The United States:
A Liberal Defense in Defense of Liberalism
By Steven R. Ekovich
America, as the English philosopher John Locke said, was born liberal. Without entering the debate among American historians over the verity of this claim, it may nevertheless be said that liberalism (in the European meaning of the term which views both the American Democratic and Republican parties as "liberal") has always prevailed over challenges mounted by other ideologies. The specificity of American civil-military relations, of the place of the defense establishment in government, has been profoundly and enduringly shaped by American liberalism. It may be said with only slight exaggeration that the American knows only liberalism. This is the essence of what is called "American exceptionalism"-- the historic absence of feudalism and its political institutions and its social classes, including a military class. The soul of American politics is the soul of the middle class. It is only another slight exaggeration to say that even the working class carries the middle-class soul. The struggle for power in America has nearly always been fought on liberal ideological terrain, with liberal values expressed through liberal institutions. It is curious for an American to hear a French president make the ritual pronouncement at the end of a solemn speech to the nation: "Vive la république, vive la France!" A liberal republic is so deeply a part of American civilization that for an American president to declare "Long live the republic!" would seem to be a droll statement of the obvious.
WAR OR TRADE?
One striking characteristic of historic liberalism, especially its American variant, was a deep suspicion, even hostility to the military profession. Most of the American founders believed that standing armies in time of peace are inconsistent with the principles of republican government, dangerous to the liberties of a free people, a threat to economic prosperity, and generally transformed into tools of despotism and therefore a threat to peace. Permanent, professional armies only served the sport of kings, not the interests of citizens. War was a regal atavism. The American founders, borrowing from Adam Smith and the Scottish Enlightenment, believed that "civilized nations" were those that engaged in trade, not war.
Of course commerce and war have not always been antagonists. The great American military strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan saw at the turn of the last century that political, commercial, and military needs "are so intertwined that their mutual interaction constitutes one problem." Having won control of the sea a navy can advance its nation's economic power by keeping open its access to the resources of the world, while strangling the enemy economy. Mahan brought together the commercial tradition with the military-territorial tradition by saying that ultimately "War is not fighting, but business." But this is not to say that Mahan's synthesis dominates the thinking of American business leaders. On the contrary, business pacifism has had a long and powerful influence in America. This is due partly to the moralism of the Protestant ethic which practically worships work and economic productivity and views war's destruction as wasteful and evil. For American business leaders, trade does not need to follow the American flag, it follows the lowest prices and the highest productivity. In business, patriotism may even hurt the bottom line. Here, the logic of the commercial state collides with the logic of the military-territorial state.
TWO NON-LIBERAL MILITARY TRADITIONS
The American commercial tradition has not gone unchallenged, however. Two other cultural traditions have opposed and transformed it. One stems from a non-liberal conservatism of American New England elites, expressed in the 18th century by the political party called the "Federalists." The other American source of military professionalism came from the southern states, who would later secede and provoke a terrible civil war.
The basic values of the Federalists closely resembled those of the aristocratic military ethic. They did not abhor power politics and played the game with enthusiasm and considerable finesse. But even though they stressed the need for a professional military force, they were not clear on what kind it should be and how to build it. But the military ethic of the Federalists weakened early in America and was revived only when a professional military became indisputably necessary and culturally feasible, particularly during the Cold War. The most important source of the Southern military tradition was a romantic fascination with the ideals of the English gentlemen and the manners and customs of medireview knighthood, of chivalry and the martial arts. The slaveholding South was "feudal" to the extent it was politically dominated by large agricultural estates and lacked commercial and industrial opportunities. It was a sort of non-liberal island in a liberal society. Throughout the half century before the Civil War, Southerners dominated the principal positions of leadership in military affairs and afterwards maintained a strong influence in them.
THE IDEAL OF THE CITIZEN SOLDIER
The American fear of a professional army lead to the creation of institutions that still influence civil-military relations. First of all, defense was to be assured in the first resort by local, state militias composed of citizen soldiers. The military ideal in the American mind is the legend of Cincinnatus, who set aside his plow to save the republic, and once that job was done laid down his sword and returned to his plow. The purely American version is the "Minute Man" of the War for Independence. Military defense, like suffrage, was to be the responsibility of every citizen. The ethic of the citizen-soldier helps to explain why, despite the traditional American antipathy to the professional soldier, several military heroes have become president. These military heroes have either not been professional soldiers, or if they were they abandoned the trappings of their military careers before running for office and while serving in it. Presidents who were formerly high-ranking officers do not wear the paraphernalia of their former rank and military accomplishments. In fact, when they visit the troops and put on military garb, they wear it without any insignia of rank -- bringing the president of the United States full circle to the lowest ranking soldier in terms of military dress.
The tradition of local militias has been transformed into today's institution of the National Guard -- a part-time citizens' army which is under the control of each state of the union and the national government in time of peace and can be put under exclusive national control in time of war. Just as American federalism is supposed to keep government close to the people, the National Guard is also supposed to keep defense and the military establishment close to the people. Of course, since the eighteenth century, and especially since World War II, the U.S. has created a large, highly professional permanent national military.
SHARED WAR POWERS
Other enduring consequences of the fear of a professional military is the primacy of civilian control over the military and the sharing of the war power in the Constitution between the President and the Congress. The legislature raises the army, funds it, and declares war-- the executive branch makes war. The highest military distinction is, after all, the Congressional Medal of Honor. However, the last war that was constitutionally declared by the Congress was World War II, an indication of changed international circumstances and a transformed relationship of Americans to their military. The war power is further shared within the executive branch between the President, his civilian department secretaries, and the professional military leadership. But the power-sharing arrangement is even more complex.
The Framers of the Constitution made Congress and the president independent of each other, drawing authority from separate clauses of the Constitution and acquiring power and influence from separate constituencies through different systems of election. The Constitution, however, also provides for a sharing of functions. The Congress is given some executive functions and the president some legislative ones. The Congress carries out its responsibilities in its committees. As Woodrow Wilson put it in his study of government before becoming president: "The Congress at work is Congress in its committees." All interest groups hoping to advance their agendas must have good relations with committees and their professional staffs. This is certainly the case for one of the most powerful interest groups in the United States, the military establishment. Most contact between the military and both houses of Congress is via the committees specifically charged with defense, foreign policy, intelligence and appropriations (the military budget is the most important annual contact between the military and the Congress). However, because of the complexity of today's military affairs and their imbrication with all other economic and social activities, the military must lobby many other committees that may have only an indirect relation to military affairs, bringing the military into policymaking and democratic politics in general, although largely in a nonpartisan fashion. The military, then, must also lobby the people's representatives. The military is a powerful interest group not only because it controls a large budget, but also because it has an enormous constituency which votes, and not just soldiers in uniform, but also the vast numbers its of civilian employees and their families. In some congressional districts military spending and employment are vital to the local economy. Added to this kaleidoscope of the fragmentation of power is the relative independence of each branch of the military, the army, the navy and the air force -- leading to inter-branch competition and rivalry.
FOR WAR, AGAINST MILITARISM
But even though American civil-military relations were born out of a fear of the professional soldier and an idealization of commercial rather than military endeavor, the American mind is not completely against war. Or rather, as the American political scientist Samuel Huntington has put it: "The American tends to be an extremist on the subject of war: he either embraces it wholeheartedly or rejects it completely."
The pacifist current in American thought has been strong. The total rejection of war accords with the liberal view that men are rational and that consequently they should be able to arrive at a peaceable solution of differences. All that is needed is the proper institutions and proper education. For example, after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the Americans put into place a strategy to re-socialize Germany to liberal democracy. The democratization plan was not limited to the construction/reconstruction of democratic institutions. The intention was also to create new democratic citizens by reforming the vectors of political socialization such as the media, political parties, the educational system and other organs of civil society. The goal was to lay a solid foundation of democratic values upon which a stable liberal democratic regime could be raised.
In order for Americans to embrace war they must see it as an idealistic crusade on behalf of universal principles such as democracy, self-determination, the rule of law, freedom of the seas. Just as there has been an enduring suspicion of the professional soldier, there has been a rejection of using war only for the purpose of advancing raison d'état. Americans may agree with Clausewitz in the abstract that war can be the continuation of politics by other means, a rational instrument of the state, but they do not want to see their wars reduced to only this. This makes sense from the perspective of liberal ideology, which asserts the rights of the individual against the state. Preoccupied with the defense of the individual against the state, liberalism finds it difficult to justify the conflict of one state against another strictly for raison d'état and the advancement of state power. Alexis de Tocqueville believed that countries like the U.S. would not be very good at traditional diplomacy and its inherent resort to force because the requirements of diplomacy (secrecy, agreements limited to elites, the display and exercise of unconstrained power) were at odds with the principles of democracy.
FAR FROM FOREIGN THREATS
Another reason the American variety of liberalism has found it difficult to accord to the state a pure security function was that for most of its history the United States simply did not face serious foreign threats. With the exceptions of the War of Independence and the War of 1812 the United States has never had to fight a foreign power on American soil. The witty Jules Jusserand, French Ambassador in Washington from 1902 to 1925, once quipped that America was blessed among the nations: "On the north, she had a weak neighbor; on the south, another weak neighbor; on the east fish; on the west fish." America's historic isolation from external danger has consistently injected into its foreign policy a strong current of isolationism. It is really in the twentieth century, and especially its second half, that America has viewed its defense, and the defense of its values, as including Europe. Only after the U.S. and its army finished two European wars on the side of democracy did it accept to play a permanent international role, backed up by its military.
America's liberal ideology and its geostrategic isolation have tempted it to merge foreign policy and domestic policy, to treat international problems in the same terms as domestic policy, to project and internationalize American values and institutions. The goal of Woodrow Wilson after World War I was to construct a stable world order of liberal-capitalist internationalism, at the center of the global ideological spectrum, safe from both the threat of the reactionary right and the revolutionary left. Wilson, in short, wanted the world to look like America, to embrace America's values and institutions. Such a Wilsonian world would be free, prosperous and at peace. To be called a Wilsonian today is to be considered a naive idealist. This charge usually comes from "realists" who believe in the legitimacy of pure raison d'état and the struggle for power for the sake only of power. The realist position was reinforced by the advance in military technology that tore down the geographic barriers to American safety. But realism and realpolitik are nevertheless considered European imports and basically un-American. Americans want their wars to be fought for higher purposes than simply the aggrandizement of power and the addition of new territory. They prefer their military to wage wars against militarism.
OF, BY, AND FOR THE PEOPLE
The American military knows that if it loses the support of the public and its representatives a war cannot be successfully pursued. This was the central lesson of the American failure in Vietnam. As the former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara says in his memoirs -- which provoked a lot of debate -- the military and the executive branch did not adequately explain and inform the public and the Congress about the conduct of the war. This led to an erosion in the American people's faith in the integrity of their government and their leaders, both military and civilian. A succeeding Secretary of Defense, Caspar Weinberger, drew lessons from the Vietnam debacle and defined, in what became known as the Weinberger Doctrine, the major criteria that should be applied before committing U.S. conventional forces to combat. Among these are, citing Weinberger:
--"The U.S. government should have some reasonable assurance of the support of the American people and their elected representatives in the Congress."
--"Sustainability of public support cannot be achieved unless the government is candid in making clear why our vital interests are threatened, and how, by the use, and only by the use of American military forces, we can achieve a clear, worthy goal. The American people will not sit by and watch U.S. troops committed as expendable pawns on some grand diplomatic chessboard."
--"The commitment of U.S. forces to combat should be a last resort -- only after diplomatic, political, economic and other efforts have been made to protect our vital interests."
The alienation of the military from the American public because of Vietnam led to an strenuous, and largely successful effort by the next generation of officers to rebuild military morale and reconcile the American people with their military. General Colin Powell extended the Weinberger doctrine to include the provisos that in any future combat the U.S. military must give itself overwhelming force in order to achieve quick and decisive victory with a minimum of casualties. After Vietnam, the U.S. military is not the only to recognize that high casualties undermine public support. All elements of the Weinberger doctrine, as well as what has come to be known as the Powell Doctrine, were adhered to in the Gulf War and the War in Kosovo. It should be noted that General Powell, the current Secretary of State, is one of the most popular political figures in America today.
LIBERAL PEACE OR LIBERAL WAR?
The dominance of the commercial logic over the logic of war has grown since the end of the Cold War. It has become commonplace to remark that geo-economic strategy has taken precedence over geo-political strategy. It is no longer the policy of the United States to contain an ideological, politcal and military threat. President Clinton's strategy of "Democratic Enlargement," for example, aimed to increase the numbers of liberal democracies, not just because such an increase would extend and defend American values, and not only because liberal democracies make good trading partners, but because liberal democracies have never made war against each other. The extension of liberal democracy, therefore, is increasingly seen as having a vital security dimension. And once again we find here the American desire to fuse domestic policy and foreign policy. As Bill Clinton used to say, perhaps too often for his critics, there is no difference between foreign policy and domestic policy. In an interdependent world of information-processing economies, all policy areas tend to be fused, be they foreign policy, trade policy, fiscal policy, education policy, defense policy, etc.
In any case, regardless of how far the democratization of the world goes in assuring American security, as long as a liberal democratic United States maintains a liberal democratic military, as long as U.S. forces are used as a last resort only after diplomatic, political, economic and other efforts have been made, and as long as the American public and its representatives understand and support military intervention in terms of both American interests and ideals, the bedrock of military engagement, morale, will always be on the side of the United States -- even in the face of the prospect of battlefield casualties.