EMPIRE UNBOUND: Philip S. Golub In Conversation with Phong Bui
While visiting New York, Le Monde diplomatique contributing editor Philip S. Golub stopped by the Rail’s headquarters to talk to publisher Phong Bui about his latest book Power, Profit & Prestige: A History of American Imperial Expansionism (published by Pluto Press. www.plutobooks.com).
PHONG BUI (RAIL): You once affirmed the two great twin pathologies of Western modernity as authoritarianism, which can easily become totalitarianism, and colonialism.
PHILIP S. GOLUB: Yes. Arendt, in the Origins of Totalitarianism, tries, with difficulty, to work out the relationship between imperialism and totalitarianism, Nazism in particular. She emphasizes the direct lineage between the genocidal colonial practices of the German imperial state under Wilhelm II and Belgium under Leopold II in Africa and 20th century totalitarianism, distinguishing it from what she calls the bureaucratic colonialism of the United Kingdom. I try to show in the book that the distinction between the two is far less sharp than Arendt makes it out to be. Even if unintended, there were genocidal impacts of colonial and imperial expansion by even the most liberal democratic Western states. I emphasize in particular the way in which both John Stuart Mill and Alexis de Tocqueville, the two preeminent theorists of liberalism in the 19th century, operated a radical division between the civilized and the “barbarians,” Mill characterizing the latter as being outside of history and requiring despotic rule. These visions operate based on an ontological distinction between “advanced” and “primitive” peoples. When you do that, you open the way for the limitless violence of the master-slave relationship, in its various manifestations.
RAIL: War and genocide can be carried out elsewhere, so long as it is not within the core of the empire.
GOLUB: Yes, at least in Europe in the 19th century. There were only two major inter-European wars between 1815 and 1914—a record!—the Franco-Prussian War and the Crimean War. As Karl Polanyi and others have pointed out, the Long Peace in Europe was accompanied by constant warfare by the Western imperial states in the newly constituted colonial periphery. The Long Peace was coterminous with constant overseas conquest and “pacification.” The major European colonial powers were involved in hundreds of military operations, large and small, throughout the century, particularly in the latter half. The United States was also constantly at war, after independence, with Native Americans. The U.S. armed forces engaged in no fewer than a thousand military operations, large and small, against Native Americans between 1868 and 1890! American expansion and European expansion should be seen as parts of a single expansionary movement.
RAIL: Are you saying there were parallels regarding both the similarities and the differences in the last legs of the British Empire and the emergence of the U.S. political ambition in the late 19th century?
GOLUB: U.S. territorial and economic expansion was an integral and dynamic part of global imperial expansion. Arendt rightly notes that in the late 19th century, expansion became the permanent and supreme aim of politics. It was a general movement. Russia conquered the Caucasus and Central Asia. Japan joined the fray at the end of the century. Britain was by far the leading overseas colonial power. The role of the U.S. is too often overlooked. Its consistently coercive expansion was extraordinarily dynamic. Russian and Japanese expansion was derivative of the West’s.
RAIL: Japan signed the mutual defense treaty with Britain in 1902, long before the outbreak of WWI.
GOLUB: Right. The end of the century marks an important moment of imperial competition and succession. Britain was weakened, if not exhausted, by WWI. The center began to shift from London to New York. Already the world’s lead manufacturer in the 1890s, the U.S. emerged as the world’s leading financial power from 1918–1922. Then, of course, the U.S. became the leading military power during the Second World War. After 1945, the United States supplanted the European empires.
RAIL: To come back to Hannah Arendt again, whose work you often cite in your writing, I am reminded that Arendt came to the U.S. like the rest of the European intellectuals who felt indebted to the U.S. for having saved them from Nazi Germany. But by the end of the ’40s, the rise of McCarthyism compelled her, and many others, to change their minds on the basis of the persecution of leftist intellectuals and other related issues of postwar U.S. policy. In my own experience, when my family landed in Bucks County, PA, in 1980, my visceral feeling was that whatever pertains to a utopian vision had failed in Russia, but had succeeded here in the U.S.
GOLUB: Well you see, the U.S. obviously played a crucial and necessary role in the defeat of Nazism and Japanese militarism. But that does not alter the fact that American leaders harbored, and still harbor, visions of world power deeply rooted in the collective expansionist experience. There are deep continuities in terms of ideas and worldviews linking the expansionism of the 19th century and the global expansion of the 20th. From, at the very earliest, the 1860s on, U.S. elites regarded empire as destiny. Destinarian thinking was prominent in early Puritan discourse and was translated in the mid-19th century into a coherent expansionist ideology—manifest destiny, a concept coined by Southern slave state expansionists. Later on it was reformulated for purposes of international expansion. Theodore Roosevelt, William McKinley, Henry Cabot Lodge, Brooks Adams, Alfred [Thayer] Mahan, and many others were, as I show in the book, very self-consciously pursuing global empire. They set the stage for American global expansion after 1945.
RAIL: So are you saying that when FDR made that deal with Churchill, it was a strategic decision, not dictated by principles? By providing people with jobs building tanks, airplanes, submarines, and ships for the British based on U.S. steel resources, he was able to end the Great Depression?
GOLUB: Well, as far as Britain is concerned, the FDR administration pursued a dual objective: to make sure that Britain would not sink, since Britain was an essential component of the war; and at the same time to ensure that it would not re-emerge as a global empire. As [John Maynard] Keynes himself put it, the U.S. did everything possible to keep Britain as near as possible to bankruptcy before any assistance was given. So the idea from the very start, as Henry Luce clearly articulated in his famous 1941 article “The American Century,” was that the U.S. would become the senior partner in a reconfigured Anglo-American relationship. The idea of the empire, and hence of hierarchy, was at the core of the concept. George Kennan, who was head of the Policy Planning Division of the State Department in 1948, wrote a famous memorandum regarding Asia in which he stated that the primary aim of the United States in the region should be to maintain disparity. This notion, like the notion of an American Century, reflects an imperial cosmology according to which the world, rather than being pluralistic, must be ordered hierarchically around a culturally, politically, and economically dominant centre. What happened during the 1914–1945 historic sequence was that the United States, because it was an island protected from the catastrophic destructions of war, rather effortlessly supplanted the devastated European empires and the British empire in particular. The United States then constructed a far larger but more informal empire than the British imperial system. It was not territorialized empire, but it was understood by U.S. leaders as an imperial system, and it was one indeed.
RAIL: The standard history is that it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 7, 1941 that compelled the U.S. to enter the war. And having fought the war, it discovered the capacity of its military power.
GOLUB: The imperial imagination predates the war. In 1939, Walter Lippmann characterized the recentering from London to New York as one of the “greatest events in the history of mankind.” But, yes, the war further revealed U.S. power and America reveled in it. The elites harbored grandiose, extravagant visions of being the center and the apex of the world, of being the crux of the modern and the destined leader of the world, reflecting a kind of Hegelian idea that the cycles of world history had led from one great empire to the next and had finally culminated in American modernity. Look at the culture: the hyper-modernistic visions that emerged in art in the 1950s and 1960s—I’m thinking of Abstract Expressionism—participated, as Max Kozloff has argued, in this celebration of U.S. power during the Cold War.
I cite Harry Truman, who was well read, in the book. He had a hundred volumes on the Roman Empire in his private library! In 1946, he said: “From Darius I’s Persia, Alexander’s Greece, Hadrian’s Rome, Victoria’s Britain, no nation or group of nations has had our responsibilities.” That is a totally extravagant claim. This self-conception—the U.S. as the herald of a new world and as successor of empires past—guided U.S. elite thinking in the postwar. Dean Acheson’s memoirs are entitled Present at the Creation [published in 1969 by W.W. Norton & Company]! There is a straight line between this vision and [Francis] Fukuyama’s neo-Hegelian assertion that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant the “end of history.” It’s deep. Barack Obama, in his speech before the two houses of Congress about a year ago, told the assembled members that his aim was to usher in a “new American century.” That idea, a next American century, is part of an imagination of empire.
RAIL: I was struck by your reassessment of the U.S. security structure after the Cold War, which ended with the collapse of the Soviet Union in ’91, leaving the U.S. as the only predominant military power. Could you tell us your argument about the three broad U.S. policy options at the time? What were they and how were they utilized?
GOLUB: The collapse of the Soviet Union meant that there was no nation or a potential coalition of nation-states that even remotely compared to the United States in military terms. The U.S. share of global defense spending increased from 28.6 percent in 1984 to 36 percent in 1994. Today, the American share of global defense spending is approximately 49 percent (if you add other NATO countries, the figure rises to 75 percent). This, of course, meant that the United States had a historically unprecedented situation of monopoly control over the global security structure. The question was: what was the relevance of that security structure under conditions of globalization? What was its function? What was the point of it? The problem for the power elite, as C. Wright Mills describes the American power structure, was what do you do with that monopoly? Over time, the dual function of the structure became apparent. The first and primary function was simply to sustain U.S. “primacy,” to maintain the allies and/or rivals of the United States in a pliant and subordinate position. This was evidenced during the first Gulf War in 1990/1991, which demonstrated in the eyes of the defenders of the military-industrial complex that military power remained relevant post-Cold War. The second function was to police resource flows and to contain challenges in the postcolonial countries. Monopoly control of the security structure created the conditions of possibility for the George W. Bush administration’s effort to vastly expand American sovereignty and power through the Iraq War in 2003, which failed miserably, but the aim of which was to consolidate long-range U.S. primacy in the world system. The social forces behind Bush, a coalition of neo-conservatives, ultra-nationalists, and militarists, were seeking to accumulate still greater power and to break away from cooperative international strategies to assert unilateral U.S. advantage.
In the book, I highlight the kinship between the imperial visions of the late 19th century and those of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The people in and around the Bush administration talked about Empire in much the same terms as Theodore Roosevelt, [Brooks] Adams, or Mahan. We are talking about continuities of history in the longue durée.
RAIL: I’d like to shift the subject to neo-liberalism and neo-conservatism; Michael Harrington coined the latter term in his essay, “The Welfare State and Its Neoconservative Critics,” published in Dissent magazine in 1973. What I find so alarming is that we usually associate right-wing political philosophy with Irving Kristol, co-founder of Encounter magazine, which was funded by the C.I.A. Not to mention Norman Podhoretz of Commentary magazine. But what about Sidney Hook who began as a champion of pragmatism—he had studied with Morris Cohen at City College and John Dewey at Columbia University, and was a Marxist until the end of the Moscow Trial. Not only did he help found CCF [Congress for Cultural Freedom] and ACCF [American Committee for Cultural Freedom], both funded by the C.I.A., but Hook was an ardent supporter of Reagan beginning when he was Governor of California and an outspoken supporter of the Vietnam War.
GOLUB: Though it’s important, I think that neo-conservatism has been overemphasized as the source of imperial thinking in the U.S. It’s true that the neo-conservatives emerged as a coherent intellectual group during the Cold War and provided the intellectual infrastructure of the drive for global empire, as they called it themselves. But that doesn’t explain everything. There are larger social forces and structural factors in the U.S. that account for American imperial behavior and the militarism of American society. Since the 1950s, since NSC-68, the United States has been engaged in permanent large-scale military mobilization. The national security state, or military-industrial complex, became a self-perpetuating system of power, what Bruce Cumings calls a perpetual motion machine. Behind George W. Bush’s drive for empire there was a disparate and not entirely coherent coalition of liberal internationalist expansionists and nationalist expansionists, historically concentrated in the Republican Party (Rumsfeld, Bush himself, Cheney, and Condoleezza Rice), both of which sought to expand the U.S.’s power and reach. War fused different agendas, for a time.
The anti-communist liberal internationalists during the first Gulf War harbored a grand vision of America’s role as a global empire of liberty. Some early cold warriors, such as Acheson, broke ranks during the Vietnam War. Others, however—the present day neo-conservatives—were dismayed by defeat, advocated re-mobilization, and gained significant influence under the Reagan administration, which prefigured the nationalist-internationalist expansionist coalition that came to power with Bush.
RAIL: How do you see multiculturalism in the context of globalism? I mean, the notion of diversity has become a dominating feature in our contemporary life, whether it is valued for its contribution to a truly supranational society, or opposed for its undermining effects on national identity. At the same time, the ever-increasing globalization of economy and commerce has brought about a new type of colonization, exporting and forcing the Western way of life to the rest of the world. In other words, such homogenization, which we know is undoubtedly beneficial to the capitalist agenda, is a serious detriment to national cultures.
GOLUB: That’s a very complex issue. The national purposes of the state and the deterritorialized logic of capital sometimes coincide, sometimes not. The balance between states and markets is always shifting. Over the past few decades there has been a reconfiguration of the relations between the state, on the one hand, and transnational actors on the other. Transnational actors are playing an increasingly important role in the transformation of the world economy and of world politics. But the state has played, and still plays, a decisive role. The U.S. state rather consistently supported global liberalism, economically speaking, in the 1980s and after the end of the Cold War. The Washington Consensus of privatization, deregulation, and global liberalization became dominant in the 1990s under Clinton. American elites pursued this because they thought it would favor American national economic and strategic interests
It challenged American economic rivals, in particular East Asian developmental states like Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, and so forth, who were seen as severe competitive threats during the 1980s and the 1990s.
RAIL: Milton Friedman thought of Hong Kong as the best example of a free market economy.
GOLUB: Right. He once said that, “if you want to see capitalism in action, go to Hong Kong.” But Hong Kong is a special case. Would he say the same thing about Chinese authoritarian capitalism today?
RAIL: What about F.A. Hayek? What I found interesting was that when Keynes read Hayek’s The Road to Selfdom he said, “the greatest danger is the probable practical failure of the application of his philosophy in the U.S.”
GOLUB: Hayek was the main ideological inspiration of the conservative “revolutions” initiated by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. His was an extreme vision of free market capitalism. The word “free” is an ambiguous word, don’t you think? [Laughs.] The Keynesian growth model, or growth paradigm, was challenged during the world economic crisis of the late 1960s/early 1970s, and then reversed by the choices made by Reagan and Thatcher. The shift to neo-liberalism was made possible by the reconfiguration of capitalism: the decline of sunset industries and the severe weakening of organized labor. But it would not have happened in the same way had it not been for decisive state intervention to radically change the post-1945 welfare state and the social democratic model. The policies were designed to change the balance of forces between labor and capital, in the latter’s favor. It’s not insignificant, as Paul Krugman has pointed out, that the marginal tax rate in the U.S. declined radically in that period of time. Reagan and Thatcher waged war on the unions and redistributed income and wealth upwards. Thatcher in particular used the bitter miners’ strike in 1983–1984 to break the union movement. It was the crucial historical caesura that led to the introduction of neo-liberalism, which then was disseminated worldwide by public and private actors with a vested interest in global market expansion. The American financial industry saw global liberalization as an opportunity to expand in previously closed markets, and allow them to access and extract resources in East Asian markets and postcolonial countries to their benefit.
In the U.S., a symbiotic relationship developed between the state and the financial industry. Sometimes the two are indistinguishable: Clinton, Robert Rubin, and Larry Summers single-mindedly pushed global liberalization, often coercively, expecting that it would increase U.S. wealth and power. They argued and believed that the interests of Wall Street were coterminous with American national interests. America’s East Asian allies, subordinate partners of the U.S. global security structure, were put under intense pressure to change their economic systems. More vulnerable countries in Latin America were also subjected to intense pressure, with disastrous results (the “lost decade”).
This was a form of expansionism. It was different from Bush’s, which was more obviously predatory, but it was nonetheless intrusive and imperial. Here again, it’s useful to put things in historical and comparative perspective. There were significant variations in the forms taken by British imperial expansion and rule. The formal territorialized empire, secured by military power, went together with an even vaster informal empire of capital. Both were part of a single imperial system, with variations occurring along a spectrum of more or less intrusive and coercive practices. Mutatis mutandis, this applies also to the U.S.
To stick with the analogy with Britain, U.S. leaders, like their British predecessors, find it nearly impossible to imagine a pluralistic world. They are habituated to expansion. They are so accustomed to being at the center and the apex that envisioning a plural and democratized, a plural non-hegemonic world system, is something that is intellectually inconceivable for most.
RAIL: Let’s shift to the war in Vietnam, a core subject not only of both of your parents’ work [Leon Golub and Nancy Spero], but also of the time when you grew up. And I can only imagine that it must have had some impact on your early formation?
GOLUB: [Laughs.] When we moved back to New York in 1964, after having lived five years in Paris, both Leon and Nancy became increasingly and directly involved with expressions of protest against the war, artistically and otherwise. Nancy’s “Vietnam War” series emerged out of her earlier Artaud work, another expression of revolt. Leon painted his great series of paintings, “Vietnam I” and “Vietnam II,” for example, in the early ’70s, which were the prelude to the mercenary paintings. They were part of the Art Workers’ Coalition and had always been socially and politically engaged. While I was growing up, every week artists, intellectuals, and writers would meet up at home to carry on intensive, passionate debates about the meaning of Vietnam, the inhumanity of the war, and the art world, of course. So without a doubt, I developed an acute consciousness of world politics during the late ’60s. Those discussions shaped my thinking and way of looking at the world. In some ways, what I do as a writer and critic is to continue their legacy. By the way, since you like Arendt and we’re talking about Vietnam, it’s worth rereading her important essay [“On Violence”] on the war, about the lies of the imperial state. In systematic fashion, she shows through her analysis of the Pentagon papers that successive U.S. governments, from Kennedy and Johnson to the Nixon administration, engaged in war for no purpose other than—I’m condensing her argument—the assertion of American power.
RAIL: At the end of your book you propose an optimistic vision of “pluralist cooperation.” What will that entail, especially with the re-emergence of China in the last decade?
GOLUB: I think we’re at the end of two historical cycles. We are witnessing the end of the two and half centuries-long cycle in which the West was the center of gravity of the world. Second, we’re also at the end of the American cycle of predominance, which was part of the first. The historical implications are enormous. The re-emergence of China and India, and the emergence of Brazil are, without a doubt, the most important structural changes since the European Industrial Revolution. We are moving toward a polycentric and plural world system. This means the U.S., among others, has to learn to accommodate the new, emergent circumstances of plurality, and that’s going to be very difficult. The gradual rebalancing that is occurring is something that American, and Western leaders more generally, are not comfortable with, because it challenges deep-seated Orientalist assumptions about world order and cultural hierarchy. It challenges the notion of Western uniqueness, the Western self-conception of being the vector of progress and modernity. The re-emerging postcolonial world regions encompass two-thirds of the world population and their successful exit from the Third World will alter the basic structures of the world system.
Whether pluralism at the international level can be translated globally into democratic and social, humanistic purposes remains to be seen. I think that the coming period of world history is going to be a very turbulent one.
One hopeful way of looking at this is that the U.S. itself is simultaneously undergoing fundamental sociological change. For centuries, the U.S. was a neo-European country, with immigration flows primarily from Europe. Today, because of Latino and Asian immigration, as well as postcolonial immigration from around the world, the U.S. is fast becoming a post-European country. The U.S. will inevitably look more and more toward Asia and Latin America, and will look more like the diversity of the world. For Europeans, this is a major intellectual problem, but it means that the U.S. will find ways to adapt to emerging world realities.
RAIL: Yes. Are you saying that the next multiculturalist generation will not have to read either [Edward] Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, or [Oswald] Spengler’s The Decline of the West?
GOLUB: Yes, the narrative of world history will change. Coming generations are going to have to negotiate complex cultural mélanges, to read the history of “others” as part of domestic American history. As the demographic shift deepens, a society will emerge that will be quite different from the society that existed until now. This is potentially very promising because it invalidates and undermines imperial visions of cultural superiority. The future is in hybridity. And that’s a lesson the Chinese have yet to learn. So I’m not predicting American decline, I’m hoping for and expecting the decline of an American imperial model.
RAIL: How do you see Obama, both his strength and his weakness, in his second year as president?
GOLUB: Obama’s strength has to do with his incarnation of post-European America. When he thinks about the world, he doesn’t think about the Atlantic and Europe, he thinks about China, Latin America, and possibly Africa. He’s the most cosmopolitan president the U.S. has ever had. He has cultural sensitivities that his predecessors didn’t: think of his speech in Cairo. That being said, he is also the temporary manager of the U.S. national security state, which he inherited and will briefly preside over. The question is what are his degrees of freedom to change the course of policy? Even assuming he wants fundamental change, which is not at all clear, he cannot radically change the structures of power overnight. I point out in the conclusion of my book that the British Liberal and Labor leaders who inherited the British imperial system at the turn of the 20th century and timidly sought to reform it, found, once in power, that the Empire was a structure greater than they. Obama cannot tomorrow morning say: “I’m dissolving the U.S.’s military commitments worldwide.” Even if he wanted to, and it doesn’t seem he wants to, he couldn’t do that. He has for the moment been a president like other presidents since FDR, a war president. And so he’s presiding over this enormous machine, the purpose of which is self- perpetuation and the maintenance of global power. All in all, I think Obama is a classical realist who likes the position of power that he’s in. This might have disappointed but it wouldn’t have surprised Leon, who was an acute observer of power. He painted the dark edges; I study the center.
Philip S. Golub teaches International Relations and International Political Economy at the Institut d'études européennes [IEE], Université Paris 8 and at the American University of Paris [AUP]. He is a contributing editor of the monthly Le Monde diplomatique.