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Ending Our Military-First Foreign Policy

Our interventions have only gotten worse and more counterproductive. It's time to remember what made America great in the first place.

When you live in a country, it can be difficult to get a sense of how it’s viewed from the outside. Many in the United States have worried that over the past few decades a tradition of U.S. “leadership” in global affairs has become less about the example we set in terms of the rule of law, the nature of our economy, and citizen participation in all aspects of our national policy, and more about cracking skulls abroad. But until recently, it was still difficult to judge.

Beyond our two big overseas commitments—Iraq and Afghanistan—military operations have by and large been increasingly opaque. Much has been done with drones and special operations forces. Along with this, U.S. diplomatic efforts and resources have dramatically receded into the background. We need to face the fact that the United States has become a hyper-interventionist and unilateral power. More bluntly, it has become a bully in the international arena.

The Congressional Research Service estimates that the wars since 2001 have cost American taxpayers $1.5 trillion, while nearly 7,000 service members have been killed and 53,000 wounded. Our reputation has also been diminished globally—our power and influence is increasingly seen as a major threat as much by our long-time allies and friends as by our enemies.

For the past three years, I’ve been directing the Military Intervention Project (MIP), which identifies and tracks U.S. interventions since the founding of the country. There have been over 500 of them. MIP also measures the quality of those interventions, and this is where the data get scary.

Consider that in the early stages of the country’s founding, the U.S. was primarily focused on occupying the lands around it and killing and/or controlling the peoples within it. It was only after World War II, when the United States emerged as not only a survivor but a victor, that it became what we would recognize as an interventionist state, as it competed with the Soviet Union for global dominion. Yet when the Soviet Union collapsed, U.S. military interventions did not diminish. In fact, they increased.

U.S. Interventions and Hostility Levels across Eras, 1776–2017


Perhaps even more surprising is that the post-Cold War interventions have been more intense, with the U.S. relying on higher levels of force than the opponents it faced. So for example, while the U.S. might resort to targeted bombings, opponents might simply back off, not even threatening the use of force.

Average Highest Military Action, US versus State B across Eras, 1776 – 2017


The gap since 2001 is alarming. It reveals that the United States has been willing to escalate to force and escalate that use of force to war, while the states we take on are deescalating their levels of force.

The United States has increasingly undertaken these interventions in war-prone territories that feature fractured polities and instability, often the conditions that are claimed to necessitate the intervention in the first place. While these interventions are invariably conceived of as short-term military missions, intended to resolve a specific instability, they almost always escalate into the never-ending wars and deployments we have seen in Afghanistan and Iraq. And as political scientist Ivan Arreguín-Toft has documented, empirical trends reveal that major powers have been losing such confrontations more often since the 19th century, with the 20th century showing the most dramatic decrease in victories.

In these divided societies, the argument that the U.S. can successfully end an intervention rests on the assumption that a durable peace settlement can be negotiated—that rival combatants care more about peace than about killing each other. Unfortunately, as my book Securing the Peace illustrates, negotiated settlements between combatants rarely produce the stability envisioned at the agreement’s signing. Instead it is outright military victory—and especially rebel victory—that tends to lead to enduring peace settlements.

These lessons were learned during the Vietnam War, during which the effort to secure a durable peace between the North and South Vietnamese governments was set as a condition for the U.S. exiting. Successive American administrations chased an elusive deal through increasing area bombing of North Vietnamese territory in order to coerce the North into a peace settlement that could lead to an American exit and allow South Vietnam to stand on its own. Eventually the Nixon administration switched its targets (in the famous LINEBACKER campaigns) from infrastructure (and civilians) to North Vietnamese armed forces, which brought the North to the settlement table. But Washington was also forced to accept that a fleeting peace deal was better than continued expenditure of American lives and resources.

Rather than chasing a peace deal that will never emerge, the real lesson is to either settle for what in the 19th century used to be called “punitive expeditions” (go in blazing, hurt your target, then leave) or neglect intervening with armed forces altogether, thereby avoiding Vietnam-like quagmires.

U.S. overreliance on the military and the use of force needs to change. A military-first foreign policy risks America’s global legitimacy, endangering the peace-prolonging institutions the United States once supported. The decline of U.S. economic, social, and military power will provoke countervailing alliances that will seriously increase the risk of another world war and America’s demise.

Regardless of who wins the presidency in November, Americans need to demand a sounder foreign policy that doesn’t rely first or exclusively on the use of force, which has proven so costly to our troops, wallets, and reputation. We need to reinvigorate our diplomacy and be smart in our trade relations with other countries. And although there will always be challenges that appear to require us to respond with force, we should also remember that our national tradition—what truly made America great—has taken a different approach. It’s been to allow others the space to solve their own problems first, then intervene if necessary with economic and diplomatic support in concert with our long-time allies, and only after all these have failed. We need to consider what our founding fathers referred to as “the appeal to heaven”: discriminate, overwhelming, and temporary intervention with armed force.

Monica Duffy Toft is a professor of international politics at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and the director of Fletcher’s Center for Strategic Studies. Her research focuses on U.S. military interventions abroad from 1776 to 2017, and measuring the unintended consequences of those interventions. Her latest book is People Changing Places.



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