Chalmers Johnson, who died recently at age 79 in California, may be among the most influential foreign policy thinkers since George Kennan and too few people outside of the academy knew his name.
Johnson, an Asian scholar, was one of the first to understand and reinterpret the economic strength of Japan and China and, after spending his early life as a CIA consultant and a hawk on foreign policy, he transformed his thinking into insightful analysis of what he saw as the imperialist tendencies of the United States.
Johnson repeatedly asked a simple question that American policy makers rarely confront. Why is it that since the end of the Cold War, American defense spending has continued to escalate at a remarkable rate and why do we need more than 700 military installations in every corner of the world? Good question.
Johnson argued in a 2007 NPR interview and in his book Nemesis that America’s vast military complex, the cost to maintain it and the power it invested in the presidency was a fundamental danger to American democracy.
Johnson was in the tradition of great scholar/writers and politicians who were also foreign policy thinkers. He attempted in a careful, thoughtful way to place the American experience in the world in the context of history. He was not blinded, as so many political leaders are today, by the notion that America’s role in the world is somehow pre-ordained. The Romans and the British were forced, eventually, to come to grips with their lack of “exceptionalism” and that empire was a costly, ultimately futile (and fatal) exercise. The same fate may await the United States.
Chalmers Johnson argued that American democracy is the only aspect of our story that is truly exceptional and with so much attention devoted to American empire we are in danger of squandering the very thing that makes us great.