by Bastoche | 4/13/2008 03:27:00 PM
In a major foreign policy address on March 26, John McCain declared himself an idealist. He is an idealist because he believes that the core American “principles of free people and free markets” can still “make the world we live in another, better, more peaceful place.” He has, however, sufficient awareness of the current geopolitical situation, including, of course, the situation in the Middle East, to know that he cannot let his self-identification as an idealist stand stark and unadorned. And so he quickly applies to it an important qualifier: he is a realistic idealist.

As a realistic observer of the modern world, he sees clearly “the central threat of our time”: terrorists and “the states that support them.” Having seen what needs to be seen, he also knows as a realist what needs to be done. Both the terrorist organizations and their sponsor states are animated “by hatred of the West,” and neither can be “placated by fresh appeals to the better angels of their nature.” Neither the states nor the terrorists they sponsor, that is, are susceptible to the rational appeals of diplomacy. They live by force and can be effectively countered only by force.

America must stand ready, therefore, to use force against terrorist regimes and the networks they sponsor. Given the current situation in the Middle East, however, it is no longer clear that America can or should use its military might in a unilateral fashion. Some neocon idealists, like Norman Podhoretz and Victor Davis Hanson, are adamant: They do not want the military might of America constrained, either by the timidity of its European allies or by the dithering of international institutions like the UN.

McCain understands, though, that America’s interests are no longer best served by unilateral applications of military force. After the collapse of the Soviet Union America entered a unipolar moment as the world’s unrivalled economic and military power. Today, however, even though America remains militarily the most powerful nation on the planet, its allies have evolved into democratic states—or, in the case of Europe, into a Union of democratic states—fully capable of challenging American hegemony in matters economic and political. But, McCain argues, the passing of America’s unipolar moment need not prove disadvantageous to America’s interests. Indeed, America might very well find that multilateral action in concert with its fellow democracies is the most effective way of meeting the new and transcendent threat of Islamic terror. And so, McCain says, we must “strengthen our global alliances as the core of a new global compact — a League of Democracies — that can harness the vast influence of the more than one hundred democratic nations around the world to advance our values and defend our shared interests.”

America, though, must not arrogantly presume that its fellow members in this new global compact will accede without question to its goals. When faced with a crisis, the world’s democracies, given the diversity of their histories and viewpoints, will certainly put forward competing solutions. In the ensuing debate, America will have a prominent voice. But it must use that voice to persuade, not to command. “We need to listen to the views and respect the collective will of our democratic allies,” McCain says. The new global compact will not work if America, because of the preponderance of its military power, attempts to transform reasoned debate into an impassioned monologue. Only through dialogue with our allied democracies, according to McCain, can America successfully engage and resolve the crises awaiting it in this new and compellingly dangerous century.

1. Cowboys and Concerts

Like many another neocon, John McCain is aware that the botched occupation of Iraq has scrubbed the luster from the rousing visions of a cowboy idealism and added new sparkle to the precepts of an old-school realism. But the term “realistic” in McCain’s self-identification is only a qualifier. The substantive remains and will always remain “idealist,” and in spite of the realist’s advocacy of a League of Democracies, the idealist will not abide a situation in which America’s use of its military might is reined in and controlled by other nations.

As Elisabeth Bumiller and Larry Rohter report in their Times article, “2 Camps Trying to Influence McCain on Foreign Policy,” Robert Kagan made a significant authorial contribution to “the foreign policy speech that Mr. McCain delivered in Los Angeles on March 26.” It seems clear that the League of Democracies was part of that contribution. In their August 2007 Washington Post article, “The Next Intervention,” Kagan and Ivo Daalder, a liberal interventionist, extol the merits of a new international Concert, a “formal mechanism” that would enable the world’s principal democracies—the US, Great Britain, Germany, Japan, Australia, India, Brazil, etc.—to tackle effectively “the many global challenges” that now confront and that will confront the free world. Though the concept of such a Concert of Democracies seems almost Kantian in its idealism, its real-world purpose, in Kagan and Daalder’s version, is straightforward and realistic: to give a gloss of legitimacy to America’s next international intervention. As Kagan and Daalder see it, when an international crisis arises, America will consult with its fellow members in the Concert and reach with them a consensus concerning the best way to resolve the emergency. If the members conclude that intervention is needed to resolve the crisis, America will act. America might not be accompanied by the military support of its fellow members in the Concert, but it will be accompanied by their political sanction. America’s interventionist act—its violation of another nation’s sovereignty—will thus have been legitimated and given political cover by its fellow democracies.

But Kagan and Daalder put forward an important caveat: America will retain the right, even if its fellow democracies withhold their sanction, to intervene into a crisis and resolve it. The principal purpose of the Concert is therefore clear: to legitimate the projection of American power. Should the Concert oppose the use of American power to resolve a specific crisis, it will have no ability to make its opposition in any practical way effective. No League or Concert, finally, will restrain the projection of American power or the exercise of American will.

McCain recognizes that, given the unresolved crisis in the Middle East, it is currently in America’s interest to act in multilateral accord with its great democratic allies. But no such recognition is sufficient to sway either McCain or the other neocons from their world-historical mission: the final victory of American freedom over tyranny and despotism. In this ongoing struggle America will always do what needs to be done in order to defend the ideals of freedom and democracy against the scourge of tyranny and despotism. If America decides that it must act unilaterally and with full force in order to defend its interests and its values it will do so. America’s cowboy spirit will not be corralled and bridled by the preferences of its fellow members in a Concert of Democracies.

America will listen to its allies, but it will not subordinate its ideals to the interests of Australia and Japan. America will respect the views of its partners, but it will not delegate its world-historical responsibilities to India and Brazil. America will cooperate with the other members of the League, but it will not subsume its will beneath the predilections of Great Britain and Germany. America’s will is its own, and its will, its energy as a nation, has always been, is now, and always will be put at the service of the ideal out of which it was born: freedom. America was born into history as the embodiment of freedom, and its mission in history, its world-historical responsibility, is to defend that ideal at home and to expand its reach abroad until it embraces every nation on earth.

In his essay “Cowboy Nation,” which I am examining in this series, Kagan argues that America has always been an expansionist nation. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries America consistently and fiercely sought to expand its territory and the reach of its commerce. But the drive to acquire territory and wealth was not the only factor impelling American expansion. Along with the expansion of its material interests went the expansion of the ideal that as a nation it embodies, freedom.

During the twentieth century America engaged in two world-historical struggles against nations that were striving to expand not only their territory but their ideals—ideals that were the perfect negation of the American ideal. America achieved victory first against the tyranny of Nazi Fascism and then against the even more methodical and rigorous tyranny of Soviet Communism. It triumphed in both struggles not only because of its military might but also because of its motivational energy, its warrior spirit, the energy and spirit that the Greeks called thumos. With a spontaneous courage and indomitable spirit that the Greeks would have admired, America struggled and sacrificed not only to protect its material interests but also, and even primarily, to defend and promote what was most intimately and distinctively its own: its ideal, freedom.

That spirit—a cowboy spirit, a dangerous spirit—bristles angrily at restraint. Though Kagan has occasionally made use of the concept of thumos, the writer who has most extensively employed it as an element of his political thinking is the philosopher, Harvey Mansfield. Mansfield has sought to reestablish thumos and its related virtue, courage, as fundamental concepts of political philosophy. Courage and its vicissitudes in our “gender-neutral society” is the subject of his 2006 book Manliness, and I’ll discuss Mansfield’s view of courage in more detail next time. In his 2007 Jefferson Lecture, however, Mansfield leaves the gender-neutrality of modern America to one side and focuses on what he considers the fundamental dynamics of politics. According to Mansfield, politics is a struggle in which individuals and groups assert their importance. The energy that informs and drives this struggle is thumos, and though thumos is an energy, a spirit shared by animals and by humans alike, it is distinguished in its human form by an emotion that is an intrinsic and ineradicable component of the struggle we call politics: anger.

2. The Struggle for Importance

In the Jefferson Lecture, Mansfield builds his argument on a contrast between political science and politics. Political science is impersonal, objective, and rational. Real world politics, however, is personal, subjective, and irrational. Political science gathers anonymous data out of which it fashions abstract and “universal propositions.” Politics concerns itself with specific individuals and groups who argue “about who deserves to be more important: which leader from which party with which ideas.” These leaders and parties and ideas are, of course, not anonymous bits of data to be rationally processed and translated into abstract propositions. They have names, and for the actors engaged in political struggle, these names carry a heavy burden of personal and subjective significance. They differentiate what is mine, what I identify with and adhere to, from what is not mine, what I dissociate myself from and react against. The nation I was born in, the political leader I support, the ideas I subscribe to are important to me not only because they are in themselves valuable and worthy but also because they are set off from other nations and leaders and ideas that I find unworthy and, sometimes, fiercely reject. Out of this difference and opposition, the struggle for importance that we call politics is born.

Political science, in Mansfield’s view, shies away from talking about actual politics because as a science it aspires to the general, the impersonal, and the abstract. Actual politics, however, is always in excess of the impersonal and the abstract. The struggle to establish the dominance of one party or nation or idea over another relates to a specific time and place and, even more problematic, is driven by motives that are subjective and irrational. If we are to understand the dynamics of actual political struggle, then, we must look for guidance from a discourse other than political science, perhaps from modern theories of psychology. Mansfield, however, has no use for modern approaches to the psyche. Neither sociobiology nor evolutionary psychology nor any psychology that derives from Freud will serve our purposes, according to Mansfield. He proposes rather that we return to the ancient Greek concept of soul in order to elucidate the contest of wills that is the essence of politics.

For Plato and Aristotle, Mansfield says, “the soul was inferred from the possibility of voluntary action—what moves you to action—and from the possibility of thought—which makes you stop and think, perhaps think about yourself.” The soul, that is, is a unity of two distinct but related activities of the individual self: the physical activity of the body and the mental activity of the mind. Each aspect of the soul has a distinct object or goal that it desires and a distinct means of apprehending it. “The bodily self has a simplified object,” Mansfield says, “its self-interest.” As embodied beings, human individuals actively assert themselves in order to satisfy their physical drives. So too, they defend themselves, vigorously and even fiercely, from that which threatens their physical wellbeing.

The animal energy that individuals mobilize and deploy in order to satisfy their physical needs and to defend themselves against physical attack is thumos. “It represents the spirited defense of one’s own characteristic of the animal body, standing for the bristling reaction of an animal in face of a threat or a possible threat.” But according to Mansfield, when mobilized and deployed by human individuals in the arena of political struggle, thumos derives its motivational force from something other than material self-interest. It is not only, or even primarily, against threats to their physical wellbeing that humans react. Human individuals are composed of more than the body and will energetically defend—even to the point of putting their lives at risk—the ideals of the mind.

3. Getting Angry and Picking Fights

Mansfield suggests that we can begin to understand the motivational power of thumos by recognizing the central importance in politics of anger. “Only human beings,” Mansfield says, “get angry.” An animal will bristle and mobilize its defensive energies in response to a physical attack. So too will a human being. If I am physically attacked, I will call up a vigorous physical energy in order to defend myself against the assault. If my nation is attacked, I will call up a similar energy in order to defend not only myself and my property but also my fellow citizens and that which I share with them: the territory that defines our nation.

But a human being is composed of something more than the physical self. “A human being not only bristles at a threat but also gets angry, which means reacts for a reason, even for a principle, a cause.” Human beings, that is, react defensively not only when their tangible material interests are threatened. Thumos in its distinctively human form displays itself when something intangible is threatened. When our principles or causes or ideals are under assault, we react not only vigorously but with anger. Political struggle is thus impelled by something that transcends material self-interest, by something for which we will put at risk and sacrifice our material interests, even our lives, in order to defend. And “when we risk our lives for that reason,” for that principle or ideal, “we imply that we are not to be identified with our bodies.”

Human beings, then, given their dual nature as both body and mind, are quick to mobilize their energies to defend not only their material interests but also, and even primarily, the specific causes and principles to which they are attached. But as quick as humans are to defend their ideals, they are even more eager to assert them. The principles and ideals to which I am devoted almost always stand in stark contrast to those espoused by other parties and nations. And that contrast provokes me to assert the overriding importance of my ideals, and to assert them aggressively, even angrily, in opposition to those advocated by another party or nation. This spirited willingness to assert aggressively the importance of an ideal is necessary equipment for those who enter the arena of struggle that we call politics. “People go into politics to pick a fight,” Mansfield says, “not to avoid one.”

In the political fight, as in any other fight, one faction, nation, or idea wins, another loses. As Mansfield says, politics “is a series of victories and defeats in which every victory for one side is a defeat for the other.” When a faction or a nation wins a victory it gains power or territory or resources, material interests lost by the opponent who has submitted to defeat. But political struggle and its outcomes—victory and defeat—can never be understood exclusively according to rational calculations of material gain and loss. When a party or nation achieves victory or suffers defeat in the political arena—and especially in that most sublime of all political arenas, war—it gains something far more important and lasting than territory or resources. It vindicates the importance of its cause and thereby achieves reputation, glory, and honor. And in defeat a party or nation loses something more than power or resources or territory. The importance of its ideal is denigrated, its cause denied. The party or nation is thereby stripped of its honor and reputation, and attached to its name are shame, humiliation, and disgrace.

Political science is not equipped to understand the power in politics of anger—the response of the warrior to the loss of honor, his own or that of his nation. As Mansfield says, “we are the cause toward which we strive,” the principle or ideal that transcends our isolated and ephemeral selves. When that cause is embodied in his nation, the man of thumos and of courage will not hesitate to lay down his life in its defense. He will not tolerate the degradation of his ideal nor the loss of his nation’s honor. When the warrior loses his sense of honor, his sense of self-importance, he loses something for which nothing material, not even his life, can compensate. Even worse, he gains something that makes his life an insupportable burden: shame, dishonor, and humiliation.

4. Old Warriors Who Pick Their Fights Wisely

Plato and Aristotle, according to Mansfield, understood the power of thumos and the importance of courage, of manliness, in the realm of political struggle. So too do those neocon philosophers like Mansfield himself who draw on the ancient wisdom of the Greeks.

And so too does John McCain. Without question, McCain has put his life at risk to uphold the American ideal of freedom. He has, that is, demonstrated true warrior spirit. Admirable as such spirit is, of a president we demand something more than the temperament of a warrior. The spirit, the manly courage, the strength that is appropriate in combat must not be expunged in the man who will hold the office of President of the United States. But that strength must be supplemented by a different kind of courage, a moral and philosophic courage that emerges only after many years of political service and experience. As we now see, years of a manifold political experience have endowed John McCain with the philosophic wisdom and the moral courage necessary for a president. He knows that the cowboy unilateralism practiced by his predecessor is a thing of the past and that America will best serve its ideals of freedom and democracy by promoting them in concert with the other great democratic nations of the world. And so he is calling for the creation of a League in which America will listen to and, if necessary, abide by the wisdom of its fellow democracies.

The Old Warrior has, it seems, become the Wise Old Warrior. The idealist has returned to the time-tested ways of the realist. McCain’s newfound respect for a worldly-wise realism in no way diminishes his stature as a manly and courageous defender of freedom. The man of true courage defends freedom not only with physical strength but also with philosophic wisdom. McCain is such a man, a leader who has both an indomitable strength and a wisdom that derives from years of experience. He knows that the struggle against Islamic Terror will be a long one and that America will be compelled to endure sacrifice. But he also knows that America has the humility to learn from its mistakes and, in league with its allies, to find a new and more effective way forward. And he is confident, unshakably confident, that if America and its leader remain strong, if they adhere to the cause of liberty and uphold humbly but without flinching our national ideal and our national honor, victory is assured.

Such is the image that John McCain will try to project in his campaign for president, and a compelling image it is. But it is only an image, a figment that he and his image-makers are constructing and that our pliable Beltway press corps—susceptible as always to the theatrics of power—will be only too happy to purvey to the public.

And just as John McCain is trying to convey an image of a tempered and realistic idealism, so too are the neocons. Robert Kagan has been in the forefront of this neocon retooling, calling with Ivo Daalder for a Concert of Democracies and advocating a diplomatic approach to Iran. But the new realism of Kagan, the neocons, and their liberal interventionist allies is only a modification at the margins. The core dynamic of their worldview remains unchanged: the use of American power, and especially American military power, to advance not only American interests but also the American ideal of freedom.

I’ll return to Kagan and to his Neocon Nationalism later in this series. But Harvey Mansfield has yet more philosophic wisdom to impart concerning the virtue of courage or manliness. Next time I’ll discuss Mansfield’s Aristotelian vision of courage. I will then return to the emotion that Mansfield places at the core of politics, anger, and I’ll examine the relation of anger to reason, to courage and to a human capacity that Mansfield erases and eliminates from the manly arena of political struggle: empathy.

Labels: ,


Links to this post:

Create a Link


Blogger Bastoche on 4/13/2008 5:36 PM:

Meet McCain’s image-maker: Mark Salter. Salter has a good understanding of the power of narrative, and he’s hard at work fashioning a storyline for McCain that is, as I’ve said, a compelling one.

Given the susceptibility of the mainstream press to images and narratives that flatter both McCain’s military prowess and his humble wisdom, we’re going to have our work cut out for us this summer and fall.

Max Boot, meanwhile, takes issue with the Bumiller/Rohter piece and its less-than-precise use of the terms “neocon” and “pragmatist” (i.e., realist) to inventory those who, it seems, are struggling for McCain’s foreign-policy soul. In this instance, I agree with Boot (Yikes!). We can no longer make simple distinctions between neocons and conservative realists in foreign policy. In fact, the new “bipartisan elite” in foreign policy includes neocons, traditional realists, and liberal interventionists.

Boot deplores the current indiscriminate use of the term “neocon,” but he does admit that an excellent guide to the neocon “vision” has recently been provided by “one of our foremost foreign policy sages.” He speaks, of course, of Robert Kagan. Kagan’s World Affairs essay “Neocon Nation: Neoconservatism, c. 1776” is an updated and expanded version of the essay I’m looking at in this series, “Cowboy Nation.” And once again I agree with Boot (supply appropriate exclamation and graphical points). Kagan’s essay is an excellent summation of the neocon worldview—and, by extension, of the new bipartisan worldview—and I’ll be referring to it in my next posts.


Blogger Ahistoricality on 4/13/2008 6:08 PM:

And in defeat a party or nation loses something more than power or resources or territory. The importance of its ideal is denigrated, its cause denied. The party or nation is thereby stripped of its honor and reputation, and attached to its name are shame, humiliation, and disgrace.

This is perhaps the most disturbing line, because it explains a great deal about the tendency of War Parties to be, shall we say, impractical about the relationship between expended resources and operational outcomes.