Sunday, January 24, 2016

American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers by Perry Anderson

Hardcover, 284 pages Published April 14th 2015 by Verso (first published 2013)

An old friend of mine who is a life-long Marxist and an academic recently reconnected, and when he read that I have been mulling over the way the United States has been conducting its foreign policy, he suggested I read this book. British historian and political essayist Perry Anderson is a Professor of History and Sociology at the University of California in Los Angeles and a former editor of the New Left Review.

Anderson bounds through American foreign policy in the twentieth century, masterfully sketching the outlines of “Washington’s drive for global hegemony.” Anderson is persuasive, especially since many of us now are not intimately familiar with the periods he discusses and he can leave out messy and contradictory words, actions, policies, and intentions of the actors and their administrations. Anderson looks at the results of policies rather than stated intent (not a bad thing in itself) and reviews recent literature published by former foreign policy administrators (Kissinger, Brzezinski, Kagan), and academics (Mead, Layton).

Anderson quotes Truman’s Secretary of State Dean Acheson (1949-53) as saying (not for public consumption): “…Congress is too damn representative. It’s just as stupid as the people are; just as uneducated, just as dumb, just as selfish.” This point has been made an infinite number of times by those frustrated with the process of democracy, and, I might add, is heard often these days among observers of the American election for president. I sympathize with Acheson, frankly, but neither he nor I would choose a different system, or a different country.

It is enlightening for any student of a particular discipline to encounter someone with quite different ideas, especially if one is dissatisfied with current thinking on a topic. What really astonished me was that I had never heard of several of the folks he mentions as “those to honour”: Christopher Layne, David Calleo, Gabriel Kolko. What this tells me as a reasonably informed citizen is that folks with different viewpoints are sidelined and not covered, much like the coverage of the western press in conflict areas (see my review of The Jihadis Return by Patrick Cockburn). We just don't hear dissenting voices. Anderson also mentions Chalmers Johnson, Andrew Bacevich, and Noam Chomsky in his select group of those to honor, all of whom I have heard. But I dislike Bacevich for the very reason I tend to dismiss Anderson himself.

Both Bacevich and Anderson are academics, and academics tend to talk among themselves and pat themselves on the back for their wise pronouncements or otherwise shrilly denounce colleagues for holding different opinions. But they pontificate to themselves. Their arguments bear almost no relation to actual diplomacy, or the day to day scrum of running a country. Unless their ideas are brought into the White House with an administration, there is no chance these folks are going to be listened to because their bombast and hurled insults make their comments hard to hear.

Anderson makes the point that “the literature of grand strategy forms a domain of its own, distinct from diplomatic history or political science…individuals moving seamlessly back and forth between university chairs or think tanks and government offices.” Thus the administration also talks to itself. It does seem to be so, and no matter that I personally revile Anderson’s and Bacevich’s style of heated rhetoric and detestable arrogance which makes it difficult for me to read their ideas, they are talking about something in which I am deeply interested, and which has ramifications for the way I vote for America's leaders.

Anderson, who sneers at the “thinkers” of his title, discusses Obama’s role as “executioner-in-chief,” and quotes Ben Rhodes, formerly Obama speechwriter, now National Security Advisor: “What we’re trying to do is to get America another fifty years as leader.” This is also Hillary Clinton’s stated goal. This idea is exactly what I am wondering about. Is American primacy and leadership in the world in the American populace’s best interests, or in the world’s best interests? The answer is not as obvious as it might seem. It may appear to be so, but I can’t help thinking that despite our enormous wealth and resources, we cannot have all the answers for the rest of the world. We don’t even have the answers for our own country. Surely “primacy” is not the point. Or is it? What does that even mean? Does it mean we get to extract resources to support our own wellbeing? Does it mean we must bolster or support the rest of the world? What are our obligations as leader? What are our obligations as an ethical people, even without "primacy"? If I could be sure that the adage "power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely" was not exampled many times in human history, I might be willing to go along with the leadership idea. But it isn't just leading always, is it?

Despite my difficulty reading this discussion which mentioned so many works I have not read, and so many people of whom I have not heard, I did order Christopher Layne’s The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present to see if I can understand slightly more. My next post has video clips of Thomas P.M. Barnett discussing what should influence U.S. Global Strategy in the future. Barnett gave a talk in 2015 in Washington, D.C. to strategists in the military, and published the talk on YouTube in January 2016.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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