‘It is a sign of true political power when a great people can determine, of its own will, the vocabulary, the terminology and the words, the very way of speaking, even the way of thinking, of other peoples,’ Carl Schmitt wrote in 1932, at the wick’s end of the Weimar Republic. Schmitt, the most formidable legal and strategic mind in Germany, who would join the Nazi Party the following year, was thinking of America. The US was already the unrivalled hegemon of its hemisphere. Schmitt admired its ample living space and its protected position between two oceans. Americans had cleared out the native populations and intervened as they pleased in the Latin south. It would be harder going for the Germans in Europe.
For Schmitt what was extraordinary about the American empire was the way it added to its geographical advantage by continually refiguring the nature of its triumph. US imperialism would go by other names: Manifest Destiny, Greater America, the American Century, the Free World, Internationalism. Colonies and dependencies were rarely declared outright: Americans knew how to conceal an empire, territorial or otherwise. (Who made a fuss in the 1950s when the US continued to add stars to its flag while Europe started disgorging its colonies, or noticed that, until the decolonisation of the Philippines in 1946, the number of US subjects overseas exceeded the number of black Americans on the mainland?) Schmitt found the sharpest expression of America’s imperial precociousness in the Monroe Doctrine, a quasi-legal fiat issued in 1823 from a position of relative weakness: the US decreed that European powers were barred from meddling in its zone of influence; inside that zone, it would decide what was peace, what was intervention, and what was security. For National Socialists in the 1930s, the power to make all legal questions of sovereignty answer to political exigency was a tantalising prospect. ‘As a German making remarks about American imperialism,’ Schmitt wrote, ‘I can only feel like a beggar in rags speaking about the riches and treasures of foreigners.’
The problem for the Germans was that just as they were trying to make their own Grossraum a reality – Hitler called it a ‘Monroe Doctrine for Europe’ – the Americans were dreaming of becoming a global power. This step was not as obvious or inevitable as it may now appear. Americans before the Second World War spoke less of the country’s exceptional primacy than of its exceptional aloofness from European-style power politics. They prided themselves on being above espionage, diplomatic intrigue and standing armies; they preferred to speak of international legal solutions and courts of arbitration. The possibility of a German-controlled Europe made such detachment harder to sustain. As the liberal historian John Thompson shows in A Sense of Power, it was neither the threat that the Germans and Japanese posed to the US mainland that drove the country into the war, nor the imperative to secure international markets, since the US economy in the 1940s was overwhelmingly based on domestic growth and consumption. The chief motive behind America’s entry into the war, Thompson argues persuasively, was that its leaders realised that it would cost them relatively little to bend the world in the political direction they wanted. To justify intervention, Roosevelt had to tack between security concerns and economic ones, which he exaggerated for effect. ‘Wages and hours would be fixed by Hitler,’ he told the public on the radio, while ‘the American farmer would get for his products exactly what Hitler wanted to give.’ And in an age of air power, the US could no longer set faith in the oceans’ protection, not to mention the threat that a German invasion of Brazil posed to America’s supply of the minerals and metals it needed for its weaponry. ‘Do we want to see Hitler in Independence Hall making fun of the Liberty Bell?’ William Bullitt, Roosevelt’s ambassador to France, asked a year before Pearl Harbor.
US war planners were already envisioning the utopia to come. Its premise was the defeat of Germany and Japan, but also the break-up of European empires into a world of discrete nation-states, each with its own liberal multi-party system and regular elections and each umbilically connected to the dollar. The Trusteeship System of the United Nations would serve as an incubator for premature nations, coaxing them from colonial rule into statehood, or in the case of some American holdings, towards a convenient grey zone between colony and military base. In this utopia the US was to be at once the summa of world history, never to be equalled, and the model that would have to be followed. The planners drafted blueprints for the United Nations as a way to package ‘internationalism’ for an American public assumed to be reluctant to prolong its global mission. As the historian Stephen Wertheim has recently found, ‘isolationism’ wasn’t a word with much currency before the war; New Dealers fashioned it into a term of abuse to tar dissenters from US globalism – including those at home who were still committed to the equal legal status of all nations. ‘There is literally no question, military or political, in which the United States is not interested,’ Roosevelt told a weary Stalin in 1944. The Kremlin would have been more comfortable keeping to some form of a zones-of-influence system for a while longer, a wish shared by many ‘wise men’ of the West, from Alexandre Kojève to George Kennan, who preferred a world of bounded empires to one of nation-states. But by war’s end no one was in a position to gainsay the broad shape of the Pax Americana.
Perry Anderson, in American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers, his first sustained critique of US power, concentrates on two unstable compounds in the empire’s image of itself, both of which crystallised in the decisive postwar years, when it was still unclear how American utopianism would adjust to postwar realities. The first such ‘compound’ is made up of two elements, exceptionalism and universalism, which Anderson treats as analytically distinct impulses. Providential exceptionalism came first, originating in the Puritans’ attempt to build a ‘city upon a hill’ that would impress the England they had left behind. At least in theory, Anderson suggests, American exceptionalism could be modest. Here he is on firm ground. One of the most forceful denunciations of American expansionism was made eight years before the expression ‘manifest destiny’ first appeared in print, when the leading Unitarian preacher, William Ellery Channing, warned that America’s ‘sublime moral empire’ should ‘diffuse freedom by manifesting its fruits’, since ‘there is no Fate to justify rapacious nations, any more than to justify gamblers and robbers, in plunder.’
American universalism, in Anderson’s view, is more dangerous. It was effectively propagated by Woodrow Wilson, who saw the entire world as a receptacle for America’s values. ‘Lift your eyes to the horizons of business,’ Anderson quotes him telling American salesmen, ‘and with the inspiration of the thought that you are Americans and are meant to carry liberty and justice and the principles of humanity wherever you go, go out and sell goods that will make the world more comfortable and more happy, and convert them to the principles of America.’ On the face of it, the message sounds like Channing’s call to spread American values through non-forcible means, but the circumstances had changed. In 1910 the country’s economic output was higher than that of Germany, France and Japan combined; by the middle of the First World War, it had surpassed that of the British Empire. The country’s excess material power opened fresh possibilities for what Anderson calls ‘messianic activism’.
The second of Anderson’s unstable compounds is the tension between the needs of American supremacy and the needs of global capitalism. For much of the postwar era, US leaders rarely bothered to distinguish between the two: the build-up of US power and capitalist husbandry went hand in hand. When they were forced to prioritise, American leaders tended to privilege political-military global leadership over the needs of capital, with the expectation that this would be better for capitalism in the long run. At Bretton Woods, the US triumphantly established the dollar as the world’s reserve currency and created supporting institutions, including the World Bank and the IMF. Over the cries of Wall Street banks, which demanded a much less constricting set of controls and were privately exploring the idea of lending Europeans reconstruction funds, the Truman administration embarked on a programme dedicated to economic stability. The reconstruction of Japan and Europe – which American historians persist in presenting as unique acts of beneficence – was undertaken to ensure the bedrock of the world capitalist system, even if that meant keeping the European empires on their feet a bit longer. ‘The US state,’ Anderson writes, ‘would henceforward act, not primarily as a projection of the concerns of US capital, but as a guardian of the general interest of all capitals, sacrificing – where necessary, and for as long as needed – national gain for international advantage, in the confidence of ultimate pay-off.’
The drama of US foreign policy for Anderson comes in the way the country and its policy elite balance the requirements of global capitalism with what they perceive as the national interest. From the 1940s to the 1970s, these interests were blurred, sometimes more than Washington could tolerate. Truman complained that the first draft of his doctrine for containing communism in Europe read too much like ‘an investment prospectus’. Anderson’s survey doesn’t parse the different types of US intervention in the global south, but these could be roughly plotted along his axes of global capital and national interest. US-backed coups in Guatemala and Grenada were salves for regional irritants, but the meddling in Iran and Congo was undertaken in the general interest of global capital and the US-led world order at large.
By the early 1970s, it was apparent that global capital wasn’t serving the US as effectively as the US was serving it. ‘The remit of the imperial state beyond the requirements of national capital,’ Anderson writes, ‘was for the first time under pressure.’ Since the war, the US had privileged the economic self-interest of its recovering allies, accepting their protectionism and an overvalued dollar as the price to be paid for its political hegemony. But the Vietnam War had depleted the Treasury, escalated inflation and upset the balance of payments, which only worsened when Nixon removed controls on US corporate investment abroad. The total value of dollars outside the country soon exceeded the government’s gold reserves. France under De Gaulle attacked the greenback with purchases of bullion, sending a cruiser to New York to pick up its share. Describing Nixon as ‘the only president with an original mind in foreign policy’, Anderson counts his decision to sever gold from the dollar and his declaration of the end of the Bretton Woods system as a remarkable coup de main. ‘The principles of free trade, the free market and the solidarity of the free world,’ he writes, ‘could not stand in the way of the national interest.’ Or as John Connally, Nixon’s militantly economic nationalist Treasury Secretary, put it, ‘The foreigners are out to screw us. It’s our job to screw them first.’
But, as the historian Daniel Sargent notes in his shrewd reconstruction of this episode, the tactic was ‘less purposeful than ironic’. Nixon had intended to threaten Europeans with a dollar devaluation that would improve the US trade balance, restore American employment and better his chances of re-election. The plan was to embark on a temporary period of floating currencies before a return to the status quo; no one in the Nixon administration wanted to give up control of the monetary order to market forces. No one, that is, except for Connally’s successor, George Shultz, a University of Chicago economist who beat Kissinger in the bureaucratic turf war and committed the country headlong to floating currencies and the free flow of capital without national controls. (Kissinger worried that the policy Shultz called for would encourage a hostile bloc of Western European economies to form, shattering the Atlantic Alliance.) Nixon’s economic demarche had begun as an attempt to protect US markets and insulate them from capital flows, but it turned out, in Anderson’s telling, to be a boon for both capital markets and US power, which could now manipulate world currency valuations by means of Federal Reserve interest rate adjustments. Wall Street, sceptical at first of a departure from fixed-exchange markets, learned to love the new order.
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.
Anderson doesn’t mention another tradition of domestic US anti-imperial critique, Black Internationalism, which bridged the distance between black American intellectuals and their African counterparts in the colonial world, seeking to solder their cause together with appeals to colour-blind communism and pan-Africanism. As Robert Vitalis notes in his book White World Order, Black Power Politics, Black Internationalism was born alongside the white chauvinist version of international relations at the end of the 19th century, when ‘international relations meant race relations.’The academic field of IR was focused more on the study of global racial hierarchies and the problems of colonial administration than on the abstract interplay of nation-states. Vitalis shows just how preoccupied American IR thinkers were in maintaining white dominance and purity in the colonial world, which of course included their own colonies. Foreign Affairs – still the house IR journal of the US foreign policy establishment – began its life in the 1920s as the Journal of Race Development. The tragedy of Black Internationalism is that some of its most radical advocates – Ralph Bunche at the United Nations, for example – became moderates in their attempt to reform American globalism from within. Meanwhile, some of the most stubborn figures – Rayford Logan, Alain Locke, Merze Tate – were institutionally and financially isolated in the black academy, outside of which their work was ignored. They were nearly forgotten by the following generation of black radicals, who had to cut their anti-imperial critiques from whole cloth in the 1960s and 1970s.
If Anderson’s analysis does have a precursor, it is in the work of Gabriel and Joyce Kolko, two radical historians of the 1960s. Gabriel Kolko’s The Politics of War (1968) – now forgotten, but recognised in its time by Hans Morgenthau and other conservatives as a scathing and persuasive revision of orthodox Cold War history – showed how US policy following the Second World War was dedicated to eradicating the threat of the anti-fascist left, which was poised to sweep elections across the world, especially in Europe and Korea. For the Kolkos, it was this more or less internal threat to the global capitalist system, rather than any possible communist takeover, that Washington couldn’t tolerate. But where the Kolkos found a concerted, coherent strategy among US postwar planners, Anderson sees American strategists cobbling together an ideology that’s less a cover than part of the substance of American imperialism itself. Instead of peeling back American rhetoric to reveal imperial intentions, Anderson examines the way the rhetoric contributes to and shapes those intentions.
The second part of American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers plunges into the contemporary American dreamworld of empire. Anderson has always been attracted to those who speak of the world without euphemism, and he appraises the recent offerings of American ‘Grand Strategists’ with sardonic respect: however rabid or fantastic their conceptions, these are writers who take in the whole globe and describe it in a lucid register aimed at a wide audience. They don’t much condescend to election cycles, party affiliation or the preoccupations of American political science. The two boldest thinkers Anderson treats have much in common ideologically but have very different strategies. In 2014, Robert Kagan published an essay entitled ‘Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire: What Our Tired Country Still Owes the World’ in the New Republic. Partly a policy memo directed at the president (Obama promptly called Kagan in for lunch), it was also pitched at American millennials who grew up in the shadow of Afghanistan and Iraq and have little trust in the efficacy of American power. In Kagan’s world, authoritarianism is the default human condition, which only America stands capable of pushing back. Iran, Russia, China: all of these form a new authoritarian front every bit as dangerous as the USSR. ‘What gives the United States the right to act on behalf of a liberal world order?’ Kagan asks. ‘In truth nothing does, nothing beyond the conviction that the liberal order is the most just.’ ‘The liberal order,’ Kagan goes on, ‘was never put to a popular vote. It was not bequeathed by God. It is not the endpoint of human progress.’ So then what does justify it? Its enemies, Kagan declares, which are worse than itself. Just as liberal capitalism’s foes wish to impose their worldview, so America must impose a liberal world order, ‘and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power.’ The planet’s silent majority is grateful for this service. ‘Imagine strolling through Central Park,’ Kagan writes, ‘and, after noting how much safer it had become, deciding that humanity must simply have become less violent – without thinking that perhaps the New York Police Department had something to do with it.’ What Kagan calls for is what Schmitt thought impossible: a Monroe Doctrine for the world, which Kagan speaks of as a heavy moral burden. ‘In the international sphere, Americans have had to act as judge, jury, police, and in the case of military action, executioner,’ he writes. So it has been since 1945, so it must be for ever.
At the opposite end of the strategy spectrum from Kagan, Anderson has found a curious specimen. Thomas Barnett is a former Naval Academy instructor, and a self-declared economic determinist who delivers TED talks to the military top brass about the limits of American power. His work, Anderson writes, is ‘not unlike a materialist variant, from the other side of the barricades, of the vision of America in Hardt and Negri’s Empire’. ‘America needs to ask itself,’ Barnett writes in Great Powers (2009), ‘is it more important to make globalisation truly global, while retaining great-power peace and defeating whatever anti-globalisation insurgencies may appear in the decades ahead? Or do we tether our support for globalisation’s advance to the upfront demand that the world first resembles us politically?’ For Barnett, the answer is clear: America must trust in the market, which will solve all strategic problems. Russia? It is experiencing its Gilded Age, and will come around in fifty years. China? Already capitalist anyway, and Xi is just China’s version of Teddy Roosevelt trying to root out corruption and make markets more functional. Iran? Proceed with every deal possible, let the market penetrate, and stop threatening it with military strikes. Tell Israel to back off: Iran will take the position in the Middle East to which its culture and educated population entitle it. North Korea? First let Beijing extract from it all the minerals it needs. Then, when it reaches rock bottom, the Chinese will invite the South Koreans in to clean up the mess. In a world so tilted in the US’s favour, Barnett calls for drastically reducing the military to a small force with only a handful of bases that will be used to handle terrorist pin-pricks. In every other respect the time has come for stay-at-home capitalist husbandry.
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.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.