Saturday, December 14, 2013

Blowback by Chalmers Johnson

I was drawn to this one because of what I perceived to be its subject matter--an analysis of how covert actions of the United States government have resulted in “retaliations against Americans, civilians and military, at home and abroad.” And it is that. But it does it in a way that I did not expect. Expecting a historical accounting of American activities in Central America and the Middle East, I got something else instead.

It started with a learned and critical analysis of what the author called America’s richest prize in the Cold War: Japan.

The richest prize in the soviet empire was East Germany; the richest prize in the American empire is still Japan. Today, much like East Germany before the Berlin Wall came down, Japan remains a rigged economy brought into being and maintained thanks to the Cold War. Its people seem increasingly tired of the American troops stationed on their soil for the last half century and of the gray, single-party regimes that presided in Tokyo for almost all of those years. East Germany’s dreary leaders Walter Ulbricht and Erich Honecker can appear almost dynamic when compared to the prime ministers Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party has put in office since 1955.

Just as the two satraps of the German Democratic Republic faithfully followed every order they ever received from Moscow, each and every Japanese prime minister, as soon as he comes into office, gets on an airplane and reports to Washington. And as in the former East Germany, so Japanese voters long ago discovered that as long as they continue to be allied with the United States, nothing they do ever seems to change their political system. Many ordinary Japanese have learned to avoid politics like the plague, participating only in local elections, where a surprising number vote Communist both to register a protest and because the party is competent and honest. In Japan, political idealists tend to become nihilists, not unlike their German brethren before 1989.

I have never thought of Japan this way before, but Johnson, president of the Japan Policy Research Institute at the University of California, goes on to make a persuasive argument. The United States military occupation of Japan has been in force since the end of World War II, and doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon. Johnson cites a long history of crimes and violence committed by American servicemen against Japanese citizens, especially in and around Okinawa, where practically none of the perpetrators are ever brought to justice. It is as if these rapes and killings--as regrettable as they may be--are part of the price that the Japanese must pay in order to live under U.S. protection.

The noise of American military operations in Japan is not the most horrendous of atrocities, but the described attitude towards it likely best represents this paternalistic perspective.

Even if they avoid being raped or run down, no Okinawans can escape the endless noise the Americans make. A teacher in Ginowan City typically reports, “My class lasts for fifty minutes. It is interrupted at least three times by the incredible noise of planes landing and departing. My students cannot hear me, so we just wait patiently.” There are 52,000 takeoffs and landings each year at the Futenma Marine Corps Air Station alone, or 142 a day. The military airfield is in the center of and entirely surrounded by Ginowan’s neighborhoods.


Noise-pollution suits are starting to prove expensive for the Japanese government. In 1982, some 906 residents of Kadena and Chatan villages filed a noise-pollution suite against Kadena Air Force Base and asked the court to halt night flights. Sixteen years later the Naha branch of the Fukuoka High Court ordered the central government to pay compensation of 1,373 million yen to those plaintiffs still alive. The court, did not, however, order a suspension of flights between seven P.M. and seven A.M., on the grounds that nothing in the security treaty or in domestic law allows Japan to interfere with the operations of Kadena Air Force Base. The U.S. military likes to say that the noise from its aircraft is the “sound of freedom,” but many Okinawans have been so deafened that they can no longer hear it.

The sound of freedom. Typical American navel-gazing swagger. Why are they so singularly obsessed with their own might and the right they think it conveys on them? Johnson has a fairly nuanced answer to this question, and it, in fact, is one of the central premises of the book. To fully understand it, you have to accept Johnson’s take that America is an empire, but a different kind of empire than those that historically preceded it.

In speaking of an “American empire” … I am not using the concept in [the] traditional sense. I am not talking about the United States’ former colony in the Philippines, or about such dependent territories as Puerto Rico; nor when I use the term “imperialism” in this book do I mean the extension of one state’s legal dominion over another; nor do I even want to imply that imperialism must have primarily economic causes. The more modern empires I have in mind normally lie concealed beneath some ideological or juridical concept--commonwealth, alliance, free world, the West, the Communist bloc--that disguises the actual relationships among its members.

According to Milovan Djilas, Stalin pithily described the origin of such new empires in a conversation he had with Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia in the Kremlin in April 1945 in this way: “This war is not as in the past. Whoever occupies a territory also imposes on it his own social system. Everyone imposes his own social system as far as his army has power to do so. It cannot be otherwise.” Imposing one’s own social system is precisely what the former Soviet Union proceeded to do in the territories it occupied in Eastern Europe and what the United States did in the territories it occupied in East Asia, particularly Japan and South Korea. Over the forty years of the Cold War these original “satellites” became the cores of the Soviet and American new-style empires , only one of which--the American empire--still remains today. The nature of that remaining empire and how it has changed over time is the subject of this book.

You may wish to dicker over Johnson’s use of the word “empire.” But it’s hard to argue that American foreign policy over the past forty years hasn’t been based on the idea that the American social system--and the particular flavors of democracy and capitalism that define it--is the correct one that should be replicated across the globe.

And I think it’s important to point out that America’s brand of democracy and capitalism is just that--a single brand among many possible others. Although many Americans treat it as sacred…

They may consider most economists to be untrustworthy witch doctors, but they regard the tenets of a laissez-faire economy--with its cutthroat competition, casino stock exchange, massive inequalities of wealth, and a minor, regulatory role for government--as self-evident truths.

...most poorly understand it and are unwilling to accept that different versions may work better in different places.

Take China, which Johnson also does authoritatively in the book. Many Americans are unable to understand that China has distinct political aspirations and positions from those of the United States, and that those positions are just as valid to China as the American positions are to the United States. Look, for example, at how the two nations view the two Koreas. The United States seems pledged to some form of unification because they view the North as a destabilizing influence in the region. While China…

...seems most interested in a perpetuation of the status quo on the Korean peninsula. Its policy is one of “no unification, no war.” Not unlike the eighth- and ninth-century Tang dynasty’s relations with the three Korean kingdoms of Koguryo, Silla, and Paekche, China presently enjoys diplomatic relations with both Koreas and may prefer a structurally divided peninsula. A Korea unable to play its obvious role as a buffer between China, Russia, and Japan would give China a determining influence there. China’s greatest worry has been that the Communist state in the North may collapse due to economic isolation and ideological irrelevance, thereby bringing about a unified, independent, and powerful new actor in northeast Asian politics, potentially the size of and as rich as the former West Germany and defended by a good army, possibly armed with nuclear weapons--not a development the Chinese would necessarily welcome.

I’m not saying that China is right and American is wrong. But I am also not saying--as many Americans do--that America is right and China is wrong. From the perspectives of their own national interests, China and America are both right.

But America, unlike China, has several instruments with which it promotes, delivers, and compels adoption of its social system. As Johnson points out, the International Monetary Fund, or IMF, is one.

The IMF, it must be noted, is staffed primarily with holders of PhDs in economics from American universities, who are both illiterate about and contemptuous of cultures that do not conform to what they call the “American way of life.” They offer only “one size (or rather, one capitalism) fits all” remedies for ailing economic institutions. The IMF has applied these over the years to countries in Latin America, Russia, and East Asia without ever achieving a single notable success.

But the far more dominant one in Johnson’s thesis is the U.S. military.

Ten years after the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon monopolizes the formulation and conduct of American foreign policy. Increasingly, the United States has only one, commonly inappropriate means of achieving its external objectives--military force. It no longer has a full repertoire of skills, including a seasoned, culturally and linguistically expert diplomatic corps; truly viable international institutions that the American public supports both politically and financially and that can give legitimacy to American efforts abroad; economic policies that effectively leverage the tremendous power of the American market into desired foreign responses; or even an ability to express American values without being charged, accurately, with hopeless hypocrisy. The use of cruise missiles and B-2 bombers to achieve humanitarian objectives is a sign of how unbalanced our foreign policy apparatus has become.

Johnson thinks this is a problem for the United States--and I tend to agree with him--because the world is not the place it was in 1950.

Unfortunately, Americans still remain confused by the idea that the foundations of power no longer lie in military but in economic and industrial strength. They tolerate, even applaud, irrationally bloated defense budgets while doing little to rebuild and defend the industrial foundations of their own nation.

Johnson is writing in 2000, but he might just as well be writing that paragraph today, when government money spent on infrastructure is seen as socialism but government money spent on the military is seen a patriotism.

But it’s hard to blame the Americans. They’ve been on the dominant side of history for the last hundred years. Johnson explains it this way, remarkably describing the last 200 years of world history in a single paragraph.

Ever since the industrial revolution, the carinal source of friction in world politics has been the economic inequality it produced. This inequality allowed the first industrializers to use their new power to colonize or in other ways subjugate and exploit the nonindustrialized areas of the world. Nationalistically awaked elites among these subjugated peoples then sought in various ways to overcome their relative backwardness, to equalize relations with or achieve supremacy over their victimizers.

The United States is one of the “first industrializers,” extending its wealth and social system into the nonindustrialized areas of the world in order to increase its power, and now it is caught in the ever-increasing demands of empire as it tries to defend its far-flung interests from the “nationalistically awakened elites” among the world’s subjugated peoples who seek to subvert, overcome, or establish alternatives to them.

Johnson even makes the case that much of the urban blight and poverty that has plagued American cities in the last 30 years is a result of the United States defending its far-flung interests over those of its domestic population. In one telling paragraph, he cites Judith Stein, a professor of history at the City College of New York, who has…

...detailed how the de facto U.S. industrial policy of sacrificing American workers to pay for its empire devastated African-American households in Birmingham, Alabama, and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is, of course, another form of blowback. She writes, “At the outset of the Cold War, reconstructing or creating steel industries abroad was a keystone of U.S. strategic policy, and encouraging steel imports became a tool for maintaining vital alliances. The nation’s leaders by and large ignored the resulting conflict between Cold War and domestic goals. Reminiscing about elite thinking in that era, former Federal Reserve Board chairman Paul A. Volcker recalled that ‘the strength and prosperity of the American economy was too evident to engender concern about the costs.’” Moreover, American economic ideologues always dominated what debate there was, couching the problem in terms of protectionism versus internationalism, never in terms of prosperity for whites versus poverty for blacks. The true costs to the United States should be measured in terms of crime statistics, ruined inner cities, and drug addiction, as well as trade deficits.

I don’t know that I’m knowledgeable enough to add my specific condemnation as well, but I always find it interesting to contemplate the costs and benefits associated with American foreign policy. Johnson is clearly saying that the costs--including those unintended consequences he calls blowback--have outweighed the benefits. His concluding chapter contains this summary of his position:

In February 1998, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, defending the use of cruise missiles against Iraq, declared, “If we have to use force, it is because we are America. We are the indispensable nation. We stand tall. We see farther into the future.” In this book I have tried to lay out some important aspects of America’s role in the world that suggest precisely the opposite. I have also tried to explain how the nature and shape of this role grew out of the structural characteristics of the Cold War itself and the strategies the United States pursued, particularly in East Asia, to achieve what it considered its interests during that period and after. I have argued that the United States created satellites in East Asia for the same reasons that the former Soviet Union created satellites in Eastern Europe. For over forty years, the policies needed to maintain these client states economically, while protecting and controlling them militarily, produced serious unintended consequences, most of which Americans have yet to fully grasp. They hollowed out our domestic manufacturing and bred a military establishment that is today close to being beyond civilian control. Given that the government only attempts to shore up, not change, these anachronistic arrangements, one must ask when, not whether, our accidental empire will start to unravel.

It’s a question I increasingly find myself asking as well.

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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at

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