Dwight Eisenhower’s televised farewell address to the nation in January 1961 is best remembered for its powerful warning to “guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” But the departing president remained farsighted on other issues, too. Although his tenure as president of Columbia University from 1948 to 1953 was not a particularly gratifying experience for either party, Eisenhower nevertheless became rightfully concerned that academics at the nation’s universities were losing sight of their core research function—free inquiry—in an unseemly dash to serve government ends, secure funding, and enjoy proximity to power. “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever-present,” he cautioned, “and is gravely to be regarded.” On both issues, as events would demonstrate, Eisenhower’s warnings were as prescient as they were ineffectual.
Diagnosing and criticizing the weaknesses and attendant dangers of narrowly conceived, policy-oriented scholarship is the strongest feature of Perry Anderson’s American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers. The book comprises two essays, “Imperium” and “Consilium,” first published in the New Left Review in 2013; an essay first published in The Nation in 2006; and a postscript that dwells on the year 2014. Anderson sets the stage at the beginning of “Imperium.” Since the middle of the 20th century, he explains, the combination of a stultifying bipartisan American consensus on the rudiments of Cold War foreign policy, “the provincialism of an electorate with minimal knowledge of the outside world,” and a political system that gives “virtually untrammeled power to the executive in the conduct of foreign affairs” has created “around the Presidency a narrow foreign policy elite, and a distinctive ideological vocabulary with no counterpart in internal politics: conceptions of the ‘grand strategy’ to be pursued by the American state in its dealings with the world.”
“Imperium” is a concise and bracing history of US foreign policy from the nation’s founding to the present. One of Anderson’s key points is that economic self-interest should be regarded as the principal factor shaping the nation’s diplomacy, as William Appleman Williams argued in The Tragedy of American Diplomacy in 1959. There is much to glean from Anderson’s analysis, although the relentless focus on the dark imperialist intentions of all who have shaped that strategy sometimes rings false. On Woodrow Wilson, for example, Anderson writes that he “gave voice to every chord of presumption in the imperial repertoire,” and that in 1917 Wilson “plunged the country into the First World War.” There is something to the first charge, perhaps, but in the second “plunged” fails to capture Wilson’s deep ambivalence about America’s first major military intervention in the Old World. Anderson’s critique is learned and sharp, but too many individuals and events are reduced to caricature, beholden to powerful economic and expansionist forces outside their ken.
“Consilium” is more important and deserves to be widely read. Anderson discusses the work of many of today’s best-known “grand strategists,” including Walter Russell Mead, Michael Mandelbaum, G. John Ikenberry, Charles Kupchan, Robert Kagan, and Zbigniew Brzezinski, and offers some cutting appraisals. After noting that Joseph Nye Jr., recently added by Foreign Policy magazine to its list of leading global thinkers, did not “warrant consideration” because he “is insufficiently original, with little more than the banalities of soft power to his name,” Anderson distills the essence of a series of books and then skewers their authors’ pretensions. Wilsonianism’s “perfect embodiment is to be found in Ikenberry, the ‘poet laureate of liberal internationalism,’ from whom the dead centre of the establishment can draw on a more even unction.” Concerning Kupchan’s very different book No One’s World (2012)—which urges the United States to accept the reality of relative decline and prepare for an interdependent world “without a center of gravity or global guardian”—Anderson snipes that “empires, like individuals, have their moments of false modesty. The kind of retrenchment envisaged by Kupchan belongs to them.” But the essay is not all pithy evisceration: Anderson praises some of his grand strategists, observing of Robert Art’s work that “analytic precision, closely reasoned argument and lucid moderation of judgment are its hallmarks, producing realism at a higher resolution.”