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Sunday, December 9, 2012


In this post, I am going to pose something akin to what legal theorists call a hypothetical.  I ask you to accept, hypothetically, a set of facts, so that we may discuss a question of policy without at the same time debating the facts of the case.  I am aware that from certain epistemological perspectives, this distinction is impossible to make, and we can discuss that as we go forward.

Assume, contrary to reality, that America is pretty much domestically what you would like it to be.  For me, that means assuming that America is a secular democracy with a socialist economy, a very flat distribution of wealth and income, and an operative commitment to policies addressing global warming, an America in which the Yankees are permanently mired in last place [oh well, you can leave that last one out if you insist.]  Your ideal America may differ from mine.  If you decide to join the conversation, try to sketch your own ideal America as part of your comment so that the rest of us understand where you are coming from.

In this radically counterfactual case, what should the foreign and military policy of such an America be?

It is no great effort in the real world to criticize every aspect of America’s military and foreign policy.  The real America is an imperial hegemon whose military budget virtually equals that of the rest of the world and whose actions over the past sixty years have again and again supported dictators and tyrants and undermined or actively deposed and defeated progressive forces on every continent except Antarctica.  Let us stipulate that, as they say in the trial courts.

But what should the policies of an ideal America be?  There are two obvious polar alternative responses to this question.  The first response is:  America should maintain its military dominance of the world, but use its power to advance democracy and socialism rather than autocracy and capitalism.  America should support the Fidel Castros and Mohammed Mosaddeghs and Daniel Ortegas of this world rather than doing its best to overthrow or kill them.  America should use its wealth and power to support the Palestinian cause.  And so forth and so on.

The second response is:  American should withdraw all of its troops from foreign soil, should reduce its military budget to the minimum necessary to defend itself [from Canada and Mexico, presumably], and should embrace Thomas Jefferson’s call for “peace, commerce, and honest friendship with all nations, entangling alliances with none.”

Each of these alternatives has troubling consequences that it is difficult to disentangle from the policy.  A militarily dominant America will maintain an enormous military establishment whose existence will shape its domestic politics regardless of how well-intentioned its architects may be.  Every time such an America projects its power abroad for some indisputably progressive cause, there will be innocent men, women, and children who are killed unintentionally.  [It is not only military actions in support of dictators that produce “collateral damage.”]  The easy availability of those military options will have a powerfully corrupting effect on those who exercise the use of the armed forces, even though such exercise is, or is supposed to be, guided by impeccably progressive principles.  But if, let us say,  such an America wishes at a moment’s notice to be able to impose a no-fly zone on Libya during a popular uprising against Khadafy, it will need to maintain aircraft carriers and squadrons of fighters and spy satellites and special ops forces on a permanent footing.

The alternative is to adopt a non-interventionist policy with a military only large enough to deal with genuine threats to the security of America’s borders.  But such an America will have to stand idly by when the forces of revolutionary progress are being pounded into the ground by tyrants. It will be unable to move swiftly and effectively to stop genocidal slaughter by religious fanatics.  Such an America will not be the immediate cause of retrogressive tragedies nor will it prop up dynasts and dictators, but it will have to be content merely to watch the slave labor of children and the bondage of women abroad.

So, what should the foreign and military stance of an ideal America be?  I confess that I am genuinely unsure.


Unknown said...

An additional consideration. We will need an effective naval force to keep the sea lanes open. Current events, and their trends, in the seas off China and off Somalia underscore the importance of naval power. At the same time, submarines are probably the capital ship of the navy for this purpose.

Larry McCullough

Don Schneier said...

It seems to me that any such analysis requires a concept, perhaps a priori, of the ideal relation between an ideal Nation and an ideal World, of which the analysis would be an instantiation.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Don,that is just the question I was posing: What should our foreign policy be in an imperfect world?

Don Schneier said...

Bob--I was just noting that the maxim of a nation to promote international values could entail the dissolution of nationhood, etc.

LFC said...

An interesting question.

I think an 'ideal' America on the lines you sketch should have (and probably would have) a somewhat smaller military-industrial complex than the present one; however, I don't think I'd favor going *all* the way to the isolationist (to use an admittedly loaded word) side of the spectrum.

Some ability to project U.S. military power abroad would remain desirable, for reasons the post suggests (e.g. humanitarian interventions -- not that any intervention is ever purely that, but some are largely that) and also, as the first comment said, to help ensure the sea lanes etc. are open.

But the vision of an America intervening abroad to advance the cause of "democracy and socialism rather than autocracy and capitalism" (to quote the post) is troubling and not altogether, in my view, coherent, for lack of a better word. I don't see the point of sending U.S. Marines or covert ops people to Venezuela, for ex., to support a self-proclaimed socialist like Hugo Chavez vs. his opponents. If the Venezuelans want to keep someone like him in office, ok. If not, not. I don't think a socialist U.S. (whatever exactly that would mean) should go around the world throwing its military weight behind leftist politicians or movements. A commitment to democracy implies a commitment to self-determination, which probably counsels for military non-intervention as a default position, to be departed from only in certain compelling cases.

A socialist U.S. should not undertake to do penance, so to speak, for helping to overthrow Allende or Mossadegh by actively overthrowing right-wing dictators (of whom there are a dwindling number anyway). That would be foolhardy and, I think, in the long run productive of international disorder and chaos. A socialist U.S. should probably support the same basic norms of sovereignty and nonintervention to which the current capitalist U.S. is officially -- if not always in practice (and esp. not in the past)-- committed.

Well, that's my somewhat off-the-cuff, late-night response to a question which could probably trigger a book, not just a blog comment.

LFC said...

P.s. Certainly the U.S.-led overthrow of the undoubted tyrant Saddam Hussein had less than happy consequences, to put it mildly. Now when a tyrant is actually killing people en masse as opposed to merely oppressing them (e.g. in Syria right now) one has a different situation. Not that I favor mil. intervention there, but the moral and political considerations are different.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

LFC, your comment perfectly mirrors my own ambivalence. Perhaps the wisest course would be to slowly, steadily, reduce America's military establishment and its military footprint in the world, and see, as things unfold, what appears to be the right balance. Certainly we could go a long way in that direction before I would begin to have serious doubts.

Don Schneier said...

Let me try this: The very concept of 'nation' is undergoing an historical transformation. Hitherto, generally, following its ancestor, the concept of a 'polis', a 'nation' has been conceived as a unity of a given multiplicity. But, with the rise of globalization, it is no longer a discrete organism among other organisms, but an organ among other organs, thus subordinate to the good of the organism. Accordingly, the concept of 'foreign policy' must be derived not from that of 'national interest', but from that of 'global good'. In concrete terms, this would mean the de jure subjection of the U. S., and of every other nation, to U. N. jurisdiction, which, of course, has little chance of happening any time soon. Next best, therefore, is a foreign policy that is a de facto implementation of U. N. interests.

LFC said...


LFC said...

Sorry, my "agree" was meant to be to R.P. Wolff's comment above.


Re: Don Schneier's comment -

Does it necessarily follow from the substance of 'foreign policy' being identified with 'global good' that any nation, much less any specific nation, should be subject to an international body? I'm not saying I think it shouldn't, merely asking.

Beyond that, would it follow that the body in question should be the U.N.? I think there are reasons to believe that the U.N.'s structure necessitates that it will fail to represent anything but the interests of the security council members, as opposed to the interests of the membership as a whole.

Don Schneier said...

LWSCHURTZ--I was just trying to make the formal point that a commitment to universalist values entails a reformulation of the concept of 'nation', from unity of some localized multiplicity, to subdivision of the global whole. The concepts of 'foreign' and, hence, of 'foreign policy', would undergo similar reformulations, for any 'nation'. Since, the current de facto closest approximation to a universal polity is the U. N., yes, a current concrete foreign policy committed to global values would be derived from U. N. principles.