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.

Just around a year ago1, during conversation under an Ordinary Times post by Jason Kuznicki, commenter Michael Drew attempted to sort out competing views on the United States and the world, specifically in relation to military policy:

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.

Lanced Infinity

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.


  1. 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. []
  2. …or, perhaps, to truly “open” borders or no borders at all, presumably the end of the nation-state as we know it. []

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4 comments on “Si Vis Bellum, Part 1: “Militarism” and “Interventionism”

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  1. 1st I got to say, thank you so much for that plug in to edit comments within a few minutes after posting. The lack of that really shows in the old thread. If there were a UN Convention for Crimes Against Grammar, I’d be among the first at the Hague.

    I’ll try to make a more substanative comment later, maybe further on in the series. I think I’m mostly in agreement, but I’m not sure yet.

    (I don’t think at first blush that militarism is as much of an existential threat as it was in the days where imperial nationalism and then fascism was in full overt swing, i.e. first 40 years of the 20th century, because the various armies in the liberal democracies are so much smaller strictly in terms of uniformed personnel nowadays than they were back then)

    • Well – frankly the least you can do is mostly agree with me, seeing as how I mostly agree with you!

      As for the part on which we may disagree, the parenthetical first blush part, the initial reply regarding “the existential threat” would begin with 1) the much greater range and lethality or potential lethality of 21st Century weaponry, 2) the much greater dependence of a much larger global population on a world-spanning resource and supply chain, and, relating to both of those, 3) the conversion under total war and or unbounded state of exception of any- and everyone into a combatant. A more thorough development of the argument would also require re-consideration of what we mean by “existential” when we describe a threat.

      Anyway, thanks for reading, and commenting (and editing your comments), and I’ll look forward to your thoughts after I’ve submitted parts 1 and 2 over the next few days.

  2. Some rambling thoughts:

    As you discuss in the post, some of this is definitional vagueness. It probably is possible to take a metrical approach to this – establish the parameters and then measure them in various countries. A couple might be the number and level of military people in the non-military parts of govt, the % of the pop who have served in the military, the ratio of GDP to the military budget etc. Most probably take a more heuristic approach using say WWII Germ and Japan as templates. This may work most of the time, but its likely to miss less obvious situations.

    For example Turkey has significant military integration into the govt, providing in fact the basis for its attempts to integrate into the Western liberal order, until it didn’t. Also all men are require to serve in the military.

    How this relates to “interventionism” seems unclear to me. So Turkey is fairly militaristic, but has ben reluctant to intervene outside its own borders. I use “intervene” here to indicate the imperial mindset many Turks still have, so that their efforts against the Kurds for example are a kind of internal intervention, intravention perhaps.

    This may describe in a way, the US approach which is perhaps to see the entire world as its “living space”. So here too intravention may be a useful word to describe at least some aspects of the enterprise, even if not to carry the day altogether.

    Not sure what my point here is here other than to begin to sort out some thoughts on this large subject.

    • Though I disapprove of your suggestion that “a metrical approach” might help to clarify the “definitional vagueness” of the matter at hand upon which the original post insists–and which seems to be the only point of the post, leading me to suppose it only a sort of prefatory note, wherein the author is either paying his reverent due to the simultaneous possibility and impossibility of obtaining agreement (which impossibility is currently afflicting and undermining, perhaps undoing, the Western political and ethical order, with its teleology of expanding itself world without end) rooted in rival understandings of the meaning and significance–as well as rival valuations–of motivating ideals; or (or and/or): the author is laying the ground for dubiety of any “definite” position on the subjects of “militarism” and “interventionism” so that he may lightly esteem any conviction on these matters (other than his own?), on the grounds of their insufficiency vis a vis the unnavigable swirl of language (in either or both events, anticipate the customary obscurantism)–I found your (that is, bob’s) citation of the Turkish experience of a militarism for the sake of Westernization to be interesting.

      Turkey’s Westernizing militarism being necessary in this case, and meaning here something like an intimidating degree of the possibility of applying coercive force, presumably because integration into the Western political and ethical order is/was so profoundly alien to the historical spirit, essence and/or existence of the Turkish people that it required threatening gestures of prospective violence to enact–“until it didn’t”, as you say, meaning that, with the coming of a sort of live democracy to the Turks around the turn of the century–not the “liberal” sort, but rather more the classical, illiberal kind–it didn’t take long for Turkey’s populists to begin to unwind, unravel and undo Turkey’s Westernizing orientation–a phenomenon that seems to be getting underway in the West as well. As it turns out, the Western political and ethical order in its liberal democratic phase is proving to be deeply alienating to all peoples, including its own.

      That Western political establishments tended uniformly to approve of Turkey’s militarized, forced integration into the liberal democratic order of the West suggests that Western elites are, pace liberalism per se, ultimately less interested in (what they cognize to be) ethical means than they are in (what they cognize to be) ethical ends. Even now, at the “end” of (the Whig interpretation of) history, it is, as ever, the ends that justify the means–an antithesis of political philosophic liberalism and which evokes perhaps the simple “befallen-ness” of this international political order and the consequent impossibility of “managing” it by means of human choice(s) or intention. The forced liberalization of a people gradually elicits either organized and determined resistance or, perhaps, a debilitating exhaustion, while the liberalization of a people along more “consensual” lines seems to eventuate in the exact same result. Either way, ongoing “liberalization” would seem to deconstruct or “unbuild” itself. That which befalls, in course or path of time, withdraws.

      …the US approach which is perhaps to see the entire world as its “living space”.

      This does seem to be “the US approach” and it poses vast problems for the peoples of the earth. They must either fight (militarize?) in order to secure the existence of their people and a future for their children, or they must essentially vanish into the anti-world oblivion of the U.S./Western administrative grid of techno-capitalism. Either way, hardship and harm beckon.

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