The Myth of American Militarism

The Myth of American Militarism

The United States needs a serious debate about how, where, and whether to use force in an era when its resources are stretched. It requires a highly disciplined approach to employing its military power in an age of great-power rivalry. Yet the myth of American militarism is bad analysis that leads to lousy prescription.

It is also intellectually lazy to attribute domestic terrorism and white nationalism principally, or even substantially, to blowback from post-9/11 wars, given that both problems significantly predate 9/11 and previously spiked during the 1990s. 

When it comes to militarized policing, the reality is admittedly complex. It is surely true that war veterans who went into law enforcement brought some of their training with them, and that the availability of surplus Pentagon gear made the up-arming of the police a cheaper and easier choice than it otherwise might have been. But the resulting just-so story—endless war abroad leads to endless war at home—gives no agency to criminals, who have their own incentives to seek heavier firepower, or domestic law enforcement, who likewise have ample reason to want to overmatch the criminals. 

Nor have counterterrorism and other military interventions ushered in a twenty-first-century garrison state. The response to 9/11, particularly the Patriot Act and related intelligence innovations, did cause the pendulum to swing away from the libertarian vision of individual freedom. Yet the fact that the most visible intrusion most Americans face is increased airport security demonstrates that the American way of life has hardly been destroyed. If anything, infringements on civil liberties would probably have been worse had the United States not used its military power to keep terror groups on the run and instead hunkered down in a defensive posture. The “go live your lives” ethos the United States adopted after 9/11 was the counterpart to the proactive military posture it assumed. 

Even the claim that America’s wars have left the public strategically exhausted has to be scrutinized carefully. The U.S. presence in Afghanistan may not have been popular during its later years, but there was never a groundswell of public opinion demanding its immediate end—mostly because that presence was quite small and the casualties it produced were quite limited.

In the early 2010s, frustration with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan arguably contributed to a larger desire for retrenchment that delayed the U.S. response to growing Chinese and Russian assertiveness. But that’s not the case today: In fact, many critics of American military intervention argue that Washington is behaving too confrontationally vis-à-vis rival powers. 

This isn’t to say that military intervention has no negative domestic consequences; no war leaves the society that fights it unscathed. Yet for America to have a serious debate about the cause of its domestic problems, it must do better than simply blaming the wars it has waged. 

IF MILITARISM is the problem, then building up and relying more on non-military tools must be the answer. This argument, at least, is half-right.

Non-military tools will play a larger role in American statecraft in the next twenty years than they did in the last twenty years. During the global war on terror, kinetic military action was often the most effective tool America had for disrupting jihadist groups that were based in inaccessible, hostile settings. Tactical military success—killing terrorists and frustrating their plots—produced a sort of strategic success in protecting the homeland. Over time, the American political class quietly concluded that suppressing the threat with force was actually cheaper than seeking to transform the underlying political and socio-economic conditions that gave rise to terrorism. Add in the fact that civilian agencies such as the State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) were often unable to operate in austere settings without military protection, and of course, the Pentagon played an outsized role in the post-9/11 period. 

The present era will be different. Technological, ideological, and economic competition will be every bit as important as military deterrence in shaping the U.S.-China rivalry, which means that there will naturally be a reweighting of American bureaucratic capability. We are already seeing this, through investments in the International Finance Development Corporation and other non-military entities. The idea that Washington must bulk up in these areas is right on the money. 

Yet there are limits to how much rebalancing America can prudently do. It is attractive to say that the real answer to terrorism involves empowering State and USAID to deal with the root causes of the threat. In reality, however, doing so would require major, long-term investments in stabilizing conflict-ridden societies—investments that still might not pay off unless U.S. military power holds immediate threats at bay. Put differently, Washington might theoretically prefer to turn the problem of a failed state in Somalia over to the diplomats and development specialists. Without sustained military pressure on al-Shabaab, the result would probably be a disaster.

Force will remain indispensable in other areas, too. Diplomacy and economic statecraft will only be at the forefront of the U.S.-China relationship so long as military deterrence holds. Here there is bad news for those hoping to take an axe to the Pentagon budget: The United States is presently in a desperate race to shore up its military position in the Western Pacific before China is able to invade Taiwan, and winning that race will probably take more money even if the Defense Department spends its existing dollars more wisely.

Indeed, on a whole range of issues, from deterring Russian aggression in the Baltics to responding to Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf, non-military tools will only get America so far. Force, like it or not, is still the ultima ratio regum. If America suffers from not having a robust enough non-military toolkit, how much will it suffer when it brings a demarche to a firefight? 

THE MYTH of American militarism is analytically vapid. It is also strategically damaging. For if America is simply addicted to war, the obvious prescription is to quit cold turkey. In reality, however, the use of force remains very much in the realm of prudent strategy, so braying for an end to endless wars threatens to drown out sober policy debate about how and where the American military might be employed. 

It is fair to argue that Washington overinvested, for years, in combating terrorism and related problems such as rogue states in the Middle East, and that it must use force quite selectively in that region as it devotes greater attention to great-power challenges. As a general rule, violence should be a tool of later, rather than earlier, resort. 

Yet it is less helpful to argue that America should simply walk away from ongoing, relatively economical commitments in the Middle East. Carrying out such a withdrawal might well produce an uptick in the threats those commitments are meant to address. The critical debate involves questions of how much risk of renewed terrorist attacks Washington should be willing to accept as it limits its military engagement in the region and how much force it should still be willing to use to keep that risk at an acceptable level. That debate requires intellectual nuance and sophistication, qualities that the most condemnatory statements about forever wars do little to produce.

The same goes for great-power rivalry. Everyone should hope that the U.S.-China competition stays peaceful. But one of the most urgent questions America faces is what interests it should be willing to defend with force—and how—if they are attacked. And one of the most urgent imperatives Washington confronts is strengthening deterrence of China by convincing Beijing that it can and will fight effectively if those interests are challenged. To suggest, as some analysts have, that the fundamental problem in the U.S.-China relationship is America’s desire for military primacy—or even that it was “tragic” that America intervened against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II—is simply to abandon the hard intellectual work of strategy by arguing that the proper choice is never to wield the military tool.

The United States has a mixed record with the use of force, as one might well expect of this most demanding aspect of statecraft. Yet its choices over the past thirty years have been wiser, its restraint and selectivity have been greater, and the domestic blowback it has suffered has been smaller than many critics allege. There are cases, alas, where the use or threat of force will be necessary in the future. There will be instances when choosing not to intervene now forces policymakers to contemplate higher-cost military interventions later. In addressing these challenges, policymakers will need something better than the Magic Eight Ball of restraint, which always answers “my sources say no” when asked for guidance on hard choices. Prescription begins with diagnosis. Busting the myth of American militarism is the first step toward positioning America, intellectually and strategically, for success in a dangerous future.

Hal Brands is the Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist.

Peter Feaver is Visiting Fellow, All Souls College, Oxford University, on leave from Duke University, where he is Professor of Political Science and Public Policy and directs the Program in American Grand Strategy.

Image: Flickr / U.S. Army Page