Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 17, 2012

Walter Russell Mead: Bard’s Thomas Friedman

Filed under: bard college — louisproyect @ 9:45 pm

Walter Russell Mead

Receiving the Bard College alumni magazine is a mixed blessing. I do get to find out that Shoshana Goldstein, class of ’68 and an old flame, has just retired from teaching yoga at an Arizona dude ranch after 30 years. (We used to make love in my dorm room listening to Ralph Kirkpatrick playing Scarlatti sonatas.) But I also have to put up with at least one article that reads like it was written for the New Republic magazine, something to be expected from an institution foolish and funding-hungry enough to put Martin Peretz on the board of trustees.

Bard has mutated under Leon Botstein’s presidency-for-life from a relatively honorable left-of-center and underfunded bohemia to what it is today, a citadel of center-right ideology that is crowned by the Bard Globalization and International Affairs Program (BGIA). Unlike the protestors driven into a Starbucks window-breaking frenzy by big money’s control over the planet, Bard higher-ups have global ambitions second to none. My guess is that when Leon Botstein dreams at night, it is most often about putting an outpost of Bard College on the moon.

And to protect the campus from our enemies on the moon, who better to call upon for advice than the speaker from the James Chace Memorial Lecture series at BGIA headquarters on Thursday, March 15. The topic was “Counter Insurgency Operations as Applied in Central Afghanistan – 2002-2011” and the invited guest was James Creighton, who the BGIA website described as having “a wide variety of positions in the US Army for more than two decades including: Commander, Combined Team Uruzgan, Afghanistan; Strategic Planner, ISAF Joint Command Afghanistan; and Deputy Commander, Second Infantry Division.”

I almost decided to show up at this talk to ask GI James what he thought about the massacre that happened the preceding Sunday, when a 38 year old soldier named Robert Bales left his base in the middle of the night and murdered 17 Afghans while they were sleeping in their mud hut. Among them were four women, two boys, and seven girls. That’s basically what globalization is about, after all. As Thomas Friedman once put it:

The hidden hand of the market will never work without the hidden fist—McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the designer of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

Apropos of Thomas Friedman, Bard has its own minor-league version, a character named Walter Russell Mead who is James Chace Professor of Foreign Affairs and Humanities at Bard College and Editor-at-Large of The American Interest magazine, a center-right magazine chaired by Francis Fukuyama and a board that includes Niall Ferguson and Bernard-Henri Levy. Their names speak for themselves.

Mead’s article, titled “American Grand Strategy in the 21st Century”, attempts to educate his alumni readers about the need for Friedman’s hidden fist but without using those exact words. Besides the imperialist ideology, what it has in common with Friedman’s op-ed pieces in the NYT is some of the worst prose imaginable.

Gawker.com sums up Friedman’s style nicely:

Mustachioed soothsaying simpleton Thomas Friedman long ago mastered a formula for justifying business trips all over the world by writing columns about them—columns that, while not genuinely insightful or even pleasant to read, contain a sufficient number of plausible-sounding platitudes to enable your average Xerox Corporation regional manager to sound informed during his morning meeting with underlings and sycophants.

Mead’s specialty is using lead-footed metaphors such as these:

When I was growing up, the world was filled with escalators. You got on the right escalator and you would automatically ride up to another floor. You went to a good college, you got in to a good law school, then you stepped on the escalator, and if you didn’t do something stupid like jump off or fall, the escalator would carry you up. These days there’s a bunch of rope ladders. They drop down and if you’re quick you can scramble up, but then the ladder is pulled back up. It’s a much more chaotic economy, with big booms and busts.

The “chaotic economy” is the real subject of interest in Mead’s sorry article but if his solutions are meant to speak for the big bourgeoisie whose lap he sits on, then that class is in big trouble.

The article starts with Mead posing the question “What does America want the world to be like?” His answer is “like Europe”, which means “prosperous”, “peaceful”, and “open to our commerce, investment, and trade.” Mead’s Europe is the idealized version of cold war mythology. He writes:

In 1945, we had all the power that anybody could want in Europe. If they wanted to eat, we had to give them food. The immediate response of Americans was not, “How do we keep this?” We thought, “This won’t last; this will be terrible for our economy.” We immediately set about trying to change what looked like the ultimate accomplishment of the traditional idea of one country’s power over others. I don’t see a hunger for war in either the American government or the American people.

Being more like Europe is a goal that other people like as well. This is not the United States imposing some sort of hegemony on people. It’s not an American Dream for the world; it’s a pretty widespread human dream. Putting it in that form helps crystallize an aspiration. The Europeans, by the way, love this idea. We can go to Europeans and say, “This is what we’re trying to do; how can we do it together?” Rather than trying to impose some American vision on other people, we can enlist partners all over the world who will like our grand strategy and, for reasons of their own, want it to work. I think this is a goal that has tremendous appeal.

The interesting question for me is whether Mead is lying or simply uninformed when he writes, “This is not the United States imposing some sort of hegemony on people.”

Paul Ginsborg’s magisterial “A History of Contemporary Italy” delivers the goods on the lack of respect that America had for Italy’s right to decide its own future after 1945:

The first months of 1948 were entirely dedicated to the election campaign. Never again, in the whole history of the Republic, was a campaign to be fought so bitterly by both sides, or to be influenced so heavily by international events. American intervention was breath-taking in its size, its ingenuity and flagrant contempt for any principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of another country. The US administration designated $176m of ‘Interim Aid’ to Italy in the first three months of 1948. After that, the Marshall Plan entered into full operation. James Dunn, the American ambassador at Rome, made sure that this massive injection of aid did not go unobserved by the Italian general public. The arrival of every hundredth ship bearing food, medicines, etc., was turned into a special celebration. Every time the port of arrival was a different one – Civitavecchia, Bari, Genoa, Naples — and every time Dunn’s speech became more overtly political. Whenever a new bridge or school or hospital was constructed with American help, there was the indefatigable ambassador travelling the length of the peninsula to speak in the name of America, the Free World and, by implication, the Christian Democrats. Often the goods unloaded from the ports would be put on a special ‘friendship train’ (the idea was the American journalist Drew Pearson’s) and then distributed with due ceremonial at the stations along the line. And just in case the message was not clear enough, on 20 March 1948 George Marshall warned that all help to Italy would immediately cease in the event of a Communist victory.

Of course, people like Walter Russell Mead and all his cohorts at American Interest would smile beneficently on all this. Why should Italian elections be any different than America’s? Shouldn’t higher office go to those with the deepest pockets? If George Soros spends millions to put Obama in power, the best friend hedge fund managers ever had, why shouldn’t George Marshall use America’s great fortunes to make sure that people were elected in Italy who were “open to our commerce, investment, and trade?”

Mead is quite clear on this. Communists and any other enemies of “our commerce” have to be marginalized for the good of society. He writes:

But there are two kinds of obstacles. How we deal with them is going to shape how our policy works out. First, there’s a problem of will: a lot of people either don’t like the idea of Europe as the goal for their societies, or they don’t like the particular way this might conflict with some other ambition that they have. Here are three examples of people who reject the idea that a bourgeois, liberal, free society is where the human race ought to go: terror groups, like Al-Qaeda; religious extremists; and political extremists of different kinds. Maybe they see this goal as the enemy of the visionary, religious order they would like to see. They may be anarchists or communists who have a principled objection to this kind of society, or think that liberal capitalist development needs to be opposed. The way for the United States to deal with these groups is with intelligence and cooperation with other countries. We’ve done a good job of limiting the damage from some of these groups in the last 10 years, and I think we’ll continue to get better results with less policing.

I really get a chuckle out of Mead’s open approval of the need for “intelligence and cooperation with other countries” to keep Al-Qaeda and us commies down. Of course, there was a time when the U.S. relied heavily on Islamic radicals to overthrow a forward-looking Afghan government that favored land reform and women’s rights, but that’s a story for another article. In 1968, shortly after I joined the Trotskyist movement, I got an unsigned postcard at work “reminding” me of the next SWP branch meeting. Years later I discovered through FOIA that the FBI sent the card in order to “embarrass” me and drive me away from radical politics. Is this the kind of “intelligence” that Walter Russell Mead hopes will “deal with these groups”, as if handing out a leaflet opposing the war in Vietnam and flying jets into the World Trade Center were equivalent?

I also see that he is in favor of “less policing” although I doubt that this would apply to President Obama who coordinated police attacks on the dirty anarchists and communists of the Occupy movement last year. Obama was supposed to speak at a Bard Commencement in 2010 but decided against it at the last minute.

Since I was at that commencement, I was disappointed not to see Obama and Botstein on the same dais since they were such a perfect match, like Damon and Pythias or Laurel and Hardy. Both employed a liberal facade in order to foster a center-right agenda in Washington and in Annandale-on-Hudson, NY. Both were educated at Harvard University, the quintessential finishing school for those who would deny us our democratic rights in the name of democracy.

I understand why people like Mead are fearful of communists and anarchists. With the class divide deepening and more and more young people s facing diminished career prospects—those “rope ladders”—there is a need to keep things quiet. On one hand you get more and more nonsense from people like Thomas Friedman and Walter Russell Mead telling us that prosperity is just around the corner if only we study hard and pick the right major. And on the other you get beefed up police forces that pepper spray peaceful students on a California campus and entrap activists in Chicago.

Mead’s article concludes with a nod to Mitt Romney/Joseph Schumpeter style “creative destruction”:

Thanks to technology, 2 to 3 percent of the population now feeds all of us much better than 150 years ago. In the same way as agriculture, the proportion of the population working in manufacturing is falling. Americans are reaching postindustrial society early, just as we got to some of these other things early, but we don’t have a model for it. We have to invent it, which is what we did in past generations.

All of these hucksters for the capitalist system assure us that it will provide new jobs down the road to replace the ones being destroyed by automation. So far that hasn’t panned out very well in places like Cleveland, Detroit, or Pittsburgh but perhaps the unemployed should just exercise a little patience. Maybe by the 22nd century things will be booming again in the rust belt.

Thomas Friedman peddles the same line in “The Lexus and the Olive Tree”:

If the defining economists of the Cold War system were Karl Marx and John Maynard Keynes, who each in his own way wanted to tame capitalism, the defining economists of the globalization system are Joseph Schumpeter and former Intel CEO Andy Grove, who prefer to unleash capitalism. Schumpeter, a former Austrian Minister of Finance and Harvard Business School professor, expressed the view in his classic work, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, that the essence of capitalism is the process of “creative destruction” – the perpetual cycle of destroying the old and less efficient product or service and replacing it with new, more efficient ones.

What Friedman and Mead do not get is that normal people, as opposed to those who make a good living justifying the status quo in the pages of the NY Times or American Interest, are not going to wait around for the Messiah bearing new jobs. We have bills to pay and families to take care of. According to the Federal Reserve, the financial crisis wiped out 18 years of gains for the median U.S. household. There was a 38.8 percent plunge from 2007 to 2010, led by the collapse in home prices. Given this reality, it will be harder and harder for hucksters like Friedman and Mead to convince people that the system works. Time to sharpen the old pitchforks…


  1. Funny you should mention Bernard-Henri Levy. I just finished reading this article. Enjoy!:


    Comment by David Altman — June 17, 2012 @ 10:04 pm

  2. According to Wikipedia, “Until 2010, Mead was the Henry A. Kissinger Senior Fellow for U.S. Foreign Policy at the Council on Foreign Relations.” I think that tells us all we need to know about Professor Walter Russell Mead.

    Comment by Jim Farmelant — June 17, 2012 @ 10:15 pm

  3. Yes, Mr. P., we don’t have the luxury of waiting around for the Messiah. We humble folks of the working class need proactivity. The problem I have with The Left is that when I attended a recent function, the average age was deceased! It reminded me more of a loopy Theosophy Meeting I attended in Chicago in the late 70’s with weird looking older people, some with strangely unkempt hair and bizarre offbeat attire. I’m thinking to myself, is this the vanguard?

    Comment by Hugh B. — June 18, 2012 @ 12:03 am

  4. Dear Hugo B.
    You are obviously not in touch with the contemporary US revolutionary left, made up almost entirely of people under 35 — in other words, the generation subjected to one of the most radical periods of transferring social costs onto the backs of the working class. Our generation faces a situation of despair, ruin, indebtedness, political nihilism, old-folks-cynicism, mainstream political cretinism, and no future. You would benefit greatly by contacting the student, youth, people of color, and young working class movement in your local city. What you might find is in fact a vibrant undercurrent of dignity facing a situation that your generation, weaned on the massive capitalist high growth of the 50s, did not have to contend with. The “humble folks of the working class” are the young black, brown, yellow, red, and white youth on your streets today. Go meet them – they’re everywhere.

    Comment by Jim — June 18, 2012 @ 12:36 am

  5. The thing that always gets me about Friedman is how he’ll write some breathless column about the most mundane of subjects. Like a way too enthusiastic essay on how UPS is giving value added services to its customers. Che Guevara giving a speech to the UN is exciting. Charlize Theron moving around the screen in Celebrity is exciting. UPS insourcing repair of Toshiba computers is not exciting. I will pay a compliment to Friedman though, at least he’s not as awful as Nicholas Kristof.

    Comment by Adelson Velsky Landis — June 18, 2012 @ 5:53 am

  6. With the passage of time, there seems to be a self-reverentiality to people like Friedman and Mead. Besides their own insular group of academics and highly placed media people, who reads them?

    Comment by Richard Estes — June 18, 2012 @ 4:27 pm

  7. The process of “correcting the leftward slant” of universities has been under way at least since 1970. My own undergraduate school, Harvard, has all but canonized Nathan Pusey, the Harvard president whose sole claim on history is to have called the cops on a student occupation in 1969.

    In fact, a large and sumptuously appointed upper room in Memorial Church has been named for Pusey, complete with an interminable quotation, inscribed in gilt uncials on a rare wood frieze, of some Polonius-like Pusey quote about youth and sunlit uplands. This thing drags its wounded length around the entire circumference of the room.

    It’s no accident that “liberal” Harvard now ranks among its most revered senior faculty the likes of Harvey Mansfield, an infamous neoconservative and follower of Leo Strauss, or that Harvard University Press now publishes, in barely edited form, out-and-out unprincipled anticommunist hatchet jobs like Robert Service’s biography of Trotsky.

    As a graduate student at the University of Virginia in the mid-to-late seventies, I witnessed (and survived) a series of purges of teaching assistants that were essentially right-wing political in character despite a window-dressing of “liberal” pedagogical theory.

    Of course, George Allen emerged from the University of Virginia of those days–the true legacy of the alleged “reformers,” or, as they might have said, the fulfillment of their “contract” with the people of the Commonwealth.

    Whole institutions, such as George Mason University, exist primarily to propagate the faith of the Koch brothers.

    I think the colleges and universities may be more responsible than the media for the propagation of the right-wing propaganda that has filled so many “Americans” from top to toe for so many decades since the end of the civil rights movement.

    Comment by Joe Vaughan — June 18, 2012 @ 7:20 pm

  8. I’m fairly certain the chances of someone going to Bard and becoming leftist or at least going through radical phase as a result of what they learn in and out of class remains higher than at 95% of other small colleges, and calling the place “center-right” seems absurd. Botstein likes to hire big names and my hunch is he would hire some big name leftist if one could be found who was high profile enough like Mead but wasn’t nutty like Ward Churchill. Melissa Harris-Perry who writes for Nation would be an example of a hard lefty he would hire. She, however, and others of a comparable “public intellectual” profile are probably already tenured at Princeton, so they ain’t gonna ride no Wolverine up to Annandale. It would be interesting to know how big the various student groups devoted to activism are, that would tell you more about what the college is really like these days than whoever it is that Leon has put up on the marquee this week.

    Walter Russel Mead sounds like a putz but few Bard students would take his course anyway as in all likelihood he only teaches one or two a semester. Leon may reasonably see someone like Mead as being helpful in persuading some banker that shelling out $180,000-$200,000 to send his bong-smoking “gifted” 17 year old to Annandale might serve some purpose besides assuaging that fathers guilt over being an absentee parent. He could mention on the cocktail circuit, for instance, that his son is taking a course with this or that famous writer. So…Mead does play a role in facilitating at least some small scale expropriation of capital.

    Comment by Markus (bard '90) — June 19, 2012 @ 1:46 am

  9. Melissa Harris-Perry who writes for Nation would be an example of a hard lefty he would hire.

    I think this statement suffices to explain why you didn’t understand the points I was making.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 19, 2012 @ 12:48 pm

  10. I think center-right nails it. The place has become integrated with the neoliberal establishment since my time there in the early 90s.

    Comment by MB — June 19, 2012 @ 4:43 pm

  11. alright, read the second half of your article which I hadn’t before, which finally quotes Mead. Wants U.S. to become like Europe, an agenda which is supposedly what drives the American center-right, as conventionally known, apoplectic. I think what got me was your designation of Mead/Friedman as center-right, where does this leave Romney/Kristol as distinct from Santorum/Tea Party/et al. Center-left or neoliberal makes more sense. neoliberalism and neoconservativism may be bankrupt as far as dealing with the present crisis, they’re not ideological twins.

    Comment by Markus (bard '90) — June 20, 2012 @ 3:29 pm

  12. Wants U.S. to become like Europe, an agenda which is supposedly what drives the American center-right, as conventionally known, apoplectic.

    Not really. The center-right includes American Interest, the New Republic, politicians like Michael Bloomberg, the Washington Post, etc. If you want to call them center-left, that’s fine by me as well.

    Comment by louisproyect — June 20, 2012 @ 4:58 pm

  13. […] elicited a “think piece” by Bard professor Walter Russell Mead, who I have described once as the school’s Thomas Friedman. Titled “America, Israel, Gaza, and the World”, the article […]

    Pingback by Bard College, Israel and the Palestinians « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — November 21, 2012 @ 12:12 am

  14. […] written about Walter Russell Mead in the past. He is Bard’s Thomas Friedman. People like Friedman understand the true nature of globalization. In a March 28, 1999 NY Times […]

    Pingback by The growing intimacy between Bard College and the American military | Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — September 16, 2014 @ 4:10 pm

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