Fifteen Eighty Four

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How Narrative Politics Shapes American Military Might

Alexandra Homolar

The end of the Cold War heralded a substantial ‘peace dividend’ during the 1990s, a series of large cuts in defense spending by the United States, the world’s sole remaining military superpower. Right? Wrong. The Uncertainty Doctrine: Narrative Politics and US Hard Power after the Cold War explains why.

The fact that this did not happen, despite persistent claims that defense spending cuts under the Clinton administration hollowed out the US military and wasted the strategic opportunity provided by the ‘unipolar moment’, is a puzzle I spent the better part of two decades trying to unravel. Even in nominal terms, reductions in defense spending during the 1990s were surprisingly small, and short-lived. The entire accumulated ‘peace dividend’ from the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 to 1998 equated to less than nine months of the annual US defense budget for 1989. Spending sharply increased again after 1998 before skyrocketing during the Global War on Terror. The Uncertainty Doctrine reveals the narrative politics that shaped how this happened and explains why it matters for contemporary debates about American military might and the cost of maintaining hard power supremacy in a changing world.

The book tells the story of how the transition from the ‘before’ to the ‘after’ of the Cold War took place in US defense policy. Taking a step back from contemporary security concerns to rummage through the dustbin of (recent) history helps us to understand how we have arrived at our current juncture. In doing so, The Uncertainty Doctrine is a response to three frustrations with the conventional wisdom in International Relations scholarship.

The first frustration is the problematic tendency in security studies to divide history into distinct blocks of time. The Obama Presidency. The Bush Presidency. The Clinton Presidency. The Reagan Presidency. Post-1945. Postwar. Post-Cold War. Post-9/11. As though the causes and consequences of great events and the complex dynamics of change and continuity can be neatly bookended by electoral terms and the inauguration and departure from office of individual presidents, or by the start or end of major wars. This tendency is widespread and – whatever heuristic benefit such shortcuts might offer – highly misleading. It sweeps under the rug the inconvenient truth that the past does not simply screech to a halt once an important event occurs or once it concludes, even if we understand it as a moment of rupture. The book tackles this by turning the key assumption of ‘critical junctures’ on its head: the focus is squarely on understanding why more radical change did not occur in American security policy in the aftermath of systemic shocks including the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

The second frustration is the problem with seeing the process of security policymaking in the US as somehow insulated from the pressures of domestic politics. Developing a narrative politics approach to the study of US security, the book shows how political agents engaged in a hard-fought contest over who would own the narrative of the end of the Cold War, and what this would mean in practice for the US. In the process, both the causes and the implications of international security events were interpreted in ways that helped to maintain a status quo bias in key areas of American security policy, including the identification of new enemies, military force planning, and the development of major weapons systems.

The third frustration is the problem of assuming only critical junctures that lead to fundamental and observable changes in politics and policy are worthy of scholarly attention. If we limit the scope of our view by looking for ‘legacies of change’ as the defining marker of a critical juncture we risk missing the wood for the trees. It exaggerates the scale, pace, and comprehensiveness of change, obscures how change is contested, negotiated, and translated (and by whom), and overlooks the importance of understanding continuity. In The Uncertainty Doctrine, the powerful political agents who ‘win’ are not those who drive through radical policy changes but are those who effectively resist change, slow its pace, limit its consequences – those who successfully defend the status quo.

In recent years, the terminology of the ‘uncertainty doctrine’ has been used to describe a lack of clarity regarding the position of the US government towards friends and foes. Those who study the phenomenon of uncertainty know that the absence of clear positioning towards allies and adversaries, leaving them in the dark about how the US may act in a given situation, has little to do with either uncertainty or a doctrine. Instead it refers to ambiguous signaling. I use the concept of the ‘uncertainty doctrine’ instead to characterize a complex narrative system that gives meaning to the international security environment (the setting), sequences of events (the plot), friends and foes (the characters), and the latter’s actions and motivations through the lens of the unknown, while advocating certainty of the correct strategic response.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, the US resurfaced as a sword-swinging hero, shedding the baggage of its Cold War military failures while once again coming to the rescue of the ‘free world’, first against rogue states, then against global terrorism. This is the story we know. Understanding how we arrived here, how the early hopes for more peaceful international relations following the end of the Cold War were frustrated and quickly replaced by new fears, new enemies, new reasons to maintain American military might, this is the story we do not know. This is the story of narrative politics that is closely examined and explained in The Uncertainty Doctrine.

The Uncertainty Doctrine by Alexandra Homolar

About The Author

Alexandra Homolar

Alexandra Homolar is a Professor of International Security at the University of Warwick. Her research interests lie at the intersection of security, language and political psycholo...

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