The Voices of War

86. Professor Christopher Coyne - Monsters, Empires, And Illusions Of Peace: Navigating The Perils Of American Interventionism

VOW 86 | American Interventionism


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Today, I spoke with Dr. Christopher Coyne, who is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University and the Associate Director of the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center.

He is the author of five books and numerous academic articles, book chapters, and policy studies. He joins me today to discuss his latest book, In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Folly of American Empire and the Paths to Peace (2022), which is a pragmatic and unashamedly critical appraisal of American foreign policy.

Some of the topics we covered are:

  • Chris’ background and entry into academia and
  • How and why training in economics shaped Chris’ worldview
  • Importance of understanding incentives and their power
  • An argument against the concept of a ‘Hobbesian world’
  • Definition of the American Empire and its governance of ‘dominion’
  • Dangers of crony capitalism and its ties to the Military Industrial Complex
  • Issues with broken or non-existent chains of accountability
  • Concerns surrounding the ‘revolving door’ principle
  • Origins of US militarism and the Permanent War Economy
  • Military Keynesianism and the ‘Iron Triangle’
  • Limitations and unintended consequences of American interventionism
  • Unpredictability of complex systems
  • Impact of technological advances and the shift from ‘defence’ to ‘offence’
  • Exploring alternatives to war

Previous episodes that address similar topics and were referenced in this discussion include:

Professor Christopher Coyne – Monsters, Empires, And Illusions Of Peace: Navigating The Perils Of American Interventionism


My guest is Dr. Christopher Coyne, who is a Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and the Associate Director of the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at a Mercatus Center. He’s the author of five books and numerous economic articles, book chapters, and policy studies.

He joins me to discuss his book, In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Folly of American Empire and the Paths to Peace, which is a pragmatic and unashamedly critical appraisal of American foreign policy. I have finished this excellent book. Given my stance on war more broadly, most of our readers won’t be surprised to know that I enjoyed it, and I’m very much looking forward to this chat. On that note, Chris, thank you for joining me on the show.

VOW 86 | American Interventionism
In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Folly of American Empire and the Paths to Peace

Thank you so much for having me. It’s a pleasure to speak with you.

As I alluded to before we started the interview, I have finished the In Search of Monsters to Destroy, and it’s an incredible read. It might be worth mentioning because it is a controversial book. It was an exceptionally smart move to have all the praise or at least part of the praise for the book right up the front. There are some prominent names that have given it high praise. Firstly, thank you for writing it. It’s a very timely book, given what’s going on in the world at the moment.

Thank you so much. I’m grateful. When I started it, a lot of my research and scholarship were influenced by the War on Terror and the September 11 attacks. When I was writing it, it was before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but the topics are timely. Praise to the publisher, the Independent Institute, for putting the blurbs up front that you mentioned. That was their strategy. I’m grateful to them for thinking about that.

It’s very clever because it is a controversial book. Given what’s happening in the world, especially what’s happening in Ukraine, it’s very easy to nudge us ever so slightly towards militarism as the solution to these particular problems. I do want to pick up on how it all started. You did mention that it was around September 11, 2021. Can you describe that a little bit? What motivated your move firstly into academia? Why economics? This is geopolitics through a lens of an economist. Maybe some background on that.

I grew up in Northern New Jersey, right outside New York City. I went to an undergraduate in New York City. At first, I was studying Finance and Marketing until I got introduced to a professor in my third year who changed my life. He introduced me to economics in a way I hadn’t been introduced to. That was the impetus behind my introduction and, ultimately, my passion for economics.

After I graduated, I worked in finance on Wall Street. I worked there for two years before going back to get my PhD at George Mason, which is in Northern Virginia, right outside Washington, DC. I will come back to that in a moment. For part of that time after college, I lived across the river. I would take the path train into the World Trade Centre and then walk to Wall Street. I started graduate school in August 2001, so three weeks before the 9/11 attack. I had come from New York City, literally going into the World Trade Centre every day and then walking down to my office, and then I moved to Northern Virginia. The Pentagon is about 13 miles from where I’m sitting right now.

The 9/11 attacks happen. The United States government responded with what’s broadly called the War on Terror, including the invasions and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Something rubbed me the wrong way from the start with both of those invasions and occupations. What rubbed me the wrong way as an academic was the way they were being talked about in Washington, DC, which is a very simple problem.

We are going to go over and get rid of the bad people. Spread democracy and liberty. We are going to be welcome as liberators. I started thinking, “There are very basic things I think about as an economist. What incentives do people face? What knowledge do you need to design and implement policies? Can you design democracy and drop it down on people?”

I started studying these things, and that turned into my dissertation in my first book on US efforts to export democracy. I have been working on it ever since. It’s a topic I’m quite passionate about. It’s interesting, fascinating, and troubling, but also, there’s a reason for optimism because the flip side of conflict and violence is peace. To pursue peace, you have to understand all these messy and troubling topics. It’s worthy of study and something I have dedicated most of my academic career to for the last several years.

I couldn’t agree more. It is important to echo there that neither war nor peace is predetermined. It’s the upstream causes that will lead us down to that particular path. This brings me to a question that strikes me as interesting. The fact that you said that you have worked in Wall Street, which is a hyper-capitalised world when you are talking about incentives. It was followed immediately by 9/11.

It strikes me as peculiar that you became critical as opposed to 99% of the population sided. We need to solve this problem and react in a way that some might call emotional, angry, and revengeful. I find it interesting that you went the other way to look at this in a more pragmatic sense. Was there something in your life prior to that’s already shaped you towards this thinking? Was it 9/11 and post-9/11 US that opened your eyes a little bit?

A lot of it was my introduction to economics. After I was introduced during college, I started reading a ton of stuff on my own. Most of my prior economic education came from self-study when I was first introduced to those ideas up through entering graduate school in 2001 because, as I mentioned, I worked for two years.

When you start to internalise the economic way of thinking, you realise the importance of incentives but also the importance of true humility in terms of how little we know about the world and how little we can shape the world. Again, sitting outside Washington, DC, where I am now, it’s the epicentre regardless of political party. Policies are viewed as things that need to fix people. We need to design better policies to fix some problems in the world.

When you start to internalize the economic way of thinking, you realize the importance of incentives but also the importance of true humility in terms of how little we know about the world and how little we can shape it. Click To Tweet

There’s an underlying set of often tacit meaning unspoken assumptions behind that. One of them being that a small group of supposed experts possess knowledge superior to people on the ground. They somehow know how the world should look and that they can design and implement this grand plan.

That same logic that holds domestically holds internationally at a much broader scale, which is why even though the topics I’m talking about in this book are oftentimes viewed as either political science, public policy, or international relations, which is a subfield in political science. I think economics is a lot to offer because when you start thinking about the economic way of thinking applied to that, it offers a set of insights complementary to those other disciplines but also makes clear the limitations of what can be accomplished.

In our efforts to do good, there’s usually this drive to do good as you were putting it’s very emotional, and you can see why. When you see these situations of conflict and people getting hurt, our first urge is we must do something to help them. I get that urge, and I think not always, but often it’s motivated by good intentions. If we are not careful, especially in those moments of high emotion and the urge to do good, more often than not, we end up doing more harm than good. Appreciating the limits of what you can do is, I believe, more important than laying out this grand vision about what you want to do.

There were so many things that you said there that I’d like to touch on as we go through the conversation. The first thing that strikes me is this naivety about technical solutions that we can merely install a program into a society. The function of if then will carry forward, and the outcome will be as predetermined.

Unfortunately, we are yet to see that work. The amount of times I have said that on the show, we haven’t, and when I say we, the West more broadly and obviously led by the US and Australia tied to the hip with the US in every war since World War II, won one. That should serve as some warning that we don’t necessarily understand what goes on and what the fog of war might create. The other thing that I want to touch on is this idea of incentives. Firstly, what do you mean by incentives, and then how does that apply to such a grand narrative or grand idea as war?

When economists talk about incentives at the most basic level, so put aside all the foreign policy stuff we are talking about, as a general concept, incentives are simply the idea that people respond to changes and costs and benefits. If I perceive the benefits of an action to increase, I will engage in more of that behaviour as constant and vice versa, and people are natural-born economists. Think about when you are a kid. Your guardian creates incentives for you. If you do certain things, you get rewarded. If you do other things, you get punished.

I got a three-year-old. That is my life.

I have a three-year-old as well, so you and I are in the same boat. They don’t always listen to the incentives you said, but we try. That’s throughout life, and then you start taking that and applying it to all different areas of life. It certainly doesn’t answer all questions, but it does provide one set of eyeglasses through which to view the world and make sense of a lot of things. When we want to understand why people are behaving the way they are now, but also how they may or may not behave. When we try to induce changes in behaviour through policy, we are trying to create incentives, or we will create incentives even if we don’t intend to.

You then start applying that to all different things. The way I think about it is the logic of incentives can apply within the domestic apparatus that carries out foreign interventions. We can look at the incentives that apply all throughout the US government. From elected officials to bureaucrats, special interest groups, the voting, and members of the polity, the voters.

You then start moving abroad, and you say, “What incentives do the various stakeholders pick an area that’s being intervened upon? What incentives do they face?” Regional actors, international organisations like the United Nations or the World Bank, and then international NGOs. It gets messy quickly.

If anything, to my way of thinking, give pause. As you put it quite nicely, there’s a simple technocratic solution. Even if you have the most well-formulated plan by the most intelligent experts, however, they are defined, there are so many steps involved between that design and the implementation. There is a lot of space for various decision nodes and stakeholders at those nodes to do things that are going to influence the outcome in a different direction than what the well-intentioned designers will call them intended.

That’s music to my ears and something that I address in part in some of my own personal teachings when looking at motivations. We know that all behaviour is motivated by something. If you understand the motivation, in other words, the incentive, what is incentivising particular behaviour? You can start understanding why that behaviour occurs. Maybe that’s a nice pivot then to the book, and we will circle back onto incentives a number of times because it’s a very clear red thread throughout the book and an important one. What is the book’s main thesis, and who did you write it for?

The main thrust of the book is I want people to reconsider the nature of the American empire and America’s role in the international space. I will call it the West more broadly. There’s this acceptance that it’s a very Hobbesian view of the world. The world is a negative someplace where people are inherently violent and left to their own devices. Absent some Leviathan that brings order. There has to be someone to do it, and it might as well be us.

You had the British Empire prior to now America. You hear this language of the rules-based order that’s been created and enforced by the American government in the wake of the World Wars. It’s all this language of control by an entity. I’m trying to get people to rethink that and to recognise at least that there’s another side to it. Even if they disagree with all the arguments in the book, good things can happen when you intervene abroad.

There’s a heavy bias towards focusing on those good things and a presumption that the US government or some world-dominating government needs to control things in order to have order. I want people to reconceptualise that or at least broaden their concept of it to recognise the bads that there are a lot of bads that can emerge from that too. Also, by ex-ante, both assuming and asserting that now the American government needs to control things. It forces out even appreciating alternative paths to peace, the role of individuals, creativity, and so on.

Who the book is written for? In some sense, it’s written for everyone. I don’t say that to say everyone should read it. It’s written for people interested in this. If you look at the blurbs, for instance, that you mentioned earlier, the endorsements are fascinating things in that they are from across the ideological spectrum.

One of the interesting things about this topic is that you can find people who are more left-leaning or more right-leaning are sympathetic to various parts of the arguments in the book. Oftentimes, people who are more right-leaning or highly sceptical of government programs domestically say, “Education, healthcare, and government are terrible at providing these things.”

When it comes to foreign affairs, they will say, “The US must engage in nation-building to spread democracy and freedom.” You say, “If they are so bad at providing healthcare domestically or education, what makes you think they can go abroad and plop down these very things abroad?” I realise I’m generalising, but for the sake of the discussion, the point we are discussing is okay.

Those who are more left-leaning will oftentimes be quite concerned about corporate power, cronyism, and entanglements between large firms and the government. Also, how that undermines the dynamism of markets and the ability of those who are outside of that orbit to benefit from the system. Yet they will also endorse foreign interventions. Who carries out foreign interventions? It’s a massive complex that is defined by entanglements between government and private firms.

There’s space for people of all ideological persuasions to find something in this discussion that hopefully will enlighten them or at least challenge their thoughts about foreign intervention and the necessity of a world empire. Also, the claims that you can have an empire and liberal values. One of the paradoxes I try to point out in the book is the very idea of a liberal empire. It is a misnomer because the organisation and operation of the empire are illiberal and very natural.

A liberal empire is a misnomer because the very organization and operation of an empire is illiberal and its very nature. Click To Tweet

I want to get to that. I have a particular question on that particular point. I want to pick up on the Hobbesian aspect of the world. This is my conundrum. Having read your book, I see where you are coming from. My intuitive response is, and this is something I have spoken with Jason Pack about in a previous episode. Intuitively, I feel like I agree with the concept of the Leviathan in the sense that the world or the nation needs somehow centralised governance of duplication of power.

If for no other reason but to ensure that we have a response mechanism to those who seek to do us harm, notwithstanding that we do it and exercise our power way too easily. In other words, we go to war way too easily that Leviathan responds in order to prevent chaos or keep us from the brutish world that Hobbes envisages. Am I understanding you correctly that we don’t necessarily need to have the Leviathan at all defined in whichever way, whether it’s the world or national government? What do you mean?

There are a couple of things. I do think we don’t need those things, but I will come back to the reason why. What I do believe is that there are situations of conflict everywhere. Conflict is a ubiquitous part of human life, even in our own households. Conflict is when simply people’s interests are at odds with each other.

Like with mine or your three-year-old, that happens.

Exactly, or one significant other or our co-workers. Moments of conflict happen daily to everyone. Fascinatingly, most situations of conflict are not met with or resorted through violence, which we take for granted. Conflict is almost everywhere, but the way we respond to it is an object of choice, and there are two ways to respond to it.

We can resort to violence or find alternative means of navigating that conflict through peaceful channels. The default is when you empower a government at whatever level and say their role is military because absent at its chaos, you are privileging violence or threat thereof as a means of resolving conflict and the fact that all of us navigate conflict. Some people might say, “No, that’s because the state is in the background. You can call the police if there are some people.”

Maybe, but again, the prevalence of it, it works so well in most of our lives that we take it for granted, and we only notice moments where it breaks down because they are outlier moments. Saying that doesn’t mean that violence will never happen, but to my way of thinking, it calls into question the Hobbesian view of the world that everything is negative, some life is brutish short nasty, and so on.

The other challenge is this. When you create a Leviathan in order to enforce order, that Leviathan, by definition, has to have enough power to enforce order, the challenge is who’s going to look over the Leviathan. It pushes the challenge up a level that political philosophers have realised for centuries. This is the paradox of government. You create a government to do certain things, which are often called minimum protective activities like police, courts, and military activity. Who’s going to check them? A Leviathan strong enough to scale up to bring order to the world is truly an entity of such awesome powers that there’s no one that can constrain it.

The only way to constrain it perhaps is to have another Leviathan checking against it, but that leads to the elevation of violence. That leads to what political scientists call the security dilemma, which is that one side gets stronger in the name of defence. It makes others feel less safe, so they ramp up in response, and it cycles.

We are seeing that play out right now on the geopolitical chessboard.

Those are some initial responses to that train of thought. I understand why people might push back against that and still fall down the side of Leviathan, but that’s where I stand on my thinking about that now.

I see it 100%. I have spent some time thinking about this over the years, and where my reservation about that comes is having lived in a country like Sweden for three years. Sweden is not perfect. None of the Nordics are. I think from how the society is structured and how power is delegated, it strikes me as though it’s far more advanced.

I often refer to a country like Sweden as the West to the West in its enlightenment. Also, the way they train their police forces and how long it takes to even become a police officer. The training takes two years for a police officer, which is vastly different from what it is in a country like Australia and what it is in the US, as I understand.

We see the results, and having seen how Swedish police interact with the populace is vastly different to how I have seen the police interact with the populace in Australia. What I have seen on footage and the world knows about the US. It strikes me. Perhaps, they have hit a different balance, or there’s a different relationship between the state and the citizen than what we have come to understand in the anglophone part of the world. I wonder if you have had any experience with that, if you understand the Nordics in that way, or if that even rings any bells or resonates at all.

I don’t have direct experience other than my reading, so I will be silent on speaking about the details. The broader point you make is quite important. We can envision different relationships between the citizen and the state or even among citizens. You can imagine because one of the best checks on state power is genuine civil society.

One of the best checks on state power is genuine civil society. Click To Tweet

Not what I consider are oftentimes referred to as foe or fake civil society, which is when Western financial in foreign aid institutions like pay groups. That’s not a ground-up legitimate civil society like Alexis de Tocqueville, and others thought about it. One of the things that I think is important, I will mention this before I move on, is that conflict resolution is a skill.

This goes back to your earlier point about war being a choice. It’s a skill that needs to be learned and exercised in all walks of life. We learn this when we are kids. Parents say, “Don’t hit people. Don’t take their stuff. You need to work it out.” They are getting you to conceptualise a notion of conflict resolution quite early in life, but we forget that.

We are adults, or at least those in positions of military or political power in the United States do, and they say, “Those people usually referring to hundreds of millions of people because they live in those geographic borders are our enemy. The only way to have order is through threatening them or imposing something upon them.” What about talking about things? What about diplomacy and negotiating? People come back and say, “That’s such a utopian, naive view of the world.” It’s the opposite.

Think about the difficulties of pursuing that course of action but also the wonderful benefits of doing it. The fact is that it is a world of liberal values of treating other human beings with dignity, having rights, and treating them as equals. Not simply saying because you live in China, Russia, or insert whatever country that, you are an enemy because you happen to either reside there or be born there. To my way of thinking, that’s much less of a challenge or utopian vision that a small group of experts can control the world. That’s a naive utopia to my way of thinking.

It denies the motivations behind certain behaviours. We don’t stop and think about what China is doing. Why and what is Russia doing? Why and what Taliban is doing? Why are we doing what we are doing? Perhaps that last piece is the most important. We very rarely, if ever, are encouraged to take a mirror and look at ourselves and understand what is incentivising our own behaviour.

Our own biases will make us believe that we are righteous and moral and that we are the good guys. Everybody thinks they are the good guy. It’s a nuanced point. We have mentioned a couple of times the American empire, but perhaps it’s useful. Also, I interviewed Samir Puri. I’m not sure if you are familiar with that name, but he’s a professor who looks at empires of the past and echoes of those empires of the past manifest now. Maybe it’s useful to hear from you how you define the American Empire and why some consider this a rather controversial description of US foreign policy.

I went back and forth about how to characterise it and what terms to use in it. There is a purely academic debate in political science about what constitutes an empire or not. I won’t go through that. It’s in a footnote in the book if people are interested in the relevant papers and different sides of it. The way I view it is that America is a unique empire. Historically, empires have been defined not in terms of broadcasting of military power, political power, and economic power in other countries but in geographic acquisition. It’s acquisition of geographic territory.

This comes down to the second part of your question of why it is controversial calling it that. Some people say, “America doesn’t go around anymore and acquire territory.” In the early iterations, continental expansion in the early to mid-19th century, so westward expansion is now what we call America, like the Spanish-American War. In those earlier wars, there was a geographic territory that was acquired, but not now.

Here’s the thing. It goes back to what we were talking about earlier about the need for a unipolar order, a government that controls everything. From that standpoint, America is an empire from this standpoint. In my telling, it broadcasts its power around the world, like military power, political power, and economic power, and it actively uses those things. It’s not like it says, “Free trade. We are going to let people trade. If they want to trade, they can.” They are the elite. I will call them the elite.

It’s the key political actors that control things and private interests that are entangled with those political actors. That’s why I say elite. That’s the word I’m using. They actively use that influence to achieve certain outcomes. Those elites have a series of client states around the world that they actively influence, pay off, and bestow benefits upon to be part of their network of order and control.

The US government has intervened around the world to influence political outcomes to actively displace political leaders or prop up existing political leaders who are aligned with their short-term policy goals. From that perspective, that’s why I think the American government is an empire. I should say the other reason is that arguing from authorities is a weak form of argument, but I will rely on it for the moment.

Defenders of a proactive US foreign policy call it that. The historian Niall Ferguson at Harvard now calls it the American Empire. Deepak Lal, who was a famous economist in international economics, wrote a book called In Praise of Empires. They embrace the logic that you and I were talking about earlier. It’s a Hobbesian world. We need someone to bring in order. It might as well be America because America believes in freedom and liberal values, and much better than an authoritarian, illiberal government.

To bring in Samir Puri, he describes it as the informal empire. It doesn’t have the formality of empires of the past like you said, where it’s a territorial acquisition. If we look at it again through the lens of economics, it might not be territorial, but it’s certainly economic acquisition. We look at incentives. Incentive behaviour is incentivised by profit. You have even alluded to the idea of cronyism or crony capitalism.

It may be useful to now link to what we mean by crony capitalism to this other big term, the military-industrial complex, which people have heard of. Many intuitively understand, but we often also shy away from it as though it’s somehow conspiratorial. Maybe we can delve into that a little bit. Firstly, describe what is meant by both these terms and then explain how they might be connected.

Let me first say, which might at first seem contradictory to some of the other points I have made, that I’m a huge fan of markets, exchange, profit, and capitalism. That strikes people as odds sometimes because of the points I’m about to raise about cronyism and some of the things I have said. With that all said, I also do not think that type of economic system should be imposed on people or can be imposed on people. This goes to your point about the development agencies. When you attempt to impose it on people, it undermines the desirable features of that system.

I also don’t think there’s anything inherent in capitalism as a system that necessitates imperialism or empire, and some people do. Lenin wrote a book on Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, and others before him had said that. Their view, coming from a Marxist worldview, was that the capitalists were going to exploit domestic profits and domestic workers. At some point, those are going to get run down, so they have to look abroad in order to get more profits.

VOW 86 | American Interventionism
Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism: A Popular Outline

I don’t think that’s inherent in capitalism. It’s inherent in entanglements between capitalism and government, which is what cronyism is. When I talk about cronyism, or some people call it political capitalism, what we have in mind is a system of entanglements between the public sector and private firms, where private actors are able to earn profits. Oftentimes, substantial profits by leveraging those political connections and the privileges that are offered to them by politics.

Why does that matter? Contrast that with a situation of a market where that doesn’t exist. How do you have to make money in a market? How do you make money in a market where you are not getting government privileges? You need to convince other private buyers to turn over their hard-earned money for the product or service that you are offering them.

I have to convince consumers and say, “I am offering you something that will benefit you. Please buy it.” That’s a private market where government comes in and says, “We can line your pockets if I have those relationships.” Notice that the private consumer is out of the picture. You no longer have to say, “Convince private consumers that you are improving their welfare. You now go to politicians.” Now, where do politicians get their money from? Taxpayers, but the taxpayers are circumvented in many ways because there’s no direct link between paying your taxes and producers. There are a lot of steps in the political system.

That’s what cronyism is. Cronyism is it doesn’t exist in the military sector. It tends to exist in those sectors, surprisingly, and perhaps, it’s in contrast to how people envision it. I will return to that moment, but it typically occurs most in those sectors where there’s the heaviest government involvement. I say that’s contradictory to many people because many people say, “We need more regulations on Wall Street and healthcare in the military sector,” but you look at the areas where there are the heaviest concentrations of cronyism. It’s those very areas.

That’s not an argument in itself against government regulation, but it is a word of warning, which is that our natural inclination is to say, “Whenever we see a problem, more government intervention.” One of the downsides of more government intervention is that it incentivises large corporations to influence the government to both insulate themselves from regulations and engage in what economists call regulatory capture.

If I know I’m going to be regulated, I’m going to do everything in my power to influence those regulations upfront to benefit me. Oftentimes those very regulations undermine competition and protect consumers. If you think about it logically, who is in the best position, both resource-wise and in terms of the incentive to do that? Large corporations. You said, “We are going to have regulations about retail businesses.” Walmart has an enormous bank account. They have an entire team of lawyers and accountants. The small mom-and-pop shop has none of those things. They have no voice in the political process or a very small voice. You need to be wary of these things.

How does that flow into the military sector? The military sector, as I call it in the book, is peak cronyism. It’s very root. In America, cronyism is at large, and this came out of what we call the military-industrial complex came out of World War II. It is the interplay between the private sector, Congress, government bureaus, and special interests, the defence sector. The entire industry is based on these entanglements between these actors, and that leads to predictable behaviours in many ways. If I said, “The profits of firms are dependent not on private consumers but on becoming friendly with political actors,” what do we expect? A lot of investment in maintaining political relationships, which is precisely what we see in the military sector.

If I said, “By the very design of the industry, there’s very little competition because once you get a contract, you are the sole developer and provider of that,” that’s the definition of a monopoly, and there are lock-in effects. Meaning that once you have a technology in place, there’s an incentive to keep investing in it. Especially because where do politicians get money from? Not their own pockets.

If you are a private business owner and you are investing in a project that’s failing, you will say, “I spent money. It didn’t work out, but I better pull back.” If I keep throwing good money after bad, we are going to keep getting bad results. In politics, what happens? You keep funding it because you are using other people’s money. The private firms lobby you to keep it going. As I talk about in the book, they strategically place production in areas to get support.

If you look at the F-35 fighter jet, production of all the different parts is spread throughout each state in America. You then start thinking about elected officials. They want to go home to their constituents and say, “We are shutting down the factory that produces the wheels for the F-35 fighter jet because the project is a bust. I have to look out for the good of the nation.” No one is going to do that. You create these scenarios of these two big-to-fail projects. In America, at least, a lot of this stuff is a running joke, but it’s not a joke because of what’s involved. The joke is like, “There’s the military sector. It’s wasteful. They can’t keep track of how they spend their money.”

We know that now from Afghanistan. The investigations that have gone into the spending, and a lot can’t be accountable.

Millions and millions of dollars are literally flying around, and that gets at the heart of it. Going back to incentives. Always ask yourself who’s responsible. Is there a tight chain of accountability? We know this from our personal lives. When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. When you can shift blame and shift costs around, you are going to do that. That’s exactly what politicians do.

When everyone is responsible, no one is responsible. When you can shift blame and shift costs around, you are going to do that, which is what politicians do. Click To Tweet

It’s predictable behaviour. If you look at what happens in other walks of life or don’t deliver on what you were going to do, you will get your budget cut. You’d get penalised somehow. In the United States, military budgets go up. You waste money. You literally spend millions of dollars putting aside the harm that causes to people directly and indirectly in terms of harm to their person through the actual carrying out of war. People act like this is a game where you can throw money around and it’s like, “We will do better next time,” type of thing. It happens over and over.

It echoes something of my childhood living in a socialist Yugoslavia. The joke was that you can freely spend money because no one is accountable. That’s what happens in a socialist state where the state is so powerful. Securing a job in the government is basically a pension, 100% guaranteed, and you can never be fired.

There are echoes of that in everything you are saying, which is ironic, given that we are talking about liberal democracy. There are many other things that spring to mind immediately and that is the revolving door idea. I have many friends who have left military service and have basically changed their uniform and put on civilian attire. They are doing very much the same job except oftentimes will double, if not more, the money that they now get.

I can’t blame them. This is not intended in any way to blame them. This is perhaps a point I want to make, and that leads me to a question. I know a lot of these people are driven by the right motives in the sense that they truly believe they are doing the right thing. They are protecting the nation. They are serving the nation or continuing their service outside of uniform. The same goes for development workers.

I have met many of them in Bosnia and many development workers in Iraq. They do believe they are doing the right thing, notwithstanding the fact that they are part of a much bigger machine or one small cog in a very big machine. It’s often very hard to see how one fits into the much bigger macro-level picture. That’s something you do talk about in the book. Is there anything you want to add to that idea of the revolving door? I also want to touch on the aspect of an individual that these aren’t necessarily bad people but might lead to bad outcomes.

You nailed the logic, the revolving door. For those who don’t know, it’s the movement back and forth between the private sector and the government sector. It’s not based on malicious motives at all. It’s logical. If you are a private firm and you need to get contracts from the military, there’s this whole bureaucratic apparatus to get them. Who knows the best? How to get them? People that have lived through it understand it.

If you are on the government side and are going to regulate private industry, who’s the best person to regulate it? People that have been in the industry and know it. Think about it logically. You don’t have to be an expert in these areas. All of us have social networks and rely on those social networks. We saw biases towards people and those networks because there are friends and acquaintances, and it’s the same there. You are going to tend to show biases and have connections towards people you know, and you have those connections with. That’s the logic of it.

We do it in all walks of life. In certain areas, it has different effects than in other areas of life. This goes to your point about it not being bad people. They are acting like human beings in a different institutional setting in terms of good and bad people. I have thought a lot about this, and analytically, I always try my best to assume that easy arguments are good people do good things. Bad people do bad things then there’s no argument to be had. It’s true by definition in some sense. I do think we can look at selection mechanisms. Let’s think about it like this. The thing you and I talked about. They might have good intentions, be good people, and interact in this environment.

There are certain positions in an empire and what it requires. I talk about this a little bit in the book. That does require a certain type of person. What I mean by that is once you start doing harm, there are a lot of cogs in the machine, as you put it. It’s an enormous apparatus, but there are also people that need to do things. You need to kill and torture people, which takes a certain type of person.

Many people, if I said to them, “Go torture another human being,” are put in that position. They wouldn’t be able to do it. They would be repulsed and, morally, would be torn about it. That takes a certain type of person. The very running of an empire needs to have people in charge and people who carry out orders are willing to do certain things and are oftentimes quite repugnant. If you have a very Hobbesian view of the world, you will say you need to be able to do that. There has to be people that are tough enough in order to do that because you need to bring order to the world.

You also trained for it. You become desensitized.

A lot of military training is to desensitize. The other reason I don’t like the Hobbesian view of the world, and the nation-state view of the world is it treats people as collectives. It lumps them all together throughout. You even hear this in the rhetoric of politicians. Think back to George W. Bush, “You are either with us or against us.” It’s a very blunt dichotomy. There are in-groups and outgroups.

Notice what that does. If you have any resistance or questioning, then somehow, you are evil and against liberty, patriotism, and your country. Even now in America, for many people, if they even go back earlier, which is quite reasonable question that you asked. Why is Russia doing what they are doing? Why is China doing what they are doing? Why did the Taliban do what they did and are doing? Somehow, the question of that means you are un-American or unpatriotic, which to my way of thinking, is the opposite. The good patriot is always questioning and skeptical, not because they have a default position of disliking their country, but the opposite. They want to protect those cherished freedoms. That’s some of my thoughts on that very big issue.

It becomes an ideology in many ways. It’s something that we have seen with COVID as well. If you dared ask or question anything about the lockdowns, masks, or vaccines, you were very quickly shunned and cast out. Now, we are seeing the tables turning ever so slightly. We are seeing admissions made by companies like Pfizer about transmission or whether the vaccines limit transmission. We are seeing now the previously untouchable discussion about where the virus comes from. Even now, the FBI is even saying, catching up to some other prominent thinkers, that it was a leak from the lab.

This ties into that point. It’s about forcing you to take a stance, and if you don’t take that stance, then automatically, you are on the opposite extreme. The rhetoric that’s used and that’s what language does. It forces you to take sides. Something like you are either with us or you are against us. There is no dispute there. If you do not support the intervention in Iraq, you are absolutely part of the access of evil.

My question from this is, when we are talking about this US military sector in US militarism, where does this come from? How did this become the American way, and how did it get so large? Perhaps I want to touch on a little bit more about the political No-go to even contemplate limiting the might of the American military.

I can’t do full justice to it, but it goes something like this. The US military sector in the two World Wars, especially World War II, where this comes into its own, the military sector when I say it. That didn’t create a large-scale military sector in the immediate term for the production of war-making but also created jobs and contracts. What happened was a narrative came when World War II ended, then you get the start of the Cold War. It’s at that point where things shift because historically, what the US government did before the World Wars, there were ebbs and flows in military spending.

There were military producers, but there wasn’t a very concentrated large industry like there is now. There weren’t all these massive investments in projects and technologies. You’d get these ramp-ups during times of conflict and then a pretty sharp fall. What happened during the Cold War was something called the permanent war economy.

The argument became, “Now we need to invest significant amounts of resources in order to not fight existing wars but future wars as well.” The Cold War is one of these periods like the War on Terror and the War on Drugs, where you are fighting a faceless and nameless ideology/broad set of activities. What would it mean to win the War on Terror? Not of any terrorism anymore. Terrorism has been with us since time immemorial.

VOW 86 | American Interventionism
American Interventionism: The argument became that now we need to invest significant amounts of resources in order to not only fight existing wars but future wars as well.


What would be winning the War on Drugs look like? Not having drugs. There have always been drugs. What would be winning the Cold War look like? Defeating the communist ideology but ideology is a set of beliefs. How do you defeat a set of beliefs with guns? In any case, we got that, and then it never ended because it took on a life of its own.

The other thing you get in addition to vested interest is what’s called military Keynesianism, and military Keynesianism is through large-scale government spending. You can create economic growth, jobs, and entrepreneurship. It perpetuates. Throughout America, for those who have been here or read about it, there are entire cities and towns that are all built around military bases.

It’s communities and schools. A lot of those military bases don’t serve the same function that they served decades ago when they were first established, but they perpetuate. In order to cut them, you’d literally destroy at that point in time the entire ecosystem that has evolved and developed around them as well as all the people linked to that, like their jobs, communities, and so on.

It’s a self-perpetuating logic, and then you get this thing called the Iron Triangle. The Iron Triangle is this interplay between congressional committees, bureaucracy, and special interests. They all have an incentive to perpetuate this. The fascinating thing about the military sector, going back to our discussion about cronyism, is that in a lot of areas, you put a competition between business power. I will call it corporate power, for lack of a better word, and things like labor unions, where they are pushing back against each other. In the military sector, they are completely aligned.

You have corporations that want more spending. Unions want more spending because they get the jobs. Congressional members like it because their constituents get goodies. Bureaus and agencies like it because they get bigger budgets and they are all aligned. This is why the very idea of ever cutting this mammoth budget is so hard. It is so difficult precisely because it’s very difficult to identify the various pressure points that can push back against the apparatus.

That’s such an interesting way to put it. It’s certainly not a way that I have ever thought about. It makes you understand why it’s so deeply embedded, and then it’s also culturally reinforced, particularly in the US. The US is well-known for its respect for the military. We have all heard of veterans being called out on a plane. Everybody’s collapsing them. There’s a cultural reinforcing of this narrative of the importance of the military. As a serving member myself, I can appreciate that. There is something intuitively noble, or at least I’d like to think so, in service and service to the nation.

How that service is then used is oftentimes encased in rhetoric and in a narrative. Whether that narrative is true or not, it is completely irrelevant as long as someone is making money out of it. I can’t remember if you touched on it in the book, if I have read it somewhere else, or heard you talk about it elsewhere. As of the major military contractors, we know how their share price has in some cases. It’s 10X or 20X since the war in Afghanistan. It’s not necessarily your big Boeings, Raytheons, and so on, but it’s these smaller subordinate companies.

That’s the point you make that is so deeply enmeshed and intertwined with the domestic economy. It becomes new and impossible to untangle. For some readers in Australia, it might come as a surprise, but for others, you might echo some of the things we have heard on the news about where submarines might be built, why the benefits of having domestic production occur in Australia, and how that becomes a political tug-of-war between various parties.

It’s not as unfamiliar. It’s that we don’t hear a cohesive narrative completely as a complete picture. We hear snippets that might explain it in our day-to-day news. That’s very dangerous. You name a couple of examples in the book, but maybe you can describe some of the limitations and unintended consequences of this American empire underpinned by its militarism and interventions. How do they undermine the goals of promoting peace and business stability, which is counterintuitive to the narrative that was sold?

The limitations are multiple, but I will highlight too, that one of them we touched upon already. The limitations are driven by reality. Let me say what I mean by that. The reality that each of us faces in the world is that the world is a series of what social scientists call complex systems. Complex systems are in contrast to simple systems.

Simple systems are linear systems, another way to think about them is engineering problems. A simple system doesn’t mean it’s simple-minded and building a bridge that is sturdy. This building I’m sitting in, which is multiple stories is an amazing feat of human creativity, but it’s a simple system. It’s a simple system that we can use human reason to navigate the challenge and come up with a solution.

You can predict all the forces that are going to act at any given point in time.

A complex system is one where the elements interact in ways that generate unpredictability to link it back to the point you raised about being able to predict unpredictable outcomes. That means you can never fully grasp all the nuances of the system or control it, and we forget that. I don’t know elsewhere, but in the United States, that’s one of the popular phrases that have been used for decades. Even now, you will hear some politicians say it. Even though it is not much, they will say, “We sent a man to the moon. Therefore, we can do X,” and they will insert some grandiose rebuild of Afghanistan.

That is highly misleading because sending a human to the moon is an amazing feat of human ingenuity, but it is a technological issue or an engineering problem. Building a society is not an engineering problem, even though the language is. In Afghanistan, for instance, the United States government literally had something called government in a box.

Building a society is not an engineering problem, even though the language is. Click To Tweet

This stuff is absurd when you look back on it, but this is not me speaking. This is from government documents. The idea of government in a box was this. You were going to have the military go through these villages in Afghanistan and kill all the bad people. You were then going to have the humanitarians come in and bandage up the innocent people caught in the crossfire. You were going to have the development experts come in and tell people how to create economic development and democracy. That was the idea of government a box, and then they were going to leave on move on to the next one. The very idea of it was very linear. There’s step A.

There’s if then.

Exactly. This is a way of framing the world, but it is a very poor one once you realize the complex systems point. That’s the biggest limitation. You think you link that up with incentives, which we spoke about earlier. I won’t reiterate the details of that, but you combine those two together. To my way of thinking, it should give significant pause when people make grandiose claims about their ability to do things, whether it’s Afghanistan or Iraq or the ability to do things in Ukraine and against Russia right now in Libya. When the Obama administration went into Libya, that was supposed to be the new nation-building.

There are no boots on the ground. You enforced the no-fly zone, but it turned out to be a disaster because no one asked the simple question, “What happens after you overthrow a government? Do you think that liberal democracy is simply going to fall down from on high?” Of course not. It led to a civil war. It perpetuated many aspects of the War on Terror that the United States government was fighting elsewhere. You get these absurdities.

One of the things with complex systems that you realize when you start reading about them and studying them is not in foreign affairs but in general. When you try to intervene in a system, you are going to generate unintended consequences because you can’t control everything by definition. That doesn’t mean they are negative. They can be positive too, but there’s reason to believe that when you intervene in a complex system that already has undesirable consequences, which is why you get intervention. I don’t like the status quo. I want something else. You are going to generate negative and unintended consequences.

What is the negative in some of them? At the end of each chapter of the book, I end with a box where I list the bad because I want to hammer home to people and appreciate these. Not because by themselves, they are stopping arguments, but to expand, as I put at the beginning, their view of both the good and the potential bad and to weigh those.

Among the bad, intervention in other societies often generates a backlash against the values you want to perpetuate. When I give talks on this stuff domestically in America, I say, “Pick somewhere where there’s a lot of violence.” Pick Chicago or one of the race-related riots in the United States. As a thought experiment, imagine Canada or Mexico. Their government said, “That city in America is a weakened, failed state. They can’t control it. They can’t provide law and order. There’s chaos there. We are going to intervene to bring order to them, bring democracy and freedom, and we are going to fly drones overhead. We are going to put troops on the ground.”

Imagine how you would react to that. Think back to 9/11 again. 9/11 for me was quite personal given that I was coming from that area, but imagine how people felt on that day. We felt violated. We felt like the fundamental foundations of our society were under threat. Think about how other human beings think. The challenge is to think about things not from your perspective but from the perspective of others. That’s the hard part about living in the human world, but it’s key to living in the human world.

Think about how other people perceive foreign people coming in, even if motivated by the best intentions, coming in with military apparatus, telling people what to do, and killing people. Some of them are bad from the perspective of the interveners but not from the perspective of people in those societies. What the United States government calls collateral damage is killing and maiming innocent people. What do you think would happen? If you saw your family and friends killed by occupiers, are you going to like that government for the rest of your life or view them as the worst of the worst?

You start thinking about these things and you realize that it’s not unintended consequences like, “We wasted some money.” We were talking about that earlier, “We could have done better.” It is real and permanent harm that is often done to innocent people. That is often done to vulnerable people and, more broadly, the very people you purport to want to help.

To my way of thinking, that leads me to come down the side. You better be damn sure that what you are going to do is going to work. This isn’t like we are going to give it a try, and if it doesn’t work, the bar should be extremely high. In America, at least, it’s not that high. It’s the opposite because if you start from the presumption that the world is chaotic, then you think of yourself as bringing order to it. How much worse could it get? If the world is a terrible place and everyone is killing everyone anyway, we might as well try our best.

It’s so easy to justify those narratives. Everybody thinks they are a good guy. We keep telling ourselves that we are doing it for the right reasons. Our politicians will sell us that narrative and tell us that they are doing it for the right reasons, and we don’t hold them to account. They do it with impunity and this is something I have addressed on the show so many times.

There were so many aspects that you have mentioned now that are so close to my heart when we go to a place where we become part of that ecosystem. What I mean by the ecosystem is that it’s alive and unpredictable. It’s like you said. It’s a complex system. When we come into it, we become part of that complex system, but we don’t think of ourselves as becoming part of it. We have action and reaction, or we are causing action and reactions.

We feel that we are doing good. At the individual level, the behaviors might be incentivized through genuinely wanting to do good for people. This is often said about Afghanistan. In particular, where I have served myself. We never fought the war we thought we fought. I thought I was part of something else to what was happening on the ground. I’d like to think of myself as somebody who would like to think about things more deeply. Especially given my own personal experiences, I thought I was going there to do good notwithstanding the fact that I was part of a machine that ultimately was part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

That is an emotional thing to reflect on, admit to oneself, and ask questions. As you rightly alluded, we don’t dare to ask those questions. You talked about the technological advances and how they have contributed to changing nature of foreign interventions in the book. How has that happened, and why does this matter especially going forward?

The United States, like other countries, like to invest a significant amount of resources in research and development. This goes back to the economic point we were talking about, which is resources in order to make military activity more efficient and effective. Many people who are advocates of that or involved in the military aspects of this view is positive because they say, “Fewer people will be hurt,” in terms of intervening countries, so the troops will be protected. We can be more accurate. I have a chapter in the book on drones, which is the iteration of this or the discussion right now among many.

The original claims of the US government were that these drones are over-accurate. I have some quotes in the book where political leaders refer to them as scalpels. You can kill people with precision. That’s simply not true because of the way that they operate. There are lots of things you can talk about with drones, but I want to mention that perhaps the troubling thing with technological advances is that it changes the nature of warfare such that warfare long ago stopped being defensive.

The troubling thing with technological advances is that they change the nature of warfare, such that warfare long ago stopped being defensive. Click To Tweet

That sounds counterintuitive. Let me explain why. First of all, this is part of what I consider indoctrination and propaganda in the United States. The idea of the Department of Defence is a huge misnomer. People may not realise. Before the Department of Defence rebranding after World War II, it was called the Department of War, which is much more accurate.

Defence is protection. Think of defence. To provide an example, think about it as armour. I wear armour around, and if someone tries to hit me with a sword, it blocks it. That’s defence. The advance in technology from guns to air fighter jets, drones now, to the future being what’s called robotic technology that does not require human control. Artificial intelligence and the use of other technological advances to control them.

LAWS, Lethal Autonomous Weapons Systems is what they are called are not defensive because they transform the very nature of it into offensive war. You need to go over there and destroy people. You no longer have a chance to defend yourself. People in Afghanistan who had drones bombing them couldn’t defend themselves. That’s not a defence.

Some people say, “You are defending Americans,” but you are defending Americans in a very odd way. We are not being attacked directly, which is the way US politicians frame it, “We are taking the war to them. Would you rather us fight the terrorists over there or over here?” It’s a way of getting people to buy and say, “We can’t have terrorists here.” The language in America, the way politicians talk about it, during the War on Terror, you would literally think terrorists were everywhere, like around every corner, there’s a terrorist.

Terrorism statistically is extremely rare. There’s a political scientist by the name of John Mueller who has done wonderful work on this. He’s done work with a co-author who’s a statistical actuary. They look historically. It’s not a polemic. They are not making any arguments. They are simply looking at statistics. For an American, you have a greater chance of dying in a bathtub or from a deer running across the road while you are driving your car down a highway than a terrorist attack in America. This was before 9/11. After 9/11, even when you include 9/11, which is what we statistically call an outlier because it’s a one-off thing, you are supposed to exclude it from your data, but even if we include it, the chances are minuscule.

What’s interesting as well is because intuitively, some might say, “That’s because of the military superpower and the interventions and pre-emptive strikes,” as you have rightly pointed out, even after. That figure has remained constant except for the outlier.

You look at 9/11 as an event study before and after the same, but you also look at terrorist attacks abroad. They have gone up with the War on Terror. When countries intervene abroad, one of the only ways people who are being intervened upon can push back is because they don’t have a voice. A democratic process to push back against occupiers is through violence.

It’s the only way you can.

For many, that’s some initial thoughts on the technology point. I worry a great deal about it precisely because the War on Terror ramped up the use of drones in the United States, especially in the Obama administration. The big transition from the Bush administration to the Obama administration was fewer boots on the ground but more reliance on drones and weaponised drones. Drones have existed for decades, but before the War on Terror, they were typically used for surveillance purposes. It was during the War on Terror that they became weaponised.

I interviewed Samuel Moyn on that very point. It’s another controversial book, but how the humane war or the illusion of the humane war came to pass? I also interviewed a serving American officer, Amos Fox, who’s quite a thinker on war and the application of war. He describes it as the precision paradox. We believe that because these are precision guard ammunitions. They are somehow going to be more precise or effective. There will be more precise because there will hit the building you want to hit, but the fact that the person who thought is in the building is not in the building makes it as bad as if you had randomly fired a shot somewhere. Therefore, precision doesn’t necessarily equal effectiveness.

I also spoke to Marc Garlasco, who was the Chief IT for the Invasion of Iraq. He talks about the point where the first 50 attempts at striking Saddam Hussein with precision ammunition. Every strike was successful in the sense that it hit the building they aimed to hit, but none of them got Saddam. Every one of them killed civilians. That is the epitome of the, as Amos calls it, precision paradox. One other thing I wanted to touch on that escaped me earlier but has now popped into my mind is when you are talking about this idea of Canada intervening in the US and how emotionally people would react to that idea in the US.

We saw something like that. You will keep seeing it with these balloons flying over the US. With the call to arms and the call to war, our sovereignty has been somehow tarnished. I couldn’t help but laugh at the emotional responses one would hear and see on Twitter. The inability to reflect on how frequently the US has intervened in other nations of sovereignty.

I was reading your book on drones when that was happening in the news. It’s the reflection on people in Afghanistan and the trauma that comes with having this constant buzzing overhead and never knowing if you might be the accidental target of that or if you might be near somebody who’s going to be targeted. Therefore, it’s part of the collateral damage. There is significant trauma.

We in the West don’t think about that. This is the point you made earlier. We don’t look at the world to be the eyes of those who we ultimately seek to help in the wars that we go fought and fight. We don’t try to understand what life is like from their perspective. That’s an important point that you have touched on throughout the book.

How do you respond to critics who argue that more isolation in foreign policy by the US will make it more vulnerable, given what we talked about? Also, our perpetual growth or way of life will continue to prosper as it has in the West. Many have argued that the US military might have ensured the West’s growth post-World War II because it protected our trade routes. It’s a Naval power that’s protected our trading route. We are seeing that now with the protection of trade routes through the South China Sea. How do you respond to those who would argue that the US shouldn’t withdraw its military might from overseas?

There are numerous ways to respond to this. First of all, I don’t consider myself an isolationist. I know people oftentimes use that term to refer to a more restrictive foreign policy. The origins of that term come out of trying to smear proponents of a more limited foreign policy because they wanted to say you wanted.

The framing was there’s bad stuff in the world. You don’t want to engage it. You want to step back to see you are naive and silly. I view the position I lay out in the book as the opposite of that because it’s an argument for more engagement with people. It’s less engagement through the military apparatus or, as I put in the book, removing the primacy of militarism from its pedestal as the primary way of interacting.

The way I would react to critics of that is to say, “There’s a difference between security and offensive war.” You can refrain from intervening in other societies and still make sure that you have security at home. Those things don’t go together. You can, and people have made the argument that when you intervene abroad, you are less safe domestically because you create enemies. You pull resources away from other forms of domestic security to the international space, those international interventions, and so on. I also think we need to have a broader conception of security. I don’t associate security with the government and weapons. You can have what some people call demilitarised security. That’s quite important.

VOW 86 | American Interventionism
American Interventionism: There’s a difference between security and offensive war. You can refrain from intervening in other societies and still make sure that you have security at home.


The other thing I want to point out is something we talked about earlier, but I will mention it again. When you normalise a proactive militaristic foreign policy as the operating procedure in the world, that’s going to be the way people perceive you, but what they perceive as the only way to do it. That shuts the door to alternative ways of interacting with people. I want to elevate diplomacy and tolerance. Tolerance does not mean acceptance in our daily lives.

I understand the world is made up of nation-states right now. I understand that’s how we operate, but we can always gain a lot of insights, starting from our own life. Thinking from our own interactions with people and then scaling up to see, at least as a check on our thinking, doesn’t answer all the questions. In our daily lives, we interact with people. We don’t accept everything they do in life, like the way they live their life, their worldviews, their religion, and their personal decisions. In a free society, you have to tolerate those things.

To summarise it, “Live and let live.” What would that mean to think in those terms internationally? That’s an interesting thought experiment. It’s a good check on your thinking. The other thing I want to mention about the trade route is the United States and other Western governments have benefited greatly from what I call the American Empire. No doubt, which is part of the reason it’s hard to get rid of because of these vested interests.

I have no doubt that if it were gone or pulled back, certain people would be made worse off, whether it’s economically or other benefits they received from that, like any policy change. I don’t deny that, but I also think there’d be a lot of benefits to people. Imagine a world where you had a more integrated system on certain margins. Imagine a world where instead of a zero-sum view of the world, if people from Country X come to America, that means less jobs for Americans. That’s a negative sum view. It’s us versus them.

That’s the way this ramped up under the Trump administration, but it’s always existed. Trump, in many ways, was an amplification of many of the things that have existed throughout American history, even though people often talk about him like he’s the first to say many of these things. One of the rhetorical tricks of politicians throughout American history in other countries is economic nationalism. It is the idea that it’s us against them and you can’t coexist.

That’s a weird way to think about the world because we don’t think about that domestically. We walk throughout our lives and interact with people in positive some ways. We don’t view them as threats to us. We view them as enriching our lives and making us better off by having positive-sum interactions. When we do view competition, we typically view it in our own lives in a good way.

Would you prefer a monopoly grocery store or multiple grocery stores competing for your dollar? It’s competition typically. That’s good competition because it pressures them to provide better or good service to you as a consumer. Internationally, all of a sudden, we want monopoly power, but only for American producers or for whatever producers. I’d say, “Let’s have competition. Why shouldn’t we have competition?” Integration is why foreign policy and empire oftentimes are isolating contrary to what they say because they isolate America. It is America versus China. That’s as isolation as you can get. The argument about integrating is one of being as opposite of isolating as you can get.

The final thing I will say is I believe that, left to their own devices, people are extremely creative thinkers. It is individuals, ordinary people, often not the experts. Not the supposedly enlightened people that figure out solutions to the world’s most pressing challenges. They certainly have better on-the-ground knowledge of how to live their life. That’s my conjecture. I may not live my life the way they live it. I might even disagree with it, but I think people know what they like better than I do. People will figure out ways to trade with each other. People will figure out ways to protect trade routes because they have an incentive to do that.

I will pick up on that because it’s such an interesting point. It echoes my own life. My father has been serving on the front lines in Bosnia for three and a half years. It was an absolutely true narrative at the national level. It was the Serbs fighting the Bosnians and the Croatians. At the micro level or soldier level, the amount of times they were trading cigarettes on the front lines. There was an entire black market that existed across the front lines. The side that had some things would ensure that it was passed on. Even he says that 95% of the war was peace in the sense that they were throwing jabs at each other and not grenades.

They were making trade of small items, even meat, and bringing meat into Sarajevo, which was besieged. Cigarettes were the currency. It was only 5%. There was a war where they were fighting. That perhaps speaks a little bit to the point that people will find ways and means to cooperate if these grand narratives. We got out of the way because we were all incentivised to live. We are all incentivised to get along because we all know that everybody’s interest is to get along.

That’s certainly the case. Going back to where we started earlier in our discussion. Why it’s so important for all of this to move beyond collectivism to individualism instead of saying viewing the world as nation-states, competing with nation-states, and emphasizing the point that these are human beings?

Even the language. It’s a very academic language that’s used. There’s collateral damage and combatants. They are human beings. They are people. Just like you have a child, and I have a child. Other people have children too, and they love them deeply. They would do anything for them. If a foreign government comes in and murders them, whether purposefully or unintentionally, they have murdered a child.

I don’t mean that to be overdramatic but it’s important. Think about the burden that should put on all of us as we think about under what situations we rely on force. Again, think about our own life. If your neighbour did something to you, let’s say they did great harm to you. Most of us would say it’s wrong to walk outside with a machine gun and start spraying bullets everywhere. Maybe you will hit them, but there might be collateral damage as well. We would consider that to be repugnant and immoral, but when we do that, a broad under the name of a government. That stuff is like, “War is hell. Stuff got to happen.”

You got to break some eggs to make omelettes.

The barrier or the baseline that we hold in America, and I would say elsewhere, too, is quite low. It’s not that it’s zero. There is some thought process that goes into it, but perhaps it should be even higher.

Perhaps to start taking this to an end because we have covered so many different topics. You did make the point at the start, and the book is quite optimistic, or at least it ends on an optimistic note. What is that optimistic note? Despite everything we have said, the size of the Leviathan or the empire or how deeply complex and intertwined it is with our lives, why are you still optimistic?

I’m optimistic because of human beings. Let me say a little more. Each of us has the ability to engage in how we control ourselves. There are lots of things that are outside our control. I can’t control the massive bureaucratic apparatus. It’s the military state. Not directly, at least, but I can control myself and interact with other human beings. Some of them from the country were from and others internationally on a daily basis.

There are lots of things that are outside our control, but each of us has the ability to engage in how we control ourselves. Click To Tweet

The way I think about it is we are all possible micro-level peacemakers in our lives. The way we treat other human beings, the way we think about things intellectually, and the standards we hold ourselves to are things in our control. Beyond that, different people have different capabilities. Some people will be politicians. Other people will be in the military. Other people will be academics, journalists, and peace activists.

All different walks of life have different margins where they can choose to exercise. Peace-making capabilities versus violence as a way to resort to conflict. That gives me great hope because all of this comes down to people. That is a powerful thing when you think about it again. When you think about it in the global sense, you are like, “I’m one person in this world. I’m insignificant.” That’s true, but yes and no.

The flip side of that is your very existence means that the world can never be the same. All of us have a massive influence on it, and then ripple effects throughout the world. That is an enormous responsibility when you think about it in those terms and it gives you the power to influence things in positive ways and peaceful ways.

There’s an economist by the name of Kenneth Boulding. He passed away, but I talked about this in the concluding chapter of the book. He had this cute line, but it’s quite powerful. He called it Boulding’s first law, which is if something exists, it must be possible. You say that’s true by definition but then think about it. I observe peace in the world, domestically and internationally.

There are lots of pockets of peace. Again, we take those for granted, even in conflict-prone societies, as you pointed out earlier. With wars going on, people are cooperating peacefully, and then you realize peace is possible. Instead of framing the narrative, which is why the discussion of Leviathan and the Hobbesian type of framing is not an academic discussion in terms of like, “Let’s have a political philosophy discussion,” which I love.

I think it’s important because that entire framing is going to then turn how you treat the issue. If you view the world as chaotic and violent, then it has to be met by violence. If you view the world as peaceful but with pockets of violence or where there is violence, peace is possible because it’s a human choice. Now you have opened a whole set of possibilities because you say, “Let’s figure out, are there margins that we can take actions to bring about peace or empower people to bring about peace?”

That gives me great optimism precisely because peace already exists, which means it’s possible. Instead of focusing on force and military might as the solution to all the world’s ills or many of them, we should flip that over and say, to the extent we have a military force, it should always be a last resort. If you got people to think in those terms, I think it would be an enormous win. It would be a win because it would privilege peace-making over violence-making.

In this world, we have so many competing views that we can get proper information. We can educate ourselves on alternate paths to peace. The old adage, “If you want peace, prepare for war.” That is almost gospel in some circles, but it’s not true. There is much evidence in the world, as you rightly point out, that peace is generally the status quo, and war is the anomaly.

On that note, this is a fascinating discussion. I get the sense that you will receive an invite again in the future for a follow-up conversation because this is hugely relevant. My last question to you is, what are you working on now, and what’s the next step or project? What’s the next book that you are working on? I’m assuming there is one.

There is. I’m shifting slightly away from straight-up academics. I’m working on a short piece of satire. The tentative title is, How Wars Are Run: A Secret Guidebook for Policymakers. My co-author and I are writing a narrative where we write this hypothetical guide drawing on US military documents. We’re writing a guidebook for how policymakers can effectively carry out war. It is meant to make a very clear moral and what is involved in war-making.

To carry out a successful war, you need to lie to people. You need to kill innocent people. You need to spend enormous amounts of money and undermine all the very values that underpin a free and liberal society. It’s going to be relatively short and accessible, and we are trying to write it for a broader audience. There will be academic references in the back, but it’s going to be written as a very accessible piece to try to get people to see straight up front what it entails to carry out these types of military interventions.

I know you called it satire, but if it’s based on truth. All satire is. That’s the whole point. That’s wonderful. I look forward to reading that and perhaps talking about it again in the future. Chris, thank you for giving me so much of your time.

Thank you. It’s been a pleasure.


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