm” in the wake of the latest botched coup attempt in Venezuela, the U.S. political class has sung in unison concerning that oil-rich country as well. Much has been written about the autocratic drift of Nicolás Maduro and the nation’s accompanying humanitarian crisis, but few politicians in either party have opposed the seismic role sanctions, disinvestment, and other policies of regime change have played in wreaking such havoc.
Had Washington joined leaders in Mexico and Uruguay in encouraging a genuinely democratic and prosperous path forward for all competing parties in Venezuela, things might have turned out better. But by helping to starve the Venezuelan people and their economy while isolating Maduro, the U.S. government has only exacerbated the social and political conditions it claims to be ameliorating. And it has done all this while greenlighting human rights abuses at the hands of more capital-friendly governments in places like Honduras, Colombia, Brazil, and now Bolivia.
Much of the same can be said for Washington’s antics outside Latin America. American complicity in the imminent Israeli annexation of a sizable portion of the West Bank is a case in point. As the journalist Nathan Thrall has noted, the Trump administration’s readiness to aid and abet such aggression has brought two-party tolerance for both Israel’s settlements and its wider legal and moral impunity to its logical conclusion.
Even those Democrats most critical of Israel’s violations of international law are still backpedaling on holding its lavishly subsidized ally accountable for a decades-long military occupation and oppressive expansionism.
The truth is Israel has always signaled something more than a mere wayward friend. For at least a half century now, it has functioned as a principal node in the projection of U.S. power in an area crucial to maintaining America’s carbon-based economy.
It is not an accident the first major push back to the annexation scheme from Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas involved ending his government’s security partnership with the Central Intelligence Agency. Nor is it a coincidence that Israel has repeated many of the same pathologies as the United States in its eagerness to assist in the creation of the very monsters it later wars against, including Hamas. With a few exceptions, Israel and its superpower sponsor have marched in lockstep because the former has served as a vital arm of the latter’s imperium, an imperium that rarely speaks its name or fesses up to the injustice that sustains it.
This special relationship between the United States and Israel has been best captured in recent years by their joint preeminence in the global arms trade. Sometimes these weapons deals have remained bilateral, constraining themselves to various dirty works in Gaza or the rest of the occupied territories. More often than not, they have ventured outward, fueling many of the conflicts and forces each government insists they are intent on containing.
Even before Trump took the helm, Obama was selling more weapons than any other administration since World War II. Such arms sales have been combined with covert training, drone attacks, and other clandestine activities, and all have contributed greatly to prolonging the bloodshed in war zones like Syria.
Entire ecologies of violence have cropped up. Surplus arms from the wreckage of the U.S.-led NATO intervention in Libya in 2011 flowed to Syria, and then a decade later, defeated and immiserated Syrian rebels have been recruited by the Russians and Turks to fight as mercenaries on separate sides of the ongoing civil war in Libya.
Spurred on by the liberal interventionism of then-National Security Council official Samantha Power, President Obama’s decision to intervene militarily in Libya and oust Muammar Gaddafi from power paved the way not only for such mayhem but for the return of local slave markets. The willingness of most leaders in both parties to keep funding likeminded operations — even as their own in-house experts keep slipping up and telling the truth — suggests a consensus refusal to come to terms with these harrowing records. So does the survival and even elevation of the most cynical operators in the policymaking apparatus.
If politicians like Abrams join others in calling for governments to be held responsible for selling weapons used in war crimes, that can go some way in reining in the chaos. But the problem goes deeper than anything a discrete policy or two can fix. It’s not just that politicians like Abrams speak as if the aforementioned histories never happened. It is that they speak as if the unequal power relations that guaranteed them don’t exist.
They are the same unspoken relations that ensure poor countries persist in developing rich ones, particularly the United States, and they are defined just as much by America’s “exorbitant privilege” as the guarantor of the world’s reserve currency as by its colossal grid of foreign outposts and network of client states and proxies.
They are characterized by global architectures of militarism, arms dealing, and exploitation that run counter to anything resembling a sincere agenda of liberal democracy promotion. And if a more liberal or democratic world is the goal, these imperialist architectures must not only be acknowledged but transcended.