Today, Donald Trump will be inaugurated the nation’s 45th president.
Looking back, former Pres. Barack Obama may be remembered as America’s postmodern version of the Little Dutch Boy, the kid who plugged his finger in a dike to stop a flood. With Hillary Clinton’s defeat, he might be the last president to contain the 21st century allegorical “flood,” the deepening – and ultimately unmanageable — split between U.S.-anchored globalizing capitalism and America-the-nation’s quest for imperial hegemony.
Pres. Trump and his administration, dominated by militarists and investment bankers, seem incapable of containing the flood, the mounting crisis dividing globalization and empire. Trump’s campaign promise to “make America great again” signifies the next – and most desperate — phase in the evolution of neoliberal internationalism.
Trump and his team are not “big thinkers.” Based on the presidential debates, Senate testimony and press reports, his team seem to be an ad-hoc gang of smart and capable opportunists. They reveal remarkably little historical or well-thought-out, “big picture,” insight into how the U.S. – let alone the global world-order – is being restructured. With the notable exception of Dr. Ben Carson, who’s saved people’s lives, none of the civilians in the Cabinets has made an original – and meaningful – contribution to society other than making money, least of all Trump; worst still, the military appointees have collectively overseen the longest war in U.S. history – a war that (like every major conflict since the Korean War) will likely result in a standoff or a U.S. defeat.
America began building its national “empire” before it became a nation. Its earliest expansionist campaigns were fought against the Native peoples first along the Atlantic Coast, pushing steadily westward across the Appalachians, culminating in the Trail of Tears (1836) and the Battle of Little Bighorn (1876). Simultaneously, the U.S. moved to secure western territories through Pres. Thomas Jefferson’s Louisiana Purchase (1803); acquisition of Florida from Spain (1821); the Battle of the Alamo (1836) and the Mexican-American War (1846-1848, territories that became California, Texas, Arizona, Nevada and Utah); the purchase of Alaska (1867, Secretary of State William Seward’s “folly”); Dole’s seizure of Hawaii (1893); and, following victory in the Spanish-American War (1898), the acquisition of Puerto Rico and Guantanamo. In 1823, amidst the first round of expansionism, Pres. James Monroe proclaimed the “Monroe Doctrine” in which the U.S. asserted unofficial hegemony over the Western Hemisphere, warning European nations to halt any further efforts to colonize or install puppet regimes in the Americas.
Protected by oceans on each coast, the U.S. consolidated into the world’s mightiest nation-state during the half-century between the Civil War and World War I. It was a period that saw European and Asian powers — notably England, France, German, Russia and Japan – carve up, colonize, the globe. Their battles for imperial hegemony, for old-world empire, culminated in WW-I (and the Russian Revolution), followed by the Great Depression (and the union movement), and WW-II (and the Chinese Revolution). This three-decade era of instability broke-up the old world-order.
With both allied and enemy countries devastated, the U.S. emerged as the center of the new world-order. The postwar recovery drove both the domestic consumer revolution and America’s international reach, fueling what Pres. Dwight Eisenhower famously dubbed the “military-industrial complex.” Henry Luce’s famous 1941 call — “the 20th century is the American Century” — signified the coming superpower. Anchored on New York’s Wall Street, the postwar U.S. became the capital of global economic development. For all the saber rattling and threats of atomic wars with mutual destruction, the Cold War between the U.S. and Soviet Union – along with their various proxies – permitted relative global stability. Instability – insurgency – was kept at the periphery of both superpowers.
During this era, the U.S. fashioned a new form of imperialism. It launching key institutions (e.g., the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and NATO) that simultaneously – and under the guise of international harmony and social development — furthered its geo-political and military ambitions. Its efforts led to failed campaigns to contain China (e.g., Korean War, Vietnam War); numerous coup d’états in Latin America (e.g., Guatemala, Chile), Middle East (e.g., Iran) and Africa (e.g., Congo); and the break-up of the Soviet Union. All served to ensure the globalization of the capitalist world-order.
The U.S. promoted two-fold imperial strategy – the “outsourcing” labor costs and ( the plundering natural resources in “underdeveloped” countries — paid off big time. John Bellamy Foster, in an essential study, “The New Imperialism of Globalized Monopoly-Finance Capital,” reviews the evolution of leading Marxist analyses of capitalist development. Amidst this overall analysis, he notes that today’s “Low-Cost Country Strategy” provides the profits for many major 1st-world corporations. His following examples illuminate the structure of 21st century geo-political relations — Apple’s 2010 iPhone 4 retailed at $549 with Chinese components and labor costs assembly at about $10; Nike’s late-1990s basketball shoes retailed for $149.50 with direct labor cost at only 1 percent, or $1.50; and the labor costs for embroidered logo sweatshirt produced in the Dominican Republic were about 1.3 percent of the U.S. retail price and for a knit shirt produced in the Philippines about 1.6 percent of final price. Non-U.S. 1st-world corporations adopted this strategy, including the international Swedish retailer Hennes & Mauritz (H&M) that purchased T-shirts made by Bangladesh subcontractors at .02–.05 cents (euro) per shirt and sold them for as much as it could get.
The second part of this “imperialist” strategy involved the expropriation of local natural resources from 3rd world countries to sustain manufacturing and domestic life in the U.S. and other 1st world countries. This policy is most notably in the century-long wars waged by European and U.S. powers to control Middle East petrochemicals, but also extends to minerals, lumber, food and (illegal) drugs throughout the globe, especially Latin and South American.
The profits garnered by 1st world companies provided enormous wealth for the 1 percent and propelled the shift from 20th century manufacturing to 21st century’s financialized capitalism. This has led to the parking of trillions of dollars of corporate profits outside the U.S. to avoid paying taxes; estimates as to the amount stashed offshore range from $2.4 (Fortune) to $21 trillion (Foster).
In 1999, the New York Times Magazine published Thomas Friedman’s “Manifesto for a Fast World,” a call for the U.S. to become the super-cop of the global capitalist world-order. The article recounts his trip with Madeleine Albright, then-UN Ambassador, to “the war zones of Africa.” Fueled with all the moral outrage of an upstanding establishment apologist, the neoliberal pundit argued that “… the hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist…. The hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.”
In 2015, the U.S. military budget was nearly $600 billion and accounted for 57 percent of federal discretionary spending or 16 percent of the total (including mandatory) federal budget of $3.8 trillion. The U.S. maintains nearly 800 military bases in more than 70 countries and territories around the world. These bases vary from huge instillations in Europe and Japan to bases in war zones (e.g., Iraq) and outposts supporting fewer than 200 personnel (e.g., Burkina Faso). In contrast, Britain, France and Russia have about 30 foreign bases combined.
Andrew Bacevich argues in a provocative piece for Tom’s Dispatch, “The Age of Great Expectations and the Great Void,” that the “post-Cold War era” – the quarter-century following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the collapse of the SU in ’91 — ended with Trump’s election. This former military officer and professor points out, “the national security establishment became conditioned to the idea of permanent war, high-ranking officials taking it for granted that ordinary citizens would simply accommodate themselves to this new reality.” He adds, “instead of giving ordinary Americans a sense of security, this new paradigm induced an acute sense of vulnerability, which left many susceptible to demagogic fear mongering.” For him, this partially explains Trump’s electoral victory.
As Bacevich and others have acknowledged, the post-WW-II era of American “greatness” began to falter in the mid-1970s with consequences for both capitalism and the U.S. empire. The period saw Pres. Nixon end the U.S.’s long alignment of the dollar to the gold standard and a global oil crisis that reverberated through all sectors of the economy. It also witnessed the beginning of an era of long-term wage stagnation and a decline in the standard-of-living for ordinary Americans that continues to today.
The Institute for Policy Studies’ Inequality website notes, “between 1983 and 2009, over 40 percent of all wealth gains flowed to the 1 percent and 82 percent of wealth gains went to the top 5 percent.” Between 1976 and 2010, the nation’s collective wealth of the bottom 99 percent shrank to 79 percent from 91 percent; between 1962 and 2009, the wealth of the bottom 90 percent of the U.S. population declined to 12.8 from 19.1 percent.
During this half-century, the U.S. military played a critical role policing the empire, especially at its unstable periphery. However, its scorecard is disappointing: Korea remains a standoff; Vietnam was a failure; the Cuba Revolution was not defeated; the installation of numerous Latin and South American dictators failed to fully contain mass democratic insurgency; and CIA support for Afghan mujahideen insurgency against the SU culminated in the rise of Osama bin Laden, the September 11, 2001, attacks and the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq that ignited the current firestorm of sectarian nationalism and fundamentalist religion spreading through the Middle East and other regions. America’s misadventure over the last half-century recall the Homeric tale in which Odysseus blinds Polyphemus, the one-eyed cyclopes. Trump is poised to play out the mythical role of the blind one-eyed cyclopes.
And what comes next? For Bacevich, “the Age of Great Expectations has ended, leaving behind an ominous void.” Looking critically at the coming Trump presidency, he warns, “Trump’s own inability to explain what should fill that great void provides neither excuse for inaction nor cause for despair. Instead, Trump himself makes manifest the need to reflect on the nation’s recent past and to think deeply about its future.” Bacevich concludes, “Trumpism” is a dog’s breakfast.”
During the presidential campaign and subsequently, Trump made wild claims as to supporting an “American First,” non-interventionist foreign policy and to be tough with ISIS, China and other supposed national-security enemies. He called for the need to “rebuild” the U.S. military with huge spending increases to expand the Army to 540,000 soldiers and building a 350-ship Navy; currently there are about 480,000 active-duty soldiers in Army and the Navy has 274 ships. This does not include the proposed new missile systems, fighters and the $1 trillion recently allocated to upgrade the nuclear arsenal.
At his recent Senate nomination hearing, Trump’s new Sec. of Defense, James “Mad Dog” Mattis (retired, Marine General), said his priorities would be “to strengthen military readiness, strengthen our alliances in league with our diplomatic partners and bring business reforms to the Department of Defense.” Mattis called for an end to the 2011 Budget Control Act that tied military and domestic spending. “We don’t want a military that breaks the bank, but we can’t solve our debt problems on the backs of the military alone,” he said. “We’re going to have to make hard calls.” Mattis also backed Trump call for NATO’s 28-nation members to spend at least 2 percent of their GDP on defense. And if they can’t? — or won’t?
Capitalism and the U.S. are not one and the same. Capitalism is, as both Smith and Marx found, an economic relationship rooted in the most fundamental human exchange, the buying and selling of labor power. Marx argued that the earliest forms of European capitalism emerged from 16th century feudalism. That same feudal impulse drove the first phase of imperialism signified by Columbus’ voyage of 1492 beginning the colonization of the Americas and the era of European global conquest.
Since then, capitalism — and the geo-political world-order it engenders — has been transformed. Over the last century, but especially since the end of WW-II, capitalism and U.S. international interests have been relatively consistent; they shared a common interest in maintaining “peace and security.” Is that era over? Are the two distinct spheres — the economy and the nation — still intimately linked, one and the same? Will their deepening split only increase over time?
Globalization is restructuring the U.S. economy and ordinary American, including many who voted for Trump, are suffering. To what extent does the needs of empire marked by an increasingly integrated military-police system, including the intelligence apparatus, serve as capitalism’s global police force in a 21st century world-order? Equally troubling, to what extent will this force be used to suppress domestic unrest? Can the $600 billion budget be significantly shrunk and the monies saved go to better use for, say, real infrastructure upgrades, pay raises for teacher and other civil-servant or to the lowering taxes paid by ordinary Americans?
The growing split between globalization and empire fashions the social crisis that culminated in Trump’s victory; it will define his presidency. However incoherently articulated, his rant calling for “America First” acknowledges the historical split — that U.S. military hegemony and global capitalism no longer share the same historical trajectory. Trump’s new administration of oligarchs and generals will be driven by short-term and opportunist thinking that will only exasperate the split.
The great fear of the coming Trump administration is that the 21st century “flood” – the split between globalization and empire – comes to a breaking point.