What Is American Foreign Policy About?
November 13, 2009        


              "(Anti-)Imperialism" - Platypus Forum - Nov. 13, 2009


            I'm going to address a slightly different question from the ones proposed for tonight's discussion: namely, what is the purpose of American foreign policy? Immediately some of you will object: the purpose? Surely there's more than one? Isn't it more true, in fact, to say that there's a different purpose in every situation?

            Yes, of course. If the purpose of invading Iraq was to secure control of the region's vast energy resources, then the purpose of invading Vietnam must have been different, since Vietnam has no (or few) energy resources. But any useful explanation must have a certain level of generality. The point is to find the principle, or the story line, in light of which all or most of the facts make sense.

            The academic and journalistic mainstream has no trouble making sense of American foreign policy. All other nations, they tell us, act out of self-interest; America alone acts out of idealism. We may have made mistakes, but our purpose has always been to support freedom, democracy, and human rights wherever they are endangered. Here are a few typical specimens of this view, which is often called "American exceptionalism."

            First, a column in the New York Times from September 1974 by a liberal commentator, William Shannon, reflecting on the Vietnam War:


For a quarter century, the United States has been trying to do good, encourage political liberty, and promote social justice in the Third World. But in Latin America, where we have traditionally been a friend and protector, and in Asia, where we have made the most painful sacrifices of our young men and our wealth, our relationships have mostly proved to be a recurring source of sorrow, waste, and tragedy. ... Our benevolence, intelligence, and hard work have proved not to be enough.



            Here's a very influential columnist, Joseph Kraft, a few years later: "The debacle in Vietnam showed that the United States has broken with its traditional policy of selflessly supporting the good guys."

            For a more recent example, here is the first sentence of a scholarly article on the Bush Doctrine in the prestigious academic journal International Security: "The promotion of democracy is central to the George W. Bush administration's prosecution of both the war on terror and its overall grand strategy." The New Yorker writer George Packer characterizes the history of American foreign policy in these terms: "America has always swung feverishly between its individualism and its moralism - between periods of business dominance, when the rest of the world can go to hell, and bursts of reformist zeal, when America shines a light unto the nations." In other words, we sometimes ignore the rest of the world, but when we pay attention, we always try to do good.

            Given a few days, I could find - and so could you - a hundred more examples. Even when it's not stated explicitly, it's taken for granted that American intentions are always good, American purposes always idealistic. Sometimes we screw up, because we're so innocent and naïve, or maybe arrogant and incompetent.  But even when, as in Vietnam, we have to drop millions of tons of bombs on people for their own good, it's not a crime, it's a tragedy. It can't be a crime, because our intentions are so good.

            Well, before you dismiss any opinion, no matter how foolish it seems, you should ask, with an open mind: "What's the evidence for it?" Usually, if you ask this and people don't just call you anti-American or a cynic or a deluded leftist, they'll reply with one or more of the following examples. The first is Woodrow Wilson. Wilson was supposedly a noble, almost saintly idealist, who called for the self-determination of all peoples, though the crafty Europeans outmaneuvered him at Versailles, which doomed the world to another World War.

            But Wilson's idealism was highly selective. Where the United States had no territorial ambitions, as in Eastern and Southern Europe, Wilson could be generous, at least rhetorically. But over here in our own back yard, in Mexico, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, when popular protests arose, Wilson sent in American troops, who devastated those countries and installed investor-friendly governments.

            The Marshall Plan is usually offered as evidence of American benevolence. After World War II, Europe and Japan were unable to finance their own economic recovery. Hunger and unemployment were widespread. So the United States, which emerged from the war incredibly wealthy, lent them the money. Was this idealism? It was enlightened self-interest - and not all that enlightened. The purposes of the Marshall Plan were to create  American export markets and investment opportunities in Europe and Japan, and to prevent the left in those countries from coming to power. Also, Marshall Plan loans had to be spent purchasing American goods.

            This is true of most foreign aid, another often-cited example of American idealism. That aid comes with many restrictions, and every country except one - Israel - is required to spend most aid funds on American goods, so that aid functions as a subsidy from American taxpayers to American businesses. And the amounts of non-military American aid are tiny. Most Americans think that foreign aid amounts to 5 or 10 percent of the federal budget. In fact, it has never, in any year, amounted to even ¾ of one percent of the Pentagon budget.

            What about humanitarian interventions and democracy promotion? Don't Kosovo and the overthrow of Saddam demonstrate American idealism? The American intervention in Kosovo may or may not have been justified - let's bracket that question. But at the same time the violence in the Balkans was unfolding, the US was strongly supporting several states - Indonesia and Turkey for example - where the levels of violence against innocent people far exceeded the Balkans. Not only did the US not intervene against those states, it gave them large amounts of military and diplomatic support.

            As for the invasion of Iraq: were the Cheney administration's - sorry, I mean the Bush administration's - intentions good? Let's try to imagine what would happened if everything had gone according to plan. First, the Iraqi exiles the US favored would have been installed in power, promising elections at some unspecified future date. Then they would have signed an oil-exploitation agreement giving American oil companies everything they wanted. Next, they would have approved a constitution turning Iraq into a completely deregulated state, an investors' paradise. Finally, they would have signed a status-of-forces agreement giving the US four or five enormous military bases in the Iraqi desert from which to control the Middle East militarily. Would the average Iraqi be better off than under Saddam? Probably, but that was hardly the point.

            So then, if American foreign policy isn't about spreading freedom, democracy, human rights, and material welfare to those that need them, what is it about? Well, what is any government policy about? As a matter of simple common sense - almost a truism - government policy is about serving the interests of those who control the government. Who controls the American government? In a weak, formal sense, the people control the government, by voting. But that's a very weak sense. In a strong sense, business controls the government: by financing parties and candidates, by controlling news media, by shaping public opinion, and ultimately, if all else fails, by moving capital out of the country.

            And how does business communicate its wishes to government? Do they micromanage it - hold a weekly meeting and then send over instructions to Congress and the President for the following week? Only during the Bush Administration. Usually it's more subtle. Quite often the US Chamber of Commerce or the Business Roundtable or the Wall St. Journal or some right-wing think tank will advocate specific policies, or CEOs will meet with individual Congressmen or Presidential advisers. But more generally, both Democratic and Republican governments are expected to understand that there are certain constraints within which they must operate, certain fundamental unspoken goals which they must achieve.

            Business is not a monolith, of course; sometimes businesses have competing interests. But there's a large area of shared interests, of things all businesses favor. They all want weak labor unions, or none; they all want low taxes, especially on the rich; they all want weak or no environmental or consumer-safety or occupational-safety regulations; they all want no restrictions on foreign investment or resource ownership or capital flows; they all want a minimum of social spending, so that the population will be as insecure as possible; and they all want a political system that can be controlled by money, which is to say, controlled by them. This is what they want for the United States, and for most of American history, they've gotten it, except when they bankrupted the country with the Great Depression and there were a few reforms, called the New Deal. But business never accepted the New Deal. They fought back, and in 1980 they won and now they have all those things again.

            And that's what they want for the rest of the world: no organized labor, low taxes, weak regulation, no restrictions on investment or lending, no social safety net, and no popular sovereignty, that is, no real democracy. To make the world as much like this as possible: that's the purpose of American foreign policy:. You can call it imperialism; you can call it fighting Communism; you can call it neoliberalism or globalization or the Washington Consensus or creating a favorable business climate. You can call it anything you like. But if you look at the history of American foreign policy, you will find that the US government virtually never opposes a foreign government that supports those things or supports a foreign government that opposes those things.

            Now, how does this explain why the US dropped all those bombs on Vietnam? Well, even if a country isn't by itself very important economically or militarily to the United States, it may be important in another way. If a country is not dominated by business, if it has a government that declares its responsibility to be the welfare of its people rather than that of rich foreign and domestic investors, and if that country succeeds in developing economically and providing a better life for its citizens, that's very bad - it could give other developing countries, or even developed countries, the wrong idea. It could lead them to want to try to develop independently, their own way rather than the US way or the IMF way. This used to be called the "domino theory." Chomsky calls it the "threat of a good example." It's very dangerous.

            So US foreign policy has to eliminate the threat of a good example: it has to make sure that non-capitalist or non-business-friendly countries don't succeed. This explains the embargos on Cuba and Nicaragua - and for that matter, the embargo on the Soviet Union after 1917. And it explains the war on Vietnam. Throughout Southeast Asia - in Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, the Philippines - poor people were looking to see if the Vietnamese would succeed. They never got to find out; what they did learn was that if they tried to do it that way themselves, the US would destroy their countries too. And that was pretty discouraging. In that sense, the US won the war in Vietnam. It eliminated the threat of a good example.

            This is not to say that the US government always opposes the good guys and supports the bad guys. Solidarity and the other East European and Russian dissidents were all good guys. And Saddam and Milosevic, and for that matter, Lenin and Mao and Ho and Castro, were all bad guys, if being willing to kill and imprison your political enemies and eliminate free speech makes you a bad guy. But of course that's not why the US opposed them. There are so many examples of the US supporting bad guys or opposing good guys - Angola, Argentina, Brazil, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Greece, Guatemala, Haiti, Indonesia, Iran, Iraq, Nicaragua, Paraguay, the Philippines, South Africa, South Korea, South Vietnam, Thailand, Turkey, Uruguay, and Zaire, to name just a few - that it's obvious that being a good guy or a bad guy has nothing to do with whether or not the US supports you. If you want US support, be good to US business. If you can also have human rights, like Costa Rica, so much the better - you'll be less trouble. But first, take care of business. Then we can deal.

            Now, William Shannon, what can you and I do about all this? Well, unfortunately I'm out of time, but I'm sure you can figure it out. It's not quantum gravity theory. It's just democracy.