The Biden administration just released its new National Security Strategy. It is designed to restore and enforce Washington’s domination over global capitalism and the international state system against pretenders to its throne as the imperial hegemon.
As the document puts it, the world order is at an “inflection point;” “the post-Cold War era is definitely over, and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” This is a new predicament for the U.S. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Washington resembled a modern-day Rome with unrivaled geopolitical, economic, and military power to enforce free trade globalization and its attendant inequalities within and between nation states.
Over the last two decades, however, the U.S. has suffered relative decline and now confronts imperial rivals like China and Russia as well as regional ones like Iran among others. Beijing and Moscow are developing their own strategies to pursue their respective imperialist and local assertions of power, most dramatically demonstrated by Beijing’s threat to annex Taiwan and Russia’s horrific colonial war on Ukraine.
Faced with inter-imperial rivalry, the left must neither support the U.S. nor foolishly align itself with its predatory international or regional opponents. Instead, we must build solidarity from below between class, social, and national struggles in an international fight for liberation, equality and democracy.
The Capitalist Roots of Modern Imperialism
The rivalries Biden’s National Security Strategy identifies are not an accident — nor the product of bad, autocratic governments — but the result of capitalism’s logic of competition for profit. This imperative drives corporations beyond their national borders in search of resources, markets, and labor throughout the world.
Each capitalist state builds military arsenals to enforce their corporations’ claims around the globe. Thus, economic competition between corporations produces imperial competition and in some cases wars for dominance over the world economy.
The victors of these conflicts enforce a new hierarchy among the capitalist states. Some sit atop, others below them, and those at the bottom suffer national oppression, either directly through colonial rule or indirectly through political and economic subjection to the dictates of the most powerful states.
Such hierarchies are not permanent. Old powers atrophy, new ones rise, and they come into conflict as each attempts to order the system to the advantage of its capitalist class. Thus, we have witnessed a history of phases of inter-imperial conflict from the colonial division of the world that ended in World War II to the superpower standoff between the U.S. and the USSR during the Cold War.
With the collapse of the Soviet empire, imperialism did not come to an end. For a period, Washington did oversee a unipolar moment of unrivaled dominance. It implemented a grand strategy of incorporating all states into a neoliberal order and preventing the emergence of new peer competitors — that is, imperial rivals.
During this period the U.S. used international financial institutions to pry open and prey on the Global South, enforced neoliberal policies at gunpoint through feigned “humanitarian intervention” in countries like Haiti, overthrew regimes in so-called “rogue states” that bucked U.S. dictates like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and plotted to make sure that no rival or network of rivals came together to challenge it. These were the halcyon days of the rules-based international order.
The New Asymmetric Multipolar World Order
Over the past two decades several developments have cracked this unipolar moment, led to the relative decline of the U.S., and ushered in today’s new asymmetric multipolar world order. The long neoliberal boom from the early 1980s to 2008 led to the rise of new centers of capital accumulation like China, Russia, Brazil, India and South Africa.
Washington’s attempt to lock in its dominance through wars to control the Middle East and its strategic energy reserves blew up in its face. Its defeat in Iraq led retired General William Odom to call the war “the greatest strategic disaster in United States history.”
The 2008 Global Financial Crisis then sent capitalism into a global slump, particularly hammering the U.S. and its European allies. For a time, China sustained its massive expansion and propped up the economies of numerous countries — from Australia to Brazil — that export raw materials to meet the demand of China’s manufacturing industries.
Finally, the pandemic and yet another global recession intensified geopolitical and economic conflict. The U.S., China, and Russia in particular did not coordinate their responses to COVID or the economic crisis, as each has turned to increasingly nationalist strategies at loggerheads with one another.
All of these developments created today’s asymmetric multipolar world order. The U.S. remains the dominant state power with the largest economy, military and geopolitical influence, but it now faces imperial rivals in China and Russia as well as emboldened regional powers, all of which are jockeying for advantage in global capitalism’s crisis-torn and conflict-ridden state system.
Biden’s New Imperial Strategy
Recognizing this new order, the Biden administration has abandoned the post-Cold War strategy of integrating all states under its umbrella in favor of great power rivalry with China, Russia, and regional adversaries. The president aims to refurbish the U.S. empire to outcompete, contain, confront and weaken these rivals.
Biden’s National Security Strategy disguises a nationalist strategy as a U.S.-led global contest of democracies against autocracies. It includes a new industrial policy meant to increase the competitiveness and security of U.S. corporations. The Biden administration has issued a “Buy American” executive order, pushed to secure supply chains by onshoring manufacturing or “friend shoring” it to strategic allies, and poured money into the high tech industry through the $280 billion CHIPS Act.
Biden wants to pressure states in both the Global North and Global South to fall into line by joining proposed new trade pacts. His administration is currently pushing a new trade agreement in Asia, as well as a “Build Back Better World” plan for development in the Global South — an explicit attempt to counter China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Washington is also cajoling U.S. allies to follow it in banning sales of high end microchips to China and Russia, barring Chinese companies from supplying hardware for their 5G systems, and restricting Chinese access to strategic research and development.
In the new National Security Strategy, Biden also lays out an ambitious plan to adapt the U.S. military to confront China in the Asia Pacific and Russia in Eastern Europe. These entail massive new investments in both conventional and nuclear weaponry. The president’s military budget for 2022 is already about $750 billion, with further increases expected in coming years.
Biden intends to maintain and expand the U.S.’s imperial reach through existing and new military alliances. Thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he has been able revitalize NATO and add both Sweden and Finland to its membership, consolidating Washington’s dominion over Europe.
In the Asia Pacific, the U.S. established a new pact, AUKUS, with Australia and the U.K. to facilitate sales of nuclear submarines to Canberra. Biden has doubled down on pre-existing formations like the QUAD, which in addition to the U.S. includes Australia, India, Japan, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, and the so-called Five Eyes Intelligence Oversight and Review Council made up of Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Britain, and the U.S. He even convinced the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) to confront China in Asia.
The U.S. versus China and Russia
Evidently, Biden’s foreign policy strategy is focused on great power competition with Russia and, most importantly, China. He denounces both as “revisionist powers” that threaten Washington’s hegemony over the international state system and global capitalism. Russia’s barbaric invasion of Ukraine enabled Washington — the butcher of Iraq and Afghanistan — to get up on its moral high horse, condemn Moscow, and rally states around the world to its side.
Biden’s strategy document denounces Russia for carrying out an “imperialist foreign policy” in Ukraine that is “an immediate and persistent threat to international peace and stability.” Against this threat, Biden promises to stand up for the UN Charter, support Ukraine, defend NATO members, and agitate for European energy independence from Russia. Of course, even as we recognize Washington’s imperial project in Eastern Europe, Ukraine’s fight for self-determination must be supported — including Ukrainians’ right to secure arms from anywhere (including NATO) to free themselves from Russian occupation.
Biden’s main preoccupation, however, is not Russia, but China. The National Security Strategy declares that China is “the only competitor with both the intent to reshape the international order and, increasingly, the economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to advance that objective.” Biden cynically exploits China’s imperial and repressive record in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Taiwan to rally the world behind Washington’s trade pacts, development plans and military alliances.
The key flashpoint in the U.S. conflict with China is Taiwan. Beijing threatens to seize the country, while Washington promises to arm it to the teeth and defend it against any invasion. Lost in this imperial battle is the Taiwanese people and their struggle for self-determination free of both powers.
Despite this truculent rhetoric and project, Biden claims to hold out hope that the U.S. and China can cooperate to address areas of mutual concern, despite the fact that their conflict is disrupting joint efforts on everything from mitigating climate change to managing pandemics. In reality, this imperial rivalry will continue to metastasize not only in Asia but throughout the globe as the world’s two biggest economies duke it out for supremacy.
Biden’s “Democratic Despotism”
Biden’s new imperial plan is riddled with lies, hypocrisy and contradictions, all characteristics of what W. E. B. Du Bois long ago denounced as the “democratic despotism” of U.S. imperialism. These falsehoods undermine Biden’s claim that his plan is in the interests of the world’s people.
On the domestic front, Biden has prioritized corporate profit and the military over social programs to benefit working class and oppressed people. While he boasts of investing in social reforms, the truth is that aside from stimulus checks most of those promised in the original version of “Build Back Better” fell by the wayside as his administration poured money into the Infrastructure Act and Inflation Reduction Act, both of which will benefit big business and do little to mitigate let alone reverse climate change.
Even Biden’s much lauded cancellation of student debt is unnecessarily limited and keeps in place the predatory loan system that bankrolls higher education and traps graduates in debt peonage. Contrast that with the hundreds of billions he doled out to the military just in 2022. Any benefit from the small reforms Biden has enacted to improve working people’s lives has now been decimated by rampant inflation and will be wiped out by the looming recession and consequent austerity measures and layoffs.
Globally, Biden’s pretension to building a capitalist international of democracies against autocracies is even less convincing. The U.S. itself has a system of elections in which corporate money largely dictates the results, a government that nakedly serves big business, an unelected Supreme Court controlled by far-right appointees that overrides public opinion on abortion and other issues, a criminal legal system that oversees the New Jim Crow of mass incarceration and police brutality, and a border regime that deports millions — mainly people of color — for the “crime” of migration.
Abroad, Washington’s “democratic” track record includes everything from toppling elected governments in countries like Iran and Guatemala to brutal imperialist wars in violation of the spirit — if not the letter — of the UN Charter from Vietnam to Afghanistan and Iraq. Its core allies in Europe are all former rulers of colonial empires who collaborate with U.S. imperialist efforts, including orchestrating the 2004 coup against Jean Bertrand Aristide’s democratically elected government in Haiti.
Washington’s allies outside its North Atlantic core are little better. The apartheid state of Israel as well as Saudi Arabia stand as cases in point. This reality was exposed in Biden’s so-called Summit for Democracy, which included many states that Freedom House categorized as “partly free,” “not free at all,” and “electoral autocracies.”
Hypocrisy aside, Biden’s plan for great power competition faces several problems and contradictions. The U.S. and most of the world’s economies are deeply integrated with China. Europe is dependent on Russian energy and much of the Global South depends on food exports from Russia and Ukraine. These facts make it difficult for the U.S. to line up states against China and Russia.
Washington’s nationalist economic policies also cut against collaboration with its own allies. Already, some are complaining that Biden’s “Buy American” provisions will undermine their businesses. France went so far as to denounce the AUKUS pact for denying it lucrative contracts for submarines it planned to sell to Australia.
International Solidarity Against Imperialism
Nevertheless, we are headed for a period of intense great power conflict between imperial rivals, with oppressed nations caught between them. But that is not the only axis of conflict; at the same time, we have witnessed since the Great Recession a global wave of protest, uprisings, strikes, and attempted revolutions in opposition to oppressive states and each of the great powers.
In this situation the left must avoid two pitfalls. First and foremost, we must not align ourselves with the U.S. state, which is the biggest imperialist power in the world and therefore remains, as Martin Luther King Jr. argued and Iraq proves, “the great purveyor of violence in the world today.” That would only make us complicit in its project of global domination.
At the same time, we must not fall for the foolish politics of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” and align ourselves with Washington’s imperial and regional opponents, whose various track records of repression, imperialism, and counter-revolution are horrific in their own right. They offer no alternative to workers and oppressed people, save for a new set of exploiters to replace the current ones.
This is not the time for imperial lesser evilism. Instead, we must build solidarity across borders with all genuine struggles for liberation, democracy, and equality in all countries throughout the world. We must not practice selective solidarity and extend our support only to struggles in states in this or that camp of today’s imperial blocs.
Our solidarity must be universal with all progressive struggles from below — from within the U.S. to China, Russia, and regional powers like Iran and to those they oppress from Palestine to Puerto Rico, Syria, Hong Kong, Ukraine, and many more. Only such international solidarity can link up popular struggles in a global fight for a new society, a genuine new world order, that puts people and the planet before profit and power.