|Perry Anderson's American Foreign Policy and its thinkers
Daily: Daily Times
Multilateralism and selective engagement are the two main foreign policy strategies
employed currently by the US. This is the central idea of Perry Anderson’s book, “American
Foreign Policy and its Thinkers,” the latest edition of which has been published by Verso in
2017. Anderson is a Western Marxist thinker, Professor of History and Sociology at
University of California, Los Angeles, and an editor of the New Left Review. This opinion
piece intends to discuss Anderson’s certain ideas expressed in the book.
Anderson opines that generally the US views its imperial project through the lenses of
Wilsonianism. The term Wilsonianism is derived from the ideological perspective of the 28th
US President Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921), a member of the Democratic party, and his
famous Fourteen Points (in 1918) which led to ending the First World War through the
Paris (Versailles) Peace Conference in 1919 and the formation of the League of Nations in
1920. Wilsonianism is now considered a form of liberal internationalism. The Wilsonian
camp is still active and its prominent thinkers are Michael Mandelbaum and John Ikenberry.
“For Mandelbaum, the story of the twentieth century was ‘a Whig history with a vengeance’:
the triumph of the Wilsonian triad of peace, democracy and free markets. These were the
ideas that finished off the Soviet Union, bringing the Cold War to a victorious end as its
rulers succumbed to their attractive force” (p. 174). However, the full Wilsonian triad has yet
to accomplish universally to “incorporate Russia and China fully into the liberal world order,
as the earlier illiberal powers of Germany and Japan were made over from challengers into
pillars of the system, after the war” (p. 175).
Anderson says that Mandelbaum thought it unwise on the part of the US under the Bill
Clinton regime to expand NATO to the east “as a foolish provocation of Russia, jeopardizing
its integration into a consensual ecumene after the Cold War [in 1991]” (p. 176). However,
Clinton earned a credit, the “creation of the WTO”, which helped China improve
economically after 2001” (p. 205). “Proud of his role under [US President Jimmy] Carter in
negotiating diplomatic relations with Beijing as a counterweight to Moscow, [Zbigniew]
Brzezinski – like [Henry] Kissinger, for the same reasons – has consistently warned against
any policies that could be construed as building a coalition against China, which was
inevitably going to become the dominant global – power. The best course would clearly be
to co-opt a democratizing and free-marketing China into a larger Asian regional framework
of cooperation” (p. 203).
Anderson thinks that the absence of the USSR as a counterbalancing force has offered
sufficient latitude to other factors to challenge the US. “For with the extinction of the USSR,
the US had become a unipolar power, tempted to act not by common rules it observed, but
simply by relationships it established, leaving its traditional allies with less motive to defer to
it just as new transnational fevers and forces – conspicuously terrorism – required a new
set of responses” (p. 181). The consequent expansion of the area of allies becomes
difficult for the US to manage.
Anderson thinks that there is a stiff competition between two legacies in the domain of US
foreign policy. “In Kissinger’s version, the two legacies that matter are lines that descend
respectively from Theodore Roosevelt and Wilson: the first, a realist resolve to maintain a
balance of power in the world; the second, an idealist commitment to put an end to arbitrary
powers everywhere” (p. 161-162). To elaborate this point further, the US foreign policy
swings between two opposing strains of American nationalism: “the economic and political
realism of the tradition represented by the first Roosevelt, and the preceptorial and
religious moralism consecrated by Wilson” (p. 173). Interestingly, within the domain of
realism, the US foreign policy oscillates between two strategists of realism: “Where
Kissinger fancied himself as the heir to balance-of-power statesmen of the Old World,
Brzezinski comes from the later, and quite distinct, line of geopolitics” (p. 197).
What Anderson has overlooked is that the primary focus of Wilsonianism was Europe
(Central and Western), especially mutual disputes between European countries. In this way,
Wilsonianism was limited in scope. However, there is found a US obsession to look at the
world necessarily from the Wilsonian glasses despite the fact that the continent of Europe
was not a microcosm of the world. Secondly, after Wilson, the US is not finding any other
leader who could introduce a new ideology meeting the needs of this age. Thirdly, some
parts of the world are coming to terms with Wilsonian ideals more slowly than expected.
Anderson points out a major problem in the US foreign policy: “American policy towards the
world … had always been primarily defensive. Its leitmotif was containment, traceable
across successive declensions from the time of [US President Harry] Truman to that of
Kissinger, in an arc of impressive restraint and clairvoyance” (p. 45). Unfortunately, the
containment machinery is still in place but the would-be victim is absent.
Anderson laments a point: “American contributions to the maintenance of peace and the
spread of free markets were generally acknowledged. But the importance of the United
States in the diffusion of democracy was scarcely less” (p. 175). Here, Anderson overlooks
the fact that the word democracy carries its own appeal but some societies of the world are
slow to respond to it and may be of the belief that pluralism embedded in democracy may
hurt economic evenness. They still love to delink democracy from peace and free markets.
Anderson reveals that the latest attempt of the US to expand democracy under Clinton and
Georg W Bush were through humanitarian intervention and preventive wars such as in the
Middle East and Iraq. “In substance the foreign policy of the two [Clinton and Bush] had
been much the same. Humanitarian intervention and preventive war were twins, not
opposites” (p. 178). However, Anderson thinks that “The discourses of foreign policy since
the time of Clinton return to a common set of themes confronting the nation: the disorders
of the homeland, the menace of terrorism, the rise of powers in the East” (p. 228). That is,
a new problem beckons new solutions.
Anderson thinks that a solution lies in returning to multilateralism. “Multilateralism is the
magic word for Wilsonians, but after their fashion harder cases pay their respects to the
same requirement – [Robert] Kagan calls for greater tact in handling Europeans, [Walter
Russell] Mead for a ‘diplomacy of civilizations’ in dealing with Islam, [Robert] Art wants
American hegemony to ‘look more benign’, [Francis] Fukuyama urges ‘at least a rhetorical
concern for the poor and the excluded’.” (p. 230-231). Moreover, “The US should eschew
military attempts at nation-building, and seek international cooperation for its endeavours
wherever possible” (p. 178).
Anderson also projects a solution given by Art who, away from the Wilsonian school,
proposes “selective engagement: a strategy that gives priority to America’s vital interests,
but ‘holds out hope that the desirable interests can be partially realized’, striking a balance
between trying to use force to do too much and to do too little” (p. 212). For instance, in
light of US President Donald Trump’s policy speech of August 21 this year, the US strategy
is staying the course in Afghanistan, embracing Afghanistan and India multilaterally, and
engaging Pakistan selectively.
Back to columns in 2017