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Book Review

An Iconoclastic Argument Against Hubristic U.S. Foreign Policy

BLOWBACK: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire by Chalmers Johnson; Metropolitan Books; $26, 268 pages.

March 24, 2000|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Chalmers Johnson, the brilliant and iconoclastic scholar of China, Japan and the rest of East Asia, has in "Blowback" written a brilliant and iconoclastic assault on American foreign policy since the end of the Cold War. Johnson's book, however, may not be taken as seriously by the American establishment as it deserves to be. In foreign policy circles, Johnson has developed something of a reputation as a gadfly, and as such, he stings by overstatement to make his points.

These points, however, are serious ones. In fact, the book's title is a term used by the CIA to describe the often unintentional and sometimes damaging results of actions that the CIA has undertaken. The 1988 explosion that destroyed Pan Am flight 103, killing 270 people at Lockerbie, Scotland, is cited by Johnson as an example of this.

"It is now widely recognized," he writes, that the attack "was retaliation for a 1986 Reagan administration aerial raid on Libya that killed President Muammar Khadaffi's stepdaughter."

For five years, starting in 1967, Johnson was director of UC Berkeley's Center for Chinese studies and later produced the standard work on Japanese industrial policy, "MITI and the Japanese Miracle." A professor emeritus at UC San Diego today, he finds examples of "blowback" in American policies and actions large and small. The central problem, he writes, is that the United States has extended the policies it undertook to counter the Soviet Union during the 50-year Cold War into the post-Cold War period, a time in which those policies are both inappropriate and self-damaging. The result, he argues, is an "impending crisis of empire" in which the U.S. and, indeed, the world may suffer devastating economic and international disruptions.

Johnson contends that the U.S., hubristic in its current status as sole superpower, sees itself as a model to be imposed on the economic and political systems of all other nations. This overweening arrogance caused the recent financial crisis in East Asia, Johnson says, because America first encouraged the East Asian nations to develop economies dependent on exports to the U.S., then failed to act when speculators raided their currencies.

Johnson argues strenuously that unfettered capitalism is not the only appropriate economic model. He thinks that markets guided and constrained by state action are in some places better models, as in East Asia.

"Adjust to and support the emergence of China on the world stage; establish diplomatic relations with North Korea and withdraw ground forces from the Korean peninsula . . ." Johnson prescribes. "Support global economic diversity rather than globalization," a term he finds merely refers to a concept designed to help the United States.

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America's military, Johnson argues, has become so powerful that its insatiable demands for funding continue to be met even as any military threat to the U.S. has receded to insignificance. China will not for many years achieve a threatening position, he argues. Johnson is scornful of the vast military forces America maintains overseas, citing them as the source of backlash from the nations that they occupy. An example is Japan, where the bulk of American forces are in Okinawa, whose citizens' complaints against the U.S.--noise, pollution, occupation of land and widespread prostitution--Johnson has for some time been championing.

Johnson's conclusion is somber. He believes that world politics in the new century "will in all likelihood be driven primarily by blowback from the second half of the 20th 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 U.S. likes to think it won the Cold War. Historians a hundred years from now are likely to conclude, Johnson declares, that neither side won, "particularly if the United States continues its present imperial course." Such a warning is stern; the judgment, perhaps too strenuous. Yet Johnson in "Blowback" does his countrymen a great service by imploring them to stop, look and listen.

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