The Sources of U.S. Foreign Policy
excerpted from the book
by Stephen Rosskamm Shalom
It should not be very controversial to assert that a country's
foreign policy reflects the interests of those who control the
country's political system. In a country where wealth is distributed
in a highly inequitable manner, where it takes enormous amounts
of money to wage a political campaign, where the mass media are
owned and controlled by the well-to-do, and where crucial investment
decisions are in the hands of the rich, the political system will
be controlled by either those who own great wealth or those who
serve their interests. Formal democracy is not irrelevant: it
is in fact a precondition for building the union movements and
popular organizations that can challenge the power of entrenched
wealth. But in a country where only one out of six workers is
a union member, where a political party challenging capitalism
has never been able to get more than a handful of votes, the rule
of capital is largely uncontested. Given this situation, it should
not be surprising that state policy represents the interests of
those who control the state: namely, the wealthy. Since the wealthy
owe their fortunes to the workings of a capitalist economy at
home and abroad, it stands to reason that the state will try to
preserve capitalism and expand it where possible, and ensure the
position of the wealthy within that capitalist environment. Specifically,
the state will seek to promote markets for U.S. investment, to
secure a dominating position over resources that are needed by
U.S. corporations or their competitors, and to crush those who
might try to challenge the smooth functioning of the global capitalist
Capitalism and U.S. Foreign Policy
Those who deny the economic motive in U.S. foreign policy
sometimes point to alternative explanations that, when examined
carefully, prove to be not so independent of economic concerns.
Thus, in Sentimental
Imperialists, we read that U.S. power projection abroad provided
"social discipline and a restoration of national purpose";
the authors cite the views of Captain Alfred Mahan who felt that
unless the masses accepted the great challenge of expansionism
they would move toward rebellion and socialism. But this is hardly
a non-economic explanation of imperialism; it is in fact precisely
one of the points advanced by Lenin in his classic work on imperialism,
only he cited the example of British imperialism and the views
of Cecil Rhodes.'
Often U.S. foreign policy has been motivated by the desire
to acquire a strategic position or a military advantage over some
rival. But this does not contradict the claim that U.S. foreign
policy has economic roots, any more than it would prove that bankers
are not motivated by profits because they spend some of their
money on vaults instead of lending it out at interest. This confusion
is evident in much of the writing on the topic of imperialism.
Thus, for example, one writer considers that he has disproved
economic explanations of European expansionism because, among
the other instances he cites, Upper Burma was seized by Britain
not for investment purposes but in order to protect India's frontiers.'
Given the undeniable British economic stake in India, however,
this is no refutation at all.
Of course, the United States never had a large, formal overseas
empire as did Britain. Its overseas empire has been mostly an
informal one: a neo-colonial rather than a colonial empire. This
has meant that while the United States has generally not sought
to bring distant territories under its legal control, it has tried
to preserve and extend its economic domination over as many countries
as it could. Even some of those who deny that the term ''imperialism''
is appropriate for describing the United States essentially concede
this point. Henry Pachter has written, for example: "The
national interest is not to protect individual American firms
but to preserve a system of business.... The American empire expresses
its presence and exercises its influence through the capitalist
mode of operation for which it keeps as much of the world open'
as possible." Benjamin Cohen, another analyst who rejects
the view that the United States is imperialist, has stated that
what was threatened in Vietnam was not the physical security of
the United States, but the security of an economic and social
system dependent upon the fruits conferred by America's hegemonial
position. A world in which others controlled the course of their
own development, and America's hegemonial position was broken,
would be a world in which the American system itself would be
Racism and U.S. Foreign Policy
Racism was one of the key founding principles of the United
States. The Puritans exterminated Pequot Indians, hoping, in the
Puritans' words to "cut off the Remembrance of them from
the earth." To George Washington, Indians and wolves were
both "beasts of prey, tho' they differ in shape " In
the Declaration of Independence, one of the indictments against
King George was that he had inflicted on the colonists "the
merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished
destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions"-a rather accurate
characterization of the rules of warfare employed against the
Native Americans. Repeatedly, in the Indian wars that raged across
the continent, U.S. soldiers would proclaim as they massacred
infants, "Kill the nits, and you'll have no lice." "We
must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux,"
wrote General Sherman in 1866, "even to their extermination,
men, women and children." To Theodore Roosevelt, the '`most
ultimately righteous of all wars is a war with savages, though
it is apt to be also the most terrible and inhuman," but
no matter, because it was "idle to apply to savages the rules
of international morality which obtain between stable and cultured
communities...." Not that Roosevelt went "so far as
to think that the only good Indians are dead Indians, but I believe
nine out of ten are, and I shouldn't inquire too closely into
the case of the tenth." How did this jibe with everyone being
created equal? As Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell explained,
Jefferson's doctrine applied "only to our own race, and to
those people whom we can assimilate rapidly." Indians "are
not men, within the meaning of the theory" that all men are
Racism against Africans was another fundamental building block
of American ideology. Deemed to be sub-human, they were subjected
to a barbaric and brutal system of slavery. Lincoln was willing
to accept slavery so long as the union could be preserved; and
when the Civil War drove him to abolish slavery he did not change
his belief in black inferiority. When the South introduced Jim
Crow laws to maintain the descendants of slaves as second-class
citizens, the northern elite went along. Even after World War
II, President Harry Truman was referring to blacks as "niggers.''
Derogatory references to blacks were standard fare for President
Nixon and the senior officials of his administration. "I
wonder what your dining room is going to smell like," Kissinger
chortled to Senator Fulbright, regarding a dinner for African
With racist views deeply embedded in the minds of U. S. policy-makers
and rooted in domestic structures of domination and subordination,
it is not surprising that these views have influenced the way
in which Washington looked at and acted in the world outside.
The presence of a few non-whites in policymaking circles is
not likely I to change the nature of U.S. foreign policy very
much; to attain positions of power, these individuals would have
to have shown substantial conformity to the prevailing values
of the elite. A substantial racial diversity among policy-makers,
on the other hand, would likely make racism a less significant
factor in the way Washington deals with the world. But such an
occurrence is by no means imminent, and will not come to pass
as long as racial inequality remains a fundamental characteristic
of the U.S. domestic - landscape. Until this time, racism will
continue to be an important factor in U.S. foreign policy.
Sexism, Heterosexism, and U.S. Foreign Policy
Sexism and heterosexism define appropriate roles for individuals.
Women are devalued, as are traits considered typically female,
such as nurturance and sensitivity. Men who do not adequately
adhere to the approved version of masculinity are considered pariahs.
If they are heterosexual but appear insufficiently masculine,
they are treated as women which is to say deprecated and excluded
from power. It is even worse if they are gay, for then they are
subject to job discrimination, arrest, and assault, as well as
ridicule. These attitudes are widespread in American society,
but they are particularly concentrated in the centers of power
because the political system essentially selects for those with
over-developed egos and under-developed compassion. As Henry Kissinger
put it, "In contemporary America, power increasingly gravitates
to those with an almost obsessive desire to win."
When these policy-makers have responsibility for foreign policy,
their machismo is expressed on the world stage. "Be a man-that
is the first and last rule of the greatest success in life,"
advised that mouthpiece of imperialism, Albert Beveridge. If the
United States shunned colonies and was unwarlike, Teddy Roosevelt
warned, it would "go down before other nations which have
not lost the manly and adventurous qualities." In urging
U.S. entry into World War I, Roosevelt admonished Americans to
avoid "a flabby cosmopolitanism, especially if it expresses
itself through a flabby pacifism," which would be ``not only
silly, but degrading. It represents national emasculation....
According to Richard Barnet, who served in the Kennedy administration,
Some national security managers of the Kennedy / Johnson era...talk
about the 'hairy chest syndrome. 'The man who was ready to recommend
using violence against foreigners, even when he is overruled,
does not damage his reputation for prudence, soundness, or imagination,
but the man who recommends putting an issue to the UN, seeking
negotiations or, horror of horrors, 'doing nothing' quickly becomes
known as 'soft.'
Kennedy himself was described by his sister Eunice: "He
hates to lose at anything. That's the only thing Jack really gets
emotional about-when he loses." For Robert Kennedy, one of
the first things he wanted to know about someone being considered
for the administration was whether he was tough. Secretary of
State Dean Rusk cabled his ambassadors to stop using the word
"feel" in their dispatches. And Defense Secretary Robert
McNamara answered anti-Vietnam War demonstrators: "I was
tougher than you were then [in W.W.II] and I'm tougher than you
now.', As Barnet commented, McNamara could not even see that the
students doubted his humanity, not his machismo.
Machismo was crucial to Lyndon Johnson too, who we are told
nicknamed his genitals "Jumbo." Bill Moyers recalled
that after Johnson met with McNamara and other ex-Kennedy men,
Johnson feared that they would think him "less of a man"
than John Kennedy if he did not carry through with Vietnam. According
to David Halberstam, Johnson had unconsciously divided people
around him between men and boys. Men were activists, doers, who
conquered business empires, who acted instead of talked, who made
it in the world of other men and had the respect of other men....
As Johnson weighed the advice he was getting on Vietnam, it was
the boys who were most skeptical, and the men who were most sure
and confident and hawkish and who had Johnson's respect. Hearing
that one member of the Administration was becoming a dove on Vietnam,
Johnson said, 'Hell, he has to squat to piss., ... Doubt itself,
he thought, was almost a feminine quality, doubts were for women;
once, on another issue, when Lady Bird raised her doubts, Johnson
had said of course she was doubtful, it was like a woman to be
When Johnson ordered the bombing of North Vietnamese targets,
he told a reporter: "I didn't just screw Ho Chi Minh. I cut
off his pecker."
Similar dynamics prevailed in the Nixon administration. "No
one could prosper around Nixon without affecting an air of toughness,"
Kissinger has written. What Nixon hated most "was to be shown
up in a group as being less tough than his advisers." Nixon
was quoted as saying that he chose Spiro Agnew as his running-mate
because he was a tough guy and had a "strong-looking chin."
When Sen. Charles Goodell switched from a hawk to a dove on the
Vietnam War, Agnew likened him to transsexual Christine Jorgensen.
"Our objective was to purge our foreign policy of all sentimentality,"
Kissinger explained. One Nixon aide recalls an illustrative incident:
As we walked out of his office, Henry turned to one of his
secretaries and said, "Where is Eagleburger?" She said,
"I'm sorry, but while you were in the meeting Larry collapsed
and he's unconscious." The extraordinary thing is that he
didn't hesitate but said, "But I need him." Then he
said to her, "Get me [Patrick] Buchanan" and went into
his office and closed the door.
For Kissinger, "power is the ultimate aphrodisiac"
and, in his words, "women are no more than a pastime, a hobby."
According to Kissinger, "In crises boldness is the safest
course." To undermine Secretary of State William Rogers
whose advice Kissinger considered insufficiently bold, Kissinger
spread stories that Rogers was gay and had made it with Nixon.
Countless corpses around the world are testament to Kissinger's
Rank-and-file U.S. soldiers are similarly nourished on machismo.
From the Army basic training chant, "This is my rifle, this
is my gun; this one's for killing, this one's for fun," to
the songbook of the U.S. pilots of the 77th Tactical Fighter Squadron
which includes lyrics like "I fucked a dead whore by the
side of the road," militarism and sexism are enmeshed. In
the movie Top Gun, one pilot speaks of the enemy to another: "They
must be near; I've got a hard-on."
Anthropological data shows that one predictor of whether a
society is warlike is whether the males have a tendency to be
ambitious and competitive. A recent experiment using male psychology
students found that subjects who endorsed the use of nuclear weapons
were significantly more likely to report being sexually aroused
by "forcing a female to do something she didn't want to."
Comparing the treatment of women, gay men, and lesbians from society
to society is no easy task, and I am not suggesting that the United
States is more interventionist than other nations because it is
more sexist or heterosexist. Rather, to fully understand the sources
of U.S. foreign policy one must take account, in addition to the
workings of capitalism and racism, the pervasive sexism and heterosexism
throughout U.S. society, and especially among policy-makers.
As with racism, the presence of a few women or, perhaps in
the future, openly gay men or lesbians in top positions will likely
have little impact: witness the Reagan administration's foreign
policy ideologue, Jeane Kirkpatrick. Indeed, given the dynamics
of sexist ideology, sometimes the presence of a woman may provoke
a more belligerent policy. For example, George Bush may have felt
his manhood challenged when British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher
said to him shortly after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, ''Remember,
George, this is no time to go wobbly." But, in any event,
women have been basically absent from U.S. foreign policy-making
circles, and there have been no openly gay men or lesbians. Until
these realities change in more than token ways, one should expect
little moderation in the brutality and militarism of U.S. foreign