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The Corporatist Synthesis: A Skeptical View


A few years ago I somewhat unflatteringly-and quite unoriginally , because the terms were actually those of J. H. Hexter-divided my colleagues in the historical profession into lumpers and splitters: those who generalize and those who particularize. Historical writing, I suggested, goes through certain predictable phases-historiographical Kondratieff cycles, if you willin which first lumpers and then splitters prevail over one another. This wholly unastounding insight on my part was received with such acclaim that I feel called upon to add a corollary to it: that the perceived sophistication of a discipline varies in direct proportion to the amount of lumping that goes on within it. During the past several years, diplomatic historians have been told more than once that they labor in a methodologically backward field. Charles S. Maier was hardly the first to begin this process of intellectual garment-rending, but his essay Marking Time: The Historiography of International Relations seems more than any other to have set the tone of the critique. The history of international relations, Maier wrote, cannot, alas, be counted among the pioneering fields of the discipline during the 1970s. There was little sense of collective enterprise, of being at the cutting edge of scholarship.2 It is symptomatic of the soul-searching Maiers article induced that no less august a figure than the outgoing president of the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations saw fit, during his valedictory address in December 1984,
*This essay is adapted from a talk given at the annual convention of the American Historical Association, Chicago, 30 December 1984. John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies o f Containment: A Critical Appraisal o f Postwar American National Security Policy (New York, 1982), p. vii. 2Charles S . Maier, Marking Time: The Historiography of International Relations, in Michael Kammen, ed., The Past Before Us: Contemporary Historical Writing in the United Stares (Ithaca, 1980), p. 355.




to locate his own particular subbranch of the discipline precisely on Maiers cutting edge.3 Thomas J. McCormick, in an equally influential article published in 1982, condemned the Manichean simplifications inherent in our fields traditional predilection for dichotomies and pair-opposites of isolationists and internationalists, idealists and realists, Riga Axiom and Yalta Axiom proponents, or imperialists and antiimperialists. (The fact that McCormick chose to title his article Drift or Mastery? appears to confirm the pervasiveness of the syndrome be has identified.) Nor is McCormick much impressed with the more recent literature of post-revisionism; the problem here, he argues, is a proliferation of undifferentiated and often contradictory variables, the assumption that multiplicity, rather than articulation, is equivalent to sophistication. The way out of our disciplinary malaise, McCormick suggests, is to return to lumping: The time has come to seek a grand unifying synthesis, and the place to find it, he tells us, is in the idea of corporati~m.~ At this point, I must confess to a certain perplexity as to just what corporatism is, at least in the context in which McCormick uses it. It is clearly not the Marxist-Leninist view of capitalism, because in the corporatist scheme of things the state is not solely the puppet of economic interests, but exerts some degree of control over them. At the same time, though, neither is corporatism a system of absolute state control, as is found in the Soviet Union today, or in such historical artifacts as fascism in Europe or communism in China. Corporatism does not connote simply the interests of the business community, because it includes as well the concerns of labor and agriculture. Nor is there any necessary conflict between a corporatist and a pluralist model of society, although pluralism as McCormick understands it seems to involve a somewhat higher degree of competition among interest groups than does corporatism. Corporatism emphasizes private initiative, although public initiative is by no means precluded. And, finally, corporatism resists income redistribution in favor of productionism; it avoids arguments over dividing existing economic pies by simply baking bigger ones. You see the problem here: except for this last point about income redistribution, productivity, and pies, there is a fuzziness about the term corporatism that makes it more easily defined in terms of what it is not than of what it is. Despite this amorphousness, corporatisms identification of shared interests between business and government, together with its exploration of how foreign policy can be conducted outside official channels, has proven to be a remarkably fruitful analytical concept for certain specific periods of American diplomatic history. I refer here particularly to the 1920s, where the work of Joan Hoff-Wilson, Carl P. Parrini, Michael J. Hogan, Melvyn P. Leffler,
Warren I. Cohen, The History of American-East Asian Relations: Cutting Edge of the i s t o r y 9 (Spring 1985): 101-12. Historical Profession, Diplomatic H Thomas J. McCormick, Drift or Mastery? A Corporatist Synthesis for American Diplomatic History, Reviews in American History 10 (December 1982): 318-30.



Maier, and others has laid to rest forever the myth that the United States detached itself from involvement in European affairs after World War I.5 The work of Hogan and Maier, in addition, is revealing previously unsuspected analogies between this period and Washingtons more widely known role in European reconstruction after World War II.6 And Robert Griffith has recently suggested ways in which the corporatist model can illuminate our understanding of the Dwight D. Eisenhower years as well; surely a president whose first cabinet included eight millionaires and a plumber understood the concept of corporatism very well. No doubt there will be other subjects to which a corporatist analysis will lend itself my own candidate would be the influence of what Maier has called productionism on the formulation of post-World War I1 national security policy, especially in connection with the drafting of NSC-68. As a result of these successful and potentially successful applications, corporatism has become a fashionable concept within the profession. It isalmost-the historiographical equivalent of designer jeans. To the extent that there exists, these days, a foundation upon which a new diplomatic history synthesis might be constructed, corporatism appears to be the most likely candidate. Before we all rush into a frenzy of corporatist lumping, though, I hope we will take some time to think about the limitations of corporatism as an explanatory model. There are, it seems to me, a number of problems to which a corporatist framework does not appropriately lend itself, and I wonder whether we should not give some attention to these before we leap to embrace that approach as, in McCormicks words, an ecumenical and sophisticated way out of our drift. Let me cite some examples of what I mean. The first has to do with corporatisms reliance upon consensus. It strikes me as noteworthy that corporatist analyses tend to be spplied successfully to periods when there existed a fairly broad agreement, both within and outside government, as to what the foreign policy agenda ought to be-the 1920s, the late 1940s, or the 1950s. I have yet to see a persuasive corporatist account of more contentious episodes, such as the debate over American entry into
See, for example, Joan Hoff-Wilson, Ideology and Economics: U.S. Relations With the Soviet Union, 1918-1933 (Columbia, MO, 1974); Carl P. Parrini, Heir to Empire: United States Economic Diplomacy, 1916-1923 (Pittsburgh, 1969); Charles S . Maier, Recasting Bourgeois Europe: Stabilization in France, Germany, and Italy in the Decade After World War I (Princeton, 1975); Michael J . Hogan, Informal Entente: The Private Structure of Cooperation in AngloAmerican Economic Diplomacy. 1918-1928 (Columbia, MO, 1977); and Melvyn P. Leffler, The Elusive Quest: Americas Pursuit of Europeun Stability and French Security, I91 9-1933 (Chapel Hill, 1979). 6Charles S. Maier, The Two Postwar Eras and the Conditions for Stability in TwentiethCentury Western Europe, American Historical Review 86 (1981): 327-52; Michael J . Hogan, American Marshall Planners and the Search for a European Neocapitalism, ibid. 9 0 (1985): 44-72. Robert Griffith. Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Corporate Commonwealth, ibid. 87 (1982): 87-122. nMcCormick, Drift or Mastery? p. 329.



World War I, or the struggle between interventionists and noninterventionists between 1939 and 1941, or the question of what to do about Vietnam once troops had been committed there in 1965. All of these were instances in which the groups that are supposed to shape foreign policy could not agree among themselves. In such cases, I wonder, what does a corporatist interpretation tell us that a more traditional analysis of public opinion, bureaucracies, and interest groups would not? Does not corporatism tend to obscure the very real differences that do, from time to time, affect foreign policy from within? Is it not a return to consensus historiography, to coin a phrase, by the back door? My second reservation about corporatism, at least as McCormick defines it, has to do with its characterization of American society. McCormick accepts the concept of foreign policy elites, although he insists on referring to them as syndicates, a term that, like corporatism itself, carries with it confusing historical connotations. He identifies business, labor, and agriculture as the most important of these syndicates, stressing their interdependence and the interests they share with g~vernment.~ I wonder, though, how far this gets us. Does it not ignore the differences that exist within such groups: multinationals versus individual entrepreneurs; organized labor versus unorganized labor (and sometimes organized labor versus organized labor); agribusiness versus family farmers? Does it not fail to take into account what may well be the most significant social determinant of differences on foreign as well as domestic issues-levels of education? Does it not leave out altogether the increasingly important influence of universities and think tanks in shaping foreign policy, as well as the even more important influence of the mass media? In short, corporatism seems to me to offer in fact a somewhat narrower insight into the social and occupational roots of foreign policy decision making than more traditional analyses of interest groups and foreign policy elites have provided. Third, corporatism ignores almost entirely the geopolitical dimension of American foreign policy. One would leam little, from a corporatist analysis, about the global balance of power and its perceived relationship to American security interests. Would a corporatist account, for example, reveal much about why so many influential Americans feared the prospect, prior to World War I, of a Europe dominated by Gemany? What new light would corporatism shed on our abrupt decision, on the eve of a second war with Germany, to get tough with Japan? How would it explain the fact that the American response to the post-World War I1 European reconstruction crisis included a military alliance, a pattern very different from that which followed World War I? Would corporatism reveal anything that we do not already know about the origins of American intervention in Korea and Indochina? The corporatist synthesis, I fear, runs the risk of replicating one of the major weaknesses of New Left historiography some years back: an exclusive focus on the internal roots and external effects of U.S. foreign policy, and a corresponding neglect
lbid., p. 323.


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of the fact that external circumstances may have had internal consequences as well. Fourth, I wonder if the corporatist synthesis does not downplay, more than is justifiable, the role of ideals in American foreign policy. Let me hasten to add that I am not proposing to resuscitate the old realist-idealistdichotomy; one thing New Left historiography very convincingly demonstrated is the extent to which one can become an idealist for the most realistic of reasons. But there is a moral dimension to American diplomacy, and corporatism offers us a less than adequate explanation of its periodic manifestations. For example, students of the diplomacy of the 1920s have shown clearly, using a corporatist framework, that the failure of the United States to join the League of Nations constituted no barrier to the pursuit of postwar American interests in Europe. If that is the case, though, how does corporatism explain Wilsons single-minded and costly (in terms of what he had to give up to get it) push to create the League in the first place? Or take the question of the post-World War I1 settlement in Europe: Why, if morality was only a cloak for realism, did the United States not simply accept the outright division of the Continent into spheres of influence proposed by both Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin? Or consider United States support for Israel at the expense of its relations with the Arab world for almost four decades. Or the role of the human rights issue in torpedoing detente in the mid-1970s. Or the current growing campaign against apartheid in South Africa. One cannot chalk up all idealistic actions to concealed realism, and yet corporatism would appear to leave little room for any other motive. Finally, corporatism underrates the role of distinctive individuals in history (with the exception, of course, of Herbert Hoover, to whom it gives full attention). There is within the corporatist framework the assumption, growing I suspect out of work that has been done on domestic social and organizational history, that once an individual has been placed within a larger context, whether of class, occupation, or bureaucratic affiliation, the behavior of that individual largely has been accounted for. McCormick complains, for example, about traditional historiographys bias favoring discrete individuals.o But is it methodologically primitive to suggest that foreign policy remains a field in which individuals do make a difference? John Milton Coopers recent dual biography of Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson reminds us eloquently of how much the diplomacy of the first two decades of the twentieth century depended upon these two very atypical men. Warren F. Kimballs superb edition of the Churchill-Roosevelt correspondence makes a similar point about World War II.I2 Nor should we forget the

Ibid., p. 319. John Milton Cooper, Jr., The Warrior and the Priest: Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt (Cambridge, MA, 1983). Warren F. Kimball, ed., Churchill & Roosevelt: The Complete Correspondence, 3 vols. (Princeton, 1984).



capacity of certain individuals to transcend the social and organizational context from which they emerge: Stephen E. Ambroses biography of Eisenhower-very possibly the most antimilitary president of the postwar era-ought to make that point clear enough.I3 The test of a good synthesis is the extent to which it accommodates rather than obscures particularity. Corporatism, it seems to me, fails short in this respect. It has been a quarter of a century now since William Appleman Williams proposed an Open Door synthesis for American diplomatic history, and much has happened since, not least because of his unique contribution to the invigoration of our field. But few historians today would hold out the Open Door concept as an example of methodological sophistication. The difficulty was not with the application of that thesis to certain specific problems, such as China policy at the beginning of the century, for example, or so-called isolationism in the 1920s. It was rather with the effort to make the Open Door synthesis a Procrustean bed, onto which all of American diplomatic history had to fit. We are at the stage, now, where the temptation exists to project the corporatist synthesis beyond the specific historical issues that quite legitimately gave rise to it. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this so long as critical faculties are not suspended, and so long as room is left for alternative explanations. But we ought to have learned by now that sophistication does not require going to bed with Procrustes. Nor, to mix metaphors wildly, does it necessitate limiting ourselves to a single lump in our historiographical cup of tea.

I3StephenE. Ambrose, Eisenhower: Soldier, General of the Army, President-Elecr. 18901952 (New York, 1983); idem, Eisenhower: The President (New York, 1984).