Blogs > Ira Chernus's MythicAmerica > U.S.-China Policy: Hiding the Military-Economic Link

Jul 8, 2012

U.S.-China Policy: Hiding the Military-Economic Link


“For Clinton, an Effort to Rechannel the Rivalry With China.” Under that headline the New York Times’s Jane Perlez reports: “At a gathering of business executives in Cambodia this week, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton plans to urge the expansion of American trade and investment across Asia, particularly in Southeast Asian nations on the periphery of China,”

Perlez explains: “The extra attention devoted to economics is intended to send a message that Washington recognizes that it initially overemphasized the military component of its new focus on Asia, setting up more of a confrontation with China than some countries felt comfortable with. ... Both sides have an interest in channeling their rivalry into trade more than weaponry.”

This story has two implicit punch lines: China poses some military threat; the only question is how much. And the Chinese military threat is essentially independent of economic issues.

If Alfred Thayer Mahan can read the New York Times in his grave, he probably can’t decide whether to roll over or laugh -- or maybe both, considering what a howler Perlez offers from the perspective of U.S. foreign policy since Mahan’s time.

Rear Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1904. Credit: Library of Congress

In 1890, just as the U.S. was on the brink of its rises to global power, Mahan published his immensely influential treatise The Influence of Sea Power Upon History: 1660-1783. The argument in the book that impressed many future U.S. policymakers, most notably Theodore Roosevelt, was simple: A nation’s economy now depended on the volume of its global trade. To trade as much as possible, you’ve got to prevent rival nations from interfering with your trade. Since nearly all international trade in 1890 went by sea, that meant controlling the sea lanes and ports along those lanes for refueling -- controlling them by any means necessary.

When Roosevelt sent the famous Great White Fleet on its 15-month voyage around the world, he sent the clearest signal yet that the U.S. was adopting Mahan’s basic perspective: Global trade and global military power could not be separated.

That theory had its ups and downs at the highest levels in Washington. In 1916, as most Americans eagerly sought to avoid involvement in World War I, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, TR’s distant cousin Franklin D., took a different view. His great passion was the sea and sailing vessels; he was an avid reader of Mahan’s works.

In a private letter, FDR wrote that human nature itself makes every nation greedy for all the power it could gain. “I am not at all sure that we are free from this ourselves,” he added. But his conclusion was right out of Mahan: “The answer is … ‘build the ships.’” In public speeches, he warned that if the U.S. did not build up its military strength, “anybody that wishes [would] come right along and take from us whatever they choose.” And “if you cut off the United States from all trade and intercourse with the rest of the world you would have economic death in this country before long.”

Roosevelt avoided such militant words for nearly two decades after World War I; they were so unpopular that they spelled political suicide. By the late ‘30s, though, with Germany and Japan threatening U.S. access to resources and markets in Europe and East Asia, he had little trouble getting Congress to approve huge increases in military spending.

The rest -- dare I say it? -- is history. Since World War II, U.S. foreign policy has pretty much taken for granted the Mahanite theory, summed up by Thomas Friedman in these memorable words (from The Lexus and the Olive Tree): “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell-Douglas.” For those who need prose rather than poetry to get the point, Friedman told New York Times readers: “The emerging global order needs an enforcer. That’s America’s new burden.”  

Of course U.S. political leaders don’t talk that way in public. Nor do most journalists, even in the Times. Typically, they tell the story the way Perlez does -- a way that denies the link between America’s military machine and its efforts to dominate global trade. Taxpayers aren’t likely to shell out such immense amounts every year to maintain overwhelming military power if it’s just to give U.S.-based multinational corporations overwhelming economic power. Some other stories have to be told.

So we get, every day, new variations and improvisations on the myth of national insecurity. China, Iran, Al-Qaeda, the Taliban: there’s no end to the list of candidates to play the role of “enemy.” Whoever gets the part, the story is always about a military threat that has no direct connection with America’s global economic aspirations.

I don’t mean to suggest that the story Mahan, FDR, and Friedman told is the only one that really moves federal policymakers and legislators to fund our extravagant military budget. There are a lot of interlocking myths that lead to the same result. I’ll be touching on many of them in future posts. And some of them do treat supposed military threats as quite separate from the economic sphere.

But it’s important to recognize how one version of the story, which portrays military and economic goals competing with each other, can mask the way those goals have work synergistically in U.S. policy and elite mythology for so many years.

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