Making the World Safe for…Business?

By Christopher Layne and Benjamin Schwarz

2 April 1999 LOS ANGELES TIMES

US Flag Around the Earth

Is the U.S. fighting a war in Kosovo to make the world safe for capitalism? The Clinton administration’s own justifications for its grand strategy and its Balkan policy raise this issue. But as disturbing a thought as this is, it is not a new question.

In the 1960s, against the backdrop of America’s deepening commitment in Vietnam, a group of so-called “revisionist” historians challenged orthodox explanations of U.S. foreign policy. In his classic book, “The Tragedy of American Diplomacy,” historian William Appleman Williams maintained that American statesmen believed that U.S. prosperity depended upon exports and overseas economic relationships.

According to revisionists like Williams, U.S. policymakers thus believed that they needed to impose upon those regions considered economically vital to the United States an informal empire of “virtuous omnipotence” that guaranteed a safe, stable and predictable environment conducive to expanding trade relations. As Williams explained, U.S. policymakers assigned an awesome international responsibility to America: “The protection and extension of the market in which the principle of free competition could operate.” Therefore, “classical liberal economics led to an expansionist foreign policy.”

At the time, this interpretation of American diplomacy was harshly criticized as a form of crude Marxist economic determinism. But now, remarkably, American policymakers are parroting the revisionist arguments. In explaining its global strategy, for instance, the Pentagon declares that “a prosperous, largely democratic, market-oriented zone of peace and prosperity that encompasses more than two-thirds of the world’s economy” requires the “stability” that only American “leadership” can provide.

The belief that the U.S. must use military power to create a tranquil international environment in which trade can flourish is not an abstract concept. In the debate over U.S. military intervention in Bosnia, leading foreign policy figures, including Gen. William Odom, former head of the National Security Agency, and Sen. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.) asserted that, left unchecked, the war in Bosnia could destabilize Europe, threatening global economic interdependence and American prosperity.

The war in Kosovo is just the latest installment in what appears to be Washington’s quest to make the world safe for American business. Last year, speaking to the Boston Chamber of Commerce, Defense Secretary William Cohen justified NATO expansion as a way of “spreading the kind of security and stability that Western Europe has enjoyed since after World War II to Central and Eastern Europe. . . . And with that spread of stability, there is a prospect to attract investment.”

On March 23, the day before the bombing of Serbia began, President Clinton himself justified the impending airstrikes by noting that “if we’re going to have a strong economic relationship that includes our ability to sell around the world, Europe has got to be a key. . . . That’s what this Kosovo thing is all about.” No doubt the administration is moved by the human tragedy of Kosovo. However, its perception that U.S. economic interests are at stake is at least as important. As Cohen has said, the administration’s strategy seeks to “discourage violence and instability, which destroys lives and markets.”

Clinton recently exhorted Americans to accept the “inevitable logic” of globalization and free trade. But his Balkan policy demonstrates that globalization is not inevitable and that free trade is actually very expensive. Both depend on America’s overseas military commitments and power. Most frightening about this is its open-endedness. According to U.S. policymakers, the logic of global economic interdependence leads to the proliferation of American security commitments, since instability and aggression are regarded (even in places like Kosovo) as a threat to the global stability upon which U.S. prosperity depends. This thinking is similar to the domino theory that got us in so much trouble in Southeast Asia.

To Williams and other revisionists, America’s dependence on a global economy engendered a far-reaching conception of American security: “The activities of foreign nations were interpreted almost wholly as events which denied the United States the opportunity for its vital expansion. A different explanation for the nation’s [prosperity] would have produced a different estimate of foreign actions, for none of these countries actually threatened the United States.”

Judging by the comments of U.S. policymakers, it appears that the revisionists were right after all: Economic expansionism drives U.S. foreign policy, and American national security often focuses on countries that don’t threaten us militarily. Intervention in the Balkans is just the latest chapter in the tragedy of American diplomacy.

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