"Does anyone have a plan?" Here's how we fix decades of overseas neo-conservative adventurism

We have accepted the horrors of American exceptionalism for too long. Here's a progressive foreign policy blueprint

By Patrick L. Smith
Published October 28, 2015 9:57AM (EDT)
  (AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Jonathan Ernst)
(AP/Reuters/Janet Van Ham/Jonathan Ernst)

“Tell me, what exactly is ‘an authentically progressive foreign policy.’”

That is the request of a reader responding to last week’s column in the comment thread that follows it. The reference is to my observation that any such policy would probably prompt the policy cliques—the deep state in the column’s terms—to subvert the political candidate who dared advance it.

I do not think this is a reasonable request. Nor do I think Mark Twain and the other anti-imperialists who rose against the Spanish-American War would. I am certain the late Chalmers Johnson would not: His final book was “Dismantling the Empire: America’s Last Best Hope.” Or William Appleman Williams, who titled his last book “Empire as a Way of Life.” Or the late Gabriel Kolko, the leading revisionist among Cold War historians. Or the late William Pfaff, the distinguished columnist and author of—his last book—“The Tragedy of Manifest Destiny.”

No need to go on. There is a long and rich discourse dedicated to the thought that America might behave honorably as it conducts its affairs abroad. It began with Twain and his crowd—the hot-tongued political Twain airbrushed out so that the cracker-barrel storyteller who remains can be enjoyed by the whole family. Kolko’s books during and after the Vietnam war were high points. There are numerous others.

These people were critics, yes. They were for tearing down—dismantling, as Johnson put it. But implicit in all the critique were notions of none other than a progressive foreign policy. As Ray McGovern, the CIA analyst and whistleblower, would put it, they were for building arks in the end, not simply complaining about the rain.

O.K., now let us honor the reader’s unreasonable request. There are a lot of “lates” in the above list, after all: These writers are gone now, and few Americans have any idea of all the thought and work that lies behind us. People such as Ap Williams are deliberately, systematically ignored—airbrushed out of the story like the most honorable part of Twain. And then we are post-literate, aren’t we? People do not read enough. It never occurs to most of us to reference history—not of any kind, and certainly not the history of alternative thinking on American foreign policy.

Then again, the presidential campaigns for party nominations are on full blast, and one cannot recall a time since the Vietnam period when America’s conduct abroad was so prominent a topic in the national conversation. A good time to take up a well-meant but uninformed question.


“There is no use dissembling,” another great 20th century historian, Carl Becker, once said. “We might just as well call it ‘imperialism’ and not be hypnotized or befuddled by words.” Ap Williams quoted Becker in the last chapter of “Empire as a Way of Life.” “Until we understand and acknowledge our imperial past we will be lost,” Williams went on, “because until then we will not know where we have been.”

What a very fine place to begin—with nomenclature.

It is a little less daring to refer to America as an imperial power, or to name it an empire, than it was in the day of Carl Becker or Ap Williams. But only a little.

And it is a lot more important to do so. Any progressive foreign policy worthy of the designation must, must, must be anti-imperialist, know itself as such and let all others know it as such, too.

The reasoning here is simple.

First is definition. No foreign policy that does not take America’s withdrawal from its now-preposterous imperial overreach as its starting point can possibly compute out as progressive. Shutting down the empire is the sine qua non—the foundation stone on which all else rests. All the talk of the reluctant imperialists, “If not us, who?” Forget it: self-justifying rubbish.

“However ambitious President Obama’s domestic plans, one unacknowledged issue has the potential to destroy any reform efforts he might launch,” Chalmers Johnson wrote in “Dismantling,” a few months after Obama took office. “Think of it as the 800-pound gorilla in the American living room: our longstanding reliance on imperialism and militarism in our relations with other countries and the vast, potentially ruinous global empire of bases that goes with it.”

Substitute any name you wish for Obama’s and the point stands.

Second is the power of language. Naming the gorilla is transforming. Listen to Bernie Sanders, whether or not you like him. When he says “socialism” or “universal health care” he changes the conversation. There are two fewer taboos to turn public discourse into cotton wool. It is the same in the case of foreign policy.

At this point the policy cliques have turned nighttime into day: Stability is instability, war is peace, invasions are in the name of sovereignty, Islamic extremists are freedom fighters, apartheid Israel stands for democracy. It is wrong to tolerate this without resistance. Why under the sun is there something wrong with standing against empire in a nation that fought free of one? Furtive, disguised thinking prolongs this perversity. Let us leave that to the think-tank set, forever feeding pigeons at the ends of limbs.

Point 1, then: A progressive foreign policy is clear as to its intentions—these being to turn the nation back from its imperial pursuits. Its adherents accept the need, at this urgent moment in the American story, to stand outside the tent and urinate in. In a distinction drawn in last week’s column, they are interested in changing the goals, the purposes, the intent of policy, as against merely the means, which is what we have in the case of Obama and all of those aspiring to succeed him.

This brings us to Point 2, which brings us back to Ap Williams. Where do we begin pulling back from empire? This was among the questions that preoccupied Williams all of his career. Parenthetically, I saw him speak in New York when “Empire as a Way of Life” came out in 1980. Moving. Memorable. An inspiration.

We will never get to dismantling the bases and giving the land back to the nations that own it unless we begin at home. To me this means, before anything else, dismantling our exceptionalist consciousness. The first fight for a new foreign policy is in our heads. We are hooked on the Providential righteousness history has supposedly passed down to us and the primacy and unlimited prerogative we think this awards us.

To our heads Williams added our bellies—the “way of life” in his title. “The first thing to note is the imperial confusion of an economically defined standard of living with a culturally defined quality of life,” Williams wrote in the concluding chapter of his concluding book. “Let us agree that many Americans enjoy—wallow in—a high standard of living. But no imperial statesman … ever provides the cost accounting to tell us what we pay for our largesse.”

This distinction is more easily grasped by more people than it was back in 1980. It is widely accepted now that we are the resource-gorging slobs of the planet. The place of oil—“the classic example of the benefits and terrors of empire as a way of life,” Williams wrote—is plain in our wildly violent policies in the Middle East. Following Pope Francis’s lead, Roman Catholic cardinals and bishops just issued a climate-change appeal in which they call for “new models of development and lifestyle.” The thought assumes currency.

Point 2, in sum: A progressive foreign policy begins with a change of consciousness of the kind we customarily assume occurs only in books or to other people—the Germans and the Japanese after 1945, for instance. It cannot be separated from a progressive domestic policy. It is an expression of a people who make their lives and their nation progressive. It does not sit there in a glass case, a gem separate from all that goes on around it. There is skin in the game, ours, I suppose may be another way to put it.

The last words Williams published between hard covers, those ending “Empire,” are these: “Remembering all that, I know why I do not want the empire. There are better ways to live and better ways to die.” Perfectly stated parting shot, Ap. Slowly, a few more of us are getting this into our heads.

One other point in the matter of a changed American consciousness. We Americans need to make a critical distinction we have not observed at least since “the American century” opened with the war against Spain. It is the difference between risk and threat.

Americans have entertained a certain paranoic streak about external threats since the 18th century. The world outside wants to spoil our good thing—this is the narrative simply put. It is as alive today as it was when, say, the early Americans fretted about Spanish warships off the southern coast in the late 1700s.

In the last century this preoccupation tipped into obsession. It was institutionalized after the 1945 victories in the National Security State. Threats are often in the eye of the beholder. The problem with seeing them everywhere is that one can never rest: They are, precisely, everywhere one looks.

Risk is another matter. It resides in life, no beholder’s eyes. It is a reality people, families, towns, and nations must accept. Decline all risk and you are paralyzed. You have bought into the neurosis of ever-present threats.

A progressive foreign policy observes this distinction. It recognizes that risk is integral to human existence and that a nation has the power greatly to diminish threats by the way it conducts itself. To conclude the point, it is a policy that rests on confidence rather than fear, insecurity and a quivering uncertainty that protects itself with armaments able to destroy the world 100 times over.

A final feature of this pencil sketch of a progressive policy abroad requires that we answer the question of how. “Impossible,” “can’t be done,” “daydreams,” “romantic,” “unrealistic,” “the world’s a nasty place, all Hobbes all the time”—these are the kinds of responses the thinking advocated here has prompted for generations. Nothing new, if you are considering a jot in the comment thread to this effect.

I have three responses before getting to a suggestion as to how we can proceed.

One derives from a passage in Bergson. “It is no use maintaining that this leap forward does not imply a creative effort behind it,” the renowned French thinker wrote in the mid-1930s. “That would be to forget that most great reforms appeared at first sight impracticable, as in fact they were.” In other words, if you have no respect for aspiration you died somewhere along the line.

That takes care of the attack on idealism.

There is the related matter of urgency. If we do not alter course fundamentally, the world is going to do it for us, and as we see now in Syria, the impatience of others is growing. In this connection, all those claiming to be foreign policy “realists” are idealist in the extreme: The thought that America can proceed into the 21st century as it has begun—which remains a basic assumption in the policy cliques—is prima facie out of the question.

As to our Hobbesian world, finally, a progressive foreign policy will insist that we face the extent to which the disorder enveloping us is America’s doing more than anyone else’s. You cannot claim to be the world’s leader and refuse responsibility for the world as it is. It is a non sequitur.

One example is large enough to suffice: Who caused Islamist extremism to spread from a few isolated valleys on the Afghan-Pakistani border across the Middle East all the way to West Africa and the Philippines? In effect, Washington took a hammer to a small puddle of mercury. The conclusion here is that we would be a lot closer to the safer, more orderly world we claim to desire were we to abandon our current thinking as to how to make it safer and more orderly.


How, then?

“I have no list of answers,” Williams wrote in “Empire.” “Only a fool unrolls blueprints and specifications for changing a way of life. In any event, none of us has thought about it long and seriously enough to offer a serious setoff possible alternatives.”

Hmmm. Williams was a great historian, but I depart on this point. If this was true then it is not any longer. People are doing a lot of thinking, it seems to me, and not all of them are fools.

Some months ago I wrote about Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Germany’s Social Democratic foreign minister in Chancellor Merkel’s rainbow-coalition cabinet. Steinmeier took office in late-2013 and immediately authorized a study to determine how Germany could renovate foreign policy and the policy-setting process in response to a drastically changing global environment.

Steinmeier reported to the Bundestag on his ministry’s findings last spring. In brief, German policy in the 21st century is to rest on international law more or less as it is, no need to add much other than a stricter insistence on observance. It is to derive from a holistic community of thinkers: Political experts, economists, urban planners, sociologists, historians, educators, aid people, policy people, military people, foreign advisers and so on will all gather to shape the strategy. Military force is to be re-rated a last resort.

Most interesting to me are Steinmeier’s provisions for public participation in policy planning—via town meetings, referenda, opinion surveys and other administrative mechanisms—such that it reflects the nation’s aspirations. In effect, Steinmeier proposes the democratization of foreign policy.

“Foreign policy is about more than just two extremes: either just talking or shooting, either futile diplomacy or Bundeswehr deployments abroad,” Steinmeier said when he introduced the new thinking in the Bundestag last March. “The world has changed, and the Federal Foreign Office must change with it.”

One cannot say how far this policy will get or what kind of political resistance it will meet. But it is on the table—this is the important point for now. To respond to the reader who prompts this column, it is one, and only one, fairly exact idea of how a progressive foreign policy can develop.

Steinmeier’s implicit assumption is that German policy can no longer remain the purview of elite cliques, as it is by tradition in all the Western democracies. We can also assume he thinks policy would be different—sometimes, often, always—were all Germans able to weigh in on it.

These are my two assumptions times 10 in the American case: Americans have to own policy if it is to be progressive, and it would not be as it is. The reasoning here is simple: So long as sequestered cliques set policy it will not serve the interests of most Americans, as it does not now. And were such cliques to be deprived of their exclusive powers the media might no longer take comfort in serving them as cravenly as they do.

I seriously question whether Washington’s pointless, ever-provocative insistence on confronting Russia would hold were Americans (1) properly informed as to the questions of causality and responsibility in this many-sided mess and (2) just as properly exposed to the very real benefits of a perfectly plausible, cooperative relationship—as Russians incessantly propose.

I seriously doubt the majority of Americans would favor ripping one Middle Eastern society after another to shreds over an ambitious, globally coordinated Marshall Plan for the region structured disinterestedly to benefit Middle Easterners on the recognition that their recovery from is the best route to recovering from ours.

I seriously doubt—and this proves out in the political conversation already—that most Americans favor trade pacts across both oceans that benefit corporations at the expense of jobs by the million, higher medical and drug costs, the compromised integrity of the internet and all else these undemocratic, secretly negotiated agreements promise to impose upon Americans and others.

Three policies to think about. If we imagine what they would look like if reversed, as advocated in this space in each case, they would be three examples of “exactly what an authentically progressive foreign policy is.”

As I was writing this week a regular reader wrote to comment on the news Tuesday that American naval vessels had sailed within a dozen miles of the islands China claims in the South China Sea. “What the hell are we doing?” he asked. After reviewing Syria, Ukraine, Afghanistan “and God only knows where else,” he continued, “How is Washington going to wind all this crap down? Does anyone have a plan?”

Now these are reasonable questions. I will not respond, for in the questions lie the answers. Unreasonable questions are the ones more often in need of address.

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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