Nation, World + Society

U.S. foreign policy creates world of trouble, says UCLA professor

In his new book, UCLA sociologist Michael Mann writes that U.S. foreign policy leads to the creation of more ‘rogue states,’ not fewer

Michael Mann

Michael Mann

In seeking to assign blame for the stream of American deaths in Iraq since the country was occupied by the U.S. military, the United States need look no further than its own foreign policy, a UCLA sociology professor argues in a new book.

“By overestimating American power, the new imperialists consistently generate blowback, or resistance coming as the unintended consequence of their own actions,” writes historical sociologist Michael Mann in “Incoherent Empire” (Verso/WW Norton & Co.). “The new imperialism creates more, not fewer, terrorists, more determined ‘rogue states,’ and it weakens American leadership in the world.”

Marshalling examples from thousands of years of foreign intervention by former empires, Mann, who specializes in the exercise of power in human societies, argues that the United States’ current foreign policy outstrips both the nation’s political capacities and its economic resolve, and conflicts with the country’s long-cherished values by resorting to a narrow militarism to solve foreign policy problems.

“This is an incoherent empire whose overconfident, hyperactive militarism will soon self-destruct,” Mann says. “Indeed, the approach is already unraveling in Iraq. Relying too heavily on our military, we have failed to transition from battlefield victory to pacification and legitimate government. We are trapped there, without allies, without being willing to sacrifice our financial stability, and without a credible way out.”

America set the stage for disaster by failing to win over allies — not the Europeans or the U.N., but the Iraqis, says Mann, who is also the author of the prize-winning series “The Sources of Social Power.”

“The ’unilateral’ blunder of the U.S. was less to ignore the U.N. and the Europeans than to invade a country without local allies on the ground — except for Kurds in the north,” he says.

Successful empires of the past typically gained control of countries with the support of native allies who stood to gain from association with imperial forces. By the early 1800s, more than 80 percent of the 291,000 British imperial troops in India were Indian, Mann notes. These allies typically won over dissenters by distributing imperial patronage. Diverging from this formula is costly.

“If the imperialists entered without allies, then they really needed far bigger forces for pacification — much bigger than the original force,” says Mann. “Previous empires knew that pacification needed at least two-and-one-half times the soldiers required by battlefield victory, since it involves dispersing, not concentrating troops. At least 250,000 combat soldiers would be needed in Iraq. We do not have them. We are struggling to maintain even the present Iraq force of 130,000, and that is bogged down by a few armed men in a poor country of only24 million people.”

But even if U.S. forces had invaded the country with support from Iraqi allies, American values would not support the kind of strong-arm tactics that suppressed dissent in previous empires, Mann contends. In Africa and Southeast Asia, European powers held vanquished peoples in check through strategic use of what Mann refers to as “exemplary repression, massacring rebels they caught as an example to others.”

“The early days of an empire could be extremely nasty,” Mann writes. “It is unlikely that American troops or the American electorate could stomach such ferocious orders.”

If a respect for human rights is consistent with our era, the impulse to establish a pax Americana to rival Rome’s pax Romana is entirely out of step with history, Mann says. The Age of Empires ended in the 20th century. It was succeeded by the Age of Nation-States, which made nationalism the world’s dominant ideology.

“Past empires never confronted native nationalisms,” says Mann. “Indian or African collaborators were not accused of being traitors to the nation, since the concept did not exist. When Indian and African nationalism did emerge, the European empires were finished.”

Meanwhile, America’s historic strengths — influence and economic resources — are waning, Mann contends. Fueled by globalism, the U.S. productive engine remains formidable, but the United States is only “a backseat driver” in the world’s economy because it can control neither foreign investors nor foreign economies.

Even Hollywood is losing its power abroad, Mann points out, citing a 2001 survey of television production in 60 countries. Nearly three-quarters of their top 10programs were locally produced, indicating a loosening of America’s grip on popular culture worldwide, Mann argues. Meanwhile, rising criticism of America’s acts of unilateralism and militarism undercut the enduring popularity of such hallmark American values as democracy, freedom and human rights.

“Whereas in the recent past American power was hegemonic — routinely accepted and often considered legitimate abroad — now it is imposed at the barrel of a gun,” he writes.

According to Mann, the militaristic approach increases both the likelihood of acts of terrorism against the United States and its allies and the inclination for rogue states to stockpile weapons of mass destruction. Mann sees such steps as defensive tactics on the part of countries that are too poor to adequately arm themselves against the military giant they perceive the United States to be. U.S. retaliation against such rogue states only confirms those states’ sense of vulnerability, making them more likely to either target the U.S. or prepare to do so.

“The result is a disturbed, misshapen monster stumbling clumsily across the world,” Mann writes. “It means well. It intends to spread order and benevolence, but instead it creates more disorder and violence.”

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