From making the military-intellectual complex to making sense of grand strategy, here are this week’s top picks in imperial and global history.
In 1947, two years after the United States emerged victorious in World War II, the 80th U.S. Congress passed the National Security Act, which created the Department of Defense (originally titled the National Military Establishment), Central Intelligence Agency, and National Security Council. Though the nation had demobilized after the war, anxieties about communism quickly permeated the American foreign policy establishment. To combat the Soviet Union—and to manage the nation’s increasingly global interests—decision-makers established, for the first time in American history, a peacetime “national security state” able to deploy thousands of weapons and millions of troops all over the world.
Compared to its better-known counterparts, the National Security Council remains something of a mystery. Headquartered in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, next to the White House and a block away from the Council on Foreign Relations, the NSC bridges the gap between the intellectuals and decision-makers of the foreign policy establishment. The council, in short, is a core institution of the “military-intellectual complex,” the network of organizations that since the late-1940s have provided government officials with the ideas they rely on to make foreign policy. If the military-industrial complex builds the weapons of American empire, the military-intellectual complex develops the concepts that determine where such weapons are actually used. [continue reading]
To the surprise of most of Latin America, and perhaps some Americans, U.S. National Security Advisor John Bolton has taken to announcing that “the Monroe Doctrine is alive and well.” He invoked a historical U.S. policy to convey that the United States will dictate the terms of governance and commerce in the countries of the Western Hemisphere, by military force if necessary. The threat is evidently intended to intimidate the Nicolás Maduro government of Venezuela from using military force to quell civil rebellion. This is national security malpractice, a squandering of the political goodwill the United States has earned by discarding a historical policy that outlived its purpose.
But it is apt that Venezuela should be prominent in discussion of the Monroe Doctrine, for it was over Venezuela in 1895 that a U.S. president first invoked its use. President James Monroe had declared in 1823 that “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.” This marked the moment when U.S. foreign policy first broke from European traditions and attempted to shape the world in its republican image. But the United States lacked the military strength to carry out the policy for the subsequent 70 years. The policy got its first actual test when a corrupt regime in Caracas attempted to manipulate the United States into defending it. [continue reading]
Tan Malaka was a man of many talents. In the course of a fairly brief lifetime, lasting only a little over fifty years (1897–1949), he was variously a schoolteacher, an anti-colonial propagandist, the chair of the Indonesian Communist Party (PKI), a Comintern agent, and a revolutionary leader. He was also a man of many names. His birth name was Ibrahim, chosen, perhaps, to signal his family’s fidelity to Islam. As he wrote in 1943, ‘my mother and father were both pious people who feared Allah and followed the word of the Prophet.’ In his youth he was given a new name, Datuk Tan Malaka, a title which signified his family’s importance within his village, Suliki, located in the Minangkabau lands of West Sumatra. When he was exiled by the government of the Dutch East Indies for seditious activities in 1922, he began to invent new names for himself to elude colonial police forces. After he was arrested in Manila in 1927, the Philippines Free Pressrevealed that his various identities included ‘Hassan, Cheung Kun Tat, Howard Law, Elias Fuentes, Eliseo Rivera, and Ibrahim Datu Tuan Malacca’.
In his autobiography, titled From Jail to Jail (1948), Tan Malaka revealed further pseudonyms: Hasan Gozali, Ramli Hussein, Iljas Hussein and Oong Song Lee. Helen Jarvis, in her magisterial edition of From Jail to Jail, unearthed yet more codenames: one anti-colonial activist discovered by Dutch police had the name ‘Ossorio’ written by Tan Malaka’s address; in 1934, Tan Malaka signed his name as Tan Ho Seng in a note written for a student. Nor was Tan Malaka the only person to create new names for himself. In the 1930s and 1940s, a series of spy thrillers were written about a thinly-veiled version of him under the title ‘Patjar Merah’ (or ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’), a new persona which added to his aura of mystery and adventure. The Japanese exploited the sense of uncertainty around his identity, using false Tan Malakas to spread pro-Japanese propaganda during their occupation of Indonesia. [continue reading]
Julian Davis Mortenson
Is the president a king? The question may sound absurd, but you’d be surprised: A great many lawyers, politicians, judges, and policy experts think the U.S. Constitution builds from exactly that starting point. Their argument relies on the first sentence of Article II, which gives the president “the executive power.” That phrase, they claim, was originally understood as a generic reference to monarchical authority. This means, they say, that the American president must have been given all the prerogatives of a British king, except where the Constitution specifies otherwise. The foreign-relations scholar Philip Trimble states their conclusion plainly: “Unless the [Article II] Vesting Clause is meaningless, it incorporates the unallocated parts of Royal Prerogative.”
The repercussions of this claim ripple across the face of constitutional law. During Senate hearings on legislating an end to the Iraq War, Brad Berenson, who had served as one of President George W. Bush’s top lawyers, told the Senate that the executive-power clause conveys “a vast reserve of implied authority to do whatever may be necessary in executing the laws and governing the nation.” When the Bush administration wanted to defy statutory restrictions on dragnet surveillance, the Justice Department relied on the clause in advising that Congress “cannot restrict the President’s ability to engage in warrantless searches that protect the national security.” And Justice Clarence Thomas put the clause front and center in concluding that “those who ratified the Constitution understood the ‘executive Power’ vested by Article II to include those foreign affairs powers not otherwise allocated in the Constitution.” [continue reading]
Whatever else 2019 turns out to be, it will enjoy a strong case for being remembered as the golden age of debate over American national security strategy. In the month of April alone, four publications published 14 articles in which more than 20 academics, practitioners and advocates weighed in on what the ends, means and themes of U.S. security policy should be. The thinkers included members of Congress and veterans as well as activists, academics, think-tankers and former diplomats. They were overwhelmingly—but not entirely—the product of elite institutions; unusually, a large minority were women or people of color. Many of the names are recognizable to members of the foreign policy establishment, but very few readers will be familiar with all of them. I wasn’t.
Though the authors include Republicans, Democrats and people unaffiliated with either party, all share an eagerness for a day when Donald Trump and his acolytes are not running U.S. foreign policy, and each seeks to push forward the national security community’s preparations for that day. (The Texas National Security Review’s 2018 symposium provides an excellent contrasting window into how conservative thinkers are working to build Trump’s actions and utterances into doctrines that might outlast him and where those doctrines diverge.) [continue reading]