UNITED STATES FOREIGN POLICY: THE POSSIBILITIES OF SHIFTING FROM A PERMANENT WAR ECONOMY AND THE GLOBALIZATION OF CAPITALIST EMPIRE TO A POST-IMPERIAL INTERNATIONAL SYSTEM
(A presentation at the Deerfield Progressive Forum, Deerfield Beach, Florida, January 17, 2009)
In the Beginning
After suffering the greatest economic depression in United States history, this country participated in a war-time coalition with Great Britain and the former Soviet Union to defeat fascism in Europe and Japanese imperialism in Asia. As a result of the economic mobilization for war, the United States economy grew to become the most powerful one by war’s end. By 1945, Americans were responsible for three-fourths of the world’s invested capital and controlled two-thirds of its industrial capacity. Near the end of World War II, General Electric CEO Charles Wilson recommended that the U.S. continue the wartime partnership between the government, the corporate sector, and the military to maintain what he called a “permanent war economy.” He and others feared the possibility of return to depression.
To justify a permanent war economy-ever increasing military expenditures, bases all around the world, periodic military interventions, and the maintenance of a large land army, navy, and air force-an external threat was needed. In 1947 President Truman told the American people that there was such a threat, “international communism.”
Many liberals and conservatives remained skeptical about high military expenditures. But, just before the Korean War started, permanent war economy advocates threw their support behind recommendations made in a long- time classified document, National Security Council Document 68, which recommended a dramatic increase in military spending. NSC-68 also recommended that military spending from that point on should be the number one priority of the national government. When presidents sit down to construct a federal budget they should first allocate all the money requested by military and corporate elites and lobbyists concerned with military spending. Only after that should government programs address education, health care, roads, transportation, housing and other critical domestic issues.
When the United States entered the Korean War, Truman committed the nation to a permanent war economy. Each subsequent president did likewise. According to Chalmers Johnson (Blowback, Sorrows of Empire), between 1947 and 1990, the permanent war economy cost the American people close to $9 trillion. Ruth Sivard (World Military Expenditures) presented data to indicate that over 100,000 U.S. military personnel died in wars and military interventions during this period. And, in other countries, nearly 10 million people died directly or indirectly in wars in which the United States was a participant.
Some influential Americans raised criticisms of the new permanent war economy. For example, while he subsequently complied with many of the demands for more military spending, President Eisenhower declared in one of his first speeches in office that “every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.” After eight years in the White House Eisenhower gave a prescient farewell address in which he warned of a “conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry” which was new in American history. And, he proclaimed; “We must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex.” Incidentally, his original draft spoke of a “military-industrial-academic complex.”
Seven years later, in the midst of the Vietnam War, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. proclaimed “Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted. I speak for the poor of America who are paying the double price of smashed hopes at home and death and corruption in Vietnam. I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken.”
The Permanent War Economy Today
So we find ourselves in the midst of two wars today-Iraq and Afghanistan-that are already more costly than any war except World War II, against an enemy magnified, demonized, and mythologized as much or more than the cold war enemy to justify a $3 trillion price tag, the deaths of more than 4,000 soldiers, ten times that number of disabled veterans, and casualties and deaths of Iraqis and Afghanis probably approaching a million people. 9/11 afforded the Bush Administration the opportunity to launch a “war on terrorism” and the justification of preemptive war on any human target defined as a possible threat to the United States The “terrorists” became the post-Cold War “international communists.” This is what the permanent war economy has come to.
Did the vision of Charles Wilson and the framers and advocates of NSC 68 bear fruit in terms of the domestic economy? The answer to this question is complicated but in the end clear. The U.S. economy is subject to cycles of growth and decay; expansion and recession; and periods of increased consumerism and low unemployment versus periods of declining product demand, lower wages, and high unemployment.
Looking at the period since World War II, bursts of increased military spending brought the U.S. economy out of the recessions of the late 1940s and 50s. The 60s economy boomed as the Vietnam war escalated before the economic crises of the 1970s. The so-called Reagan recovery was driven by dramatic increases in military spending. 1980s military spending equaled the total value of such spending between the founding of the nation and 1980.
In addition, military spending has benefited those industries, communities, and universities which have been the beneficiaries of such largesse. In our own day, Halliburton, Bechtel, and Kellogg, Brown, and Root have done quite well. For example, when Dick Cheney left his post as Secretary of Defense in 1993 to become the CEO of Halliburton, its subsidiary, KBR jumped from the 73rd ranked Pentagon contractor to the 18th.
Military spending pumped money into the economy to the advantage of selected multinational corporations and some communities. Usually recipients of defense dollars were part of what C. Wright Mills called, “the power elite,” those powerful individuals who, at the apex of government, corporate, and military institutions, influence policy. On the other hand, most citizens have not been beneficiaries of military spending.
“Indirect effects” of military spending, overwhelm the short-term stimulative effects of such spending. Military spending is “capital intensive,” that is the investment of dollars in military goods and services require less labor power to produce than the investment of comparable dollars in other sectors of the economy. Robert Pollin and Heidi Garrett-Peltier refer to spending on Iraq as a “job killer.” They estimate that $1 billion spent on investments in education, healthcare, energy conservation, and infrastructure would create anywhere from 50 to 100 percent more jobs than comparable spending on the war. They say; “Taking the 2007 Iraq war budget of $138 billion, this means that upward of one million jobs were lost because the Bush Administration chose the Iraq sinkhole over public investment”
(The Nation, March 31, 2008).
Further, military spending requires government to borrow money from private sources. Consequently, the more borrowing for the military, the less funds are available for non-military economic activity. Non-military spending gets “crowded out” by investment in arms.
Paralleling this, expanding investments in military reduce the resources of society that can be allocated for the production of goods and services that have use values. Military spending constitutes waste in that the resources that go into armies, navies, air forces, and weapons of human destruction cannot be put to constructive use. Looking at government spending alone, the 2008 federal budget increased by $35 billion in military spending, bringing the total to $541 billion. At the same time federal aid to state and local governments fell by $19.2 billion. The war on Iraq has already cost $522.5 billion and it was projected by distinguished economists that the total cost for the war, including paying debts, veterans benefits, and replacing destroyed equipment, will top $3 trillion (Linda J. Bilmes and Joseph Stiglitz, Washington Post, March 9, 2008, p.B01).
As a new administration enters office in the context of a deepening depression, 2009 military spending for two wars, over 700 military installations, and contracting with private armies operating everywhere, will push towards a trillion dollars. This prospective allocation of scarce government resources has to be evaluated in the context of President-elect Barack Obama’s call for a massive green-jobs economic stimulus package and bailout programs for some 40 states suffering from their own budget deficits.
The Permanent War Economy in One State
Citizens of Florida so far have spent $36 billion on the Iraq war. And, the National Priorities Project (www. national priorities.org) estimated that for one year of Iraq war expenditures the state of Florida could have provided 12.7 million people with health care, 25 million homes with renewable electricity, 575,000 music and arts teachers, 11.2 million scholarships for university students, and 613,000 elementary school teachers.
Looking at Broward County, taxpayers have paid $3.9 billion for the war so far. Instead of expenditures for the Iraq war, this money could have provided for one year the following:
-1,385,189 people with health care or
-2,760,979 homes with renewable electricity or
-90,432 public safety officers or
-62,714 music and art teachers or
-1,224,540 university scholarships or
-28,953 affordable housing units or
-2,169,806 children with health care or
-535,663 head start places or
-66,937 elementary school teachers
Andrew Bacevich summed up this tradition of permanent war in reviewing a biography of 1940s Secretary of Defense James Forrestal in The Nation (April 23, 2007):
“From Forrestal's day to the present, semiwarriors have viewed democratic politics as problematic. Debate means delay. To engage in give-and-take or compromise is to forfeit clarity and suggests a lack of conviction. The effective management of national security requires specialized knowledge, a capacity for clear-eyed analysis and above all an unflinching willingness to make decisions, whatever the cost. With the advent of semiwar, therefore, national security policy became the preserve of experts, few in number, almost always unelected, habitually operating in secret, persuading themselves that to exclude the public from such matters was to serve the public interest. After all, the people had no demonstrable ‘need to know.’ In a time of perpetual crisis, the anointed role of the citizen was to be pliant, deferential and afraid.”
The Global Political Economy and US Foreign Policy
“When people do not have sufficient access to income, tools, opportunity and ability to accumulate assets, their fundamental right to work and earn a livelihood is threatened. Around the world and in the United States, systemic injustices, disparities based on gender, race and class, market fundamentalism, reworking of trade agreements and the erosion of labor rights all contribute to the erosion of people’s ability to earn a living wage with dignity.” Unitarian Universalist Service Committee (www.uusc.org, 2006.
We would be remiss if we failed to see the connections between the historic development of the permanent war economy and the parallel and connected developments of the global capitalist system. The global economic crisis and attendant war and terrorism in rich and poor countries alike is the direct resultant of years of unbridled, unplanned capitalist expansion on the world stage. We can plot the transformation of the global political economy, that is the parallel and combined development of economic and political institutions, since World War II to understand how and why the crisis of today emerged. And, after reflecting on world history, we can begin to see what needs to be done to overcome the crises that befall us.
Economic Crisis and Shifts Toward Financialization, Deindustrialization, and Globalization
During the period from 1945 and 1968, the so-called “golden age” of the U.S. economy, multinational corporations and banks spread across the globe while domestic consumption soared. Except for short recessions, the US economy grew steadily. The permanent war economy resulted in massive military spending, U.S. troops and bases in dozens of countries, bilateral and multinational military alliances, and deepening wars in Asia and covert operations in Africa, the Persian Gulf, and Latin America.
Underlying the global thrust of the U.S. military was an economic expansion similar in scope to the British empire of the nineteenth century. For example, US invested capital rose from $11 billion in 1950 to about $70 billion in 1969. This was so because profit margins from foreign investments were almost twice those of domestic operations. The year 1969 was illustrative as profit rates were 6.8 percent on domestic investments and 12.5 percent on foreign investments. MacEwan wrote about the significance of enlarging investments around the world when he suggested that “the absolute growth of U.S. business interests abroad is impressive, but it should be seen in the context of the establishment of overwhelming U.S. dominance in the international capitalist economy” ( in Harry R. Targ, Strategy of an Empire in Decline: Cold War II, 1986, p.32.)
The growth of international banking paralleled the growth of private investments on a worldwide basis and the United States was one of the leading financial participants. “In 1960 eight U.S. banks operated 131 overseas branches with overseas assets of $3.5 billion …By 1970 there were seventy-nine banks with 583 branches with $77.4 billion in assets…For comparison’s sake, the total assets of all U.S. commercial banks in 1960 were $255.7 billion; in 1967 $448.9 billion; and in 1974 (June) $872.0 billion. Thus while total domestic assets grew about 3 and one-half times between 1960-74, overseas assets grew about 42 times” (James Hawley in Targ, p. 35).
But, for reasons of military excess and the contradictions of global capitalism, the golden age could not last. The 1970s brought economic crisis around the world: oil shocks; inflation; high unemployment; over production; growing economic competition among the United States, European nations, Japan, and the Socialist camp. To further complicate the picture, third world revolutionary movements and demands for a New International Economic order challenged the global domination of industrial capitalist powers.
From the standpoint of U.S. corporations and banks, the most critical part of the crisis was the squeeze on profits. Public policies were adopted to promote recovery, particularly in profit rates. The Nixon administration withdrew the United States from the Bretton Woods system of fixed exchange rates so that investors could speculate in currencies.
In addition, the rulers of the International Monetary Fund and private banks began a massive campaign to pressure poor countries to borrow money. At that point the debt system as we know it was launched. It opened the doors for wealthy countries, from which corporations and banks came, to impose economic policies on loan recipients. As poor countries found themselves unable to continue to import oil at draconian prices, European and U.S. banks, flush with petrodollars from oil rich countries, made funds available. In exchange, demands grew from powerful countries and leading international institutions such as the International Monetary Fund to force borrowing countries to deregulate and privatize their economies and cut taxes. Poor countries were told that they would receive loans if they transformed their economies in ways to open the doors to foreign capitalist interests. Eventually, the changes demanded of poor countries were instituted in rich countries as well. In sum, the political agenda of imperial powers was to use the economic crises, particularly the oil shocks, to reverse the forty year commitment of the capitalist world to the welfare state. Critics such as Joseph Stiglitz and Kevin Phillips have referred to these policies as “market fundamentalism.”
In this 1970s context of global economic crisis three interconnected economic processes were set in motion. The first, as has been suggested, was financialization. This involved the dramatic growth, over the subsequent years in lending and credit, debt servicing, and speculation (stocks, bonds, hedge funds, private equity funds, and other forms of paper, e.g. “the virtual economy). The second, deindustrialization, constituted a massive movement by investors of capital out of U.S. goods-production, or manufacturing, to more profitable speculative activities or to production overseas where labor costs, wages and benefits, were significantly cheaper. Finally, globalization stimulated a qualitative increase in the integration of the U.S. into the global economy and culture with shifts to overseas production, distribution, lending, and speculation.
The period since the late 1970s and most associated with the “Reagan revolution” represented the culmination of policies relating to financialization, deindustrialization, and globalization. The United States, the international financial institutions, and other capitalist powers, vigorously promoted so-called “neoliberal policies” everywhere. Countries that needed to borrow money to continue to purchase the oil they had become addicted to were forced to downsize their governments, cut back on public services, deregulate their economies, sell-off or privatize their publically owned enterprises, and shift to producing products for export rather than domestic consumption.
At home, there were significant reductions in government programs relating to health, welfare, and education and radical increases in military spending. Sustained campaigns were initiated to destroy the labor movement. Tax cuts targeted the wealthiest Americans and breaks were given to corporations which shifted their manufacturing facilities to other parts of the world. And foreign policies were instituted to force poor countries to embrace the neoliberal policies described above. With minor variations such policies continued through 25 years of Republican and Democratic party rule. Contemporary critics of these historic developments refer to the economic program as “market fundamentalism” and the political vision of limited government, “negative government,” (limiting government programs to military spending and domestic police protection).
Ideological Justifications for the Permanent War Economy and the Globalization of Empire
So far we have discussed the permanent war economy, a policy commitment made by virtually every U.S. administration and Congress since the 1940s to make budget decisions based on the primacy of military spending. Military spending has served ever since World War II as an economic stimulus to overcome recessionary dynamics in the economy as a whole and to support secure contracts for huge corporations engaging in military production and service. We then described the fifty year development of U.S. capitalism on the world stage, arguing that parallel to military spending during this time frame was the substantial shift in economic activity from direct investment in goods and services at home and abroad to financial speculation. In addition, those corporations which continued to manufacture goods for domestic and international consumption shifted their productive operations to poor countries where lower wages could be paid. These changing features of the international political economy were extended by globalization, the dramatic increase in cross-national economic, political, and cultural interactions. In short, the global political economy of the last fifty years has been significantly shaped by the building of a permanent war economy, financialization, deindustrialization, and globalization.
While these processes are critical to understanding the U.S. role in the world, scholars, pundits, and most importantly politicians explained the U.S. role in the world in different ways. The American people were told that the U.S. faced diabolical enemies, that our place in world history was special, and that we had an obligation to bring the American experience to the world.
The ideological campaign for the Cold War was articulated in speeches by former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1946 and President Harry Truman in 1947. The former, addressing a college audience in Fulton, Missouri warned that “…from the Stettin in the Baltic to Trieste in the Adriatic, an iron curtain has descended across the continent.” One year later, President Truman in his famous Doctrine speech argued that there were two ways of life in the world, one based on freedom and the other tyranny. The United States, he said must defend the forces of freedom against “totalitarianism.” Of course, the threat came from the Soviet Union.
Three years later, an “in-house” document, National Security Council Document 68 (NSC 68) was drafted and circulated in the Truman administration by Secretary of State Dean Acheson. It recommended that military spending be the number one priority of every administration. And the recommendation was necessary because the Soviet Union constituted a military threat and an economic challenge. When the Korean War started, NSC 68 became publicly articulated policy and vision (even though the document itself remained classified until the 1970s).
The ideological construct, “good versus evil,” “freedom versus totalitarianism,” was rigidly imposed on a frightened public in the 1940s and 1950s as anti-communism pervaded the entire society. What came to be known as “McCarthyism,” imported images of domestic traitors, subversives, and foreignness into the American cultural stream. The threat was so great at home as well as abroad that state repression was justified to protect the nation.
In addition, academia contributed to the public face of this ideology through its development of “modernization theory.” Economic historian and Kennedy and Johnson foreign policy advisor Walt Rostow described what the world faced: Communism was “…a kind of disease which can befall a transitional society if it fails to organize effectively those elements within it which are prepared to get on with the job of modernization.” The disease must be expunged so that poor countries can develop market-based economies as did Europe and the United States. The ideological ground was laid for Vietnam, the Dominican Republic, Chile, Central America, and Iraq and Afghanistan in our own day.
And, of course, we can reflect on the words of President Reagan who proclaimed shortly before he left office: “We cannot escape our destiny, nor should we try to do so. The leadership of the free world was thrust upon us two centuries ago in that little hall of Philadelphia. In the days following World War II, when the economic strength and power of America was all that stood between the world and the return to the dark ages, Pope Pius XII said, ‘The American people have a great genius for splendid and unselfish actions. Into the hands of America God has placed the destinies of an afflicted mankind.’ We are indeed, and we are today, the last best hope of man on earth.”
And finally in our own day, and when the Soviet “evil empire” was long gone, a new enemy, “international terrorism” was identified. And, like the former Soviet Union, this enemy threatened our being and necessitated a strong military response. President Bush said in 2002 (and again just days before he left office):
“But the best way to secure the homeland is to find the enemy wherever they try to hide and bring them to justice. The best way -- make no mistake about it. You should not be confused about the nature of the people we're dealing with. They hate us, because we're free. They hate the thought that Americans welcome all religions. They can't stand that thought. They hate the thought that we educate everybody. They hate our freedoms. They hate the fact that we hold each individual -- we dignify each individual. We believe in the dignity of every person. They can't stand that.
And the only way they know to express themselves is through killing, cold-blooded killing. And so we need to treat them the way they are, as international criminals. And that's why my defense budget is the largest increase in 20 years. You know, the price of freedom is high, but for me it's never too high because we fight for freedom.”
The Global Political Economy Today
We now can consider the structure of the global economy today, the impacts of the policies promoted over the last thirty years, the reaction to these policies, and the possibilities of transforming these policies to better meet the needs of the world’s people.
Just a few pieces of data will illustrate what this historic process of economic and political transformation has come to:
First, economic concentration at the global level has reached extraordinary proportions. By 1996, the top 200 multinational corporations had combined sales exceeding the value of the Gross National products of all but the nine wealthiest countries and by 2002, these sales equaled 28 percent of the value of all goods and services produced in the world. In 2003, 52 of the world’s largest economies were corporations and 48 were nations. The largest corporation in the world today, Wal Mart, has the 19th largest economy among states, corporations, and banks. As to banks, twenty of them had assets of $425 trillion at the dawn of the new century and only 16 accounted for 60 percent of speculation on foreign exchange markets in 1999. Financial speculative transactions, reached a dollar value of $1.5 trillion a day in the 1990s.
Second, global debt continues to grow and is paralleled by expanding national and personal debt in the United States, thus increasing the vulnerability and precariousness of all peoples. Poor countries owed the international banks, public and private, $2.5 trillion in 2004 and between 1998 and 2002 poor countries paid back interest and principle on the debt $217 billion more than they received in new loans. And in the United States since the 1990s, American indebtedness has exceeded earned income.
Third, the processes of personal remuneration are being radically transformed on a worldwide basis. Over the last 100 years, the major activities workers of all kinds have engaged in to “earn a living,” have shifted from agriculture, (providing basic sustenance), to manufacturing (in many cases earning a livable wage), to service (working for lower and barely survivable wages), to struggling in the informal sector (desperately hustling on the streets, running drugs, prostitution, gambling, and selling commodities in public markets). Almost half those who seek to earn a living in Latin America today are now in the informal sector.
Fourth, inequality is expanding between countries and within countries and economic and political marginalization, or human precariousness is spreading. United Nations and others sources report that gaps between rich and poor people have grown over the last 40 years. Eighty percent of the world’s gross domestic product is controlled by one billion people and the other five billion share the remaining twenty percent of it. Nearly one quarter of humankind lives on $1 a day and almost half, 3 billion people, live on $2 a day. African economist, Samir Amin, has a name for this mal-distribution of income and wealth. He calls it human “precariousness” (Monthly Review, October, 2003). The growing inequality in the global system is paralleled by a similar dynamic within the United States, with at least ¼ of the population poor or working poor. And African American scholar Manning Marable reminds us that the growing precariousness of existence in the United States hits people of color disproportionately (“Globalization and Racialization,” http://www.greens.org/s-r/39/39-06.html)
Resistance to Empire Abroad and at Home
These and other data can be daunting, particularly if we fail to examine the varieties of resistance in global and national politics. Mass movements of workers, farmers, women, indigenous people, environmentalists, and peace activists have been mobilizing increasingly everywhere. One kind of example is the World Social fora, the annual meetings of so-called “anti-globalization” activists who meet and network every year somewhere around the world. Their rallying cry is “Another World is Possible.” For the first time, an annual meeting of the World Social Forum was held in the United States in June, 2007in Atlanta, Georgia. About 10,000 people attended, largely youth, women, people of color, and activists from or in solidarity movements with peoples of the Global South. Their energy, enthusiasm, and vision were inspiring.
At the level of governments, resistance to the global economic and political order that had been established after World War II is being challenged. Opposition is growing to rich country trade demands in the WTO, continued IMF penetration of poor countries, the debt system, and big power interference in the political and economic life of countries of the Global South.
In the United States during the recently concluded election season political interest and participation was high. Young and old became energized by the political process. Candidates were being forced, by virtue of the mobilizations, to address issues relevant to workers, women, African Americans, and youth. They were forced, however inadequately, to address health care, the environment, racist government policies, and a neoliberal economic policy that privileges corporate and banking interests at the expense of workers in the United States and around the world.
In the twentieth century we saw various political movements and ideologies offering a vision of “positive government,” that is a vision that says that political (and economic) institutions can and should be created by and for the vast majority of people. While many experiments in positive government failed, for a variety of reasons, the global movements of our own day are saying that we can establish new institutions that represent us all, and not just the rich and powerful. That is the continuing challenge of the 21st century.
Where to Begin: A Letter to Barack Obama,
When I was growing up in the 1950s I did not have much exposure to politics. The virulent anti-communism of that day did not make much sense to me but I did not have context, experience, or information to begin to understand where it came from and why it existed. Also, I did not have a sense of why United States foreign policy was the way it was. Statements by politicians and pundits left me cold.
I began to study political science, history, and journalism in the late 50s in college, political science in graduate school in the 1960s, and I gradually was drawn into the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Since I did not have political mentors ( family or friends to explain the rapidly changing world) I relied on analysts who accidentally came to my attention. Three shaped my thinking about the world then. They still have much to offer as we begin to think of a new foreign and domestic policy for the United States.
The first intellectual mentor of mine was the German émigré scholar, Hans Morgenthau who taught international relations at the University of Chicago. He wrote an international relations textbook called Politics Among Nations which went through at least a dozen editions. In it Morgenthau introduced certain ideas about human motivation. He thought power and greed were the most important. In addition, he claimed that nation-states personified these drives which had their roots in human nature. International relations, he said, like all politics was the struggle for power. His ancestral mentors were Thomas Hobbes who wrote that the state of nations was the state of nature and Machiavelli, who endorsed the view that the world was one of avarice. Machiavelli advised leaders to be sly as foxes and aggressive as lions.
I soon became disenchanted with this Morgenthau “theory of political realism.” But one element of his analysis continued to make sense to me. That is, he convincingly asserted that nations and their leaders who make claims about how they are acting in the world because of high moral principles are lying. They are using these moral sounding arguments to trick their own citizens into following brutal and inhumane policies so that the nation and its leaders can acquire more wealth and power. Even the United States, the argument suggested, acted for reasons of greed and avarice in the world and not for higher purpose. This turned out to be a radical idea in the 1950s.
Some years later, I discovered William Appleman William’s book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. For me, Williams added eye-opening insights. First, the pattern of United States intervention in the world was not the result of error, accident, naïveté, or the fault of Republicans or Democrats. In fact, any honest reading of the history of United States foreign policy would suggest that the country embraced a pattern of interventions of one sort or another ever since the founding of the nation. This is so whether we reflect on the over 200 military actions of the United States in other countries since 1789; or the massacre of ten million native peoples; or the taking of half of Mexican territory from that country in the 1840s; or the 30 interventions in Latin American and the Caribbean between 1898 and 1932; or the overthrows of Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Lumumba in the Congo, Allende in Chile, or any number of other similar cases.
Second, this pattern of interventions, Williams suggested, was based on economic interests. He said there was a connection between the needs of capitalism for resources, cheap labor, investment opportunities, and customers for American goods and the pattern of United States interventionism. However, Williams differed from some of those students of diplomacy who were inspired by his insights in one major regard. Williams wrote that policy makers believed that capitalism and democracy could only survive if the United States remained an imperial state. Williams never said, as others did, that expansion was a structural necessity of capitalism. He just argued that most decision makers believed it to be the case.
Finally, many studying social science in the early 1960s were exposed to C. Wright Mills, not because our teachers were impressed with his analysis but rather to bury what seemed to be a compelling hypothesis; that there existed a “power elite” that ruled America. The Power Elite shaped my early thinking about the world. This book accumulated data to suggest that their was an elite at the apex of our most powerful institutions: government, corporations, and the military. Those that dominated these three critical institutions in post World War II America circulated from one to another; serving in the corporate sector, the government, and/or the military.
For Mills United States foreign and domestic policy was largely defined by this power elite who ruled in their interests and not in the interests of the public at large. The Mills analysis was inspired by his own Texas populist roots. The elite were not a “class” in the economic sense only, but persons who by virtue of their institutional position represented the interests of their institutions. As American populists always claimed, elite interests were not necessarily the interests of the people.
I think of these old books now as I reflect on the possibilities brought about by the election outcome of November, 2008. We ask whether a new administration can lead to significant change in the institutions and policies that have caused the people, at home and abroad, so much pain and suffering. I reflect on these books now not because I find their analyses adequate to understand the deeper structures of the global political economy and the permanent war economy described above and the role of the United States within it. Rather I think of the themes reflected in these books as suggesting modest but significant modifications of years of United States foreign policy.
First, United States foreign policy must no longer be based on messianic notions of our moral superiority. Foreign policy must be based on limited goals and values recognizing that our propensity for global crusading has cost the lives and treasures of our citizens as well as peoples all over the world.
Second, any new, and effective, United States foreign policy must reject imperial ambitions and goals. Our interventionist past must be rejected and replaced by a commitment to multilateral diplomacy to address the colossal issues of our time. While many supporters of the Obama candidacy will continue to debate whether turning away from empire is ultimately achievable in a capitalist global economy, in the short-run an Obama administration can reverse the historic drift toward empire.
Finally, what the Obama campaign has initiated, mobilizing the people, must continue. It must be sustained over the months and years ahead. As Mills suggested, the antidote to rule by elites includes an animated and vigorous public actively engaged in the political process. Today this means demanding that public institutions and policies be shaped by people of all classes, races, genders, ages, ethnicities, and political perspectives.
I think these themes, gleaned from Morgenthau, Williams, and Mills, should inform the presidency of Barack Obama. Most importantly, these themes should inform the activism of our emerging progressive majority.
Harry Targ teaches United States foreign policy, international political economy, and American Studies at Purdue University. He has also been a member of the National Executive Committee of the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism (CCDS).