Monday, November 21, 2005

Empires vs. Victory

In a fascinating article in the present issue of the Claremont Review of Books, Angelo Codevilla, one of my favorite Conservative foreign policy experts, discusses the "current eagerness in foreign-policy circles to associate empire with America" when in comes to its role and engagements abroad. In the article, Codevilla reviews several foreign policy books across the political spectrum and offers some thoughts of his own on the topic.

Codevilla argues that "[b]y the 1990s, whether anyone liked it or not, and to the surprise of all, America was the only superpower. What should America do now, and why?"
He continues by defining a "triangle" of views:
Three options, in principle, soon presented themselves, in writings by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Joshua Muravchik, and Patrick J. Buchanan. Liberal historian Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., writing in Foreign Affairs ("Back to the Womb?" 1995) argued that the American people endanger the world by insisting on deciding for themselves how to deal with it. For Schlesinger, this "unilateralism" is the functional equivalent of "isolationism." Only by harnessing the American horse to the world's cart have statesmen like Franklin Roosevelt caused the country to do good rather than harm. In short, the world needs to be saved from an America that will not play its proper role.
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Joshua Muravchik's The Imperative of American Leadership (1996) is nearly a mirror image of Schlesinger's argument. His point of departure is the same as Schlesinger's: Americans are needed in the world, but would rather live their comfortable lives "than rule—or lead—others." But note well: Muravchik, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, believes that "there is no authority higher than America…. In short, America must accept the role of world leader." He is all for "unilateralism." He wants us, unilaterally, to lead the world where we think best.
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Whereas Muravchik, like Schlesinger, sees the American people's unwillingness to involve itself in other nations' affairs as a problem to be overcome, Patrick J. Buchanan's A Republic, Not An Empire (1999) sees it as the foundation of America's character and success. For Buchanan the most obvious mistakes in foreign policy are forgetting the national interest and national autonomy, as Schlesinger's internationalists do; and making commitments that one cannot, or does not intend, or does not manage to keep—the tendency of such as Muravchik.

Codevilla concludes this section with the following comment:
The issues should now be clear: Should Americans use force to defend concrete interests, or to improve foreign peoples? What warrant is there for Americans to design and implement—not merely to prefer—a grand design for the world? Whence comes America's unique strength, and for what is America fit? Official explanations have been muddled.
Just to briefly inject my own views here, I think all three points of view wrong in different ways. Schlesinger is hopelessly utopian and altruistic. He would sacrifice the interests of this country to the world. Muravchik sounds better because he is seemingly more patriotic but is in many ways equally bad since he combines his patriotism with altruism with the result that he would have the US do what Schlesinger wants to do but under our leadership rather than the UN's. Buchanan's intention with respect to "national interest" is correct but it seems that his understanding of what that interest consists of is severely flawed and that makes his stance worse than useless. What is needed is a conception of national interest guided by the rational self-interest of the individual citizens of the US.

Codevilla follows the description of the "triangle" with a few more interesting book reviews from various parts of the ideological spectrum. On the right, "Colin Gray argues that the world needs a sheriff, and that the U.S. had better be it." On the left, William Odom and Robert Dujarric maintain that the US needs an "inadvertent empire" and "above all, maintain American institutions and guard them with military power. They advise us to 'cultivate liberal institutions' as the basis for international relations." Codevilla then moves on to a book by Niall Ferguson, a British Marxist academic. Codevilla summarizes Ferguson's book thus:
This Marxist imposition of preconceived categories onto historical events passes for sophistication, and is the essence of modern "realism" in international relations. In between much filler, the book combines the three classic tenets of European anti-Americanism: (1) Americans have always exacerbated their imperial grasping by their hypocrisy; (2) Americans are insufficiently experienced in hypocrisy and must learn it from the masters; and (3) Americans are both stupid and on the wrong side of things, and deserve the troubles they bring on themselves. These points were as familiar to John Quincy Adams as to readers of 20th-century Communist propaganda or today's European media.
Finally, Codevilla concludes with Ivan Leland, a Libertarian, and as we all should know, Libertarian foreign policy views are at times, indistinguishable from the far left. Codevilla explains:
...Eland goes on to blame American imperialism, and especially America's friendship with Israel, for the fact that Arabs kill Americans. In fact, his answer for every actual or possible controversy with foreigners is to blame America, and then advise us to give in. In practice, there are no interests to defend, and America never has justice on its side—only a gross and illegitimate hunger for empire.
Codevilla's own thoughts are far more in line with my own. Here's a good excerpt, the last sentence of which is my favorite line in the entire article:

All agree that the American people want no part of empire. But great power (so goes the near-consensus) requires exercising imperial responsibility. If the great power shuns responsibility (for sheriffing, for doing good, for spreading liberal institutions) the world will slide into war, and the great power will lose the peace.

This makes no sense. In fact, so-called imperial America does not peacefully enjoy its core interests, never mind the peaceful control of an empire, for the simple reason that it is not making war in order to establish peace, anywhere. The main question underlying the current, surreal discussions of American empire is whether Americans should or should not get involved in quarrels that they are unwilling, or unable, to end with peace secured by war.

Power is not to be confused with empire, and empire is not to be confused with either war or peace. None of the above is to be confused with success. Not all great powers, or even imperial powers, confuse war and peace. The Roman republicans who built the great empire, Livy tells us, made their wars "big and short." Then they had peace as they wanted. Dead enemies are the firm foundations of peace.[emphasis added, G.R.]

And of course, putting the last sentence into effect heavily depends on understanding who one's enemies are. I can't help but quote more to drive the point home:
The sharp distinction between peace and war is peculiar, indeed—to successful powers. It is the essence of statesmanship. It certainly was characteristic of American statesmanship during the 18th and 19th centuries. George Washington's maxims, at once to "observe good faith and justice toward all nations," to "cultivate peace and harmony with all," and to "prepare for war" in order to earn peace, were hardly original. By contrast, the progressive notion (endorsed by Elihu Root, Nicholas Murray Butler, David Starr Jordan, and Woodrow Wilson, among others) that war could be abolished by reforming foreign governments and by collectively guarding the peace was very original. Wilson argued that reform and guardianship would eliminate the need for force amounting to war. He promised disarmament. His opponents countered that widespread meddling and commitments guaranteed war, and that disarmament guaranteed defeat. "Speak softy and carry a big stick," called the Rooseveltians. But Wilsonians abjured sticks, and spoke loudly. Traditional statesmanship won the 1920 elections. Confusion between war, peace, and "involvement" won the hearts and minds of American elites for three generations. America has had little peace since.
Lest I be misunderstood, I have to say that there are definitely some parts of the Codevilla's article that I find questionable. Here are some examples. In reviewing the Odom & Dujarric book, Codevilla writes that "[t]he book grasps at least one aspect of America's uniqueness: liberalism in its original sense. It stems from medieval feudalism: the absence of "such things as independent public rights," coupled with the absolute importance of religious conscience." [emphasis added] I am not so much bothered by the notion of "religious conscience" (though I disagree with that as well) as by the idea that liberalism somehow stems from medieval feudalism. I am frankly unclear to what Codevilla is referring but liberalism (in its proper 19th century sense) stems from the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment and has little to do with the feudal mentality.

Also, nowhere in the entire article, does Codevilla mention Iran, which, ever since the 1979 revolution, plays the starring role in terrorism. Codevilla has said elsewhere that "Iran is a problem that's on the way to solving itself." That was in December 2001. Since then it seems our problems with Iran have only grown and in fact it is now known that Iran has facilitated Al Qaida's attacks on us and the British in Iraq.

But these criticism aside, there's much to be gained by paying careful attention to the ideas in this article, particularly the last section. Codevilla understands what it would take to win this war. I hope for our sake that eventually we all do. I'll leave you with Codevilla's concluding paragraphs:


President Bush's reaction to the events of September 11 further muddied America's understanding of our relationship with the world. He could have addressed the fact that Arabs had struck America on behalf of causes espoused, and embodied, by a number of Arab regimes. He could have declared that in doing so these regimes had put themselves in a state of war with the American people—and he could have proceeded to undo our foes, regime by regime. That war would have left many enemies dead and many potential ones eager to avoid the experience. That, and that alone, is true peace.

Instead, President Bush deferred to parts of what some might call the U.S. government's "imperial infrastructure," the State Department and CIA, which have long-standing stakes in many Arab regimes, e.g., Syria, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinian Authority. He absolved the regimes of responsibility, and proclaimed war on an abstract noun, "terrorism," to achieve some indeterminate global effect. In pursuit of this so-called war, he has raised America's rhetoric, profile, and presence around the world, harming many who do not count and killing few who do. Occupations are not wars. Criminal investigations are not wars. Democracy-building and nation-building campaigns are not wars. Unlike wars, they do not produce victory, nor its offspring, peace.

The United States is not at peace, and it is not making war. To this extent alone the accusation of empire—the dawdling kind that wastes its core resources—sticks. If we continue to trifle with empire rather than establishing peace, we shall reap stalemate, retreat, and the domestic strife that is empire's bitterest consequence.

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

"Dead enemies are the firm foundations of peace"

I just read the book "Scipio Africanus: Greater Than Napolean" by military historian B H Little Heart. It is about the Roman Gerneral who kicked the crap out of Hanibal in the 2nd Punic War. And the quote above reminded me so much of Scipio's philosophy of war. The Roman Republic should be studied and its approach to war should be emulated.

They're wars were in fact "big and short", and very, very effective.

Incidently, Objectivist historian John Lewis loves Scipio Africanus.

Mr. Freer's History said...

do you think Arthur Schlesinger was a historian or a liberal apologist???

Gideon said...

I don't understand your point. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? I am not intimately familiar with Schlesinger's work. I am going by what Codevilla describes in his article. Based on his description I would say Schlesinger is both a historian and a liberal apologist.