Fear of a Black Atlantic World Order

A review of Adom Getachew’s Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination (Princeton University Press, 2019).

By Alden Young

As the century drew to a close, elites believed themselves to be at the end of history. Many American foreign policy elites had taken for granted the United States’ commitment to economic globalization. From the Clinton era onwards, Democratic Party elites frequently suggested that globalization was an inevitable, irreversible, and ultimately beneficial process. According to Bill Clinton, the championing of globalization was one of the United States’ greatest achievements during the decades since 1945, and while a few rough edges remained, globalization was an unambiguous good for the United States and for the developing world. These narratives about the success of the American project help to explain the shock and outrage that policy wonks expressed when President Trump abruptly reversed course and suggested that globalization was a scam, a project crafted by corrupt elites and designed to rob hard-working Americans of their livelihoods. 

Perhaps Trump’s greatest heresy, in the eyes of the liberal orthodoxy of globalization, was his suggestion that the United States adopt industrial policy in the name of national security and unilaterally use tariffs to seek to preserve and expand America’s economic advantages while arguing that the international market was something that an American president could seek to shape rather than prepare his country’s workforce to adjust to. Crude as his articulation was, it made an explicit claim that markets did not naturally stand apart from politics, but were actively created and shaped by political action.

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Empire of Ignorance, Ignorance of Empire

A review of Daniel Immerwahr’s How to Hide an Empire: A History of the Greater United States (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2019).

By Kelsey D. Atherton

It is impossible to unmake an empire without describing its borders. The United States of America is a hodgepodge of imperial legacies and relationships that shape the entire structure of world politics today, but the history of the United States is largely learned as a subject bounded by the “logo map”–the common map of American territory featuring the lower 48 states and inserts for Alaska and Hawaii. It is entirely possible for white Americans to grow up in the mainland and come away with the impression that empire is something only other countries did, and that no one currently does. Textbooks keep the contradictions and obligations of westward expansion, Pacific and Caribbean interventions and occupations, and the forcible subjugation and exclusion of indigenous peoples all firmly locked away in a past that, the textbooks say, produced the self-contained republic the logo map depicts. As anyone who grew up outside the map can say, however, self-contained American republic is a myth.

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“Women and Children” Never

A review of Erin Baines’ Buried in the Heart: Women, Complex Victimhood and the War in Northern Uganda (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

By Gretchen Baldwin

Too often, lives touched by violent conflict are neatly divided into binaries—victims and perpetrators, guilty and innocent, state and non-state, and so on. In the policy world, women in conflict are frequently placed in one side of those binaries–understood as innocent victims, inherently inclined toward peace. Those reductive assumptions show through in the oft-repeated phrase “women and children”–the UN Women program in Nigeria, for example, uses a single line of effort to “improve protection for women and children in conflict settings.” The conflation of women and children simultaneously infantilizes women and negates the complexity of children’s issues, and neither the phrase nor the sexist logic that underpins it should have any place in policy discussions. Instead, scholars and policymakers must work to disaggregate these categories and confront the multi-faceted realities of people embroiled in political violence.

A movement to understand conflict outside of the standard victim-perpetrator binary has emerged recently in the study of political violence and transitional justice. One of the movement’s major contributions has been to begin grappling with  “complex victimhood,” an approach that moves “beyond static categories of victim and perpetrator… to recognize contingency and agency within these categories.” Erin Baines, in her book Buried in the Heart: Women, Complex Victimhood and the War in Northern Uganda, strikes a blow against “women and children” framing and demonstrates how thinking about complex victimhood can improve our understanding of women as political actors in conflicts.

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The How-To Question

A review of Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence (Norton, 2018) and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House (Random House, 2018).

By Alex Thurston

Recently, there has been some compelling work done to articulate a left foreign policy vision, but there has been little corresponding work on left foreign policy implementation. If a democratic socialist won the White House, how would the left approach the nuts and bolts of foreign policy? Has anyone on the American left run a Deputies’ Committee meeting? Steered a nominee through confirmation hearings? Written talking points for a president?

After all, even a democratic socialist president elected with a large mandate might encounter suspicion and opposition not just from Congress, but also from the military and executive branch agencies – the Department of Defense, the intelligence community, and even the State Department. Unlike the bipartisan foreign policy “blob,” moreover, the left’s bench of people with senior executive branch experience is thin. The left has little access to the networks that produce papers such as “Process Makes Perfect” – although the left would do well to study such reports. In short, the best foreign policy vision might falter when faced with the challenges of building effective governing coalitions within the executive branch itself.

One way to examine these problems is through the lens of new memoirs by Obama-era officials. Two books attracted my interest first – Ronan Farrow’s War on Peace: The End of Diplomacy and the Decline of American Influence and Ben Rhodes’ The World As It Is: A Memoir of the Obama White House. Continue reading “The How-To Question”

Down with the demos! Long live democracy!

A review of Daniel Bessner’s Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual (Cornell University Press, 2018).

By Jasmine Chorley

In his December 1939 essay “The Jews and Europe,” German critical philosopher Max Horkheimer pilloried a certain group of his fellow refugee intellectuals:

“No one can demand that, in the very countries that have granted them asylum, the émigrés put a mirror to world that has created fascism. But whoever is not willing to talk about capitalism should also keep quiet about fascism … No matter if the hymn the intellectuals intone to liberalism often comes too late, because the countries turn totalitarian faster than the books can find publishers; the intellectuals have not abandoned hope that somewhere the reformation of Western capitalism will proceed more mildly than in Germany and that well-recommended foreigners will have a future after all. But the totalitarian order differs from its bourgeois predecessor only in that it has lost its inhibitions … Fascism solidifies the extreme class differences which the law of surplus value ultimately produced.

Hans Speier  exemplified such an émigré-turned American patriot, playing foundational roles at the RAND Corporation, MIT’s Center for International Studies, and the Ford Foundation’s Center for Behavioral Studies. Born in Berlin to conservative, middle-class, Lutheran parents, Speier forged an independent path, declining to accept his confirmation blessing, aligning himself with the Social Democratic Party of Germany (SPD), and leaving Berlin in 1926 for Heidelberg to pursue doctoral studies. His years as a young sociologist in the Weimar Republic (1919–1933) were formative, not only for Speier’s own intellectual development, but for the American defense intellectualism and foreign policy that he would go on to embed himself in: this relationship is the subject of historian Daniel Bessner’s book Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual.

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Reckoning with the Imperial We

A review of Doug Mack’s The Not-Quite State of America: Dispatches from the Territories and Other Far-Flung Outposts of the USA (W. W. Norton, 2017).

By Kelsey Atherton

Before I can talk about Doug Mack’s travelogue-cum-history of America’s colonies, “The Not-Quite States of America,” I’m going to take a quick detour to talk about the Red Sox. As a baseball-ambivalent westerner, growing up I knew vaguely that the Sox were good in like the 1910s, hadn’t won a World Series in a long time, and then were good again, winning a bunch of them. But I didn’t really understand what that meant as lifetimes of lived experience, generations of crushing disappointment between triumphs. To make sure I could grasp the significance, my Massachusetts born-and-raised spouse sat me down with “Still We Believe,” a 2004 movie documenting the Sox’s 2003 season. By sheer coincidence, 2003 was the 86th and final year of an 86-year-long World Series drought, and so by luck director Paul Doyle Jr. managed to capture the last moment of a certain mood, a certain era, a certain generations-long status quo that would, within a year, change radically.

It was this sense of accidental prescience that kept striking me as I read “Not-Quite States.” The book was first published in 2017 (through Twitter, Mack sent me an early copy of the paperback, which released last month), and the travels documented took place in the few years before publication. Mack is by trade a travel writer, and so his work reads as an over-the-shoulder look of who he met, what he saw, and the big questions he was thinking about during the travels. The impetus for the trip is charmingly mundane: Mack and his wife Maren mused over some minted quarters for the territories, like the earlier ones for the States, and from there Mack decided to go in search of the asterixed part of America. That he did so right before Hurricanes Irma and Maria devastated the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico is cosmic coincidence. Here we have tourist testament and travelogue, aimed to get the passively curious stateside reader interested in the fates of the territories, and suddenly too we have the territories thrust into the national conversation in a way the territories haven’t been for a generation, and possibly haven’t been since they were first acquired in a fit of imperial pique.

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