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Seeing the Blob Through Its Own Eyes
While there are exceptions, those who want to change US foreign policy must understand that many, if not most, of its practitioners believe (however misguidedly) that they're doing the right thing.
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One of the most important things to understand about the people who make-up the US national security state is that most of them believe in what they’re doing. They do not consider themselves to be part of any evil empire, but rather genuinely insist that they’re dedicated to their jobs and making the lives of people the world over better. There are of course some whose motives are less well-intentioned—people whose primary interest in working for the government is directly related to their will to power—but I’d venture to say that they are more the exception than the rule.
This is not to excuse the inherent hubris in this position. As many people who are reading this will no doubt be shouting at the screen, what gives Americans the right to anoint themselves global do-gooders, especially when their country has done such enormous damage to the world? Don’t US policymakers realize that their Pollyanna-ish approach to their job is an artifact of imperial privilege? Why, after all, should we care about what decision-makers and staffers of the deep state think that they’re doing in the world, given the often-brutal reality?
In a real sense, these criticisms are correct: I would never ask, expect, or desire someone who’s suffered directly at the hands of the American Empire to have empathy for those implicated in their oppression.
But for those of us within the United States, who hope to use their unique subjective position to restrain US power and begin to weaken the US empire, I believe it’s important to understand and appreciate what those who actually staff the imperial apparatus believe. People like Antony Blinken or Samantha Power do not wake up every morning and start work worrying about whether they are contributing to a brutal global reality. Far from it—they sincerely think they’re doing the Lord’s work. In fact, they think they’re acting “progressively,” in that they’re using US power to engender the liberal world they consider central to peace and security.
I—and the anti-imperialist left more broadly—might not sympathize with this position, but we have to take it seriously when we engage in the necessary debate and politicking required to bring down the US empire.
This is especially true given that fantasies of progressivism have been absolutely central to the establishment of the US national security state, a state that has a direct and critical impact on the entire world.
In my own work, it became rapidly clear to me how many of the early builders and staffers of the national security state (understood here to include not only the official institutions of the government, but also the organizations of the parastatal “military-intellectual complex” like think tanks and academic foreign policy research centers) considered themselves to be contributing to “peacefare” instead of warfare. In their minds—and the minds of the Blinkens and Powers of the world—international relations is a dangerous, anarchic sphere that can only be tamed through American hegemony. This, most imperialists will claim, is the tragic reality that undergirds US global behavior. Sure, they might say, the United States has done some awful things (at this point in history it’s quite difficult to be a US policymaker and be unfamiliar with the various crimes committed by the US government in the past), but would you rather a different nation ruled the world?
This opinion is essentially the foundational ontological position of those who navigate the public and private institutions of the national security state. And its widespread acceptance presents the left with a significant problem. Specifically, it’s incredibly difficult to change others’ fundamental assumptions about how the world works. If a decision-maker truly believes that international relations is defined by anarchy and chaos, how would an anti-imperialist persuade that policymaker otherwise? It’s not as though we can point to a plethora of recent examples of nation-states harmoniously interacting, after all. And it’s very tough to prove the counterfactual that if the United States abandoned its hegemony, another power wouldn’t make a bid for world domination. Though I might personally maintain that decision-makers’ obsession with hegemony reflects a peculiarly American desire to control the world and its history, this won’t exactly be persuasive to those who actually hold power.
Again, some might say that it is not the duty of anti-imperialists to persuade imperialists of their position. And indeed, it’s likely not even possible. But given this, then, the anti-imperialist left needs to develop a genuine way either to make our perspective common sense among the next generation of Americans who will staff the national security bureaucracy or to devise a way to replace those who presently staff the American state. Both of these are epochal tasks that will take years, or more likely decades, to achieve, even in a best-case scenario.
While the left may be quite weak in the United States, this doesn’t free us of the responsibility of thinking strategically. We’re far too comfortable making (morally and strategically) righteous criticisms and being ignored in the halls of power. We’ve got to do more to advance our position, and the first step in doing so is taking our opponents, and their convictions, seriously.
Otherwise, we’ll remain forever on the outside, looking in.