This does not mean they [Republican voters] cannot be persuaded by non-interventionist arguments, but doing so will require a message stripped of all traces of humanitarian, we-are-the-world gobbledygook. ~George Hawley

While I was away, there was a debate over non-interventionist rhetoric that is worth discussing. The above quote from Hawley sums up the argument he has been making, which elicited responses from Jack Hunter and Matt Barganier. As someone who does sometimes employ moral arguments against aggressive war and empire, I don’t accept that repudiating aggression and empire as both unjust and imprudent necessarily makes non-interventionists “sound like Code Pink.” It is a strange sort of outreach that takes for granted that one’s target audience is morally bankrupt. It is also an odd way to try to appeal to core Republican voters by starting with the assumption that the far left has some kind of monopoly on the language of justice, which is therefore unavailable to war opponents on the right. More to the point, non-interventionists almost never use rhetoric that could be confused for “humanitarian, we-are-the-world gobbledygook.” Indeed, what distinguishes non-interventionists from most realists, antiwar leftists and liberal internationalists is our belief that global interdependence is vastly exaggerated and global governance is impossible.

What Hawley is proposing is to have the non-interventionist right adopt a defensive crouch in foreign policy debates (because such me-tooism has worked so well for post-’72 Democrats over the years) and to try to change the rhetorical presentation and image of non-interventionists so that hawkish nationalists will not immediately dismiss our arguments. Having conceded that exuding “toughness” is what really matters in these debates, Hawley would put non-interventionists in a contest with actual hawks that we can never win. The only way to compensate for a so-called “tough guy problem” is to play part of the “tough guy,” which would inevitably mean endorsing policies that non-interventionists currently find unacceptable in order to show their “toughness.” You cannot use the language of power projection and global “leadership” and simultaneously oppose the policies that these things require for their maintenance. Even if it is merely implicit, you cannot accept the view that rejecting U.S. power projection has something to do with “anti-Americanism,” which is what all of these rhetorical contortions suggest. Once you grant this, you have endorsed the view that opposing aggressive war and empire is a kind of disloyalty. In the end, framing antiwar and anti-imperialist arguments by saying, “Well, at least we’re not like those lousy hippies” doesn’t get you any credit with the hawkish audience, but it simply confirms in their minds how idiosyncratic your arguments are.

As Barganier correctly noted in his response:

The funny thing is, the warbots are not allergic to “humanitarian, we-are-the-world gobbledygook” – in fact, they devour it when it’s in the service of American imperialism. Anyone who watches Fox News knows how quickly right-wingers can pivot from “kill ‘em all” to “aww, purple fingers!” The problem is not that peaceniks have tried the wrong arguments on them; they will accept any argument, no matter how heterodox it appears on its face, so long as it reaches the correct conclusion…

Barganier is right about this, but even more troubling is the ease with which war supporters can switch from from the most severe moral indifference to the most extreme universalism and back again: the rights of other nations are irrelevant when our security is at stake, but everyone ought to be free and must be made free by force of arms (and you hate other kinds of people if you disagree), but if a few hundred thousand are killed and millions displaced in the process these are acceptable costs in the pursuit of a vastly exaggerated definition of national interest. The nationalist oscillation between the will to dominate and the benevolent quest for liberation is an old one.

Non-interventionism doesn’t have a “tough guy problem,” but instead very simply has a nationalist problem. Most nationalists do not and cannot accept non-interventionism because of the fundamentally aggressive nature of most forms of nationalism. Non-interventionists cannot credibly appeal to such people without ceasing to be non-interventionists. For the latter, the national interest is quite limited, definite and obtainable, while for nationalists it is expansive and virtually unlimited, because this is the only kind of national interest commensurate with their idolatry of the nation. To say that some foreign quarrel is none of our business is to impose a limit, which in the eyes of nationalists is to diminish the nation, and this they will never tolerate. How do you persuade such people that we should forego empire and aggressive war? For one thing, you have to challenge rather than pander to their nationalist assumptions.