Should America remain a dominant military power?

For decades, America was seen by many as the guardian of the world’s democracies. Through treaties, we provided a “nuclear umbrella” over non-nuclear states like Japan and most of Europe (where only France and Britain maintain their own nuclear deterrency), and dispatched our conventional military forces at various times to stop genocides and keep dictators in check.

Although it served our interests to do this, there also was a strong element of altruism in assuming that role. But the world, including our allies, is now more skeptical of America’s global power, after a powerful minority of U.S. voters elected a president devoted to single-minded pursuit of self-interest in all things, including our nation’s role in world affairs — and potentially could do so again.

The question comes up against a backdrop of long-simmering debates about what America’s role in the world should be. There’s never been a time when thinkers haven’t debated that issue. There’s always been an isolationist faction, now living on through Libertarianism, while progressives argue America’s military superiority makes us less safe and more prone to assuming an aggressive role in world affairs.

That argument is advanced in a Vox article (here) by Stephen Wertheim (photo, left), a Columbia University historian specializing in U.S. foreign relations (read his C.V. here).

In the Vox interview, Wertheim admits that during and after World War 2, America’s superpower policy made sense, because we didn’t want to live in a world of brutal dictatorships.

But he argues that policy didn’t shift when it should have, and is now backfiring. He says the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the threat it represented, should have reordered our priorities.

Instead, he contends, our continued pursuit of military superiority made enemies, led us to engage in bad behavior, and stimulated such behavior in others. He also argues that defining the most serious threats to our security in military terms is myopic; he thinks climate change and pandemic disease are bigger threats and should be our top priorities.

Wertheim says he began at the beginning, by “trying to understand why military dominance looked attractive to begin with.” Meaning, of course, history’s worst war and totalitarianism’s rise. Who would argue against creating as much military power as possible in such circumstances? Which, of course, is the U.S. proceeded to do under presidents of both parties, both during and after the war.

But he thinks if the postwar planners were around today, “They would say, ‘Wait a minute.’ They would’ve realized how fraught it is to take on a world-ordering role by force.” (Well, we learned that in Vietnam, didn’t we?) Wertheim acknowledges there are times when “the use of hard power can back up diplomacy and make other endeavors more effective,” but argues “we have so overshot the mark” that our military power often “gets in the way.” The heart of his argument goes like this:

“I’m opposed to … military dominance as an end in itself. That’s what I think it has become …. That doesn’t prohibit the US from being a robust power: It’s going to be a great power and … have a strong military. We should absolutely be able to defend ourselves. I’m not even closing the door on things like humanitarian intervention, either. What we have to ask, though, is if the US has used … this power wisely and judiciously.”

He argues we haven’t, and America’s interventions since 1991 haven’t left us or anyone else better off. (I might take issue with that.) He thinks we should gradually “disentangle” from the Middle East, where we lack vital interests, and Europe, which he says isn’t in peril, but acknowledges that China is “a difficult challenge,” although he thinks China’s lack of a history of territorial conquests (say what?) should enable us to focus on cooperating with them on issues like climate change.

This, it seems to me, overlooks China’s military conquest and subjugation of Tibet, Beijing’s current forcible detention and enslavement of the Uighur people (read about that here), and its threats to invade Taiwan, military occupation of the South China Sea, and aggressive incursions into foreign fishing grounds (and construction of an armed “fishing fleet” capable of conducting worldwide military operations).

This is a debate that raises profound and very difficult questions, and I certainly don’t pretend to know the answers with any certainty. Isolationism, popular in the U.S. during the 1930s, acquired an enduringly bad reputation from its failure to prevent World War 2. No one wants to risk another Pearl Harbor in the nuclear age. On the other hand, the idea that we can create an orderly world with our military power has been more or less debunked by our postwar experience. Rather, we have to walk a fine line.

Trump’s “America First” policy clearly isn’t the answer, it seems to me, even though it was mostly an inward turning of the clock back to isolationism rather than an aggressive pursuit of self-interest at the expense of other societies (he is no Xi, and we are not China). That’s because it invited aggressive behavior by bad actors like Russia and China, and weakened the alliances that have kept us safe and helped prevent another world war.

The incoming Biden administration seems likely to take a direction more in line with Wertheim’s ideas, but not entirely so. As far as I know, Wertheim — considered a left-progressive thinker — isn’t a Biden foreign policy adviser. I don’t know how much he influences the Biden circle’s thinking, but I would guess only indirectly and through third parties, if at all.

An interesting fact about Wertheim is that he leads a think tank jointly funded by — get this — Charles Koch and George Soros (read about that here). This actually makes some sense; Koch and his late brother are Libertarians, and this prolific funder of many conservative causes is, like most Libertarians, an isolationist. Soros, a major funder of political causes on the liberal-progressive side, reflects the anti-militarist thinking typical of America’s left. While isolationism and anti-militarism/anti-interventionism don’t precisely align ideologically or philosophically, their goals often overlap.

I think we have to get away from the selfishness that Trump represents, and be an altruistic superpower. We should be strong, but use that strength to defend democracy and freedom, face down totalitarians, and carry out humanitarian missions in the world. If we don’t, we will create a power vacuum, and Putins and Xi and lesser autocrats will rush to fill it. That’s not something we should want.

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