Americans begin to learn, and change our views about our mad empire.

Summary:  We’ve built an empire, but like its British predecessor, it provides little benefit to the people who pay for it with blood and money. Recent polls suggest that we might be catching on to the con, but it’s too soon to speculation about the effects of this change on US foreign policy.

… it is a fact that Kipling’s “message” was one that the big {British} public did not want, and indeed, has never accepted. The mass of the people, in the 1890’s as now, were anti-militarist, bored by the Empire, and only unconsciously patriotic. Kipling’s official admirers are and were the “service” middle class …”

— “Thoughts on Rudyard Kipling” by George Orwell, Horizon, February 1942

Clear world

America burst upon the world in the Spanish-American War (1898), with succeeding waves carrying us into broader and deeper involvements around the world. With each wave our military grew larger.  We have become the world’s hegemon, running a mad unprofitable empire.

The cost in money has been borne by American taxpayers.  The cost in blood by America’s young men (and some women).

Each wave has fought and overcome a deeply-rooted isolationist sentiment. But a new generation has arrived, whose views might mirror the disinterest of the British mass public during the late Empire era. Decades of futile and failed wars might finally have had an effect.  Especially on fresher minds, as shown in this interesting result from “Millennials in Adulthood“, Pew Research, 7 March 2014:

Pew poll: patriotismPew poll: patriotism

Polls show the effects of this evolution of pubic opinion, as in “America’s Place in the World 2013” by Pew Research, 3 December 2013:

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Pew:  Mind Our Own Business

Our hawks screech, learning nothing by our expensive defeats since 9/11, but see that he public no longer follows. As in Condoleezza Rice’s (Secretary of State 2005-2009) op-ed in the Washington Post (7 March 2014): “Will America heed the wake-up call of Ukraine?” The always-insightful Ta-Nehisi Coates gives a rebuttal:  “As Though Iraq Never Happened – The short memory of Condoleezza Rice“, The Atlantic, 11 March 2014:

Condoleezza Rice was an important member of an administration that launched a war on false pretense and willingly embraced torture. … It takes a particular historical blindness to claim that such actions should have no effect on all our crowing over “democracy and human rights.”

War-mongering is self-justifying. If you bungle a war in Iraq, it does not mean you need to sit back and reflect on the bungling. It means you should make more war, lest Iraq become a base for your enemies. If Vladimir Putin violates Ukrainian sovereignty, it is evidence for a more muscular approach. If he doesn’t, than it is evidence that he fears American power.

If there are no terrorist attacks on American soil, then drones must be right and our security state must be effective. If there are attacks, then our security state must increase its surveillance, and more bombs should be dropped.

Violence begets violence. Peace begets violence. The circle continues.

David Brooks gives a more sophisticated analysis than Rice’s straightforward war mongering in “The Leaderless Doctrine“, David Brooks, op-ed in the New York Times, 10 March 2014. Conor Friedersdorf gives a powerful rebuttal in “The Decline of the American War Hawk“, The Atlantic, 11 March 2014 — “There’s been a backlash in the United States against foreign interventionism — but David Brooks and others just don’t get it.” He explains what’s happening.

What Americans are actually sensing, especially after Iraq and Afghanistan reminded them about the limits of military force, is that the law of diminishing marginal returns holds, even if, left to its own devices, the Pentagon would spend without limit.

… Americans who want the U.S. less engaged in world affairs are saying no more than what Brooks, for reasons I can’t fathom, finds “amazing”: that there are limits to the changes that American politicians and soldiers can bring about, and that those limits ought to be obvious to anyone looking at Iraq, or Afghanistan, or Ukraine.

This point is being made with increasing insistence by the American public because they perceive, correctly, that there is a cadre of Washington, D.C. insiders — bureaucrats, military contractors, think-tank fellows, editors like Bill Kristol, writers like Max Boot — so oblivious to America’s limits that they can’t even see the last military intervention that they successfully advocated as a mistake, even though, in that case, the catastrophic results have already played out.

It might be a new day in America — if we put to work our new, more-sophisticated view of the world. The funds squandered on foreign adventures can help rebuild our rotting infrastructure and better prepare America to compete in the 21st century.

Clear vision
Clear vision is power

For More Information

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About our foreign policy:

  1. Mitt Romney and the Empire of Hubris. Setting America on a path to decline., 10 October 2011
  2. Advice from one of the British Empire’s greatest Foreign Ministers, 18 November 2011
  3. Continuity and dysfunctionality in US foreign policy (lessons for our conflict with Iran), 13 January 2012
  4. Look at America’s grand strategy. Why do we believe this nonsense?, 5 March 2013

19 thoughts on “Americans begin to learn, and change our views about our mad empire.

  1. I find this an interesting site to visit. I was initially attracted by a link to the AGW debate.

    As a Brit who sees himself as a friend of the USA, I am always intrigued by your politics although I don’t even pretend to understand some of its divisions, even after discussion with American friends. I would describe myself as a libertarian and believe in things that some would see as “right-wing”, but also believe some things that are seen as “left-wing” and have been accused of both positions on and off. I see your website suffers the same way – I think that is healthy. Part of the trouble in belonging to a tribe of any kind is having to disconnect your brain and accept any crap the Chieftains decree.

    From a British perspective, I realise that the world today would be a very different place without the military clout of the US during the cold war period ( I am 69). I have no doubt that America’s protective umbrella allowed stability and prosperity to develop in Europe since WW2. As you say that has come at a cost to the US taxpayer. Much of Germany’s success post war was built on not having to provide that protection herself. (A bit whiny I know, but always worth saying that the UK did not finish paying the US back for what we borrowed during WW2 until 10 years ago – sometimes it is better to lose a war).

    As for US (and inevitably the UK) involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan I have found myself much in agreement with your thoughts and those expressed by Ron Paul on the subject – whatever else of his ideas I might not find attractive.

    The West is bust and we can ill-afford to spend money we don’t have, nevertheless many countries have much to fear if America disengages entirely from the rest of the world. Already Russia and China are stirring emboldened by President Obama’s de facto disengagement and the understandable war weariness of your people.

    1. “As a Brit who sees himself as a friend of the USA, I am always intrigued by your politics although I don’t even pretend to understand some of its divisions, even after discussion with American friends. I would describe myself as a libertarian”

      My understanding (from, e.g., Wikipedia and Noam Chomsky) is that our use of the word “libertarian” here in the United States is peculiar, and can cause confusion internationally. What I’ve read is that outside the US, without further qualification “libertarian” is usually understood to mean “libertarian socialist.” Perhaps you can tell me whether that is true in Great Britain.

      To most Americans, “libertarian socialist”¹ sounds like a contradiction in terms. American Libertarianism seems to consist mostly of an extreme faith in capitalism as not just an economic system, but the proper organizing principle for society as a whole. Government must protect life, liberty and property.² Having transformed survival of the fittest into survival of the most profitable, they prefer to let Darwin take over. One gets the feeling they support, for example, the repeal of drug laws less because they believe in the right of individuals to seek their own paths and values than because they believe that the sooner the weak and undisciplined kill themselves off, the better.

      A few years ago I was talking with an Australian gentleman. I described American-style libertarians and asked him if that was what an Australian would mean by libertarian. He said no. I asked him what they would call such people. He replied, “I don’t think we have people like that in Australia.”

      ———

      ¹ I often describe my own views as libertarian socialist—so, to be fair, my characterization of American-style Libertarians comes from someone who has little sympathy for them.

      ² Some add that government must enforce contracts, since the other protections take many practical means of enforcement out of the hands of private parties. Others would appear to prefer greater reliance on and empowerment of private security. (We already have a growing for-profit prison system.)

    1. If the past half-century is any indication, millennials will wield effective political power and be taken seriously by their seniors precisely when their values and objectives cease to differ in any politically important way from those of their seniors.

    2. Bryan,

      In 1974, I thought The System was falling apart. Forty years later, I cannot escape a grudging respect for its resilience.

      I did not think we would change the system. Back then I used to say, “Any work within the system ultimately becomes work for the system.” You can’t beat them if you join them.

      Neither did I think there was any sense in revolution—staggering cost with little chance of success, and even less chance that the aftermath would not be worse than what it replaced. Irrational and immoral.

      What I did think was that we would simply work around politics, rendering that whole despicable form of organization and control irrelevant. Hindsight now reveals that as hopelessly naïve. (Then again, I was only 16.) As Lao Tzu wrote two and a half millennia ago, “There is always an official executioner.” We human beings just aren’t capable of getting past authority backed by violence as our fundamental organizing principle.

      We’re going to have to evolve something better than “human nature” before things can really change. (Cue Timothy Leary…)

  2. Another excellent and informative post by FM. These trends seem encouraging.

    The big question — will these changes in public opinion translate into reductions in military funding in the U.S. budget?

    The military-police-prison-surveillance complex boasts a remarkable skill at maintaining the money flow regardless of changing circumstances. The roster of Pentagon tricks (front-loading procurement costs, bait-and-switch with weapons systems, perpetual claims of reform which always fizzle out, constantly crying wolf at every international upheaval, pointing to humanitarian crises and weeping crocodile tears whilst claiming the U.S. mlitary is the only way to stop these atrocities, and of course the hoary old “what’s the point of this amazing military if we don’t use it?”) remains long and effective.

    Personally, I find myself astounded and gobsmacked with disbelief that the Pentagon has pulled off the miracle of increasing U.S. military spending in constant dollars since the end of the Cold War, and managing to convince congress to slash basic domestic programs like food stamps and Head Start and aid for single women with dependent children in order to continue funding useless non-working Buck Rogers superweapons like the failed Anti Ballistic Missile system, the disastrous F-35, the defective Osprey tilt-rotor helicopter, etc.

    1. Don’t know about patriotism, but reasons for backing away from aggressive foreign policy:

      End of the cold war (instead of communist ideology that declares us as the enemy, now we just have lesser rivals who WE declare as enemy)?

      The somewhat unconvincing use of “islamic terrorism” as a substitute? Results in Afghanistan?

      The really unconvincing case for the Iraq war? Results of that?

      Realizing that this is all just a replay of previous conflicts (Vietnam, Russia’s adventure in Afghanistan)?

      Social shaming of racist attitudes (harder to use this to motivate people now)?

      Delayed effects of progressive values propagated through the school system (millenials went to school with teachers who came of age in the 70’s and 80’s)?

      Success of the right-wing theme of “government is bad/stupid/evil”?

      Success of individualistic ideology in general?

      Training since early childhood on how to tune out BS in advertising, applied to elections?

    2. Speaking as a millennial myself, I can point to a couple possible factors in our generation’s lack of ‘patriotism’:
      – Feelings of relative disenfranchisement. Compared to the politically formative years of previous generations, a vote today carries about two-thirds to one-half the weight, due simply to population growth. The less direct control you have over something, the more difficult it is to feel pride about it.
      – Feelings of getting left behind. Whether it’s underfunded Social Security/Medicare, budget deficits, deferred maintenance on infrastructure, foreign policy legacies, resource depletion, etc, we have been hearing for pretty much our whole lives that we will have to be the ones to pick up all the cans our parents have thus far kicked down the proverbial road. Hard to take responsibility for something the last guy messed up before you were able to take over.

      Another factor for me in particular is that I live over on the on the West Coast of the US, which is demographically, economically, and geographically far from the traditional idea of ‘Middle America’. From all the way over here, it seems to me like the Federal Government in DC is all the way ‘over there’. The rest of the country seems to have such widely different politics and culture, that it’s hard to wrap my head around the idea of a unified ‘United States’.
      We (in California) generally care about the environment, about infrastructure, about taxes, and about immigration; exactly the things that Congress has pretty much given up on even trying to address.
      From my point of view, I might as well be sending my tax dollars to a Congress located in London, for them to spend on things that are important to the British Empire, and I would have pretty much the same level of national patriotism.

      On the other hand, I do feel a strong connection with and pride for my local and state governments, which I feel are much more relevant to the interests of myself and those close to me.

  3. Coises – I couldn’t see a way to add a direct reply, must be old age setting in!!

    What does it mean? – Libertarian that is – well I guess there are various flavours.

    I couldn’t describe myself as socialist in a UK context. They always run out of other peoples money. They are good at taxing and spending – not so good at getting the cash in except by borrowing (and the extra taxing of course). Such a view labels me out as “right-wing” to many. NB. the average citizen in the UK now pays 52% of income in some form of tax.

    I think markets are better than central planning – manipulating markets as all governments (right and left) do usually leads to trouble downstream. BUT markets have to have some light-handed, but firm regulation and severe penalties for those who transgress. The way the financial sector in the UK were allowed to overheat the property market driving prices in the UK beyond the reach of hard working people was nothing short of criminal IMHO. The way both the UK government (Labour at the time) combined with greedy lenders to rob the same hard working folk of a decent pension was also criminal. Such views usually seem “left-wing” to most.

    I believe that people should seek to make their own way in the world, looking after their family and friends. AND also be prepared to help those good people who find it harder to gain traction. My mother had half-worn shoes taken off her feet in the 1920’s so they could go to families whose kids had no shoes, and my grandmother was a WW1 widow herself. Like both of them I am a fairly charitable person, I hope.

    I don’t believe that those who work harder should be robbed to keep those who can’t be bothered and just feel entitled to other peoples’ money. I believe that too many people think they have “rights” but no responsibilities.

    1. You can only reply directly to top-level comments. So, to get your reply to follow mine, you would have had to use the reply link under your own comment.

      Indeed there are many political orientations that can be characterized as libertarian. In the United States, though, the word almost always means one in particular. I thought that might be confusing to someone not from here.

      I think views similar to yours are quite common in America; the odd thing is that neither major political party really represents those views. In practice, the Democrats would likely be closer than the Republicans; but most Americans with your views would probably identify themselves as conservative, which in turn is identified with the Republican party.

      If you’re having trouble understanding the divisions in American politics, you’re probably over-thinking it. We’re about as subtle as a drunken brawl at a hockey game. Just remember that we have a continuing series of popularity contests, following which the winners play complex and largely secretive games with the object of enriching themselves and their friends. The only connection between these two phases is that the enrichment games must be well-played in order to obtain funding which is essential to success in the next popularity contest.

      We are the world’s largest banana republic.

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