American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (2015) by Perry Anderson

American Foreign Policy

American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers (2015) by Perry Anderson

I bought American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers in 2017, when I was going down the rabbit hole that are sales in Verso. It costed less than four pounds and the title was promising. When it arrived, it stayed two weeks by my bedside and then found its way to the library. It wasn’t until a friend of mine recommended me the work of Perry Anderson that I decided to grab it and give it a read.

The book is a re-edition of the issue 83 (sep/oct 2013) of The New Left Review, a special issue that only featured two essays by Anderson. This format, presenting the extended work of a single author, has only been used four times by the magazine since its creation in 1960. It was a consecration for Anderson, who edited TNLR for over twenty years and can be regarded as one of the most important historians and analysists of contemporary thought.

In these texts, he explores a very particular form of literature: grand strategy books written by American foreign relations experts who held high-raking governmental positions. Doing so, Anderson argues, allows us to have an insight into the minds of the people who were (and are) at the operational heart of U.S. foreign policy.

The first essay, “Imperium” is a chronological approach to the Grand Strategy tradition, from the Woodrow Wilson administration to Obama’s first term. The second one, “Consilium”, is review of the people that were shaping the genre up until 2013 and opens a window to start thinking about American foreign policy in the 21st century.

Writing about what happened is easier than writing about what will come. “Imperium” has two fundamental strengths that “Consilium” doesn’t have. Its historical dimension allows Anderson to combine his literature review with an overarching narrative, seamlessly connecting a bunch of books written by foreign policy nerds with the imperial praxis of the U.S. as it took over the world. Much like his brother Benedict, Perry Anderson is a talented storyteller that manages to capture the reader’s attention and embark it into a journey throughout the 20th century, with Capitol Hill as vantage point.

Moreover, the historical perspective allows Anderson to carefully pick who he includes and who is left out. Although sometimes the reader can feel flooded by information, the truth is that Anderson presents a very small number of ideologues, all chosen in relation to their influence both to the field of Grand Strategy and to American foreign policy.

However, the trick does wear out as we advance through history, with the last chapter of “Imperium”, devoted to Obama’s first term, being the weakest of piece. Incidentally, that chapter overlaps with the second essay, devoted to the people whose ideas were supposed to be influencing the present and the future of Washington’s grand strategy.

While I consider “Imperium” to be an amazing piece of work, I am more divided regarding “Consilium”. Anderson carefully analyses the work of persons like Walter Russell Mead, Zbigniew Brzezinski or Thomas Barnett. Yet, it is difficult to assess whether they really had influence in Washington after 2008. Most of the authors presented in “Consilium” seem to have peaked during the Bush years and faded away in later years.

Anderson became an important figure in the New Left as a historian studying the junction between Feudalism and Absolutism. However, his most famous works deal with the evolution of English Marxism (Arguments Within English Marxism), Continental Marxism (Considerations on Western Marxism) and Postmodernism (In the Tracks of Historical Materialism).

Walter Russell Mead (1952) was a Henry Kissinger Senior Fellow at the Council of Foreign Relations and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest. His writings have often being accused of extreme centrism and Anderson qualifies his book Special Providence as the baseline for the Nativist Tradition in 21st century U.S. Foreign Policy.

Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928 – 2017) worked as advisor for Lyndon B. Johnson and was Carter’s National Security Advisor during his entire presidency, before seeing his career being cut short by Reagan’s arrival to the White House. Anderson describes his ideological stance as “harder-edge realism […] combined with a Kulturkritik of classically minatory stamp”.

Thomas Barnett (1962) was a researcher at the Naval War College whose geopolitical theories and filiation with Donald Rumsfeld brought to prominence in the buildup to the Second Gulf War. He is the only thinker to have a section exclusively devoted to him, as the most accomplished representative of the “economicist” tradition in American foreign policy.

At the same time, some of Obama’s most important developments in International Relations are overlooked. In hindsight, I would argue that Obama’s use of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine as a reason to wage war in Libya was crucial for contemporary international relations. Anderson lightly mentions Libya in “Imperium” and acknowledges the destruction of the state in the postscript. Considering that such destruction started in 2011, two years prior to the book’s publication, the lack of consideration of this conflict and its ideological underpinnings is hard to understand.

For those of us particularly interested in Latin America, the most interesting aspect of these essays is how little the region features in them. The first mention to it in “Imperium” comes during the discussion of the work of Nicholas Spykman under the light of World War II. Spykman considers Central and South America to be suppliers of raw materials for the U.S. with little strategic independence. All the other authors largely follow the same line, focusing on the region in economic terms and giving little, if any, consideration to its geopolitical evolutions.

It is clear to me that Anderson doesn’t want to undermine the atrocities committed by Washington across the continent. He does try to explain some events such as Bay of Pigs or the Contra Insurgency. But at the end of the day, he adopts the same perspective as the other writers, which is that Latin America is fully under control of the U.S. and all actions in the region need to be seen as logical manifestations of its will to preserve power. Unsurprisingly, in the more than 100 pages of “Consilium” there are but two anecdotal references to the region.

With limited space and a lot of things to cover, it is logical that Anderson decided to leave out everything that wasn’t crucial. It follows that many regional developments of the past decades just weren’t relevant enough to make the cut. For instance, none of the leaders of the famous “Pink Tide” are even mentioned, not even Chávez, by far the most polemical of the lot.

Is this surprising? Of course not. Lula, the Kirchners, the aforementioned Hugo Chavez and the others were way more aligned with the interests of the State Department than what they led to believe. I am not shocking anyone by pointing out that their governments were particularly kind to the elites, both local and global, and that they counted with U.S. support throughout most of their administrations. However, it is interesting to see just how little they mattered in Washington’s collective mental map.

The second lesson that we can draw from these texts is that the U.S. widespread indifference towards their southern neighbours opens the door to a wider contestation of their influence. Bejin understood this and moved accordingly. Much like in Eastern Africa, China has become a powerbroker in Latin America through loans and infrastructural developments. Since 2005 the region has received over $141 billion in loans and there are no signs of this stopping anytime soon.

Washington’s reaction has been very feeble, and it overwhelmingly focused on issues that are well-known to the American audience but of little strategic interest in the region. John Bolton’s virulent speeches against Maduro make sense in the U.S. tradition of fighting socialism but the alternative embodied by Juan Guaidó clearly hasn’t managed to arise popular passions. The Americas section of Foreign Affairs is nothing short of puzzling, with a large number of articles devoted to Venezuela’s dire situation and classic analysis of gang violence, it doesn’t address the economic evolution of the region nor the social tensions that go beyond an exoticized vision of drug-fuelled violence and idyllic beaches.

Under these circumstances, Latin America can be a very interesting ground for competing geostrategic interests in an increasingly multipolar world. As Brezezinski argued, Europe’s foreign policy is still largely dependent on Washington’s decisions. However, if the EU was to become more independent, there are no reasons why it shouldn’t look at the Atlantic façade of Latin America in the same way China looks at the Pacific.

Anderson’s book is open window to the intellectual landscape of the men whose vision of the world directly contributed to shape it for the past century. It shows who they consider their intellectual fathers and grandfathers, how they see themselves and what they think it’s going to come next. There are other ways to do it, for sure. An ethnography or a sociological study could tell us more about them as a distinct social group. Anderson could have also provided with more context about the concrete actions of these men when they were in office. Yet, by focusing on their literary output, he manages to present their shared assumptions and their differences in a more powerful way. This clarity makes it terrifying. After reading it, one understands a vision of foreign policy shared by the American elite; but what really comes out of it is that nobody, not the thinkers, not Anderson himself, have a clear idea of what the future is going to look like. It can be exciting; it can also be very frightful.

I must stress that this remark is not a critique against the Pink Tide. The exact same thing can be said about the wave of democratization that reshaped the region in the 1980s and 1990s or the recent turn to the right of most countries. It is tempting to wonder whether the arrival of election of AMLO in Mexico and Bolsonaro in Brasil, alongside with the current troubles in Venezuela, will change Washington’s lack interest in the region. Alas, I am pretty confident that it will remain the same, since none of those events really threatens their regional hegemony.