Blowback by Chalmers Johnson is an incisive and controversial book that examines the dangers of American empire. Johnson argues that the United States’ post-Soviet outlook has transformed it into a hegemonic empire, and that the foreign policy undertaken in its name will lead to blowback from oppressed peoples the world over.
The main themes of the book are the consequences of US foreign policy, the cycle of blowback, and the need for the US to adjust its foreign policy to account for the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Johnson explains how a “blowback” works, which is a cycle of illegal or unethical actions taken by the US government, followed by the American public’s overreaction and support for retaliation against other countries.
He also questions why it is necessary to keep so many US troops and forces in Okinawa, and why the US has not finished fighting the Cold War.
The book also looks at the US’s reputation in the world, and how its actions have led to a pattern of attack and retaliation in its global relations.
Johnson predicts the downfall of America as a global superpower and its eventual total destruction. He also makes comparisons between the US and the USSR throughout the Cold War, and looks at US involvement in South Korea, Japan, and China.
What I Liked
I liked that the book pushed back on ideas like American exceptionalism, that our foreign policy is always correct, and that problems in the world are never of our own making. It’s always helpful to test ideas and really push back on them. I was in high school / college in the years after 9/11 – so this book helped put a lot of that in context.
As a naive 15 year old, 9/11 seemed to come out of nowhere and I got swept up in the self-righteous patriotism in the few years after…when really, even though the US did not cause and was not responsible for 9/11…we did take a lot of short-sighted foreign policy actions to create unfavorable conditions.
What I Did Not Like
I really did not like the certainty and short-sightedness of the book. The book is right to argue that actions have consequences…but it seems to argue that action never has to be take in foreign policy…ever. He also implies that the US never gets foreign policy right or that we don’t act out of enlightened self-interest. All of which is wrong.
Isolationism has been a siren song for the United States ever since 1783…and it has never paid off, exception to temper over-involvement. I wish the book had argued more firmly for how to reform & improve foreign policy decision-making rather than arguing in a peanut-gallery style that America is just always wrong and will always regret acting in foreign policy.