As the dust settles from the Republican convention with the GOP remarkably intact, it’s clear the most interesting and important speech belonged to Peter Thiel. He came off as a man from the future at an event thoroughly organized around nostalgic vengeance. But even Thiel took a moment to cast his agenda in terms Donald Trump and company would recognize.
“Instead of going to Mars, we have invaded the Middle East,” he said. “On this most important issue, Donald Trump is right. It’s time to end the era of stupid wars and rebuild our country.” The nation that gave us the Manhattan Project has been thrown off track by wading into realms where creating a destiny of our choosing is far too costly, risky, and difficult. We must Make America’s Future Great Again.
This assessment is a perfect example of how Thiel’s vision complements but challenges prevailing Republican views. Even some conservative critics of the Iraq War are uncomfortable with the rhetoric of militaristic ignorance, with the all-too-pat rallying cry of nation-building at home rather than nation-building abroad.
But if Thiel is apt to invoke very complex human problems with very concise provocations, Republicans (like others) should avail themselves of the opportunity to take advantage of his challenges. Regardless of how fully they come to embrace the judgments packed inside, Thiel’s now-uncertain partymates will find themselves much more confident about what they believe and why. Thiel’s case against stopping endless dumb wars is a perfect place to start.
You Can’t Always Fight on Uncrowded Fields
Begin with another one of Thiel’s seemingly counterintuitive pronouncements, that competition is hostile to capitalism, which is all about monopolies. The intuition behind this strange idea is practical enough: take a minute to understand our anthropology, and you’ll realize that seeking out competition is unwise and debilitating, touching off spiteful and wasteful conflict over wildly trivial, merely symbolic, and often just illusory gains. While fools rush into, say, the Brooklyn cronut market, sages avoid crowded fields teeming with the pathologies of competition, opting instead to declare a specific, original future into being and to execute on it in a clearing devoid of other people’s mania, anxieties, and vices.
Against this conceptual backdrop, the Iraq War looks like it was a surefire loser. Thiel’s latent critique of “stupid wars” in general and Iraq specifically is that they pull us into areas so aggressively competitive that even our huge outsized advantages are squandered. Nobody, by contrast, is fighting over Mars, or other, more earthbound areas of big new advancements that offer a canvas to paint big but specific futures. There we have open field—an ever-unfolding frontier.
This is a fresh and compelling and fundamentally different critique of present-day militarism than the one, say, Oliver Stone has advanced. But it does invite us to consider its drawbacks. We do not, for instance, enjoy much evidence that every area of competitive or intractable “stupid” conflict can just be skirted or ignored. The Mideast is not the Brooklyn cronut market. Despite the disadvantages and perils, there are probably several parts of the world that are so pivotal to America’s national security interests that it’s imprudent to bypass them. (This could be true even if fossil fuels are totally obsolete!)
We Need a New Normal
So one reason it’s wise for Republicans to take Thiel’s provocation for a spin is the difficulty level of the obstacles thrown at them on the test drive. What is to be done about metastasizing conflicts created by crowded security competition? If Trump and the new populists are to be believed, the answer is simple: abandon forward positions, dress lines, circle wagons, and build walls. As unconvincing as many conservatives find this proposition to be, Thiel knows well how much digital security measures can augment strictly analog ones. Imagine the concept of “border security” as it would emanate from Palantir’s mores and habits, not the Minutemen’s.
But maybe more digital security requires more meatspace activity in absolute terms, even if its share of conflict work decreases, or its rate of growth slows, relative to digital’s. That’s likely to be the case especially if the next best power at physical force projection is a country like Russia that’s dramatically leveraging its presence in cyber.
Thiel’s Mars-versus-Iraq worldview is probably designed to inspire some Republicans and annoy others, in the service of fruitfully unsettling people in both camps. Intuition suggests the aim is simple enough: to push out in the open pregnant security questions that burden a GOP still feeling its way—without ceding the microphone to the nativists and nationalists with the crudest of answers.