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Dead White Men Win Again? Reviewing the ‘Foundations of the American Century’ by Inderjeet Parmar

May 13, 2012

My heart fluttered when I read recently of how the Ford Foundation is opening more of its archives in scenic Sleepy Hollow, NY. Few organizations have wielded more influence in recent American history than wealthy foundations like the Rockefeller, the Ford, the Carnegie, and, more recently, the Gates. (Some Anglo variants have even provided for your humble narrator’s expenses on occasion.) Mostly founded on the basis of enormous industrial or, in the case of Gates, technological empires, these foundations sought to improve the social condition of men both at home in the USA as well as in the world. The Ford Foundation provides generous scholarships for minority Americans to attend graduate school, for example, but it also runs a huge portfolio of projects in developing countries. The same is true of the Gates Foundation, which in addition to funding the mega-prestigious Cambridge Gates Scholarship, spends more on global health research than the World Health Organization.

These organizations have huge resources, usually running into the tens of billions of dollars, in other words, and ambitious aims. But what are they exactly? How do we understand their projects in relation to US foreign policy as carried out by, for example, the Pentagon and Foggy Bottom? How have their roles changed historically?

These were some of the questions I had on my mind as I attended a delightful talk this Friday by Inderjeet Parmar, a professor of American studies at the University of Manchester in town at Oxford’s Rothermere American Institute to discuss his new book, Foundations of The American Century, a history of the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations and their role in the making of US foreign policy during the twentieth century. The project, Parmar noted, marked the culmination of a sixteen-year quest that began with a simple question: the United States prides itself on being one of the most egalitarian, least classist societies on earth. But before there was a ‘one percent’ there were Gilded Age industrial élites, élites who wanted a say in the making of domestic and foreign policy. How did, Parmar wondered, American élites interface with, or even seek to take over the state, in a society with a decentralized and relatively weak form of federalized government and that had this anti-élitist tradition?

Inderjeet Parmar’s fine ‘Foundations of the American Century’

The book forms his answer to that question. American foundations like those named above, he argues, were central to the rise of American power; their rise tracks the rise of the American state’s power both in North America as well as in the world. But the way they did so also questions our normal concept of a split between ‘the state’ and ‘society.’  How? In Parmar’s account, these foundations – which started in response to real social questions that arose out of American industrialization but later morphed in purpose – strove towards the integration of élites, first at a national (American) and then at a global level. To do so, however, they faced a multi-decade struggle to construct first what we might call a ‘national mind’ (my term) and later a ‘global mind’ (Parmar’s term).

To structure this story, Parmar highlighted the importance of the concepts of Antonio Gramsci, an Italian theorist perhaps best known for his concept of ‘hegemony’, which Parmar made central to his account here. Rather than viewing the men who made and ran the foundations (who were almost all white, rich, straight as far as we know, Ivy League-educated) as part of an ‘American foreign policy Establishment’, a ‘para-state’, a group of benevolent ‘Wise Men’, or something else borrowing from another conceptual vocabulary, Parmar underlined, he’s tries to link élites and states together. The men operating these foundations are bearers of what Gramsci called ‘state spirit’ – they view the interests of the American state as identical with their own, or their institutions’ own, even though few of them are actually directly employed by the US government. They are ‘history makers’, too: they have a clear mission (their emerging class gets to run the show at home and the US gets to make the rules for the global order), but they also recognize that they operate within constraints, and they have to deal with these constrains existing at the given historical moment.

To do so, they have to use the financial resources at their disposal to create ‘hegemony’ – not so much hegemony in the sense of the United States literally governing the entire planet, but rather in the sense of their own conceptual, liberal market internationalist vocabulary, being the only way in which it becomes accepted to talk about international politics, finance, etc. To do so requires a huge investment of resources. Entire media companies and legions of journalists have to be influenced. Scholars who would otherwise live a threadbare existence have to be given lavish grants, jobs at prestigious universities, fancy journals to publish their work in, conferences to present their work at, etc., so that the new concepts for internationalism can become accepted. Entire career trajectories have to be funded, since there’s no way the federal government is funding these scholars and opinion-makers. Think institutions like Harvard’s Weatherhead Center, the Council on Foreign Relations, or (looking abroad, even though this is not Parmar’s focus) the German Marshall Fund or Chatham House.

Near-unlimited resources to turn the USA into a globalist superpower? Given the position of the USA in world affairs in the post-Cold War world that is the only world many of us know first hand, it almost seems too easy in retrospect. But as Parmar emphasizes, the foundations seeking to create the intellectual hegemony the USA needed to become this sort of power faced an uphill battle. The initial shock, he emphasized, was the Senate’s failure to ratify the USA’s entrance into the League of Nations. The League was the kind of project that all of the respectable burghers of New York, Boston, and Chicago of the era favored. It could constitute a useful forum, alongside more informal trans-Atlantic links with the élite of the British Empire (which was at its maximum territorial extent in these years) to contribute to the project of world peace on Anglo terms. Disastrous wars of the sort that had devastated Europe, killed many of its brightest and sprightliest youth, and turned Russia from an emerging capitalist partner into an actively hostile socialist basket case could be avoided once and for all. Maybe even semi-scary Japan and China (to which contemporary American élites felt a one-sided special obligation to help develop) could become part of a comity of nations interested in free trade, good business, and peace – one maintained by either British or American naval power, thank you very much.

Liberal internationalism: if only it weren’t for those farmers in Iowa …

There was only one problem: Americans were isolationists. The Senate rejected League of Nations accession, and a discourse of isolationism remained strong in the USA during this period. You could try telling farmers in Iowa that the shortfall of grain in the Ukraine affected them because it impacted global wheat prices which in turn made them wealthier – but it was proving hard enough to convince said farmers that what they did in the middle of a corn field had much to do with what went on in New Mexico or Maryland, much less far away countries of which they knew little. Surprising to me was that on the day before the Pearl Harbor attacks, according to Parmar, only 21 percent of the US population favored declaring war on Germany. (Hitler effectively solved this problem for US foreign policy élites by declaring war on the USA after Pearl Harbor, but still, this was 1941, after Nazi Germany had established an empire over not only much of Europe but had invaded the USSR. One wonders what US opinion on removing the Taliban from power would have been on September 10, 2001 – probably much less than 21 percent.) Clearly, a national mentality and, eventually, an internationalist mentality had to be developed.

So the foundations sought to do just that. They began, in the 1920s to fund what we today would recognize as departments of international relations. In contrast to contemporary sentiments like those which animated the Kelogg-Briand Treaty, these new departments, first pioneered at institutions like Princeton, promoted realpolitik ideas. Game theory and the like wasn’t around yet, intellectually, but these new departments shunned the idea that you could ‘wish for world peace’ as a starting point for making international policy. The idea of ‘getting tough’ on countries or seeing ‘deviousness’ in German or Soviet designs became part and parcel of American internationalist thinking, as the young men sluicing through the universities where such departments were established imbibed on such ideas. Many young men (and they were men) were probably still relying on a hodgepodge knowledge of Thucydides and Gibbon to guide their thinking on policymaking, but they were soon obtaining other vocabularies to think about the problem.

More than that, area studies departments began to emerge, if not as well-funded as during the Cold War, to fill in the gaps. Studying German was not yet the counter-cultural hipster statement it would become for an entire generation of Ivy students. Scholars of arcane Teutonic or Slavonic could be marshaled to produce ‘useful’ knowledge to help buoy an emerging United States. Finally, the foundations both funded and encouraged links across a wider specifically Anglo world to encourage their vision of global peace. Institutions like the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City got big money, but so did twinned institutions like the Royal Institute for International Affairs (AKA Chatham House) in London. Similar institutions sprung up globally, if you counted the UK, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa as the whole world. Anglo élites could go on exchanges and have places to give lectures using the established concepts and vocabularies when they arrived in London or Sydney.

Here was a process, as Parmar argued, of élites beginning to take over the state and meld with the state, but in a weird way. Neither the State Department nor its Anglo-world equivalents had the cash to fund anything like these initiatives; as John Gaddis’ recent biography of George Kennan tells us, the soon-to-be Russophile Kennan actually had to be sent to Berlin to get a good training in Russian at the time in the 1920s and 1930s. Not until much later would valuable initiatives like Title VIII (from which this author has benefitted) come into existence with the emergence of an American ‘national security state.’ Until then, private benefactors who viewed themselves as operating in ‘the national interest’ – but spending private funds and promoting said national interest by promoting each others’ books at tony institutions from the West End to Midtown – had to be the ones writing the checks. Hence the weird geographies at play here: WASP hubs like Princeton, New Haven, Cambridge, Philadelphia and of course Manhattan saw the emergence of new institutions; DC remained a hot, muggy swamp where policy had to be made. It wasn’t until later that one would see the explosion of think tanks and policy research institutes that now blanket the Maryland-Virginia tidal swamps.

This process continued into the Cold War and, Parmar emphasized, continues today. During what one might call a first phase of the Cold War, national élites from select countries – think Indonesia, Argentina, Chile, or the Phillipines – had to become integrated into what was already a semi-global Anglo élite that was secure by the 1940s or 1950s. New institutions like a center for Indonesian Studies at Cornell, run by George Kahin, promoted many of the economists who would become prominent under Suharto after 1965-1966. Later, the so called ‘Chicago Boys’ – a group of Chilean economists trained at the University of Chicago under Milton Friedman – would become notorious as the implementors of a neoliberal economic program in Chile after the overthrow of Salvador Allende by Augusto Pinochet. Case studies by Parmar of Chile, ‘managing’ anti-Americanism in Europe, Indonesia, and Nigeria all shed light onto these processes.

A curious process of globalization was going on. The area studies departments, now funded both by the foundations as well as the US government, would send scraggly PhD students out into the world to research the basis of power in Indonesian villages, maybe as they saw it in a cock fighting ritual, for example. Said social science knowledge, while hardly ‘indigenous’, would then become useful for the national élites that Washington wanted to have running the country – a Pinochet or Suharto, for example. These new élites, while integrated into a system of American world order, were ‘localized and delocalized’ (Parmar’s terms). Relying on a mixture of generic modernization theory and the country-specific knowledge generated by area studies departments, they were to turn their countries into modern states, even as they themselves – often men from American-funded military establishments – had little knowledge of the world of cockfights or local traditions that the area studies departments spent money researching. They had to be distinctly national élites, at least insofar as they were to appear legitimate in the eyes of their populaces, but they were also supposed to be international and deterritorialized, insofar as they would rely on ‘objective’ social science knowledge and as comfortable giving a talk on their country’s accomplishments at the CFR or Chatham House, as they would be in their compound in Islamabad, Jakarta, or Manila.

The schmoozing epicenter of the world: the World Economic Forum in Davos, the premier event for integrated global élites

You might even say a more accelerated process is going on today: businessmen and leaders from all over the world are eager to give talks at places like Davos or St. Gallen (depending on their age), or at events like the World Social Forum. New conferences on ‘social entrepreneurship’ give those performing the thankless tasks of managing mass poverty, hunger, or disease (problems which some might say are generated specifically by the globalizing neoliberal economy) the sex appeal of a businessman or traditional entrepreneur. Speaking slots at all of these events are highly coveted, in part because they’re an exclusive club. The national populations on whom these new and exciting solutions of microfinance, women’s entrepreneurship, local climate change management strategies, etc. are being imposed usually aren’t invited to give talks on ‘social entrepreneurship’. Sometimes, when events like the World Social Forum have been held inlaces like Mumbai or Lagos, angry crowds outside of impoverished Indians or Nigerians, respectively, threaten to overrun the place. Compare these scenes with those surrounding the WTO protests or the G20 meeting in Pittsburgh and the narrative of seamless, popularly-acclaimed globalization seems a bit more complicated.

Overall I really enjoyed the talk, and look forward to checking out the book soon. Almost certainly on the TSA’s watch list by now (trips to Tajikistan, Pakistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, etc.) but also skeptical of what friends at Oxford call the ‘I hate America’ crowd, I was skeptical of the ‘era of good feelings’ vibe I got from Parmar’s talk. Surely there were cases – maybe China in the 1970s, or India after its 1971 pact with the USSR or 1974 nuclear test – where this seemingly unbreakable consensus of opinion among American élites about how to run the world suffered from fractured opinion? I asked Parmar this at the talk, and while he conceded that his view might have been too much about consensus rather than moments of disagreement, this stemmed more from his source material (a small but still robust selection of country case studies from the foundations’ vast archives) than any permanent bias. I also wondered about cases where the foundations seemed to get it wrong. Part of the foundations’ ambition, Parmar emphasized, was to create compelling post-factor explanations of shocking events to justify to American bumpkins (as these East Coast élites would have seen them) why the US had to become more globally engaged: Pearl Harbor was carried out against us by this evil race of hostile Japanese, for example.

Why they hate us: still not totally clear in spite of the best efforts of the institutes and think tanks

Yet said élite consensus has never really provided an adequate explanation of secular economic slowdowns since the 1970s, and it strikes me that as a country we lack any real consensus as to why September 11 happened, and what the USA can do to prevent the root causes of terrorism. Characteristically, our policy towards countries which themselves have suffered mightily (in many cases with more civilian deaths than the USA) from terrorism, like Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Lebanon is far from clear. In other words, if the élites are so smart, why is it that we have such terrible relations with some of these countries? Was there something unique about economic crises or global terrorism that made it hard for these institutions to explain and give meaning to? Or is a more sanguine approach justified: just give the scholars, centers, and universities enough time, and they’ll produce the social science that will one day usher in more prosperity and stop people from hating us so much. The process of élite integration and producing hegemony around the world might be a taller order than the foundations initially realized – how they handle these new challenges will be an interesting ride.

One Comment
  1. Thank you for an excellent summary of my talk on Friday at RAI! Best, Inderjeet Parmar

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