Paul Miller of the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas – Austin has crafted a novel typology of foreign policy ideas. He bases the typology on two axes: whether the world is more or less dangerous, and whether the ideals of classical liberalism are universal or particular. It’s a clever approach, and one that makes room for a position that has been long absent from the high circles of the American debate on foreign policy. The four quadrants formed by Miller’s two axes are liberal internationalism, conservative internationalism, isolationism, and what he calls “nationalism.” It is this fourth quadrant that has been absent from foreign policy spheres. It holds that liberalism is not universally exportable to every nation and people, but that the world is too dangerous for an isolationist approach. This is a reasonable approach, Miller says, about which he would like to hear more.
The Security Studies Group certainly occupies this fourth quadrant, although we are not certain that “nationalism” is the right name for it. Certainly we emphatically reject any sort of ‘white nationalism’ or other sub-national identity politics. There has been a significant debate about “nationalism” lately. Regardless of the name for this quadrant, though, Miller’s description of its contents is accurate. We do believe that American foreign policy cannot be based on an appeal to universal values, and that the world is dangerous.
I am ultimately going to suggest that the universal/particular distinction that Miller is making is a category error, a serious philosophical mistake. I believe that people who occupy his own position, which he describes as ‘conservative internationalism,’ have misunderstood what it is for a thing like a “value” to be a universal or a particular. Understanding it properly shows why our view is in fact the correct view to take if you believe that the world is a dangerous place. I will begin by saying some things about the relationship between universals and particulars. I will then criticize the Afghan mission as an attempt to impose a universal counterinsurgency strategy in particular circumstances that are deeply hostile to that strategy. I will then show how the category error was arrived at by Miller’s predecessors, including Donald Rumsfeld. I will close by explaining how I believe that our position will lead to better results.
I. Universals and Particulars
We extract our ideas of universals from encountering many particulars. We get the idea of what a saw is from encountering many saws. Some may be circular saws, and others bow saws, some powered by electricity and some driven by hand. We don’t ever encounter the universal Saw. We do learn that whatever is called ‘a saw’ is a tool for cutting, and we learn that by examining the many different particular saws. Once we have learned that definition of “saw,” we have grasped the universal. We have also learned something about the particulars we might encounter in the future. Because we know what ‘a saw’ is we can reason that we might see future saws made out of iron or steel or something similar. We also know, as Aristotle noted, that you cannot make a saw out of wool.
In The Basic Requirements of Nationhood, I pointed out two universals that are at play in any sort of nation whatsoever. The first is security. Any nation must be able to secure its space in the world if it is to exist. Because security is necessary, so is justice. People can only work together to gain security if they can trust each other. They can only trust each other if they are reasonably assured of just treatment. So justice is a universal value, in a way.
But one never meets a true universal in the street. It is not that capital-J “Justice” has to exist in any nation in order to make that nation possible. Rather, particular nations have different notions of justice. Sometimes these ideas are not compatible. A Confucian culture considers it just when the natural authority of the family is mirrored in the state. A government that treats citizens as if they were children is called paternalistic in the West, and in America such paternalism is often resented. The last thing a free American wants is the government to exercise a fatherly authority over his or her every choice, shaping his or her life as if the government knew better than the individual.
So when Miller argues that nationalists think of American values as particular — he goes so far as to call them tribal — he is saying something too strong, but on the right track. Here is what he writes:
Liberalism is the tribal habit of western peoples, the received practice of Western history. We value it because it is ours, not because it possesses intrinsic, transcultural merit. Trump said in his Warsaw speech last year that, “Our freedom, our civilization, and our survival depend on these bonds of history, culture, and memory.” Trump argued that Western values depend on Western heritage and that liberalism is better understood as a cultural outgrowth of European history, not universalizable ideals that can be adopted by non-Western nations.
The effect of history on American values is real. As the historian Sidney Painter pointed out, our particular notion of the rights of a free man descends in large part from the feudal system that the Norman kings developed in England. Other parts, especially the religious liberties, came out of the British experience of the Reformation and the writings of the British thinker John Locke. Americans expanded on those ideals during and after the Revolution. The French had a very different practical experience in their Revolution, and drew on different philosophers. As a consequence the French idea of religious liberty is much more constrained. The universals are there present in all three: all three speak of Justice, Right, and Liberty. But each nation has shaped a particular approach to justice, to rights, and to liberties.
In some cultures the liberal values end up in conflict with one another. Consider “liberty” and “equality.” American culture expresses these two values in alignment: by equally defending everyone else’s liberty in a system of law, one defends one’s own liberty. Consider a culture that is genuinely tribal, though. Here, defending one’s liberty is chiefly about defending one’s tribe and its interests. The tribe keeping faith with itself allows its members to advance their own interests more than they would if the tribe broke faith with its own. That means that one advances liberty interests not by treating all people as equals, but by favoring one’s tribe. It’s very hard to talk people out of that model if it is what they have known their whole lives.
The same is true for genuinely patriarchal societies: equality and justice look to be out of order with each other. Confucian societies are a subset of these, but it is true of all genuine patriarchies. Justice in these societies is supposed to entail rule by a class of older men who are supposed to be exercising a natural fatherly authority for the good of all. ‘Equality’ would mean no longer being guided principally by these fatherly figures, and that would be out of order with these cultures’ basic picture of justice. The universals “Justice” and “Equality” still exist, but in the particular way in which the culture realizes them they are in conflict. Just as you cannot make an iron saw into a steel saw except through tremendous effort, you cannot change the particular way in which these universals have been realized without a tremendous effort. It often simply may be too hard for a policy agenda spanning a four year presidency, an eight year presidency, or even a whole generation of American effort.
Thus, to say that fourth quadrant thinkers don’t believe that values can be universal is too strong. What we believe is that even universal values exist practically as particulars that differ. History and culture inform the way the universal is expressed in real life.
II. Case Study on Particulars vs. Universals: Afghanistan
The failure to appreciate the degree to which these particular differences complicate the striving for the universals is the real issue that Miller encounters. In explaining why our long-running strategy in Afghanistan is fatally flawed, we pointed out that the universal counterinsurgency strategy at work in both Iraq and Afghanistan runs into particular difficulties in the ‘Stan.
If you put the American counterinsurgency strategy into plain English, it would be this: We stop insurgencies against approved systems of government by raising the costs of being an insurgent, while also raising the benefits of participation in the system high enough that former insurgents have too much of a stake in that system to rebel against it. In other words, it is not just about killing people who are fighting the system. We also do good for people so that they have a positive reason to want to be part of the system. We might build them improved water pumps or treatment facilities, roads, factories, or get them jobs. They need a stake in the system that is better than what they can get by fighting.
In Iraq, that strategy had every potential for success… because it had a number of things that Afghanistan lacks. Iraq has a seaport, for one thing, from which its goods can reach global markets. Iraq has developed highways that lead directly to relatively rich countries like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Jordan. Iraq has oil, which is not a small matter. Iraq has Mesopotamia, which produces rich agricultural trade goods like oranges. Iraq had an industrial base including factories and power plants that were at or near function, although some needed work after the Saddam era. Iraq also had a fairly highly educated population that could take a factory job, or learn to keep up and repair industrial machinery. Iraq could thus be tied into the global economy, and that would provide the big benefits — the stake — that would ensure former insurgents had too much to lose to go back to war….
Afghanistan lacks all the necessary conditions for that strategy to work. Even now, there is almost no infrastructure on which an industrial economy could depend. There will never be sea ports. Highways lead not to wealthy neighbors, but to Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Pakistan. Only the last two of those have wealth, and both of them use that wealth to encourage parts of the insurgency.
It is not that the universal counterinsurgency plan lacks transcultural appeal. The ideal of access to prosperity and safety in return for political support is nothing other than the establishment of justice in order to craft security. It is exactly what I was talking about in universal terms at the beginning of the Basic Requirements of Nationhood.
Rather, it is the failure to grapple with the particular that dooms the Afghan mission. These particular challenges complicate our universal strategy. So does Afghanistan’s tribal culture, which puts the values of ‘equality’ and ‘liberty’ in conflict. So does Afghanistan’s intensely patriarchal culture, which puts the values of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ in conflict. The particular American take on our values aligns those values with each other. Maybe that’s the best particular way to realize these values, because the alignment of the values strengthens them. If so, that’s a good reason for an American to feel patriotic. But it doesn’t mean that Afghanistan is a fertile field for the particular American take on these universal values.
You cannot make a saw out of wool. You could make something that looked like a saw, but it could not function as a saw. You can do your best to stand up the image of a prosperous democracy in Afghanistan, but it will not function. The material is not there.
III. Case Study on Particular Values: Old and New Europe
The conservative internationalists Miller cites as his own faction have not always rejected the idea that there are particular cultures more inclined than others to their project. Donald Rumsfeld advanced that very idea during the neoconservative Iraq War project, when he divided Europeans into “Old Europe” and “New Europe.” New European powers, newer members of NATO like Poland, were more likely to support the idea of overthrowing an oppressive system in order to advance a new birth of human liberty. It made sense to them in a way it did not to Old European powers like Germany and France. The reason it made sense to them was that they had recently experienced the overthrow of Communism, which similarly made possible a new birth of liberty. It was that particular experience that made them open to the universal claim being made by the neoconservatives.
This is where the category error occurs. The particular Polish experience gave rise to particular Polish values that made the particular American values seem, to both cultures, as if they were truly universal values. These conservative internationalists mistook a set of particulars for the universal. This is a serious philosophical error, but it is understandable that it happened. The way we identify universals is by extracting them from several particulars. When we find that several ideas about justice agree, the impulse to conclude that the agreement is a universal is understandable.* Nevertheless, even if the Polish and American senses of justice agree to a large degree, they are still two particular senses: the Polish sense and the American sense. There are other particular ideas about justice that do not agree. The longing for Justice may be universal, but no matter how perfectly we may agree, your ideas and my ideas are not the same idea. They exist in different minds, and they were formed at different times and in different ways. They are not the universal, but remain two particulars that happen to agree.
Ultimately the foreign policy elite, whom Miller says are mostly universalists, would do well to reflect on the way this very discussion about universals and particulars played out between Plato and Aristotle. Plato believed in the primacy of universals, which he thought of as “Forms” that existed somehow separately from the physical things that participated in them. Aristotle argued that there were very few** separate Forms. At least in the physical world, Aristotle is plainly right. Perhaps there is a separate Form of Saws in the mind of God, or some similar metaphysical place. There are no saws here in the physical world that are not particular saws. Likewise, we never encounter Justice Itself, only systems of justice with particular features and particular histories. Everyone involved in the pursuit of justice are beings conditioned by physical bodies, who have circumstances and cultures, histories and institutions that shaped their lives. As a consequence, practical values are going to end up being particulars, not universals.***
That is why it is important to appeal to particular cultures and particular histories, and why it is reasonable to expect to find our most ready allies in those who have had the most similar experience. The Poles are allies because their experience of throwing off tyranny in favor of liberty is fresh. The British are a long way down the road of forgetting the experience of tyranny, but they have deep cultural traditions that sustain at least some capacities: things like the Special Air Service and the Black Watch. Iraq was a plausible adventure because, in spite of particular challenges, there were particular advantages that could be brought to bear. Afghanistan was never going to be transformed in this way. Both its particular physical situation and its particular culture and values are too much at odds.
The above sounds sharply critical, but in fact I greatly appreciate Miller’s piece. This is precisely the sort of discussion that our nation needs to have. Ultimately I think that the view he assigns to his fourth quadrant is the right view. For one thing, it avoids a category error that has misled us into vast losses of blood and treasure. It has cost untold particular lives, both American and not, in a mission that never had a chance of success.
A foreign policy along our lines would be at once more humble and stronger. It would be more humble because it would recognize that American values are not true universals that are only waiting to be brought about in every culture in the world. The American way may be especially valuable because it aligns various values that are otherwise in conflict. Americans are justified in being proud of that fact. All the same, recognizing the power of the particular means having a clearer view of the challenges involved in transforming the values of other nations. It is much harder than we have led ourselves to believe. Understanding that will prevent over-extension.
Not over-extending ourselves will make America stronger. As Sun Tzu teaches, we should understand ourselves as well as our enemies. We have made both errors of late: we have thought our values more powerful than they are, and we have failed to account for the power of extant cultures and traditions in Iraq or Afghanistan. We are fortunate to have had the chance to work this out now, in conflict with forces in those nations, rather than discovering it in conflict with China. There, too, a Confucian and intensely patriarchal culture will be resistant to many particular American expressions of moral values even where there is a universal, like Justice, that is common to both.
That is not to say that there is no way to proceed when we think our values are better than another nation’s. This view leaves a rhetorical and philosophical engagement on values on the table for the United States. We are free to argue that our way is the best way, and to try to show members of other cultures just why we believe that is so. This kind of engagement was effective during the Cold War. It is a longer-term effort, and it was carried out by non-kinetic means. These means were sustainable in a way that kinetic military campaigns are not. Efforts such as the US Information Agency, Radio Free Europe, and USAID carried out long-term rhetorical and philosophical campaigns against Communism at a fraction of the cost of things like the Vietnam war. The transformative effect of American cultural products such as Hollywood movies and blue jeans actually made us money while advancing our values abroad.
Nor does abandoning military missions aimed at transforming other cultures mean weakening American might. By setting achievable goals for military actions, America can again enjoy victories on the global stage. The perception of an America that wins the fights it chooses will make foreign foes less likely to chance a fight, thinking they can drag it out until we give it up. They will learn instead that America fights in the way that is right for us, the way that ensures that our friends are protected and our enemies punished. For too long it has been the other way around. That has weakened our nation. It is time to set that right.
* For the ancients, for whom ideas were immaterial, the impulse is even stronger. If you and I both extract the immaterial Form that unifies all saws using the workings of our immaterial souls, in the manner Aristotle describes in De Anima, that form will surely be the same for you and for me. This is because matter is what has potential to be one thing or another. Iron can become a sword or a saw while remaining iron, but a saw can’t be turned into a sword without ceasing to be a saw. The universal thus seems to be separate from any potential to be something else, and thus it must be the same for everyone who has internalized it. Yet if the ancient view were true, there should be no disagreement among disinterested philosophers who have correctly internalized the form of Justice or some other virtue; and in fact, philosophers have never managed to agree about the exact essence of Justice. Thus, there must be some particularity in our understanding of Justice.
Many modern thinkers should be less prone to this error because so many have ceased to believe in the immaterial. If you believe that the mind and the brain are in some manner necessarily related, then the workings of your brain are obviously different from the workings of mine. Our ideas are then not fully immaterial, and are therefore necessarily and demonstrably separate particulars. Neither of us could possibly possess the universal on such a picture of mind/body relations. In fact, the danger of the materialistic approach is that universals seem in danger of ceasing to exist at all.
** Aristotle offers an argument against separate forms in several places, but seems to endorse the idea in the later parts of the Metaphysics where it comes to ‘unmoved movers.’ These seem to be real separate forms, as they have no matter. But they are not present as physical earthly objects.
***For those who are followers of John Rawls, this is why the famous ‘Veil of Ignorance’ thought experiment has to remain a thought experiment. Even if we all agreed that it would lead to a more just society, we couldn’t actually carry out a ‘veil of ignorance’ in real life. It cannot be a practical project because of the impossibility of setting aside things like the experience of class or wealth, which have conditioned our views of what practically just outcomes would look like.