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Liberals Don’t Understand the American Empire

The Trump presidency briefly made liberals critics of US actions around the world – but now he’s gone, they’re back to believing America is the solution to the destruction it creates.

Soldiers from the US Army's 3rd Brigade Combat Team salute during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner at Fort Knox in 2014. Credit: Luke Sharrett / Getty Images

Ben Rhodes graduated from New York University in 2002 with a masters degree in creative writing, before moving to Washington DC ‘to be part of the nation’s response’ to 9/11. Soon after, he became speechwriter for the vice-chair of the 9/11 commission, and later found his way onto Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign.

Rhodes then spent eight years in the White House as Obama’s deputy national security advisor, a period chronicled in his 2018 memoir The World As It Is (memorably nominated by Perry Anderson as an archetypal ‘spin-doctorate of the equerry’). Though he was formally a strategic communications adviser, Rhodes enjoyed a much wider political brief in practice, which included leading the administration’s negotiations with Cuba.

These days, Rhodes lives in Southern California, and co-hosts the tellingly titled podcast Pod Save the World, part of a successful media company founded in 2017 by a trio of fellow Obama speechwriters and ‘strategic communications’ cadres. He remains close to Obama, and rarely ventures the slightest criticism of his boss, mention of whom tends to be cringe-worthily hagiographical.

After the Fall, Rhodes’ new auto-ethnographic memoir, is at once a chronicle of his post-White House travels and a deeply personal reckoning with the end of the American century. In 1983, Rhodes tells us in the new book, he sat on his father’s shoulders and looked out at the Brooklyn Bridge. Even then, as a young child, he sensed that the famous structure ‘was tied up with the idea of America: We do big things.’ This infantile American righteousness was compounded by one of his earliest political memories: seeing images of Boris Yeltsin stood atop a tank, ‘taking a stand for democracy’, Rhodes knew that ‘the world was full of good guys who would inexorably vanquish the bad guys on behalf of freedom.’

In time, Rhodes has come to see that there is nothing inexorable about the triumph of freedom, and that the big things America does can be big bad things. Indeed, After the Fall is structured by a surprisingly trenchant assessment of the impact of post-1989 American hegemony on the world. Surveying the global ascendance of nationalist authoritarianism and pondering its causes, Rhodes indicts Washington on account of three of its chief exports: unrestrained market capitalism, militarist aggression blending into a globalised war on terror, and the dark side of digital technologies.

Our world—one in which Orban, Putin, Xi Jinping, and, of course, Trump, can thrive—is the world America made. The three excesses of the unipolar moment, in Rhodes’ telling, undermined American global leadership by aiding the rise of its enemies, and then boomeranged to imperil the republic itself. If this all seems rather unexpected from an inner-sanctum Obama loyalist, Rhodes attempts to square the circle between his youthful chauvinism and this newfound critique in two ways.

First, Rhodes strains to exempt the particular executioner-in-chief to whom he owes his career from all responsibility for the ruinous effects of American hegemony. Sure, Obama failed to fundamentally tackle the unequal American economy, the war on terror and its logics, and the social media disinformation machine, but what could he have done? Rhodes finds ‘it hard to see what [we] could have done to achieve fundamental change’. Second, and most importantly, Rhodes is interested in Washington’s failings and ‘missteps’ not so much as ills in themselves, but more for the historic opportunity they offer for a kind of enlightened imperial renewal.

America might have brought us to this impasse, but America can fix it. Bad things America does can simply serve as a reminder of its great promise. America, he declares, ‘has an opportunity to step back into history as a nation with a new understanding of how to improve upon the world we made.’ For Rhodes, that is, the redemption and renewal of the American empire (his preferred term) and that of the world can—must—be one and the same. In his rendering, then, America’s exceptionalism lies not in an arc of triumph but in the ‘struggle to better ourselves, to right… historical wrongs.’ Such redemption is personal for Rhodes: in moments during the Trump years, he looks ‘at the flag that once stirred such emotion inside me and feel[s] absolutely nothing.’ Imperium redux, just to feel something.

Much of After the Fall consists of Rhodes’ interviews with Hungarian, Russian, and Hong Kong dissidents and protestors. His cast of characters ranges from Alexei Navalny and Zhanna Nemtsova (Boris Nemtsov’s daughter) to the Hungarian activist Sandor Lederer, various NGO leaders, and a range of pseudonymous young Hong Kong protestors. In places, Rhodes’ narration of post-Cold War history is surprisingly passable. He argues, for instance, that Orban has profited from ‘resentment of two fundamental pillars of the post-Cold War American order: the unequal wealth creation of open markets, and the unchecked excesses of American military power.’ Detailing the ways in which Bush’s war on terror quickly became an exemplar for hyper-securitised, authoritarian politics globally, Rhodes is at his sharpest politically.

These snippets point to the best that can be said for Rhodes: he exemplifies a partial reckoning by some liberal would-be intellectuals with the horrors wrought by American hegemony, especially in the wake of 9/11. Comparable honesty and introspection from his equivalents in Britain, many of whom still worship George W. Bush’s lapdog and his hangers-on, is hard to imagine.

Rhodes’ case for the Americanisation (absent liberal democratisation) of Russia, China, and Hungary in the past three decades is interesting if not wholly convincing. But his confused account of the boomerang, the supposed Russianisation of America, risks undermining the integrity of the narrative. Rhodes lazily casts Trump as a fascist and an autocrat, declaring, without realising the dissonance, his fascism and authoritarianism to have been ‘incompetent’, ‘disinterested’, and ‘incapable of any collective action’.

Straining credulity further, he claims that Hungary post-2008 is a ‘mirror image of what has happened’ in the US, and that, listening to a Russian opposition politician, he finds it ‘impossible to distinguish between Russia and America.’ This thoughtless flattening is bad enough, but when it comes to Putin, Rhodes dispenses with the veneer of analysis altogether and descends into liberal hysterics. In doing so, he derails the argument entirely. ‘My mental state,’ he writes, ‘was one tiny front in a war that Putin had been waging since Beslan, [through which he has] projected back onto America what he found ugly about us and in turn shaped us into something that bore a closer resemblance to his view of the world.’ It was the Russians, after all.

When it comes to grand strategy for the American empire in a multipolar world, Rhodes is too conflicted to offer workable proposals. He aspires to be a realist, sensibly defending parts of Obama’s foreign policy like the Iran nuclear deal and the decision not to invade Syria, and saying he sees the logic of prioritising climate action over human rights in dealings with China. Rhodes even denounces the ‘fallacy of control’. Yet he is wholly seduced by the mythologies of ‘liberal order’, describing the post-war period, in a phrase borrowed from a British financier friend, as an ‘elongated cycle of reason.’

In service of this fiction, Rhodes quietly elides America’s post-war crimes, more honest accounts of which can be found in the manifestos of neo-conservative intellectual Robert Kagan. There is an emergent coalition, in the world of Washington foreign policy making, between anti-imperialist internationalists and classical realists in favour of restraint and an abandonment of the project of global military dominance. But Rhodes appears content to ruminate on his confusion, and dismisses such propositions as ‘reflexive leftism’.

If there is one thing that marks After the Fall out as the work of an Obama acolyte, it is Rhodes’ fondness for banalities dressed up in sweeping, world-historical rhetoric. Obama’s reflex, Corey Robin pointed out in a 2019 essay reviewing the White House memoirs of his staffers (including Rhodes’), was for ‘unapologetic avowals of smallness’, sometimes expressed in a ‘register of grandness’. Towards the end of the book, Rhodes describes a February 2020 visit to Obama’s post-presidency office in Washington. A big American flag adorns the waiting room; ‘squint at the fine print’, we are smugly told, and you will see it was carried on the operation that killed Bin Laden. Then, Obama recounts a conversation with a school friend who feels his life is joyous and has meaning when he lights the grill to cook dinner after work. ‘You see, politics has to lead people to that moment, to that feeling.’

Rhodes concurs. Walking out onto a Washington street, Rhodes sizes up the ‘blend of faces’ in the crowd and remarks to us: ‘A grand experiment in self-determination still unfolding.’ This before the completion of his daughter’s United States map jigsaw is held up as a parable for national unity and togetherness. Full circle back to the world-historical banalities of Brooklyn Bridge and the moral certainty of Yeltsin atop the tank. Recalling Obama sat next to the Queen of England at D-Day commemorations in 2014, Rhodes declares the sight to have been ‘a reminder that despite all the mistakes and hypocrisy and corruption, we were still the good guys.’

Rhodes has nobler intentions and better political instincts than many of his peers in Washington, but escape from the trappings of either the ideology of American exceptionalism or the prose-style of creative writing grad school remains elusive. If he can advance beyond either, future contributions might be of more than passing interest.