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Sunday 24 November 2013

Review: Perry Anderson, American Foreign Policy and Its Thinkers

Though published as an issue of New Left Review, this 162 page essay is in effect a book and the book is in effect an extended - the word "magisterial" comes to mind - literature review. It's not a bad achievement for a man born in 1938. I couldn't sustain Anderson's level of engagement with many dozens of books - and I was only born in 1947.

It has typical Anderson features which used to irritate us when we were young radicals: so the section on actual US foreign policy is entitled "Imperium" and that on its theorists "Concilium". Latinisms, Frenchisms, Germanisms and even one Chinese-ism (page 140) appear throughout the essay - but only the last is glossed. I can see that one might want to show a certain internationalism or cosmoplitanism in the way one writes, but the italicised foreign phrases come across simply as the tics of a very literate man.

The United Kingdom is regarded by several of the US theorists Anderson quotes as a mere dependency. The boys from Eton and Oxford currently in notional power know what is expected of them and don't even have to be told. Anderson is the Other of Cameron and Osborne: like them the product of  Eton and Oxford, he is the lifelong critic of American power. At the outset, he was an outsider, identified by his long-term editorship of the London-based New Left Review. Now, and ironically, he is lodged at the University of California Los Angeles - not even a backwater university but a major institution of the Empire.

What is most interesting in Anderson's sober account of American imperialism is just how total American ambition is (or has been) and just how unashamed its theorists have been in conjuring strategies and tactics for truly global control. The military bases are world-wide - no other country has a fraction of what America has - and there is no part of the world where America thinks its intervention is off-limits. Anderson is particularly good in engaging in a quiet and balanced way with US strategists who could easily be written off as megalomaniacs or totalitarians.

For the USA and even under Obama, all forms of intervention are always on the table from cultural offensives (funded in the past by the CIA) through economic presssures (sanctions against Iraq, Iran and still - vindictively - Cuba) through modest military intervention to topple unco-operative leaders (too numerous to list and even to remember) to all out carpet bombing of people who won't obey (Vietnam).

The rise of China has given US strategic thinkers a great deal to think about and I found particularly interesting Anderson's careful sorting of writers - those who don't want to yield an inch of American supremacy, those who want to "contain" China, those who want to engage, those who want to share the Empire - OK, you take South East Asia.

I had no difficulty working through this valuable survey, not least because I felt that I was being made familiar with the thinking of dozens of theorists who I would not read at first-hand. 

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