Si Vis Bellum, Part 2: Catastrophes

America aims to be as much and as little interventionist and militarist as required in order to avoid ever becoming as catastrophically interventionist and militarist as she, in competition or cooperation with potentially many others, could be.

To understand the meaning of a term is to understand the history of its uses. The two studies, lexical and historical, will be eventually the same study.

Something like a re-consideration, or an indirect dialogue by way of political conflict, occurred on the meaning of the militarism and interventionism during the 2015 – 2016 American presidential campaign in both parties: Both major parties appeared to struggle, and arguably to fail at least for now, to fend off challenges of the sort that thrill dissenters, but have or perhaps had in the United States of America seemed always doomed to frustration.

Some will persist in claiming up to the end that “the economy,” as somehow a separate issue from mere foreign affairs, decides elections, but we can leave the underlying unity and comprehensiveness of mass electoral decisions to discussion for some other time. At this moment majorities of voters and the entirety of both parties elites still seem to gravitate toward the American consensus – expressed in foreign policy terms as a Reaganite Neo-Conservatism at right center versus a Wilsonian Liberal Internationalism at left center, while conventional or “established” wisdom still holds that, if either party falls outside that range or window, it will be pulled back in or eventually destroyed. Overthrowing that wisdom and overthrowing the status quo would therefore be virtually the same project, one that must take place concretely, not just in the imaginations of a few possessors of just another irrefutable and self-evident truth among other contradictory ones, and not even in the results, however dramatically conveyed in the mass media and however stunning to those who perhaps watch too closely, of any single election or series of elections. Yet to say that the consensus may still be in effect, somewhere beneath the surface of political things, or that the resources of those who support it, consciously or not, are far from exhausted, would not be to say that an actual dissolution is impossible – nor to exclude the possibility that a process of only testing the consensus, even if at length to re-affirm it, will or can be anything other than as costly, as a matter of life and death for all, as the test is authentically a test.

The question of an alteration in the conduct and capacities of the world’s leading military and economic power, originating in and completed through an alteration of its understanding of itself, is by definition a world-historical question. We are therefore justified in stepping back and up, and even in risking some broad generalizations that must reflect a mixture of “how we seem to have thought” and “how things seem actually to have been.”

Lanced Infinity

World Wars I and II both began and developed via “military interventions” (and counter-interventions) by nation-states – in the classic “series of catastrophes.”

In the early phases of both wars, the United States pursued a relatively anti-interventionist approach – nominal neutrality, alongside types of intervention short of direct military engagement. With some important but consequentially limited exceptions, the U.S. had previously been “interventionist” only in the Western hemisphere – focused, one might say, on sustaining and extending the prior interventions by its European imperial forebears in the affairs of the Western Hemisphere.

After independence Americans did try their hands at some overseas brigand-chastising, and, eventually, virtually the moment that the settlement of North America was declared complete in principle, also experimented with some empire-building of their own, but the United States remained far behind the Old World powers. Even today, 70 years into an era of American relative political, economic, cultural, and military ascendancy, or the virtual extension of the Monroe Doctrine over the entire planet and into outer space, Americans, remain ideologically anti-militarist and anti-interventionist – or, perhaps more simply, anti-imperialist. To support this argument, we could look to opinion polls, but the question can be considered as much one of definitions as of public sentiment at any given time: Americanism from its origins stands for the implicit anti-imperialism and anti-colonialism of the colony demanding independence. Later notions of cultural and economic imperialism or of a liberal-democratic neo-imperialism follow from assumptions under the same precepts: One must be or aim to become more nearly perfectly liberal than the liberals in order to fault them for inadequate or imperfect liberalism. To do so one must, or will invariably, have been started on the path of liberalism by those very same liberals.

Yet the presumption underlying the ideologically Americanist view is not a comparison between some ideal Order of Perpetual Peace on the one, fantastical hand, and some arbitrary or purely ideological decision to play World Robocop or Team America or Evil Empire on the other, real-existing hand. It is even less of some direct, very numerical and utterly objective comparison between America and any other existing nation-state or alliance. The presumption at the root of American “mainstream” opinion on defense, or the American self-image, or what some observers may deride as “the Washington Consensus”1 and false exceptionalism, is historical, meaning on the level of lived experience even if (perhaps critically) not in the experience of many living Americans. To be specific, and to restrict ourselves to relatively recent events in the history of the United States as global power2, the presumption derives from a comparison between the United States within the United Nations (first as a military alliance, then as international legal regime) and the defeated Axis Powers; or between the USA and the defeated Central Powers (especially Imperial Germany); or between the USA and the defeated USSR; or between the USA and the Islamic Republic of Iran, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Al Qaeda, the Islamic State, Qadafy’s Libya, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and so on.

For purposes of conventional political discussion, all of the states and non-state actors named in the last group are with ample justification diminished as threats compared to the major enemies or “peer competitors” of prior eras, and there will be observers ready, as ever, to discount even those enemies as truly “existential” ones justifying military responses, but a defender of American policy or strategy against the charge of morally blamable or excessive militarism-interventionism-imperialism could respond in two ways: First, all of the lesser adversaries were or are, arguably, “pound for pound” radically more militarist, interventionist, and imperialist than the U.S. either is or wants to be or has ever been.3 Second, and quite crucially in relation to the commenter’s questions and the bloggers’ presumptions, each of those lesser adversaries is or was more interventionist and militarist than America has been tasked or has tasked itself, generally with the support of the international community such as it is, to allow anyone to remain without opposition4.

Lanced Infinity

That the United States today faces or seems to face only relatively minor threats would be a testament to the success of American grand strategy and policy: Preventing the emergence of major threats, which presumably begin as minor ones, has been a defining and primary objective of American defense policy ever since the U.S. gained the ability to seek it practically. The overall result with respect to the state of the world is frequently put under the heading Pax Americana, and was conceived and affirmed in great solemnity as a translation for modern contexts of another bit of Latin: Si vis pacem para bellum 5 or “If you want peace, prepare for war”; or, in the freer translation that Ronald Reagan took up from Barry Goldwater, “Peace through Strength.”

The guiding premise of American foreign policy, implicitly the political foundation of the world state of states in the era of American global ascendancy, can therefore be summarized as follows: In order to have relative peace, on the terms which Americans and the decisively powerful nations and peoples of the world seem to prefer, and to which we are accustomed – especially a smoothly operating global supply and distribution system by now sustaining the lives and livelihoods of some seven billion people – the effective consensus has held, as easily enough interpreted from and decisively supported within American popular opinion, over decades and across parties and factions, that the United States must maintain an in absolute terms disproportionate investment in arms, as well as a credible, meaning demonstrable and demonstrated, will to intervene militarily.6

A corollary of this major premise, under the settlement ending “the war of the world,” has been that America must be prepared to intervene relatively frequently, on lower levels, in order to foreclose the possibility of intolerably (irreparably or even non-survivably) higher level interventions by anyone, including by America itself.7 Or, to translate and embellish the ancient sentence again: In a manner characteristic for Americanism or the American Idea, America aims to be as much and as little interventionist and militarist as required in order to avoid ever becoming as catastrophically interventionist and militarist as she, in competition or cooperation with potentially many others, could be.


  1. …associating the economics of globalization with its indispensable politico-military and ideological presumptions. []
  2. The logic can be extended backward in time at least to the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. []
  3. …Or ever could be: Understanding the practical as well as conceptual impossibility of an American global empire run along Roman, British, or theoretical National Socialist, Soviet, or Radical Islamist lines, or as an authentically militarist-interventionist-imperialist global regime, is the beginning of an understanding of the interpenetration of subject and object in history – of “the concept” in the philosophy of world history. []
  4. …or without facing “eventual degradation and destruction.” []
  5. In Die Dritte Walpurgisnacht, a work never translated into English, written after Adolf Hitler’s accession to power in Germany, the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus performed the same reversal of the adage that I have have adopted as the title for this series of posts: “…vor allem in den Reden rein pazifistischen Inhalts, hinter denen sie den Gedanken vermutet: Si vis bellum, para pacem” (“…above all in speeches whose substance is pure pacifism, while between the lines one reads: Si vis bellum, para pacem“). Die Fackel, Number 999, Summer 1933 – unpublished. []
  6. See also “Re-Statement on the World State of States, in Seven Theses, in Relation to International Relations Realism.” []
  7. Following Paul W Kahn’s thinking, and returning to the prior discussion of American gun culture, we can say that the will to intervene globally – requiring real citizens of a democratic polity to give and to take lives – and the will to intervene personally or individually, under the right to bear arms, are linked for Americans or within Americanism, though obviously this linkage is not the only form that “militarism” in the broad sense might take. []

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6 comments on “Si Vis Bellum, Part 2: Catastrophes

Commenting at CK MacLeod's

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  1. I’m still not quite sure where you’re going with this. I can say so far that I agree in part and disagree in part, but it is hard to separate those parts.

    To say was “America” wants I think is a little bit of an error, in that “America” is largely content to do whatever the elites, and specifically whatever the President wants to do – unless Americans are dying in large numbers over a long enough period of time.

    And even this effect is non-linear – the stalemate in Korea was a negative against Truman, but he was already unpopular and halfway out the door. Even Vietnam only prevented Johnson from retaining the support of his own caucus. The only direct cause and effect between a war and an election results was Iraq, and the GOP losses in 2006 and 2008. (as well as Hillary Clinton’s loss that year)

    Now, we can point to that, and say *politicians* are generally risk adverse, only becoming as much interventionist and militarist as required to avoid a bigger catastrophe. But, as we have seen, the intervention not taken has never lead to negative political fallout. Maybe a negative judgement of history, but history doesn’t vote.

    There is still nonetheless a predisposition for intervention among the elites, the politicians, and Presidents, because there is a predisposition among them for ‘doing something’. They all got into the game their in to ‘do something’ and usually, *by* also doing something. So sitting on the sidelines goes against most fibers of their very being.

    It’s a minor pet peeve of mine that many (not you) are going on about Donald Trump is about to upend the post WW2 order. At best, he’s about to upend the post Cold War order, but that order isn’t as orderly as everyone thinks. (not in small part to three significantly different administrations in that time, and now a fourth)

    The post World War II order that the American victors envisioned did think that American isolationism was no longer feasible, but their overall plans for a United Nations were quickly scuttled by Soviet bad faith, persistence in France and UK trying to hold on their empires, and frankly, naivete (and sometimes active complicity by the mainline Roosevelt admin state department folks about the bad faith of the Soviet sphere.

    • Been caught up with some other matters, but I’ll put up part 3 as soon as I can, maybe as soon as today. I’ll hold back on replying until then, except to say that I reject any obligation to find political proof in short-term consequences. In this matter, the dogs that don’t bark matter as much, and in theory would matter much more, than the few who happen to sound off, and the transitory ups and downs or Pyrrhic victories or lucky defeats (or defenses or failures of secondary positions, etc.) may not matter much either.

    • “It’s a minor pet peeve of mine that many (not you) are going on about Donald Trump is about to upend the post WW2 order. At best, he’s about to upend the post Cold War order, but that order isn’t as orderly as everyone thinks.”

      I agree wholeheartedly with the gist of this paragraph–with one exception. MacLeod most certainly has been “going on about [how] Donald Trump is about to upend the post WW2 order.” He has presented the election of Donald Trump in frankly apocalyptic terms, even fretting prissily that President Trump will terminate liberal democracy in the United States. So please don’t neglect to include him as a proper object of your “minor pet peeve”.

      • I agree wholeheartedly with the gist of this paragraph–with one exception. MacLeod most certainly has been “going on about [how] Donald Trump is about to upend the post WW2 order.” He has presented the election of Donald Trump in frankly apocalyptic terms, even fretting prissily that President Trump will terminate liberal democracy in the United States.

        Both statements are in their form – “Donald Trump is about to” and “President Trump will” – completely alien to my approach to these matters (though no doubt I have slipped from time to time into the conventional phraseologies, and not just in regard to Mr. Trump). In the meantime, however, I have difficulty seeing the rise of another “America First” movement as anything other than the mark of a challenge to the “post-WW2 Order” (such as it ever was) or at minimum a sign of change or possible change within it or within how we view it. (I did explicitly confirm an intention to “risk… some broad generalizations that must reflect a mixture of ‘how we seem to have thought’ and ‘how things seem actually to have been.'”) Seems to me the symptoms were already detectable – or glaringly obvious – long before Trump embarked upon his presidential campaign. I don’t see why any historically literate observer would try to argue anything else.

        • “Both statements are in their form… completely alien to my approach to these matters”

          No, MacLeod, that won’t do. You have spoken of the impending Trump presidency in apocalyptic terms, you have fretted about Donald Trump ending liberal democracy in the United States, you have explicitly characterized the election of Donald Trump as “regime change”–and you have even characterized the nature of said “regime change” to be precisely analogous to the sort of regime change that President George W. Bush carried out in Iraq. You have said that what President Bush did to the “poor Iraqis” is just what President Trump intends to do to the American people (you know, the “Operation American Greatness” of which you are reminding us on a well-nigh daily basis–itself an analogue of “Operation Iraqi Freedom”).

          Of course, all this is an embarrassment and it’s plain to see why you don’t want to own it. But rather than pretending that you haven’t engaged in this puerile discourse, perhaps you ought humbly to retract this silliness–or even just leave it behind–and begin offering instead the sort of detached analysis to which you claim to aspire.

  2. None of the assertions in your first paragraph is true, Mr. McKenzie, and they all revolve around the same error already described, which we discussed – or “discussed” – under the post that you mentioned, the one that became the first of what has turned into an Operation American Greatness series. Answering your previous misunderstandings, based on apparently on your inability or refusal to understand the distinction between a symptom and a disease, or between an effect and a cause, or an epiphenomenon and a phenomenon, etc., especially regarding individual actors in historical contexts, I wrote the following on Mr. Trump:

    As for my “negative stance” toward Trump, I have explained it many times and in different ways. I find Trumpism itself incompatible with the precepts of a liberal democratic regime. To the extent Trumpism succeeds, liberal democracy in the United States fails. To me, it is in no way surprising that this threat manifests itself in a particularly loathsome individual.

    The attribution of intentionality regarding liberal democracy or the global order or poor us, or of any plan at all, either to Trump or to his supporters – of whom a particular group of the latter, not Trump, were the subject of the post – was entirely yours. I don’t claim to know what Trump intends. My impression is that he has no clear and realistic idea of what he intends to do at all. Whatever he intends, or thinks he intends, I wouldn’t be surprised if, say, he prosecutes or attempts to prosecute World War III or IV against Islamism, or does nothing of the kind, or sets out to do one thing, and ends up doing something else. I would say the same about any number of issues, and statements made in the form of forthright and unambiguous commitments, that at various points have seemed to agitate him or his supporters. More to the point, I’m as or more interested in what it says about us that we would elect or even be in the position to vote for such an individual as I am in the man himself.

    Now, I could refer you to various views on historical change in general, on the Great Man theory of history, or the pointlessness of sending time travelers back to murder baby Hitler, and so on, or ask you to read the linked post and our discussion aloud, very slowly, but none of it will make any difference if you’re determined not to understand, and are more interested in personalizing these exchanges just as you are in personalizing political events.

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Noted & Quoted

TV pundits and op-ed writers of every major newspaper epitomize how the Democratic establishment has already reached a consensus: the 2020 nominee must be a centrist, a Joe Biden, Cory Booker or Kamala Harris–type, preferably. They say that Joe Biden should "run because [his] populist image fits the Democrats’ most successful political strategy of the past generation" (David Leonhardt, New York Times), and though Biden "would be far from an ideal president," he "looks most like the person who could beat Trump" (David Ignatius, Washington Post). Likewise, the same elite pundit class is working overtime to torpedo left-Democratic candidates like Sanders.

For someone who was not acquainted with Piketty's paper, the argument for a centrist Democrat might sound compelling. If the country has tilted to the right, should we elect a candidate closer to the middle than the fringe? If the electorate resembles a left-to-right line, and each voter has a bracketed range of acceptability in which they vote, this would make perfect sense. The only problem is that it doesn't work like that, as Piketty shows.

The reason is that nominating centrist Democrats who don't speak to class issues will result in a great swathe of voters simply not voting. Conversely, right-wing candidates who speak to class issues, but who do so by harnessing a false consciousness — i.e. blaming immigrants and minorities for capitalism's ills, rather than capitalists — will win those same voters who would have voted for a more class-conscious left candidate. Piketty calls this a "bifurcated" voting situation, meaning many voters will connect either with far-right xenophobic nationalists or left-egalitarian internationalists, but perhaps nothing in-between.

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Understanding Trump’s charisma offers important clues to understanding the problems that the Democrats need to address. Most important, the Democratic candidate must convey a sense that he or she will fulfil the promise of 2008: not piecemeal reform but a genuine, full-scale change in America’s way of thinking. It’s also crucial to recognise that, like Britain, America is at a turning point and must go in one direction or another. Finally, the candidate must speak to Americans’ sense of self-respect linked to social justice and inclusion. While Weber’s analysis of charisma arose from the German situation, it has special relevance to the United States of America, the first mass democracy, whose Constitution invented the institution of the presidency as a recognition of the indispensable role that unique individuals play in history.

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[E]ven Fox didn’t tout Bartiromo’s big scoops on Trump’s legislative agenda, because 10 months into the Trump presidency, nobody is so foolish as to believe that him saying, “We’re doing a big infrastructure bill,” means that the Trump administration is, in fact, doing a big infrastructure bill. The president just mouths off at turns ignorantly and dishonestly, and nobody pays much attention to it unless he says something unusually inflammatory.On some level, it’s a little bit funny. On another level, Puerto Rico is still languishing in the dark without power (and in many cases without safe drinking water) with no end in sight. Trump is less popular at this point in his administration than any previous president despite a generally benign economic climate, and shows no sign of changing course. Perhaps it will all work out for the best, and someday we’ll look back and chuckle about the time when we had a president who didn’t know anything about anything that was happening and could never be counted on to make coherent, factual statements on any subject. But traditionally, we haven’t elected presidents like that — for what have always seemed like pretty good reasons — and the risks of compounding disaster are still very much out there.

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