the inevitability dodge

In the comments to ED’s post, Roland Dodds writes “First of all, the ‘meddling’ the United States engages in is the very thing any unipolar (or hegemonic) power would pursue”. Well, you might say that this meddling– the kind of military adventurism, aggressive expansion of the “sphere of influence”, and destructive, anti-democratic destabilization of foreign regimes through espionage and support of terrorism– is the kind of thing any unipolar or hegemonic power has pursued. Which is true. It’s just irrelevent to our moral and political evaluation of our country’s actions. Nothing, in fact, is inevitable, we can behave differently than the Roman Empire or the Mongol hordes, constantly tell everyone that we do, and for that reason alone should feel compelled to try. We say we’re the different country, the different superpower. Human morality, in my discrimination, tells us we should be. So lets.

This is something I’ve written at length about before, the tendency of people, when it comes to foreign policy, to argue from some sort of radically different standards of moral and righteous behavior than they would in any other context. So here. The fact that, say, no other child on the playground resisted the urge to walk up the slide instead of climbing the stairs is never taken as exculpating the next child to do it from guilt. Actions have moral content independent of the context of other actors, as I will say again and again. Those who have followed my writing at my other blog will know that I have a hard time getting off of this subject, but it is an incredibly confusing (even destabilizing) thing to encounter, when so many people swing wildly into pure moral relativism when the subject becomes American misconduct throughout the globe.

Dodds’s larger point, where he talks about the successes in the history of democracy building, I’m afraid has more than a bit of non-falsifiability to it. Yes, South Korea is in better shape than many other places in the world, and yes, South Korea was the beneficiary of American rebuilding.  But to say that American rebuilding efforts caused South Korea’s ascension is to make a frankly enormous leap from correlation to causation. South Korea is a country with some enormous cultural and pragmatic competitive advantages compared to other countries. Those advantages would exist and help the people of South Korea regardless of American intervention. Crucially, North Korea does not share in all of these advantages, nor do many of the failed states or dictatorships of the world. To think that North Korea has a South Korea within it, that will flower into being if the ruling dictatorship is removed, is to take part in precisely the rank idealism that suggested that there was a little Swtizerland waiting to be born in Iraq.


Our cultural exports are tools in pushing for democracy overseas, but don’t assume they will succeed in all instances; in fact, North Korea is an excellent ying to the South’s yang. A society can block out and distort our cultural exports if it desires to do so, and thus in North Korea’s case, remains enslaved. I am thankful our nation did not cut off ties with China when they crushed democratic demonstrators in the late 80s; our continued cooperation has helped bring the country closer to democracy than if we had turned from them. But don’t assume such a strategy always works, and the force of the state is sometimes required to make it so.

This is not an accurate picture of the world or of history. To suggest that there is a dichotomy between countries that have access to American culture and are thus moved towards democracy, and those that don’t have access to American culture and media, and thus remain in darkness, is to engage in a very selective reading of world affairs. Indeed, Dodds has made the enormous mistake of eliding cultural and economic Westernization with great democracy or freedom. (Ironically for Dodds’s point of view, North Korean despot Kim Jong Il is an obsessive consumer of American media; it doesn’t seem to have made him any more amenable to the American way of freedom.) China indeed consumes a great deal of American culture; China has indeed undergone some liberalization of its market policies. To say that this represents in any way a movement towards genuine democratic reform is naive. The ruling junta in China is doing just fine, even with Western media and market reforms, and indeed, they seem to have recognized that they can placate their people with trash culture and widespread economic growth and thus won’t have to worry about that whole freedom and rights stuff. Or consider the people of Iran. American movies, music and television are wildly popular in Iran, and yet many people both consume that media and support Islamist theocracy, the suppression of women’s rights and the mullahs’ police state. The idea that Westernization in terms of culture leads to liberalization in terms of rights and democracy is just as wrong and as easily disproven as the claim that democracy leads to peace and stability.

This is the bare fact: the consequences of American interventionism outside of wars of defense, in the 20th and 21st centuries, have been on balance so skewed towards destabilization, destruction and assaults on human rights that it continues to amaze me that we act as though there is any question about it. The number of places that have been the subject of nightmares brought out of American destabilization and manipulation are legion; the number that have had their societies genuinely trasnformed for the better by American military or espionage influence, vanishingly small. Only in the funhouse of American foreign policy debate could a political ideology bat for such an absurdly low average as interventionism has and yet still not have been discredited utterly.

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16 thoughts on “the inevitability dodge

  1. One major point of disagreement here, Freddie. While Western culture exports may not lead directly to liberalization or freedom, they do start to plant seeds. Where much of these exports may be trash tv and pop music, somewhere in that flood will be real philosophy and literature. Somewhere in all that pop culture, you’ll also get some notion of freedom of speech, of these other basic values we hold dear. It may not happen quickly, but that’s not to say it won’t happen at all. Sure Kim Jong Il isn’t “westernized” by his cowboy movies. But the influence of western culture in Iran, contra to your claim, actually has made a difference. The Iranian people are not the mullah-revering, anti-American mobs so often portrayed on the news. It’s a young country and very pro-America in many regards, very modern, very black-market-liberalized. All the more reason, I say, to not bomb the hell out of them.


  2. Well, yes and no– there is indeed a young, pro-democratic, pro-reform internal resistance movement in Iran. And thank god. Two things. One, to call them pro-America, I think, is simplistic. In fact, many of the pro-democracy activists or genuine revolutionaries are also major critics of America, as Reza Aslan has written about before. Second, the best way to support this pro-democratic movement is to leave Iran alone; every act of American influence or aggression, whether threats of military action or the use of the United Nations to enforce sanction, results in an upsurge in popularity for the (already moderately popular) Iranian regime. Which is pretty easy to understand as a matter of human psychology.

    Look, if you want America to reform through example, I am absolutely supportive of that. But that example is tarnished by people recognizing (correctly) the utter hypocrisy in talking about democracy and then turning around remaking the world through force of arms.


  3. I agree Freddie. And by “pro-America” I think I mean, pro-the-idea-of-America, not pro-everything-we-do. Kind of like what I mean when I say that I am “pro-Israel.” And no, I am not referring to purposeful action on the part of America toward Iran. The free market is a better tool than government intervention even culturally. Propaganda will never be as effective as the accidental influence of trade.


  4. “The free market is a better tool than government intervention even culturally.”

    A point that bears much, much more emphasis. Sanctions in my mind have about the worst track record imaginable in fostering liberalism in other nations. In many ways, they usually seem to strengthen existing regimes by giving them a scapegoat for all of the country’s problems even as the profit opportunities inherent in black markets give the sanctions a sieve-like quality even when they are globally enforced (and I can’t imagine anything more purely symbolic than unilateral sanctions). I suppose you could argue that they were eventually successful with respect to Libya, but I’m really skeptical of that argument. And even if you grant that argument, the failures outnumber the successes by a massive margin.


  5. Freddie, you are confusing a few points.

    If you come to foreign relations from a purely “realist” perspective, then you would accept that a state will act as a state does, regardless of the moral character or social makeup that exists within the nation. That was the point of my first comment concerning the amorality of actions on the world stage. If one does prescribe to that worldview, then states will push for more influence and power on the world stage. I don’t happen to subscribe to such a position, and like yourself, believe that human morality dictates the direction a state should take. Your understanding of history on a few points is incorrect however.

    I am unsure how you can say that “Yes, South Korea is in better shape than many other places in the world, and yes, South Korea was the beneficiary of American rebuilding. But to say that American rebuilding efforts caused South Korea’s ascension is to make a frankly enormous leap from correlation to causation.” An enormous leap? I don’t know many military or political scientists who would say South Korea would have survived the invasion from the North without continued American military support. If we disagree on that point, then I think there isn’t much more to say on this.

    Now your second point, that Korean society posses a number of cultural strengths that have helped it achieve its level of success, is a better one. But this doesn’t change the very glaring point that those aspects of Korean culture would not have flourished had it not been for continued American military support (one can make the case that the military is no longer needed perhaps, but that’s for another day). Even as someone like yourself, who is opposed to intervention, surely you can take from Korea that there are benefits to having a stronger state protect a smaller one, and both import and allow democratic society to take form?

    Perhaps there are some who believe that intervention ‘causes’ democratic transformation, something I do not believe. But to argue that a more powerful state can not help create the necessary environment (sometimes through force) for that democratic system to develop seems patently incorrect.


  6. But to argue that a more powerful state can not help create the necessary environment (sometimes through force) for that democratic system to develop seems patently incorrect.

    I find that the number of times this has failed dwarfs the number of times it has succeeded to be a rather banal fact, and certainly, the recent history of the United States in this regard is simply atrocious. But then, like I said, this is a conversation that remains evidence-resistant.


  7. “this is a conversation that remains evidence-resistant.”

    How so? If you mean to say that arguing for intervention is “evidence resistant” while taking the opposite view is backed by a scientific outlook, I would like to know why.


  8. It is my opinion that the historical record of the United States demonstrates that, from a humanitarian and democracy promotion standpoint, intervention has produced far more failures than successes.


  9. “from a humanitarian and democracy promotion standpoint, intervention has produced far more failures than successes.”

    Now there is something we can work with. I don’t know if you ordinary gentleman are up to it, but perhaps a series of pieces each focusing on a specific intervention by the United States, and letting everyone post their points as to the benefits and detriments that it produced. We then could see what it is about each that folks believe were beneficial (tactically and morally), and that may expose where the differences in measuring these operations exist. Perhaps a far too ambitious task, but a thought.

    For while you claim “the historical record of the United States demonstrates” the overwhelming failure of intervention, I see that as history on its very head. While I would surely not get on board with supporting every (or even most) foreign interventions, the equally silly belief that a state in America’s position should only invest militarily in the direct defense of its territory, has unmistakably been proven to be foolish historically, and naive in my opinion.


  10. “We saved some people from genocide in eastern Europe, didn’t we?”

    Eventually, ya fucking late-comers!

    But that’s actually the era I want to talk about here: post-WWII America cut off aid to England which it had sustained throughout the war. Despite the best efforts of Keynes we were pretty much left on our own shaky feet.

    Now this left the country economically crippled, or at least verging on it. The consequence was the fairly rapid collapse of our empire and although it was a mottled affair (Jamaica only achieved full independence in 1962, India had it by 1947) it was pretty obvious that sans massive amounts of American cast it couldn’t be held together.

    But if we had of had the cash still flowing in? I really don’t know! We might still have that land under our control, or else we’d have spent it on British infrastructure. Now as far as I can tell the former is the approach that Israel has adopted (the IDF costs a huge amount, as I’m sure you’re well aware) while South Korea also has a truly massive army, but since it’s not been doing any expanding has had more cash to spend internally.

    So yes, I would take the fiscal materialist line on this. But it’s worth bearing in mind that America only funds countries that it thinks will be useful to it.


  11. We haven’t really saved anyone from genocide in Eastern Europe. We’ve adopted an age old stewardship of a region that needs badly to work out its differences without the intervention of the Ottomans, the Soviets, or the Americans. We are merely prolonging the inevitable.


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