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The Swiss Option

In his discussion of military strength, foreign policy and the Swiss option, Conor has some interesting remarks, but he has missed one of the biggest flaws in the Hanson statement he is critiquing. First, Hanson:

It is generally known that Americans want it both ways — green giddiness and plenty of oil and gas for their cars and homes; lots of government services and low taxes; a big military but spasms of isolationism.

Now it’s true that Americans want to have things both ways in many respects, and I have made similar observations over the years, but the last of the three on this list is simply not the case. In the last century, there has never been a desire for a “big military” combined with “spasms of isolationism.” Arguably, the former displaced and eliminated the latter, and even that is not quite right. One of the problems with this remark is that there haven’t even been all that many “isolationists” (i.e., neutralists) after 1945, much less large enough numbers to send the entire nation into such “spasms.”

The so-called isolationists, who advocated neutrality in foreign wars that had nothing to do with us, did not on the whole favor a large military, either. Advocates of military build-ups, advocates of an active, internationalist position and advocates of entering, escalating or starting wars have been and are today largely the same people. Those who believe that America has the right and responsibility to project power all over the world also want to have the means to do so. (That doesn’t rule out miscalculation about how many forces are needed for any particular war, but in general those who call for a larger military are also among the most inclined to use it, and not just for strictly defensive operations.) Those who are very skeptical of the wisdom and justice of all this see no reason for perpetuating hegemony, and so tend to see no reason why we would need a military as large as the one we have. The trouble here is that most Americans are not all that skeptical, and for various reasons tend to have the most trust and pride in the military as a national institution, which makes opposition to “defense” spending a political loser for all but the safest members of Congress. Typically, if skeptics can just hold the line and prevent dramatic new increases in spending they are doing better than usual.

There is, of course, no real “isolationist” political force in the United States, and we have yet to see any meaningful “spasms of isolationism” in the post-war era. Even McGovern and most of his voters, much as I might respect the sentiment of “Come Home, America” and their opposition to Vietnam, did not really represent this. Except at the margins, the disagreements about Vietnam, like disagreements about Iraq today, were not between “isolationists” and their opponents, but between two different camps of internationalists who were disputing about how best to make policy for the superpower.

While there is no absolute contradiction between favoring a relatively large military and a neutral foreign policy–Switzerland shows this to be true–in the American context we have rarely seen the two combined. In his railing against FDR’s preparations for entry into war, Garet Garrett did make calls for building up defenses against any possible invasion or attack as part of his argument for continued neutrality, but on the whole it has been true that those who want to avoid foreign entanglements do not want to create a military force that would enable us to become entangled in foreign conflicts. One of the reasons why we have such a large military is that there are not all that many Americans who oppose foreign entanglements as such, and even fewer who have influence oppose them, much less do they see a problem with America’s superpower status.

So in this case, Americans are fairly consistent: most like and trust the military, they would regard the early republican hostility to standing armies quaint and perhaps even ridiculous, they tend to think highly of the military even when it is deployed on missions with which some of them disagree, and there is no sustained, organized political force resisting the pressure to give the military most of what it wants in terms of funding. There is no schizophrenia or confusion here, no case of wanting to have it both ways: we do not have “isolationist” policies, which is to say we do not remain neutral in conflicts that have nothing to do with us, because the public is accustomed to the government’s having the means and the inclination to become involved all over the world, and there is currently no significant force working to change the public’s mind about this. It need not stay that way, but that is the way it is.

Conor said something else that I found odd:

Though I cannot countenance neutrality in the Second World War [bold mine-DL], it is nevertheless demonstrable that the strategy redounded to the benefit of the Swiss, and the fact that they’ve prospered for 500 years, despite being adjacent to great powers that warred incessantly, suggests that isolationism can work far better than its critics imagine.

But if neutrality saved Switzerland from the ruin of war, occupation (most likely) and the physical and economic devastation that accompanies these things, how could Conor not countenance that? Might it be because it leads us to draw uncomfortable conclusions about what France and Britain and the United States ought to have done? Where was it written that the Swiss had to plunge their country into hell in 1939 when they had refused to do so in every war before it? There may have been people in Sweden or Austria in the early 1700s who would have said the same thing about the Thirty Years’ War, but I think we would look back on them today and think that they were rather odd. In another century or two, I suspect that WWII will be remembered more as the horrific denouement of the 20th century’s interrupted Thirty Years’ War, and people in the future will probably marvel that so much destruction was unleashed for what will seem to them to be fairly trivial disputes, much as most people today do regard most of the wars in which Switzerland refused to join over the centuries.

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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