Why is America Addicted to Foreign Interventions?

U.S. Army Reserve Spc. Christopher Landon, a motor transport operator assigned to the 182nd Transportation Company, fires an M240B machine gun as part of Operation Cold Steel II

The United States engaged in forty-six military interventions from 1948–1991, from 1992–2017 that number increased fourfold to 188.

Going forward we are left with a number of important questions. First, we know that along with material considerations, culture, identity, and history affect states calculations of the risks and benefits of military intervention. After years of struggle and investment, China has at last succeeded in creating a military and economy capable of securing it against any outside attack, but its history of insecurity and a desire to redress past ‘humiliations’ drive its calculations just as surely as material considerations. To outsiders, the past five years have called into question whether China remains insecure, as it insists, or is actually bent on global hegemony, which would be more consistent with its accelerated military spending and its provocative deployments in the South China Sea. Similarly, a common reading of recent increased U.S. military spending, along with its accelerated deployment of armed forces abroad, is that the United States is an aggressive power, committed to maintaining the post–Cold War status quo. So assuming states weigh gains and losses of national identity along with material costs and benefits in determining whether to intervene militarily abroad, how does identity compare? For example, in considering direct military intervention in Vietnam after 1963, what was more important to the United States? The material loss of a tiny and very distant ally, or its own reputation as leader of the free world, and defender of the weak?

Second, given the dismal record of failure in military interventions since WWII and especially after 1991, what accounts for its persistence as a tool of U.S. statecraft? One strong possibility is that the costs of failure––given the extraordinary reach of American armed forces and the relative geopolitical isolation of the continental United States––have never risen to the level of an existential threat as compared to the possibility of success, however small. Another is that military interventions both signal ‘toughness’ and, as just observed, don’t appear to entail a serious risk to U.S. sovereignty and security. Thus, the benefits for political elites in Washington, of looking tough outweigh the costs and risks of failure, which can almost always be blamed on factors beyond their control, or on political opponents or third parties. Our elites don’t pay the costs.

Finally, given that under very limited circumstances, a U.S. military intervention might prove a necessary option, what can we learn from past failures and successes to maximize the chances that future U.S. military intervention will succeed, and do so at an acceptable cost?

Answers in the academic literature include an emphasis on more modest political objectives (say, simply stopping whatever horrible thing is ongoing and then leaving), multilateral efforts (acting in tandem with allies entails considerable joint operations costs, but these are almost always redeemed by the boost in legitimacy multilateral efforts bring), ensuring long-term public support (U.S. support for publicly known military interventions rarely lasts more than three years, yet most experts agree that interventions capable of ‘winning the peace’ tend to require at least seven to ten years to succeed), and increased reliance on other-than-military resources in support of interventions (armed force will almost always be needed to some degree, but if as a proportion of resources applied armed force is excessive as compared to say, aid, law enforcement and diplomatic efforts, interventions will fail).

U.S. Military Interventions in the 2020s

The United States does not view itself as an aggressor state, but with the brief exception of the Obama administration (2009–16), whose core energies were absorbed with holding the U.S. and global economy together along with mitigating the impact of two unwinnable wars, the United States has become both more interventionist and less likely to cleave to its core principles of opposing genocide (e.g. Rwanda, Darfur) and abiding by the rule of law (e.g. Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib). It has fought two fantastically costly wars, won neither, and then insisted that Iran not acquire the means to defend itself. Allies and adversaries alike may therefore be forgiven for reimagining the United States as an aggressor and a possible threat to the international order.

The U.S. military currently counts over 1.3 million personnel on active duty, with over 450,000 of these currently stationed overseas. The United States spends more on its military than the next eight states combined, and still twice as much as China and Russia combined. Many continue to identify the period following the collapse of the USSR in 1991 as a “unipolar moment,” in which the United States was the sole remaining superpower. And the U.S. military is invariably referred to as the world’s most powerful by far. The problem is, even in the absence of the increased military spending currently planned, this characterization remains as true as it is irrelevant.