Imagine my disappointment, therefore, when reviewers I trust panned the movie something awful. Still, Reason’s Peter Suderman piqued my interest when he opened his review with, “I don’t have much good to report about Without Remorse, but I will say this: It’s a movie where the Keynesian warmonger turns out to be the bad guy — and gets what he deserves.”
Political economy in a Tom Clancy film? This sounded interesting. Expectations lowered, I watched it over the weekend. It gives me no pleasure to report that the movie is bad in both the conventional and political science-y ways.
You can check out the film reviews to see why it’s conventionally bad. It’s one of those flicks where the trailer editor has done yeoman work to make a dull, badly lit, poorly shot film look good. That’s probably because the trailer focused on Jordan pumping himself up, which is far and away the best thing about “Without Remorse.”
The political science of the film is bad in more interesting ways. Here’s the spoiler alert: We learn that Jordan’s character, John Kelly, saw his family murdered and was sent on a guaranteed-to-fail revenge mission to Russia because of the machinations of the secretary of defense, played by Guy Pearce. With about 10 minutes left in the film, Pearce monologues his rationale for fomenting tensions between the United States and Russia. Here it is in all its unhinged glory:
You know who won World War II? It wasn’t the generals or the admirals. It was the economists. More tanks, planes, ships. And all that spending lifted this entire nation out of poverty. Freed the world from tyranny. A big country needs big enemies. The best enemy we ever had was the Soviet Union. Our fear of them unified our people. Gave us purpose. The problem today … is half this country thinks the other half is its enemy because they have no one else to fight! So we gave them a real enemy, one with the power to threaten their lives, their freedoms. Freedoms you take for granted. And it works.
The notion of economists winning World War II is legit funny, but that was probably unintentional. So does the political science hold up? Well, no.
To be fair, the logic of military Keynesianism is not completely deranged. It is true that the Second World War lifted the U.S. economy to full employment after a decade of depression. Furthermore, as Thomas Oatley recounts in “A Political Economy of American Hegemony: Buildups, Booms, and Busts,” during the postwar period the United States engaged in 20-year cycles of military Keynesianism. In the early 1960s under Kennedy, early 1980s under Reagan, early 2000s under George W. Bush, and the Trump years, the federal government has goosed the economy through a combination of tax cuts and increased military spending.
Of course, what Pearce’s character failed to mention was Oatley’s other conclusion: These booms were followed by episodes of major financial instability as the U.S. economy overheated. So unless Pearce’s character also wanted to own the requisite asset bubbles and market crashes fostered by military Keynesianism, he probably should have rubbished this plan.
If the film’s political economy logic hangs on a weak reed, the international relations logic collapses altogether. The belief that politics stops at the water’s edge is a comforting notion. It is also not true. The evidence from congressional votes shows that polarization on foreign policy issues is just as bad as in domestic policy.
Rachel Myrick, an assistant professor of political science at Duke University, just published a paper in International Organization on this precise topic: “Do External Threats Unite or Divide? Security Crises, Rivalries, and Polarization in American Foreign Policy.” She finds that rally-round-the-flag effects are short. After conducting a survey experiment, her conclusion is that, if anything, trying to introduce an external threat would make things worse for the United States: “New threats introduced in already polarized contexts are likely to sow greater division.” She further warns: “The evidence is … consistent with the idea that polarization in domestic politics has spilled into foreign affairs. I argue that it is unlikely that threats from foreign adversaries will automatically create partisan unity, and attempts by American political officials to amplify threats could backfire.”
“Without Remorse” has an after-credits sequence suggesting the beginning of a “Rainbow Six” series of films. I wish Jordan every success; the man deserves as many franchises as he wants. I do hope, however, that he makes sure the script for that film is better than “Without Remorse.” Because the entire plot of this film is based on an unexplored set of assumptions that would never have gotten past peer review. It is a bad movie with bad political science.