Friday, May 06, 2011

Story Telling

One of the advantages of the "National Strategic Narrative" is the offer to the general public of a departure point for thinking in new ways about how we as a country move forward, seeing the interconnections among not only the various interests of other nation-states, but the convergence among domestic and foreign concerns here in the United States. Thinking creatively includes thinking honestly. An honest narrative includes unpleasant realities as well as more pleasant ones.

One of the premises of the author of the introduction to this article, Ann-Marie Slaughter, is the relevance of George Kennan's famous "X" article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", and the larger emerging policy of containment that emerged with the acceptance of NSC 68 as the groundwork for our foreign, and to some extent our domestic, policy in the Cold War. This is an important historical narrative, to be sure, but it is not without its critics.

One of the most prominent and controversial such critics is linguist and author Noam Chomsky. In the long (60 pages!) Introduction to his essay collection, Towards a New Cold War: Essays on the Current Crisis and How We Go There, as well as the first essays that serve as chapters positioning his own criticisms, Chomsky takes a far different view of American foreign policy in the early years of the Cold War, setting NSC 68 within a far different context (and includes some critical comments from, among others, George Kennan, who was a critic of the kind of militarized, ideological approach to our relations with the Soviets; while Kennan sat on the committee that drafted NSC 68, he made abundantly clear in ensuing years that his original article, and policy preferences, were political and diplomatic rather than militarized) and viewing American policy in a far different light than the mainstream view.

The work in question is, in many ways, a historical document, like most of Chomsky's published works on American foreign policy. Published in 1982, the essays by and large cover matters in the first half of the Cold War, with a particular emphasis on events in the 1970's and the emerging Reagan Administration policies in the early 1980's. The Introduction begins by noting that, by the mid-1970's, it was the general consensus among policy planners and informed commentators that what had been a period of American hegemony in world affairs was over; the challenge, it seemed, was adapting to certain new realities, including a more independent Western European policy toward the Eastern bloc, the rise of Japan as an economic power, and the implications of emerging nations in what continues to be called the Third World. Some, at least, of both the Carter Administration and most of the Reagan Administration can only be understood as a reaction against this reality, a denial of the fact that the US, while still extremely influential, was far less imposing on the world stage than it had been.

A significant part of Chomsky's take on the growth and development of post-WWII American foreign policy lies in the significance he grants to a series of memoranda produced by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). Produced by the War and Peace Studies Project, Chomsky writes the following, quoting directly from the memoranda in question, on pp. 96-97:
These memoranda deal with the "requirement[s] of the United States in a world in which it proposes to hold unquestioned power," foremost among the being "the rapid fulfillment of a program of complete rearmament" (1940). In the early years of the war it was assumed that part of the world might be controlled by Germany. Therefore, the major task was to develop "an integrated policy to achieve military and economic supremacy for the United States within the non-German world,' including plans "to secure the limitation of any exercise of sovereignty by foreign nations that constitutes a threat to the world area essential for the security and economic prosperity of the United States an the Western Hemisphere." . . .

The Us.S.-lef non-German bloc was entitled the "Grand Area" in the CFR discussion. Actually, a Us.S.-dominated Grand Area was only a second-best alternative. It was explained in June 1941 that "the Grand Area is not regarded by the Group as more desirable than a world economy, nor as entirely satsifactory substitute." The Grand Area was seen as a nucleus or model that could be extended, optimally, to a global economy. It was soon recognized that with the coming defeat of Nazi Germany, at least Western Europe could be integrated into the Grand Area. Participants in the CFR discussions recognized that "the British Empire as it existed in the past will never reappear and . . .the United State may have to take its place." One stated frankly that the United States "must cultivate a mental view toward world settlement after hits war which will enable us to impose our own terms, amounting perhaps to a pax-Americana."Another argued that the concept of United States security interests must be enlarged to incorporate areas "strategically necessary for world control." It is a pervasive theme that international trade and investment are closely related to the economic health of the United States, as is access to the resources of the Grand Area, which must be so organized as to guarantee the health and structure of the American economy, its internal structure unmodified.
One caveat that needs to be kept in mind is the limit of the effectiveness of a series of memoranda in a private organization upon the public policy of the United States. A bunch of really smart people sitting around skylarking about the possibilities of certain post-war contingencies are not a policy, or even a proposal. They are little more than exercises in intellectual imagination.

All the same, there are elements, in particular from the sections quoted by Chomsky, that should sound familiar to anyone who has followed these matters. Even if made more crude and/or circumscribed by a combination of events and political realities, the ideas set forth at least a plausible alternative narrative structure for understanding American foreign policy in the early years of the Cold War. Chomsky's previous, and subsequent, alternate narrative of the history of events up that time relies at least as much on the consideration of this alternative as simple criticism for the sake of criticism.

I should say, for emphasis, that the implementation of NSC 68, rooted in a loose interpretation of Kennan's ideas on containment as well as other criteria (not least an odd combination, as Chomsky himself notes, of the belief in the potential overwhelming power of the Soviet Union and its inherent weaknesses that, exploited enough, would create conditions for its collapse, an eventuality that took half a century) was the official, if classified, statement of our foreign - and to a certain extent our domestic - policy, at the very least until the end of the Vietnam War. I do not know anyone, least of all Noam Chomsky, who would argue otherwise. The point at issue here is the larger context within which such a policy was adopted, the mindset and assumptions of the policy planners in question as well as their sources. The imposition of American hegemony, rooted in a view of American interests being in some sense global, entailing a radical shift in our diplomacy, our military policy, and our economy, was relatively rapid. At the very least, many in the foreign policy community continue to view American interests as global; consider Henry Kissinger's idea that, while certainly emerging as formidable powers, China, India, Russia, and the European Union do not have the same scope of interests as the United States. He makes this argument as if it were a fact, rather than a position in need of support.

The emerging idea that we need a new strategic narrative if we are going to be a credible partner in world affairs, no longer managing but perhaps creating conditions for interdependent action must also take in to account the past, and possible alternative interpretations of that past. While Chomsky does not enjoy a large audience, and certainly not a friendly one, his views do offer an alternate narrative of the past that one should consider moving forward.

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