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Interventionism as Pseudo-Patriotism

In many of my posts touching on foreign policy and the analysis thereof, I have referred to America's strategy of openness, a trope for the orthodoxies of the American establishment, according to which America, a society from which a cohesive cultural identity has been scoured by the deracinating forces of mobility, the fetishization of economic growth, vapid consumerism, mass immigration, and the failures of statist social engineering, requires a policy of globalization, underwritten by an interventionist foreign policy, in order to avoid disintegrating into a squabbling Babel of classes, ethnicities, interests, and ideologies.

As Prof. Andrew Bacevich was quoted in the original post -

In a society in which citizens were joined to one another by little except a fetish for shopping, professional sports, and celebrities along with a ravenous appetite for pop culture, prosperity became a precondition for preserving domestic harmony. Arguing on behalf of a populist vision of an engaged, independent, self-reliant citizenry, an acerbic critic like Lasch might rail against luxury as morally repugnant, insisting that "a democratic society cannot allow unlimited accumulation." But in reality the prospect of unlimited accumulation had long since become the lubricant that kept the system functioning. A booming economy alleviated, or at least kept at bay, social and political dysfunction. Any interruption in economic growth could induce friction, stoke discontent, and bring to the surface old resentments, confronting elected officials with problems for which they possessed no readily available solutions. Lasch may well have been correct in charging that "the reduction of the citizen to the consumer" produces a hollowed-out American democracy. But by the 1990s no one knew now to undo the damage without risking a massive conflagration.

So theorists, right and left, continue to presuppose that such openness is both a prerequisite of America prosperity and security, and the meliorist key to bettering the rest of the world. The arguments are a trifling over means, not ends; the differences between Sens. McCain, Clinton, and Obama in this arena are mere details, no more substantial than a question of which colour to select for the new car. Globalization, an acceleration of the centrifugal forces which have been obliterating American society, is for the establishment the centripetal force that, deftly managed, defers the reckoning with our own emptiness.

It is not, however, only the occasional foreign-policy scholar favoured by paleoconservatives who has noticed America's systemic dependence upon openness - essentially, the combination of deficit-financed consumption in a stacked-deck economy and the definition-by-negation of the national identity. This latter remark necessitates a brief explanation, namely, that American policy analysts, witnessing the peaceful conclusion of the Cold War, immediately began casting about for some grand organizing principle of American grand strategy. America could not simply be itself, but required some external raison d'etre, some sort of civilizing mission to the wider world; and while this would be defined variously by left and right, Democrats and Republicans, the presupposition of all of these efforts, and most expressly by the neoconservatives (National Greatness Conservatism, which was succeeded by the Freedom Agenda), was that America needed to find something in the world to oppose, to transform, in order to discover itself. It was as if the elites had plunged the entire nation into some grotesque parody of the wayward baby-boomer of the Seventies, drifting aimlessly as he endeavoured to "find himself". In fine, America was a lack, a privation, and needed a foil against which it could define itself, lest it fall to pieces. David Harvey, a man of the left, writes

{Neoconservatism} presupposes distinctive answers to one of the central contradictions of neoliberalism. If 'there is no such thing as society, but only individuals' as Thatcher initially put it, then the chaos of individual interests can easily end up prevailing over order. The anarchy of the market, of competition, and of unbridled individualism (individual hopes, desires, anxieties, and fears; choices of lifestyle and of sexual habits and orientation; modes of self-expression and behaviours towards others) generates a situation that becomes increasingly ungovernable. It may even lead to a breakdown of all bonds of solidarity and a condition verging on social anarchy and nihilism.

In the face of this, some degree of coercion appears necessary to restore order. The neoconservatives therefore emphasize militarization as an antidote to the chaos of individual interests. For this reason, they are far more likely to highlight threats, real or imagined, both at home and abroad, to the integrity and stability of the nation. (Emphasis mine.)

There is little difference, on this point at least, between the respective analyses of Bacevich and Harvey: threats may be conceived somewhat differently on right and left, but the policies will be broadly similar, and these policies will always entail the construction of discourses that sustain the policies, encouraging Americans to unify, not around an indigenous tradition so much as an external objective - democratization, development, the Freedom Agenda, multilateralism, etc. This is not to slight differences in domestic policy; indeed, it might be argued that the conventional routine is to emphasize and accentuate these so as to acquire the power to impose an external unity upon the American people. Even here however, there remain hints of the same calculus, in the national-service ideas that right and left have been toying with for the past fifteen years.

Paradoxically, it is this very interventionism which enables us to grasp why patriotic sentiment is so often kindled by the memory of tragedy, of defeat and suffering: in such moments a native consciousness of identity - which is always a knowledge of difference - is accentuated, elevated to a pitch of sublimity by defeat itself, for in defeat, one's enemies recognize that otherness and circumscribe it by the sword, hallowing it by blood. The openness/interventionist consensus of our foreign-policy establishment is a corruption-by-inversion of this patriotic consciousness. Instead of a love of one's own people and place, perhaps sanctified by the memory or present reality of defeat or subordination, it proffers a tale of embattlement and nefarious doings abroad, trying thereby not to enhance, but to conjure the relevant sentiments, and then projects power outwards in order to forge a national unity which might otherwise not exist. The attempts to forge national unity on the anvil of foreign adventures are attempts to simulate, in the absence of the relevant social conditions, the fundamental patriotic experience. In this regard, our establishment hews to the tradition of the liberal nationalists of the West, who often constructed national states, and national cultures, both under the real or imagined external threats of an adversary, and as means of projecting such power upon others.

It is imperative, then, that it be grasped: our rulers will only defend us from genuine threats insofar as this facilitates the creation of the sort of society they envision, for it is not the reality or unreality of the threat that matters, but the nature of the society and social consciousness that can be constructed on the basis of the perception of the threat. The problem extends far beyond the Western response to Islam; it is a matter of fundamental statecraft and political theory: war, as they say, is the health of the state, and regimentation undertaken to meet an external threat, real or imagined, facilitates other types of regimentation, in the present case the attempt to efface the question of who we are by positing the very conditions that occasion the questioning, this time with force. If the Open Society renders problematic questions of identity, if globalization subverts identity, the strategy of openness endeavours to respond to them with the forceful assertion of that strategy itself. A reckoning with our societal contradictions is deferred by a mode of force, and not answered by reason; and force dictates that we are the people who make the world safe for people like us, in spite of the fact that 'people like us' remains a cipher, and others have no desire to be ciphers.

Comments (2)

For this reason, [neocons] are far more likely to highlight threats, real or imagined, both at home and abroad, to the integrity and stability of the nation.

It has been said by the left time and again that neoconservatives advocate militarism as a form of societal glue, however I have never read one advocate anything of the sort. This is nothing but conjecture with no evidence to support it.

Manifestly, I have imagined all of that neoconservative rhetoric concerning America's loss of a sense of herself when not pursuing some grand civilizing, liberating, and uplifting mission, exhibiting before the world, and imposing upon the world, as a benevolent hegemon, her world-historical greatness. Why, neoconservatives spurn, with cultivated disdain, the notion of a historical and global vocation for America, and all the more so do they distinguish between America's self understanding and the missions with which the American military and diplomats are tasked, such that critiques of the missions are never conflated with attacks upon 'the troops in the theater of battle' by members of a 'defeat caucus'. Moreover, neoconservatives remain virtually unanimous in their repudiation of the theory and practice of the unitary executive, and of the notion that the executive possesses the authority to determine which laws remain laws, and to what extent, during indeterminate states of national emergency or 'military authorization'. Of, course, they reject as well the panoply of surveillance measures and petty regimentations that have become routinized over the course of the past seven years, regarding them as ham-handed bureaucratic evasions of the genuine threat, in the name of a mythical propositional America, and wouldn't dream of questioning the patriotism of critics of such measures. They never intimate, let alone asseverate openly, that certain policies, or the election of certain candidates for political office, will embolden the terrorists.

My mistake. I will exercise greater caution, and redouble my efforts at self-critique, in the future.

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