Some Musings on Avoiding Empire

When I first started writing these essays, the earliest topics that I covered – and the ones that I keep returning to consistently throughout the overall thread of my work – is that a.) war isn’t going anywhere, and b.) it’s something that we need to understand and be prepared for on the left, even under a different system to the one we live under now. To that end, I’ve talked about the circumstances under which it may be necessary for us to go to war.

However – disregarding those who are acting in bad faith or have ulterior motives – there are still many people who have justifiable misgivings about the idea of the United States or any great power or superpower using force, even under a hypothetically more just governing system and even if it is defendable as the right thing to do under specific circumstances. I’ve had a number of conversations with friends on this topic, which has come up sporadically as various events and crises unfold in the world and the topic of outside intervention invariably arise. While I hold a different view, I can understand why some folks may be suspicious of or hesitant to suddenly get behind the idea of a powerful state notionally using its military power for “good” – especially those who live in other countries and have had to live at the whims of U.S. foreign policy or that of other foreign powers. To some, it may simply seem like empire under a different name.

That raises a question that I felt was worth an essay in its own right: in that hypothetical future I try to think about from getting too bummed out with the present, how do you conduct a global foreign and defense policy without being an empire? While I don’t think the idea of a changed-United States or any country using military power in a more just fashion is equivalent to empire in its own right, I feel like the danger of backsliding into imperialistic attitudes is still very much present and a danger. I see how it could be very easy to make a poor decision here, an exception there, and end up doing the same sort of foreign policy that got us where we are today.

After spending some time pondering this, I’ve come up with an extremely non-scientific, purely vibes-based set of principles that – while I make no claims towards being definitive, exhaustive, or foolproof – seem like a good starting point for how to carry out the kinds of concepts I rail on about without just being what we currently have and have had before but in a different guise. Those four principles, which I will go into more detail on each below, include: being selective of allies and partners, respecting countries’ consent, promoting countries’ self-sufficiency, and maintaining a minimal international footprint. Some or all of these may seem obvious to some, but I’ve found in this day and age, I can’t take anything like this for granted. So, let us begin.

1. Being Selective of Allies and Partners

To be a good leftist or socialist or however you label yourself, one almost by definition needs to be a good internationalist. You should care not only about improving the lives of everyone in your own community, city or country, but also about improving the lives of all people, everywhere. Thus, part of this naturally should entail establishing partnerships and forging alliances with countries that are similarly inclined in order to defend one another from hostile forces and to continue to try and improve things the world over (yes I realize this may sound a bit sappy and idealistic as I type this out, especially in the current environment, but I have to believe that something like this is achievable and that life is not endless sorrow and agony).

Note, that the key terms here are finding allies in countries that have similar principles, those principles of course being things like a democratic system of government, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, a legal and judicial system that isn’t draconian and doesn’t grind a bootheel into the neck of its citizens, supporting said citizens from want and deprivation, etc. etc. All that good stuff that we’re into, and that some governments claim they’re about.

When you look back at the history of the United States and other great powers from the past, you’ll find that the track record of finding allies based on these principles is “spotty” if I’m going to be charitable. The Cold War is an excellent example of this. When the United States searched for partners across the globe in its competition against the Soviet Union, its criteria were more about whether or not governments or leaders opposed communism rather than sharing any sort of affinity towards the principles that the United States claimed to value. What this resulted in was the United States supporting or installing regimes that were extremely right-wing or even fascistic purely on the basis of them hating communism (or any form of leftism) and doing everything they could to oppose it – including mass oppression, imprisonment, and murder of their own citizens. From Latin America, to Africa, to the Middle East and the Far East, you’d be hard pressed to find an area where the United States didn’t support a questionable regime in the course of great power politics.

This practice found new life to a different ideological end following the September 11th Attacks and the outbreak of the Global War on Terrorism. This time, the enemy wasn’t communism, but Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. If the United States wasn’t choosy about its allies during the Cold War, it was even less so in finding allies and partners to help it fight al Qaeda and similar groups – some of which were about just as bad as al Qaeda, had a role in its formation, or were even actively supporting them or other similarly minded or aligned groups like the Taliban.

This is a very long-winded way of me saying, in the future, if we want to conduct ourselves justly in the world of international relations, it means thinking critically about who our friends are. This is a problem that not only conservatives and liberals have, but far too many people on the left have when it comes to uncritically supporting unabashedly authoritarian regimes just because they’re aesthetically leftist or just anti-American. If we don’t want to be morally bankrupt to our own beliefs, then we’ll have to take a long, hard look at any country we consider as an ally and about whether aligning ourselves to them is the right thing to do, or something we’re doing purely out of self-interest or for political or ideological street cred.

2. Respecting the Consent of Other Countries

Our being more selective of allies and partners based on our principles and beliefs is only one part of the equation when it comes to working with other countries throughout the world. The flip side to aligning ourselves to countries more in sync with what we believe, is also realizing that countries and their populaces may not always necessarily want to be our ally, even if we think they have much in common with us and we’d like to help them. As with many other things in life, the magic word here is consent. If a country and its people do not consent to accepting help from us, then forcing the issue is simply adopting a paternal or imperialistic attitude.

There may be a myriad of reasons for this. Part of it may be the suspicion and wariness that I spoke of earlier, which may take generations to pass for some – or may potentially never pass for others. But there may be other reasons as well. The reasons matter less though, then what a country – but more importantly, its people – want. At the end of the day, if a government does not want anything to do with us or any other country offering help, and this is a genuine reflection of the will of its people as a whole, then that’s that. Unless they change their mind at some point in the future, any further efforts are simply trying to unjustly impose your will on another country – the very thing we’re supposed to be trying to avoid.

This same sort of logic applies to supporting movements seeking liberation, whether they are trying to establish an independent state for their people, or to overthrow a government that is oppressing them. Even if we have much in common with the principles of a liberation movement and want to help them, if they want nothing to do with us, we really have nothing else we can do other than cheer them on and wish for the best and hope maybe they change their minds. If I’ve found one thing out from being active on the internet as an artist and writer for most of my adult life, it’s that you can’t force people to be you friends. Sometimes, things just don’t ‘click’ from one end, and you just have to accept you’ll never be as close as you’d like things to be. Sometimes people may warm up to you over time or under different circumstances, but the key thing is that’s up to them, not you. In my eyes, the same thing applies to this case.

Now, I feel like there are potentially exceptions here. One big one that comes to mind is when humanitarian intervention comes up, such as intervention to provide aid to a starving populace or to stop the genocide of a group of people by a state – something behind the basis of the United Nations concept of Responsibility to Protect (something that is invoked far too little in my opinion). These are cases where you can strongly argue that its acceptable to intervene without a request for help – or that it is actually necessary to do so in order to prevent further death and destruction. That all being said, I also think if you look back through history, you’ll be very hard pressed to find any situation where a people were being brutally massacred or were starving to death and were flatly refusing any assistance and aid rather than begging any country with the means to do so to save them from being wiped out. But I felt I should bring that one up regardless just for the sake of being intellectually honest on the issue of consent.

We see the repercussions of ignoring the idea of consent across twenty years of Forever War, in particular Afghanistan and Iraq. While the United States may have initially been welcomed as liberators in both countries and both the Taliban in Afghanistan and Ba’athist state in Iraq were objectively terrible regimes, at the end of the day there was no genuine, country-wide mass movements or representatives of said movements requesting that the United States aid them in their liberation. Our invasions of those countries were forced on them from the outside, and that is part of why they were doomed to failure from the start – as most regime changes are.

3. Promoting Self-Sufficiency

Throughout the modern era, great powers have lavished military aid and arms sales upon allies and partners that suited them. Such aid could be made under the claims of ensuring that country’s ability to defend itself or being out of some notion of brotherhood and comradeship. Of course, like so many things, this aid is also about the game of great power politics and serves just as much as an instrument of influence and control as it did as a means of self-defense – if not more. As much great powers have an interest in ensuring certain countries could defend themselves and their regimes, they also had a vested interest – for many reasons – in making sure said countries were dependent upon them in some shape or form for defense.

There are some glaring examples of this seeding of dependence in how the United States provides military aid or sells arms to other countries currently, especially in an age of more complicated and technologically sophisticated weapons. Often the United States provides arms and armaments to an ally or partner without going through the effort of teaching and enabling them how to maintain them. Instead, it will simply employ contractors or even U.S. military personnel to maintain the equipment for the country, meaning that country is dependent upon the U.S. and U.S. companies (who also naturally have a vested interest in continuing to make money from servicing said equipment) for their defense – putting them in a precarious position.

Under a more just system, the intent of such aid prior to a conflict actually breaking out, would be the exact opposite. The primary purpose of our support to a country in bolstering its defense should be to make it self-sufficient as possible in its own defense, so that it will only need outside help under the most dire of circumstances. We should be genuinely trying to help a country stand on its two feet and not be beholden to any outside power for its survival (and this should be the case in general with all things, though obviously I’m focusing on defense and the military here as that is my wheelhouse and the focus of this blog, but felt it needed calling out). This would mean not only providing arms to a country, but also teaching them how to maintain them, helping them build the means to maintain them domestically, or even setting up their own domestic ability to produce weapons and material, and more – if they are able to do so.

The old adage goes that if you love something, set it free. Well, if we truly care about the well-being of an ally, then we should be building them up so that at the end of the day, they either don’t need us at all or only need us when things get really bad. If we treat them well and help them earnestly and in good faith, then even when they don’t need us, they will want to stand alongside us in defense of the same, shared ideas and belief. Likewise, we’ll have made that community of like-minded peoples and governments stronger by increasing the overall ability to defend itself as a whole against hostile, reactionary forces.

4. Maintaining a Minimal Footprint

One of the aspects of U.S. imperial attitudes that is brought up much on the left is the expansive, worldwide U.S. military presence. The United States maintains bases and troops to varying degrees in a wide swath of countries across the globe – around 40% of the world’s countries in 2019. These bases can serve as a point of serious contention even in countries where their presence is more welcome or at least not reviled. Even if they are not significantly or directly affecting the country they are located in, overseas bases are a lightning rod for their role in perpetuating conflict and U.S. imperialism. As a result, what I often have heard on the left is a desire for the United States to vacate all of its overseas military bases and bring all of its troops back home. While I completely understand this desire and empathize with it, I also feel it is unrealistic if in the future we want to be anything other than isolationist and inward looking – something that is incompatible with the very idea of socialism.

Contemporary warfare is a fast-moving endeavor, under which reacting quickly can mean the difference between victory and defeat – as well as how much destruction is visited and how many lives are lost. Even if we wish to spurn being an imperial power, if we want to be in any position to help other countries that come under attack by an aggressor and are unable to defend themselves on their own and request assistance, we need to be able to react swiftly so that our solidarity doesn’t end up coming too late to be of any help to those under attack. Having a military that can rapidly deploy, rather than be permanently or semi-permanently forward-deployed – may actually deter potential conflict better anyway.

Of course, rapid deployment of forces this still means crossing vast distances of time and space to get to wherever an ally may be in danger.  So, in my typical wishy-washy, “enlightened centrist leftist” fashion, I advocate there has to be some kind of middle ground. If we want to be of any help to allies and partners but still avoid empire, any overseas military installations we maintain need to be kept to a bare minimum. They need to be limited only to what we think we really need. What we “need” should be based on doing actual analysis and assessment of what our stated national security goals are, who are allies and partners are that we anticipate we may need to come to the aid of, where they are located, and etc. It basically just requires us going through the effort of thinking critically about what we need to do what we think is important and in line with our principles and not just gobbling up bases left and right in order to further our own power, influence, control as an imperial power does.

This can’t account for every instance, of course. There may be a case when we need to come to the aid of a country or group that we did not anticipate. This is just a risk you run when planning for various scenarios of war. You set yourself up to be ready for the most likely cases, and then when the least likely or unexpected ones occur, you make do best you can. In those instances, we may be able to lease bases or request temporary access for the duration of a campaign from a third country along the way to the operational area – packing up and going home ASAP once our (hopefully) very clearly defined objectives have been completed.

With that in mind, we should be viewing these bases as being temporal in general. None of them should be thought of as “permanent.” We should be planning out our needs with the idea that they will change over time. We should be reassessing on a regular basis as to what ones we still need, based on the abilities of our allies and partners, the various threats we face, and so on. Over time, it may make more sense to leave one base and set up shop somewhere else. Not only does it make good strategic sense, but it also aids in avoiding digging in roots and fostering imperial attitudes towards the lands that we’re supposed to be guests in – not overlords of.

At the end of the day, no matter how good of relations you have with a country, over time you’re going to wear out a welcome. That in itself is not a good reason to not have military forces stationed overseas at all, but it is a good reason to make sure we only maintain the bases and troops we really need to honor our principles and commitments – especially in peacetime. Despite our widespread military presence currently, most of the military still is stationed in the United States, so it really wouldn’t be that huge of a change. It would just mean thinking harder about what paths and processes we need to rapidly move it to a conflict zone. Really, a lot of this is about thinking harder in general, not only about what we believe as leftists, but also about practical applications of military force and the challenges that involves. We just need to think.

We Can Try (And We Should)

One of the things I grapple with when I try to think of a more ethical and just use of military power is, no matter how I try to dress it, there are always going to be people that I otherwise express solidarity with that are going to be suspicious of it and opposed to it. Some people may take a very long time to come around to the idea and may only do so in part. Some may never come around to it. Frankly, I’ve come to accept that. As much as I want to try and educate and elaborate on why I think this is the realistic and right thing to do, I know that I can’t convince everyone and that ultimately, I can only do so much to try and convince people and the rest is up to them and is their own choice. That, and I can’t blame people – especially those living overseas who have been more directly affected by imperialism than I ever have – for having these attitudes towards the idea of foreign military intervention.

While that is definitely a little discouraging and demoralizing, I try not to let it get me down too much. God knows there so many traps I can fall into – and still fall into – on a daily basis that can lead to depression, discouragement, and borderline “doomerism” and “black pilled” thought with how the state of the world is and the likelihood for change. But I have to believe in something. I have to believe there can be a better world, and I also have to believe I can somehow use what I know from my professional life to contribute to that.

I strongly believe war isn’t going anywhere even if we do (and I hope we do) affect political change. I think we’re going to want to help people beyond our own borders and that will sometimes require providing military aid or carrying out military action. Doing so runs the risks of falling back into old habits unknowingly. While the ideas I’ve laid out here are by no means a panacea for avoiding that sliding back into imperialism, I feel like its maybe a solid starting point. Even if there are going to be people who will still be justifiably suspicious of trying to use military power throughout the world for any sort of positive ends – and that may create stumbling blocks towards doing so, I still think we owe it to try and be a global force for good in that hypothetical future even if it may be difficult and frustrating at times. Why? Because it’s still the right and necessary thing to do. If there’s one thing we know as lefties, it’s that doing the right thing is sometimes a demoralizing pain in the ass – but that doesn’t make it any less right.

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