The collapse of communism has not led the US back to isolationism. Instead, argues Godfrey Hodgson, it has launched a new era of missionary interventionism-for the benefit of domestic audiences, not the US's alliesby Godfrey Hodgson / January 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in January 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Since the end of history in 1989 it has been assumed that the 50 years of American involvement in world affairs were about to come to an end, or at least, that the US would be less willing to bear the burdens and pay the costs that President Kennedy had demanded. Was isolationism on the way back? Michael Cox, the author of this thoughtful paper (US Foreign Policy after the Cold War, Chatham House, 1995), is too shrewd for such simplicities. Instead, he begins from the premise that the US is “a superpower without a mission.”
Cox’s seven central chapters, dealing respectively with the constraints on American resources, the global economy, defence, post-communist Russia, Europe, Asia and the third world, constitute a useful survey. Chapter 8 reminds us that third world countries cannot be dismissed as “basket cases,” if only because so many of America’s problems (terrorism, immigration, drugs) actually come from the third world. And Cox is sensitive to the fact that US-sponsored “structural adjustment” has brought terrifying problems to poor countries and their people.
Cox is right to insist that “we have become so fixated on looking for what has altered since 1990 that we fail to see what has not.” I would go further. American foreign policy since the end of the cold war is influenced by instincts which reach deep into the American past. The cold war has bequeathed to the US attitudes which, far from inclining the US towards isolationism, urge it on to intervention , especially unilateral intervention. This view has been reinforced by my recent discussions in Washington with members of the foreign policy establishment. I therefore disagree with Cox’s conclusion that the US is in danger of failing to lead the new world order. It will lead. The question is: can it share the glories and satisfactions of leadership, as well as its costs?
What institutions push the US in this unilateralist direction? Those created in the late 1940s: the military machine, which has not been reduced as much as expected since the end of the cold war; the CIA and the rest of the “intelligence community”; the alliances, especially Nato, which the US tends to run as if Nato allies were client states; the hundreds of bases overseas and their garrisons, with their tendency to become foreign policy issues in themselves (yesterday the Philippines and Panama, tomorrow Japan and Korea); the defence and aerospace industry and its outriders in Washington; indeed the modern presidency itself. Policy is still dictated by what President Eisenhower called 35 years ago the “military-industrial complex.” But it is also subject to the erratic instincts of a television audience fed on excited but unexplained glimpses of world events.