How the left became cheerleaders for US imperialism
Figureheads like the Guardian’s George Monbiot have wrecked the left’s ability to think critically, encouraging an analysis of power politics more suited to the playground
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[First published by Mint Press]
One of the biggest problems for the left, as it confronts what seems like humanity’s ever-more precarious relationship with the planet – from the climate emergency to a potential nuclear exchange – is that siren voices keeping luring it towards the rocks of political confusion and self-harm.
And one of the loudest sirens on the British left is the environmental activist George Monbiot.
Monbiot has carved out for himself a figurehead role on the mainstream British left because he is the only big-picture thinker allowed a regular platform in the establishment media: in his case, the liberal Guardian newspaper. It is a spot he covets and one that seems to have come with a big price tag: he is allowed to criticize the corporate elite’s capture of British domestic politics – he occasionally concedes that our political life has been stripped of all democratic content – but only, it seems, because he has become ever less willing to extend that same critique to British foreign policy.
As a result, Monbiot holds as a cherished piety what should be two entirely inconsistent positions: that British and Western elites are pillaging the planet for corporate gain, immune to the catastrophe they are wreaking on the environment and oblivious to the lives they are destroying at home and abroad; and that these same elites are fighting good, humanitarian wars to protect the interests of poor and oppressed peoples overseas, from Syria and Libya to Ukraine, peoples who coincidentally just happen to live in areas of geostrategic significance.
Because of the vice-like corporate hold on Britain’s political priorities, Monbiot avers, nothing the corporate media tells us should be believed – except when those priorities relate to protecting peoples facing down ruthless foreign dictators, from Syria’s Bashar al-Assad to Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Then the media should be believed absolutely.
Monbiot’s embrace of the narratives justifying Washington’s “humanitarian” interventions abroad has been incremental. Back in the late 1990s, while generally supporting the aims of NATO’s war on the former Yugoslavia, he called out its bombing of Serbia as a “dirty war”, highlighting the ecological and economic destruction it entailed. He would also sound the alarm – if ambivalently – over the Iraq war in 2003, and later become a leading proponent of jailing former UK prime minister Tony Blair as a war criminal for his involvement.
But as the ripples from the Iraq war spread to other parts of the Middle East and beyond, often in complicated ways, Monbiot took the good will he had earned among the anti-imperialist left and weaponized it to Washington’s advantage.
By 2007, he was swallowing wholesale the evidence-free narrative crafted in Washington and Tel Aviv that Iran was trying to acquire a nuclear bomb and needed to be stopped. In 2011, he was a reluctant supporter of the West’s campaign to violently depose Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, turning the country into a failed state of slave markets.
In 2017, he legitimized President Trump’s grounds for bombing Syria and minimized the significance of those air strikes, which were a gross violation of international law. Washington’s rationalizations for the attack – based on a claim that President Assad had gassed his own people – started to unravel when whistleblowers from the United Nations’ chemical weapons inspections agency, the OPCW, came forward. They revealed that US intimidation of the OPCW had led to the inspectors’ findings being distorted for political reasons: to put Assad in the frame rather than the more likely culprits of jihadists, who hoped a false-flag gas attack would pressure the West into removing the Syrian leader on their behalf.
Monbiot has staunchly refused to address the testimony of these OPCW whistleblowers, while at the same time implicitly maligning them as being responsible for feeding “conspiracy theories”.
In the case of the Ukraine war, Monbiot has insisted on adherence to the NATO narrative, decrying any dissent as “Westplaining”. Throughout this shift ever more firmly into the imperial NATO camp, Monbiot has besmirched prominent anti-war leftists, from the famed linguist Noam Chomsky to the journalist John Pilger, as “genocide deniers and belittlers”.
If this characterization of his position sounds unfair, watch this short video he recently made for Double Down News. According to Monbiot, the left’s slogan is a simple one: “Whatever the situation around the world is, you side against the oppressor, and with the oppressed. That is the fundamental guiding principle of justice, and that is the principle we on the left should stick with, regardless of the identity of the oppressor and the oppressed.”
As an abstract principle, this one is sound enough. But no one characterizing themselves as speaking for the anti-imperialist left should be using a simple rule of thumb to analyze and dictate foreign policy positions in the highly interconnected, complex and duplicitous world we currently inhabit.
As Monbiot knows only too well, we live in a world – one pillaged by a colonial West to generate unprecedented, short-term economic growth for some, and mire others in permanent poverty – where global resources are rapidly being exhausted, beginning the gradual erosion of Western privilege.
We live in a world where intelligence agencies have developed new technologies to spy on populations on an unprecedented scale, to meddle in other states’ politics, and to subject their own populations to ever more sophisticated propaganda narratives to conceal realities that might undermine their credibility or legitimacy.
We live in a world where transnational corporations – dependent for their success on continued resource plunder – effectively own leading politicians, even governments, through political funding, through control of the think-tanks that develop policy proposals, and through their ownership of the mass media. Here is a recent article by Monbiot explaining just that.
We live in a world where those same corporations are deeply entwined with state institutions in the very war and security industries that, first, sustain and rationalize the plunder and then “protect” our borders from any backlash from those whose resources are being plundered.
And we live in a world where the first shockwaves of climate collapse, combined with these resource wars, are fomenting mass migrations – and an ever greater urgency in Western states to turn themselves into fortresses to defend against a feared stampede.
Zealot for war
Monbiot knows this world only too well because he writes about it in such detail. He has won the hearts of many on the left because he describes so eloquently the capture of domestic politics by a shadowy cabal of Western corporations, politicians and media moguls. But he then concludes that this same psychopathic, planet-destroying cabal can be trusted when it explains – via its reliable mouthpieces in the right-wing press, the BBC and his own Guardian newspaper – what it is doing in Syria, Libya or Ukraine.
And worse, Monbiot lashes out at anyone who dissents, calling them apologists for dictators, or war crimes. And he brings many on the left with him, helping to divide and weaken the anti-war movement.
One might have assumed Monbiot would have entertained a little more doubt in his foreign policy prescriptions over the past decade, if only because they have so squarely chimed with United States and NATO narratives amplified by the establishment media. But not a bit of it. He is a zealot for the West’s wars when they can be presented either as humanitarian or as battling Russian imperialism. (For examples, see here, here and here.)
The problem with Monbiot, as it is with much of the British left, is that he treats the various modern, great-power imperialisms – American, Russian and Chinese – as though they operate in parallel to each other rather than, as they do, constantly intersect and conflict.
To see the world as one in which the US “does imperialism” in Afghanistan and Iraq, while Russia separately “does imperialism” in Syria and Ukraine may be satisfying to anyone with a desperate need to appear even-handed. But it does nothing to advance our understanding of world events.
The interests of great powers inevitably clash. They are fighting over the same finite resources to grow their economies; they are competing over the same key states to turn them into allies; they are waging conflicting narrative battles over the same events. And they are trying – always trying – to diminish or subvert their rivals.
To claim that the war in Ukraine somehow stands outside these great-power intrigues – and that the only justified response is a simple one of cheerleading the oppressed and reviling the oppressor, as Monbiot requires – is beyond preposterous.
To imagine that the UK and wider West are somehow on Ukraine’s side, are sending untold billions in arms even as recession bites, are opposed even to testing the seriousness of Russian offers of peace talks, and are blocking Russian oil even though the results are decimating European economies – and all because it is the right thing to do, or because Putin is a madman bent on world conquest – is to be entirely detached from joined-up thinking.
It is entirely possible, if we engage our critical faculties, to consider far more complex scenarios for which there are no good guys and no easy solutions.
It might – just might – be that Russia is both sinner in Ukraine and sinned against. Or that Ukrainian civilians are victims both of Russian militarism and of more covert US and NATO intrigues. Or that in a country like Ukraine, where a civil war has been raging for at least eight years between far-right (some of them exterminationist) Ukrainian ultra-nationalists and ethnic Russian communities, we would be better jettisoning our narrative premises of a single “Ukraine” or a single Ukrainian will. This kind of simple-mindedness may be obscuring far more than it illuminates.
Pointing this out does not make one a Putin apologist. It simply recognizes the lessons of history: that world events are rarely explicable through one narrative alone; that states have different, conflicting interests and that understanding the nature of those conflicts is the key to resolving them; and that what great powers say they are doing isn’t necessarily what they are actually doing.
And further, that elites – whether Russian, Ukrainian, European or American – usually have their own class-serving set of interests that have little to do with the ordinary populations they supposedly represent.
In such circumstances, Monbiot’s dictum that we must “side against the oppressor, and with the oppressed” starts to sound like nothing more than unhelpful sloganeering. It makes a complex situation that needs complex thinking and sophisticated problem-solving harder to understand and all but impossible to resolve.
Throw nuclear weapons into the mix, and Monbiot the environmentalist is playing games not only with the lives of Ukrainians, but the destruction of conditions for most life on Earth.
Western solipsism of the kind indulged by Monbiot ignores Russian concerns or, worse, subsumes them into a fanciful narrative that a Russian army that is struggling to subjugate Ukraine (assuming that is actually what it is trying to do) intends next to rampage across the rest of Europe.
In truth, Russia has good reasons not only to take an especial interest in what happens in neighboring Ukraine, but to see events there as posing a potential existential threat to it.
Historically, the lands that today we call Ukraine have been the gateway through which invading armies have attacked Russia. Long efforts by Washington, through NATO, to recruit Ukraine into its military fold were never likely to be viewed dispassionately in Moscow.
That was all the more so because Washington has been exploiting Russian vulnerabilities – economic and military – since the collapse of its empire, the Soviet Union, in 1991. The US has done so both by converting former Soviet states into a massively enlarged, unified bloc of NATO members on Russia’s doorstep and by brashly excluding Russia from European security arrangements.
The US moves looked overtly aggressive to Moscow, whether that was the way they were intended or not.
But Russia had good grounds to interpret these actions as hostile: because Washington has been not-so-covertly meddling in Ukraine over the past decade. That included its concealed role in fomenting protests in 2014 that overthrew an elected government in Kyiv sympathetic to Moscow, and its clandestine military role afterwards, in training the Ukrainian army under President Obama and arming it under President Trump, that readied Ukraine for a coming war with Moscow that Washington appeared to be doing everything in its power to make happen.
Then there was the problem of the Crimean Peninsula, hosting Moscow’s only warm-water naval port and viewed as critically important to Russia’s defenses. It had been Russian territory until the 1950s when the then Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev gifted it to Ukraine, at a time when national borders had been made largely redundant within the Soviet empire. The gift was supposed to symbolize the unbreakable bond between Russia and Ukraine. Khrushchev presumably never imagined that Ukraine might one day seek to become a forward base for a NATO openly hostile to Russia.
And of course, Ukraine is not simply a gateway for invaders. It is also Russia’s natural corridor into Europe. It is through Ukraine that Moscow has traditionally exported goods and its energy resources to the rest of Europe. Russia’s opening of the Nord Stream gas pipelines direct to Germany through the Baltic Sea, circumventing Ukraine, was a clear signal that Moscow saw a Kyiv under Washington’s spell as a threat to its vital energy interests.
Notably, those same Nord Stream pipelines were blown up last month after a long series of threats from Washington officials, from President Biden down, that the US would find a way to end Russian gas supplies to Germany.
Russia has been excluded by Germany, Sweden and Denmark – all US allies – from participation in the investigation into those explosions on its energy infrastructure. Even more suspiciously, Sweden is citing“national security” – code for avoiding embarrassing a key ally? – as grounds for refusing to publish findings from the investigations.
So where does all this leave Monbiot’s rule: “Whatever the situation around the world is, you side against the oppressor, and with the oppressed”?
Not only does his axiom fail to acknowledge the complex nature of global conflicts, especially between great powers, in which defining who is the oppressor and who is the oppressed may be no simple matter, but, worse, it disfigures our understanding of international power politics.
Russia and China may be great powers, but they are not – at least, not yet – close to being equal to the US super-power.
Neither can match the many hundreds of US military bases around the world – more than 800 of them. The US outspends both of its rivals many times over on its annual military budget. That means Washington can project lethal power around the globe on a scale unmatched by either Russia or China. The only deterrence either has against the military might of the US is a last-resort nuclear arsenal.
Overwhelming US military supremacy means that, unlike China or Russia, Washington does not need to win over allies with carrots. It can simply threaten, bully or bludgeon – directly or through proxies – any state that refuses to submit to its dictates. That way, it has gained control over most of the planet’s key resources, especially over its fossil fuels.
Similarly, the US enjoys the manifold benefits of having the world’s principal reserve currency, pegging prices – most importantly energy prices – to the dollar. That does not just help reduce the costs of international trade for the US and allow it to borrow money cheaply. It also makes other states and their currencies dependent on the stability of the dollar, as the UK has just found out when the value of the pound plunged against the dollar, threatening to decimate the business sector.
But there are other advantages for the US in dominating global trade and currency markets. Washington is well positioned to impose economic sanctions to isolate and immiserate states that oppose it, as it is doing to Afghanistan and Iran. And its control of the world’s main financial institutions, such as the IMF and World Bank, means they act as little more than enforcers of Washington foreign policy priorities before agreeing to lend money.
Both militarily and economically, the United States molds the world we live in. For those in the West, its grip on our material wellbeing and on our ideological horizons is almost complete. But the American shadow extends much further. All states, including Russia and China, operate within the framework of power relations, global institutions, state interests, and access to resources shaped by the US.
What distinguishes the status of Russia and China as great powers from the status of the US as a solitary super-power is the fact that their role on the international stage is necessarily more reactive and defensive. Neither can afford to antagonize the American behemoth unnecessarily. They must protect their interests, rather than project them as Washington does.
That means neither is likely to start invading neighbors that wish to ally with the US unless they feel existentially important state interests are being threatened by such an alliance. That is why Western narratives claiming to explain Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have to take as their starting points two improbable assumptions: that President Putin is solely responsible for launching the Ukraine war, over the heads of the Russian military; and that Putin himself is mad, evil or a megalomaniac.
To make such a case – the premise of all Western coverage of events in Ukraine – is already to concede that the only rational explanation for Russia invading Ukraine would be its perception that vital Russian interests were at stake – interests so vital that Moscow was prepared to defend them even if it meant incurring the wrath of the mighty American empire.
Instead, Monbiot and much of the left are throwing in their hand with the racist prescriptions of the apologists of US empire: that Washington’s great-power rivals act in ways decried by the US solely because they are irrational and evil.
This is a power-politics analysis of the playground. And yet it passes for neutral reporting and informed commentary in all establishment Western media. Catastrophically, Monbiot has played a crucial part in seeding these destructive ideas – ones that can only lead to intensified conflict and undermine peacemaking – into the anti-war movement.
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Very simple. The Lifestyle Left were offered the whip hand, but they cannot criticize the MIC or question the way the economic pie is sliced without offending their new-found friends.
Note how in the US, the neocons effortlessly shifted allegiances from Team R to Team D and now talk about making war on Iran because gay rights or whatever.
The thing I appreciate most about Jonathan Cook is his hatred of that security state slimeball George Monbiot