(Associated Press)

How America built its empire: The real history of American foreign policy that the media won't tell you

Perry Anderson sits down with Salon to discuss the Cold War, Hiroshima, American exceptionalism, Iran and more


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Patrick L. Smith
September 24, 2015 2:59AM (UTC)

The other day I wrote Perry Anderson, the subject of the following interview, to ask what he thought of the foreign policy debates, such as they are, among our presidential aspirants. Logical question: Anderson, a prominent scholar and intellectual for decades, has just published “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers,” a superbly lucid account of U.S policy’s historical roots and the people who shape policy in our time.

“Current candidates’ f/p talk leaves me speechless,” came Anderson’s terse reply.

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Perfectly defensible. Most of what these people have to say—and I do not exclude the Democratic candidates—is nothing more than a decadent, late-exceptionalist rendering of a policy tradition that, as Anderson’s book reminds readers, once had a coherent rationale even as it has so often led to incoherent, irrational conduct abroad.

Born in London in 1938—during the Munich crisis, as he points out—Anderson has been a presence on the trans-Atlantic intellectual scene since he took the editor’s chair at the then-struggling New Left Review in 1962, when he was all of 24. Eight years later NLR launched Verso, a book imprint as singular (and as singularly influential) as the journal.

Anderson has headed both at various intervals for years. His own books range widely. My favorites are “Zone of Engagement” (1992) and “Spectrum” (2005), which collect essays on an amazing range of 20th century thinkers. To them I now add the new foreign policy book, which I count indispensable to anyone serious about the topic.

I met Anderson, who has taught comparative political and intellectual history at UCLA since 1989, at his home in Santa Monica this past summer. Over a fulsome afternoon’s conversation in his admirably spartan study, he impressed me again and again with his range of reference and the clarity he brings to complex questions. Anderson wastes no words when he thinks you are wrong, as readers will see for themselves, but the counterarguments are generously given and always rewarding.

The transcript that follows is the first of two parts and includes a few questions posed via email after we met. It is otherwise only lightly edited. Part 2 will appear next week.

“American Foreign Policy and its Thinkers” is well timed, given the unusual prominence foreign policy now assumes in the American political conversation. How would you describe your approach? What distinguishes the book from so many others? How should one read it? What’s the project?

The book tries to do two things. One is to cover the history of American foreign policy, from around 1900 to the present, tracing the gradual construction of a global empire. This first really came into view as a prospect during the Second World War and is today a reality across all five continents, as a glance at the skein of its military bases makes clear. The Cold War was a central episode within this trajectory, but the book doesn’t treat just the U.S. record vis-á-vis the USSR or China. It tries to deal equally with American relations with the Europe and Japan,  and also with the Third World, treated not as a homogenous entity but as four or five zones that required different policy combinations.

The second part of the book is a survey of American grand strategy—that is, the different ways leading counselors of state interpret the current position of the United States on the world stage and their recommendations for what Washington should do about it.

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The “big think” set, in other words—Kissinger, of course, Brzezinski, Walter Russell Mead, Robert Kagan. And then people such as Francis Fukuyama, whom I consider a ridiculous figure but whose thinking you judged worth some scrutiny. How did you choose these?

From the range of in-and-outers—thinkers moving between government and the academy or think-tanks—who have sought to guide U.S. foreign policy since 2000, with some intellectual originality. Kissinger isn’t among these. His ideas belong to a previous epoch, his later offerings are boilerplate. Fukuyama, who sensed what the effects of office on thought could be, and got out of state service quite early, is a mind of a different order. The figures selected cover the span of options within what has always been a bipartisan establishment.

You make a distinction between American exceptionalism, which is much in the air, and American universalism, which few of us understand as a separate matter. The first holds America to be singular (exceptional), and the second that the world is destined to follow us, that the trails we’ve blazed are the future of humanity. You call this a “potentially unstable compound.” Could you elaborate on this distinction, and explain why you think it’s unstable?

It’s unstable because the first can exist without the second. There is, of course, a famous ideological linkage between the two in the religious idea, specific to the United States, of Providence—that is, divine Providence. In your own book “Time No Longer” you cite an astounding expression of this notion: “However one comes to the debate, there can be little question that the hand of Providence has been on a nation which finds a Washington, a Lincoln, or a Roosevelt when it needs him.” That pronouncement was delivered in the mid-1990s—not by some television preacher, but by Seymour Martin Lipset: chairs at Harvard and Stanford, president of both the American Sociological and the American Political Science Associations, a one-time social democrat.

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What is the force of this idea? A belief that God has singled out America as a chosen nation for exceptional blessings, a notion which then easily becomes a conviction of its mission to bring the benefits of the Lord to the world. President after president, from Truman through to Kennedy, the younger Bush to Obama, reiterate the same tropes: “God has given us this, God has given us that,” and with the unique freedom and prosperity he has conferred on us comes a universal calling to spread these benefits to the rest of the world. What is the title of the most ambitious contemporary account of the underlying structures of American foreign policy? “Special Providence,” by Walter Russell Mead. Year of publication: 2001.

But while a messianic universalism follows easily from providential exceptionalism, it is not an ineluctable consequence of it. You mount a powerful attack on the idea of exceptionalism in “Time No Longer,” but—we may differ on this—if we ask what is the more dangerous element in the unstable compound of the nation’s image of itself, I would say exceptionalism is the less dangerous. That may seem paradoxical. But historically the idea of exceptionalism allowed for an alternative, more modest deduction: that the country was different from all others, and so should not be meddling with them—the argument of Washington’s Farewell Address [in 1796].

A century later, this position became known as isolationism, and as the American empire took shape, it was all but invariably castigated as narrow-minded, short-sighted and selfish. But it could often be connected with a sense that the republic was in danger at home, with domestic ills that needed to be addressed, which vast ambitions abroad would only compound. Mead terms this strand in American sensibility Jeffersonian, which isn’t an accurate description of Jefferson’s own empire-building outlook, but he otherwise captures it quite well.

We don’t ordinarily apply the term “exceptionalist” in the same breath to America and to Japan, though if there is any nation that claims to be completely unique, it is Japan. But the claim produced a drastic isolationism as a national impulse, both in the Tokugawa period [1603—1868, a period of severely enforced seclusion] and after the war. Does that support the point you’re making?

Exactly. Historically, exceptionalism could generate a self-limiting, self-enclosing logic as well as the gigantic expansionist vanities of the Co-Prosperity Sphere and the “Free World” [narrative]. In the American case, the two strands of exceptionalism and universalism remained distinct, respectively as isolationist and interventionist impulses, sometimes converging but often diverging, down to the Second World War. Then they fused. The thinker who wrote best about this was Franz Schurmann, whose “ Logic of World Power” came out during the Vietnam War. He argued that each had a distinct political-regional base: the social constituency for isolationism was small business and farming communities in the Midwest, for interventionism it was the banking and manufacturing elites of the East Coast, with often sharp conflicts between the two up through the end of thirties. But in the course of the Second World War they came together in a synthesis he attributed—somewhat prematurely—to FDR, and they have remained essentially interwoven ever since. The emblematic figure of this change was [Arthur H.] Vandenberg, the Republican Senator from Michigan [1928—51], who remained an isolationist critic of interventionism even for a time after Pearl Harbor, but by the end of the war had become a pillar of the new imperial consensus.

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Mainstream debate today seems to have constructed two very stark alternatives: There is either engagement or isolation. In this construction, engagement means military engagement; if we are not going to be militarily engaged we are isolationists. I find that absolutely wrong. There are multiple ways of being engaged with the world that have nothing to do with military assertion.

 True, but engagement in that usage doesn’t mean just military engagement, but power projection more generally. One of the thinkers I discuss toward the end of my book is Robert Art, a lucid theorist of military power and its political importance to America, who argues for what he calls selective—expressly, not universal—engagement. What is unusual about him is that in seeking to discriminate among engagements the U.S. should and should not select, he starts considering in a serious, non-dismissive way what would typically be construed as isolationist alternatives, even if ending with a fairly conventional position.

How far do you view the contemporary American crisis—if you accept that we are living through one—as, at least in part, one of consciousness? As an American, I tend to think that no significant departure from where find ourselves today can be achieved until we alter our deepest notions of ourselves and our place among others. I pose this question with some trepidation, since a change in consciousness is a generational project, if not more. Our leadership is not remotely close even to thinking about this. I’m suggesting a psychological dimension to our predicament, and you may think I put too much weight on that.

You ask at the outset whether I accept that Americans are living through a crisis. My reply would be: not anything like the order of crisis that would bring about the sort of change in consciousness for which you might hope. You describe that as a generational project, and there, yes, one can say that among the youngest cohorts of the U.S. population, the ideologies of the status quo are less deeply embedded, and in certain layers even greatly weakened. That is an important change, but it’s generational, rather than society-wide, and it’s not irreversible.

At the level of the great majority, including, naturally, the upper middle class, the image you use to describe the purpose of your last book applies: you write that it aims “to sound the tense strings wound between the pegs of myth and history during the hundred years and a few that I take to be the American century. It is this high, piercing tone that Americans now have a chance to render, hear, and recognize all at once. We have neither sounded nor heard it yet.” That’s all too true, unfortunately. The most one can say is that, among a newer generation, the strings are fraying a bit.

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I tend to distinguish between strong nations and the merely powerful, the former being supple and responsive to events, the later being brittle and unstable. Is this a useful way to judge America in the early 21st century—monumentally powerful but of dubious strength? If so, doesn’t it imply some change in the American cast of mind, as the difference between the two sinks in?

That depends on the degree of instability you sense in the country. In general, a major change in consciousness occurs when there is a major alteration in material conditions of life. For example, if a deep economic depression or dire ecological disaster strikes a society, all bets are off. Then, suddenly, thoughts and actions that were previously inconceivable become possible and natural. That isn’t the situation so far in America.

Can you discuss the new accord with Iran in this context? I don’t see any question it’s other than a breakthrough, a new direction. What do you think were the forces propelling the Obama administration to pursue this pact? And let’s set aside the desire for a “legacy” every president cultivates late in his time.

The agreement with Iran is an American victory but not a departure in U.S. foreign policy. Economic pressure on Iran dates back to Carter’s time, when the U.S. froze the country’s overseas assets after the ousting of the Shah, and the full range of ongoing U.S. sanctions was imposed by the Clinton administration in 1996. The Bush administration escalated the pressure by securing U.N. generalization of sanctions in 2006, and the Obama administration has harvested the effect.

Over the past decade, the objective has always been the same: to protect Israel’s nuclear monopoly in the region without risking an Israeli blitz on Iran to preserve it—that might set off too great a wave of popular anger in the Middle East. It was always likely, as I point out in “American Policy and its Thinkers,” that the clerical regime in Tehran would buckle under a sustained blockade, if that was the price of its survival. The agreement includes a time-out clause to save its face, but the reality is an Iranian surrender.

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You can see how little it means any alteration in imperial operations in the region by looking at what the Obama administration is doing in Yemen, assisting Saudi Arabia’s wholesale destruction of civilian life there in the interest of thwarting imaginary Iranian schemes.

This next question vexes many people, me included. On the one hand, the drives underlying the American imperium are material: the expansion of capital and the projection of power by its political representatives. The American mythologies are shrouds around these. On the other hand, the issue of security has a long history among Americans. It is authentically an obsession independent of capital—American paranoia dates back at least to the 18th century. I don’t take these two accountings to be mutually exclusive, but I’d be interested to know how you reconcile these different threads in American foreign policy.

Yes, there has been a longstanding—you could say aboriginal—obsession with security in the United States. This can be traced as an independent strand running through the history of American dealings with the outside world. What happened, of course, from the Cold War through to the “war on terror” was a ruthless instrumentalization of this anxiety for purposes of expansion rather than defense. At the start of the Cold War you had the National Security Act and the creation of the National Security Council, and today we have the National Security Agency. Security became a euphemistic cloak for aggrandizement.

The United States occupies the better part of a continent separated by two immense oceans, which nobody in modern history has had any serious chance of invading, unlike any other major state in the world, all of which have contiguous land-borders with rival powers, or are separated from them only by narrow seas. The U.S. is protected by a unique geographical privilege. But if its expansion overseas cannot be attributed to imperatives of security, what has driven it?

A gifted and important group of historians, the Wisconsin school [which included the late William Appleman Williams, among others], has argued that the secret of American expansion has from the beginning lain in the quest by native capital for continuously larger markets, which first produced pressure on the internal frontier and the march across the continent to the Pacific, and when the West Coast was reached, a drive beyond into Asia and Latin America, and ultimately the rest of the world, under the ideology of the Open Door.

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A couple of good scholars, Melvyn Leffler and Wilson Miscamble, one a liberal and the other a conservative, have identified my position with this tradition, taxing me with a belief that American foreign policy is essentially just an outgrowth of American business. This is a mistake. My argument is rather that because of the enormous size and self-sufficiency of the American economy, the material power at the disposal of the American state exceeded anything that American capital could directly make use of or require.

If you look at the First World War, you can see this very clearly. East Coast bankers and munitions manufacturers did well out of supplying the Entente powers, but there was no meaningful economic rationale for American entry into the war itself. The U.S. could tip the scales in favor of the British and French variants of imperialism against the German and Austrian variants without much cost to itself, but also much to gain.

The same gap between the reach of American business and the power of the American state explains the later hegemony of the United States within the advanced capitalist world after the Second World War. Standard histories wax lyrical in admiration of the disinterested U.S. generosity that revived Germany and Japan with the Marshall and Dodge Plans [reconstruction programs after 1945], and it is indeed the case that policies crafted at the State and Defense Departments did not coincide with the desiderata of the Commerce Department. The key requirement was to rebuild these former enemies as stable capitalist bulwarks against communism, even if this meant there could be no simple Open Door into them for U.S. capital.

For strategic political reasons, the Japanese were allowed to re-create a highly protected economy, and American capital was by and large barred entry. The priority was to defend the general integrity of capitalism as a global system against the threat of socialism, not particular returns to U.S. business. The importance of those were never, of course, ignored. But they had to bide their time. Today’s Trans-Pacific Partnership will finally pry open Japanese financial, retail and other markets that have remained closed for so long.

I’d like to turn to the origins of the Cold War, since I believe we are never going to get anywhere until these are honestly confronted. You give a forceful account of Stalin’s reasons for avoiding confrontation after 1945 and Washington’s reasons for not doing so. But should we attribute the outbreak of the Cold War to the U.S. without too much in the way of qualification?

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We can look at the onset of the Cold War on two levels. One is that of punctual events. There, you are certainly right to pick out the ideological starting gun as Truman’s speech on Greece in 1947, designed the “scare hell” out of voters to win acceptance for military aid to the Greek monarchy. In policy terms, however, the critical act that set the stage for confrontation with Moscow was the flat American refusal to allow any serious reparations for the staggering level of destruction Russia suffered from the German attack on it. The most developed third of the country was laid waste, its industry and its cities wrecked, while Americans suffered not a fly on the wrist at home—basking, on the contrary, in a massive economic boom. There was no issue Stalin spoke more insistently about than reparations in negotiations among the Allies. But once the fighting was over, the U.S. reneged on wartime promises and vetoed reparations from the larger part of Germany—far the richest and most developed, and occupied by the West—because it did not want to strengthen the Soviet Union and did want to rebuild the Ruhr as an industrial base under Western control, with a view to creating what would subsequently become the Federal Republic.

Can you put Hiroshima and Nagasaki into this context?

Prior to this came Truman’s decision to drop atomic bombs on Japan. He did so, of course, to shorten the war, and partly also because the Pentagon wanted to test its new weapons. But there was a further reason for the obliteration of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was urgent to secure a Japanese surrender before the Red Army could get close to the country, for fear that Moscow might insist on a Soviet presence in the occupation of Japan. The U.S. was determined not to let the Russians in, as they could not stop them from doing in Germany. So if we look just at events, you can say the starting points were the use of atomic bombs in Japan and the refusal of reparations in Germany. In that sense, those who argue that the Cold War was an American initiative—the Swedish historian Anders Stephanson, who has written most deeply about this, calls it an American project—are justified in doing so.

So these are your “punctual events.”

Exactly. On the hand, if we look at the structural origins of the Cold War, they don’t lie in these punctual events, but in the radical incompatibility between American capitalism and Soviet communism as forms of economy, society and polity. Revisionist historians have pointed out quite properly that Stalin was defensive in outlook after the war, determined to erect a protective glacis in Eastern Europe against any repetition of the Nazi invasion of Russia, but otherwise acutely conscious of Soviet weakness and superior Western strength.

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All of that is true, but at the same time Stalin remained a communist who firmly believed that the ultimate mission of the world’s working class was to overthrow capitalism, everywhere. His immediate stance was defensive, but in the much longer run his expectation was offensive. In that sense, U.S. policies toward the USSR were not needlessly aggressive, as revisionists maintain, but perfectly rational. The two systems were mortal antagonists.

Let’s move to the topic of social democracy. I did a lot of my learning in developing countries and have a sense that Washington’s true Cold War enemy was social democracy as it spread through Western Europe and all the newly independent nations. What’s your view of this?

 Strong disagreement, so far as Europe is concerned. If you look at the whole period from 1945 through to the present, you could argue that, on the contrary, European social democracy was Washington’s best friend in the region. NATO was the brainchild not of the Pentagon but of Ernest Bevin, the social-democratic foreign secretary in Britain. Attlee, his prime minister, then split his own government by cutting the health service to fund rearmament for the American war in Korea. In France, the most ruthless crackdown on labor unrest after the war came from Jules Moch, the Socialist interior minister.

Think, too, of the Norwegian social democrat who Washington put in charge of the U.N. as its first secretary general, Trygve Lie, an odious collaborator with McCarthyism inside the United Nations. This was the period in which Irving Brown of the A.F.L., working closely with local social democrats, was installed in Europe by the C.I.A. with funds to divide and corrupt trade unions everywhere. He was still active in plotting against Allende [the Chilean social democratic president] in the ’70s. As to more recent years, who was Bush’s most ardent European ally in the war on Iraq? Not any conservative politician, but British social democrat Blair.

There were exceptions to this dismal record, but few and far between. Not by accident, they generally came from neutral countries that stayed out of the Cold War. In Sweden, Olaf Palme was a courageous opponent of the American war in Vietnam, detested by the U.S. for that reason. In Austria, Bruno Kreisky took an independent line on the Middle East, refusing to fall in with Western support for Israel—itself governed in those years by another social democratic party—and so was scarcely less disliked by the U.S.

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But the dominant pattern has always been craven submission to Washington.

Well, I was thinking more of figures like Mossadeq, Arbenz and Allende—maybe the Sandinistas, too.

 Their fate is certainly relevant, but there you are talking of a different political phenomenon—nationalism in the Third World, typically though not invariably of the left. You could add Lumumba in the Congo, Goulart in Brazil, Bosch in the Dominican Republic and others to the list. Not all were figures of the left, but from the Cold War onward the U.S. regarded nearly all serious attempts at nationalization of local resources as a threat to capital and worked to subvert or overthrow those who undertook them. A good part of my book is devoted to this front of imperial operations.

I’ve often wondered what the fate of Cuba would have been if Castro had been properly received in Washington in 1960. Could he have become something like a social democrat?

 Excluded, if only because of the side of the Cuban Revolution that distinguished it from both the Chinese Revolution and from the outcome of Russian Revolution after Lenin, which was genuine internationalism. It had to be internationalist because it was a small island close to the United States, not a huge country far away, so it needed revolutionary solidarity within Latin America, which it couldn’t hope for as long the continent was populated by assorted clients of the United States, most of them dictators. So even if, counterfactually, Eisenhower or Kennedy had rolled out a tactical red carpet for Fidel, there would have still have been insurmountable conflict over all these Latin American regimes propped up by the United States. The Cubans would have never said, if you put up with us, you can do what you want anywhere. Think of the fact they sent troops [in 1975] even to Angola—where they had no regional connection at all—to save it from a U.S.-backed invasion by South Africa.

Do you see any inflections in the development of American foreign policy over this period?

 There is an underlying continuity in the long arc of the U.S. imperium that extends from FDR to Obama. But one can distinguish successive phases in this arc. You have the period that runs from Truman to Kennedy, the high Cold War. Then comes Nixon, the only American president with an original mind in foreign policy. He was intelligent because he was so cynical. He wasn’t taken in or mystified by the enormous amount of rhetoric surrounding the lofty U.S. mission in the world. He was therefore more ruthless, but also genuinely innovative in a whole series of ways, the most important of which was to capitalize on the Sino-Soviet split.

The next phase runs from Carter through Reagan to the elder Bush, which sees a reversion to the earlier forms of foreign policy during the Cold War. The fourth phase, of humanitarian intervention, from Clinton through the younger Bush to Obama.

I once thought Carter was an exception in this line, but have since been persuaded to think again.

 If you’re interested in Carter, there’s a good chapter on him in the huge “Cambridge History of the Cold War” by a scholar sympathetic to Carter, which captures the ambiguities and contradictions of his presidency quite well. He did, of course, talk a lot about human rights at the beginning of his tenure, and appointed Patricia Derian, who genuinely believed in them but was quite powerless, to an assistant position in the State Department. But one has to remember that at the outset he appointed Zbigniew Brzezinski as national security adviser, on whom he relied throughout his presidency.

Brzezinski was in many ways brighter than Kissinger, in later years an overrated showman not particularly interesting as a thinker. Brzezinski’s cold, brittle mind was a good deal sharper. He was also as much, if not more, of a hawk than Kissinger had been. His masterstroke was funding religious and tribal resistance to the Communist regime in Afghanistan well before any Soviet troops were there, with the clear-cut and entirely successful aim of making the country the Vietnam of the USSR. There followed the Carter Doctrine, which put the U.S. into the military emplacements in the Gulf, where it remains today, while the president was toasting the Shah as a close personal friend and pillar of human rights. To top it off, with Brzezinski at his elbow again, Carter patronized and protected Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, keeping them at the U.N. as the legitimate government of Cambodia, as part of the deal with China for its attack on Vietnam.

In the Middle East, the peace treaty between Sadat and Begin is generally credited to Carter. Its precondition, however, was the double rescue of Israel and of Egypt by Nixon and Kissinger in the 1973 war, which put both countries into the palm of the American hand. What was the regional upshot? Sadat ditched the Palestinians and became a well-funded U.S. client, Begin secured an ally on Israel’s southern flank and the Egyptians got the tyranny of Sadat, Mubarak and now Sisi for the next 40 years. Yet to this day Carter gushes over Sadat, a torturer whose memory is loathed by his people, as a wonderful human being. What is nevertheless true is that with all his weaknesses—and worse—Carter was a contradictory figure, who, once he was ousted from office, behaved more decently than any other ex-president in recent memory. Today, he’s almost a pariah because of what he says on Israel. One can respect him for that.

Turning to Europe for a moment, I often feel disappointed—I don’t think I’m alone in this—at the hesitancy of the Europeans to act on what seems to be their underlying impatience with American primacy. Is this an unrealistic expectation?

Impatience isn’t the right word. The reality is rather its opposite. Europe has become ever more patient—a better word would be submissive—with the United States. After 1945, Western Europe was far weaker in relation to America than the E.U. today, which is larger than the U.S. in both GDP and population. But think of three European politicians—in France, Germany and England—in the first 15 years after the war. You had a great statesman in De Gaulle; a very strong, if much more limited leader in Adenauer, and a weak ruler in Eden. But the striking thing is all three were quite prepared to defy the United States in a way that no subsequent politician in Europe has ever done.

Eden launched the Suez expedition against Nasser [in late 1956] without informing Washington—the Americans were livid, Eisenhower beside himself, fearing that it would stoke popular anti-imperialism across Africa and Asia. So the U.S. brought the expedition to an abrupt halt by triggering a run on sterling, and Eden fell. But there was an aftermath. The French premier at the time was Guy Mollet, the Socialist who was an accomplice of Eden in the attack on Egypt, with, himself, a terrible record in Algeria. When the idea of a Common Market came up shortly after the Suez debacle, though he was personally favorable to it, he faced a lot of opposition in France—as there was, too, in Germany. Adenauer, who was quite willing to make commercial concessions to France to smooth the path for the undertaking, gave Mollet a political reason for the Common Market. Look what happened when you fought at Suez, he told him. None of our countries is strong enough to resist the U.S. on its own. Let’s pool our resources and then we can do so.

Adenauer was loyal enough to the West, and a staunch anticommunist, but Germany, not America, was what counted for him. As for De Gaulle, he famously pulled France out of the military command of NATO, and defied America with éclat virtually throughout.

Since then, there has been nobody like this. If we ask why, I think the answer is that all these people were formed before the First and Second World Wars broke out, in a period in which major European states had as much weight as the United States on the international checkerboard, if not more. They were not brought up in a world where American hegemony was taken for granted. All of them were involved in the two World Wars, and in the Second De Gaulle had good reason to be distrustful of the U.S., since Roosevelt was long pro-Vichy and wanted to oust him as leader of the Free French.

We could add, incidentally, a couple of later politicians, who fought in the second conflict. One was the English Tory prime minister, Edward Heath, the only postwar ruler of Britain who never made the trip to simper on the White House lawn, receiving an audience and paying tribute, that would become a virtual ceremony of investiture for any new ruler around the world. The other was Helmut Schmidt, a veteran of Operation Barbarossa [the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941] who scarcely concealed his disdain for Carter. These were latecomers from the past. Their successors have grown up under U.S. paramountcy and take it for granted. This is America’s world. It is second nature for them to defer to it.

You describe a generational difference in sensibility. But what about the EU?

If the generational declension is one big change, another is what has become of the European Union itself. On paper, it’s much more powerful than any of the individual countries. But so far as any coherent foreign policy is concerned, it’s institutionally paralyzed by the number of states that make it up—originally six, now 28—and the labyrinthine nature of their dealings with each other. None of them has any complete autonomy of initiative. A staggering amount of time is wasted in endless summits behind closed doors, agendas prepared by bureaucrats, tremulous fear of any public disagreement. No serious international statecraft can emerge from this.

During the countdown to the war in Iraq, there were large street demonstrations in not a few countries, which Dominique Strauss-Kahn—no less—described as a European Declaration of Independence. Schröder [Gerhard, the German chancellor from 1998—2005] announced that Germany could not accept the war, and Chirac [Jacques, the French president, 1995—2007] blocked a U.N. resolution endorsing it. Were these bold acts of independence? Far from it. The French envoy in Washington told Bush in advance: You already have one U.N. resolution saying Saddam must comply with inspections, which is suitably vague. Don’t embarrass us by trying to get another resolution that is more specific, which we’ll have to oppose. Just use that one and go in. No sooner, indeed, was the attack launched than Chirac opened French skies to U.S. operations against Iraq. Can you imagine De Gaulle meekly helping a war he had said he opposed? As for Schröder, it was soon revealed that German intelligence agents in Baghdad had signaled ground targets for “Shock and Awe.” These were politicians who knew the war was very unpopular in domestic opinion, and so made a show of opposing it while actually collaborating. Their independence was a comedy.

That was a dozen years ago. What’s the position today?

Edward Snowden’s break with the illegalities of Obama’s government revealed that it was not only spying on European as well as American citizens en masse, but tapping the phones and communications of Merkel, Hollande and other pillars of Atlantic solidarity. How have these leaders reacted? With an embarrassed smile, before the next warm embrace with the Leader of the Free World. Has one single European government dreamt of offering asylum to Snowden? Not one. Under Merkel, indeed, it now emerges that German intelligence itself was illegally spying on Germans at the behest of the U.S., and passing on the information it gathered to the CIA. There are no consequences to such revelations, except to those who reveal them. The level of abjection passes belief.

Let’s put the Ukraine crisis in this context. It is, after all, what prompted me to raise the question of European passivity in the trans-Atlantic relationship. Here, it seems to me, the Europeans are furious with Washington for encouraging Kiev toward a patently dangerous confrontation with Russia. Animosity has been evident since Vicky Nuland’s infamous “‘F’the E.U.” remark just before the coup last year. And now we see Merkel and Hollande more or less pushing the U.S. aside in favor of a negotiated settlement—or “seem to see,” in any case. What’s your view here?

Why should Washington object to European attempts to reach a stand-off in the Ukraine, so long as sanctions in Russia remain in place? Berlin and Paris are not going to defy it. Any real settlement is for the time being out of reach, but if one were materialize, they would be convenient sherpas for it. The E.U. as such hardly matters: Its reaction to Nuland’s dismissal [of them] was to turn the other cheek.


Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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