Questions about Militaries, Foreign Policy, and War


In asking critical questions about militaries and their capacities, we might start by framing the discussion in terms of the central insights of neorealism (which of course is the dominant school of thought in academic international relations, sometimes called structural realism—not to be confused with structural realism in the philosophy of science). I’d imagine a standard neorealist reply to anti-militarist stances might be something like the following:

Surely, the neorealist might say, the most general structure of international relations—being, at the highest and most abstract level, characterized by power distributions and ‘anarchy’—calls by necessity for some kind of military capacity. (To be clear, the security dilemma of the international system—that is, its ‘anarchy’ element—is the absence of a ‘Leviathan’ that can police the actions of states and punish aggressors.) The neorealist might further claim that, even if humans are not in some fundamental sense fated to be especially war-prone, the strategic logic embedded in the international system sees to it that those states that pay insufficient attention to it lose out strategically to those more ambitious and militaristic states that embrace a more ‘realpolitik’ attitude (and who are, for instance, assiduous and unapologetic in informing their strategic deliberations with war games simulations and game-theoretic reasoning, etc.).

A neorealist might also point out that her perspective on international relations does not claim that interstate war is inevitable or even necessarily likely, only that the structural realities of the international system force states to play some kind of militaristic hand, particularly for the purposes of deterrence (e.g., in order to contain rivals; forming alliances to counterbalance a regional hegemon, etc.). The neorealist might (?) grant that the parameters of a given state’s required military capacity—and the extent to which it should correspondingly foster or actively promote pro-militaristic attitudes and ideas domestically (to meet personnel demands and galvanize political support, etc.)—are tricky to ascertain. Perhaps, on average, states—or, more pointedly, hegemons, for example—have a tendency to overreach and hence aspire to or maintain military capacities that are more than strategically required. Here, the neorealist might claim that assessing whether extant or desired military capacity is commensurate with bona fide strategic demands (i.e., being neither insufficient nor excessive) is entirely a (rather complicated) empirical matter.

For example, it might turn out that the U.S. is indeed massively overreaching in its current military capacity, in that it far outstrips the requirements for maintaining its relative strategic advantages over competitors; or, alternatively, there might be a real or merely perceived strategic reason for maintaining excessive military capacity, or increasing it further. If, for example, the strategic rationale for excessive military capacity is merely perceived and thus not an accurate assessment of objective strategic concerns, the anti-militarist could use this to undercut the stated need for extant military capacities (or to undercut calls for expansions of military capacities). (I recall reading an op-ed in an international relations magazine recently that essentially was arguing that the desire to oust Syria’s Assad regime was unnecessary—that it didn’t constitute a legitimate threat to U.S. interests or security (and that thinking that doing so was important was akin to a kind of geopolitical paranoia).)

On this latter issue (regarding the question of military capacity and its proportionality or lack thereof with objectively ascertained strategic interests), one could explore American foreign policy in some detail. Pseudoerasmus provides one such exploration in a historical and economic context. Notice that the verdict of that author is that U.S. foreign policy is far from optimal and rational. Perhaps this putative mismatch is shaped, among other things, by unique cultural attitudes of America, plus a raft of foibles, such as errors in judgment, mistakes, short-sightedness, etc. If American foreign policy is as misbegotten as Pseudoerasmus’ analysis suggests, then one would think that pointing these things out in some detail would serve as a solid criticism of it. Citing actual data that show the world to be safer is also a good strategy to undercut the positions of those who are more hawkish. (Somewhat apropos to these issues— although I haven’t read it—Posen’s book appears to be a scholarly attempt at examining the connections between foreign policy and military doctrine.)

One could also potentially compare and contrast American foreign policy with other countries—e.g., Russia, China, and Great Britain. Here, various questions could be asked, such as:

Are there any foreign policy stances that are common to powerful countries, owing to the putative neorealist logic inherent in the international system? This would be analogous to convergent evolution, whereby two traits in different lineages evolve because of similar selection pressures in their respective niches (rather than because of common descent). One of the classic examples of this, of course, is the evolution of flight in bats and birds. Applied to neorealism in international relations, this would mean that states simply respond in similar ways to the same pressures that emerge from the basic architectural structure of the international system.

Insofar as such similarities in foreign policy exist, might they alternatively be explained by mimicry among states (perhaps, for instance, thinking, rightly or wrongly, that it’s an effective strategy, China copies much of the foreign policy stance of America, who copied many of the hegemonic strategies of the British Empire, and so on)?

Or are the fundamentals of a country’s foreign policy conditioned to a substantial extent by idiosyncrasies? These would include foreign policies influenced by factors such as historical and cultural contingencies, biographical and psychological facts about leaders, etc.

Are there blends of these above possibilities, with the exact mix differing from state to state?

On the matter of both violence and war in relation to human nature, Steve Pinker’s book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is quite germane. In my view, Pinker’s book severely demolishes the idea that humans are violent and warlike by necessity. He develops at length an account of why violence and war have been on the decline throughout human history by trying to identify what the various cultural, social, and psychological forces are that exert these effects. It should be obvious why attempting to understand these forces is of central importance in the ongoing project of reducing violence and war. As they say, the better we can understand these forces, the more effective we’ll be. (Pinker has also updated some of the book’s graphs with data from the last few years.)

(By the way, parenthetical note: A paper Pinker wrote in defense of his book is a revealing look at the kind of ideologues one frequently finds in academe (the philosopher in me makes me say that they’re ‘lacking in epistemic virtue’).

I’m currently inclined to think that militaries are analogous to tools (or, if you like, weapons). How tools (or weapons) are used, and even whether they are used at all, is determined by factors by and large external to the tools themselves (viz., any and all variables that impinge on their utilization). Accordingly, the use, or non-use, of militaries mainly if not entirely flows from—that is, is caused by—phenomena happening within two primary domains (at least). One of these domains would include the nature of the international system (in all its complexity, including the extent to which it mirrors some kind of neorealist construal); the foreign policies of states, especially hegemons; state leaders, especially those with substantial influence on foreign policies (such as presidents and military generals); and mainstream media; etc. The other domain would include public attitudes and opinions surrounding things such as foreign policy and war; who citizens elect to positions of power (in the case of democracies); and grassroots organizations; etc. No doubt there are important reciprocal influences and constraints between these two domains that can be mapped out. And the situation likely gets even more complex once we consider influences that cross national boundaries (as when, for instance, American entertainment agitprop and mainstream media influence political and or cultural attitudes in other countries).

Domestic politics and the larger domestic zeitgeist can also potentially ‘get in the way’ of a state’s ability to act strategically in the international realm. For example, a state’s citizens might not have much of an appetite for aggressive foreign policies (such as the aggressive blood-soaked approach that the US has basically been executing since at least the end of WW II). This probably explains the need to hide the real world manifestations of foreign policy from citizens, or otherwise distort its presentation—all of which, of course, is rather effectively done with mainstream media complicity in places like America. In the case of the U.S. deep state, the smoke and mirrors required to carry out foreign policy in a secretive manner seems by my lights to be an intentional strategy, one that effectively allows for a cordoning off of much of its foreign policy directives. Specifically, this intentional strategy (or so I contend it is intentional) keeps the primary foreign policy directives of states such as the U.S. from being overly influenced by the domestic zeitgeist. All else being equal, we might imagine that states who allow their primary foreign policy directives to be too easily swayed by the ‘whims’ of public opinion are at a disadvantage vis-à-vis states that shield their primary foreign policy directives from such vagaries.

Perhaps the forces that Pinker identifies are (the?) key targets to focus on if we would like to further reduce the incidence of war. Incidentally, Pinker’s book also seems to capture many elements of neorealism’s critics within the academic field of international relations, but without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater; his approach aims to integrate such ideas and develop a coherent explanatory framework.

For instance, aside from changes in norms and other cultural attitudes within societies, Pinker discusses sophisticated statistical analyses of factors that conduce to peace between nations. Such between-nation factors include being stable, mature democracies with free markets and openness to international trade.

Relatedly, at a discussion panel held at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the international relations scholar Stephen Walt (co-author of a certain ‘controversial’ book with John Mearsheimer) raised an interesting challenge: Do the forces that Pinker identifies as having decreased the various forms of interpersonal violence across the span of history contribute to the decline of interstate wars in particular? And if so, how, and to what extent, do these forces percolate up and outward at the level of international relations, making states less willing to engage in wars? Or are there mainly or entirely other forces that have been at work exclusively at the international level, occurring across history (such as the other forces that Pinker discusses)?

Again, maybe militaries per se (and all of their various appurtenances) are symptoms of deeper rooted causes. If the aim is reducing violence, destruction, death, and war, then quite possibly a focus on militaries per se is (at least to an extent) to mistake correlations for causes (to phrase things in statistical/scientific parlance). So far as the role that militaries per se play in their own use, perhaps one of the targets should be to home in on (pardon the military-speak) the very top of the military hierarchy, where top generals and others with influence can be found that exert effects on foreign policy.

Apropos to this point, leaders—and especially those who are involved in making war decisions—have an incentive to become aware of psychological influences on their decision making that are maladaptive. To this end, the findings of researchers such as Aaron Sell, John Tooby, and Leda Cosmides provide important insight:

“[O]ne might hope that the decision to go to war is arrived at rationally, in response to objective conditions. Moreover, it would be delusional in the modern world to think that your personal strength determines—or even influences—how effective your nation’s military will be in a war. Yet our subjects’ strength predicted their attitudes toward military action. This is exactly what one would expect if assessments about the use of coalitional force by the state—an evolutionary anomaly—are generated, at least in part, by mechanisms that evolved for assessing the success of coalitional force by small groups of which one is a member. If governmental decision-makers are like other humans, then their musculature may be playing a role, unconnected from rational evaluation, in their decisions to go to war.”

Of course, there are doubtless other influences on military-related decision making that are maladaptive. So it would be important for such decision makers to be cognizant of them at some level. For example, the psychological literature on decision making in groups—particularly how the compositional features of such groups can shape the internal dynamics of deliberation—also raises concerns in this area. (It is probably wise to take steps to avoid penalizing dissenters in the context of important decisions. Having all of your military generals be very hawkish might also not be very wise. These are just some suggestions to bear in mind.)

A final observation to close with: In the U.S., there’s a certain individual currently running for president on a populist platform that has very much irked the neocons. So far as I can tell, said individual is pro-military, but not an imperial hawk—hence the neocon exasperation. His potential election might be a means for the American public to actually have an opportunity to change U.S. foreign policy in a more dovish direction.


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