Ben Wray: Western imperialism and leftist complacency

The United States remains the most dangerous force on the planet, and that won’t change any time soon.

Ben Wray is a journalist based in the Basque Country and co-ordinator of Brave New Europe’s Gig Economy Project. He is co-author of ‘Scotland After Britain: The Two Souls of Scottish Independence’ (Verso, 2022).

Cross-posted from Conter

Israel’s brutal siege of Gaza has been conducted hand-in-glove with the United States. The US is playing the role of bodyguard and patron, sending warships to intimidate Arab states from intervening, vetoing ceasefire resolutions at the UN, and covering for Netanyahu’s lies, while Israel pummels the Palestinians into the dirt with bombs built and paid for by America.

For hundreds of millions, potentially billions, of people, the brutal reality of US imperial power is being revealed. Just as the Iraq War opened the eyes of my generation, who learned about how power really works via Fallujah, Abu Ghraib and the WMD that never was, today a new generation is learning and will learn through the bombs, the blockade, the ethnic cleansing and, yes, the callous lies, that this is what the US empire is all about, regardless of who’s in the White House.

During the Iraq War, it was the Republican George W. Bush. In the Gaza genocide, it is the Democratic Joe Biden. But what’s the difference? Just as there was barely a fag-paper between Republicans and Democrats on Iraq in 2003, no significant difference can be distilled over America’s fulsome participation in the genocidal assault on Gaza in 2023. 

And of course, it is the same in Europe, the old imperialists content in their new position as America’s loyal vassal. Whether it’s social-democratic Chancellor Olaf Scholz in Berlin, Brexiteer conservative Rishi Sunak in London or European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen in Brussels, they are all lined up in a queue behind Joe, waiting to embrace Netanyahu, hands soaked in blood. The West is unified for genocide.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. We were told that politics had changed, that a genuine divide had opened up between ‘liberals’ on the one hand and ‘reactionaries’ on the other. That talk of “the extreme centre” had missed the fact that something much worse had entered the room.

So marked was the difference between the Trumpists and the centrists, many liberals and some leftists have argued, that we should not flinch at rehabilitating the latter to block the greater threat of the former. With the Ukraine war, this narrative went into overdrive: the “strong men” – Trump, Putin, Bolsonaro, Modi, Xi Jinping – had to be stopped at any cost.

One articulation of this position came from Anthony Barnett, a former member of the editorial committee of New Left Review. Criticising those leftists, including Yanis Varoufakis and Jeremy Corbyn, who signed a petition calling for a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine, Barnett argued that the signatories’ were living in the past by focusing their concerns for the planet on the threat posed by US imperial power: the US had already lost its dominant position, and its fall was unleashing “monsters”.

“Historically, they are right: we are caught in the legacy of decades of gross behaviour by the US governing elite,” Barnett argued. “But its ambition failed more than a decade ago. This in turn gave birth to monsters even worse than US hegemony. The problem the world faces is not that the USA has failed to relinquish ‘outdated notions of global dominance’, it is the struggle over how and by whom its dominance will be replaced.”

Barnett went on to state that while “the US has withdrawn from Afghanistan and can be prevented from ever again engaging in ‘regime change’,” we cannot be as assured about our ability to stop a new “mobsters international” from Washington to Moscow.

“Today, the most pressing danger that humanity faces is the return to the White House of Trump or a Trump clone, who would rig the US system permanently,” Barnett argued, adding: “The front line of resistance to such an outcome is, tragically, Ukraine…To defeat Trumpism outside the USA as well as inside, we have to defy and frustrate Putin.”

In a further piece, Barnett clarified the dividing line as “between the imperfect supporters of a world of liberty and humanity, and the global threat of arbitrary populist authoritarianism”.

Barnett’s confidence that US imperialism can be reined in appears to have been badly misplaced. As Gaza is annihilated to defend an apartheid state, who could describe Biden, Starmer, Scholz and Von Der Leyen, all implacable opponents of “the mobsters international”, as “supporters of a world of liberty and humanity” now, imperfect or otherwise? One of course could point to the fact that Trump’s position on Gaza is equally deplorable, but that only reinforces the point: for Palestinians, and indeed the global south more broadly, the problem is not the red or blue corner of US politics, but US imperialism itself. 

Moreover, Biden has continued to pour ever-more arms into Ukraine, continued to reject any possibility of peace talks, and continued to fight to the last Ukrainian, and what has it achieved? For Ukraine, only death and destruction. The US President is trying to link Ukraine and Gaza in an ‘axis of evil’ narrative reminiscent of Iraq and Afghanistan 20 years ago, but there are signs of fatigue growing in Washington and some capitals of Europe. Don’t be surprised if Zelensky does end up back at the negotiating table with Putin, having gained no leverage at all two and a half years and tens of thousands of lives on from March 2021, one month into the war, when a peace deal was viable but was scuppered by the western powers.

On the other hand, it’s easy to see how the US has benefited from the Ukrainian bloodbath. Europe has been brought entirely under US-NATO leadership and the continent’s energy reliance on Russia has been broken permanently, partly replaced by American liquified natural gas. The war has also acted as a useful pretence for shoehorning Europe behind Biden’s real priority: confining China to permanent technological inferiority so that the US remains number one. 

Barnett is wrong: there are no monsters “worse than US hegemony”, which has not yet been dethroned. As the US President stated earlier this week in response to a question about whether America can fight on two fronts at once, Ukraine and Palestine: “We’re the United States of America for God’s sake, the most powerful nation in the history – not in the world, in the history of the world.” Hubristic? Yes. Inaccurate? No. 

Indeed, the monsters wreaking havoc on this earth are the bitter fruits of US hegemony. Just as the historic failure to deliver justice for the Palestinians can be primarily placed at Uncle Sam’s door, the negligent economic and geopolitical management of post-Soviet Russia, from disastrous neoliberal shock therapy to broken promises on the eastward expansion of NATO, have American fingerprints all over them. Netanyahu and Putin’s barbaric wars are evidence of Washington’s faulty designs.

And it is precisely because the United States is in relative decline that we should be extra vigilant about the threat it poses. US decline is imbalanced: while the world is becoming more economically multipolar, it remains remarkably unipolar when it comes to US military superiority. It is logical, especially given the power of the military-industrial complex, that the US will leverage its advantage in the military sphere to make up for its disadvantage in the economic sphere. Indeed, this is already happening.

For those of us living in the belly of the beast or its European appendage, giving one fraction of the ruling class a pass because they appear less racist than the other is a dereliction of duty as internationalists. If the genocide of Gaza has taught us anything, it is that racism pulses through the veins of imperialism, sometimes hidden beneath the surface only to be revealed in all its venom when blood is spilled and the stakes are high.

In those moments – in this moment – the ‘liberals’ reveal themselves to be just as racist as ‘the reactionaries’, in words and deeds. What the global south needs from the Western left is to do what it can to keep all of the imperialists off their backs. In that responsibility, we should never stray.

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