A reckoning with America’s failed national-security policy is long overdue. Donald Trump’s reckless machinations are destructive, but so too is the bipartisan establishment consensus that has defined our role in the world for decades and remains remarkably unshaken, despite its evident bankruptcy.
Our calamitous misadventures in the Middle East and the global financial collapse of 2008 dramatically exposed the failures of this consensus. Yet while citizen movements have begun to transform domestic politics, they have been virtually invisible when it comes to foreign policy. This special issue of The Nation challenges what has been a remarkably narrow debate in this area. Without pretending to offer a grand strategy, it provides alternative perspectives, grounded in values widely shared by the American people. We seek to instigate not only a more open debate, but a new call to action.
Trump’s impulsive belligerence seems centered on his determination to tear down all things Obama. He has abandoned the Paris climate accord and the Iran nuclear deal. He has shut down the opening to Cuba and moved the US embassy in Israel to Jerusalem. He seems intent on shattering transatlantic cooperation. In doing so, he has managed to resuscitate the reputations of certain of his predecessors—even that of the ruinous George W. Bush—as well as the crackpot realism of our national-security mandarins.
One widely touted hope is that, after Trump, the United States might return to its previous role as “the indispensable nation.” We should not fall for it. Our national-security policies failed Americans long before Trump announced his run for president in 2015. As Andrew Bacevich argues in this issue, the failures are particularly manifest in our wars without end, exemplified by the debacle in Afghanistan, now in its 17th year. The Global War on Terror generates more terrorists than it kills, and yet US Special Operations Forces have been dispatched to an astonishing 133 countries over the past year—that’s 68 percent of the nations on earth. The official National Security Strategy statements of the Bush, Obama, and Trump administrations all committed the United States to maintaining a military so powerful that it cannot be challenged anywhere. The most recent NSS statement declares that “revisionist nations” (Russia and China), not terrorists, are now the major threat to our national security. But in declaring our intention to confront both Russia and China, we are likely to foster an alliance between them that cannot be in our interest. We have also embarked on a renewed nuclear-arms race—mostly with ourselves.
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The steady militarization of US foreign policy has hampered our ability to address real security concerns that are threatening not just our own people but the entire planet, from catastrophic climate change to a global economy rigged to foster extreme inequality, which corrupts democracy here and abroad. Our bloated military budget already constitutes over one-third of the entire world’s military spending, even as vital domestic imperatives are starved for funds. Seldom has the need for a new course been more apparent.
Toward Common-Sense Security
What would an alternative foreign policy entail? We reject the notion that the United States is faced with a choice between isolationism and the old elite consensus. Progressive reform would begin by discarding the notion that America is uniquely permitted to use force. We should recognize that, while we are a global superpower, it is in the US interest to defend international law. We can best bolster our security by respecting the law, not holding ourselves above it.
We must also roll back our failed interventions. Limiting the US military role will require more, not less, international cooperation as well as far more active diplomacy. New regional balances of power will inevitably be forged, but they need not pose a threat to American interests.
We must also ground our policy on a more realistic view of the challenges we face. The widespread campaign to portray Russia as a menacing global threat is wrongheaded. For all his bluster, Vladimir Putin is now cutting the Russian military budget. His policies, no doubt, express Russian resentments fed by provocative US actions after the end of the Cold War, which included extending NATO to Russia’s borders, in violation of promises made by the administration of President George H.W. Bush; ignoring Russian warnings against trying to incorporate Georgia and Ukraine into NATO; and helping to inflict on Russia the shock-therapy economic policy of the 1990s, which created and enriched the Russian oligarchs, impoverished millions, and looted the country’s treasury. We should seek to reengage Russia, a necessary partner in key areas, and revive efforts to limit the nuclear-arms race and reduce tensions on Russia’s borders. Moreover, a renewed Cold War narrows the space for democratic forces and strengthens the hand of a repressive state and the influence of nationalist voices—on both sides.
China, on the other hand, is an emerging global power, a mercantilist dictatorship that has had remarkable success in lifting its people out of poverty. Its leaders seek to extend their economic influence as they consolidate China’s leadership position in emerging technologies and markets. Trump has abandoned the strategic neoliberalism of his predecessors, replacing the Trans-Pacific Partnership with threats of a trade war against China, while gearing up the US military presence in the South China Sea.
But it is not in the US interest—nor do we have the resources—to dominate a modern Chinese military on that country’s borders. Our allies and the other nations in Asia have reasons of their own to counter growing Chinese power, and they would be better equipped to do so if they could rely on consistent US diplomatic support rather than militarism and bluster. While China’s growth has been impressive, there are serious questions about its structural imbalances and its strength moving forward, as Walden Bello discusses in this issue. Washington should prepare for the problems posed by China’s weakness rather than those potentially caused by its growing assertiveness.
The transformation of America’s global economic strategy is essential to any effective security project. The neoliberal approach—the so-called Washington Consensus—has generated rising inequality and faces increasing resistance, both domestic and international. As James Galbraith argues, to create an economy that works for working people, we need to transform that model here and abroad.
If we were to free ourselves from endless war, the United States would be better able to focus on real security imperatives, chief among them the growing destructiveness of climate change. As Bill McKibben argues, rather than scorning the Paris climate accord, we should be working with other nations on a much faster transition to an economy free of fossil fuels. Business as usual is not just a threat to our national security; it’s a threat to our very existence.
America’s security would be far better served if, instead of acting as the military cop on the global beat, we helped to mobilize and partner with allies in humanitarian operations. Globalization and climate change are generating severe dislocations and the spread of more diseases. International cooperation has brought remarkable successes in this area, and when the United States has been involved, our efforts have not only strengthened our alliances, but protected Americans from the disruptions posed by massive refugee movements and deadly plagues.
Our security is best served when we provide a model for the values we champion. We should focus, therefore, on strengthening our democracy and economy at home. The greatest threat comes not from interventions by Russia or other foreign actors, but rather from the flood of dark money into our elections, the cynical efforts to suppress votes, and the gerrymandering of electoral districts. China’s mercantilist policies have run up record trade deficits that have surely undermined US wages. Yet it was not their policies, but ours—engineered by multinational corporations and banks that rigged the economy for their own profit—that allowed this to happen.
Sensible reforms like these already enjoy broad support among the American people, as Stephen Miles details in this issue, which was co-edited by longtime Nation contributing editor Robert Borosage. Americans respect our soldiers and want a robust military, but they have no desire to police the world. The country elected its last two presidents—one Democratic and one Republican—in part because they promised to focus on rebuilding America at home. Their failure to live up to those promises reflects the influence of the military-industrial-academic complex, and an elite national-security establishment, that remain wedded to permanent war and global surveillance.
While congressional leaders like Bernie Sanders, Barbara Lee, and Ro Khanna—all of them contributors to this issue—have begun to challenge our current policies, many other key Democrats have been AWOL for too long in this debate. Leaders who lay out a foreign policy of restraint and progressive realism will find a receptive public, but we can’t afford to wait. This country desperately needs a fierce and energetic citizen intervention—a movement that demands both a reckoning and a change in course. Our democracy may be corrupted, but the American people can still call our leaders to account and challenge entrenched interests. It is to all the citizens who are building that movement that we dedicate this issue.