Standing Tall on the Backs of Others
by Holly Sklar
excerpted from the book
Reagan, Trilateralism and the Neoliberals:
Containment and intervention in the 1980s
South End Press, 1980
Pax Americana to Realpolitik
U.S. policy planners carried out their most successful effort
to "redefine our world" with the construction of a Pax
Americana amid the World War II ruins of German, British and Japanese
imperialism. The Council on Foreign Relation's War and Peace Studies
provided the basic blueprint for political, military and economic
hegemony. The postwar international monetary system, known as
the Bretton Woods System, revolved around the U.S. dollar and
the "Free World" flourished in the strong embrace of
Washington's global military supremacy.
Business approved. As the president of Business International
put it, "this was one of the periods of freedom: freedom
to invest, freedom to trade, freedom to have economic intercourse.
Stability and freedom."'
Within the United States, the postwar order was legitimated
by the ideology of Cold War liberalism and enforced with wholesale
McCarthyite repression. Cold War liberalism promised guns and
butter: a strong national security state to contain the "red
menace" and a strong welfare state to ward off economic depression,
co-opt organized labor and keep people dreaming the American Dream.
By the late sixties, however, Cold War liberalism was in crisis
at home and abroad. In March 1968 the unofficial group of political,
military and business leaders advising President Johnson-the "Wise
Men"-acknowledged the crisis in Cold War liberalism with
their realization, following the Tet Offensive, that there was
no light at the end of the tunnel in Vietnam.. Faced with a request
for over 200,000 additional troops, most of the Wise Men told
Johnson to de-escalate and press for negotiations: with public
opposition rising, the war could not be won at a politically acceptable
( In the words of Roger Morris, a former aide to Dean Acheson,
McGeorge Bundy and Henry Kissinger, the Wise Men were "the
most senior members of the foreign policy establishment-the 100
or so officials and ex-officials, patrons and proteges, who had
dominated American foreign policy for the last quarter-century.
The Wise Men included McGeorge Bundy, national security adviser
to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson; George Ball, former undersecretary
of state; Cyrus Vance, former deputy secretary of defense and
later secretary of state; John J. McCloy, former assistant secretary
of war [the more honest precursor to "defense"]; Dean
Acheson, former secretary of state; Henry Cabot Lodge, former
ambassador to the United Nations and to South Vietnam; General
Maxwell Taylor, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs. )
The Problems of Empire
Historical parallels can be overdrawn. But in historical terms,
the U.S. emerged from World War II an imperial power and has had
to live with the problems of empire ever since. For great powers
"to survive-and perhaps even to flourish," in the words
of former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, their leaders must
understand the connections between the military, political, and
economic aspects of power...
1956- 1965: When empires cannot produce a commodity vital
to their survival within their borders, they become vulnerable
to decline unless they secure their source of supply by effective
military or political means.
For the Roman Empire it was grain from the then-fertile fields
of Egypt and North Africa. For the U.S., beginning with the mid-50s,
it has been the relatively cheap oil from the Middle East...
Cuba was to show another of the recurring problems of maintaining
the American "empire"-an inability to combine and channel
the process of radical economic and social change in the Third
1965- 1970: Having taken on too large a share of the costs
of collective [Western] security, the U.S. discovered in Vietnam
another of the ancient problems of empire: the high coat in resources
of defending its perimeters.
With the Gulf of Tonkin resolution in 1965, the Senate almost
blindly followed President Lyndon B. Johnson in committing an
unsuspecting U.S. public to a land war in Asia. The costs of this
war for a society that was beginning to commit more and more resources
to meeting the ambitious social goals began to produce the economic
strains-inflation and a weakened dollar-that have haunted the
U.S. for nearly 15 years.
1971-1979: The failure to protect oil supplies that began
with Suez, combined with the economic and political strains caused
by Vietnam produced a long series of reversals for the U.S. in
the 1970s...The decade began with the collapse of the Bretton
Woods monetary agreement...[in 1971]. That year also produced
the first U.S. trade deficit of the 20th century which fed protectionist
sentiments in the U.S., including a domestic political assault
on U.S. multinational corporations...The most serious blow of
the decade, though, was the loss of control over oil supplies
represented by OPEC s successful power grab in 1973...
Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger took over from Lyndon Johnson
and produced another redefinition of U.S. policy. They seized
the long-neglected opportunity to exploit the Chinese-Soviet split,
strategically and economically, and re-opened the door to the
People's Republic of China. Detente replaced the Cold War as the
guiding strategy for U.S.-Soviet relations. Foreign policy was
rooted in realpolitik, a less ideological, more pragmatic calculus
of strategic, economic and political interests. Under the Nixon
Doctrine, the U.S. attempted to delegate some of its responsibility
as "global policeman" to regional deputies: Vietnamization
under Thieu, Iran as gendarme of the Persian Gulf under the Shah.
It was economic policy, not foreign policy, that was Nixon's
undoing among the Establishment. Inter-capitalist rivalry had
heightened in the sixties as the West European and Japanese economies
recovered while the U.S. economy weakened under the weight of
guns and butter. In 1971 the U.S. ran a then-unaccustomed trade
deficit, paying more for imports than it earned from exports.
Monetary stability was threatened by a by-product of worldwide
military and economic endeavors-a growing buildup of dollars outside
Rather than negotiate necessary reforms in the international
economic system, Nixon attempted to reassert U.S. primacy with
a series of protectionist measures remembered as the "Nixon
shocks" (e.g. import restrictions on Japanese textiles).
International bankers and corporate executives were outraged when
Nixon suspended the convertability of dollars into gold, breaking
the Bretton Woods agreements.
As the seventies unfolded, the Pax Americana was challenged
further by national liberation struggles in the colonies and neocolonies,
OPEC oil "commodity power," Third World calls for a
New International Economic Order and a deepening "crisis
of democracy" at home. It was time for a third redefinition
of world order under the aegis of bilateralism.
In the wake of the Nixon shocks, a group of multinational
corporate executives, bankers, academics and politicians from
North America (the U.S. and Canada), Western Europe and Japan
founded the Trilateral Commission. David Rockefeller became the
North American chairman and Zbigniew Brzezinski the executive
director. The key to bilateralism would be the "collective
management" of global "interdependence" by the
trilateral powers. Trilateralism advanced under the Ford-Kissinger
Administration with the first Western economic summit.
With the election of Commission member Jimmy Carter in 1976,
trilateralism had an unprecedented chance to move from theory
to practice. As former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski
notes in his autobiography, "all the key foreign policy decision
makers of the Carter Administration had previously served in the
Trilateral Commission." These included, among others, Vice
President Walter Mondale, Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, Defense
Secretary Harold Brown, Treasury Secretary W. Michael Blumenthal,
Arms Control and Disarmament Agency Director Paul Warnke and United
Nations Ambassador Andrew Young.
Crisis of Democracy
Unfortunately for Carter, the president could no longer "govern
the country with the cooperation of a relatively small number
of Wall Street lawyers and bankers," as a Trilateral Commission
report described an earlier era. In the U.S. section of that report,
The Crisis of Democracy Samuel Huntington (coordinator of national
security on the National Security Council, 1977-78, and a "regular
consultant" to the CIA during the 1960s) laments the erosion
of traditional forms of public and private authority and the widespread
questioning of "the legitimacy of hierarchy, coercion, discipline,
secrecy, and deception-all of which are in some measure, inescapable
attributes of the process of government. " The crisis of
democracy was that too many people participated too much, or attempted
to do so -- Congress, the media, "value-oriented intellectuals"
and, most importantly, the public:
" Previously passive or unorganized groups in the population,
blacks, Indians, Chicanos, white ethnic groups, students, and
women now embarked on concerted efforts to establish their claims
to opportunities, positions, rewards, and privileges which they
had not considered themselves entitled to before. "
The "minorities" and "special interests,"
representing most of the population, were challenging the Establishment
which ruled in the holy name of the National Interest. The Crisis
of Democracy was unusually blunt about the distinction between
egalitarian, participatory democracy and the anemic democracy
beloved by the Establishment: "The effective operation of
a democratic political system usually requires some measure of
apathy and noninvolvement on the part of some [i.e. most] individuals
and groups." The greatest threat to democracy is democracy
"The vulnerability of democratic government in the United
States thus comes not primarily from external threats, though
such threats are real, nor from internal subversion from the left
or the right, although both possibilities could exist, but rather
from the internal dynamics of democracy itself in a highly educated,
mobilized, and participant society."
If peoples' expectations of government were getting out of
hand and democracy was running amuck, it was time for apathy and
the "politics of less" enforced through recession, austerity
and a blame-the-victim campaign against the "special interests."
As usual, Corporate America's counterattack would be cloaked in
the mantle of the National Interest.
Jimmy Carter was the first neoliberal president. He made fiscal
conservatism the bipartisan alternative to the Welfare State.
Business Week asserted in 1979: "If the decline in U.S. power
is to be arrested, the trend toward spending a smaller share of
the federal budget on defense must be reversed, and economic policy
must change in a way that encourages investment at the expense
of consumption." Trilateralist Federal Reserve Chairman Paul
Volcker put it even more bluntly: "The standard [of living]
of the average American has to decline."
Trilateralism and the Neoliberals