In spite of the declining image that is every day being drawn in more detail, world hegemony and the performance of the United States continue to be axial for the global capitalist system – despite the storming of Capitol Hill. We are talking about the highest expression of contemporary imperialism, an actor of amazing influence, whose actions can change everything at any moment. International relations will be conditioned by what the exceptional nation, the global sheriff, the leader of the free world does or does not do. Given the general framework of the capitalist crisis, the development (and consolidation) of diverse autonomous national projects, the advancement of non-imperialist integration processes and the local crisis in the US, what can be expected from the Biden administration? What awaits Latin America?
The last decade in the US has been particularly frantic and 2021 has started tumultuously. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, the unemployment rate reached almost 10%. A traumatic economic and social crisis has been developing since then. A decade later the country is back to those numbers, enhanced by the Covid-19 crisis. However, now it is the whole world that has been affected. Economies are shivering or even crashing. Local priorities in each country are gaining relevance, turning into unpostponable challenges, apparently almost impossible to solve for governments and the ruling classes. Workers and the poor are already paying the costs of the crisis, in the US and around the world. Loss of jobs, falling revenues, and deep-seated poverty are the order of the day. At the same time, the financial system continues to consolidate its primacy, the process of indebtedness of the nation-states continues, and concentration of wealth and power is intensified; all on the basis of a destruction of nature which never ceases.
Unless we buy into the narrative that the god of capital and its cultural power can do everything and will always heal and generate happiness and peace in the world, it is hard to imagine a positive scenario. We are living a severe multidimensional capitalist crisis. This not only includes every country in the world, but also implies crisis situations in the political, economic, cultural, and environmental dimension. Now, the scenario in the US has offered us an astonishing demonstration of this fact.
In 2020 the political and social conflict in the US took shape in social street demonstrations, collective actions and processes of confrontation; in Trump’s belligerence and the deliberate deepening of social, political and cultural differences within American society; in the Trump vs Biden electoral confrontation; in the struggle of the immigrant movements; in the protests and rebellions activated by the Black Lives Matter, and the insinuation or parody of civil war that came from the militias loaded with assault rifles in public demonstrations whose images went viral around the world. These are processes that have not found resolution yet, and therefore must be considered to be in motion, reproducing themselves in time.
As everyone has seen by now, a pro-Trump mob breached Capitol Hill, causing lawmakers to be evacuated after President Trump gave an incendiary speech at the White House saying that the election was stolen, urging people to march on Washington where occasionally there was a crowd gathered to pressure Senate to object to the certified Electoral College count that would make Joe Biden the next president. Several thousands of people arrived from around the country, with no firearms, but well organized and prepared with protection gear, and forced their way into the Chamber taking over the senate chamber. They claimed the steps and walls of the famous building as well. Violent clashes took place both inside and outside the Congress. A woman was shot in the chest and killed inside the building. Astonishing pictures from the senate floor showed striking moments, such as when a man spoke directly from the pulpit. There were other “security breaches” on Capitol before. A group of national Puerto Ricans shot and wounded lawmakers in 1954; two Capitol police agents were shot and killed in July 1998; a woman drove a car into Capitol Hill and was shot and killed by police in 2013. But this one in 2021 is the most significant breach of an American government institution since the Battle of Bladensburg, when the British came and burned the Capitol and the White House on August 24, 1814.
Therefore we should assume the persistence of conflict and understand that manifestations like the ones we have already seen could happen again. What will happen when the police racial oppression rewrites another one of its outstanding chapters? Could the riot between the militias be unleashed or could the street confrontation become more acute? Could new political-cultural expressions emerge? What would be the responses to a new health emergency, a feasible shortage crisis or new external wars?
Biden has promised to resolve many of these issues. Soon it will be possible to see how twisted he is in the promises and illusions deposited or created around his figure, from which electoral and party support was built. A permanent dispute and negotiation has been announced within the ruling classes to establish the course of what is to come. Biden will have Senate support to appoint many of the state’s policies, but everything that found expression in Trump and his adherents will persist in tension, accumulating strength. The settled division in society is also evidenced by the massive amount of votes that went to Trump and the Republicans (10 million more votes than those obtained in 2016), that almost equals the votes obtained by Biden.
It is known that the US has powerful political antibodies as it is the territory of the world’s most powerful economic factors where the stakes are high, but it is not possible to escape from the situation of world crisis, of which Trump was nothing more than an emergent factor, while tensions of all kinds within the capitalist system are far from being diminished, and disappointment and skepticism continue to set in.
The international scene
International relations must be considered from a different approach than national affairs. Logics, temporalities and actors of different nature come into play in a different kind of dispute, putting diverse interests at stake (although intimately linked to national interests and internal politics). Either way, American foreign policy is essentially a coalition affair. Consensus is what has allowed for the development and implementation of the different North American foreign policy doctrines, all of them indispensable in the construction of the US as an imperial power throughout the 20th and 21st centuries.
The President-elect will have enormous sway over international affairs considering his political trajectory, the cabinet nominees (especially for the State Department) and the policies already outlined, and also as a result of his not needing to seek partisan or parliamentary support for every decision.
Biden has spent 40 years in the labyrinths of power in Washington, 36 of them as a senator and 8 as Obama’s vice president. He was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (2001-2003; 2007-2009). During this time the occupation of Afghanistan and Iraq was designed and carried out, the invasion of Libya and the international war against Syria took place; the action of AFRICOM was developed; the continuity of the alliance with the State of Israel and the Saudis; law-fare and soft coups were deployed in Latin America, as well as the continued war against Venezuela. Biden himself was one of the key architects in the implementation of Plan Colombia. Early in his career he openly supported British military aggression in the Malvinas War. He said in 1981 “My resolution seeks to define which side we are on, and that side is the British side. Argentines have to discard the idea that the United States is neutral”.
The proposal of Antony Blinken as Secretary of State also corroborates this projection. He is a man of the diplomatic establishment, representative of those elites that were considered out of play in the Trump era. His diplomatic experience can be traced back to the Clinton administration. He served Obama and advised Biden in senior positions for over two decades (Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and National Security Advisor to the Vice President). This signals the return of the foreign-policy establishment to power.
The other axis of consensus is constituted on the basis of the cross-party policies that have been passed through administration after administration. Biden declared that he will seek to strengthen the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), “the most effective political-military alliance in modern history” as he defined it, especially to counteract Russia. In a recent article Biden said that North Korea, Iran, Syria, Afghanistan, and Venezuela are the top national security issues (“Why America Must Lead Again. Rescuing U.S. Foreign Policy After Trump,” Foreign Affairs magazine, April 2020). China will continue to be considered the main long term threat and Washington will seek to prevent Beijing from becoming the architect of a global recovery, showing less belligerence (Biden doesn’t talk about the “Chinese virus” for example) channeling confrontation in less direct ways (through the human rights scheme, e.g. support for the Hong Kong umbrella revolution), but also rebuilding the legality and institutionalization of the WTO free trade system and a return to the Pivot to Asia strategy. At this level he will try to rebuild the long-overdue Trans-Pacific Agreement (TPP) from which Trump withdrew as one of his first acts in office, although it has always been a cross-party consensus program meant to confront and limit China in its attempt to strengthen and deploy in the region.
US policies toward Venezuela will show no great change from what has been done for more than a decade. Caracas and chavismo are considered a threat to Washington. Elliot Abrams –Trump’s special representative to Venezuela and Iran, stated that there is a consensus among Democrats and Republicans on the need to keep up the pressure. Biden has said that Maduro “is a dictator, plain and simple”, recognized Juan Guaidó as Venezuela’s “legitimate interim president” and said that Maduro should step aside. But he considers that Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign was a chaotic and improvised approach, which failed in the attempt of regime change, produced 3 million refugees and “has taken a wrecking ball to our hemispheric ties” so important to American power. However, he advocates for increased “smart” sanctions on the government and its supporters, and more aid to help Venezuela opposition. We will find continuity in the permanent war against Venezuela also when we understand that maintaining belligerence against this country means influencing important sectors of Latino or immigrant voters in Florida and other states. The case is analogous to that of Cuba. As with Caracas, Washington’s relations with Havana are unlikely to improve substantially.
Related to the Latin American region, only Central America figured on Biden’s foreign policy platform. In 2014, he achieved consensus among Democrats and Republicans to support a plan of interference through investment and assistance, securing $750 million from the federal budget. During his election campaign in 2020 he called for $4 billion over 4 years “to address the factors that motivate immigration from Central America,” aggravated by the pandemic and recent natural disasters, as well as for other issues in other countries of Latin America. With regard to immigration policies, Biden will seek to show the opposite side of Trump’s anti-immigration stance. But the wall did not begin construction in 2017. All the policies and laws that allowed Trump to develop his harsh fight against immigration had continuity through Bush, Clinton and Obama. In fact, Obama expelled more immigrants than any other president, including Trump.
The fundamental objective will be to have control over the balance in North and Central America. Canada (subordinate to the US), Mexico (will continue to be a priority due to the economic and commercial relationship, and the effects on US internal security), the rest of Central America will remain in crisis and object to the north american interference policy. Chile, Ecuador, Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and Colombia, as they have already demonstrated, will align themselves easily, quickly or comfortably with the White House when necessary, if they have not already done so.
Unanimity and the Trump Legacy
In his election platform Biden indicated that Trump ruled “through fear and division” and that his presidential term was “a failure of U.S. global leadership that exacerbates challenges in our own region and makes the people of the United States less safe”. That was the final line of the act that we watched on January 6.
Everybody knows that the post-World War II liberal order is in crisis. Some would say, as Trump did, that this was not only a failure, but a fiasco that enabled America’s enemies empowerment. Others would say, as Biden does, that the liberal order is under attack and at risk of death by what they call rough powers, that is, that liberalism is losing ground to the advance of “illiberalism”. All of them still believe in american exceptionalism. But it’s Biden’s turn now, and he and his people have clearly slipped that they will try to recover, refocus and put into activity the US’ hegemonic scheme, regenerating and revitalizing the global-liberal capitalist system. Are these naive illusions? They believe that US foreign policy can be reset and that it is possible to restore some aspects of the post-World War II order, such as the multilateralism of global institutions (UN, WTO, Human Rights, International Court of Justice). They say that the US doesn’t need to withdraw from places abroad, but greater participation in world affairs, including reinforcing military presence around the globe (e.g., Richard Haass – CFR).
Related to Latina America, new political scenarios will be outlined along with the end of the pandemic. In 2021, the VIII Summit of the Americas will be held in the US while the OAS hopes to get back on the horse, with or without General Secretary Almagro. Control over justice in each country persists as a main obstacle to any popular projects development and consolidation attempts. It is in South America again where tensions will likely grow, where the balance of power may be drastically altered as different popular projects resist. Popular forces in Argentina, Bolivia, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Cuba have recovered or preserved governments, or may do so soon, as in Ecuador where there will be presidential elections in February and despite having banned Rafael Correa as candidate, his political force has a good chance to win. In Brazil, people remain expectant about the deployment that Lula may carry out for the 2022 presidential elections.
Are we witnessing the growth of a spiral of violence? Will the attack on the Capitol mean the end of Trump’s political career? We might consider instead that what happened in Washington was a leap forward led by Trump and the social force he represents, one final push on the tendencies of fracture to consolidate themselves as a disruptive political force, feeding destabilization, shaping a terrain where it seems they move comfortably. With this maneuver, at the dawn of Trump’s departure from the White House, along with the attempts to classify him as the worst president in the country’s history (as already indicated by the leader of the Democratic Senators Jack Shcumer), one could expect Trump’s fracture with the Republican party as an attempt of differentiating himself from the existing and institutionalized political expressions. Trump is now definitely identified with radical, disruptive, massive and audacious collective action and social actors. He seems to be trying to consolidate an endemic illiberal experience (as liberal analysts call them) and to make it persist and reproduce in time and space.