The work of the late William Appleman Williams constitutes the most comprehensive and sophisticated critique of American foreign policy offered during the last half century. It continues to influence a host of present-day scholars and even to engage more orthodox academics who might have preferred to ignore it. His influence in the 1960s and 1970s, however, extended far beyond the academy. His classic, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy, was virtually required reading for the New Left antiwar movement.
Williams’s unique contribution was to give dissenters the opportunity to understand the Vietnam War not simply as a quagmire born of policy mistakes or of a moral blot on the nation’s ledger, but as the logical consequence of empire. Indeed, he gave them a theory of American imperialism which argued that American elites, from George Washington to George Bush, could only envision a nation that was both prosperous and democratic if it had perpetual recourse to a growing empire. In the nineteenth century, that empire took the form of a frontier for settlers and capital (at the expense of Indian nations and the Mexican Republic). Following the closing of that continental frontier in the 1890s, America’s expansion thereafter emphasized the overseas drive for an Open Door to the markets, raw materials and investment opportunities of the global economy. Informal economic dominance, less costly, was the preferred mode of that expansion, but colonies, protectorates, military bases or covert coups were acceptable when Third World resistance or Great Power rivalry seemed to require them.
In the giddy triumphalism that followed the end of the Cold War, the power of Williams’s ideas seemed to wane. Bush I and Clinton centrists embraced and successfully promoted the New Economy of high technology, a lean-and-mean free enterprise system, and a free-trade world of balanced budgets, stable exchange rates and unfettered movement of capital. Empire now masqueraded as a benign “globalization” that would close the gap between rich and poor and lay the groundwork for the spread of democratic values and institutions. The utopian goal of remaking the world in America’s image appeared within reach; the “end of history” seemed at hand. “Ultra-liberalism,” as Jacques Chirac was to lament, had become “the new communism.”
That zealous crusade ran aground long before the events of 9/11/01. It crashed on the shoals of the widespread backlash against globalization in the United States, the Third World’s dissatisfaction with WTO trading arrangements, Japan’s deflation after 1997, the Asian financial crisis of 1997-1998, the collapse of the American technology bubble in 1999 and the return of the United States and Europe to the flat economic growth patterns of the 1970s and 1980s. The “invisible hand” of the free market could no longer be counted on to create universal acceptance of American hegemony and its rules of the international game. What was required was a more “visible hand”—a more muscular, more military foreign policy that would impose the economic openness and political stability required by American economic and security interests. “Hard power” would replace “soft power” as America’s modus operandi. Clinton signaled this change in 1998, when he bombed Iraq and made regime change there his stated policy. And George W. Bush cemented the change with a vengeance, giving it a more unilateral twist by bypassing NATO, rather than working through it as Clinton had attempted.
With American empire no longer hiding behind the verbal veil of globalization, Williams’s work has suddenly reacquired relevance not always evident in the decade since his death. Recognizing this, a number of his former students—and, in turn, their students—found themselves discussing and speculating what William Appleman Williams would say now about the current state of affairs. That dialogue, and my effort to synthesize it, resulted in a paper given to the University of Wisconsin History Department and I am pleased to share it with SHAFR members.
Williams thought and wrote with the rigorous logic of a philosopher. A practitioner of the examined life, he sought to unearth and critique his own underlying assumptions and premises and, in turn, to offer them openly and explicitly to his students and readers to examine and to challenge. In that spirit, let me offer eight such propositions that I think Bill Williams might have advanced for our consideration today. Many suggest, as Yogi Berra put it, “it’s déjà vu all over again.”
First, Williams would posit that the current public debate over U.S. foreign policy is just another example of the historic tension and conflict between two variants of American exceptionalism—that is, the conviction of American uniqueness and superiority. Often at odds with each other, these two variants clashed most sharply in times of war—as they did in the so-called Mexican War, the Spanish-American War, the Vietnam War, and now the War on Terror.
One version of exceptionalism was the notion of using a pro-active, aggressive foreign policy, including force if need be, to promote the American way of life—first in the Western Hemisphere, later the globe. The second was the notion that America should make itself an even better role model that others would be energized and encouraged to emulate. The flip side of that exemplar republicanism was John Quincy Adams’s admonition that America should not “go off in search of Monsters to destroy, even in the name of freedom. She might become dictatress of the world, but she would no longer be mistress of her own spirit.” America’s version of the old Roman conundrum: can one be both an empire and a republic?
Second, Williams would contend that in the conflict between those two versions of exceptionalism, the pro-active, aggressive variant has almost always won out. Over time, as he famously put it in the title of one of his books, empire became a “way of life” for American society. For starters, it provided the economic surplus necessary to maintain a high standard of living, even if that surplus was more unevenly distributed than in any other industrial society. Moreover, it provided a kind of psychic substitute for the lack of real community in a society whose only common identity was consumption. Empire offered the public the double thrill of physically dominating others while purporting to uplift and civilize them. And war, that frequent companion of empire, gave American society a chance to express and vent its own internal angst and anger against external, distant enemies. Bread and circuses!
Third, Williams would suggest that what Iraq has experienced and will experience at American hands is, in part, a replay of an old story a century ago. The Caribbean was then the prime focus of American economic and strategic interests—to protect American-owned oil fields around Tampico, Mexico, and safeguard the imminent Panama Canal shortcut to Asian markets. The solution was the transformation of the Caribbean islands and Central America into a series of American colonies like Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands and protectorates like Cuba, Panama, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Honduras and Nicaragua.
The model for the Caribbean Basin was the Platt Amendment. It remains today, in its essentials, the historical model for Iraq. Like the Iraq War, the Spanish-American War proclaimed itself a war of liberation against tyranny and ended with an American protectorate. The American army of occupation did leave after a number of years, but only after Cuba had codified its “special relationship” with the United States into its constitution and a ninety-nine-year treaty. While circumstances are dissimilar in some respects, Williams would have predicted an eventual Iraqi settlement along similar lines-- permanent U.S. military bases (just like Guantanamo), an Open Door for U.S. participation in Iraq’s banking system and oil enterprises, privatization of heretofore state-owned infrastructure, and creation of an essentially free trade tariff schedule and a low-tax system that allows the cheap and easy repatriation of profits from doing business in Iraq. As a corollary, I think Williams would have reminded us that the oft-touted rule of law—be it in Cuba, the Philippines, Nicaragua, Honduras, Mexico, or Iraq—historically has had little to do with democratic rights. Instead, it has always had far more to do with contract law, the sanctity of property rights and the protection of foreign investment.
Fourth, Williams would have stressed the centrality of oil in current foreign policy. He would not do so in a single-cause way; contrary to his critics, Williams was never a narrow economic determinist. But he still would have seen the oil issue as crucial—partly because of the economic value of the oil itself, but more largely because of the geopolitical clout over others made possible by control of oil. The struggle for oil is, of course, one that is a century old. But that struggle has, for several reasons, reached a new and critical phase.
Few new major fields have been discovered since the early 1970s, and predictions are that oil production will peak in the next five to ten years and decline sharply thereafter. More to the point, oil companies believe those dire predictions and have commenced a renewed search for new reserves. But Big Oil, however, has not been a prime mover pressuring the American State to aggressively act in its behalf. The giant multinationals, by and large, are fairly content with their relationship to the Saudis and to OPEC and anxious that war not upset the stability of their arrangements. The push really comes from the independent oil companies like Occidental, Unocal, Murphy and Kerr-McGee and from the Texas-based oil service companies tied to them, like Halliburton, Baker Hughes and Bechtel. As their U.S. holdings decline, they have looked elsewhere and sought to influence U.S. foreign policy in ways not seen since the Eisenhower days and the oil depletion allowance. And they have found ready ears in this administration and its aggressive policies in Iraq, Iran and Central Asia.
There is also an abiding fear that without its U.S. control of the oil market, OPEC may in the medium-term start pricing its oil in euros. Iraq had already done so—which was one of its great sins—but there is strong talk that OPEC will eventually follow. If that happens, Japan and China will have to start cashing in their massive dollar reserves for euros in order to meet their immense energy needs; that in turn would send the value of the dollar plummeting and bring the U.S. economy—highly vulnerable because of its fiscal and trade deficits—to its knees. Finally, control over oil provides the likeliest leverage for the United States to reassert its hegemony and geo-strategic dominance. This is not a new variable, but it is one that has never been as decisive as now. Western Europe, Japan, China and India are highly dependent on the Middle East for their energy needs. With the United States as uncontested power in the region, those nations would have a far greater incentive to defer to American rules of the game on other matters of global concern. They would be far more inclined to accept American dominance rather than continuing to find ways to limit it.
Fifth, Williams would have characterized the current period not as the triumph of conservatism, but as the degradation of conservatism. To the annoyance of many liberals, many of Williams’s heroes in American history were conservatives: for example, John Quincy Adams, Mark Hanna and Herbert Hoover. In his view, however, they were conservatives who morally and intellectually tried to reconcile a privatized; market economy with the general welfare of the whole society, for none of them accepted the proposition that a laissez-faire marketplace automatically, naturally, almost mystically achieved the general welfare.
To that end, many of Williams’s conservative heroes helped to produce an American version of corporatism—more informal and less institutionalized than Europe’s, but corporatism nonetheless. And by the post–World War II era, they had put together a loose, collaborative structure of cooperation between the state, large business associations and the AFL-CIO that linked productivity, profits and wages in a lock-step relationship so that all proceeded together in tandem. Some refer to it as the Fordist bargain. That system never worked perfectly and even at its best never became a substitute for empire and expansionism. Ultimately it broke down altogether in the stagflation of the 1970s. But it nonetheless had represented an earnest effort to address the contradictions between the marketplace and the general welfare.
But neo-conservatism, as Williams had already pointed out in the Reagan years, had abandoned that admirable effort to square the circle.. As a consequence, America’s version of capitalism—with its so-called reforms of the labor market, the tax system and Social Security—has (in contrast to Europe’s more Social Democratic version of capitalism) become truly “red in tooth and claw.” As a consequence, too, the pell-mell drive to privatization has been in part responsible for the unprofessional, amateur-hour quality of much of postwar policy in Iraq: the subcontracting of many military functions to private security firms, the feast of blatantly corrupt contracts given out to favored business interests and the powerful civilian positions in Iraq given to well-connected ideologues, many barely out of college, who inhabit the Green Zone in their shades, flak jackets and holstered pearl handles, wielding more power than any one that age should command. “Capitalism with the brakes off,” as the writer Budd Shulberg put it.
It goes without saying that all this would have been a source of great dismay to Williams. In the long term, he always envisioned and worked for an American socialism both democratic and decentralized, for he believed America’s size and its democratic tradition made it plausible. In the near term, however, he would have mourned the demise in America of anything resembling European-style social capitalism—capitalism with a more human face that would set some limits on the flexibility of capital to exploit its workers, exploit its consumers, and exploit its environment and might lessen the structural dependence of American free enterprise on an economic frontier abroad.
Sixth, Williams would have seen the current stress on preemptive empire and military solutions as a manifestation not of American omnipotence, but of American decline. In his view, empires at their zenith tend to prefer imperialism on the cheap—informal empires that eschew formal colonies and protectorates and use their economic and ideological hegemony to exert their will. In the quarter-century after World War II such was largely the case with the United States. It exercised its hegemony primarily through multinational institutions like NATO and husbanded its massive military force chiefly as a weapon of last resort to defend that status quo, as it did in Korea and Vietnam.
Empires on the make and empires in decline, however, are not satisfied with the status quo and are more inclined to alter that status quo aggressively through force and formal protectorates (nation-building is the current euphemism). Such was the case with America’s rise to world power in the early twentieth century when the nation put somewhat greater stress on the use of force and the creation of formal or semiformal empire as an adjunct to informal empire, conquering colonies in the Philippines and Puerto Rico and using Gunboat and Dollar Diplomacy to establish protectorates in the Caribbean basin. America was, after all, seeking to replace Great Britain as the dominant global power, while simultaneously fending off a parallel challenge from Germany. In Joseph Schumpeter’s terms, the United States was engaged in a bit of creative destruction to alter the status quo to its advantage.
Similarly empires in decline are not satisfied with the status quo either and are inclined to change it by force and more formal means of control. Ironically, such was the case after America’s apparent victory in the Cold War when it confronted a wave of centrifugal forces previously held in check by the Cold War—the forces of regionalism, nationalism, ethnocentrism, cultural traditionalism, religious militancy and anti-globalization. Moreover, the end of the Cold War also facilitated the emergence of two new power poles that were potential challengers to American dominance—a more integrated and more independent European Union and a more global and dynamic China. Hostile to this new global shape of things, the United States seeks to impose a new status quo more to its liking through preemptive wars and protectorate-building. Once more, a bit of creative destruction—the first time round to become the dominant power, the second time round to hang on to that status by any and all means possible.
Finally, Williams, if he was so inclined, might say “I told you so.” The Cold War might end, but the American empire would not. After all, he always argued that the Cold War was, in part, just another chapter in that expansionist saga, and neither the first chapter nor the last. In all of them, the dynamics were the same—the same heady combination of economic lust and messianic exceptionalism. And in each of them, an external enemy was the essential prerequisite for making expansionism palatable and persuasive to American citizens and American allies—be that enemy an Indian nation or the Mexican Republic in North America or British hegemony in Latin America or the German threat in Europe or the global Soviet challenge. Williams would logically have concluded that the end of the Cold War would not change those dynamics of empire. The United States would still have the same drive for economic globalization and the same willingness to maintain a huge military budget (bigger than the rest of the G-8 countries combined). All that would be required was a new enemy. And the War on Terror provided it.
That is not to say that the war is a phony war, for that would clearly not be true. But it was nonetheless a convenient opportunity to push an agenda at home and abroad that would have been difficult if not impossible without it. Dean Acheson once said that the Korean War “came along and saved us”— that is, it permitted Harry Truman to sell an NSC-68 foreign policy that otherwise would have been unacceptable to the American people and American allies. The War on Terror did something similar, though it worked better with the American people than with American allies.
One final observation. Ironically, much of what Williams said about empire and expansion is now accepted in intellectual and even political circles. When he first expounded his ideas in the 1960s, they were viewed as nothing short of criminal and subversive. He attracted the attention of the FBI, the House Un-American Activities Committee and its Wisconsin assembly counterpart. Moreover, fellow members of the historical profession ridiculed, reviled and denounced him.
Now conservative political pundits and academics openly embrace the idea and the vocabulary of American Empire, as do some on the left who still find virtue in neo-Wilsonian interventionism. But Williams, I think, would have found no validation in that embrace. He would have had little use for these Niall Ferguson or Peter Beinart look-alikes and wannabes, these apologists for “good” empire—be it a rationalized version of British Empire past or a fantasized version of American Empire present and future. Indeed, he might well have observed that of all the so-called good empires, perhaps none was quite so good as the British Empire in North America in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and yet the American Revolution dramatically demonstrated what Americans, at that point in time, thought of good empires.
This article was first published in Passport, the Newsletter of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations (SHAFR) and is reprinted with permission.