War and democracy in the age of Trump
The ancient Greek historian Herodotus once observed that Persian rulers indulged the habit of getting drunk when making important decisions. When sober and sensible next morning, their custom was to reconsider their decision, and either stick to it, or revise or reject it outright. They had another method of decision-making, he noted: they took decisions when sober, then affirmed or declined them when drunk.
His story was probably apocryphal. But let’s for a moment take the cue of Herodotus and imagine a polity whose ruler outdoes the Persians, by a mile: a ruler who is gripped by narcissistic urges, an ethnarch who feels compelled to take decisions and do deals all day and night, intoxicated by his own power.
He’ll keep the war machine switched on; succour the widespread belief among the citizens of America that their country has a global responsibility to keep the world safe, for America, in its own self-image.
Another concocted fiction, perhaps. But on the eve of the inauguration of Donald Trump, speculation mounts everywhere that the world is in for trouble at the hands of a deal-making, decision-taking president high on his vast executive powers and his narcissistic self. “Trying to predict how Trump will behave is very difficult,” says Harvard’s Joseph Nye. “This country has never experienced a commander in chief who is this unpredictable. And that surely is dangerous.”
The most serious rumours in circulation centre on the possibility that Trump is either preparing to launch a major war, or that his deal-making impulsiveness will lead to a major war, for instance with China. Such rumours of course overlook the fact that the United States already has troops and military installations in 150 countries, and that it is engaged in constant drone battling and other forms of armed manoeuvring and engagement. The American imperium is permanently at war.
Whatever Trump does, we can be sure that he won’t break with this pattern. He’ll preserve the all-party consensus, the peculiar fact that America has no peace party. He’ll keep the war machine switched on; succour the widespread belief among the citizens of America that their country has a global responsibility to keep the world safe, for America, in its own self-image.
All this suggests it’s a good moment to look at On War and Democracy, the latest publication of Christopher Kutz, the leading scholar of war, ethics and democracy at the University of California Berkeley. This timely book, actually a set of essays, was published some months before Trump’s campaign victory, but the political and ethical territory it covers is more or less the same terrain in which President Trump will operate.
The background ethical question raised by Kutz is whether or not democracies are ethically duty-bound to protect others. Are they obliged to intervene militarily in support of people in far-away lands and cities, the infernos of Aleppo and Idlib, for instance, whose citizens are victimised by insufferable bullying, or terrible violence that crushes and destroys the lives of many tens of thousands?
As a fine scholar of ethics, Kutz is well aware of normative dilemmas and aporia. None is arguably so fundamental as the ethical dilemma that confronts all states that claim to be democratic: if they intervene in contexts riddled with violence, as India did in Bangladesh in 1971, and the United States first did in Mexico, the Philippines and Cuba, and has repeatedly done around the world during recent decades, then democracies are readily accused of double standards. They are said to have violated the territorial “sovereignty” and autonomy of peoples entitled to govern themselves. Democracies and their democrats are called meddlers, autocrats, colonisers and imperialists.
On the other hand, if democratic states fiddle while people’s lives are ruined, and choose by design or default not to intervene (recent cases include Syria, Ukraine, Rwanda, Palestine and Timor Leste), then democracies are easily accused of hypocrisy. They are condemned for their wilfully blind eyes, their duplicitous ignoring of cruelty that flouts the democratic principle that all people should be treated as dignified equals.
Commander-in-Chief Trump will likely tweet, and treat, this ethical dilemma as an irrelevance in the jungles of global politics. Making America strong again will for him have little or nothing to do with democracy, and everything to do with threats, tough bargaining and triumphant deals. It’s a sign of the times that Kutz’s On War and Democracy shares a similar starting point, but for quite different reasons. Using philosophical argument rather than populist prattle, Kutz tries to set aside the ethical dilemma, and to do so by beating a double retreat.
To begin with, the distinguished philosopher opts for a trimmed-down understanding of democracy. For Kutz, it isn’t a whole way of life, as it was for Tocqueville, and today remains for many citizens and political thinkers. He speaks instead of “agentic democracy”. It’s an unlovely neologism, by which he means that democracy is a set of liberal norms centred on free and fair elections protected by law and the “public working out of shared values, in a process of dialogue and accommodation”.
Democracy in this liberal sense is for Kutz not a universal principle. It’s certainly valuable, and to be valued, by decent and reasonable people. But it’s just one political norm among many possible others, including opposite norms such as the sovereign right of states to declare and prosecute war.
What is interesting is that Kutz uses this cut-back definition of democracy to beat a second retreat. He argues against efforts to draw the democratic ethic into the dirty business of geopolitics, military intervention and killing and maiming people. Drawing upon the work of the American philosopher Thomas Nagel and others, the true task of a theory of democratic ethics, says Kutz, is prickliness. The ethic of democracy should be crabby, querulous, ornery. Its ethical obligation is to stand back from talk of war, to sound the alarm against military folly. The democratic ethic should apply pressure on all theories and practices of war by calling into question their claimed permissibility.
Kutz says little about the unfinished global discussion that began a generation ago concerning the ethics of the atomic bomb. It remains relevant, if only because, in the hands of thinkers and writers otherwise as different as Bertrand Russell, Hans Jonas and George Orwell (“The great age of democracy and of national self-determination was the age of the musket and the rifle,” he soberly reminded his readers in October 1945), democratic ethics was inclined not just to call for a halt to the production of weapons of war, but to demand the abolition of war itself.
Kutz is rather silent about this line of radical thinking born of the nuclear age. He’s also silent about a more recent version of the absurdity-of-war argument: the rising claim by many people and organisations on our planet that war provides no solution to our principal security challenges, which include species destruction and climate change. Kutz downplays these concerns. He instead wants to point out that the ethic of democracy, as he defines it, stands equally in tension with the old state-centric principle of jus ad bellum (the untrammelled right of “sovereign” states to declare war), the UN Charter and its restriction of war to self-defence, and muscular human rights norms that have been used, in Iraq, Libya and elsewhere, to justify military intervention.
The ethic of democracy, says Kutz, is equally opposed to ISIS and al-Qaeda forms of violence that don’t conform to the “regular war constellation” model of uniformed, hierarchically ordered armies. The salient point made by Kutz is that the ethic of democracy is against violence. It is also telic. That’s to say that the norm of democracy should be seen as “relentlessly critical”, as a restraint on “collective violence, not as a new source of war’s legitimacy”. This is the “operating conceit” of On War and Democracy, says Kutz: “the respect for our personhood that animates democracy demands a humility in the face of conflict, rather than the imperial assertiveness that has characterised so much democratic rhetoric, from the French Revolution to the Second Iraq War”.
Like all vanities, the operating conceit of this book is not without limitations, several of them far from trivial. Classicists will note that had Kutz paid attention to scholarship (by David Pritchard and others) on the ancient Greek democracies, he would have been forced to ponder, and to worry philosophically about, their ingrained bellicosity. The Life and Death of Democracy points, for instance, to the discomforting but still little-known fact that the norm of dēmokratia originally harboured connotations of military rule. Usually translated as “to rule” or “to govern”, for instance, the root verb kratein [κρατείν] meant mastery, military conquest, getting the upper hand over somebody or something.
Some readers will point out that Kutz says practically nothing about the entanglement of the ethic of democracy with violence inside democracies. Think of the Second Amendment, and the way American democrats use it to justify the God-given right to bear arms in public. Other readers will spot the way this book is mainly silent about the worrying spread in our time of privatised violence perpetrated by condottieri unhindered by the “laws of war” (around 50% of the US forces that invaded Afghanistan and Iraq comprised contractors employed by for-profit companies such as Blackwater).
Still other readers will note how Kutz unwisely presumes, with Francis Fukuyama and other American liberal ideologues, that the normative ideal of “democracy remains unchallenged, even unchallengeable”. Would that things were so simple. This liberal presumption, as these field notes have been pointing out for several years, is crumbling fast. Understandably, since not only does it understate the multiple dysfunctions that are now paralysing states called democracies. The end of history thesis is equally blind to the great resilience of its competitor enemies, including the new phantom democracies of Russia, Iran and China, which are not simply species of “managerial capitalism”, as Kutz claims they are. These regimes are better understood as despotisms.
This brings me, finally, to the most serious weakness of this book: the way Kutz’s cut-back liberal definition of democracy concedes too much ground by ignoring recent efforts (The Life and Death of Democracy is my own contribution) to redescribe democracy as not just one norm among others, but as a universal norm. The theory of monitory democracy tries to do this. It treats democracy as a universal norm because it defines democracy as suspicion of all talk of Grand Universal Norms, such as the Market, the Sovereign Nation or God. Monitory democracy puts pressure on all of these arrogant First Principles to admit their own particularity.
Democracy so conceived is a type of anti-foundationalist ethic. It is an ethic of humility and equality. It is an ethic that stands against all forms of arrogant arbitrary power, including on the battlefield. Seen in this way, the ethic of democracy is much more than a prickly outsider of war, and talk of war, as Kutz supposes. The ethic of democracy instead demands entry into the citadels of military power. It does so because it knows of the follies and idiocies of those who arrogantly plan and prosecute war. It therefore calls for slow thinking, for public openness and for the restraint of arbitrary power, especially when it is backed by weapons that kill, maim and destroy humans and the biomes in which they dwell.
Exactly this point about democracy as a universal ethical principle was made with great eloquence against the Blair government by the convenor of the 2016 Iraq Inquiry. In all matters of military power, said Sir John Chilcot in his executive summary, “all aspects of any intervention” must be “calculated, debated and challenged with the utmost rigour”.
In practice, this monitory democracy principle means, of course, that many if not most proposed military interventions would simply never happen. It means, too, that whenever violence of any form is legitimately used under battlefield conditions, for instance in self-defence or for the protection of vulnerable people, those responsible for the violence cannot ever be allowed to wield their power arbitrarily. They must give reasons for what they do, or are planning to do. They must not, and they cannot be allowed to, rape, pillage and wantonly destroy.
When democracy is understood as a universal ethical principle, the double retreat recommended by Kutz looks much too timid, and philosophically unconvincing. It nevertheless has important merits. On War and Democracy is thoughtful, erudite, a cut well above the old discredited consequentialism of “democratic peace” theorems. The book draws our attention to subjects as varied as torture, assassination, drones, secrecy and the dilemmas posed by revolutionary transitions to democracy. But the greatest strength of On War and Democracy is surely that it speaks to our troubled times. It’s a philosophical abreaction against the fact that the American democratic empire – like its two predecessors, classical Athens and revolutionary France – is today permanently at war.
We live in an age of “belligerent democracy”, says Kutz. We certainly do. The times they are a changin’, and unless things markedly improve, democrats who aren’t already swimming may well sink like stones, into public irrelevance. In this strange new era of global war, Kutz powerfully reminds us, the ethic of democracy is being victimised by imperial interventions in the name of democracy. Against political talk of “realism”, “war on terror”, “humanitarian intervention” and the “responsibility to protect”, his fundamental point is that the ethic of democratic politics is irenic. But it’s much more than that. It’s a non-violent weapon that is militant; it’s a precautionary principle that is as active as it is everywhere, and at all times, indispensable. The ethic of democracy speaks against the beasts of war, as surely it will be required to do during the Trump era that has already begun.
This column piece is also part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The series aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century.