the sources of progressive foreign policy

The principles and priorities of a progressive foreign policy have become a prominent subject of political debate during the past two years. The Trump administration’s incompetent foreign policy governance is the first major catalyst for this debate. Rex Tillerson’s “management reforms” during his year as Trump’s first Secretary of State resulted in the wholesale exodus of the post-Cold War civilian brain trust; Trump’s almost-total reliance on the wisdom of “his generals” has done much to undermine the last vestiges of civilian oversight over military affairs; and dramatic own-goals on trade, alliance politics, nuclear diplomacy with Iran, and immigration issues have jeopardized the trust of US allies and partners in Europe, East Asia, and North America.

The second spark for the current progressive foreign policy debate is the resurgence of the left wing of the Democratic Party following Bernie Sanders’ insurgent primary campaign in 2016. A group of charismatic, outspoken progressives–notably, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib–joined the freshman class of the new Congress in January, and each sees re-shaping the Washington consensus on a range of foreign policy issues as a core part of their mandate. Less public, but no less important, is staunch anti-war champion Barbara Lee’s new position in the Democratic leadership. The latest demonstration of the new progressives’ capacity to shape public discussion on foreign policy topics was the media controversy surrounding Rep. Omar’s biting questioning of Elliott Abrams, the current US special envoy for Venezuela and a longtime Republican foreign policy maven involved in some of the Reagan administration’s most disastrous and immoral policy decisions in Central America. This debate, both on public opinion pages and among campaign policy advisers, will only heighten as more than a dozen Democratic primary candidates jockey to distinguish themselves from both Trump and each other ahead of the 2020 elections.

What is a progressive US foreign policy? What can it be? There are three potential ways to approach these questions. The first and most common is in terms of goals and principles. Many advocates see the task of progressive foreign policy as a normative task: they begin by describing the world they would like to see, how it differs from our current world, and what it means for the content of progressive foreign policy. A set of common priorities has emerged from this first-principles discussion. These include: accountability and oversight, both in terms of some form of procedural justice for US officials responsible for egregious policy decisions like torture, and Congressional checks on executive power; restraint, both in US military adventurism and in “softer” attempts at nation-building; and democracy and global equity, or the use of tools of US statecraft to constrain the interests and power of global capital. A number of policy issues transcend these first principles, including mitigating the harm of global climate change, counterterrorism, and US responses to violent conflict abroad.

These principles distinguish the worldview of a progressive foreign policy from its antecedents; in effect, they make up a sort of “grand strategy” for a progressive regime. As with all grand strategies, however, there is a wide gap between the world that progressive foreign policy advocates envision and how those principles interact with the status quo. How, for example, might progressive principles of restraint make sense of the sprawling war-making bureaucracy of the Department of Defense? What institutions beyond our current justice system might be established to ensure accountability for US human rights abuses? Of course, the gap between first principles and the foreign-policy status quo is a feature of progressive critique. Incrementalism in foreign policy reform, progressives argue, has benefited neither the American people nor the world.

The second approach frames the progressive foreign policy debate as a matter of policy applications, rather than principles. These advocates debate the relative merits of specific tools of US statecraft and their potential uses for the major priorities of the progressive policy agenda. A recent exchange between Nicholas Mulder and Neil Bhatiya on the relative merits of US sanctions policy illustrates the policy-first approach. The strengths and pitfalls of US economic and financial sanctions are old hat. On the one hand, economic sanctions, which target entire sectors, and financial tools like asset freezes, which target specific leaders, allow US policymakers to exact material consequences against abusive leaders. On the other, sanctions often result in the same unintended consequences, especially collateral harm to civilian populations, that result from more aggressive policy tools like foreign military intervention. In broad terms, a recent Texas National Security Review roundtable on progressive diplomatic and defense policy relies on a similar policy-first approach.

If the principles-first approach is too imaginative, the policy approach is perhaps too accommodating of the status quo. There is no strictly progressive framework for economic sanctions, diplomacy, military intervention, or any other strategy in the so-called policy “toolbox,” any more than there is a neoconservative or Jacksonian framework for each. These are tools of statecraft that policymakers deploy to achieve specific policy outcomes. A debate centered on specific forms of policy action ensures that these tools, rather than goals surrounding their use, will remain the focus of the foreign policy debate. If the foreign policy status quo is truly broken, a debate overly mired in the details of specific policy instruments does a disservice to the policy agenda that those instruments should serve.

A third and final approach to progressive foreign policy, the sources of a progressive foreign policy, merits more attention than advocates have granted it. There are two ways to interpret the sources of foreign policy, one intellectual and one political. The importance of the intellectual sources of foreign policy is self-evident. As Elizabeth Saunders observes in her study of American presidents and military intervention abroad, the views that leaders hold about the world prior to assuming power are a useful predictor of the style and substance of their decisions. As in any institution, structural factors and contingent events will constrain progressive leaders’ ability to carry out their policy vision. But ideological frames can shape leaders’ cognitive interpretation of events, their emotional response to specific crises, and the range of decisions they view as feasible or advisable.

For their part, the political sources of foreign policy indicate the constituencies to which leaders respond. That there is no “constituency” for foreign policy in American politics is a misguided truism. As Dan Drezner notes in a recent column, the conventional constituency for American foreign policy is comprised of elites: the intelligentsia, business leaders, and a revolving professional community of former and current officials involved in the formal or informal process of US foreign policy decisions. This and all elite networks have a set of collective preferences that shape their expectations of US foreign policy. This network is not monolithic: opinions about the wisdom of specific policy tools or responses to specific crises differ. However, a shared worldview surrounding US national security and the US government’s role in the world broadly underpins these policy disagreements. This is the worldview to which most foreign policy decisionmakers respond.

The structural purpose of the progressive policy agenda is to make policy discourse and decisions more representative of non-elite networks. The exclusion of the broader American public from the constituency of US foreign policy is not accidental, nor the result of well-documented apathy nor lack of information about world events. As in other domains of American politics, politically active Americans outside the foreign policy elite have foreign policy preferences. They have thoughts about the wisdom of two decades of war, about US assistance to foreign governments, and about the various forms of violence that the US military and intelligence services exact on foreign populations. And certainly, they have opinions about immigration and trade–issues that have direct implications for their communities, lives, and livelihoods. Understanding the political sources of progressive foreign policy preferences helps create expectations about the groups and networks that give progressives their power.

What are the intellectual and political sources of a progressive foreign policy? Most commentators interpret this question in terms of intellectual paradigms. For example, many of Bush’s foreign policy advisers drew their ideas from a particular strand of post-Cold War neoconservatism; by contrast, Obama’s moral realism brushed up against the more interventionist outlook of many of his senior advisers and cabinet secretaries. As an explanatory framework, however, foreign-policy paradigms have limited use. They might explain responses to “big” foreign policy questions like US-China relations or the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they generally do not explain the regular practice of US foreign policy beyond these cases. A paradigmatic interpretation also assumes a linear relationship between ideology and action. In reality, the effects of ideas on individual and collective behavior are more diffuse.

Movements and networks are a more convincing intellectual and political source of the progressive foreign policy agenda than a particular foreign-policy agenda. Social-movement scholarship indicates that activist networks shape the course of individuals’ political lives. For example, Doug McAdam shows that black freedom activists that participated in the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi were the social foundation of later progressive movements. Foreign policy processes operate in a similar way. People involved in the US policy response to the genocide in Darfur, for example, were some of the most prominent advocates for later policy reforms aimed at preventing mass atrocities. Or, to cite a more contemporary illustration: the freshman class of progressive Congresswomen are outspoken champions of Palestinian rights because they emerge from movements that are outspoken champions of Palestinian rights.

Three intersecting networks make up the intellectual and political core of contemporary progressive foreign policy. The first is the anti-war movement. An obvious through-line runs from the organizations and networks formed in the late years of the Vietnam War to the core principles and constituencies of the contemporary American left. The anti-imperial critique of American power; the concern for accountability and democracy in foreign policy decisionmaking: each of these became politically salient features of progressive politics during the heyday of the anti-war effort. The mass mobilization against the war in Iraq reignited that anti-war effort, but it never achieved a fraction of the earlier peace movement’s political influence. There are multiple plausible explanations for this difference: the growing concentration of war powers in an unaccountable executive; the insufficiency of Obama’s commitment to anti-militarism; and the political urgency of the global financial crisis that enveloped his first two years in office. To some extent, the current progressive movement can be understood as its anti-war antecedents’ greatest chance at a day in court, two decades later than scheduled.

The second political and intellectual pillar of progressive foreign policy is the environmental justice movement. The unfathomable consequences of worst-case climate scenarios, especially when placed alongside the lackluster incrementalism of global climate diplomacy, make it easy to lose sight of the long and growing legacy of American environmental activism. The environmental movement’s political visibility will only grow as the contradictions of the community of states’ Nero-like foot-dragging heighten. In intellectual terms, environmental activism has reinforced the burden of global stewardship as a central tenet of America’s role in the world. Logically, there is no domestic solution to global climate change; any adequate reduction in global carbon emissions will require unprecedented international cooperation. For the world’s largest economies, climate change represents an archetypal commitment problem: no one country wants to sacrifice its global economic advantage without assurances that its counterparts will do the same. In a foreign policy context, the much-heralded Green New Deal framework can be understood as an initial solution to the commitment obstacles to global climate cooperation. If the United States binds it’s growth to an environmentally sustainable economy, it stands a better chance of convincing reluctant first-movers–China, in particular–to do the same. For the American environmental movement, this credible commitment is a moral responsibility of the world’s largest economy.

The last–and perhaps most underrated–source of the progressive foreign policy movement is a network that we can broadly describe as “freedom movements.” The conventional realm of foreign policy ideas rarely takes seriously the policy preferences of the Black, Latinx, Native, and other movements that make up much of the activist core of the contemporary progressive left. The absence of these ideas from the foreign policy debate stands in stark contrast to these movements’ discursive influence on domestic issues like police brutality, criminal justice reform, immigration justice, and Native rights. This is not the result of provincial organizing, nor a lack of ideas about the US government’s role in the world. To the contrary, American social movements have always been transnational in scope, dating back to the early transatlantic suffragist network that won women the vote. A growing historical literature on race and foreign policy in the Cold War period, for example, points to a robust interaction between the consolidation of American power abroad and the Black freedom struggle at home, both in the construction of the postwar order and Black activists’ attempts to critique it. Influential American leaders in the immediate aftermath of World War II, many of them avowed segregationists, saw the postwar order as a buttress of white supremacy in the United States. As a consequence, Black leaders from the integrationist NAACP to the radical young activists of SNCC saw international politics as a logical extension of their domestic struggle. International students joined the leadership corps of activist organizations; national and local leaders built international solidarity networks through quasi-diplomatic visits to the Non-Aligned states. To reference these transnational networks is not to romanticize them: in many instances, these organizations’ transnationalist outlook has led activists to embrace regimes whose abuses were no better than the US government’s, and often far worse. But they were intentional strategies of contention, reflective of an expansive view of international order and the policies that the US government uses to shape it.

All this is not simply an exercise in historical trivia. In the same way that intellectual historians look to the ideological networks that underpin the US foreign policy consensus, the political rise of left foreign policy demands similar attention to its origins. These movements and networks help explain why foreign policy cleavages emerge where they do, and why some progressive priorities are difficult to reconcile with the status-quo consensus. And most importantly, they define the scope of the foreign policy coalition that progressives might hope to assemble once in power.

the radical critique of the international liberal order

The international liberal order is in the news again. In late July, a group of eminent international relations scholars led by David A. Lake and Peter Gourevitch published an open letter in the New York Times defending the order and condemning Donald Trump for his sustained attacks on its institutions:

The international order formed after World War II provides important benefits to the United States as well as to other countries. The United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organization, the European Union, and other postwar institutions all help to provide economic stability and international security, contributing to unprecedented levels of prosperity and the longest period in modern history without war between major powers.

The open letter capped off a summer of healthy academic and policy debate about the state of international power relations and the institutions that embody them. Criticisms of the statement’s main arguments have been an important part of this discussion. In a Lawfare forum on the future of a post-Trump foreign policy, Heather Hurlburt described “[t]he U.N. and Bretton Woods institutions”—the organizations responsible for international security and economic governance, respectively—as “a mixed bag of good function, poor function and near non-function.” In a separate Lawfare post in response to the Times statement, Paul Staniland criticized “[p]roponents of the order” for “a narrow and highly selective reading of history that ignores much of the coercion, violence, and instability that accompanied post-war history.” And so on.

As is common in these debates, a relatively narrow consensus limits the range of the most prominent objections to the international order and its institutions. In their Monkey Cage post defending the Times statement, Lake and Gourevitch sort their critics, perhaps over-simplistically, into three ideological categories: (1) nationalists, who broadly agree with Trump’s “America First” rhetoric on topics like international trade and NATO burden-sharing; (2) “anti-globalists”—not a term I’m especially fond of, as a Jew—who embrace the left-wing critique of globalization and its discontents; and (3) neo-realists, whose main quibble concerns the order’s limited benefits for US economic and security interests.

This circumscribed consensus in foreign policy theorizing about the international order is non-accidental. As Robert Vitalis convincingly documents in his book on the role of race in the early intellectual history of the academic international relations sub-field, the century-long project of achieving US hegemony in the international system gave way to a foundational body of foreign policy thinking that choked out radical critiques of that same system. Vitalis terms these critical scholars—whose principle target was the early 20th century system of imperial white supremacy—the “Howard school of international relations theory,” after the historically black university in Washington, DC, where many such scholars studied or taught. A combination of McCarthy-era attacks on academic freedom, Cold War funding incentives, and the institutional consequences of desegregation in American higher education diminished the Howard school’s academic influence in the postwar American field of international relations and, therefore, its contributions to postwar debates about the international order that the Allied powers were stitching together in San Francisco, Bretton Woods, and Washington, DC.

It’s not that the Howard school’s radical—that is, system-questioning—ideas about the new international order were nowhere to be found in the postwar United States. It’s just that they migrated outside the international relations discipline. The result is that, with few exceptions, these extra-disciplinary and social-movements critiques of international order are not taken seriously—studied, debated, or referenced in major newspaper op-eds or policy papers by prominent think tanks—by the order’s leading theorists.

As Vitalis observes, the problems of US hegemony, especially in the post-Cold War era, have been a central focus of American academic disciplines ranging from anthropology to sociology to all manner of race, ethnicity, and gender studies. Historians of the Cold War, for example, have pointed to the myriad intersections between the US black freedom movement, Cold War foreign policy dynamics, and decolonization movements of various stripes. Additionally, different types of US social movements—many of them led by or comprised of students and scholars from these disciplines—have engaged with and contested the institutions of the international order, including bodies tasked with governing international trade (the World Trade Organization), international finance (the World Bank and International Monetary Fund), and the protection of human rights (the Human Rights Council, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, regional human rights bodies, and various UN special rapporteurs). In fact, the international order has been a central battleground for transgressive social movements since before the postwar period: in a recent paper in International Studies Quarterly, J. Ann Tickner and Jacqui True argue that feminist activists like Jane Addams articulated the antecedents of latter-day feminist international relations as early as a series of peace conferences at The Hague in 1915.

I have a working paper on the US black freedom movement that focuses on one aspect of this historical question; I hope to be able to post it soon. The black freedom movement is among the most expansive manifestations of the radical critique of the international order, but it is far from the only one. Similar debates have animated protest, scholarship, and public debate about organized labor, the Chicanx rights movement, and the native rights movement, to name a few US / domestic examples; non-US / global movements have also posed important challenges to the concept and policies that define the order’s institutions. A new vision of the international order and its shortcomings requires that international relations scholarship re-integrates these critiques into the study of the order’s purpose and functions.

back to school

It’s been about three years since I last updated this site, so: hello! I’m glad to be back.

First, an update: I’m returning to Georgetown in the fall as a PhD candidate with the school’s Government department. I’ve spent the last three and a half years working as a research assistant at the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide, a policy think tank at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC. At the Simon-Skjodt Center, I’ve worked on projects ranging from an assessment of indicators of potential mass atrocities in Zimbabwe to a research paper evaluating critical junctures and counterfactual policy actions in the US policy response to the crisis in Syria. I honed a variety of skills, including my writing, policy communication, and understanding of research methods. I also had the chance to work with a world-class community of scholars, activists, and policy officials who share my commitment to issues of global importance.

But I also found myself brushing up against the limits of my own research skills and methodological prowess. There are important questions that I want to answer, and work I’m interested in doing, that I decided I’m not able to accomplish without the intensive training that a PhD provides. I’m fortunate that my supportive family—my wife Lucy, and my siblings, parents, grandparents, and in-laws—has my back, and that my professional network will allow me to continue working on issues I care about. If I have any advice to aspiring PhD candidates, it’s to take both of those things seriously. My PhD experience will succeed because of that support, not in spite of it.

What will I study? Right now, my bio says, “My research focuses on three themes: (1) the dynamics of mass atrocities; (2) civilian mobilization during mass atrocities and other types of large-scale violence; and (3) international policy responses to mass atrocities and violent conflict. I’m also interested in how US social movements use international human rights norms as a strategy of contention.” However, the best indication of my interests—the things I’ve spent time reading about during the last three and a half years—is probably the list of research questions, odds, and ends that populate my running “Research projects” note on Google Keep:

  • Regime conflicts / “existential” civil wars and intervention outcomes
  • Do local patterns of violence in Weimar correspond to patterns of atrocities / violence in Nazi Germany?
  • Coalition building and counterterrorism?
  • Civilian responses to mass atrocities / large-scale repression
  • History of Leavenworth computer training programs during the 1970s (history paper)
  • What does “no-platforming” do for US social movements? Why do social movements use it as a tactic despite the obvious social costs? Group-year dataset of American social movements using no-platforming tactics. Test effects of the use of no-platforming on group cohesion, public support for their cause, political polarization.
  • Tony Judt biography
  • Paper based on We Charge Genocide case: how do radical movements contribute to lifecycle of international norms?
  • How have relationships between HBCUs and black mobilization changed since the civil rights era?
  • Unintended consequences of partial transparency regimes? Cf: global intelligence reform efforts.

And that’s only the tip of the iceberg. So really, your guess on the eventual focus of my dissertation is as good as mine.

The fundamental work of scholarship is writing; good, quick writing is as much a method of social science as any form of quantitative analysis. And writing, like any skill, demands constant practice. I read a post a couple of months ago by Katie Heaney, a writer at The Cut blog at New York mag, that recommended writing 500 words a day, 5 days a week, as a practice strategy. During college, I used Securing Rights—the previous title of this site’s blog page—as my main forum for informal commentary on international relations, contemporary mass atrocities, and issues of popular protest, pop culture, and movement-building. A few years of blogging resulted in some writing that I’m proud of, and other pieces that, in retrospect, I’d rather not have written. I expect I’ll use this site in much the same way as I used Securing Rights: as a platform for ideas in their incubation stage, but also–and perhaps more importantly–as a place for practicing my craft.

I’ll also post updates on my published research and writing at other outfits. As I post on the site, I’m eager for your thoughts, comments, and questions. Never hesitate to get in touch at daniel.solomon18(at)gmail(dot)com. Happy reading!

refuge as protection

On March 3, 1991, more than 150 refugees from the southern Somali town of Kismayo were entombed in a 60-foot boat near Malindi, along Kenya’s Indian Ocean coast. When the Somali refugees drowned, the boat was at capacity; hours before, the boat carried more than 500 additional refugees, who had fled to a small sandbar offshore where their boat “ran aground.” A Malindi diving instructor who spoke to the New York Times soon after the refugees’ arrival described the mass bedlam that preceded their deaths: “[I]t was hell, completely. There were people clinging to dead people to survive.” After the dead were counted, Malindi townspeople exhumed the refugees’ bodies from their seaborne coffin, and placed them “into a mass grave carved out of the sand.”

That was 1991. A gaze at Times stories of the mass deaths of forcibly displaced persons at sea from the ensuing quarter-century offer up a boundless infinity mirror of global suffering. In 1993, the waters of the Congo River swept up 147 Congolese deportees rushing across a ferry gangway in Kinshasa, their onetime capital; in 1998, 200 Bissau-Guineans disappeared into the Atlantic while escaping their country’s civil war. The Congo River; the Atlantic Ocean–these waters, among many others, have become recurring gravesites for people in flight. Back at home, these refugees and their bodies face extreme jeopardy; they might encounter physical torture, as in Eritrea’s prisons, or the encompassing devastation of artillery fire, as in the cities under the Syrian government’s stubborn siege. A sea voyage offers few more protections to these people, sheltered as they are by a well-worn vessel and the slippery assurances of a clandestine courier.

These refugees’ suffering is–has become–a regular testament to moral failure: of the smugglers, who, seeking the slimmest of profit margins, place their desperate clients in conditions of unlivable density; of the violent politics from which these refugees flee, which ensure the suffering of the families and neighbors left behind; of those who benefit from those politics, and who feign ignorance as their fellow countrypeople perish; of the violent politics to which these people flee, seeking refuge, only to find a mass hysteria lying in wait; of the international community, especially its wealthiest members, which offer these refugees few paths to safety beyond the false promise of a half-buoyant dinghy. As is often the case during violent conflict and its other consequences, there is plenty of blame to share.

There is a global refugee crisis–today, it is on Europe’s shores; two months ago, it was on Malaysia’s; one year ago, it was on the southern border of the United States. This is a crisis of no specific moment: it is persistent, because the violence whence it came is persistent. The refugees that violence creates occupy a worldly purgatory. In camps, the ramshackle residence that becomes their home is impermanent by definition, and their new society is governed at once by the formal legal codes of domestic and international humanitarian governance, and an informal assortment of evolutionary bodies. Even when these refugees are resettled–given permanent visas, permanent homes–the societies that host them place them at their margins.

The public politics of human rights–which atrocities public media, officials, and figures choose to discuss, and which they choose to condemn–embraces an implicit ranking of rights, which determine the will and the effort devoted to their protection. Atop this moral pyramid sit life and its absence, death. As I have written here before, the intentional and expansive act of causing death–that is to say, mass killing–provokes particular global sympathy and, rarely, response. (Even more rarely, that response achieves its intended purpose.) The individual act of killing erodes a community’s protective virtue; at scale, that same act is a grave assault on our common humanity. This belief shapes the moral consensus to which we aspire, that notion that both humans and their politics bear responsibility for those whom mass violence threatens most.

The mass deaths of refugees challenge this moral ranking. If the resolution of violence is unlikely, to where must our responsibility turn? If mass death is probable–not by violence, but through flight–does refuge not offer the greatest promise of protection?

end times

The cover feature of the March 2015 issue of The Atlantic carries the headline “What ISIS Really Wants.” What ISIS, the group currently occupying a large swath of territory in Syria and Iraq, wants is the End of Days, according to Graeme Wood, the article’s author. That is, ISIS, also known as the Islamic State, is a millenarian movement whose aim is nothing less than a quicker apocalypse, rather than the profane act of continuous mass violence. Wood’s reporting offers ample evidence of the group’s apocalyptic vision. Much of the piece revolves around the ideas and activities of Robert “Musa” Cerantonio, an Australian man with a “bookish demeanor” whom both researchers and the Islamic State’s fellow travelers describe as one of the group’s leading ideologues. Cerantonio’s millenarian teachings are a selective mix of existing Sunni Islamic thought and novel speculation, according to Wood’s description:

“[His visions] include the belief that there will be only 12 legitimate caliphs, and [Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-]Baghdadi is the eighth; that the armies of Rome will mass to meet the armies of Islam in northern Syria; and that Islam’s final showdown with an anti-Messiah will occur in Jerusalem after a period of renewed Islamic conquest.”

This is heavy stuff, and heavy stuff worth taking seriously, according to Wood. For Wood, the U.S. officials now engaged in a belated, bumbling, and insufficient battle against the Islamic State are too quick to misinterpret the group’s theology and, therefore, its military and political strategy. The axiom that guides Wood’s argument, that understanding must precede (policy) action, is plainly correct. But understanding the millenarian ideas that underpin the Islamic State’s theology is not enough. That same axiom falls short if we do not also grapple with the historical reasons for millenarianism’s emergence, and the ways in which the apocalyptic idea does–and does not–shape politics, both of the Islamic State and of others.

The principal concern of the apocalyptic idea is time: the shortcomings of the present-day, and the urgency of the future. Millenarianism is a wholesale rejection of the modern, of the ways in which its contemporaneous politics organize and determine the activities of human society. By modern, I refer to a specific mode of thought that has, in recent history, governed the politics of that society. “To be modern,” Marshall Berman writes in All That Is Solid Melts Into Air, his wide-ranging investigation of “the experience of modernity,”

“is to find ourselves in an environment that promises us adventure, power, joy, growth, transformation of ourselves and the world–and, at the same time, that threatens to destroy everything we have, everything we know, everything we are.”

That we associate this phenomenon with our contemporary era is a result of the gradual convergence of these paradoxical forces. The fault lines of economic inequality have sharpened even as the mechanization of industry has made realer the promise of universal prosperity; the quickening pollution of our natural spaces has both accompanied and disrupted the preservation of wilderness. In 1872, the interests of both private American railroad companies, compelled by the promise of tourism, and a nascent environmental movement aligned to midwife the first national U.S. wilderness reserve–Yellowstone National Park, along the northwestern border of Wyoming. The Janus-faced spirit of that first American wilderness persists in the character of the contemporary U.S. Department of the Interior, which, tasked with both America’s national parks and its natural resources, simultaneously oversees the preservation and exploitation of wilderness. That experience of modernity, the ever-presence of contradiction, is precisely the present-day the apocalyptic idea rejects.

The apocalyptic future is an era in which the contradictions of modernity have fully converged, and in which its imperfections do not exist. Because millenarianism embraces this future, it is tempting to place its followers at a total remove from the modern era. (Set aside, if you can, the peculiar historicism of this argument: by definition, an organization that exists in the year 2015 necessarily bears the stamp, however faint, of its times.) In his article, Wood quibbles with those who elevate the Islamic State’s politics to a modern plane, who portray its gruesome, violent insurgency as anything but “a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment.” Wood describes Musa Cerantonio’s millenarianism along these lines, as “a medieval fantasy novel, only with real blood.” For Wood, the medieval character of the Islamic State emerges from practices that are both essential to and inextricable from the group’s apocalyptic vision for modernity’s destruction: namely, its violence (“medieval-style punishments for moral crimes”) and the apparent oddity of its political culture (“codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned”).

However “medieval” these practices appear, the millenarianism of the Islamic State is also fully a part of its place in modernity. This is not simply a consequence of the networked technologies, like YouTube, the Islamic State uses to communicate its violence. The institutions the Islamic State disavows, like the bureaucracy and borders of its secular state, are precisely the same ones that grant its authority. If these institutions hasten the apocalypse, in their marginal way, they are, first and foremost, concerned with the control and influence of civilians under the Islamic State’s domain. As Colin Dickey argues in his essay on the politics of time, “the notion of the Apocalypse adds an end point to the calendar, a termination date that infuses the present with meaning.” The Islamic State’s secular vision for power, and not its millenarianism, is the primary origin of the group’s mass violence.

The secular function of the apocalyptic idea is common among groups who claim millenarianism’s mantle. Before his public split from the Nation of Islam, Malcolm X used a prolific assortment of apocalyptic images to proselytize the Nation’s vision of black liberation. These images followed an existing lineage, dating to Reconstruction-era slave narratives, of prophetic themes used to advance the slow-moving cause of black freedom. Malcolm’s radical eschatology, however, failed to keep pace with the demands of marginalized black communities in cities across the United States. It was Malcolm’s secular vision for political and economic equality, and his ability to organize communities to that end, that secured the preacher’s authority in the years preceding his assassination in 1965.