If you want a glimpse into the US bipartisan foreign policy establishment’s Heart of Darkness, you need look no further than Robert Kagan. He, along with his father and brother, was a signatory of the Project for a New American Century’s manifesto “Rebuilding America’s Defenses” — something normally associated with the neoconservative circles around George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But he also advised Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and President Obama had a very positive reaction to his article in The New Republic, “Not Fade Away: The Myth of American Decline.” And of course he has ties to both the Brookings Institution and Council on Foreign Relations.
His article “Superpowers Don’t Get to Retire: What our tired country still owes the world” (The New Republic, May 26) has generated a lot of buzz among Very Serious People over the past several weeks. The entire article is written from a high school civics text perspective that takes at face value the Empire’s idealistic sales propaganda over the past seventy years. The fact that it’s been so eagerly consumed says a lot about the mental level of the elites that run US foreign policy.
As the title suggests, Kagan writes from the assumption that Empire is a “burden of responsibility” undertaken primarily for the good of the rest of the world; the US established a “world order” at the end of WWII because of a “sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world.”
Kagan frames FDR’s motivations for entering WWII — in contrast to those of the “realists” — in terms of “sentiment and idealism,” “the tenets of faith and humanity,” and a desire to preserve “the institutions of democracy” as a viable alternative in the world. And the postwar order engineered by FDR and Truman was based on an idealistic vision of “democratic capitalism,” with global free trade managed by the Bretton Woods institutions, and world peace guaranteed against new aggressions by the UN Security Council backed by the military power of the US.
But in fact FDR’s motives for entering the war were quite “realistic.” A joint study by the CFR and State Department in 1940, motivated by alarm over the large areas of Europe and the Western Pacific Germany and Japan were incorporating into the autarkic economic orders of Fortress Europe and the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere, set out to determine the absolute minimum of the world’s market areas and resources that would have to be integrated into the American corporate economy, in order for it to continue to function. This study determined that it was absolutely essential that a “Grand Area” including a bare minimum of the Western Hemisphere, the British Empire and East Asia be integrated into the global economy for the American economy to survive in its existing form. Hence further Japanese absorption of markets and resources, or a German capture of Great Britain and a major part of the Royal Navy (and hence of the British Empire), would be a disaster for American capitalism.
FDR decided, accordingly, to engineer American entry into the war. His aid to Chinese guerrillas, his oil embargo against Japan, and the Navy’s “pop-up cruisers” in Japanese territorial waters were meant to goad Japan into firing the first shot and giving FDR a pretext for war. Meanwhile, FDR was planning to initiate war by any means necessary, no matter how flimsy the pretext, if Japan moved to annex the rubber and tin of French Indochina or the oil of the Dutch East Indies.*
And the liberal capitalist world order created by FDR and Truman was focused primarily on ensuring that the world’s markets and resources remained integrated into Western corporate capitalism, and that the global security institutions associated with the UN (with the Security Council a de facto victors’ club on the model of the Concert of Europe) would prevent any new challenger from ever again threatening to remove the markets and resources of a major part of the world from global corporate control.
In short, this “idealistic” postwar order was the same kind of capitalist imperialism described by J.A. Hobson and Lenin, operating under the fig leaf of multilateral institutions.
The means by which it was brought about were hardly democratic or idealistic. As recounted by Gabriel Kolko in The Politics of War, the US inherited the UK’s role as chief naval power and guarantor of the global balance of power. But that’s not all it inherited. It also replaced Germany and Japan as the world’s leading counter-insurgency power. The US, Britain and France basically displaced all the Leftist anti-fascist resistance movements from their gains on the ground at the end of the war, and installed provisional governments run by former Axis collaborators. In Indochina, that meant supplanting Ho Chi Minh with a regime made up of generals who’d served under the Japanese puppet emperor Bao Dai, and serving the economic interests of the rent-gouging, French-educated Catholic landlords (who, in the most fertile areas of the Mekong Delta, charged rents amounting to 90% of agricultural output). In Italy, factories were taken away from workers’ committees and returned to fascist industrialists. Only in France, where the US initially intended to create a provisional government under a general of the former Vichy regime, was it forced to acquiesce in the face of De Gaulle’s popularity.
The US became a giant jobs program for unemployed counter-insurgency warfare experts who’d previously served the Nazi regime.
The policies of the US government in the postwar period have been anything but idealistic, except to the extent that US ruling elites find drinking their own ideological Kool-Aid makes it easier for them to live with themselves. The US inherited the role of the European and Japanese colonial empires in supervising the large-scale extraction of oil and mineral resources from the post-colonial world by Western corporations, and in colluding with Third World landed elites to evict peasant cultivators by the tens of millions so that their land might be used to grow cash crops for the export market. Its so-called “free trade” policy has had nothing to do with actual free trade, instead locking former colonial areas into supplying raw materials and sweatshop labor to Western capital entirely on the latter’s terms.
To be sure, the American state and the corporate interests it serves prefer “democracy” of a sort when it’s feasible — namely the kind of spectator democracy that doesn’t touch the structure of social and economic power, that involves choosing between almost identical subsets of the same neoliberal ruling elites and then sitting down and shutting up until the next election. This is the kind of “democracy” the US installed in Iraq under Paul Bremer and the Coalition Provisional Authority, where the puppet regime rubber-stamped a bunch of phony “Free Trade Agreements,” auctioned off state industry and utilities at fire sale prices to the scavengers of global finance-capital, and shut down the independent trade union federation and seized its assets — and then rubber-stamped a “democratic” constitution, almost impossible to subsequently change, that grandfathered all this looting in.
The US prefers this kind of illusory “democracy” whenever it’s feasible, because it’s less messy than the alternative. But when it doesn’t work, it’s more than happy to resort to the expedients of sponsoring military coups, death squads, torture and genocide. The deaths carried out by US-backed military dictators and death squads in Central America, Iran, Indonesia, the Congo, and the entire continent of South America, go upward into the millions. In fact the US has cheerfully overthrown democracies, as in Guatemala and Iran, when they imperiled the ability of Western corporations and landed elites to extract wealth from the people of those countries.
And the counter-insurgency playbook used by the US in “promoting freedom” around the world is the very same one invented by the British in the Boer War, the Spanish in Cuba and the Philippines, the US itself against the Moro insurgency, and King Leopold’s troops in the Congo. It’s the same techniques subsequently used by the Japanese in Manchuria and by the French in Indochina and Algeria. It involves herding the population into “strategic hamlets” under military control, defoliating or carpet-bombing everything on the outside, and generally terrorizing the population into submission.
The US generally overthrows dictatorships, and backs “people power” and “color revolutions” through the National Endowment for Democracy and Soros Foundation, only when they’ve outlived their usefulness and stopped taking orders. Many of the dictators and terrorists the US has so ostentatiously overthrown — Noriega, Saddam, Bin Laden — had a previous history of being installed in power by the US or working with it.
If the US had installed Satan as dictator of Hell and provided him with arms and advisers, and he suddenly stopped taking orders from Washington, you can bet the very next day the White House Press Secretary would be standing on the podium talking in shocked tones about all the horrible things the US had “just discovered” going on in Hell.
So let’s be clear. The US superpower is not an idealistic bearer of burdens for the rest of the world, and the world order it has enforced has not been for the “peace and prosperity” of humanity. It is the very same exploitive, extractive order enforced previously by the colonial powers of Western Europe and Japan, and using the same bloody and genocidal methods — but packaged in idealistic rhetoric about “democracy.”
We never hired this superpower. It was hired by our enemies, to rob and brutalize us. It’s time, not for it to “retire,” but for it to immediately be fired and frog-marched out of the building.
*Note — Information regarding the CFR/State Department “Grand Area” study comes mainly from Laurence H. Shoup and William Minter, “Shaping a New World Order: The Council on Foreign Relations’ Blueprint for World Hegemony 1939-1945,” in Holly Sklar, ed., Trilateralism: The Trilateral commission and Elite Planning for World Management (Boston: South End Press, 1980), pp. 135-156.