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The Theory of U.S. Foreign Policy — I

United States foreign policy has been generating defeats for well over a decade now but never at such a fast and furious pace as during the last few months. . . .

What is the reaction in the American ruling class to this consistent and comprehensive failure of foreign policy?  One might expect mounting criticism and growing support for an alternative policy or policies.  And yet one looks in vain for anything of the kind in the United States today.  We are in the midst of an election campaign, which gives all the leading politicians of both political parties plenty of chance to expound their views to the public.  So far as we know, not one of them has once voiced any criticism of the essentials of American policy or proposed that it be changed in any important respect. . . .

How are we to explain this?  How account for the fact that the virtually unanimous response of the American ruling class to failure is an evasion of any serious analysis of the causes and a stubborn adherence to the very policies that have consistently led to failure in the past?

Without giving complete answers to these questions,1 we may nevertheless set out some of the relevant considerations.

To begin with, it is crucially important to recognize that foreign policy is shaped and dominated by domestic class interests.  This is as true of the United States today as it was of the Roman Empire or the France of Louis XIV.  In some countries at some times the class structure and the pattern of interests reflected in foreign policy present a more or less complicated puzzle.  This was true, for example, of the United States in the mid-19th century when the nation included two conflicting forms of society struggling for control of the national government, each with its own class structure and its particular needs in the area of foreign policy.  It was also true, to take another example, of Imperial Germany in the half century before World War I, that unique mixture of feudalism and capitalism that was driven by a rigorous inner logic to antagonize both Russia in the East and England in the West and thus to ensure its own eventual downfall.

The United States today, by comparison, is a much simpler case.  It is completely dominated by monopoly capitalism, remnants of earlier social forms (particularly the independent farming class) being largely powerless.  The normal state of an advanced monopoly capitalist society — in the sense of the norm toward which it is always tending — is chronic depression.  The United States reached this stage of development some time between 1910 and 1930, with the norm becoming the reality in the 1930’s.  Chronic depression is not a viable condition, being against the interests of both capitalists and workers.  It can be overcome (but not eliminated as a tendency) by, and only by, a large and steadily growing public sector.  Theoretically, this public sector can take either a “welfare” or a “warfare” form.  But a large and growing welfare program runs counter to the interests of a privileged ruling class, since it necessarily implies a cumulative program of social reform, the erosion of special rights and privileges, etc.  A large and growing warfare program, on the other hand, not only “solves” the economic problem of monopoly capitalism but also helps to preserve intact the existing class structure with its graded system of rank, status, and privilege.  Furthermore, and this is of the greatest importance, the military might which it creates is absolutely essential to the maintenance of the world-wide economic empire which provides monopoly capitalism with indispensable (and highly profitable) raw materials, markets, and investment outlets.  The ruling class therefore has the strongest kind of interest in seeing to it that the necessary public sector is a warfare sector.  The working class, though of course its objective interests would be better served by a welfare sector, prefers the warfare sector to mass unemployment, and — judging from experience to date — can be relatively easily mass-persuaded into accepting it as a patriotic duty.

Thus we see that in the case of mid-20th-century America, the thrust of domestic class interests imperatively demands the cold war and the arms race, and it becomes the primary task of foreign policy to provide the necessary justification. . . .

We noted earlier that the all-but unanimous response of the ruling class to this deterioration in America’s world position has been, not to question the policy that has led to it, but rather to insist that what is needed is more zeal in applying that policy.  The foregoing analysis enables us to explain this apparent paradox.  Up to now, the decline of the United States as a world power has had only minor repercussions on the domestic economy and has therefore left undisturbed the pattern of class interests that determines foreign policy.  As long as this remains true there is no reason to expect either a change in foreign policy or an interruption in the process of decline.

At this point we must digress briefly to answer a possible objection.  It might be contended that our theory leaves out an important factor, that in determining their actions people can and do take account not only of the immediate situation facing them but also of trends and probable future situations.  Is it not still a mystery why the American ruling class not only does nothing to check the deterioration of the United States world position but actually intensifies the policies that are responsible for the deterioration?  The answer, it seems to us, depends on the most fundamental characteristic of a bourgeois society (or any other society based on private property), namely, that the overriding concern of each individual is and must be to look out for his own interests as best he can.  What happens to the whole society is the resultant of an infinite number of individual self-seeking actions.  The mentality of members of such a society (apart from revolutionary classes or groups, if any) is completely dominated by this arrangement.  Each identifies the public interest with his own private interest and therefore has no inhibitions or guilt feelings about promoting his private interests even if he comes to occupy a governmental position carrying with it the duty to serve the entire society.2  There is nothing in all this to prevent the individual from looking ahead and planning his private affairs in such a way as to take account of anticipated as well as actual situations, even if this means some sacrifice in the present.  But it does mean that individuals cannot and will not look ahead and take upon themselves or seek to impose upon others present private sacrifices in exchange for an anticipated future group benefit.  This is why in a capitalist society collective foresight and planning ahead are possible only to the extent that they involve negligible present sacrifices and ultimate benefits to all or nearly all individuals who count (i.e. property owners).  If present sacrifices are substantial and future benefits collective, no action is possible.  The bourgeois mentality, in other words, is so conditioned that it can never transcend the horizon of individual interests.  When a given historical situation seems to call for such an effort, the response is a recourse to rationalizations which, while distorting reality, provide the needed justification for attitudes and actions which can pass the private-interest test.

This analysis explains one of the most obvious and yet puzzling things about capitalist society, why it can never act in advance to forestall a crisis, no matter how predictable it may be, but must always wait and act after the crisis has occurred.  Hundreds of illustrations of this proposition could be cited, but one will suffice.  Urban sociologists and city planners are almost unanimous in telling us that our great metropolitan centers are headed straight for paralysis and that present-day transportation policies are hastening the day of disaster.  And yet no effective counter-measures are being taken and it is safe to predict that none will be until the decisive private interests are immediately and overwhelmingly threatened.  We suggest that precisely the same principle applies in the field of international affairs.  A foreign policy which rains favors on private interests is precipitating the decline and fall of the United States as a world power.  Nothing will be done about it, however, unless and until those same private interests begin to be hurt rather than benefited. . . .

How soon and in what ways can we expect the deterioration of America’s world position to begin to have serious adverse effects on the American economy?  And what form are these adverse effects likely to take? . . .


1  They ought to be a primary concern of professional social scientists, but they are not.  The reason is that social scientists in this country today are dependent on universities and foundations which in turn are under the direct and close control of authentic representatives of ruling-class interests and ideology.  Social scientists are treated generously and allowed to do what they want, but on one condition, namely, that they steer clear of any attempt at a critical analysis of American society.  There are of course exceptions, but they are all of the rule-proving variety.

2  Remember the classic formulation of Charlie Wilson: “What is good for General Motors is good for the United States.”

Paul M. Sweezy (1910-2004) was a Marxist economist and founding editor of Monthly Review.  Leo Huberman was an American Marxist and co-founder and co-editor of Monthly Review.  The text above is excerpted from the Review of the Month of the September 1960 issue of Monthly Review (12.5).

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