The American project in the Middle East: The end is nigh!

If you think the past week or so has not gone well for Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, then what to say about the U.S. position in the Middle East? Washington’s attempt to remake or at least manage the region has suffered a string of blows that suggests the end is nigh.

Dreams of transforming the region look wildly implausible today. Mohamed Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood leader who has consolidated his control as president of Egypt, launched one straw into the wind. He was unabashed in telling a New York Times reporter that Americans had to get used to a multicultural world. “If you want to judge the performance of the Egyptian people by the standards of German or Chinese or American culture, then there is no room for judgment.” Islamic values in one way or another now seem bound to define his country’s politics as much as they do everyday life. On another front, Afghan women made their own point about cultural persistence. A survey released by the Population Reference Bureau reveals they have no problem with gender relations that American policymakers have denounced as oppressive and have sought to alter through aid programs.

Pro-U.S. regimes, variously clients or partners, have become increasingly troublesome. Egypt is kicking off the old traces with President Morsi suggesting that good relations with Israel depends on Washington delivering on the other part of the 1978 Camp David accord, the creation of a Palestinian state. A couple of billion dollars in annual aid no longer seems to purchase a blind eye in Cairo to what has proven a one-sided peace deal.

Iraq is paying no dividends on the costly U.S. investment there. Washington has failed to shape the government in Baghdad to its preferences, to maintain a residual U.S. military force, or to sustain any significant U.S. training mission. All these critical means of exercising post-occupation influence have closed off. Meanwhile the Nouri al-Maliki government is uncooperative on the two issues of current American concern, the overthrow of the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria and the containment of Iran.

In Afghanistan the military mission seems to have reached its own dead end. Hostility to NATO trainers has undercut the one remaining contribution that the U.S. policymakers could have made to the survival of its feeble Kabul client. Where to go from here but to the exit?

Israel is now a loose cannon, well beyond U.S. influence. The declining U.S. position in the region means Washington has little to offer to secure the cooperation of the Netanyahu government. Why should that government defer to an Obama administration that can’t deliver Turkey, Egypt, or Iraq and is reconciled to Iran becoming a latent nuclear power? Indeed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has turned the tables by overtly seeking to influence the U.S. presidential election. While the tail attempts to wag the dog, the Israeli lobby controls the bounds of legitimate discussion of this troubled relationship so that the dog develops no heretical ideas.

More broadly, a bevy of powers has made it their business to obstruct and disrupt U.S. influence. The regional powers dubious about the American role now include Turkey, Egypt, and Iran. China and Russia have joined the scrum, eager to constrain the United States where they can. And now the leading states of the European Union, long ambivalent about U.S. activity on their Mediterranean doorstep, are once again considering measures to achieve a unified foreign policy. The EU could over the long haul give U.S. policymakers the biggest international headache of all.

The American public has steadily lost its appetite for further meddling — an unsurprising trend given all that has transpired over the last decade. Most Americans say they want nothing to do with an Israeli-Iranian war that some friends of Israel so blithely contemplate. The conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan were quite enough, thank you. The election year message on those two interventions seems loud and clear: “just go away.”

For those who like to take the long view, the pattern we’re seeing here looks for all the world like an imperial project grinding toward its inglorious end. This is a point made in comments here previously and in the recently published Arc of Empire (co-authored with Steven I. Levine). But seldom does the moment of critical transition come so clearly into focus as it has lately. Day after day the news points to a great power on the defensive. Its Middle East dreams have gone sour, its good will in the region has dwindled, its international support has narrowed, its clients have strayed, its domestic backing has evaporated, and its tools of control have proven largely irrelevant and even counterproductive. The end feels pretty nigh!

Ryan Crocker and the Imperial Reckoning

Outgoing Ambassador Ryan Crocker’s interview with the New York Times earlier this week served notice that a controversial American project is drawing to a close. Crocker has been intimately involved from the beginning. He served in the State Department during the run up to the Iraq invasion and warned in a co-authored memo titled “The Perfect Storm” of the dangers of Iraq fragmenting and becoming a focus of regional conflict. He later became ambassador to Iraq before his posting to Afghanistan.

His impending departure from Kabul has put him a retrospective mood. He offers as lessons worth learning from the Iraq-Afghanistan adventure that U.S. control is limited, especially when meddling in other peoples’ lives and lands, and that liquidating an intervention gone bad is difficult.

Crocker’s comments are more interesting for their omissions than for their self-evident insights. He could say, for example, that he has been involved in a great imperial failure deserving of careful study.

It’s imperial in the sense that the Bush administration took over two countries by force of arms and along with the Obama administration tried to reshape them to U.S. preferences through a combination of direct rule and client regimes. This exercise would in the case of any other country be called empire. So let’s not be squeamish; for the sake of clarity, let’s do it here.

It’s a failure in the sense that the goals that defined the project at the outset have not been met, and even the watered down objectives seem well beyond reach. The destruction and dislocation on the ground has been considerable, indeed a humanitarian disaster. The expenditure of U.S. resources at a time of mounting fiscal constraint has been foolishly profligate. The Middle East may be less responsive to U.S. interests and the international community less attuned to U.S. legitimacy and leadership than at any time since the end of World War II.

The magnitude of that failure becomes evident if viewed in comparative terms. The United States has carved out positions overseas that can fairly be called imperial dating back to the seizure, occupation, and pacification of the Philippines in 1898-99. Cuba, Haiti, Guatemala, Iran, South Korea, Japan, and Vietnam were some of the other countries that came under and then slipped out of U.S. control. Yet arguably in none of these cases — with one glaring exception — did the outcome fall so short of U.S. goals and prove so damaging to U.S. interests.

That exception was of course Vietnam, which Crocker does not even allude to even though his foreign service career began there just as the U.S. war there was drawing to its dismal end. He might well have said that taking over Iraq and Afghanistan flew in the face of lessons that Vietnam should already have taught. But serious Vietnam lessons — those that are well grounded historically — remain radioactive. Political leaders and the foreign policy establishment don’t want to get close. They have many ambitions but glowing in the dark seems not one of them.

One reason for the U.S. failure in the Middle East seems obvious. The Bush administration embraced empire long after empire’s expiration date had passed. The American project faced potent opposition in Iraq and Afghanistan that could be contained only by making deals with shrewd collaborators with their own interests to serve. The international hostility to the Iraq invasion was intense, and even in the United States the Iraq adventure fell into disfavor. In domestic and international opinion Afghanistan has fared only slightly better. In short empire has become anathema. It is so disagreeable a phenomenon that even the American policymakers who practice it can not bring themselves to call it by its proper name.

Thus Crocker’s interview provides a reminder that the time for lessons, stocktaking, judgments, and even recrimination, scapegoating, and shirking responsibility have arrived. For any historian, this marks the beginning of a familiar process following a fairly standard script. We have already largely gotten through the first stage — the appearance of journalist accounts written from the perspective of Washington and the troops in the field. These first cut histories are usually followed by participant memoirs in which decision makers and their servitors like Crocker can offer up their own usually self-serving versions of events. The third stage opens as the relevant government documents and personal papers see the light of day. Policy wonks and history geeks have a field day as the National Archives and presidential libraries open for research the fundamental stuff of good history — ample, detailed evidence. (At this point the original of Crocker’s memo should appear and scholars will determine whether it lives up to its reputation.)

The resulting richly documented reconstructions may improve on the journalist and memoir accounts, but they won’t provide the last word or yield a consensus. Indeed, perspectives are bound to continue to change depending especially on developments in Iraq, Afghanistan, and their neighborhood. Perspectives are also bound to get richer as scholars explore the international perspective, including regional views. This entire process is agonizingly slow. Declassification of government documents usually doesn’t happen until thirty years or more after the event. (Some important material related to intelligence and covert activities may never be released.) So sadly as time passes and the basis for judgment grows richer, the interest in it outside fairly narrow communities of specialists fades as new issues rivet public and policy attention.

Finally, Crocker’s diplomatic swan song raises difficult professional and moral questions about how to respond when implicated in a policy deeply damaging to the U.S. international position, blatantly in violation of professed U.S. values and international norms, resulting in death and destruction to millions, and directing yet another generation of young Americans through the meat grinder of a misbegotten war. Resign quietly? Protest publicly knowing little will come of it? Serve on in hopes of somehow preventing a bad course of action from getting worse? Honor an earlier commitment of service to the American state — or to be more precise the imperial presidency? Crocker and others in the foreign service and the military will no doubt tell us more about how they wrestled with these options or simply passed them by with little thought to anything beyond the obligation to follow orders. Imperial reckonings are also, it seems, a time for personal reckonings.

Panetta on tour in an Asia without history

Last week Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta completed an inspection tour of the Asia. Like any respectable tourist, he should have shown some interest in the lands on his itinerary. The proclaimed Obama administration pivot toward the region provided all the more reason for a careful look at Asia’s path to the present. Over the last century the region has gone through an extraordinary transformation in which colonialism, revolution, warfare, authoritarian and communist leaders, and state-guided economic development have all played a part. The U.S. involvement has been deep, varied and highly consequential. In four wars beginning in the Philippines in 1899, Americans have practiced counter-insurgency, cultivated allies and confronted enemies, secured a network of military bases, perfected the art of annihilating cities from the air, offered up its consumer market as an export prize, and in general experienced triumph as well as frustration.

Panetta’s formal comments and casual remarks reveal little interest in this rich past, no insights that would be instructive, and some generalizations that are distinctly misleading if not wrongheaded.

  • The commencement address he delivered at the U.S. Naval Academy on 29 May on the eve of the trip anticipated the cavalier handling of history to come. The United States was, he informed the midshipmen, “returning to our maritime roots” and taking care of “historic” alliances” in the region. But nothing to clarify these claims or their relevance to the “China challenge” preoccupying the Obama administration.
  • Two days later during a stopover in Hawaii, he informed assembled troops that “we learned a lot of lessons” from the Vietnam War. But he offered none that were policy relevant. Indeed, the only lesson he served up was “support our troops” — and this without saying who had failed them during the Vietnam conflict and how.
  • Talking the next day with reporters , Panetta stressed the importance of building trust with China but gave nary a thought to how Chinese leaders had reacted to earlier U.S. military expansion and whether lots of meetings and expressions of U.S. good intentions were (as Panetta seemed to assume) enough to create confidence in Beijing.
  • In the major address of the tour, delivered in Singapore on 2 June, Panetta opened and closed by genuflecting to Clio. He recalled the U.S. turn to the Pacific during the era of continental expansion and his own memory of the fear that gripped his coastal California community during war with Japan and later in Korea. “Over the course of history,” he noted glibly at the end, “the United States has fought wars, we have spilled blood, we have deployed our forces time and time again to defend our vital interests in the Asia-Pacific region.” But these gestures to the historical muse went nowhere.

His one attempt at a grand historical observation led to trouble. He claimed that U.S. military, diplomatic, and economic presence in Asia had “helped usher in an unprecedented era of security and prosperity in the latter half of the 20th century.” Exactly the opposite would be closer to the truth. The U.S. presence had spawned conflict and U.S. military might had sown destruction between 1899 and 1975. Richard Nixon’s decision to retreat from Asia marked the end of a long, bloody drive into the region. He brought the Vietnam War to an end, recognized China as regional power with which the United States would have to do business, and swore to avoid involvement in more Asian wars. This retreat may have been the most important U.S. contribution to the period of peace and development that followed.

  • Panetta’s last set of comments came on 3 June in remarks to U.S. Navy personnel in Cam Ranh Bay, a major U.S. logistical base during the Vietnam War. Panetta tantalizingly pointed to “the great arc of history that we’re all part of.” But predictably nothing on the bend of the arc and its larger significance.

Under the circumstances he did have to say something about Vietnam’s place in the arc. “A tremendous amount of blood was spilled here on all sides, on the American side and on the Vietnamese side.” But what sense to make of “the sacrifice of all those who fought and many of whom who died in that war”? Panetta grasped the happy thought that the terrible costs would be justified “if we can build a better future.” (He seemed to like this formulation because he used it again in even more convoluted form in remarks to a group of reporters: “If we can work together, both of our countries, to develop a better relationship between the United States and Vietnam, all of the sacrifice involved in that war will have proven worthwhile because we will improve the peace and prosperity of the Asia-Pacific region.”) Panetta’s anodyne approach suggests he cannot see (or will not see) that the Vietnam War was the result of contending differences — Vietnamese and American — over the future each wanted for that country and that the defeat of U.S. forces and their Saigon ally finally resolved the issue. Sacrifice in this case had not built a better future; it had been the by-product of a violent dispute over who got to define that future. Americans and Vietnamese emerged from that war with a heavy burden that made a better world harder, not easier, to achieve.

Panetta’s weak sense of the past is revealing at several levels. Here is a self described member of the Vietnam generation who has witnessed first hand the trauma of that war and its legacy of division and distrust. Perhaps even more significant, he has a sterling establishment reputation After serving an apprenticeship in the House of Representatives, he moved over to the executive side, first in Bill Clinton’s White House and more recently under Barack Obama as head of the CIA and now Department of Defense. Yet despite a generational stake in Asia and considerable policy experience, this consummate Washington insider can bring to the official table nothing more than a shallow and unsophisticated understanding of the policy-relevant past.

There is good reason to conclude based on comments by the president and others in the administration, that Panetta’s limits are those of an entire administration and arguably even the broader Washington policy community. Ultimately history seems irrelevant except as rhetorical dressing or plausible talking points.

Tourists can ignore history without harm. Policymaker who do so are rendered clueless and forced to operate in something close to an eternal present. Worst of all, policymakers floating free of the past can talk in grandiose and self-flattering terms about bringing peace, stability, security, and prosperity to an entire region while ignoring the difficult questions history poses.

  • What exactly is the point of the U.S. pivot toward Asia and what risks does it entail? If the previous U.S. involvement that began in the Philippines and culminated in Vietnam generated repeated rounds of conflict, what are the reasons for thinking things will go more smoothly this time?
  • If countries within the region resisted in varying degrees the first U.S. intrusion, why expect cooperation or acquiescence this time? How will those countries with their own immediate stakes and with still lively memories of an earlier era of conflict involving the United States respond to the prospect of Americans pivoting back to prominence? (The meeting between Russia’s Vladimir Putin and China’s Hu Jintao right on the heels of the Panetta tour underline the pertinence of that question.) Are American leaders, who once underestimated Asian nationalism, about to repeat that mistake?
  • What commitments and unforeseen consequences might follow from deepening U.S. engagement? Can the U.S. treasury now sustain the costs? Will today’s public prove any more patient with commitments gone awry than in the past?

An administration without a serious sense of history has simply finessed these questions when it should be wrestling with them — and sharing their answers with the rest of us.

Power Pivot or Duffer’s Divot? Obama’s Asia Policy (co-author Steven I. Levine)

As a founding father of the realist approach to international relations, Hans Morgenthau understood that a realist policy, while grounded in the play of power, should be tempered by prudence and historical experience. By this standard the Obama administration’s “pivot toward Asia” (announced in a string of statements, most notably the January 2012 strategic review) fails egregiously.

It is hardly prudent. Forget the American rhetoric welcoming China’s rise. Washington is more preoccupied with limiting that rise—as China’s leaders are well aware. And they are not intimidated to judge from the analysis by the well-connected policy intellectual Wang Jisi (featured in the New York Times this week). They see the United States as a declining power suffering from domestic disarray. Prudence would prompt searching questions about the exact ends of U.S. policy relative to China and the adequacy of the means to back up any eventuality.

Perhaps even more serious, the architects of the Asia pivot are historically obtuse. Washington may want to check China’s influence within its own neighborhood. Yet as Morgenthau indicated in a 1965 warning against war in Vietnam, challenging China on its own doorstep is a fool’s errand. “China is, even in her present underdeveloped state, the dominant power in Asia. She is this by virtue of the quality and quantity of her population, her geographic position, her civilization, her past power remembered and her future power anticipated.”

Our reading of the historical record, reflected in Arc of Empire: America’s Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam, more than supports this judgment From 1899, when Washington went to war to conquer the Philippines, to 1975 when it finally admitted defeat in Vietnam, Americans cultivated the dreams of dominance in Asia that still flicker in the imagination of the Obama administration. Earlier generations learned the hard way the cost that pursuing those dreams could impose. By thinking historically about relations with China, contemporaries might spare themselves needless trouble in a quixotic crusade.

China’s weakness helped inspire those dreams beginning in the late nineteenth century. McKinley took the Philippines proclaiming a benign American version of empire while defending the U.S. stake in a weak, vulnerable China. Skeptical Chinese observers rightly concluded that seizing other people’s land and suppressing Filipino nationalist resistance was anything but “benign.”

Four decades later the defeat of Japan in the Pacific War achieved the bipartisan dream of dominant influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Washington removed Japan as a Pacific rival and in Chiang Kai-shek’s China gained an ally dependent on U.S. support. U.S. dominance was bolstered by client regimes in South Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. By early 1950 embattled French Indochina was also moving into the U.S. orbit.

This U.S.-dominated Asian order was short lived. It began disintegrating in 1950 with the Korean War, and fell apart in Vietnam. A resurgent China under Mao Zedong envisioned an Asian order defined in terms of Chinese security and reflecting Chinese pride. When war broke out in Korea in 1950, Mao intervened, contrary to American expectations, and fought U.S.-led UN forces to a stalemate.

Korea dented American confidence; Vietnam shattered it. China’s military and material support of Hanoi was an essential element in the U.S. defeat. That long, expensive, divisive, and ultimately unpopular war brought a long cycle of American Pacific ambition to an end. McKinley spoke of duty and destiny in taking the Philippines. Nixon worried about weakness and sought accommodation. By 1971 he was articulating a conception of China’s regional dominance that echoed Morgenthau.

Some historical reflection on the rise and fall of U.S. ambitions in Asia, what we have called “the arc of empire,” might help U.S. leaders grapple with two fundamental questions:

1. “What part of regional dominance don’t you understand?”

Presidential aspirants have repeatedly challenged Nixon’s accommodation with Beijing. While conceding that China is a major power, they insist that it should defer to Washington not only on matters of domestic economic and political development but also regional security arrangements. Precisely because China cannot be trusted with regional dominance, so long-time China critics and proponents of the pivot argue, the United States must maintain a large armed presence in the western Pacific and cultivate ties with countries living in China’s shadow. Do they really believe that a wealthy, powerful, and self-confident Beijing will accept merely the shadow but not the substance of regional dominance?

2. “Been there, done that, why try again?”

Proponents of the pivot argue that China, a global power, cannot be trusted with regional dominance. U.S. ambitions in an earlier era ultimately failed because China resolved to resist, and it succeeded even though the power differential between Beijing and Washington was considerably greater than it is today. How do U.S. policymakers suppose the pivot will work now under far less auspicious circumstances? What do they hope to achieve and what costs are they willing to incur? Only someone oblivious to the history of the last half century—and devoid of realism—would ignore this question.

American leaders still crave international leadership. But the time for sweet dreams of a U.S. era in Asia is over. The United States will remain a significant Pacific power, of course, but in a region where others will not snap to attention simply because Washington barks orders. By repairing the problems on its own turf the United States will be in a better position to take part in an emerging new order in Asia that it cannot realistically hope to dominate.

Afghanistan and an unkind God

The recent news on Afghanistan calls to mind the troubled musings of an American officer on the chances of success in an earlier, misbegotten war (quoted in Arc of Empire). “If there is a God, and he is very kind to us, and given a million men and five years and a miracle in making the South Vietnamese people like us, we stand an outside chance of a stalemate.” The Johnson and Nixon administrations by contrast professed publicly to see nothing but light at the end of the tunnel. One rosy scenario followed another.

Afghanistan has replicated the Vietnam-era pattern of high-level denial by the White House and its political generals even as the accumulating evidence suggests that either there is no God or the deity is unkind. U.S. and allied troops are on their way out with the Taliban very much intact and still determined to take power and with our Afghan allies ready to accommodate their nominal enemy while taking occasional potshots at their nominal allies.

Some recent reminders of the unreality surrounding the Afghan project:

A pair of intelligence reports in December stressed that Pakistan, although a nominal ally, remained a Taliban sanctuary and thus a serious obstacle to the conduct of U.S. operations. This bit of unwelcome news arrived just as President Obama prepared to report on success. Not to worry, Pentagon spinmeisters told us. The pessimistic reports were based on dated information and the analysts did not have a good feel for the on-the-ground conditions.

Interrogations of captured Taliban revealed that the insurgents were not “degraded” (to use military jargon with wonderfully Biblical overtones). Despite the U.S. surge, the Taliban seemed to be having no difficulty with recruits, donations, or confidence. So much for counter-insurgency. The captured Taliban painted a picture of the Kabul government that was reminiscent of the charges directed against a Saigon regime that failed to govern and fell prey to corruption. So much for nation building. A Pentagon flak would of course have none of it, assuring us that prisoners were not reliable sources (even though some of the most revealing pictures of the enemy during the Vietnam conflict came from prisoners). Trust me, he in effect said; things are going well.

Just in the last few days, a U.S. Army officer, Lt. Col. Daniel L. Davis, has stuck his professional neck out and challenged his superiors to do a reality check. With the experience of two tours of duty in Afghanistan (preceded by two in Iraq) behind him, he had some street cred. He charged the brass (including specifically David Petraeus, that very model of a modern political general) with persisting in a war marred by “the absence of success on virtually every level.” The Afghan government had failed, its army had failed, and the cause U.S. soldiers had fought for was lost. The initial response to Davis by a Pentagon press handler was vacuous: “We are a values-based organization, and the integrity of what we publish and what we say is something we take very seriously.” A bit more robust rejoinder came from the number two in the U.S. command in Afghanistan. He cautioned that the Colonel’s critical view was necessarily partial. He insisted that the Taliban was hurting because its “tempo” was down exactly 9 percent (not 8 or 10) from the previous year. And he promised that the Afghan government forces are “going to be good enough as we build them to secure their country and to counter the insurgency.” Again, trust me.

A New York Times reporter has now joined the chorus after seven weeks with Marines in Helmand province. The distinct impression he conveys is that the military optimists are subsisting on fumes. Their plan was as simple as it was delusional: “First, leave behind a proficient [Afghan] national security force. And second, win them as much breathing room as time allows.” And perhaps hope that God is kind? The actual position of the Marines that emerges from this eye-witness account repeated the old Vietnam story: rounds of dangerous but pointless patrolling in search of an elusive enemy, a steady loss of men, a fraught relationship with local civilians, and a justified frustration with the Afghan army. Despite all this, the U.S. general in command in Helmand insisted that everything was going swimmingly. There was only the small matter, he did concede, of the Afghan army’s uncertain will to fight.

With 100,000 U.S. troops now bogged down longer than the Soviets had been, the only people who seem to believe even a stalemate is a real possibility are the politicians that control the levers of war. Both the ones in uniform and the ones in the White House manage to maintain happy faces no matter how dire the prospects.

It’s easy to understand why.

There is no public clamor for an end to the war, thanks in part to success of the military in insulating most Americans from military service after the Vietnam debacle. The all-volunteer army makes it easier to get into wars and easier to stay the course but also hard to extricate from wars gone bad. There is no aroused electorate as there was during the Vietnam conflict clamoring to get out.

A macho political culture makes confronting a debilitating truth worse than cultivating manly illusions. Obama the presidential candidate made the Afghan war his to demonstrate he was tough (though Afghanistan made no more sense than the Iraq invasion that he opposed). Now he’s stuck. He can’t admit defeat, especially in an election year. The Republicans would pummel him to the enthusiastic applause of all but the Ron Paul faction of the party.

The military leadership can’t admit defeat without violating their “can-do” ethos—and raising pointed questions about the utility of all that money that goes into making the mightiest force on the face of the earth.

Turning our backs on the grim prospects for Afghanistan is part of a long tradition. We drew a veil over the struggle against insurgents in the Philippines. A combination of amnesia and speculative might-have-beens disposed of the Korean stalemate and the Vietnam defeat, and it seems likely the Iraq invasion and occupation will suffer the same fate.

The only problem is that if we can’t deal with reality, then we not only prolong the agony of this war but also lose the chance to grapple with serious issues critical to the future of U.S. policy.

What is the purpose of the U.S. military and what levels of spending are realistically needed to serve those purposes? Is it to provide total security to the American homeland? To reshape whatever region attracts the attention of any hyperactive policymaker? To defend every one of the many regimes with which we have developed a relationship since World War II?

What are the likely costs and benefits of continued involvement in the Middle East? What do we gain by confronting Iran even as our hold on Iraq slips, as the negotiations over Palestine moves from deadlock to dead, and as the great political wave that George W. Bush dreamed about carries Islamists forward?

What exactly is to be gained by empty talk of pivoting toward Asia (and against a regionally dominant China)? Conditions are less auspicious for a pivot toward that part of the world today than when we pivoted away under Nixon some four decades ago.

Has the militarization of U.S. policy gone so far that our main international preoccupation and leading occasion for exercising global leadership involve the overawing or invading of other countries? Do we really need to make our top international priority subduing Iran, containing China, straightening out Somalia, defending Israel, inhibiting North Korea, and encircling the globe with bases to hunt down terrorists?

Perhaps just by posing these questions we supply the most compelling reason for ignoring developments in Afghanistan. These pointed questions taken seriously have the potential to unravel the very fabric of a long-standing (if badly tattered) foreign policy consensus—with no guarantee Americans could reach agreement on a new course or that it would be an improvement on the current one. Perhaps we do need divine intervention!

How Beijing sees us: Policy insights from the past

What is China going to do? Now that our Middle East wars are winding down, this question has fixated the U.S. policy community and policy commentators. Even aspirants for high political office feel compelled to have an answer. Will a rising China accommodate to international norms and institutions or try to reshape or undermine them? Is Beijing predisposed to cooperate with countries along its long land and maritime border, or will it seek domination? Are the Chinese bent on displacing the United States as number one internationally, or will they limit their aspirations the better to focus on domestic affairs?

While everybody has an opinion, no one has a compelling answer. And with good reason. China’s Communist leaders make their decisions behind closed doors so outsiders are necessarily left in the dark. In any case leaders at the top may not have a shared, coherent notion of the path ahead. And even if they do, their plans like all plans are hostage to contingent events.

If the future is fuzzy, the past is not. A substantial historical literature offers solidly grounded insight on how Chinese officials and commentators have viewed the United States from the nineteenth century to the 1970s. (The single most helpful work is David Arkush and Leo Lee’s Land without Ghosts; for other relevant works see the bibliographical essay in the forthcoming Arc of Empire: American Wars in Asia from the Philippines to Vietnam.) Let me suggest three conclusions drawn from my reading of that literature. Each is pertinent to any attempt to interpret recent developments and predict the future.

First, Chinese views are not free floating, constructed from thin air, or fixed. Since the outset of the twentieth century they have shifted in a way that corresponds closely to phases in the U.S. drive to stake out territorial positions on the western side of the Pacific. (This is the subject of Arc of Empire.) As the drive took shape, Chinese observers shifted from ambivalent to distinctly hostile.

The older, ambivalent view had been heavily influenced by American missionaries and the relative U.S. passivity in the imperial game. Early in the nineteenth century, officials along the coast counted U.S. envoys “most respectful and obedient” while foreign affairs intellectuals saw in the new nation an admirable development model characterized by sage rulers and rapid economic growth. These positive views were qualified by visitors shocked by political corruption, racial violence, and improper gender relations.

The U.S. seizure of the Philippines, the crushing of nationalist resistance there, and the transformation of the Caribbean into a U.S. zone of control fed a sense of the disillusionment and threat nicely captured in an essay from 1901 (quoted in Rebecca E. Karl, Staging the World: Chinese Nationalism at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, 64). It reported Americans were in the process of betraying their founding principles “in order to compete on the world stage with the other powers.” They had made their ambitions clear in their decision “to swallow Cuba, annex Hawaii, defeat Spain, and take over Luzon [the Philippines]” and also to join in “the allied troop assault on our country” against the Boxers.

These views became part of an international affairs literature that placed the United States within a “robber’s world” in which the great powers victimized weak countries like China. This perspective was popularized by the influential public intellectual Liang Qichao, reinforced by blatant discrimination against Chinese in the United States, embraced by the young Mao Zedong on the eve of his conversion to Marxism in 1919, reflected in attacks on the unequal treaties, and accepted by observers across the political spectrum by the 1920s.

The rising Japanese threat between 1905 and 1945 moderated suspicions of U.S. imperialism. But Chinese views turned back to the distinctly hostile after 1945. The common enemy was gone, and Washington became active all along China’s periphery, working with colonial regimes (most notably the French in Indochina) as well as with regional clients (the Philippines, Japan, and South Korea). Amidst rising Cold War tensions, The Truman administration marked Beijing as part of a global Communist threat. The counterpoint to U.S. encroachment was Mao Zedong’s determination to “beat American arrogance” and thus demonstrate that “weak and oppressed” countries could fight back and shape their own destiny. These concerns lay behind substantial commitments that Beijing made in 1950 in Vietnam and Korea and again in Vietnam in the early 1960s.

Chinese views again moderated in the 1970s. The U.S. retreat from South Vietnam and President Richard Nixon’s scaling down of U.S. ambitions (the Nixon doctrine) played a role. So too did the gradual weakening of the U.S. global position in relative and absolute terms. But an unsettled U.S. policy over the last four decades has left Chinese perceptions unsettled. The Nixonian approach meant acceptance of China as a world power with legitimate interests to pursue in a multi-polar world. On the other hand, a lingering Cold War conception of China as an ideological mutant to be contained and ultimately transformed by U.S. pressure has generated tensions over human rights and the state’s role in economic development, the legitimacy of settler colonialism on China’s vast inner-Asian periphery, and of course the future of Taiwan. The U.S. insistence on the universality of its norms and values collides with a long standing Chinese preoccupation with securing respect due a cultural giant and maintaining a sprawling, multi-cultural territory. At the same time, Washington’s attempt to shore up slipping regional influence is at odds with Beijing’s concern with coastal security, regional influence, and claims to Taiwan.

Second, Chinese readings of the United States cannot be considered in isolation. They should be seen in the context of an evolving nationalism. A rich literature made easily accessible in Lloyd Kramer’s Nationalism in Europe and America stresses the ways nationalism is subject to constant debate and redefinition, the critical role the state plays in the nationalist program, and the importance of dangerous outsiders in defining the nation and galvanizing the faithful.

The early twentieth century picture of the United States as a threat was the work of intellectuals committed to saving China from its deepening crisis and focused on creating a strong, secure stable state. Their views gained more and more converts but their nationalist aspirations were not fully expressed in state policy until the Communist victory in 1949.

Once nationalists got their strong state, opposition to the United States took on more emphatic form. Beijing dominated the manufacture and circulation of ideas about the United States, especially during the long Cold War confrontation with the United States (1949-1971). The stand taken against the United States in Korea and Vietnam demonstrated the new state’s capacity for military and social mobilization and yielded successes that fed Chinese confidence in its role as the leading regional power. Views of the U.S. threat circulated widely and penetrated deeply into Chinese society conveyed by party propagandists using in all sorts of cultural forms from posters to plays to movies. So charged did images of the United States become that getting labeled pro-U.S. was tantamount to exclusion from the national community.

Perceptions as the sole province of the party-state may be weakening as vast social and economic changes have unfolded in recent decades and opened up the contest over national identity. A civil society is emerging in a more urbanized country with a more educated citizenry exposed to trans-national forces and drawn to a consumer lifestyle.

The rise of consumer values may be particularly important. They have altered the outlook of Americans and Europeans over the last half century. Citizens have come to be defined to a substantial degree by their role as consumers, and the state has increasingly made its business guaranteeing prosperity and the quality of goods and services and otherwise staying out of the way of consumer pursuits. This has meant making military service voluntary, keeping taxes low so as not to impinge on discretionary income, and in general letting individual choice trump collective needs or obligations.

Sizable and influential chunks of the Chinese population appear to be well embarked on a consumer path (to be sure with Chinese characteristics) with important implications for how Chinese see themselves and reciprocally other countries. How much might the new consumer citizen be willing to sacrifice the good life for emergency controls and military regimentation? How much might popular preferences even now inhibit party leaders? An emergent consumer society may well transform China’s state-dominated nationalism, and a consumer-inflected nationalism may in turn shape views of the United States.

Finally, while Chinese intellectuals and policymakers have had no trouble figuring out what U.S. actions meant to their nationalist project, they have struggled to find a good explanation for American behavior. They have repeatedly fallen victim to the commonplace tendency to embrace shallow, simplistic interpretations. Behind what Americans said and did there had to be some some rational calculation or material interest that might in turn provide clues for anticipating their next moves and manipulating their behavior.

This search for answers dates back to the early nineteenth century when it was thought foreigners came to Canton to trade for goods on which their very survival depended. It assumed more sophisticated form at the beginning of the twentieth century in Liang Qichao’s widely retailed reports of a capitalist leviathan bent on devouring the China market and in Qing officials’ conviction that they could turn to their own advantage American avarice or resentment over the gains made by rivals in China.

Reading these foreigners proved no easier for Communist leaders. For example, in a meeting on 17 November 1968 Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai attempted to fathom why Americans were fighting in Vietnam. Mao confessed “I still have not understood why the US imperialists went to Southeast Asia and what interests the American capitalists found there.” He toyed with the notion that they were bent on exploiting natural resources such as oil, rubber, and tea but then on reflection concluded, “I do not think that the US needs food or plants.” He then tried another tack. “[I]mperialists [like the United States] must have colonies. They want countries like ours [to] become their colonies. Before, China used to be a semi-colony of imperialists for over 100 years. What did they rob us of? China’s technology and agriculture did not develop.” At this point Zhou helpfully volunteered “They robbed materials.” But when Mao asked “what materials?” the best Zhou could offer was “soybean.” Mao was back to square one with the only certainty that capitalists were behind everything including (he observed) the antiwar movement in the United States. Mao’s one-dimensional picture and the perplexity it created (recorded in 77 Conversations between Chinese and Foreign Leaders, pp. 144 and 198) may be striking but it is hardly unusual in international politics, especially where one party tries to read the world view of another across a broad cultural divide.

Subjecting Chinese images to historical scrutiny yields insights for those in the U.S. policy community. Their Chinese counterparts operate within a hardy frame of reference that is closely attuned to what Americans do. That frame of reference has been distinctly nationalist and during the second half of of the twentieth century state dominated. While images of the United States are likely to remain tied to nationalist preoccupations, the massive cultural and societal changes generated by post-Mao developments are likely to generate views outside the ambit of the state. The final insight is that at every turn Chinese observers and leaders have failed to penetrate the cultural and ideological sources of American action in Asia. The chances are good that our motives will continue to puzzle.

Of course, U.S. policymakers don’t have to pay attention to the past. Indeed, the historical record suggests that those at the highest level won’t or that they will use the past selectively and superficially to fit preconceived policy goals. Strange how policymakers who like to describe themselves as realists can neglect an invaluable resource and attempt to manage a rising China with their eyes only half open.

Acknowledgments: A Hudson Institute workshop on Chinese views of the United States prompted me to formulate the propositions presented here. Thanks to the workshop organizer, Christopher Ford, for a stimulating session.

Republicans on foreign policy: Regional powers and regional problems

crossposted at the UNC Press Blog, 16 November 2011

The Republican candidates for president certainly have one thing right on foreign policy. Their recent debate confirmed that much of U.S. foreign policy is devoted to the management of regional powers and regional problems. Long-time troublemakers Iran and China were most on the candidates’ minds. But the list of regional worries is in fact quite long. It includes notably a pair of balky allies (Israel and Turkey), an overtly antagonistic North Korea, a failed state in Afghanistan, and a nuclear-armed and domestically embattled Pakistan. Lots for aspiring national leaders to address. What to do? Bomb them (the course Newt Gingrich seems to favor on Iran), banish bad leader to “the ash heap of history” (the fate Rick Perry wants for China’s Communists), or shut off U.S. markets (Romney’s way of bringing China into line)?

What strikes me as a historian is how long the regionals have afflicted U.S. policymakers and tied policy pundits in strategic knots. The pattern goes all the way back to the late 1940s and the globalization of U.S. commitments in the name of containment of communism. The difficulties became quickly apparent in eastern Asia where China posed the first serious challenge. The new Communist regime refused to go away (as Washington was convinced it would). Worse still, it took a surprisingly strong and successful military stand against burgeoning U.S. ambitions in its neighborhood. It blocked the U.S. drive to unify Korea in 1950, and it played a major role in driving out the U.S.-backed French from Vietnam in 1954 and then in ousting U.S. forces in South Vietnam. Richard Nixon decided to dial down U.S. goals in Asia (the Nixon doctrine) and to accept Mao’s China as a great power. Since that shift in the early 1970s, regional trends have rendered the United States less and less relevant even as U.S. leaders insist on their importance (a claim resting essentially on a Cold War residue of military might). (These points figure prominently in the forthcoming Arc of Empire.)

The story of U.S. involvement in another difficult region is similar. Recognition of Israel proved the first step toward making Washington an enabler of an increasingly overt and internationally condemned settler colonialism. The 1953 overthrow of the Iranian government was a great success that turned very bad a quarter century later. The post-shah regime has been a perpetual thorn in the U.S. side for better than a quarter of a century. Military intervention in Lebanon in 1958 signaled the militarization of U.S. policy in the Middle East while failing to resolve sectarian divisions. Reagan sent in the troops again in 1982-84 with no better results.

The strongmen recruited under the U.S. dispensation made control easier to exercise, but in the long run they put a crimp on political and economic development, closely associated the United States with autocracy and stagnation, and fed popular suspicions about Washington’s intentions. The confrontation with Saddam Hussein, a strongman gone wrong, yielded two military triumphs but also one disastrous occupation and a now badly divided and impoverished state with an uncertain future and with close ties to Iran.

The United States is today no closer to securing regional stability or consolidating control. Indeed, the popular ferment associated with the Arab Spring, Turkey’s self-conscious pursuit of regional influence, the durability of a defiant Iranian regime, and the uncertainties surrounding the states of Iraq, Pakistan, and Afghanistan may collectively constitute challenges so serious that they announce for anyone willing to listen the end of an era of grand American aspirations.

What strikes me as a citizen is how hollow and dated U.S. discussions of regional policy have become. I fantasize about a debate that would grapple not with how to best crush regional rivals but instead deal with the hard, consequential questions. What is gained if Washington brings the Iranian or Chinese regime down? What will it cost and what might the consequences be? Is there really a way to build a nation in Afghanistan or to manipulate the one in Pakistan? How much are U.S. interests served by facilitating Israeli territorial expansion or preserving an independent Taiwan?

The exchange among the Republican candidates offered tantalizing hints of such a long overdue discussion. Jon Huntsman and Ron Paul—to be sure, neither rank and file favorites—denounced the U.S. practice of torturing Muslims as illegal and damaging to U.S. reputation, counseled caution in handling Iran, doubted the relative utility of nation building in Afghanistan, and refused to join in China bashing.

But we can be sure the slightest whiff of policy change will galvanize that formidable gang of stand patters: a politically potent Israel lobby, inveterate China critics, the arms industry, the Pentagon brass, and above all, spread-eagle nationalists on intimate terms with Mr. Prestige and Mr. Macho. Those old free-loaders, firmly ensconced in the U.S. policy house, are good at shouting down skeptical lines of inquiry. As long as they remain in residence, political leaders will make their default position the defense of dubious commitments even as regional powers grow stronger, more independent, and more numerous.

A 1978 critique of Gaddis on Kennan (prepared in collaboration with John W. Coogan)

The names of George Frost Kennan and John Lewis Gaddis have become closely intertwined in the minds of diplomatic historians. Kennan figured prominently in Gaddis’ first book, The United States and the Origins of the Cold War, 1941-1947 (1972). He was the model realist, preoccupied with defining the national interest, attentive to the ends of policy and the means available, and possessed of a keen understanding of great power politics. Against him was arrayed the isolationist sentiment, the political opportunism, and the misplaced idealism that afflicted the Soviet policy of the Roosevelt and Truman administrations. When Foreign Affairs, the influential establishment outlet sponsored by the Council on Foreign Relations, wanted to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Kennan’s famous 1947 “X” article in that journal, the editor turned to Gaddis. And celebrate he did (in “Containment:A Reassessment” in the July 1977 issue). Kennan was once more the wise statesman who had wanted to make containment economic and political rather than military. Gaddis’ favorable reading of the record and his resolute stand against Kennan critics appear to have endeared him to Kennan. Now about thirty years later we are about to get the authorized study, George F. Kennan: An American Life (to be released by Penguin on 10 November), from the historian Kennan felt he could trust.

We were present at the creation of this entente. The late 1970s was a time of considerable excitement as U.S. government documents on the early Cold War entered the public domain as part of the venerable “Foreign Relations of the United States” (FRUS) series. We were avid consumers of the new evidence, including what Kennan had written at the Moscow embassy, at the National War College, and at the head of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. The more we read, the more skeptical we became about the claims that he had made in the first volume of his wonderfully engaging if predictably self-serving memoir and that Gaddis had repackaged in his first book. Our doubts deepened as we shared impressions from the new evidence and as we directed senior essays by bright Yale undergraduates exploring one facet or another of Kennan’s official career.

Not only were we present at the creation of the Kennan-Gaddis entente; we now learn that we might have unknowingly facilitated it. The claims of Gaddis’ “X” celebration troubled us. Kennan had been neither so consistent nor so coherent as Gaddis seemed to think. We prepared a rejoinder focusing on three revealing cases illuminated by newly available evidence. (To save space we omitted Kennan’s 1947 suggestion of sending U.S. troops as well as Truman Doctrine economic aid into Greece as well as his pseudo-sociological analysis penned in October 1949 of why communism appealed to failed intellectuals and “maladjusted groups” such as African Americans, Jews, and immigrants. See FRUS, 1947, V, pp. 468-69; and FRUS, 1949, I, p. 404.) Our basic point was that Kennan, like most foreign policy advisers, said a lot of dumb things along with a lot of smart things and that we needed to pay less attention to his memoirs and more attention to the richness, complexity, and contradictions emerging from the archives.

James Chace, then Foreign Affairs managing editor, had no room for our little dissent. He had already agreed to a critical essay by Eduard Mark, then doing his doctoral thesis at the University of Connecticut. The policy establishment would be spared our rude archival challenge but not diplomatic historians thanks to Nolan Fowler, then editor of the Newsletter published by the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations. (Our comment appeared in no. 9 [March 1978], pp. 23-25 and available here as a pdf.) Gaddis, never one to miss a controversy, responded to our piece as he did to the Mark piece in Foreign Affairs. This avid, unwavering, and able defense of Kennan’s reputation helped settle the question of who would do the authorized biography.

Looking back, two things strike us. One is the “slippage” in the declassification process for the FRUS series. It takes longer than ever to get a volume into the public domain, and the documents made available have to fit into a much reduced number of published volumes. Moreover, attempts to get the CIA to account publicly for covert operations have largely failed. Forget bringing NSA into the picture. As a result, the documentation for critical episodes in past U.S. policy are radically incomplete, leaving historians to guess about the unknown unknowns.

The other is the comment of C. Wright Mills about U.S. policy as an expression of “crackpot realism.” Hans Morgenthau, the father of postwar realism with whom Kennan is often associated, seems to have come to the same opinion. His early doubts about postwar U.S. policy turned to open dissent as he watched the Vietnam commitment deepen from the mid-1950s. Christoph Frei’s illuminating Hans J. Morgenthau: An Intellectual Biography (2001) identifies the sources of Morgenthau’s discontent. Realism as Morgenthau understood it required a cultivated rationality and far-seeing prudence. These qualities were evident in Kennan’s memoirs but not always so evident in his often vaguely formulated ideas or his tendency to shoot from the hip or his penchant for military solutions to complicated problems. It’s fair to say that the policy Kennan sought to shape was also deficient. Like Kennan, it was swept along by a Cold War nationalist orthodoxy that led to ideological and strategic commitments far beyond the U.S. capacity to sustain in the long run. Kennan, Acheson, and Rusk shared this national orthodoxy, even as they shifted positions over time and disagreed on specific applications such as in Vietnam. But this is a topic to take up another day in relations to current U.S. difficulties.

American prospects: Confessions of a conflicted historian

This summer’s diet of the news has had me struggling to maintain a healthy optimism. Headlines have daily announced developments that bode ill for the United States — a stagnant economy, widening inequality and poverty, a deeply divided polity, a frustrated electorate, a global environment pushed beyond its limits, and regional powers less and less responsive to U.S. direction. These adverse trends are playing out on a remarkably broad front.

The historian in me warns against a rush to judgment. As a discipline, history inculcates a bias against forecasting. A familiarity with carefully drawn counterfactuals and a close acquaintance with lots of case studies drive home the unpredictable element that contingent events or personalities can introduce. A sudden change in one piece of a puzzle can dramatically change the overall picture. Historians also shy away from crystal balls because they are all too familiar with major events that even the most knowledgeable failed to anticipate. The future often heaves up on unexpected shores in unimagined forms as we have learned in our own times from the Soviet collapse and the Arab spring.

But if historians don’t attempt to see the future, who is better equipped? Only evidence systematically gathered and critically evaluated can get any analyst beyond pure guess work. Thanks to their devotion to evidence, historians have the data and the tools to chart the trajectory traveled by individuals, institutions, and nations and thus possess the most sound basis for contextualizing the present and imagining the future. Thanks also to their fixation with evidence, historians have at hand a rich catalog of case studies that suggest rough analogies and revealing comparisons and that warn against simple equations of past with present. History never repeats itself but it often rhymes.

One part of me wants to believe that this summer’s bad news has a silver lining. The pressures are building that must eventually produce a tectonic shift in American life. Americans may long for the return of the domestic prosperity, political consensus, and international dominance that prevailed during the decades after World War II. But surely, I say to myself, they must recognize that powerful trends mock their nostalgia, tear the fabric of their society, and undermine their international standing. How long can the country defer the enormous task of addressing festering domestic problems, grappling seriously with environmental dangers, and accepting a more modest relationship to the international community? It can be only a matter of time. That’s at least what I want to believe.

But when I put on my historian’s hat, I grow less hopeful. It then seems more likely that the United States is locked in paralysis rather than headed for transformation.

Perhaps the most entrenched feature of the current scene are all-encompassing consumer values. They define the outlook of virtually every American. They serve as the predicate for U.S. politics. And they have shaped the contours of the economy. But the consumer society has a built-in flaw that makes it unsustainable in the long run. That is its foundational notion that income will rise constantly across a lifetime and from generation to generation and that GDP is a good gauge of progress in that direction. This notion takes no account of environmental limits as people all around the world make claim to the same dream of steadily rising affluence. (For a timely reminder of the magnitude of this problem, see the recent New York Times piece “On Going Green.”) Nor does this notion recognize the way GDP omits social and environmental costs and ignores the value of unpaid services. Recent studies suggest that economic growth after a certain point ceases to yield higher levels of individual happiness even as it makes impossible demands on the earth’s resources. But challenging consumerism as a culture, an ideology, and an economic system and labeling GDP an outmoded fetish will prove extremely difficult. Popular inertia and entrenched interests will see to that.

Adding to the paralysis is the political system. The two leading parties are like crews on a sinking ship who sense something is wrong but don’t understand what. They busy themselves rearranging the deck chairs while quarreling over which way to line the chairs up.

Republicans are in denial so deep that they deserve to be called “the anti-science party.” Their base (perhaps a quarter of the electorate) and the presidential candidates courting that base make a point of pride their denial of global warming, their skepticism about evolution, their wishful thinking on sex education, and their embrace of simplistic economic nostrums.

Democrats may have by default become the party of science — but a lot of good it has done them. The policies of the Obama administration make the Republican base crazy while failing to impress most of the voting public fixated as it is on old dreams of endless plenty. A party already suffering at the ballot box is hardly in a position to confront the fundamental but electorally dangerous issue: the demise of a consumer society and the transition away from a mindless, self-destructive commitment to GDP growth.

Compounding this problem of an electorate in thrall to a vanished past are deep flaws in our democracy. It has become corrupted by money, burdened by cynicism, and gutted by apathy. This indictment may sound harsh, cranky, and even ahistorical. But there is reason for worry. Campaign fund raising has risen to an unprecedented level, forcing office holders to chase full time, not just on the eve of election, possible backers with deep pockets and to pause before giving offense to any interest group that might in retaliation target them. The cynicism is reflected in popular disapproval of Congress, now astonishingly high. Having bounced around the 50 percent mark from 1975 to 2005 (far from a ringing endorsement of the political system), it has recently risen to the 80 percent range (according to Gallup Poll). Cynicism is also reflected in the public’s conviction that half of every dollar the federal government spends is wasted (another recent Gallup Poll). This figure is at its highest point since 1979 and reflects deep doubt about the efficacy of the very state essential to addressing our national problems. Finally, apathy is easy to gauge in voter turnout, which has declined significantly since the 1960s and pales by comparison with the engagement of voters in other advanced democracies.

But the most worrisome feature may be an ill-informed citizenry. Voters are today arguably no more or less sophisticated than their counterparts fifty or a hundred years ago. But also, arguably, the magnitude and complexity of the problems facing the country are greater and thus require greater comprehension if the electorate is to have a meaningful role in supporting if not devising solutions to those problems. Most voters, with scant conception of how the economy works, want above all that it should work in a way that in effect reproduces the conditions of a by-gone day and that the president attend to that task. If one party can’t do the job, then the answer is to give the other side a try until someone succeeds. This strategy would be pragmatic were its restorationist goals realizable. But since they are not, U.S. politics threatens to become an endless, self-defeating round of missions impossible with each failure pushing public frustration ever higher.

Foreign policy adds to the logjam. Put simply, Americans’ conception of their relationship to the world is as inflated as it is outmoded. The elite long dominant in matters of policy have encouraged grand nationalist expectations in support of expansive international policies over the last half century. Yet U.S. global dominance that marked the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s has since steadily faded. Other powers have asserted themselves. In East Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America, Washington struggles to retain its relevance and hold its ground against what has become an extraordinarily long list of regional rogues and potential challengers (North Korea and China; India and Burma; Cuba, Venezuela, and Brazil; Iran, Syria, and maybe Pakistan replacing Iraq and Afghanistan; and Russia). At the same time Washington frets over the reach of the very international organizations which the United States helped give life but which have come to serve a broad international constituency.

A foreign policy establishment, like the public, is deep in the grip of nostalgia. It longs for the return of the post-World War II dominance. The sturdy residue from that time — a commitment to the active promotion a world remade in the U.S. image and a view of security primarily through the prism of military power — stands in the way of charting a new relationship to a world much transformed since 1945.

Any historical moment is, in the ultimate sense, open. The adverse trends that clouded my newspaper reading this summer are likely to persist, even intensify. They will erode American wealth and power, and they could well precipitate a rapid downward spiral. But the historian in me whispers, “Remember, good things have happened in the past that no one at the time had imagined possible, and they can happen again.” Something may yet jolt Americans awake to the new world impinging irresistibly on their lives and force them to come to terms with it. From this possibility we can spin a thread of hope to cling to.

revised 21 September 2011; crossposted at UNC Press Blog

Polanyi’s ‘Great Transformation’: A classic for our hard times

crossposted to the UNC Press Blog, 11 August 2011.

Head swimming from all the bad economic news as well as the summer heat? Alarmed by a volatile stock market and the prospect of return to recession? In despair over the incapacity of our political class to address a persistent fiscal deficit? Troubled by a public deeply divided over the right road back to good times? I’ve got something for you: a classic that speaks loudly and clearly to these troubled times. It may help not only clear your head but also fundamentally alter your sense of how to think about the issues now before us.

The Hungarian economist Karl Polanyi published The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Times in 1944 at a time of striking intellectual ferment. The possibilities for postwar social reconstruction seemed enormous. Keynes had already made the case for state intervention to smooth out the economic cycle. Friedrich Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom was about to lay out what would prove an equally influential argument against state planning as inimical to political freedom. Hayek’s fellow Viennese, Joseph Schumpeter, joined the conversation by mounting in Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy a defense of capitalism, highlighting its capacity for “creative destruction.”

Of these works, The Great Transformation stands out today precisely because it demystifies the free market faith now deeply entrenched in the public mind, in the programs of both major political parties, and in the policy debates now playing out in Washington. This study—drawing on the nineteenth century’s experience with the rapid spread of market activity, its deep penetration across Europe and North America, and its capacity for global economic integration—shows that free markets are not something natural that arise spontaneously according to some eternal law of supply and demand.

To the contrary, markets come into existence thanks to the actions taken by states. Political leaders had first to remove impediments to commerce, investment, and labor and then to provide at least minimal oversight of economic activity once it was freed from restrictions. Free economic activity was not at odds with an activist state; it was dependent on it. In Polanyi’s famous paradox, “laissez-faire was planned.”(p. 141)

Polanyi’s study makes a second important point pertinent to today. In the real world, as opposed to some utopian dreamscape, markets once unleashed have all sorts of deleterious effects. In Polanyi’s words, they tend toward

the exploitation of the physical strength of the worker, the destruction of family life, the devastation of neighborhoods, the denudation of forests, the pollution of rivers, the deterioration of craft standards, the disruption of folkways, and the general degradation of existence including housing and arts, as well as the innumerable forms of private and public life that do not affect profits. (p. 133)

Anything here that rings a bell?

Beyond social costs, Polanyi saw markets undercutting the very freedom that Hayek felt they supported. Operating without check, the market provided

the fullness of freedom for those whose income, leisure and security need no enhancing, and a mere pittance of liberty for the people, who may in vain attempt to make use of their democratic rights to gain shelter from the power of the owners of property. (p. 257)

Does a political system in which ordinary citizens feel angry, disenchanted, and powerless seem familiar? Know about a democracy in which economic entities (corporations, banks, their lobbyists, their campaign funding, rating agencies, and the IMF) seem to set the agenda and reduce politics to the process of accommodating to the diktat of the market? The generation of wealth and its play on a global scale—then as now—leave Americans not better off but discontented and longing for some way forward.

The Great Transformation follows this picture of the social and political loss inflicted by market vitality with a third point. A market given full scope generates a popular backlash. The more unchecked economic activity inflicts social disruption and environmental damage, the greater the popular demands for relief.

The very capacity of states to intervene to create markets also means they have the capacity to respond to public clamor and limit the destructive scope of markets, protect workers and their families, guarantee a modicum of social stability and solidarity, and defend the environment. Initiatives of just this sort took shape in the latter part of the nineteenth century and the early part of the twentieth not as part some grand socialist scheme but in an ad hoc fashion out of this collision between markets and the broad interests of society. Thus we come to Polanyi’s second paradox, his notion of a double movement: a planned laissez faire system so powerful that it gave impetus to unplanned state activism to protect society.

Polanyi’s classic suggests we should ignore the profoundly false choice between markets and the state. Markets depend on the state and by their inherent excesses evoke popular demands for relief in the form of state programs. It also suggests we should drop the illusion that every problem can be solved by giving the markets even greater play. Freed of an almost religious vision of what markets mean and can do, we can begin to think about social justice and individual welfare as matters of legitimate concern and thus tap and channel politically broad and deep discontents with the status quo.

So take a step back and a deep breath and learn from the past. We’re not the first to experience market penetration, market misbehavior, and societal push-back. Markets work on us, but because markets are man-made and not handed down from on high, we can work on markets.

Just as Americans and Europeans a century ago demonstrated how to tame an ostensibly sovereign market and bring to heel those possessed of great economic power, a state responsive to broad-based discontents can once more do the job of subordinating economic abstractions to real human needs. That’s Polanyi’s take home message to anyone concerned with U.S. politics today.

[A second edition of The Great Transformation is available from Beacon Press.]