Short Book Review: “Washington’s China: The National Security World, the Cold War, and the Origins of Globalism”

“Washington’s China: The National Security World, the Cold War, and the Origins of Globalism,” by James Peck, is a central book in my PhD dissertation, on which I’m currently working. Peck, a historian and foreign-policy analyst who is also an expert on China, is better known amongst academic and activist circles for his groundbreaking “Ideal Illusions: How the U.S. Government Co-opted Human Rights.”

In “Washington’s China,” Peck draws on a wealth of secret intelligence documents pertaining to U.S. policy toward China in the 1950s and 1960s to shed light on the “national security world” (NSW), which he characterizes as “pivotal for the emerging U.S. global role, and the global role reinforced the pivotal role of the NSW” (p. 19). He identified “four consistent long-term global goals” of the NSW stemming from these documents: the attainment of global military preeminence; the creation of and domination over the new international order centered on U.S. economic and political supremacy; and the weakening in the short-term and defeating in the long-term of any sort of mass-based nationalisms or attempts at revolutionary transformation of societies (p. 10). Peck points out “the ideological ferocity of the national security bureaucracy at the center of American foreign policy” which consisted of a “profoundly ideological formulation that is part and parcel of Washington’s thinking and strategizing about the world” and “saw a world where American power was the central reality and where all aspects of American life that could be reorganized to achieve this end were to be brought into play for decades to come” (pp. 10–11).

I found out about this book by chance, while reading a conversation between Noam Chomsky and evolutionary biologist Robert Trivers (Discussion with Noam Chomsky and Robert Trivers, Salon Seed, September 6, 2006). When I read it, I was still trying to figure out how to frame my own research. Chomsky’s comments about the book, which was yet to come out at the time, caught my attention:

“It’s about the imagery of China that was constructed in Washington. [Peck] went through the National Security Council literature, background literature and so on, and he does both an analysis of content and a psychological analysis. […] What he says is that there are elaborate techniques of self-deception to try to build a framework in which we can justify things like, say, invading or overthrowing the government of Guatemala, on the basis of some new objective. And it’s done by making everything simple. You have to make it clearer than the truth. And as this picture gets created internally and built up by each group of National Security staffers, it becomes like a real fundamentalist religion, showing extraordinary self-deceit. And then you end up with the Cheneys and the Rumsfelds.”

Peck’s book provides intellectual tools that allow the reader to make sense of seemingly disparate and idiosyncratic actions of the U.S. institutional foreign policy and intelligence apparatus and show that in fact they have been consistent throughout the past decades, and rather successfully too. Although in terms of the publicly claimed objectives the U.S. may have failed, as many authors believe, Peck’s analytical framework leads to a different conclusion. In terms of those “four consistent long-term global goals” laid out in the post-war National Security World planning documents, the U.S. has succeeded. This framework also contradicts the mainstream media horse-race coverage that misleadingly portrays significant variation from one administration to the next, by putting emphasis on the permanent bureaucracy that outlasts any specific government. It is fundamental reading for anyone interested in U.S. foreign policy, international politics and anti-imperialist activism. Its original perspective brings a useful prism through which one can understand what has been driving U.S. foreign policy ever since the end of World War II to this day.

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