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Since the end of World War II, the United States has essentially served as the world’s policeman, dipping its hand into conflicts across the world for the good of our interests, allies, and sometimes just because. This interventionist attitude has been the crux of American foreign policy for more than 60 years, and anyone who proposes scaling it back even slightly is immediately painted as an isolationist.
The U.S. government allotted more than $600 million to defense spending in 2016. Given the mind-blowing costs and resources required to maintain our global military presence, is this kind of foreign policy sustainable? BTRtoday spoke with Cato Institute research fellow Benjamin Friedman about the history of American interventionism and the possibilities for major change in this policy.
BTRtoday (BTR): The interventionist or activist mindset surrounding United States foreign policy started in the aftermath of World War II. Can you talk about how it took hold?
Benjamin Friedman (BF): The power the United States gained in terms of wealth and relative military capacity, the ability to go places and do things with the military during the Cold War in spite of the Soviet Union, became a kind of habit. It was institutionalized in a lot of ways. A lot of the policies the United States undertook at the beginning of the Cold War to be activists, specifically when it came to Europe in terms of Germany, those were good and sensible.
But in some sense, with the Truman administration, in the 1950s we kind of overdid it and made the Cold War into a global struggle between liberalism and communism. We got involved in a lot of places that weren’t really strategically important–most significantly Vietnam.
BTR: How and why did the interventionist policy grow?
BF: That habit of activism became a kind of ideology, and as the threat faded as it did during the Cold War, and particularly afterward, the ideology remained. We sort of ratcheted up our rhetoric of what we were doing in the world, and how the world needed the protection of the United States to be safe, and at that point received a lot of support.
It was a dominant kind of rhetoric because of the beneficiaries of the activist defense policies, not just the military industrial complex, but the military servicers who wanted a budget and the contractors who wanted to be the recipients of some of that budget, even university people and think tanks that received some funds.
The beneficiaries were kind of a fixed entity whereas the cost payers, the rest of us, were not concentrated. The costs were diffused in taxes, but as we got wealthier the burden became much less. The 15 percent of GDP that went into defense spending during the Korean War bought us in real terms about as much defense as what we spend now buys us. The difference is what we spend now is only three percent of our GDP. So the difference is almost entirely because of wealth creation.
BTR: Would you say that wealth creation is a result of this high defense spending, or has our emphasis on defense helped to increase our wealth as a nation?
BF: I don’t think it’s really the result. It’s difficult to disentangle what causes growth, but I don’t think the case that defense spending has generated a lot of economic growth is very compelling. It is a large amount of spending, so it generates GDP and economic activity, but that doesn’t tell you what would happen in the alternative if you spent it on something else.
If we had some massive spending effort devoted to curing cancer, it might have generated even more economic growth. Primarily, I think we spend a lot on the military because we can, so it’s the wealth that’s driving the spending.
BTR: The United States is a much different country than when this policy took hold—and a whole lot richer. How has that affected the weight of spending this much on defense?
BF: The burden of doing this has become much smaller. Now we have a volunteer military, we can have wars even as bad as the Iraq War was, but the human costs compared to even Vietnam were low. Also, the financial cost was never more than one percent of GDP, so the burden of this policy is limited.
That doesn’t make it wise, but what it does do is reduce the kind of domestic defense that you might otherwise have. So we have a kind of unbalanced debate, where the proponents of activism are much more engaged and involved, and the majority of us who suffer from these policies are relatively unengaged.
BTR: It seems that anyone who speaks out against interventionism or suggests scaling it back somewhat is quickly labeled an “isolationist.” Does that prove how ingrained interventionism is in United States foreign policy?
BF: I think so. It’s not clear that the public is overwhelmingly supportive of these policies. The public is not in a meaningful sense isolationist, but the public is less interventionist than the foreign policy makers and leading foreign policy thinkers in Washington, D.C. are.
The public is even more anti-interventionist than U.S. foreign policy would have you believe, and I think that’s because these issues are not usually salient in that people generally don’t vote on these issues. There’s a democratic deficit when you have that; the elites don’t have to follow the public’s thinking.
The tendency to label people as isolationists is evidence of how strong the primacy or liberal hegemony of U.S. foreign policy thinking is, and it’s largely bipartisan. One of my colleagues used to say that nowadays in America, an isolationist is someone who favors less wars than you do.
BTR: Can you explain the origin of the term “isolationist?”
BF: The term isolationism was coined by Alfred Thayer Mahan, the naval theorist in the late 19th century who would try to smear his intellectual opponents in the American Anti-Imperialist League. It was at a time when Mahan and others were arguing that the United States needed global territories, and people who said that was bad were those who Mahan was referring to as isolationists. It was an unfair smear.
Nowadays, of course, those of us who work at the Cato Institute and beyond who are in favor of free trade and diplomacy and immigration and so forth are not isolationists in any traditional sense of the term. However, because we’re lessened to having wars and having permanent alliances we’re labeled isolationists.
BTR: Considering how vastly spread out the American military is throughout the world, is this interventionist foreign policy sustainable?
BF: There are certain factions who argue that it is not sustainable, that we’re going to run out of our ability to do it. Then there’s other people, myself included, who don’t think that’s necessarily true. There’s a tendency where if there’s something that people don’t agree with, they’ll call it unsustainable. To quote the late economist Herb Stein, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
A big problem in politics is sustainably dumb things. In the United States, we’re so rich, we have so much tax revenue to spend that we can get away with doing dumb things for a long time before it becomes meaningfully sustainable. Three-and-a-half percent of GDP dedicated to defense spending is not approaching unsustainable.
Politically it might be difficult to spend more than that, but from an economic standpoint, I don’t see why it would be. That doesn’t make it a good idea, necessarily. I always think about it like this: If you have a few million dollars in the bank, that doesn’t mean you should go to Las Vegas and blow $40,000 in a weekend. That’s not unsustainable, but it’s not wise—there are better uses of your money.
BTR: There have been a number of conflicts that have highlighted the U.S. foreign policy overreach, including Vietnam and more recently, Iraq. What kind of effect have those had on the public’s opinion of large-scale military conflicts?
BF: We’ve seen that. There was the Vietnam Syndrome, which was really a phenomenon of public opinion that restricted presidents’ abilities–even if they were really hawkish–to act on those preferences. The Carter, Ford, and Reagan presidencies experienced a real hangover from Vietnam where there was less enthusiasm for that sort of war. Now we’re seeing an Iraq Syndrome, which ISIS has undermined a bit, but it continues to be difficult for politicians to support occupational warfare, counterinsurgency warfare where a bunch of troops are there.
We have this weird combination now, which people attribute to President Obama, which is to do all this stuff but not commit ground troops. I think it’s more of the political circumstance, where we have a political elite with very broad ambitions for what the U.S. foreign policy ought to be, but the public is not going to support prolonged ground warfare.
Even when there are polls that say it’s getting close to 50-50 that people would support war in Syria, I think the politicians still anticipate that that support wouldn’t last, that once U.S. troops started dying it would disappear.
BTR: Even so, such conflicts haven’t really had an effect on those “broad ambitions.” What’s the current prevailing modus operandi when entering a military engagement?
BF: What we have are a lot of wars with very little commitment to lose lives. It’s kind of amazing that we’re so willing to have wars. There are seven countries where we’re fighting now. What, in a legal sense, is a war—either airstrikes, or drone strikes, and special operations raids, or something more? And yet our willingness to commit lives and dollars and prosecute the wars is at a historical low.
BTR: Is this America’s new form of war, empowered by advanced military technology such as drones?
BF: It’s enabled by drones that allow you to have this very limited presence and to make what technically counts as war with very little risk. I don’t think it’s totally new though, in the sense that the United States has always had the tendency to replace manpower with technology. There’s always been a commitment to airpower since we’ve had the capability, with advocates of intervention stating that airpower could deliver these big results.
I think that American foreign policy is not that different from what it was in the 1990s during the Clinton administration. We can be in more places because of drones, but the high-altitude bombing campaigns that we had in the Balkans and over Iraq in the 90s I think are a precursor to what we see today.