Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part II

Based on a paper I am co-authoring with Bryan Mabee. See Part I here.

Nation-statist militarism is the default (‘normal’) setting for militarism in international and global life.  Following Mann, this manifestation of militarism is characterized by some form of civilian control over the armed forces and a state-led economic and social mobilization of ‘destructive’ forces. (Alternative labels are ‘Westphalian militarism’ and even ‘Keynesian militarism’). In claiming the monopoly of legitimate violence, the nation-state prioritized territorial defence; planned, built and consumed from its own arsenals; and engaged in military recruitment practices that reflected and reinforced the prevailing social structures of the nation (whether professionalized or constricted).

This type subsumes what Mann refers to ‘authoritarian militarism’ and ‘liberal militarism’, his main examples coming from Europe–the absolutist polities and their twentieth century authoritarian descendants (e.g. Germany, Russia) versus the polities deriving from the constitutional regimes (e.g. Britain, France).  It even subsumes the militarisms of the post-1945 nuclear age, which include, in Mann’s terminology, sub-types like ‘deterrence-science militarism’ (‘techno-scientific militarism’) and ‘spectator sport militarism.’

Nation-State militarism captures aspects of American political and social development since at least early 1900s, when the U.S. became the world’s largest economy, and especially since late 1940s, when it became the world’s leading military power as well as the champion of liberal ideologies, institutions, and practices (Mabee 2014). By the interwar period, the focus on the scale of the state and its potential for internal intervention became crucial: the balance between war preparation, state centralization and liberalism were all necessary for the maintenance of security at home and from threatening states abroad (Katznelson, 2013; Neocleous, 2008; Leuchtenburg, 1964). The rupturing of the global economy through the Great Depression of the 1930s, combined with a renewed emphasis on interstate rivalry in Europe, meant a generalized push towards Nation-Statist models.

As such, we see much of the beginning of a shift towards a Nation-State mode of militarism through the result of the shocks of World War I creating a new perception of the role of violence, and the ways in which the state might regulate such violence. World War II was perhaps the highpoint of this form of militarism. What was distinctive about this militarization was the mobilization by the state – the state managed the war economy through the direction of private enterprise, and directed the mobilization of military assets – labour through conscription, materiel through the various coordination programs and government purchases (and wartime loans). That total war broke down many previously sacrosanct notions of public/private should not be surprising (especially as these were hardly as distinct as many might have thought previously, as demonstrated in the case of civil society militarism), but this was not the case of a blurred lines between civilian control and the military.

Many have argued that the notions of popular and territorial sovereignty are changing, but the dramatic upheavals in the Euro-Atlantic political landscapes of 2016—Trump, but also the ‘Brexit’ referendum in the UK—are evidence of the enduring power of the ‘nation-state’. Geopolitical upheavals can be identified as well, one consequence of which is the fact that some countries heretofore described as “post-conscription” are now busily re-introducing conscription. Of course, one could also add that Nation-State militarisms are co-constituted with business-as-usual politics, not only with “upheavals.” The monopoly on the use of force can be found whenever a state retains some monopoly on mobility, which characterizes, to one degree or another, the operation of every state actor in the world today—Trump’s “Muslim ban” merely puts this into sharp relief. Same goes for the domestic policies pursued by Trump’s administration that oppress women and non-white minorities by mobilizing various forms of military power. While there are good reasons why these policies are newsworthy, their newsworthiness should ideally inspire historical reflection on the mutual constitution between militarism on the one hand and patriarchy and racism on the other (Elshtein and Tobias, ed. 1990; King, 1967; Gilmore 1999).

Civil society militarism: now a major motion picture

The third type of militarism still derives from a pronounced statism, but thrives on deliberately blurred lines between soldiers and civilians. The classic manifestation is what Mann calls civil society militarism—the use of organized military violence in pursuit of social goals that is ‘state-supported, but not state-led’ (1996: 235). This conceptualization is especially helpful in thinking about Europe’s liberal regimes from the perspectives of their colonial empires in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australasia. Indeed, in assessing the sordid history of civil society militarism, Mann deliberately draws parallels with nation-statist militarism, including the ‘militarised socialism’ of the Soviet Union and the Nazi German ‘nation-racist’ militarism. This repeats a larger point mentioned earlier: liberal theories of civil-military relations often get in the way of illuminating the embeddedness of military power in social relations.

While the US as often seen as a proto-typical liberal state, it did very much emphasize civil society as core to political life, and a liberal aversion to standing armies, but this was tempered by a tension with its republican origins. The US was borne out of tensions between liberal and republican understandings of military power, which were against standing armies (liberal) but also saw the virtue in the ‘citizen-soldier’ who would be the core protector of the nation and also inscribed with military virtue (e.g. Sherry, 1995; Weigley, 1977; Wood, 2007). As such, the strict demarcation of military and civilian was eschewed in terms of a general military virtue. Not only were volunteer militia forces crucial for a number of expansionist military ventures (such as the 1846 War with Mexico), but also in terms of settler colonialism in the West more generally. The racialized Western expansion through Manifest Destiny was a goal of the state – indeed the writers of the Federalist had promoted expansion for the health of the republic – but one that was activated by civil society (Horsman, 1986; Stephanson, 1995).

The amateur attitude towards the military also helped blur the lines of soldier-citizens. The criticism of professionalism was aimed squarely at institutions such as West Point, which during the Jacksonian era critics ‘denounced as un-American, claiming it established a military aristocracy that monopolized the officer corps and degraded enlisted men’ (Millett, Maslowski and Feis, 2012: 120). The blurred demarcation between civilian and military also played out in politics. Despite normative invocations of anti-militarism, the US consistently elected officials who had also been military leaders to major political posts (though military professionals had little political influence prior to World War II): Mills (1956: 177) notes that at the time he wrote ‘about half of the thirty-three men who have been President of the United States had had military experience of some sort; six have been career officers; nine have been generals’.

The Civil War was also heavily reliant on volunteer forces which were mainly organized at the State level (McPherson, 1990: 322-323; Millett, Maslowski and Feis, 2012: 154-155). The victory of the North increased national political power and the institutional reach of the national state (Bensel, 1990; Skocpol, 1992; Skowronek, 1982), but in the aftermath of war, we see the continuation of the maintenance and promotion of an armed citizenry through a variety of aspects: for example through the campaigns against African-Americans in the South (see Millett, Maslowski and Feis, 2012: 229-233); or through a continued promotion of volunteerism (voluntoldism for some) in military adventures (for example, the role of the ‘Rough Riders’ 1st United States Volunteer Cavalry in the Spanish-American War). By the end of the nineteenth century, military virtue is still being played up as an important element of US nationalism.

Post World War I, a number of civil society movements developed in to support militarization (and provided a kind of militarism as well). Groups such as the National Security League and Plattsburg Movement advocated for preparedness, and were made up of ‘urban, professional, and business Neo-Hamiltonian reformers who were interested in disciplining if not regimenting American society, homogenizing the immigrant masses and rationalizing the political and economic order’ (Koistinen, 1989: 48). These groups created pressure for a more top-down approach to defence, that centre more on organization. Additionally, the problems of an armed civil society were beginning to coalesce. While the issue of gun control was still salient – as was the role of civil society violence in Southern race relations – there was also an increased concern about the unregulated arms industry and what role it played in fostering the militarism of other states. The Congressional Nye Commission was developed to provide a critique of such institutions, which had been portrayed as ‘merchants of death’. The result was to place more emphasis on the state as in control of arms, here through the imposition of export controls on weapons.

Although not as pervasive and powerful as in the era of colonial empires, military power continues to be mobilized by civilian actors  today. Many criminal, terrorists and insurgent groups belong to the ‘state-supported, but not state-led’ rubric, but their activities constitute only one dimension of civil society militarism. The Mexico-United States border control ecology has virtually always included the so-called vigilante groups.  One contemporary example being the American Border Patrol, whose leaders are now keen to share their expertise with the Trump administration. There, militarism is configured in the deployment of military veterans, military hardware and tactics (drones and small planes engaged in intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance operations), and military culture (camouflage outfits, command structure) to ‘monitor the border’ and, in some cases, interdict and detain border-crossing immigrants as well.

Campaign manager of the future US president writes to the president of American Border Patrol, 28 Aug 2015

What is remarkable here is not the decline of armed civilian groups replacing or shadowing state-run border control, police and military forces, but their stickiness in modern political life: how these groups define threats to individual or collective security, what they do to check or remove those threats, how they manage to co-exist with state institutions, and what ramifications all of this has for different security agendas are questions yet to be systematically examined in CSS (but see Doty 2007).

Neoliberal militarism refers to the configuration of social forces and social relations in which military mobilization is achieved at once through the framework of socio-economic liberalization and through the formal division between (professional) soldiers and civilians. Its conceptual predecessor, liberal militarism, was originally developed by David Edgerton to identify and explain the uniqueness of the British experience. This idea was further developed by Mann and Shaw, who used it to identify, respectively, the evolution of militaristic activities of the West European liberal democracies in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and in the twenty first century.

Liberal militarism also provides a salient description of the US in the Cold War. With the increased importance of the defence economy – the US never went for a system of private arsenals rather investing heavily in its own defence firms and research via universities – also meant that the private sectors had an important role in Cold War militarism, though still state directed (Hooks and McLauchlan, 1992; Leslie, 1993; Sherry, 1995). However, American liberal militarism is in many ways unique due to the U.S.’ leadership or hegemonic role in the international system—witness the U.S. record vis-à-vis comparable liberal states on the use of military force to resolve international conflict, on support for international diplomacy and law, and on defence spending (Smith 1994, Lepgold, and McKeown 1995, Kingdon 1999, Ikenberry 2001, Deudney and Meiser 2012; also see this post by Jesse Crane-Seeber).

In their recent typology of liberal militarism, which focuses on contemporary Western Europe, Jean Joana and Frédéric Mérand (2014) make a convincing case that the post-1970s and 1980s economic liberalization has considerably transformed the enactment of militaristic activities. The expansion of the ideas, institutions and practices of neoliberal capitalism indeed transformed the social forces mobilized in military power, first in the Euro-Atlantic area, and then globally.

That one neoliberal time when Hardin, MO was about to be policed by a nice Serb businessman

The relevant developments are not simply the marketization of defence procurement and of personnel management and the decline of the military draft, all of which are neatly summarized by Joana and Mérand. They also include the rise of private military actors such as neo-mercenary and security companies (staffed by military veterans using high-tech military gear—see Abrahamsen and Williams 2009), the privatization and spread of military logistics (and its overlaps with corporate logistics—see Cowen, 2014), the proliferation of new military technologies (as in ‘smart’ border control—see Bigo, 2014), and the growing openness and competition in the international arms market and global military industries (for a provocative take on Israel’s role in global ‘militarized neoliberalism’, see Halper, 2014). Many of these developments rely not simply on the mechanics of late capitalism as such, but on the neoliberal imagination of freedom and fluidity.

Although some neoliberal developments are clearly reflected in, and reinforced by, an increasing geographic dispersion of production and consumption of military goods and services as well as in the growth of truly multinational military development and production, they do not impact all states and societies, and certainly not in uniform ways. The military draft, for example, remains in place in much of the world outside the Euro-Atlantic area and only one or two states have abolished it by constitutional fiat (Conway 2012).  All that said, the neoliberal imagination has already impacted, and is likely to continue to impact, the beliefs, values and practices of many military institutions.

What Next?

Typologies help theorists map out different aspects of the phenomena they study and identify areas of relative under-theorization. The purpose of this typology has been to show that CSS lacks, but needs to have, a better appreciation of militarism and its different forms.  The chief reason is the importance of context. If historical sociologists are right, the production of security cannot be separated from the sources of social power and therefore from the attitudes and practices involving warfare. The typical social forces and the prevailing social relations that give rise to diverse forms of militarism in different historical, social and political contexts are also likely to give rise to different meanings of security.  As many critics have pointed out in the case of securitization research, the nation-statist, liberal, and Western priors that dominate this scholarship do not have universal purchase.

Are the borders created by such a typology too neat in terms of caging what cannot be caged? Only if the alternative is complete methodological uncertainty. The point of the typology is not to deem anything that falls in between categories as marginal or irrelevant, but mainly to demonstrate diversity within the broad category of militarism The typology is also meant as a means to furthering research in the field, by opening up the concept in two ways: first, by demonstrating that militarism fits within a broader field of ‘security’ that has been side-lined; second, by theorizing a variety of forms of modern militarism, all of which need to be taken into account. Furthermore, the typology is meant as a guide to moving away from militarism as a mainly statist concept, by introducing a range of other forms of militarism and a means to looking at them globally.


Another benefit in thinking militarism typologically is that it helps us trace the main historical lineages. A substantial historical engagement is necessary for better understanding the contemporary dynamics of military power, not only seeing the changes taking place today, but their specific historical trajectories. Militarism has changed in form and politics from the study of colonial imperialism at the end of the nineteenth century to the twentieth century debates about the origins of the two World Wars, military revolutions, war and state formation, the problems of the developmental state in the ‘Third World’ and the strategic consequences of the Cold War, to the contemporary discourses surrounding the need for the ‘whole-of-government approach,’ ‘3D,’ or ‘security-development nexus’.

If there is historical movement in our typology, it is clearly at present pushed by socio-economic liberalization, rather than a shift in thinking about the boundaries between soldiers and civilians. What to make of this movement is another matter. We might want to clearly link this shift up to developments in global capitalism—surely crucial—but linking the trajectories of militarism too straightforwardly to political economic tendencies would betray some core insights of the historical sociological literature that we draw on: seeing militarism and military power as contingently related to other forms of power. This is why it is so crucial not lose sight of the other modes of militarism, and also see how readily they fit into the prevailing norms or ideologies concerning the ‘usefulness’ of military power. Attention to such developments can go a long way in helping CSS scholars meet the aforementioned demand for better contextual awareness.

Typologies can additionally help identify the conditions under which different aspects of the phenomena relate each other. A case in point is the relationship between civil society militarism and the other three types. One of the core goals of CSS has always been to recast the study of security away from dominant—usually translating as state- and military-centric—discourses, institutions, and practices. Yet, if civil society militarism is characterized by state support, then the theoretical and analytical emphasis should be on the means through which that state support materializes—and these can entail normal, exceptional, and neoliberal components, to various degrees and in various combinations.

Considering how aspects of the phenomena relate to each other can also be accomplished by identifying new sub-types. As we said earlier, a large segment of CSS scholarship has focused on the sovereign’s representation of existential threats and the militaristic institutions, decisions, and practices designed to counter those threats. What is missing in this work is an engagement with the equally Schmittian notion of the ‘partisan’ (Schmitt, 1963), together with the ancillary concepts ‘guerrilla,’ ‘terrorist,’ ‘revolutionary,’ ‘militiaman,’ and ‘irregular’ (Slomp 2009: 73). In Schmitt’s work, these figures represent the anti-statist and anti-colonial forces that can overturn any political order, even a global capitalist one (Schmitt, 1963: 36).

Partizanke, Split 1944.

In the context of thinking about the multiple manifestations of militarism, we think there is an importance in bringing these two stands of Schmittian thought together, in two ways. Prima facie, US-led warfare in “AfPak,” the Middle East and North Africa suggests that partisan and exceptionalist militarisms are mutually constituted. Militarized counterterrorism has bolstered state purpose, power, and identity, and that jurisdictions and resources have blurred military and law enforcement authority, underscoring a distinctive power emanating from the state.  As such, we can appreciate certain ambiguities arising in counter-terrorist campaigns that involve coalitions with non-state groups and frequent movement between friend and foe.

Second, we can see how the emphasis on the partisan also moves us away from state authority, that ‘exceptionalist militarism’ securitizes terrorism and in doing so repositions intersubjective understandings of political violence, terrorist threat construction, and acceptable state force. These new powers are increasingly aligned with explicit references to ‘international’ dimensions, even if the international cannot be separated from the national in as far as domestic expressions of the enemy often rely upon international representations of modernity that separate the West from the rest of the world (on COIN, see especially Khalili, 2011 and Gilbert, 2015).

The bigger picture of these two inter-related arguments is the situating of militarism in either the interstices of state power, or, in terms of the reconfiguration of political power. For Hardt and Negri (2005), for example, militarism as a dimension of power is increasingly biopolitical, meaning engendered in the management of populations in the Foucauldian sense, and global in reach (‘Empire’). If it is interested in elucidating such reconfigurations of political violence, CSS would have to not only think more broadly about exceptionalist militarism, but also about how exceptionalist militarism is co-determined by other forms of militarism.

So What?

The stakes of understanding the diverse modalities of militarism are as high as ever. As should be clear from the typology above, we see present day CSS as mainly influenced by ‘exceptionalist militarism’. In some ways this is not entirely surprising due to Western scholars’ abiding interest in the U.S-led ‘war on terror.’ However, despite any insights that this quite extensive literature has brought, the inclusion of other modalities of militarism is crucial for both seeing more diversity in practice in contemporary global politics, but also for understanding the historical trajectories and local variations of militarism.

In terms of the future study of militarism, it is important to continue to diversify how we look at militarism.  We think typological analysis is helpful, but what is even more helpful is a devotion to the historical sociological examination of militarism, especially looking at it through a global lens rather than a statist one. This entails sustained attention to the interaction between the social forces and social relations of militarism in the context of multiple political fields and histories and the ways they function not in isolation, but in coordination and co-constitution with larger dynamics of power in the world.  CSS has an opportunity to make a major advance in contemporary scholarship by examining the constitution of this ‘global militarism.’

2 thoughts on “Militarism in the Age of Trump, Part II

  1. Pingback: Meeting to Advance Women Senior-level Representation in Libyan National Institutions | RiyadhVision

  2. Pingback: Taking “Militarism” Seriously in Critical Security Studies- Renaissance of a Concept? – Security Dialogue

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