America’s activism and forward-leaning military presence in the world must owe something to its internal life. This is clear once we recognise how difficult it would be for the US to renounce its claims to world ‘leadership’ (a euphemism for benign hegemony, or being number one).
Consider the following:
- In domestic politics, polarised opinion and inflated rhetoric obstruct sober debate about grand strategy. The prevailing language in the US is not one of prudence, restraint or balance, but of strength, resolve and credibility. 9/11 revived an accusatory rhetoric of weakness and appeasement, which has been levelled for political gain against opponents of torture, wars, or hardline confrontation with Iran. Just as 9/11 also revived an equal and opposite rhetoric of conspiracy and betrayal. In different ways, David Petraeus, Barack Obama, and Dick Cheney have all felt the lash of this intemperate politics. This means that the debate about drawing down or escalating in Afghanistan took place within a fearful environment. Democrats in particular are wary of being outflanked from the right. An astute campaigner like Obama must have been aware that he could not afford to be even suspected of looking ‘weak.’ This means that the terms of debate are highly circumscribed (what kind of hegemonist are you, a rude unilateralist or a polite multilateralist version?). In turn, politicians try to outbid each other in promising safety, or absolute security. Which creates a strong presumption in favour of activism over inactivity, extravagance over restraint, and offense over defence. Until conditions become overwhelmingly hostile to America’s globe girdling dominance, analysts can make good arguments for America to gracefully abdicate to burden shift to other countries, but they are unlikely to be elected to office. Instead, the debate becomes one of technique rather than purpose.
- There is a convergence of interests towards activism: as Justin Logan argues. One doesn’t need to embrace crude ‘wicked capitalist’ caricatures to note that there are powerful groups who benefit from America’s projection of power abroad and who are well organised enough to promote it effectively. This includes not only the defence industry or business, but also NGO’s, believers in America’s mission to bring governance and salvation to the wretched of the earth, and advocates of America’s duty to other states, whether South Korea, Israel, Pakistan or Saudi Arabia. There is also an emerging military-crusader complex, embodied in such places as the Center for a New American Security, that takes armed nationbuilding and surgical state-fixing as a ‘given’ and promotes the perfecting of hard-won techniques. In this atmosphere, enthusiasts for America’s ‘governance’ mission do not recall the Iraq war primarily as an unacceptably costly exercise in liberal crusading or threat inflation, but a lesson that we need to fight these wars ‘better’ in future with more resources. Technique trumps purpose.
- One symptom of these trends is the way language and mythology has been shaped (and perverted) accordingly: to advocate a more restrained and distant profile is to be branded an ‘isolationist.’ The wide ‘middle ground’ that lies between exclusively continental or hemispheric defence and a far-flung ‘global cop’ role with military bases in 9 out of 10 countries is wiped away. The debate is coarsened into primacy versus total retreat. Walter Lippmann’s complaint that American foreign policy dispute lurches between bipolar extremes seems prophetic in this respect.
- Part of the story is what happened to American conservatism. There used to be a powerful strain of pessimistic realism and suspicion of American empire in rightist American ranks. Today it is marginal, not strong within the Republican Party, and only on the fringes of the ‘think tank’ world in Washington DC. Intellectual voices for an alternative grand strategy are to be found in the academy, or in various outlets that exert little political leverage on the mainstream (such as the American Conservative). There are those like Andrea Bacevich who are vocal in op-eds and attract a wide audience, and Ron Paul generates an enthusiastic cult following. But opponents of American hegemony are no longer at the core of the American right. Expansive nationalism, messianic religious belief in America’s global destiny, and neo-Reaganites predominate, and have the powerful collective memory of Munich, Pearl Harbor and now 9/11 to deploy against skeptics. Thus there is no major party that can be the political vehicle for a new grand strategy. Why this happened, I’m not exactly sure, but it was a major step in the landscape.
- But this isn’t just about America specifically. Superpowers rarely abdicate gracefully. And their rise and success (such as America’s victory in world war two, its emergence from the Cold War with unprecedented levels of relative power and wealth) promotes a confidence and a sense of preponderant strength that in itself is hostile to strategic thought. Intoxicated with the preponderance of power, it is not easy to discipline it with the limits of power. Rather, a belief that the Atlantic way has triumphed and is the wave of the future takes hold. Marry to that a sense of impeding threat, a smaller shrinking world, and a horrific attack on American soil, and you have a dangerous mix of confidence, fear and ideological fundamentalism.