In Praise of Weariness

Jackson Lears

According to conventional American wisdom, a crucial lesson emerged from the Second World War: the world could not get along without us. This assumption animates the foreign policy elite that has dominated US public discourse for seven decades: the bipartisan interventionist establishment that includes Congress and the executive branch as well as significant parts of the academy and the press. Madeleine Albright summarised the perspective in 1998, when she called the United States the ‘indispensable nation’.

The rhetoric of global responsibility has a superficial plausibility. The world’s most serious problems are international in scale. Climate change, systemic poverty, the looming prospect of conflict over scarce resources – all require attention from the United States in collaboration with other nations. But the interventionist tradition in US foreign policy provides few precedents for genuine international co-operation. Historically, the rationale for US interventions abroad rests on two pillars: the exceptionalist belief that the US is uniquely qualified to lead the world towards a brighter democratic future, and the militarist idea that such leadership requires the use of force in foreign lands. Except for a brief period in the 1970s, these assumptions have gone unchallenged since the Second World War.

But six years of recession combined with a series of misadventures in the Middle East have encouraged public scepticism towards calls for heroic sacrifice in the service of dubious clients abroad. Barack Obama has referred to the priority of ‘nation-building at home’ over nation-building in the Middle East and has acknowledged the importance of restraint in foreign policy to the graduating class at West Point, among other audiences. None of this means that he is about to dismantle the national security state: the West Point speech was a muddle of inconsistencies, melding commitments to exceptionalism and counterterrorism with the rhetoric of international co-operation, while Obama has expanded surveillance and secret warfare in many sinister ways. Yet even his fitful (and mostly rhetorical) gestures towards a more restrained foreign policy have provoked the ire of interventionists.

The people who brought us the Iraq catastrophe are back, warning against ‘war weariness’ or ‘worldweariness’. ‘Many Americans and their political leaders in both parties, including President Obama, have either forgotten or rejected the assumptions that undergirded American foreign policy for the past seven decades,’ Robert Kagan wrote recently in the New Republic. ‘In particular, American foreign policy may be moving away from the sense of global responsibility that equated American interests with the interests of many others around the world and back toward the defense of narrower, more parochial national interests.’ Perhaps Americans can be inspired again to fight for liberal democracy against Putin or Assad, as they did against Hitler, Kagan hopefully concludes. But they had better make up their minds fast, because ‘the world will change much more quickly than they imagine. And there is no democratic superpower waiting in the wings to save the world if this democratic superpower falters.’ The dream of saving the world survives, but even Condoleezza Rice claims to know why it might be tarnished. ‘I fully understand the sense of weariness,’ she said at a Republican fundraiser in March. ‘I know that we’ve been through two wars. I know that we’ve been vigilant against terrorism. I know that it’s hard. But leaders can’t afford to get tired.’ Or as Kagan says, ‘Superpowers don’t get to retire’ – a caption that accompanies a cover cartoon of an exhausted Uncle Sam slumped in a beach chair.

The personification of the nation is significant. It has been a militarist rhetorical strategy ever since Theodore Roosevelt announced that the United States must be prepared to do ‘a man’s work in the world’ by punishing ‘real wrongdoing’ in Latin America and elsewhere. For more than a century, Americans have been confronted with a Manichean moral choice: they can ‘cut and run’ or ‘stand and fight’. The nation, like the individual, can be either a coward or a hero – or, in our current discourse, either weary or vigorous. Morally charged personification is a way of avoiding coherent policy debate, not engaging with it. The notion that the United States is a weary superpower deserves close scrutiny.

The first question is: who, exactly, is weary? And the answer is straightforward enough: the great majority of Americans, outside the interventionist consensus that envelops both major political parties. This has been true for decades. The American populace has long been sceptical towards the grand designs of the foreign policy elite, which often involve preserving order in remote places. The order in question is normally one that allows foreign investment to flourish, but the intervention is sold to the public as both a moral crusade and a strategic necessity. The customers are often a tough sell; many rightly suspect that business interests throb beneath the robes of righteousness. The invocation of humanitarian ideals creates a bracing atmosphere, but not everyone is enthralled. Moral urgency helps promote military intervention, but what is even more important to closing the deal is a sense of danger. To enroll in distant moral crusades, Americans have usually had to be persuaded that they have been or are about to be attacked: that if South Vietnam fell, it might not be too long before Chinese junks engulfed Seattle harbour. This is the sort of argument that quickly shows signs of strain. Given an unforced choice, the public is far more likely to choose peace than war.

Hence the recoil of interventionist historians when they contemplate the Ludlow Amendment, proposed by the Indiana congressman Louis Ludlow in the late 1930s. It would have changed the constitution to require a popular referendum on any declaration of war, unless the United States had been attacked first. To be sure, there was room for debate about its practicalities, but interventionists have always been outraged that Congress even considered the possibility of a democratic foreign policy. The phrase was an oxymoron, they assumed – and so it has proven to be, in the decades since isolationists were excluded from permissible debate. In American public discourse, the term ‘isolationism’ is used to caricature critics of empire as xenophobes and cowards; in historical fact it is a rich cosmopolitan tradition stretching from William James to William Fulbright, stemming from popular republican and constitutional thought.

Confronting the deep scepticism towards foreign military adventure, presidents and their spokesmen have tried to trick the public into the belief that aggression has already occurred or that the threat of it is imminent. The fabrication of outrage over a fictitious North Vietnamese attack on US gunboats in the Gulf of Tonkin and the manufacture of hysteria over Saddam Hussein’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction are only two of the most egregious examples. By the time the deception is revealed, the war is well under way. No wonder ordinary Americans are numb to the outrage and peril they are constantly warned about. These are the people the warmakers have to get around; these are the people who are weary.

They are weary, among other things, of failed interventionist crusades powered by counterinsurgency fantasies. During the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, all the old Vietnam tropes were pressed into service as if they had been freshly minted: the ‘oil stain strategy’ based on ever-widening areas of allegedly pacified territory; the winning of hearts and minds. The hubris of nation-building in a foreign land, a terra incognita to our provincial policymakers, was reduced to absurdity: ‘government in a box’ was General Stanley McChrystal’s phrase for the new civilian infrastructure he tried and failed to install in the Taliban stronghold of Marjah. Beyond this silliness was a darker pattern: the promotion of instability in the name of stability, the provocation of terrorism in the name of preventing it, the ‘collateral damage’ of thousands of shattered veterans and hundreds of thousands of murdered civilians.

Closer to home, there are more immediate and pressing reasons for Americans to be weary. Millions are struggling to keep their heads above water in a sea of long-term unemployment, mortgage foreclosures and deflating real estate values. A lost generation of young people is struggling with chronic joblessness or underemployment. Seldom in recent history have so many symptoms of economic malaise been in place for so long – all accompanied by predictions of debt-based doom, demands for austerity that will only ensure the persistence of economic stagnation, and empty reassurances that recovery is just around the corner. No wonder many people felt a surge of hope at Obama’s mentioning the need for nation-building at home – followed by disappointment at his failure to follow through with specific policy proposals.

So why would Americans not be weary? The survey results that worry Kagan and Rice – that show Americans growing wary of overcommitment abroad – are actually a sign of vernacular wisdom. They suggest a dawning public recognition that the problems of boarded-up storefronts and evacuated cities present more urgent policy concerns than the remaking of regions abroad that resist remaking. Interventionists will need to evade or overcome this wisdom if they intend to embark on further misadventures overseas. Let us give weariness its due, as a necessary counterweight to the centrifugal force of an activist foreign policy, ever on the prowl for investments to explore and wrongs to set right. Maybe weariness can bring us home before dark.


  • 18 July 2014 at 5:48pm
    John Perry says:
    The problem I guess is that maintaining the war machine and widening the capacity of the national security state are (like prisons) one of the few budget areas where there is bipartisan agreement to continue spending taxpayers' money. However, does it never occur to them that - especially when they intervene close to home as they have for decades in Central America - this can have unexpected domestic consequences (see my piece below