Is the United States a Global Representative for Democracy and Peace?

The United States is sending $40 billion in aid to Ukraine, an expensive gesture in support of a country struggling to defend its sovereignty against an oppressor nation. Since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, supporting Ukraine has been framed as a matter of upholding American principles like liberty and democracy: “America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” (“Remarks by President Biden on Russia’s Unprovoked and Unjustified Attack on Ukraine” Feb 24, 2022). This rhetoric has won both popular and bipartisan political support for US intervention in the conflict, not to mention this most recent staggering aid package.

This seemingly progressive policy of supporting a smaller nation in its struggle for territorial defense and self-determination is a strategic move on the part of an imperialist power like the United States. Outwardly dressed up as a matter of principle, this tactic is employed selectively when a national movement can be instrumentalized for the dominant power’s own political and economic gain. Because, while not directly a matter of seizing territory, the United States’ interests in Ukraine are not all that different from Russia’s. This war is a proxy battle between two imperialist camps over global spheres of influence. Should Russia succeed in subjugating Ukraine, the economic and political dominance of the Western bloc of NATO powers will be significantly weakened, so the US cannot afford to leave Ukraine to fend for itself. This explains why Ukraine has become the top recipient of military aid from the United States. In February, the Biden administration responded swiftly to Putin’s invasion by sending $350 million in weapons and other military equipment to Ukraine and imposing economic sanctions that aimed to cripple the Russian economy and disrupt supply chains – freezing assets, blocking access to the SWIFT international payment system, imposing travel bans, and limiting their ability to participate in the global economy. Nancy Pelosi proudly endorsed the latest aid package in a speech before Congress, “It’s about democracy versus a dictatorship. Democracy must prevail.”

But when upholding the right to national self-determination is no longer beneficial or convenient, imperialist powers quickly abandon these principles (and withdraw their checkbooks). Take the Solomon Islands, for example: the US recently threatened military action against their ally in the Pacific in reaction to a security agreement that would allow China to establish a military presence on their territory. The assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, Daniel Kritenbrink, was forced to make a rather telling statement that began, “We have respect for the Solomon Islands’ sovereignty, but…” and ended with a not-so-subtle warning against building a relationship with the US’s main competitor.

Another particularly glaring example of American hypocrisy on this question is the case of Western Sahara. Subjugated since the Berlin Conference of 1884 (which carved up and redistributed Africa among the powers of Europe) Western Sahara is the last remaining colony on the continent. Spain claimed a large part of Western Sahara in 1884 (Río de Oro) and later annexed more territory through a convention with France (Saguia el-Hamra). In 1960, UN Resolution 1514 declared that “[a]ll peoples have the right to self-determination; by virtue of that right they freely determine their political status and freely pursue their economic, social and cultural development.” But when Spain initiated their decolonization of the area in the 1970s, adjacent independent states Morocco and Mauritania quickly laid claim to the territory. The United States, a longtime ally of the Kingdom of Morocco, supported the Madrid Agreements, which handed Western Sahara over to its neighbors.

In 1975, the International Court of Justice ruled that external claims to Western Sahara were illegitimate, confirming the territorial rights of the indigenous Sahrawi people. Just three weeks later, Morocco used the coordinated settlement of over 300,000 civilians across the border to defiantly assert their claims to the territory. The native Sahrawi people were forced to flee while Moroccan planes showered the escaping civilians with cluster bombs and napalm. The US was providing military support to Morocco at this time. Many surviving Sahrawis settled in refugee camps in Algeria and other neighboring states. Thousands of Sahrawi refugees still live in these camps, the majority in the Algerian desert city Tindouf, waiting to return to their homeland. To this day, Western Sahara retains the status of “non-self-governing territory” according to the UN.

The Polisario Front[1], an organization formed to combat Spanish rule, became the leading organization in the independence struggle of the Sahrawi people, and persisted in armed struggle for the liberation of their annexed territory until an UN-brokered cease fire in 1991. The peace agreement between Morocco and the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR) included the promise of a referendum vote that would allow the Sahrawi to have a say in their own self-determination. But this vote never took place – the Moroccan state has repeatedly rejected the plans based on disagreements over exactly who will be allowed to vote. They have also refused to allow independence to be listed as an option in a referendum.

How has the United States, supposed bastion of freedom and democracy, responded to this ongoing conflict that seems like a straightforward case? Most US administrations have nominally adhered to the official UN ruling on the status of Western Sahara, but their claims to political neutrality are undermined by the fact that they have consistently supplied Morocco with military aid. Under Carter, this aid was conditioned with the restriction that it only be used to modernize the Moroccan army but not employed in the conflict with Western Sahara. Reagan dropped all these restrictions. Relations with the Moroccan monarchy have only deepened since, especially during the War on Terror years under George W. Bush, when Morocco became an important regional partner against Al-Qaeda and other extremist groups.

The Obama administration expressed support for a Moroccan proposal that offered regional autonomy for the people of Western Sahara – a step backwards from the policy of self-determination outlined in the UN resolution. But it was the Trump administration that formalized the decades-long rejection of the Sahrawi people’s democratic rights. As part of the 2020 Abraham Accords, in exchange for US recognition of full Moroccan control over Western Sahara, the Kingdom of Morocco agreed to resume relations with Israel and reopen diplomatic offices which had been closed during the Second Intifada in 2000. Trump’s decision, making the US the first Western power to recognize Morocco’s claim over Western Sahara, was widely criticized because it so blatantly undermined the reputation of the US on the international stage. However, since assuming office, the Biden White House has elected to leave Trump’s decision in place.

Consistent application of the right of nations to self-determination is something the bourgeoisie will never be able to maintain. Capitalists are bound by the logic of their class, the logic of imperialism: the drive to expand territorial control and enslave smaller nations in their struggle for global hegemony. Regardless of the individual intentions of even the most liberal of its representatives, the bourgeoisie cannot adhere to its own principles. While it may be tempting to pick a side in the struggle between the big imperialist powers, once you start down the path of choosing the “better” imperialist, you have already foreclosed on the possibility of an independent proletarian politics. “Only a peace arising from the soil of the international solidarity of the working class and the freedom of nations can be a sure peace,” said Karl Liebknecht in 1914 [2]. We condemn both sides in the struggle between imperialists. For this reason, it is only Socialism, and not Capitalism, that can be a global force for democracy and peace.

Socialists support the sovereign rights of nations and peoples based on the contemporary wishes and sympathies of a population, regardless of historic borders or territorial claims. The democratic right to determine their fate belongs to the Sahrawi people today, to the Palestinian people today, to the Puerto Rican people today, etc. It belongs to the people of Ukraine, who are fighting for independence from Russia, and it also belongs to the Russian people living in eastern Ukraine. They must also be allowed to freely determine their fate, to choose for themselves if they will stay with Ukraine or not. Only by universally upholding the right to self-determination and maintaining our political independence from the international imperialist bourgeoisie can we build the strength and unity of the international working class.

[1] Frente POLISARIO = Frente Popular de Liberación de Saguía el Hamra y Río de Oro

[2] Karl Liebknecht was a German Social-Democrat, labor movement leader, and the loudest voice of anti-militarism during the first World War. He was the only member of the Reichstag to vote against war credits, and his accompanying anti-war speech was censored both in the parliamentary session and in the press.