This quarter’s selection

Issue: 141

Looming over the quarter is a chunky special issue of New Left Review (II/83). This is entirely devoted to two articles by Perry Anderson on “American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers”. Anderson is renowned for his intelligence and erudition—and for a prose style that is lucid and elegant but can be intimidatingly arcane. The very titles of these articles are in Latin—“Imperium” (Empire) and “Consilium” (Counsel or Advice), off-putting to anyone without a classical education.

The first, a history of the foreign policy of the United States since the beginning of the 20th century, is much longer than the second, on some of the contemporary ideologists of American global strategy. Studying the latter makes sense, since one of the distinctive features of US imperialism is the way in which its trajectory has been the subject of self-conscious theorising and grand historical comparison ever since the likes of Brooks Adams and Arthur Mahan proclaimed the arrival of the new empire before the First World War. So it was typical that Francis Fukuyama should greet the end of the Cold War with the announcement (drawing on Plato, Kant and Hegel) that history was over. This kind of grand theory is the work of policy intellectuals such as Fukuyama—as Anderson puts it, “individuals moving seamlessly back and forth between university chairs or think-tanks and government offices” (p113). Henry Kissinger is merely the most notorious of this breed.

But one has the feeling that here the tail is wagging the dog. In his main article Anderson conducts a lengthy footnote war against the reputation of George Kennan. Kennan, a professional diplomat and State Department Russian expert, famously formulated in 1946 the strategy of “containment” towards the USSR that oriented US policy during the Cold War. He later sought to distance himself from the more aggressive tactics pursued by the American national security establishment. Indeed, towards the end of a very long life, he became a critic of US foreign policy, for example, opposing the invasion of Iraq. But Anderson determinedly traces Kennan’s role in helping to construct the whole machinery of dirty tricks through which Washington under Barack Obama continues to enforce obedience on states around the world.

All this is good fun, but a bit distorting. One has the impression that “Imperium” began as an assessment of Kennan and then ballooned out of control. The article is predominantly a narrative, with very little orienting theoretical discussion. There is a page drawing on Bob Brenner’s analysis of the relationship between the state and capital, but nothing on the rich contemporary Marxist literature on imperialism—a surprising omission, since Verso, NLR’s publishing house, is responsible for some distinguished contributions to this literature, Ellen Meiksins Wood’s Empire of Capital, Giovanni Arrighi’s Adam Smith in Beijing, and Leo Panitch’s and Sam Gindin’s The Making of Global Capitalism, which has just won the Isaac and Tamara Deutscher Memorial Prize.

The narrative displays Anderson’s skills as scholar and writer, but is undermined by a number of mistakes. He dismisses US intervention in the First World War as “a gratuitous decision” (p11) by President Woodrow Wilson that was rapidly followed by a retreat into isolationism, ignoring the considerable research, by the late Neil Smith and others, that demonstrates the sustained efforts Washington and Wall Street made to reshape European capitalism after 1918. The treatment of the Middle East is particularly weak. Thus the Tudeh Party in Iran was not “the only communist movement with a significant following in the region” after 1945 (p62): it was exactly during those years that the Iraqi Communist Party became a mass force. And Anderson could have saved himself the howler that “the US had no time for Nasser” (p63) after he took power in 1953 had he remembered Hazem Khandil’s riveting Soldiers, Spies and Statesmen, published by Verso in 2012, which the author thanks him for reading in draft.

Perhaps therefore it’s not surprising that the greatest error of all also concerns the Middle East. Anderson argues that the Iraq war “was, for the US, a relatively painless affair”; despite its domestic unpopularity and the suffering of the Iraqi people, “militarily and politically…US objectives were achieved. There was no winter rout on the Yalu [Korea 1950-1] or helicopter scramble from Saigon” (p95). He gets away with this misjudgement partly because he telescopes the militarily successful invasion in 2003 with the very messy strategy—involving encouraging sectarian Sunni-Shia divisions and exploiting the hatred felt even by most Sunni insurgents towards Al Qaeda—the Bush administration finally hit on to achieve a degree of stability in Iraq.

He ignores the close alignment between Iraq under Nouri al-Maliki and the Islamic Republican regime in Iran. Buried in “Consilium” is a passing reference to “failure to secure agreement from Baghdad to continuing US troops in Iraq” (p141)—evidence of the extent to which Obama secured an exit from Iraq only by abandoning key “US objectives”. Anderson uses a contorted metaphor to indicate what little global impact the Iraq war had: “Among the powers that counted, the invasion was a Panama in the sands, leaving no discernible trace” (p96). Although this sentence seems evidence of a decline in Anderson’s style, its meaning could be turned against him to say that a war that was intended to cow potential rivals had the opposite effect.

Today the most important of the “powers that counted” is, of course, China. Anderson devotes an anodyne paragraph to the US “pivot” towards Asia under Obama, offering no serious assessment of the future relationship of the two biggest economies in the world—a particularly surprising omission since he has written very well about China’s rise elsewhere. Perhaps this failure can serve to sum up these two mammoth articles: they are full of things of interest, but arbitrarily selective in focus, and lacking any sustaining theoretical and political argument.

Those after less ambitious but more nourishing fare will have to look elsewhere. For example, John Newsinger has marked the centenary year of the 1913 Dublin Lockout with “’The Duty of Social Democrats In This Labour Unrest’: Justice, the British Socialist Party and the Dublin Lockout”, published in Saothar: The Journal of the Irish Labour History Society.