Chalmers Johnson died Saturday, at age 79. Once a hard-right Cold War analyst, he later became a progressive hero for his calls to end the American Empire and return to a sane foreign policy that recognized our limited roles and means as a world citizen.
Chalmers Johnson built his career as a Japan and East Asian analyst, back in a period where such notions mattered. He spent much of the last half of his life defending the need for such analysts, who knew the languages, cultures, and institutions of specific nations and regions. The alternative – what has since become the norm – was the Rational Actor school of foreign policy, an econometric approach focused on statistics and formulae, where GDP and other measurables are claimed to render irrelevant such factors as local history, tradition, and social structure. Dr. Johnson said this reduced international relations to intellectual navel gazing: treating the mindset of U.S. foreign policy intellectuals as the only reasonable way to view world events. He was right.
Among progressives, he was best known for his American Empire series: Blowback, The Sorrows of Empire, Nemesis, and Dismantling the Empire. An unsparing critic of our foreign policy, he was among the first to directly compare American hegemony to the British Empire, both in form and in intent. And again, he was right. He wrote with equal parts expertise and passion, and his books should be required reading for progressives who care about America’s role in world events.
Steve Clemons offered a more personal eulogy yesterday in The Washington Note, and it’s worth reading in its entirety. He concludes with this anecdote:
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,” Clemons writes.
Nor will I.
Farewell, Chalmers Johnson. May there be no empires and no wars where you have gone.