U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Roundtable: U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left (Chapter 7)

“Easy to Join and Hard to Overturn”

I kicked off this roundtable on “U.S. Foreign Policy and the Left” last week by using Perry Anderson’s remarkable New Left Review essays (“Imperium” and “Consilium”) as a means to critique a recent Walter Russell Mead Foreign Affairs article—“The Return of Geopolitics: The Revenge of the Revisionist Powers”—for placing a too rigid boundary between liberal internationalism and geopolitics. Today, I use Anderson’s essays as a means for waylaying John Ikenberry’s article—“The Illusions of Geopolitics: The Enduring Power of the Liberal Order”—which appeared as a response to Mead in the same issue of Foreign Affairs.

As opposed to Mead, Ikenberry contends that American geopolitics is not mutually exclusive from building a liberal world order, but rather, the two are constitutive. To his credit, Ikenberry is a much better historian than Mead: whereas Mead seems to think the liberal order was constructed at the end of the Cold War—implying that the U.S. won the Cold War with geopolitics—Ikenberry correctly points out that the American-led liberal project was built by the U.S. and its allies during and after World War II. American liberalism, by which Ikenberry means the international legal and economic framework dominated by the United States, “won the Cold War.” Ikenberry excoriates Meade for being alarmist in thinking that the so-called “revisionist powers” of Russia, China, and Iran can alter this deeply entrenched order. These nations, Ikenberry claims, “have no appealing brand,” and thus, do not stand as a long-term threat to dislodge American leadership.

Where Ikenberry goes wrong—and where the lens provided by Perry Anderson offers an important corrective—is by echoing the Norwegian historian Geir Lundestad’s idea that American empire is an “empire by invitation.” Anderson sums up this conceit before dismissing it: “If there was such a thing as an American empire… it was one by invitation, freely sought in Western Europe from fear of Soviet aggression, unlike Russian empire imposed by force on Eastern Europe.” Anderson admits that the implementation of an American-led order was consensual in many places, especially Western Europe, insofar as domestic communist parties had been defeated or marginalized and native capitalist classes wanted to take their positions in the capitalist order. But: “It was not ‘empire by invitation,’ in the fulsome phrase of a Norwegian admirer. The invitation came from, not to, the empire, and was the kind that could not be refused.” “Command remained American,” even if junior partners like Great Britain and France retained limited autonomy so long as such autonomy did not contradict American imperatives.

Unlike Mead, Ikenberry and Anderson both recognize the historical role of the “open-door policy” and what might variously be called the “liberal order” or the “American empire.” Where they disagree is in their evaluations of this order. Ikenberry clearly believes that the American-led globalization of capital, what he calls “economic development,” has made the world a better place. Anderson, on the other hand, has been rejecting such pieties since well before Thomas Piketty demonstrated capitalism almost inexorably spawns inequality.

In sum, Ikenberry and Anderson agree that the U.S.-built order is deeply entrenched, or, in Ikenberry’s phrase, “easy to join and hard to overturn.” For Ikenberry, “the poet laureate of liberal internationalism,” this is reason for optimism. For the left-wing realist Anderson, this is reason for despair, or at least, reason for pessimism of the intellect if not of the will.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Andrew, thanks so much for this post, and for this forum, which has been wonderfully enlightening! A great series. (A thank you, too, to all the contributors and commenters).

    “Empire by invitation,” like the Victorian notion of “empire by inadvertence” is, of course, so much eyewash. Though each case differs, of course, no “nation” within the American imperial circuit would choose rule by United Fruit Company or Firestone Tires over the alternative; the elites of these nations are a different story.

    But what remains to be thought through, I think, is the point upon which Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin insist–for most of the contenders for primacy, in the current global situation, America’s hegemonic status seems to be preferable to some new order.

    I recall, well, a lecture by David Harvey in 2002 in Austin Texas, where the possibility (inevitability?) of China’s challenge to the US was bandied about. At that time, one often heard, in Left spaces, conspiracy theories about the US military’s Afghanistan/Iraq campaigns as reactions to oil states’ threats to “go off the dollar.”

    I bring this up only to contrast the current situation–wherein nobody seriously thinks the US must assume the posture of Britain in the 1950s and 60s, accommodating itself to an ever-diminishing role in the world. Only yesterday, however, that analogy dominated Left IR discourse. So what changed? And what do Anderson’s articles tell us about that?

    • Kurt, you pose excellent questions. Last fall I saw a talk by Michael Cox of the London School of Economics titled, “Debating American Decline – Again.” One of his main points was that, as long as we’re thinking about great powers, it would be impossible to think about American decline until a viable alternative emerged. We can think about this militarily. No nation even comes close to the US in military spending (which is not to say that the US can control populations militarily, a lesson learned in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, etc) More to the point, and echoing Ikenberry, Cox argued that China could never fill this vacuum because aside from raw economic power it has nothing that the rest of the world wanted. It has a poor “brand.” China’s undemocratic political system, Cox argued, makes it unappealing. Plus, China does not have Hollywood or Silicon Valley and other poles of cultural of “soft” power. Make what you will of the specifics of this argument but I think it is true that the American system is built to last into the near if not the distant future. So how does the left analyze that situation? That’s the question, right? One of the more interesting recent attempts was put forward by Hardt and Negri in “Empire” and “Multitudes.” Hardt and Negri’s arguments have their problems. But they seem to recognize, at a basic level, that American empire is in many ways and in many parts of the world consensual or constitutive of global capitalism and its biopolitical elements. Anderson’s “realism” seems to recognize this fact even if he might disagree with Hardt and Negri over the specific theoretical and political terms of such a consensus (for instance, unlike Anderson, Hardt and Negri don’t even talk about an American empire–for them, Empire is horizontal in Deluezian terms.) In any case, love to get your further thoughts on this.

      • This is fascinating food for thought. I am particularly swayed, I have to say, by Cox’s argument re: China’s “brand weakness.” With Modi’s ascent, the same could certainly be said of India; Putin’s Russia, never a serious contender, is now being rogue-ified by the Western press for reasons that are not entirely obvious to me.

        My spontaneous response to the more general question of how to stage the global situation is the Zizekian–one should try to be more Hardt and Negri than Hardt and Negri.

        I think it is a fair critique that, in seeking to popularize their vision of new sources of popular power, H and N de-dialecticize Deleuze (that is, they keep the image of “rhizome” but lose its crucial counterpart of “strata”; keep “transversality” but lose the cognate concepts of “assemblage,” “plane of composition,” territorialization and deterritorialization).

        This error, I think, derives from H and N’s mistaken picture of the post-1989 geopolitical formation: but I think there is a great deal that can be retained from their model.

        Part of what needs to be processed is the unpredictable, historically dynamic accretion of power in certain sites of institutional authority.

        Whereas both the World Bank and the IMF–once the impossible behemoths of global governance–have, apparently, receded in importance and suffered lapses in self-confidence, the power of the US Federal Reserve has grown, as has the cluster of policy intellectuals in charge of the European Union monetary levers.

        And, everywhere, new depths of cruelty in the penal and carceral apparatuses, and new mutations of fascist affect. But those are features, not bugs, of any imperial order…

  2. This was a fantastic post, as usual. I suppose one element I’d like to throw in as well is, quite simply, considering the last 25 years of American history. I know all of it is quite recent, but considering the debates that occurred, however briefly, in the early 1990s about the “Peace Dividend” and trying to find a place for American power in a post-Cold War world, is important to Anderson’s articles and the piece above. It seemed, in the 1990s, that there wasn’t much debate about liberal democratic societies with capitalist economies being the wave of the future. All of that was to be backed with American power against only regional adversaries (Iraq, Iran, North Korea, and the former Yugoslavia to an extent all come to mind as being troublesome for an American-backed world order).

    But I bring up that debate because, as far I can tell, it was severely truncated. We never really had a “peace dividend” instead, in the 1990s we struggled to figure out whether we had new enemies. By late 2001, of course, that enemy in some way crystallized. But it may be the events of 2007-2008, with the worldwide economic crisis, that may say as much about the future of US foreign policy as events in Iraq and Afghanistan. The “liberal order”, in other words, may have more to worry about dealing with its various constituent groups than it does with any potential competitors. Although (and I’ll stop rambling) it’s worth noting that Fawcett’s “Liberalism” does make an argument about the early 21st century being another battleground for ideology, with liberalism on one side and various systems (state capitalism was the one that stood out the most to me, but also Islamic fundamentalism and various populist movements abroad) being on the other. It’s not the same Manichean struggle as was witnessed during the Cold War, but there are alternatives out there just the same.

    • Great points, Robert. To me, that the “peace dividend” never materialized–that the US entered into a new set of wars in Iraq and elsewhere shortly after the end of the Cold War–lends credence to Anderson and the “revisionists” who claim that Cold War anticommunism was often a convenient cover for the American imperial project. Anderson argues that the Cold War often meant that the US had to economically prop up its allies, including and especially its former enemies Japan and Germany, in ways it otherwise would not have. But the ultimate goal was always to create a seamless world of Open Doors that the US would dominate, and the end of the Cold War finally allowed them to begin to take that project more seriously. And such a project–call it liberal if you want–had no room for a peace dividend.

  3. Thanks, Andrew; wonderful series!

    Reinhold Niebuhr’s main reason for supporting NATO, to his Christianity and Crisis audiences, was because he had talked to so many Europeans after the war who wanted something like it. In other words, we wouldn’t want to dismiss the “empire by invitation” thesis completely out of hand wherever the evidence warrants it. We should recognize its shortcomings, though, like the class dynamics you and Kurt point to.

    It seems a one-size-fits-all understanding of American empire won’t do? Or, to ask this another way: Is it possible to reconcile the Wisconsin School with more recent brilliant works like Victoria de Grazia’s Irresistible Empire or Amy Kaplan’s Anarchy of Empire?

    Again, I find Neil Smith’s understanding of American Empire as the frustrated desire for geo-economic dominance–and constant reversion to geopolitical conquest–very helpful. It reminds us of how much US imperialism can be understood in traditional terms of hard power (ie, the maintenance of military bases and personnel around the world and so on). Along these same lines, check out this statement for the Religion and U. S. Empire working group.


    • Thanks for this reply, Mark. I’m not arguing for a monolithic interpretation of American empire. But I do think an “empire by invitation” type of analysis is a rationale that made Cold War liberals like Niebuhr feel better about their decision to support US militarism after World War II.

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