The Sources of U.S. Foreign Policy

excerpted from the book

Imperial Alibis

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 system.


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 seriously endangered.


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 created equal.

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 diplomats.

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 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 uncertain.

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 masculine boldness.

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 policy.

Imperial Alibis