War for War's Sake


Reviewing Eric Patterson's Just War Thinking over the weekend, Robert Farley said:

Of course, the reasons for the presumption against war are fairly obvious. War has always been a destructive activity, and has become more so in the modern world. It is hardly pacifist to say that accomplishing a goal through peaceful means is preferable to accomplishing goals through war; as James Fearon notes, war always has ex ante costs. This is not to say that good things can't be accomplished through war, but accomplishing such things by war will always be more costly than achieving them by negotiation. As such, unless one assigns a positive value to the fighting of war, negotiation will always be the preferred course for a rational actor, until it is clear that these efforts will fail. The only way around this is to assign a positive value to the fighting of war, and this is something that democratic societies don't do; indeed, Patterson doesn't bother to make the argument that war, in and of itself, has positive value.

But just because modern democratic societies don't, usually, attach a positive value to war-fighting as such doesn't mean that nobody does. As I observed of John McCain and his hero Teddy Roosevelt:

Perhaps most disturbingly of all, McCain appears to be grounded not only in dangerous ideas about international relations but also in an active hostility to prudence. In David Brooks’ 1999 McCain-lauding essay, “Politics and Patriotism: From Teddy Roosevelt to John McCain,” Brooks writes that McCain and others worry “that we have become a nation obsessed with risk avoidance and safety.” The cure? To follow Roosevelt who “saw foreign-policy activism and patriotism as remedies for cultural threats he perceived at home.” De-euphemized, Roosevelt saw war as a positive good; in his years as New York City Police Commissioner he yearned for a now-obscure 1895 border dispute between Venezuela and the British colony of Guiana to turn into a great power conflict. “Let the fight come if it must,” Roosevelt wrote to Sen. Henry Cabot Lodge. “I don’t care whether our sea-coast cities are bombarded or not; we would take Canada … the clamor of the peace faction has convinced me that this country needs a war.” Only three months later Roosevelt mused that “it is very difficult for me not to wish a war with Spain, for such a war would result at once in getting a proper Navy.” The indifference to questions of national strategy here is a bit frightening, but to Brooks’ way of thinking, it’s a small price to pay to combat cultural threats at home.

And here's Corey Robin reporting on conversations with Irving Kristol and William Buckley in 2000:

"The trouble with the emphasis in conservatism on the market," Buckley told me, "is that it becomes rather boring. You hear it once, you master the idea. The notion of devoting your life to it is horrifying if only because it's so repetitious. It's like sex." Conservatism, Kristol complained, "is so influenced by business culture and by business modes of thinking that it lacks any political imagination, which has always been, I have to say, a property of the Left." Kristol confessed to a deep yearning for an American empire: "What's the point of being the greatest, most powerful nation in the world and not having an imperial role? It's unheard of in human history. The most powerful nation always had an imperial role." But, he continued, previous empires were not "capitalist democracies with a strong emphasis on economic growth and economic prosperity." Because of its commitment to the free market, the United States lacked the fortitude and vision to wield imperial power. "It's too bad," Kristol lamented. "I think it would be natural for the United States . . . to play a far more dominant role in world affairs. Not what we're doing now but to command and to give orders as to what is to be done. People need that. There are many parts of the world—Africa in particular—where an authority willing to use troops can make a very good difference, a healthy difference." But with public discussion dominated by accountants—"there's the Republican Party tying itself into knots. Over what? Prescriptions for elderly people? Who gives a damn? I think it's disgusting that . . . presidential politics of the most important country in the world should revolve around prescriptions for elderly people. Future historians will find this very hard to believe. It's not Athens. It's not Rome. It's not anything." Kristol thought it unlikely that the United States would take its rightful place as the successor to empires past.

This is, needless to say, a dangerous attitude for people to have. But it seems to have some non-trivial sway on the right.