BLOWBACK: READ THIS BOOK!

by , August 17, 2002
[Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the September 2000 issue of Chronicles, and is reprinted with permission.]

In his classic study of noninterventionist or “isolationist” thought, Not to the Swift, historian Justus Doenecke takes note of a phenomenon that might be called “Asialationism” – conservative politicians and publicists of the postwar era who were opposed to meddling in the intrigues of Europe but saw Asia as the equivalent of the long-vanished American frontier, and the East as the natural arena of American expansionism. In the postwar world, the old America Firsters “became concentrated less and less upon withdrawal from the world’s passions and battles, and more and more upon the most hazardous commitments on the Asian continent.” The Asialationists of today don’t much like the US military occupation of the Balkans, but the military occupation of Japan, South Korea, and Okinawa are “vital” American interests. Putin is a pussycat, but the “Chicoms,” in these circles, are a looming presence, a rising challenge to American hegemony that must be “contained.”

THE ANTIDOTE

In the 1950s, as the cold war delivered the conservative movement to the tender mercies of various ex-communist and pseudo-Trotskyist charlatans, still a minority within a minority retained the old faith. Doenecke recounts that, even at the height of the cold war hysteria, the “genuine outsiders” like Lawrence Dennis, the seditiously acerbic mulatto intellectual, historian Harry Elmer Barnes, essayist Garet Garrett and precious few others “called in vain for a return to a more consistent and cautious ideology.” Garrett, the most lyrical and bitter of this Old Right band, wondered aloud: “How could we lose China or Europe, since they never belonged to us?” The question was drowned out by the strident voices of the Cold War chorus, on the liberal “anti-Communist” left as well as the right, and not asked again for half a century. Now that the cold war is over, Chalmers Johnson has raised this question with renewed urgency in Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Metropolitan Books, 268 pp., $26.00), a “must-read” book that is the perfect antidote for present-day Asialationism

PRISONERS OF HISTORY

In 1952, Garrett opined that by the time we discover our Republic has become an Empire “it may be already too late to do anything about it. That is to say, a time comes when Empire finds itself a prisoner of history.” There is the same sense of irony and self-inflicted tragedy in Johnson’s indictment of American globalism. “Many may, as a start, find it hard to believe that our place in the world even adds up to an empire,” he writes. “But only when we come to see our country as both profiting from and trapped within the structures of an empire of its own making will it be possible for us to explain a great many elements of the world that otherwise perplex us.”

“AS YE SOW . . .”

Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute, presents his general theme by illustrating it with examples in his area of expertise, the nations of the Pacific Rim. The book opens by examining the ugly spectacle of Imperial America in the miniature model of Okinawa. Johnson paints a vivid portrait of the island’s fate as an exploited and thoroughly trashed outpost of empire, where rape, robbery, and traffic accidents involving US military personnel surpass the crime rates of our own inner cities. Chapters on Indonesia, the two Koreas, China, and Japan illustrate the overarching theme of “blowback,” succinctly summed up in the old biblical injunction that “as ye sow, so shall ye reap.” “Blowback” means not just terrorist attacks on the multitude of US military bases and other targets abroad, but the not-so-long-range economic and political consequences of imperial overstretch. In this ambitious book, Johnson presents the outlines of an alternative, non-Marxist theory of American imperialism: “Marx and Lenin were mistaken about the nature of imperialism,” he avers. “It is not the contradictions of capitalism that lead to imperialism but imperialism that breeds some of the more important contradictions of capitalism. When these contradictions ripen, as they must, they create devastating economic crises.”

JAPAN’S ‘THIRD WAY’

Particularly fascinating is Johnson’s analysis of how the cold war distorted the global economy, and hollowed out America’s industrial base, leading to malinvestment and subsequent overcapacity in our East Asian satellites. Japan is a prime case in point. During the cold war era, Japan’s strategic value outweighed – in the eyes of US political leaders and economic planners – its growing role as an economic competitor. Americans provided open access to their markets without expecting or demanding reciprocity, while the Japanese supinely accepted their role as a eunuch state, disarmed but kept fat and happy by their American overlords. As what Johnson calls a “developmental state,” along with the other Asian “tigers,” Japan developed its own variety of mercantilist capitalism, a “third way” between the socialism of the Soviet bloc and what Johnson deems American-style “laissez-faire.”

IMPERIALIST ECONOMICS

This Nipponese “third way,” however, was not an ideological alternative, but the survival mechanism of a defeated people. Japanese industrial policy, set by a permanent and unelected bureaucracy, was geared to serve the interests of producers, not consumers. Giant cartels, or zaibatsu, stood at the apex of an export-driven economy, churning out inexpensive manufactured goods for the US market and making their own people pay ten times the world market price for their number one food staple, rice. Other Asian nations, huddled under the US defense umbrella, followed the Japanese example, South Korea and Taiwan being the exemplars. Imperialism distorted the normal evolution of these developing nations, and made them economically dependent on their political and especially their military relationship with the US. This peculiar form of imperial symbiosis had a debilitating effect on both the Americans and the Japanese: it led to the deindustrialization of America and a great deal of Japanese malinvestment. In America, the deterioration of the steel, auto, and other heavy industries created a “Rust Belt” and decimated the ranks of working class families: in Japan, MITI economic planners manipulated the controls of their industrial policy machine, reducing interest rates to zero percent, and creating a world-historic “bubble” that burst around 1998, when the Japanese economy plunged into recession.

BURDEN OF EMPIRE

MITI’s economic planners, rather than undertake needed reforms – which would have meant the wholesale restructuring of the Japanese economy – fell back on what they knew: they would export their way out of their predicament. Resisting pressures to open their markets to American goods, the Japanese continued to develop the fine art of economic warfare behind a wall of protective tariffs, taxes, and other barriers to free trade. In trade negotiations with the US government, the Japanese held the trump card: would the Americans prefer that suddenly impoverished Japanese holders of US government securities converted their assets to cash? This would be the ultimate – and, perhaps, the most destabilizing – form of “blowback” possible: the bursting of the American bubble and the beginning of a worldwide economic meltdown. This is the true meaning of “globalization,” the internationalist buzzword of the moment: the US is being held hostage by its own satellites, a prisoner of history and the hubris of its leaders. Johnson’s powerful thesis is that we are bound to buckle under the burden of empire, it is only a matter of time before the American Imperium goes the way of its Roman, British, and Soviet predecessors.

THE SOVIET PARADIGM

Johnson’s critique of America’s global empire as comparable, in form and function, to its Soviet counterpart is sure to enrage those old cold warriors who rank the sin of “moral equivalence” as a kind of blasphemy. Johnson is glad to cede to them the moral high ground while making the vital point that this make no difference whatsoever in analyzing how our system of client states has actually functioned. The case of South Korea is especially illuminating – and newsworthy, as we witness the rise of a new Korean nationalism and the momentum of reunification erasing borders, political structures, and inter-state alliances born at the height of the cold war. In his chapter on South Korea, Johnson likens the Kwangju uprising of 1980 to the suppression of the Hungarian revolution of 1956, with the only difference being that the Soviets used their own troops while we depended on our South Korean surrogates. When a South Korea general headed off democratic elections with a coup, in 1980, and imposed martial law; student protesters in Kwangju were bayoneted by elite South Korean military forces who had been withdrawn from the DMZ with much more than tacit US consent: as Johnson shows, quoting recently-released cables to and from then-US ambassador William J. Gleysteen, the US coordinated the bloody crushing of the Kwangju rebellion just as surely as the Kremlin planted its jackboot on the neck of Imre Nagy and the Hungarian revolutionaries. During the cold war, South Korea had no more choice to opt out of its military alliance with the US than the nations of the Warsaw Pact were free to leave the Warsaw Pact.

SOUTH KOREA – AN AMERICAN PROVINCE

This inability to get out from under the “protection” of the US hegemon is even more pronounced in the post-cold war era, when there is nothing to protect South Korea against except the accelerating implosion of North Korean communism. As President Kim Dae Jung, a former dissident who served time in jail for proposing direct talks with North Korea, holds up the promise of reunification as an achievable goal, in the imperial city of Washington the lords of the New World Order are getting nervous. In April of 1997, Johnson reminds us, defense secretary William Cohen declared in a visit to Seoul that American troops would stay stationed on the peninsula even if North and South Korea were reunified – a statement that was met with widespread shock, at the time, not only by the Chinese but by the South Koreans, who increasingly view the GIs in their midst as more of a threat than North Korea’s million-man army.

SEOUL’S SEARCH FOR NUKES

Johnson’s account of the origins and development of South Korea as a US client state emphasizes the underlying current of Korean nationalism that is just now breaking through to the surface. General Park Chung-hee’s coup d’etat of 1961 ushered in a decade of what appeared, on the surface, to be an era of seamless coordination between Washington and Seoul, with the dominance of the former and the latter’s dependence completely beyond question. But Johnson reveals another side to the history of this relationship which is little-known in the West yet instrumental in understanding what is happening in Korea today. Johnson tells the story of how Gen. Park, seeing the fate of America’s South Vietnamese clients, was determined that South Korea could go it alone – by acquiring nuclear weapons. South Korea launched a nuclear weapons program that was supposed to bear radioactive fruit in 1985 – but Park was assassinated before the project really got off the ground.

ANOTHER “LONE GUNMAN”?

It was, of course, just a coincidence that his assassin was South Korea’s chief of intelligence, Kim Jae-kyu, who just happened to be Park’s main liasion with Washington. The two were having dinner, and sometime between the appetizers and the drinks the KCIA chief pulled out a pistol shot Park in the head, and wounded a bodyguard. The official story is that he did it to protest the “repression against the people” – a repression implemented by none other than the assassin himself, the commander of Park’s political police. While Americans have long since explained away virtually all political assassinations by means of the “lone gunmen” story, Koreans are understandably more skeptical.

THE GERMAN ROAD

The “isolationism” and “xenophobia” said to permeate the North is in reality a national characteristic, a stubborn willfulness that resents foreign intrusion and is the legacy of a whole series of Japanese invasions beginning in the 1500s. Park was an anti-Communist, but he was a Korean first. The same nationalism underlies the ostensibly Marxist ideology of the North: Kim Jong Il may be the hereditary “communist” monarch of the North Korean workers paradise, but it turns out he is also a Korean patriot. Starvation is said to induce clarity of mind, at least in the first stages, and perhaps the effects of the famine are being personally felt by North Korea’s “Great Leader.” In such circumstances, a square meal comes before ideology. Although widely characterized as being not ready for prime time, he is proving his mettle as a world leader by outflanking the US and China – neither of which are all that eager to see a united Korea. The wily Kim Jong Il, by endorsing reunification and entering into serious negotiations, is betting on making as “soft” a landing as his German counterparts. When the Berlin Wall fell, the ruling Socialist Unity Party (SED), once a bastion of orthodox Stalinism, quickly mutated into the Party of Democratic Socialism (PDS), which in practice serves as the far left wing of the German Social Democracy. As the artificial wall separating the two Koreas begins to crack, the Korean Communists could easily take the same road.

THE “SOFT” OPTION

The same military and political establishment that insists on indefinitely maintaining our cold war “forward” stance on the Korea peninsula, as a permanent obstacle to Korean reunification, also sees China as an emerging threat to American hegemony that must be either “engaged” or “contained” – but never adjusted to. The irony, Johnson points out, is that a united Korea could well provide a regional counter-balance to this alleged Chinese threat. The author’s view of China reflects his view of Asia’s capitalist developmental states – Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore, and even Japan – that they are “soft” authoritarian states. These states, while nominally democratic, are really ruled over by unelected bureaucrats, with varying degrees of popular participation and consent. China is an example of “soft totalitarianism,” where the media is openly controlled by the state; Johnson contrasts this with the Japanese model of speech control, where “such freedoms exist on paper but are attenuated in part by cartelization of the news media – press clubs in Japan can impose collective or individual penalties on journalists who report news that irritates the state.” Elections are formally held under both systems, with China’s soft totalitarians using police methods to ensure the outcome and Japan’s soft authoritarian regime employing more subtle but no less effective means to guarantee a similar result, achieving its ends “through peer pressure, bullying, fear of ostracism, giving priority to group norms, and eliciting conformity through social sanctions of various kinds.”

CULTURE TRUMPS IDEOLOGY

Under both types of regimes, elections are mere formalities, and the economic reforms in China have further blurred the differences between the “socialist” and “capitalist” wings of developing Asia. Beneath the thin veneer of ideology, the underlying character of the various national cultures shapes the social and political evolution of the Asian tigers, including that giant mastadon, China. Johnson points out that “the real economic model for mainland China, although never mentioned for all the obvious reasons, is undoubtedly neither Japan nor South Korea but Taiwan” under the Nationalists, where thriving state-party enterprises comprise half the nation’s wealth. Left to themselves, Johnson suggests, China and Taiwan could come to some peaceful conclusion to their long-drawn out family feud – a possibility that once seemed more likely than the prospect of Korean reunification.

THE WALL STREET – TREASURY COMPLEX

The cold war ended, but Americans did not go home: instead they stayed to guard the frontiers of empire against an enemy that has long since vanished. More than that: they launched a new holy war, this time a whole series of “humanitarian” interventions in tandem with an ideological campaign to impose “free market democracy” on the rest of the world. Johnson dismisses the overrated Francis Fukuyama, the “right”-Hegelian Deep Thinker of “The End of History” fame, as “the apologist for America.” Fukuyama’s thesis that history ended with the invention of McDonald’s and the advent of MTV – and that this, along with the apparent death of communism, would have to mean that there was no alternative to Western democratic capitalism – or, at least, no legitimate one that deserved to be let alone to develop in its own way. But the universalism of Western elites would never permit such a strategy of benign neglect. Johnson, citing Jagdish Bhagwati, a fervent free trader and former GATT official, points to the existence of the “Wall Street-Treasury Complex” (WTC) that is “comparable to the military-industrial complex, which contributes little to the global economy but profits enormously from pretending that it does.”

THE NEW UTOPIANS

With US hegemony in the military realm assured, and the public largely unaware of its government’s machinations, “government officials, economic theorists, and members of the Wall Street-Treasury Complex launched an astonishingly ambitious, even megalomaniacal attempt to make the rest of the world adopt American economic institutions and norms. One could argue that the project reflected the last great expression of eighteenth-century Enlightenment rationalism, as idealistic and utopian as the paradise of pure communism that Marx envisioned.” This megalomania is reflected not just in Fukuyama’s hubristic thesis, but in the Clinton Doctrine that commits the US to the forcible eradication of “racism” and “ethnic intolerance” even if we have to invade the every country on earth to do it – invading not only militarily, as in Kosovo, but also launching economic attacks on the currency of targeted nations, such as Indonesia, Thailand, and Malaysia, with oddly coordinated strikes at the value of local currencies. “Although there is no evidence that Washington hatched a conspiracy to extend the scope of its global hegemony,” writes Johnson, “a sense of moral superiority on the part of some and of opportunism on the part of others more than sufficed to create a similar effect.” It wouldn’t be the first time government worked in tandem with finance capital to achieve common political and financial objectives.

THE REAL ‘THIRD WAY’

I can’t say I agree with all of the author’s policy prescriptions – he calls for “managed trade,” which is what we have now – but what is important is the broad sweep of his analysis of militarized state capitalism as the inevitable outcome of an imperial foreign policy. His critique of Western capitalism as no less cartelized than the zaibatsu of Japan is sharp, at times: he notes disdainfully the “crony capitalism” that enabled the government bailout of Long-Term Capital Management, a huge hedge fund gone broke headed by former Federal Reserve vice chairman David W. Mullins. As the International Monetary Fund goes on the rampage in the Far East, decimating national economies and turning crisis into catastrophe, Johnson acerbically notes that “globalization seems to boil down to the spread of poverty to every country except the United States.”

ROGUE SUPERPOWER

There is much talk of “rogue states” these days, and what to do about them: but the real problem, as Johnson points out, is that the world is afflicted by a “rogue superpower” – the US. Lecturing, threatening, and overtly seeking to overthrow any and all regimes that fail to bow low enough before the American hegemon, Madam secretary Albright travels the world braying about the virtues of “democracy” and “free markets”: in February 1998, explaining why it was necessary to launch cruise missiles against Iraq, Mad Madeleine launched into one of her trademark tirades: “If we have to use force, it is because we are America,” she bawled. “We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.”

PYRRHIC “VICTORY”

These people see no further than the next election, the next indictment, or the next big campaign contribution from a weapons contractor. Like such Old Right critics of the Warfare State as John T. Flynn, Johnson sees the role of the arms lobby and an ever-growing military establishment as “the indispensable instrument for maintaining the American empire.” We have won a post-cold war arms race, he avers, “that had no other participants,” all to feed the voracious appetite of an American military machine that has become autonomous, an imperial Praetorian Guard armed with thermonuclear weapons – and ready for a Caesar.

CRISIS OF EMPIRE

The unintended consequences of the cold war, predicts Johnson, will linger well into the 21st century, the history of which will in large part be an account of the blowback from the twentieth. Only an awareness of the crisis of empire among American citizens can hope to avert or at least ameliorate it: Our leaders believe that “if so much as one overseas American base is closed or one small country is allowed to manage its own economy, the world will collapse,” but “they might better ponder the creativity and growth that would be unleashed in only the United States would relax its suffocating embrace.” The publication of Johnson’s eloquent plea for a foreign policy more like the Founding Fathers’ and less like that of, say, Caligula, or Charlemagne, is really a case of good timing, for the crisis of empire predicted in these pages seems almost upon us. “Although it is impossible to say when this game will end,” he writes, “there is little doubt about how it will end.” That it could end differently, that we could pull back from the abyss of empire before it’s too late, is a growing possibility as more Americans wake up to the dangers of a rapacious American globalism. Certainly our chances are improved by the addition of Johnson’s voice to the growing chorus calling for restraint.

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