American left isolationism

The recent (premature!) obituary of Noam Chomsky has revived the controversy about his views on foreign policy. For almost his entire life, Chomsky has been a Khomeini level critic of American foreign policy. Against public perception, Chomsky was not a Marxist, but probably the exact opposite: he was the canonical (foreign policy) Anglo radical. 

The core of Anglo radicalism (perhaps since the English Civil War) has been a commitment to activism by its own shake. The Karl Marx of Anglo radicals was Saul Alinsky, and chomskism is simply foreign policy alinskism. Unlike the Marxist, the Anglo radical avoids the burden of constructive engagements, and devotes himself to denunciation. His technique is to show costs and injustices, and carefully distract attention from trade-offs. The Anglo radical is practical, emotional, and to some extent, his work is critical to keep the degree of political mobilization necessary for democratic sustainability. But while the political scientist in me accepts his role as indispensable, I hate it to the bone.  In my short career as a political advisor (for a party in government) I remember how horrible I found the idea of being in the opposition, where the job is pleasing everybody’s ear and making budget constraint denialism. All politics is dreadful, but opposition parties are Hell.

Given the mix of individualism and moralism of American culture, foreign policy Anglo radicalism works well because all US foreign interventions are wrapped in a thick envelope of lies and emotional moralism. Before meaningful international action can be taken, the brutal logic of strategic thinking and the physical horror of war must be hidden from the eye of the American public. It is easy for the Anglo radical to point out the instrumental lies: easy in Vietnam, Korea, Ukraine, or Israel, but also easy in II World War or the American Civil War. To some extent, the Anglo radical (by increasing intervention costs) does useful work at the system level, but his episodic truths always hid an enormous structural lie. Going into details against chomskism is a recipe for disaster: it is at the structural level where America shines.  

American Hegemony

America is the leader of the “Pax Democratica”  coalition (see p. 218 here), and the core of the best international order in human history. The US supremacy has kept the sea open to all and has reduced conquest war from rule to exception. Under the American Hegemony colonial empires were liquidated, Europe was pacified and protected from communism and Russian imperialism, and finally (in the postwar years of the Cold War) globalization created the most equitably prosperous time for Humanity. Even Israel has been restored, so perhaps we are living the Messianic Age.

The lack of US imperial appetite comes from two main determinants, one economic and the other political: 

  • The land factor (in the ricardian sense, that is, agricultural and mining land), that was the main source of elite income is now marginal. Capital and human resources are now the source of wealth, and they are unlikely to survive to a protracted war.
  • Democratic annexation is not in the interest of any government. Suppose Ukraine had been partitioned between Poland and Russia (as is reported Putin offered): on one hand, Russia gets fiscal and human resources at no cost. On the other hand, Poland is a democracy, so fiscal assets come earmarked with electoral liabilities: millions of Ukrainians that would have led the Polish electoral system in disarray. Even an extremely simple and successful case of democratic annexation (the East German absorption) has been destabilizing.

Republican systems (including constitutional monarchies) are extremely efficient in terms of wealth accumulation and military power, but it is difficult for them to form large unified polities (Macias, 2022[1]), being the continental sized United States a fortunate historic accident.

But while annexation is impossible for republics, both the history of Hellenistic leagues and the American Hegemony proves that only the club of established democracies has the institutional mechanisms for sustained international cooperation. Russian and Chinese elites are closed and chauvinistic. No Chinese official would ever consider a good career movement a position in any Russian bureaucracy; crossed investments between China and Russia are tiny and managed in a bureaucratic form. The Chinese and Russian elites (unlike the European nobility or the global capitalist class) do not have mechanisms for international liaison. On the other hand, even Putin recognizes in the “collective West” a unified enemy. 

Additionally, absolute power implies absolute powerlessness for commitment. The Russian and Chinese emperors cannot trust any mutual treaty because no legal nor oligarchic system of checks and balances can guarantee any deal. On the other hand, republics are bounded by law and the permanent interest of the national oligarchy, so they can credibly commit.

The history of post II World War American wars is at best a mixed bag. There are successes (the I Gulf War), failures (Vietnam) and a glorious draw (South Korea). But American wars are intrinsically a failure: a non-imperialist hegemon tries to avoid and delay them. They are like police shootings: what happens when structural deterrence fails. American boots are too expensive for the majority of grounds, and while superior to any army, they are mostly impotent against any truly hostile population. For the US, every imperial overextension, even when justified, is almost invariably the source of national trauma (and high-quality cultural products). 

But at the end, the fat “Pax Democratica” coalition will be always seen as prey by her authoritarian neighbors. Demonstration effects make republics a permanent danger for extractive authoritarians. Adam Smith was very clear in putting security before profit: “Defence is of Much More Importance than Opulence”. The arguments for American isolationism and pacifism are analogous to those for police defunding and similarly based on strategic illiteracy. 

American Hegemony is based on technology transfers, investment, and economic cooptation, but still nuclear and aeronaval supremacy is necessary for the next decades. And America is now too small for her rivals, which means that less autism regarding coalition management is necessary. A good deal of the future American weapons shall be built in Japan and Europe, and other affine countries.

When you look at the American Hegemony as a system you can agree with Lincoln: America is the last-best-hope of Mankind. Literally: authoritarians cannot provide lasting peace, and the alternative to lasting peace is (sooner or later) Nuclear War.


 


[1] Macias, A. , “El problema de la expansión republicana”, Revista de Occidente, Junio 2022. Interested readers can contact me at arturo.macias@gmail.com.

1

1 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:53 PM
New Comment

Crossposted from Effective Altruism Forum: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/vjQ5BhKnDyY35dXXf/chomsky-vs-pax-democratica