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.
Little did I know while I wrote that a mass-killing, economy-halting virus was making its way from animals to humans. But the pandemic adds a new dimension to the case for transforming U.S. foreign policy. Confronted with killer germs, a national security state that takes armed primacy as its lodestar has delivered no security to the nation. The best one can say is that America’s privileged instrument, its globe-straddling military, has proven irrelevant to the greatest attack on the American people in a generation. Consider the irony: Many countries that the United States has bound itself to protect by force — Australia, New Zealand, Japan, South Korea — have controlled the spread and secured their people. Their protector, by contrast, reigns supreme as the single most infected country in the world. We’re #1 in armed force around the globe and vulnerability to disease at home.
And that is a generous interpretation. A less generous one would draw a straight line between American militarization and American insecurity.
It would note that a federal government that annually devotes more than half of its discretionary budget to the Pentagon has left millions of its people without basic health care and the fortunate rest with costly coverage dependent on continuous employment. It would identify America’s unceasing warmaking as a source of its political divisions, which undermine the public trust and cohesion needed to take health measures like social distancing and wearing masks. Not least, the quest for military primacy in East Asia has put the United States on a collision course with China, leading the two powers to blame one another for the pandemic and keeping them from coordinating to stop outbreaks of the future.
Because their leaders prize armed dominance, the American people are unsafe where they live and work.
In discussions of “foreign policy,” it can seem like cheating to dwell on Americans' needs at home. The entire profession is premised on separating what happens over there from what happens over here, even if its practitioners ritually, perhaps guiltily, call for breaking down the silos between them. The fact remains: if a foreign policy undermines life at home, then it destroys its reason for being. All national policy, foreign or domestic, aims to provide for the safety and well-being of the American people. To the extent that foreign policy is distinctive, it is precisely because the U.S. government has less extensive obligations to others than the people it governs. The one country that the United States has an absolute duty to nation-build is its own. And it stands in need.
Those who wish to sustain America’s globe-spanning deployments, in the pursuit of dominance everywhere, have a considerable burden. They should not merely explain why their course of action will benefit U.S. interests and the world rather than harm both — a tall enough task as it is, given the record. They should also show those benefits to be so large and so likely as to outweigh the value of direct investments in communities within the United States. I would not want such a burden, because I do not think it can be met. If it cannot be, then the United States must chart a new course for the rest of the 21st century.
Stephen Wertheim is Deputy Director of Research and Policy at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. He is also Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute for War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. His book, Tomorrow, the World: The Birth of U.S. Global Supremacy, comes out this October from Harvard University Press.