From Left to Right, the Penny is Dropping that the Days of US Armed Supremacy Are Numbered

Stephen Wertheim's 'Tomorrow, the World' is an interesting study of the US foreign policy elite that birthed the military mindset and the military-industrial complex that followed, which President Eisenhower warned against as he left office.

In a recent devastating analysis of the US military-industrial complex ‘Bigness Not a Substitute For Brains’: CNN Host Dismantles US Military Complex With UNDENIABLE Facts, CNN’s Fareed Zakaria blew out of the water the idea that the Pentagon was asking for ever larger military spending because of the Chinese threat, its own effectiveness as a military machine in places like Afghanistan, or as value for money. He showed that the Pentagon’s obsession with its ‘military edge’ over competitors was totally overblown.

Zakaria in four minutes deconstructed and obliterated the American military’s mantra of a threatening world that demands the Pentagon spend ever more in pursuit of ‘security’. He contrasted China’s power projection via the trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative with America’s F-35 fighter jet programme costing close to 2 trillion dollars. This is based on military chiefs’ demand that its military machine remain several times stronger and larger than the next eight world powers combined, even as most of those others are US allies.

A military definition of reality reigns, but for how long?

There is a ‘military definition of reality’ that remains fundamental to the American foreign policy and national security establishment’s mindsets. Just as one armed with a hammer goes around looking for nails, the United States militarist establishment sees most problems in violent, warlike terms. Force is its first instinct, not a last resort. Scaring “hell out of the American people” is its way of keeping it that way, but more and more people are simply not buying.

Critics and sceptics know all this, of course, so what’s the big deal? Well, it’s a big deal when the critique comes from within the halls of American power, from one of the pillars of the foreign policy establishment. Zakaria’s CV is a glittering exemplar of the US foreign policy establishment’s organic intellectual elite and their mentalities. His perch at CNN – where he reaches around 200 million homes across the world – is supplemented with his column at the Washington Post, his career at Newsweek, and at Time magazine. Born in India, he was forged at Yale, Harvard and the Council on Foreign Relations. You will recall that it was Time owner Henry Luce who declared the dawning of the ‘American century’ way back in 1941. It was the CFR that did a lot of the heavy lifting to make it happen.

Also read: A Lesson for India in Joe Biden’s Economic Gambit

Well, we’re 80 years into it now and Pax Americana’s ‘golden age’ appears to be long gone. The Trump-incited and planned insurrection of January 6, 2021, was a key moment when the allure of America’s promise took a body blow and shook the world. It’s still standing but it is deeply wounded and the wounds are not set to heal too quickly as the causes of the problem remain powerful and at large in the country’s Republican party, but also in the bipartisan consensus on military power as its primary contribution to world politics.

So when Zakaria’s speaks – often from the pages of Foreign Affairs, the US foreign policy elite’s house organ published by the CFR, where he once was managing editor – it is an important part of that elite speaking. He is not alone in worrying about where American power is actually going and what kind of power works best as we enter what Zakaria has long called the ‘Post-American world’.

CNN host Fareed Zakaria. Photo: World Economic Forum/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Axis of evolution – a Koch-Soros alliance, not a revolution

But things have been changing under the surface of US politics for some time. Remember that both presidential candidates in 2020 ran promising an end to America’s ‘endless wars’. On the Right, Left and centre of US politics, there is growing opposition to the sheer costs in blood and treasure of America’s military complex.

Calls for “restraint” against “liberal hubris” and “liberal hegemony” are coming in from liberal scholars who normally enthuse about US ‘democracy’ promotion etc, like Tufts University’s Tony Smith, let alone realists like Harvard’s Stephen Walt, and Chicago’s John Mearsheimer. Walt and Mearsheimer famously opposed the Iraq war of 2003 as “unnecessary” as Saddam Hussein had proved “deterrable” by devastating sanctions and no-fly zones. These are ultimately calls for greater restraint for both military and so-called soft power projection to a world that neither wants nor needs unbridled American intervention.

And the emergence of an alliance of Koch and Soros money to fund a new think tank – the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft – strengthens the case that something is afoot in the land of the military mindset. Over the past decade, the Charles Koch Foundation has invested around US$25 million (£19 million) in key university programmes at institutions including Harvard, MIT and Tufts, to promote “strategic restraint” and the end of US primacy, the obsession with maintaining US global domination. I’ve written about how those programmes are training a new generation of graduates committed to realism, ready for appointment by future administrations.

It might not be a revolution that shuts down America’s 800 worldwide military bases, achieves withdrawal from NATO, or from the Indo-Pacific, Latin America, Africa, and the Middle East. But even a relatively minor shift in priorities and spending could signal a change in mentality away from being the “world’s greatest purveyor of military violence,” as Martin Luther King called the United States in 1967.

Also read: President Biden Faces Multiple Crises, Needs Radical Agenda Despite Corporate Opposition

When right-wing and liberal billionaires known for backing many horses in their bids for political-intellectual-ideological powershifts back the same bodies it may indicate an important re-set likely to reverberate through the system, an emerging new consensus in embryonic form.

Wertheim-Quincy’s new book

Stephen Wertheim
Tomorrow, the World – The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy
Harvard University Press (2020)

It is of significant interest then that a leading light of the Quincy Institute has just published a book on the very creation-moment of the militarist mentality among the US foreign policy elite. It was a moment of creation and destruction, or more accurately a moment of redefinition. It happened with the collapse of France under attack from Hitler’s unrelenting violence in May and June 1940. America’s military mindset was born at a moment of Nazi horror, and incredible PR skills did the rest.

Wertheim argues that a heavily armed Nazi-dominated Europe, aggressive and hostile, and bent on global domination, provided the opportunity for the “American foreign policy elite” (whose limits, origins, and composition he never clearly elaborates – but see Apeldoorn and DeGraaff for an excellent research and analysis) that redefined American internationalism as armed supremacy, created American ‘isolationism’ as its nemesis, and propelled America’s imperial career under the cover of a ‘rules-based order’.

Wertheim, whose book is based on his doctoral thesis at Columbia University, has produced an interesting study of the US foreign policy elite that birthed the military mindset and the military-industrial complex that followed, which President Eisenhower warned against as he left office in 1961 – having presided over its building for 8 years. Eisenhower was the epitome of the military-industrial-intellectual complex: supreme commander of military forces in Europe during World War II, President of Columbia University, and the 34th US president (1953-61).

Wertheim’s study is based on the work of the elite Council on Foreign Relations during World War II that has already been studied quite extensively in ‘revisionist’ literature, including (for full disclosure) by this reviewer. The work on the CFR and its ilk is well known among scholars but not so well known among the wider public even in the United States let alone across the world. This is the case even as Foreign Affairs is read by elites around the globe.

Planning America’s version of lebensraum

That the work of the CFR in conjunction with the US State Department in World War II literally changed America, its self-concepts and role in the world, and the world itself as a result, is backed by existing scholarship, however well-hidden in plain sight. Shoup and Minter’s classic study remains a must-read for anyone who wants to know the story in all its jaw-dropping details. Richard Barnett’s Roots of War tells the story brilliantly too. It’s subtitle reveals its goal and achievement: The men and institutions behind US foreign policy.

Also read: Could Biden’s Presidency Be a Pragmatic Game-Changer in US Foreign Policy?

For some readers, the most staggering moment of realisation comes upon reading the CFR’s working paper of October 1940 that later led to the designation of an economic and commercial global “Grand Area” – America’s necessary global economic and financial ‘living space’ in light of a Nazi-controlled European mainland. That Grand Area – calculated by the CFR’s economists – encompassed the western hemisphere, Britain and its empire, most of Africa, all of Asia including Australia and New Zealand, but excluded the Soviet Union. The military defence of the United States, according to this view, started in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and it would require a string of global military, naval and air bases – relieving and replacing British and other European colonial powers in the process.

Wertheim quotes CFR planners as to the military strategy such global control necessitated: “the United States should use its military power to protect the maximum possible area of the non-German world from control by Germany in order to maintain for its sphere of interest a superiority of economic power over that of the German sphere” (p.69).

The inter-relationship of economic goals and armed supremacy could hardly be better put, long-recognised by existing scholarship. Nor could the pragmatic accommodation with Nazism that such a plan accepted. The American Century was midwifed in squalid secrecy, funded by the Rockefeller Foundation and under cover of internationalism. The masters of the universe revealed few ideals other than global domination.

President Woodrow Wilson in Paris, Jan. 1919. Photo: United States, Army, Signal Corps, photographer/Library of Congress

In telling his compelling and informative story, however, Wertheim rather overstates the idealism of historic American internationalism, including that represented by President Woodrow Wilson. Such a re-telling elides a rather well-established position among students of International Relations – that the ‘Wilsonian moment’ was saturated with racial and colonial thinking and attitudes, including within the League of Nations. The League, led by self-proclaimed liberal idealists, famously refused Japan’s request for a ‘racial equality’ clause. And the self-determination of nations principle that Wilson announced – largely under pressure from Lenin’s call in support of war-weary European workers and colonial peoples – applied only to Europe’s white minorities.

Wertheim’s book’s main contribution is two-fold: in scholarly terms, it has shed light on the birth of ‘armed supremacy’ and how American internationalism’s heart was hollowed out and injected with military violence at its core, not the sort of idealism normally associated with the United Nations. Even so, the historical facts about the process were researched and published decades ago. But worth a reminder.

The real value of Tomorrow, the World is in its dovetailing with the formation and work of the Koch-Soros Quincy Institute, challenging US militarism, with rising public demand for curbing America’s endless wars, amid the emergence of a post-American world that Zakaria for so long has pointed out.

Biden’s pragmatic radicalism – bearing fruit at home: will it extend beyond the water’s edge?

President Joe Biden is an unlikely radical but he has inherited an America whose problems are many, deep and systemic, at home and abroad. They just cannot be tackled in the old way, and he knows it. Not for nothing has he been reading up on Franklin Delano Roosevelt of New Deal fame. It is also the case that FDR did much to embed the New Deal in a new global grand bargain. It was a violent bargain for the ‘third world’ of colonised peoples, drenched in blood during and after the Cold War.

The world today is so very different. It’s not just post-American. America is not the only frame for describing the world. It’s much more multipolar as we approach the effective twilight of the US’s global preponderance. Just like white Americans must accommodate to the fact of their ‘majority-minority’ status in 20 years – they will be the largest single racial group but no longer a majority of the population – so must the American foreign policy establishment accommodate to the US as the single strongest, but no longer totally preponderant, world power. Too many global problems do not require a military solution.

Also read: Trump, a Master of Mass Disorientation, Is Gone. But Has Trumpism?

Biden is yet to match on the world stage what he seems to be leading in the US: a possible $5 trillion revolution in infrastructure, jobs, healthcare, vaccination, and combatting inequality. It’s a programme that’s long overdue but critics will say it’s just another necessary face of capitalism in crisis. It is. That’s as far as pragmatic radicalism will take us. But it’s a lot better than untrammelled Trumpism.

US President Joe Biden speaks speaks during a brief appearance at the White House in Washington, US, January 25, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Kevin Lamarque/File Photo

Biden’s flurry of executive orders has impressed even if it has not changed the shape of America’s approach to the world. The mood music is so very different, and welcome. The Muslim travel ban is no more, the Saudis have been reprimanded and arms sales diminished, the World Health Organisation rejoined, as has the UN Human Rights Council. Myanmar has been sanctioned. International Criminal Court personnel have been unsanctioned. There is movement on the US rejoining the Iran nuclear agreement as Europe, China and Russia arrange new talks with Iran. There also need to be moves to rebuild diplomatic relations with Cuba. Trump’s tariffs on China remain in place though the strategy now is ‘extreme competition’ within cooperation on climate change and the pandemic.

Biden’s is a softly softly style, with an eye to “grassroots bipartisanship”. He knows that Republican voters across America’s rural areas will benefit from his infrastructure and other programmes, undercutting the Trump-cult far-right GOP in Washington, DC. As a man of the establishment, with an intimate knowledge of how politics works, he may yet initiate the preliminary steps that lead to important change. He has more than one eye on his historic legacy. “I’m convinced that if we act now, in 50 years people are going to look back and say this is the moment when America won the future,” Biden argues. The massive multi-trillion dollar reform programme is aimed at creating a powerful basis for a middle class revival. It will affect America’s global orientation and foreign policy and national security concepts.

It’s too early to conclude that the bell is tolling for the end of the American century of armed supremacy in the service of its economic interests. It may still be very faint, but if we listen carefully we might be hearing the embryonic stirrings of an ideological power-shift in the heart of the American foreign policy establishment.

Inderjeet Parmar is a professor of international politics at City, University of London, and visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank). He is a columnist at The Wire. His Twitter handle is @USEmpire.