Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Judis' take on neo-imperialism

You know, I tend to like John B. Judis (in the sense that I sort of like a lot of people I have a hard time distinguishing at The New Republic -- Christopher Orr, Josh Patashnik, Jason Zengerle, Isaac Chotiner), but this article in the American Prospect about Bush's "neo-imperialism" strikes me as a bit lacking. The central argument is that the Bush administration's aggressive, even imperialist foreign policy is a "rejection" of America's century-old, Wilsonian "liberal internationalism." There are factors within the argument itself that make this a shaky thesis, but I will try to inject some of my own interpretations as well.

First of all, I should point out that any article running several thousand words but with no footnotes makes me nervous. Whose interpretation of history is this? Whose consensus? Ah, well. Let's take Judis at his word for the moment.

After an introduction drawing parallels with British colonial involvement in Egypt, Judis lays it out like this: America briefly flirted with traditional European-style imperialism at the turn of the century, under Presidents McKinley and Roosevelt. Note that Judis distinguishes between two kinds of imperialism:
Direct, where the colonial power assigned an administrator -- a viceroy or proconsul -- who ran the country directly; and indirect, where the colonial power used its financial and military power to prop up a native administration that did its bidding and to prevent the rise of governments that did not.
Okay. We'll get to that second, indirect form in a moment. Meanwhile, in a short, rather impoverished (historiographically) paragraph, Judis lays much of the blame for World Wars 1 and 2 and the Cold War on traditional imperialism.

Then there's a weird segment where America's resolve to dissolve traditional European imperialism after WWII is "blunted" because the USSR supported anti-imperialist movements. Thus the U.S. "sided with the former colonial powers." This is supposed to explain our involvement in Vietnam, which was an "outgrowth of American support for French colonialism." Eh, I don't know about that. This interpretation makes it sound as though American foreign policy was beholden to European colonialism in the postwar period. I just don't see how that could be true. (Western) Europe was America's plaything after WWII. Its army was for all intents and purposes NATO forces under American leadership. It was absolutely indebted to America for the latter's Marshall Plan lending and general economic recuperation. So rather than view the Vietnam War as "support" for French colonialism, which suggests a subordinate role, it seems to me like we should look for more hegemonic, purposeful causes behind America's involvement.

Anyway, then there's this:
Some political scientists in the United States and Europe claimed that America remained an imperial power because of its worldwide system of military bases and its clout in international financial institutions, but while America was capable of influencing governments, it could no longer exercise a veto over critical regimes coming to power. The invasion of Panama in 1989 appeared to be the last gasp of America's indirect imperialism.
1989! So much for a century of liberal internationalism. There are obviously many instances other than Panama we could list here. As for the notion that America wasn't an empire, not even an indirect one, despite the fact that it "influenced" governments with its military and economic power, well -- that is basically the definition Judis gave earlier for "indirect imperialism"! As for its not being able to exercise a "veto", I'd like some evidence here. Plus, doesn't Judis' next sentence, that the "last gasp" of American indirect imperialism occurred in 1989, somewhat undermine the assertion in the previous one?

The next paragraph sings the praises of the 1990s, the "high water mark of liberal internationalism." The first Gulf War was waged by America, with a "coalition through the U.N.," but the NATO bombings in the Balkans only "built a coalition." If one conceives of NATO as an "international" coalition then perhaps the argument has some force, but it's hard from this angle to see it as anything other than a moment of American unipolarity. (Perry Anderson has a good article about these events, and left liberal political philosophers' reactions to them, here.) There's no doubt that these actions had more international legitimacy than Gulf War II, but there's such a thin sliver separating "internationalism" from "indirect imperialism" at this point that I'm not sure the argument has much purchase. Again, if all "internationalism" means is "getting our European friends to sign on," friends we have systematically insured must remain subordinate to us militarily, then it's all six/one half-dozen. Better to either give up this line of argument, or else pursue it to the logical conclusion of saying U.S. indirect imperialism, with a patina of approval from our European friends, is okay.

But the article instead is a polemic, intended to bring out the differences between good liberal internationalists (all Democrats -- Wilson, Roosevelt, Truman, Clinton) and naughty Republicans (McKinley, Roosevelt, George W. Bush). Also, I just don't see how much Judis' post-Bush policy proposals will change things. He says that "none of this will be easy," and when it comes to Iraq I suppose it won't be, but most of his suggestions are largely symbolic (a series of "reaffirmations" of US support for UN institutions) and easily attainable -- they could be accomplished on Hillary Clinton's first day as President.

It comes down to a couple of things, I guess. One, whether the tradition of "liberal internationalism" is really all that distinct from U.S. indirect imperialism. And two, whether the status quo ante is in fact a desirable state of affairs. Judis seems to think it is, but there are a number of issues -- the Middle East peace process, denuclearization, U.S. peace-time arms spending, foreign military bases -- that it never resolved, nor looked to be interested in resolving. Unless you think all our problems stem from Bush's presidency -- and I would say they don't; they have a history that extends back more than eight years -- there is still plenty left to grapple with. Judis is about as left-liberal as The New Republic gets, and he's not afraid to bring up oil (complete with Greenspan quote!), American Middle East meddling, and, of course, the dreaded word "imperialism." But I would say his critique does not go far enough. Thoughts? Questions concerning my historical narrative? A lot of my analysis stems from a quirky little book I just read by a paleoconservative realist, Christopher Layne, The Peace of Illusions. There's a long, long, long draft of a book review sitting in the Huffy Crew archives. Maybe I should bring it out.


Blogger Robot said...

I'll focus on Judis' interpretation of Vietnam. It was one I was unfamiliar with until I got to graduate school, but I know it's the one that the US international/diplomatic historian here believes. The records obviously support the fact that American interest in Vietnam began as a way to support the French occupation. Why? Because (and here perhaps is the more analytical part) the last thing America wanted (a) was to see the French Republic fall due to a failed imperialist venture, and (b) make it seem like Western Europe was militarily weak and vulnerable. Thus, an interpretation of someone like Kissinger (but also Marshall, Atcheson, etc.) would be that these folks believed that preserving the Atlantic alliance was the be-all-end-all of the Cold War, and so instead of listening to our Vietnam experts about Vietnam we listened to our experts about France, and French experts about Vietnam, etc... Protecting Western Europe (in its imperialist ventures or not) was the goal, and Vietnam started out as a means to that end.

I think it's a fairly reasonable argument, and as I said, folks far more familiar with the relevant records than I support it.

10:24 AM  
Blogger John Liberty said...

another brilliant piece

1:37 PM  
Blogger Paul S. said...

It is my not-so-secret hope, Scantron, that all these paleos you are reading will eventually change your mind regarding legalized abortion, gay "marriage", and the Christian Faith, and then I as a Chomskyite, anti-Roe, orthodox Catholic won't be so lonely. By the way, these liberal apologists for the likes of Truman are just whacked. Truman lied us into to the Cold War, lied us into the Korean War (the evidence showed that South Korea attacked first), and was ready to provoke a bloodbath with China until he got a scoche of sense and fired the only guy who was more of a warmongering lunatic than even he was, Douglas MacArthur.

8:26 PM  
Blogger Scantron said...

Yeah Robot, I guess the point is that the war was about "preserving the Atlantic alliance" and "protecting Western Europe," but the country that was militarily and hegemonically in a position to do that was...the United States. The point is that we intervened because the above phrases and concepts were ones that we had found ourselves at the heads of. Also, what does it mean to say that the French republic would have "fallen" because of the failed venture, with "fallen" presumably meaning something other than "looking like dumb assholes"?

Also, just so it's clear, my conversion to paleoconservatism is not on the table, and it certainly won't be expedited by comments which are insulting to the dignity of gay people. People are free to make these sorts of remarks but I will not respond to them again.

12:01 AM  

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