BLOWBACK: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire 
The U.S. Maintains a Cold War Posture in a New World

Chalmers Johnson is president of the Japan Policy Research Institute and author of Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire (Metropolitan Books).

Every now and then a new word emerges from the labyrinth of our secret services for which we might be thankful. The American press has recently started to use the term "blowback." Central Intelligence Agency officials coined it for internal use in the wake of decisions by the Carter and Reagan administrations to plunge the agency deep into the civil war in Afghanistan. It wasn't long before the agency was secretly arming every mujahideen volunteer in sight, without considering who they were or what their politics might be -- all in the name of ensuring that the Soviet Union had its own Vietnam-like experience. The American public may believe that the destabilization of the Soviet Union was worth 1.8 million Afghan casualties, 2.6 million refugees, and 10 million land mines left in the ground there -- but it does not yet know about all the "blowback" its Afghan adventure also unleashed.

Not so many years later, these Afghan "freedom fighters" began to turn up in unexpected places. Some of them bombed the World Trade Center in New York City, murdered several C.I.A. employees on their way to work in Virginia as well as some American businessmen in Pakistan who just happened to become symbolic targets. The Afghans also support Osama bin Laden, who was once a prime C.I.A. "asset" back when our national security advisers thought giving guns to religious fundamentalists was a great idea.

In this context, "blowback" came to mean the unintended consequences of American policies kept secret from the American people. In fact, to C.I.A. officials and an increasing number of American international relations pundits, "blowback" has become a term of art acknowledging that the unconstrained, often illegal, invariably secret acts of the "last remaining superpower" in other people's countries can result in retaliation against innocent American citizens. The dirty tricks agencies are at pains never to draw this connection between what they do and what sometimes happens to the people who ultimately pay their salaries. So we are supposed to believe that the bombings of American embassies in East Africa in 1998, the proliferation of sophisticated weapons around the world, or the crack cocaine epidemic in American cities are simply examples of "terrorism," the work of "unscrupulous arms dealers," "drug lords," "ancient hatreds," "rogue states" -- anything unconnected to America's global policies.

Perhaps the term "blowback" can help us to relink certain violent acts against Americans to the policies from which they secretly sprang. From the hollowing out of key American industries due to the export-led economic policies of America's satellites in East Asia to refugee flows across our southern borders from countries where U.S.-supported repression has created hopeless conditions or U.S.-supported economic policies have led to unimaginable misery, blowback reveals to us a longer history of American imperial hubris.

The American people believe that their role in the world is virtuous -- that their actions have been for the good of others as well as themselves -- and they insist that even when their country's actions have led to disaster their motives were still honorable. But the evidence is building up that in the decade following the end of the Cold War, the United States seriously misread the nature of the world and the role of the United States in it. Instead of leading through diplomacy and attempting to set a good example, it has resorted most of the time to bluster, military force, and financial manipulation.

On the economic front, through an excess of hubris and imprudence, the U.S. in the 1990s set out to compel all the economies on earth to remodel themselves to look like the United States. This ignorant project not only failed, it brought discredit to the very idea of free trade (as the Seattle and Washington, D.C., demonstrations suggest) and raised serious questions about the motives of the United States in the world economy. The world is still poised on the edge of a possible global recession caused by the United States, even though the U.S. itself has thus far been the least affected by the world economic crisis. Even if a collapse of global demand is avoided, these misguided American economic policies have set back thirty years of economic progress in Southeast Asia, particularly in Indonesia, and laid the foundation for future economic, political, and military retaliation against the United States by the devastated nations.

In February 1998, the U.S. secretary of state, Madeleine Albright, defending the use of cruise missiles against Iraq, declared that "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" (New Republic, May 25, 1998). The evidence suggests precisely the opposite. I believe this negative American role grew out of the structural characteristics of the Cold War and the strategies the U.S. pursued, particularly in East Asia, to achieve what it thought were its interests during that period. The United States created satellites in East Asia for the identical same reasons that the former Soviet Union created satellites in East Europe. During the course of the Cold War, the U.S.S.R. intervened militarily to try to hold its empire together in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. The United States intervened militarily to try to hold its empire together in Korea and Vietnam. The United States, incidentally, killed a great many more people in its two losing interventions than the U.S.S.R. did in its two winning interventions.

Over time, however this pattern produced gross overinvestment and excess capacity in East Asia. It also produced the world's largest trade deficits in the United States (over $300 billion per year at the present moment), huge trade surpluses in East Asia, and in general a lack of even an approximation of equilibrium in supply and demand across the Pacific. Moreover, contrary to the Communist accusations of neocolonialism, these terms were costly to the United States. They cost American jobs, destroyed American manufacturing industries, and smashed the hopes of American minorities and women trying to escape from poverty.

The American government continued to accept these costs as the price of keeping its empire together. From about the Nixon administration on, the U.S. did start to negotiate more or less seriously with the Japanese and the other "miracle economies" to open their markets to American goods and to "level the playing field." But the attempt to lessen trade friction and open reciprocal markets in East Asia always collided with the security relationship. In order to level the economic playing field, the United States would also have had to level the security playing field, and this it was never willing to do.

Basing a capitalist economy on export sales rather than domestic demand ultimately contains the seeds of its own destruction. It subverts the function of the unfettered world market to reconcile and bring into balance supply and demand. Instead of producing what the people of a particular economy can actually use, an export regime thrives on foreign demand artificially engineered by an imperialist power. In East Asia during the Cold War, the strategy worked so long as the American economy remained overwhelmingly larger than the economies of its dependencies and so long as only Japan and perhaps one or two other smaller countries pursued this strategy. But by the 1980s the Japanese economy had become the size of two Germanies. Moreover, virtually everyone else in East Asia (and potentially every underdeveloped country on earth) had some knowledge of the miracle economies and was trying to duplicate Japanese-style high-speed growth. The overcapacity for things oriented to the American market (or that were needed to expand East Asia productive capacity even further) became overwhelming. There were too many factories turning out automobiles, television sets, semiconductors, petrochemicals, steel, and ships for too few buyers. The current global demand for automobiles, for example, peaked at around 50 million vehicles, but capacity has already grown to 70 million. As a result of the global economic crisis that began in 1997, auto sales in Southeast Asia fell from 1.3 million in 1997 to 450,000 in 1998.

Meanwhile, the hollowing out of American industry continues unabated. Even though American trade representatives sometimes berate Japan for its protectionism and dumping, the Japanese have learned simply not to listen. Whenever the U.S. Trade Representative seems about to do something serious about Japanese predatory trading practices, the Japanese government invokes the U.S. secretary of defense. The Pentagon then tells the U.S.T.R. that the "broader relationship," meaning the fifty or so U.S. bases in Japan and the 100,000 troops in Northeast Asia, takes precedence over any other interests of American citizens. If there should be an active protest from American industry or labor, the Central Intelligence Agency or the Defense Intelligence Agency steps in and finds or invents a new military threat to justify the Pentagon's primacy. These are among the costs of maintaining the American empire.

Perhaps these American policies made strategic sense during the period from approximately 1950 to 1970, when they also had the desirable consequence of bringing real competition to such complacent industries as American automobile manufacturing. But today these old policies are utterly destructive to both the security and economic well-being of both the U.S. and Japan. They continue to alter the American economic system away from manufacturing and toward finance capitalism, and they prevent Japan from producing an economy that can stand alone and trade with other economies on a mutually beneficial basis. The day of reckoning for American pride and Japanese myopia cannot be very far away.

World politics in the twenty-first century will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the twentieth century -- that is, from the unintended consequences of the Cold War and the crucial American decision to maintain a Cold War posture in a post-Cold War world. The United States likes to think of itself as the winner of the Cold War. In all probability, to those looking back a blowback century hence, neither side will appear to have won, particularly if the United States maintains its present imperial course.

The article was based on a talk given by Mr. Johnson before the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Published: Apr 28 2000


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