by Ed Harvey
Like most in Britain, I am strangely captivated by American politics—the energy, idealism, and marble colonnades that are at once so near and yet so far from us. To that end, I turned on my TV on the 6th January expecting a bellicose, partisan affair that would end in the comforting formality of procedure and duty. Instead, I sat mouth agog, fixated in morbid fascination at the insurrection happening throughout the Capitol.
Many comment pages have devoted copious column inches to why this happened. For some, it was clearly Trump, with his Svengali-like hold on over his followers, urging them to go to the Capitol and inspire the Republicans with boldness (or, more accurately, violence). For others, this individual-centred narrative has a certain paucity to it by letting off all Trump’s enablers, both within and outside of the GOP, who rightfully deserve to be excoriated. Some see most merit in structural racism and white supremacy. All these explanations tell shards of the story, yet all neglect the lurking under-appreciated factor: America’s highly militarised liberal internationalist foreign policy that has come to dominate their approach in one guise or another since the end of the Cold War.
Liberal internationalism combines the high-minded idealism of Wilsonian principles with a willingness to use force and have a forward military posture. This article is not a debate of its merits but an appreciation of the reverberations it has cast for America’s democracy. It is crucial to scrutinise this factor as Biden prepares to take the helm this week with a cast of Obama-era stalwarts receptive to liberal internationalist policy. Tallyrand once remarked that the Bourbons “learned nothing” following their 1815 restoration. It would seem that Biden’s band of Blinken, Power, and Sullivan’s remedy for America’s current democratic malaise is to recreate the conditions that fermented it.
America’s original horizon-less conflict in Vietnam strengthened and crystallised the white power movement. As work by Kathleen Belew elucidates, America’s prosecution of the Vietnam War left a raft of young men with specialist military training disenfranchised and desensitised, feeling betrayed by their government and willing to use violence to achieve their aims. This is not to suggest that Vietnam made America more racist, but that the conflict created the perfect conditions for the white power movement to coalesce and consolidate, as well as making American society more receptive to violence. Indeed, Americans now increasingly believe that political violence is justified. The original white power groups— Klansmen, neo-Nazis, and white separatists—united under a common banner as a direct result of America’s war in Vietnam. Importantly, these groups are the forerunners of the Proud Boys and the Three Percenters—active supporters of Trump and present at the Capitol. Today’s alt-right are buoyed and strengthened by America’s foreign policy.
Similarly, overt militarisation has seeped into and corroded America’s culture and body politic. Perpetual engagement in violence throughout the periphery has caused a glorification of military, overly-macho culture. This is not condemnable in itself but does create a problem of incubating fascist tendencies. A cursory glance at the insurrectionists at the Capitol reveals a panoply of militarism: tactical jackets, camouflage, cable ties, and the obligatory guns. It is a culture that fetishises violence, driven by a continuous background noise of war that is now normalised as part of everyday life. Many attendees at the Capitol insurrection believed that this was the noble cause they’ve been searching for. To them, Trump embodied that cause.
The violent engagement that liberal internationalism prescribed has also punctuated America’s domestic policing, as counter-insurgency language and operations abroad are increasingly operated at home.
America’s relentless use of the military abroad also stifles the space for democratic oxygen domestically. In the 1950s, Eisenhower warned the “military industrial complex” threatened democracy at home, and in the 1960s, Vietnam derailed Johnson’s “Great Society.” Before the emergence of COVID-19, America’s defence budget was the main justification for a ballooning deficit and the sole toehold of bipartisan agreement in DC. Consequently, America cannot properly invest in the projects it needs to tackle rabid anti-democratic sentiments and prevent people from becoming prone to right-wing radicalisation. US foreign policy decisions mean that America is starved of the very policies that consolidate democratic societies: job creation, poverty alleviation, and education, education, education. While we do not know the proportion of insurrectionists radicalised through economic misfortune, economic woe has always been a friend of extremism. Simply, America chose guns, not butter.
In the aftermath of the Capitol’s storming, GOP Congressman Mike Gallagher remarked that he had not seen anything like this since his deployment in Iraq. Rather, the events of 6th January happened as a result of America’s deployment in Iraq and global military posture. These policies have damaged democracy at home, starving it of the funds it needs to thrive, depriving the attention of policymakers at a critical point, and radicalising a generation to believe in the value of violence and the merits of fascism. Writers as varied as Edmund Burke and Pankaj Mishra have pinpointed how turmoil at home has roots in the violence and the erosion of morality abroad.
The events of the 6th January will be a stain on US democracy for some time to come. But they can also serve as an epiphany of the repercussions of America’s liberal internationalist foreign policy. This makes Biden’s foreign policy priorities all the more important. With a summit of global democracies planned, Biden would be right to recognise the foreign policy roots of challenges to America’s democracy; otherwise, the 6th January may be the starter pistol for a new, more unsettling chapter of American politics.
Ed Harvey is a history and politics teacher based in Birmingham, England. Despite being some years removed from his international relations degree, he still carries a candle for global politics and believes that, in order to understand it, we must look to history.