In the post-9/11 world, the rule is that United States military operations always keep expanding with every successive presidential administration. At least this has been the rule so far.
As of 2018, Trump's drone-strike kill rate was 80 times greater than that of Bush, with Obama's rate representing the transition period by being eight times smaller than Trump's. The same trend has been present in terms of bombs. Bush dropped 70,000 bombs, Obama dropped 100,000 bombs, and in Trump's first year in office, he dropped 44,000 bombs, making for a far higher rate than was the case even for Obama. Since then, Trump may have dropped more bombs on Yemen than all previous presidents combined, and Trump dropped a record of 7,423 bombs on Afghanistan in 2019.
The rate of U.S. imperialist violence hasn't just been exponentially increasing. The global scope of where the U.S. military either conducts military operations, stages provocations, or occupies foreign lands has been ballooning as well. Obama dropped bombs on two more countries than Bush did. And while Trump dropped bombs in fewer places (with bombs of course being dropped in those places at far higher rates), Trump also built upon Washington's campaign to grow its global military occupations for the purpose of great-power competition.
Trump expanded U.S. military presence in the Black Sea and the Mediterranean to counter Russia, grew Washington's naval presence in the Indo-Pacific to counter China, and boosted Southcom's military presence in Latin America to counter Chinese, Russian, and Iranian "threats." What's also come along with the new cold war is exponentially increasing economic warfare, along with rapid steps towards a new arms race. The Trump administration vastly expanded upon Obama's sanctions against Russia, China, and Venezuela while putting in place genocidal Iran sanctions that Biden is refusing to lift. (Biden also won't end the trade war with China that Trump started, and of course he won't lessen the economic war on Russia.) Trump also sabotaged numerous nuclear arms-control treaties, making way for a more dangerous nuclear buildup than was the case during the very most dangerous moments in the Cold War.
In this never-ending situation of intensifying imperialist violence, of expanding military occupations, of growing imperialist-instigated geopolitical tensions, one can't help but wonder: at which point will this run into some sort of wall? Intuition tells us that for every action there's a reaction, that what comes up must come down, etc. So with a trend as massive and dangerous as perpetually escalating U.S. warfare, when does the inevitable blowback come for the empire?
To an extent, such blowback has already come for it. In 2019, political writer Dmitry Orlov said: "I think that the American empire is very much over already, but it hasn't been put to any sort of serious stress test yet, and so nobody realizes that this is the case." COVID-19 was this stress test, at least in terms of the great-power-competition aspect. It greatly shrunk U.S. GDP while China's GDP overall rose during 2020, it let China win over countries like Serbia through pandemic aid while Washington alienated countries through cruelly tightening economic sanctions, and it exacerbated divisions within Washington's crucial imperial partner the E.U. while forcing NATO's anti-Russian war games to halt for safety reasons.
The U.S. endless-war paradigm has also run into a public relations problem. Surveys show that the vast majority of Americans wish for U.S. military involvement to end, a fact that Biden's team may be taking into consideration as they move towards waging wars that can be more easily concealed from the public. And the realities of the drone wars are so horrifying that the military has begun aggressively hiding them in recent years, with Trump having revoked the old rule of reporting drone casualties and Biden so far not reversing Trump's policy. The war machine hopes to use secrecy and diversionary tactics to keep attention away from what it's doing.
What it's doing is exemplified in the Somalia policy from the Biden administration's first two weeks: withdraw troops from the country to give off the vague appearance that Biden has ended the war there, while drastically accelerating drone strikes against it. This trade-off strategy towards continuing Washington's cold war-mandated pivot to Africa reflects the new foreign policy strategy explained by Biden's Secretary of State Antony Blinken: "discreet, small-scale sustainable operations, maybe led by special forces, to support local actors." Due to both narrative and practical needs, the imperialists are streamlining their operations and making them more pragmatic so that the traditional expansion of warfare can continue.
Commentator Tyler Bellstrom has described Blinken's doctrine as "slimmed-down exceptionalism." Imperial power is being consolidated in its areas of more solid control, with the IMF increasing austerity in Washington's neo-colonies, the core imperialist countries building up their militarized police states, and Washington strengthening its military presence in the areas it can occupy. It's moving towards calculated power moves in the areas where it hopes to regain lost control, with the Biden administration aiming to impose sanctions on Burma after the recent coup against its former U.S.-backed leader, commit to consistent support for Ukraine's fascist regime in its proxy war against Russia, and carry out a potential Ecuador coup that will keep neoliberalism in power within the country. The clique of liberal technocrats aims to stabilize imperial power by prioritizing diplomacy with Washington's allies while avoiding traditional Bush-era invasions, instead pursuing a python-style campaign of attempted strangulation against disobedient nations.
It's in the area where the empire has lost control beyond any realistic recovery--which is an increasingly huge area--that the threats of imperial destabilization and world war are most present. U.S. exceptionalism may be slimming down, but in conflict with this pragmatic liberal foreign policy approach, the new administration aims to expand military buildup against Russia and China with an emphasis on militarizing the Arctic. (This proposal comes from the think tank of John Kerry, who's as much of a technocratic liberal as any other figure in the Biden administration.) Political and corporate elites may be moving towards a technologically driven "Great Reset" where society will supposedly be brought back to stability in the COVID-19 recovery period, but this "solution" to capitalism's crises won't address the ever-widening wealth gap or the ecological breakdown. As long as the Biden administration continues the neoliberal-era standard of investing ever more money into the military while increasing austerity within the imperial core, the risk of internal destabilization is going to keep rising.
For now, the U.S. empire moves uneasily forward, trying to make calculated moves that can fortify the status quo but unable to rectify the growing contradictions of capitalism and imperialism. Truthfully, a lot of these calculated moves depend on the narrative (what the ruling technocrats want people to believe is true) instead of on the material. There's a dissonance between the portrayal of Washington coming to move back into hegemony amid the end of the unstable Trump era, and the reality that instability is unavoidable at this stage.
Perhaps the stress test that truly breaks the empire will be the dollar crash that is expected for later this year, or another revolution in one of Washington's Latin American neo-colonies, or an outbreak of war with a major power. Whether it happens internally or externally, a crisis is imminent for the imperialist power structure.