This post is about the one thing Barack Obama and Donald Trump have in common. It is a very significant thing.
At around 100 BC, it became evident to the Roman elite that its old, remarkably successful Republic was threatened by its own success: Roman power was growing so much that some Romans were setting up competing power centers in the new provinces.
Something had to be done, but little was eventually done: over the coming decades, the likes of Marius, Sulla, Crassus, Caesar, Pompey and Mark Antony used their provincial armies and revenue sources to undermine and eventually destroy the Republic, which gave way to the Empire.
By the reign of Tiberius, Augustus’ successor, there was no real dichotomy between “Rome” or even “Italy” and the provinces: all was ruled by the emperor. For centuries, Italy was merely a stellar source of revenue, to be squeezed for all it was worth, until it was left as mere shell of itself by the early Middle Ages.
Rome had this window of opportunity in which it had a Republic; it had a tax base that sustained its army and administrative apparatus and provided rank-and-file soldiers for its armies (the Republic and its Italic lands) and then it had an empire, something else, somewhat diffuse, that it was slowly acquiring. Republic and Empire coexisted, very uneasily, until the Empire ate the Republic.
I don’t think it’s a very controversial statement to say that the U.S. is currently in a similar phase. Those who have any doubts about the staggering scale of the empire already, as it is, can look at multiple evidence, or just at this:
The final transition from Republic to Empire would be perhaps seamless but still very meaningful for the U.S. or any other country, as it was for Rome. I love this old quote (2005!) from Jerry Pournelle’s blog, about the fundamental differences between Republic and Empire:
“A republic trusts its citizenry even though some will prove to be traitors and others will prove to be deceived. An empire trusts its paid experts to do the right thing, and is reluctant to involve the citizens in matters of importance. The empire must also believe that more good than harm will come from trusting paid experts: that the experts will not form turf-warring fiefdoms and cover up their mistakes.”
However, just like Rome during the first century B.C., the U.S. has a window of opportunity. Barack Obama tried to take advantage of this to roll back the Empire and protect the Republic, at least early in his mandate, and made some inroads. I will explain.
During Obama’s 2009-2017 presidential terms, I worked for the Wall Street Journal and later, at the very last stretch, for Bloomberg News. I wrote a lot about the intersection between macroeconomics and politics, mostly in Europe and Asia, but sometimes also in the U.S. In fact, I found it most intriguing in the U.S., since much of what happened there was later reflected elsewhere.
One clear example of that was the U.S.’ drive to pull out of the 2008 recession through government spending, a Keynesian response that was to be expected in a Democratic president and that Obama took on with gusto. To the exasperation of Republicans and Republican-leaning thinkers such as Niall Ferguson, the U.S. ran huge budget deficits based on one proviso: a massive extension of what they call “entitlements” in the U.S., and “social spending” elsewhere.
This is a very complex economic issue that drove an extremely contentious public debate between Ferguson and Nobel Prize-winner Paul Krugman, and left billions of pages worth of debate on its wake. Like any other economic issue, it hasn’t been solved. But the crux of it is: to boost spending, Obama didn’t increase the military budget as a percentage of GDP, as the Republicans urged, but instead he relied on higher non-discretionary spending: the “entitlements.”
U.S. budget policy is also suitably complex, as befits a Republic founded in the late 18th century, but it may be quickly summarized thus: the government has non-discretionary spending, that is spending commitments, over which it has no control; much of it is federal salaries and the like, with a big chunk of it (the rising chunk in recent decades and especially under Obama and, arguably, other Democratic presidents like Bill Clinton) is subsidies, health and pension benefits, etc.
Apart from this, the U.S. government has discretionary spending: the remaining amount of money, that it can spend however it wishes. Under Obama, the rise in the non-discretionary spending led to a logical contraction in the room for discretionary spending, particularly as the Obama administration slowly inched its way toward balancing the budget, following extraordinary budget deficits in its early years.
(Here one can find a lot of this budget data, with footnotes pointing to primary sources; if you think that prestige media doesn’t use Wikipedia, you’re really, endearingly naive)
U.S. military spending is discretionary. Under Obama, it remained roughly stable as a percentage of GDP, even as non-discretionary spending surged, because the Obama administration charted a path that any other U.S. government of the future will have to follow: if you want to keep military spending at or higher than current levels (as a percentage of GDP) the only way to do it is to contract all non-military discretionary spending.
This, in a nutshell, was Obama’s anti-imperial policy: cautious as the man himself is (except on issues of race and immigration), fearful of ruffling any feathers among the powerful military-industrial complex, not very effective, but sowing the seeds of future trouble for the D.C. imperialists. Because, at some point, political calculations may make it hard to justify that military spending is the lion’s share of discretionary spending, when the “support the troops” rhetoric abates in the U.S. Remember: non-discretionary spending is practically set in stone for future administrations.
Neocons, the strongest imperialist faction over the last two decades, saw right through Obama’s trickery, of course. You can see typical right-wing criticism of Obama’s military spending policy here and marvel at how well-connected those guys are: the writer who signed this piece is a usual neocon suspect from the Foreign Policy Initiative, a now defunct think tank launched by pro-Likud types: the FPI’s Board of Directors consisted of former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Eric S. Edelman, Dan Senor, Editor of The Weekly Standard William Kristol and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Robert Kagan. The latter two were project directors of the uber-neocon Project for the New American Century.
Now, I just don’t know how controversial it is to suggest that perhaps Donald Trump is following up on Obama’s early footsteps (*). Trump is the one prominent, powerful American politician left that is dead-set against the American Empire.
Trump himself is saying so. It wasn’t that long ago that he described himself as a “nationalist,” explicitly contrasting his use of the term with that of “globalist.”
I have no secret information about what’s going on in Trump’s mind. I just believe that, if you think about it, a hostility to imperial policies and the wider overseas empire explains much of what Trump is doing. In fact, it explains almost all of Trump’s political framework (I was tempted to write “philosophy”), insofar as there is one.
This is not to say that the American empire (or, if you prefer, “America being the sole superpower”) is an evil thing by itself. I was very much in favor of the Americans winning the Cold War against the Soviets: now, the Soviets’ was an evil empire if I saw one. If one thinks capitalist globalization has been, overall, a good thing for mankind, then you must praise the American hegemon, its main driver and protector.
I don’t think that Obama would describe himself as a “nationalist” in a million years; if pressed, he would probably say that keeping the military budget under some sort of check is a good thing for America. This is, after all, the man who grew infuriated with the military trick of presenting three courses of action for every possible geopolitical problem — two of which are self-evidently absurd, and the third of which is the military’s own, never cheap, preferred alternative.
Trump is not giving any sign of following this course. Actually, his very first budget as president was notorious for massive increases in military spending, that he boasted of many times.
Obama cut down on intelligence budgets, key to imperial ambitions at a time when the U.S. special operations teams rarely spend a single day of the year without shooting at somebody, someplace in the world, for some reason; Trump has made them soar.
Now, I’m not trying to make the case that Obama disliked the American Empire more than Trump. I just don’t know. I just believe that the last two American presidents, coming from opposite directions, came to a conclusion similar to that famously expressed by Dwight Eisenhower in his “military-industrial complex” address. Obama acted on this belief, and Trump too, in his fashion.
Trump’s fashion is, to many, distasteful, and deplorable. Trump has a myriad enemies, particularly inside his own administration: Empire is a very profitable industry, indeed, for Washington D.C./Silicon Valley types who can shuttle between Big Military, Big Tech, the surveillance state, large Internet corporations who make profits by gaining access to overseas markets, forcing foreign countries to adapt to the U.S. strict copyright rules, in exchange for the U.S. allowing cheaper goods from developing countries flood its own (that’s the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal that Trump killed off early on in a nutshell).
And we haven’t really got it into the huge lobbying-for-foreigners industry, where almost all of the previous types can find meaningful employment, or the U.S.-connections-for-hire industry, where the deal similar, but you just have to move to Tokyo or Dubai or Singapore.
I started off this post by comparing the U.S. to the Roman Empire: a tired comparison, but one that is often illuminating. In Rome, around 100 BC, there as a Trump type: an egotistic, somewhat-blue-blooded, often indebted or bankrupt flamboyant womanizer who at one time decided, because of moral or political or self-interested reasons, that he would become the populist voice of the oft-forgotten, over-taxed populace of the Roman heartland who got killed in the foreign wars, who were displaced from their lands by foreign immigration (mostly slaves) imported by the senatorial class to work in their massive landholdings.
This man was named Lucius Sergius Catilina, known in English as Catiline. He was defeated by Cicero, the famous Roman politician and philosopher, and became a footnote to history. The Roman Empire endured in the West over five centuries after Catiline’s controversial rebellion, and a further thousand years in the East. (**)
Perhaps, many of those who criticize Trump for nationalistic reasons should stop to think that, deep down, they should have criticized Obama (at least first-term Obama) (***) somewhat more than they did.
( * Michel Houellebecq, the perceptive and controversial French novelist, has a similar view, as seen here: “Enormous progress was made under Obama. Maybe he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize a little too soon; but as far as I’m concerned, he truly earned it later, on the day when he refused to back Francois Hollande’s proposed attack on Syria. Obama’s attempts at racial reconciliation were less successful, and I don’t know your country well enough to understand exactly why; all I can do is regret the fact. But at the very least, Obama can be congratulated for not adding Syria to the long list (Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, and others I’m no doubt forgetting) of Muslim lands where the West has committed atrocities. Trump is pursuing and amplifying the policy of disengagement initiated by Obama; this is very good news for the rest of the world.”)
(**Speaking of tired comparisons between the U.S. and the Roman Empire, this post has one that is somewhat intriguing: the author thinks Trump is Theodosius, rather than Catiline.)
(*** Since I’ve compared Trump with Catilina, let me offer a historical comparison for Obama: Ulysses S. Grant. One of the most famous lines in Ulysses S. Grant’s memoirs concerns the Mexican-American War, as a recent Bloomberg News story pointed out. Grant, who fought in the war, called it “one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” He also said he had been “bitterly opposed” to the annexation of Texas. Henry David Thoreau was also against the war, and his opposition to it and to slavery—issues that were inseparable for him—motivated his essay “Civil Disobedience.” The Mexican War sparked, as the historian Amy Greenberg has shown, the first antiwar movement in the U.S. The Whig party opposed the war: especially because they viewed it as advantageous to the Southern slave power (Something similar with Texas’ annexation). But, once in office, Grant started to see the imperialist point of view much clearer: as U.S. president, perhaps his biggest disappointment was his inability to annex the Dominican Republic to the U.S., a project in which he spent much time and effort, as a way to secure a stronger military footprint for the U.S. in the Caribbean.)