The Contours of Recent American Foreign Policy

Linked with Gabriel Kolko – USA.

Published on ZNet, by Gabriel Kolko (first on CounterPunch), August 02, 2009.

War, from preparation for it through to its aftermath, has defined both the essential nature of the major capitalist nations and their relative power since at least 1914. War became the major catalyst of change for revolutionary movements in Russia, China, and Vietnam. While wars also created reactionary and fascistic parties, particularly in the case of Italy and Germany, in the longer run they brought about domestic social changes of far-reaching magnitude. The Bolshevik Revolution was the preeminent example of this ironic symbiosis of war and revolution …  

… Everything is going wrong for the United States in terms of its power position globally. Russia – rich from selling gas and oil, while spending on its military less than a fifth of the US expenditure in 2006 – is still the US’s equal in terms of nuclear weapons, and outflanks the US in Central Asia, the Middle East, and much of the Islamic world. It sells sophisticated arms to many nations, has economic agreements with Arab and Muslim countries, and has become a growing obstacle to America’s influence and power. Russia is just as much a danger to the US as when Stalin ruled. Nuclear proliferation is now a grave problem, with an unpredictable but growing number of nations equipped with nuclear bombs and terrorists more and more likely to get hold of them. As for chemical and biological weapons, the US never even caught its anthrax killer soon after the September 11 attack. At the same time, the Bush Administration’s strategy on Iran is being undermined by rising oil and gas prices, which also have the effect of making the successors of the Soviet system even richer. There is a fatal, impossible contradiction between US goals – to eliminate the present Teheran regime and contain Russian power – and rising petroleum prices. American policy on Russia is a shambles.

In crucial ways, the basic approach and limits of US foreign policy are hardly unusual. The US suffers from the kind of problems that have affected many nations over the past centuries. The only difference is that the US had, and to a great degree still has, power even while undergoing a transition away from the omnipotence it enjoyed after 1945. That alone is its distinction. The existing system – whether American or not – has the fundamental problem that it cannot be run according to rational criteria, and like Marxism it has no “laws.” In every nation, in every branch of life – military, political, cultural – there are a sufficient number of adventurers, opportunists, egomaniacs, psychotics, or destructive individuals who create or accept disorder. In the case of the US, James V. Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, jumped out of the window of a naval hospital – to which he was confined for paranoia – in May 1949, allegedly because he believed war with the USSR was imminent. Other types – sheer opportunists such as the neoconservatives crucial in the Bush Administration – wish to accumulate power alone. Ideologies are very often merely a disguise for ambition. This limit, again, exists everywhere, not just the United States, and regardless of whether the party in power calls itself “socialist,” “capitalist,” or whatever.

Cynicism is prevalent, and often the only motive of political behavior. We can see it in Russia or Great Britain today. And this is the case not simply with respect to foreign policy, but in relation to every aspect of existing society.

People, whether theorists, administrators, or whatever, cannot regulate or predict systems run by ambitious individuals, and they frequently cannot regulate systems run by perfectly sincere people either – it is simply far too difficult. There is often an immense disparity between what politicians – whatever they call themselves and no matter which nation they belong to – do and what they say. What they do, not what they say, is crucial, because in countless places they have often betrayed their followers. (full long text).

(Gabriel Kolko is the leading historian of modern warfare. He is the author of the classic Century of War: Politics, Conflicts and Society Since 1914, Another Century of War? and The Age of War: the US Confronts the World and After Socialism. He has also written the best history of the Vietnam War, Anatomy of a War: Vietnam, the US and the Modern Historical Experience. His latest book is World in Crisis, from which this essay has been excerpted).

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