U.S. foreign policy since the end of World War II has been an anvil on which Washington has tried to pound out its view of the future. In general, most of its military campaigns since then – think Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan – have ended in a draw, if that. Yet the drift of history, especially since the demise of the Soviet Union, seems tilting toward more open and democratic societies.
But such changes bring their own challenges. On of them is to tame the U.S. worldview that it is destined to spread liberal democracy around the globe. In his new book, War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History, Peter J. Munson suggests what he believes to be a wiser path for dealing with the challenges of the 21st Century. A Marine officer and editor of Small Wars Journal, Battleland conducted this email chat with Munson last week. He noted that the views he expresses aren’t necessarily shared by the Marine Corps or the Department of Defense.
What is the bottom line in your new book, War, Welfare & Democracy: Rethinking America’s Quest for the End of History?
My book is in large part intended to be a corrective to the driving imperative of our foreign policy.
No matter what portion of the ideological spectrum Americans come at world problems from, their views are shaped in a way by the idea of the “end of history.” We think that political development has a single endpoint, that being liberal democracy.
I’m not arguing that there’s a better endpoint.
Instead, I’m arguing that America cannot get the world to that endpoint in the near term. America needs to be more humble in its foreign policies, more realistic than its current expectation of instant modernization without any instability, and more cognizant of the significant challenges it faces in getting its own house in order.
In a phrase, I argue that America should focus more on being an exemplar than a crusader.
First, the world is undergoing a massive wave of change, bringing rapid development and modernization to more people than ever before. I show that this change is intensely destabilizing. It took the West centuries to progress from the corrupt rule of warlords to liberal democracy.
There is no reason to believe that America can remake the world—or even a corner of it—in its image in the course of a few years. We are going to face a period of intensifying instability in the developing world and we need to understand that some things just cannot be neatly managed, much less controlled. We can’t bring on the end of history by using war to spread democracy and the welfare state (used in the academic, not pejorative sense).
Second, and perhaps more importantly because it affects us domestically and internationally, the welfare state is facing a crisis in the world’s leading democracies. This defies the notion that history is teleological—marching toward a determined end point. It would be no surprise, however, to the ancients who saw all governments as fallible and saw history as more of a cyclical thing.
The welfare state, if we get away from our current, ideologically charged conception, was intended to be a safety net for the old, the infirm, and those who lost their jobs as the market went through its cycles of creative destruction. It was also meant to provide the public goods such as education, infrastructure, and the like, that underpin a successful capitalist economy.
The welfare state boomed throughout the developed world after World War II for a number of reasons, not least of which was the fact that it was a way of collectively insuring against the vagaries of the international markets and of freeing up savings (which no longer had to be hoarded against a rainy day) to be used for investment and consumption.
As the ancients, specifically Plato, would have expected, all systems become corrupted into impure forms if not constantly tended.
A great number of distortions have been legislated into all our welfare systems. More fundamentally, though, great demographic and social changes portend a real crisis of the welfare state.
Demographically, many leading states are facing shrinking populations and a growing ratio of pensioners to workers, threatening to bankrupt the system. The atomization of society, too, is impairing the collective action needed to keep not only the welfare state, but the capitalist economy writ large functioning rationally.
Finally, the growth of large structural and wealth imbalances within and between states further impairs the smooth working of our economic and financial systems. If these phenomena are not addressed with a sense of urgency, there is no way that America and her allies can expect to lead a changing world by example, much less solve every crisis around the world.
Is the human race doomed to perpetual warfare?
Santayana wrote that only the dead have seen the end of war, and unfortunately I agree.
While there will be periods of peace, war is not going to disappear forever.
The world and prosperity within it are always changing. Some people benefit from these changes and want to accelerate them, some people will lose from change and defend the status quo.
When political institutions cannot adjust to the changing times and bring these camps to accommodation, violence will seem to be the only way ahead for some: as Clausewitz stated, the continuation of politics by other means.
When do these other means come to be seen as an option? For powers defending the status quo, usually only when there seems to be no other option. For powers seeking to change the status quo, war becomes an option when the reward seems to outweigh the risk. This is more likely to happen when the international power structure is in flux, which is what we see now.
We are trending toward what international relations theorists call “unbalanced multipolarity.” In this environment, opportunistic states may think that they can gain more out of a quick war than they might lose.
There is another factor, though, that is perhaps more dangerous than the pure power motives—however calculated and unpredictable they may be. Ideology and the belief that only a certain group of people knows the right path to utopia has long been an aggravating factor in conflict.
While novelist Milan Kundera was talking about internal politics, his quote illuminates foreign policies as well: “The criminal regimes were made not by criminals but by enthusiasts convinced they had discovered the only road to paradise. They defended that road so valiantly that they were forced to execute many people.”
Will wars shrink as prosperity spreads? Why or why not?
I think that wars will continue to cyclically contract and expand as prosperity contracts and expands, just as has always happened. Today, we have a number of phenomena going on.
Prosperity is rising in the developing world, but very unequally within and between states.
The combination of rapid modernization and growing inequality—or corruption that seems to funnel benefits only a certain sector of the population—is intensely destabilizing.
The Arab Spring and the increasing conservatism in many Arab countries are excellent examples of this. Society is changing rapidly, an economic boom was only benefitting elites, and a sector of the population buffeted by change and not realizing any gains was fed up.
What is more, as the shine of democracy has been tarnished by events there, conservative Islam is a very attractive rock in the storm for some. The issues and divisions in society and economy there are much deeper than even the most perfectly executed election and constitution could solve. These things will take time and impatience will lead to violence. Looking at the history of western state formation, this should be no surprise.
As prosperity spreads and global inequality between individuals begins to decline, the relative wealth will have to track closer to the demographic trends of the world.
This means that wealth is flowing from West to East.
This is an epochal change that is taking place before us. Leading states will want to defend the status quo, while rising states will want to change it.
This will bring growing tension between the two camps, which we are already seeing. If they cannot come to an accommodation on the shape of international institutions and policies to reflect the new social and economic realities then they are likely to come to blows.
Depending on other aggravating factors, such a conflict at some point in the future could be a big and nasty as any in our history.
Finally, I don’t think that the prosperous western world is beyond a descent into enmity once again. As fortunes change and nations withdraw into xenophobic and insular shells, the chances of conflict grow. The threat, however distant, of war returning to Europe seems less far-fetched to me now than it did five years ago.
Is U.S. foreign policy too ambitious? Not ambitious enough?
A senior mentor of mine sometimes paraphrases the German general Rommel, who categorized officers as smart or stupid and ambitious or lazy.
He avowed that stupid and ambitious officers were dangerous and to be gotten rid of.
While America’s foreign policy elite is generally made up of extremely smart people, some of our policies in the past decade have been stupid and ambitious and have turned out to be dangerous.
We have had extremely ambitious ends—in essence to remake entire societies, governments, and even regions of the world—but our ways and means (boiled down to war and elections-as-democracy) have been poorly thought through and haphazardly resourced and executed.
I argue that building the institutions and consensus within a state that are required to underpin democracy take a great deal of time; far more than the American public is willing to devote.
So, if we are not interested in taking a neocolonial level of involvement in shepherding states down the road we want them to take—and I don’t believe we should become involved to that level—then we must take a far more humble approach to what we can accomplish in intervening other states’ transitions.
As I said, I think that most people involved in creating policy are incredibly smart. I think that our institutions, processes, and politics are nearly certain to aggregate all the smart inputs into severely suboptimal policies.
We shouldn’t fall for lessons of how we could “do it better next time,” because we haven’t done it better next time. Unless the nation feels the sword of Damocles hanging over it, threatening its very existence, we do not have the focus to carry through on incredibly costly, difficult, and drawn out interventions.
Based on this, I argue that the U.S. should return to a role of exemplar, rather than crusader. We have to get our own house in order and lead by example, while realizing that we cannot right every wrong around the world.
Do U.S. responses to foreign-policy challenges tilt too much toward military solutions?
I do agree with the aphorism that if you only have a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. America’s military is a massive organization with incredible capabilities that even in the midst of an unpopular war was able to recruit many of the country’s best and brightest into its ranks.
In contrast, the State Department, lacking any constituency, tends to be under-resourced.
These and other agencies are often unable to work together coherently and to do the detailed planning and coordination needed to make for a more refined palette of viable options. Just because the military can do something, it doesn’t mean that it should.
There have been a number of suggestions about how the interagency response capability can be improved. These range from efforts to improve coordination and cooperation—a sort of Goldwater-Nichols Act (which was meant to improve jointness between the military services)—to calls to improve the resources allocated to the State Department and other agencies.
I do agree that we should do something of the sort, but I also believe we simply need to realize that military force does not have all the utility we want to ascribe to it, and we do not have the capabilities to remake the world, or even a corner of it.
Is the era of major wars between nation states over, basically?
I think that an era of major wars between nation-states ended in the 20th Century. I am confident that there is another era of major wars between nation-states looming somewhere on the horizon.
Clausewitz insinuated and the military theorist Hans Delbrück elaborated on the point that warfare has waxed and waned between limited and total poles, or wars of attrition and annihilation as Delbrück labeled them.
Periods of limited wars have been far more prevalent than periods of total war throughout history. We are now in an era of limited wars.
It is entirely possible that states will once again feel the imperative to seize or defend interests with major wars.
Everyone is currently looking at China as a potential aggressor.
I don’t discount this, but not for the commonly cited reasons. I think China will be most dangerous when it comes to realize that it is facing a limited window of opportunity when the launch curve of its economy begins to intersect with the declining and aging curve of its population. This could be a dangerous time.
There are lower-probability and higher-risk possibilities, however. As noted above, I don’t discount the possibility of the return of war to Europe if the welfare state crisis is not dealt with and economic catastrophe ensues.
In your 15 years as a military officer, what operation or campaign in which you were involved do you think was the most successful? Why? The least?
While it was not a major operation, I think the most successful one I was involved in was the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s (MEU) limited involvement in Liberia in 2003.
The Liberians had mostly fought themselves out, a regional security organization helped to broker a peace, a regional force deployed to help enforce it, and the United Nations backed it up. The U.S. made a limited show of force and support for the regional solution by putting the MEU off the coast. I don’t think we should become isolationist, but I think that we do need to take a step back and let regional states take the lead on these things to the maximum extent possible.
As for the least successful, I am too close to that experience to comment dispassionately on it.
Why should readers care about what a mid-career Marine officer thinks?
A fair question.
I am sure that some people won’t care what a mid-career Marine officer thinks. I think the implication for some may be that a mere major in the Marine Corps can’t have the perspective and understanding needed to take on these topics.
Perhaps not, but then again people with far weightier credentials have had a heavy hand in precipitating the many domestic and foreign policy woes we face today. People listened to them and look where we are. Maybe it is time to open up our aperture a bit.
People will read my suggestions and opinions and they can take or leave them, just as they would with any book. I am confident, however, that they will learn a great deal from the well-documented research that went into the book even if they don’t agree with all of my analysis. I wrote this book for the same reasons that I wrote my first book. I wanted to learn something specific about the world and found that the book I wanted didn’t exist. So I read a great many things and distilled them in my own way with my own argument.
That is another reason that readers should care about what I think. This is solely my argument, shaped by my experiences and my studies. I am not beholden to any think tank or university and its funders. I did not write this under the supervision of another scholar. I did not write this after 30 or 40 years of socialization within a given organization. For all of these reasons, readers may find it to be a different point of view that helps them to arrange their thoughts in a different way.
As for the military, I’ve been a bit of a contrarian in that organization as well, and concerns over promotion or retention had no effect on my thoughts in the book.
In fact, I have tendered my resignation and will be leaving this summer after 16 years of service to follow my own prescription.
In the book’s introduction, I tell the story of the end of a few hours of volunteering at my daughter’s school when her teacher told the class that I was a Marine officer headed to Afghanistan the next week.
“A nation does not survive,” he told them, “without men like that.”
A nation surely needs a strong defense, but the military itself creates nothing worth defending, and wars only consume lives, resources, and hope. I’m excited to move into a new phase where I’m part of creating something worth defending.