US Foreign Policy: No Checks, no Balance
The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs
Article first published online: 22 MAR 2013
© The Authors 2013. The Political Quarterly © The Political Quarterly Publishing Co. Ltd. 2013 Published by Blackwell Publishing Ltd
The Political Quarterly
Volume 84, Issue 1, pages 158–160, January-March 2013
How to Cite
Burk, K. (2013), The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs. The Political Quarterly, 84: 158–160. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2013.2424_4.x
- Issue published online: 22 MAR 2013
- Article first published online: 22 MAR 2013
The Emergency State: America's Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs, by . The Penguin Press. 359 pp. £17.87.
This book is a polemic, a clarion call to arms directed at Americans by an American about America, as its publicist makes clear with the claim that it is ‘a transformative book essential to our national security debate’. Written by a man who is both a long-term editorial writer for the New York Times and a part-time academic at the Bologna Center of The Johns Hopkins University Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, the book is a brisk survey of selected aspects of American foreign policy and policy-making from the time of Wilson to that of Obama, but with an emphasis on the post-war period. Fundamentally, he believes that ‘for seven decades we have been yielding our most basic liberties to a secretive, unaccountable emergency state’, which he defines as a ‘vast but increasingly misdirected complex of national security institutions, reflexes, and beliefs’. What have been sacrificed are constitutional rights and freedoms. The primary villains are those who, since the time of Franklin Roosevelt, have worked to increase the absolute power of the Executive, but close behind is a Congress which allowed, and continues to allow, this to happen. The American people themselves are mostly let off the hook, because they were prevented from knowing what was going on. The point of the book is to alert them to what has been happening and to make urgent proposals for the necessary changes. If this does not take place, Unger warns, America as the Founders designed it will cease to be.
Roosevelt, Unger argues, began it all. He believed in a strong presidency, exploited the opportunities provided by total war and laid the foundations of today's emergency state. (In what is presumably a double entendre, Unger entitles Roosevelt's chapter ‘The Godfather’.) However, it was the Truman presidency which created the peacetime emergency state. ‘Unlike the wartime emergency state, the peacetime variety has no logical termination, no moment when the emergency clearly ends and normal constitutional procedures come back into force. A new, security-based set of justifications for expanded presidential powers in peacetime was born’. NATO, the CIA and National Security Council policy paper 68, which set out the rationale for the national security state, were products of this period. It was the Eisenhower presidency which adopted the defence strategy of massive nuclear retaliation, although a point in Eisenhower's favour is that he warned against the military–industrial complex when he left office.
Under Kennedy, the philosophy behind American foreign policy was explicitly set out: American responsibilities were limitless. The belief in American global power was united with the responsibility that was felt to maintain the Truman presidency's policy of global containment of communism. This required a new American weapon: counterinsurgency. Unlike Truman and Eisenhower, Kennedy wanted to make the day-to-day foreign policy decisions, and this led to the transformation of the job of special presidential assistant for national security affairs into the modern position of national security adviser. With the direct backing of the president, a result of this was constant bureaucratic infighting between the adviser and the Secretary of State, with the latter frequently losing. There was also no requirement for congressional confirmation.
Under the Johnson presidency, the direction and temper of the country were profoundly changed: ‘it ushered in a new dark phase of the emergency state, characterized by a massively escalated presidential war, vastly expanded White House political spying, and a steadily widening “credibility gap” between the president and the American public.’ But this credibility gap, united with public dislike of the Vietnam War and an increasing economic crisis, meant that Nixon inherited an emergency state in crisis; he spent most of his presidency trying to rescue and rebuild it, and nearly succeeded. He switched to an all-volunteer army, ‘Vietnamised’ the war, opened links with China, pushed détente, ended the link between gold and the dollar and imposed high tariffs, alarming and confusing both domestic and foreign enemies; however, his paranoia and compulsive secrecy and his habit of using government institutions to pursue personal political goals and vendettas led to Watergate and his destruction as president.
It also meant that during the Ford presidency, an energised Congress made changes to the rules governing presidential war-making powers which effectively challenged the powers of the emergency state. Congress was supported by an electorate aroused by the débâcle of the Vietnam War and the threats to the Constitution symbolised by Watergate. Yet these changes were to be more temporary than was imagined. The conflict between Secretary of State Cyrus Vance and National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, when coupled with the Iranian hostage-taking crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the declining economy, meant that the presidency of the inexperienced Jimmy Carter lasted only one term. The stage was set for the resurgence of the ‘emergency state’ under Reagan.
Carter had emphasised human rights; Reagan returned to the offensive against Moscow, denouncing it as an ‘evil empire’ and announcing support for armed anti-Communist guerrillas. Containment was rejected and military spending was increased substantially, partly to rebuild American forces so that Moscow would know that the US intended to prevail whatever the cost, but also to bankrupt the USSR as it tried to match American military expansion. Many Americans were disturbed by Reagan's rejection of further SALT talks, of peace through deterrence, of nuclear parity; instead, he wanted what he termed ‘peace through strength’. He wanted global dominance. He also wanted to achieve this whilst cutting taxes and depending on supply-side economics, ignoring the domestic results this would have. It was an heroic world view. According to Unger, Reagan set the template for America's role in the world and the military strength supporting it that has led the US astray ever since. Neither Clinton nor Bush the Second fundamentally modified the goal or the emergency state which supported and attempted to implement it. Indeed, Bush attacked or evaded many constitutional rights in the process. Obama has failed to reverse many of these encroachments on constitutional democracy.
After this wholesale indictment, does Unger provide any ideas as to how this slide might be reversed? First of all, he wants to alert Americans to just what has been happening, which is the point of this book. He also provides ten suggestions, most of which share a common thread in arguing that Congress ought to do its job of checking executive power. Along with this, the American people ought to have the information which would allow them to take part in debates regarding what the government should do and how it should do it. Of course, during the past two years it has been obvious just what can happen if Congress' only goal is to check the Executive, but moderation in all things is, as always, a useful guide.
This is a passionate book, driven by Unger's fear about what the US has become. Sometimes he is so driven that some of his comments are over the top. He also occasionally emphasises the thrust of a paragraph by setting out the conclusion in a single sentence, as though the reader might be too stupid to understand it otherwise.
This is an intensely annoying technique.
The main question is, who is this book for? That is, should a busy non-American find the time to read it, if one's deep interest, or job, requires keeping in touch with ‘whither America’ arguments? If the basic knowledge is already there, the answer is yes. Otherwise, possibly not.