U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable Preview: US Foreign Policy and the Left

Recently I posted about an important set of Perry Anderson essays on U.S. foreign policy that appeared as a special issue of New Left Review. Kurt Newman, Tim Barker and I decided these essays would serve as a nice launching pad for curating a roundtable on U.S. foreign policy and the left, so we issued a CFP. I am pleased to announce that we had an enthusiastic response. Below are abstracts from the nine participants. The roundtable will begin in mid-July. 


Brad Baranowski: Perry Anderson remarks in his essays on U.S. foreign policy and its thinkers in the New Left Review that the intellectual traditions that have attracted policy makers over the past seventy years have been remarkably similar. Despite changes in the domestic political winds, the U.S. ship of state has sailed a fairly straight path in international affairs, a mix of realist and Wilsonian principles consistently keeping it on its course. The list of intellectuals and figures that have critiqued this blend of principles is long but typically not noted on it is the political philosopher John Rawls. Called by Michael Walzer “American social democratic philosopher,” Rawls was always ill at ease with attempts to nail down the policy implications of his philosophy. And yet, he combined insights from his ruminations on the topics of justice and pluralism to craft his own take on international relations. In my post I hope to highlight not only the contours of this view, but also how Rawls used key principles of it to critique U.S. foreign policy on various occasions as well as the political philosopher’s relation to some of the traditions Anderson explores. By looking at Rawls’s writings on international relations (both published and unpublished) in this light, a philosophical basis for a counter-Wilsonian foreign policy emerges, one that helps elucidate both the philosopher’s views on this matter and better contextualize him within broader intellectual currents.

Louis F. Cooper: “Toward a Programmatic Critique of U.S. Foreign Policy.” Perry Anderson’s analysis of the arc of U.S. hegemony and its rationalizations is impressive in its breadth. However, Anderson exaggerates the extent of continuity across different presidencies while seeing the “logic of empire” as essentially irreversible and as impervious to opposition. The resulting fatalistic view cannot and does not provide a constructive Left perspective on U.S. foreign policy. Even as America enters the long twilight of its primacy, its actions abroad can still affect millions of people for good or ill. For that reason, the articulation of a programmatic, detail-oriented critique of U.S. foreign policy that might influence the country’s behavior, even if only on the margins, is morally and politically necessary. I offer a few thoughts about the possible substance of such a critique.

Robert Greene II: My piece, “Southern Africa and the Fractured Black Left,” will be an examination of the 1970s debates amongst African American intellectuals over the plight of Cold War conflicts in Southern Africa. A major battleground between the United States and the Soviet Union, Southern Africa included crises over Rhodesia, Angola, and the 800-pound gorilla in the room, South Africa. Involving luminaries such as Bayard Rustin, Vincent Harding, and other veterans of the Civil Rights era, “Southern Africa and the Fractured Black Left” will examine the question of a Left foreign policy from a different point of view. Memories of the Civil Rights era, Vietnam, and the seeming decline of America’s place in the world all came to be part of the debates among African American Leftists, as they struggled to craft a foreign policy agenda that could satisfy concerns about Black rights in the United States and in Southern Africa.

Ray Haberski: Ray will ruminate on U.S. foreign policy in light of three important historians, William Appleman Williams, the leading revisionist whose work inspired the New Left critique and more, John Lewis Gaddis, the leading post-revisionist who has arguably become something of a neoconservative, and Andrew Bacevich, a career officer in the military who has become perhaps the leading critic of American Empire.

Sam Klug: Building on the work of Penny Von Eschen and Nikhil Pal Singh, I will argue that a black anticolonial intellectual tradition, running from W. E. B. Du Bois’ Marxist-Leninist criticism of imperialism in the 1930s through the Black Panther Party’s analysis of “internal colonialism,” has constituted a coherent and powerful critique of U.S. foreign policy.

As the political scientist Robert Vitalis has shown, the development of international relations as a discipline involved an erasure of the prevalence of race and racism in the formation of the world order it purported to study. As Vitalis has also demonstrated in his America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier, the extension of U.S. corporate and state power across the globe often involved the projection of American racial thinking and racist practices into new spaces and its contestation on new grounds—such as the ARAMCO labor camps in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia.

Further, I will argue that the black internationalist tradition, in addition to placing racism at the center of the history of the “U.S. in the world,” has also recognized the continuities between state policy in the U.S. and beyond its borders. The acceptance of a clear boundary between “inside” and “outside”—or between “domestic policy” and “foreign policy”—which Perry Anderson implicitly argues has insulated foreign policy decision-making from any kind of democratic politics, has been a long-running failure of left critiques of foreign policy. The destabilization of this boundary represents one of the black internationalist tradition’s most promising features for a left critique of U.S. foreign policy in the 21st century.

Matthew D. Linton: “Slouching Towards Hegemony: Perry Anderson and the American Empire in Asia.” Perry Anderson’s triptych of articles – “Homeland”, “Imperium”, and “Consilium” – provides a compelling genealogy exploring the theory and practice of American empire since 1945. In particular, Anderson is interested in how a consensus emerged in the United States around two interrelated concepts: national security and the universality of capitalism. Fears of anti-communism promoted a vision whereby national security could only be secured when all opposition to the United States and American values was neutralized. These fused to already existing sentiments of American exceptionalism to create a framework in which “a liberal-capitalist order of free trade stretching around the world, in which the United States would automatically…hold first place” (Imperium, 109). The United States preserved this system even after the Soviet Union’s collapse revealing that its true intention to was to secure international hegemony, not defeat communism.

Though Anderson’s analysis of the postwar United States presents a compelling portrait of expansion run amok, it streamlines a messy and frequently contested process. His narrative is fundamentally focused on neoliberal consensus – a coalition including Republicans and Democrats, intellectuals and the business community. In foreign relations, this consensus has led to a concentration of power in the executive. Yet, Anderson’s consensus argument rests on two shaky propositions: his analysis of US foreign policy is consistently Eurocentric and his temporal scope obscures the origins of America’s imperial mentality after World War II. Shifting the focus of American imperial ambitions from Europe to Asia shows the ways attempts at creating an American empire were contested at home and thwarted abroad. Using national security and expanding capitalism as justifications, the United States sought, but was never able to secure, hegemony in Asia. Anderson successfully shows the ambitions of America’s political and intellectual empire builders. His unwillingness to examine how those ambitions were actualized in China, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan, and Iran leads him to overestimate the intellectual coherence and practical success of the American consensus at home and hegemony abroad.

Chase Madar: Politics, we are often told, is supposed to stop at the water’s edge, and indeed there is not much substantive disagreement in foreign policy between the liberal wing of the Democratic Party and the ultra-nationalist Republican mainstream.

At the margins of this stultifying consensus one finds Black intellectuals, paleoconservatives, left-liberals, libertarians, Christian peaceniks, Marxists, realists and radicals. These variegated and overlapping nuclei of dissent do not map on to the one-dimensional spectrum line of left and right, and although there is tension and conflict between these outlying tribes, there is also remarkable cross pollination. What prospects are there for unifying these dissident camps into a political force against neoliberal imperialism and militarized expansionism?

Andy Seal: Excellent recent works by Christopher McKnight Nichols and Brooke Blower have reintroduced the concept of isolationism as an active term in both intellectual history and diplomatic history. Both scholars regard the term as worthy and ripe for reappraisal, but they diverge on the question of how well isolationism “fits” the historical actors and ideologies that have traditionally been tagged (or tarred) with the name.

Yet perhaps that lack of fit is more of a feature than a bug: this contribution to the roundtable argues that many past historians have used isolationism, or its kinder synonym “noninterventionism,” as a way to locate and specify a more holistic political heterodoxy, an “insurgent” or outsider spirit that is about far more than foreign policy debates. These historians turn to noninterventionism out of a basic discomfort with the constricted options available in a political landscape dominated by two parties; for them the core of “noninterventionism” is the disruption of the given political order rather than ideological unanimity or coherence among those grouped under that name.

I will be looking specifically at the work of a few historians emerging from or influenced by the Wisconsin School, tracking interconnections between the “Old Right” and the “New Left” within that scholarly tradition, and ultimately offering a few hypotheses why that particular marriage of ideologies is no longer appealing to today’s Left, yet why the ghost of isolationism still seems to linger.

Nick Witham: “Ideas, Foreign Policy and the Left: Considerations on Perry Anderson’s America” This post will place Perry Anderson’s recent essays on U.S. politics – “Homeland”, “Imperium” and “Consilium” – within the context of his intellectual and political biography since the 1960s. In doing so, it aims to make two specific contributions. First, it will demonstrate how Anderson has blurred the lines between Western Marxism and “critical realism” in recent years, and consider how this has impacted his analysis of U.S. foreign policy. Second, it will explore the close attention he has paid to public intellectuals and political ideas, and show how engagement with an unexpected range of thinkers from across the political spectrum has framed his understanding of the contemporary political scene.