The coexistence of a Democrat-controlled Senate and a Republican-controlled House of Representatives will not radically change US foreign policy. To those unaware of it, it may even reveal a convergence between most Republican politicians’ neoconservative militarism and the moral neo-imperialism of a growing number of Democrats.
We’ve been here before. In 1917 Democratic president Woodrow Wilson took his country into the first world war, a conflict which was all about imperial rivalries, claiming he wanted to ‘make the world safe for democracy’. This did not stop him being a Ku Klux Klan sympathiser. Later, during the cold war, Republican and Democratic presidents took turns defending the ‘free world’ against the ‘evil empire’ of atheist communism. With the Soviet Union gone, along came the ‘war on terror’, which President George W Bush promised would end ‘tyranny in the world’.
The democratic crusades in Afghanistan and Iraq, and before that Korea and Vietnam, claimed millions of victims, curtailed public freedoms (with McCarthyism and the persecution of whistleblowers), and associated Washington with a succession of big-time criminals who had little regard for checks and balances. But as long as they belonged to the American camp, none of them — not General Suharto in Indonesia nor the apartheid regime in South Africa nor Augusto Pinochet in Chile — lost their power (or their lives) as a result of Western military intervention.
A Democrat in the White House tends to make it easier to paint imperial hegemony as a fight for democracy. Even when confronted with an opponent as repellent as Vladimir Putin, the Atlanticist left would no doubt have balked if it had had to rally its faithful behind Richard Nixon, George W Bush or Donald Trump. In its day, French colonialism was also presented as the fulfilment of an Enlightenment-inspired ‘civilising mission’, which won it support among some of the progressive intelligentsia. Now the fight against Russian, Iranian and Chinese authoritarianism feeds Western moral rearmament (1).
On 24 October a letter from 30 Democratic politicians praised President Joe Biden’s Ukraine policy while calling for negotiations to end the war. This very unremarkable statement sparked such a Twitterstorm of warmongering that most of these brave politicians immediately withdrew their signatures. One of them, congressman Jamie Raskin, demonstrated his talent for the kind of arselicking typical of periods of intellectual intimidation:
‘Moscow … is a world centre of antifeminist, antigay, anti-trans hatred, as well as the homeland of replacement theory for export. In supporting Ukraine, we are opposing these fascist views’ (press release, 25 October).
Although it doesn’t yet include the fight against global warming, such a misleading redefinition of US war aims offers a delicate foretaste of the imperialist left discourse to come.