The Duck of Minerva

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The Pernicious Myth of America as Global “Manager”

May 18, 2011

Does America’s having great power mean that we must “manage” the global system?  Fellow Duck Jon Western seems to think so.  He writes in Current Intelligence that a major reason for the U.S. to reduce its military spending is so that other countries can be better “satisfied with American management of the [global] system” and “global public goods.”  I do not want to pick on Jon, but I think that his views reflect those of much of our policy elite, both in government and nongovernmental roles.  They believe it is America’s right, responsibility, or fate to manage the world.

I disagree and think that such claims inadvertently strengthen the very trends Jon’s article speaks against—bloated American military spending.

  First, however, I commend much of Jon’s analysis, which was generally quite good on the need for achieving deep military cuts.  He’s right that much of the Republican party, Tea-Partiers and all, seem less than willing to make cuts.  He’s also right that a big part of the reason—and for most Democratic leaders feeling similarly—is that the military establishment has insidiously embedded itself in society.  The military, as an arm of the state, has an advantage over mere private recipients of state spending.  It can and has set itself up in every Congressional district—where private interests eagerly glom on, shrouding themselves in anesthetizing billows of “national security” double-speak.  All of this makes it difficult to cut “defense” spending, despite the obvious fat and waste.

What I take issue with in Jon’s article is the assumed goal of such cuts:  permitting America to better “manage” the world, through diplomats, NGOs, and a stripped-down military.  I had thought this was perhaps a throwaway thought in Jon’s article.  But he insists that  “As a simple function of power distribution, whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with the fact that the US will continue to be the central ‘manager’ of the system.”  If by this and his other statements, Jon only means that America’s large economy and military give our actions disproportionate weight, who can argue with the proposition?
But it is worthwhile to give the term “manager” its more usual meaning because a huge swathe of our foreign policy establishment clearly does.  Some of them may believe it is simply our destiny as the world’s largest power.  But this version of the management myth easily slops into more swaggering ones:  that our power makes it our responsibility to convey American peace, democracy, and prosperity to the world (Samantha Power and other liberal interventionists, perhaps?); or that it is our God-given right to do so (insert neo-con name of your choice).
Challenging such baseline assumptions—the “givens” of our foreign policy establishment in the political, economic, and academic realms–is the only way to create a more sensible foreign policy on a permanent basis.   
What are the problems with America seeing itself as “manager” for the world?  First, if we must “manage” the world, then just about any amount of spending is justified.  This mindset explains why we still have 52,000 troops in Germany, 49,000 in Japan and 10,000 in Italy—all of which are imminently threatened by hostile powers.  Right?  It also explains our continuing presence in Iraq (50,000), Afghanistan (100,000), and other highly-advanced countries who pose a dire menace to our very existence.  And let’s not forget bases and command centers abundantly sprinkled all over the globe—and overall military spending that is more than the rest of the world combined.
In fact, threats to American national security are small today.  Of course, there are perils to the personal security of individual Americans—the so-called terrorist “threat”—but those too are minute.  In this context, there are two tightly linked ways to justify continued huge military spending:  exaggerating the “threats” to create popular fears; and propounding the myth that America must be the world’s “manager”—its all-wise, all-beneficent custodian of civilization itself.  Our leaders of course have used both with great abandon for years.
Leaving threat inflation aside, part of the reason our leaders propound the management myth is sheer avarice.  There is nothing like a government job or contract to keep one fat and happy.  No doubt as well, both the greedy and those who are not, console themselves with the patriotic idea that America is  “under threat” or with the cosmopolitan notion that it is America’s burden to “manage” the world.
Second, there is the question of whether we are even up to the job however ill-defined it is.  Recent experience suggests that we are not.  It also shows that we are not doing terribly well at managing our own country, which presumably we understand better than anywhere else.  Worse still, when we try to supervise the world, we necessarily take resources away from America’s own very real problems.  Our own house crumbles while we vainly attempt to shore up others.  This is not to say that we should cut ourselves off from the world.  But engaging with far greater humility—without a managerial mindset—is a better way of doing foreign and domestic policy. 
Third, what are the effects of our making ourselves the A-Number One J.C. Dithers to the world?  The great majority of our “management” these days comes at the barrel of a gun.  And, surprise, surprise, those who get hurt, feel just a tad resentful.  In the end, our attempts at “management” not only cost us hugely but also increase the numbers who hate our policies.
But even leaving aside our predominantly militaristic management, how might other countries feel about being “managed” through less violent means—through our wise diplomats, our moral NGOs, and our pure-minded politicians?  The best way to think about this is to put the shoe on the other foot.  How would Americans react to our being “managed” by other nations?  Are we willing to say that if/when another country gains sufficient military or economic clout, they will have the right, nay the responsibility, to manage us?
Finally, there are the effects on ourselves.  A managerial mindset toward the rest of the world easily spills over into our own country.  Managers don’t like to be second-guessed, not least by their own people.  They like to . . . manage, with as little accountability as possible.  This is especially the case with regard to letting Americans know about the realities of our hugely expensive and often bungled attempts at management.  The result is erosion of individual civil liberties, huge increases in government secrecy, and a government-knows-best attitude that undercuts democracy at home.  Recent articles and posts by Jane Mayer, Steve Walt, Glenn Greenwald, and Adam Serwer provide extremely important illustrations of this.
Returning to the realm of practical politics and Jon Western’s article:  He is right that most Tea Party Republicans don’t dare challenge military spending.  But I am increasingly coming to believe that the few American politicians who are willing to do so are worth supporting, whether they come from the left or the right, whether they be Dennis Kucinich or Ron Paul.
The myth of America’s global management is a key ideological underpinning of our highly militarized state.  Accepting that myth, even if one argues for reductions in military spending, is to cede far too much to those who would continue the bloat. 

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Bob is a political science professor at Duquesne University who studies global norms, advocacy campaigns, and related subjects.