Navalism, limited war, and American strategy

Intervention and military force are legitimate tools of the state interest. While I have written many posts arguing against poorly thought-out present-day American interventions overseas, I have also consistently defended the legal precedent for many U.S. interventions, and noted that these trends are far more persistent in U.S. history than many other opponents of modern doctrines of humanitarian intervention and Responsibility to Protect are often willing to acknowledge. Recovering our understanding of limited interventions in defense of U.S. interests and adapting the U.S. policy planning and military capability to undertake them is a critical task – one which makes avoiding unnecessary, distorting, and draining interventions all the more important.

As is easily apparent from even a brief overview of American military interventions, the United States engaged frequently in limited, expeditionary actions to protect the lives of American citizens and U.S. interests abroad. While many of these interventions were undoubtedly imperial in nature, in many cases they were far more limited in scope and intent than the supposedly post-imperial actions the United States and other Western powers pursue today. Here, though, it is important to distinguish actions where the U.S. was directly concerned with gaining territory from the protection of U.S. interests.

As outlined in Federalist No. 8, Alexander Hamilton explained something of a core rationale in American geopolitics. The preservation of an open, liberal society was necessitated by the exclusion of potential military rivals from an American sphere of interest. American union was necessary both to prevent each state or grouping of states, without a sovereign federal authority, from sacrificing their liberty in the compelling interest of achieving safety from each others potential military threat. Hamilton saw the development of a maritime-centric U.S. military, under the auspices of a federal government, as a critical task for U.S. national security. For, without it, the U.S. would find itself in a dangerous neighborhood, and more likely in need of a strong army: Continue reading

The upending of sovereignty

Anne-Marie Slaughter has a provocative piece which argues that Libya was not really an intervention. I’ve already used my Magritte and Duchamp jabs before, but rather than simply dismissing this as a case as writing ‘fountain’ on a urinal, it’s worth taking the time to understand what the implications of her argument are, and how radical of a rupture they are with previous ideas of sovereignty. It is then worth understanding why this rupture in the conventions of sovereignty is a potentially seriously destabilizing threat to international order as we understand it.

If we are to speak of dictatorship, let us define sovereignty in the most dicatorial sense: sovereignty is the power to decide, specifically on the state of exception. Yet all democracies which seek to preserve themselves as democracies must internalize some degree of this dictatorial content. The ability to rupture or suspend the constitutional order without the dissolution of the polity is the power of a sovereign. In the classic Hobbesian sense, the maxim of sovereignty, in order to prevent the dissolution of the polity and the return to mere nature, was protego ergo obligo. The sovereign protects, therefore subjects or citizens obey. The ability of the state to except itself from the norms of pacific civil order to quash threats from within and without is what keeps those periods of violence exceptional rather than juridically normal.

This notion of sovereignty went hand in hand with the stabilization of the international system. The delineation of zones of sovereignty, and the grant of power to enforce the political integrity which maintained those delineations, were an attempted salve on the aspirations of universal empires and endemic civil war in early modern Europe. Though it would be much longer after Hobbes’s time that such issues receded, it was through, as Schmitt has pointed out, a sense of regularity in warfare that such stability endured. This is an important distinction. Continue reading