"All these mournful laments for our dead (or dying) republic remind me of a scene from Robert Graves’ Claudius the God. Claudius has hatched a plot to send his son, Britannicus, into exile, from which he will someday emerge to overthrow the evil Nero and restore the Republic (Graves had to come up with a plot device to explain why his supposedly virtuous Claudius chose a depraved monster like Nero as his successor.)
But Britannicus doesn’t want any part of it:
“I don’t believe in the Republic anyway. You can’t reverse the course of history. My great-grandmother Livia said that, and it’s true. I love the days of old, as you do, but I’m not blind. The Republic is dead, except for old-fashioned people like you and Sosibus. Rome is an empire now and the choice only lies between good Emperors and bad ones.”
I’m afraid I have to side with Britannicus (and Livia, the murderous old hag) on this one. It is in the nature of things for republics, if successful enough, to evolve into empires. It is certainly unrealistic to expect a global superpower like the United States, with worldwide political and economic interests requiring the worldwide projection of military power, to remain one indefinitely. The framers, with their horror of standing armies and European militarism, would probably be surprised to learn it has lasted as long as it has, despite more than 60 years of permanent wartime moblization.
There was a time (like the 1950s) when those who thought about such things could hope that the enormous powers of modern bureaucratic institutions — corporations, unions, the Pentagon, big media, the organs of state security — could and would be counterveiling, allowing a system designed for the less gargantuan 18th century to survive into the 21st. But instead those institutions are either in terminal decline (the unions) or are integrating and evolving into a more perfected form of imperial control and self-control. Meanwhile, dissent and opposition (terms that already sound almost archaic) are increasingly channeled to the essentially neutered arena of the fringe parties and the Internet.
I’m not sure how much mourning is called for here. Two hundred and thirty some years is a pretty good run, as constitutions go. The framers built well, but no structure lasts forever. We can pine for a lost republic (which, like it’s Roman predecessor, was never as golden as it appeared in hindsight) or we can accept reality and see what can be done to make our new empire more humane and rational than it is at the moment.
An enlightened technocracy run by a self-selecting bureaucratic elite may not be very inspiring, but under the circumstances it may be better and more sustainable than a corrupt, demagogic republic run by the likes of Karl Rove (or Rahm Emanuel, for that matter) and using all the manipulative tools of modern social science.
Jefferson might not agree, but we don’t live in his world, nor him in ours."
Jaque Elul’s theme in the Technological era is that i is an era in which the search is always for”the most efficient means” in any situation or circumstance. If one seeks freedom then ‘checks and balances are ‘efficient’. If one seeks dominance then they are not. it is significant in all these discussions that we have not noted the clear constitutional dynamic to innsure that the inerests of the powerful were secured as much as possible from ‘the people’, frequently referred to ‘as the mob’. Jeffeerson’s countervailing force was to enable a yoeman farmer base of people to have sufficient economic security to have some ability to countervaile the commercial and huge landed interests. Freedom requires both conflicted powerw and a sufficient economic base to stand on one’s one against the economic powers, including the government. We have essentially eroded both of those bases over the last 50-100 years into a massive decline. We’ve substituted bread and circuses for genuine independence.
“I’m not sure how much mourning is called for here. Two hundred and thirty some years is a pretty good run, as constitutions go. The framers built well, but no structure lasts forever.”
Death and decay are inevitable. Repair is expensive; maintenance is a pain in the ass. Do Not Resuscitate. Tear it down. Make way for the new.
What a sad day this is!
Well, it was just a thought.
Maybe the anarchists – not the bomb-throwers, but the squatter-hippies building permaculture compounds in abandoned industrial zones – maybe those anarchists will prevail in the end; after empire & the collapse of the oil economy, small cells/tribes/villages will be the most effective human social unit. Who knows? Too bad about the passing of our republic however…
Peter Principal, the very things that make us currently empire-like are what have begun our decline. How will this ‘technocracy’ arise out of our current kleptocracy? My guess is we do get the democracy we deserve.
We aren’t losing our republic. It is temporarily overwhelmed but recovering. In some ways, it is still stronger today than before in our history even with all the crap we’re reading in the news.
I’m sure everyone’s sussed out that I’m the least educated on this blog when it comes to the liberal arts. Almost all my life I’ve been a Doer, not a Thinker, in the wonderful world of technology. And almost everything I believe is based on personal experience. For this topic, I’m applying mostly my experience from living overseas and working with technical systems. With that background out of the way, here’s why we’re not losing our republic and my prediction is that it will actually get stronger!
Let the ramblings begin…
First off, Jefferson did live in our world. Human nature is the same now as ever. The technology has changed, but not us human beings. And our government is a human system whereas technology is just a tool.
The problem as I see it is that the type of people our Constitution was designed to suppress have temporarily overwhelmed the human system using advanced technology. The very nature of the people isn’t different, though, only their tools. So the system is responding just as it was designed to respond – slowly and methodically. Remember, the Framers built the system to be *cumbersome* to thwart tyranny. Unfortunately, with modern technical tools we can get closer to tyranny much faster than the system can respond. But since the system is based on human nature and not whatever tools those humans have at their disposal, it does not break down no matter how much strain it is put under.
Now, concerning empire. Just because we have an empire today doesn’t mean we’ll lose our form of government. I lived in the UK for five years. Their empire is long gone but their representative democracy is still cooking along very nicely. This rant is already long enough, but I could go into detail about how life in the UK is in some ways more free than life back here in the “Land of the Free.” Great Britain has retained its democratic institutions because it is in their cultural DNA. And I believe the same holds true for us.
And for the kicker – I think our republic will get even stronger if we lose our empire. The framers of our Constitution built a system that is not well suited to traditional empire building where we use military force to impose our will in foreign lands. As long as that system is forced to support an “application” it wasn’t designed for, then there will be serious problems. We are seeing those problems today. More specifically on the domestic front, the GOP and Bush Admin are seeing those problems manifested in plummeting public support.
We have weathered many problems that could have torn this country apart, but the system based on the *constant * and *universal* nature of human beings has prevailed. The festering problem of slavery and state’s rights was solved, although in a horrific way. We have become more inclusive than at any time in our history. We have accepted huge migrations of immigrants into our land and continue cooking along. We have made great progress in tackling racism and bigotry. We have won, and lost, wars. We have endured extreme financial hardships during the Great Depression.
They were very painful times, like every other country on the planet has endured. Our system doesn’t make solving these problems easier. It just makes it happen.
But Republic is in our DNA. It is who we are.
Here endeth the rant.
Read George Orwell’s “1984” to see how this idea will turn out. PP’s “enlightened technocracy run by a self-selecting elite” sounds very much like Oceania’s “Inner Party” elites, whose main concern was remaining in power. As Joe Goebbels said, the first requisite for the assumption of power is the WORSHIP of power. For an American version, read Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451.”
The Romans wound up with an empire because they needed a huge standing army to defend it. This army needed a reliable paymaster–an Emperor. The problem was that first the Praetorian Guard (their selection of Claudius, in the wake of Caligula’s assassination, set a disastrous precedent), and then the various provincial commands claimed the right to choose the Emperor, leading to spastic bouts of civil war. Towards the end the Western Roman Empire (what was left of it) was in the grip of naked military government. And oh yes, Britannicus was killed by Nero, wasn’t he? That’s hardly a good recommendation for his fictional advice!
In his 1961 Preface to “The Screwtape Letters,” C.S. Lewis described how he came to write the book–which is correspondence between devils about mankind’s temptation and ultimate salvation:
“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of ‘Admin.’ The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid ‘dens of crime’ that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaved cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the offices of a thoroughly nasty business concern.”
That’s Technocracy in a nutshell.
I find the above theses unpersuasive.
US & EU commentators are either reliving 1938 or else they are in 44 BC and the Ides of March.
It is as though the empires of the French, the Russian, the British, the Spanish, the Dutch, the Belg, the Portuguese, the Austro-Hungarians, the Germans, the Ottomans, and Chinese have never existed and thus there are no lessons to be learnt from their historical experience.
The theses that an imperial project and representative government are incompatible is also wrong – Spain had evolved, during the course of her imperial expansion, from absolutism to representative government. A similar process was obtained for Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman, Russian, and Chinese empires.
For the French and the British the empire project and the so-called “democratic” project went hand-in-hand over several centuries.
The most one can claim, in my opinion, is that the growth of the National Security State in US is not something desirable – Richard Nixon would have easily agreed with that.
Yes, Britannicus’s advice was fictional, but in historical reality (if you trust Gibbon’s interpretation) the Romans eventually developed a workable constitutional compromise between their obsolete republican ideals and the requirements of the imperial role they had assumed. It wasn’t perfect — no form of government is — but under the Antonines (aka the “good emperors”) it combined the old concept of rule under law with the new necessity for a unified command under a single military paymaster.
The imperial golden age didn’t last forever, either. But it gave the empire a hundreds years of relative stability and peace. The syatem, with some major ups and downs and some equally major modifications — survived for almost a thousand years. Pretty good, as human institutions go.
Reasoning by analogy, perhaps what America needs isn’t a republican “restoration” (Jimmy Carter tried that, in the ’70s, to less than popular acclaim) but rather a major constitutional overhaul that better adapts our system to our imperial role. This might well include vastly strenghtened powers for the executive branch — but at least they’d be defined in law, instead of subject to the whims of madmen like Dick Cheney or political con men like Karl Rove.
Regarding the tendency of self-selected elites to put the maintanance of their own power above the public good, “who shall watch the watchers?” isn’t exactly a new problem. It’s one we already have, and I would submit, humbly, that republican “democracy” is an increasingly unsatisfactory solution.
The UK example is interesting, as an example of a republic that shed its empire rather than the other way around. But the British empire wasn’t so much liquidated as subsumed within the American one, with the U.S. assuming the imperial policing tasks formerly performed by her majesty’s royal navy.
Again, reasoning by analogy, Athens, like many of the Greek city states, returned to its traditional direct democracy in local affairs after coming under Roman imperial rule — which neatly resolved the previous cycle of demagoguery and aristocratic reaction.
Would Britain have been able to retain its quasi-republican form of govermnent without the security umbrella provided by American power? Maybe so — although I think it’s more likely it would have become, to borrow a line from A Fish Named Wanda, the smallest province in the Russian empire. But one thing is for sure: When the American empire goes, there will be no superpower ready, willing and able to fill its old shoes. Which suggests a world of chaos and conflict, not exactly a friendly environment for a restored 18th century republic.
I think the real substance of this provocative proposition is the simple fact that, unlike form, there is no clear line, no Rubicon so to speak, that separates Republican and Imperial practices.
With regards to the form of government, we can say definitively that even if elections are stolen there are still opposition parties. There remains a chance that substantive change in governmental priorities and practices may occur as a result of changes in the will of the people. That is the premise of a Democratic Republic, and so far it remains undisproven.
What the government does in the mean time, however, is not so clearly categorical. An elected government in a Democratic Republic may behave in an Imperial fashion. The decision makers may be various stripes of authoritarian in their personalities or their policy aims. If this is compatible with the will of the people, especially over multiple generations, then the nature of a government becomes somewhat blurred despite the maintainance of the original form.
What we have now is somewhat like that, but we also have the complicating factors of the Military-Industrial complex. The power of unelected interests seems to far outweigh the power of elected representatives. Thus the ability of the government to actually make substantive changes in governmental priorities and practices as a result of changes in the will of the people is muted. We see the elected representatives as being “in charge,” when in reality they are only one team on the field, and a generally disorganized team at that.
It is remarkable, as you write, Peter Principle, that our Republic has lasted as long as it has. But I think it has lasted primarily because it has been able to function much like an empire, even while keeping the outward shape of a Republic.
As we approach the next decade or so it seems likely that the priorities of the people will come in conflict with some of the more imperial tendencies of our state. The ability of the government to change and adapt, and to act powerfully in relation to the large domestic military, financial and industrial compacts will be telling.
For my part, it seems more likely that we will head down the road of symbolic office empty of real power, than we would an open Imperial Government. Perhaps instead of a Democratic Republic we could call it Democratic Consumerism. The government will be free to help the people buy what they want and the corporations to sell what they want. And when the two are in conflict the corporations will win nine out of every ten. But then, don’t cout the people out, either. It will be interesting.
The farcical thing now is that the people in office are anachronistic. They are seeking Imperial power through wars of Colonial conquest, and they are out of step with almost every one else in power. The fact that some stuffed shirts think that this is a time of resurgent Empire simply does not make it so. Despite the fact that the massive accumulation of power by American financial and industrial leaders can look quite imperial, we are actually able to administer things through radically decentralized and internally competitive fora. The evils committed in boardrooms no longer need an imperial government. We have now a system that allows for world domination by other means, and those who aspire to such degrees of personal power will eventually find themselves left behind by the more serious players with more sublimated egoic drives.
….maybe those anarchists will prevail in the end; after empire & the collapse of the oil economy, small cells/tribes/villages will be the most effective human social unit. Who knows? …
It is true that evil on a grand scale can only flourish in the decay of a grand civilization, and that all civilizations decay eventually.
Whereas goodness is universal & flourishes equally well in humble poor surroundings as well as next to great wealth. Better among the poor, come to think of it.
The question is, is Peter right, have we turned the corner, is there no going back? For many reasons that do not belong on this board, I feel that he is. Hence my profound sadness.
chimneyswift: “But I think it has lasted primarily because it has been able to function much like an empire, even while keeping the outward shape of a Republic.”
This is a critical point, and explains a lot of the confusion over the use of terms like “republic” and “empire.”
To return to my original Roman analogy, what our ruling elites have collectively tried to do, with considerable success, is what Octavian did upon finally winning uncontested power in Rome. Instead of declaring himself king (or even toying with the idea, which helped get his granduncle assassinated) he went out of his way to demonstrate his deference to the old republican forms. The very term imperator was a constitutionally vague, strictly operational one — specifically chosen to reinforce the “first among equals” fiction that Octavian, now Augustus, sought to foster.
And so we have a system that still goes through the motions of democratic republicanism — within narrowly defined limits specifically designed to protect the prevailing bipartisan imperial ideology (capitalist globalization, or what Andrew Bacevich calls the doctrine of “openness”) from serious challenge.
More to the point, though, while America may still seem like a republic — and, for domestic purposes only, may even still act like a repubblic — the essence of imperialism is the exercise of power over other nations and peoples. And in that respect, America is already very much an Octavian-style imperator, occasionally deigning to consult with its allies and subject, but ultimately basing its right to rule on the unilateral, undemocratic exercise of raw power.
BTW – thanks Peter Principle and Col Lang for starting this post.
These issues are the real meat and potatoes of who we are.
Is Peter Principle’s thesis an echo of the principle of Niall Ferguson? Both are worthy of consideration, at least in my view.
But even Ferguson recognizes outer limits to the expansion of a republic-turned-empire. And the USG, in essence, is printing money 24/7. As far as I am aware, at no time in history has an empire survived printing money nonstop to finance imperialism.
Of course, at the other end of the spectrum, Pat Buchanan — author of A Republic, Not an Empire — has written in his screeds that we just are not any good at the empire game. Such a character is not part of our ethos, although the neoconservatives are trying mightily to change this outlook, which leads back to the concept of collective memory or the lack thereof.
Cold War Zoomie, thanks for your inspiring words…I hope it is still possible for us to get mad as hell and actually do somehting about it.
I disagree with you because the bureaucratic institutions to which you refer depend upon a philosophy of < a href="http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taylorism">scientific management known as Taylorism ( after its founder, Frederick Winslow Taylor ).
Basically, Taylorism involves using rational analysis of a workplace to boost output. In this blog, we should note that secure access to inexpensive sources of petroleum also is a means to boost output. So Taylorism and much of the Bush / Cheney energy / war on terror policy are compatible. All sorts of concepts such as “meeting high standards” are Tayloristic ( see No Child Left Behind. ).
So this imperial drive which you describe is a manifestation of the Taylorist machine.
The reason why I am not disturbed by the circumstances you describe is that this Taylorist machine is literally running out of fuel.
There are other ways of managing organizations. Taylor’s contemporary and rival, Frank W. Gilbreth ( central character in the book, Cheaper by the Dozen ) developed a management philosophy based instead upon minimizing input. Toyota has followed Gilbreth’s precepts. Nor is the Internet as marginal as you perceive. John Robb has well described how networks impact the current War on Terror.
There is all sorts of evidence of the “Empires” diminished clout. The Federal Reserve Board probably no longer really can control interest rates. Our ability to remain in Iraq and elsewhere militarily is very much a function of China’s willingness and ability to continue loaning us money ( and the stories we now are beginning to hear about defective Chinese products are therefore important. )The immigration issue is a hot button topic but the bottom line – for our immediate purposes – is that the United States has lost an essential aspect of its sovereignty, control of its borders.
So the United State’s Empire is apt to be more like the Holy Roman Empire than Rome itself.
Sirs, with all due respect, you are all way to honourable in your forms of thinking. If Cheney reads this, my guess is that he is howling with evil laughter. You all assume that his aim is that wich is stated in his/neocons mission description, to build Jerusalem and all that neocon wishwash, in other words that he is a honest man who is serving his country. You believe his agenda is honest, and not just to tear the state apart in order to make room for his real masters in the private firms. You are all acting like the state is run like a rational game with no invisible counters and no black money anywhere, and that your biggest problem is to make convince your masters of the rational way wich will then be followed.
I , on the other hand, would pose the problem of corruption and your republics inability to deal with it is the greatest problem facing you now, alongside the problem of your national intelectual condition. The two outstanding marks of the british empire was a relatively low degree of internal political corruption combined with a very high level of public discourse. Hate radio would not have lasted long in a debate in the old empire, but in the US they are considered serious players. Corruption is a state of mind, and it spreads.
‘And in that respect, America is already very much an Octavian-style imperator, occasionally deigning to consult with its allies and subject, but ultimately basing its right to rule on the unilateral, undemocratic exercise of raw power.’
It amazes me that so many Americans seem to have so little understanding of the complex bases of the post-war Pax Americana. And one element not to be neglected is that the United States did not, at least for us fortunate people in Western Europe, but I think also for many people elsewhere in the world, represent ‘raw power’. The Pax Americana was bound up with Guys and Dolls, On the Town, Jimmy Cagney in Yankee Doodle Dandy; Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca of the Maltese Falcon, Katherine Hepburn and Cary Grant in Bringing up Baby, Bette Davis in Now Voyager; black American music, jazz and the urban blues out of which the Beatles and the Rolling Stones came; the scholarship coming out of the great American universities, Harvard and MIT, Berkeley and Yale, where many young Europeans did graduate study. Different people would have different lists, reflecting the specific experience of themselves and those they know.
Beyond that, the Pax Americana in Western Europe was associated with peace and with prosperity — the unleashing of a cornucopia of wealth without parallel in the continent’s history. It was associated with a consolidation of democratic government, such as had so signally failed to happen in the inter-war years. All this was sustained by the support, and the example, of American democracy.
It also of course helped that there was the frightening example of an imperial system based upon ‘the unilateral, undemocratic exercise of raw power’ just across the Elbe. And this may indeed have contributed to the success of the Pax Americana by providing periodic reminders of just how unpleasant a ‘Roman’ system could be: East Germany in 1952, Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, Poland in 1981. It may also have been significant that Europeans had recent experience of how, with Caesars, you may think you are getting Octavian, and end up with Caligula or Nero.
Of course, there were many other dimensions to the Pax Americana: the hard world of military rivalry and diplomatic manoeuvring, and a great deal of Machiavellian skulduggery of one kind or another. And the post-war Pax Americana obviously looked different, seen from less favoured places than Western Europe. But anyone who believes that ‘right to rule’ of the United States in the second half of the twentieth century was based on ‘the unilateral, undemocratic exercise of raw power’ is living in what I can only describe as a kind of pseudo-realist cloud-cuckooland.
It is fashionable to attempt to accommodate the other elements I am talking about with the term ‘soft power’ — as though what was at issue was a means of twisting people’s arms, but doing so gently. But this is a term of art which simply reflects an obsessive need to reduce everything to some form of ‘power’, as that seems to be the intellectual currency with which academic political scientists are happy. Those who want to make sense of how the world actually works would do better to stick with long familiar linguistic usages. Legitimate authority has always been seen as different from mere power. And commonly, attempts to base lasting systems of hegemony on power alone fail.
Putting it another way: the success of the American empire actually depended upon American republicanism. You would be unwise to take a sanguine view of the erosion of American republicanism, in the expectation that you will still be left with American empire when this erosion is completed. You could very well end up losing both.
So, for your sakes and for ours, I would heartily endorse DH’s response to Cold War Zoomie, and hope that it is still possible for you to ‘get mad as hell and actually do something about it.’
And finally, a word about how ‘an Octavian-style imperator, occasionally deigning to consult with its allies and subjects’ looks, from the perspective of an inhabitant of one of the ‘allies and subjects’. Tony Blair went to extraordinary lengths to take Britain into war along with the United States. As a result, having widely been regarded as the most successful Labour Prime Minister in history, and one of the more successful post-war British prime ministers, he now knows his name will forever be associated first and foremost with the disaster in Iraq. Moreover, he got precisely nothing back for his efforts on behalf of the Bush Administration — indeed, in true ‘imperial’ style, Rumsfeld went out of his way to explain that really British troops were not needed. And, as Blair was warned would be the case by his officials, participation has increased the terrorist threat to these islands: indeed, two car bombs, capable of killing hundreds, were defused in the West End of London only yesterday.
It may be that its ‘raw power’ means that the ‘Octavian-style imperator’ does not have to worry about the impact of such matters on how the ‘allies and subjects’ think and feel. But the fact that politicians and policy wonks generally talk to other politicians and policy wonks can cause misunderstandings. These, in the UK and much of Europe, are still overwhelmingly Atlanticist. But outside the political stratum, things are changing. If you want an example of what I mean, look at ‘ARRSEpedia’, the Wikipedia imitation run by ARRSE, ‘The British Army Rumour Service’. Among the definitions of ‘sceptic’ — along with ‘spam’, Army slang for Americans — you will find ‘North American so called allies that got us into a fix in Iraq due to our spineless leader lacking the backbone to say no, ram it Georgie.’
As to what the army thinks of Blair, and of the war, incidentally, there is an illuminating AARSE thread at http://www.arrse.co.uk/cpgn2/Forums/viewtopic/t=55715.html.
<"An enlightened technocracy run by a self-selecting bureaucratic elite may not be very inspiring, but under the circumstances it may be better and more sustainable..">
Is your a reference to the British Fabian Society’s vision, say of H.G. Welles or B. Russell?
Or same as mediated by Brzezinski in his “Between Two Ages. America’s Role in the Technetronic Era” (New Rok: Viking, 1970)?
Or to the earlier 19th century occult writings of Alexandre Saint-Yves d’Alveydre (1842-1909) and his concept of “Synarchy” or rule by a technical elite under the control and supervision of international financiers operating in a neo-feudal globalized world? http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alexandre_Saint-Yves_d'Alveydre
You’re welcome and thank you for responding.
I am mad as hell. The last few years have activated me politically like never before.
Maybe that’s why I am optimistic about our Republic. My own story shows how a disinterested “a pox on all their houses” apolitical fence sitter starts paying attention, gets fed up and starts writing checks to, and voting for, the opposition.
Just as our founders envisioned would happen.
Was there any connection between UK’s participation in the war against Iraq and the modernization of UK’s nuclear weapons? Was the one the price of the other?
With Iran rationing gasoline I have been very interested in what’s happening with Iran’s primary revenue source.
Iran Out of Gas
Can the Ayatollah’s hang on or do they get swept away with the next more pro-west revolution? How does this change ME dynamics?
I don’t this so. I think you may be assuming some kind of conspiratorial coherence where none actually exists.
Blair’s roots are in the dreamworld of the ex-student Labour left of the Seventies. Because of their delusions, the party was repeatedly thrashed by Mrs Thatcher. Eventually, after long delay, it began to sink into the thick heads of people like Blair 1. that the British working classes were not in general passionately socialist, 2. that the British trade unions were in general luddite, and 3. that state intervention in the British economy had in general had malign effects.
However, when these rather obvious facts finally sunk in, there was a kind of intellectual capitulation, with the result that Blair ended as kind of plus royaliste que le roi Thatcherite. Over Iraq, he followed the basic principle of post-Suez British foreign policy — stick with the U.S. at all costs — in a situation where any rational calculation of British interests suggested this was a war we should stay out of. (In Britain, we simply cannot afford to get involved in a ‘clash of civilisations’.) His decisions over Trident are likely to be dictated more by an obsessive concern to avoid being tarred with the brush of his CND past than any coherent strategic thinking.
As I noted in an earlier comment, at least French nuclear policy has some coherence, in that their ‘deterrent’ is genuinely independent. Because of the dependence of Trident on the U.S., it is likely to be unnecessary as long as Britain remains closely allied with the U.S., but unusable if the alliance disintegrates. We would do better to spend money on ensuring that our conventional forces are reasonably equipped and looked after.
My larger worry however remains that people in countries like Iran will think that the Anglo-American conception of nuclear weapons as some kind of security panacea has some kind of rational foundation behind it. I write as someone who started off thinking that ‘deterrence’ theory made sense. I now think that, generally speaking, it is one of the biggest misapplications of intellectual power since medieval theologians argued about how many angels could fit on the point of a needle!
Great Post David H.
Reminds me of the ending in Leonard Wibberly’s comic novel, “The Mouse That Roared.” The Duchy of Grand Fenwick gains possession of a Doomsday Bomb that can destroy the Earth, and use the threat to impose total global nuclear disarmament. But the bomb’s creator worries that the Doomsday Bomb may go off spontaneously. So he’s examining it alone when he drops it, and finds to his delight that the detonator is defective–it’s a dud. But it’s still an effective deterrent against nuclear rearmament as long as this remains a secret. As he’s leaving the dungeon cell where the bomb is stored, the guard asks, “How’s the bomb?” And he replies happily, “It’s a better bomb than ever.”
I think Wibberly was saying that, since a nuclear deterrent depends upon the weapons existing without actually being used, then it doesn’t matter if they can’t actually BE used. After all, even a saber that’s broken off at the hilt can still be rattled in its scabbard, making a fearsome sound.
Thank you for your reply.
I think US & EU have destroyed NPT, although it is debateable who bears the most responsibility.
As evidence in support of my opinion I suggest the nuclearization of Israel, the destructuion of Yugoslavia foloowed by the Kosovo War, the use of chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War, the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and the rationalization of India’s nuclearization.
Spinoza wrote: ” The most useful thing to a human being is another human being.” Why we plan for destroying those who are the most useful to us can best be explained by the old religious doctrine of “the Fall of Man” – in my opinion – for I cannot find any rational explanation for this love-hate relationship with other members of our species.
“an enlightened technocracy run by self-selecting (yeppers)bureaucratic elite (elite- yep) may not be very inspiring, but under the circumstances it may be better and more sustainable than a corrupt, demogagic republic”…(agree: this administration has proven that intimidation works, and black can really be seen as white on some occasions, and that if you speak in an authoritative manner and/or wear an expensive suit you can persuade many of the people a lot of the time) To me, this incestuous group of politicians has hijacked the republic.
But isn’t this the first President who is also an MBA grad, correct? He seems to be content with and loyal to powerful administration officials who forgotton about, or care less about, George Washington and the cherry tree….as well he seems to condone faction fighting in the WH as a management tool.
You all deserve better. and, as well, someone should alert the American people to the epidemic spread of Luntzspeak.
These United States may face a Roman (or a Tsarist?) fate, but I’m not convinced. Recently I reread Benjamin Franklin’s autobigraphy and bits of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense. I was astonished at how contemporary they seemed. I heard America singing. Why not, in the end, a democratic government and an enlightened civil service?
I don’t know the Wibberley novel, only the film that was made of it with Peter Sellers playing multiple roles.
But as regards nuclear weapons, I have come to think that a closer approximation to reality came in another film in which Sellers played multiple roles — Doctor Strangelove. I write, I should stress, as someone who had learned, if not to ‘love the bomb’, but at least to ‘stop worrying’ about it. Back in the early Eighties, I used to see the CND enthusiasms of people like Blair as another reason for regarding them with contempt. On this point at least, I now think they were in some ways right — and that it is a shame that they have fallen in with Cold War orthodoxies, at precisely the point these needed questioning.
Actually, Doctor Strangelove is a more complicated film than appears at first sight. When George C. Scott, as the SAC commander General Turgidson, suggested an immediate all out attack on the Soviets, he was of course making a quite valid point: if there was good reason to judge a nuclear war inevitable — and the film was set up in a way that made that a perfectly plausible suggestion, once General Ripper had issued the order to attack — then it was not simply silly to suggest that the least worst option was pre-emption. Nuclear war is like duelling — if there is any meaningful advantage to be had, it comes from shooting first.
And of course, if you want to minimise your opponent’s retaliatory capability, a key target is going to be his command and control. But precisely this fact generates insoluble dilemmas for nuclear strategists. If you want to avoid accidental or inadvertent nuclear war, then you want to create a situation where there is no possibility that lower level commanders — like General Ripper — can launch nuclear weapons. Ideally, you would want a situation where not only authority to authorise nuclear use, but also the physical ability to initiate use, were in the hands of President Merkin Muffley. But if that were so, then a single bomb catching the President by surprise would disable your arsenal.
So nuclear strategists had to try and work out the best, or least worst, compromise between the conflicting requirements of ensuring the arsenal could not be disabled by an attack on your command and control, and minimising the possibility of unauthorised launch. The least worst option they could find — in both the United States and the Soviet Union — was not actually a very good option: a posture of launch on warning. The academic theorists of nuclear ‘deterrence’ believed in a MAD equilibrium based upon a secure second strike retaliatory capability. What they had actually done was to set the practical planners an impossible task, and then not notice that the planners had failed to fulfil it. And accordingly, the academic theorists failed to notice that the actual nuclear relationship — two arsenals postured on the basis of launch on warning, with large scale predelegation of the authority and capability to launch nuclear weapons, particularly on the American side — was fraught with possibility for catastrophe.
All this has been set out in the writings of Bruce Blair, who before turning academic was a Minuteman launch control officer, and noticed the gap between what the theorists said and the exercises which the SAC actually carried out — in which missiles were fired off before the Soviet missiles landed, almost never after. For a hair-raising illustration of how the SAC evaded McNamara’s attempts to strengthen central control, see a short article by Blair at http://www.cdi.org/blair/permissive-action-links.cfm.
Michael MccGwire — the former Royal Navy intelligence analyst and staff officer who first opened my eyes to the weaknesses of academic ‘deterrence’ theory — has said that the NPT ‘is like a wisdom tooth that is rotten at its root, and the abscess is poisoning the international body politic.’ I think the major responsibility for this lies with the U.S., Britain, and France, all of whom believe that they can continue to place nuclear weapons at the heart of their security policies, while denying this supposed panacea to others. And underpinning their attitudes is the same faith in the ‘unilateral, undemocratic exercise of raw power’ which ‘Peter Principle’ expressed.
Human life is a contradictory business. It is very often true that power comes out of the barrel of a gun — and certainly, any viable non-proliferation regime in current conditions must necessarily depend in substantial measure on force, and in particular the force of U.S. arms. But then, morality does matter in international affairs. As MccGwire notes in relation to the collapse of the NPT: ‘Fairness is important because its correlate — resentment — is a powerful and destructive motivator.’ It has been a delusion of U.S. policy that the country’s ‘raw power’ is adequate, on its own, to maintain a double standard which is widely — and increasingly — perceived as hypocritical and illegitimate. One of the things the attack on Iraq seems to have been intended to be was a kind of Roman-style demonstration of invincibility, to instill in people a vivid sense of the impossibility of defying the will of the United States. It has actually done precisely the reverse, in particular with regard to Iran.
The effect of the policies of ‘regime change’ and ‘preventive war’ has been to add to the already considerable incentives for Iran to acquire nuclear weapons, while greatly increasing the problems the United States has in preventing it from doing so. What is involved here is not simply the failure of a specific policy — it is the collapse of American non-proliferation policy.
Certainly, I think that if I were an Iranian strategist, the arguments for acquiring a nuclear ‘deterrent’ would appear to me to be very strong indeed. But I still think that the kind of problems that Bruce Blair describes are liable to make nuclear balances in the Middle East latently unstable. As to Britain, whose security problems are far less serious — in current circumstances, I think the kind of unilateral nuclear disarmament MccGwire has championed would be perfectly sensible. We should spent the money on our overstretched and underequipped land forces. The situation of the U.S. is of course quite different — but I still see no value whatsoever in even keeping open the option of nuclear first-use as a means of preventing Iran acquiring a nuclear capability.
I also think that there is something in nuclear weapons which appeals to the most ‘fallen’ sides of our nature — and which gives them a bizarre attraction, even in situations where they have no conceivable practical use. A Christian would say that the antidote to our fallen nature was grace. Certainly, seeing the amount of fear and anger loose in the world, some antidote seems necessary.
In regards to Iran:
The security concerns of that state are historically rooted:
-Invaded & occupied in WWII by UK & USSR inspite of her declared neutrality
– Invaded by the Ottoman & Russian Empires in WWI in spite of her declared neutrality
– Loss of Herat (equivalent to loss of Wales of Ukraine) in 1820
I do not doubt that the security concerns of Iran have deep historical roots.
And I think if people in Washington (and London) were wise, they would take due account of these historically rooted fears.
That said, the fact that security concerns have deep historical roots does not necessarily make responses to them sensible.
In saying that, I am not taking a view as to what the Iranian government should do. It seems to me that the Bush Administration has been doing its very best to back both Iran and itself into a corner. And this seems to me monumentally stupid.