American mythology holds that we’re a peace-loving people who, as John Quincy Adams famously observed, don’t errantly roam far and wide in search for "Monsters to destroy.” Not true. As noted neoconservative and monster-searching advocate Robert Kagan lays bare in Dangerous Nation: America's Foreign Policy from Its Earliest Days to the Dawn of the Twentieth Century, the US has ostentatiously flexed its muscles from its earliest founding, as the continent’s native inhabitants quickly learned. It’s hard to think of a time when we weren’t at war somewhere during the country’s two century-plus history. Maybe there’s a better way. Barry Posen thinks so.
Posen, an MIT professor of international relations, argues in favor of a “less activist” US foreign policy in Foreign Affairs. His is an iconoclastic message. A decade of indecisive wars and massive budget deficits has not altered a consensus among policymakers that the US should work assiduously to maintain its global hegemony through an assertive and aggressive foreign policy. Posen writes: “This undisciplined, expensive, and bloody strategy has done untold harm to US national security. It makes enemies almost as fast as it slays them, discourages allies from paying for their own defense, and convinces powerful states to band together and oppose Washington’s plans, further raising the costs of carrying out its foreign policy.”
The exemplar of the US’ quixotic quest for global hegemony is armed intervention, with the interminable wars in Afghanistan and Iraq the most recent examples of this counterproductive tendency. Posen points out that US service members spent about twice as much time in combat after the Cold War than during it. Along the same lines, our present defense budget in inflation adjusted terms is at levels not seen since World War II, or roughly $100 billion more on average than during the Cold War when the US faced an existential threat from the Soviet Union and its arsenal of nuclear weapons.
This belligerent posture ensures that potential rivals will band together to meet the perceived threat from the US Goliath, as classical international relations theory suggests it might. The odd couple of China and Russia that has worked together to stymie US interests in various international fora like the UN bears this out, as does their enhanced their military partnership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization.
The US’ militarized foreign policy also yields what Posen tartly calls “friends without benefits,” or complacent allies that opportunistically free ride on their credulous protector. He points out that, in contrast to the US, which dedicates 4.6 percent of its GDP to defense, European NATO members spend just 1.6 percent and Japan one percent, respectively. Posen observes: “With their high per capita GDPs, these allies can afford to devote more money to their militaries, yet they have no incentive to do so.”
What, then, would a smarter strategy look like? Posen believes that the US should focus primarily on three essential goals: preventing the rise of powerful rivals that could upset the global balance of power; continuing the fight against terrorism; and curtailing nuclear proliferation. He asserts that these are more achievable with a policy of restraint.
First, American foreign policy forbearance would help neutralize potential competitors’ quest to challenge American power; China, Russia, and others would be less likely to team up to meet the perceived threat. Also, our allies would have to assume more responsibility for their own defense as the Pentagon’s budget shrank to more healthy and sustainable levels. Second, the fight against violent extremism would continue, but the resources dedicated to that effort would be commensurate with the actual terrorist threat and not aimed to counter a danger seen in weirdly apocalyptic terms. Lastly, though nuclear proliferation will continue to pose a serious concern regardless of the US’ foreign policy posture, the country would have more resources at its disposal to confront it when it abandons its imperial ambitions.
Posen’s prescription is eminently sensible, and it is also a non-starter. Americans may view themselves as reluctant interventionists who only get involved in the affairs of others for the most noble of reasons, but it’s an imagined identity at odds with our history. We’re a warrior people inclined to throw our weight around like all-powerful nations have done historically. Noted scholar Andrew Bacevich observes: “The pursuit of global military dominance, a proclivity for preemption, a growing taste for assassination—all justified as essential to self-defense. That pretty much describes our present-day MO.” He’s wrong in one important way: we’ve always been militaristic.
Given our DNA, we Americans won’t easily adopt Posen’s prescription for a less activist foreign policy, however advisable it may be. There are, after all, endless monsters, real and imagined, to destroy.