The Continuity of US Imperial Discourse

President Obama recently gave two speeches that should be seen as signposts of contemporary US empire. Their continuity with American exceptionalist rhetoric of the past is striking, underlining the extent to which Obama is trapped within the paradigms of the past.

The first of these speeches was Obama’s Nobel laureate acceptance address. This speech was notable for invoking Martin Luther King, Jr.’s ringing condemnation of violence during the era of the Vietnam War: “Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones.” President Obama then went on to twist this argument around by invoking the concept of just war. As he summarized it, just war doctrine insures that state violence is only legitimate when it meets three conditions: “if it is waged as a last resort or in self-defense; if the force used is proportional; and if, whenever possible, civilians are spared from violence.”

The problem with Obama’s argument is that just war doctrine cannot support the imperial occupation of Afghanistan that he is currently bent on intensifying. The war in Afghanistan can hardly be said to be in self-defense when the Taliban pose no direct threat to the US and when al-Qaeda has been reduced to a shadow of its former self. The force being deployed in Afghanistan is anything but proportional since the US is the world’s only military super-power and Afghanistan is one of the poorest and weakest countries on the planet. Finally, civilians have NOT been spared the violence of the war. Stephen Walt recently argued that the United States has killed 12,000-32,000 civilians in Afghanistan since the war’s outbreak.  Many of these civilian deaths were caused by drones operated by private contractors.

It seems that there’s an emerging pattern in Obama’s rhetoric. In the Nobel speech, he replayed the tropes he deployed in his celebrated Cairo address: gesture towards universal peace and understanding using lofty rhetoric, then go on to lay out plans for expanding war-making. As Farrah Hassen points out in The Cairo Detour, US policies in these countries, with their high toll of civilian deaths, have increased the risks of blowback against the US rather than winning over Muslim hearts and minds.

We see a similar set of imperial contradictions in Obama’s recent speech at the Copenhagen climate summit. After swooping in to the summit at the eleventh hour, Obama delivered a talk that began by acknowledging the gravity of the global climate crisis and went on to exhort the nations of the world to make radical changes in order to save the planet.  After this uplifting beginning, however, Obama unleashed a thinly veiled attack on China, laying bare the increasing inter-imperial conflict over the right to pollute the atmospheric commons that was woven through the last two weeks of climate brinksmanship. While calling for decisive action, Obama announced no new commitments for reducing emissions beyond the risible 4% goal announced at the onset of the conference, no significant new financing for climate adaptation and clean technology among poor countries, and no intentions to press Congress to pass climate legislation.

The US under Obama thus seems to be operating firmly in the unilateralist groove carved out by the Bush administration. He may be an exceptional man, but he’s working firmly within an exceptionalist tradition.

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Ashley Dawson

Ashley Dawson, a professor of English at the Graduate Center/CUNY and the College of Staten Island, is a scholar of postcolonial studies and a climate justice activist. He is the author of two recent books on topics relating to the environmental issues, Extreme Cities: The Peril and Promise of Urban Life in the Age of Climate Change (Verso, 2017) and Extinction: A Radical History (O/R, 2016), as well as many other books on topics relating to migration, global justice, and cultural struggles. He is currently completing a book on energy democracy and just transition entitled The Energy Common.