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Why Do Hawks Call Other States Expansionist?

Writing yesterday’s post on Romney and revanchism caused me to wonder why it is that hawkish Republicans often like to describe other states in obviously inaccurate ways. There is a propaganda value in doing so, and perhaps that’s the only reason, but there is a danger that obviously inaccurate statements could invite ridicule and undermine the hawk’s larger argument. There may be another important reason. There is a hawkish desire to compare current international conditions with those in the past, so modern states that the hawks dislike are identified in terms that allows them to be more easily likened to hostile states from previous eras.

This may help to account for descriptions of Iran as an “expansionist” power, even though it hasn’t pursued a genuinely expansionist foreign policy in decades. The historical comparison is explicit in the Traub article I linked: he likens the Iranian regime to the French revolutionary regime of the Directory. The only problem with the comparison is that the Directory was actively exporting revolution, creating puppet regimes in occupied territories, and waging conventional wars beyond its borders, and Iran hasn’t really been doing any of that. The comparison doesn’t work very well, but it seems that Traub made the comparison in the first place because he already viewed Iran as an “expansionist” power.

At other times, it seems as if describing another state as expansionist is just a way of expressing disapproval of its foreign policy goals. Most Americans generally take it for granted now that territorial expansionism is destabilizing and destructive, so there are few descriptions that are better suited for deriding another state’s foreign policy. That seems to be why some hawks describe Russia as expansionist: it doesn’t describe what Russia is doing, but it conveys dissatisfaction with other non-expansionist behavior. If Russia is actually acting as the status quo power, and hawks are unhappy with the status quo, it is more useful for hawks to present that behavior as the opposite of what it is.

Here we come back to the propaganda value of the description. It could be that describing non-expansionist states as expansionist is a way of signaling how seriously one takes the scale of the threat that the other state poses. All the most grave security threats of the 20th century came from expansionist states and ideological movements, so presenting Iran as an expansionist state elevates it to the same level as these other threats. Referring to another state’s expansionism allows the hawk to present the U.S. as merely responding to the other state’s “expansionism,” which casts U.S. policies in a given region as defensive reactions against an aggressor.

Labeling another state as revanchist is more complicated. Hawks presumably want to associate the other state with fascist and irredentist regimes of the past, since these are the most familiar kinds of revanchism in modern history. However, the word itself indicates that the other state has been done some grievous injury by others that has caused the other state to seek revenge. It isn’t an accurate description, but it also doesn’t fit the image of Russia that hawks present the rest of the time.

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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