Tag Archives: Politics

Obligated to Intervene

In 1820, the Congress of Troppau was convened. The great powers of the day determined that they held the right to intervene in the revolutionary conflicts of neighboring states. Maintaining the status quo and preventing the spread of nationalism and revolution was viewed as vital in the quest to quell the type of conflict that had erupted in Europe during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era. While the beginning of the century had been fraught with what some called the first worldwide war, the remainder of the century saw only regional conflicts, most that were harshly quelled before they could spread outside their borders. However the policy of intervention did not quell nationalism. During the twentieth century nationalism would be at the heart of many conflicts, and the notion that great nations had the right to intervene to protect the status quo would be at the center of international policy for many nations including the United States.

In the case of the United States, intervention became a tool to either protect or disrupt the status quo in a region depending on which was most beneficial to interests of the United States. Intervention often placed the nation at odds with its own revolutionary history and patriotic rhetoric. Despite seeming hypocritical in nature, the United States was not forging new diplomatic patterns but rather following the patterns established by the great powers of the past. The U.S. Founding Fathers may have wanted to distance themselves from the politics and practices of Europe, but their decedents embraced the policies as the United States rose to international supremacy during the twentieth century.

During the rise to superpower status, the United States benefited economically and politically. The right to intervene allowed the United States to protect economic markets, and in some cases add new markets and resources to its growing stock pile. While the nation doggedly denied that it was an empire, by the end of the twentieth century the problems associated with empires began to plague the nation. Most prominently, it could be argued, the United States faced the growing international expectation that it would intervene when conflict threatened a region’s status quo. After a century of gaining prominence and wealth through international intervention, often with the sole goal of protecting resources and markets, the United States found that the right to intervene had transformed into an obligation to intervene.

Liberty: A Cost of War

During war, even a war fought in far flung lands, the civilian public is not guaranteed the comforts of peacetime. Rationing of food and clothing can be expected as a nation directs its energy and material goods toward the war effort. Additionally, one can expect taxation to increase as the nation’s war debt mounts. However, when one’s liberty becomes a cost of war, the nation faces a crisis that is much more difficult to overcome with patriotic slogans. Fear, spread through propaganda campaigns and doom-inspiring rhetoric, becomes the tool that convinces a nation that the loss of constitutionally protected liberty is price worth paying for the ultimate goal of winning the war.

In the mid-to-late 1700s, the cost of war was hugely felt in the form of taxation. Colonial Americans were opposed to the new taxes despite the fact that they helped pay for the military support the colonists benefited from each time a frontier war erupted. Their argument, in simple terms, was that if they were to be taxed like regular English subjects, then they should have all the rights and privileges afforded to regular English subjects. Particularly, they should have the right to political representation. When their demands for equality were not heeded, the colonists decided that rebellion was the solution. War weariness and the costs of war played a large role in the final outcome. Endless war was not a good national policy, and even the powerful British Empire had a difficult time arguing against that truth.

During the American Revolution, the colonists who supported rebellion and sought independence were willing to sacrifice personal comfort for their cause, but that dedication was challenged when the new nation found itself sacrificing economic prosperity due to the Embargo Act of 1807. In an ill-conceived attempt to force France and Great Britain into dealing with the United States with greater respect, President Thomas Jefferson and Congress passed an embargo that resulted in great hardship for the New England merchants. Fortunately, the War of 1812 concluded just as the anger in New England was reaching a boiling point, and President James Madison was not faced with the daunting task of suppressing a homeland rebellion.

When homeland rebellion did finally erupt years later as the national argument concerning the issue of slavery boiled over, President Abraham Lincoln did not hesitate suspending certain constitutionally guaranteed rights in an effort to settle the conflict more quickly. His justification was that those who were trying to separate from the union and those who were a direct threat to the union were not necessarily protected by the constitution. He was not alone in his evaluation that during war certain liberties might need to be curtailed. The remnants of Congress agreed, and passed the Habeas Corpus Suspension Act of 1863.

Economic hardship and the forfeiture of liberty seemed justifiable when the nation was at war; especially if the forfeiture of liberty was directed at those who seemed set on disrupting the nation’s ability to fight the war. It should not come to a surprise that when the nation went to war after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, those who seemed too closely tied to the enemy would find themselves stripped of their constitutionally protected liberty. It mattered little that their ties were familial in nature as opposed to political. The nation had to be protected in order for the United States to prevail. In the end, the war only last a few short years. The rights and liberty of the interned were restored, everyone went on their merry way, and the nation flourished as it helped rebuild the free world. Or so the propagandists proclaimed.

Yet another enemy lurked and another war loomed. Constitutionally protected rights were no longer sacred in the face of an enemy. A nation at war, even a cold one, had to protect itself from enemy sympathizers and subversives. If this meant spying on its own citizens, then that is what the nation would do. When the truth of this violation became publicly known after the burglary at the FBI office in Media, Pennsylvania in 1971, Congress acted to halt such a travesty, but it was questionable even at the time whether the actions of Congress would hold up during the ongoing Cold War.

War, it seemed, would always be a justification for a temporary loss of freedom and liberty, but as the twentieth century ended and the twenty-first century began, war shifted away from the traditional conflicts that often erupted between two political enemies. Instead, war became a conflict with phantoms and ideologies. First there was the War on Drugs and then the War on Terror, both eradicating the protections guaranteed in the constitution, and both without any end in sight. The cost of these wars continues to be great and it seems that rather than causing economic hardship and the sacrifice of personal comfort, these wars demand a greater price – liberty.

Power and Chaos

Prior to the chaos of the French Revolution and Napoleon’s meteoric rise to power, three great powers balanced the Western World: Great Britain, France, and the Ottoman Empire. The Far East and the Americas were still peripheral, with only the United States disrupting the colonial empire system in any fundamental way during the eighteenth century. Throughout the nineteenth century, the three great empires faced ever-growing challenges as nationalistic zeal spread worldwide. In response to the chaos created by the both the French Revolution and the Napoleonic era, the great powers of Great Britain, Austria, Prussia, and Russia chose to form an alliance that they hoped would prevent a repeat of the decades of war. They also redoubled their efforts to contain and control their own territories. The great threat to political stability came from two entities: empire seekers and nationalistic zealots. Control and contain both, and it was believed that chaos could be avoided. Yet as well conceived as the Concert of Europe was for the age, there was an inherent flaw in the concert system. The very nature of forming alliances to prevent imperial expansion or nationalistic revolution also entangled the great nations, and would, in the early twentieth century, lead them into another great international conflict. Fear became the demon; fear of what would happen if a nation chose not to honor the treaties and pacts.

The twentieth century saw the rupture of empires and the colonial system that had made the empires great. While the rupture was often bloody and chaotic, there remained a level of control because as the great empires of the past declined, two even greater empires replaced them. Historians and political scientists argue over whether these two great nations ever became empires in the true sense, or if they were only empires of influence during the second half of the twentieth century. They do, however, agree that the influence of the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War suppressed a great deal of the chaos that might have erupted as colonial shackles were lifted and fledgling states emerged as independent nations. As fifty years of Cold War ended, and ended rather unexpectedly and abruptly, the world faced a daunting task of answering the ultimate question. What would come next?

One political scientist suggested an answer to the question. “The great divisions among humankind and the dominating source of conflict will be cultural… the clash of civilizations will dominate global politics.”[1] Unlike the independence movements that plagued international stability in the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth century, the twenty-first century has seen a greater surge of culturally driven conflicts, some contained to rhetorical mudslinging, and some violent, bloody, and devastating to the peoples who get in the way of power seeking individuals who achieve dominance through the spread of chaos. The rise in cultural conflict has grown during the last decade and it threatens both stable and week nations alike. It is not limited to the traditionally war-torn regions of the world, and it will take cooperation to counter it. Like the great nations that faced the chaos of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, the nations of today must find a way to combat this growing crisis; a way that recognizes that the chaos is the goal of the enemy and not simply a byproduct.

 

 

Further Reading

Samuel P. Huntington,  The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).

 

End Notes

[1] Gideon Rose,  ed. The Clash at 20, E-book (Foreign Affairs, 2013), Foreignaffairs.com.

 

The Good Old Days

Memory is a tricky thing that tends to filter events by removing the negative aspects from our recollection. When current events are not to our liking, we look to the past and remark on how much better the past was in comparison to the present. While it is also true the positive aspects of an event or period of time can be filtered leaving us with only a bleak recollection of the time, it is more often the case with collective memory that we glorify rather than demonize the past. History, the record and study of that record, helps remove the myth that memory creates.

For many who came to maturity during the 1980s, the decade has come to represent a better time, or in other words, The Good Old Days. The decade is viewed as one where U.S. power and culture was strong and celebrated. The music and clothing were distinctive and memorable. Soft Power was used in conjunction with traditional methods of political power, and the influence of the United States was felt worldwide. The notion that the Cold War was won by forceful rhetoric and the exportation of McDonalds and MTV has resonated with those who now view the 1980s as the glorious decade of U.S. supremacy. While few will argue against the notion that the United States reached a superpower zenith as the twentieth century neared its end, historians will be quick to note that there was more to the decade than glory and power. There was fear – fear of nuclear destruction, fear of pandemic spread of disease, and fear of an ever increasing drug use in mainstream society. However in a decade where politicians could harness the media, or at least greatly influence the script, and where social media was yet unborn, it was easy for the general public to hear the strong rhetoric and believe the message. Imbedded in the rhetoric was the notion that war was the answer to all the ills that plagued the nation. Whether an ideological war with an evil enemy, a hot war often conducted in secrecy, or a war on drugs that often impinged on civil rights but had a moral justification, war was the solution. War was also the solution to a lagging economy. Investment into the machines of war burdened the nation with debt, but it also put people to work and made a select group wealthy in the process. War and power went hand in hand, and those who viewed power as the ultimate evidence of success sought to encourage and perpetuate the notion that only through the constant demonstration of strength could the fears of a nation be quelled. Decades later their efforts have caused many to look back in longing for a better time – a time of strength.

Memory is a tricky thing. Few in the public participated directly in the world changing events of their youth, and fewer still have found a need to crack open the history books to learn more about period of time in which they lived. Historians seek to delve beyond collective memory and search for the data that reveals a greater image of the people and events of a period of time. For those who seek to understand the history rather than the myth of the 1980s, The Good Old Days were days of rhetoric and war, a nation recovering from an economic recession, and a time when money equaled political power. So, in a way, those days are not so dissimilar to the present.

 

 

Further Reading

Chollet, Derek, and James Goldgeier. America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11; The Misunderstood Years Between the Fall of the Berlin Wall and the Start of the War on Terror. New York: PublicAffairs, 2008.

Gaddis, John Lewis. We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History. Cambridge, MA: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Leffler, Melvyn P., and Jeffrey W. Legro, eds. In Uncertain Times: American Foreign Policy after the Berlin Wall and 9/11. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2011.

Saull, Richard. The Cold War and After: Capitalism, Revolution and Superpower Politics. London: Pluto Press, 2007.

 

Big Talk or Quiet Diplomacy

In June of 1987, U.S. President Ronald Reagan stood at the Berlin Wall and demanded that Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev “Tear down this wall!” When just a few years later the wall was breached and then torn down by the people, many in the United States credited Reagan with a victory. While the specific role of the United States in the collapse of the Soviet Union is a hotly debated topic, what is clear to historians is that Reagan’s rhetoric was not the cause of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. However, his dedicated efforts to work diplomatically with Gorbachev, even to the point of becoming friends, can be viewed as integral to the end of the Cold War. Normalization of relations was not something that either leader took lightly, especially after the near disaster that was only narrowly avoided during the Able Archer exercises in 1983.

While some historians will argue that Reagan did not dramatically change his policy after learning of the near disaster, others believe that he became more open to diplomatic discourse in a desire to avoid nuclear war. In either case, the notion that Reagan’s big talk was key to a campaign of intimidation that directly led to the end of the Berlin Wall and the ultimate end of the Soviet Union is on the whole founded on myth rather than reality. Unfortunately, it is a myth that became firmly rooted in a generation who now view diplomacy as being weak and shouting as being effective. Big talk may have a place in foreign policy, but it is not the key to success that so many believe it to be. Quiet diplomacy on the other hand, while seldom making the news, has a more lasting impact current affairs.

 

Further Reading

Fischer, Beth A. The Reagan Reversal: Foreign Policy and the End of the Cold War. Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 1997.

Gaddis, John Lewis. The United States and the End of the Cold War: Implications, Reconsiderations, Provocations. New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1992.

Hutchings, Robert L. American Diplomacy and the End of the Cold War: An Insider’s Account of US Diplomacy in Europe, 1989-1992. Washington, DC: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997.

Change, Secession, and Liberty

When a traditional way of life is challenged, turbulent emotions run rampant. Fear and anger replaces reason. As 1860 neared its end, the southern states of the United States of America began to secede from a union which had been forged from the blood and sweat of forefathers, both northern and southern. Assured that the election of Abraham Lincoln would doom the institution of slavery, secession was viewed as the only option in what was believed to be a northern attempt to abolish, not only slavery, but a way of life. The governor of Texas opposed secession even though such a stance invited attack upon both his person and his reputation as defender of the state. Governor Sam Houston argued against secession and when his arguments failed to sway enough voters, he argued for a return to independence rather than a confederation with the other seceding states.

Society, particularly southern society, was changing. This change was not confined to the United States, in fact the United States lagged behind other nations in abolishing slavery. Regardless of the fact that the principle of liberty was spreading throughout the world, albeit slowly, certain sectors of the U.S. population cleaved to the societal norms of their predecessors, norms that were in direct opposition to the basic principle of liberty – individual freedom. The choice of secession, being preferred over such a change in society, declared a sad reality. Death of the union was preferable to change, even when that change expanded liberty, the very principle for which their forefathers had fought and died to establish during the American Revolution.

Idealism versus Realpolitik

Machiavelli advised, “… never in peaceful times stand idle.”[1]

The newly formed United States was idealistic in its desire to separate itself from the conflicts of Europe. Many believed that foreign nations would wish to maintain peaceful relations with the United States in order to obtain the vast raw materials provided by the new nation. The idealism of the founding fathers was challenged, both by the French and the British well before the nation had reached its fiftieth birthday. In order to secure the economic benefits of international trade, the nation had to be prepared to handle international conflict and intrigue. As the Adam’s administration quickly discovered in the late 1790s, this would mean investing in the military, particularly in the navy. The idealistic notion of ‘free trade’ among nations had turned out to be anything but free. While the United States had found a diplomatic solution with Britain, albeit a temporary one, their solution raised the ire of the French and led to what became known as the Quasi War. The United States faced the harsh reality that in order to become economically strong, it would also need to become militarily strong. In a world dominated by realpolitik, idealistic notions such as ‘freedom of the seas’ were viewed as naïve more than noble.

Endnotes

[1] Niccolò Machiavelli, The Prince, trans. W. K. Marriott (Superior Formatting Publishing, 2010) Kindle.

 

 

Further Reading

Grey, Edward. “Freedom of the Seas.” Foreign Affairs. Last modified April 1930. https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/oceans/1930-04-01/freedom-seas.

Fehlings, Gregory E. “America’s First Limited War.” Naval War College Review 53, no. 3 (Summer 2000): 101.

 

 

History: Context Matters

King George III of Great Britain and James Otis, Jr. shared more in common than merely being characters in what would develop into the American Revolution.[1] In 1762, Otis argued against the legality of the writs of assistance established by George III.[2] At the time, Otis was a well-respected member of his community, and his words would go on to inspire the very men history books would refer to as the founding fathers of the United States. George III was still new to his reign as the king and, although facing some criticism in London, was not yet showing signs of the mental illness that would plague him later in life. Both men, believing themselves to be rational and empowered to act on behalf of their fellow men through either birth or through education and profession, took differing stands on the issue of the constitutionality of the king’s authority to impose restrictions on the people of the American colonies. In short, the king was certain of his authority and Otis was certain that the king was acting without full understanding of the unconstitutionality of his actions. In 1762 neither man was suffering from mental instability, but that would not be the case a few decades later. If their words and deeds were taken out of the context of the day, with the mental instabilities both suffered later in life being attributed to their earlier actions, the interpretation of those actions would be marred and history would not be served. Context matters in the study of history. Even the most praiseworthy individuals will have said or done something that, when taken out of context, will seem to contradict how history has recorded their character.

Endnotes

[1] Otis (1725-1783), George III (1738-1820).

[2] Writs of Assistance Case

Further Reading

A Vindication of the Conduct of the House of Representatives of the Province of the Massachusetts Bay, More Particularly, in the Last of the General Assembly by James Otis, Jr.

Project Gutenberg version

Scanned copy of the pamphlet (automatic download) from JamesOtis.net (link to document)

Protest Turned into War

On April 19, 1775, armed protest turned into war. After more than a decade of verbally protesting the increased restrictions placed upon what had been traditionally self-rule in the colonies of British North America, the colonists turned to a show of force as a means to convey their protest. By some accounts the militia of Lexington, MA had assembled to “exercise” in a series of military drills. Yet having been warned in advance of the British troops marching in search of a rumored arms cache, the militia clearly had assembled in a show of defiance. Upon being ordered to disperse both by the British and by one of their own, a shot was fired from an unidentified gunman and chaos erupted leaving men wounded and dying. Certainly calmer voices must have cried for peace, but history has recorded the cries for war that quickly rose up in response to the military action that began in Lexington and escalated in Concord. After meeting with greater resistance upon reaching Concord, the British troops were ordered to return to Boston. Their retreat back to Boston became both an opportunity for reprisal, and the basis for propagandists’ portrayals of victory against the hated oppressors. These British soldiers had been amassed in the colonies not with the intent of protecting the colonists from an enemy, but rather to police the colonists and put an end to smuggling, bribing of officials, and mob violence against those who tried to enforce the laws. The colonists had reason to be angry and dissatisfied with the means taken by the King and parliament to enforce laws which had been created in London but enacted an ocean away in the colonies. Yet at the same time, lawlessness, particularly in relation to the importation and exportation of goods, had been on the rise. The British subjects of North America, most who hadn’t sought to break ties with their motherland, at least not prior to that April day when the first shots of war were fired, had been living in a state where lawlessness and rebellion had been on the rise. They desired a peaceful return to the days before anger over taxation dominated the discourse, but they had entered into a spiraling cycle of action and reaction that led only to the path of war.

History: A Team Sport

In a recent interview Noam Chomsky, political commentator and social activist, made the following statement, “When the US invades… kills a couple hundred thousand people, destroys country… – that’s stabilization. If someone resists that attack – that’s destabilization.”[1] This statement, although controversial in nature does highlight a problem so often encountered during the general study of history – history from the perspective of the strong and victorious, or in the post-Cold War age, history from the perspective of one’s favorite team.

Traditionally history was recorded by the victor. The objectives of the victor were portrayed as strong and virtuous and the defeated were portrayed as weak and morally inferior. Over the centuries the advancement of technology allowed for a greater record of history to be kept. In addition to formal books recording the history of famous men and battles, newspapers and personal journals acted as the repositories of historical data. These documents were simply waiting to be mined for the valuable information that would then be included in some historical tome. In the modern world, it seems that everything is being recorded, even if not all things are noteworthy or have any likelihood of making their way into a historical study. Yet even with the plethora of data now available to historians, history is still being written by the strong and powerful, whether it be nations or people. Scholars may work to mitigate the efforts of propagandists and publicists, but the general perception of current events is being colored by sensational hype, and recent history is being distorted often by a sense of patriotism or loyalty. The notion that the history making people or events must be categorized either as good or bad, and that the public must then draw up sides, like for some global team sporting event, perpetuates the problems of creating a valid comprehensive record of history. During the decades of the Cold War, people found it rather easy to choose sides, unless of course they lived one of the many newly decolonized nations. These people often found themselves courted and coerced by the superpowers, with their hopes for stability threatened by the opposing teams whose real aims had little to do with stability and had much more to do with simply beating the other side. The Cold War was unique in scale and scope but the tendency for people to choose sides was not. People desire belonging to a group and desire to victory over defeat. Most importantly, people desire justification and acceptance for their choices and actions. Even those who end up on the loosing team wish to be remembered as having been justified in their fight, even if their justification was misguided or their motivation was less than noble.

History is not always kind, and compressive history is seldom a record of winners and losers. Sometimes the most memorable players were not on the winning team and often the winning team was less than honorable in their actions, even if their intent was virtuous. Fans of history can become entrenched in feelings of loyalty and struggle to embrace opposing views, particularly when opposing views criticize their team. Historians are tasked with the challenge of avoiding anachronistic tendencies and personal bias, knowing fully well that even as they attempt to provide a balanced study of history, their audience may have already chosen their favorite team and will not be budged.

[1] Chomsky: “US Invades, Destroys Country – That’s Stabilization. Someone Resists – Destabilization’, 2015. Accessed April 19, 2015. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=r-QFDX7mLqM&feature=youtube_gdata_player.