John Kerry embraces John McCain at his recent confirmation hearings. Via Flickr/Glyn Lowe.
At his confirmation hearing, the new Secretary of State, John Kerry, declared flatly: “Foreign policy is economic policy.” Now them is fightin’ words if they’re spoken by a scholar of U.S. foreign policy. Scholars of the “revisionist” school have been attacked, reviled, and marginalized for decades simply for saying what Kerry seemed to say: Economic motives are the main drivers of foreign policy. So when revisionists hear a top government official say it out loud, it’s like discovering gold: It’s hard evidence that their view is correct.
And, like discovering gold, it doesn’t happen very often. When U.S. government officials speak in public, they are usually careful to say that American foreign policy has one overriding aim: promoting American values and ideals around the world. Those values and ideals hold true everywhere, the official narrative has always insisted. So our foreign policy goal is to promote the good of everyone, all over the world.
It is permissible, sometimes obligatory, to add that U.S. foreign policy also aims to protect the United States against enemies. And that can readily lead to the goal of “promoting American interests.” But the official narrative assumes that the stronger America is on the world stage, the more able it is to promote its universally true values, which are the only key to world peace. So there can be no conflict between our interests and our altruistic ideals. That identity of interests and values has always been the bedrock of the official story.
It was still the bedrock on Inauguration Day, when Barack Obama proclaimed: “We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law. ... Our interests and our conscience compel us to act on behalf of those who long for freedom. ... Peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes.” The official narrative seemed alive and well.
But just three days later Senator Kerry -- a solid pillar of the foreign policy establishment -- had surprisingly little to say about values and ideals in his statement to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He did talk openly about “advanc[ing] America's security interests in a complicated and even dangerous world.” And he warned that “we will do what we must to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.”
But Kerry went out of his way to put emphasize what revisionists have long seen as the most precious, closely-guarded secret: Economic interests are the mainspring of foreign policy. And he treated it as if it were an obvious, ordinary observation.
The establishment press put the spotlight just where the new head of State wanted it. “Kerry Links Economics to Foreign Policy,” the New York Times headlined. Though he “outlined no grand agenda for the next four years,” the Washington Post reported, “the closest he got to a foreign policy mission statement” was the simple equation: foreign policy = economic policy.
As Kerry explained himself, he gave a whole arsenal of ammunition to the revisionist argument. He introduced his discussion of economics and foreign policy this way: “It’s often said that we can’t be strong at home if we’re not strong in the world.” Then he warned that the U.S. it at risk of losing its “leverage ... strength and prospects abroad.”
Leverage and strength for what prospects? Kerry gave several kinds of answers.
The first sounded like classic revisionist theory: “The world is competing for resources and global markets. Every day that goes by where America is uncertain in that arena, unwilling to put our best foot forward and win, unwilling to demonstrate our resolve to lead, is a day in which we weaken our nation itself.” In other words, the global economy is like a huge pie. America’s strength is defined by how big a slice we get. The goal of foreign policy is to make sure we get a bigger slice than anyone else.
Kerry’s other explanations for building American “leverage” and “strength” were less direct. “The first priority ... as we work to help other countries create order ... will be that America at last puts its own fiscal house in order. “Order,” revisionists point out, has been a central term in American foreign policy discourse for a long time. It’s a code word for a stable capitalist system, where capitalists can safely predict that they’ll get a decent long-term return on their investments.
Kerry was warning that if capitalism can’t guarantee long-term prosperity in the U.S., foreign nations will not be so eager to accept American investments in their own land.
He also had another kind of warning: “It is hard to tell the leadership of any number of countries they must get their economic issues resolved if we don't resolve our own.” Getting “their economic issues resolved” is another coded message, one straight from the fount of common capitalist wisdom: To create the “order” that makes investment safe, many nations must cut public expenditures drastically. To make the world safer for American investors, the U.S. government must use its “leverage” and “strength” to compel other governments to make those painful cuts.
The underlying premise here is the premise of all U.S. foreign policy since at least the 1930s: America’s role in the world is to create and safeguard global “order” -- to make the world safe for capital investment, especially American investment. The U.S. is entitled, in fact obligated, to impose “order” everywhere, by any means necessary. Now that means, in most cases, imposing austerity.
But, Kerry said, demands for austerity from the U.S. won’t be credible if we have a huge budget deficit of our own. So “the first priority of business which will affect my credibility as a diplomat ... is whether America at last puts its own fiscal house in order.”
No doubt Kerry said all this to support Obama’s budget battle against the Republicans. Obama’s call (in his inaugural speech) to “to act in our time” was a message to the GOP to quit their obstructionist ways and accept the centrist compromises the president is always ready to offer. The administration is trying to make the case on every front that the nation’s well-being demands it. Kerry was showing that he’ll be his boss’ loyal servant and sound appropriately urgent.
But Kerry’s eagerness to make the “Foreign policy is economic policy” case reflects more than short-term political tactics. It’s a sign that that the official narrative of American foreign policy is changing, or at least is open to change. Top officials are ready to say openly what revisionists claim they’ve been saying privately, among themselves, all along (and revisionists have plenty of evidence to support that claim).
Why the shift?
The government always faces a major problem when it comes to foreign affairs: Not many Americans care much about the rest of the world, and certainly not about spreading American ideals throughout the world. Government officials have to come up with some other reason to justify their extensive involvements abroad and the tax dollars they spend on those involvements.
It’s not so hard when there is some clearly identified enemy to fight -- as long as the public thinks their tax dollars are buying American victories. Now, though, the only “victories” are pinpoint attacks on “terrorists,” and Obama wants to preserve his freedom in that fight by keeping it secret. The obedient Kerry’s single mention of “terrorism” and “drones” was to downplay their importance.
How can the whole foreign policy enterprise be justified today? At a time when public opinion focuses so single-mindedly on the economy, the answer is obvious: Just say, loud and clear, “Foreign policy is economic policy”; there’s a global economic struggle going on; we Americans need to be strong enough to win it; the only way to win it is to control economic life around the world.
And there’s no great danger for an incoming Secretary of State to say all that, nor to have it headlined in the nation’s leading newspapers. The revisionists have been so effectively silenced that their cries of “I told you so” are not likely to cause much of a ripple. So there’s no reason for the foreign policy establishment to be afraid of their criticism.
But there’s a lesson here that foreign policy revisionists might want to ponder. The stories that interpret and justify public policies -- I call them myths -- are created for political purposes. They can shift as quickly as the political winds. Sometimes those winds blow a heavy dose of truth into the myths. That’s why a myth is not a lie; it’s a mixture of truth and falsehood, with the proportions depending, in large part, on the political needs of the time.
Precisely because the political winds can shift so quickly, groups that have little influence today may find themselves with a lot more influence tomorrow. So the revisionists have good reason to store up their political resources, polish up their own myths, and pack them with as much empirical truth as they can. The golden nugget offered by John Kerry is a treasure that can serve revisionists well for all three of those purposes.