A Letter to Barack Obama,
From Harry Targ
When I was growing up in the 1950s I did not have much exposure to politics. The virulent anti-communism of that day did not make much sense to me but I did not have context, experience, or information to begin to understand where it came from and why it excited. Also, I did not have a sense of why United States foreign policy was the way it was. Statements by politicians and pundits left me cold.
I began to study political science, history, and journalism in the late 50s in college, political science in graduate school in the 1960s, and I gradually was drawn into the anti-war movement of the 1960s. Since I did not have political mentors: family or friends to explain the rapidly changing world, I relied on analysts who accidentally came to my attention. Three shaped my thinking about the world then. They still have much to offer as we begin to think of a new foreign and domestic policy for the United States.
The first intellectual mentor of mine was the German émigré scholar, Hans Morgenthau who taught international relations at the University of Chicago. He wrote an international relations textbook called Politics Among Nations which went through at least a dozen editions. In it Morgenthau introduced certain ideas about human motivation. He thought power and greed were the most important. In addition, he claimed that nation-states personified these drives which had their roots in human nature. International relations, he said, like all politics was the struggle for power. His ancestral mentors were Thomas Hobbes who wrote that the state of nations was the state of nature and Machiavelli, who endorsed the view that the world was one of avarice. Machiavelli advised leaders to be sly as foxes and aggressive as lions.
I soon became disenchanted with this Morgenthau “theory of political realism.” But one element of his analysis continued to make sense to me. That is, he convincingly asserted that nations and their leaders who make claims about how they are acting in the world because of high moral principles are lying. They are using these moral sounding arguments to trick their own citizens into following brutal and inhumane policies so that the nation and its leaders can acquire more wealth and power. Even the United States, the argument suggested, acted for reasons of greed and avarice in the world and not for higher purpose. This turned out to be a radical idea in the 1950s.
Some years later, I discovered William Appleman William’s book, The Tragedy of American Diplomacy. For me, Williams added eye-opening insights. First, the pattern of United States intervention in the world was not the result of error, accident, naïveté, or the fault of Republicans or Democrats. In fact, any honest reading of the history of United States foreign policy would suggest that the country embraced a pattern of interventions of one sort or another ever since the founding of the nation. This is so whether we reflect on the over 200 military actions of the United States in other countries since 1789; or the massacre of ten million native peoples; or the taking of half of Mexican territory from that country in the 1840s; or the 30 interventions in Latin American and the Caribbean between 1898 and 1932; or the overthrows of Mossadegh in Iran, Arbenz in Guatemala, Lumumba in the Congo, Allende in Chile, or any number of other similar cases.
Second, this pattern of interventions, Williams suggested, was based on economic interests. He said there was a connection between the needs of capitalism for resources, cheap labor, investment opportunities, and customers for American goods and the pattern of United States interventionism. However, Williams differed from some of those students of diplomacy who were inspired by his insights in one major regard. Williams wrote that policy makers believed that capitalism and democracy could only survive if the United States remained an imperial state. Williams never said, as others did, that expansion was a structural necessity of capitalism. He just argued that most decision makers believed it to be the case.
Finally, many studying social science in the early 1960s were exposed to C. Wright Mills, not because our teachers were impressed with his analysis but rather to bury what seemed to be a compelling hypothesis; that there existed a “power elite” that ruled America. The Power Elite that shaped my early thinking about the world. This book accumulated data to suggest that their was an elite at the apex of our most powerful institutions: government, corporations, and the military. Those that dominated these three critical institutions in post World War II America circulated from one to another; serving in the corporate sector, the government, and/or the military.
For Mills United States foreign and domestic policy was largely defined by this power elite who ruled in their interests and not in the interests of the public at large. The Mills analysis was inspired by his own Texas populist roots. The elite were not a “class” in the economic sense only, but persons who by virtue of their institutional position represented the interests of their institutions. As American populists always claimed, elite interests were not necessarily the interests of the people.
I think of these old books now as I reflect on the possibility of an election outcome in November, 2008 that can lead to significant change in the institutions and policies that have caused the people, at home and abroad, so much pain and suffering. I reflect on these books now not because I find their analyses adequate to understand the deeper structures of the global political economy and the role of the United States within it. Rather I think of the themes as I reflect on policy making in a new Obama administration.
First, United States foreign policy must no longer be based on messianic notions of our moral superiority. Foreign policy must be based on limited goals and values recognizing that our propensity for global crusading has cost the lives and treasures of our citizens as well as peoples all over the world.
Second, any new, and effective, United States foreign policy must reject imperial ambitions and goals. Our interventionist past must be rejected and replaced by a commitment to multilateral diplomacy to address the colossal issues of our time. While many supporters of the Obama candidacy will continue to debate whether turning away from empire is ultimately achievable in a capitalist global economy, in the short-run an Obama administration can reverse the historic drift toward empire.
Finally, what the Obama campaign has initiated, mobilizing the people, must continue. It must be sustained over the months and years ahead. As Mills suggested, the antidote to rule by elites includes an animated and vigorous public actively engaged in the political process. Today this means demanding that public institutions and policies be shaped by people of all classes, races, genders, ages, ethnicities, and political perspectives.
I think these themes, gleaned from Morgenthau, Williams, and Mills, can inform the presidency of Barack Obama.