For me, the most depressing aspect of the past US presidential campaign was the final debate between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney. After months of trying to create stark contrasts between them, and trying to incite people to vote for them and not think of them as just being two slightly different flavors of the same soda, the façade fell fast and in an almost embarrassing fashion when the President and his challenger appeared to not only share the same talking points on foreign policy, but possibly share the same brain entirely. They looked more like long lost twins who had just found each other, rather than two distinct sides of the American ideological spectrum.
This benefited Obama significantly, because Romney could not make the case that he offered something new in terms of how the US relates to the rest of the world. As a result the incumbency of Obama made him appear to be more solid, made it seem like the ideas they both supported belonged to him and Romney was a creeping opportunist.
But even if the Republicans hadn’t grudgingly chosen Romney as their candidate, they would have still faced a similar problem on foreign policy. Other than the desire of some Republicans to go to war with Iran or shout to the heavens that Israel can do anything it wants to, there are no real differences. All presidential candidates believe that the United States is the greatest country and the world and as a result should be allowed to do whatever it wants to the rest of the world. Republicans may be much more vocal about this, and blazon it the way they would the head of an animal they have mounted on their wall. But Democrats are not very different. They may emphasize working together and cooperation, but at the end of the day still believe that the United States should be allowed to act unilaterally when it feels like it.
The only Republican candidate who diverged from this script in the last election was Congressman Ron Paul. When asked to sum himself up in a single word he chose “consistent.” In some ways he is the most ideologically consistent Republican in recent memory. He takes positions that are very unpopular with his party in its current form, but may have been standard in previous incarnations. One of the ways he diverges greatly from his party is in terms of foreign policy. While every candidate hopes to find a dozen ways of trying to make American unilateralism and exceptionalism sound less imperial, Paul offered a simple, practical proposal. He argued that US should base its foreign policy on the golden rule, don’t do to others what we don’t want done to us.
For your average nation this is sound advice, since they most likely don’t have any grand world scheming designs. But for an empire such a thing is heresy. While it is something so obvious, it is also something most agree you should never take seriously. The simplicity is something that cannot and shouldn’t not be accommodated in such a complicated world.
The US has bases and troops in how many countries around the world? How many other countries have overseas bases? The US has bases designed to box in those it sees as potential threats. How would people in the US feel if those same threats decided to open up bases ringing the world in order to box them in? The US is using drones in increased frequency to target those they say are their enemies and on their hit lists. The number of countries the drones operate in is increasing as well. How would people in the US feel is China decided to start flying drones over Washington D.C. and started to bomb people in their homes or at weddings because they were the enemies of China?
Since World War II the US has worked tirelessly to try and rig the game of political winners and losers around the world. They haven’t always been successful, but when they have, terrible things have happened to people. How would people in the US feel if they found out that other countries were assassinating American leaders? Rigging elections? Funneling weapons and money into dissidents? You might argue that in the case of those fighting for freedom and liberation it is important to support them, but if you look on a case-by-case basis how many examples of America interfering with the politics of other nations have been altruistic? How many led to the emergence of leaders who were more loyal to US strategic interests and corporate interests then their own people?
This American exceptionalism is not only widely accepted, but many in the US believe it to be necessary. Through imperial eyes they feel it necessary that there be a different set of rules for the US, since it is more important than anyone else. Even if this is never spoken of directly, it is still implicit. Every empire and imperial master has made the same argument, the world works because they are on top. If they were to fall, if they are to be less powerful than they already are, the world will surely crumble and chaos will reign.
Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in their books “Empire” and “Multitude” write about how the human race is driven by two impulses. For those not wanting to delve into the postmodern political philosophical explanation for this, remember that high philosophical concepts always have kitsch versions of themselves. For example it is possible to explain general parts of their thesis through the never-ending climax to the manga Naruto. The bad guys, Tobi (who has been revealed as Uchiha Obito) and Madara Uchiha are fighting a way to collect all the energy of the 9 tailed beasts in order to awaken the 10 ten tailed beast through whom they will cast the ultimate spell upon the world. This spell will place everyone in the gaze of the caster and this is how they will force peace upon the war-ravaged ninja world. Naruto and the ninja-samurai alliance seek to create peace not through this sort of all encompassing domination, but through the creation of new friendships and through understanding and seeing differences as marginal compared to the bonds that people share.
These are the two dynamics that we see at war in Naruto nowadays, and they are also at work in Hardt and Negri. One of them sees security through the eyes of dominating and controlling. This is what they term Empire, where it sees existence as a fight to clamp down and restrict. Peace is forced through war and maintained through war. For the other they use the term “Multitude” as a horizontal force and being. It pulses with life and creativity and seeks to tear down barriers and establish new commonalities, connections and communities. They constantly do battle and challenge each other, one side believing the other to be idealistic and too trusting, the other side arguing that you cannot force things such as peace or order through violence and war.