United States foreign policy since the dawn of the twentieth century has been shaped by similar but competing ideologies. Ideologies are usually generated by those who rule to explain and justify the policies that they adopt and implement. Often, but not always, purveyors of one or another ideology believe what they say. And journalists and scholars dignify the ideologies by developing rigorous explanations of why the approaches taken are justified by theories of human conduct.
During various periods of world history, elites who compete for power and influence disagree over policy but share a common ideological understanding of the world. But sometimes policy disagreements lead to substantial conflicts of perspective, of ideologies. With the election of Donald Trump, ideological contestation between two elite class ideologies has emerged: one based upon the theory of neoliberal globalization and the other on a thesis based on an alleged clash of civilizations. Understanding the ideological disputes might help deconstruct the political disputes today over foreign (and domestic) policy and facilitate the process of resisting both versions of a United States imperial agenda.
The Ideology of Neoliberal Globalization
The policy referred to as neoliberalism has its historical roots in the expansion of capitalism out of feudalism. Theorists as varied as Adam Smith and Karl Marx saw capitalism as an expansive system that through competition led to growth of economic actors. For Smith, capitalist competition would reach its natural limits and “the invisible hand” would become a regulator of the enterprises that prospered in the marketplace, limiting egregious consolidation of economic and political power.
For Marx capital accumulation meant that competitive capitalism would be qualitatively transformed into consolidated and later monopoly capitalism. This process of economic consolidation was inextricably connected to globalization: from kidnapping and enslavement, to trade, investment, and appropriating natural resources. By the time of the Spanish/Cuban/American war the United States had accumulated enough military power to expand its economic tentacles to Asia, the Pacific, and the Caribbean and Latin America. But competition with other colonial powers, the Russian and Chinese revolutions, and world wars stifled the free unfettered expansion of United States capitalism.
After World War II, with the United States as the dominant power, a global economy was constructed that facilitated trade, investment, and a debt system. The then existing Socialist Bloc, rising anti-colonial movements in the Global South, the spread of social democracies across Europe, and labor pressures at home limited the full economic freedom that would maximize the opportunities of capitalist expansion.
By the 1970s, economic competition among capitalist states, anti-colonial wars against the United States, and overproduction of goods and services combined to reduce rates of profit. Monopoly capital expanded its historic shift from manufacturing to financial speculation. As Lenin had long ago assumed, the export of capital began to take priority over the export of commodities.
To facilitate financial speculation, political elites began to actively pursue on a global basis what became the neoliberal agenda: privatization of all public institutions; deregulation of economies; austerity, that is cutting social programs that give some support to majorities for education, health care, jobs, housing, and transportation; and for many of the world’s countries shifting their economic programs from producing goods and services for their own people to the development of larger and larger export sectors.
In addition, with the qualitative shift in capitalism from manufacturing to financialization, neoliberal institutions encouraged the opening of national economies to foreign speculators. As the price of oil rose dramatically in the 1970s an emerging debt system was created whereby countries of the Global South were forced by international financial institutions to adopt neoliberal policies. The collapse of socialism in the 1990s triggered a radical transformation in the former Socialist Bloc to free market economies. The changes imposed by international institutions were to occur quickly, sometimes called “shock therapy.” Also Social Democracies in Europe shifted in the direction of neoliberalism. The rise to power of Margaret Thatcher in Great Britain and Ronald Reagan in the United States personified this global shift in public policy at home and abroad.
The neoliberal policy agenda was defended in terms of the presumed connection between market freedom and development, capitalism and development, markets and democracy, and the fanciful idea that neoliberal globalization would facilitate harmony among nations, economic development, and the transformation from four hundred years of nation-state competition to a new world order.
In the United States political elites of both major political parties endorsed the major features of neoliberalism: free trade agreements; pressures on poor countries to deregulate their economies; downsizing all governments at home and abroad; and using military power to impose the neoliberal agenda on recalcitrant countries. Most foreign policy elites from the 1980s on advocated so-called “humanitarian interventions,” to transform rogue states that opposed the global shift in economic and political institutions.
The ideology of neoliberal globalization justified trade agreements such as The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and the emerging World Trade Organization (WTO). US foreign policies inspired by neoliberal ideology justified military interventions in the former Yugoslavia, the Middle East, Persian Gulf and East Asia and subversion of regimes in Latin America and Africa. And under the guise of promoting market democracies the United States since the 1990s constructed over 700 military bases, mostly small “lily pads;” established a military command structure in Africa; and since 2009 unleashed drone warfare on an unprecedented scale. Supporters of the neoliberal agenda continue to support expanded trade agreements, expansion of the global presence of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), and military spending.
(A competing ideological justification for the promotion of United States imperialism based on the “clash of civilizations” has gained influence over the foreign policy process in the new administration of Donald Trump. Racism, always deeply embedded in foreign policy discourse, becomes central to the United States foreign policy. The idea of the “clash of civilizations” will be discussed in Part Two of this essay. HT)