We Need an Anti-Imperialist Alternative to Biden’s Status Quo Foreign Policy

Daniel Bessner

When it comes to foreign policy, Joe Biden represents a continuation of the imperialist status quo. We need a leftist alternative that weakens US empire and prizes democracy, rather than one that assumes the US is right to dominate the world.

US president Joe Biden waves as he boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland on March 26, 2021. (Olivier Douliery / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Ana Kasparian
Nando Vila

Earlier this week, Axios reported that Joe Biden “loves the growing narrative that he’s bolder and bigger-thinking than President Obama.”

One dramatic exception: foreign policy. While Biden and others in the political establishment have dropped their usual paeans to belt-tightening, there’s no indication Biden will make any foreign policy moves that could be spun as “bolder and bigger-thinking.” He hasn’t even reentered Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal yet.

To sort out Biden’s foreign policy, Ana Kasparian and Nando Vila, cohosts of Weekends, recently spoke with historian and Jacobin contributing editor Daniel Bessner about China; the United States’ sprawling, opaque national security state; and the need for a leftist, anti-imperialist alternative. Their conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Ana Kasparian

One of Joe Biden’s campaign promises was that he would reenter the Iran nuclear deal, but he’s certainly taking his time. What are your thoughts about where the United States stands on that issue?

Daniel Bessner

It’s a good question, and it’s indicative of the larger thrust of Biden’s foreign policy, which is essentially a return to the status quo during the Obama administration, before he signed the Iran deal.

My sense is that within the Biden administration, there’s anxiety about either entering the deal too quickly or re-signing it in a meaningful way because it would give up so-called leverage against Iran. So whereas Obama wanted to do some sort of normalization program, Biden is most concerned with ensuring Saudi or Israeli hegemony in the region. It’ll be intriguing to see what happens with the future of sanctions.

I don’t want to oversell it, but there has been a change since Obama in terms of domestic policy. We might not get Medicare for All, but already the recovery bill is significantly more than the recovery act of the early Obama administration. But foreign policy is going to be relatively status quo.

Nando Vila

What is it about Iran that drives these people so crazy?

Daniel Bessner

It has a lot to do with the “betrayal” of the United States. In 1953, the United States famously overthrew the democratically elected government of Mohammad Mosaddegh, very much with the help of the UK, and installed the shah. The shah ruled very brutally for a long time, until the Iranian Revolution of ’78–’79, which was capped by the hostage crisis, where hundreds of civilians at the US Embassy were taken hostage. That was just a finger in the eye of the United States, and it angered a lot of Americans, who thought there shouldn’t be any criticism of the United States, especially in what had been a client state for so long.

Mohammad Mosaddegh, former prime minister of Iran. (BBC / Wikipedia)

You have more recent things during the War on Terror, and you do have an underlying geostrategic logic: the United States supports Saudi Arabia (mostly because it gives oil to our allies and provides an entry point to the Middle East) and Israel (which also provides an entry point), and Israel and Saudi Arabia are very anti-Iranian.

But the original sin goes back to the 1970s.

Ana Kasparian

What about the influence of Israel on the Biden administration and its policy on Iran? Why does Benjamin Netanyahu think that the Iran nuclear deal is an awful deal, and what does the Israeli government want the United States to do in response to Iran?

Daniel Bessner

I think Netanyahu genuinely, deeply in his soul, believes that Jews are always under attack. His father was a very famous historian of the Spanish Inquisition, and he was a post-Holocaust Jew growing up in Israel. So there’s this deeply personal thing that no facts and logic are going to change. But from a geostrategic perspective, he wants Israel to be allowed to do what it wants, in the West Bank in particular.

Now, why does the United States just allow Netanyahu to do whatever he wants? That is again so deeply ideological, that you have someone like Antony Blinken, when he was giving a talk last summer, basically say, “We’re going to totally change Middle East policy, except for certain fundamentals,” and the only fundamental that he mentions is the United States’ unwavering support for Israel.

A destroyed tank outside of Misrata, Libya, in 2012. (joeypyrek / Wikimedia Commons)

Today, the Christian evangelical lobby is probably more important on Israel policy than lobbying groups associated with Jews. We see this in other places. The Cuban lobby is very influential, and there are other ethnic lobbies that are very important. This is just an element of American politics that hasn’t gone away and is here to stay.

Netanyahu, who spent a significant amount of time in the States, also has deep connections with the Washington foreign policy community. He’s been in power for a really long time. So there are lots of connections there, and there’s lots of institutional inertia that supports exactly what the United States is doing vis-à-vis Iran and vis-à-vis Israel.

Nando Vila

One of the things you always talk about is how little we know about the national security state. It’s kind of like the ocean floor, which we think we would know everything about it, but we actually know very little about it. Can you describe that dynamic?

Daniel Bessner

This is really critical if the Left is serious about governing. The way I would frame it is that the New Deal of the 1930s and 1940s became permanent because New Dealers made a deal with conservatives: certain functions that might properly be considered a state function — for example, health care, building defense armaments, research into what should be done on the international stage — were privatized. For example, the RAND Corporation, whose contractor in its first decades was the United States government, was nominally private and totally outside the purview of Congress or the public.

So you have a state formation that doesn’t only consist of the official organizations of the state — the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Security Council (NSC), the Department of Defense, the State Department — but also has this large penumbra of parastatal organizations like the RAND Corporation, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman. It’s very difficult to get a handle on what these parastatal organizations are doing — for example, you cannot use the Freedom of Information Act.

Another problem is that, at the same time you had this ever-expanding national security state, power was being further concentrated in the White House. The State Department literally has less influence on foreign policy than the National Security Council, which the president appoints.

So the Left is in a very difficult position when we’re speaking about how to actually influence things. If Bernie Sanders would have entered office, one of the things that I would have wanted him to do was create a series of task forces to get a better sense of how power actually works.

Let me just take one more example: the “nuclear football.” There are a number of choke points throughout the American system where individuals have the ability to make a nuclear war. But we’re not even sure where those choke points are — and that’s something of world-ending capacity.

Ana Kasparian

Whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican, there’s very similar, antagonistic language being used toward China. And what’s terrifying is that while the American electorate is experiencing fatigue regarding endless wars, and that’s a good sign, I feel like the temperature changes a bit when it comes to China. Can you just discuss why Obama decided to undergo this “pivot to Asia,” and what this means for the future of the relationship between the United States and China?

Daniel Bessner

I think there are two explanations.

There’s this longer-term, historical dynamic where you need an enemy to provide a justification for empire. Because why else are you spending this amount of money? Why else are you having 750 military bases, a more than $740 billion military budget, unless there’s a true existential enemy? So, in some sense, the pivot to China is just the latest cycle of this need for an existential enemy.

A more proximate cause is that American foreign policymakers are beginning to become concerned about the rise of China — which was extremely powerful for thousands of years, had a century and a half or two centuries of being on the lower end of the global totem pole, but has, essentially through authoritarian state capitalism, done an enormous amount of internal development.

China is beginning to assert itself in East Asia, and a number of close US allies, Japan and South Korea foremost among them, are becoming nervous about the expansion of Chinese hegemony in the region. The United States, of course, has many military bases circling China.

My sense is that American foreign policymakers — in my opinion, foolishly — believe the United States is going to remain forever dominant in East Asia. So they’re trying to shift strategic attention from the Middle East — from the so-called endless wars that have been recognized basically across the political spectrum as pointless — to China. And this provides, again, a logic for the continuation of the American empire, a logic for continued hegemony in East Asia.

I want to add a third thing: papering over domestic divisions. The Cold War basically allowed American society to organize itself around an existential enemy. You already see this kind of rhetoric, and one of the reasons that people on both sides of the political aisle are using anti-Chinese xenophobia is because this provides a way to paper over these differences and to put together a crumbling American society.

Nando Vila

I always think about the day in the future that China surpasses the United States in GDP. It’s going to be a weird day here. The people who believe in that kind of shit are going to have a total freak-out.

Ana Kasparian

I do have one more question about China, and it has to do with the Left and how they frame US foreign policy toward China. On one hand, you can oppose the United States increasing its antagonistic approach toward China — for instance, selling record numbers of arms to countries like Japan. But on the other hand, we should be real about any wrongdoing by the Chinese government — for example, the treatment of the Uyghur Muslims. Being honest about that doesn’t mean you’re in favor of any type of militaristic action toward China. So how do we sharpen our framing when it comes to these types of issues?

Daniel Bessner

Ana, I completely agree. There’s no reason to be Pollyannaish about the Chinese government: not only because of what it’s doing to the Uyghurs, but also because it’s an oppressive government that basically doesn’t allow for any civil liberties. At the same time, like you said, one has to be able to make those critiques without bolstering the US desire to maintain hegemony in East Asia forever.

The way that I think about it personally is that my voice has more meaning here than it does elsewhere in the world, so I’m primarily thinking as an American — not because I think nationalism is good or the nation-state is great, but because at this historical moment, this is where I’m situated.

So, one of the things I think I could do is help to convince Americans that the fantasies of the United States ruling the globe are just wrong. The United States can’t manage the world. There are things that are going to happen that are not good, and the United States shouldn’t do anything about them, for a variety of reasons.

One is that we’ve proven in the past that when we try to help, we oftentimes make things worse. But perhaps even more important is that if we do have the capacity to “help,” that means the American empire is still incredibly powerful. That means we have an enormous military that is able to do anything it wants around the world.

So I think we need to use our voices as leftists to critique the PRC when it does awful things, while at the same time using our voices as anti-imperialists to say that the United States shouldn’t remain forever dominant in the region, because that is an imperialist policy.

Now, that doesn’t mean leftists should be silent about the Uyghers or shouldn’t build subnational organizations or subnational solidarities that could be used to help oppressed populations. I mean, we live in a gigantic country with a lot of land. Maybe the best policy for the Uyghers would be a blanket refugee resettlement policy, where anyone who wants to flee oppression could come to the United States, be granted an annual salary, be granted land, be granted a job. And that refugee policy could be tied to a jobs program for people who are here already, so you don’t get a spike in xenophobia that we’ve seen in the past.

What I’m saying is we need to think creatively. If we think about the 1910s and ’20s, when electricity became a municipal function and all of these previously private groups like subways were taken over by the local state, that was the result of thirty or forty years of thinking about new types of schemes of governments that would be benefit people.

And I think, as the Left is out of power, it should begin thinking creatively, thinking imaginatively about new ways of approaching the world that could achieve our goals of anti-imperialism, of anti-oppression, and of bringing more democracy to the people. Now is the time for creative thinking.