Perry Anderson, “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers,” New Left Review 83

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Perry Anderson, “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers,” New Left Review 83 (Sept/Oct 2013)
The distinguished polymath and essayist, Perry Anderson, has written a learned and provocative history of “American foreign policy and its thinkers” that specialists would do well to read. One need not accept his conclusions to admire his range and élan. Too few diplomatic historians attempt syntheses of this kind, and his achievement – the measure of his ambition and the robustness of his challenge – stands partly as a rebuke to our profession, which produces much impressive postcard pointillism but too few large-canvas panoramas. Anderson’s essays demonstrate the benefits of interrogating American foreign policy in the longue durée – blurring chronological boundaries that are too often marked out in bold – and of pursuing a single causal thread with overarching explanatory potential. Anderson presents a strong case for economic determinism; for a renewal of appreciation for William Appleman Williams and the Wisconsin School.

Of course, the powerful unity of Anderson’s “Imperium” comes at a price. I am sympathetic to the notion that American foreign policy is designed primarily to advance its economic interests, just like most nations in history. In this sense I agree that some historians have been cavalier (and intellectually narrow) in dismissing Williams et al as partisan products of their time, wedded to mono-causality. On the pieties of post-revisionism, Anderson quotes Thomas McCormick effectively: “While post-revisionists may duly note materialist factors, they then hide them away in an undifferentiated and unconnected shopping list of variables. The operative premise is that multiplicity, rather than articulation, is equivalent to sophistication.”1 There was something to McCormick’s sharp observation in 1982 and it feels apposite today.

Yet Anderson is unduly harsh on those he deems neglectful of economics. On Odd Arne Westad’s The Global Gold War, for example, Anderson observes that it “contains a few nervous, indecisive pages on economic considerations in US foreign policy, without significant bearing on the subsequent narrative, before concluding with perceptible relief at the end of it, that – as exemplified by the invasion of Iraq – ‘freedom and security have been, and remain the driving forces of American foreign policy.” (38) This seems to me a rather narrow reading of the book. Compare Anderson’s judgment with a quotation from the offending pages:
In a way, the Marxists seem to be right in arguing for a systemic role for business interests: throughout its existence, the American elite has argued – though in very diverse ways – for the promotion of free market exchanges as being at the core of US “national interest” abroad. While denying individual capitalists, no president has moved away from seeing the protection of such exchanges as a core duty.2
This is insufficiently bold and decisive for Anderson, but it works for me. The Global Cold War is highly effective in tracing how American (and Soviet) ideology – shaped crucially by economic considerations, without being exclusively defined by them – served to expand the Cold War’s parameters. Or to put it another way: while material self-interest conditions the foreign policies of all nations, some phenomena are only truly comprehensible via interpretive “multiplicity.” Westad’s analysis of the policies that the United States (and indeed the Soviet Union) pursued in the Global South from the 1960s surely belongs to this category. Try reducing the Americanization of the Vietnam War to a tragic story of U.S. economic self-interest. Some have certainly tried, and Anderson mentions Noam Chomsky admiringly near the end. But the process requires awkward contortion to avoid contact with a powerful range of factors – no less selfish or ill-advised – that also shaped policy.
At the beginning of “Imperium,” Anderson writes that “there developed from mid-century 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.”(5) An important moment arrived in 1943, when Paul Nitze and Christian Herter founded the School of Advanced International Study in Washington DC – which in 1950 became the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Study (SAIS). Nitze later recalled how disappointed he was at the time by the deficiencies in academic thinking about foreign policy:
When I joined the academic community and surveyed the literature, most of it was historical. They’d give courses on current affairs, but they’d have no theoretical background at all. And I complained to various people… why has United States academia been so deficient in addressing themselves from an experienced and theoretical view as to the practice of foreign policy?3
Anderson’s second essay, “Consilium,” is an insightful, and at times devastating, critique of many of today’s best-known “grand strategists,” mostly educated at or based at Nitze’s SAIS and its emulators: the Wilson, Kennedy, Fletcher and Walsh Schools. This list includes Walter Russell Mead, Michael Mandelbaum, G. John Ikenberry, Charles Kupchan, Robert Kagan and Zbigniew Brzezinski. Anderson is more sympathetic to the realists than the liberal interventionists, but he cautions in the early going that “genuine realism” is “not…a stance in inter-state relations, or a theory about them, but… an ability to look at realities without self-deception, and describe them without euphemism.” [12] Anderson self-identifies as a “genuine” realist.

Through his close reading of America’s grand strategists, Anderson’s gifts as an intellectual historian take flight. In making a case for America’s uniqueness, one can certainly do worse than identify the manner in which graduates and faculty of the nation’s schools of public policy and international affairs enter government and shape policy. To my mind, there is little that is exceptional about the United States pursuing foreign policies that redound to its economic advantage: Great Britain followed the same logic during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as Alfred Thayer Mahan admiringly observed in 1890.4 But the US sharply departs from the UK, and previous dominant powers, in the manner in which the positivist social sciences are entwined with the making of diplomacy.5 The United States is the first hegemonic nation to pursue foreign policies shaped by individuals trained in such fields. Individuals of a similar educational background did not guide British foreign policy through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because the academic disciplines of political science and international relations simply did not exist.

What becomes evident through Anderson’s discussion of Kagan, Brzezinski, Mandelbaum et al is that the disciplines of political science, international relations, and economics – particularly when taught in schools of international affairs and public policy – have produced too many graduates who claim to have identified immutable patterns in international affairs, and who believe “axiomatically” in America’s leadership role in interpreting them – that the “hegemony of the United States continues to serve both the particular interests of the nation and the universal interests of humanity.” (163) Liberal interventionists, neoconservatives and most realists share this core assumption. And all to varying degrees are susceptible to the allure of “scientism,” which, as John Gray writes, “has many sources, but central among them is a refusal to accept that intractable difficulty is normal in human affairs. Many human conflicts, even ones that are properly understood, do not fall into the category of soluble problems.”6

McGeorge Bundy once remarked of Walt Rostow that he tended to decide on an issue “before he thought about it,” a cognitive narrowing also displayed by some of Anderson’s thinkers. For a case in point, read not just the books Anderson discusses, but foreign policy editorials by the same authors in the pages of Wall Street Journal, New York Times, and the Washington Post. One can usually guess, with some accuracy, the content of an opinion piece by the author’s name and subject-line name alone. This is why Walter Lippmann has no genuine heir: the content of his “Today and Tomorrow” columns were not so easily anticipated. In academic publications, media advocacy, and upon assuming a policymaking role, political scientists have led with theories – sometimes attaining brand status – about the grand purpose of American power: Walter Russell Mead writing on America’s world-making capabilities, where “the end of history is the peace of God,” John Ikenberry’s identification and veneration of “liberal hegemony, not empire,” Zbigniew Brzezinski’s “grand chessboard” in which “the chief geopolitical prize is Eurasia,” Robert Kagan on the indispensability of strong, activist leadership of the “world America made.”7 Grand strategies are conceived, locked into position, and often become rigid, chimerical and potentially dangerous (if they carry traction within a presidency) when the world refuses to play along.

In an essay for Foreign Policy, Stephen Walt criticized public policy and international affairs schools for two principal shortcomings:
One is, I think, many of our schools use an obsolete model. The standard model of a public policy school will teach people some microeconomics, teach them some statistics, teach them something we call policy analysis, maybe give them a little bit of leadership, and then they can dabble in a bunch of other areas. This is a model that's been around for 30, 35 years. It shortchanges history. We don't generally teach history in public policy schools…. Problem No. 2 is public policy schools have one danger that disciplinary departments don't have, and that's the danger of co-optation. The great virtue of academic institutions is that they are independent. They can be creative, original, dissident voices.8

It is a powerful critique, not least because Walt has likely observed these problems firsthand at Harvard’s Kennedy School. Policy-oriented scholarship is too often stripped of its critical element as ideas are simplified – and their originality and importance amplified – for the consumption of presidents and presidential aspirants. Anderson identifies a problematic common theme in his grand strategic canon: “a strain of unconscious desperation, as if the only way to restore American leadership to the plenitude of its merits and powers in this world, for however finite a span of time, is to imagine another one altogether.” (166) It is a powerful insight into the dangers of scientism.

1 Thomas McCormick, “Drift or Mastery? A Corporatist Synthesis for American Diplomatic History,” Reviews in American History, December 1982, pp. 318-319.

2 Odd Arne Westad, The Global Cold War: Third World Interventions and the Making of Our Times (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 29. The italics are Westad’s.

3 “Reflections of a Cold Warrior,” Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Study, 1996, (accessed June 28, 2014.)

4 See Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660-1783 (Boston: Little Brown 1890, New York: Dover Books Reprint, 1987).

5 See Joel Isaac, “The Human Sciences in Cold War America,” Historical Journal, Volume 50, Number 3 (September 2007).

6 John Gray, “Malcolm Gladwell is America’s Best-Paid Fairytale Writer.” November 21, 2013, The New Republic, (accessed June 20, 2014).

7 Walter Russell Mead, God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World (New York: Knopf, 2007), 412; G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan: The Origins, Crisis and Transformation of the American World Order (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), G. John Ikenberry, “Liberal Order Building,” in Melvyn Leffler et al (eds.) To Lead the World: American Strategy After the Bush Doctrine (New York: Oxford University Press, 2008), 95; Zbigniew Brzezinski, The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and its Geostrategic Imperatives (New York: Basic Books, 1997); Robert Kagan, The World America Made (New York: Knopf, 2012).

8 “Does the Academy Matter?” Foreign Policy, March 14, 2014, (accessed June 27, 2014.)

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