Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Chalmers Johnson

Source: Washington Note (11/21/10):

The Impact Today and Tomorrow of Chalmers Johnson

Next week, Foreign Policy magazine and its editor-in-chief Susan Glasser
will be releasing its 2nd annual roster of the world's greatest thinkers and
doers in foreign policy. I have seen the list -- and it's impressively
creative and eclectic.

There is one name that is not on the FP100 who should be -- and that is
Chalmers Johnson, who from my perspective rivals Henry Kissinger as the most
significant intellectual force who has shaped and defined the fundamental
boundaries and goal posts of US foreign policy in the modern era.

Johnson, who passed away Saturday afternoon at 79 years, invented and was
the acknowledged godfather of the conceptualization of the "developmental
state". For the uninitiated, this means that Chalmers Johnson led the way in
understanding the dynamics of how states manipulated their policy conditions
and environments to speed up economic growth. In the neoliberal hive at the
University of Chicago, Chalmers Johnson was an apostate and heretic in the
field of political economy. Johnson challenged conventional wisdom with he
and his many star students -- including E.B. Keehn, David Arase, Marie
Anchordoguy, Mark Tilton and others -- writing the significant treatises
documenting the growing prevalence of state-led industrial and trade and
finance policy abroad, particularly in Asia.

Today, the notion of "State Capitalism" has become practically commonplace
in discussing the newest and most significant features of the global
economy. Chalmers Johnson invented this field and planted the intellectual
roots of understanding that other nation states were not trying to converge
with and follow the so-called American model.

Johnson for his seminal work on Japanese political economy, MITI and the
Japanese Miracle was dubbed by Newsweek's Robert Neff as "godfather of the
revisionists" on Japan. Neff also tagged Clyde Prestowitz, James Fallows,
Karel van Wolferen and others like R. Taggart Murphy and Pat Choate as the
leaders of a new movement that argued that Japan was organizing its
political economy in different ways than the U.S. This was a huge deal in
its day -- and these writers and thinkers led by the implacable Johnson were
attacked from all corners of American academia and among the crowd of
American Japan-hands who wanted to deflect rather than focus a spotlight on
the fact that Japan's economic mandarins were really the national security
elite of the Pacific powerhouse nation.

In the 1980s when Johnson was arguing that Japan's state directed capitalism
was succeeding at not only propelling Japan's wealth upwards but was
creating "power" for Japan in the eyes of the rest of the world, Kissinger
and the geostrategic crowd could not see beyond the global currency and
power realities of nuclear warheads and throw-weight. The revisionists were
responsible for injecting the economic dynamics of power and national
interest in the equation of a nation's global status.

To understand China's rise today, the fact that China has become the Google
of nations and America the General Motors of countries -- the US being seen
by others as a very well branded, large, underperforming country -- one must
go back to Chalmers Johnson's work on the developmental state.

Scratch beneath these Johnson breakthroughs though and go back another
decade and a half and one finds that Chalmers Johnson, a one time hard-right
national security hawk, deconstructed the Chinese Communist revolution and
showed that the dynamic that drive the revolutionary furor had less to do
with class warfare and the appeal of communism but rather high octane
"nationalism." Johnson saw earlier than most that the same dynamic was true
in Vietnam. His work which was published as Peasant Nationalism and
Communist Power while a UC Berkeley doctoral student launched him as a
formidable force in Asia-focused intellectual circles in the U.S.

Johnson's ability to launch an instant, debilitating broadside against the
intellectual vacuousness of friends or foes made him controversial. He
chafed under the UC Berkeley Asia Program leadership of Robert Scalapino
whom Johnson viewed as one of the primary dynastic chiefs of what became
known as the "Chrysanthemum Club", those whose Japan-hugging meant
overlooking and/or ignoring the characteristics of Japan's state-led form of
capitalism. Johnson was provocatively challenged graduate students in the
field to choose sides -- to work either on the side where they acquiesced to
a corrupt culture of US-Japan apologists who wanted the quaint big
brother-little brother frame for the relationship to remain the dominant
portal through which Japan was viewed or alternatively on the side of those
who saw Japan and America's forfeiture of its own economic interests as
empirical facts.

When Robert Scalapino refused to budge despite Johnson's agitation, Johnson
who then headed UC Berkeley's important China Studies program abandoned the
university and became the star intellectual of UC San Diego's School of
International Relations and Pacific Studies. There is no doubt that Johnson
put UCSD's IRPS on the map and gave it an instant, global boost.

But as usual, Johnson -- incorruptible and passionate about policy, theory,
and their practice -- eventually went to war with the bureaucrats running
that institution. Those who had come in to head it were devotees of
"rational choice theory" -- which was spreading through the fields of
political science and other social sciences as the so-called softer sciences
were trying to absorb and apply the harder-edged econometrics-driven models
of behavior that the neoliberal trends in economics were using.

Johnson and one of his proteges, E.B. "Barry" Keehn, wrote a powerful
indictment of rational choice theory that helped trigger a long-running and
still important intellectual divide that showed that rational choice theory
was one of the great ideological delusions of the era. I too joined this
battle and wrote extensively about the limits of rational choice theory
which I myself saw dislodging university language programs, cultural
studies, and more importantly -- the institutional/structural approaches to
understanding other political systems.

Johnson once told me when I was visiting him and his long-term, constant
intellectual partner and wife, Sheila Johnson, that the UCSD School of
International Relations and Pacific Studies no longer either really taught
international relations or pacific studies -- and that a student's entire
first year was focused on a cultural skill set development in economics and
statistics. To Johnson, this tendency to elevate econometric formulas over
the actual study of a nation's language, history, culture and political
system was part of America's growing cultural imperialism. Studying "them"
is really about "us" -- as "they" will converge to be like "us" or will fall
to the way side and be insignificant.

It was that night that Chalmers Johnson, Sheila Johnson and I agreed to form
an idea on had been developing called the Japan Policy Research Institute.
Chalmers became President and I the Director. We maintained this working
relationship at the helm of JPRI together for more than 12 years and spoke
nearly every week if not every other day as we tried to acquire and publish
the leading thinking on Japan, US-Japan relations and Asia more broadly. We
became conveners, published works on Asia that the official journals of
record of US-Asia policy viewed as too risky, and emerged as key players in
the media on all matters of America's economic, political, and military
engagement in the Pacific. Today, JPRI is headed by Chiho Sawada and is
based at the University of San Francisco.

However, this base of JPRI gave Chalmers Johnson the launch pad that led to
the largest contribution of his career to America's national discourse. From
his granular understanding of political economy of competing nations, his
understanding of the national security infrastructure of both sides of the
Cold War, he saw better than most that the US had organized its global
assets -- particularly its vassals Japan and Germany -- in a manner similar
to the Soviet Union. Both sides looked like the other. Both were empires.
The Soviets collapsed, Chalmers told me and wrote. The U.S. did not -- yet.

The rape of a 12 year-old girl by three American servicemen in Okinawa,
Japan in September 1995 and the statement by a US military commander that
they should have just picked up a prostitute became the pivot moving Johnson
who had once been a supporter of the Vietnam War and railed against UC
Berkeley's anti-Vietnam protesters into a powerful critic of US foreign
policy and US empire.

Johnson argued that there was no logic that existed any longer for the US to
maintain a global network of bases and to continue the occupation of other
countries like Japan. Johnson noted that there were over 39 US military
installations on Okinawa alone. The military industrial complex that
Eisenhower had warned against had become a fixed reality in Johnson's mind
and essays after the Cold War ended.

In four powerful books, all written not in the corridors of power in New
York or Washington -- but in his small home office at Cardiff-by-the-Sea in
California, Johnson became one of the most successful chroniclers and
critics of America's foreign policy designs around the world.

Before 9/11, Johnson wrote the book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of
American Empire. After the terrorist attacks in 2001 in New York and
Washington, Blowback became the hottest book in the market. The publishers
could not keep up with demand and it became the most difficult to get, most
wanted book among those in national security topics.

He then wrote Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy and the End of the
Republic, Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic, and most recently
Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope. Johnson, who used to be a
net assessments adviser to the CIA's Allen Dulles, had become such a critic
of Washington and the national security establishment that this hard-right
conservative had become adopted as one of the political left's greatest

Johnson measured himself to some degree against the likes of Noam Chomsky
and Gore Vidal -- but in my mind, Johnson was the more serious, the most
empirical, the most informed about the nooks and crannies of every political
position as he had journeyed the length of the spectrum.

Chalmers Johnson served on my board when I worked at the Japan America
Society of Southern California. He and I, along with Sheila Johnson -- along
with Tom Engelhardt one of the world's great editors -- created the Japan
Policy Research Institute. Johnson served on the Advisory Board of the Nixon
Center when I served as the Center's founding executive director. We had a
long, constructive, feisty relationship. He helped propel my career and
thinking. In recent years, we were more distant -- mostly because I was not
ready, as he was, to completely disown Washington.

Many of Johnson's followers and Chal himself think that American democracy
is lost, that the republic has been destroyed by an embrace of empire and
that the American public is unaware and unconscious of the fix. He may be
right -- but I took a course trying to use blogs, new media, and a DC based
think tank called the New America Foundation to challenge conventional
foreign policy trends in other ways. Ultimately, I think Chalmers was
content with what I was doing but probably knew that in the end, I'd catch
up with him in his profound frustration with what America was doing in the

Chalmers and Sheila Johnson saw me lead the battle against John Bolton's
confirmation vote in the Senate as US Ambassador to the United Nations --
but given the scale of his ambitions to dislodge America's embrace of
empire, Bolton was too small a target in his eyes. He was probably right.

Saying Chalmers Johnson is dead sounds like a lie. I can't fathom him being
gone -- and with all of the amazing times I've had with him as well as the
bouts of political debate and even yelling as we were pounding out JPRI
materials on deadline, I just can't imagine that this blustery, irreverent,
completely brilliant force won't be there to challenge Washington and

Few intellectuals attain what might have been called many centuries ago the
rank of "wizard" -- an almost other worldly force who defied society's and
life's rules and commanded an enormous following of acolytes and enemies.

Wizards don't die -- and I hope that those who read this, who knew him, or
go on reading his works in the decades ahead provoke, inspire, jab, rebuke,
applaud, and condemn in the way he did.

In one of my fondest memories of Chalmers and Sheila Johnson at their home
with their then Russian blue cats, MITI and MOF, named after the two engines
of Japan's political economy -- Chal railed against the journal, Foreign
Affairs, which he saw as a clap trap of statist conventionalism. He decided
he had had enough of the journal and of the organization that published it,
the Council on Foreign Relations. So, Chalmers called the CFR and told the
young lady on the phone to cancel his membership.

The lady said, "Professor Johnson, I'm sorry sir. No one cancels their
membership in the Council in Foreign Relations. Membership is for life.
People are canceled when they die."

Chalmers Johnson, not missing a beat, said "Consider me dead."

I never will. He is and was the intellectual giant of our times. Chalmers
Johnson centuries from now will be seen, I think, as the intellectual titan
of this past era, surpassing Kissinger in the breadth of seminal works that
define what America was and could have been.

My sincere condolences to Sheila, to others in his extended family --
particularly among all of his students and colleagues who were part of the
Johnson dynasty -- and to his friends in San Diego who were a vital part of
the texture of the Johnson household.

-- Steve Clemons