Many people find foreign policy boring. This is a mistake. The US is bounded by the Atlantic and Pacific, with friendly neighbors to the north and south, but our borders are porous. What we do halfway around the world can come back to haunt us.
Conservatives’ foreign policy tends to split the world into two opposing camps. As George W. Bush once proclaimed, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists”; either you’re part of the in-group and you’re all right, or you’re an enemy who should be fought tooth and nail. This is the worldview which prevails in Trump’s Washington. Of course we have real enemies in the world, but this kind of worldview – a view that brooks no ambiguity – is both primitive and dangerous.
A wise foreign policy combines an assessment of where you are with where you want to go and uses the means most likely to achieve the desired goal. Under very limited conditions, this might mean war, but far more often, this means diplomacy and “soft” tactics. On the surface, this might seem “weak,” but jumping willy-nilly into treasury-draining, popularity-tanking wars makes us a lot weaker than understanding our fellow human beings – allies, enemies, and everyone in between – and then using tact and finesse to obtain the outcome we want.
The Cold War is over, but the “military-industrial complex” Dwight Eisenhower warned about back in 1961 in his farewell address is stronger than ever, having acquired “unwarranted influence” over the course of the fifty years since Eisenhower left office, with the result that, as he predicted, “our liberties [and] democratic processes” are endangered. The multiple NSA wiretapping scandals are an overt sign of the decay of civilian control, but the more subtle danger comes from excessive spending on defense, which crowds out spending on important programs here at home. Eisenhower, a military man himself, recognized that funding for the military and funding for programs of social uplift were fundamentally at odds. In “The Chance for Peace,” he eloquently commented that, “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.”
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We spend $700 billion a year on defense, if not more, which is almost as much as the combined amount of all other nations on Earth.
Simply put, war (or preparations for war) means spending money that could be used on education, jobs, and healthcare on tanks, warships, and bombs instead. We spend $700 billion a year on defense, if not more, which is almost as much as the combined amount of all other nations on Earth. The security state consumes over half of all federal discretionary spending and one-sixth of the total federal budget. The United States has eighty military bases on foreign soil, costing many millions of dollars in upkeep every year, and some of our tax dollars go towards maintaining around 200 golf courses for generals. Golf courses for generals are just one example of the waste and ludicrous spending choices buried deep in the Pentagon’s budget – a budget which is essentially opaque because the Department of Defense has consistently resisted a full audit.
The old saying goes that you can either have guns or butter. In the 1960s, LBJ tried to have both guns and butter when he escalated a disastrous war in Vietnam and simultaneously attempted to build the Great Society here at home. It didn’t work out well. Military boondoggles limit what we can do domestically. Endless spending on foreign wars takes away money that could go towards healthcare; education; and protecting our air, water, and food. What good does it do for us, citizens of the world’s biggest military power, if we can't live decent lives here at home?
Everyone, left, right, and center, mouths platitudes about how the children are our future, education is the foundation of a bright tomorrow, R&D are essential to the American way of life, a healthy workforce is a productive workforce, and so on and so forth. These statements are all true, but it’s clear that no one’s willing to put their money where their mouths are. We spend vast amounts of money on newfangled missile systems, high-tech drones, and glistening bombers even as we begrudge our schools, hospitals, and social safety programs the funding they so desperately need. So why not heed Eisenhower’s warning? Every cent that goes to support the defense industry and war (or warlike activities, like air strikes) should be matched in spending for education, healthcare, and the social safety net. This would increase the cost of war, making hawkishness far less appealing, and it would prove that the United States believes that peace is as just important as war.