A perpetual declaration of war

In the course of a controversy with Glenn Greenwald, Dan Drezner offers the following rewording of Greenwald’s critical summary of the orthodoxy of the US “Foreign Policy Community”

The number one rule of the bi-partisan foreign policy community is that America can invade and attack other countries when vital American interests are threatened. Paying homage to that orthodoxy is a non-negotiable pre-requisite to maintaining good standing within the foreign policy community.

and states:

I suspect that anyone who accepts the concept of a “national interest” in the first place would accept that phrasing. As a paid-up member of the Foreign Policy Community (FPC), I certainly would.

Unless “vital national interest” is construed so narrowly as to be equivalent to “self-defence”, this is a direct repudiation of the central founding principle of international law, prohibiting aggressive war as a crime against peace, indeed, the supreme international crime. It’s more extreme than the avowed position of any recent US Administration – even the invasion of Iraq was purportedly justified on the basis of UN resolutions, rather than US self-interest. Yet, reading this and other debates, it seems pretty clear that Drezner’s position is not only generally held in the Foreign Policy Community but is regarded, as he says, as a precondition for serious participation in foreign policy debates in the US.

A couple of questions arise. First, is this rule supposed to apply only to the US? Second, how elastic the phrase “vital national interest” be spelt out? To take an obvious example, does unfettered access to natural resources like oil count as a “vital national interest”? If so, it seems pretty clear that vital national interests of different countries will regularly come into conflict, and (unless this is a US-only rule) that both parties in such a situation are justified in going to war.

Leaving aside questions of morality and justification, on what factual basis does the Foreign Policy Community consider that the use of war as an instrument of policy serves the US national interest? Look at the record in the past 50 years. Of the three large-scale wars the US has fought, two (Indochina and the current Iraq War) have been bloody failures and one (the first Iraq war) an equivocal success. The smaller wars and interventions (Lebanon, Haiti, Somalia to name a few) have not been much better. And covert attacks on foreign governments, from the overthrow of Mossadegh onwards, have had long-run consequences that have been almost uniformly disastrous.

Accepting Drezner’s summary of the orthodoxy, it’s hard to disagree with Greenwald’s conclusion that the United States and the world would be better off without the Foreign Policy Community.

22 thoughts on “A perpetual declaration of war

  1. perhaps it’s wrong to leave morality out of these discussions, as morality is generally survival oriented behavior.

    but the main problem is leaving national policy in the hands of a few people.

  2. “Leaving aside questions of morality and justification, on what factual basis does the Foreign Policy Community consider that the use of war as an instrument of policy serves the US national interest?”

    I suppose on the basis that the USA has become the world’s only superpower and can treat any other combination of nations with contempt if it feels like it. It’s the overall outcome that’s important in other words, not the result of any one individual military adventure.

    Of course lots of us would not regard that as an especially worthwhile objective, and would reject many of the assumptions that have underpinned US foreign policy since 1945, but on their own terms I can see why they would regard themselves as having been outstandingly successful.

  3. I don’t know about the US considering itself successful Ken — looking at the current situation, it seems pretty clear that just being the military super-power doesn’t neccesarily get you the outcome you want. In addition, it looks to me that we now have a situation where China is wandering out simply buying out nations with resources, and this is a far more successful approach than trying to bully them into giving them to you. Even if some of China’s dirty deals go wrong, the amount of money lost is far less than going to war, and they can simply bribe the next government that gets in.

  4. IF every cloud has a silver lining, I guess the one big positive of the Bush administration is that it has clearly exposed such hypocritical, un-democratic nonsense for what it is. The question now is whether we, the people, will be able to wrest control from these freaks. They have a big global machine in place, and its tentacles reach all the way to Canberra.

    First, is this rule supposed to apply only to the US?

    John Howard has repeatedly insinuated that his fundamental reason for going to war in Iraq (more important than removing Saddam, who was not a threat to us, or countering Islamic fundamentalist terrorism, which had nothing to do with Saddam) was to support the USA, our long-time ally. He still insists that we cannot leave because that would be “a huge embarrassment” to Washington.

    Second, how elastic the phrase “vital national interest� be spelt out?

    It’s pretty clear that Howard sees blind support for Teh USA as a matter of vital national interest to Australia. Obviously, given the growth of our (ahem!) “defence” budget, he also sees closer financial involvement with the increasingly globalized US military-industrial complex as a key growth area for our economy.

    Also ironic to note that what is still quaintly called “the national interest” is really now about the interests of globalized companies like Halliburton, BHP Billiton, et al.Even if the Oil Wars were more successful in the field, I doubt the US (or Australian) people would be garnering much benefit from them. The rich get richer, the poor get bombed, bamboozled and buggered every which way.

  5. I think both Ken Lovell and the FPC are being very short sighted. The unipolar moment is passing – and much more rapidly than people realise (of course fiascos like Iraq will make this even more rapid). On current growth rates China’s GDP (at PPP) will pass the US’ in a decade (the Euro area, of course, already has). And there will also be many, many more middle powers perfectly capable of defending their local interests from the US. So morality aside the long run interest of the US is therefore in constraining the big boys by international institutions and law, and in playing off middle powers against each other. Drezner’s “orthodoxy” is dangerous for the US above all.

    It seems to me that the US is already slipping into the classic declining-empire mistakes – that is, overestimating their capacity for empire based on past glories, and overestimating the benefits of empire too.

  6. I wasn’t making judgements dd, merely explaining how things might look to the US foreign policy pundits from their own peculiar perspective. Whether their assumptions and values are rational or wise or moral is another matter altogether.

  7. Looking at comments in blogs like Crooked Timber, Greg Mankiv and others, I get the impression that many blogs by academics are read by students too. I wonder what sort of effect this kind of opinions have on students.

  8. gaddeswarup,

    Looking at the closed shop world of Foiregn Affairs, you might also notice that a lot – nearly all, in fact – are academics, or have close links to the tertiary academic world. Indeed, there is a revolving door of government and academic employment for such people.

    Scary to think that young students might be inordinately affected by such radicals, isn’t it? Worse yet, taxpayers are funding their lavish salaries!

  9. Is it even a question whether this rule applies only to the US? Mmm – I suppose US allies in consultation with and the permission of the US would be included. All such actions would be judged appropriate if percieved to benefit US interests. Certainly it definitely does not give permission to any nation to take military action against the US under any circumstances, or interfere with the US right to use every kind of military force up to and including WMD’s to defend itself.
    Although I expect this kind of hypocrisy has always been the way of things, it’s still disturbing that there is no longer even lip service to notions of international law applying to US foreign policy.

  10. ok, so it’s mid-march 2003. the argument is put that there exists a right to use armed force to address, preemptively, threats that may potentially arise in the future.

    to me it seemed obvious, even at that time (although even more obviously in retrospect), the argument provided a stronger basis for iraq to use armed force against america than the reverse. but if i were someone who mattered in american politics who had made such an observation, i would have been savagely attacked by the american FPC for “moral relativism”, hating america and so on.

    the staggering thing to me about the AFPC is their inability to put the shoe on the other foot. the rules they propose always apply for US benefit only. the AFPC are completely unable to consider how unpleasant the world would be (and, incidentally, how bad it would be for vital american interests) if other countries thought they could act according to these rules.

  11. I’m with Ken on how the US foreign policy establishment would regard the unilateral bellicosity posture as a success. The Iraq invasion and occupation has ensured the US remains in control of the planet’s most significant easily accessed oil reserves: the fact that they can’t at present be exploited is of no account – the strategic goals are to ensure that no-one else, eg the Chinese and Europeans, gets to exploit them; to bully Iran; and to have a major military presence in the region to keep the deeply unpopular corrupt feudal regimes of the Arabian peninsula and dictatorships of former Soviet central Asia, in line. All these goals are right on track.

  12. A classic statement of imperial foreign policy, in which “vital national interest” means imperial interest. Historically, empires have spent vast amounts of resources putting out brush fires. While ordinary people, living under satraps or direct rule, have to make enormous calculations on whether resistance is worth the price. So even if an invasion backfires, it doesn’t matter too much because there is still the lesson to others about what the cost of resistance will necessarily involve. We certainly can’t expect a change to come from within the US – the insularity of Americans helps their ruling elite to perpetrate all sorts of lies in order to get support for ‘vital interests’ – including the vastly inflated fear of direct attacks on the US itself (in which 9/11 was immensely useful in promoting the attack on Saddam).

    By 1969, 4 years after the US launched its full scale (as opposed to proxy) war in Vietnam, about 20-30,000 Americans were dead. That was what really got the anti-war movement going. In Iraq, we’re still a long way off those totals. Even then it wasn’t the anti-war movement so much as Pentagon cost calculations, relative to other priorities, that alerted the AFPC.

    The AFPC is constantly complaining that democracy makes it difficult to wage a proper war. In my view democracy is what makes it difficult to change the consensus within the AFPC. Most Americans just ain’t interested enough.

  13. melanie, et al: democracy is not the problem in the usa. the usa is not a democracy.

    if the usa were a democracy, like california for instance, dubya would have been fired by now, through recall referendum.

    switzerland aside, there are no national democracies- that’s the problem.

  14. al, you are right that the US is not a democracy, but even with a recall system, Bush would not have been fired over Iraq, but over other things. Foreign policy is not what decides Americans on how they vote. Moreover, foreign policy is bipartisan and even with a recall system you are still faced with the problem of tweedledum and tweedledee controlling all the political resources. Democracies are not built by voting systems.

  15. Hal9000, poor judgement aside, I don’t know that the US would see the last decade or so as a success. Where they have they secured new oil resources? Alternatively, the Chinese have basically monopolized the horn of Africa, and evidentally have gotten good access in places like Iran. This has been done at a tiny fraction of the cost of the US war machine.

  16. Hey Prof Q.

    Yea this monroe doctrine writ large is a mighty pain in the posteria. re your questions, the answers are 1. yes only the USA is allowed to act in this way and 2. I’m fairly sure that the US invaded several central American and Carribian nations from the 30s to the 50s to secure its sources of bannanas so we have to assume that anything that gets in the way of the national smoothie obsession is toast.

    As for Howie and his loyalty, well he is on to something, as much as it pains me to admit it. The French are a case in point. there has been no country more loyal to the US than the French, for over two hundred years the French have been there for the US, breaking the Brit embargo durring the Revolutionary war, telling the Brits to but out during the Civil war, enthusiastically joining in the suppresion of those pesky first nations, providing the US with the stage to really flex it’s muscles in Europe and East Asia. they offer one peice of good advice and whammo, they are cheese eating surrender monkeys, what would have happened to to poor little Oz if we had followed the same path?

    I’d like to say something serious about this topic Prof Q, i really would, you know some thing like how Truman and Ike held out as long as they could against the military industrial complex, how the “American dream” continually refreshes the elites so they don’t get fatigued like the elites of old europe, how Theodor Geisel and his mates on the newspaper PM were too successful in their project of tainting all isolationists with a whiff of nazism back in the 40s. But US politics is so ludicrous right now that the only option is the piss take.

    see ya


  17. Conrad, I agree that the warmongering of the US establishment has been monumentally expensive as well as immoral and, viewed from the outside, counter-productive. I’m only arguing that it succeeds within the narrow confines it sets itself.

  18. Hey Prof Q

    It appears that Guliani has genuflected before the alta of the AFPC with his latest in Forign Affairs, http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070901faessay86501/rudolph-giuliani/toward-a-realistic-peace.html

    Obviously it has to be stated that “America is a nation that loves peace and hates war.” but the “the era of cost-free anti-Americanism must end.”

    Apparently the US has been to weak willed in it’s approach to Terrorism

    “Above all, we must understand that our enemies are emboldened by signs of weakness. Radical Islamic terrorists attacked the World Trade Center in 1993, the Khobar Towers facility in Saudi Arabia in 1996, our embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, and the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. In some instances, we responded inadequately. In others, we failed to respond at all. Our retreat from Lebanon in 1983 and from Somalia in 1993 convinced them that our will was weak.”

    other highlights include embracing the use of force re Iran’s nuclear program (to be fair so did Obama, http://www.foreignaffairs.org/20070701faessay86401/barack-obama/renewing-american-leadership.html) and the US was on the cusp of victory in Vietnam in 72-73, withdrawal weakened the US and strengthened the USSR. Now my math ‘aint great, but if the US got seriously involved in Vietnam a year after the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, so ’55, then 18 years of serious involvement in Indochina left the US weakened and 17 years of ignoring it lead to the destruction of the Soviet Union.

    Time to check out Edward’s essay.


  19. I guess it all depends on what you think their goals are. Here are 5:
    a) destablizing various regions
    b) being the biggest and toughest
    c) getting American funding to perpetuate themselves
    d) keeping oil prices down
    e) stopping other countries from gaining better access to the same resources.

    then they have succeeded at (a), (b), and (c), but failed at (d) and (e). I think that (c) trades off with (d) and (e) — i.e., the funding could be put to better use — although I wouldn’t know whether they believe that.

  20. “A couple of questions arise. First, is this rule supposed to apply only to the US? Second, how elastic the phrase “vital national interestâ€? be spelt out? To take an obvious example, does unfettered access to natural resources like oil count as a “vital national interestâ€?? If so, it seems pretty clear that vital national interests of different countries will regularly come into conflict, and (unless this is a US-only rule) that both parties in such a situation are justified in going to war.”

    Well since we’re on hypotheticals, does this question really raise the legitimacy of free market Coalitions of the Willing enforcing free markets on those who would usurp resources for their own (unworthy) ends? ie Wouls such coalitions say be justified in attacking and dismantling a grouping of tyrranous regimes who decided to only supply oil to those countries who actively support the establishment of a world Muslim Calipahate? The same question might arise if say they had a natural monopoly on uranium in a nuclear energy world. Was that the same legitimacy for opposing the communist bloc, wherever possible given the nuclear deterrent?

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