I have long been a critic of US foreign policy on a number of levels. First, by embracing the role as a global super power, we have centralized more power in Washington DC than could ever be imagined by our founders. The result is a government more distant from the people, more focused on global economic and political affairs. I believe our liberty suffers, and our government becomes less of a democratic Republic, and more like an elite led empire. Second, such policies are more likely to get us involved in conflicts — or to be the target of attacks. If it were not for our embrace of this role, I doubt we’d have been hit on 09-11-01.
During the Cold War, these policies were defended because of the perceived threat from the USSR. Now, these policies are defended because of the perceived threats of terrorism and nuclear proliferation. However, we know now that the Soviet Union was never in a position to truly expand and dominate; they were barely able to keep their own ship afloat during the Cold War, and were in real decline from the early seventies onward. They were more scared of us than we were of them. We could have avoided the immense increase in military spending and governmental power (the Cold War shifted more power and resources to government than anything else in our history, including the Great Depression) by avoiding the militarization of containment and the Cold War.
The same is true with terrorism and fear of unrest in the Mideast. If anything is clear from Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s that large militaries are not the key towards bringing political change to a region, creating stability or defeating terror organizations. Israel’s experiences with Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas this year show that large scale military operations against such opponents can fail even as they succeed. Success of the operation does not translate into political or long term security success, and can in fact make the situation worse by increasing anger and animosity.
Simply, the old style of foreign policy is obsolete. It doesn’t work. The idea that a big powerful military keeps us safe is bunk. That world exists no more, if it ever really did.
President Obama needs to embrace a foreign policy that is fundamentally different than the old mix of power politics and democratic idealism. Ronald Reagan called us the “shining city on a hill,” whose example would inspire others. That should be our model, not an army trying to bring our ideals to a word of diverse cultures and beliefs. So yes, let’s be proud of our freedoms, our democracy, and our national values. But let’s not expect others to adopt our way of life or governance, especially not over night or all at once — it took 200 years for us to overcome slavery, lack of women’s rights, and other obstacles. We need to have the patience with others that we had with ourselves.
In foreign policy, we should start recalling our armed forces from bases around the world, and then start to draw down the size of our military force. The first phase would have a positive effect on the economy as military forces would be housed and paid on US soil rather than overseas, even though there would be an initial cost in making the transformation. In some cases, like Korea and Japan, this would be very welcome. In other cases it may cause hardship. We don’t have to close all our bases world wide, but we should close most of them; they are not needed.
But, one might ask, what about al qaeda? What about terrorism, China or a resurgent Russia.? We’ve been “at war” with al qaeda for years, but primarily with small numbers of forces or special operations. If our big military could protect us from terrorism or defeat it, it would have done so by now. Counter terrorism is best done through smaller scale intelligence operations working with groups from other countries. A big military in fact can help terror organizations by creating civilian deaths and fear that helps them recruit. Our large military — we spend over half the world’s military spending — does little to nothing to protect us from terrorism.
China’s military power is mostly defensive, and China cannot project power very far outside its borders. It certainly isn’t a threat to the US. Russia as well is a weakened power, able to threaten countries like Ukraine or Georgia, but not most of Europe or the US. And, given economic globalization, the idea that a huge military has any useful purpose is becoming increasingly untenable. Moreover, it would be dangerous to confront other nuclear powers in minor struggles near their borders.
The US can keep its alliances; NATO can be maintained as an alliance, even if most or all American forces are withdrawn. The US can be involved in UN peace keeping operations, and in fact should limit military operations to cases where there is clear international consensus to act, and the goals are clearly humanitarian. Even then, military intervention should only be in the most dire of crises, not simply because of some perceived injustice.
This kind of shift in policy cannot take place overnight, but it is necessary. We cannot afford to waste large amounts of money on a military that is of limited use or value. The danger of a large military stationed all over the world is that it makes the US a symbol of corruption and decadence to many on the planet, and means US interests are more likely to be targeted. When that happens, the US will then be tempted to use its military to lash back, even though it would mean a lot of dead civilians and a backlash against us. That risks creating more strains on our country and economy at a time when we need to restructure.
To be sure, there are other complimentary changes in US foreign policy needed to maintain a credible deterrent while working with others to assure security and deal with global challenges. But the world is in motion, things are changing in ways that would have been unimaginable a few years ago. One change is that military power of the traditional sort is no longer useful as major wars between great powers are virtually unthinkable. There still is war and violence, but of a different sort, requiring different responses.
The path we’ve been taking has led us to arrogance, overreach, and unsustainable practices. We need to revitalize our Republic, and to do so, we need to reject the practices of empire.