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Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Neo-Cons, having Declared History's End, Try to Reclaim the Past

Having declared that History ended around 1989, it seems that some neo-conservatives are keen also to reclaim aspects of History as 'their' achievement. In particular, it was claimed by a prominent scholar that the Marshall Plan, among other postwar US foreign policies, was a "quintessentially neo-conservative" policy. This was at a recent (excellent) conference of the BISA US Foreign Policy Group at Leeds University.

In later exchanges, the neo-conservative scholar marshalled arch-neo-conservative, Joshua Muravchik, to the cause:
Cold War policies, Muravchik argues, "were muscular policies (we were spending roughly 10 percent of our GNP on defense), to which today's neoconservatism is the heir much more than today's liberalism. While realist policy following the First World War led to unparalleled disaster, neocon policies after the second achieved what was arguably the most perfect success in the history of statecraft-our relatively bloodless victory over a foe possessing the most ponderous military machine ever assembled".

Further more, the argument, it is claimed, was endorsed by no less a source than (neo-conservative?) President Barack Obama in December 2009:
"the world must remember that it was not simply international institutions-not just treaties and declarations-that brought stability to a post-World War II world. Whatever mistakes we have made, the plain fact is this: The United States of America has helped underwrite global security for more than six decades with the blood of our citizens and the strength of our arms".

I don't think that we are in disagreement about fundamentals: the bigger point is correct: the dispute seems to be over what label one applies to the sources of such cold war policies. Perhaps we shd call it 'liberal-internationalist realism' as neither liberal-internationalism nor realism fully captures the blend.

Neo-conservatism, on the other hand, seems to over play the hand: solid conservatives in the 1950s were frequently opposed to Korea, NATO, Marshall aid, Point 4, the UN. So, to the extent that 'neo-cons' (who were they? Was Paul Nitze a neo-con?) can claim to be heirs of Truman, it was in their liberal anti-communist crusade and in their militancy. That unifies them (whoever they were) with the dominant US national security tendency arguing for US preponderance: the US FP establishment. Since neo-cons were not anywhere close to being the tendency they became in the 1970s and after, I doubt that they can be considered the authors of Truman's liberal internationalist realism: that lies much more closely in the contributions of Dean Acheson, partly of George Kennan, in the post-June 1950 period of militarised containment (so ably documented by Jerry Sanders in Peddlers of Crisis), and in activities of a range of elite organisations of which the CFR is a good representative.

The other point of course is that programmes like Marshall aid, but also IMF/World Bank, and even German/Japanese reconstruction, were heavily reliant on the almost two decades of New Deal economic thinking, at the heart of which sat economic and social planning. The recently published excellent book by Jeff Bridoux, American Foreign Policy and Postwar Reconstruction, makes the point brilliantly and with powerful historical evidence.

The neocons of today are not noted for their support of such tendencies, even if some of their ancestors might have been relatively liberal on domestic affairs, except McCarthyism. Their general bent was towards economic liberalism/neo-liberalism; that came to fruition in the 1970s in particular and via the Reagan revolution.

Having declared the End of History, neo-conservatives (minus Francis Fukuyama) seem to want to claim their heroic role in its demise.

Guess what? History marches on and simply asserting that neo-conservatives shaped it does not make it so. And the historical record more than amply demonstrates that.


  1. As Phil Cerny says: The Marshall Plan was about economic policy, not security policy (despite their Cold War linkages), and, as you point out, about liberal Keynesianism turned international and allied to postwar experiments economic planning in places like France, especially (French Politics was my field in those days)! Indeed, French writers (and American writers about France) dealing with the postwar period regard the Marshall Plan as the real source of the French planning system. It not only provided the key subsidies that enabled the planners to pursue their reconstruction projects -- which incidentally laid the foundations for France's own economic "miracle" in the 1950s and 1960s -- but also actually required the sort of information on which planning decisions could be made to be provided to the US funders and their bureaucratic disbursement organisations (the OEEC, etc.). The broader point about the Marshall Plan being the apogee of the Keynesian "postwar consensus" was made to me by J.K. Galbraith himself in an after-dinner conversation we had when I was at Harvard in 1982 at a conference on the 25th anniversary of the Marshall Plan. See, in particular (you probably know this one), William Y. Elliot, et al. (Woodrow Wilson Foundation), The Political Economy of American Foreign Policy (Henry Holt, 1955), which was, if my memory serves me right (I read it 20+ years ago), all about the U.S.'s conversion to economic planning as the way forward in a Cold War world -- as late as 1955! The Postwar Consensus in economic policy was anything but neoconservative, with the neoliberal Friedmanite economics that was (is still, despite the recent financial crisis) at the core of neoconservative doctrine. It was liberal -- in the American sense, i.e. even social-democratic -- anti-communist internationalist.

  2. Interesting insights from both of these comments--thank you. I, too, was struck by the claim that the Marshall Plan was a 'neoconservative' policy. I think the speaker--who is very sympathietic to neoconservatism--was, for the most part, projecting his own policy preferences (in this case for a particularly successful policy) onto neoconservatism as a way of defending and rejuvenating neoconservatism.

    Firstly, the neocons weren't around when the Marshall Plan was announced so it doesn't make sense to say that it was a 'neoconservative' policy. The erstwhile 'neocons' were still largely in the socialist camp in the late forties and were not enthusiastic about any projections of American power.

    Secondly, neocons who were concerned primarily with foreign affairs (as opposed to doemstic and cultural issues) very rarely wrote about economics during or after the Cold War. Although it's true that people like Irving Kristol began to advocate supply-side economics in the seventies, this was seen as as domestic policy issue. It was a response to Johnson's Great Society agenda and the (alleged) development of a culture of dependence amongst the poor. Supply-side was in tune with traditional American values of thrift and hard work; economics was not a vehicle through which to pursue foreign relations (although other non-neocons would later use neoliberalism in that way).

    Instead, foreign policy neocons focused on military issues above all else. Muravchik's passing reference to the post-World War 2 order should not be mistaken for an explicit engagement with economics or the Marshall Plan. One of the major problems with post-Cold War neoconservatism is that, in an age of hyper-globalisation, it draws the parameters of power tightly around state-based military issues and has little to say about economics or transnational issues. In sum, the Marshall Plan came into existence at a time when neoconservatism had not yet emerged and even when it did, neocons never viewed economics as the primary means to pursue American primacy.