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Anti-Militarism and the Right

Noah Millman made an interesting observation that McCain’s “we are all Georgians now” declaration ought to have provoked opposition or at least mockery from “Jacksonians” who are proudly American and nationalistic in their conception of what it means to be American. Millman wrote:

Now, Jacksonians don’t have to be militarists, and if they weren’t they might serve as such a check. Jacksonians care deeply about national honor; to serve as a useful check on Wilsonian impulses, they would need to oppose the commitment of the national honor when there is no important national interest. So, when conflict between Russia and Georgia erupts, and John McCain (hard Wilsonian militarist extraordinaire) says we’re all Georgians, you’d need to hear the response – “no we aren’t: we’re Americans, and don’t you forget it!” Sounds like a Jacksonian response to me – but that’s not what we heard.

On the face of it, that sounds right, but as Millman noted there was no Jacksonian backlash against McCain’s pro-Georgian enthusiasm. Why not? There is no way to be absolutely sure, but a likely reason is that when McCain’s “Jacksonian” supporters heard this (if they were paying attention to the August war at all) they took it in the spirit in which it was offered: as a fanatical statement of hostility to Russia. Accordingly, what McCain really meant was, “We are all anti-Russian.” Unfortunately, a great many conservatives and “Jacksonians” would be only too willing to agree. Whenever surveys are done asking ally/enemy questions, a large plurality of conservatives and Republicans still identifies Russia as an enemy.

For many “Jacksonians,” especially those who grew up during the height of the Cold War, Russia remains an easy default enemy, and old anti-Soviet sentiment translates easily into anti-Russian feeling. In other words, sympathy for Georgia functions as an expression of antipathy to Russia. To the extent that “Jacksonians” believe the myths that the U.S. “won” the Cold War and specifically that it was Reagan who “won” it, they see the independent states along Russia’s borders that once were part of Russia before the revolution as monuments of a sort to America’s Cold War “victory.” This is partly why so many conservatives and Republicans find anti-Russian nationalist leaders so attractive: they are reminders of what came from the end of the Cold War, and with the “color” revolutions Ukraine and Georgia potentially represented the second wave of democratization in the post-communist world that could further confirm the “victory” over the USSR. There is also some desire on the American right to recapture the cohesiveness and unity that anticommunism once provided, and I suspect the utterly irrational belief that Russia today is headed towards some “neo-Soviet” empire is a product of the desire to have the old enemy against which conservatives of various stripes could rally.

One might think that nationalists in the U.S. would not take an interest in the fates of small nations on the other side of the world, but there are a couple reasons why proxy and so-called “front-line states” are considered so important. First, supporting the cause of front-line states is part and parcel of endorsing America’s superpower status and embracing a global “leadership” role. “Jacksonians” may bristle at nation-building, but it isn’t because they want to forego the role of hegemon. They are offended by nation-building mostly because they see it as a distraction and waste of military resources that could be better used somewhere else. After all, the hegemon has better things to do than funding reconstruction projects in Central Asia. By “better things,” they usually mean launching new military strikes on yet another state that has done little or nothing to us. The other reason is that supporting front-line states is another way of endorsing American power projection in a given region and affirming their hostility to other major powers or expressing their anti-jihadist views. In any given region, “Jacksonians” ask who is more “like us,” identify with that group, and conclude that we are on their side against their enemies.

Neutrality seems to sit badly with “Jacksonians” and this is bound up in national pride that is rooted in an Americanism that links American greatness with the ideological causes of the 20th century for which Americans fought. It is therefore against their instincts in specific cases to declare that the conflicts between front-line states and their neighbors are none of their business. They are even less likely to say that we should not take sides. Neutrality is really only an option if all sides seem equally alien and irrelevant to advancing American influence in the region. The strong moralizing element in American attitudes towards the rest of the world makes it difficult to find fault on both sides, and it makes it even harder to blame the front-line client state and the U.S. for the client’s predicament. There is an unambiguously good side in these conflicts as far as American nationalists are concerned, and one’s response to the conflict is a measure of moral integrity as well as support for American clients. To defend the other side or to argue that both sides are to blame is to engage in the unforgiveable crime of “moral equivalence.” This leads such people to conclude not only that critics of the client state are in league with evil, but that they are also anti-American.

In a bizarre way, fidelity to Georgia becomes a test of one’s loyalty to the U.S. “Good” and “real” Americans will back up Saakashvili because he is on “our side” and because he has the right enemies. To do otherwise is to “sell out” an ally, “appease” Russia and become “pro-Russian” and therefore anti-American. This is how nationalists end up conflating American goals with the goals of other nations without seeing any contradiction. When front-line states are not involved, there is much greater indifference. “Jacksonians” were uninterested in the Balkan interventions for the most part, because the belligerents did not include a traditional American rival. There was ample hatred for Serbia in the U.S. in the 1990s, but for the most part “Jacksonians” could agree that we had no “dogs” in those fights (and this happened to be true). When they believe that we do have a “dog in the fight,” “Jacksonians” become quite insistent on more and deeper U.S. involvement, and they usually portray our own government as weak and cowardly if it fails to provide as much aid as they think is necessary.

All of this is ultimately a product of the sort of nationalism that defines itself in terms of opposition and according to what it is not. Their being American entails being against some other nation or ideology. The specific nations will come and go, the ideologies will change, but the need for an enemy is central to the self-conception of this kind of American nationalist. Part of this involves a constant exaggerating of foreign threats, which makes a fallen world seem vastly more dangerous than it is. Militarism comes naturally to people who believe the world is filled with threats and the only way to hold them at bay is with overwhelming strength. If there are not enough demonstrations of strength, nationalists argue that the country is getting soft and weak. These nationalists are aggressive because they are convinced that threats are everywhere and growing and aggression is necessary for a very broadly defined “self-defense.” They will not blink at attacking other nations without good reason, but they always act as if it is America that is the aggrieved party. Almost all nationalists do this, but it is especially noticeable when the disparity of power between the U.S. and its targets is so great. Arguing that such attacks are unjust, immoral and illegal will get anti-militarists nowhere with nationalists. Believe me, I have tried, and they don’t accept my description of what happened, and sometimes they do and just don’t care. The only way to get through is to persuade them that militarism is a threat to America, and I’m not sure that will make any sense to them.

So, no, we are not all Georgians, but American nationalists feel obliged to express solidarity for an American client state in order to confirm support for American power overseas and to show their enmity for our clients’ enemies, which they have adopted as their own or already saw as enemies earlier. This is why so many critics of nation-building have been perfectly happy to subsidize Israeli settlements or Georgian economic development and military modernization. If the nations being built are culturally and politically close enough to us, nationalists don’t have that much of a problem with being ensnared in their intractable conflicts or with wasting American resources and jeopardizing concrete U.S. interests. American nationalists happily treat costly strategic liabilities as valuable allies, so long as they have the right enemies and so long as they adopt a suitably confrontational posture.

So it is difficult to see how there can be a counter to militarism on the right when the things that fuel militarism go unchallenged and unopposed. Almost a year ago, I identified nationalism as a major distorting force that had been ruining conservatism by making it too inclined to centralization at home and aggressive policies overseas. Nationalists tend to favor national consolidation as desirable in itself and as a way to facilitate the growth of national power in the world, and they tend to idolize the President in his capacity as Commander-in-Chief, and both of these things make them friends of unaccountable and arbitrary government. An important step in countering militarism would be dramatically decentralizing political power, followed by steadily reining in the executive branch and reasserting the role of Congress in the making of foreign policy. These would be worthwhile things to do for many other reasons, but they are absolutely necessary if anti-militarism is to have any chance of competing within the conservative movement and the Republican Party.

Another necessary move would be to reclaim the language of national defense and security from the militarists. One would think that this should be easy, as militarists have done so much to undermine American security over the decades and have presided over unprecedented attacks on American soil, but it requires a careful separation of those policies that would actually enhance American security from the cheap demagogic rhetoric that talks endlessly about strength, credibility and resolve. An anti-militarist right would have to keep emphasizing that the security of the people and territory of the United States is constantly undermined the more that we fritter away resources and soldiers on the other side of the planet, and over the long-term interventions overseas will create more enemies than we can possibly afford. It would also have to avoid the pitfalls of the mindless chest-thumping, “we’re #1!” rhetoric that so many contemporary defenders of American exceptionalism seem to demand.

Anti-militarists will need to find some way to express admiration and national pride that does not devolve into boasting of supremacy and self-congratulation. There should be recognition and respect accorded to the nation’s real accomplishments and virtues, but absolute resistance to hyperbole, arrogance, lazy anti-Europeanism, and hogging all of the credit for the joint successes shared with our allies. We shouldn’t go out of our way to denigrate past American wars, not least because it will not change any minds and simply makes resistance to future wars weaker than it should be. Still, when the subject comes up, we should definitely not mythologize past conflicts, and we should remind people of the terrible, often unnecessary costs they imposed on the U.S. and other nations.

Conservative anti-militarists face a great difficulty. They must also in large part be anti-nationalists, or at least opposed to the kind of nationalism that now prevails on the right. However, as soon as anti-militarists express their opposition to nationalism, the nationalists they are trying to persuade will conclude that they are anti-American and will not hear anything else they say, and in an age of mass politics the more nationalist force tends to win more support. If anti-militarists do not reject nationalism, anti-militarists are stuck reinforcing all of the habits and assumptions that have made militarism so politically successful and enduring, and so they might wind up achieving nothing. Perhaps one could find some middle way by which anti-militarists explain to nationalists that militarism objectively undermines national greatness. It is this greatness they should be interested in preserving rather than focusing on making them feel good about themselves by constantly repeating how exceptional, unique and wonderful we are.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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