When you said “prawn,” I thought you said “war.”

January 9, 2009

I’ve been thinking a lot about American foreign policy lately.  I don’t, normally–I don’t think I have the training to be any good at making positive contributions to it.  But I think I have a negative contribution to make–generally a stronger suit for me.  American foreign policy is strikingly bipartisan and repetitive.  There have been only two American presidents in the last 75 years who neither started nor escalated a war: Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.  I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they both have a problem with being taken seriously by popular history.   Neither one of them was, like, a terrible president; granted, they presided over a really terrible economic crisis (ultimately probably a much more damaging event than the current thing), but it’s not like either one had the power to dissolve OPEC.  (I can already hear the ultra-neoconservative counterargument: Carter should have invaded countries X, Y, and Z in order to break up OPEC and keep the oil flowing to American consumers.)

But it’s basically become a sort of rite of passage for American presidents to kick some ass somewhere in the Third World.  Honestly, how else can we make sense of things like George Bush’s invasion of Panama?  But it wasn’t always so.  FDR was preceded by twelve years of near-isolationism, which he spent a good deal of his second and third terms trying to fight his way through–only to have Hirohito force the issue.  I think it’s crucial that the trend picks up after FDR–that it characterizes the long “postwar era” that we’re still in, more or less.

The root problem with our foreign policy in this era is that we’re looking for analogies with the Second World War experience.  We’re looking for new Hitlers to save the world from and new Holocausts to avert.  You see this explicitly in Cold War rhetoric, in the sorts of things that were said about Saddam in the winter of 2002-2003, in the mainstream narrative of the collapse of Yugoslavia, in the complaints about the lack of an intervention in Rwanda (when there actually was an intervention).

The thing is, well, these analogies all suck.  Nazism was a really weird thing.  “Aberration” is a little strong, but it appeared in pretty extraordinary circumstances.  Germany in the Weimar period was the locus of what you might call a legitimacy vacuum–a state defeated in a war it thought it was winning had a constitution written for it by the parties whose patriotism was trusted least by their opponents, modeled on those of the countries that had defeated it.  And this was just the beginning–the economy was bad all through the 1920s, no stable governing coalition emerged, most of the major political parties had paramilitary wings that sparred in the streets, and then the Great Depression hit, toppling dozens of governments worldwide a dealing a major blow to the legitimacy of capitalism, liberalism, and democracy.  It was a perfect storm for empowering an ideology based on mass repression and total reshaping of the world order.  And this was all a legitimate threat to the whole world, because it happened in the most technologically advanced society on Earth.

The regimes we try to compare to Nazi Germany simply haven’t been comparable.  One major reason in the invention of the atomic bomb–conventional war between major powers just doesn’t make sense anymore.  Leaving aside the case of whether the Soviet Union was ever that much like Nazi Germany internally (and I tend to think that the differences look much smaller from where we stand than they really were), they were completely dissimilar externally; the postwar Soviet Union could never really think about conquering the world.  To be sure, they had their sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, and they could intervene in various Third World conflicts, but that’s nothing special.  Most developed countries like to stick their hands in Third World conflicts when they think there’s something in it for them.

And as for the Holocaust comparisons that seem to crop up in American discourse about every modern ethnic conflict … well, I’m not sure those really hold water.  What happened in Bosnia in the 1990s was not a second Holocaust.  Let’s start with the simple facts: it was a three-sided conflict (at least), one in which every side committed some atrocities against every other side.  Or the fact that it was a civil war.  It’s hardly as though there were an organized Jewish army fighting to establish a Jewish state somewhere in Poland or Prussia, seeking and forcing the expulsion of non-Jews from the territory it controlled.

So … where am I going with this?  Nowhere in particular.  I don’t have my own cogent doctrine about the use of force and its relationship to humanitarian goals, besides a general suspicion that we should use it less than we have been.  This has been just another iteration of my series on how the world is more complicated than we want it to be, and understanding it stays really hard no matter how much you know.


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