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Friday, May 22, 2015


As I make last minute preparations for our trip to Paris [haircut -- I do not trust Parisian barbers to snip my few remaining scraggles of hair], I should like to pose a question for my readers.  This is  not a rhetorical question, as the saying has it.  I am genuinely uncertain what I think is the appropriate answer.  The question is this:  What should America's military policy be with regard to the rest of the world?

Some facts, first.  The United States currently has roughly one and a third million men and women under arms, and an additional 850,000 or so in the various reserves and National Guard units.  Its military budget accounts for perhaps not quite 40% of the world wide expenditures on armed forces and related activities and resources.  [Some of America's expenditures are hidden in the budget, so it is difficult to be precise, and I assume the same is true for many other nations.]

For at least the past three quarters of a century, the United States has been pursuing an imperial foreign policy, seeking to establish military hegemony over as much of the earth's surface as it can manage.  So far as I can tell, this drive to world domination has been motivated partly by a desire to make the world safe for American capitalism, and partly to establish supremacy simply for its own sake.  During part of that three quarters of a century, the United States confronted a Soviet empire which, though never as powerful militarily, possessed enough nuclear weapons to create a so-called balance of terror.  Despite the precariousness of that arrangement, the world approached dangerously close to nuclear war only once, in 1962, thanks to the decisions and actions of a liberal Democratic president, John F. Kennedy .

In pursuit of its imperial aims, the United States has overthrown democratically elected governments, subverted progressive indigenous movements, propped up dictators, and engaged in perpetual war.  After the disaster of the Viet Nam War, which came close to destroying the cohesion and effectiveness of the American military, America's political and military rulers carried out the final transformation of America to a classical imperial power by replacing its conscript army with a professional military that could be deployed anywhere in the world with little or no domestic political opposition.

All of this, I take it, is beyond dispute.  For purposes of discussion, I shall simply posit that this is not good.  But it is the reality.  I do not wish to ask here what the United States should have done over the past  three quarters of a century.  That is an important question, but it is not my question today.  Nor do I wish to ask what it is politically possible to do in the United States now.  That too is an important question, and one to which the realistic answer is deeply depressing.  Rather, I am asking:  What should the foreign and military policy of the United States be?

There are four possible answers, so far as I can see.  They are:

1.  Pursue an expansionist, belligerent military policy, seeking to control as much of the world as we can while denying the imperial ambitions of China and other potential contenders wherever  and whenever we can, thereby making the world as safe as we can for capitalism.  That, I take it, is the expressed or unexpressed grand vision of most Republicans and a good many Democrats.

2.  Continue to function as an imperial power dedicated to the protection and advancement of the interests of American capital, but do so in a kinder and gentler fashion.  That, I take it, is roughly Obama's answer.

3.   Dismantle the U. S. military establishment, leaving only so much of it as is required to protect America from a land invasion by Canada or Mexico, or an amphibian invasion by, let us say, China.  Then, keep America's troops at home and let the rest of the world sort itself out as it chooses.  On a good day, this appears to be Rand Paul's policy.

4.  Maintain America's military establishment, but use it, along with America's economic power, for progressive, indeed, revolutionary projects abroad wherever possible.  Undermine and overthrow repressive and reactionary regimes whenever possible, such as, for example, the Saudi regime, or the Russian regime, or the North Korean regime.  Use America's military and economic power to undermine capitalism abroad and to support progressive revolutionary forces wherever they appear.

If we are talking about what would be best, not what is possible, I assume that most of my readers would reject alternatives one and two.  But I am genuinely uncertain whether it would be best to maintain a large military establishment that could be deployed instantly in support of progressive policies, or whether it would be best to dismantle our huge military establishment and adopt what used to be called a Fortress America stance.

Let me make one thing very clear.  I reject utterly and categorically the fantasy that all the evil in the world is a result of past or present American actions, so that if we would simply stop our endless undermining of good regimes and propping up of bad regimes, the world would be a peaceful, progressive, secular place. 

If we choose the third alternative, then we must be prepared to stand by while really terrible things are done in the world [never mind for the moment the really terrible things done in America -- that is a subject for a different discussion.]  If you think the abduction of hundreds of young girls by Nigerian Muslims is something we should do something about, then you must be willing to maintain a standing armed force of considerable size that can be deployed immediately, not after a year of recruitment.   No doubt, America would not need as large a military as it now has, but interventionist policies cannot be pursued on the cheap.

If we choose the fourth alternative, then inevitably there are going to be unintended civilian deaths, the use of drones and other modern weapons, and a state of permanent military readiness with all of the unavoidable consequences.

So, what do people think?  Is there a fifth alternative?


Gene said...

I think there are two more possibilities.

5: The US keeps as much of its military as it needs for defense and uses/supports the United Nations for all outward use of force.

6: The US keeps a military of roughly the same size, but reintroduces conscription (sort of like Israel) and uses the military for large scale domestic projects as well as traditional military endeavors.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I like both of those, especially the reintroduction of conscription. That by itself would dramatically change the politics of military interventions. Good thinking. Either one, by the way, would pretty much lead to a shrinking of the size of the military.

classtruggle said...

The US was the pre-eminent capitalist power by the end of the second world war and was therefore in a position to restructure the world to reflect its own interests. However, those interests were in essence the interests of capital in general albeit in national form. The US essentially resolved a contradiction that had caused both world wars: national governments representing national corporations could not grow or expand without running up against other national capitals and this collision often led to commercial battles, national economic problems, and of course, wars. Hence the need for capital to free itself from geographic and national borders.

Fast forward to 2011, and we find of the world’s 175 largest economies, 111 were transnational corporations. And according to a recent UN publication, transnational corporations accounted for approximately 16 trillion dollars in value added in 2010, accounting for more than a quarter of global GDP. In 2010, the top 100 largest non-financial transnational corporations indicated that the average firm generated 60 per cent of its assets, sales and employment outside of its home country and 63 per cent of international executives indicated in a 2007 Harvard Business Review survey that they believed “the truly global company has no home base.”

This is not to be understood as the mere internationalisation of capital, which assumes a world of national capitals and nation-states, but as the supersession by capital of the nation-state as its historically necessary but now redundant social and political framework. It is a process in which the main actors become the transnational corporations and all the circuits of capital become global in nature.

As for other possibilities, I must ask: what is the value or meaning of value judgments (assessments that compare existence/reality/what is with what is thought should or ought to be)?

And do these value judgments rest on a view that something is ‘wrong’ or ‘should’ be something other than what it is, or should be overthrown because it is ‘amoral/inhuman/unjust’?

Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...


Anonymous said...

To finish my previous comment:

The Japanese, the Swiss, the Canadians and others, who have little to no capability of "projecting power" have discovered that you don't need a huge military presence in order to prosper. All you have to do is stand on the shore waving hard currency and the tankers will come to you!

Yes, there are pirates (sea-born and cyber) and other potential disrupters of the free flow of goods, services and capital. But even Japan has enough of a navy to take on the threat of pirates at sea. As for the cyber pirates, well, aircraft carriers aren't much help. What about organized states that might disrupt trade? Here it is ironic that "enemies" like Iran today, and Iraq pre-2003, are EMBARGOED. The US and the West more broadly actually forces them to withdraw their supposedly "strategic" and critical raw material—oil--from the market.

Thanks and I hope to get to your very important question soon, but wanted to touch on these points first.