American Foreign Policy Is Broken; Time for a New Approach

The bipartisan push to protect American empire has served us poorly in the post-Cold War era. A group of progressive analysts offer a rethink.
Albert Beveridge was a promising politician in his 30s when he stood up to speak in favor of war and the promotion of democracy to his peers in the U.S. Senate. A historian, Beveridge unabashedly called for the United States to remake the globe. "We will not renounce our part in the mission of our race, trustee, under God, of the civilization of the world," Beveridge proclaimed. "And we will move forward to our work, not howling out regrets like slaves whipped to their burdens, but with gratitude for a task worthy of our strength and thanksgiving to Almighty God that He has marked us as His chosen people, henceforth to lead in the regeneration of the world."

Stripped of its more racist rhetoric, Beveridge's 1900 speech to justify the U.S. war and colonization of the Philippines could have been made on Capitol Hill a century later in support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the larger "global war on terror." Beveridge, too, tried to make an ugly war into a necessary and uplifting venture. There are the same invocations of religious certainty and civilizing missions. The Republican senator from Indiana even had words for those who would voice skepticism about U.S. military actions. "All this has aided the enemy more than climate, arms and battle," the senator concluded.

The attempt by the Bush administration to expand U.S. military power and "lead in the regeneration of the world" has roots in U.S. foreign policy that extend further back than even Albert Beveridge. Justifications for preemptive war to safeguard U.S. security can be found in the words of Presidents Thomas Jefferson and John Quincy Adams. The doctrine of manifest destiny helped expand the territorial limits of America. Only at the end of the 19th century, when it stretched from "sea to shining sea," did the United States have to make a choice: Leave well enough alone or expand overseas.

Although the two major parties might bicker over any particular flexing of military muscle, the maintenance and expansion of U.S. power has been decidedly a bipartisan project. Anti-imperialists such as William Jennings Bryan, Andrew Carnegie and Robert Taft have raised objections. But a bipartisan chorus in favor of America's global expansion has drowned out these populist, libertarian and isolationist voices.

At the end of World War II, the United States had a chance to step away from its expansionist past. Again it faced two distinct choices. There was the option of peace and international human rights presided over by the newly established United Nations and inspired by the vision of both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt. The second option was the construction of a national security state anchored in a growing military-industrial complex at home and sustained by covert, militarized policies abroad.

In the late 1940s, after the United States largely abandoned the FDR approach of principled internationalism, the Cold War leadership debated over two strategies: rollback and containment. The partisans of rollback wanted to use the dominant military force of the United States to roll back Communist influence and ultimately topple the Soviet Union itself. The Truman administration eventually settled on the alternative of containment: the deployment of U.S. troops and bases, and the construction of strategic alliances in Europe and Asia, to rein in Soviet and then Chinese influence. Cold War realists shied away from direct military confrontation with the Communist superpowers.

Today, with its doctrine of preventive war and an all-out military assault on terrorism, the Bush administration continues to advocate its own version of rollback. Since these military strategies have only overstretched U.S. capabilities and increased U.S. insecurity, it is not surprising that some Democrats and Republicans have recommended replacing the Bush doctrine with an updated version of the Truman doctrine of containment. This "new and improved" containment strategy would be deployed against transnational terrorism, threatening regimes, and the proliferation of nuclear weapons. The United States would strengthen its existing military alliances and maintain high levels of military spending. But it would be more discriminating about the use of military force.

Liberals must have a "fighting faith," argues former editor of the New Republic Peter Beinart, a faith that can separate worthy goals such as the war on terrorism and the struggle against tyrants from the human rights morass created by the Bush administration. Just as Truman faced the Soviet threat, the United States must create a united front against terrorism. The United States must not shrink from the use of hard power, because only through military force can it maintain a preeminent position in the world, defeat terrorism, and provide the hidden fist to bolster the hidden hand of the market. For these liberal hawks, the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq was not wrong in principle but only in execution. More soldiers, more air power, and more resolve would have done the trick, just as the military brass argued 30 years ago in Vietnam. According to these new containment advocates, multilateral structures are fine in theory but often ineffectual or unreliable in practice. The United States must pay more attention to regions like East Asia, which are crucial to U.S. national interests, and pay less attention to regions such as Africa, which are largely peripheral. And U.S. military interventions overseas should be used both for furthering U.S. goals, such as democracy promotion, and for achieving larger humanitarian aims.

Just as containment was preferable to a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union during the Cold War, its contemporary variant is an improvement on the schoolyard bully stance of the Bush administration. But containment of the liberal hawk variety is an impoverished alternative. This rehabilitation of Harry Truman's foreign policy record is an attempt to pump up the Democratic Party with steroids lest it appear weak on the military or terrorism. It is close to the same Bush foreign policy, minus the more flagrant human rights violations.

The Cold War is over. We live in a fundamentally different world -- of important new economic powers like China, India and Brazil, of increasingly connected and powerful civil movements, of changing notions of sovereignty, of global threats such as climate change. It seems odd that the foreign policy establishment can't think outside the containment box. The Bush administration responded to this new world with a strategy of rollback that has inevitably generated blowback. The proposed alternative of containment does not resolve the fundamentally unjust assumptions of U.S. foreign policy. We must have the courage and the imagination to leave the Cold War behind and approach our common challenges with a fresh perspective.

Money and jobs

Policing the world is expensive. So is maintaining a nuclear complex. Assuming a more modest role in international affairs will allow us to redirect funds to other pressing needs, both at home and abroad.

The United States has managed, to use Chalmers Johnson's resonant phrase, "to garrison the globe." What will abandoning this global garrison mean for our military? Within a total military budget of $656 billion, the policing of our expanded sphere of influence constitutes 44.7 percent, or $289 billion. We can cut this in half with troop withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, and base closures elsewhere. We could save another $55 billion by trimming the Cold War weapons and Pentagon inefficiency out of the budget. The remaining military budget would be entirely sufficient to deter any attack on the homeland and to provide troops to internationally sanctioned peacekeeping and peacemaking operations.

The United States is already moving in this direction with its "revolution in military affairs." Fixed bases and lumbering tanks are giving way to rapid-response units and visiting forces agreements. But this is not enough. The United States must transform its forward-based, offensively oriented military structure. The bottom line is not whether the U.S. military can respond quickly or slowly but whether the United States should be there in the first place. The congressional debate is about rethinking the U.S. military engagement in Iraq. It should be about rethinking U.S. military engagement in the world.

We need to spend more money on preventing conflict than generating it. Right now, within our total budget for security -- including military forces, homeland security and nonmilitary international affairs activities such as diplomacy, economic development and nuclear nonproliferation -- 90 percent is currently devoted to the military. The money we spend on garrisoning the globe must be redirected toward negotiating peace agreements, securing nuclear material and improving global livelihoods. Some of the savings would need to be devoted to military tasks. The largest of these will be addressing the long-term mental and physical trauma of Iraq war veterans. There will also be transition costs, and costs for replacing equipment destroyed in the war.

Finally, we need to create jobs for all the people who are today dependent on the military-industrial complex. The United States created tens of millions of military-related jobs from 1941 through a succession of wars, hot and cold. We now face the threat of global warming. We should respond with an all-out program to build a new, Green economy. Instead of producing more efficient killing machines, we must now produce more efficient factories, appliances and cars. Instead of an arms race, we must race against time with other countries to see who can find the most sustainable energy sources. Rosie the Riveter symbolized the new jobs and the new capacities created by the U.S. effort during World War II. Rosie the Recycler should become the symbol of the new jobs created by the U.S. effort to help save the world from climate change.

What about China?

The Soviet Union served as the rationale for the aggressive U.S. foreign policy and high levels of military spending during the Cold War. Terrorism serves that purpose today. But with withdrawal from Iraq just a matter of timetables and the "global war on terror" already losing some of its political force, Washington is grooming a new potential enemy.

In 2000, before terrorism became the focus of U.S. foreign policy, former deputy assistant secretary of defense Kurt Campbell wrote an article about the looming China threat. The Cold War was over, and U.S. politicians were suffering from serious "enemy envy." China's growing economy and burgeoning military budget suggested that it could be the next challenger to step into the ring with the United States. "Even the strategists concede that they now have a sense of renewed purpose after a prolonged period of melancholy and nostalgia," Campbell wrote of the atmosphere among military and political strategists in Washington.

But China is no Soviet Union. And it's no al-Qaeda either. In fact, the current administration is of two minds when it comes to China. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review talks of the country's "potential to compete militarily with the United States" even as it waxes optimistic about China as a "partner in addressing common security challenges." Indeed, China has become a strategic partner in deed though not in name. On global terrorism, North Korea's nuclear ambitions, and the imperative of global economic growth, Washington and Beijing saw largely eye to eye. The economics of the relationship are clear. From 2000 to 2005, U.S.-China trade grew 150 percent to nearly $300 billion. China has turned around and invested its huge trade surplus into U.S. bonds. As a friend who keeps our economy afloat and as a foe that justifies full-spectrum military spending, China is useful to the United States. Never before has a rival for U.S. power held us in quite such a tight clinch.

While many Chinese policies are troubling, the country does not pose a military threat to the United States. As the United States and China move closer together economically, it will become ever more difficult for the Pentagon to use China to justify an ever-increasing military budget. In the 1990s, the United States treated China as a strategic partner. In an era in which engagement with China over economic policies, regional conflicts and climate change is critical, such a partnership is needed now more than ever.

The multifaceted relationship between China and the United States is perhaps the strongest evidence yet that Cold War thinking -- about containment, about hard power -- no longer makes any sense. Attack a country that is the second largest holder of U.S. Treasury bonds? Contain a country where 80 percent of Wal-Mart's suppliers are located? That's yesterday's foreign policy.

The political will

Much has changed in the United States since the days of Albert Beveridge. The civil rights movement, the women's movement, and the peace movement have all transformed U.S. society. The majority of Americans no longer believe that the United States has a mission to "civilize" the world. We have become a more just society, a more diverse culture, a more international country. Immigration has changed the composition of our population. To quote the song: We are the world. It is time to change our foreign policy so that it looks more like America and also reflects those strands of the American tradition that celebrate and advance justice.

Many of the ideas and proposals of the Just Security framework have broad support among the American public. For instance, according to polling data from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and World Public Opinion, "Seventy-five percent of Americans think the United Nations should be able to go into countries to investigate human rights abuses, 72 percent favor a standing U.N. peacekeeping force, and 60 percent endorse U.N. regulation of international arms sales." Majorities of Americans believe that no nations should possess nuclear weapons, reject the notion that military force should be used to promote democracy, and believe that immediate steps must be taken to halt global warming.

What was once considered radical has now gained mainstream attention. For instance, George Shultz, William Perry, Henry Kissinger and Sam Nunn recently endorsed nuclear disarmament. Zbigniew Brzezinski bemoans the transformation of the United States from mediator in the Middle East to "a partisan for Israel." Foreign policy columnist Thomas Friedman has gone green and now supports a carbon tax, and Pete Stark, D-Calif., has introduced a bill to get one up and running. The House Armed Forces Committee has rejected the language of a "global war on terrorism."

We need leaders and we need social movements that can translate this broad American appeal and this narrow elite support into an integrated program for American renewal. We believe that this program must be founded on the principles of just security laid out in this report. Only a just security policy will make us all feel more secure.

This vision is inspired by justice, by what is fair. The social movements that have made U.S. society more just must now make U.S. foreign policy more just. As Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "The arc of the moral universe is long. But it bends toward justice."
John Feffer is co-director of Foreign Policy In Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies and the editor of “Just Security,” an alternative foreign policy framework released this month by FPIF and IPS.
Stay Ahead of the Rest
Sign Up for AlterNet's Daily Newsletter
+ sign up for additional lists
Select additional lists by selecting the checkboxes below before clicking Subscribe:
Rights & Liberties
Personal Health