Monday, May 08, 2006

Chalmers Johnson - Exporting the American Model

Someone forwarded me a copy of a recent piece by the eminent scholar of comparative politics, Chalmers Johnson, on "Exporting the American Model" (circulated by TomDispatch). Johnson, who for some decades tended to be considered a moderately conservative "realist" in his perspective, has in recent years become an impassioned and single-minded critic of US imperialism. The person who forwarded this to me commented that I should disregard the second paragraph of Johnson's piece, but that the rest was fascinating.

I think in some ways it is fascinating--though mostly as a sign of some current ideological moods.

Having written down some quick impressions of Chalmers Johnson's piece, I thought they might be of interest to some others as well. If you think you might be one of those people, you can read "Exporting the American Model" and then my comments below. Presumably, some readers will disagree with my assessment, but they may still find it of interest, if only as food for thought.

Yours for comparative political sociology,
Jeff Weintraub

Hi X,

I finally got a chance to read Chalmers Johnson's piece. It is genuinely fascinating, as you say, even when it's wrong--which is often.

As a first remark, I wanted to say that of course you are right to dismiss the second paragraph of the piece (not least because Johnson quotes Bryan completely out of context, apparently having forgotten that Bryan bitterly opposed US entry into World War I). But this paragraph cannot be so easily sliced off from the rest of the piece, because it's characteristic of the argument in much of the rest of the discussion. Johnson criticizes the US when it promotes democracy, when it doesn't promote democracy, when it pursues realpolitik, when it pursues soft-headed Wilsonianism--actually, the one consistent theme that runs though the discussion is that the US should just stay out of other countries' affairs, because whatever it does is likely to be wrong. That could be true. But in order to maintain this thesis, Johnson often resorts to misleading and tendentious interpretations (as in his description of Bryan), unsupported retrospective speculation on a grand scale (such as his judgment that it would have been better simply to let Germany win World War I), and implausible or flatly inaccurate claims (which one finds throughout the piece).

By the way, as a matter of simple historical fact, the stuff about Iraq in the third paragraph of his piece is also mostly inaccurate, though these claims have all become common clich├ęs.

As for the rest ... many of Johnson's specific criticisms of specific US policies & actions over the years are correct, acute, and important, though hardly original. However, he often tends to forget that when one wants to offer causal explanations, (a) one has to pay attention to a fairly comprehensive range of potential causal factors and potential consequences, and not just cherry-pick the ones that suit your thesis while ignoring the rest, and (b) that, if one wants to argue that certain actions or policies have certain effects, one has to consider the likely effects of realistically available alternative courses of action.

Thus, Johnson wants to argue that since World War II the US has almost never (perhaps never) actually done anything that promoted democracy. If democracy ever did emerge, it was almost always despite US actions, or in opposition to them.
The Federation of American Scientists has compiled a list of over 201 overseas military operations from the end of World War II until September 11, 2001 in which we were involved and normally struck the first blow. (The list is reprinted by Gore Vidal in Perpetual War for Perpetual Peace: How We Got To Be So Hated, pp. 22-41.) The current wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are not included. In no instance did democratic governments come about as a direct result of any of these military activities.

The United States holds the unenviable record of having helped install and then supported such dictators as the Shah of Iran, General Suharto in Indonesia, Fulgencio Batista in Cuba, Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua, Augusto Pinochet in Chile, and Sese Seko Mobutu in Congo-Zaire, not to mention a series of American-backed militarists in Vietnam and Cambodia until we were finally expelled from Indochina. In addition, we ran among the most extensive international terrorist operations in history against Cuba and Nicaragua because their struggles for national independence produced outcomes that we did not like.

On the other hand, democracy did develop in some important cases as a result of opposition to our interference -- for example, after the collapse of the CIA-installed Greek colonels in 1974; in both Portugal in 1974 and Spain in 1975 after the end of the U.S.-supported fascist dictatorships; after the overthrow of Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines in 1986; following the ouster of General Chun Doo Hwan in South Korea in 1987; and following the ending of thirty-eight years of martial law on the island of Taiwan in the same year.
The logical errors here are so elementary as to be almost absurd. Or maybe it's a matter of clever prevarication (i.e., intellectual dishonesty.) "In no instance did democratic governments come about as a direct result of any of these military activities." (my emphasis) Well, OK. But if the US had not fought the Korean war, Kim Il Sung would have wound up ruling over a unified ultra-Stalinist Korea (which would also have developed into an economic basket case with mass starvation, etc., like the part of Korea he did wind up ruling), and it's fairly certain that South Korea would never have become a prosperous country with a democratic regime. If the US had not supported the right in the Greek civil war (a very ugly business, which certainly had a lot of authoritarian consequences in the short run), then the hard reality is that the Communists would have won, and Greece would now resemble Albania or, at best, Bulgaria rather having turned into a prosperous, securely democratic member of the EU and NATO. If the US had allowed the Chinese Communists to take over Taiwan ... well, you see the point. All of this stuff sounds plausible at first glance, but it's actually just superficial sloganeering masquerading as serious historico-political analysis.

The discussion of Japan is not so obviously fraudulent, and along the way Johnson does make some interesting and useful isolated points. But if one tries to follow the underlying argument closely, it turns out to be incoherent. (Especially since Johnson began his discussion of Japan by presenting it as a tremendous post-WWII success story--at least in economic terms, which, to be honest, matters a lot more to Johnson than democracy. Somehow, Japan developed the regional model to be emulated. He first mentions some features that he thinks made this possible, then criticizes the US for supporting them.) I could spell this out, but what's the point? I think a close consideration will make that obvious.

The discussion of the Korean case is more complicated, and much of it is on target in terms of details (once one bears in mind that Johnson has decided to ignore the most important point, in order to distract us into historical detail, and to leave out the US role in pressing for the ultimate transition from military authoritarianism to representative government). It is useful for Americans to be reminded of some of the more sordid aspects of the history of US involvement in Korea, which helps explain some of the resentment against the US by some South Koreans. But again, if one tries to carefully follow Johnson's argument, it turns out to be incoherent. If you examine it closely, parts of it are also absurd. For example ...
In South Korea, the United States resorted to far sterner measures. From the outset, we favored those who had collaborated with Japan, whereas North Korea built its regime on the foundation of former guerrilla fighters against Japanese rule. During the 1950s, we backed the aged exile Syngman Rhee as our puppet dictator. [blah, blah ...]
Let's pretend to treat this as a serious argument, rather than purely demagogic sloganeering (which is what it is). What this implies is that South Korea would have turned out better if the US had favored Kim Il Sung and the other people who built up the North Korean regime. This suggestion is not just idiotic--given the realities of North Korean history and the present comparison of North & South Korea, it is almost disgusting. On the other hand, if that's not what Johnson means, then in substantive terms this passage doesn't actually say anything., but is just pure mindless sloganeering. Actually that's the more generous interpretation.

As for Iraq ... well, let's just say that, with a few exceptions where he manages to say something accurate almost by accident, this is, again, mostly just further superficial sloganeering. Fortunately, his discussion of post-Saddam Iraq is brief. (Obviously, Johnson knows a thousand times more about Japan & Korea than the rest of us, but I have no reason to believe that he knows anything more about Iraq than he got skimming the headlines.) In the section headed "Hold the Economic Advice", Johnson makes a big deal of emphasizing--correctly--that the institutional requirements of a regime that deserves to be called "democratic" involve more than just holding elections, but in his remarks about Iraq he ignores this advice and reverts to simplistic sound-bites.

(Of course, the post-Saddam US record in Iraq definitely has been spectacularly thoughtless and incompetent, with many damaging results. And--to pick up on one of Johnson's themes--the idiocy of US economic policies in Iraq under Bremer, with their predictably disastrous political consequences, should have gotten much more criticism than it has, even from opponents of the war-&-aftermath. However, I have a different take from Johnson on how we should compare the occupation of post-Saddam Iraq, in this respect, with with the post-WW II occupations & reconstructions of Germany & Japan. If you're interested--which you may not be--some of my thoughts are here: Karl Polanyi, Alexis de Tocqueville, & Muqtada al-Sadr)

This piece of third-rate pseudo-"realist" moralizing propaganda from a major scholar is indeed fascinating, even (unintentionally) illuminating. Essentially, it is an isolationist jeremiad (an old genre in American discourse, not without some noble antecedents) quite unsuccessfully disguised as a piece of serious historico-political analysis. As an example of the latter, it is selective, tendentious, misleading, inconsistent, logically fallacious, and sometimes intellectually dishonest at best .... and nonsensical at worst. That is not to say that a number of the specific facts aren't correct (or almost correct) and worth pondering--some of them are. But the overall argument is so shoddy and carelessly developed that it testifies to the force of Johnson's current ideological preoccupations more than anything else.

Such, at least, are my impressions.

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub