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       Neoliberalism and U.S. Foreign Policy

From Carter to Trump


Catherine V. Scott


Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018

Hardcover. xiv+260 pages. ISBN 978-3319713823. £112


Reviewed by Roger Chapman

Palm Beach Atlantic University (Florida)





In Neoliberalism and U.S. Foreign Policy, Catherine V. Scott, professor of political science at Agnes Scott College, argues that America’s role in global affairs has dramatically changed due to the advent of neoliberalism. Tracing the origins of this development to the 1970s and the Carter administration’s prioritizing of human rights, she states that all subsequent US foreign policy draws on an assumption of hegemony that America has the moral right to intervene abroad, not necessarily for self-defense or retaliation, but simply on the rationale to make the world better. At the same time, the imperative of human rights was “wedded … with visions of the market” [4], hence neoliberalism.

Scott suggests “a new paradigm” has been at work in US foreign policy, “consisting of different practices of power and discursive representation” [7]. Paradoxically, Scott delves into history and borrows old framing techniques such as masculinity steeped in frontier mythology, captivity narratives that rationalize interventionism, and, predictably, notions of American exceptionalism. But she nonetheless seems to suggest that American foreign policy of the past four decades is something new, something totally anchored in a different kind of ideology. She argues that these old framing devices have been modified for the neoliberal cause. She further argues that “the intensification of neoliberalism in foreign policy … has eroded and reconfigured the imperial markers” [7].

The book’s stated aim is “to complicate, challenge, and offer revisions” against those “who reach for early eras of foreign policy or undertake institutional analyses to draw connections between the national security state of the Cold War era and today’s national security apparatus in order to explain current US foreign policy” [viii]. In other words, the author seems to be rejecting an outright historical approach that would trace how change and continuity have worked together to make the present. For instance, she disagrees with authors like Stephen Kinzer who view modern “regime change” as in tradition with the same impulses that led to the Spanish-American War.(1)

Neoliberalism and U.S. Foreign Policy is divided into six chapters, plus preface, acknowledgements, and index. Each chapter ends with an alphabetical listing of the works that were cited parenthetically. Also, each chapter concludes with a summation of its section of the book. Overall, the work is based on seven cases, three crises (the Iranian hostage crisis, Bosnia, and Somalia) and four conflicts (Grenada, the Gulf War, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan). Scott concedes that her work leaves out certain episodes, but argues that her thesis centers on theory and what her selection of cases does is test the theory.

Chapter one (“Foucault, Carter, and Trump? Neoliberalism and U.S. Foreign Policy”) offers the theoretical construct, concluding near the end, “The heavily financialized neoliberal mindset has left no sector of the economy untouched, including that of foreign policy, most notably in the outsourcing of war, provision of foreign aid, and increasing turn in defense policy toward ‘economies of force’ that maintain military superiority at lower cost” [21]. Chapters two, three, and four utilize the constructs of “Neoliberal Masculinity,” captivity narratives (with particular focus on the failed Iran rescue mission), and “Neoliberal Multiculturalism.” The second chapter (“From Rambo to Jack Bauer: Neoliberal Masculinity in the Age of Terror”) traces developments in American foreign affairs from the post-Vietnam period to the War on Terror, an ambitious undertaking in forty pages.

The author’s referencing of popular culture (whether Rambo films expressive of the angst of the Vietnam syndrome or the fictional character on a Fox television show about counterterrorism) raises questions about how such entertainment works accurately reflect or actually influence the conduct of foreign affairs. Similarly, the second chapter reviews the “captivity narratives” in the memoirs of the Americans who were held hostage at the US Embassy in Tehran and follows that up with a content analysis of articles in People magazine! It can be noted that the author makes greater usage of newspaper and magazine articles than primary sources connected with those who crafted and carried out foreign policy.

Chapter five (“Neoliberal Patriotism”) suggests that in the new era citizens are conditioned to be patriots who are never called upon to make sacrifices. The mantra of “no more Vietnams” is about maintaining a robust foreign policy “with minimal disruption of the American way of life” [202]. The final chapter considers the Trump administration, arguing that contrary to popular imagination Trump has not at all “trumped” US foreign policy, but rather he is continuing the “market thinking” in the conduct of public affairs [246]. America can be great again, but now the neoliberal thinking is her allies must start paying “their share” of the cost for maintaining global security. Wisely, regarding Trump, Scott suggests that it would be “more fruitful to look for continuities in his foreign policy than it is to treat him as a shock from nowhere” [248], but that nonetheless does not diminish the fact that the forty-fifth president of the United States is a political outlier, an anomaly head of the American state. (It is ironic that here Scott sees the value of continuity—as opposed to change—whereas her overall thesis is against continuity when it pertains to events following the period of the Cold War.)

The theoretical underpinning for this work is said to be based on Michel Foucault’s reflections on neoliberalism, specifically a set of lectures he delivered in the late 1970s.(2) However, the author makes her arguments by simply invoking Foucault. She does not take the time to unpack Foucault and show how his insights have been proven one way or the other. Nor does the author take time to offer an in-depth definition of neoliberalism (which is a pejorative term in some circles),(3) but the economic interwovenness is inferred, for example, with commentary pertaining to how foreign policy is conducted with market considerations, such as how the US military adopts corporate strategies or “turns to Wal-Mart to learn about logistics” [50].

Scott is focused on the transition from the Cold War to the post-Cold War. By starting with the Carter presidency, she sets the beginning of her analysis in the period of the late Cold War. Obviously, change was taking place and that change had some impact and effect going forward. But the historian’s caution about continuity being a part of change perhaps needs further consideration by Scott. When one thinks of President Taft’s “Dollar Diplomacy,” President Wilson’s stubborn view of neutrality and trade, FDR’s Four Freedoms (including “Freedom from Want”), the Marshall Plan, the postwar economic integration of Japan and West Germany, President Eisenhower’s farewell warning about the military-industrial complex, or President Kennedy tapping Robert McNamara, the CEO of Ford Motor Company, to serve as Secretary of Defense, one can readily see that market ethos has long been a factor in how American foreign policy and defense get carried out. But to be fair to Scott, what she is arguing is the intensification of the market ethos following the Cold War period.

As already noted, Scott views Jimmy Carter as the one who set American foreign policy on a neoliberal course, a view that might wrinkle the brows of some readers. The Carter administration’s emphasis on human rights, she argues, primarily “contributed to deepening and legitimizing the material relations of the global capitalist economy” [6]. Scott goes on to explain, “The longstanding claim that capitalism fosters rights-based democracy gradually became one of the strongest criticisms of Soviet communism” [7]. This harmonizes with President Reagan’s famous denouncing of the Soviet Union as an evil empire. And later in the 1990s the emphasis on human rights provided justification for intervention in the former Yugoslavia, Haiti, and Somalia. After September 11 there was an emphasis on nation-building with efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan to convert them into better societies.

The overall analysis, which is well written, is layered with nuance—the author admits a deepening of a past economic drive and acknowledges the longstanding American criticism of communist disregard for human rights. Also, “The masculine foundations of American exceptionalism have undergone shifts” [60-61], and so on.(4) In the end, readers will have to determine the line between nuanced analysis indicating precise thinking and nuanced qualifiers betraying a thesis that overreached. The question is how new is new. Practices can be different while underlying principles remain the same. Discursive explanations that are new may simply be old concepts explained differently. The author gives little thought to how a lot of the focus of this work actually pertains to imperial overstretch—hence America’s desire to cut costs and, like Britain after World War II, search for a way for others to foot the “Pax Romana” bill.(5) Catherine Scott, whether her main argument is persuasive or not, is to be congratulated for offering a bold work that should provoke thought.


(1) Stephen Kinzer, Overthrow : America’s Century of Regime Change from Hawaii to Iraq. New York: Times Books, 2006.

(2) Michel Foucault, The Birth of Biopolitics : Lectures at the College de France, 1978-1979. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

(3) On page 27, Scott offers the following: “Neoliberalism is a vast matrix defined by interests, rationalities, and ideology.” She goes on to cite several authors, whom she states explain neoliberalism “as a class project to shore up capitalist power and establish and reestablish the conditions for capital accumulation, increasingly through financialization and globalization.” Some readers will, understandably, regard some (or all) of that as mumbo jumbo.

(4) Scott does not make use of Michael H. Hunt, Ideology and U.S Foreign Policy (2nd ed. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), a work that explains how American exceptionalism has been a part of the change and continuity of American foreign policy.

(5) The work could have benefited by dialoguing some with Paul Kennedy, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers: Economic Change and Military Conflict from 1500 to 2000. New York: Random House, 1987.



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