COVID-19 and the costs of military primacy

Before the pandemic, more and more Americans concluded that their country’s foreign policy was failing them. In return for lavishing taxpayer dollars on the world’s largest national security apparatus, the United States was growing ever more threatened and ever less safe — even according to the policymaking class responsible for the result.

The crux of the problem is that class’s fixation on military primacy. By seeking dominance across the globe rather than defense of the United States, U.S. policy has generated a downward spiral. American actions — security commitments that divide the world into friends and enemies, permanent deployments around the globe, continual war-making — produce antagonists. Such antagonists, in turn, make dominance costlier and more dangerous to pursue.

Thus, in the “unipolar era” of unparalleled supremacy, the United States suffered terrorist attacks on its homeland and overextended itself in wars that it could neither win nor quit. The coming decades look grimmer still. Having performed poorly against small states and weak groups in the greater Middle East, the foreign policy establishment is now gearing up for “great power competition” against a rising China and an assertive Russia. The wager, made by the more astute primacists, is that higher stakes will discipline American ambitions. The danger is that America will apply its same indiscipline to relations of graver consequence.

Or so, at least, I argued back in the pre-COVID era, in a rare issue of Foreign Affairs dedicated to the proposition that the time might finally have come for the United States to reduce its military entanglements across the board. Pulling back, I claimed, would not just prevent unnecessary conflicts and arms buildups. It would also free the United States to engage the world diplomatically, by extending an even hand to advance its interests. Military restraint would give America, and the world, the best chance of building deeper cooperation against climate change and other challenges that afflict humanity as a whole and require joint action to solve.

Read the full article in RealClear Defense.