Dissent Symposium on US Foreign Policy, June 1994

01 September 1994

A short comment on a more substantial piece by Harvard Professor Stanley Hoffman. It appeared, along with Hoffman and several other commentators, in the Fall 1994 issue of Dissent. Almost five years later, I'd still agree with what I wrote then.

Stanley Hoffman's title "What Should US Foreign Policy Be?" confines him to writing a prescriptive piece and far be it from me to fault an author for not doing what he didn't set out to do. Still, I found myself wishing he had taken more than six lines to examine what American foreign policy actually is, as a rough guide to both the present and the future.

Hoffman sums up the status quo as

  1. an economic policy geared to blasting open markets
  2. a dodgy reliance on Yeltsin and
  3. ad-hoc improvisations in the rest of the world.

Fair enough, but offhand, I'd say there's a good deal more to it than that and ask Stanley Hoffman to go the extra mile and recognise that US policy is also being made by default.

During the scandalous NAFTA vote-garnering scramble, it became clear that Clinton's policy differs from Reagan's and Bush's imperceptibly if at all; that if you can't sell consensus to the American people, you can, if necessary, buy it. In the name of 'free' (deregulated) trade, NAFTA and GATT (or the future World Trade Organisation) will transfer significant powers to non-transparent, non-accountable bodies whose decisions can (in fact already do) supersede domestic law.

For over a year, Clinton didn't bother to appoint a new US Executive Director for the World Bank but hastened to name Larry Summers Under-Secretary of the Treasury, thus making him the man who gives that ED (now Ms. Jan Piercy) her instructions. Summers is not just the former Chief Economist at the Bank who told a select list of colleagues that the logic of 'dumping a load of toxic waste' in low-wage countries is 'impeccable'. He has also praised the 'obvious entrepreneurial energy of the black market' in Russia and has been described by the Los Angeles Times as a 'virtual tent-preacher touting free-market economics to developing countries'.

The Bank with its sister, the IMF, is now making policy - by US design or default - in some ninety countries in the South or the former Eastern bloc. That policy is structural adjustment and it causes enormous human suffering and ecological devastation. One Bank official said in public that the success of this policy in Eastern Europe should be judged by the degree to which unemployment rises (he mentioned 20 per cent jobless as a target). In Russia, where Hoffman rightly sees stability as crucial, the Bank is fast and furiously privatizing with one hand while dismantling social services with the other. The market is somehow, like the Lord, expected to provide.

Either Clinton thinks all this is OK, or he and his people aren't even aware of it - one hesitates to suggest which is worse. The leader of the G7 and host to the Bretton Woods Institutions can, if it so chooses, make policy there - certainly Reagan and Bush didn't hesitate to do so. As one World Bank director said, 'The US could name Mickey Mouse to the Board and he would still have enormous power.' Surely these voluntary transfers of American national sovereignty and policy-making functions to non-democratic, supranational bodies should be noted as a 'foreign' policy of sorts.

Clinton has so far chosen to follow, meek and mild, the lead of his Republican predecessors. In the year 2000, what we used to call the third world will contain about five-sixths of humanity, much of it the victim of two decades of structural adjustment, young, uneducated and angry. As far as I can tell, the United States hasn't a clue as to what a desirable relationship with this fairly sizeable chunk of the planet's population ought to be. There are also going to be increasing conflicts over dwindling ecological resources, including water, forests, bio-diversity; with possibly major, irreversible environmental 'flips' (climate, pollution, nuclear, whatever).

Isn't Hoffman's (or Wolfer's) new 'relationship of major tension' staring us in the face? Is ad-hockery going to see us through as the flash points multiply? It wouldn't take much, not even much money, to establish a more intelligent - not to say more humane - policy towards the increasingly restive poor and towards the planet, but it would mean reining in the supranational institutions which are behaving now like Global Ministries of Trade, Finance and Everything Else.

I don't agree with Hoffman that a 'world steering committee' is the answer. Future clashes will not be along nineteenth century lines, but center rather around what I've described elsewhere as 'boomerangs' - increased environmental destruction and, perhaps, blackmail; more drugs flowing, unstoppable tides of immigration; economic instability, especially job losses as transnational corporations pull up stakes; and more of what he calls a 'bewildering number of conflicts'.

More and more, foreign policy will have immediate domestic consequences. We can either have the undivided reign of the free market (akin to the freedom of the fox in the henhouse) which necessarily excludes most people in the world and damages the natural base on which we all ultimately rely; or we can attempt to create a network of what I can only call, for want of a better name, ecological welfare states. Since Hoffman has taken the lead on prescriptions, I'll follow suit and suggest that the US should perhaps give it some thought.