Defense spending makes up about 20%, a full fifth, of the U.S. federal budget; Social Security and various health-related programs like Medicare each make up another fifth apiece, so those three things by themselves make up 60% of government expenditures, and since things like Social Security and Medicare are trust funds separate from the rest of the budget, defense spending represents upwards of a third of the average American’s tax dollar, maybe close to half. The United States spends close to 5% of its GDP on its military, and represents over 40% of all the world’s military spending, meaning it spends nearly as much on its military as all the other countries of the world combined. Yet for supposedly fiscally minded conservatives, defense spending represents the untouchable third rail of American politics.
In the years since 9/11, there’s been an increased emphasis on the armed forces as American heroes and on “supporting the troops” as “defenders of America’s freedom”. The theory goes that we need to keep our military as strong as possible to keep up the fight against terror and defend America’s freedoms and status in the world. But when America spends nearly as much on our military as all the other nations of the world combined, doesn’t this reasoning start to ring a little hollow?
“Defending America’s freedom” may have been an important goal during the Cold War when it was important to keep pace with the Soviets, but the Cold War’s been over for over twenty years now. In recent decades, America’s military might has tended to undermine America’s security more than safeguard it. America has been accused of inadvertently building the Taliban and Osama bin Laden during the Soviet war in Afghanistan, and 9/11 was in part a reaction to America’s support of Israel and military presence in the Gulf even then. America-backed coups during the Cold War have also contributed to anti-American sentiment in those countries in the present day, most famously in Iran; for much of the 20th century, some on the left have accused America’s military of advancing the interests of big corporations first and foremost.
Before the two World Wars, America had a long tradition of isolationism that dated back to George Washington, with conflict with other countries mostly involving the Americas themselves, and with the exception of the Napoleonic Wars (which took the form of the War of 1812 in America) stayed out of Europe’s conflicts. After World War II America, along with the Soviet Union, found itself the leading world power by default with Europe in ruins, and needed a strong, active military presence to support its allies and fend off Soviet influence. The Cold War lasted so long that by the time it ended, one needed to be on the verge of retirement to remember a time when America didn’t have some sort of enemy to fight, and some wondered what would fill the void left by the collapse of the Soviet Union. For some people who only remembered the Cold War-era state of global geopolitics, the War on Terror was a godsend.
The real answer, though, was that nothing was going to fill the void, or at least nothing needed to. With America being the only nation with enough power to really make a huge dent in global geopolitics, and no real interest in doing so (at least directly), the pacifist streak dominant in intellectual circles since World War I could truly start to come to the fore and it became possible for the vast majority of the world’s nations to live in peace and harmony, competing only economically if at all. Today’s global priorities involve improving the well-being of people all over the globe and bringing them into this new global order, and we’ll explore some of them later in this series. To maintain this peace, the nations committed to it need to have enough of a “big stick” to effectively settle disputes, especially those threatening the global peace itself. Right now most of the military force enforcing this peace comes from the United States, precisely because a significant element within it doesn’t believe in the peace. This both allows the American Right to claim that it is only because of American military protection that Europe enjoys the life it lives, and the US itself to exploit “peacekeeping” missions for its own aims. The rest of the world needs to be willing to share more of the military burden to enforce the peace, and the US needs to let them.
Smart Tea Partiers recognize the absurdity of the United States’ military outlay in comparison to the actual need for national defense. But the movement’s intellectual godfather, Ron Paul, seems to be looking in the opposite direction as the rest of the world, supporting a neo-isolationism and withdrawing the United States from international organizations. Conservatives have long hated such organizations as threats to American sovereignty, but it seems disingenuous for them to support such neo-isolationism on the one hand and free trade with the nations such a pullout would antagonize on the other. For the United States to stop meddling with other nations’ affairs is welcome, but I’m not convinced pulling away from the rest of the world entirely and hiding in a corner is even an option anymore. The mere fact that organizations like the UN could be a threat to American sovereignty shows the fruitlessness of the exercise; some sovereignty has to be surrendered just to get along with the rest of the world. It’s true that the UN has been a massive disappointment at meeting it’s goals, but to pull out could destabilize the world order, depending on the reason for doing so. The United States bears a lot of the responsibility for the UN’s failures in the first place.
The United States’ decision not to participate in the International Criminal Court was seen in some corners as an excuse for the US to pull off war crimes if it wanted to. Things like that would be far less of an issue if the United States were to stop meddling in other nations’ affairs. Rather, the conservative desire to pull out of the UN seems to be rooted more in a fear that it represents a potential world government. That’s a legitimate, if long-term, concern and one the nations of the world may need to be on guard against, but several issues simply need to be managed on a global scale, even though there exists nothing that can enforce anything on a global scale effectively. The United States has as much of a stake in these issues as anyone else and I can’t imagine that staying out of global efforts to resolve them will actually be beneficial to the United States, especially in the long term.
For example, if the United States were serious about adopting a non-intervention policy its response to accusations that Iraq and Iran were developing nuclear weapons would be to allow international weapons inspectors to determine that. If they did, and intended to use them against the United States, the US could then defend itself against those countries, and ideally the international community would support the US in this. Even if the US had a strong enough military to crush Iraq or Iran and destroy their nuclear capabilities on their own, would it really be in their best interest to reject the support of the rest of the world? Or consider the action taken to support the rebels in Libya; followers of Paul would oppose it because the United States didn’t have a clear national interest in bringing down Qaddafi. Does that mean the United States isn’t committed to the spread of democracy around the world? Should a movement intent on giving power back to the American people be indifferent to the people of another country?
It’s time for America to adopt a policy of live and let live, no longer tinkering with other countries’ governments and only antagonizing them in the long term. The specifics of the policy are understandably controversial; more left-wing activists would support a doctrine of international cooperation, while Paulites would support a neo-isolationism. The former strikes me as more realistic, not only given the current world order but also because the government has already proven its propensity for defining the “national self-interest” in whatever terms it wants, terms that often end up not being in the “national self-interest” in the long term. We’ll stay in Afghanistan long enough to give it a modicum of stability, continue working to support a normalization of relations between Israel and Palestine, and work to build a strong international community that can be a strong advocate for peace around the world. Perhaps the peace and brotherhood America can form with its fellow nations can serve as a model for how we can live at home.