U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Perry Anderson, the Left, and U.S. Foreign Policy

AndersonOne of the more intriguing suggestions for my Great Books in U.S. Intellectual History Series* came from Brad Baranowski, who wrote:

This is neither a book nor a classic since it is only a few months old, but I would add to your list New Left Review’s Sept/Oct 2013 (83) issue. It is a special issue authored by Perry Anderson alone; the theme is “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers.” The issue is split into two articles: a lengthy first one that assesses the intellectual formation and crystallization of “Grand Strategy” thought in the context of developments in U.S. foreign policy. The second article is shorter and more of a combination of intellectual genealogy and criticism of the literature of “grand strategy.” This article explores the intellectual traditions to which both advocates and critics of this literature belong. Anderson largely covers the WWII and postwar eras in American history, dipping into earlier developments at times but moving fairly quickly back to these periods, at least in the first article. The whole issue comes in around 170 pages and might provide both a useful text on the relations of intellectuals to foreign policy development…

I did not add the long Anderson essays to my list because it did not quite seem to fit the mold, but I did recently read the essays, and they are everything Brad makes them out to be and more. Anderson presents the best synthesis of U.S. foreign policy, from a left-wing perspective inspired by William Appleman Williams and the Wisconsin School, that I have read in a long time. Anderson argues that ever since World War II, when FDR designed a grand strategy for a postwar world, US foreign policy has had both universalistic and particularistic sensibilities that are at times contradictory even if presidents, policymakers, and consiglieres don’t recognize this tension. That is, the United States is meant to be the leader of the capitalist order—what was termed the “free world” during the Cold War—and its foreign policies are designed to ensure stability to that order. This is the universalist side of the coin. But at the same time, the United States shall be the dominant force within that order. In other words, capitalism will spread and all capitalist nations will, in theory, prosper from U.S. leadership. But U.S. firms in particular will benefit. This is the particularist side of the coin. But, and here is where Anderson fits within the W.A. Williams Wisconsin-School genre, American policymakers ignore this tension because they believe that what is good for America is good for the world.

So with this universalist-particularist tension as his running theme, Anderson takes the reader through the last 75 years of foreign policy with unparalleled learnedness and critical acuity. He is a master essayist, perhaps the best of our time. Anderson also gives us a smart and thorough reading of the historiography along the way. The Wisconsin historians, especially Thomas McCormick in addition to Williams, come out looking the best, in addition to a few conservative-realist historians, such as Nicholas Spykman. Anderson saves his scorn for those historians of U.S. foreign policy, like John Lewis Gaddis, who serve as apologists for U.S. Empire and its intellectuals (including George Kennan, the myths about whom Anderson is interested in dispelling, such that he backed away from the consequences of “containment,” which was always an aggressive policy to begin with).

In short, I think Anderson’s essays might answer the question that several commenters implicitly posed in the comments section of Kurt’s post about the left from a few weeks back: why is there no powerful left critique of U.S. foreign policy? Why has such a critique been left to disaffected realists like Andrew Bacevich? I think Anderson’s essays represent a powerful left critique of U.S. foreign policy, and I think they demonstrate that an updated version of the Wisconsin-school critique is almost sufficient to such a task. But surely others disagree with such an assessment. In any case, we need to talk through these issues.

With this in mind, Kurt and I would like to host a roundtable discussion, using the Anderson essays as a launching pad to a larger conversation about the left and U.S. foreign policy. This post serves as a CFP for such a roundtable, which we plan to host later in the summer. Please send a message to me and/or Kurt if you would like to participate formally. And stay tuned…

* My Great Books in U.S. Intellectual History Series will kick off soon with James Kloppenberg’s Uncertain Victory. I am halfway through reading this very large, quite challenging book, but am delayed in finishing and blogging about it because the reader reports on my culture wars book manuscript came back faster than anticipated, so I am busy working through revisions for a final submission. Obviously that task is my priority.

12 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew – I agree that it’s a fascinating and learned essay, and a roundtable is an excellent idea. I’d love to contribute, but it might be tough for me to get to the U.S. twice in one summer.

    Anderson’s essay has clearly sparked a lot of interest. The journal Diplomatic History has commissioned a special forum devoted to it. Anders Stephanson will introduce, and I’ll be reviewing it alongside Marilyn Young, Melvyn Leffler, Wilson Miscamble, Lisa Cobbs Hoffman, and Andrew Bacevich. Perry Anderson will write a response. I’m particularly looking forward to reading Bacevich’s review (and Anderson’s response) for all the reasons that you and Kurt mention.

  2. David: The roundtable will be here at the blog, so no need to travel anywhere. I’d love you to contribute. And I look forward to reading the “Diplomatic History” forum on the Anderson essays. It says something that an entire forum in that journal is being dedicated to the essays!

  3. For anyone interested in reading yet more Anderson, earlier last year he wrote an important piece on internal US politics that might usefully be read as a companion to the Imperium/Consilium duo, called “Homeland.”

  4. Regarding the story on Szefel’s book: if the advent of Elizabeth Warren may mean the beginning of a new Progressive energy–then maybe that energy will lead to a new poetry.

  5. Folks will certainly want to read or re-read Robert Buzzanco’s fine essay: “What Happened to the New Left? Toward a Radical Reading of American Foreign Relations,” Diplomatic History 23 (Fall 1999): 575-607.

  6. We might also consider approaching a brief post from John Gaddis or, at least, recommend something to read from him. I am curious to see how much of both forums, at Dip. His. and here, make reference to and engage with Gaddis’s work. Like Kennan, John’s stature in the field gets outsized treatment both for good and ill. Kennan was out of government service by the early 1950s, and Gaddis is but one of many diplomatic and international historians writing about the cold war and containment.

    • “Kennan was out of government service by the early 1950s…”

      Except, IIRC, for a return in the Kennedy admin when he did a brief-ish stint as ambassador to Yugoslavia.

  7. Just wanted to chime in and say what a great idea I think this is. Thanks, Kurt and Andrew for putting this together!

  8. I’d be interested in participating in the roundtable (under my full name), and will send an e-mail to Kurt N. about it later today. (I can’t find an e-mail for Andrew H., except one that goes through an online form at his university web page, and I’m not too keen on using those online forms).

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