BLOWBACKThe Costs and Consequences of American Empire
By Chalmers Johnson
Metropolitan Books 268pp $26
Chalmers Johnson would have us believe that the world is a simmering place full of malcontents just waiting for their chance to get even. This, he asserts, is because the American government and its representatives have behaved so very badly around the world and engendered such animosity that it's only a matter of time before it all blows up--or blows back at us, to cite a fear encapsulated by the CIA term "blowback."
Indeed, that's the title of Johnson's new book, Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire. Since the end of the cold war, he declares, the U.S. has "resorted much of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation." This, in turn, "is seeding resentments that are bound to breed attempts at revenge" on American tourists or U.S. interests and installations overseas. He concludes with a prediction: "I believe our very hubris ensures our undoing."
Johnson, of course, is a noted Japan expert with solid credentials on China as well, and his words carry weight. That's why it's a disappointment to see such a respected voice descend into such strident and unbalanced vitriol. He offers few substantive arguments to back up his assertions, and when he does, they are often misguided, or worse, mistaken. Johnson builds a case against both globalization and U.S. foreign policy with such shrillness, and often with such a paucity of facts, that he risks alienating those in his audience he would most like to reach.
It's a shame, because Johnson states that he would like to open a dialogue about specific U.S. policies in the world. Namely, he would like to see U.S. military bases withdrawn from Okinawa in Japan, and from the Korean Peninsula. He would like to see Washington restore diplomatic relations with North Korea, sign the treaty banning land mines, accede to an international criminal court, and pay its dues to the U.N., among other things. These are valid topics for discussion in U.S. policy circles, whether one agrees with them or not. He also points out dangerous contradictions in U.S. arms-sales policy and says the Pentagon regularly overrides more traditional foreign policy concerns. He's right. The problem is, few may take him seriously when he comes off like a street-corner preacher with a sign proclaiming: "Repent--the world will end tomorrow!"
Sadly, Johnson finds malice in U.S. policies fostering free markets around the world. And, in what seems an ill-conceived afterthought, his penultimate chapter delivers a condemnation of this that strays dangerously from reason.
Johnson was christened the "father" of Japan revisionism after his acclaimed books of the 1980s and '90s, including MITI and the Japanese Miracle and Japan: Who Governs?, changed how Americans thought about the Japanese economy. He has long staked his credibility on the claim that Japan had a different, if not superior, model of capitalism. But with Japan in recession for years and Tokyo finally, if slowly, embarking on reforms, it seems clear that Japan's economic model is just as subject to market forces as everyone else's.
Still using his Japan-centric viewpoint, however, Johnson delivers one of the most astonishing analyses yet of the crisis in Asia. He argues that U.S. officials acting in their own interests touched off the crash of Asia's currencies back in 1985, first by driving up the value of the Japanese yen with the Plaza Accord, then by engineering the yen's 60% fall between 1995 and 1997. Johnson gives short shrift to the egregious lending practices and overcapacity problems characteristic of the Asian economies themselves.
Rather, he says that Americans gleefully pushed their economic model of capitalism abroad in a "megalomanical attempt to make the rest of the world adopt American economic institutions and norms." The U.S., he claims, did this with such an arrogant sense of moral superiority that it became malicious. He goes on to postulate that the U.S. engendered its globalization campaign and resulting Asia crisis to wipe out its Asian competition: "Its purpose was both to diminish them as competitors and to assert the primacy of the U.S. as the globe's hegemonic power." Thus, the Asia crisis, by reducing the "economic power" of "`tiger' competitors," Johnson concludes, was "a major American imperial success."
Can this be logical? Of course not. If the U.S. was so keen on exporting its model of economic capitalism, why would it destroy those "tiger" economies--namely South Korea, in Johnson's argument--that were most amenable to accepting it? Of course, the Clinton Administration did turn the gospel of free trade into foreign policy in its own right. But Johnson doesn't even consider the possibility that the reason Americans are so evangelical about their model of capitalism is because it works--or at least it works better than any other model the world can come up with.
Instead, Johnson tries to claim that globalization has failed the U.S. economy, too. He claims America has been "sacrificing American workers to pay for its empire." Really? America has its lowest unemployment rate in three decades--4%. Johnson claims the "true costs" of America's empire "should be measured in terms of crime statistics [and] ruined inner cities." What? Let's look at the crime statistics. New York in 1999 recorded its lowest murder rate since 1961. In San Diego, Boston, Houston, and Los Angeles, murder rates have fallen 50% to 75% since 1991--the year the Soviet Union disintegrated and the cold war officially ended. So much for these arguments.
If Johnson's blowback theory were correct, the American empire would have come crumbling down long, long ago. Americans have been perpetrating some pretty awful deeds overseas for more than a century, and the phenomenon became the subject of literary renown back in the 1950s, with Graham Greene's and Eugene Burdick's condemnations of Americans both "Quiet" and "Ugly." One need look no further than U.S. policies in Latin America during the cold war--and long before--to see the truly horrific. But Johnson's main grievances include the 1998 accident in Italy in which a low-flying U.S. military plane severed a ski-gondola cable, killing 20 people. And he points to a 1995 case involving the rape of a Japanese schoolgirl by three U.S. soldiers in Okinawa. The acrimony caused by these incidents, he says, are reasons for reducing U.S. military presence overseas. But while sad and even tragic, they are hardly the stuff of vengeance's claim.
Instead, people the world over have long understood that American influence brings both the hated and the admired. Call it hegemony and empire, as Johnson does, or call it security and economic development. For every misguided Pentagon policy, there is a Dayton peace accord. For every ski-gondola accident, there is a U.S. rescue operation in Mozambique. For every corruption of the local diet by an American fast-food chain, there is an American-invented computer, telephone, or automobile that makes someone's life somewhere just a little bit easier. As a result, the rest of the world has developed a sophisticated understanding of America: Most people overseas know they have to take the good with the bad.
To protect the world from the bad, Johnson recommends the remedy of isolationism--for example, pulling out of Saudi Arabia because the U.S. military presence there angered Osama bin Laden enough to attack U.S. embassies overseas. Yet capitulating to terrorism hardly makes it go away. We have only to look at our own Unabomber, and the bombings in Oklahoma City and Atlanta, to see that terrorism doesn't need bad foreign policy for an excuse.
Someone of Johnson's experience should know that you can catch more flies with honey than by shooting at them with a bazooka. In his desire to be provocative, unfortunately, he risks causing a "blowback" of his own.