Liberal interventionists often treat the objections that follow in the line of John Quincy Adams’s celebrated remark about the limits on the duties the United States had to other nations and peoples—that it ought to be the vindicator only of its own liberty, and not of that of the rest of the world—as if there were no reason why America cannot make it her mission to promote democracy and human rights abroad without harm to domestic liberty and prosperity. Leave aside, in this context, the question of whether the country’s ostensible motives are its deepest ones; that is, leave aside, for purposes of argument, the question of interest and the ambition of hegemony. As a practical matter, America’s ability, if not necessarily its eagerness, to undertake humanitarian military interventions of its choosing almost anywhere in the developing world except for China, India, Turkey, or Brazil, is only possible because of the militarization of our society that has taken place since the beginning of the Cold War. (Well, what else would you call it when our military and intelligence expenditures are greater than the ten next-largest military budgets combined?)
Could America intervene in a future Rwanda or a Kosovo were its military no larger than the size needed to respond to direct threats to the United States, or even to America and its allies? In theory, it could, at least if the criteria for intervention did not include the guarantee that such interventions involve sustaining (as opposed to inflicting) relatively few casualties. But even the most ardent liberal interventionist would concede that interventions on humanitarian or human rights grounds will never be acceptable to the American public if they cross the threshold from police operation to war in the traditional sense. That soldiers die in war is cause for grief, but it is not cause for indignation, whereas even one police officer killed in the line of duty is considered unacceptable, and rightly so. And that is a price few people, even those who do not oppose these interventions on principle, are willing to pay.
Only someone who is unlikely ever to have to pay them could dismiss the centrality of this question of costs and benefits. But there is a deeper question still: Can maintaining justice at home, to use my friend Leon Wieseltier’s preferred word for this enterprise (and it is a much finer word than either euphemisms like humanitarian intervention, for which read just war, or human rights, that may or may not belong in scare quotes but now serves as a flag of convenience or moral warrant for such divergent global visions) coexist successfully with trying to be its midwife and its protector abroad?
To put the matter even more starkly, how can the United States legitimately claim the right to promote democracy and human rights at the same time that, at home, it is becoming somewhat less democratic, and a great deal less just? Of course, it is crucial that we debate such questions as whether or not liberal internationalism is feasible, whether or not it is a flag of convenience for empire, and whether or not such interventions are in the interest of the United States. But some recent data originally presented on the blog Afferent Input, and recently re-posted on the Clusterstock site, about the profound deepening of economic and social inequality in America over the past 30 years, suggests that we may, all of us, whatever side we take in this debate, in fact be getting things precisely backwards. If these data are right, our first order of business almost certainly should be to look long and searchingly at what is happening at home before trying to figure out what the United States should be doing overseas and south of the Rio Grande.
Whether it is an income gap between the top 1 percent of the U.S. population that controls one-third of the country’s wealth and the 50 percent of it that owns 2.5 percent of that wealth (the worst disparity we have seen since the 1920s), or the fact that, despite the rise of the IRA and the 401(k), the top 10 percent of Americans still own 90.3 percent of U.S. stocks, bonds, and mutual funds (so much for the populist grandstanding of the Wall Street shills on the business channels), ours is a country that, in terms of its material realities, is less just than it has been for almost a century. Adjusted for inflation, real average earnings have not increased in 50 years either, and the U.S. income spread is a little under twice the average in other developed countries, and American social mobility—in our national mythology, supposedly the country’s strong suit—is lower than the Canadian, French, or German averages.
As Deep Throat famously aid, follow the money. In 2008, a successful House race cost $1.4 million and, for the Senate, $9 million. It should be self-evident that what this means is that it now requires so much money to be elected to national, and even to state or municipal office, in the United States that politicians are bound to be in the pocket of their donors. And these are hardly likely to come from that lower 50 percent of the American population, are they? If you doubt this, look at how easily Wall Street and Silicon Valley—candidate Barack Obama’s principal financial backers in 2008—got off in the recent financial reform bill. Yes, we have universal suffrage, and relatively honest law courts. But calling this corrupt, dysfunctional system democracy seems like an exercise in denial, when it is not plain old American self-love.
In 1914, as the Afferent Input data show, France and the United States had roughly the same income gap, with the top decile of income share in both countries somewhat over 40 percent and climbing to close to 50 percent at the depth of the Great Depression. After World War II, and basically until the early 1980s (when, er, who was president, by the way?), U.S. and French income disparities were roughly equal. No, it was not morning in America, as only African Americans, who remained skeptical about President Reagan when majorities in almost every other major demographic group looked at him favorably, seemed to realize. Since then, the level in France has remained fairly stable while U.S. levels have climbed dramatically, and still are climbing.
Imagine that in 1914, when France’s colonial empire was at its zenith, the miners described by Zola in Germinal, or the slum dwellers in the novels of Jules Valles, had dismissed their own concerns instead focusing approvingly on France’s right to an empire because of a civilizing mission it alone could carry out (shades of the contemporary cant about American exceptionalism and America’s self-correcting constitutional system that makes our country “inherently good,” as one liberal policy analyst—forget about Michelle Bachmann—unapologetically put it a couple of years ago). One can’t: The suggestion is preposterous on its face. But if that’s right, why, then, should we? Indeed, how can we dare to do so?
It is true that, despite significant support on the right, largely among neo-conservatives, for using U.S. power to prevent, halt, or at least mitigate humanitarian and human rights emergencies abroad, a preponderance of those who speak of these questions with such passion, and call so urgently for U.S. involvement, usually support reformist agendas inside the United States. But when they are speaking of the need for America to act abroad, it is as if a realistic apprehension of what their own country has been turning into, at least since the Reagan revolution—how unjust economically it now is, how damaged its democracy—suddenly fades from liberal interventionists’ collective sight.
In his Devil’s Dictionary, Ambrose Bierce defined ‘grapeshot’ as “the answer the future is preparing to the demands of American socialism.” He was not as wrong as it may at first appear, given that it is the prosperity of the American working class between 1945 and 1975 that is starting to look like the historical anomaly, while the norm may well have been some version of today’s material stagnation, not to say injustice, marked by two different educational systems—one for the privileged, the other for everyone else—rigid and immobile income divides the American norm, not to mention radically different levels of access to good health care, and, unsurprisingly wildly divergent health outcomes (look at the class differentiation of both obesity and smoking).
For now, most of us are still prisoners of American labor history as viewed through the prism of this post-World War II historical anomaly. And what, by European standards, in fact was an extraordinarily sanguinary effort by American capitalism to suppress the American labor movement, one that can be traced from the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania in the 1870s, through the Pinkertons hired by John D. Rockefeller firing on the miners in Ludlow, Colorado, in 1914, to the Reuther brothers battling Henry Ford’s goons at the River Rouge auto plant in Dearborn, Michigan, from 1937 through the great strike of 1941, has largely disappeared from the generally accepted sense we have (and our children are taught) about the American past.
In these politically correct times, we now go to great lengths to inject (or re-inject, depending on your point of view) the occluded non-white dimension of American history, from the Algonquin Confederation to the mass round up and imprisonment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. We remember Martin Luther King Jr., at the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama; as well we should. But there was a bridge leading to the River Rouge plant in Dearborn too, and it is as if Walter Reuther and Richard Frankensteen being beaten half to death by Harry Bennett’s Ford ‘security force’ in 1937 while handing out UAW leaflets on the overpass to the River Rouge plant had never happened.
Much as I admired him, I disagreed with the late Howard Zinn about any number of things. But to his eternal credit he was a popular historian for whom the heroic struggle—and for those of you tempted to smirk at the use of such an unsophisticated, perhaps even a sentimental word, don’t: Heroic is exactly what it was!—of the American labor movement for a living wage and decent working conditions was at least as important as Woodrow Wilson’s Fourteen Points. Of course, I would far prefer there to be almost no humanitarian military interventions at all, and certainly no open-ended American global commitment to promoting democracy. Our modern Wilsonians could do worse than follow his example. But promoting democracy abroad while paying comparatively little heed to the fact that America is less and less a democracy? As Duke Ellington liked to say, that question has no future.
David Rieff is the author of eight books including A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis.