Rope-a-Dope: The Chump Factor in U.S. Foreign Policy*

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The pilot of a US Cobra helicopter at Dau Tieng Vietnam, 1969. The stickers on his helmet read: “Bomb Saigon Now” – “Bomb Hanoi Now” – “Bomb Disneyland Now” – “Bomb Everything”.  This was typical of the ideological shallowness mixed with juvenile cynicism typically displayed by US soldiers deployed in colonial wars. Their morale is often grounded in fealty to fighting buddies and the murkily understood “American Way of Life” rather than an allegiance to capitalism, per se. —Eds.

By Morris Berman | [print_link]

In my previous article (posted at Cyrano’s Journal on 24 November 2008), I wrote about the unconscious mythologies, or “Conspiracies,” that have guided U.S. foreign policy for a long time now.  Chief among these is the belief, going back to 1630, that America is God’s chosen nation, a “city on a hill,” put on this earth for other countries to learn from and emulate.  It is not too much to say that the vast majority of Americans are under the impression that everyone on earth, in their heart of hearts, harbors the hope of becoming an American some day, and that it is the sacred mission of the U.S. to bring the American Way of Life to all the peoples of the world.


Looking at such a belief-system from the outside, it comes off as being not merely arrogant, but frankly demented; and yet, it really is what most Americans believe.  In this regard, it is supported by a second mythology, that of the “civil religion” of the United States, whereby what is actually worshiped is the nation itself.  Taken together, these two “Conspiracies” have an enormous hold on the American psyche, leading to a kind of national blindness in U.S. foreign policy.  In particular, they set Americans up to be chumps, and most nations of the world learned long ago that the way to deal with Washington is simply to tell it what it wants to hear.  “Though Americans rarely discuss their national tendency to credulousness,” writes the Irish journalist Eamonn Fingleton, “it is a fact of life that is well understood by tricksters and con men around the world.”  This holds true even for America’s Anglo-Saxon allies, such as Great Britain and the Commonwealth nations, for whom the naïveté of Americans is legendary.  We can expect, then, that it would be even truer for the countries of East Asia, as Fingleton describes it in his illuminating book, In the Jaws of the Dragon.

As a prime example of this, Fingleton recounts the story of postwar Japan.  Gen. Douglas MacArthur, head of the occupying forces there, sought to “Americanize” the Japanese, get them to embrace Western capitalism and democracy.  That he succeeded remains, to this day, part of the U.S. national mythology.  In MacArthur’s view, democracy was irresistible, and one year after his arrival he spoke of a “spiritual revolution” that “ensued almost overnight,” reversing 2,000 years of Japanese tradition.  “This revolution of the spirit among the Japanese people represents no thin veneer to serve the purposes of the present,” he proudly declared.

But of course, a thin veneer was exactly what it represented.  What MacArthur failed to grasp was that a few months’ contact with friendly American GI’s was not enough to bring about such a cultural miracle.  In fact, the Japanese were very clever in deflecting MacArthur’s attempts to impose American values upon them, and they were able to do this because they understood that he was a chump.  They recognized quite quickly that he was vain and self-absorbed, so they treated him like an emperor–which worked like a charm.  A similar type of flattery was also effective with other top U.S. officials stationed in Japan.  These men were completely ignorant of this very old civilization, of its history and its psychology, and yet saw themselves as capable of miraculously transforming it.  After all, how could the Japanese not want to be Americans?  To this day Americans believe that it is only a matter of time before non-Western nations come around to American values.**

The problem was that the Americans had to work through Japanese officials to bring about the reforms they sought.  These officials rarely said no, but were adept at scuttling any such initiatives.  The expression for this in Japanese is menju fukuhai–to cooperate with the face, but disobey with the belly.  Hence the Japanese worked hard to make relations with the Americans as smooth as possible, on the surface, and cooperated with them on many unimportant issues.  But behind the smiles was a deep bitterness over the dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which caused the grisly deaths of hundreds of thousands of civilians. 


Douglas MacArthur’s enormous personal vanity and thin understanding of foreign cultures made him easily susceptible to manipulation by the Japanese. In the end, despite the pomp and fireworks, he ended up a “chump”. 

It proved easy to play the Americans for fools.  Right under MacArthur’s nose, the Japanese created a cosmetic, democratic persona, writes Fingleton, a pseudo-democracy that was presented to outsiders as the real thing.  Meanwhile, Japan’s elite bureaucrats quietly arranged sweeping powers for themselves, enabling them to rule from behind the scenes.  The reality of postwar Japan has been an authoritarian society with a nationalist agenda, not an American-style democracy.  So while the Americans saw postwar Japan as a showcase of capitalism, the truth is that it had features such as a system of lifetime employment and a government-controlled banking industry.  Contrary to MacArthur’s claim, it was very much a “thin veneer to serve the purposes of the present.”

And of the future as well.  The fact is that the Japanese were in it for the long haul, and now, as creditors to a debtor nation, they underwrite a wasteful and self-indulgent lifestyle that they could cripple quite severely, if they chose to do so.  Indeed, by the end of last year Japan was the major purchaser of U.S. Treasury bills, to the tune of nearly 1.2 trillion dollars. 

If Japan managed to exploit the chump factor in American foreign policy quite brilliantly, China can be said to have elevated the rope-a-dope technique to an art.  Fingleton points out that the belief in Washington (following the mythology of universal democracy) has been, for many years now, that as China prospers it will become more democratic.  China lets the U.S. believe whatever it wants, but the truth is just the opposite: China is getting rich because it is authoritarian, because it is opposed to Western values and to the notion of a laissez-faire market economy.  The Chinese economic system is rather one of state capitalism run by iron bureaucratic control, and involving a labyrinthine system of trade barriers, an artificially undervalued currency, and widespread institutionalized bribery–a “shark tank,” as one China-watcher has called it.  Writing in Newsweek magazine (19 January 2009), Rana Foroohar says that this is a place “where the state doctors statistics, manipulates the stock markets, fixes prices in key industries, owns many strategic industries outright, and staffs key bank posts with Communist Party members.”  While pundits such as Thomas Friedman and Francis Fukuyama continue to believe that Western logic is universal and will eventually sweep the world, and the Wall Street Journal proclaims that the Asian nations are “racing to build an American-style consumer economy,” the Chinese use this kind of American self-deception as a cover for their own non-Western agenda.  For Chinese society follows a very different set of rules, ones partly derived from Confucius, in which ideology counts for nothing and results count for everything.  In this system, the end justifies the means all the time; “truth” is not a matter of great concern.  In the  Confucian scheme of things, the “truth” is merely contextual–you just say what is appropriate in the circumstances, not what actually is the case.  This is what, from a Western point of view, would be called amoral, but the Chinese see it as simply pragmatic.  Deng Xiaoping, who was the de facto leader of the People’s Republic of China from 1978 to the early 1990s, captured the attitude succinctly when he remarked, “It doesn’t matter if a cat is white or black, as long as it catches the mouse.”  As for the masses, they are expected to exhibit obedience, loyalty, and self-sacrifice; nothing more.  The key concept is “harmony”–true of Japanese society as well.

Western observers such as Friedman are regarded by the Chinese as preachy fools–like MacArthur, deeply self-absorbed and easily taken in by phony praise for writing the approved Chinese version of things.  China will, for example, display a token openness, such as allowing Coca-Cola and McDonalds to set up shop there; but it is finally just PR, not something that alters the rules of the game in any substantive way.  Playing the U.S. includes, for example, promising to open up the Chinese market to American companies…but then it turns out that there is a forest of red tape designed to slow the process down.  In 2006, for example, foreign banks in China were restricted to narrow activities such as processing foreign currency loans and deposits.  Fingleton points out that since the U.S. has always been convinced that the triumph of free-market ideology is just around the corner, it has, for decades, been a chump for a one-way free trade policy with the Confucian world.  While China’s trade surplus with the U.S. was 10.4 billion dollars in 1990, fifteen years later it was up to 202 billion–the largest trade imbalance between any two nations in history.  According to Le Monde diplomatique (November 2008), China holds 922 billion dollars’ worth of U.S. Treasury bills, and is sitting on the world’s largest dollar reserves–almost two trillion. 

There are a few economists who, like Fingleton, see all this as deliberately planned.  In the past decade China invested more than one trillion dollars in U.S. government bonds and government-backed mortgage debt, which served to lower interest rates and fuel the consumption binge in the United States.  But clearly, borrowing from abroad for a consumption orgy at home is a formula for economic disaster; only a nation fogged over by The American Way of Life could fail to see that.  Writing in the International Herald Tribune (27-28 December 2008), Mark Landler points out that the U.S. continues to be addicted to foreign creditors.  Huge amounts of money will be needed to fund President Obama’s stimulus package, and the country will need China to keep buying that debt, thereby perpetuating the American habit of dependency and egregious consumption.  The U.S. is so heavily indebted to China, says Fingleton, that the situation already looks like the relationship between a colony and an imperial capital.  The political fallout from such an arrangement should be obvious: analysts at the U.S. Naval War College calculate that China will be equal to the United States as a military power in the Asia-Pacific region by the year 2020.

“To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill,” wrote the Chinese military commander Sun Tzu, in the 6th century B.C.  Around the same time, the Athenian statesman Solon was urging his audiences to “know thyself.”  If America had managed to do the latter, it might not have become a sad illustration of the former.   



Morris Berman is well known as an innovative cultural historian and social critic. He has taught at a number of universities in Europe and North America, and has held visiting endowed chairs at Incarnate Word College (San Antonio), the University of New Mexico, and Weber State University. During 1982-88 he was the Lansdowne Professor in the History of Science at the University of Victoria, British Columbia. Berman won the Governor’s Writers Award for Washington State in 1990, and was the first recipient of the annual Rollo May Center Grant for Humanistic Studies in 1992. He is the author of a trilogy on the evolution of human consciousness–The Reenchantment of the World (1981), Coming to Our Senses (1989), and Wandering God: A Study in Nomadic Spirituality (2000)–and in 2000 his Twilight of American Culture was named a “Notable Book” by the New York Times Book Review.

*“Rope-a-Dope” is a term coined by the American boxer, Muhammad Ali, to describe a fighting style he used in matches against Joe Frazier and George Foreman (in the latter fight, in 1974, Ali regained the World Heavyweight Championship).  It consists of assuming a protected stance and then lying against the ropes of the ring, allowing your opponent to exhaust himself attacking you; after which you move in for the kill.  In general, the term is used to describe situations in which you put yourself in what appears to be a losing position, only to turn the tables later on.  Barack Obama’s defeat of John McCain is widely regarded as an example of this strategy. 

**However, Fingleton also believes that MacArthur was aware of the charade, but went along with it because he aspired to be the Republican candidate for president in the 1948 election.  If true, this would lend a somewhat different interpretation to the events of postwar Japan, although the results would be the same.



© Morris Berman, 2009

3 comments on “Rope-a-Dope: The Chump Factor in U.S. Foreign Policy*
  1. An excellent article (what else would one expect?) from Mr. Berman. American chumpiness was once seen as a sign of our innocence and basic decency. But there is nothing really innocent about our gullibility–a yawning capacity for being fooled and manipulated. We’ve been played for chumps by our government, our corporate task-masters, our religious mis-leaders. Result? Chump-change we can believe in!

    Two points for further reflection. I lived in Japan for 5 years during the 70s and 80s. I have a Japanese wife, Japanese parents-in-law and Japanese friends and business associates. I have a hard time getting my chopsticks around the notion of Japan as an “authoritarian” state. I used to think of it as “paternalistic capitalism” and sometimes now as “feudalistic socialism,” but I think “authoritarianism” simply cannot embrace the play of multiple forces that comprise modern Japan.

    Also about China: “There are a few economists who, like Fingleton, see all this as deliberately planned.” This seems a bit facile. It’s easy to ascribe Machiavellianism to a society as controlled as China. But here, too, we have a very complex, ancient society, grappling with the ferocious challenges of modernity. Did the Chinese plan America’s downfall by making us their debtors? At some point, the relationship between creditor and debtor shifts. If a person in my debt owes me more money than he can ever hope to pay me, I’m in at least as much trouble as he is. (At least where there aren’t debtors’ prisons!) At any rate, we’re all so entangled in our modern world, if a big ship like America goes down, the waves will wash over the shores of all the continents. That’s a pickle we’ve yet to digest.

  2. I agree, Mr Corseri, a pickle indeed….
    Everyone is holding Dollars, devaluing it sends everyone down too and thus the balance/status quo remains, as is flowing… The game is biting for time, slow inflation and have everyone else ‘Print” by the bucket load as well, but it’s not happening, America is still printing more than all else…
    An ever expending mushrooming effect, collecting in ever the same few pockets with the inadvertent growing gap to the rest.
    Eventually only a military solution will do… Kill the creditors… Or so they hope.
    But here is where I see different from this paper, the Military Might of China is being grossly underestimated, join them up with Japan, Koreas, Taiwan and Vietnam, and it is serious…
    Russia is being pushed into the arms of China too away from their rightful place as a Western Potentate…
    The West can not afford a Military Solution but in the outdated lack of reasoning of a few, the doomsayers of Atomic “Conclusion”…
    I could go on, but the Electronic Controller Chips in just about All Technology including Military Wares, can be overridden by Chino-Japanese Know-how…
    It is a HUGE PICKLE.
    Our only hope is in a Popular Revolution, Unification by the Interests of The People not by Globalist Promise Printing Cabals, Where the New Currency/Economic System gives no Credit to All that’s Past.
    A Brand New Day not a New/Old World Order.
    The Power is in the WEB, for it is US ALL that Run the World…
    WE CAN CRASH IT ALL… Before it is too late.
    7/13/9 is the OUTSIDE, but it will take All of US, Everywhere.
    With FAITH and NO FEAR.
    0 + ( – C )
    Go to work you lot… Pyramid
    TIME is HERE

    And GO VEGAN

    Yes Us of Beth L M of Elisa and Is I A

  3. Thanks you Mr. Berman, I enjoyed this article tremendously and have enjoyed over the years your books.

    A few thoughts…I too, Gary, lived in Japan–from 1983-1988 and along with a 20+ year involvement in Zen Buddhism, began a Japanophilic orientation from the earliest years I recall my father telling me about his years of Occupation Duty after the war.

    The complexity of Japan is acknowledged. But I think one thing we err repeatedly on is assuming “authoritarian” means the same thing in Japan as it means in the West. What I understand as the “authoritarian” nature of Japanese society (and I believe it is) is an authoritarianism of the culturally agreed upon constraints that entangle (strangle, many Japanese would say) all of them in webs of their own acceptance, if not their own making. As a result, change of any kind, takes on superficially “other” characteristics but remains deeply embedded withn the distinctly Japanese style of doing things “the way they´ve always been done.”

    Thus we have a complex situation where new developments are rapidly adopted and absorbed, but de facto “change” is dutifully avoided until the last minute (if then). It makes “chumps” of those among us who think the same definitions apply, and who don´t look deeper into the gulf of differences in how individuality and collectivity are viewed (I would heartily recommend Kasulis´ “Zen Action, Zen Person” for an important look at how Japanese language informs notions of individuality, see kojin versus ningen, for example).

    Either way, this is an important conversation and should be continued.

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