Rogue State

William Blum, Rogue State: A Guide to the World's Only Superpower (London: Zed Books, 2001, 308 pp., pbk.)

Review by Adam Jones
Published in Millennium: Journal of International Studies, 2002

"America cherishes her enemies. Without enemies, she is a nation without purpose and direction." So writes William Blum in the introduction to Rogue State (p. 15). It is a contention that resonates at the time of writing, with the "war on terror" providing justification and/or a smokescreen for international and domestic measures that will surprise no-one familiar with the broad trends in U.S. policy since World War II. These include massive increases in military spending; hardheaded unilateralism wherever the multilateral consensus does not jibe with U.S. preferences; and, on the home front, a crackdown on civil liberties and a sustained transfer of wealth from the rich to the poor. Next up as a target for global muscle-flexing, it appears, is Iraq. Blum reminds us that this country has already experienced "the most ferocious sustained bombing of a nation in the history of the planet" at the hands of the U.S. and its allies (p. 8), together with a regime of economic sanctions that a range of informed observers have characterised as genocidal.

With most of the U.S. public still marching in lockstep behind the flag-wavers, and the "anti-terror" coalition strong and perhaps expanding, this might not seem like the most propitious time to publish a book like Rogue State. Perhaps, though, there could be no better time. Millions of ordinary Americans were not only stunned but conscientized by the traumatic events of September 11, 2001. In their wake arose a movement against the "war on terror" that has few if any parallels in the history of U.S. antiwar protests; Noam Chomsky's slender book of interviews, 9/11, rapidly sold over 100,000 copies, while Michael Moore's equally sceptical Stupid White Men topped the New York Times bestseller list. Even young schoolchildren were cited as wondering whether the United States might be arousing the enmity of the world by acting as "kind of a bully."

In association with Amazon.comIf those schoolchildren ever get around to reading Blum's book, they will likely emerge thinking that "bully" is an understatement. The author's task in this work, which clocks in at under 300 pages of text, is to construct a wide-ranging survey of U.S. malfeasance in the world since 1945. "In the absence of an official Truth Commission in the United States," Blum writes, "this book is offered up as testimony" (p. 27). It is damning testimony indeed, not least in the context of the "war on terror." Indeed, the first part of the book contains a timely overview of "America's Gift to the World -- the Afghan Terrorist Alumni," citing the comment of one U.S. diplomat that "This is an insane instance of the chickens coming home to roost" [p. 37]).

In 27 chapters, most of them short and devastatingly concise, Blum roams through themes like "Assassinations," "War Criminals: Theirs and Ours," and "United States Use of Chemical and Biological Weapons" both abroad and at home. There are chapters on U.S. involvement in or support for torture, kidnapping, looting, eavesdropping, drug-dealing, and election-trampling. The final chapter, "A Day in the Life of a Free Country," turns the spotlight squarely on the U.S. domestic scene, focusing on the atrocious conditions in the federal and state prison systems, the racial injustice that permeates anti-drug policies and sentencing procedures, rampant surveillance of dissidents (and just about anybody else), and -- perhaps surprisingly -- instances of "political correctness," such as the "six-year-old boy ... sent home for planting a kiss on a girl's cheek" (p. 256). As this last example suggests, Blum tosses everything but the kitchen sink into his critique. Like the book as a whole, however, there's no denying its cumulative power.

For a relatively brief book, Rogue State is surprisingly hard to read. In part this is the result of the book's didactic structure, which borders on a clip-job at times. In part it derives from the author's relentless desire to interpret every action of the U.S. government in the worst possible light -- not a bad rule-of-thumb, it must be conceded, but one that sometimes makes for leaden prose.

Most of all, however, the difficulty of Rogue State lies in its subject-matter -- as well it should. It is hard to wade through 300 pages, and several decades, of carefully-documented hypocrisy, cynicism, and outright atrocity without feeling a little numbed. But there is real power in Blum's approach, as in his "Concise History of United States Global Interventions, 1945 to the Present" (over 40 pages, one or two interventions per page); or his account of "The US versus the World at the United Nations," which compiles 150 examples of General Assembly resolutions on which the United States was outvoted by mind-boggling margins. These include resolutions "declar[ing] that education, work, health care, proper nourishment, national development, etc. are human rights" (132 for, 1 against); calling for "Protection against products harmful to health and the environment" (146-1); and, of course, seeking the end of the economic embargo against Cuba (155-2 in 1999, with only Israel joining the U.S. in opposition).

To Blum's further credit, the analytical framework he offers for his mass of data is to-the-point and convincing:

When lying down with unsavories has such a long heritage, for Washington to pretend that it's no more than a temporary marriage of convenience to an (unfortunately) unattractive bride, is an exercise that fails to rise above simplistic propaganda. What has attracted the two sides to each other over the years has been a shared class consciousness, manifesting itself in an abhorrence of progressive movements, or something called 'communism' or most anything or anyone seen as a threat to a mutually-desired status quo (p. 60).

Not much here is new. Blum is covering ground well-trodden by Noam Chomsky, Edward Herman, Gabriel Kolko, Michael Parenti, and legions of independent journalists and activists. But the encyclopedic format of the work is fresh; both academics and activists will find Rogue State a useful reference work, as well as an informative if polemical read.

Note: an updated and slightly expanded edition of Rogue State was published in April 2002; this review refers to the previous (2001) edition.

Books about U.S. foreign policy from

NOTE: If the box instead shows generic Amazon information,
please click the "Refresh" button on your browser.