Daniel Larison

Pursuing Peace Instead of Dominance

Stephen Wertheim makes the case for abandoning the pursuit of primacy and global dominance. One important part of that is demilitarizing our foreign policy and ending our wars overseas:

The essential first step would be to end the era of costly and counterproductive warfare that began after the 9/11 attacks. The United States should remove its air and ground forces from Afghanistan within 12 to 18 months and even sooner from Iraq and Syria. It should bring those troops home rather than reposition them elsewhere in the region. Washington should of course try to broker the best possible settlements to the conflicts in those places, and it should continue to provide assistance to the Afghan and Iraqi governments after turning over the appropriate facilities and equipment to them. But the United States should withdraw from these conflict zones even in the absence of credible agreements to end the fighting. Washington lacks the leverage to demand what it could not impose through two decades of warfare. Although withdrawals may set back U.S. allies and partners in the short run, the region must find its own balance of power in order to achieve peace and stability over time.

No strategic logic warrants the continuation of the war on terror. Indeed, no strategic logic warrants the continuation of the war on terror, which perpetuates itself by producing new enemies. That is why a swift and sweeping termination would be best.

Wertheim makes a very persuasive argument that the pursuit of primacy saddles the U.S. with many more enemies than we would have otherwise. Our militarized foreign policy means that our response to this growing list of enemies only creates more of them at enormous expense in both lives and money. The U.S. is not made more secure by this endless chasing after dominance, and in the process entire regions are repeatedly destabilized and tens of millions of innocent people are made to suffer from avoidable conflicts that our policies create or perpetuate. If the purpose of U.S. foreign policy is supposed to be making our country more secure and prosperous, our current strategy of primacy is a failure. It needs to be scrapped because it repeatedly drives the U.S. into unnecessary wars and squanders vast amounts of money that could be invested in building and improving our own country. Wertheim writes:

Whatever economic benefits primacy may indirectly yield, what is certain is that year after year, the United States spends half of its federal discretionary budget to fund a military that is costlier than the next seven largest armed forces combined. Military spending is one of the least efficient ways to create jobs, ranking behind tax cuts and spending on education, health care, infrastructure, and clean energy. The estimated $6.4 trillion poured into the “war on terror” so far could have rebuilt communities across the United States that were devastated by the financial crisis and the recession that followed. Now, many members of those communities resent the political elites who allowed them to crumble.

It is becoming impossible to ignore that trying to sustain military dominance is coming at the expense of our country’s ability to compete economically. Our old and often poorly-maintained infrastructure is the most obvious example of the price of our misguided priorities, but the same could be said of our inadequate and underfunded educational system. Every trillion dollars that we light on fire by waging unnecessary and open-ended wars abroad is a trillion dollars that can’t be used to rebuild our aging roads, dams, and bridges, and it can’t be used to educate our growing population. When all the costs of the last twenty years of war are tallied, they will have cost us more than $6 trillion. Our government not only spends more on the military than the next seven countries combined every year, but it also spends more in real terms than it did at the height of the Reagan build-up. That is an extraordinary waste and an equally great missed opportunity at a time when the U.S. is more secure from physical threats than it has been in decades.

Demilitarizing our foreign policy doesn’t just mean that the U.S. should be less reliant on military options and less inclined to use force. It should also involve significant reductions in the U.S. military presence in other parts of the world. In addition to removing our forces from the Middle East, Wertheim calls for bringing home most U.S. forces based in Europe and Asia:

Washington should therefore significantly reduce its forward-deployed military presence in Asia and Europe alike, while retaining the ability to intervene if either power truly threatens to become a hostile hegemon in its region.

Abandoning the pursuit of primacy also means giving up on our fixations with other states that don’t pose much of a threat to the U.S.:

Beyond dismantling the war on terror, the United States should also shed unnecessary nemeses, especially weak states that would not threaten the United States except for its belligerent posture toward them.

The U.S. faces relatively few genuine threats to our security. It has taken decades of threat inflation to make many Americans afraid of small and medium-sized authoritarian states on the other side of the world, and even now we can see that Iran poses no real threat to our country and North Korea is a manageable threat that can be deterred. The U.S. doesn’t need to obsess over either one, and it can afford to end its hostility towards both of them.

Perhaps one of the most underrated consequences of primacy is the corrosive effect that it has had on democratic accountability and constitutional limits on the presidency. The executive wields virtually unchecked power to start wars with little or no input from any other part of the government, and presidents have made a habit of ordering attacks on other countries without the consent of the people’s representatives. Congress’ role in matters of war has grown steadily weaker and more tangential as the U.S. has become more interventionist, and the U.S. has become more interventionist in order to exercise the global “leadership” that the pursuit of primacy entails.

Seeking to dominate the world comes at an ever-increasing and unacceptable cost to both the U.S. and the rest of the world, and that includes the damage that it has done and continues to do to our principles of constitutional self-government. Continuing down this path will mean more pointless and costly wars and the ongoing deterioration of conditions here at home. It is long past time that we decided to take a different path in pursuit of peace instead.

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