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January 04, 2011

Life's Funny That Way

There may not be any political author in the U.S. with more pure writing talent than Walter Russell Mead. His first book, Mortal Splendor: The American Empire in Transition, was published in 1987. It's incredibly funny, incredibly knowledgeable about history, and incredibly enjoyable to read. (I swiped the Averell Harriman quote here from it.)

It unfortunately never got much recognition, partly because it was honest about U.S. history and partly because Mead made one badly-timed mistake, and predicted the Soviet Union would be around indefinitely.

But here's what he wrote about the foreign policy of the reinvigorated U.S. right during the Reagan administration. This part does seem to have been fairly, uh, prescient:

No less than American blacks, the people of the Third World can recognize their enemies. The right's economic program for the Third World can be summed up like this: pay off your foreign loans, cut back on your social spending, and allow the continued exploitation of your labor and raw materials by foreign-owned companies. It can be no surprise that a government with such a program [i.e., the Reagan administration] is desperately worried about the spread of international terrorism...if we cannot call this policy prudent, we can at least acknowledge its consistency, and in that respect, perhaps, it is superior to a policy of liberal illusion.

In domestic politics, the administration chose a collision course with black America in the belief that it had little to lose. It has made the same judgement with respect to the Third World—an ill-defined but huge entity that grows better armed with every year. How long the United States can sustain this policy of unyielding hostility to the hope of most of the world's people cannot be predicted; nor can we say what options, if any, we will have when events make this course untenable. A mistaken sense of America's invulnerability undergirds this policy of confrontation; here as in its economic policy the reliance of the right on inappropriate ideological thinking leads it into dangerous territory. With banners flying and trumpets sounding, the right charges on into the unknown, like Custer on the route to Little Big Horn.

And here's the horrifying punchline: something went very wrong in the past 23 years, and Walter Russell Mead went on to become the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. And that's not even the worst part.

I don't know, maybe Walter Russell Mead and Bernie Aronson have the same manager.

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at January 4, 2011 12:17 PM

I read "Mortal Splendor" when it came out and had the same opinion you had. It was a more user-friendly Chomsky, so to speak.

Then sometime several years ago (I don't remember when) I saw Mead on the Lehrer News Hour and could not believe this was the same person. I felt somewhat the same way when I read Hitchens's first Nation column after 9/11.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 4, 2011 01:00 PM

Democracy don't rule the world,
You'd better get that in your head.
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that's better left unsaid.
From Broadway to the Milky Way,
That's a lot of territory indeed
And a man's gonna do what he has to do
When he's got a hungry mouth to feed.

Posted by: mistah 'MICFiC' charley, ph.d. at January 4, 2011 01:38 PM

There are two quotes below--one from Publisher's Weekly's description of Mead's 1987 book praised by Jon above, the other from Mead's Wiki page that show where his thought led him from 1987 to 1992 (and onward from there), the critical time of transition in modern history. Mead's change in emphasis from global justice issues to global security issues gives a big clue to what has led us down the path we now find ourselves on, because the evolution in Mead's parallels the evolution of prevailing views.

Basically, Mead got scared of worst case scenarios--world war, potentially nuclear war, erupting out of weapons proliferation, which would result from the absence of a global policeman like the US and formerly Britain maintaining international order. By 2003, per Wiki, having chosen that path for his thinking, Mead concluded that invading Iraq was good, and by 2007 he ended up writing a book that seems to have had the theme that Anglo-American imperial policy has been the best thing ever. And so perhaps it would seem, if one ASSUMES that it is the only thing that has prevented global destruction, since anything is better than that.


"Since the end of World War II, Mead asserts, the United States has maintained the largest empire in history. This neoimperialism, he argues, is built on intervention in the domestic affairs of Third World countries and coercive political efforts to block those countries' sustained economic growth. . . . He vaguely sketches America's role as steward of a global commonwealth that would address Third World needs for minimum wage, health care, education and pollution control."


"Mead wrote a famous quotation in a 1992 article, "But what if it can't? What if the global economy stagnates -- or even shrinks? In that case, we will face a new period of international conflict: South against North, rich against poor. Russia, China, India -- these countries with their billions of people and their nuclear weapons will pose a much greater danger to the world than Germany and Japan did in the 30's" (New Perspectives Quarterly, Summer 1992)."

Eventually, proceeding further down this path, we'll end up creating global destruction to avoid global destruction. And eventually might not be as far off as we'd like.

Posted by: N E at January 4, 2011 02:20 PM

Thanks, NE. I can't help thinking that he also became the sort of person who would be invited to appear on the Newshour.

HItch's career also took an upwards swing with his change in views. He was well-known before 9/11, but he was positively the darling of the Atlantic and other establishment rags afterwards.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at January 4, 2011 02:33 PM

Here's some of Tom Engelhardt's new piece at

The Urge to Surge - Washington’s 30-Year High

If, as 2011 begins, you want to peer into the future, enter my time machine, strap yourself in, and head for the past, that laboratory for all developments of our moment and beyond.


Our country, still far more wealthy than the Soviet Union ever was, has nonetheless entered its Soviet phase. At home, in the increasing emphasis on surveillance of every sort, there is even a hint of what made “soviet” and “totalitarian” synonymous.

The U.S. economy looks increasingly sclerotic; moneys for an aging and rotting infrastructure are long gone; state and city governments are laying off teachers, police, even firefighters; Americans are unemployed in near record numbers; global oil prices (for a country that has in no way begun to wean itself from its dependence on foreign oil) are ominously on the rise; and yet taxpayer money continues to pour into the military and into our foreign wars. It has recently been estimated, for instance, that after spending $11.6 billion in 2011 on the training, supply, and support of the Afghan army and police, the U.S. will continue to spend an average of $6.2 billion a year at least through 2015 (and undoubtedly into an unknown future) -- and that’s but one expense in the estimated $120 billion to $160 billion a year being spent at present on the Afghan War, what can only be described as part of America’s war stimulus package abroad.

And, of course, the talk for 2011 is how to expand the American ground war -- the air version of the same has already been on a sharp escalatory trajectory -- in Pakistan. History and common sense assure us that this can only lead to further disaster. Clear-eyed leaders, military or civilian, would never consider such plans. But Washington’s 30-year high in the region, that urge to surge still coursing through its veins, says otherwise, and it’s not likely to be denied.

Sooner than later, Washington, the Pentagon, and the U.S. military will have to enter rehab. They desperately need a 12-step program for recovery. Until then, the delusions and the madness that go with surge addiction are not likely to end.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at January 4, 2011 02:39 PM

Like throwing money down a rathole, ain't it? Mr. Mead saw more percentage looking out of that rathole than looking in, that's all. KEEP PAYING, KEEP PLAYING.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at January 4, 2011 03:47 PM

I'm quite surprised to find out Walter Russel Mead, defender of and propagandist for Anglo-American power, is responsible for writing what you excerpted. He must have really been a completely different person.. because what you excerpted sounds like a Chomksyite analysis of American power, and completely contrary to what he seems to have mutated into today.

I haven't read the book you refer to but I did read his book Power, Terror, Peace, and War: America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk a couple of years ago.. and I really wouldn't describe him as someone with "pure writing talent." And I'm not talking about my ideological disagreements with him. That book was just.. awfully written, full of ridiculous terminology like "millennial capitalism", "sticky power", "sweet power", "Fordist bureaucratic welfare state" and so on. It was quite unbearable.

Never mind that most of his assumptions and narratives were simply that, i.e., regurgitation of ideological narratives and fictions about the economy and of the post-Reagan era instead of an accurate description of the neoliberal racket and Military Keynsian state that simply gave the appearance of a productive, dynamic economy but whose structural foundations were weak and based on debt and the financial sector rather than manufacturing anything of value and real economic productivity, and which was just waiting to implode, which it finally did in 2008.

Posted by: hv at January 4, 2011 04:02 PM

Interesting that he wrote about political hegemony, considering this is likely an example of what Gramsci's hegemony of political fraud. When an antagonist is taken care of by "buying its leaders—either covertly, or, in cases of imminent danger, openly—in order to sow disarray and confusion in his ranks."

Maybe he's a Communist spy! Way to go A Tiny Revolution. You just outed him.

Posted by: LT at January 4, 2011 05:53 PM

Oops. Typo. "What Gramsci's hegemony of political fraud *was*." Spelling aside, my grammar is terrible.

Speaking of typos though, "but back on your social spending" looks like one of yours.

Posted by: LT at January 4, 2011 05:57 PM

The quote implies that "third world" blowback was a danger to the Empire. That's moronic. The amount of terrorism as compared to colonialism is minuscule, just enough to keep the imperial patrons, i.e. "first world" taxpayers, scared - which obviously works to the benefit, not the detriment, of the imperialists. The "Custer at Little Big Horn" moment has not happened, is not on the horizon, and is hardly even imaginable. Not only that, but Custer's death was just a battle...the Indians didn't exactly win the war.

This is why opposing war via pragmatism is ridiculous. War is pragmatic for certain people. Mead probably realized that and accepted the offer to become one of those people. Recognizing war as an unequivocal atrocity makes it harder to switch teams.

Posted by: marcus at January 5, 2011 12:25 AM

Damn straight marcus. I am constantly horrified, when not simply enraged, when people make arguments as to the inefficiency of war, as if it were a fucking garden implement. The entire point of going to war is that some other motherfucker will be the one fighting it. It's like claiming steak is obviously a terrible food because no cow in its right mind would choose that fate. This is why you can never, ever, ever trust anyone with the slightest authoritarian streak or even a mote of admiration for a political leader due to the mere fact that he has gained glory as a political leader. Such a person can transform themselves into a good little lickspittle for imperial power as soon as a favored leader makes them the right pitch.

Empire should not be criticized. It should be rejected. If, when discussing a violent criminal, an associate of yours points out that that felon should rethink all the raping he's doing because it's economically wasteful, either a) you are in the presence of a very, very dark surrealist humorist or b) you now have two reasons to take a very proactive stance towards gun ownership.

Posted by: No One of Consequence at January 5, 2011 01:32 AM

As far as the worst part goes, he's got the important part right: nothing has been done, nothing is going to get done. He's not entirely wrong about the other bits either, specifically, the claim about the Himalayas melting as soon as 2035 is all over the literature, when I tried to track it down I ended up at a paper that plopped it in the conclusion seemingly out of nowhere, and then it starts popping up in review literature and, more so, the activist literature. Then some economics or politics major threw it in the IPCC report citing, of all things, some WWF press junket.

That section got added to the reports because of all the "skeptic" carping about how there was no social and economic expertise weighing our policy options, and then the policy wonks didn't have the expertise to weigh the science to weigh those options, which nicely played into the carps' jaws and, much like every other nitpick brought up by Mead, served wonderfully to discredit the field in the eyes of the usual bunch of know-nothings. The activists helped the researchers get played, what with their minor, inconsequential errors on the order of a few lifetimes - 50 years, 200 years, those glaciers disappearing fucks a good 5th of humanity, most of whom are pretty fucked already.

Bringing us back to the prescient quote.

Posted by: buermann at January 5, 2011 03:22 AM

This 2008 book review essay from the New Left Review describes Mead's most recent book:

In God and Gold: Britain, America and the Making of the Modern World, Walter Russell Mead makes no secret of the fact that he aspires to be a guiding spirit in the formulation of such a programme, to which he hopes to attract one constituency that is not part of the traditional Democratic mass base: America’s evangelical Christians. Mead reaches his conclusions via a broad historical analysis of the determining socio-political constellation of our time: the Anglophone West, conceived at once as the progenitor, product and guardian of liberal capitalism—a formation whose legitimacy is, for the author, beyond dispute. The virtues of the Anglosphere, in this account, arise in Weberian fashion from the English Reformation, which produced an ‘individualistic and optimistic’ people, characterized by a dynamic combination of profound personal piety and social openness to economic, cultural and political change.

Well worth the read. (The essay, not the book necessarily.)

Posted by: dh at January 6, 2011 11:01 PM