From USG Publication
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 ago, 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.
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? 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.