The story is not merely one of resources; it is the tale of how America’s conception of itself, its purpose, and its history shapes its choices and priorities. Beyond the defense and foreign nation-building budget dollar amounts spent in real terms, it is the attention and focus that those budget dollars represent. That America spends more on defense than the next ten countries combined reveals the overemphasis on combating even minor foreign threats that is emblematic of this critique. As President George W. Bush’s rationale for preemptive war in Iraq explained, “America must not ignore the threat gathering against us. Facing clear evidence of peril, we cannot wait for the final proof—the smoking gun—that could come in the form of a mushroom cloud.” Of course, Saddam did not have a weapons of mass destruction program, but even if there were “a one percent chance” that a threat was real “we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response,” declared Vice President Dick Cheney.
While the Bush administration is guilty of starting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, subsequent administrations spun them out further to Syria, Libya, Somalia, West Africa, Southeast Asia, and beyond. Perennially chasing foreign security threats has unfurled American resources like a kite in a strong wind. As sociologist David Vine has found, America has nearly eight hundred military bases in more than seventy countries and territories abroad. It is no small feat maintaining this network, but as Vine has argued, they cost a fortune and actually make us less safe by undertaking unrealistic defense obligations, upsetting regional power balances, provoking local resentments, and compromising democratic ideals to defend autocratic and repressive regimes.
THE WORLD is getting smaller and more complex. More than ever before, Americans need to be better prepared to think about the world and to act within it, not just asked to pay an all-volunteer military force to garrison it. Given America’s preferential treatment to overseas adventures while ignoring domestic threats, it is possible to link the destructive and bloody actions of the Capitol insurrectionists to the hubris of modern American exceptionalism. This fixation has badly ordered American priorities in light of the opportunity costs to America’s neglected education system and its ill-prepared citizenry for the dramatic economic shifts ushered in by globalization and the digital era.
Many Americans haven’t enjoyed improved economic conditions resulting from the American-led neoliberal world order. America’s wealth and economic mobility disparities were already increasing between 2007 and 2011. The Occupy Wall Street movement was a harbinger of the disgruntled civil disobedience to come. Beyond purely economic troubles, as the summer of 2020 racial justice protests and violence indicated, there is pent-up rage in America. Complaints about not being “seen” or “heard” have stemmed both from the Left and the Right, suggesting that government policies are not resounding with citizens. American grievances and resentment, stoked by faithless politicians and their own media echo chambers, boiled over, and the dismaying events of January 6 were the result.
Instead of a peace dividend, the vandalism of the Capitol is the real dividend of an unfocused and undisciplined empire with a blind spot only appearing in the mirror. The relatively small number of rioters was the climax of a building sense of fear and social grievance. But these deluded and disillusioned rioters are the thin edge of a much larger wedge of society that endorsed the lawlessness, with polls reporting that over 20 percent of Americans approved.
Like other fringe right-wing groups of the 1990s, the insurrectionists were mostly white, but a mix of middle-class, working-class, and rural people. It is worth pondering why these citizens from a relatively broad cross-section of America, draped in flags, some of them law enforcement officers and military veterans still wearing their unit patches, felt like they were in fact doing their patriotic duty in storming the Capitol with flexicuffs at the ready. After all, they were not there, in their view, to subvert American democracy; they were there to save the will of the people from subversion by the powerful. They were encouraged, in a sad irony, by a powerful individual who himself wanted to subvert the democratic process. Representative of Americans’ dismal knowledge of civics and government, from their perspective, they were righting a wrong, stopping certification of an election that was “stolen” from their fellow Americans. To hear them tell it, they raised their hands against their government in just cause.
This state of affairs compels concerned citizens to investigate and reflect upon the drivers of the insurrection. Trump’s record here is mixed. It is clear that Trump and his allies’ misinformation campaign and rhetoric about a “rigged” and “stolen” election impelled the mob and he was impeached for his role. On the other hand, his instincts for redirecting attention away from foreign adventures were on the right track. For all of the chaos, ineptitude, and harmful norm-shattering of the Trump administration, he was right about the unfair burden placed on American taxpayers and military members to disproportionately shoulder the costs of America’s alliance structure and the sacrifice of combat deployments for questionable security returns. America has spent trillions of dollars in senseless wars while assuming the defense burdens of rich allies. The amount of money that could have been instead invested in American schools and infrastructure is dizzying. These are not theoretical opportunity costs. Recent Pew research shows that U.S. students continue to rank around the middle of the (global) pack, and behind many other advanced industrial nations. Of course, there is no guarantee that a decrease in defense spending would have led to an increase in civic education programs at home, but again, the focus on foreign imperatives as more urgent than domestic considerations is illustrative of the political equation.
It is often repeated with biblical certainty that a globally deployed military is the lynchpin of American economic success, but there are many problems with that outlook. Plenty of countries are wealthy and do not spend what America does on defense—even as a percentage of GDP, much less in real terms—and these highly developed and educated countries start far fewer wars with ruinous second- and third-order effects. These countries bandwagon with America and, therefore, ride for free under America’s security umbrella while giving their citizens free health care and access to inexpensive university education. But here is where America seems trapped. American foreign policy mandarins have linked domestic material enjoyment to policing the world. In this view, policing the empire is simply the cost of the apparently worthwhile status quo. American primacists and defense hawks argue that a massive navy is needed to keep trade routes open and an army and an air force to deter challengers to the U.S.-led world order. Even internationalist doves are eager to underwrite expensive and dubious alliances requiring a continued forward presence in Germany, Italy, Japan, and Korea, to name but a few.
After nearly two decades of unproductive “forever wars,” Trump said he was going to bring home the troops from the gluttonous Central Command troop vacuum, but also from places like Niger, where American politicians claimed they didn’t even know U.S. soldiers were fighting and dying. That Trump’s Pentagon fought him on global restraint every step of the way indicates how deeply entrenched the foreign policy “blob” is and how dedicated it is to this massive overseas footprint. And while Congress rightly invites the intelligence community to testify annually on the “Worldwide Threat Assessment” focused on legitimate foreign threats, many fewer hearings were held regarding the looming threat of domestic left- or right-wing violence. This profound lack of attention culminated in the increasingly radical swath of American society who became insurrectionists convinced that the end of democracy was nigh and some suggested returning to the Capitol in advance of the inauguration to finish the job. Belatedly, the FBI warned all fifty states about the potential for political violence surrounding the transition of power and Congress authorized over twenty thousand National Guard troops to provide security for the inauguration of President Joe Biden; Washington, DC, was locked down more dramatically than after 9/11. Clearly, such measures underscore that a Lincolnian rebalancing of America’s threat perceptions is in order.
Even before John Winthrop’s Puritans sailed for Massachusetts Bay in 1630, he told them that their new colony would be an example to the world. “As a city upon a hill, the eyes of all people are upon us,” he preached. Nearly four centuries later, Americans too often perceive their own greatness externally by overbearing leadership and military presence on the world stage instead of domestically by the example of our values in practice. This understanding of greatness measured and observed by military prowess, gross domestic product, or even counting of Olympic medals has obfuscated what Joseph S. Nye, Jr. identified as the “soft power” of attraction to American ideals. An overemphasis on projecting hard power externally has deranged American domestic national security and overlooked trouble heretofore lurking below in subterranean chat rooms.