The Long View: Power, Terror, Peace, and War

I occasionally read Walter Russell Mead, because I find his writing interesting. I don't regularly read him, because sometimes I wonder about his conclusions. For example, the idea in Power, Terror, Peace, and War that American foreign policy under George W. Bush was an attempt to refound diplomacy in a characteristically American way seems plausible, especially since much of this foreign policy continued under Barack Obama, just under the control, and with the priorities, of the other wing of the American establishment. On the other hand, much of Mead's analysis seems to be centered in the now anachronistic Kennedy Enlightenment, which makes me wonder if he is responding the world as it is, or as it was.

I suspect that a marriage of Mead's classically liberal division of American schools of foreign policy into Hamiltonians, Wilsonians, Jeffersonians and Jacksonians, with the biological determinism of Albion's Seed would be illuminating.

Power, Terror, Peace, and War:
America's Grand Strategy in a World at Risk
By Walter Russell Mead
Alfred A. Knopf, 2004
226 Pages, US$19.95
ISBN 1-4000-4237-2

A Review
John J. Reilly


Few Establishment figures are so established as Walter Russell Mead of the Council on Foreign Relations. So, we can probably rely on his characterization of the international system's reaction to the Bush Administration:

“A mix of incredulity, outrage, shock, anger, and despair is running through the foreign policy establishment as many of its cherished ideas and institutions are brushed aside...In the vision of the diplomatic establishment in the United States and abroad, the Neanderthals have escaped from their cages and the abomination of desolation has been set up in the Holy of Holies.”

Maybe we knew that already. The novel part is Mead's argument that the international system was becoming dangerously dysfunctional long before George Bush the Younger entered the White House. He says the Administration can be faulted for the way it executed its major policies, but he gives it credit for at least reacting to the world as it actually exists. That is more than he says for the Administration's immediate predecessors, or for the major international institutions. No one will mistake this book for a partisan defense of the Bush Administration. It is far more important: the first persuasive attempt to describe the post-Cold War world and America's place in it.

According to Mead, the world is being destabilized because the US is getting stronger. The world order is both a system of equal states and an American empire. After September 11, the US lost the balance between the two. Imperial rhetoric created justifiable fears in other countries, but with the result that a perfectly justifiable war in Iraq was attacked as an assault on the foundations of world order.

Mead calls the years between the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 and the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in 2001 “the Lost Decade” in American foreign policy. The American political class chattered about global warming and the distant prospect of a Chinese threat. Washington scarcely questioned the assumption that the world was not just unipolar, but “monothelete.” That's a Christological heresy, whose precise meaning need not detain us, except to note that it means “having a single will.” US policy makers tended to assume the world's only will was the policy of the government of the United States.

These delusions waxed at just the time America's traditional alliances were fraying and disintegrating, a process that the Iraq War revealed but did not cause. Around the world, in fact, there had been a quiet “secession of the elites” from support for the American system. Especially in the Middle East, fashionable American ideas about gender roles and homosexuality became simultaneously ubiquitous and unendurable. A fringe slice of the Muslim world acquired the will and the means to make war on the United States.

There were reasons for democracies as well as dictatorships to oppose American hegemony: more American power is, in effect, less democracy for populations that cannot vote for American officials. Since the end of the Second World War, the US has dealt with this tension by fostering consultative international institutions, but by century's end this policy had created a new arena for conflict. On one hand, there is the Party of Heaven, composed of countries like Germany and Canada, which want to proceed immediately to the universal rule of law under world government. They seek to make the US act within the narrow confines of diminished sovereignty. On the other hand, there is the Party of Hell, composed of countries like France and Russia, which seek to return to a world of multipolar power politics. Tactically, therefore, they insist on the prerogatives of international institutions, at least to the extent those prerogatives hamper the United States. Thus, when crises occur that require rapid action, Heaven and Hell unite to ensure that international institutions take no action, but also to ensure that the US does nothing.

Mead surmises that there is no angel in the storm of American foreign policy, in the sense of a Clausewitzian will. The political system is too shortsighted and diverse for grand strategy in the classical sense. In any case, the way that the US affects the world has less to do with what the American government does or wants than it does with what the US and the world are each becoming.

In the first two-thirds of the 20th century, the US promoted a model that Mead calls “Fordism.” (That's apparently a Marxist term, but readers will be reminded of the ideology of the world government in “Brave New World.”) It was the world of big institutions and intrusive government regulation. Keynesianism made peace between oligopolies and big labor, while the educated classes were transformed from disgruntled intellectuals to non-political experts. It was secular and secularizing, if not quite anti-religious. Fordism brought a measure of mass comfort. It also brought international peace among the countries that adopted it.

Mead does not dwell on the economic reasons why Fordism could not last forever, though anyone who remembers the 1970s understands what Mancur Olsen meant by “blocked society.” Fordism in the United States has not reproduced itself, we are told. It depended on a model of organizations in which power lies in the hands of middle managers. The key to today's world is “disintermediation”: clerisies of all types are shrinking, as information and economic decision-making become more decentralized.

Fordism gave way to what Mead calls Millennial Capitalism, or sometimes “Millennialism” for short. The basis of Millennial Capitalism, perhaps, is the principle that there is no such thing as a natural monopoly. It's not a return to Victorian non-regulation. Quite the opposite: it has called into being a whole new class of regulation, much of it global. However, Millennial regulation is intended to keep markets transparent and efficient, not to mitigate their instabilities.

Domestically, Fordism never fit all that well with the American national character, or at least with the Jacksonian side of it. Mead never defines Jacksonianism more precisely than as “populist nationalism,” though the concept is important to his argument. It has elsewhere been defined as Scotch-Irish suspicion of government. In international affairs, it means a disposition to limit government-to-government obligations, though not necessarily person-to-person contact. Its chief peculiarity is that it does not recognize war as diplomacy by other means: it favors overwhelming force and total victories.

Millennialism chimes with Anglo-Saxon individualism. In America, at least, Fordism is giving way to the American Revival, which is essentially a new form of Hamiltonianism. Revival Hamiltonianism is self-confident in a way that Fordism was not. Worldwide, however, Millennialism is unpopular in a way that Fordism was not. Around the world, state elites hate it, since it diminishes their control of local economies. Below the elite level, many people dread it, because it is a threat to the subsidies on which so much of the world depends.

The Revival has altered the traditional categories of foreign policy. Revival Wilsonianism, like its predecessor, seeks security through the dissemination of American values, but it has an Evangelical's distrust of universal institutions. There has been a shift in the content of foreign policy, too: Realpolitik is now often deployed for Christian ends. This gives Revival Hamiltonianism the hope of someday achieving real popular depth, something that Fordist multilateralism never had.

Whatever else the US is becoming now, the author has little time for the argument that the US is like an overleveraged company on the verge of collapse. Regarding specifically the question of the ever-growing US debt, public and private, Mead notes that the founding of the Bank of England at the end of the 17th century turned England's debt into national strength. The Bank, and the novel possibility of a government honoring its obligations, gave the nation's creditors a stake in the system. Alexander Hamilton did the same a century later, when he insisted the federal government assume the debts of the states. The US government did it again in the second half of the 20th century, but globally.

Readers are no doubt familiar with the distinction between “hard power” (military capability) and “soft power” (culture and institutions). In Mead's account, this distinction is refined to baroque complexity:

“Sharp military power serves as the solid foundation of the American system. Sticky power -- the set of economic institutions and policies – attracts others into our system and makes it hard for them to leave. Sweet power – the values, ideas, and politics inherent in the system we have built – keeps them happy, and hegemonic power makes something as artificial and arbitrary, historically speaking, as the American world since World War II look natural, desirable, inevitable, and permanent. So, at least, we hope.”

Mead defines hegemonic power as “the perception of inevitability.” It is the “harmonic convergence” of all other forms of power. Even the use of military force has sticky and sweet components: the US acts as a sort of military public utility, which means that other states do not trouble to create capable militaries of their own. Mead says this about the harmonic convergence in its Fordist incarnation:

“Descended from and claiming to fulfill the hopes of the European Enlightenment, recognizably related to Marxist ideas of progress, and resonating with traditional American optimism, the concept of harmonic convergence was the spearhead of capitalism in its ideological war with communism and also a key element in willing consent to the American system.”

Americans generally saw this project as successful and laudable, and saw no reason why it should not continue after the Cold War. However, history did not end after 1989. The US is not just a hegemonic power, but also the leader of a worldwide liberal capitalist revolution. The American Project cannot be finished, because in each generation it creates a new world.

President Bush's problem is that he is making the first systematic attempt to refound the nation's diplomacy on the American Revival. Bush's geostrategic model is not new: the US is still defending the sea-lanes and both ends of Eurasia. The doctrine of preemption is not new, either. The novelty is that US policy is no longer Eurocentric. The Administration used deliberately dramatic language to deter the state harborers of terrorism, and to reassure the Jacksonians at home. That effect was more important to Bush policymakers than publicly reassuring the European allies.

The Bush Administration was right to abandon a foreign policy based on Fordist harmonic convergence, Mead tells us. It was also right to abandon Eurocentrism: Earth is simply no longer Eurocentric. Furthermore, foreign policy must follow Americans' intuitive beliefs about how the world works, and those intuitions are Jacksonian. Europe must accept the US for what it is, and a European veto on matters of the first order is not acceptable. Mead faults President Clinton for failing to make clear to Europe how unreasonable it was to demand US adherence to the Kyoto Treaty and to the International Criminal Court.

Conflicting perceptions were at work in creating the strains with Europe. Europe felt itself a rising power; the US found Europe economically uninteresting and strategically irrelevant. Europeans saw the threat from Al-Qaeda as not different in kind from that posed by Basque separatists or the IRA. This was a serious misapprehension, Mead judges. The scale of the violence that the new enemy could enact, and the total nature of their demands, presented the sort of challenge that historically could be mounted only by a hostile power.

The US underestimated the degree to which the French were willing to embarrass the US. The French may have underestimated the ability of the US to remove the French from the roster of great powers: fewer important decisions will be made in forums in which a Frenchman is present. Bush's single greatest mistake in alliance relations, however, was to think of the decline and division of Europe as an opportunity, and not as a problem.

Mead lists three reasons for the Iraq War. The first was that Iraq was cheating on its commitments not to develop weapons of mass destruction. That was a plausible argument, but it was only tenuously verified, and the Administration paid dearly for making this its chief public argument. The second reason, added by the neoconservatives, was the humanitarian argument that the Baathist regime was itself an ongoing human-rights violation, the removal of which would begin the liberation of the Middle East. Mead finds most persuasive the third reason, which is that the “containment” of Iraq was poisoning the region.

Because Iraq never fully complied with the ceasefire terms of 1991, US troops were trapped in the region. Moreover, they had to be stationed in Saudi Arabia. That outraged religious Muslim opinion. Meanwhile, the US and Britain were fighting a low-level air campaign against suspect Iraqi military installations, while UN sanctions were preventing Iraq from recovering from the war. After September 11, the US could not simply retreat from the area, and it could not continue as it had been. There was no other course than regime change.

Ragged as the execution of the occupation of Iraq has been, the war has produced tangible good results in the policies of Libya, Iran, Syria, and even Palestine. Mead faults the Bush Administration for carrying out its policies in a choppy manner, and most of all for being singularly inarticulate. Its biggest single mistake was to fail to prepare the public for a difficult occupation. The better course would have been to promise blood, toil, tears, and sweat. Mead tells us that he has often successfully defended the Administration's policies while abroad. What he finds exasperating is that, so often, the groups he addresses have never heard the case before. The infrastructure of propaganda that had existed during the Cold War has atrophied.

What should America do now? The US must simultaneously fight apocalyptic terrorism while creating a social and political order the world finds attractive. One cannot be done without the other: poverty does not cause terrorism, but chaos does. The US will sometimes find itself in the odd position of pressing unilaterally for basic principles that make universal international law possible. The chief principle is that one state may not promote the murder of the citizens of other states. Eventually, multilateral institutions will adopt this principle, too.

“Forward Containment” is the name that Mead suggests for the strategy to eliminate terrorism. Terrorist organizations must be attacked and harassed at every level, wherever they exist. The immediate goal is to cut links between terrorist groups and states, by persuasion if possible, but by force if necessary. As he puts it: “Governments cannot have links to terror movements; terror movements, unless they change their ways, cannot have governments.” The distinction between “civil” and “military” wings of terrorist organizations can no longer be made; for a state to allow even a representative office of a proscribed group on its territory will not be tolerable. To pay subsidies to the families of suicide bombers must count as an act of war.

Actually, Mead is clearly less interested in the war part of the War on Terror than in outreach and evangelization. For one thing, he says, we need a better word than “Islamicism” for the enemy. He echoes a suggestion that “Arabian Fascism” might be better. (If you want to be very precise, religion-motivated groups like Al-Qaeda might be called “White Fascists,” and secular groups like the Baathists might be “Black Fascists.) In any case, we must clearly learn to distinguish religious conservatives from the former and legitimate nationalists from the latter. Conservatives and nationalists can sometimes be our opponents, but they need not be our enemies. Carl Schmitt lives, it seems.

For a book on foreign policy, Mead's work is unique in my experience in its insistence on accommodating the religious sensibilities, not just of exotic foreigners, but even of Americans. For instance, Mead says that Americans must put the lie to the White Fascists' allegation that America is an agnostic and libertine country. The American Revival is also, at least in part, a religious revival. Certainly conservative ecumenism is part of it, as we see in the rapprochement among conservative Catholics, Evangelicals, and Orthodox Jews. The American system, or at least the author's take on it, is much friendlier to religion than the laicism that the Middle East thinks is an essential feature of the modern West. In America, people are encouraged to use their religious beliefs as the basis for action in the public square; anyone who proposes otherwise is, no doubt, undermining the Republic. Muslims have no experience of government action to protect religious expression rather than to suppress or control it; America has the power to pleasantly surprise them.

Not only Carl Schmitt lives, but so does Oswald Spengler: at any rate, “The Decline of the West” is the only other place I have seen the idea that Islam is a kind of Reformation or Puritan movement. Mead says:

“The difference between contemporary American Christianity and the Christianity of the era of Muhammad developed because American Christians and their forebears came to agree with substantial elements of the Islamic critique of Byzantine Christianity as it existed at the time of the prophet.”

The Ecumenical Jihad just isn't going to work, I can tell you, but it is significant that the idea reappears in this context.

This book has some suggestions for the Palestinian-Israel conflict that are so weary that they might actually work. Mead points out that any plausible settlement would leave minorities on either side shooting mad. If a settlement were imposed, the peacekeepers would just be shot at. The US should be focusing on a compensation mechanism for the Palestinians that would help individuals. If I understand him correctly, he suggests direct payments to persons who can certify a claim for lost family property, for an aggregate sum of upwards of $50 billion. No money changes hands until a treaty is signed, however.

It's easy to make fun of the UN, and Mead perhaps exerts himself not to be cruel. To paraphrase, he says that, in the General Assembly, coral reefs have as much representation as major civilizations, while the Security Council is a retirement home for former world powers. He does say that there would be some sense in almost tripling the number of states on the Council with permanent seats and the veto. That way, on the rare occasions when the Council agrees, the agreement would mean something. In general, though, Mead makes few specific recommendations for changes to the institutional structure of the world system. He says that Bush's preference for ad hoc coalitions is probably here to stay. There should probably be more organizations for specific regions, which would have the focus that the UN lacks.

Part of the world's problem with George Bush is that he appeared to the world in an authoritarian guise after September 11. It was precisely the spread of Millennialism that made that appearance no longer acceptable. Local elites that might have been willing to tolerate Bush and his ways were overwhelmed by populist pressure; the pressure could be applied only because of the new decentralization that began in America. At every point, Mead is at pains to emphasize that it is America's businesses, religious groups, and private foundations that have the most power to develop a Millennialist world that is as attractive as the Fordist one.

The most striking aspect of US history, Mead tell us, is that American governments always thought globally, with an eye on the far side of both oceans. American foreign policy seeks to implement the American Project, which is the goal of securing America domestically within a network of states that share common democratic values and a common prosperity. Latterly, the American Project added to the traditional assumption of the superiority of American ways the nuclear-age conviction that the mere existence of nondemocratic governments is an intolerable security risk. The upshot is that the United States has committed itself to creating an international system in which great power conflict cannot occur. The author is reasonably sure that the interests of humanity coincide with this project. He is nearly certain that the failure of the American Project would be a catastrophe for the human race.

Copyright © 2004 by John J. Reilly

Why post old articles?

Who was John J. Reilly?

All of John's posts here

An archive of John's site