Afghanistan and the Politics of National Security

To Stop War, American Needs a Third Party

by Matt Taibbi, Substack

For the past few years I haven’t read much from Matt Taibbi to disagree with, as he has done a masterful job exposing the degeneracy of our political and cultural elites. I would agree here with the gist of his criticisms of bipartisan foreign policy and national security policy that has resulted in a long series of futile small war engagements.

However, I do fail to see the connection between war and political party systems he draws out in his title. Perhaps he is a bit unclear himself of the connection as he doesn’t really present the case as a solution, only that our two-party system is part of the problem. Basically he argues our two parties have failed and are corrupt (agreed), but then unconvincingly suggests maybe a third party is the solution. But I can’t find either internal logic or empirical history supporting the case for multiparty systems solving the national security dilemma, even while conceding Eisenhower’s warning concerning the Military Industrial Complex as a real danger. The solution to corrupt politics is to clean out the corruption through the voting process and, if necessary, through the checks of the judicial branch.

To review recent history, no multiparty democracy in the post-war world has satisfactorily solved the security dilemma without becoming dependent on the bipolar great power conflict between the USA and the former USSR. Even after the 1989 demise of the Soviet Bloc, the hegemonic dominance of US continued to provide a convenient security umbrella for European democracies, as well as many developing countries around the world. One must merely offer tacit submission to US global interests to have the US military do all the heavy lifting while the US taxpayer picks up the bill.

This convenient arrangement started to unravel as the global system became unipolar while the rest of the world began to catch up economically during Pax Americana. The cost of hegemony has continued to rise as the US$-centered global monetary system has undermined global trade flows and fundamental prices in asset markets. The liberalization of India and China has also contributed heavily to this transformation of global trade by shifting the global mix of capital and labor. What we have seen in the frequent mismanagement of global conflict by US hegemony has been, as Taibbi notes, an exercise in managing peace rather than decisively ending conflict. As Taibbi notes, one does not wage war for any other reason than to win by vanquishing one’s enemy. There is no polite, dignified way to do this and better not to start a war than to try to manage it over time.

Taibbi’s forlorn hope seems to be like that of Immanuel Kant, who believed democracies do not wage war against each other, so a world characterized by free democracies would ensure everlasting peace. History has proven otherwise as democracies are just less likely to initiate wars, but they are always drawn into them. We have not seen the End of History.

But this brings us to the suggested salve of multiparty systems, which are somewhat analogous to a multipolar international security system. Multipolar systems rely on configurations of alliances and these alliances must be trustworthy. Allies must be willing to commit to the alliance and absorb their share of the costs. This is a radically different dynamic than hegemony, where the big dog takes care of everything in return for obeisance. It is also radically different than bipolarity, which is what a two-party system is.

The USA is no longer the global hegemon because its leaders have not promoted the necessary commitments from the voting populace, and so the American public has moved away from supporting such a role. Remember, President George W. Bush maintained that we could fight the Afghan and Iraq wars without distracting ourselves from shopping at the mall. In other words, zero commitment from anyone, save those who volunteered to be on the front lines. This lack of commitment to assume the costs of global stability permeates US society today, from national politics to the financial sector to our cultural and educational institutions. It was reflected in President Trump’s desire to disengage from the Middle East. What should concern us, and Taibbi, is how global monetary hegemony of the US$ is destabilizing the global economic system, leading to more conflict at the periphery. US monetary policy, in coordination with the 4 other C5 central banks is creating massive inequalities between US$ holders and everyone else. The elite oligarchs of the world benefit from US$ portfolios, but their citizens do not and they will become increasingly restless and combative. There is no global policeman, so the world will become a more dangerous place in the absence of US hegemony.

A third-party in US politics can do nothing to reverse this trend toward irresponsible national policies in a multipolar world. And a multiparty electoral system is just as unstable as a multipolar global security system. It relies on fragile coalitions that give disproportionate power to minority parties that can tip the balance. On the other hand, a two-party system is quite effective in stabilizing a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-racial pluralistic democratic society, albeit with certain trade-offs. Those trade-offs for stability include resistance to change and political sclerosis. But this is a crucial and deliberate element inherent to the overall design of our constitution to prevent passing populist fads from changing our form of self-government. I would be loathe to throw out national stability for the unwarranted hope of convergence on international comity. Instead, in a multiparty system we would expect the instability of comparable historical cases like post-war Italy, India, Indonesia or Brazil. A global superpower can hardly afford those kinds of risks.

I find Taibbi’s criticisms of our political leaders, our foreign policy bureaucracies, and our military-industrial complex to be on the mark. I sincerely doubt a third party solves any of these problems, but we will never find out because the logic of the two-party electoral system supersedes any argument against it for myriad reasons. Paramount is that national stability is a necessary precondition for good government, continuity, and preservation of the union. We’ve had dozens of third party movements in US history and the only ones that have been successful have been those rare moments when a new party replaces one of the two that has been rejected by the voters. The US electoral system favors reform from within the major parties by holding elected politicians to a higher standard and by removing them from office when necessary. The Republican party accomplished much of this house-cleaning in 2016, but the Democratic party is still conflicted over its future path.

It should be added that to reduce the risks of national politics we should devolve as much power away from the central government back to the states, counties, municipalities and individuals where it belongs. The central government was designed to coordinate democratic self-rule, not overrule.

But what we really need is a much broader understanding of our loss of political and financial integrity. What we need is another Greatest Generation on the horizon that recognizes good and evil and is willing to take a stand.

National Identity as a Force for Peace

The following is an excellent essay that gets to the heart of the current geopolitical turmoil. The basic conflict is between globalism and democratic national identity. Mr. Scruton puts it better than anyone else as to why we live under nation-state sovereignty and why it is a force for global peace. If peace and freedom depend on inclusion and democracy, then democracy depends on national identity and pride of country based on geography (and such patriotism is distinctly different from ‘nationalism.)

Since the article was not behind the WSJ’s pay-wall, I reprint it here in full:

The Case for Nations

The ‘we’ of the nation-state binds people together, builds an important legacy of social trust and blunts the sharp edges of globalization

By Roger Scruton

There is a respectable opinion among educated people that nations are no longer relevant. Their reasoning runs roughly as follows:

We live in an interconnected world. Globalization and the internet have created new networks of belonging and new forms of social trust, by which borders are erased and old attachments vaporized. Yes, we have seen the growth of nationalism in Europe, the Brexit vote in the U.K. and the election of the populist Donald Trump, but these are signs of reactionary sentiments that we should all have outgrown. The nation-state was useful while it lasted and gave us a handle on our social and political obligations. But it was dangerous too, when inflamed against real or imaginary enemies.

In any case, the nation-state belongs in the past, to a society in which family, job, religion and way of life stay put in a single place and are insulated against global developments. Our world is no longer like that, and we must change in step with it if we wish to belong.

The argument is a powerful one and was highly influential among those who voted in the U.K. referendum to remain in the European Union. But it overlooks the most important fact, which is that democratic politics requires a demos. Democracy means rule by the people and requires us to know who the people are, what unites them and how they can form a government.

Government in turn requires a “we,” a prepolitical loyalty that causes neighbors who voted in opposing ways to treat each other as fellow citizens, for whom the government is not “mine” or “yours” but “ours,” whether or not we approve of it. This first person plural varies in strength, from fierce attachment in wartime to casual acceptance on a Monday morning at work, but at some level, it must be assumed if we are to adopt a shared rule of law.

A country’s stability is enhanced by economic growth, but it depends far more upon this sense that we belong together and that we will stand by each other in the real emergencies. In short, it depends on a legacy of social trust. Trust of this kind depends on a common territory, resolution in the face of external threat and institutions that foster collective decisions in response to the problems of the day. It is the sine qua non of enduring peace and the greatest asset of any people that possesses it, as the Americans and the British have possessed it throughout the enormous changes that gave rise to the modern world.

Urban elites build trust through career moves, joint projects and cooperation across borders. Like the aristocrats of old, they often form networks without reference to national boundaries. They do not, on the whole, depend upon a particular place, a particular faith or a particular routine for their sense of membership, and in the immediate circumstances of modern life, they can adapt to globalization without too much difficulty. They will identify with transnational networks since they see those things as assets, which amplify their power.

We are in need of an inclusive identity that will hold us together as a people.

However, even in modern conditions, this urban elite depends upon others who do not belong to it: the farmers, manufacturers, factory workers, builders, clothiers, mechanics, nurses, cleaners, cooks, police officers and soldiers for whom attachment to a place and its customs is implicit in all that they do. In a question that touches on identity, these people will very likely vote in another way from the urban elite, on whom they depend in turn for government.

We are therefore in need of an inclusive identity that will hold us together as a people. The identities of earlier times—dynasty, faith, family, tribe—were already weakening when the Enlightenment consigned them to oblivion. And the substitutes of modern times—the ideologies and “isms” of the totalitarian states—have transparently failed to provide an alternative. We need an identity that leads to citizenship, which is the relation between the state and the individual in which each is accountable to the other. That, for ordinary people, is what the nation provides.

National loyalty marginalizes loyalties of family, tribe and faith, and places before the citizens’ eyes, as the focus of their patriotic feeling, not a person or a religion but a place. This place is defined by the history, culture and law through which we, the people, have claimed it as our own. The nationalist art and literature of the 19th century is characterized by the emergence of territory from behind religion, tribe and dynasty as the primary objects of love.

The national anthems of the self-identifying nations were conceived as invocations of home, in the manner of Sibelius’s “Finlandia” or the unofficial national anthem of England, “Land of Hope and Glory.” Even a militant anthem like “The Star-Spangled Banner” will take land and home as its motto: “the land of the free and the home of the brave.” It is our home that we fight for, and our freedom is the freedom of self-government in the place that is ours.

Liberals warn repeatedly against populism and nationalism, suggesting that even to raise the question of national identity is to take a step away from civilization. And it is true that there are dangers here. However, we in the Anglosphere have a language with which to discuss nationality that is not tainted by the bellicose rhetoric of the 19th- and 20th-century nationalists. When we wish to summon the “we” of political identity, we do not use grand and ideologically tainted idioms, like la patrie or das Vaterland. We refer simply to the country, this spot of earth, which belongs to us because we belong to it, have loved it, lived in it, defended it and established peace and prosperity within its borders.

Patriotism involves a love of home and a preparedness to defend it; nationalism, by contrast, is an ideology, which uses national symbols to conscript the people to war. When the Abbé Sieyès declared the aims of the French Revolution, it was in the language of nationalism: “The nation is prior to everything. It is the source of everything. Its will is always legal…. The manner in which a nation exercises its will does not matter; the point is that it does exercise it; any procedure is adequate, and its will is always the supreme law.” Those inflammatory words launched France on the path to the Reign of Terror, as the “enemies of the nation” were discovered hiding behind every chair.

But those who dismiss the national idea simply because people have threatened their neighbors in its name are victims of the very narrow-mindedness that they condemn. A small dose of evolutionary psychology would remind them that human communities are primed for warfare, and that when they fight, they fight as a group. Of course they don’t put it like that; the group appears in their exhortations as something transcendent and sublime—otherwise why should they fight for it? It goes by many names: the people, the king, the nation, God, even the Socialist International. But its meaning is always the same: “us” as opposed to “them.”

Divide a classroom of children into those wearing red pullovers and those wearing green and then make a few significant discriminations between them. You will soon have war between the reds and the greens. Within days, there will be heroes on each side and acts of stirring self-sacrifice, maybe in the long run a red anthem and a green. Red and Green will become symbols of the virtues and sacrifices of their followers, and—like national flags—they will acquire a spiritual quality, leading some to revere a cloth of red, others to burn that cloth in an act of ritual vengeance. That is not a reason for abolishing the color red or the color green.

Given this genetic narrative, should we not concede that war in defense of the homeland is more likely than most to end in a stable compromise? When the boundaries are secure and the intruder expelled, fighting can stop. Hence, when central Europe was divided into nation-states at the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, the European people breathed a great sigh of relief. Religion, they had discovered, far outperformed nationality when it came to the body count.

In the world as it is today, the principal threat to national identity remains religion, and in particular Islam, which offers to its most ardent subscribers a complete way of life, based on submission to the will of God. Americans find it hard to understand that a religion could offer an alternative to secular government and not just a way of living within its bounds. The First Amendment to the Constitution, they think, removed religion from the political equation.

But they forget that religions do not easily tolerate their competitors and might have to be policed from outside. That is why the First Amendment was necessary, and it is why we are fortunate that we define our membership in national rather than religious terms.

In states like Iran and Saudi Arabia, founded on religious rather than territorial obedience, freedom of conscience is a scarce and threatened asset. We, by contrast, enjoy not merely the freedom publicly to disagree with others about matters of faith and private life but also the freedom to satirize solemnity and to ridicule nonsense, including solemnity and nonsense of the religious kind. All such freedoms are precious to us, though we are losing the habit of defending them.

On the foundation of national attachment it has been possible to build a kind of civic patriotism, which acknowledges institutions and laws as shared possessions and which can extend a welcome to those who have entered the social contract from outside. You cannot immigrate into a tribe, a family or a faith, but you can immigrate into a country, provided you are prepared to obey the rules that make that country into a home. That is why the many migrants in the world today are fleeing from countries where faith, tribe or family are the principles of cohesion to the countries where nationality is the sole and sufficient step to social membership.

The “clash of civilizations,” which, according to the late political scientist Samuel Huntington, is the successor to the Cold War is, in my view, no such thing. It is a conflict between two forms of membership—the national, which tolerates difference, and the religious, which does not. It is this toleration of difference that opens the way to democracy.

Ordinary patriotism comes about because people have ways of resolving their disputes, ways of getting together, ways of cooperating, ways of celebrating and worshiping that seal the bond between them without ever making that bond explicit as a doctrine. This is surely how ordinary people live, and it is at the root of all that is best in human society—namely, that we are attached to what goes on around us, grow together with it, and learn the ways of peaceful association as our ways, which are right because they are ours and because they unite us with those who came before us and those who will replace us in our turn.

Seen in that way, patriotic feelings are not just natural, they are essentially legitimizing. They call upon the sources of social affection and bestow that affection on customs that have proved their worth over time, by enabling a community to settle its disputes and achieve equilibrium in the changing circumstances of life.

All of this was expressed by the French historian and philosopher Ernest Renan in a celebrated 1882 essay, “What Is a Nation?” For Renan, a nation is not constituted by racial or religious conformity but by a “daily plebiscite,” expressing the collective memory of its members and their present consent to live together. It is precisely for these reasons that national sentiments open the way to democratic politics.

It would be the height of folly to reject the “we” of nationality in favor of some global alternative or some fluctuating community in cyberspace. The task is not to surrender to globalization but to manage it, to soften its sharp edges, so that our attachments and loyalties can still guide us in exercising the thing that defines us, which is the sovereignty of the people, in a place of their own.

Mr. Scruton is a British writer and philosopher. His many books include, most recently, “Confessions of a Heretic” and “Fools, Frauds and Firebrands: Thinkers of the New Left.”

The return of the nation-state

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. 

Mr. Lowry has got this mostly right. Trump is merely one actor in this play as national sovereignty and national identity is being reasserted in Great Britain, France, Germany, Greece, Russia, etc. across the globe. Some automatically associate nationalism with interstate conflict (i.e, war), but that is not necessarily the path it takes, especially in the liberal western democracies.

Also, people migration is not the most serious challenge facing the modern nation-state, but it’s the easiest to scape-goat. It’s deflected by cultural assimilation.

Samuel Huntington is worth reading.

The return of the nation-state

The first week of the Trump administration has been a vindication of the American nation-state.

Anyone who thought it was a “borderless world,” a category that includes some significant portion of the country’s corporate and intellectual elite, has been disabused of the notion within about the first five days of the Trump years.

Trump’s inaugural address was widely panned, but early polling indicates it was popular, which isn’t surprising since the broadly nationalistic sentiments in the speech were bound to strike people as common sense.

“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction: that a nation exists to serve its citizens.” Whom else would it serve?

“We are one nation . . . We share one heart, one home, and one glorious destiny.” What’s the alternative — two nations, with two hearts and homes?

“From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” Why would anything else come first?

“We will seek friendship and goodwill with the nations of the world — but we do so with the understanding that it is the right of all nations to put their own interests first,” Trump said.

Trump’s speech was less poetic, but in one sense more grounded than George W. Bush’s call for universal freedom in 2005 or Barack Obama’s vision of international cooperation leading to a new era of peace in 2009. Trump spoke of “the right of all nations to put their own interests first.”

If Bush was a vindicator of universal freedom, and Obama, in his more soaring moments, a citizen of the world, Trump is a dogged citizen of the United States concerned overwhelmingly with vindicating its interests.

His executive order authorizing the building of the wall is an emphatic affirmation of one of the constituent parts of a nation, namely borders. Trump also began the process of going after sanctuary cities as entrepôts of illegal immigration acting in defiance of the nation’s laws.

In general, immigration is an important focus for Trump’s nationalism because it involves the question of whether the American people have the sovereign authority to decide who gets to live here; whether the interests of American or foreign workers should be paramount; whether we assimilate the immigrants we already have into a common culture before welcoming more.

The Trump phenomenon is pushback against what the late political scientist Samuel Huntington called the “deconstructionist” agenda, whose advocates seek to undermine America’s national identity through mass immigration and hostility to assimilation and opposition to the teaching of US history from a traditional, patriotic perspective, among other things.

Huntington argues that until the late 20th century, these elites promoted national unity, as one would expect. “Then in the 1960s and 1970s,” he writes, “they began to promote measures consciously designed to weaken America’s cultural and creedal identity and to strengthen racial, ethnic, cultural, and other subnational identities. These efforts by a nation’s leaders to deconstruct the nation they governed were, quite possibly, without precedent in human history.”

Trump is a welcome rebuke to this attitude, though caveats are necessary:

A proper US nationalism should express not just an affinity for this country’s people, as Trump did in his address, but for its creed, its institutions and its history. These are absent from Trump’s rhetoric and presumably his worldview, impoverishing both.

Trump’s nationalism has the potential to appeal across racial and ethnic lines, so long as he demonstrates that it isn’t just cover for his loyalty to his preferred subnational group.

If Bush was overly expansive in his international vision, Trump could be overly pinched. Bush’s anti-AIDS program in Africa was unvarnished humanitarianism — and will redound to his credit, and the credit of this nation, for a very long time.

Finally, Trump’s trade agenda is also an expression of his nationalism. Trade deals should be able to pass the national-interest test — we shouldn’t embrace them for the sake of helping other nations, or out of strict libertarian principle. But protectionism is, historically, a special-interest bonanza that delivers benefits to specific industries only at a disproportionate cost to the rest of the economy.

All that said, the nation-state is back, despite all the forecasts of its demise.

The lesson is that it’s a mistake to predict the inevitable decline of things that give meaning to people’s lives and involve fundamental human attachments. The nation is one of them, something that Trump, if he gets nothing else, instinctively understands.