I recently had an article in the print edition of Reason on Justin Hart’s Empire of Idea, a book about America’s efforts to influence world opinion. Peter Suderman interview me for a profile to run beside the article…but of course, I was over verbose, so most of my responses got cut. Peter, though, has kindly gave me permission to run the whole thing here instead.
Peter Suderman: What makes America so susceptible to foreign policy blunders?
NB: I think America’s tendency to stumble into foreign policy quagmires probably has a lot to do with the fact that we’re just everywhere. We’ve got a finger in every pie (and/or a foot on every neck, if you want to be more confrontational about it.) I think there’s just a
very strong ideological commitment to leading the world/solving all the world’s problems, which is partially expressed through spending tons and tons and tons of money on weapons — and once you’ve got all those weapons, there’s a huge incentive to use them, which reinforces the ideology, and you buy more weapons, and on and on and on.
PS: Do you think there’s a disconnect between U.S. policy/government elites and less-well-connected citizens when it comes to foreign policy? Or are they basically in sync?
NB: There are obviously a lot of Americans, of all walks of life, who enjoy the image of the United States as a superpower, and who identify with the US projection of power. On the other hand, there’s also a substantial number of folks who want us to be doing less. Obama won the Democratic primary basically as the less-imperialism candidate. But then, of course, in office, he’s projected force as enthusiastically, if thank God less incompetently, than his predecessor. So…I’d say that elites are more unified in their support for imperial adventures. Those adventures draw at least occasional substantial opposition from the public, but that opposition seems difficult to translate into elite action (except in cases of transparent policy failure, like Iraq).
PS: You’ve written an awful lot about pop-culture. Does pop-culture contribute in important ways to how America sees itself in the world? Are there particularly relevant, insightful pop culture portrayals of America’s foreign policy outlook?
NB: I think pop culture both reflects and can contribute to how America sees itself, or what America does. I guess the most obvious recent example of that is 24, which became a touchstone for pro-torture arguments.
I think Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ comic Watchmen is an extremely insightful look at America’s foreign policy. It was written in the 80s, obviously, but it’s still really relevant, I think. It’s about the allure of power and of saving others, about the utilitarian calculus of sacrifice that goes along with it, and about the way that that utilitarian calculus ultimately founders on the fact that no power is ever enough power, and that, however many bombs you have, the future really isn’t under your control. Ozymadnias’ piles and piles of dead bodies are meant to be a sacrifice on the altar of the new future — but the book strongly suggests that they are, really, just piles and piles of dead bodies. The fact that it’s the liberal one-worlder who turns out to be the mass murderer while the right-wing fascist nutball is repulsed by the violence is a nice reminder that imperialism can be centrist as well as extremist .
PS: What do you think America could have done to avoid being linked with
European colonialism? Or was that linkage inevitable?
NB: America has long had an isolationist strain; it seems at least possible that that could have had more of an influence than it did. Counterfactuals are hard to figure, though.
Reason ran a photo of me with the article as well…but looking at it again, I don’t think I can bear to reprint it. It’s just hard to avoid looking willfully smug in author photos, I guess. So if you want to see my shame, you’ll just have to pick up that issue of Reason.