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.”
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” 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 power, 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. 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 opposition.
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 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.