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Our Choice Is Between Empire Abroad or Democracy at Home

“This choice has been before Americans since the Spanish-American War”

This is one of a series of excerpts from a longer article which originally appeared in Salon under the byline Patrick L. Smith.

The author is a longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker. He is also an essayist, critic and editor.

<figcaption>We came, we saw, people die</figcaption>
We came, we saw, people die

His most recent book is “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013)

I cannot be the only one to note the unusual prominence of foreign policy in the presidential contests now under way. It is more squarely on the table than at any time since the Vietnam war, I would say. This is right. How America has acted in the world since 2001 has been decisive in creating a degree of global disorder that matches any in my lifetime (which grows long). Our conduct in the next decade or so will be at least as consequential, if not more so. Let us grasp this.

For right-thinking people it is a question of recognizing what time it is. Once one does, it should be clear that the questions raised here cannot be overlooked. They are not secondary. They are intimately related to the domestic messes too many of us assume to be primary. To put the point another way, we have a choice now between empire abroad and democracy at home. This choice has been before Americans since the Spanish-American War, sometimes more apparently than at others. With our democratic institutions hollowed out, it now reaches an acute, either/or stage.

Making this choice—making the right one, that is—requires courage, creativity and clear thinking. Courage because we are not conditioned to break with our past but we must. Creativity because we must cultivate in ourselves a new consciousness.In my term, the task is to make ourselves post-exceptionalist. A century ago Henri Bergson gave us an interesting term that now comes to mind. He wrote of élan vital—the spark of life and the dynamism needed to evolve imaginatively. It is what I mean by creativity: the exuberant embrace of change rather than the diffident, befuddled flinch.

Clear thinking, finally, because we must recognize that the time has come to acknowledge our mistakes, failures and associated injustices. As already noted, we will not progress—and never mind “peace and prosperity”– until we enter into this process.

Is it at all necessary to say we need to look beyond Hillary Clinton if we are to take on these dilemmas? And do I have to argue again that I reject all charges of idealism in these thoughts? They are realist to the core, the only plausible way into the 21st century. Idealist it is to think we can go on as we have on the assumption Clinton articulates perfectly, “It has worked for a very long time.”

There are three spheres wherein matters are very concrete as we contemplate what to do in November. Brief reviews of each in closing.

One, I continue to rank our new confrontation with Russia, filled as it is with rancor, purposeful misapprehension and the threat of conflict, as the single most consequential disaster among the Obama administration’s many. This endangers the world, not merely one or another region. Drawing on the Cold War’s persistent legacy, it will take at least a generation to repair the damage—the damage to our minds, not to mention the squandered opportunities for cooperation and mutual gain.

Clinton, during her years as secretary of state, was among the chief authors of this stupidly unnecessary state of affairs. What did she mean when she declared her vaunted “reset” in Washington’s relations with Moscow?

This has been clear to most Russians, if too few Americans, for some while. She meant a return to the pliancy characteristic of the Yeltsin years. She meant that Russians were welcome as a partner—a junior, inferior partner—so long as they accepted American primacy in world affairs, as Yeltsin had, and forwent any ambition to rediscover themselves and what might properly emerge from their own traditions.

When Vladimir Putin refused these conditions, the reset was off, the vituperative abuse, duplicity and betrayals on. In keeping, Clinton has since taken to calling Putin “Hitler” and has done much to urge this ridiculous paranoia on far too many of us.

We need a reset in Russian-American relations, all right—as in urgently, given the danger of conflict conjured of thin air but now as real as it gets. Anyone counting on Clinton to get this done must explain to all in the comment box.

Two, there is the Middle East, and previous columns have covered Clinton’s record sufficiently. Clinton is one among many in this case, but she exerted a major influence on Obama’s decision to mount a coup from the air in Libya and then attempt more or less the same in Syria. That makes two secular governments, however extensive their faults, in a region rather short of them. We should remind ourselves, when considering Clinton’s hostility to Iran, that it is the most democratic nation in the region by magnitudes.

President and Commander-in-Chief HRC with a hand directly on Washington’s Middle East policy? Opposing this is what I mean by “urgent,” too.

Finally, there is Clinton’s position on trade. She is all over the place on this question, but before going any further, a clarification. Free trade and the various trade agreements Clinton has supported over the years are not the same thing. To oppose the latter is not to oppose the former.

Free trade as structured in the interest of whom is the question we need to ask. In the Clinton case, free trade agreements are the instrument by which Washington extends its global domination on the economic side. This takes the form of the neoliberal order, an order that cannot tolerate exceptions. Every time Clinton (or anyone else in Washington, to be fair) bobs and weaves on trade questions, look for the neoliberal within.

Dan Kaufman, a labor writer in Wisconsin, published an excellent opinion piece on the trade question and Clinton’s positions—many and varied—in Sunday’s New York Times. It turns out that her recent opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, after hailing it as “the gold standard” for FTAs, is only one instance of duplicity among many.

My favorite concerns the FTA signed with Colombia in 2011, when Clinton was secretary of state. “I will do everything I can to urge the Congress to reject the Colombia agreement,” Clinton promised a gathering of communications workers at the time. In the releases of Clinton’s emails last year, we learned that she was simultaneously lobbying hard among members of Congress to get the pact passed—assuring them, among other things, that the rights of Colombian workers would equal or exceed those of U.S. workers.

Kaufman concludes this pithy passage thus: “According to Escuela Nacional Sindical, a Colombian labor rights group, 105 union activists have been assassinated since the agreement passed.” This is more than 20 a year on average, which computes to nearly a couple of murders a month.

With the TPP now pending—along with a similar accord across the Atlantic—what happens in the trade sphere during the next presidency will hit home very squarely in many American households. Once again, urgency. Wouldn’t those posing the questions noted at the start of this column like to see someone more given to principle than deceit address the issues certain to arise?

As to the question of who would be the best candidate, we are all free to do as we choose. As we do we define who we are. Forget about labels—Democrat, socialist, democratic socialist, socialist feminist. These mean nothing. Our choices make us, and we must all be prepared to take responsibility for our choices and what we make ourselves when we make them.


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