To Chalmers Johnson, American Militarism Was to Colonialism as Overseas Bases Are to Colonies

Cross-posted from the Dissent Magazine blog Arguing the World.

On November 20, Chalmers Johnson, scholar of East Asian development and critic of American empire, died at age seventy-nine.

While Johnson arguably finished his career as a member of what White House press secretary Robert Gibbs calls the “professional Left,” he did not begin it that way. Iwrote in a 2007 review of Johnson’s book Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic:

Johnson’s writing is often described as “polemic,” but that doesn’t capture the heartfelt concern that underlies his distress about our country. Whereas many of us have grown numb to White House outrages, Johnson’s indignation at the administration—its torture memos, its contempt for the freedom of public information, its defacing of established treaties—is vivid. This might be due to his conservative background: a Navy lieutenant in the early ‘50s, a consultant for the CIA from 1967 to 1973, and a long-time defender of the Vietnam War, Johnson became horrified at American militarism and interventionism only later in life. He now writes like he is making up for lost time.

Interestingly, he retained some more conservative supporters. In an obit at the National Interest, Jacob Heilbrunn writes: “In a sense, it may be a mistake to say that Chalmers moved to the ‘left.’ He personified many of the ‘old right’ themes as well.”

Whatever the case, Johnson made some fine contributions to debates in international politics and political economy. Of his early work, Steve Clemons comments:

[Johnson] invented and was the acknowledged godfather of the conceptualization of the “developmental state”. Chalmers Johnson led the way in understanding the dynamics of how states manipulated their policy conditions and environments to speed up economic growth. In the neoliberal hive at the University of Chicago, Chalmers Johnson was an apostate and heretic in the field of political economy. Johnson challenged conventional wisdom with he and his many star students—including E.B. Keehn, David Arase, Marie Anchordoguy, Mark Tilton and others—writing the significant treatises documenting the growing prevalence of state-led industrial and trade and finance policy abroad, particularly in Asia.

Today, the notion of “State Capitalism” has become practically commonplace in discussing the newest and most significant features of the global economy. Chalmers Johnson invented this field and planted the intellectual roots of understanding that other nation states were not trying to converge with and follow the so-called American model.

I haven’t personally investigated the debate over Japan that Clemons references, but I can say that there has been discussion of “state capitalism” in the socialist tradition that long predates Johnson. Nevertheless, the idea that the “Asian Tigers” did not successfully develop their economies as a result of neoliberal adherence to IMF dictates—but rather, in many instances, by blatantly defying these dictates—is an important concept that deserves frequent reiteration.

The other two ideas of Johnson’s that stood out for me come from his later work. They are the concepts of “Blowback” and “Baseworld.”

The first notion is quite well-known at this point. “Blowback” is apparently a CIA-originated term, but Johnson popularized it with a book of that name that became a bestseller in the wake of 9/11. The term refers to unintended consequences of a country’s foreign policy—particularly its covert actions. The United States government’s arming of the mujahedeen in Afghanistan during the Cold War, something that doesn’t look so wise in retrospect, stands as a prime example.

“Baseworld,” a less-discussed idea, is Johnson’s proposal that America’s imperial reach (and hubristic overstretch) can be measured by its far-flung web of military bases. As I wrote in 2007:

Johnson’s most distinctive contribution to the debate about U.S. empire is his documentation of America’s vast network of overseas military bases, a project he began in his 2004 book The Sorrows of Empire. “Once upon a time, you could trace the spread of imperialism by counting up colonies,” he writes in Nemesis. “America’s version of the colony is the military base.” The United States officially maintains 737 bases worldwide, worth more than $127 billion and covering at least 687,347 acres in some 130 foreign countries. For local populations exposed to the pollution, bar fights, and brothels that surround such encampments, they are wounds that fester daily. At home, Johnson argues, Americans suffer from the bloated military budgets required to maintain this “baseworld.”

At the time, I criticized Johnson for only measuring U.S. influence in terms of military assets and paying insufficient attention to soft power. I would still contend that looking at military bases only provides a partial view of the American role in the world. Yet “baseworld” is one of those ideas that, once it’s on your radar, keeps popping up again and again. In recent years, I’ve found myself frequently citing Johnson when trying to convey the extent of everyday U.S. power projection throughout the world—an aggressive posturing that consistently goes unnoticed here at home.

Likewise, I disagreed with Johnson when he used language (as he often did in the last decade of his life) suggesting that the military industrial complex and George W. Bush’s executive power grabs had fundamentally undermined our democratic republic. When he argued, “the structure of government in Washington today bears [no] resemblance to that outlined in the Constitution of 1787,” Johnson subscribed to something like Naomi Wolf’s “End of America” thesis, which I think is bunk.

Nevertheless, I agree with Johnson’s admonishment that adventurist foreign policy comes at a steep cost for our country, and not only in financial terms. Remembering the late scholar, we do well to take to heart his warning that, unless we seriously reexamine our astronomical military spending and disastrous record of military interventionism, we risk “losing our democracy for the sake of keeping our empire.”

Mark Engler can be reached via his website, Democracy Uprising.