The United States Is Not the World’s “Indispensable Nation”

Samuel Moyn

The world needs new security arrangements to keep the peace. American "leadership" — the global dominance sought by the US national security establishment — is no substitute for those arrangements.

The US flag is being raised onboard the USS Mount Whitney of the US Navy during a NATO-led military exercise in Trondheim, Norway. (Jonathan Nackstrand / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Scott Casleton

The Russian invasion of Ukraine has upset the Western foreign policy equilibrium. Some who hope for a turn toward a more “muscular” US foreign policy have hailed it as a “turning point” — presumably hoping that the United States will be now more willing than in recent years to intervene in foreign military conflicts. But that assumes that the United States has been averse to such military solutions.

Few scholars have documented the extent of the US’s dependence on military solutions as prolifically as Samuel Moyn. Professor of jurisprudence and history at Yale Law School, Moyn’s recent book Humane: How the United States Abandoned Peace and Reinvented War (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) details the rise and persistence of America’s “forever wars,” conflicts that testify to the continued preference of US presidents and lawmakers for using the military as the primary tool of foreign policy rather than multilateral institutions and diplomacy.

Here Moyn address the prospects and challenges of building a global order that constrains rather than enables the use of force by military superpowers. His ultimate conclusion is that, while there will be obstacles to this project on the international stage, the work begins at home, by promoting a politics of peace and diplomacy, rather than ever-expanding military budgets.


SC

In much of your recent work, you’ve criticized “America’s militarization of contemporary geopolitics.” What do you say to the argument that there’s some justification in the US maintaining military supremacy, given that other countries — like Russia — will not shy away from using military force to achieve foreign policy objectives? Is that a valid critique?

SM

No. The world does need a collective security structure. But the current one leaves a lot to be desired. And aside from arming Ukrainians, the United States isn’t using military force in the face of the most glaring act of aggression in recent memory anyway. Meanwhile, the lack of restraint that has been designed into our arrangements means that — much like Russia — the United States can get away with a lot of regressive and unholy acts simply due to its military and geopolitical dominance.

The litany is long, and goes beyond its own wars of choice. And yet the default remains that, in mainstream discourse, action by the United States that routinely makes the world worse is “normal,” while inaction is abnormal and, for many, unforgivable. Not just the Afghan and Iraq interventions in particular, but the far-flung “war on terror” in general, demonstrably exacerbated the evils they set out to counter or thwart. I grew up on condemnations of “standing idly by,” and with every crisis in which presidents draw limits — Syria under Barack Obama or Ukraine under Biden — there is baying for stronger interventions, allusion to Holocaust-era passivity, and suggestions that American credibility in a dangerous world will lapse if more bombs are not dropped. Alongside this default militarism, finally, the country also supervises a global arms trade and arms and funds proxy wars.

None of these critiques is new. The main question is whether they justify a creative search for an alternative to the armed supremacy — with its huge costs for America too — that the country has enjoyed since the 1940s. In any consideration of that question, for the moment, it is not all or nothing, partly because US militarization of the world is so costly and vast, not to mention increasing daily.

Reducing American interventionism is an experiment to try even while creative attempts to envision alternative security arrangements proceed. And in any event, a multipolar world is coming no matter what American policies are chosen. We might as well take advantage of foresight in seeking an alternative to unipolarity on terms that are better rather than worse for the world.

SC

The standard view on the Left is that a shift to alternative security arrangements should involve, among other things, abandoning NATO. But wouldn’t it strengthen the justification for the alliance if the US were to recede from its role as superpower-cum-police?

SM

I don’t think a Cold War institution is necessary in a post–Cold War world. Its role in recent decades has not been helpful, with a north Atlantic security zone masquerading as the cause of freedom. That isn’t to say that the moderation of American supremacy would forbid complex alliances, including regional ones. At the same time, I think we need to go back to causes like developing new forms of citizenship and transferring democracy above states so that the global order is not one of freedom for powerful states to conduct war and freedom for business interests to move capital.

SC

In your work you insist on the need to abstain from so-called humanitarian intervention. Your main objections are that such intervention (a) risks unintended consequences and (b) provides a pretext for other states to intervene.

Is there more to the argument than this? What do you say to liberal hawks who point to the two NATO interventions in the Balkans in the 1990s as examples of successful humanitarian intervention?

SM

There is not more to it. The fact that every humanitarian intervention has made the world worse — the protection of the Yezidis after the Sinjar massacre in 2014 is perhaps the most serious counterexample — while furnishing pretexts for intervention for ourselves and other actors is quite enough to condemn the practice for the moment. [Vladimir] Putin’s citation of Kosovo in his irate rant the other week is a reminder both that our states have bracketed international law when it interferes with moral imperatives, and that doing so creates openings for other actors to rationalize their own aggression.

In general, the 1990s interventions look less like showcase successes than they did at the time, as Rajan Menon has best argued — not only because they had murky long-term effects in southeast Europe, but mainly because of their uses and abuses for our own interventions in Iraq and Libya later, and for Putin’s over the years. In any event, the circumstances for the southeast Europe interventions were evanescent, and could not happen now given what Putin feels he learned from the once permissive environment for Western military action in the region.

SC

In your book Humane, you don’t take such a blunt stance on the two NATO interventions in the Balkans that took place in the 1990s. You say “smart power” worked to support the Clinton administration’s diplomacy in 1995 and that it also worked in Kosovo in 1998–99.

SM

Broken clocks are sometimes right, and the trouble is principally that the cases of progressive military force are so rare as that they never occur. But the hypothetical exception to the conclusion that humanitarian intervention is harmful overall — either in the short or long term — turns out never to fit real cases, or only arguably so. It seems like unleashing force with unpredictable consequences would rely on more conclusive proof it would make things better than worse — but it’s precisely such certainty that experience has taught no one has. All humanitarian intervention has to say for itself is that it is action rather than inaction, but that is just another brand of popular “solutionism” that ignores that problems are hard and there are other options than bombing from on high (the form of all the “humanitarian” interventions since 1989) or doing nothing.

SC

What kinds of systemic changes do you envision beyond calls to reform the UN Security Council?

SM

If our concern is humanitarian intervention, the main “successful” examples in history are south-south interventions, like India’s in Pakistan and Vietnam’s in Cambodia in the 1960s and 1970s. Absent United Nations reform, there is definitely a case for exploring coalitions of weaker states, they are also subject to the fact that nobody may know how to execute military solutions to humanitarian suffering. And the development of “responsibility to protect” doctrines was broadly based and yet ended up serving great power agendas in the notorious Libyan intervention of 2011, in which France and the United States abused the permission they had been given to protect the vulnerable and executed regime change, indefinitely setting back the region and leading to far worse proxy militarization.

Beyond the narrow and obsessive topic of humanitarian interventions (which describes only a tiny number of Western ones), we can read the Kampala amendments to the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court forbidding aggression as well as calls to empower the General Assembly to set up special tribunals on aggression as Security Council reform by other means. I think that the main focus of a future movement — unlike recent ones — ought to be democratizing who gets to condemn great powers, so that an international organization that emerged from a great power peace doesn’t condemn the world to a system of regional hegemons or, worse, a deterritorialized global empire. America rose to primacy in a unique period and its power takes a different form than earlier ones, but one thing is for sure: it is not the last such great power.

SC

What do you say to those critics of a majority-rule international system who argue that this will allow nondemocratic nations to form majorities to condemn democratic countries?

SM

At the present moment the formal democracies have sufficient power — even while threatened with being outvoted in some fora — to influence the outcome that we should not fear democratizing our global arrangements. Of course, democracy above the state is a sham to the extent states are then taken as good proxies for their peoples in such fora. However, the Global South, for all its internal governance failures (over which it has no monopoly), has acted in highly progressive ways since decolonization, for example in pushing back against neoliberal economic governance and great power war. At the same time, awarding them more power, for example by strengthening the General Assembly, clearly has to go along with a parallel project to create more democratic fora which do not presume that any state elites represent global interests.

SC

An important theme of your work is the continuity of use of military solutions to foreign policy problems across presidencies, both Republican and Democrat. This record of continuity is embarrassing to liberals. But does it downplay the important differences between Democratic and Republican administrations?

SM

Not really. Since the 1940s, American security in its various forms has mostly been a bipartisan affair, like arms trading and military funding. It was the Democrats who escalated the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the war on terror. Donald Trump may have changed the equation, but one of the most fascinating remnants of that era is how great power Republicans, including neoconservatives, were aghast at Trump as much as or more than progressives. A broad coalition on the center left and center right acted in defense of US militarism-as-usual, in defense of some moves Trump made (e.g., troop withdrawals) in the midst of an enormously militaristic presidency.

Correspondingly, one of the more promising developments was that the scales fell from some liberal eyes about the presidency they had helped create over the decades when it ended up being Trump who inherited it. At the height of impeaching Trump the first time, with the parties at each other’s throats, a break was taken for the annual bipartisan ritual of passing the National Defense Authorization Act, with its (then) unprecedented spending. Need I say more?

SC

What explains the inability of liberal administrations to act in a noticeably different way? Is it the fact that they must ultimately win elections in a country with a relatively conservative population? Is it this fact combined with the further fact that there is simply no significant popular movement trying to change public opinion?

SM

Partly, but it’s important not to understate the electoral legitimation that the last three successful presidential candidates have gained by opposing war selectively. Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton partly on this basis; shockingly at the time, Trump ascended against Republicans (and then beat Clinton again); and Joe Biden ran against the “forever war.” In my judgment, the forces for the perpetuation of war are not popular, but they are powerful. Yet we had lacked much interest in them outside far left and right circles until recently. The fear is that Putin’s intervention delays this confrontation for some further decades.

SC

What, or who, are the powerful forces behind the perpetuation of war? What role do lawyers play, the “humanizers” you criticize for applying law to war rather than trying to stop war? What role do nongovernmental actors, like corporations, play?

SM

I don’t think the humanizers play a massive role — just one that might have been missed, because all things being equal their project is a good one with unsuspected costs. Much like in a novel, sometimes it is worth examining something seemingly peripheral because “the massive door of a vault turns on a small jewel bearing.” But just as there has been recent electoral legitimation in running against war, there is countervailing legitimation in sustaining it — Obama, for instance, understood the voters would punish him if he were seen as too much a critic of American war.

There are also certain Keynesian and welfare functions that funding the military complex plays. These functions are exceptional, in a neoliberal age, in funding a corporate sector and providing benefits for “volunteers.” And, of course, there is a lobbying and procurement network, beyond the equally important factor of Beltway expertise perpetuating its orthodoxies and ideologies of militarism that have gone by the names of neoconservatism on the center-right and liberal internationalism on the center-left. The push to make war humane pales in comparison to these. On the other hand, when Obama gave his Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2009 and his targeted killing governance speech in 2013, he stressed none of these because they do not make American militarism look good. Instead, he stressed the care for victim communities at the heart of our wars.

SC

You distinguish between two evils of war: physical violence and nonphysical violence. Both can constitute domination, in your terms. What, exactly, is domination and what makes it wrong?

SM

I would say that physical violence is the most blatant form of domination, which is best defined in terms of hierarchical power relations of some over others to determine the course of their lives in and through instrumental relations of agents and subjects. Reducing cruelty, especially physical cruelty, can reduce such domination in obvious ways. But it can also reinvent or even worsen it.

After George Floyd, there has been a debate about whether to humanize or lessen policing. It is completely understandable to focus on the most grisly and visible aspects of human relations, especially since it can sometimes gain traction for reform that more structural critiques don’t as easily. But locally or globally, the central wrong would appear to be domination of some peoples by others, and reducing the violence involved is just one aspect of reforming that relationship.