The Business of America

The Business of America

The American Way of Strategy and Empire’s Workshop examine the paradox of idealism and brutality in US foreign policy.


“The powerful exact what they can and the weak grant what they must,” the Athenians told the Melians. What do the powerful want? Athens and Rome wanted tribute; Britain wanted raw materials and new markets; Nazi Germany wanted slaves; the Soviet Union wanted international proletarian revolution (guided by a proper vanguard party, of course), as well as not to be invaded again. And the United States?

The majority view among lay Americans and the overwhelming consensus among respectable intellectuals is that there is something distinctive, perhaps unique, about the balance of idealism and material interests in the history of American foreign policy. Although the United States is strong enough to do so, it has not, with few exceptions, extracted tribute from or directly administered other countries. It earned the permanent gratitude of humankind by helping the Soviet Union defeat Nazi Germany and then checking the westward advance of the Red Army, as well as by allowing Taiwan and South Korea, among others, to avoid the horrors of Maoism and Stalinism and evolve into stable democracies. Moreover, the public and even private pronouncements of American statesmen have been heavily freighted with professions of benign intent, to a degree that makes unflagging hypocrisy a less than plausible explanation, if only on psychological grounds. It follows (according to the consensus) that American foreign policy generally, including military interventions, deserves credit for good intentions, whatever mistakes were made in carrying them out.

Like all conventional wisdom, this consensus contains several grains of truth, most of them enumerated in the preceding paragraph. Whether these justify the above conclusion is another matter. Two voices dissent from the consensus. On the right, “realists” believe that, like every other state that ever was or will be, the United States is dominated by elites with definite (though not unchanging) views of the “national interest.” America’s interest will not always be compatible with those of other nations, and the elites’ views will not always agree with the majority’s views; hence conflict is inevitable. External conflicts present a strategic problem, to be resolved by diplomacy or military force; internal conflicts present a public-relations problem, to be resolved by the manufacture of consent. There are no moral problems.

The dissident left agrees with much of this as a description but does have a moral problem–several, in fact. Is there a genuinely “national” interest? Even if there is, don’t elite definitions of it nearly always correspond to the special interests of those elites? Are such matters really too complicated for the majority to appraise without manipulation? Do nations have fundamentally conflicting interests, making cooperation between them possible only within narrow limits? Is it really impossible to constrain the use of military force within a framework of international law, even though the potential costs of such violence are rapidly escalating beyond nearly any conceivable benefit? When reckoning such costs, shouldn’t other innocent people’s sufferings count as much as our own?

Michael Lind is hard to place, in this and other respects. In three previous books, The Next American Nation (1995), Up From Conservatism (1996) and The Radical Center (2001, co-written with Ted Halstead), he offered quite a few shrewd analyses of American history and politics, along with some imaginative and detailed policy proposals for a “new social contract.” Though hardly the last word, these proposals combined equity, originality and a willingness to upset both liberals and (particularly) conservatives in impressive proportions.

Lind turned to international affairs with Vietnam: The Necessary War (1999). It was bold but not exactly original: a vigorous defense of America’s intervention and an unapologetic vindication of the domino theory. Lind did not deny the essentials of the antiwar case: that the American-sponsored regime had (and deserved) little popular support; that the insurgency had considerable popular support and would easily have won a fair election; and that American firepower caused horrendous suffering. But, he replied, the result of not intervening might well have been far more horrendous suffering elsewhere. There was, after all, an international Communist conspiracy to rule the world. Communism in its prevalent Stalinist and Maoist forms was as bad as Nazism. Preventing global Communist domination required the unity of the major democracies, which depended on their faith in American resolve, which had to be periodically demonstrated: “Perceived power is power.” Vietnam was a “credibility” war, because “credibility [was] deterrence”; and since what was being deterred was absolute evil, credibility was absolutely necessary. QED. Besides, in the aftermath of successful popular insurgencies, even if abundantly justified by local conditions, the Stalinists and Maoists–fanatical, unscrupulous, assisted by Moscow and Beijing–invariably defeated the democrats. However much suffering the US invasion imposed on Indochina, the alternative, for the Indochinese, promised to be–and in the event was–worse.

It is a familiar argument, never more plausibly presented than here, with Lind’s customarily amazing brio. What made it plausible, however–whether valid or not–was Lind’s and the domino theorists’ implied characterization of the cold war as anomalous, a supreme emergency, an unavoidable response to an unprecedentedly powerful and implacable totalitarian menace. American hegemony undoubtedly covered a multitude of very grievous sins, but surely nothing could have been worse than the spread of Stalinist and Maoist tyranny.

But in that case, now that the cold war has ended and the threat of Stalinism and Maoism has, for the foreseeable future, disappeared, isn’t it time to acknowledge some of those sins and atone for them, or at least stop committing them? Time to ask why continued American hegemony is necessary, what global “grand strategy” is good for, what international power politics can possibly be about today, when capitalism rules the roost and territorial empire is passé? One might have expected the intrepid Lind to have grasped the nettle and addressed these questions. Instead, his final chapter, “The Genuine Lessons of the Vietnam War,” merely assured us that “maximal realists” like Acheson, Nitze and Kissinger were right all along and that the United States must maintain “global military primacy” for the sake of “hegemonic credibility” in defense of what he calls elsewhere in the book “the world-order interests” of the United States and its allies. “The case for U.S. foreign policy,” he concluded majestically, “rests on the coincidence of the general interest of humanity and the particular interest of the United States.” Even during the cold war, this formulation would (or should) have raised a good many doubts. Now it plainly won’t do at all.

Lind seems to have understood this. With his usual lack of diffidence, he has written a new book explaining what American foreign policy is, always has been and must be about. The American Way of Strategy begins with a civics lesson. The American Creed is “democratic republican liberalism”: limited government in a society based on the dominance of “a free, educated, prosperous middle-class citizenry.” The chief threat to this way of life is not, and never has been, external conquest but rather the potentially excessive costs of self-defense, which drain our resources and curtail our liberties. We need to prevent imperialism and anarchy abroad but at the same time avoid becoming a garrison state.

Traditionally, American statesmen have pursued this goal via two complementary strategies: liberal internationalism and realism. The United States promotes national self-determination and basic human rights–by example and exhortation rather than brute force, preferably. But force is necessary, too, to deter aggression or “intimidation by means short of conquest.” Peace in a world of states is maintained, according to realists, through hegemony (the informal dominance of a single state), a concert of power (the dominance of two or more states) or a balance of power (rival alliances of roughly equal strength). Same as in the schoolyard.

“For more than two centuries,” as Lind sees it, “the main motive for American security strategy has been the fear, sometimes unreasonable but usually justified, of other great powers.” We had to grab Florida, Texas, California and Oregon, or the British, French or Russians would have. The dispossession of Native Americans was regrettable, but they could never have held out against the European powers, and if they had, North America would have been balkanized. We had to dominate the Caribbean and Central America, as well as annex Hawaii and Samoa, to prevent Germany from doing so. We only sought a protectorate over the Philippines to keep the Germans, not to mention the Japanese, out; likewise, our intervention in the Russian civil war was really about preventing Japan from invading Siberia.

Well, suppose all of these rivals had gone in, and we, in all cases, had minded our own business? We durstn’t, Lind retorts: The costs of maintaining our independence and prosperity as merely one state among several on the North American continent would have severely cramped “the individualistic American way of life.” Likewise, we had no choice but to fight World War I. Woodrow Wilson feared that, in the words of one historian, “America’s democratic system would be subverted by the huge military buildup that the United States would require to protect itself from the German hegemon.” Making the rest of the world safe for democracy was an afterthought. “The United States entered World War I in order to save the American way of life, not from a German conquest of the United States, but from the need to sacrifice American liberty in order to preserve American independence in a world dominated by Imperial Germany by constructing a regimented Fortress America.”

And then, “a generation later, for the same reason, the United States went to war with Germany again.” Lind approvingly quotes an interwar American diplomat’s warning against isolationism:

[We would be] left alone in a friendless totalitarian world, forced to adjust [our] democratic economy under pressure from across both oceans…. Our enemies would have under their flags 80 to 90 percent of the human race. They would command the oceans outside the zone of our effective naval and air patrol near our shores…. We should have to be a whole nation of “Minutemen,” ready to rush to arms at the first sign of invasion. Our children would not, of course, expect to enjoy “a better world” under such conditions.

After World War II, we once again had no choice. With satellites in Eastern Europe, popular-front governments likely in Western Europe and revolution brewing in China, Korea and Vietnam, “Stalin was poised to inherit the world.” The cold war was not a tragic misunderstanding but the inevitable result of “Soviet aspirations to dominate Europe and Asia.” True, Lind concedes, the Soviet Union was far weaker than the United States, but “intimidation and subversion, rather than conquest, were the preferred weapons in the Soviet arsenal.” If checkmating Soviet designs meant–as it did–helping business elites (including quite a few collaborators) in Germany, France, Italy, Japan and South Korea to crush unruly labor movements that had borne the brunt of fascist oppression and now thought themselves entitled to a share of power, then so be it. Labor movements were rife with Communists, after all; and as Kissinger sensibly asked two decades later, Why should a country be allowed to go Communist because of the irresponsibility of its people? If moderate democrats or social democrats had to be overthrown in Iran, Guatemala and Chile and replaced by violent, undemocratic probusiness regimes; if murderous and/or kleptocratic dictators and juntas had to be supported in Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, Colombia, Honduras, El Salvador, Haiti, Panama, Greece, Turkey, Iraq, Pakistan, Zaire, Indonesia and the Philippines; if, sadly, it took an appalling amount of oppression to keep the Free World free… well, history is cruel. It was Communism’s fault, ultimately, for threatening “the individualistic American way of life.”

Let’s let bygones be bygones, however, at least for the moment. I don’t believe it was necessary for the United States to wage a savage war against democracy and independent development throughout the Third World–as we did–in order to keep the blight of Stalinism and Maoism from spreading. But since I don’t know exactly how I would have kept it from spreading, I won’t press the point.

How about after the cold war? With the supreme emergency now over, should the United States stand down? Both neoliberals and neoconservatives have answered no: We have to maintain global military primacy indefinitely. As a 1992 Defense Department plan put it, allies and rivals alike must be discouraged from “challenging our leadership or seeking to overturn the established political and economic order.” Lind respectfully disagrees. Permanent US military hegemony raises no moral problems, of course–Lind is a realist–but it’s too expensive and would require a draft. The American people won’t go along. Better a concert of power, or several regional concerts, each composed of the United States and the local major powers. Besides keeping the peace in its area, each concert will combat terrorism, limit proliferation of WMDs, quell civil wars, prevent genocide, organize relief efforts, and hammer out energy and environmental pacts. The idea that the UN or other international institutions can ever do these things is “liberal utopianism.” Power gets things done, not law.

There’s something intoxicating about grand strategizing. Dwelling among abstractions like “power,” “interest,” “influence” and “credibility,” lining up combinations of allies and rivals, projecting hypothetical scenarios, and casting up costs and benefits on a global scale, one can easily neglect specifics. We may have annexed Hawaii to foil German imperialism, but it was disgruntled American sugar barons who called in the Marines to depose Queen Liliuokalani. We may have generously proffered the Marshall Plan to resurrect Western Europe in the face of the Soviet threat, but we also remembered to design it–and all our other foreign aid programs–so that (besides slapping down those pesky labor unions) virtually all the (taxpayer) money spent returned to the United States in the form of profitable orders for American companies. We may have, however reluctantly, helped to install numerous authoritarian anti-Communist regimes in order to safeguard “the established political and economic order,” but we were not at all reluctant about subsequently helping to turn most of them into a paradise for investors and, often, an inferno for workers and peasants. Those who devise American foreign policy, even when mistaken, may be, as Lind magnanimously insists, honorable men with only the country’s best interests in view; but then, what’s the purpose of those immense, incessantly active, secretive and spectacularly well-funded energy, arms and Wall Street lobbies, which employ so many former Congressmen, policy-makers and military officers? If, as everyone agrees, the business of America is business, is it really so unrealistic to wonder whether the business of American foreign policy mightn’t also be business?

It’s surprising how few realists seem to think so, or at any rate say so. One who does, Andrew Bacevich, put it this way in his superb American Empire (2002):

Though garnished with neologistic flourishes intended to convey a sense of freshness or originality, the politicoeconomic concept to which the United States adheres today has not changed in a century: the familiar quest for an “open world,” the overriding imperative of commercial integration, confidence that technology endows the United States with a privileged position in that order, and the expectation that American military might will preserve order and enforce the rules. These policies reflect a single-minded determination to extend and perpetuate American political, economic, and cultural hegemony–usually referred to as “leadership”–on a global scale.

Now there’s a realist a liberal utopian can at least talk to.

Lind does not explain US policy in Central and South America in any detail; indeed, the region barely registers on his radar screen. No great powers there, so it scarcely merits the attention of a grand strategist. It has not, however, escaped the attention of US policy-makers. By 1930, the United States had already sent warships into Latin American ports no fewer than 6,000 times to calm various excitable Latins. And that was only the beginning, as Greg Grandin recounts in Empire’s Workshop, the latest publication in Metropolitan’s indispensable American Empire Project.

Over many decades of investment and invasion in the region, Grandin demonstrates, the United States gradually worked out “a coherently sophisticated imperial project, one better suited for a world in which rising nationalism was making a formal colonialism of the kind European nations practiced unworkable.” This meant devising, as he very cogently puts it, “a flexible system of extraterritorial administration, one that allowed the United States, in the name of fighting Communism and promoting development, to structure the internal political and economic relations of allied countries in ways that allowed it to accrue more and more power and to exercise effective control over the supply of oil, ore, minerals, and other primary resources–all free from the burden of formal colonialism.” It’s not easy defining contemporary imperialism–these and other excellent formulations are a help.

Empire’s Workshop also details the domestic politics behind US Latin America policy: in particular, the regrouping of the right that followed withdrawal from Vietnam. The neoconservatives and the Christian right joined to demand an all-out anti-Communist crusade. Once Ronald Reagan took office, reality dawned on him in this and other respects, so he indulged his more fanatical supporters mainly in Central America, where these extremists would presumably do less damage than in the Middle East or US-Soviet relations. They made the most of their consolation prize, learning to “maneuver around their more cautious colleagues in the State Department,” to “bypass congressional oversight by creating a semiprivate, international network to carry out a clandestine foreign policy,” to “undermine post-Vietnam efforts to limit the use of military power” and covert operations, and to “instill a culture of loyalty” and secrecy throughout the bureaucracy. Grandin is especially good on the odious “public diplomacy” of Reagan/Bush I/Bush II, a giant step in the degradation of American democracy.

“It was in Central America,” Grandin writes, “where faith in American righteousness to justify a renewed militarism…morphed into the kind of idealism that now motivates the neoconservatives.” Here I must quibble. It seems to me a mistake to credit the neocons, much less the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Perle hardheads, with idealism, even “punitive idealism.” Every imperial project–in fact, virtually every public undertaking of every modern state–is accompanied by declarations of benevolent intention, more or less frequent and elaborate according to the scale of the undertaking and the degree of skepticism anticipated. These declarations have no evidentiary value. They are part of the manufacture of consent in democratic, and even nondemocratic, societies. It might have been difficult to gain popular support for military interventions in Central America by insisting on the necessity of preserving a favorable investment climate, or to sell the invasion of Iraq by announcing a determination to control the world’s energy resources. As any public-relations executive or media consultant would have pointed out, the product needed packaging. Fear of Communism, revenge for 9/11 and appeals to popular (and naïve liberal intellectuals’) generosity with fables about spreading democracy–these worked much better.

For the real purposes of US foreign policy, now as formerly, “democracy” means the freedom to vote for candidates who can be counted on to allow unrestricted capital flows; foreign ownership of vital resources; privatization of water, health, utility and banking systems; the opening of domestic markets to cheap (often subsidized) foreign imports; the repeal or lax enforcement of environmental, worker-safety, public-health and minimum-wage laws; an investor-friendly tax code; drastic reductions in social-welfare spending; the suppression of labor or peasant activism; and, if asked, the provision of facilities for US military forces. Grandin knows this; indeed, he says as much and provides valuable details on the devastation wrought by Chicago School free-market fundamentalism and the structural-adjustment programs imposed by the IMF and World Bank. But he also refers to Reagan having “picked up the torch of idealism” and “forcefully embraced human rights and support for democracy” and to George W. Bush’s “current embrace of Wilsonian idealism.” Grandin suggests that US policy has usually been a paradoxical combination of idealism and brutality, and that the brutality has generally swallowed up the idealism. But except for FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy, I didn’t see much evidence in Empire’s Workshop of idealism, rhetoric aside.

Actually, Michael Lind knows this too, and he too has said as much, though not in The American Way of Strategy. In Up From Conservatism he wrote:

Today…multinational businesses and banks based in the United States pin their hopes on export markets abroad–and slaver at the thought of transferring industrial production and even routine service jobs to low-wage workers without unions or civil rights in Third World countries…. A new, free-trade coalition…allies multinational industry and finance with export-oriented agriculture in the South and West against industrial workers in the midwestern industrial heartland…. [This] low-wage, low-tax, low-public-service economy is a shift of historic proportions that has the potential to destroy the twentieth-century achievement of middle-class living standards for a majority of Americans.

As I’m sure Lind would agree, it also has the potential to prevent a majority of Third World citizens from ever achieving middle-class living standards. That so estimable a thinker as Lind doesn’t, in his new book, consider these matters at least as important as the abstractions of grand strategy is a puzzle and a disappointment.

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