Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
The great historian of U.S. foreign relations William Appleman Williams once described realism and idealism, or, if you like, isolation and intervention, in American diplomacy as two sides of the same coin, a “containment-liberation” complex: idealism gets us into whatever the quagmire of the moment is, and realism keeps us there while promising to get us out. It’s a fitting description of the last ten years, as the neocon hubris that characterized the Bush administration’s military interventions yielded to the pragmatism of Barack Obama, who not only hasn’t extricated the United States from his predecessor’s wars, but has started one of his own, in Libya, in the name of democracy.
Alexander Downes asks us to consider the consequences of regime change, arguing that it is more likely to produce conflict than stability. This has been the case in Latin America. Between 1898 and 1994, Washington effectively acted to change governments in Latin America at least 41 times, a tally that includes neither many unsuccessful efforts at regime change, nor the invasions, filibustering, and gunboat diplomacy that took place throughout the previous century.
Whether any of these interventions could be considered worthwhile policy depends on one’s point of view. In March 2003 William Kristol, in an effort to justify the invasion of Iraq by chastising those who had earlier opposed Ronald Reagan’s efforts to unseat the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, called Central America an “amazing success story,” though the region is among the poorest, most violent, and most desperate places on the planet. That it falls squarely within Washington’s sphere of influence hardly testifies to the United States’s nation-building credentials.
U.S. interventions in the Western Hemisphere have generally had disastrous consequences. Downes mentions Guatemala, where the United States’s 1954 overthrow of a reformist president led directly to genocide. And the effects weren’t just domestic. Ernesto “Che” Guevara was in Guatemala as the CIA’s destabilization campaign unfolded, whereupon he fled to Mexico and eventually met Fidel Castro. “Cuba will not be Guatemala,” he later said in defense of restrictions on the press and independent political parties. For its part the CIA would model its unsuccessful 1961 Bay of Pigs Invasion on its 1954 Guatemala operation, which further polarized hemispheric politics, leading to waves of radicalization throughout the region.
But while Downes questions the effectiveness of regime change as a tactic, he endorses the assumption that justifies its use: that the United States has a right to intervene in the affairs of other nations to advance its interests. The problem, as presented, is to figure out the best mechanism of intervention, which he says might include sanctions, sabotage, and counterterrorism. It doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to know where starting from such a position will lead: in 2003, when neocons said that standing U.S. policy in Iraq—a decade of civilian-punishing sanctions supplemented by the occasional cruise missile—had to change, who could argue? Whither Libya?
Along with the assumption that the United States has a right to act alone comes another: democracy equals ‘free trade.’
Neither does Downes question the stated goals of policymakers, liberal internationalist or neoconservative: “providing stability,” “rooting out terrorism,” “stopping the spread of weapons of mass destruction,” “curbing human rights abuses,” “spreading democracy,” and “pursuing global primacy.” Then he lets this slip: “Regime change generally fails to promote democracy because installing pliable dictators is in the intervener’s interest.” Exactly. My point is not to highlight hypocrisy—Obama says we need to bomb Libya in order to protect lives, but diplomatic cables made available by Wikileaks reveal that oil might be a concern—but to consider that the interests of those in power might be the problem, and not the technique used to advance those interests.
At one time Latin America largely contained the unchecked pursuit of U.S. power and interests. In response to the long history of U.S. intervention, the region’s jurists and intellectuals put forth ideals of absolute national sovereignty and economic rights. From 1933 to 1989, when George H. W. Bush invaded Panama, Washington accepted these ideals, in theory if not always practice, and they became the cornerstones of the liberal multilateral order. The instability that Downes blames on regime change is more properly attributed to the eclipse of these two diplomatic principles.
Along with the unquestioned assumption that the United States has a right to act alone if the world won’t act together comes another: democracy equals what today goes by the name “free trade.” Not too long ago, the stated endpoint of counterinsurgents was to build functioning welfare states; the purpose of society, Walt Whitman Rostow wrote in 1960, is not “compound interest for ever,” and human beings are not “maximizing” units. Today, however, when politicians, opinion-makers, and intellectuals talk about nation-building, they mean neoliberal nation-building, subordinating national markets to the intensely unstable dictates of finance capital, generating ever-more acute cycles of crisis, which, in turn, call forth more intervention. Williams described a similar logic that led even William Jennings Bryan, an anti-imperialist pacifist, to accept the necessity of U.S. occupation in the Philippines; it was, Williams wrote, “as neat a circle as ever was drawn freehand.” Through their inability or unwillingness to question first principles, politicians such as Obama and policy intellectuals such as Samantha Power and Paul Wolfowitz complete the circle linking pragmatism, idealism, and arrogance and keep the wheel of containment-liberation spinning.
Greg Grandin teaches history at New York University. His newest book, The End of the Myth: From the Frontier to the Border Wall in the Mind of America will be published in March. He is the author of Fordlandia, shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, The Empire of Necessity, which won the Bancroft and Beveridge prizes in American history, and Kissinger’s Shadow.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
Both regulators and employers have embraced new technologies for on-the-job monitoring, turning a blind eye to unjust working conditions.
But I do miss the hymns, / the small, hard apples with their dimpled skin. I do miss / things.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Austerity is not the only way to save our overextended planet. A simpler life might be both more pleasurable and more equal.
We must reject the legal liberalism that attempts to cordon off constitutional questions from democratic politics.
The United States ranked first on health security; then came COVID-19. In place of technocratic hubris, we need robust new forms of democratic humility.