Si Vis Bellum, Part 1: “Militarism” and “Interventionism”
The un-clarity or confusion, or confusion of confusions, regarding the meaning of these two terms is typical of this historical moment, which in one sense can be thought to have simply befallen us, having never been willed into existence by anyone, but in another sense can be viewed as the predictable and desired product of choices made over the course of at least two or now three presidential elections, in as self-conscious a manner as a mass democratic system is able to undertake.
I’m inclined to think that the U.S. is fairly interventionist by whatever the proper measuring stick is (even taking into account its perhaps unique role). But I’m not at all sure what the proper measuring stick actually is.
…Jason offered his view of what the critical constituency is, and I offered mine… that, from where I sit, as center-left political establishments go, ours seems quite on-board for interventions. The explanation for it is indeed a fully separate conversation. I’m just saying that it is the critical piece in what actually leads to the actually-more-militaristic policy.
But then Kolohe came along and questioned the whole premise – that the U.S. even is more interventionist than, say Europe (which I think is the proper comparison, though that too can be debated) – and also that the U.S. center-left is more interventionist/militaristic than Europe’s. And while I tend to still think the U.S. is quite interventionist, I’m more interested in assessing that question than insisting I’m right about it.
I mostly agree with Kolohe’s position as I understand it. I am also, like Michael and Jason – and like Tyler Cowen, to whom Jason was originally responding – interested in assessing the underlying question further, or, as Cowen puts it, in examining characteristic American attitudes, customs, or predispositions as an “integrated whole.” However, as I stated earlier in the conversation with Michael and Kolohe, I believe that this project is a more ambitious and difficult one than either Cowen or Jason acknowledges. We could, for example, seek to follow and extend Hegel’s comprehension of the interdependent development of “the gun” and “the state” in world history, specifically in relation to the American idea of the state or American Idea, and in part to define the differences between the American and Hegelian state concepts (see “Inventing the World.”), but any attempt to synthesize or fuse two such large and controversial topics as American foreign policy and American attitudes toward guns risks merely being confusing if the central terms are not more carefully defined and employed. Simply achieving such definition will still require entering into that “fully separate conversation” on explanations for the existence of the “critical constituency” or any merely functional description of it.
The first impediment to comprehension – or grasp of bases and justifications – is the general one of imprecision in conventional political discussion. In writing on “isms” that sometimes stand mainly for intellectual orientations, sometimes for realized policies, sometimes for group affiliations, sometimes for some or all of these and so on at once, vagueness and lexical drift can render any account or argument a hopeless muddle, while endangering any further prospect of our making our positions understood to each other or even to ourselves. When any speaker or writer refers to a “militarism” that we all or almost all reject, it may not be the same “militarism” referenced by the same speaker or writer or listener or reader at another point in the same discussion, to say nothing of political discussion generally. As a substantive matter, a practice, condition, approach, or action that might qualify as “militaristic” – or, in my view a different thing, “interventionist” – in one set of circumstances and under one set of definitions, or for some reasonable observers, might qualify as merely prudent or necessary from some other reasonable point of view or in different circumstances.
The question might be whether “militarism” does or it might be whether it should or it might be whether it does and should stand for us (whoever that is) for a military-centric ideology or outlook of some kind, or whether it does or whether it should stand for belief in the value of maintaining a strong military, or whether or does or whether it should stand for a belief in an ultimate recourse to military action at all, or whether it does or whether it should stand for a political-cultural or political-economic condition of being dominated by a large military apparatus or, as we have said since Eisenhower, by a “military-industrial complex.”
If, for example, an invading army was massing on the borders of my country, and I called for military countermeasures or even an emergency militarization of state and society, would that make me a militarist, and equally for Tyler as for Jason as Kolohe? Is “militarism” to be considered the only alternative to pacifism, or, in this example, to surrender?2 Should “militarism” to be treated as the inevitable destination of whichever other path or compromise – regardless of intention or initial conditions? Or should “militarism” be a term reserved only for certain extraordinary cases – like the “Prussian militarism” of which historians speak?
Similarly, does or should “interventionism” stand for a general belief that intervention by one country in the affairs of another is ever justifiable? How much difference does it make whether that intervention is primarily military, and, either way, whether the primary intention or perceived or honestly declared objective is defensive or humanitarian? According to whom? Or does “interventionism” stand for any excessive tendency to intervene politically, or diplomatically, or international-legally or economically or militarily, regardless of intention or effect? If so, what do we mean by “excessive”? Or, if intervention is ever justifiable, then how do we determine whether an intervention was questionably enough justified to be declared excessive, or whether some particular relative frequency of interventions demonstrates an excessively “interventionist” tendency?
Returning to that discussion a year ago, in my view the problem is compounded in Cowen’s and Jason’s treatments, and carried over into Michael’s and even Kolohe’s, by a shared assumption that “militarism” leads to “interventionism,” and likewise that the latter implies the former, to the effect that the two terms, which none of these gentlepeople pauses to define, can be used virtually interchangeably. Opponents of American policy historically and up to the present have, of course, insisted that, regardless of what Americans believe or say about themselves and their aims, the U.S. has been and remains objectively highly militarist, interventionist, and imperialist, even that American policy serves the objectively imperialist character of capitalism as a system – that the Pentagon serves Wall Street. Such contentions are often accompanied by recitation of comparative national defense spending figures as in both Cowen’s and Jason’s posts. Armed similarly, one commenter under contemporaneous discussion at Ordinary Times insisted that the disproportionate American investment in defense is “preposterous.” Such observers seem to believe that the numbers incontrovertibly prove that America is “militarist” – somewhat as the American role in sundry “interventions” since World War II would appear to justify Michael Drew’s “inclination” regarding his views on American interventionism.
If such claims and usages often pass without comment, the explanation may be that no one using or interpreting either term is doing so on the basis of any clear and consistent definition. I will argue that the un-clarity or confusion, or confusion of confusions, regarding the meaning of these two terms is typical of this historical moment, which in one sense can be thought to have simply befallen us, having never been willed into existence by anyone, but in another sense can be viewed as the predictable and desired product of choices made over the course of two or now three presidential elections, in as self-conscious a manner as a mass democratic system is able to undertake. I will argue further that the unavailability to engaged and well-informed citizens of that “measuring stick” to which Michael Drew referred reflects the disorientation of a global political-economic system whose bases and justification are, increasingly, no longer grasped by those whom it is intended to serve, including those tasked at the same time with administrating it, and I will at length emphasize what I think ought to be obvious: that the predicament seems dangerous, something like insecurity itself, or the realization in worst possible experience of the worst possible failures of understanding.
This post and the two that will follow, God-willing, were mostly composed in December and January of 2015-6, but withheld as, among other things, likely un-discussable during the developing political campaign, even while events potentially critical to the historical argument seemed to be developing. While recently re-reading it, I considered publishing it in the underused “Untimely” category, but I do not find it untimely, and have not found the series in need of more than incidental updating – although I’m also not sure that it’s really any more discussable than it would have been or might have been one year ago. [↩]
…or, perhaps, to truly “open” borders or no borders at all, presumably the end of the nation-state as we know it. [↩]
Writing since ancient times, blogging, e-commercing, and site installing-designing-maintaining since 2001; WordPress theme and plugin configuring and developing since 2004 or so; a lifelong freelancer, not associated nor to be associated with any company, publication, party, university, church, or other institution.
Eventually, programmers on Reddit started making fully-functioning, interactive versions of the awful forms, like this and this and this. Someone even created one out of the classic game Snake. The meme hasn’t stopped for weeks now, and iterations of it seem to be growing more detailed and elaborate.
Trump actually congratulatedErdogan on the outcome. Trump apparently thought it was a good thing that, despite all the flaws in the process, a bare majority of Turkey’s citizens voted to strengthen their populist leader. I don’t think any other post-Cold War president would have congratulated a democratic ally that held a flawed referendum leading to a less democratic outcome. This is not that far off from Trump congratulating Putin on a successful referendum result in Crimea if that event had been held in 2017 rather than 2014.
Public disquiet and behind-the-scenes pressure on key illiberal allies is an imperfect policy position. It is still a heck of a lot more consistent with America’s core interests than congratulating allies on moving in an illiberal direction. In congratulating Erdogan, Trump did the latter.
For all the talk about Trump’s moderation, for all the talk about an Axis of Adults, it’s time that American foreign policy-watchers craving normality acknowledge three brute facts:
Donald Trump is the president of the United States;
Trump has little comprehension of how foreign policy actually works;
The few instincts that Trump applies to foreign policy are antithetical to American values.
He sensed that the public wanted relief from the burdens of global leadership without losing the thrill of nationalist self-assertion. America could cut back its investment in world order with no whiff of retreat. It would still boss others around, even bend them to its will...
There was, to be sure, one other candidate in the 2016 field who also tried to have it both ways—more activism and more retrenchment at the same time. This was, oddly enough, Hillary Clinton... Yet merely to recall Clinton’s hybrid foreign-policy platform is to see how pallid it was next to Trump’s. While she quibbled about the TPP (which few seemed to believe she was really against), her opponent ferociously denounced all trade agreements—those still being negotiated, like the TPP, and those, like NAFTA and China’s WTO membership, that had long been on the books. “Disasters” one and all, he said. For anyone genuinely angry about globalization, it was hard to see Clinton as a stronger champion than Trump. She was at a similar disadvantage trying to compete with Trump on toughness. His anti-terrorism policy—keep Muslims out of the country and bomb isis back to the Stone Age—was wild talk, barely thought through. But for anyone who really cared about hurting America’s enemies, it gave Trump more credibility than Clinton’s vague, muddled talk of “safe zones” ever gave her.
The Israel-Iran debate is over – so now it can begin August 20, 2012 Seems what really keeps the debate alive is ANY determination that it's over. It seems to be a debate whose beginning is its end, and vice versa, ad infinitum, ad nauseam, til kingdom or caliphate or chaos come.
Unbelievably Small September 9, 2013 Even worse, for the committedly anti-committal majority, which seems to include the President himself, the proposal of minimal means is burdened not only by threateningly maximal moral and historical justification, but by multiple additional independently intimidating justifications, each seemingly more disqualifyingly persuasive than the last.
An und für nichts (liberalism on drone warfare 2) June 3, 2012 I suspect that Kotsko features himself an interesting radical rather than a mere liberal. It would seem that in this context, both liberals and radicals are "inconsequentialist." The difference is that the liberals are committed to discussion (perhaps "at other blogs") that goes nowhere, if without their knowledge; the radicals continually re-commit themselves to nothing…
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