Archive for September, 2011

Roots of militancy

September 10, 2011

When do rational people seek militant leadership for their nation?  By militant here, I mean bellicose or having an affinity for violent conflict.  I have began thinking about this question while writing a paper on the rise of Nazism in Germany after World War 1.  I would suggest that this question may be one of the most important for political theory.  As a practical matter, we certainly do not want neighboring nations to choose militant leaders against us, and so we should avoid putting them  in conditions that  might cause them to do so.  Thus, we need to understand what might cause normal rational citizens to support militant candidates for leadership of their nation.

People normally have very good reasons to not want militant national leaders.  We are all at risk when our leader would not hesitate to send our loved ones and ourselves off to die in battle.  To preserve the blessings of peace, we should normally prefer to have leaders of the nonmilitant sort, who have a healthy aversion to war.

But of course militant leaders can also have a positive deterrent effect.  When we have a militant national  leader, other nations might be less inclined to provoke any kind of trouble for us.  So a perceived threat of deep invasion can create an incentive for us to seek a militant leader who can deter it.  But we must also worry that a leader who has an affinity for war may take any opportunities that he can get to make one for us.  This potential cost of militancy is reduced, however, when the serious risks of war seem remote from our borders.  Thus, the incentive to seek militant leadership may be strongest when we fear a long-term or low-probability threat of a deeply destructive invasion but otherwise the immediate risks of conflict seem small.

This recipe was fulfilled in Germany around 1930.  The post-WW1 reparations involved a persistent implicit Allied threat to invade Germany if it did not pay, but the immediate risks of militancy became remote after Allied troops withdrew from the Rhineland under the Young Plan of 1929.

Such conditions also existed in America after the attack of September 11, 2001.  We felt profoundly vulnerable to deep invasion, but the immediate risks of our own militant posturing seemed remote.  And indeed, a demonstrated willingness to use military force became a positive asset in American presidential politics for several years in the aftermath of the attack.  We should understand that, even in America, politics could become more militant under such conditions.

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