American diplomatic history criticized for its “limited intellectual range"

Historians in the News
tags: power, diplomacy, Exceptionalism



Thomas Meaney is writing a book about American thinkers and decolonisation.

This article reviews several books on American diplomacy including Perry Anderson's American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers.

... It is a sign of the limited intellectual range of American diplomatic historians that when Anderson’s critique first appeared in the pages of New Left Review, they detected an update of William Appleman Williams’s New Left classic, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy (1959). But Anderson’s picture of American imperialism departs from several presuppositions of New Left historiography. He salutes Williams and the ‘Wisconsin School’ – the prairie populist tradition associated with him – but he also makes a point of distancing himself from it. In particular, Williams’s contention that American imperialism was grounded in the ideology of the ‘open door’ – which began with the US’s determination to be granted equal access and fair treatment in China’s European-dominated port cities – and the continuous extension of American capitalism towards ever larger markets, first across the continent, then across the Pacific and beyond, doesn’t square with Anderson’s view of a predominantly protectionist United States before the Second World War, the Republican Party having long equated the ‘conspiracy of free trade’ with British imperial interference with growing American industry. What for Williams is a story of continuous American economic expansion is for Anderson a story of the way Americans came to conflate the global capitalist system with the projection of their own national power, continually looking past the fissures in their own ideology and interests.

Anderson’s interpretation has more in common with the Swedish left historian Anders Stephanson, along with several putatively conservative critics of American empire, among them Chalmers Johnson, who argued in his Blowback trilogy that US imperialism ‘breeds some of the most important contradictions of capitalism’ – not the other way round – and that much of post-1989 US policy, from the inflicting of the 1998 financial crisis on the Asian Tigers to the current push for the TTP and TTIP, has been aimed at prying open markets that the US was content during the Cold War to give leave to be protectionist and heterodox. Unlike Johnson, however, Anderson doesn’t chase down equivalences between the Soviet Union and the US, with the Eastern European nations mirroring the US’s satellites in East Asia, Japan figuring as America’s East Germany, and the Kwanju massacre as America’s more murderous version of Tiananmen Square. The competition was never close to equal in Anderson’s telling, which finds support in rich new archival studies, such as Oscar Sanchez-Sibony’s Red Globalisation, which shows how desperate the Soviet Bloc was to participate in Western markets as early as the 1950s, and Jeremy Friedman’s Shadow Cold War, which lays out the immense cost of the Soviet Union’s revolutionary posture in the Third World, a beleaguered and misguided attempt to maintain radical credibility against the allure of Maoism.

Anderson’s critique of American power is also distinctive in a more basic sense. Many of the most prominent American critics of US imperialism came to their positions while serving as ‘spear-carriers of empire’, in Johnson’s phrase. Williams’s thinking grew out of the racism he witnessed as an ensign in the US Navy, and his narrow escape from taking part in the nuclear tests on Bikini Island. Johnson, himself a US Navy veteran of the Korean War, was a consultant to the Office of National Estimates in the CIA, and a longtime academic Cold Warrior. Along with perhaps the most prominent contemporary conservative critic, the former US Army colonel Andrew Bacevich, Johnson expected US globalism to readjust after the downfall of the Soviet Union. When no such adjustment came – in fact, the number of bases expanded – these critics began to question whether American globalism really grew out of the need for Soviet containment. Their scepticism was bolstered by first-hand disgust with imperial practices: in Johnson’s case, the rape culture and environmental devastation he witnessed at US bases in Okinawa; in Bacevich’s, the hubris and technological utopianism of the ‘no-fault operations’ of the Persian Gulf War. The anti-imperial passion shared by Bacevich, Johnson and Williams issues from their belief that US foreign entanglements, especially in service of the maintenance of global capitalism, threaten a truer version of American republican principles. Each of them has a commitment to what Williams called ‘an open door to revolutions’, his term for a world order where the US doesn’t impose its own economic hegemony and different peoples are able to pursue their own forms of social life.

Anderson entertains no such possibility of redemption. There’s no better republic to go back to, no way to roll back the messianism. Though he doesn’t endorse it, the version of US globalism that seems to interest Anderson most is that of the mid-century émigré geostrategist Nicholas Spykman, who in America’s Strategy in World Politics (1942) – ‘perhaps the most striking single exercise in geopolitical literature of any land’, Anderson says – spared his readers the dogmas of liberal democracy and the free market. Instead, he advised his adopted country to face up to the realities of class warfare, the increasing concentration of wealth and the coming race for resources. The more clear-eyed the US was about its interests, in other words, the less savagery it would perpetrate in the name of idealism. Carl Schmitt counselled something similar in his retirement, when in 1958 he published a platonic dialogue in which an American called ‘MacFuture’ interrupts – Alcibiades-like – a conversation between two German thinkers about geopolitics. MacFuture believes the US has a duty to submit the entire galaxy to a Monroe Doctrine, and that the conquest of space will be a repeat of the conquest of the New World. The Germans feebly try to interest their guest in the notion of limits….

What strikes Anderson about the collection of American strategists he’s assembled is how – despite their radically different worldviews – they all agree that the US will and must remain the supreme world power. In Walter Russell Mead’s eyes, America’s genius, with its special British lineage, is simply too difficult to replicate. In John Ikenberry’s, the world is already signing up to mimic America’s image. To Kagan, American dominance is simply a matter of political will. As Barnett sees it, the US is already so ahead in world history, it’s almost unfair. As the strategist Christopher Layne, one of the rare dissenting voices in Anderson’s account, points out, when American foreign policy pundits speak of the ‘post-American world’, what they really mean is ‘the Now and Forever American World’. The presidential candidates who tend to win are those who most seamlessly embody the contradictory calls for more vigorous projection of American power on the one hand, and more aggressive globalisation on the other. This is something the Clintons have always understood.




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