U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left (Chapter 1)

MilitaryReflections on U.S. Foreign Policy

by Louis F. Cooper

Louis F. Cooper received his Ph.D. in international relations from American University. He has contributed book reviews to New Politics, International Studies Review, and other journals.


Perry Anderson calls the period from the early republic to Pearl Harbor “the pre-history of the American empire” (‘Imperium’, p.11). Foreign policy in this era oscillated between a hemisphere-oriented relative isolationism and “a messianic activism” (p.8). With World War II and the postwar settlement, “hemispheric separatism” and “redemptive interventionism” began “to fuse into a durable synthesis” (p.20). The synthesis reached fruition during the Cold War with the construction of “a global empire” (p.110) based on both “the general interests of capital” and the “supremacy of the United States” (p.111). Since 1945, the operation of this imperium, Anderson writes, “has been largely insulated from the internal political system” (p.5). “Commonality of outlook and continuity of objectives set the administration of empire apart from rule of the homeland” (p.5).  

Anderson’s ‘Imperium’ and ‘Consilium’ deserve detailed consideration, but I will mostly leave that to other contributors to this roundtable. As a preliminary matter, I note that Anderson does not define “empire,” treating the word as roughly synonymous with hegemony. [1] This is a minor objection, at most.

A more substantial objection is that American foreign policy has been neither as insulated from domestic politics nor as unchanging as Anderson suggests. Both domestic and external forces have influenced presidents’ foreign-policy decisions. [2] While much of the basic outline of U.S. foreign policy over the past 70 years has not changed from one administration to the next, there has been variation in, for example, the areas of the world regarded as being of “vital interest,” the level of military spending, and the relative emphasis placed on unilateralism versus multilateralism. [3] Anderson calls George W. Bush’s approach “distinct in rhetoric” (p.96), but he does not mention by name the Bush Doctrine of preventive war, which was more than a rhetorical departure. [4] One would not gather from Anderson that presidents have had to keep one eye on their domestic bases of support or risk adverse consequences, as Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter, for instance, found out, albeit in different ways. Moreover, mass domestic mobilizations on foreign-policy issues, although not frequent, have had some effect, especially the movement against the Vietnam War and the Nuclear Freeze movement. [5] In addition, a range of lobbying groups, with varying views and resources, exert influence on the legislature and, to a lesser extent, the executive. In short, U.S. foreign policy is neither static nor completely impervious to outside influences.

Speaking very generally, critiques of U.S. foreign policy can take two forms. One option is to examine the contradictions, pathologies, and dynamics of the “empire.” Or, while acknowledging the value of that task, the critic might also suggest ways in which the U.S. role in the world should change. There is a risk that the latter sort of intervention into the foreign-policy debate will be insufficiently radical, but running that risk is probably unavoidable if one wants to address, even if superficially, the content of policy.

Discussions of foreign policy sometimes distinguish between low and high politics (to use old-fashioned terms), i.e., between economics and geopolitics. The distinction is somewhat artificial, since the two realms interact. Various constraints preclude an attempt to cover anything like this whole territory here. Instead, I will briefly discuss two areas: first, U.S. policy on ‘development’ (and related issues); second, the U.S. military posture.

The U.S. and Development

Poverty and inequality are not the same, and at a time when everyone is talking about inequality one should not lose sight of the fact that extreme poverty – i.e., absolute rather than relative deprivation – remains a major problem. It’s true that some progress has been made in reducing certain concomitants of absolute poverty. The UN’s estimates of child mortality, for instance, indicate that in 1990, 12.6 million children under age five died, the vast majority from preventable, poverty-related causes; in 2012 the number was down to (a still unacceptably high) 6.6 million. [6] Yet absolute poverty is far from eradicated: 1.2 billion people live on the equivalent of $1.25 a day or less; 748 million people use what the World Health Organization calls “unimproved” drinking water sources; and 2.5 billion use “unimproved” sanitation facilities. [7]   The most recent estimates (covering 2010-2012) show that roughly 870 million people (852 million of whom live in developing countries) are chronically undernourished. [8] It’s likely that most of the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which set targets in various areas (including universal access to primary education), will not be met when they come due in 2015. [9]

Against this background one recalls that since Truman’s Point Four program, a concern for poverty alleviation and economic development has been part of the rhetoric and substance of U.S. foreign policy. [10] If the U.S. is seen as anchoring an international political-economic order that has systematically favored the richer countries and their richer inhabitants, that concern may well appear ironic. Yet it does chime with the element of the U.S. national ideology that Walter McDougall labels “global meliorism,” an impulse that assumes, among other things, that “the success of the American experiment itself ultimately depends on other nations escaping from dearth and oppression.” [11] “Global meliorism” is related to Anderson’s “messianic activism,” and as he observes in a different context: “To be effective, an ideology must reflect as well as distort, or conceal, reality” (p.33).

The U.S. government’s approaches and policies on development over the decades have flowed from a mixture of considerations, including anti-Communism and a desire to promote the fortunes of U.S.-based corporations, in addition to, as just suggested, a certain amount of genuine, if often misguided, altruism. Slogans and catchphrases have succeeded one another with regularity: in the 1970s development policy was reoriented, at least rhetorically, to focus on meeting “basic human needs”; in the 1980s, as neoliberalism took hold, the virtues of “market-based” initiatives were touted; in the 1990s, under the Clinton administration, “sustainable development” became a key catchword (one that has now passed into general circulation). The G.W. Bush administration’s initiatives included the Millennium Challenge Corporation as well as an increased emphasis on combating AIDS, tuberculosis, and malaria (while at the same time, of course, practicing torture and detention without trial and launching two wars, one of them illegal). The Obama administration has continued the cycle of apparent innovation, for instance with its Feed the Future Initiative. [12]

However, some things have not changed much. Consider the U.S. food aid program. Set up in the 1950s “as an export-promotion program and largely unchanged since,” the U.S. food aid system ships actual commodities. [13] By contrast, most other donor countries have “untied” their food aid, i.e., they give it in cash that is used to buy locally produced food. Untied aid “is more cost-effective and efficient than providing donor-grown commodity crops, and it allows better food choices for the poor.” [14] Untied aid also tends to support local producers rather than undercut them. Untying U.S. food aid and ending subsidies to agribusiness are two measures that should be on a progressive or Left agenda for reform of U.S. policy. [15]

Also needed are fairer arrangements governing investment, aid, and trade (including with respect to intellectual property), but that’s not all. The organization Global Financial Integrity estimates that about a trillion dollars now flows out of developing countries (broadly defined) each year due to tax evasion and other criminal activity; from 2002 to 2011, these countries lost $5.9 trillion in this way. [16] Even if only a small fraction of this would have directly benefited poor people, it could still have been a substantial sum. An effort to curb illicit financial flows thus would be not only an anti-crime measure but also, to some extent, a pro-development one.

Anderson doubtless would say that such illicit flows of money are unlikely to be stopped and other structural reforms are unlikely to occur, because the U.S. and its allies can’t act in ways that run counter to “the general interests of capital.” I’m not sure that’s invariably the case; I think it depends on the balance of political forces. It may also be that “the general interests of capital” are compatible with the eradication of absolute poverty, though the question is debatable. However, I won’t go into this further here, and in lieu of a smooth transition to the next topic, will abruptly switch gears.

Shrinking the Military Footprint

Amid the daily headlines and the continual hyping of supposed dangers by the apparatus of the national-security state, it can be easy to forget how secure the U.S. is, by virtue of its geography and military might, and also because very few extant threats rise to the level of ‘existential’ threats, or even come close. There are other great powers: China and Russia [17], and maybe a few others (depending on one’s definitions). However, despite its economic clout China is not yet a peer competitor of the U.S. Moreover, as Anderson notes in summarizing Robert Art’s views, the USSR was “a geopolitical menace to both Europe and the [Persian] Gulf,” whereas China is not (‘Consilium’, p.153). The Obama administration’s “pivot” to East Asia, intended to deepen ties with American allies and reassure them in the face of China’s assertive stance toward its neighbors on its maritime claims, may well prove counterproductive, increasing tensions rather than reducing them. [18] Even if one accepts the basic framework of the post-1945 alliance system or some features of it, the U.S. global military footprint is bigger than it needs to be and than it should be. Ditto for the defense budget as a whole.

Some calls here are not difficult. For example, there is no reason for the U.S. to have almost 200 B-61 gravity nuclear bombs deployed in Europe. These tactical nuclear weapons serve no military purpose, and rather than modernizing them at great expense per current policy, the U.S. should scrap them or let them expire. [19] The American nuclear arsenal in general is a case study in wasteful overkill. The strategic nuclear forces comprise a ‘triad’ – nuclear-armed submarines, bombers, and land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). The ICBMs are a complete anachronism and should be removed from the arsenal. [20] The U.S. has fourteen Ohio-class nuclear submarines; as Elaine Scarry notes, eight of them have been commissioned since the fall of the Berlin Wall and together these eight carry “the equivalent in injuring power” of 32,000 Hiroshima explosions. [21] There is no justification for this level of overkill.   The U.S. and Russian nuclear arsenals have been reduced substantially in the last couple of decades, but there should be further reductions, beyond those mandated by the 2010 START treaty, and a serious effort to eliminate the nuclear arsenals entirely or at least get them down to a residual minimum. Especially if Russia and China make commensurate reductions, the U.S. will not need more than a small number of deployed nuclear weapons to deter, say, an unlikely North Korean strike (should it become technically possible) or certain other contingencies. (Preventing ‘nonstate actors’ from acquiring nuclear weapons is necessary, but a separate issue.)

Sixty-nine years after the end of World War 2 and twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, there is no persuasive reason for the U.S. to maintain roughly 40,000 military personnel in Germany and roughly 50,000 in Japan. [22] As Barry Posen observes, subsidizing Germany’s and Japan’s security amounts to “welfare for the rich.” The U.S.-Japan security treaty should be renegotiated, he proposes, so that U.S. marines can leave the country; U.S. naval and air forces in and around Japan mostly should stay, but with “appropriate reductions.” He advocates this as part of a broader shift to a more “restrained” foreign policy.[23]

How many overseas military bases should the U.S. have, and of what sort? I’m not sure of the ideal number, but the present network of well over 700 bases (see Anderson, p.107 n.145) should be cut back significantly. It’s important to stress that there is no necessary connection between the size of the U.S. global military footprint and America’s degree of engagement in the world or the depth of its ties with other countries. Closing a substantial number of overseas bases thus would not be isolationism. If anything, it would put relations between the U.S. and other countries on a more normal basis, one more in tune with the principles of sovereignty and sovereign equality that all states claim to accept.American empire

A recent article by A. Cooley and D. Nexon on the U.S. basing network points out that the U.S. opens itself to charges of inconsistency and hypocrisy by striking different deals with different host countries. Some hosts bear part of the cost of U.S. bases, but other countries ask for compensation. For example, Djibouti, on the Horn of Africa, got a $90 million compensation package in 2003 and 2004, “with straightforward rental payments alone increasing to $30 million in 2007.” [24] (Perhaps that helped Djibouti’s economy, but one suspects there were more direct and sensible ways of doing so.) The authors argue that the basing system in its present form, in which the U.S. exercises less influence over its hosts than traditional empires do over their satellites or clients, “risks producing many of the pathologies found in imperial systems, but without the full range of benefits empires realize from their organizational logic.” [25]   Although Cooley and Nexon don’t say this, it is not hard to draw an inference that the U.S. base network is a complicated mess that is increasingly difficult to justify even on narrow grounds of self-interest. It has sparked the creation of a transnational grassroots movement advocating removal of all U.S. bases, and the Pentagon’s switch to smaller bases (so-called lily pads) is unlikely to defuse the opposition.

These remarks have only touched on a few of the relevant issues. A more comprehensive discussion would have to address the U.S. role in particular regions, e.g. the Middle East. One of several obvious failings of U.S. policy there has been its refusal to apply actual leverage on its ally Israel. This has allowed Israel to ignore any American official criticism of its actions, e.g. with respect to settlement expansion on the West Bank.

In conclusion, the challenge, at which I have only gestured here, is to set out proposals that can spur popular mobilization and that have some chance of being realized. The U.S. Left can continue denouncing American imperialism or it can get to work on formulating an informed program for a foreign policy that is less hubristic, less militarized, more law-abiding and, above all, more focused on the world’s pressing problems, including (though not limited to) the pervasive injustices in the global political economy.


[1] The literature on ‘American empire’ is large and there is little point in trying to list it in a note. Partly because readers of this blog are mostly historians, I will mention a recent work by an historian, in this case one who argues against the U.S.-as-empire view: Elizabeth Cobbs Hoffman, American Umpire (Harvard Univ. Press, 2013). It is engagingly written, though I don’t share its perspective. Hoffman has a partial list of relevant recent works on p.357, n.22.

[2] See Peter Trubowitz, Politics and Strategy: Partisan Ambition and American Statecraft (Princeton Univ. Press, 2011).

[3] On the other hand, some old practices, such as counterinsurgency, have reappeared in different guises. See Kurt Jacobsen, Pacification and Its Discontents (Prickly Paradigm Press, 2009).

[4] See, e.g., Michael W. Doyle, Striking First: Preemption and Prevention in International Conflict (Princeton Univ. Press, 2008), pp.25-29. Some observers, for example Michael Cox, “Still the American Empire,” Political Studies Review v.5 n.1 (2007), referred to the Bush policies as a “revolution.” Whether they amounted to a revolution is doubtful, but they were a departure.

[5] On the Nuclear Freeze, see Jeffrey W. Knopf, “The Nuclear Freeze Movement’s Effect on Policy,” in Thomas Rochon and David Meyer, eds., Coalitions and Political Movements: The Lessons of the Nuclear Freeze (Lynne Rienner, 1997), pp.127-161.

[6] See http://www.childinfo.org/mortality.html. This means that, despite the improvement over the last 20 years, almost 18,000 children under age 5 died every day in 2012. About 45 percent of those deaths were neonatal, i.e., in the first month after birth; most were from preventable causes.

[7] On water and sanitation, see http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/notes/2014/jmp-report/en/.

[8] The State of Food Insecurity in the World 2012 (FAO). http://www.fao.org/docrep/016/i2845e/i2845e00.pdf

[9] See http://www.un.org/millenniumgoals/. For a talk by a leading proponent of the MDGs, Jeffrey Sachs, see http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BY7lR2GUQOM. On post-2015 reformulation of the MDGs, see, e.g., Michael W. Doyle and Joseph E. Stiglitz, “Eliminating Extreme Inequality: A Sustainable Development Goal, 2015-2030,” Ethics and International Affairs, Spring 2014.

[10] For an overview, see Michael E. Latham, The Right Kind of Revolution: Modernization, Development, and U.S. Foreign Policy from the Cold War to the Present (Cornell Univ. Press, 2011). On Point Four, see, e.g., Walter A. McDougall, Promised Land, Crusader State: The American Encounter with the World Since 1776 (Houghton Mifflin, 1997), pp.181-82.

[11] McDougall (previous note), pp.173-74. On the American “mythology of mission,” see John Kane, Between Virtue and Power: The Persistent Moral Dilemma of U.S. Foreign Policy (Yale Univ. Press, 2008), ch.2.

[12] http://www.feedthefuture.gov/.

[13] William A. Munro, Review of Jennifer Clapp, Hunger in the Balance: The New Politics of International Food Aid (2012), in Perspectives on Politics v.12 n.1 (March 2014), p.281.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Even in a more just global economy, some food aid probably will continue to be necessary. Food emergencies also will continue to occur, caused in some cases by environmental conditions, including those stemming from climate change, and by armed conflict.

[16] See http://www.gfintegrity.org/report/2013-global-report-illicit-financial-flows-from-developing-countries-2002-2011/. The top five countries for illegal outflows over this period were China, Russia, Mexico, Malaysia, and India.

[17] On this point see John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (Norton, 2001), p.381; for his definition of ‘great power’, p.5.

[18] The increased U.S. attention to the region seems to have contributed to some recent political liberalization in Burma/Myanmar, and to that extent the Asian ‘pivot’ can count one positive effect. But if China views the pivot as an effort at containment or encirclement, the result could be to fuel a spiral of conflict rather than tamp it down, a possibility acknowledged even in an analysis that is generally favorable to the pivot: Robert E. Kelly, “The ‘Pivot’ and Its Problems: American Foreign Policy in Northeast Asia,” The Pacific Review v.27 n.3 (2014):479-503 (at p.485).

[19] The cost of modernizing the tactical nuclear weapons is roughly $8 billion to refurbish the B-61 bombs themselves, plus hundreds of millions more for upgrading of storage facilities and aircraft (e.g., making the F-35 nuclear-capable). See Barry Blechman and Russell Rumbaugh, “Bombs Away: The Case for Phasing Out U.S. Tactical Nukes in Europe,” Foreign Affairs, July/Aug. 2014:163-174. They detail the costs on p.171. Cf. Tom Sauer, “Ukraine shows uselessness of NATO nukes in Europe,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, June 2014: http://thebulletin.org/ukraine-shows-uselessness-nato-nukes-europe7257.

[20] See this post by Taylor Marvin: http://smokeandstir.org/2014/02/02/yes-america-should-eliminate-land-based-icbms/.

[21] Elaine Scarry, Thermonuclear Monarchy (Norton, 2014), p.7. Scarry argues that the existence of the nuclear arsenal under exclusive presidential control violates the U.S. Constitution (not to mention international law).

[22] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/U.S._military_deployments.

[23] Barry R. Posen, “Pull Back: The Case for a Less Activist Foreign Policy,” Foreign Affairs, January/February 2013. http://www.stjoe.k12.in.us/ourpages/auto/2013/1/7/40360647/13-0102%20Pull%20Back.pdf. Posen has since laid out the article’s argument at book length: Restraint: A New Foundation for U.S. Grand Strategy (Cornell Univ. Press, 2014).

[24] Alexander Cooley and Daniel H. Nexon, “‘The Empire Will Compensate You’: The Structural Dynamics of the U.S. Overseas Basing Network,” Perspectives on Politics v. 11 n.4 (December 2013):1041.

[25] Ibid., p.1035.

4 Thoughts on this Post

  1. This was an excellent kick off to the Roundtable! I think Cooper’s points are worth examining, both in terms of modern debates over foreign policy and also writing the history of foreign policy. Just today I was reading a review of “The Short American Century”, the Bacevich-edited collection that also speaks to America’s foreign policy problems since the end of World War II. Both there and in this post, the point that domestic concerns have a major bearing on foreign policy adds a great deal of understanding to American history.

    For me, the question becomes: who was the last major American politician to question some of the basic precepts of modern American foreign policy and, perhaps, point to a different way forward? This is, to some extent, an intellectual history question as well, because it points to a narrowing of the terms of debate over foreign policy–which, due to the economic downturn and public revulsion at the price of Iraq and Afghanistan in material, money, and fellow citizens, may be starting to change again.

  2. [Note: Though I usually go by my initials online, I’m using my first name in the comments in this roundtable; since I wrote this piece under my full name, using my initials seems too impersonal, I guess.]

    Thanks for the comment. I don’t have offhand an immediate answer to your question about who was the last major politician to dissent from what became the (rough) post-1945 (or post-1947) consensus, but it raises interesting issues. At the end of ‘Consilium’ Anderson refers to a “tradition of foreign-policy dissent in the US” (p.166), and he lists a few writers as belonging to it (incl. Bacevich, and Kolko, Chomsky, and a few others). But he doesn’t, at least as I recall his historical discussion in ‘Imperium’, refer much or at all to dissident politicians (as opposed to writers), and he’s probably right that post-1947 a rough elite consensus on the basic outlines of foreign policy developed (even though, as I said in the post, I think he overemphasizes the degree or solidity of this consensus).

    I was glancing last night at a brief account (in Hoffman’s ‘American Umpire’, which I referred to in the post’s note 1), of the congressional debate over the Truman Doctrine of ’47, often taken as a, or the, key moment in shaping US f.p. in succeeding decades; there was an extended congressional debate, and some of the objections raised to aiding Greece and Turkey have a quite contemporary ring. Claude Pepper, then Senator from Fla., objected that it would get the US into “imperial quicksands” and would be “cramming democracy” down people’s throats (Hoffman, p.289). But the bill embodying the Truman Doctrine had bipartisan support and passed, and I suppose one could see that as some kind of ‘hinge’ moment.

    Anderson suggests (‘Imperium’, p.33 ff.) that US f,p. in the Cold War was always about protecting/advancing capitalism, but that this goal could not be spoken too loudly until after Communism collapsed. Anderson notes that the original draft of the Truman Doctrine speech mentioned Greece as “line of defense for access to [Middle East] oil” but that this reference, and others to “free enterprise,” were taken out (pp.33-34). Support for “free peoples” vs. “outside pressures” (the phrases are from Truman’s speech as delivered) was the keynote instead of “free enterprise.” Well, I’d better stop here.

  3. Thanks for the wonderful comment! And what you point to in regards to the phrases cut out of Truman’s 1947 speech are really intriguing–especially the cutting out of free enterprise.

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