Despite President Donald Trump’s pledge to adopt an “America First” foreign policy that disentangles the U.S. military from many global hot spots, Washington just can’t get seem to get out of the business of policing the world — even when its military posture might damage its interests.
That was the takeaway from a spirited debate in Las Vegas on Monday featuring leading experts with starkly different views about the role — or overreach — of the U.S. military that was co-hosted by POLITICO, the Charles Koch Institute, and the Brookings Institution.
Story Continued Below
From beefing up NATO to confront Russia to dispatching thousands more troops to the 16-year-old war in Afghanistan and maintaining more than 100,000 troops in East Asia, the American military is operating in nearly every corner of the world much as it did throughout the Cold War.
But does the robust American military presence overseas “shape” the international security situation or merely “nettle” in it, stoking more instability?
“I’d ask you today, after 25 years of a bipartisan policy of deep engagement and primacy, do you feel more secure, more prosperous and more free in your domestic liberty? If not, you ought to try something different,” said Michael Desch, director of the International Security Center at the University of Notre Dame. He advocated for a more restrained U.S. military role in the world.
“I was raised as a good Catholic boy and I learned among other things that the road to hell is often paved with good intentions,” he added. Exhibit A … is Iraq. If you need an Exhibit B, ask if you think things are better in Libya today than they were before NATO’s intervention there. I think the list goes on and on.
“Restraint, which is not isolation — it is a different form of internationalism — is prudent and humble,” he argued.
Desch was joined in his arguments in the debate at the University of Nevada Las Vegas by Eugene Gholz, an associate professor of political science at Notre Dame.
The pair faced off against retired Gen. John Allen, who commanded the war in Afghanistan and is now president of the Brookings Institution, and Mara Karlin, a senior fellow at the centrist think tank and a longtime Pentagon official.
Karlin derided the notion that the United States has the luxury to pull back from the world militarily in any significant way without serious consequences.
“We like unfair advantages and we like to fight away games,” she argued. “And the way we fight away games is by being there — there being Europe, there being Asia, there being the Middle East.”
She said the stabilizing role of the American military in the world is an outgrowth of World War II that continues to pay dividends.
“What you see is a maintenance of this posture,” Karlin said. “Over the last 70 years, you have seen the most economically prosperous and peaceful time in world history and that has happened because we have not only been the big players in the game, we have also been the referees.”
“The world is not self-regulating,” she added. “We should not delude ourselves into thinking it is. … Short of undergirding the system with U.S. military power we will not have stability and security. … Alternatives like let’s let the Russians do it, let’s let the Chinese do it, let’s pull back and see what happens with some sort of anarchic system that comes from a flawed understanding of the U.S. way of war, it comes from a flawed understanding of how we have fought and won.”
Karlin added: “Frankly, I don’t think we want to see a situation where we are so focused on turning inward that we are unable to prevent the eruption and explosion of disarray in this system.”
Allen, who served for 40 years in the Army and was a top adviser to Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election, also said that in his experience in numerous regions of the world America’s allies — and even some potential enemies — view the American presence as more positive than negative.
“While there could be a sense by some that we are addicted to power,” Allen said, “there was a very clear need in the minds of so many of these leaders that the American presence in the world was a stabilizing presence. In many respects it was a beneficent presence. It was a presence that facilitated a world order that gave the capacity for global economic intercourse but largely was a presence that benefited the world order and benefited humankind.
“We’ve has some spectacular policy failures,” he added, “but it doesn’t lessen the importance of the United States in the world today.”
The participants locked horns on several occasions on the question of the threat posed by Russia.
“The Soviet Union was a serious threat,” contended Desch. “The Russia of today is a rump of the Soviet Union — a country with severe demographic crisis, certainly a troublemaker in its near-abroad but hardly an existential threat.”
Allen countered that Russia poses a serious challenge.
“If we don’t think that Russia is acting as though it is a military threat to the eastern flank of NATO, Zapad 2017, their major exercise this year may have had as many as a quarter million troops involved in it. Along the NATO border. Why would that be necessary if they weren’t trying to intimidate the NATO states on the eastern flank?
But whether discussing Russia or the war in Afghanistan, the participants had starkly different views about the impact the U.S. military has had since the end of the Cold War in 1991.
“As the threats of changed in the world today you have to ask yourself: ‘Is it best for the United States to lead with its military as its mechanism for responding to the world?” asked Gholz, one of the Notre Dame professors who advocated a more defensive U.S. military posture. “How effective is our military in dealing with these threats? Our track record is lousy, and we could do better with a different posture.”
Gholz cited the enormous price tag of U.S. military expenditures — more than other leading nations combined.
“The reason we are spending so much,” he argued, “is we’re spending on high-end technologies and very difficult technologies to enable us to play the away game — to constantly project power. Projecting power is super-expensive, whereas being on defense — if we shifted the kinds of investment we were remaking to stress a defensive posture as opposed to an offensive posture — we would be able to achieve our strategic goals of defending our way of life and even help many of our friends without spending as much as we do.”