saber rattling

Bluster and saber-rattling: effective tools of foreign policy?

saber rattlingMark Moyar wrote a fascinating editorial in The New York Times the other day. In “The World Fears Trump’s America. That’s a Good Thing,” Moyar argues that Trump’s bluster and saber-rattling are effective instruments of foreign policy. I use the descriptor “fascinating” because the article represents a sea change in conservative thinking: the right-wing adopting Trump’s “realism” in international affairs. “Realism” here refers to the school of international relations of the same name, which advocates for state self-interest over everything. In Trump’s parlance, this means looking out for America first while “bombing the sh– out of ISIS” and bringing back torture.

Self-proclaimed experts and right-wing intellectuals have begun to parrot this kind of hardline foreign policy, perhaps to get on the incoming administration’s good side. To recover a just foreign policy, this faux-realism must be debunked. First, I examine Moyar’s unsubtle and inaccurate description of “global elites”, which has disturbing nationalist undertones. Then, I take a critical look at Moyar’s main claim: that aggressive rhetoric is a useful tool of foreign policy.

 First, we must deconstruct what Moyar means by “international” or “global” elites. The argument goes, Obama’s reluctance to act emboldened our enemies and created new threats like ISIS. Obama is a frequent target of Moyar’s ire, so much so that he titled his most recent book Strategic Failure: How President Obama’s Drone Warfare, Defense Cuts, and Military Amateurism Have Imperiled America.

The truth about defense spending is more complicated, and one wonders why Moyar does not apply the label of “amateurism” to Donald Trump, who comes from a background about as bereft of military experience as our current president. The merits of Obama’s foreign policy are up for debate, and it would be foolish to try to exonerate the man before the full extent of his policies in the Middle East are known. But Moyar’s fixation on global elites is worth examining.

Who are the “global elites” whom Moyar obliquely refers to? He alternately describes these people as “the cosmopolitan chatterers of Stockholm, Paris and New York;” the Europeans who cheered on Obama’s anti-war stance during his presidential campaign; and the journalists who dare to cover the anxieties that Trump is producing globally.

It is odd to hear former European diplomats and mainstream journalists referred to as the “global elite”. Surely Moyar, a scholar of military policy, knows that policy is made at generals’ tables, corporate boardrooms, and in the halls of power of the world’s strongest states. Why, then, does he insist upon this fantasy?

Thomas Frank once articulated the “latte libel,” the concept of conservatives identifying evil as those with strange and foreign tastes: They forward “the suggestion that liberals are identifiable by their tastes and consumer preferences and that these tastes and preferences reveal the essential arrogance and foreignness of liberalism” (What’s Wrong With Kansas?, pg. 16). While I am not a “liberal” per se, the point can be applied to the Left as a whole: The image of European, latte-drinking, holier-than-thou diplomats and socialites is a strongly negative image for the reactionary American. The latte-drinkers are weak, foreign, got all their ideas from books. They are the antithesis of the proud, red-blooded American commoner.  For the nationalist Trump voter, it is easier to believe that these snooty suits across the ocean (and in New York, though that’s hardly different in the conservative imagination) are the real power brokers in the world than it is to critically examine our own imperial dominance. After all, it is difficult to claim that European intellectuals are “elite” when the United States’ ruling class possesses the most nuclear weapons, the most military bases, and the most corporate power in the world.

Moyar must know this, must know that his depiction of “global elites” is delusional. But it riles up the electorate towards more military flexing and more US imperialism, which Moyar (a senior writer at the Foreign Policy Research Institute, a right-wing think tank) benefits from.

In the end, his argument about “global elites” boils down to what is essentially a fascist argument: that the United States must break through the soft, phony morals of the philosophizing Left and impose our will on the world.         

Despite this irrational hatred of “global elites.” Moyar’s point does merit examination: Can force projection—leaders’ loud, strident proclamation of national strength through rhetoric and action—be a useful tool of foreign policy? Or, more specifically, does saber-rattling lead to a more peaceful and just world?

Moyar comes from the “realist” school of international relations, which holds that state self-interest is the highest moral imperative in a chaotic world. Therefore morality in the international system is, for Moyar, tied to America’s strength. He writes:

The US is “the world’s most powerful country, and the only one whose leadership can safeguard the world order.”

This world order is strong when the world fears the hegemonic power, the US. Obama’s blunders are to Moyar simply “the latest chapter in a post-1945 saga that has been dominated by international fear of the United States, or lack thereof.”

Moyar then outlines how every successful president (they are all Republicans, unsurprisingly) since World War II has used fear of American strength to intimidate our foes into submission. When we aren’t shouting at the USSR and the rest of the rogue’s gallery, evil forces run rampant. Moyar then illustrates this with several large logical leaps: It was the rhetorical weakness of Jimmy Carter that caused the US Embassy to fall in Iran in the 1970s. It was Reagan’s strength and fear-mongering that brought the USSR to its knees, and so on.

These claims are obviously untrue: Carter’s non-intervention did not prompt the Iranian Revolution. The revolution was a reaction to the 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran, which installed an absolute monarch to prevent leftist elements from taking control of the country. This shocking display of power politics is to the realist like Moyar both strategically correct and morally defensible.

As to Reagan, it was Gorbachev’s brave admission that the USSR’s command economy had failed that brought the Soviet Union down. Gorbachev’s outstretched hand was in fact frequently batted away by Reagan. Contrary to conservative mythology, Reagan did not in fact shout the Soviet Union to pieces.

If the only thing propping up Moyar’s beloved world-system is the harsh rhetoric of US politicians, is it truly so effective a system? And if the only virtue of this state of affairs is to strengthen the US, is it a system worth defending?

Moyar sums up:

Tthe United States must care more about whether it commands international respect than whether it is loved by international elites.”

This argument will become common under Trump, who purports to cut through the establishment’s weakness and indecision. But this argument only works if one thinks like Trump and Moyar; that, as Thucydides wrote in a foundational text of IR-realism,

 “the strong do what they will and the weak suffer what they must.”

If we cast aside this barbaric logic, we open ourselves up to alternate possibilities for the international system. Citizens concerned with the fairness of the international system, and not simply America’s strength within it, should therefore prepare to articulate a broad, humanistic vision of foreign policy. If novelist Arundhati Roy is to be believed,

Another world is not only possible, she is on her way.