The Prelude to the Ukraine Crisis: Military Managerialism and the Limits to the Institutional Discourse
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Author: Jonathan Michael Feldman
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What is Military Managerialism?

Military managerialism is a principle described by thinkers like C. Wright Mills and Seymour Melman, two Columbia University professors who were among the leading anti-militarist intellectuals in the United States. The principle of military managerialism suggests that bureaucracies are based on the control of greater and greater numbers of persons and places as part of what appears to be the natural extension system of power. Various bureaucracies, be they transnational corporations, war contractors or the Pentagon, seek to expand their base of power. This principle is not simply evidenced in the mega-mergers producing large transnational corporate “defense contractors,” but also the extension of the state military enterprise in all walks of life, from militarized policing, to use of the military to somehow extricate us from ecological challenges, to feminist militarism where militaries are deployed to advance “women’s rights.”

It is true that some women’s interests were advanced by the U.S. military engagement’s support of the Taliban overthrow (as in Afghanistan in a limited fashion according to the John R. Allen and Vanda Felbab-Brown Brookings Institution) and that police power is needed to remove anti-democratic elements (as in the January 6, 2021 Capitol insurgents or Canadian trucker assault on public space). The problem, however, is that militarist managerialism works by harvesting problems that it creates. As Kristina vanden Heuvel recently noted in an interview with Doug Henwood, NATO basically solves problems created by itself. To this one might add, that NATO also tries to solve problems that it does not create, but creates new versions of the same problems.

In military managerialism a host of diverse actors including the Pentagon, allied militaries in Europe, war corporations benefitting from NATO standardization requirements, the elite mass media, allied politicians, think tanks and academics each gain by supporting NATO expansion. These groups represent the nexus of political, economic, media and academic capital aligned with militarist interests. Such expansion raises the power and status of each group and individual supporting such advocacy. In contrast, those opposing such expansion rarely if ever gain any such benefits. Through political economies of scale, the top managers gain more markets (be they political or economic) for their product or service. A person in a larger organization gains more power by virtue of the extension of her or his organization.

Militarism itself can be defined as the support of “hard power” and military solutions that displace peaceful economic and diplomatic solutions or the advocacy of military technology, enterprises and engagements. Militarism advances without any countervailing concern for general and complete (mutual) disarmament and disengagement, civilian and sustainable economic conversion, alternative or defensive security measures, or mechanism to build trust among adversaries and create new, alternative budget policies such as a Green New Deal, investment in mass transit infrastructure, or other forms of pro-active civilian engagement. Even when military solutions seem or are necessary, as the defeat of the Nazi regime during World War II, there was a back story about how a failed peace encouraged military ascendancy. This failed peace could be seen in draconian conditions imposed on Germans or through deals arms contractors in countries like Sweden made with German military contractors to subvert the Treaty of Versailles.

Case I: Afghanistan as a Test of Military Managerialism’s Virtue

Consider the case of Afghanistan where women’s rights were undermined by militarism, not just of the U.S. mujahedeen variety. As Simar Sachar explains in the Journal of International Affairs, “The overt politicization of Afghan women, their rights, and their role within society can be traced back to 1978 when a coup d’état resulted in the fall of Daud Khan’s government, and commenced the bloody militarization of communist factions and mujahedeen. The subsequent history of Afghanistan’s ongoing war has intensified the exclusion of Afghan women from the social, political, and economic arenas.” The story is more complicated than the U.S. destabilizing a pro-feminist Soviet Regime as William Malley explains in an World Development essay, where he writes: “In early 1980, regime troops fired on a peaceful demonstration by school-girls protesting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, killing a number of them including the leader of the protest, Nahid…Women in rural areas frequently were victims of atrocities by the regime’s forces…Such atrocities attracted not the faintest word of public protest from official women’s groups, confirming their status as mere mouthpieces of their male party superiors. While [Valentine M.] Moghadam notes that the male death rate exceeded the female…, she fails to note that according to the most detailed study of causes of unnatural deaths during the Afghan war, 76.7% of female deaths resulted from aerial bombings — that is, from the use of weapons to which only the regime and its Soviet allies had access.” By synthesizing Allen, Felbab-Brown, Sachar and Malley we can see how militarism of the U.S. or Soviet-aligned variety ends up limiting women’s rights and possibilities, even if some progress is made at particular times because of what militarism provides, e.g. even Daud Khan gained power from a military coup. The underlying conflict among dominant militarisms, however, clearly undermined women’s possibilities. As the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan explained during the first days of the US occupation of Afghanistan: “The continuation of US attacks and the increase in the number of innocent civilian victims not only gives an excuse to the Taliban, but also will cause the empowerment of the fundamentalist forces in the region and even in the world.” In other words, opposing militarisms feed one another, just as even competing soda brands increase the larger market for soda consumption.

Case II: The January 6th Insurrection

In the case of the January 6th insurrection, some of the active elements were socialized by the U.S. military and some participants were associated with the military (at least eighty) and police forces. Moreover, the Trump Administration both helped aggravate the Covid crisis (which helped feed the insurrection) and was a clear patron of military expansionism. Trump supported various military interests. It is true that elements of the national security apparatus and top military figures helped constrain or attacked Trump. Nevertheless,  John M. Donnelly in Roll Call recently explained on January 3, 2022, that “defense contractors bankrolled campaigns of election objectors.” Donnelly referred to a report by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics to explain that “leading defense contractors were among the most generous corporate contributors to the campaigns of members of Congress who voted not to certify the 2020 presidential election results in Arizona or Pennsylvania.” Another report explains “according to the most recent Federal Election Commission (FEC) filings, defense contractors last month donated to more than one-third of the 147 Republicans who objected to the Electoral College vote.” The delays and constraints on quickly deploying the National Guard to help remove January 6th protestors undermines the idea the current configuration and expansion of military power adequately serves the public’s interests. The military failed to prevent the 9-11 and January 6 security crises illustrating the limits of simply expanding traditional military power as a mechanism to secure defense.

Military Managerialism and the Ukraine Crisis

For Russia, Ukraine’s move towards NATO is part of a cycle of NATO’s eastward expansion, despite U.S. government promises to limit such expansion after German unification. As Spiegel International explains, “According to…documents, the U.S., the UK and Germany signaled to the Kremlin that a NATO membership of countries like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic was out of the question. In March 1991, British Prime Minister John Major promised during a visit to Moscow that ‘nothing of the sort will happen.'” NATO expansionism was part of a military managerialist move backed by far right elements in the United States: “The U.S. administration at the time [when NATO expansionism was promoted] included influential hardliners like Defense Secretary Dick Cheney and his neo-conservative undersecretary of state, Paul Wolfowitz. These were men who dreamed of developing the U.S. into the only global superpower, and saw NATO primarily as a tool to assert U.S. dominance in Europe. The interest shown by countries in Eastern Europe in joining the alliance was helpful in that regard. The Defense Department urged that NATO leave ‘the door ajar.'” Spiegel International concluded that “the West didn’t break any treaties,” but the idea that legality is superior to ethics in assessing justifications for militarism is plainly wrong, as when the U.S. has sold billions of weapons to autocrats, who violate international law. In this case, what is legally permitted (on a national basis) clearly violates ethical standards and even international law.

The most obvious solution to the Ukraine Crisis would be for Ukraine to declare itself a neutral and non-military aligned country in a treaty supported by the United States and Russia. This seems the best mechanism for guaranteeing the safety and security of Ukraine. An article by Serhiy Kudelia in Russia Matters published by Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government explains: “Many of the prominent American scholars and policymakers who advocate a neutral status for Ukraine hail from the ‘realist’ school of international relations and draw on historical precedent. Former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, for example, suggested Ukraine take ‘a posture comparable with that of Finland,’ associating with Europe politically and economically but avoiding ‘institutional hostility toward Russia.’ Harvard’s Graham Allison argued that Ukraine should take note of Belgium, whose neutral status under the Treaty of London ensured its survival as an independent state. Other leading scholars—including the University of Chicago’s John Mearsheimer, Harvard’s Stephen Walt and MIT’s Barry Posen, among others—have argued that Ukrainian neutrality could stabilize security in Europe.”

The Limits to Institutional Discourse

The problem with the liberal formulation that promotes neutrality as a solution is that the mere advocacy of such an idea is hardly a solution to military managerialism. Ideas do not easily compete with material realities, without creating alternative material realities. Consider the case of NATO’s expansion during the Clinton Administration. Robert W. Rauchhaus illustrates that military managerialism was part of the support system for such expansion, although he downplays the role of war contractors in his essay, “Explaining NATO Enlargement.” Rauchhaus writes, “it is clear that key figures in the Clinton administration favoured the enlargement of NATO prior to, and independent of, the pressures brought to bear by key domestic groups.” These groups included “the arms industry” which “did actively lobby the administration and Congress,” but Rauchhaus say “their efforts did not seem to have much effect.” Nevertheless, continues Rauchhaus “while organized domestic interests may not explain why the policy enjoyed widespread support, they do help explain why policy-makers who were otherwise indifferent towards the policy decided not to stand in its way.”

Rauchhaus favors statist explanations for the expansion, summarizing one key argument by Charles Kupchan as follows: “One of the key players who helped advance the policy was Anthony Lake, the national security adviser during the first Clinton administration. Lake was also joined by several proponents of the policy, including Assistant Secretary of State Richard Holbrooke and, later on, Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott. Although in the minority, this group of enlargement supporters was able to overcome widespread bureaucratic opposition by encouraging the President to issue public statements about the future of NATO and eastern Europe.” In reviewing these key figures we see a strong overlap to mainstream academic institutions. Lake attended Harvard and did further study at Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs (which has been renamed the Princeton School of Public and International Affairs). Holbrooke attended Brown University and was later a fellow at the Wilson School. Talbott attended Yale University and Oxford University (when Bill Clinton was also in residence there), and later headed the Brookings Institution (2002-2017). To a certain extent, universities have been incubators for war planners.

These elite institutions each represent various circulation points for elite consensus, although Brown University has recently developed a Costs of War Project which involves elements of anti-militarism. Wilson School researchers were even linked to a Nobel Peace Prize to abolish nuclear weapons. Yet, none of these institutions are known for generating research that systematically opposes the U.S. military industrial complex, promoting civilian conversion of defense industries or any program of systemic demilitarization. Opposition to nuclear war does nothing to prevent the arms sales and interventions that trigger nuclear expansionism. A recent review by this author of literature on economic conversion did not identify a single scholar at such institutions (with the exception to the rule being Seymour Melman at Columbia University and his colleagues), probably because elite universities like Harvard have championed a dual use approach which backs defense industrial policy and support for military technological development. While Wilson alumnus Ralph Nader clearly qualifies as a leading voice against militarism and Ivy League institutions like Columbia University once championed systemic anti-militarization, one can safely conclude that there are no academic programs based on the core idea of anti-militarism and demilitarization in the Ivy League universities. There are no “departments of anti-militarist studies” anywhere in the English-speaking world. There are various academic departments embracing “Critical Security Studies,” but such institutions are not generating the leadership of U.S. military and foreign policy bureaucracies. The deconstruction of militarism does not necessarily lead to strategies which actual hinder military managerialism. The larger point that is most relevant has been made by Institute for Policy Studies founders Marcus Raskin and Richard Barnet: Taking a hard, military line has often been most useful for advancing the careers of foreign policy bureaucrats, where advocating peace and long-term, more peaceful measures has often been detrimental. Raskin championed a comprehensive treaty for general and complete disarmament and did not simply deconstruct militarism. His ideas have not really circulated within critical security studies circles.

While some realists correctly convey the limits to NATO’s Ukraine expansion, they share with some of their left counterparts a limited interest in discussing economic conversion of defense firms or a larger reconstructionist program to undermine the Pentagon’s capacity to expand. These groups do not specify the design of strategic interventions against military managerialism, even if some correctly critique the results of such managerialism, the dependent variable. Such a long-term policy may seem irrelevant in the face of an immediate crisis, but can be part of a systemic mobilization and contests in key supporting pillars of the militarist system, like universities. Universities contain a space that combines ecological activists, procurement power, and the ability to shift resources to support a civilian, green economy at the expense of a military, petroleum-based one. Universities have generated a topical, discursive space key to antiwar activity, such as the teach-in efforts which were pivotal in the movement against the U.S. intervention in Vietnam. An on-line discussion is not a teach-in (in the classic sense) which requires a systemic mobilization that influences discourse in a university. Such teach-ins require organizing campaigns that involve diverse faculty, students and sometimes administrators.

A campaign to delink the supporting pillars of the military can begin on the periphery of the military procurement system in the activities of students, peace groups, and labor unions supporting sustainable conversion. The activities required for greening a university clearly overlap with the activities for demilitarizing a university as both interventions depend on expanding green civilian markets and question the kinds of procurement actors who patronize universities.

In contrast to the state-centered discourse of realists, citizen diplomacy offers a more coherent basis for military disengagement, particularly when militarists dominate and organize state foreign policy. We have a clear model for what can be done in the 1985 efforts of Chuck Alton  and Ted Turner who organized a “Global Town Meeting…a group of Soviet citizens [in Moscow] had gotten up in the middle of the night to talk with their American buddies.” During this broadcast, “thousands of other Americans were listening in and occasionally participating from about 30 U.S. cities, which carried the live, 90-minute broadcast.”

The program for systemic a campaign to oppose military managerialism is clear. The enabling mechanisms can start in university-based campaigns and involve Global Town Meetings. Present institutional configurations in the Pentagon, peace movements, and foreign policy bureaucracies are either hostile (at worst) or not sufficient (at best) for supporting this agenda. Social amnesia about what works clearly defines the limits of contemporary institutional discourse.

Postscript, The New York Times and the Limits to Ukrainian Autonomy: February 23, 2022

Some may claim that Russia’s militarism alone drives the crisis, which is an ahistorical argument, as opposed to the more accurate argument that both Russia and the NATO alliance contribute. This amounts to saying that states interact and such interaction influences the international system, something which might be labeled a “truism.” Who was the key provocateur? The historical narrative above does not point to Russia. The Russia as the key party at fault frame can be seen in an editorial about the crisis in The New York Times, published on February 21, 2022. The key passage reads as follows:

“Since starting the military buildup around Ukraine, Mr. Putin has issued a broad set of grievances and demands, effectively claiming that the United States and its allies reneged on a promise not to expand NATO to Russia’s borders, and demanding that the alliance stay out of Ukraine and pull back from Eastern Europe.

There are areas in which the West can reassure Mr. Putin, as the Biden administration has tried to do without surrendering core principles of the alliance or making decisions over the head of Ukraine. But nothing even remotely justifies invasion. Mr. Putin, however, has dismissed these efforts and has continued to ratchet up tensions.”

This passage raises several key questions.

First, if the invasion is the key dependent variable, then we must consider all causes or triggers of such an invasion, but the editorial obfuscates these driving factors because of what it does not say.

Second, how is the West reassuring Putin about NATO expansion “without surrendering core principles of the alliance” if these “core principles” are partially based on military managerialism as outlined above?

Third, if “making decisions over the head of Ukraine” is bad (violating that nation’s free choices and autonomy), then how do we address the fact that Ukrainian autonomy (free choice) is tied to repressive tolerance of fascistsHolocaust deniers, and anti-Semites?

Finally, if “nothing even remotely justifies an invasion” in what Putin argues does this principle also extend to military managerialism? Do the hypothesized gains to NATO of military managerialism justify the threat of a Russian invasion? How does military managerialist extension into NATO, its legitimacy of the status quo over there, relate to repressive tolerance of Ukrainian tendencies associated with fascism and anti-Semitism? Wouldn’t a Ukraine decoupled from fascism, NATO and Russian influence be far preferable?

In sum, shouldn’t Ukraine, the NATO alliance and Russia each be pressured to support a fascist-free, neutral, non-military threatening (non-NATO), autonomous and democratic Ukraine? As someone whose ancestors come from this region, I can hardly have a romantic view of a free Ukraine that is free to do whatever it wants to its people. Lev Golinkin, in his essay, “Neo-Nazis and the Far Right Are On the March in Ukraine,” in The Nation, explains that “Washington’s decision to ignore the proliferation of armed neo-Nazi groups in a highly unstable nation only led to them gaining more power.” This suggests that the larger Ukraine crisis is not simply a byproduct of international relations, but domestic politics in both the Ukraine and United States. Where the Times faults Russia for making decisions “over the head of Ukraine,” we can’t ignore the opportunity costs of the U.S. not sufficiently pressuring Ukraine. The word “national autonomy” loses its magical aura of magnificence when it becomes “freedom to engage in domestic political repression.” Russia is not the only nation suffering from this problem. War of course would worsen conditions for Ukraine’s minorities, another reason for opposing all varieties of military managerialism.

Jonathan Michael Feldman teaches at Stockholm University and is the founder of The Global Teach-In.  He can be reached via Twitter @Globalteachin.  The proceedings of Global Teach-In can be seen at:

A follow-up article by Feldman on the current crisis is available at the following link:

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