The revolutionary status quo Power

By Lorenzo

Based on a comment I originally made here.

The US is at once both a revolutionary and a status quo Power.

It is a revolutionary Power in the straightforward sense that it is the only contemporary state seriously trying to export its revolution, apart from the Islamic Republic of Iran.

It is also a revolutionary Power in a somewhat more subtle sense, in that it produces so much of the technology that continues to transform the world. Which puts the US in a similar situation during its Pax Americana, as Britain during the Pax Britannica: being the premier source of transforming technology while trying to foster international stability.

But the US is also a status quo Power, in that the current arrangement of world affairs suits its interests–as the major economic, financial, trading and military Power. It tends to act as the central manager of the international system–its performance as such is very much affected by its own interests, because that’s what Powers do. But precisely because the US has a bigger stake in international stability than any other polity else, it tends to be more active in trying to maintain that stability.

But being a status quo Power is not very compatible with being a revolutionary Power. And even more so, vice versa. It would be hard to argue that its attempts to export its Revolution to Mesopotamia and the Hindu Kush have been exactly stabilising, even as it sought to create a (new) stability.

A hardy perennial in (failed) US policies has been ignorance of history. Both the US as status quo Power and US as revolutionary Power tend to encourage history-fails. A status quo Power has a tendency to live in an eternal now. A revolutionary Power has a tendency to fixate on its own framing of social patterns and desirable outcomes. Add to that American exceptionalism, and you have a recipe for serial history-fails.

As has been particularly obvious in US interventions in the Middle East.

As Somaliland shows (the successful, formerly British, bit of the former Somalia), a House of Elders (in other words, a House of Lords) would very likely have been sensible policy in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as it would have connected government into traditional social structures. But hereditary and religious legislators, can’t have that! Because we’re Americans and we don’t think like that! Our Revolution is explicitly about no hereditary government, and separation of church and state, so a House of Elders (or Shura Council, or whatever) becomes unthinkable and unthought.

And holding a vote on whether to restore the king in Afghanistan (pdf) would also have been sensible policy. But we’re Americans and we don’t think like that!

Yes, but those folk you’re trying to help: they’re not Americans and they don’t think like you. Alas, American exceptionalism and the US-as-revolutionary-Power trumps trying to understand the local societies in their own terms and building something that might work for them.

Similarly, Iraq should have been divided into three, as any “Iraqi” identity was too shallow to survive any serious stress. But the US is a too much of a status quo power (and a little too ignorant of Middle Eastern history) to think like that either.

Being at the same time a status quo and a revolutionary power is a difficult double. Alas, it is also very well set up to create serial policy failure.


[Cross-posted from Thinking Out Aloud.]


  1. Nigel Davies
    Posted January 31, 2015 at 2:55 pm | Permalink

    To that you can add their other contradiction.

    American Exceptionalism is all about a moralistic ‘ people would be better if they were more like us’ approach, whereas what passes for US foreign policy these days simultaneously likes to adopt the Western disease fantasy that ‘cultural relativism’ means you shouldn’t judge.

    These two conflict as badly as the British interwar voters who simultaneously demanded disarmament, while wanting their military to enforce international treaties. (And will probably end as well).

  2. Adrien
    Posted February 1, 2015 at 9:04 pm | Permalink

    Lorenzo, the argument that the US is attempting to export its revolution to the world is smoke.

    US foreign policy in the Mid-East has been consistently reactionary. The policy has time and again to retard the forces of modernisation as they have manifested in the region. The reason for this is simple: modernisation in the Middle East runs contrary to US interests. And where possible any manifestation of modernisation in the region has been resisted vigorously by the US government and its organs.

    The PR riff that America seeks to bring liberty to the Middle-East is a schpiel advocated by the Bush administration in order to cover up what is essentially a resource war. It is rubbish sir. To what extent there is a Pax Americana, a dubious proposition, it is not in existence in the Middle-East.

  3. Adrien
    Posted February 1, 2015 at 9:08 pm | Permalink

    I should add that this is true of much of the rest of the globe. Without belabouring the point please compare and contrast the behaviour and intentions of Americans in 1776 with the attitude of the US government toward Vietnam 200 years later. Vietnam declares independence and the US exports its revolution?

    Not exactly. It systematically endeavours to deny the Vietnamese the inalienable rights and self-evident truths about which so much chest-beating occurs every 4th of July.

  4. Posted February 24, 2015 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    [email protected]

    US foreign policy in the Mid-East has been consistently reactionary.

    US foreign policy in the Middle East hasn’t been consistently anything. Which was rather my point.

    Surely it is quite obvious that exporting its revolution to Iraq and Afghanistan is precisely what it has been trying to do. If mere stability was the aim, the policy would have been rather different.

    As for a “resource war”, the US has made no attempt to seize anyone’s oil or gas resources and it would have been much easier and hugely cheaper to make a deal with Saddam if oil was one’s concern.

    I would agree the US as status quo Power has been the much the more dominant policy, but just not the only one.

    [email protected] Lots of countries declared independence and the US did nothing about it. If anything, its policy was to encourage the break-up of European colonial empires. In the case of Vietnam, the French sold the US the notion that the Vietminh were communist dominated and tools of Soviet policy. It was Cold War dynamics which dominated the reaction.

    The current de facto alliance between the US and Vietnam does provide a rich irony to events.

    There is an argument that the Vietnam War did give other countries (notably Thailand) time to get their act together. Possibly.

    What Vietnam does indicate is the dominance of Cold War concerns in US policy up until 1989-91: but we knew that.

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