Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part I

Part I of a post based on a paper I am co-authoring with Bryan Mabee, Senior Lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London. Bryan is the author of Understanding American Power (Palgrave, 2013), The Globalization of Security (Palgrave, 2009) and co-editor with Alejandro Colás, Mercenaries, Pirates, Bandits and Empires (Hurst/Oxford University Press, 2010).  The paper is being prepared for “Militarism and Security,” a workshop organized later this month at the School of Global Studies, University of Gothenburg by Anna Stravianakis (for her latest appearance on this blog see The Dissonance of Things No 3) & Maria Stern.

Update: Part II added on 18/03/17.

With Donald Trump as the president of the United States, militarism is once again becoming a hot topic. Trump’s appointment of right-wing generals to senior posts in both the White House and his cabinet legitimate militaristic policy discourses and positions, as do the president’s pronouncements about the need to “modernize” the country’s nuclear capability, put America’s enemies “on notice,” massively “rebuild” the military, hold “more military parades” in American cities, deploy the national guard to “restore order” (and possibly “hunt illegal immigrants”) and “streamline” U.S. defence exports.

And all of this is only the proverbial tip of the iceberg. For one thing, the Trump presidency merely empowers an already deeply militaristic and militarized American culture, one that is forever in love with guns and prisons and forever reticent to acknowledge the inherently racialized dimensions of both. For another thing, Trump’s top advisor is the “ethnonationalist” Steven Bannon, who is so influential in the White House that some describe him, tongue only halfway in cheek, as the actual president of the United States. Apparently, Bannon reasons that war between the U.S. and China is likely, given the thorny nature of international disputes in the South China Sea. One could in fact say that beneath the visible iceberg lie powerful and long-standing militarized realities—most of which have been ignored, temporized or marginalized in the earlier, ‘normal’ periods.

ABC News

Can Critical Security Studies (CSS) help us illuminate militarism in the age of Trump? On one level, yes. Militarism is central to the field’s go-to framework on securitization—meaning, the scrutiny of the ways in which constitutional or ‘normal’ politics are transformed, via speech acts, into ‘exceptions’. The above image, Trump signing the Executive Order banning immigrants, dual nationals and US residents with citizenships from seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the country, suspend refugee admission and bar all Syrian refugees indefinitely, can be said to capture ‘exceptionalist militarism’ at work. Yet, beyond theorizing this one form of militarism, CSS has mostly been silent on the ‘classic’ concern of the literature on militarism—its sources, consequences, and the changing character.

In this two-part post we build on insights from historical sociology to develop a typology of militarism that CSS schools could consider as they try to make sense of political violence today.

We think that an engagement with the multiple manifestations of militarism would advantage CSS, especially if we accept the premise that militarism and the production of security always co-constitute and morph into each other. Anna Stavrianakis and Jan Selby made this point several years ago, arguing that CSS incurred a heavy analytical cost in moving sharply towards ‘security’ and ‘securitization’ (the working bibliography for this post is here):

with this transformation in discourse has come a change in the objects of critique – away from a core concern with the excessive influence of arms, and military institutions and ideologies, on domestic and international politics, to a broader concern with the practice and legitimation of exceptional ‘security’ measures, regardless of whether these be the work of the military’ (2012: 10).

From the vantage point of CSS in 2017, little has changed. The two leading CSS journals – International Political Sociology and Security Dialogue – have published very few pieces where the main focus in on militarism (or militarization). Moreover, those few pieces tend to deal with the ways in which ‘violence’ is brought into areas beyond that of direct interest to the military rather than on the continued relevance of the military as key institution of power. The way we see it, this is the necessary context for understanding the recent creation of separate journal that critically deals directly with issues to do with the military – Critical Military Studies.

Global “boomerang” effects of war (Graham 2010)

Let us first look for a usable working definition of militarism for CSS. It is important to recognize the concept’s essential ambiguities—Berghahn’s (1984) conceptual history is extremely helpful here, as is the intro to the first issue of Critical Military Studies by Basham, Belkin and Gifkins (2015). Semantically, the acquisition of the potential for force or the relative weight and importance of the state’s military in relation to its society (see the Global Militarization Index by the Bonn International Center for Conversion, for example) is sometimes conflated with the disposition to use force (‘militarism’), which in turn confuses debates over hypothesized cause-effect relationships between the two processes. More fundamentally, conceptual ambiguities are sociological and philosophical, which is why different scholars interpret the ‘same’ militarized realities so differently: the nature of the military/police distinction (Weiss, 2011; Neocleous, 2014) or the rise of the ‘virtual’/‘virtuous war’ (Ignatieff, 2000; Der Derian, 2001), militarization as the discursive production of militarized realities (Lutz, 2002), for example.

In historical sociology, and especially the neo-Weberian historical sociology of the 1970s and 1980s, the question of conceptualization revolves around two basic questions: 1) how embedded militarism is in political and social life? 2) how does the historicity of the concept of militarism frame our explanations of it? Michel Mann has dealt with these core issues through a series of macro-sociological and typological frameworks that looked at the phasing and co-evolution of militarism on the one hand and different types of states, forms of popular sovereignty, and racial ideologies on the other. His main argument is that understanding modern society requires sustained attention to militarism, which he defines as ‘a set of attitudes and social practises which regards war and the preparation for war as a normal and desirable social activity’ (1987: 166).

We think that Mann’s expansive conception of militarism can be productive for CSS because it links both disposition and social purpose. In more recent work, Mann has moved to define militarism in terms of ideological power, specifically that related to patriarchy and masculinity (for example: 2012, 134, cf. Enloe 2016). This offers yet another useful connection with CSS, this time via the rich feminist and gender literature on militarism. While focusing more on the micro level, this work provides an important foundation for macro work. We need to move back and forth between the micro and macro to get a fuller picture of militarism, charting out connections between micro-contexts, the ways in which guiding ideas of militarism travel, and how they are reinterpreted and applied in other contexts.

Matt Wuerker, The Military Industrial Complex

Also helpful for our purposes is Martin Shaw’s argument that militarism has two main determinants: ‘the typical social forces mobilized in military power’ and ‘the social relations of military power (2012:  4-5). The ‘typical social forces’ refer to economic, political, cultural resources mobilized by social constituencies—that is, by complex configurations of different actors, institutions, and practices situated at once in a particular society and the broader social and historical context. As Shaw describes it, ‘we are talking about the role of socialized warfare in a militarized economy and society’ (Shaw, 1988: 24). As such, war and society need to be seen as inseparable, with militarism as a kind of ligature between the two (also see Shaw, 1984). So viewed, ‘social forces mobilised in military power’ are engendered by general technological revolutions, reigning rationalities and organizational logics, the mode of capitalist development and other factors. They also intersect with religion, gender, race, ethnicity, nationhood and other axes of identification that construct, reproduce and restructure social reality and human experience.

Shaw’s second main determinant of militarism, ‘the social relations of military power,’ refers to ‘the always potentially antagonistic relation between armed actors (combatants) and civilians (non-combatants)’ (2012: 5). Unless it is perfectly pacifist and non-violent or, conversely, unless it is organized such that warfare and preparation for warfare are an end in itself (‘most states have militaries, but in Prussia the military has a state,’ as one popular caricature holds), a society is likely to struggle to establish a workable relationship with its armed forces. Interest in the social relations of military power is shared by scholars of civil-military relations, whether those working on the venerable problems of “professionalism” and “control” or on the relatively newer developments such as the civilianization of military organizations or the marginalization of the military functions of the state.

To produce a basic typology of militarism based on these insights, we commit two convenient simplifications. First, building on previous typological studies of militarism, we suggest that a core element of said social forces of socio-economic liberalization. As for the ‘social relations of military power,’ Shaw’s second core determinant of militarism, we opt for the notions of ‘separation’ and ‘fusion,’ terms derived the classic debates on civil-military relations in the liberal-institutional tradition.  Separation typically means that armed forces are ‘professional’—that is, apolitical and subordinate to civilian authority, but we expand this out to look at ways in which militaries are functionally separate from the civilian population, and potentially autonomous actors with regard to political power. Fusion refers to the collapse of the conventional or formal civil/military distinction.

Of course, both of these simplifications are problematic—much like other binaries we use to think about security in CSS (inside/outside, public/private, military/policy, war/law enforcement). The way we see it, however, these simplification conceive the military as an institution, contrasting ideal-typically with the political-organizational power of the state, which in turn allows for a distinction in purpose and process, while also revealing different configurations of both formal and informal networks of power implicated in the categories of ‘socio-economic liberalization’ and ‘civil’ vs. ‘military.’

Thinking from these two core determinants of militarism, we see four ideal types of militarism: 1) ‘exceptionalist’, which we mentioned earlier, 2) ‘nation-statist’, 3) ‘civil society’, and 4) ‘neoliberal’. Part I of this post deals with 1); Part II, with the other three.

Exceptionalist militarism relates to the concept of exception, as articulated in the thought of the one-time Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt and more recently by theorists of the political Left. Much of this thought revolves the political and legal constitution of sovereignty through suspension of the regular legislative and judicial rules and procedures, via a unified civil society support, for the purposes of dealing with enemies and security threats. This is the core of Schmitt’s claim that ‘sovereign is he who decides on the exception.’ This framework is relevant for the conceptualization of militarism: if any political order can suspended through state-of-emergency decisions undertaken in defence of the state against the enemy, then it follows the separation between the armed forces and the state is always contingent and indeterminate. (Also: securitization theory is not Schmittian in its conception of politics).

Ole Wæver, careful with Schmitt.

In CSS research, the focus on liberal democracies is deliberate. If it can be shown that U.S. constitutional and practical checks and balances cannot impede the sovereign’s decision to mobilize military power in response to urgent, extraordinary and existential threats, then exceptional militarism is likely to be a side-product of securitization processes everywhere.  It is the same for the social forces implicated in the rise of the market society: if thoroughly capitalist advanced liberal democracies states engage in exceptionalist militaristic practices, then all polities can, too. In fact, and more provocatively, it may well be that Schmittian are correct to suggest that capitalist development is co-constitutive with exceptionalism and the juridical, political and military transformations it effectuates.

While the Cold War context did maintain the civil-military divide, it saw growing tensions. First, the increased involvement of the military (and ‘civilian militarists’) in strategic planning posed problems for the neat divide between civilian and military. Increasingly, the military became a potent source of power within the US state, due to the increased funding of the military, but also due to the warped perspective of the Cold War. What likely was more important, however, was the increased reliance on extra-military force during the Cold War, mainly through intelligence agencies, but also through ‘military-military’ diplomacy, training arms transfers and other forms of security assistance (Barkawi, 2011).

The covert operations of agencies abroad led the way for increased influence post-Cold War. While much of this was expedient in the Cold War context, it also highlighted an increasing blurring of the civil-military divide, with CIA leaders being directed by civilian elites rather than the serving military. Despite various scandals and “lessons learned” of the Cold War period (Kurlantzick 2017), such actions became increasingly prominent post-Cold War. The way of US intelligence agencies have conducted their operations abroad—the recent record of aerial strikes, kidnappings, and extraterritorial and extraordinary renditions—have only increased the importance of the blurred lines. That the present US foreign policy is heavily reliant on drone strikes, of which more than half are conducted by a secret CIA programme, or through quasi-secret agencies such as JSOC (Gregory, 2011; Niva, 2013; Shaw, 2013).

As we mentioned earlier, the Trump administration’s notorious ‘Muslim ban’ on 27 January 2017 is an outstanding illustration of exceptionalist militarism (Thanks go to the budding securitization theorist Jonathan Caverley for helping us interpret this performance). The U.S. president signed this executive order during the swearing in ceremony for the new defence secretary, James Mattis, at the Pentagon, alongside an order to increase military spending, in a press room adorned with military symbols (including an oversized Medal of Honor, the country’s highest military decoration), and with a declaration for the media: “We are not admitting into the country the very threats our soldiers are fighting overseas.”

The American president will almost certainly be engaging in further performances of this kind. Preview: on February 17, 2017 the Associated Press obtained a draft memo written by Trump’s homeland security secretary, John Kelly, a retired marine general, that considered mobilizing 100,000 national guard troops to round up and deport unauthorized immigrants.

Part II published on 18/03/17.


3 thoughts on “Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part I

  1. Pingback: Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part II | The Disorder Of Things

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