Beyond  /  Q&A

Reviving the Language of Empire

On revisiting the anti-imperialism of the 1960s and ’70s amid the return of left internationalism.

NCB: The protests of the past few months constitute the most significant wave of explicitly anti-imperial political action to occur in the US since the ’60s and ’70s. What’s the meaning of this return of an overtly internationalist posture on the US left? And can we talk a little bit about what you see as the resonances with, and perhaps also the divergences from, that ’60s political moment?

AR: A striking feature of the current protests is their explicit internationalism—their refusal to treat foreign matters as disconnected from domestic injustices. Such internationalism recognizes the shaping role of American global primacy both at home and abroad, and the reality that meaningful internal change cannot occur without comparable external shifts. Indeed, a clear resonance between this moment and the late ’60s and early ’70s is the way in which foreign policy—in the context of Vietnam then, and in the context of Israel/Palestine now—is being understood and experienced as a part of domestic politics. That classic imperial cleavage, in which foreign policy is supervised by political elites while domestic politics is the stuff that people wrangle and fight over, has broken down.

During Vietnam, that divide broke down in large part because of the draft. The lesson for politicians, reaffirmed after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, was that you can maintain popular disconnect from foreign policy as long as there are no American soldiers on the ground. What’s striking about this moment is that even without American soldiers in Gaza, many young people and activists understand the US as a direct participant. They see the Israeli government’s extreme violence both as tied to American overseas power—given the US’s seemingly unlimited military support—and as continuous with domestic American histories of segregation and dispossession. In this way, today’s revival of the colonial frame—a product of many things, including the Movement for Black Lives, years of work by Palestine advocates, the knowledge production of a changing American academy, and, of course, the US’s approach to Gaza—is notably resonant with the ’60s activist experience of both Vietnam and civil rights protests.

That resonance points toward a possible lesson to be learned from the story of the ’60s and ’70s, about how the opposition to Vietnam was contained as opposition to the war, not to the Cold War itself. With the end of the draft and the drawdown of US involvement, there was a rapid dissipation of energy around the issue. One could similarly imagine that the anti-war politics we’re seeing in this moment would dissipate as the extremity of the violence recedes, so that the issue transforms once again into a matter of foreign policy rather than domestic concern. It remains an open question, as a strategic matter, whether this will become a lasting issue—one that incorporates anti-war energy, for instance, around the question of ceasefire, but is not wholly subsumed by that frame.