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How Far Can Progressive Defense Theory Go?


On Friday evening, InksptsGulliver and I got into a long argument about the appropriate role of ideology in defense policymaking, and consequently of the meaning of “progressive” and “conservative” defense policy.  Inkspots is suspicious of the idea that we should try to characterize defense policy in such ideological terms.  Allowing that grand strategic preferences may differ, Inkspots argued that actual defense policymaking should be thought of in terms of utility maximizing, non-ideological pragmatism (if this characterization is unfair, Inkspots is free to challenge).  Jason Sigger makes a similar argument here. Sigger and ISG put forth what I think can best be described as “good governance” progressivism; the idea that progressive policy thought should be built around the idea of a non-ideological pursuit of good, effective, efficient government, rather than the hyper-ideological approach to government that we find on the right.

I disagree pretty strongly with this, for several reasons.  My own thinking about national interest and national security flows heavily from Arnold Wolfers discussion of the terms in National Security as an Ambiguous Symbol.  Wolfers defines national security as the protection of values previously acquired.  This is to say that when we discuss national security, we have to make reference to the values that are being protected.  These values can include system of governance, national pride, territorial integrity, the control of key waterways, sovereignty, economic prosperity, security of the population from attack, and so forth.

To my mind, ALL of these values are the subject of domestic political dispute.  Not all of them are always in dispute in all places, but all of them are certainly potentially subject to politicization, and thus all are ideological.  States, and factions within states, regularly engage in brutal abuse of their populations, invite interventions by international organizations and foreign powers, invite foreign powers to occupy parts of their country, and pursue policies that economically punish the greater portion of their citizens in order to benefit a privileged few.  When we’re modeling international relations, we make assumptions that abstract the reality of foreign policy construction in order to make generalizable predictions.  These models may (or may not) even do a relatively good job of predicting the behavior of some states in some situations. We can’t, however, forget that such assumptions are abstractions designed to make the model work, rather than true statements about reality.

Consequently, we simply can’t describe a “national interest” apart from the domestic political context that elevates some values above others.  Different interest groups have different foreign policy preferences, just as different ideological coalitions have different visions of the foreign policy good.  There may be broad agreement across societal and ideological groups regarding some ends- few people think that allowing terror bombing of Omaha is a good thing- but these points of agreement don’t eliminate societal divides.  Even in cases where, say, labor and capital both benefit from a particular defense policy (exploitation of workers in a third country, for example), disputes over the distribution of gains take on a political character.  There’s no way around the fact that security policy is political, even if the debates don’t always manifest along clear party lines.

What does this mean in terms of progressive defense policy?  Both the ends and the means are up for contestation, and progressives should think about both in terms of progressive political goals.  Obviously, progressive grand strategies differ from conservative formulations.  Even a progressive “isolationism” is likely to differ in important ways from conservative understandings of the term.  Similarly, ideological and demographic differences will color the means through which defense policy is undertaken.  Many progressives believe that nuclear weapons are simply immoral, and that steps ought to be taken to reduce US arsenals, while conservatives disagree.  Progressives and conservatives also disagree about conscription, among other personnel policies.  Distributive questions are also legitimate targets for political contestation.  Arguing that defense dollars should be spent in a manner that is most economically beneficial to the greatest number is entirely legitimate, even if the stance is in some tension with efficiency or capability concerns.

Long story short, most things are on the political table for defense policy.  This is not to say that there aren’t wide swaths for agreement between defense analysts of different ideological stripes.  Broad ideological and political coalitions behind particular grand strategic ends and policy means are possible.  Moreover, some factual claims about the price and capabilities of specific systems remain firmly within the territory of “right or wrong”, ideology notwithstanding.  Finally, recognition that ideology plays an appropriate role in defense analysis doesn’t preclude criticism either of the ideological stances of opponents or of the policy manifestations of those ideological stances.  EMP awareness advocates continue to straddle the space between liars and fools, and calling them out for such is just fine.  We shouldn’t, however, resist thinking about defense policy in progressive terms because of concern about playing “politics”.  A political point of view is necessary to saying most anything interesting about defense policy, or any other kind of policy.

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