United States Foreign Policy: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow
Just before the Korean War started in 1950, post-World War key foreign policy advisers to President Truman threw their support behind recommendations made in a classified document, National Security Council Document 68, which recommended a dramatic increase in military spending. NSC-68 also recommended that military spending from that point on should be the number one priority of the national government. When presidents sit down to construct a federal budget, the document recommended, they should first allocate all the money requested by military and corporate elites and lobbyists concerned with military spending. Only after that the military advocates receive all they request should government programs address education, health care, roads, transportation, housing and other critical domestic issues. When the United States entered the Korean War, in June, 1950, Truman endorsed the recommendations of NSC 68 and used the war on the Korean peninsula as justification. In Andrew Bacevich’s words the United States fully committed to a “permanent war economy.” As political scientist, Hans Morgenthau wrote about that time; there was no turning back from the new war economy and a “Cold War” against the former Soviet Union. Each subsequent president expanded on the war economy and the narrative of a dangerous world that justified trillions of dollars of spending. According to Chalmers Johnson (Blowback, Sorrows of Empire), between 1947 and 1990, the permanent war economy cost the American people close to $9 trillion. Ruth Sivard (World Military Expenditures) presented data to indicate that over 100,000 U.S. military personnel died in wars and military interventions during this period. And, in other countries, nearly 10 million people died directly or indirectly in wars in which the United States was a participant.
Seventy years later, Trump era military budgets have reached record highs, $738 billion dollars in the 2020 fiscal year and a projected $740 billion in 2021. As William Hartung wrote: “The agreement sets the table for two of the highest budgets for the Pentagon and related work on nuclear warheads at the Department of Energy since World War II (in Jake Johnson, ‘Unprecedented, Wasteful, and Obscene’: House Approves $1.48 Trillion Pentagon Budget,” Common Dreams, Friday, July 26, 2019). Including past and present military-related spending the War Resisters League estimates that the 2020 federal budget will consist of 48 percent of all spending, exceeding non-military spending by six percent. Just one weapon, the notorious F-35 latest generation fighter plane is costing, by conservative estimates, $1.5 trillion. (Manufacturing facilities for the plane are found in 433 of 435 Congressional districts).
Rationalizing the Permanent War Economy
A factional dispute among foreign policy elites began to emerge in the 1970s about the best strategies and tactics which should be pursued to maximize the continued global economic, political, and military dominance of the United States in the international system. The dispute was not over whether the United States should continue to pursue empire but rather how to continue to achieve it. The debates were occasioned by the rise of the countries of the Global South, the societally wrenching experience of the Vietnam War, the growth of power and influence of the former Soviet Union, and since its collapse, the emergence of China as a new global economic, political and military power. In addition, the new international economy was becoming more global, that is to say more interconnected. Debates about strategy, tactics, surfaced between the neoliberal globalists who emphasized so-called free trade, financial speculation, and the promotion of a neoliberal agenda that advocated for the privatization of all public activities by states and the development of austerity policies that would shift wealth from the many to the few. The international debt system would be the vehicle for pressuring poor and rich countries to transform their own economic agendas. This faction dominated United States foreign policy making for generations, particularly from Reagan to Clinton to Obama. In political/military terms, they have sought to push back challengers to neoliberal capitalism: Russia, China, populist Latin American countries, and they have advocated advancing US economic interests in Asia and Africa. Many of the institutions of the neoliberal globalists, sometimes called the “deep state” include the CIA, NSA, and other security agencies.
The other faction represented by President Trump and some of his key aides prefer economic nationalism, restricted trade, building walls, avoiding diplomacy, and they are driven by a deeply held white supremacist ideology. They believe, as political scientist Samuel Huntington argued, that we are engaged in a civilizational conflict with Islam, a fourth world war. The neoliberal globalists undermined Ukraine, put more NATO troops in Eastern Europe and want to depose Putin and weaken Russia. This is not on the Trump agenda.
The forbearers of the current generation of Trumpian economic nationalists, came from the so-called “neo-conservatives,” historically organized around the 1990s lobby group, The Project for a New American Century (PNAC) and in the 1950s and 1970s of The Committee for the Present Danger (CPD). Both the neoliberals and the neoconservatives share a common vision of a global political economy controlled by the United States but the former prefer selective use of military force and greater use of economic and diplomatic pressure and covert interventionism while justifying policy on humanitarian grounds, including expanding democracy. Since, they say, the United States represents the hope of democracy in the world, it is as Madeleine Albright called it. “the indispensable nation.” The neoconservatives, in a sense more frank, argued that with the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the United States was the hegemonic power. With that power PNAC argued, the United States should have imposed a world order and state regimes that comported with US interests and ideology. Over the years, the policies of the two factions converged; hence economic penetration, covert interventions, occasional wars, and support for expanding military spending. But, often for reasons of domestic rather than international politics, conflicts between the two factions resurface. That is the case in 2019.
The Ruling Class Agenda for the United States Role in the World: Before the 2016 election
From a Washington Post editorial, May 21, 2016:
HARDLY A day goes by without evidence that the liberal international order of the past seven decades is being eroded.China and Russia are attempting to fashion a world in their own illiberal image…This poses an enormous trial for the next U.S. president. We say trial because no matter who takes the Oval Office, it will demand courage and difficult decisions to save the liberal international order. As a new report from the Center for a New American Security points out, this order is worth saving, and it is worth reminding ourselves why: It generated unprecedented global prosperity, lifting billions of people out of poverty; democratic government, once rare, spread to more than 100 nations; and for seven decades there has been no cataclysmic war among the great powers. No wonder U.S. engagement with the world enjoyed a bipartisan consensus.
The Washington Post editorial quoted above clearly articulates the dominant view envisioned by US foreign policy elites for the years ahead: about global political economy, militarism, and ideology. It in effect constitutes a synthesis of the “neocon” and the “liberal interventionist” wings of the ruling class. First, it is inspired by the necessity of 21st century capitalism to defend neoliberal globalization: government for the rich, austerity for the many, and deregulation of trade, investment, and speculation. (Neoliberal globalization, the latest phase in the development of international capitalism is described in an important recent book, Jerry Harris, Global Capitalism and the Crisis of Democracy, Clarity Press, 2016).
Second, the Post vision of a New World Order is built upon a reconstituted United States military and economic hegemony that has been a central feature of policymaking at least since the end of World War II even though time after time it has suffered setbacks: from defeat in Vietnam, to radical decolonization across the Global South, and to the rise of competing poles of power in Asia, the Middle East, Latin America, and even Europe. In addition, despite recent setbacks, grassroots mass mobilizations against neoliberal globalization and austerity policies have risen everywhere, even in the United States. The Washington Post speaks to efforts to reassemble the same constellation of political forces, military resources, and concentrated wealth, that, if anything, is greater than at any time since the establishment of the US “permanent war economy” after the last World War.
Historian, Michael Stanley, in an essay entitled “‘We are Not Denmark’: Hillary Clinton and Liberal American Exceptionalism,” (Common Dreams, February 26, 2016) points to the ideological glue that is used by foreign policy elites, liberal and conservative, to justify the pursuit of neoliberal globalization and militarism; that is the reintroduction of the old idea of American Exceptionalism, which in various forms has been used by elites since the foundation of the Republic.
The modern version, borne in the context of continental and global expansion, serves to justify an imperial US role in the world. Along with posturing that the United States is somehow special and has much to offer the world, American Exceptionalism presumes the world has little to offer the United States. The only difference between Democrats and Republicans on foreign policy is whether the exceptionalism still exists and must be maintained or has dissipated requiring the need to “make America great again.” Leaders of both parties, however, support the national security state, high military expenditures, and a global presence—military, economic, political, and cultural.
“Innovation and National Security: Keeping Our Edge:” Council on Foreign Relations 2019
The influential Council on Foreign Relations issued a Task Force report in September, 2019, on national security. Task force members included representatives of prestigious universities, large corporations, and staff from the CFR. In the forward, the report pointed out that the United States had led the world in technological innovation and development since the end of World War Two. But, it said, “…the United States risks falling behind its competitors, principally China.” It goes on to propose that the United States “…needs to respond urgently and comprehensively over the next five years and put forward a national security innovation strategy to ensure it is the predominant power in a range of emerging technologies such as AI and data science, advanced battery storage, advanced semiconductor technologies, genomics and synthetic biology, fifth-generation cellular networks (5G), quantum information systems, and robotics.” The report calls for increases in federal support for basic research and development. This would include investments in higher education, selective immigration of skilled scientists, and reform of military institutions to more effectively incorporate new technologies into military capabilities.
Major findings of the Task Force included the following:
- Technological innovation leads to economic and military advantage.
- US leadership in science and innovation is at risk.
- US federal funding for research and development has stagnated for years.
- US leadership in STEM education is declining
- The Defense Department and the intelligence community risk falling behind “potential adversaries” if they do not employ more technologies from the private sector.
- The defense community “faces deteriorating manufacturing capabilities,” and “insecure” supply chains, while depending on other nations for technologies.
- There is a ”cultural divide” surfacing between technology and policymaking communities weakening connections between the defense and intelligence communities and the private sector.
And, as to our major competitor China:
- China is investing significantly in new technologies and will be the world’s biggest investor by 2030.
- China is closing “the technological gap” with the United States, and it and other countries are approaching the US as to artificial intelligence (AI).
- China is “exploiting” the openness of the US to secure valuable innovation by violating intellectual property rights.
While praising President Trump for some of his efforts the report says that increased budgets have been too “incremental and narrow in scale.” The Administration has inadequately moved to develop new communications technologies, and to respond to the challenge of Huawei’s global expansion.
Therefore the United States must:
- restore federal funding for research and development.
- attract and educate a science and technology workforce.
- support technology adoption in the defense sector.
- bolster and scale technology alliances and ecosystems.
In short, “during the early years of the Cold War, confronted by serious technological and military competition from the Soviet Union, the United States invested heavily in its scientific base. Those investments ensured U.S. technological leadership for fity years. Faced with the rise of China and a new wave of disruptive technological innovation, the country needs a similar vision and an agenda for realizing it.” (9)
Where Does the Foreign Policy of Donald Trump Fit?
Taking “the long view” of United States foreign policy, it is clear that from NSC-68; to the response to the Soviet challenges in space such as during the Sputnik era; to global wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq; to covert interventions in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, and Africa, the United States has pursued global hegemony (and is suggested in the CFR statement). It is also clear that the pursuit of empire has of necessity involved the creation of a permanent war economy, an economy that overcomes economic stagnation by the infusion of enormous military expenditures.
It is also clear that justification for empire and military spending has necessitated the construction of an enemy, first the Soviet Union and international communism; then terrorism; and now China. The obverse of a demonic enemy requires a conception of self to justify the imperial project. That self historically has been various iterations of American exceptionalism, the indispensable nation, US humanitarianism, and implicitly or explicitly the superiority of the white race and western civilization.
In this light, while specific policies vary, the trajectory of US foreign policy in the twenty-first century is a continuation of the policies and programs that were institutionalized in the twentieth century. Three seem primary. First, military spending, particularly in new technologies continues unabated. And the CFR report raises the danger of the United States “falling behind,” the same metaphor that was used by the writers of the NSC-68 document, or the Gaither and Rockefeller Reports composed in the late 1950s to challenge President Eisenhower’s worry about a military/industrial complex, the response to Sputnik, Secretary of Defense McNamara’s transformation of the Pentagon to scientific management in the 1960s, or President Reagan’s huge increase of armaments in the 1980s to overcome the “window of vulnerability.”
Second, the United States continues to engage in policies recently referred to as “hybrid wars.” The concept of hybrid wars suggests that while traditional warfare between nations has declined, warfare within countries has increased. Internal wars, the hybrid wars theorists suggest, are encouraged and supported by covert interventions, employing private armies, spies, and other operatives financed by outside nations like the United States. Also the hybrid wars concept also refers to the use of economic warfare, embargoes and blockades, to bring down adversarial states and movements. The blockades of Cuba, Venezuela, and Iran are examples. So the hybrid war concept suggests the carrying out of wars by other, less visible, means.
Third, much of the discourse on the US role in the world replicates the bipolar, super power narrative of the Cold War. Only now the enemy is China. As Alfred McCoy has pointed out (In the Shadows of the American Empire, 2017), the United States in the twenty first century sees its economic hegemony being undermined by Chinese economic development and global reach. To challenge this, McCoy argues, the United States has taken on a project to recreate its military hegemony: AI, a space force, biometrics, new high tech aircraft etc. If the US cannot maintain its hegemony economically, it will have to do so militarily. This position is the centerpiece of the recent CFR Task Force Report.
Recognizing these continuities in United States foreign policy, commentators appropriately recognize the idiosyncrasies of foreign policy in the Trump era. He has reached out to North Korea and Russia (which has had the potential of reducing tensions in Asia and Central Europe). He has rhetorically claimed that the United States must withdraw military forces from trouble spots around the world, including the Middle East. He has declared that the United States cannot be “the policeman of the world,” a declaration made by former President Nixon as he escalated bombing of Vietnam and initiated plans to overthrow the Allende regime in Chile. For some of these measures, Trump has been inappropriately criticized by Democrats and others. Tension-reduction on the Korean Peninsula, for example, should have been encouraged.
However, while Trump moves in one direction he almost immediately undermines the policies he has ordered. His announced withdrawal from Syria, while in the abstract a sign of a more realistic assessment of US military presence in the Middle East was coupled with a direct or implied invitation to the Turkish military to invade Northeast Syria to defeat the Kurds. Also, at the same time he was withdrawing troops from Syria, the Defense Department announced the United States was sending support troops to Saudi Arabia. He withdrew from the accord with Iran on nuclear weapons and the Paris Climate Change agreement. Time after time, one foreign policy decision is contradicted by another. These contradictions occur over and over with allies as well as traditional adversaries. Sometimes policies seem to be made with little historical awareness and without sufficient consultation with professional diplomats. (One is reminded of the old Nixon idea, the so-called “madman theory.” Nixon allegedly wanted to appear mad so that adversaries would be deterred from acting in ways contrary to US interests out of fear of random responses).
The contradictory character of Trump foreign policy has left the peace movement befuddled. How does it respond to Trump’s occasional acts that go against the traditional imperial grain at the same time that he acts impetuously increasing the dangers of war? How does the peace movement participate in the construction of a progressive majority that justifiably seeks to overturn the Trump era and all that it stands for: climate disaster, growing economic inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, and hybrid war? Perhaps the task for the peace movement is to include in the project of building a progressive majority ideas about challenging the US as an imperial power, proclaiming that a progressive agenda requires the dismantling of the permanent war economy. These are truly troubled times, with to a substantial degree the survival of humanity and nature at stake. The war system is a significant part of what the struggle is about.
Harry Targ is a retired Professor of Political Science, Purdue University. He has written books and articles on US foreign policy, international political economy, and issues of labor and class struggle. He blogs at Diary of a Heartland Radical.