In a recent episode of “Breaking Points,” co-host Krystal Ball responded with disgust to UK Prime Minister Liz Truss’ reckless willingness to use nuclear weapons in an international crisis.
“You all can call me sexist or whatever, but there is a problem with these neoliberal-type women wanting to prove that they are as tough and hawkish as neocons,” Ball said, giving Hillary Clinton as an example. “There’s a pattern of this; they’ve got to prove they are as warmongering as dudes and so I think that’s also a part of what you see there. And she [Truss] has been extremely hawkish in her language when it comes to Ukraine as well.”
This is a sentiment that most male members of the media might be reluctant to bring up in public due to the predictable accusations of sexism that would fly in their direction, but it is a trend worth noting. And while it clearly is partly the need to show “the strength of a man” that Ball suggests, there are also additional factors at play, as well.
Of course, history is replete with powerful and ruthless women. From the high status in decision-making held by female elders in the Iroquois Confederacy to the machinations of female monarchs such as Elizabeth I, there is no dearth of examples of the realities of power expelling the idea that women are an inherently more pacifistic sex. However, something has changed just in the past few decades and given rise to what I call “girlboss militarism,” in which women are politically elevated for holding hawkish foreign policy views.
Madeleine Albright’s tenure as Secretary of State was probably the start of this high-profile trend. Albright famously got in testy exchanges with then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Colin Powell. In one disagreement over force deployment to Bosnia, she said: “What is the point of having this superb military you are always talking about if we can’t use it?” She would go on to impose ruinous and ultimately ineffective sanctions against Iraq which resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.
The following decade saw the rise of Hillary Clinton from First Lady to senator and then Secretary of State. While deeply concerned with violence against inanimate objects or fictitious depictions of violence in entertainment, Clinton was perhaps second only to John McCain and Dick Cheney when it came to advocating warfare as America’s first response to any foreign policy issue. From support for the Iraq War as a senator to a tenure as secretary of state, which included the demolition of Libyan society and the ramping up of support for jihadist rebels in Syria, her time in the Obama administration ensured that “Hope and Change” became just more of the same. Susan Rice and Samantha Power also added to the increasing hawkishness of the Democratic Party, which had in years past opposed the disastrous excesses of the Bush administration.
Instead, the corporate feminism of the Obama era decided to jettison fixating on actual policy prescriptions that might benefit women and instead attached itself to a cult-like admiration of powerful female politicians. That did not go unnoticed at the time and led to a large, mostly generational divide between younger and older progressives on how to evaluate the establishment’s attempt to make a Hillary Clinton presidency inevitable.
But it was not, of course, inevitable. Clinton’s intimate association with various unnecessary wars contributed to her underperforming in key swing states in the general election. The loss turned her into a girlboss martyr, which, in turn, increased the cultural cache of her views, no matter how laughable and paranoid they became. It was this legacy the political establishment attempted to transfer onto Kamala Harris, who also took up the mantle of feminism and forever wars.
The phenomenon is now fully bipartisan. Look no further than the media’s love affair with Liz Cheney, daughter of the once universally loathed vice president and upholder of his world view. Like her father, Cheney’s policy legacy is one of dreaming up new ways to frame wars of choice and domestic policies of mass surveillance as if they are critical to the health of the republic. But unlike her father, she is regarded as stunning and brave by the present crop of Beltway leadership.
Is it simply that women have a tougher time in the public eye and thus must resort to more brazen displays of political bravado? While that may certainly be a factor, academia, believe it or not, is likely a larger driver of this phenomenon. Women now heavily outnumber men in higher education. Higher education in recent decades has turned towards elevating activist behavior while at the same time becoming more and more expensive, cutting out regular people and catering to a ruling elite who wish to signal their avant-garde commitment to social justice all while maintaining the entrenched institutions of power.
The missionary impetus of this drive between academia, the media, and the government forms a self-reinforcing process focused on interventionist and expansionist views regarding the U.S.-led West on the world stage. This process is part of a system I have deemed “The Woke Imperium.” And while by no means devoid of male support, its main demographic in professional sectors tilts more female as time goes on.
It’s not unusual for policymaking classes to reflect the academic cultures that spawn them. However, there is one pernicious feature about this particular trend: criticism of hawkish or neoconservative policies will be conflated with sexism by pro-establishment media. Advocacy for realism and restraint will be falsely labeled as a “boys club” that engages in “problematic” behavior which is insufficiently deferential to the “lived experience” of lawmakers and analysts. In this way, the focus can be taken off the actual wisdom of the policies at issue. It is, after all, easier to avoid difficult questions if the demographic espousing them can be defended reflexively from presumed bigotry.
The purpose of girlboss militarism is not to change the priorities of the bipartisan establishment’s commitment to unsustainable expansionist projects across the globe but to avoid changing them by presenting a face that is superficially different from the one it once wore. No matter how many identitarian labels are placed atop the military-industrial-academic complex, the business of keeping the empire on full war footing will continue.